The thing skittered down the corridor on three legs, a spattered trail of blood in its wake, but its eyes were still vengeful and sharp. Crude as it was, it possessed enough intelligence to know that its attackers would be in pursuit, and the brief skirmish earlier had given it a taste of their methods. They were dangerous, moreso than any humans it had encountered before, but it had been designed to adapt to such things. And it knew just where to lead them, to put itself at an advantage.
Limping quickly through the tunnels, its heavy, misshapen jaws grinned, blood dripping from its jowls; it wasn't the only one injured. Nostrils flaring, the thing hurried onward. Deep... it would take them deep, into its lair, and then it could finish its work...
"Slow down, Fullmetal."
The younger man made an impatient sound in his throat, but his hurried steps paused. "What the hell is taking you so long?" he growled, straining forward as if the tension in his body could draw the Colonel along behind him quicker. When reports had come in of a possible chimera sighting within the city, the Colonel had insisted on accompanying him on the investigation, ostensibly because achieving a successful capture or kill would bolster his reputation with his superiors. Frankly, Ed thought that was bullshit; he'd seen the twinge of worry in Mustang's eyes.
It was simply too close to home. Anytime such a thing was loose among a population it was worrisome, but here, they knew people, had friends. And they both knew firsthand the damage that an alchemically engineered beast was capable of. So Mustang had insisted, and Ed hadn't argued, and now they'd found themselves deep below the city, trailing a monster through sewers and other, older tunnels.
The chimera had gotten the jump on them not long before, knocking the Colonel into a wall as it charged, although Mustang had bounced back up quick enough, burning one of its legs out from under it before it fled. But since then, the Colonel had been slow, hesitant. Maybe it was just because Mustang wasn't accustomed to being out in the field much anymore; maybe he was skittish about facing that nasty thing again.
He couldn't really blame him for that. That fucker was worse than any other chimera he'd seen, all tusks and teeth and clearly made for nothing but killing. And it was mean, too. Took an automail kick to the ribs like an insult, rather than the bone-breaking experience it was actually was.
Which was why they had to get it now, before it made its way around them and back up to the surface. Ed had no doubts that was what it had intended to do.
"Goddammit..." he began, turning to face Mustang when the other man failed to reply. But the words caught and failed as he saw the pallor in the Colonel's face, and he took a step closer, brows drawing in concern. "Fuck, are you okay?"
Roy waved him off, his face creasing irritably. "Fine. Pay attention to the shadows. That thing could be hiding anywhere."
Ed snorted, though a ripple of unease remained. "Hurry up then, why don't you. We can't let it get away."
"You don't want to run after it so fast that it catches you by surprise, either," Mustang said, finally catching up to him. His arm was pressed tight against his injured side, and standing close to him, Ed could hear the harsh rasp of his breathing. It sounded painful.
"Are you sure you're all right?" he asked slowly.
Mustang's mouth twisted, his usual smirk mocking Ed's concern. "Don't worry about me," he told him. "We've got a job to do."
Distraction and misdirection. Thank god he excelled at both, when it came to Fullmetal.
Roy was grateful for the concealing darkness, despite the danger it posed, because it hid the truth from Ed. The young man, so dense at times, was also shockingly good at sensing what Roy would rather keep hidden, and had a propensity for doing so at the worst possible moments. And if that happened...
No. Fullmetal would not know, would not be permitted to lose his focus. If he knew, the Colonel was certain that they would both die down here, because Edward was nothing if not foolhardily loyal. If he could keep the young man's attention elsewhere, if he could separate from him as soon as possible, then Edward would be all right. Even if Fullmetal was unable to kill the chimera- something Roy doubted- he would escape to warn the others.
It was a comforting thought, something to ease his mind from the agony he was holding inside. Ed would live. Yes, he could be content, knowing that.
But the pain was terrible, and Roy could feel his strength rapidly waning. And if he faltered, Edward would know... his thoughts churned in the same aching circle they'd run since he and Fullmetal had encountered the beast, and Roy almost sobbed in relief when the dimness of the tunnel mawed into sheer, pitch black; a wider space. This was the end of the line.
The two men shared a look, barely seen in the darkness, but understanding flowed between them, unspoken. "I'll go in first," Ed said, teeth bared like a predator. "Give me about thirty seconds, then light the place up."
Roy nodded, fighting back the nausea swelling in his throat. "Keep low," he admonished. "We don't know how high the ceilings are."
Blue lightning crackled along the length of Ed's automail arm, the wicked blade he favored growing out from the metal plates. "Just don't let it past you," he said, eyes turned toward the darkness, and Roy swallowed hard.
"Not while I live," he promised.
Roy watched Ed stalk into the chimera's lair, gold braid swinging against his shoulders, until his slight form was swallowed up by black. Only once the young man had vanished did he allow himself a shuddering sigh, eyelids sliding briefly closed as he slumped against the wall. Afraid to press his hand to the ragged wound in his side for fear of soaking his gloves to uselessness, he tucked his elbow in closer, and tried to steady his breathing, and was thankful, so thankful that he no longer had to keep up the charade. But as he succumbed to the pain, for just a fleeting moment his betraying heart wished Edward back. Because now, he was alone.
Alone, and dying.
Ed couldn't sense anything above him, but he ran in a crouch all the same, keeping Mustang's warning in mind. Every nerve was keyed to acute awareness of his surroundings; the darkness was a shroud around him, but within it was that damned thing they'd met earlier. Ed had no illusions about how deadly it was, and despite his confidence in his own abilities, he was nervous. That thing was smarter than it ought to be; chimera were never so intelligent. But somehow this thing was.
A dull roar at his back had him ducking even further, as an enormous gout of flame arced above him, beating back the darkness with ruddy, flickering light, and despite himself, Ed gasped aloud.
The place they'd been led to was huge. Littered with unidentified trash and debris, water pooling in places where it dripped from the ceiling; it was filthy and smelly, and it shouldn't exist under the streets of Central. But he only had an instant to take in the incongruity, movement flashing just off to his left, and he threw himself to the side to avoid the chimera's charge. He landed hard on his shoulder, rolling to his feet and sprinting away as soon as he had his balance. Overhead, something- moss, or trash, he didn't know- had been lit by Mustang's fire, and the room was filled with a guttering, unhealthy glow.
Across from him, the injured chimera snorted, its eyes glowing in the nacreous light. Ed snarled back in response, noting with satisfaction that the lair gave him plenty of room in which to fight. Good. His hands came together in a resounding clap; dropping to his knees, he slammed his palms to the floor and watched as spikes ripped their way from the rocky substrate, forcing the beast to dodge, howling. My turn, fucker, he thought viciously.
Eyes narrowing, he began to advance in earnest.
He heard the beast roar, heard Edward spitting curses. But his breath was coming in harsh, stuttering gasps, his heart leapt erratically against his ribs, and the plume of fire he'd commanded had sapped the little energy he'd held in reserve. The world spun in his vision, rock scraping his shoulder as he reeled and Roy's legs ceased to hold him, dumping him to the floor in a crumpled heap.
The pain that bloomed was intense, and he choked on the scream trying to burst from his lips because Edward couldn't hear that, not now, not when he needed his full attention on the chimera. But oh god... he could barely breathe for the excruciating waves that tore through his body; his gut was on fire, and he writhed impotently, trying to draw air into his lungs, trying to live, despite knowing that there was no living through this.
Fuck... he wanted... he needed to be able to control his body, to use his alchemy to aid Edward in his battle, but Roy couldn't so much as lift his head from the floor. A sharp pebble was pressed into his cheek, scoring a thin line into his flesh, but what was such a small loss compared to the gaping hole held in check only by the soaked wool of his coat? The thought brought the bones of a dark, humorless laugh rattling up through his throat, and he tasted blood in its wake.
