It seemed all of Amestris had turned out for the celebration. Men in the rich blue of the Amestrian military uniform or the simple black and white of tuxedos escorted women dressed in glittering, frothing fashions through the gates of the enormous mansion. The Armstrong family had offered their ballroom for the festivities; it was the only place large enough to hold the visiting dignitaries and what Roy Mustang had come to refer to as ‘the regulars.’ It wasn’t enough that they’d had to nearly destroy the internal workings of the country; no, but the following trials and sentencing had left the country reeling in shock. This grand ball was as much to show the bordering countries that Amestris was still strong and in the game as it was to reassure the people that they were safe under the fledgling new government.
Roy Mustang adjusted the cuffs of his dress uniform. He was vain enough to admit it looked good on him and realistic enough to think that it itched abominably. Fortunately, there were distractions aplenty to keep his mind off of the wool chafing at his wrists and throat. Lovely ladies everywhere; each one dressed to capture and hold the eye; each more glorious than the next. His gaze drifted across the expanse of color to study a woman not dressed in finery but in dress blues.
“Careful, sir.” Havoc’s voice came at his elbow and Roy acknowledged his subordinate with a glance back and up. “I hear she’s gunning for the top seat.”
“Don’t I know it.” Roy schooled his face to a cheerful grin, turning slightly, thinking this was something he’d never quite expected; Jean Havoc, standing tall once more. When the Elrics had set off their response to the homunculi’s attempts to create a Philosopher’s Stone, many things had happened, not the least of it being a hell of a lot of people were suddenly, almost inexplicably, healed and whole. Roy had listened to the brothers and their friends expound on what had happened and had promptly requested a more in depth report which had made Edward Elric clench his fists and say, “Screw you!” No surprise there. “She has the military backing. Not to mention,” Roy gestured with his champagne glass, “the money to pull it off.”
Havoc clapped his hand on Roy’s shoulder familiarly. “C’mon, boss. You’ve got just as much backing as she does. Okay, maybe not as much money. But,” his flicked his eyes toward a table situated a few rows back from the dance floor, “you’ve got them.”
Roy followed Havoc’s gaze to the table where a volatile trio sat together. Edward Elric lounged in his chair, a dangerously toothy grin on his face. His left hand rested on the back of the chair next to him in a decidedly proprietary manner and Roy wondered if the boy even realized he was laying claim to the young woman at his side. Winry Rockbell was turned away from Edward, whispering something behind her hand to the young man on her left, Edward’s younger brother, Alphonse Elric. His long figure took up most of his side of the table and he took Miss Rockbell’s hand away from her mouth, laughing at her. All in all, they could be a study of the personification of sunshine and Roy almost had to blink away the afterimages of their brilliance. “Edward,” he reminded Havoc quietly, “has tendered his resignation to the military. Alphonse never officially joined. If they want to leave this to us,” Roy turned his attention back to Havoc, “I don’t want to force them to stay.” He had the memory of Edward’s voice in his head, though, when the boy challenged Roy to make the country a better place. Somehow, he doubted the Elric brothers and their companion would go very far away from Central until things were decided. It wasn’t in their natures to leave things unfinished.
A wicked grin settled into place and Roy gestured with his head. “Want to go with me to stir the pot, Havoc?”
“What are you starting, boss?” Havoc recognized that grin and knew it boded ill for someone.
“That poor girl,” Roy said, “stuck with those two young men. I don’t think she’s even been out on the dance floor yet.”
“You’d be the one to notice that, wouldn’t you?” Havoc’s eyebrows tilted. “Jeez, boss, do you really want to start something with Ed tonight? I mean, he’s kind of,” it was obvious that Havoc was trying to come up with something witty but Roy waved him off.
“Jealousy is sometimes good in a relationship.” Roy set his champagne flute on the tray of a waiter walking by and, with a slow wink at Havoc, meandered toward the Elric table. It was interesting to Roy to note that the diplomats from Xing had seated themselves near Edward and his brother. Roy recognized the young man; the Xingese prince, Yao Lin, though the others in the delegation were unfamiliar. If the expression on the youngest member of the party was any indication, some of the delegates were a bit overwhelmed by the party.
“…should come to Xing, Miss Winry.” Lin’s teeth showed in a wicked grin to rival Edward’s. “Automail is unknown in my land.” He reached past Edward to take Winry’s hand. “You could be the first automail mechanic in Xing and under my direct protection.”
Winry rolled her eyes at the flirting. “I told you before, Lin, I’m not leaving Amestris, not as long as someone here needs my skills.” Though her gaze didn’t even flicker sideways, it was obvious who she meant. Edward had not regained his arm and leg when the ‘Great Healing,’ as it had come to be dubbed, happened. He’d explained to Roy, in a few terse sentences, that the Xingese alchemy, while designed for healing, was unable to replace limbs that had been lost.
Lin was not one to give up without a fight. “You should at least consider it.” He leaned back in his own chair, releasing Winry’s hand. “You could even bring these two to carry your equipment.”
“Hey! I am not a pack mule,” Edward snapped. “And if you think I’m carrying that heavy assed equipment across the desert, you’ve got another think coming.”
Lin raised his eyebrows loftily. “I don’t see any other use for you,” he said and Roy had to smother a laugh as Edward made a sound in registers that only dogs could hear comfortably.
“Boys,” Winry said, grabbing Ed’s braid and pulling him back into his seat and giving Lin a glare to set him in his place. “Take a lesson from Al.”
Both young men turned to glare at Alphonse, who raised his hands, sliding his chair back. “Oh, no, Winry, don’t drag me into this.” He gave Roy a ‘help me’ grin. “Colonel! Good evening,” he said, getting to his feet and out of the imminent dogfight. “How are you tonight?”
“Alphonse.” Roy shook his hand. “Edward.” He inclined his head to Lin, “Your highness.” After Lin responded, Roy turned his attention to Winry. “I have to admit, I don’t understand.”
“Understand what?” Edward’s voice took on that abrasive note that Roy had come to expect.
“Edward,” Winry tweaked his braid and he shot her a glare, pulling his hair free from her grip. “Ignore him, sir. It’s probably past his bedtime.”
Roy spoke over Ed’s snarled response. “That would explain why he’s left you to languish here,” there was another sound behind him and Roy knew that Havoc was close enough to listen in, “rather than show you off on the dance floor.” Offering a hand, he asked, “May I have this dance, Miss Rockbell?”
“Thank you, Mr. Mustang.” She put her hand in his. “I’d be honored.” With a little smug grin, Winry allowed herself to be led around Edward and onto the dance floor.
“What the hell just happened?” Ed glared at the retreating back of his superior officer, who had his hand in the center of Winry’s back.
“You got sniped, Brother.” Alphonse lounged back in his chair, grinning.
“By one of the best,” Havoc said, nodding. “Better go after her soon, chief, or the boss’ll have a new filly in his stable.”
Roy was pleasantly surprised once he had Winry on the dance floor. After a misstep – that inadvertently made her laugh and shake her head – she seemed to belong on the floor, her pearl grey dress making her seem to glow. The music itself seemed to move them along in glorious sweeping circles around the dance floor. Roy caught quite a few male eyes following Winry’s progress but not the pair he most expected and he wondered where Edward had gotten off to. “I think I’ve started something,” he said in warning. “The brothers will probably wish I’d left you at their table.”
Grinning up at him, Winry said, “Al and I made a bet on how long it’d take before Ed actually realized there was dancing.” Her smile turned a little rueful. “I lost the bet. I told Al he’d have to take me on the floor, Al said someone else would.”
“You mean they know how to dance?” While he could see it of Alphonse, the idea of Edward dancing was something that Roy couldn’t quite wrap his head around.
“Granny taught all of us when we were kids.” Winry’s bare shoulders lifted in a little shrug. “It was a way to keep us busy on rainy days and later, it helped them get their coordination back after,” her voice trailed off and the corner of her mouth twitched before tipping up into a smile again. “They liked sparring better, of course.”
Roy chuckled. “I dare say that’s probably changed by now.” The music rose to a crescendo and Roy stepped back from Winry, still remaining hold of her hand, bowing to her precisely. She sank into a curtsey and rose back up though Roy noticed a glint in her eyes that he was sure had nothing to do with his dancing skills. A hard finger poked his shoulder, alerting him to Edward’s presence.
“I’m cutting in, sir.” The honorific was tacked on with horrible frigidness and Roy exchanged a little long-suffering glance with Winry, who just grinned in response.
Offering Winry’s hand to Edward, Roy laid his own on the young man’s shoulder. Leaning in, he whispered, “Treat her well, Fullmetal. There are many men here who’d love to take her away from you.”
The snarl was a bare curling of his upper lip though his eyes lit up with an unholy fire. “Like to see them try.” The threat rumbled out of Edward’s chest and Roy felt something like shock to realize the boy was nearly as tall as he was, now. When had that happened? Turning away from Roy abruptly, Edward settled his left hand on Winry’s waist, a little pleased smirk lightening his expression. “Watch and learn, old man.”
Winry rolled her eyes at Edward’s taunt, leaning a little past him to say, “Thank you again for the dance, Mr. Mustang.” Edward snorted and Winry turned a glare at him that Edward counted with a glower of his own. Roy had doubts that they’d even make it to the dancing portion of the evening when a pair of trumpets wailed together and the couple shifted their positions a little bit, Edward’s shoulders squaring and Winry adjusting her grip on his hand. The syncopated drumbeat startled some of the older guests and Roy shot a look at the band, spotting Alphonse next to the bandstand, giving his brother a thumb up, a wicked grin on his face.
Edward answered that smile with one of his own. He pulled lightly and Winry moved as soon as he put pressure on her hand. Their feet were a flurry of movement, smooth little bounces and sudden double side kicks that made Winry’s dress whirl out and the tails on Edward’s tuxedo furl. Ed brought Winry in close, their feet still moving to the beat, close enough that a misstep would have serious consequences, and Edward pushed her out, both of them stepping sideways to dance next to each other. Their arms moved in counterpoint to their swinging feet and they both suddenly spun to face each other, hands crossing the air between them. Winry flowed into Edward’s chest and they froze there for a second before Edward sent her into a series of spins and pulled her in front of him, her back pressed against his chest. Both of their arms outstretched, Edward held Winry’s hands in his, their feet moving together.
“You’d think they do this all the time, wouldn’t you?” Alphonse’s voice broke through Roy’s bemusement.
“They’re very well matched.” Roy couldn’t help but grin at Al’s sudden giggle.