Lying on his side was impossible; the pain was excruciating. But the animalistic urge to fold himself protectively over the wound was overwhelming, as if guarding the ragged tear in his side could keep death out. He finally managed to find the strength to pull himself into a tight ball, face pressed to the earth, both hands clasped over the sticky mess, the humid air rising from his body unnaturally warm against his palms. In some far off corner of his mind he was aware that the sounds of fighting had ceased, but caring was well beyond him now. Each heartbeat was a brand in his chest, a torturous filament spun through his body, while his torso throbbed with agony.
There was nothing left but to wait for his consciousness to extinguish, and the solace of oblivion to take him.
Edward took a tentative step forward, ready to leap back at the slightest indication of life from the thing stretched out at his feet. He prodded the chimera's stomach with the point of his blade, drawing a sluggish seep of blood from the small rent, but there was no reaction to the crude assault. Satisfied that it was, indeed, dead, he stepped back, transmuting his arm back to normal.
He hated killing, even twisted things like this chimera. It wasn't its fault someone had assembled it, given it the urge and ability to destroy. But he couldn't let something so dangerous exist in this state; less than an animal, nothing but the desire to murder incarnate. Even mortally wounded, it had sought to reach him with vicious tusks, ready to impale itself once again if it meant reaching its victim. Ed shivered. No, he couldn't have let it live. He and Mustang had been lucky it hadn't killed them in the tunnels above.
"Hey, Mustang," he called out, rolling his shoulders to release the tension still holding them tight. "Woulda been nice to have some help, you know." Didn't really seem like the Colonel to leave him alone to his fight. Then again, he'd been acting off since the chimera knocked him down earlier. He frowned, turning back to the mouth of the room. Why hadn't the bastard answered?
The wavering light burning above made the tunnel appear even darker, and hid anything beyond its mouth. Unease dragged an icy finger down Ed's spine as he strained to make out the Colonel's form waiting there. Had there been more chimera? Had he missed something in the heat of the fight?
"Hey, Colonel! Answer me!" he shouted, but the only response was his echoed voice, bouncing back in distorted mockery. And Ed knew something was wrong, that something terrible must have happened. Because the Colonel would never ignore him like this, not in these circumstances, no matter what kind of a bastard he was otherwise.
His hands pressed together, ready, and Ed broke into a trot toward the last place he'd seen the Colonel, eyes sweeping the darkness for clues while his heart lurched in desperate fear "Mustang! Roy! Where the fuck are you?"
Hands on his shoulders wrenched him from his pain-filled fugue, but Roy didn't have the strength to even open his eyes. It was so much easier to lie still, quiet, let the pain eclipse everything until he couldn't register anything else. And yet the hands that touched his face, turned him over, were gentle, and the contrast brought the agony back tenfold. He heard his name gasped out, tremulous and cracking, and it was the shock in Ed's voice that hurt him most of all.
"Oh fuck! Oh shit- you bastard, why didn't you tell me?"
How had he done it? Why? Fear had clutched him at the sight of the Colonel, slumped on the floor, but he'd never imagined it would be something like... His hands shook, gloves still stained with the Colonel's blood from pulling back the darkened mass of uniform that had been wadded over the wound. The wound- the fucking hole ripped in Mustang's side, ragged flesh hanging in strips and oh god, he could see into the man's abdominal cavity, see the organs torn and quivering in the unsteady light. It was nightmarish, and Ed stared at it in horrified fascination. He'd seen plenty of wounds in his time, but nothing like this, and the terrified thought struck him, he's going to die.
Too far to carry him, too long to get out, and the Colonel probably couldn't be moved anyway. Ed's mind flew, desperately assembling and discarding plans, until he realized that he was a breath away from outright panic. There was nothing he could do; he wasn't a doctor, didn't know anything about mending a body torn open and bleeding out...
Ed stared down at Mustang's face, ashen and slack and misleadingly peaceful. Tried to imagine a world without those piercing black eyes boring into his own, an office without sardonic jibes and amused smirks. Tried to think... Mustang... Roy... gone.
"No," he growled, voice so distorted it could barely be recognized. "You fucker, you don't get to die before me."
Eyes closed, he brought his hands together, and reached.
It was river, a furious, seething cataract of icy water flooding through his body. It was fire, searing and electric, sweeping over every nerve, every synapse. It was ferocious and implacable; an invasion that breached his every defense with ease, and trespassed upon his very composition.
Roy's eyes flared open, mouth gaping uselessly, his entire body arching from the spasms that ripped through him. An overload of sensation bellowed through him, eclipsing every other thing he felt; there was only the roar of immense power, saturating him, devouring him whole, until he thought he'd go mad from the intensity. He had no way of knowing how long the current rushed through him, while his mind struggled for a control that was beyond his reach, but eventually the flood drained away, leaving him gasping and wretched on the ground. And alive.
Pain still gripped him, even simple respiration a burning knife drawn through his lungs. But something had changed. The sensation that he was sinking, or disappearing, was gone. He felt entirely here, and if terrified him more than he could express.
There were hands, hot on his stomach, cool over his ribs. A babble of syllables he couldn't begin to process. Sweat prickled over his skin, and Roy wanted to scream.
He felt it again, static in the air and the hum of energy, but this time it didn't pass through him. It burned around him, close, but never touching, and his nerves jangled in sympathy with the vibration. Sudden light burned against his eyelids, warm against his skin, and the ground trembled beneath his back. He felt as though he were hurtling forward, flying upward, though he remained lying on the ground, wracked with agony and reluctantly alive. The light grew brighter, warmer, louder... there were shouts, screams, and a pathetic, thin wail that, he slowly realized with numbed horror, rattled forth from his own chest.
The ground ceased shuddering, then jolted, and his agony redoubled. His limbs twitched in spasms, silent explosions in his vision, until the pain finally, mercifully, swallowed him whole.
The light was gone, when he opened his eyes again. Blue shadows stretched, hazy and indistinct, and for a few moments Roy wondered where he was. His body ached fiercely, his side a muted inferno of torment, but it was so distant; he could ignore it, for now. Instead his head lolled, lacking the strength to properly turn and examine his surroundings, as he tried to bring his eyes into focus.
There were soft noises, a background hum that was somehow familiar, even in his confusion. And as shapes slowly grew clearer, he noticed with mild interest that he was no longer underground. Dark... a room, perhaps? Was he home?
"Hey." A sleepy voice rasped somewhere off to his right, and Roy tried to control his head enough to turn toward it. There was another noise- a bed? Feet?- and then a hand pressed warm against his shoulder. "You awake?"
His mutinous eyes still would not work, the owner of the hand little more than a paler blur in the darkness. A creaking groan emerged from his lips in reply, instead of the 'yes' he'd intended, but it satisfied whoever was there. The hand tightened, though only a little, as if aware of how every touch still wrought sympathetic arcs of pain throughout his battered body.
"It's the middle of the night," the voice told him, sounding weary but oddly light. "You should try to go back to sleep. The doctors say you're doing pretty well, all things considered, but you're not out of the woods yet." Gentle pressure on his shoulder once more, reassuring. "Sleep, bastard."
With a colossal effort, Roy lifted his head, straining to bring the blur into definition. His voice was like shards of glass embedded in his throat, forcing out the name, "Ed."
"Yeah. An' I'm tired, Mustang. Been keeping an eye on you for days. So stop talking, and go back to sleep. World'll still be here in the morning, and so will you."
Here. A hospital, apparently. And he was alive, which was vastly unbelievable. It didn't make sense, none of it did, and his body began to shake as reaction and the lurking pain finally caught up.
Movement by his side; Ed, murmuring something that sounded comforting, but the words didn't register. His body was completely at its limit, even the small amount of time he'd been awake enough to exhaust him. Ed reached across him to fumble with something that Roy realized belatedly was hooked to his arm, and made a tsking sound.
"Bag's empty. I'll call a nurse."