“Too well,” he said, rolling his eyes, “they learned that dance because Granny Pinako said it was too complicated.”
Smothering a laugh, Roy turned it into a cough before asking, “Aren’t you going to dance, Alphonse? I’d think you’d relish a chance to take a turn or two with some of these lovely ladies.” He nodded at the women in the crowd, some of them eyeing Alphonse the same way a fox would a young rabbit.
“Oh, I’ll get around to it, don’t worry.” Alphonse didn’t take his eyes off the dance floor. “It’s more fun to show Brother up after he’s done something he’s really proud of.”
The music swelled and suddenly stopped, leaving the couples on the dance floor in various poses, reminding Roy of a game he’d played when he was a little boy called ‘Statues’. A smattering of applause broke out, both for the dancers and the musicians, and Roy and Alphonse both clapped in the appreciation. Edward leaned in to whisper something to Winry, who nodded in response and they left the dance floor. When close enough to speak without having to yell, Edward said, “Told you,” to Roy, a gloating sneer on his face.
Roy noticed that Edward still held Winry’s hand; that neither of them seemed in the least bit discomfited by that gesture. “All right, so you can dance,” he said grudgingly. “I’ll alert the media that there’s something else the Fullmetal Alchemist excels in.”
Winry didn’t bother to hide her amusement and Edward shot her a dark glare. She ignored the nonverbal threat to nod across the dance floor. “Ed, why don’t you get us something to drink? I’ll meet you back here in a few minutes.”
His fingers tightened slightly on her hand then released it. “All right.” Edward watched Winry cut through the crowds, heading for the ladies’ room. Roy and Alphonse exchanged grins behind his back at Edward’s growl when some man tried to intercept Winry. “Damn it, he’d better leave her alone,” Edward grumbled and started after the young woman.
“I’d say it’s cute,” Roy said, “but I’m afraid you’d rat me out, Alphonse.”
“Would I do that?” He shrugged loosely, putting his hands in his pockets. The easy grin that had graced his face most of the night turned a little brittle. “Winry can take care of herself. If nothing else, everything that’s happened recently should prove that to Edward but he’s always wanted to protect her.”
“The boss does have that protective streak.” Havoc joined them, his hair a little mussed, Riza Hawkeye on his arm. “I didn’t know he could do that.” He nodded at the dance floor.
“You didn’t look bad yourself, Havoc,” Roy said, grinning.
“It’s all in the partner, boss.” Havoc turned a smile on Riza. “She can make even a guy with two left feet look good out on the floor.”
“Flattery does not get you out of paperwork.” Riza swatted at Havoc’s arm then turned her attention to Alphonse. “You haven’t been out on the dance floor yet, Alphonse.”
“No, ma’am.” He risked a glance down her body, sheathed in a dark green dress with jeweled straps and a hem that frothed out from her knees to the floor. “I haven’t had a reason to until now.”
A laugh rippled out of Riza and she accepted the hand Alphonse offered. “You gentlemen,” she said, giving a pointed look to Roy and Havoc, “should take lessons.”
“Well, damn,” Havoc said as Alphonse swept Riza onto the dance floor.
Roy said, feeling a little nonplussed at what just happened, “Wonder where he picked that up from.” He and Havoc exchanged a look.
“Nah.” Havoc shook his head. “Edward isn’t that smooth.”
His mouth open to answer, Roy snapped it shut, hearing the unmistakable hiss and crackle of an alchemic transmutation. Whirling around, he sought the source of the sound, spotting people falling back. He and Havoc rushed forward, Roy shouting, “Hawkeye! Alphonse!” and hoping they’d hear him over the sudden babble and roar of the crowd.
It didn’t surprise Roy to find Edward at the middle of it; his tuxedo jacket already torn along the right sleeve to accommodate the blade he’d transmuted out of his automail arm. “Let her go,” he said furiously, taking a step forward.
A young man held Winry clasped to his chest, a dazed little smile on his face. His chin was pillowed on her shoulder and Roy could see that he’d wrapped his arms around Winry’s waist. “Aw, hell,” Havoc said and Roy realized what he’d taken for a decoration on the man’s wrist was a bomb.
“Let her go,” Edward repeated but the man giggled, clutching Winry tighter, lifting her off the floor when she tried to kick.
“Said to find the pretty blonde.” The man nuzzled the forced curls at Winry’s ear. She arched away from him in disgust, straining against his hold. “She’s the pretty blonde, right?”
“There are many lovely women here tonight.” Alex Louis Armstrong joined the ring forming around the man and Winry. “How do you know you have captured the correct one?”
“It could be me who’s supposed to be your hostage.” Riza stepped into the ring over Edward’s growled protest. Her face was set and proud. “Destroying me would mean you’d cripple the military. With her,” she jerked her chin at Winry, “well, she’s simply a civilian.”
Roy mentally applauded Riza’s approach but the man shook his head, grinning cheerfully. “You’re with the Fullmetal Alchemist,” he said in Winry’s hair. “His…mechanic he’d do anything to protect.”
There was something about the tone of those words that had Roy shoot a puzzled glance at Edward. The boy’s eyes widened then narrowed and Roy knew that Edward recognized something. “Come out, you bastard,” he said, taking a step back, as if Winry being held hostage meant nothing. “This isn’t between anyone but us.”
The man dragged Winry forward, his face turning bright red. “You won’t ignore me, Fullmetal Alchemist!”
Edward shot him a pitying look. “You’re just a pawn. I want the chess master.” Cupping his left hand around his mouth, he shouted, “Kimbley! Where are you, you bastard?”
Winry took advantage of her captor’s lack of attention to thrust her elbow into his stomach. Arching sideways, she bit his cheek, making him howl. Edward leaped forward as the man tried to throw Winry off, his punch landing solidly in the man’s nose. Alphonse grabbed Winry out of the way as Edward dropped on top of her captor, his blade raised above the man’s throat.
“Edward!” Roy clipped out, “Stand down!”
The point of the dagger touched the man’s larynx and he swallowed, sweat breaking out over his face. “It wasn’t supposed to be this way,” he said, rolling his eyes like a skittish horse. A sickly smile crossed his mouth and Alphonse shouted a warning to his brother.
Edward cut backwards with his blade as the man reached for the trigger of the bomb. Blood spurted and the man shrilled in pain, Edward’s face contorted in disgust. He got up, stripping out of his jacket and using the ruined fabric to clean the blade. “Just a cut,” he growled as Havoc and Armstrong rushed in, grabbing Winry’s captor and hauling him to his feet.
“Edward cut the wires, chief, the bomb’s defused,” Havoc said, as Armstrong held the bomber upright. Havoc went through the task of removing the belt holding the armaments in place.
“I want to question him,” Roy said coldly, glancing at Edward. He’d joined his brother and Winry, his left hand resting on the girl’s crown before sliding down her neck to tug her close. Alphonse’s hand rested on Winry’s shoulder but his gaze turned to Roy, a stony expression that he’d never seen in Alphonse’s eyes.
The band leader raised his baton, striking up the band and music again brightened the ballroom. Roy found himself looking up at Alex Louis’ sister, Olivia, who regarded him like she might an insect she wanted to crush. “I have informed the band to keep playing. The party can continue while we interrogate the prisoner.”
“Yes, of course.” Roy gave her a flat smile, gesturing for her to walk beside him. He heard the soft shuffle and knew that Riza had fallen in to her accustomed place at his back and guessed that the Elric brothers and Winry would bring up the rear. Roy mentally sighed. He’d expected opposition from the beginning but Kimbley gunning for Edward was something he’d never expected.
* * *
The room was small and bare; one probably used for servants’ quarters back in the day, and between Olivia and her brother, Alex Louis, it seemed even smaller than what it actually was. Ed had seen that much of it before the door closed in his face, leaving him, Al and Winry on the other side of it, squeezed into a narrow hallway. He’d tried to send Al and Winry back to the ballroom but neither of them was willing to wait to find out the answers. Ed had wanted to do the questioning himself, the idea that he was forced to wait outside like a kid putting him in a foul temper. The fact that he could feel Winry trembling every once in a while from where she pressed against him made him even angrier. This was supposed to be a celebration, damn it, and the asshole ruined it.
“Why do you think Kimbley would be after you, Brother?” Al asked gently from his place on the other side of Winry. His hands were wringing together, the same way they had when he was a hulking suit of armor.
Edward took Winry’s hand in his, surprised at how cold her palm felt. He almost wished he hadn’t left his tuxedo coat in the ballroom but it had blood on it and Ed wasn’t about to let that lunatic touch Winry again in any way.
He wanted to kick in the door and insist he be allowed in the room for the questioning. Hell, Havoc was in there and so was Hawkeye, not to mention that bastard, Mustang. “Feh, who knows.” He curled his lip, glancing up at Al – some things never changed; Ed thought he’d always be looking up to his brother. “Briggs, probably. I didn’t do what he wanted me to do.” He corrected himself, mimicking Kimbley’s voice, “‘Carve a bloody crest into Briggs Mountains.’ Ha. Like she,” he hooked a thumb at the closed door in front of them, “would’ve let me do that.”
“Like you would’ve anyway.” Winry squeezed his hand lightly. Ed shot her a look, knowing what she meant. Kimbley and the Fuhrer had held her as his and Al’s hostage, using Winry’s safety to keep him on a short leash. That plan had backfired when they brought her to Briggs; Winry’s cleverness keeping her out of Kimbley’s hands even if it had put her in danger with Scar. Ed still hated that he’d had to count on his enemy to keep Winry – and Al – safe but there had been no better choice, hell there hadn’t been any choice at the time.
“So this is his revenge?” Al shucked out of his own jacket, draping it around Winry’s shoulders. His mouth turned down as he peered past her to Ed.
“I guess.” Ed scowled at the door, wishing he could just barge in there and ask what the hell was going on. “Kimbley’s more hands on, though. I can’t see him using someone in his place. If he wants to get me, he’ll do it on his own.” He tossed his head in irritation, letting go of Winry’s hand so he could pace down the hall.
“Then we should take precautions, right?” Al called to his brother.
“Yeah,” Ed grumbled, turning and walking back. “But what kind? If Kimbley’s managed to get some more idiots to follow him, who’s to say who he’d use next?” He stopped abruptly next to the doorway, his shoulders tight and tense. “It just doesn’t seem like him, you know? He’s not going to use someone else to do his dirty work.” Ed sneered, “He enjoys it too much.” He dropped against the wall next to the doorway, shoving his hands deep into his trouser pockets.