Shuffling steps as Ed withdrew, leaving Roy to shiver with adrenaline and misery, a dull, grinding moan trying to claw through his teeth. Light filtered in as the door opened once, then again to admit a brighter blur. Brisk activity filled his peripheral vision, and there was a gentle tug on the tube in his arm as the medicine drip was replaced. A quiet ripple of voices from across the room washed over him, but the drugs in the drip were seeping back into his system, bringing with them blessed relief. Before long the room dimmed, and his consciousness ebbed once more.
Ed awoke early, still tired, but he'd been exhausted for days now, and he brushed away the fatigue without a second thought. Immediately, his eyes traveled to the bed next to his, where the Colonel lay in deep, unmoving slumber. The burden of worry that had been shadowing him since they'd emerged from the tunnels had finally dissipated with Mustang's awakening last night, and he allowed himself a small relieved smile that he'd never show anyone. It had worked.
The quiet shuffle just beyond the door of the hospital room swelled, and without looking at a clock Ed thought to himself, seven in the morning. Shift change. He'd only been staying here for four days now, but the rhythms of hospitals never altered, no matter where they were. The night staff abandoned their posts to the day shift, passing on paperwork and tidbits of information about their patients. Somewhere out there, a nurse was briefing another nurse and possibly a doctor as well about Mustang's brief stint with consciousness, and discussing the next steps in his treatment. For all his dislike of hospitals, today Ed was glad of their placid predictability, the stink of bleach and medicine, because today Roy was alive, and all of his efforts had not been in vain.
He glanced up to the bag dripping medicine and saline into the Colonel's sleeping body. It was low, but not empty yet; he'd make sure the morning nurse had a replacement ready when she brought him breakfast.
Sighing, he leaned back in his own bed, arms crossed behind his head as he shifted his gaze from the Colonel to the ceiling. He had so far avoided examination of the protective impulse he'd adopted about Mustang, but Ed knew damn well that a reckoning of that urge was coming. He was much too self-aware to let it rest in ignorance, but for now he could afford to simply be grateful for the Colonel's continued survival. He thought back to those panicked moments underground, the flow of alchemy through his palms, the way that Roy had shook beneath his hands...
Vaguely, he wondered if he ought to feel any different now. But it all seemed the same.
He was pretty sure things ought to be different.
There was a rustle of starched linens, and he turned his head to see Roy stirring in his bed, apparently awoken by the subtle shift of noises as well. That was a good sign, that awareness of his surroundings. It had been far worse when the Colonel had lain oblivious, as though he'd succumbed to the fate Ed had ripped away from him.
But the man certainly looked as if he'd been dragged from the threshold of death. His skin, naturally pale, was translucent white, pallid from massive blood loss. Mustang's hair was matted and greasy instead of its normal rakish disorder, and it clung to a face that was thinner, more haggard. But his eyes were, in Ed's opinion, the worst; flat and dull, barely aware as they blinked owlishly in the watery light of morning. Gone was the shrewd glitter of intelligence, the cynical glow that had burned in them, replaced by pain and weakness and for a moment Ed feared that something had gone wrong. But lids sagged, hiding the upsetting view, and Roy coughed feebly before whispering, "I'm not dead."
It was hard to read emotion from a whisper, but Ed thought he sounded surprised. "Yeah," he agreed, a surge of indignation rising in his chest. "Not for lack of you trying, though."
This time when Roy's eyes opened, there was a hint of life in their black depths. "Trying?"
Ed snorted loudly, swinging his feet off the side of his bed so that he could perch on its edge, peering down at the other man's face. "Yes, trying. I'd say keeping the fact that you had a fucking hole in your gut a secret is pretty obviously a death wish." He pushed back the terrified anger that tried to spring up, reminding himself that Roy was in no condition to hold his own in a fight right now. Instead, he forced a rough laugh. "Gotta say though, you're the last guy I'd've though would do something so goddamn stupid."
Roy's eyes closed again, his face pinched. He lay so still that for a moment Ed had to wonder whether he'd drifted back to sleep, but a breath hissed from the stricken man's lips. "What you had to do... it was more important. I couldn't stop you from taking care of that thing."
"Bullshit!" The denial slipped out before he could censor the argument he'd been trying to avoid. "You don't put yourself in the way of something like that! You don't sacrifice yourself for a stupid fucking chimera, Mustang!"
"Not... a chimera. For you, for the city. My death wouldn't matter, if everyone were safe."
"That's not how it works." A growl was forcing its way up from his throat, that stupid, ignorant fear still worming its way through his mind. "You don't get to give up. You're not allowed!"
Roy breathed deep for a minute, looking worn from talking. "Why, Ed?" he croaked.
"Because you're...," Ed's jaw worked hard, honesty grappling with his usual, prickly defensiveness. "Fuck, you're fishing for compliments. Even from your damn hospital bed. Never fuckin' change." He would've continued in the same vein, but Roy lifted his hand a scant inch off the mattress to wave him down.
"I meant," he said very quietly, "why did you do... whatever you did? I should have died. I know that much. That wound was fatal." Those dark, knowing eyes slid open to stare at him, and how did he ever think they'd lost their arresting power? The steady, pained gaze held him, quietly demanding. "What did you do, Ed?"
"Told you," Ed replied sullenly. "You're too important to throw your life away on something like that. There are things you still need to do." He straightened, voice firming. "You don't get to die yet."
Roy's eyes never wavered, though he was clearly at the end of his strength. "What did you do?"
Ed slid off the bed, controlling his features to a serene, expressionless mask that even the bastard would have been proud of. "I kept you alive," he answered as he turned away. "So don't fuck it up now."
He stalked out of the room without once looking at the Colonel. Al always told him he could never keep secrets from his face for long.
Three more days of intermittent sleep before he starting being able to spend reasonable stretches of time awake. It came as a relief to him, despite the dull, gnawing pain in his side; the Colonel had never cared to be anything less than fully cognizant of his surroundings. Even so, it took him several days to realize that Ed hadn't just been bunking in the other bed to keep him company but had, until a day earlier, been a patient as well.
"Exhaustion, Mustang," Ed grumbled, when Roy's brows drew together in alarm. "Wasn't hurt. Just completely worn out."
There was something missing from the explanation, Roy was certain, but since Ed was plainly uninjured, he had no choice but to accept the answer.
Two weeks from the time he woke until he was allowed to eat solid food again. A terrible time; he was often sick as his stomach reacquainted itself with meals, which brought new surges of pain to his healing gut. Another week passed before he was permitted to sit up, and the nausea returned. Endless rounds of medicine and transfusions and examinations. Another surgery. And always the mutters that his recovery was quite miraculous, simply unheard of, and Roy's suspicions grew.
Along with them, came worry.
As his health improved, Ed spent fewer nights on the cot across from his. But he still managed to pass much of his time hanging around the room, so much that he knew the nurses' names and foibles better than Roy did. It was perplexing, and yet the Colonel said nothing to Ed about being the subject of his attentions. Unexpected though it was, the young alchemist's presence was reassuring, and Roy found himself once again indebted to Edward for his care. His subordinates had all come at one time or another, and they called on him as often as they were able, but the office was all the busier without its Colonel. If not for Fullmetal's lengthy visits, his recovery would have been lonely and depressing.
Moreover, without Edward he wouldn't be here at all.
Two months after being admitted, he was finally judged well enough to be sent home with the admonition that he was not to exert himself. Hawkeye, who was there that afternoon as well, graced him with a thin smile and said, "I suppose that means I oughtn't bring you your paperwork."
"He'll just fall asleep on it anyway," Ed replied caustically from the other bed, back propped against the pillows while he read through some book he'd wheedled from the day nurse. "More than usual, I mean."
The Lieutenant drove Roy home from the hospital, Ed riding along in the back seat next to him. The Colonel was still unsteady on his feet, but between the two of them they managed to get him up the walk and through the door without mishap, though the short trip exhausted him. Inside the house, he eyed the stairs with naked apprehension until Hawkeye noticed, and suggested they make up a bed for him on the couch.
But Ed caught the glimmer of disappointment that cut through Mustang's relief as the Colonel watched her stretch sheets across the leather cushions, and understood. It had to be difficult, to be back in his own place, and yet be unable to rest in his own bed. Although he hadn't had a place that was exclusively his own since he was a child, Ed could still remember the particular comfort that was found in his bed, his own space, when he was ill. Viewed in that light it seemed almost cruel to put the Colonel up on his couch, like a guest in his own home.
Still, Hawkeye did her best to make him comfortable. There was tea in a carafe on the coffee table, and a cane Mustang could use to hobble around when he needed to move. The telephone was placed within easy reach, and a promise extracted that Roy would call immediately, no matter the time, if there was anything he needed. Messages and well-wishes were also passed along from the rest of the staff, who were all eager to visit as soon as he felt up to the attention.
As she readied herself to leave, Hawkeye reminded the Colonel that she'd check in frequently and Ed walked her to the door as though he himself were not a guest there. Framed in the open doorway, she met Ed's eye with a steady, knowing gaze, accepting his intentions with silent approval and then was gone, leaving him alone in Mustang's foyer and suddenly uncertain of himself.
He thought he understood now his need to see the Colonel returned to health and on his feet once more. There had been ample time to examine the strange impulse, once only reserved for Al, and he'd had plenty of incentive as well while sharing a room with the man for so long. But his conclusions weren't something easily articulated, and Ed was positive he wasn't ready to share his confused reasoning with Mustang.
Who would almost certainly demand an explanation soon.
His feet barely made a sound on the hardwood as he padded back to the living room, and Roy's eyes widened in surprise at his entrance. "I thought you'd left with Riza," he said in a voice that was still quiet and fragile, and Ed had never thought he'd wish the Colonel would rage at him, just a little.
"You can't be left alone." Ed threw himself into a nearby armchair, noting with appreciation its plush comfort. From the couch, Mustang quirked an eyebrow at him, skeptical, and Ed decided that keeping the bastard's ego in check was a good rehabilitative exercise.
"Don't give me that look," he growled, and the dark eyes opened wider. "Recent evidence doesn't really give you a leg to stand on."
Nascent indignation melted into chagrin, and Roy looked away.
Roy spent only one night on the couch before Edward half-carried him up to his bedroom.
"You'll heal better in your own space," he grunted, as he angled Roy through the door and across the room to tip him carefully onto the bed. "Better for you up here. I know you didn't sleep much last night."
He was right. Roy had never realized how loud the grandfather clock in his hallway was until it was three o'clock in the morning, and he was caught awake by its ticking and the unfamiliar bulk of the couch at his back. How Ed knew, however, snoring blissfully on the chair nearby, was a mystery.
But it was good, absolutely wonderful, to be enfolded in his own sheets, head resting on plump pillows instead of the hard, flat ones that occupied every hospital bed. He didn't even bother trying to restrain a sigh of contentment as his body relaxed completely for the first time since that ill-fated excursion into the bowels of the city.
"Thank you," he breathed against crisp cotton, eyes sagging closed from the comfort surrounding him "I feel better already."
The bed dipped slightly; he cracked his eyes open to see Ed sitting on the edge, head cocked to one side so that bright hair covered half his face like a wing. A grin crept its way out from beneath that shimmering sheath.
"Thought you would. Rest a bit," because obviously Ed had seen how much the short walk had cost him, "and I'll bring you something to eat in a little while."
Drowsy, ready for sleep, he nearly agreed just so he could drift back off again. But the satisfaction on Ed's face made him pause, tickling in the back of his mind like a sliver beneath his skin, troubling. He couldn't quite hold back the yawn that cracked his jaws, but on the tail of it he whispered, "May I ask you something, without causing offense?"
The smile retreated, and a wary glint of gold peered at him from beneath the fringe of hair. "Yeah?"
Roy sighed, turning reluctantly away from the warmth of his bed so that he could better meet the young man's eyes. "Why are you doing this? Please understand; I'm grateful. Extremely so. But you've never given the impression that you wanted to spend more time with me than necessary. It surprises me that you'd be so..." He paused, not wanting to use the word devoted- although he suspected this was what devotion felt like- because he was certain it would incense Edward. And generous might imply that the simple care and courtesy Ed had spent on him were an extravagance to his character which, when one considered the attention extended to Alphonse, was clearly not the case. "Patient," he decided. "With me."
Ed drew himself up at the question, his expression sharp but, Roy thought, unsurprised. Nor was there a trace of anger, or irritation. It was as though he'd been anticipating Roy's curiosity, been preparing for its eventuality, and it made him wonder what manner of answer he would receive.
But the corners of Ed's mouth curved upward into the barest hint of a smile, further throwing off the Colonel's expectations. "You're not so bad, when you're not talking," he remarked, voice rich with amusement. "And I already told you, someone needed to look after you. Might as well be me. Everyone else has their hands full, since you're out of commission at the moment, and besides..." Edward paused, his gaze turning inward, considering, before continuing slowly, "you might say I'm invested in you, now."
"Invested?" Roy repeated, baffled and wondering if the muzzy edges of sleep had anything to do with his failure to grasp the nuances of Ed's assertion. "What do-"
Ed cut him off, shaking his head and standing. "Don't worry about it," he said, stretching in a bone-popping display of limberness. "Just get better and take the job off my hands, okay?"
He sauntered out the door, muttering speculations about what he might find in the icebox, leaving Roy to stare after him in weary confusion. Not at all what he'd expected, though at this point he could hardly say just what his expectations had been. Edward confounded him utterly. But while the answer he'd received only gave him more questions, Roy found that he was oddly content. The mercurial young man hadn't reacted with indignant anger; he'd understood and, more importantly, he'd stayed.
Yet it never occurred to him, whose need to know was at least as great as Edward's, to question why he valued that so greatly.
For the next week, Ed ran the house. He knew the signs of impending complications as well as any nurse, and kept a sharp eye to the doctor's directions. Light meals, easily digestible, if not the finer cuisine the Colonel was accustomed to. Broth and rice, apples, toast, flavored gelatins. Medicine in the morning, at midday, before dinner. He sat up beside Roy's bed on the infrequent occasions when his temperature would spike, and mere discomfort would turn to misery. He was miserly with painkillers, adamant that they not put undue strain on the Colonel's ravaged liver, but he was unsparing in his attention, his willingness to talk and divert Roy's mind from the gnawing pain. There was always a pitcher of cool water on the bedside table, and Mustang scarcely had to raise his voice before Ed was at his side, ready to attend to him.
Somewhere in my lifetime, Ed thought to himself one night, fuck knows where, but I must have managed to pick up a bit of patience without ever being aware of it before now.
From behind the door at his back came a wretched, wavering groan.
Doesn't seem like it was all that long ago that I'd have been done with this shit and out of town as fast as I could go. He leaned his head back against the door, keeping an ear tuned to what was occurring on the other side. I think I'd at least have hit him by now, as little as a month ago.
Roy moaned again, choked off gagging, and then the sound of retching filtered through the wood.
Maybe it's because I saw what did this to him. 'Cause I saw his goddamn liver in pieces, and all of that blood... Or maybe because I had to fix it. The vomiting changed to gasping coughs, the pain in each hacking breath audible, and Ed winced at the sounds. Fuck, I wish I could fix this.
It wasn't the first time. The doctors had told Mustang that his system would need time to readjust to food, to adapt to the repairs wrought by surgery, and his stomach was still liable to be shocked when he ate. So long as he held down most of his meals, there was no cause for concern.
They just hadn't mentioned how much it would hurt.
The shuddering coughs had taken on a new note, less forceful but more anguished. Bubbling, quiet through the door, and Ed jolted upright as he recognized that what he now heard were sobs, helpless and broken. For a moment concern battled with respect for Roy's dignity, eventually winning out and he twisted the knob, throwing the door open and hurrying to the older man's side.