Winry nodded. “He was always very polite to me but once you warned me, Ed, I thought he could be dangerous.” She sighed, slumping back, cradling her chin in one hand, that elbow resting on her folded arm. “I’m your weak link again, aren’t I?”
“No!” The exclamation exploded out of Ed as he raised his eyes to meet hers. “You never were, Winry.”
“Don’t even think that,” Al told her, his hand resting on her shoulder. “You’ve always been part of our strength.” He squeezed her shoulder. “We’re a team.”
At Winry’s dubious glance between the brothers, Ed bobbed his head once in agreement. He never wanted Winry to think of herself as their vulnerable point. “Yeah, Winry. Without you, I’d never have been able to do anything.” He flexed his automail arm in emphasis, relieved to see Winry smile a little in response. Ed moved to stand next to her again, almost unconsciously leaning his shoulder into hers. He could sense the pressure more than anything, Winry being on his right, but even so, it felt comforting. “I just wish we knew what was going on in there.” Ed nodded at the door.
“They’ll tell us when they come out,” Al said practically, though there was a hint of worry in his voice too, that let Ed know his brother wasn’t as pragmatic as he seemed at first glance.
He was surprised to feel Winry’s hand slide between his ribs and arm, glancing over at her in shock only to see his brother doing the same. She hugged their forearms, linking them together, a smile brightening her face. Eyes closed, she whispered, “We’ll get through this, huh? Like we’ve gotten through everything.”
“Yeah.” Ed breathed out the word in agreement, some of the tension leaving his body with his exhalation. “Yeah, we’ll be fine.” He settled back to wait for whatever crumbs Mustang was willing to give them from the interrogation, consciously thinking he was very lucky to have two people like Al and Winry to stand beside him.
* * *
“Well, that’s disappointing.” The corners of Kimbley’s mouth turned down and he sighed. “I thought for sure there would have been an explosion by now.”
“I told you I didn’t think he’d be able to pull it off.” The man standing next to Kimbley flung back his mane of black hair.
“I know, I know.” Kimbley put his hands in his pockets, turning away from his survey of the Armstrong mansion. “But it’s just an opening salvo, after all. A warning shot.” He smiled, “Fired across their bow, as it were.”
Envy rolled his eyes. “Admit it, Kimbley, you just want to get your revenge on the Fullmetal pipsqueak.”
“Of course I do.” Kimbley turned to his companion. “As do you.” He studied the homunculus thoughtfully, the last of his kind, the rest having perished in the final battle just a few months ago. Even Greed had been defeated, leaving the host body he had inhabited a normal human again. Kimbley wondered how that had felt in the most abstract way, whether Greed’s persona had exploded or been snuffed, like a candle flame between two fingers. He decided that he didn’t particularly want to find out for himself.
“Yeah.” Envy’s grin became malevolent, his eyes glittering with rage. “That kid ruined Father’s plans.”
“And he should be made to pay for it,” Kimbley said smoothly, smiling inwardly as Envy nodded in agreement. Oh, the fun this was going to be.
* * *
Olivia Armstrong couldn’t help the little feeling of delight that strummed through her body at the fact that an adversary was still out there. She chafed under this imposed peacetime rule; her world having been made up of ice and cold; of protecting the Northern Border against all comers. Peace made her wary and, she hated to say it, bored; she preferred the rush of combat, even if it were made up entirely of mental attacks.
The bomber sobbed in his chair, no longer a threat to anyone but himself and she turned her attention to the other officers in the small room, notably, Mustang, who at least had a rank similar to hers. She didn’t like the man, no, he was a hindrance in her plans, but he was Fullmetal’s superior, or had been, until the boy had resigned. Olivia was surprised Mustang let him go that easily. Surely he had to see that Fullmetal needed some sort of supervision; left to his own, he would become a thorn in the side of the new government and Olivia did not want to deal with that. The boy was far too idealistic in nature and soft-hearted as well but also had the public’s heart. Kept in the military, he could be an asset but allowed to roam free, Olivia had her doubts that he would hold his tongue on the things he knew.
“That was useless,” she said to Mustang, who nodded curtly, his hands folded across his chest. “I believe Fullmetal knows more than this tool does.” Olivia didn’t even bother glancing over at the bomber. He was beneath even her contempt at this time.
“I hope you don’t mean to question him the same way,” Mustang said coolly.
“I want answers, Mustang,” Olivia said. She raked a glance at the door, knowing that Fullmetal, his brother and the girl who tagged around with them waited outside.
“I think everyone does.” Mustang turned away from her and opened the door, stepping out if it. Those three kids came off the wall in a bunch and Olivia schooled her expression to hide the irritation that Mustang had walked out first.
“What did you find out?” Fullmetal asked, disengaging his arm from the girl’s. She didn’t seem to notice though her wide eyes seemed to swallow her face.
“Very little.” Olivia swept out behind Mustang. “I’d rather discuss this somewhere other than a hallway.” She turned abruptly, looking back inside the room. “Take care of that piece of garbage,” she ordered, not missing the veil that clouded Mustang’s adjutants’ expressions. Her brother nodded at her though something in his eyes warned her to take steps to not antagonize Mustang or his staff. They were, after all, allies of a sort. “Come with me,” she told Mustang and Fullmetal, leading them down the hall, resigned that the brother and the girl would tag along.
She made her way through the corridors and halls, reaching a den composed of dark colors, walls of books and a fireplace complete with fire burning against one wall. Mustang waited along with her for everyone to come into the room before closing off the door. Something in his stance made Olivia realize that he wished he had more of his staff with him. So be it, if he was off balance, all the better for her. She gestured for them to take seats, not surprised that the girl and Alphonse settled together on the settee, while Fullmetal stood at the end of it and Mustang waited beside another chair. “Well,” Olivia said, taking a chair and leaning her elbows on the arms of it, clasping her hands in front of her. “Someone appears to be out to get you, Fullmetal.”
He made a slicing motion with his hand, his lip curled back in irritation. “That much is obvious. What else did you find out?”
Olivia shrugged. “I told you the first time you asked. Very little.” Olivia waited for the explosion and was almost disappointed it didn’t come.
Edward fingered his chin instead, his brows beetled down. “Kimbley’s playing his cards close to his chest. He’s not going to tell some pawn what he’s up to.” He let out an irritated sigh, slapping his hands down on the back of the settee. “I thought he’d died in Briggs Mountains.”
“Obviously not,” Mustang said, “unless he taught someone we don’t know all of his secrets. And knowing Kimbley, he’d never trust anyone with that knowledge.”
“He was entrusted with a great many secrets of the military,” Olivia said thoughtfully. “It would be useful,” she stressed that word, “if he could be captured rather than killed.” She noticed Fullmetal’s girl swinging her head to track each speaker, her blue eyes wide and Olivia wondered just how much sway the girl held over Fullmetal. She had been his hostage, Olivia knew that, so it was obvious that the boy cared for her. She had no doubt that their affection for each other went beyond that of an automail mechanic and her patient. She remembered all too well how quickly the girl had won over the hearts of her staff. Miles had praised her as being one of the most generous people he had ever met and Miles was not one to utter such things lightly. Olivia wondered if the girl could be used as bait for Kimbley and whether she could maneuver that into happening. If Kimbley believed the best way to strike at Fullmetal was through the girl, that could work to their advantage.
“He’s nuts,” Fullmetal said sharply while Olivia was considering what her next moves should be. “You can’t trust him to tell you the truth.”
“Oh, there are ways of making sure the truth is being told,” Olivia said, noticing Mustang nodding grimly.
“You mean torture.” Alphonse looked between them both, his mouth set in a tight line.
“No one deserves that,” Edward snarled, his fists clenching. “Even Kimbley.”
“How do you propose we go about this then, Fullmetal?” Olivia gave him a cool look, actually curious. “Capture him and ask nicely? Do you honestly believe he’d give us the answers we need?”
“Look, he’s an asshole,” Edward said, “but he’s still a human being. No one deserves to be treated that badly, even if he is the enemy.”
“Everyone should have the right to make amends,” Alphonse insisted.
“Everyone?” Olivia glanced at Mustang. “Surely you know the Ishbalans are asking for the alchemists who murdered their people. Are you saying that, to make amends for those deaths, we should hand over people like Mustang, here?” She flicked a hand in his direction, pleased to see a flush swarm across Edward’s face.
“No,” he ground out, “that’s not what I’m saying.” He hesitated, his forearms trembling as he tried to restrain himself from shouting and Olivia mentally congratulated him on that. “What I’m saying is that there has to be a better way.”
“It’s all a moot point until we can capture Kimbley anyway,” Mustang said, cutting through the tension. “But until we do, Edward, I’d suggest that you, Alphonse and Miss Rockbell, here, remain under military guard.”
“Guard?” Edward’s face twisted. “Screw that. I can’t find out anything with someone babysitting me, telling me when and where I can go and what I can do.”
Dryly, Mustang went on, “Yes, it seems to me that your guardians last time had very little control over you, Edward.” The boy didn’t even have the grace to mumble an apology, his teeth flashing in a cocky grin.
“We’ll need some way to draw Kimbley out,” Olivia said musingly, ignoring the glares that Flame and Fullmetal were exchanging.
“Look,” the girl said, “if Kimbley wants to hurt Ed through me, I should be the one he goes after, right?”
“Winry, no,” Alphonse said, touching her shoulder as Fullmetal broke off his staring contest with Mustang to yell, “No way in hell are you doing that, Winry.”
“I know the risks, Ed.” The girl’s face was set in a firm mask as she turned in her seat to look up at him. “It’s not a great idea, I know, but I don’t see you offering a better one.”
“Hey, Al and I lured Scar and the Homunculi out of hiding before,” Edward said sharply, “we don’t need your help in this.”
“He’s right, Winry.” Alphonse leaned closer to the girl, squeezing her shoulder. “This isn’t your fight.”
She scowled at them both. “Yes, it is. I’m involved, remember?” The girl slapped at Alphonse’s hand. “You just said we’re a team. If we’re a team, then you two better start acting like it.”
“Well spoken, Miss Rockbell,” Olivia said over the sputtered protests of Fullmetal. “I agree. I think we should take advantage of this.”
Edward turned on her then, his eyes molten. “Winry isn’t some tool to be used.” His automail whined from the pressure of his clenched fist.
Olivia bit back the reply that anyone in the military was a tool to be used, as Fullmetal had resigned his commission. She mentally cursed Mustang again for allowing that to happen. “Do you have any better ideas, Fullmetal?” she asked, leaning forward slightly, ignoring the daggered glower the girl was giving the eldest Elric.
His mouth quivered and Edward turned abruptly to the girl. “Winry,” he said, voice lowered, “you don’t have to do this.”
“It isn’t safe,” Alphonse added to his brother’s protest.
“You didn’t see, Winry. I had to stop him from transmuting the building you and Scar were on. He would’ve killed you to get to Scar.” Edward dropped down in front of her, laying his hands on top of hers. “This isn’t your fight.”
She turned her hands over to clasp his. “Yes, it is. If we’re a team, it is my fight.” Her smile was faint but visible. “I trust you guys,” she pulled one hand free to lay it on Alphonse’s knee, “to keep me safe.”
“Well said.” Olivia nodded. “Of course, guards will help.” More to keep an eye out for Kimbley but, she shrugged mentally, whatever.
Edward pulled away from the girl, moving jerkily to stand in front of the fireplace, his head bowed and arms crossed. The girl followed him with her eyes though she didn’t rise from her seat. Alphonse twined his fingers with hers.
Mustang regarded her and Olivia felt a frisson of surprise at his steady gaze. She wondered if he disliked this plan as much as the brothers did. His expression was inscrutable and Olivia didn’t like that she couldn’t read him. “Hawkeye and Havoc can keep an eye on Miss Rockbell. They’re accustomed to covert work. They won’t be too intrusive but they’ll be there to provide back up if you should need it, Edward.”
His hands dropped, tightening into fists and he said to the fireplace, “I don’t like it but thanks.” Taking a deep breath, Edward turned back around, his jaw squared and eyes cold. “So, what do you need us to do?”
Olivia allowed herself a mental smile at their capitulation. Really, manipulation of the young was too easy.
* * *
The day was crisp and cool, the wind blowing through the streets of Central, tugging at the few leaves still remaining on the trees. Roy Mustang walked with his back to the wind, feeling as if it pushed him ahead of it, whipping his jacket around his legs. He could feel eyes on him as he walked and only hoped that they were friendly rather than the alternative. Giving Hawkeye and Havoc the task of keeping an eye on the Elrics and Miss Rockbell meant that he had to trust his back to others and while Maria Ross owed him her life, he had never actually seen her in action to know whether or not she was good at her job. He had to count on Maes Hughes’ commendations on the woman and her partner, Denny Broche, and that they’d watched over Edward and Alphonse in the past, despite the fact that the brothers had managed to slip out from under their collective noses. It was, after all, what boys did, and the Elric brothers were still boys, despite their fast approaching maturity.
Roy wished that there was a way to keep them from being involved in this episode with Kimbley. They deserved their freedom, which was why he’d so readily signed the paperwork to get Edward out of the military. He had no doubt that the Fullmetal Alchemist could easily get turned into a figurehead in the coming days and knew that Edward would hate it. While the boy was passionate about his desire to help people, he was far more hands on than would be needed in the upcoming years. Roy thought it would be better if the brothers took a chance to breathe and actually grow up before they were brought into the political arena that seemed so interested in them.
He had no doubt that Olivia Armstrong would use the brothers and their friend to further her cause with the newly forming government, which made keeping the kids safe difficult. Roy did not want anything to happen to the kids; they’d certainly had enough grief in their young lives. Should something go amiss and Miss Rockbell be harmed, well, Roy didn’t want to even think about the possibilities. The brothers’ concern for her was just as great as their concern for each other and Edward, particularly, had been vocal enough about using Miss Rockbell as bait for Kimbley.
“She’s already done that once, isn’t that enough?” he’d raged in Roy’s office, the day following the ball. “Kimbley could’ve killed her then.”
“It’s not your decision, Ed,” Miss Rockbell had told him sourly from where she sat in one of the leather chairs, a cup of tea in her hand. “I made up my mind. I want to help.”
“Kimbley’s dangerous, Winry. We’re just worried about you,” Alphonse had said over the sound of Edward’s disgruntled snort.
“We’ll do everything in our power to keep you safe, Miss Rockbell,” Roy had assured her and she’d smiled bravely in response.
It was Edward who’d turned to face him, his expression careworn and frustrated, saying, “You’d better.”
Now, Roy made his way toward one of the parks in Central. He had chosen the meeting place for the simple reasons of being easily reached, that, in the cooler weather, it would not be crowded and that it would be difficult for anyone to sneak up on them. Edward had reluctantly agreed, not wanting to put Miss Rockbell at risk but understanding meeting in the office might actually be counterproductive. Roy only hoped Edward understood how counterproductive the meeting might be. He didn’t exactly trust Olivia Armstrong not to use Miss Rockbell to further her own means. The main problem with that plan, Roy thought, was if anything actually happened to the girl, Olivia Armstrong would find out just how bad an idea it would be to cross the Elric brothers.
Edward waited for him at the edge of the lake, hands shoved deep in his pockets, head lowered and legs spread apart. Alphonse and Miss Rockbell stood together on a small bridge, peering at the gathering ducks, throwing scraps of bread down on the birds. Roy couldn’t see Hawkeye or Havoc though the prickle in his shoulder blades, so reminiscent of his time in Ishbal, warned him someone watched over this gathering. He made his way down to the lake, joining Fullmetal.
“I really hate this,” Edward said without preamble.
“I do, too.” Roy smiled faintly when the boy’s head jerked up. “It isn’t right to put a civilian in such danger, particularly when she’s your friend.” He gestured at Alphonse and Miss Rockbell, barely able to catch the sound of their voices from where he stood.
Grumbling his agreement, or at least Roy had to assume agreement in those low pitched noises, Edward turned his attention to the bridge, watching the couple on it with worried eyes. “I have no way to protect her unless I’m right there,” he muttered and Roy could hear the whine of Edward’s automail hand clenching and unclenching. “All Kimbley has to do is put his hands together and,” his voice trailed off.
Roy nodded. “She’s very brave, Edward.”
His huff made an exhalation cloud the breeze shredded instantly. “She always has been.” Edward’s mobile face was downcast. “Brave and strong.” He glanced up then. “How do you do it?”
Edward cast around, searching for something. He gave up with a shrug. “Assign Hawkeye dangerous missions. How do you do it?”
The question cut a little closer than Roy liked but he kept his cool. “The same way you’re doing this, Edward. You hope for the best and pray the worst won’t destroy you.”
* * *
Ed, both Winry and Al noticed, was uncommonly grumpy as they made their way back to the hotel. He waved off any suggestions of stopping for food and ignored their attempts to talk to him. Al shrugged at Winry’s questioning look. It wasn’t like they all didn’t know this was dangerous, Winry thought. She wondered if Ed had been like this when she’d volunteered herself as bait, back in Briggs. There really hadn’t been time to think then, she just had to make the decision and do it. She had the feeling that this time, with the waiting and no real action going on, it was hitting Ed harder.
Al’s attempts to engage Ed in conversation over what Mr. Mustang had said fell on deaf ears and he finally gave up with an eye roll, dropping back to walk next to Winry. Ed stomped on ahead of them, his braid the single brightest thing on the street. Winry huddled deeper into her jacket, thinking it hadn’t felt nearly this cold in Briggs Mountains. She missed, she suddenly realized, Ed’s big red coat, the one he’d left behind since getting Al his body back. One more piece of Elric symbology, Winry thought, that she didn’t know the true meaning of.
While they walked, Winry tried to spot any of the people she knew were keeping an eye out for her. She thought she’d seen Second Lieutenant Havoc standing outside a little café, flirting with a waitress but they’d swept by him so fast, Ed leading the way at nearly a charge, Winry hadn’t gotten a good look at the man. She’d given up trying to find Ran Fan and Lin. They both had the knack of disappearing, despite their unusual clothing. Maybe, Winry thought, because people didn’t usually look up but that knowledge didn’t help her locate them.
“C’mon, Winry.” Ed’s impatient voice broke through her thoughts and Winry frowned in response. He rolled his eyes, beckoning at her to hurry it up. With a sigh, Winry complied, ducking into the hotel with Al close behind her. Ed turned on his heel, starting for the stairs.
“Wait a minute, Ed,” Winry said, folding her arms.
Hand on the stair rail, Edward slowly looked over his shoulder, his brows drawn down. “What is it?”
“I want to get something at the café. I’m cold and hungry.” Winry hoped she didn’t sound like a whiny kid.
“But Winry,” Ed protested.
“I think it’s a good idea, Brother,” Al said, backing her up. “I’ll go get us a table.” He gave them a sunny grin and hurried off, leaving Winry and Ed staring at each other, neither one wanting to back down.
“Come on, Ed,” Winry said quietly. “It’s just food.”
He sighed, rubbing the back of his neck in irritation. “Winry,” her name was dragged out into a whine. “I just…” Ed heaved another sigh, flipping his hands in the air. “Whatever.”
Winry jammed her fists on her hips. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means what it means.” Ed glowered at her.
“You’re not making sense, Ed.” Winry knew this wasn’t when and where they should have it out; the lobby of the hotel was open and there were people scattered around it, some of them already turning toward them, sniffing out an argument the way dogs did scraps. Taking a few steps closer to him, Winry lowered her voice deliberately. “Can we not do this here?”
Ed nodded sullenly and jerked his head at her to follow him. Winry fumed quietly as she climbed the stairs, her ire building as they finally reached the appropriate floor. Ed unlocked the door to the room he shared with Al and gestured her inside. Any other time, Winry might’ve marveled at the idea that Edward Elric had grown manners but right now, she knew that he just wanted her out of the hall so they could continue their fight.
“What was all that about, Ed?” Winry folded her arms across her chest, not even bothering to shed her jacket. The room felt chilly. At least her breath didn’t show like it had on the streets outside and her anger could keep her warm.
Mouth drawn in a tight line, Ed said, “Do you have any clue how dangerous this all is?”
Before he could go on, Winry took a step closer, poking him in the chest with a forefinger. “Yes! Mr. Kimbley wants me dead to hurt you. I get that.” She swallowed, lowering her voice, making Ed sway slightly closer to hear. “I’m scared, too, Ed. But I didn’t see any other way to help you. You can’t send me away.” Winry’s lips twitched but couldn’t quite make a smile. “It doesn’t matter where I go; he’ll find me, don’t you see? I’m safer here with you and Al then I am anywhere else.”
Ed sighed, his head bowing. “Winry,” he whispered, and she couldn’t see through the thicket of his bangs to read his eyes, “you know why the Fuhrer picked you as my hostage, right?”