A thin hand batted at him, but Roy's attempts to push him away were weak. His face was pinched and white, and he stared down into the bowl of the toilet through reddened eyes, breathing heavily through his mouth and refusing to look up. For a moment the Colonel's expression shifted, anger glimmering through the pain, before his eyes closed, and he leaned one arm across the back of the seat. Letting his head drop so that his forehead rested against his arm, face poised over the bowl, he inhaled sharply, breath hitching in his throat. "I can't take it any longer," he said in a low, gravelly monotone.
It should be strange, to sit on the mat next to the Colonel, still shaking from sickness, and rub his back in slow, comforting strokes. Normal for them involved shouting and insults, cynical amusement and hotheaded fury; this gentle compassion was a foreigner trespassing on what used to be a battleground. But Ed couldn't imagine withholding comfort from Mustang. Not only would it be heartlessly cruel, the echo of his panicked thoughts in the tunnels still juddered about inside his head: you can't die.
"You can," Ed told him, his own voice husky and quiet in the small room. "You'll get past this."
Another spasm uncoiled through Roy's body, chest heaving, eyes clenched shut. Nothing passed his lips but more gasps and moans, and when it was over there were tears glistening in his lashes once again. Slumped against the porcelain, shaking beneath the curve of Ed's palm, the Colonel looked small, and tired, and utterly defeated.
"No," The denial was hushed, and saturated with hopelessness. "No, I can't. I don't have the strength to do this anymore."
"I can't!" Voice breaking, edged with hysteria; Roy clutched his hair in handfuls. "It hurts so much. So bad, I don't even understand how I'm still alive. How? How am I still alive, Ed? Why?"
Fear jangled along his nerves, the mere thought of Roy giving up enough to flood Ed with possessive hostility. "You can do this, Mustang," he growled softly. "You don't get a choice. There are too many things you need to finish."
Roy chuckled darkly, harsh as nails, lungs wheezing against the sound. "You've no idea what this feels like, Fullmetal."
He withdrew his hand from the Colonel's back, not missing the unhappy twitch at the corner of the man's mouth. But instead of storming out, slamming doors at his back, Ed simply leaned back on his heels and stripped off his shirt with careful deliberation. The motion caught the Colonel's eye, and he lifted his head enough to take in Ed, bare-chested, beside him, and his brows drew together in confusion that only deepened when automail fingers snagged his wrist.
"Here." Roy's hand was pulled forward, until it rested palm-flat over a mangled mess of a scar on Ed's side. His heart was beating fast, so fast, but, as though separated from the scene, he dispassionately watched Roy's eyes widen in recognition. "And here." He turned, bending a little, and slid the hand around to his back, to the matching scar that rode just above his kidney. Straightening, he caught Roy's gaze and held it.
"I might know a thing or two about the subject," he told the startled Colonel.
A long minute passed in silence, as sullen misery was overtaken by a protective gleam in Mustang's dark eyes. "How?" he demanded. "You never mentioned-"
Ed shrugged, suddenly very uncomfortable in the trap he'd laid for himself. "Chasing Kimbley. Fucker dropped a tower on me. It wasn't important."
Mustang looked horrified. "Wasn't important?"
Fuck, fuck. "In the context of everything else going on, no," he snapped. "A madman, fucking Kimbley, was on the loose, the goddamn homunculi were running the country, and some creepy fucker who looked like my father was about to send it all to hell in a huge alchemical array. It wasn't fucking important." He took a deep breath, closed his eyes. "I survived."
Blinding agony, his body filled with fire... he remembered all too well what it was like, what Mustang was going through now. But he thrust the memory away, focusing on the point of greater importance. He turned his gaze back to Roy's, stoic and resolute. "I survived, and you will too."
Roy stared back at him, pain-drenched black eyes imploring Ed for things he couldn't give. He shook his head. "I've used it all up. There's nothing left. Ed, I'm not as strong as you."
"Of course you are," he told Mustang, fierce. "Don't be an idiot."
Roy swayed, nearly falling over, and Ed caught his arms, hauling him back to sit upright. The skin prickled with heat beneath his palm, and he almost started at the sensation. "Fuck! Your temperature's gone through the roof! Gotta get you back in bed, gotta call the doctor..."
He moved quickly to stand, hauling Mustang up after him. "C'mon," Ed grumbled, taking the brunt of Roy's weight across his shoulders, allowing the other man to lean heavily upon him while they walked. He could feel the heat through his clothing, wondered how long Mustang's fever had burned unnoticed, and already his mind was racing with scenarios of infection, complications...
Roy cried out as he stumbled, hand going automatically to his side, face paling further. "Oh god," he hissed, almost doubling over from the pain. "I can't do this. Not strong enough..."
At the bed, and Edward tilted him cautiously, helping him settle amid the sheets once more. Leaning down low over the stricken man, he brushed a cool cloth over Roy's burning forehead, his cheeks, and the older man turned his face blindly into the comforting touch. "Not like you," he moaned again, "I don't have the strength," and Ed cupped his jaw, forcing Roy's delirious eyes to meet his own.
"You do," he whispered in reply. "You can use mine."
Six weeks since he'd come home. Three and a half months since the alchemical aberration gored him below the streets of Central. Through much of that he'd had little concept of time; his days were scheduled around bedtime, and mealtime, and time for medicine. Visits from his officers meant the weekend, and time to put on a good face for them. But now he kept a secret calendar in his head- time to go back to work- and with each visit to the doctor he scratched off boxes, moving the date forward. He was getting better, and his inaction chafed.
He could sit up in bed now, reading the books Edward thoughtfully supplied in convenient- if sloppy- piles on the nightstand and the foot of the bed. They didn't hold as much appeal to him as he suspected they did to his caretaker, but he was learning to read Edward's intentions now, rather than simply seeing the results of his actions. It was a kind gesture, and he appreciated the spirit in which it was intended.
As his strength returned, Ed gradually began spending more of his time outside of the house, visiting the library, buying groceries for the two of them, running correspondence between the Colonel and his office staff. Short trips slowly stretched into longer ones, leaving the Colonel to nap and read in his bedroom, though the young alchemist returned every afternoon to check that Roy had taken his medication and to keep him company.
Even with the books, however, the hours between breakfast and his third round of medication were dreary and dull. Havoc still called him regularly, although he suspected it was as much for an excuse to duck out on his work as it was a desire for daily updates. But what came as a surprise to Roy was how much he missed Edward's presence during the day, and he found his thoughts often straying to the man who'd made himself the Colonel's companion during his convalescence. Wondering why Ed did the things he did, and how.
The question of what Ed had done to keep him alive had never stopped bothering Roy. Part of him whispered that maybe it was better not to know; he was sure it fell perilously close to the realm of human transmutation, and even greater than his discomfort at being involved in such a thing was his fear for Edward in doing so. The price was always too high, and Ed had already suffered more than his share from those unbalanced transactions.
But whatever Edward had done seemed to have left the young man untouched, and it made Roy weak with gratitude that Ed had not been harmed through helping him. The young man was as healthy after his rest at the hospital as he'd been before they descended into the tunnels, and this was the only clue that gave Roy hope that his suspicions were baseless. He had been heartbeats from death; he could have misinterpreted what he felt, hallucinated the sting of alchemy that coursed through him...
"You planning on staring out that window all day?"
Trying not to appear as startled as he was, Roy turned toward Ed's voice. The young man was lounging in the doorway, thick braid pulled over his shoulder, sun-gold eyes warm with amusement as he observed the Colonel. His stance suggested he'd been there for some time, his back curved into a comfortable slouch and arms crossed over his chest, pulling the thin black fabric of his shirt tight across his shoulders. Ed grinned broadly, pushing off from the door jamb and ambling through shafts of afternoon light to perch uninvited near the Colonel's feet on the edge of the bed.
"I didn't hear you come in," Roy remarked unnecessarily, caught off guard and with thoughts he hadn't planned on sharing still jumbled in his mind.
Laughing eyes regarded him serenely. "Yeah, I figured. Whatever was on your mind, it must be pretty heavy. You didn't even hear when I knocked the mirror in the front hall off the wall."
He blinked, startled from his previous train of thought. "You broke my mirror?"
Ed threw his head back, bangs flying as he cackled with mirth. "No, fuck, I didn't break your mirror. Got your attention though, didn't I?" Indignation flared in Roy's chest, and it must have shown because Ed chuckled again, his smile turning apologetic. "Sorry, sorry. But you're all serious and shit."
Roy had no idea what expression he was wearing. In his mind was blood, pain like a bonfire; a wound that couldn't be held closed. At his feet, Ed shrugged and dropped his eyes to a loose thread on his cuff, toying absently with it while his hair glowed in the afternoon sunlight and he mumbled, "Anyway, you oughta smile more. It makes your face look less stupid."
He'd been dying. There wasn't any question about the severity of his wound; he shouldn't have survived. And he wanted to believe, wanted so badly to believe that Ed had circumvented the law, but he had been dying, and there had to be some price he didn't realize for being pulled back from that brink. And not knowing was starting to terrify him.
Ed was still rambling, automail fingers plucking aimlessly at the thread, the button it held now sitting askew. "Not like I'd notice much, but I'm sure somebody would, and it'd make talking to you a little easier..." The familiar litany of insults, delivered without any acerbity and sounding almost normal here, in his bedroom. When had things become so comfortable between them? Watching the button tremble on the end of the string, Ed tilted his head, the flow of words never stopping, his mouth curling up into a smile as he talked. A genuine one, no aggression or defensiveness to it at all, an expression like those he wore when he was with Alphonse, content, trusting...
"Edward," Roy said, "Please tell me what happened down there."
The button popped free of its thread, skittering away across the floor of the bedroom until it disappeared beneath his dresser. Ed sat quietly, staring after it with eyes gone dark and thoughtful while his fingers still held the tail of string. A long moment of silence stretched between them until, without lifting his gaze, Ed let go of his damaged cuff and rested his hands on his knees. In a low voice, he replied, "You're alive. Does it really matter what I did?"
A sense of foreboding curled around the base of his spine as Roy considered the question. Ed's face was resigned, unsurprised, and the Colonel realized that as much as he'd thought about this, Edward had thought about it more. His breath caught in his throat, instinct roaring to life and telling him to let this go, now. Whatever he'd done, Ed was reluctant to talk about it, and that single fact spoke volumes. But if he didn't pursue this, if he never knew, would that make things better? Or would not knowing somehow cheapen what Edward had done?
"I think I need to know," Roy answered just as quietly.
Ed nodded, as though he'd expected that answer. Roy studied his expression carefully, searching for signs of pain or resentment, but all he could see was a kind of pensive calm that settled across Ed's features, making him look older than his years. The young man continued staring at the floor, brows drawn together, and Roy was about to ask again when Ed finally spoke in a soft, patient voice.
"What is the Philosopher's Stone made of?"
Roy frowned, resisting the urge to dismiss the non sequitur. "It's made from people," he answered.
Ed nodded, still eyeing the place where the button disappeared. "Human lives, or souls, specifically. The energy of life, condensed into matter, becoming the means by which an alchemist can bypass his own physical limitations.
"We know that the energy used for transmutations comes from within the alchemist. When we perform simple alchemy, we're using energy that is renewable, the same kind of energy we'd use if we were exercising. When we rest, we're able to recover what was spent."
Basic theory, the sort of thing every alchemist learned before they ever drew their first simple array. Roy had known all of this since he was twelve, curled up in his bed reading the few books his foster mother had been able to supply him. Understanding the energy used to power transmutations was necessary for the beginner, to resist the urge to reach deeper than was wise and risk a rebound. But Roy schooled his impatience as Ed continued, enduring the elementary lesson, as he somehow sensed that Ed needed to build up to the point, rather than come to it directly.
"With a Philosopher's Stone, an alchemist can go beyond what their strength allows," Ed continued, his face studiously blank. "The stored energies of the souls it contains lets the Philosopher's Stone work as an amplifier, augmenting the user's renewable energy. The alchemist only has to focus himself on controlling the transmutation, rather than providing the catalyst from his own body. The Stone itself provides the fuel for the work.
"But at its base, the components of the Stone are souls- individual souls, just like every person has. Souls which contain their own energy..."
Roy's skin prickled, as he began to pick up on Ed's line of reasoning. "Energy that can be used?"
Ed nodded again. "Souls are pure energy. Within ourselves, we contain what is essentially a piece of a Philosopher's Stone." He raised his head, but his eyes were unfocused, as if staring at something miles away. "It's all accessible, at a price."
He was truly frightened now, by the implications of what Ed was saying as well as the grave tone in which the younger man delivered his lecture. Roy's mind struggled to encompass what this meant, because surely it couldn't mean what he thought. He folded his hands in his lap to keep them from shaking and took a deep breath, praying that Ed would deny...
"Is that truly possible? Or just a theory?"
There was a long pause. "It's possible."
There didn't seem to be enough air in the room for Roy to breathe properly. "Then you..."
Ed finally looked over at him, those arresting gold eyes filled with inexplicable calm. "I used my own life energy to keep you alive."
It was easier to say than he'd thought it would be.
The words left his lips with finality; a horrible sentence, but they felt like liberation to him. The secret that had hung like a millstone around his neck was cut loose, and he was nearly buoyant with its loss. For one bizarre moment Ed wanted to burst into laughter, simply exalting in his freedom, but he recognized the barely-controlled edge to his thoughts and restrained the impulse.
Further up the bed, Roy had gone absolutely still, the color in his face bleeding out as he processed what he'd heard. Ed could see the thoughts tumbling through the Colonel's dark eyes- hell, he could almost feel them- and knew it was only a matter of time before the next inevitable question arose. That one would be far more difficult to answer, despite being mundane by comparison. Even now, watching shock slowly creep over the Colonel's expression, Ed didn't know how he would respond when Roy asked. The answer was vague and confusing, even though he'd spent weeks trying to sort it out to his own satisfaction.
"You..." Roy's voice was distant, uneven, as though he could scarcely force the words from his throat. "Ed. What cost?"
Not the question he'd been expecting, but another he knew would arise. And again the explanation came willingly. "I don't know, for certain," he answered. "Not really sure how I could tell. But considering the source, I imagine I'm paying with my life expectancy."
One of Roy's hands had crept- unknowingly, Ed was sure- to rest over the slow-healing rent in his side. Against the white of his face, his eyes were black holes that burned with fearful intensity. "Your life..."
He shrugged fatalistically, unable to look away from Roy's fevered stare. "Life's the only thing that's equivalent to another life."
The Colonel's eyes never left him, and Ed shifted with discomfort beneath the appalled scrutiny. Yell at me, he thought. Scold me, call me an idiot, do something, this is getting too weird...
"When we were down there," Roy said finally, his voice fraying around the words as though they were pulling him apart, "when I was dying, all I wanted... I knew I was beyond saving. Ed... I wanted you to live." He paused, and for just a moment Ed could see through his cracked composure, into the tumult beneath the mask of calm to which Roy clung. "It was all I had left, and if you survived..." The dark eyes closed as he struggled with himself, and when they opened again they were filled with anguish. "Doing something like that... how could you know it would work?"
Ed winced. He'd hoped this wouldn't come up, but he couldn't bring himself to lie. "Because I'd done it before," he answered quietly, his own hand touching the ugly scar on his side that matched Roy's.
"Before? You... oh god..." There was an indrawn hiss of breath as the full impact of Ed's actions struck the other man, sank in, and seemed to hit a fault line within him. Although the Colonel's face remained still, Ed watched in silent dismay as something behind Roy's eyes shattered.
For a moment, Roy couldn't even think; a roaring sound filling his ears and swamping his senses. Too many emotions to process tumbled through his mind in a jumble, leaving him shaking and numb, but the impact remained, the punch-to-the-gut, sickening feeling that came over him as he absorbed the understanding of what Ed had done.