It felt like her heart exploded at that question. The inane words, ‘Because we’re friends,’ nearly spilled out of her mouth but Winry held them back. Catching her lower lip between her teeth, she settled for saying, “Yeah, I do,” just as softly as Ed.
She caught the corner of Ed’s mouth tilting up. “Yeah.” He looked at her through his bangs, amber eyes warm, and worried, and full of emotions that Winry knew it would take forever to sort through, if Ed would just let her hold his gaze. But he didn’t, turning his head slightly. Instead, his hand rose to touch the crown of her head, lingering there. And Winry moved closer, as she had in Briggs Mountains after speaking to Scar for the second time, sliding both arms around Ed and leaning her cheek against his shoulder.
Another sigh and Ed cradled her head, his other arm folding around her back. His breath stirred the fine hair at Winry’s temple, his jaw pressed lightly against her cheekbone. Winry reluctantly pulled away, smiling slightly at Ed. His expression softened and his hand slid down to rest against her cheek. “Kimbley’s dangerous,” he murmured.
Letting his hands fall away from her, Ed took a step back. “He’d destroy a whole building just to get to you. He wouldn’t care how many other people were inside.” Winry wasn’t sure if Ed was talking to himself or to her. “You’re right, you aren’t really safe anywhere.”
She shook her head slowly. “I trust you, Ed.”
“Winry.” Her name came slow and soft off his lips and she thought for a second that Ed was going to kiss her.
“And us!” The cheerful exclamation sent Ed lunging away, making Winry jump.
“Damn it, Lin,” Ed snarled at the Xingese prince as he climbed through the window, Ran Fan right behind him.
“I am not interrupting, am I?” Lin’s smile was bright with mischief. “You weren’t expecting to kiss my future bride, Ed?”
“Your future bride?” Ed’s voice rose like a tea kettle whistle. “Where in hell did you get that idea? Winry’s not marrying you.”
“Surely,” Lin said, sounding surprised, “you don’t mean she has another suitor?”
“You’re not her suitor!” Ed poked Lin in the chest.
Lin ignored him to clasp Winry’s hands in his own. “Miss Winry, please tell me there is no one else.”
Winry jerked her hands free, exasperated. “Lin, I told you before, I’m not marrying you!”
“But it would be good for relations between your country and mine!” Lin spread his arms open wide. “You could bring your mechanical skills to my country and I, I could bring fashion,” he eyed Ed as he said that, “to yours.”
Before Winry could respond to Lin’s proposal, Ed shoved between them. “Winry’s not getting married to you,” he snapped, thumping his automail forefinger into Lin’s chest.
“Really?” Lin arced his eyebrows, peering at Winry. He made a face, pushing Ed out of the way. “I liked it better when you were shorter than me,” he told Ed. “Miss Winry, won’t you marry me? You’d be married to a prince.” He flashed a brilliant smile. “You’d have servants. I’d let you bring the Elric brothers with you.” Lin laid his hand on Ed’s shoulder. “Everyone needs pets.”
“Pets!” Ed howled, teeth bared and fists clenched.
Winry wrinkled her nose. “Ed wouldn’t make a good pet, Lin. He’s too aggressive.” She tapped her chin thoughtfully. “Maybe he belongs in a zoo.”
“Winry!” Ed’s indignation turned on her and Winry couldn’t help but chuckle at the furious expression on his face. “It isn’t funny!”
“Perhaps you do not find it so,” Lin joined Winry in her laughter, “but I agree. We shall keep Ed behind bars.”
“Like hell you will.” Ed showed all of his teeth.
“I don’t know, Ed, it might do you some good,” Winry said dubiously, “at least keep you in one place for a little while, so I’d know where you are.”
He gave her a withering look that made her laugh again. “I am not some sort of animal,” he told her loftily, “and I don’t need to be in a cage.”
Lin shrugged easily. “All right, leashed. Leashed is good, yes?”
Winry was sure Ed’s answering howl could be heard all through the hotel.
* * *
Kimbley didn’t bother to even glance at Envy. “Patience.”
Envy rose to his feet, stretching his arms over his head. “Why don’t you do something? Shake things up a little?”
Making a show of taking his eyes away from the hotel wherein Fullmetal was lodging, Kimbley met. “I’m open to suggestions.”
“Well,” a wicked smile came to settle on Envy’s face, “we could stir up some trouble.”
“What sort of trouble?” This could prove interesting, after all.
“I was thinking,” Envy said, “they all want Wrath’s place. They’ll do whatever they can to get it. You’ve made the girl an important piece in the game. Before, she was just something we could throw away. Now, the military is watching her.” Envy smiled lazily. “If she’s seen doing something illegal, they may not want to help her any more.”
“That would make Fullmetal very unhappy,” Kimbley said, considering the idea, an answering grin spreading across his face.
“We can’t have him being happy, can we?” Envy straightened, flipping back strands of black hair that became pale yellow as it moved. Winry Rockbell now stood in front of Kimbley, blue eyes blinking innocently.
“Absolutely not. We want him upset and confused, all the better to lead him into making mistakes.” Kimbley reached out, touching the blond hair Envy currently wore. “Because if he’s making mistakes, he’s going to be that much easier to take advantage of.”
* * *
Alphonse glanced at his watch, liking the heft of it on his wrist. It didn’t really take a lot to please him, he knew; clothes were interesting, after not having any real sensation on his skin for ages. He couldn’t abide wool with its itchiness, not against his skin, but he appreciated the heavy wool jacket that Mrs. Hughes had taken him out to purchase after they’d arrived in Central. Socks and shoes were usually discarded as soon as he entered whatever room he and his brother were staying in at that particular time. When Ed complained that he’d catch cold, Alphonse would retort that he just wanted to feel the floor and the textures under his feet. Of course, it had taken a little while for his feet to toughen up – Xingese alchemy could restore flesh and muscle mass; heal bone and cartilage – but was no remedy for lack of calluses. Winry had already discovered rubbing his feet had an interesting reaction – one that had sent Al hurrying to the bathroom, blushing bright red, Winry tossing the lotion she’d been massaging into his feet at the back of his head. Al wished his brother’s reaction had been that prosaic; instead, when Al finally returned, Ed grinned wickedly and said, “Winry’s hands are really nice, aren’t they?” It had taken both Al and Winry to subdue his older brother and the room was full of flying feathers and overturned furniture by the time they were done. They’d just been lucky it was during the day rather than the evening, when more people might’ve been around. Another stroke of luck – alchemy took care of the worst of the damage, long before the manager could find out what had happened.
“Would’ve hated to see the bill for that.”
“I beg your pardon?” The waiter raised an eyebrow at Alphonse, who grinned in response.
“Oh, nothing.” He tapped the menu lightly. “Can I just order something warm to drink? A pot of hot chocolate,” Al decided enthusiastically, “please.”
“Certainly, sir.” The waiter bobbed his head at Al and made a note in his pad before walking to the kitchen area.
Leaning back in the chair, Al glanced out the windows. The blowing wind was visible in the way it tugged at the clothing of the few people unfortunate to be out in the weather. Al felt sorry for them. He felt like he was still frozen through himself. Looking toward the doorway, Al wondered what might be taking Brother and Winry so long. He’d heard their voices but decided not to get involved this time; Brother needed to learn to let Winry in rather than block her out and though it was a slow process and painful – look at the first secret Ed had finally told Winry – it seemed Brother was learning.
By the time the hot chocolate had arrived, Al was starting to get, well, not worried but certainly curious. Surely Brother and Winry had finished whatever it was they’d started by now. He poured the chocolate into his cup, stirring it a little and taking a hesitant sip, hoping not to burn his mouth. The liquid wasn’t hot enough to sting but plenty warm enough to take the chill off and Al almost purred at the luxury of the warm cup in his cold hands.
The beverage distracted him enough that he almost missed seeing Winry walking briskly down the street. Al blinked, taking another absent sip of his chocolate then, almost before he realized what he was doing, he was on his feet, tossing some change on the table and heading for the door.
“Winry?” Al pushed out the door, spotting her blond head already at the end of the block. He growled under his breath and jogged after her, deciding he really, really had to have a long talk with his brother, preferably after beating him into the ground. Whatever he’d said to Winry, it must’ve been bad. She wasn’t even wearing a coat, in this weather, and Winry was more sensible than that. “Winry!” Al picked up speed, trying to catch her before she got too far away. He saw her turn the corner and ran after her. “Winry, wait up!”
* * *
Envy heard the shouting behind him and knew he’d attracted someone’s attention. With a little smirk, he added a twitch to his hips, trying to decide exactly what he should do to make sure he kept that interest. If Kimbley thought this was a good beginning to the Fullmetal brat’s destruction, Envy would be more than happy to participate. That someone the brat cared about would be the one to take the blame made it just that much more delicious.
* * *
The police came for Winry just a few hours later.
* * *
Alphonse stood in the hotel foyer, the rush of the noise flowing over him. He felt like he was still sealed in that suit of armor, that no breath moved through him, that his heart didn’t beat. Everything seemed to come at him from a great distance, that he couldn’t actually react to what he saw in front of him – police officers with grim expressions on their faces, two of them guarding Winry, four more holding Ed back.
“She didn’t do anything, damn you! She was with me!” Ed howled.
“Then that will be proven, sir,” one of the officers said, “but until that time, she goes with us.” He shoved Ed, making him stumble back a few steps.
Ed’s teeth showed in an unholy smile, slamming his hands together. He dropped them to the floor, transmuting cages around the officers, leaving Winry free. “You’re not taking her,” he snarled, ignoring the men reaching through the bars to grab at him. Ed took Winry’s arm, gently guiding her out from the cages he’d made.
“Ed, no.” Winry stopped him when he was about to press his palms together. “You can’t do this. Let them go.” She jerked her chin at the men.
“But,” Ed’s mouth turned down, concern gleaming in his eyes. His voice dropped to a gravelly whisper. “You didn’t do anything.” His fingers closed around her wrists and the cuffs she wore.
Alphonse swallowed hard, wishing he could look away but it just seemed he couldn’t. One of the officers moved his hand, going for the pistol at his waist. “Ed!”
He whirled toward the threat almost instinctively, left foot slicing out, knocking the gun away so it spun across the hotel lobby, coming to a stop next to the concierge’s desk. “Don’t try that again,” he growled at the other officers. Before he could take another step, Winry’s hands caught at his hair, tugging him back.
“Stop it, Ed. You’re not helping.” Her stern voice seemed to ring through Al’s head, breaking him out of the trance he was in. “Let these men go so they can do their job.”