At the foot of the bed, Ed watched him with eyes that held no trace of denial or artifice, and Roy wondered in mute agony how he could sit there, without any fanfare or theatrics, as though what he'd said were of no consequence. The Colonel searched the young man's expression, finding no trace of the reproach he'd assumed would be there, and passed a shaky hand over his face, desperate to retain the mask of calm he always wore. But it had been cleanly stripped away, leaving him achingly exposed to the unforgiving truth.
"How could you do that to yourself?" he finally found voice to whisper, horrified. "Instead of putting yourself in danger, why didn't you let me die?"
Ed gave him a wide eyed stare that suggested he'd lost his mind. "What the hell makes you think I'm the kind of person who lets people die?" he exclaimed. "And I already told you, you don't get the luxury of dying. Not while I'm around."
Pain and guilt stabbed through him. "Your life, Ed. I never wanted to take that from you."
Gold eyes narrowed, angrily, perhaps, but Roy didn't trust himself to define the emotion that smoldered there. "Yeah, my life," Ed snapped. "Mine to use how I want, and you were fucking dying, Mustang. I wasn't just gonna stand by and watch." Abruptly his expression softened, although the corners of his mouth drew tight. "You'd have done the same thing."
"I couldn't have done the same thing. I doubt anyone could." Brilliant, a genius, and how could Ed not see that he was so much more valuable than a broken, worn out soldier? "You gave me part of yourself," Roy insisted. "You gave it to me, but it feels like something I have no right to. How can I ever find something equivalent-"
Ed sighed. "It's not always about equivalence, Mustang."
"It has to be! I can't..." Everything was coming apart; the situation, his control... Roy took a deep breath, closing his eyes briefly and reaching for the equilibrium that had always been his to command. Slowly, his heart calmed its frenzied patter behind his ribs, and each successive breath came easier until he finally felt steady enough to continue. Opening his eyes, he tried again.
"You're not the kind of person who can be replaced, Edward. There's no one else with your abilities or intellect, let alone your morals." He paused, mind floundering to find the right words. "What I am... Ed, I'm expendable."
Ed's face darkened, and Roy tried to pull away in alarm as the smaller man lunged forward and grabbed his shirt in rough fists. "Expendable?" Ed spat, shaking him, hard . "Fuck you, do you really think like that? No one is expendable. No one is replaceable. Someone else might be able to do your job, but people can't be substituted." He let go abruptly and Roy fell back onto his pillows, mouth slack with surprise. But before he could even think of a response Ed was snarling, fingers curling in the air as though he longed to shake him again. "What the hell is wrong with you, that you don't think your own goddamn life has enough value to be worth saving?"
Unnerved and confused, Roy tried to take refuge in the authoritative tone that had always served him well in the office. "You shouldn't have risked yourself. You could have died doing this."
Somewhat belatedly, he realized that that had never impressed Edward. "Maybe I was okay with that," the young man retorted, his jaw set in a belligerent expression that Roy knew all too well. It was a gauntlet Ed had thrown down at him so many times before that his response was nearly automatic.
"Now you're the one with a death wish?" Roy regretted the words as soon as they emerged, watching how the young man stiffened, eyes flaring, and hastened to add, "Ed, you are undeniably brilliant, but I can't imagine any situation that would allow you to know exactly how much life you have to spare. Just a little too much spent, and it's over."
"I knew what I was doing," Ed snapped, as if the Colonel were suggesting he was incompetent to make simple decisions, but Roy would never make another disparaging comment to him again, if only he'd understand the seriousness of this...
"Do you think that Al would find my life an equivalent trade for yours?"
Ed froze, mouth hanging open as the rant that had been building crumbled on his lips. For the first time that afternoon, he looked uncertain. "That's not the point..."
"You don't think so?" Roy leaned forward, scenting an advantage. "One miscalculation, and that's all he'd be left with. And what about all the other people who care about you? All we ever wanted, Edward, was for you to succeed so that you and Alphonse could live normal lives. Long, happy ones, we'd hoped, to make up for how you had to grow up. Not... not with pieces taken away from it for someone like- if it was for Alphonse..."
"Would you rather be dead?" Ed cried suddenly, his hands gripped in fists on his knees, arms shaking. There was open pain in the question, shimmering in the bright eyes that were locked on his own and as strong as the anger that burned beside it, and looking into that fire Roy thought he at last recognized the emotion that had hung between them. A mirror to his own, and who'd have thought Ed...
It was suddenly hard to breathe again. "I would rather you were whole," he choked out quietly, heart in his throat. "Ed... Haven't you had enough tragedy in your life without taking on more?"
"You don't get it, do you?" Ed said bitterly, breaking his gaze away to glare down at the bedsheets. "You think it would somehow have been less of a tragedy for me to watch you bleed out? You think I want that?"
Roy just watched him, aching and sad and painfully grateful to the young alchemist. "I think at this point, I don't know what you want."
"Still fishing, you bastard." Ed grumbled without looking up, clearly unwilling to meet Roy's eyes. "When did you ever give up on me?" he asked with gruff exasperation. "Fuck... you've been there for years, and you..." A fist pounded the mattress once in frustration as Ed swore to himself. "Things wouldn't be the same without... I wouldn't be the same..." He stopped, brows knotted together, then closed his eyes in resignation.
"I need you here," he finished simply.
And that really was the heart of things, for both of them, wasn't it?
Fuck, there it was. Out in the open, ripe for contempt or mockery, and Ed had no one to blame but himself. All of the pithy, expedient answers he'd dreamed up over the past few weeks, and he had to go and blurt out the pesky grain of truth he'd discovered, and hoped never to bring to light. It was too strange a thing to admit, it upset the balance they'd worked out long ago, and Roy- Mustang, dammit!- would never let him hear the end of it...
Only the Colonel wasn't making fun of him. The Colonel wasn't saying anything; he was just sitting there, and Ed wanted to open his eyes and glare at him, only that would mean actually looking at him, and he really wasn't ready for that yet.
But the longer the silence dragged on, the more it gnawed at Ed, until he finally turned and gave Mustang the glare he'd been longing to deliver. A snarl curled his lips, but it died unuttered as he met the candor in those dark eyes. Mustang was watching him, every mask and barrier down, his face utterly disarmed and he looked...
Damn it, he looked completely freaked out.
"The fuck, Mustang?" he grumbled, shifting back on the bed and drawing his knees up to his chest to hide his discomfort. "Can't think of a good comeback?"
Roy blinked, his face smoothing but not closing in the slightest. A sigh slid away from his lips, and he slumped back against his pillows as though too tired to sit upright any longer. One hand began to motion vaguely, then fell back to the bed as the Colonel seemed to lose the train of what he was trying to say. All the while his eyes remained locked on Ed's, and uncomfortable as he was, he couldn't look away.
Finally Roy's hand lifted again, shaking just a little, and pointed at Ed's chest. "As soon as I'm better," he said in a voice whose sternness was betrayed by the thin quaver that ran through it, "you are going to draw that array you used to heal me so that I can learn it."
Shock slammed through him, alarm bells ringing in his mind; he'd never expected... "What the fuck do you think-" he started to exclaim, but Mustang cut him off.
"Do you really think," the other man snapped, "that you're the only one who feels that way? After all this time? I know you're smarter than that!" He ducked his head, but not before Ed saw the fierce expression that flickered across Roy's features. "I may not be the genius that you are, but I can damn well learn an array. As reckless as you can be on your missions..." Roy paused, swallowed. "You don't get to die either, Fullmetal. I won't allow it."
"Fucking oneupmanship now, is it?" Ed grumbled, but some of the constriction in his chest eased.
Mustang smirked at him, though his eyes remained warm. "I always pay my debts," he grinned, then sobered abruptly. "Ed... I'm serious. I wouldn't..." His voice foundered, the intent writ clear on his face even as his words failed, and recognizing the emotion shaking him, Ed took pity on the man.