“But Winry.” Ed turned to her, his hands on her shoulders. “You didn’t do anything.” He cast a furious glance over his shoulder at the officers, who glared back, just as enraged.
“And that will be proven. Everything will be all right.” Winry smiled up at Ed, turning that warmth to Alphonse as he stumbled up to them. “Al, tell him.”
“I,” Alphonse touched Winry’s shoulder, his fingers brushing against his brother’s. He swallowed down what he wanted to say. “She’s right, Brother. Let the officers do their job.” He was surprised he managed to get the words out without choking. Alphonse had seen the damage, the blood. Winry, he knew, couldn’t have done it. But proving that, when so many people swore they’d watched her do these horrible things, would be difficult.
“Please, Ed. Don’t make it worse than it already is.” Winry’s smile faded for an instant then came back just as strong.
Through clenched teeth, Ed got out, “Al, call Mustang. Tell him what’s happened. Have him meet us at the police station.” Without waiting for any acknowledgement, he walked stiffly to the cages. “I’m going with you,” he said, in a tone that brooked no argument. When one of the officers protested, Ed turned a cold glower his way. “Either I go or she stays here.”
“Ed.” Winry’s protest didn’t even make him wince, which Alphonse thought was a bad thing. Usually, Winry could get through to Brother better than anyone but Ed wasn’t hearing her this time.
“Brother, Winry’s right,” Alphonse said cautiously. “We can follow them to the station.” He wasn’t sure his brother would tolerate it but he had to make the suggestion.
Hands fisting, Ed seemed to vibrate in place and Alphonse wondered if the officers knew just how little it would take to make his brother explode. Before he could take action, Winry moved, her hands touching Ed’s shoulder lightly, and some of the tension bled out of Ed’s stance. He lowered his head and Alphonse could hear his brother gritting his teeth before he touched palms together and transmuted the cages back into the floor and carpeting again. It was a testament to Ed’s distraction that the carpet remained in the same pattern it had originally and no artistic embellishments had been made to the wood. “All right,” he said roughly. “Let’s go.” Turning his head but not actually looking over his shoulder, Ed said, “Remember the phone call, Al,” before allowing the officers, disgruntled but not willing to fuss any more, to chivy Winry and him out the door of the lobby.
Alphonse swallowed hard, trying to keep his suddenly roiling stomach under control. Making his way to the desk, he asked the clerk behind it for the telephone to make a call. Reluctantly, the clerk obeyed, eyeing Alphonse as if unsure whether he might suddenly warp something the way his brother had. Smiling in what he hoped was a reassuring manner, Alphonse quickly dialed the number for Central headquarters, asking for Colonel Mustang. The urgency in his voice decided the operator to actually put the call through and Alphonse tightened his grip on the slippery receiver. “Colonel? We need your help,” he said, his voice cracking. “Something’s happened.”
Riza Hawkeye was accustomed to long hours waiting in one position, tracking her prey. In some ways, it felt as if she had been doing it all her life, waiting patiently for that one reason to make an effective strike against something or someone. Riza knew it wasn’t quite true; her life was filled with joy, some of the time; and she knew the satisfaction of a job well done many times over. Her comrades would lay down their lives for her and she would unhesitatingly do the same for them. Her position in the military was secure, unless, for some reason, she decided she needed to step down and at this point, Riza didn’t believe that would happen any time in the immediate future.
Riza didn’t allow herself to indulge in speculation or what-ifs; she didn’t want to prepare too much for the future beyond knowing what the possible scenarios might be. If those thoughts were tied to Roy Mustang, she – and he – were the only possible people who knew for sure. Others might guess but Riza had learned all too well that it is best to keep dreams to one’s self. Her father’s legacy taught her that lesson.
Now, she followed her commander into a police station, having traded in her civilian clothing she’d used for covertly following the Elrics and Winry for her familiar blue uniform. She had a difficult time wrapping her mind around the report that Fuery had put together and that the Colonel had read aloud from the backseat of the car she drove, counting off three separate attacks by someone whose resemblance to Winry Rockbell seemed uncanny.
“Perhaps not so peculiar,” Mustang had said quietly, his eyes narrowed. “Edward did say that one of the homunculi had the ability to change his shape to look like anyone or anything.” He’d closed the folder, setting it on the seat next to him. “If that creature escaped that alchemic blast, then it stands to reason that it might return looking for revenge.”
Riza understood that feeling and even understood why such a being might copy Winry’s appearance. Hurting the girl meant hurting the Elric brothers. With both of them distracted by their friend’s plight, the military’s strongest allies would be next to useless. She knew Mustang would be busy plotting their next move. The trick would be in getting the Elrics’ cooperation. Alphonse, at least, might listen to reason. Edward, on the other hand, was still volatile, not to mention he loved Winry. He would not be one to sit idly by and Riza wasn’t sure if he would even agree to play the game by the Colonel’s rules.
Mustang strode into the stationhouse like a king visiting his chosen knights; furling back his long coat so it resembled a cape moving around him. “I am here to see the Commissioner,” he said to the man behind the desk, “regarding one Winry Rockbell.”
Riza caught sight of Alphonse, sitting in a hard chair, twining and untwining his fingers. Something about him looked pitiable and Riza felt shocked to realize at his age, she’d been assigned as a sniper in Ishbal. Alphonse seemed a child in that pose, his expression downcast and golden eyes dim. He stood up at the sound of the Colonel’s voice, hope coming over him like sunshine and he started forward, dispelling Riza’s image of him as a child. His voice cracked and shuddered, settling into a clear tenor, “Edward refused to leave Winry.” The faintest hint of salty humor colored his words. “The female officers found it difficult to search her with him in the room.”
“He’s one of yours, then?” The sergeant behind the desk eyed Roy and nodded. “The Commissioner will be very happy to see you. I’ll call ahead to let him know you’ve arrived.” He gestured with a finger that appeared to have been broken at some point by the angle of it. “Straight down that hall, turn left when you get to the end of it. The secretary will let you in.”
“Thank you.” Mustang inclined his head then turned on his heel, sweeping past Riza and Alphonse as if they were beneath his notice. The barest of winks made his eye flicker and Riza caught sight of Alphonse’s shoulders rising and falling in a relieved sigh. She squelched a grin of her own, following in Mustang’s wake, Alphonse falling into step beside her. The sound of their heels striking the floor seemed inordinately loud despite the normal sounds of a busy office. Riza could feel the eyes of the officers following them as they passed by, a particular buzz following them that let her know Edward had probably caused an incident. She just hoped that whatever he’d done could be resolved easily. This being Edward Elric, Riza highly doubted it.
They turned the corner per the directions and the small hallway opened up into a tiny antechamber, a secretary in uniform rising from her desk. Her eyes widened at the sight of the military and she saluted. “Colonel, sir.”
“At ease,” he saluted her back but offered her a charming smile, one, Riza knew, was intended to play up to her so he could get the information he wanted. Before he could ask any questions, however, the secretary slipped around her desk and knocked on the closed door.
“Sir? The military is here.” She opened the door and motioned the colonel, Riza and Alphonse through the doorway. “Can I get you anything?” she asked politely, her eyes darting to Mustang then Alphonse then back to Mustang.
“If this were a social visit, I’d say yes,” Mustang said to her, showing her that sweet smile again. “Unfortunately, it’s not. But thank you for the offer.”
The secretary bobbed her head twice and darted out of the room, pulling the door to behind her. As she left, Riza took the time to survey the room. Papers seemed to be encroaching on every flat surface, reminding her of a bad day in the Colonel’s office. Wanted posters hung on the wall and Riza couldn’t help that flash of surprise at a sketch of Scar, the alchemist killer, glaring at her. That almost kept her from noticing the Commissioner, a rounded man who peered at them over the rims of his half-glasses.
“Colonel Mustang,” he said, rising to his feet to offer the Colonel his hand. “I am Commissioner Hoyt.” A smile skittered across his face then vanished as if he just now noticed Riza and Alphonse.
“My adjutant,” Mustang said, “First Lieutenant Hawkeye, and Alphonse Elric.” When Hoyt had finished nodding to both of them, Mustang continued. “I understand there was an altercation with one of the men under my command. Can you please explain what happened?”
“As much as I can, from the reports given.” Hoyt waved them into chairs, seating himself behind his desk. “At eleven-forty-five, the first report came in: that a young woman, blond, blue eyed, had walked into Berringer’s jewelry store and demanded the shop till as well as certain pieces of jewelry. When the shop clerk didn’t move fast enough to accommodate that demand, the woman attacked with a knife, slicing the clerk’s face.” Hoyt glanced up to note their reactions and, not seeing any, went back to reading the reports. “All in all, there are five reports, each involving the same young woman and each providing the accounts of people who witnessed violent attacks.”
Next to Riza, Alphonse shifted and she was reminded that his older brother would’ve already been on his feet, shouting at the commissioner. Still, she laid a hand on his knee in warning, not surprised to feel the tension in the joint. Some things, she knew, wouldn’t change and one of those was the Elrics’ affection for Winry Rockbell.
Hoyt hadn’t finished talking, explaining that the police had been called and the girl had led them a merry chase, running up the fire escape of the hotel where the Elrics and Winry were staying. It had taken very little time to ascertain which rooms were theirs and Winry had been brought in for questioning.
“Mr. Elric caged my men,” the commissioner said dryly, “with alchemy.” He nodded at Alphonse. “If not for this young man and the alleged perpetrator, it might’ve gotten very ugly.”
“Edward,” Mustang said, equally urbane, “has a bit of a temper and has only recently returned from combat. That doesn’t excuse him but you do have to understand where he’s coming from.” Mustang paused and Riza wondered if he would take the commissioner into his confidence. The common people were unaware of the homunculi and the military government seemed to believe that it was for the best that they not be made aware of what had been guiding Amestris all this time. This also, unfortunately, meant that what the colonel could tell the police was limited. “Miss Rockbell was caught up in this combat,” Mustang said, breaking into Riza’s thoughts, “and was used as a hostage against both Edward and Alphonse. As you can see, they’re very young to have been involved in combat and situations that adults might better be able to process.” His hand rested lightly on Alphonse’s shoulder for a lingering second. “Miss Rockbell is particularly a gentle soul. Her parents were doctors and she herself is an automail mechanic. I’ve heard word from Brigadier General Armstrong’s troops that Miss Rockbell provided medical care for them. She’s quite well thought of by the military and not just because she’s Edward’s mechanic. Knowing what I do of Miss Rockbell, I find it impossible to believe that she could do such things.” Mustang spoke directly to the man behind the desk. “Commissioner Hoyt, while I do apologize for what happened with your men, from what I hear, none of them sustained damages and the hotel was put to rights.” The unspoken, “it could have been much worse,” hung in the air over them.
Hoyt harrumphed, closing the folder. “Nothing you’ve said convinces me of this girl’s innocence, Colonel.”
Alphonse opened his mouth and Riza tightened her grip on his knee. His muscles twitched but he remained quiet, licking his lips, his hands clenching and unclenching.
Mustang leaned forward slightly. “No, Commissioner, it doesn’t.” A faint hint of humor graced his words. “And what I’m telling you now must remain in the strictest of confidences.”
Eyes half-lidded, Hoyt stared across the desk at the colonel. “Something out of the loop?” He nervously tapped the edge of the folder with Winry’s name on it on his desk. “Does this have to do with,” he hesitated, lowering his voice almost in awe, “the ‘happening’?”
Riza kept a steady pressure on Alphonse’s leg, hoping he wouldn’t react to the common phrase for the alchemic transmutation that not only returned him to his body but also healed so many people, including Havoc. Mustang’s faint smile didn’t confirm or deny Hoyt’s question. “There are things all around us that we may not realize exist, Commissioner. One of those…creatures, shall we say, is an incredible mimic, good enough to make anyone believe a mirror double is the actual person rather than a reflection.”
Hoyt didn’t seem convinced. If anything, he tilted farther back in his chair, his gaze flicking from Mustang to Riza and Alphonse and back again. “You’re saying the girl’s double committed these crimes?” He chuckled, shaking his head. “I’d say that’s a new one but I have heard it before, Colonel.”
“Good,” Mustang said, his smile broadening, “because that’s exactly what I’m saying.”
Alphonse fidgeted restlessly under Riza’s hand as Hoyt said, “I’m sure you understand that is rather difficult to believe. Colonel Mustang, I understand that you would want to take care of one of your own but there are witnesses who can place Rockbell at the scenes. A few of them are in this building now, waiting for their chance to see her in a line up.” He shook his head. “I’m afraid I really have no recourse but to keep her in custody.”
“But,” Alphonse blurted out, halfway rising from his chair, ignoring Riza’s warning squeeze.
“Or,” Mustang said casually, “you could transfer her to military custody.”
Hoyt’s brows beetled down and he dropped his elbows on the top of his desk. “You’re saying you’ll handle it?”
“I’m saying exactly that. Well, perhaps not me personally,” Mustang said, spreading his hands. “But we do have an investigations unit that’s well equipped to deal with this sort of matter and would keep your name out of the papers in conjunction with the Fullmetal Alchemist.”
“Fullmetal,” Hoyt said musingly, his eyes cutting up and left, “Fullmetal…wait, he’s the one who got into the fight with that Ishbalan, a few months back. Halfway destroyed the city between them then he came back and fixed everything. Some of my men were involved in that.” His frown grew more prodigious. “That kid is the Fullmetal Alchemist?”
“He is.” Mustang’s smirk was barely visible. “I understand there are people in this town who consider him a hero. That his mechanic, not to mention his personal friend, would be pulled into such a mess, could be construed badly, don’t you think?”
“I have a duty to the people of Central.” Hoyt bristled at the implication. “My office can handle the investigation.”
“But can you handle the gawkers and hangers on? The people who want to catch a glimpse of Edward? Believe me, Commissioner, there will be those people and Edward is not going to willingly leave Miss Rockbell in a jail cell.”
“I can’t say it’s completely against regulations,” Hoyt said, removing his glasses and folding them. “But I’d like an officer to be assigned to the case. He’ll report back to me as to what you find out, a liaison between our offices.” He gestured between himself and Mustang. “If that is acceptable to you, Colonel.”
“Completely,” Mustang said, with a nod.
“All right, then.” Hoyt blew out a gust of air. “I suppose you want to take the prisoner?” He pushed his chair back, getting to his feet. “Come with me.” Hoyt gestured them out the door and into the muted hubbub of the office. He paused at the secretary’s desk, asking her to get transfer papers in order for Winry.
Next to Riza, Alphonse let out a little sigh of relief. Mustang caught it and, without changing his expression, murmured, “You understand, Alphonse, this does not clear Miss Rockbell.”
“Yes, sir.” Alphonse dredged up a smile. “But we know a little more about what we’re dealing with in the military.”
Mustang’s slight shake of his head warned Riza that whatever Alphonse might believe, he did not. Her heart clenched at even that vague warning and Riza wondered if they would be bundling the Elrics and Winry out of town to keep them safe. She instantly discounted that idea – neither Edward nor Alphonse would run from a problem that involved Winry Rockbell. They would want to resolve this, even if it meant that Edward would have to remain under military jurisdiction for a while longer, despite his discharge papers.
The walk back through the office and down another set of corridors seemed all too familiar. Chatter died as they approached, building again as they passed and Alphonse paced next to her, his face set in a grim mask that didn’t seem to fit his features. The commissioner led them through a barred gate that opened only to let them through and closed with a horrible clang afterward. The corridor they walked through now felt clammy and cold, with lighting that seemed designed to inspire depression. Riza straightened her shoulders surreptitiously, hating the prickling between her shoulder blades letting her know that they were being watched. Her instincts warned her to spin, to duck, to fire but she kept a tight rein on them.
“Miss Rockbell, you have additional visitors,” Hoyt announced as they approached a guard standing with his back to the wall, gazing implacably into one of the cells. Edward leaned against the bars of the cell, his expression unusually impassive, his arms folded across his chest. Winry rose to her feet as they drew near, a smile appearing on her face like the dawn after a long, rainy night. Riza wasn’t surprised that she held her cuffed hands out and Alphonse caught hold of them, squeezing them between his own.
“You finally made it,” Edward said, dry and cold as an Ishbalan winter.
Mustang shot him a look before turning to Winry. “Miss Rockbell, you are being released into the custody of the Amestrian military. This does not absolve you of any of the claims made against you but considering your relationship,” Riza noticed Edward’s eyes sharpen at that word, “with the Fullmetal Alchemist, Commissioner Hoyt agreed that it would be best if the military handle the investigation and conviction.”
Winry gently disengaged from Alphonse’s grip. “I understand, sir.”
Edward studied Mustang closely then turned to Winry. “Whatever. Can we get out of here?”
Commissioner Hoyt gave Edward a sour look as he unlocked the cell door. Winry stepped through the opening, a brave, tiny smile on her face. The chain between her handcuffs rattled slightly and Edward scowled at them, his mouth opening. Before he could say anything, Winry silenced him with a shake of her head. With an irritated huff, Edward thrust his hands deep into his trouser pockets. Alphonse laid his palm on Winry’s shoulder, giving it a squeeze.
“Come with us, Miss Rockbell,” Mustang said, sounding bored, and Riza took Winry by the elbow to lead her outside the station.
* * *
So far, covert operations were boring. Havoc knew that could change at any second; he’d been in on enough of them to know you could never tell when something was going to happen. He’d be just as happy if the surveillance of Miss Rockbell remained boring. Sure, action was good; Havoc wasn’t exactly the type of guy who thrived on desk work but he really didn’t like the idea of Miss Rockbell being in the middle of this. It was wrong for Kimbley to target her, even if he did want to go after Ed but, on the other hand, it was a great way for Kimbley to draw Ed out. He’d want to protect his girlfriend, after all; Ed and Alphonse both would do anything for that girl. Havoc wondered what that might feel like; to care that much for someone. He had people he cared about, after all; the boss; his comrades. His family. And he knew he’d die for any of them. But the way those Elric boys looked after Miss Rockbell, it was different. They’d die for her, sure, but more importantly, they’d live for her.
The car idled behind the police station, a couple of doors down in the alley. Falman, not surprisingly, had known there was a back entrance – one the police used on the sly – and that was where the boss had told Havoc to wait. There’d been a crowd milling around the front of the station, the kind of thing that the boss wanted to avoid, especially with Edward involved. That kid wouldn’t tolerate any slights against his girl and Havoc didn’t want to see what sort of temper he could rise to if someone made a threat against her while they were bringing her out of the station.
Havoc flexed his ankles, first one then the other, thanking whatever alchemic transmutation had healed his body. It’d been like nothing he’d ever felt before. He didn’t think like he was smart enough to describe it but however it worked, it certainly had. He hadn’t felt this good since before he’d been deployed to Ishbal. It almost seemed like a miracle, not just to him but so many other people.
The Elric brothers knew what happened, Havoc was aware of that much. Miss Rockbell was with them so it was a good guess she knew, too. Havoc heard that Ed and Alphonse had holed up with the boss to give him a report but that was while he, himself, was still in the hospital, startling his doctors with his miraculous ability to wiggle his toes and bend his knees. He wasn’t privy to what happened during that interview between Mustang and the Elrics, just that it had happened; that Edward had yelled at one point (Breda had said, “Big surprise there, huh?” when relaying the story); and that afterwards, the boss had asked for Ed’s discharge papers to be completed.
Taking a drag off his cigarette, Havoc considered that. Ed had made his point, that he was only in the military until he could return his brother to his body. That he’d done, in spades. Still, Havoc guessed the Ice Queen would have something to say to that, especially once word really got out that Miss Rockbell was accused of all the things that happened today. Havoc didn’t believe one word of it. He’d seen things, after all, down in the cellar of Lab Three, and had heard the tales of a creature that could look like anything and anyone. Besides, Miss Rockbell wasn’t the type to hurt anyone. From what he’d gleaned from Falman, she’d made an impression on a lotta people up north, when she’d been there with the brothers, and all of it good. Hell, if the rumors were right, and most rumors had at least a hint of truth in them, Miss Rockbell had charmed that alchemist killer, Scar. How she’d managed to do that, Havoc had no clue. He chuckled to himself. “Maybe she pulled a thorn outta his paw.”
The soft sound alerted him and Havoc jerked his eyes to the rear view mirror, seeing the door open. Hawkeye came out first, her gaze automatically going to the roofs, a sure sign she was expecting trouble. Havoc almost grinned at that. Even though the alley was remarkably clean, he’d checked it thoroughly himself. Didn’t want anyone to come to any harm out here and the fact that the trash cans were all scattered around just made it harder for someone to hide behind. After her came Alphonse and Edward, the former with a worried expression set on his face, the latter with a scowl directed at whoever would implicate his friend in this sort of thing. Miss Rockbell came next with Mustang’s hand on her arm and an officer trailing close behind him.