"You just need someone to keep your damn head from outgrowing Headquarters," he grumbled with as much snap as he could manage which, under the circumstances, wasn't all that much. But Roy's weak smile went a long way toward making him think that maybe, they could adjust to this new acknowledgment of each other's worth. It even felt kind of good, in a weird way. Not that he needed the bastard's respect; he'd been getting along without it for years without any problem.
But it was nice, all the same.
"So..." Ed cocked his head to the side, brushing aside the bangs that fell in his face at the motion. "When are you getting your lazy ass back to work?"
Roy's laughter at the question broke off into a hissing wheeze; his wound, although healing, was still tender, and Ed winced in sympathy at the quick pull of pain on Roy's face. Gathering his breath, the Colonel gave a rueful grin. "As soon as possible, I expect," he replied. "Although all the paperwork that has surely built up is liable to present a far greater danger to me than that chimera ever did."
This was familiar, more like what they'd always had. Snorting in mock exasperation, Ed rolled his eyes skyward. "More like Hawkeye's gun, once she catches you slacking off after the day or so it takes you to get tired of being back."
"Mm," Mustang said, possibly in argument, maybe agreement. "I don't know, I may have developed a newfound appreciation for desk work."
"Yeah, you're clearly not cut out for fieldwork," Ed retorted, eyes twinkling. "You just make messes that I have to come along and clean up..."
"Ed..." Roy sat up abruptly, still holding his side, making Ed's words hang in his throat as he wondered if the jibe had somehow overstepped. But the Colonel reached out to lay a heavy hand on his arm, staring up at him with fathomless dark eyes, and the thought arose again that Roy had almost been gone, and what would he have ever done then...?
"I don't know that I ever said it properly before now," Roy said, his voice quiet but intense, "but even if it's hard to accept what you did, I owe you my life, and I will never forget that. I doubt I'll ever have the means to repay you, but my sincerest gratitude... I will always be grateful..." He broke off, the hand on Ed's arm tightening as he took a shaky breath. "Edward. Thank you."
All the pride, all the arrogance and cunning that Ed was accustomed to seeing in Mustang's face were gone. What remained was open and thankful, and for one ridiculous second Ed thought how he'd always wanted to see the Colonel like this; no longer impervious, but unguarded, humbled. But in the next instant he'd banished the childish notion. It didn't matter. None of it did, except that they were both here, and alive, and it was just that simple.
The smile that grew on his face was easy, as natural as the one he'd worn while he lounged in the doorway watching Roy think. That was simple, too. "Just live," he told him. "Keep on living, and being a bastard. That's all I want."
The smirk put in a brief reappearance, and there was a hint of challenge in Roy's voice as he replied, "I think I can manage that, so long as you promise to do the same."
"Shit, you're demanding!" Ed rolled his eyes in mock exasperation, listening with quiet amusement as Roy chuckled in response before finally acceding, "Yeah, fine, whatever. Fuckin' bastard."
There were a few moments of comfortable silence between them then, Roy studying him contemplatively while Ed pretended not to see him at all, before Mustang finally broke it with a sigh. "You know," he said, in that deliberately innocuous tone that Ed knew damn well meant the man was up to something, "I never did ask how you got me out of there."
Ed gave him a sharp look, to mask the quick roil of embarrassment in his stomach. "Fuckin' full of questions today, aren't you?" he growled, but Roy only smiled back and really, after everything else, this wasn't so much to explain.
"Well," he drawled after a moment's pause, "you were in really bad shape, you know. Bad enough I wasn't sure if I could move you at all, let alone carry you out. An' there was no way you would've lasted 'til I could get help down to you, even with what I'd done.
"So I thought that what we really needed was an elevator, something to lift us right up from underground, and get us up to street level. Up there, we'd find help, no problem, right?"
Roy looked confused. "You didn't transmute an elevator. There'd be no way of powering it."
"Right. But that's what gave me the idea..." Ed leaned back, knowing he was going to catch hell for this one. "Instead I, uh, kinda pulled down the walls and ceiling. Used that material to create a pillar that lifted us up through the hole it left. Dumped us right out on Cory Street, actually, maybe a block or two from the hospital, so that was pretty damn lucky."
Eyes widening, Roy gaped like a fish for a moment, clearly taken completely off guard. "You opened up a hole in the middle of Cory Street? What if something had been above us, like, I don't know, a car, or a building? What would have happened then?"
"Fuck if I know!" Ed shot back, having had the same thoughts since then. It could have been a disaster. He rubbed the back of his neck, averting his gaze. "I might have been just a little, uh, freaked out at the time."
Roy was staring at him as if he were certifiably insane. Might as well go on and tell the rest in that case. "Anyway, it caused enough of a commotion that a patrol came by pretty quick after we got to the surface, and they called for backup, and an ambulance once they saw you. And then they really started in on me, screaming about me causing all that damage and interfering with the city's infrastructure, and a whole lot of other bullshit I couldn't even follow since by then I was about to pass out too."
Mustang's expression had passed beyond incredulity now; he had one hand clamped over his mouth, and if his eyes bulged out any farther they were going to fall right out of his head. Just knowing that the tirade that was building was going to be a doozy, Ed figured he'd better just get the rest of it out of the way before the Colonel started reaming him for not thinking, and creating a situation that was sure to reflect badly upon him.
"Might not have been the best thing to do, but I shoved my watch in their faces, told them to shut the fuck up and call in Major Armstrong to fix things up all pretty again. Those guys must be a new breed of recruit or something, because they actually did all of that. And after that... I don't really know, because I passed out, and woke up later in the same room as you. Which is why I was being treated for exhaustion as well." He sighed, staring at his feet and bracing himself for what was to come. "You know all the rest."
A sound kind of like a wheeze caught his ears, and he glanced back up at Roy. The Colonel was red in the face, hand still pressed against his mouth, but his whole body was trembling, and Ed didn't think he'd ever seen the man so mad. "Look," he said, holding one hand out, "I'm sorry, okay? I was just scared as hell that you weren't gonna make it no matter what I'd done, and-"
He didn't make it any further, as a sudden bark of laughter broke from behind the Colonel's restraining hand. Within seconds, Roy ceased struggling to keep it contained, throwing his head back and laughing until he was clutching his side, hissing with pain but still unable to keep the guffaws under control, and with a start Ed realized that what he'd taken for barely-contained fury was, in fact, the opposite.
"You..." Roy breathed, fighting back the laughter that spilled around his words, "you opened up a goddamn crater in the middle of Cory Street? A-and then left it to Major Armstrong to clean up?"
Unbidden, a chuckle crept out of Ed's own throat. "Yeah," he admitted, then added, "Bet there are little mustached statues everywhere now."
Roy absolutely howled with mirth, tears rolling down his cheeks, and Ed soon joined in without reservation. The laughter poured out of them, a catharsis of all the anxiety they'd both held inside during the months since the incident.
And looking at it this way, Ed thought about how easy his choice had really been. How he'd do it again in a heartbeat, if ever faced with the necessity, because anything else was unthinkable. Because sitting here with Roy, both of them laughing their damned heads off over the massive destruction he'd caused in the wake of near-tragedy, and the absurdity of the whole thing, was the second best feeling he'd ever had in his entire life, topped only by the day he'd held Al, whole and human, in his arms again.
If he hadn't spent a piece of himself down in those tunnels, if Roy had died down there, this could never have happened. And now the future lay wide open; days like this, and others he hadn't even imagined yet, possible because of the choice he'd made. He may not have understood the implications at the time, but it was coming clearer with every minute, and if it took years for understanding to come in its fullness, well... he had the time to wait now. They both did. As Roy reached out, clutching Ed's arm in an effort to keep himself upright in his amusement, Ed knew with a fierce burst of joy that he would never regret what he'd done. It had been worth every day he gave away, to have this moment.