Havoc put the car in reverse, backing it slowly toward the party. He could just make out that placid, almost bored expression on Mustang’s face, the one that said he’d rather be doing anything than what he was doing now. The officer walking at his heels was saying something and Havoc would almost bet the man was furious at Mustang’s casual way of handling Miss Rockbell. He could almost see steam rising off the officer’s head. Hawkeye stopped halfway down the steps, gesturing everyone else to move ahead of her, and Alphonse obeyed, catching his brother’s arm and hauling him along behind, nearly sending Ed staggering. Letting go of Ed, Alphonse opened the door to the car’s backseat, holding it so Mustang could usher the prisoner inside.
“Miss Rockbell.” Havoc met her eyes in the mirror’s reflection. “There’s a blanket on the seat. You might want to cover up with it.”
“Cover up?” Ed popped in the door opposite the girl, half-pausing, his knee on the seat as his brother climbed in after Miss Rockbell. “Why?”
Hawkeye shoved Edward farther into the vehicle so she could sit down. “For her safety, Edward. The less people who know we’ve moved her, the safer she is.”
“I don’t mind,” the girl said as she picked up the blanket.
Mustang took the shotgun seat next to Havoc and closing the door behind him. The officer rapped his knuckles against Mustang’s window and the colonel rolled it down obligingly. “Just a reminder, Colonel. We will want to be part of this investigation.”
The man’s breath wafted into the interior of the car and Havoc was hard pressed not to wrinkle his nose. What had this guy had for lunch anyway? A garlic sandwich?
“Commissioner Hoyt, you will have our utmost cooperation in that matter.” Mustang nodded at the other man politely before rolling up the window and saying, “Miss Rockbell, you should get on the floorboard.”
“I understand.” The girl pulled the blanket up over her head as she slipped off the seat. “Sorry, Al.”
“It’s okay, Winry.” His smile didn’t reach his eyes.
“It’s not okay.” Ed wriggled a little on the hump, his glower speaking volumes. “Winry didn’t do anything.”
“And until we can prove that, it’s best if she stays out of the public eye.” Mustang hooked his elbow over the seatback, peering into the cab at Ed.
Ed started to speak then his gaze fell. His mouth snapped shut and he jerked his eyes toward the window, the scowl deepening on his face. Alphonse’s sighed softly, his head dipping forward, bangs shielding his expression from Havoc’s mirror. Putting the car into motion, Havoc turned his attention to the alley in front of him, driving away from the police station.
“If I have to stay hidden, where am I hiding?” Miss Rockbell’s voice was muffled and sounded all too plaintive to Havoc’s ears.
Mustang’s mouth tightened. “Someplace safe,” he said, almost curtly, “someplace where an eye can be kept on you.” Both brothers fixed matching golden gazes on the back of his head. “I’ve been directed to deliver you to the Armstrong residence.”
* * *
Olivia Armstrong stood in front of the bay window, her arms folded, staring out at the crushed gravel drive. The black military car moved slowly up the drive, as if the driver hesitated even approaching the house. Olivia snorted, spinning on her heel. If she was to greet her family’s guest, she should be at the entrance when the girl was finally delivered. Of course, her brother would already be there, gushing like a vapid schoolgirl over the red shrimp’s girl. Even Miles had fallen under her spell, much to Olivia’s surprise. Her adjutant rarely lost sight of his own goals, which, fortunately, coincided with Olivia’s; the fact that he actually noticed the Rockbell girl had been something of a shock.
Walking down the stairs, Olivia considered that she missed the snow and crisp breezes of Briggs. She still felt somewhat uncomfortable without her sword and the distinctive loss of her fur-lined jacket sweeping around her as she moved. The mountains would remain and her men waited her return, though who knew what the future might hold. Another brigadier general might be assigned to guard Briggs or she might promote one of her own men, should she gain the presidency. And, her eyelids lowering as she approached her family, waiting near the entrance like so many curious servants, Olivia had plans on being the first Armstrong president. Dispassionately, she watched as the Elric brothers and their friend, as well as Mustang and his first and second lieutenants, piled out of the car.
Olivia thought that Hawkeye was most interesting out of all of them. Her loyalty to Mustang was unwavering, well, Olivia knew that loyalty carried over to every one of his staff, except perhaps Elric. The young man had his own loyalties, though it was obvious if one looked closely enough that Elric did trust Mustang, at least up to a point. Olivia wondered exactly what had happened between the two. Elric seemed to trust nearly everyone else blindly. He even let slip to her about his hostage, not in those exact words but enough to let Olivia know there was someone other than Mustang holding his leash.
Both Elrics held an inordinate amount of power and Olivia thought again how wrong it was that it couldn’t be utilized by the military. A strong showing of State Alchemists would ensure her worth but Mustang already had the Elrics in his pocket. The only way to sway them to her side and keep them there would be to make sure their friend was safe. And, barring that, make sure that if anything happened to the Rockbell girl, the blame lay squarely at the feet of the Flame Alchemist.
Alex Louis opened the door, stepping out into the sunlight. The rest of the family followed his lead, Olivia hiding her irritation that her brother had taken that foremost position to greet the guests, such as they were. It should have fallen to her parents, or to her, to offer the welcome. “Miss Rockbell,” Alex Louis said, taking one of her hands and bowing over it, “let me welcome you to our home.”
The girl, surprisingly, seemed less dumbfounded than the elder Elric brother. She smiled sweetly at Alex Louis, the faint flush touching her cheeks brightening as Father presented her with a bouquet of freshly cut roses and his arm to lead her into the house. As if the little grease monkey were some sort of dignitary. Olivia watched as Fullmetal and his brother followed behind the girl, thinking not a dignitary but definitely something else. It was no wonder the Fuhrer used her as Fullmetal’s leash. Word of his transmuting cages around the constables had already reached Olivia’s ears. Hell, it was probably all over the city by now; that the youngest State Alchemist had gone against law officials in an attempt to rescue his murderous friend.
Olivia’s mouth tightened imperceptibly. That was something she hadn’t counted on. Fullmetal’s reputation could be tarnished by his friend. Then again, loyalty was something that most people approved of, even it if is misplaced. Once the issue with the girl was resolved, perhaps Fullmetal’s loyalty could be redirected to a more appropriate person.
“I don’t like this.” Alphonse kept his voice low, despite his brother standing right next to him. He wasn’t sure Edward even heard him; his brother was staring at Major Armstrong with a peculiar expression on his face. Alphonse guess that the major’s hand in the center of Winry’s back as he guided her around the magnificent garden probably had something to do with Edward’s glare.
“Neither do I.” Edward growled under his breath. “He’s old enough to be her father.”
“Edward.” Alphonse couldn’t help but roll his eyes. “That’s not what I’m talking about. Major Armstrong’s just being polite.”
“He can be polite without touching her.” The gears in Edward’s automail whined in protest of how tightly he clenched his fist.
“Would you stop being jealous and listen to what I have to say?” Alphonse wondered if he’d have to kick his brother to get him to pay attention.
“I’m not – I – what is it?” Edward spluttered out, glaring ineffectually at Alphonse, who smiled sweetly in return.
“Maybe you can fool yourself, Brother, but the betting pool in Colonel Mustang’s unit has upped the stakes.” Alphonse took a few steps out into the garden, knowing he had Edward’s full attention now. “The odds are for you and Winry getting together before anyone is elected to take Fuhrer Bradley’s place in office.”
Edward’s strangled cry came from behind Alphonse. “Oh, hell.” He caught up to Alphonse, lips pulled back in a snarl. “Like it’s anyone’s business.” Glaring, he shot a look at his little brother. “What’d you bet?”
“And skew my chances? Uh-uh, Brother, I’m not saying.” At least this had gotten Edward to pay attention, though Alphonse figured now he’d have to settle his older brother down again before he’d listen to anything else. “Brother,” he turned his head slightly, looking back toward the mansion, making sure there wasn’t anyone close enough to hear him, “do you really think it’s best that Winry stay here?”
From the way Edward’s eyes shuttered, Alphonse knew his brother had been wondering the same thing. “I don’t think we can get her out of here right now,” he said quietly, completely at odds with his grumbled reactions a few seconds previously. “The Brigadier General wanted her here and I’d bet she has her reasons why.” He folded his arms and pouted at Major Armstrong and Winry, the very image of a jealous boyfriend. “Winry’s safe with Major Armstrong.” Alphonse wondered if his brother could hear how tentative he sounded, saying that.
“Maybe we should ask Major Armstrong if we can stay here, too.” Alphonse unconsciously mirrored his brother’s stance.
“Not like they don’t have the room.” Edward brought his right hand up, fingering his chin thoughtfully. “And if the answer’s no,” his voice trailed off.
“We grab Winry and run,” Alphonse finished, a little grimly, in accompaniment to Edward’s short, sharp nod.
X X X
“The girl’s been taken from the police station,” Envy announced, settling on the arm of the couch, his bare feet on the rough fabric of the cushion. Kimbley almost wished he’d thought of that seating arrangement. The hotel sofa was, to put it mildly, uncomfortable. “She’s in military custody.”
Eyebrow ticking up, Kimbley considered this. “Where was she taken?” Somehow, he doubted that Edward Elric’s hostage would be placed in any of the containment centers he personally knew.
Shrugging, Envy leaned his chin into his palm, lavender eyes blinking slow, reminding Kimbley of a lizard. That knife slit mouth didn’t help the comparison. “The Elric brothers are pretty noticeable. I doubt they’ll be able to keep her hidden for long.” A set of sharp teeth glittered in that mouth. “And then.”
Kimbley nodded slowly, considering the predicament of the girl’s whereabouts. It wouldn’t be terribly difficult to find out how she was hidden. Envy’s particular talents would make ferreting out that information child’s play. Even the best kept secrets could be found out by the right person and Envy was always the right person. Kimbley almost hoped the Elrics were thinking about smuggling the girl out of Central. The chase was, after all, the best part of the hunt.
Envy’s feral smile broadened. “Want me to start tracking her down?”
Answering that grin with one of his own, Kimbley said, “Of course. But don’t make any moves yet. Let’s find out where she is first before we decide what our course of action should be.” He spread his long-fingered hands. “She’s a brave, foolish girl. She’d do anything to protect Fullmetal. And such a trusting soul. Why, that girl embodies what a proper Amestrian citizen should be – hardworking, generous, lovely.”
Envy made a delighted sound deep in his throat. “Just makes it more fun watching what happens when she’s destroyed.”
“As long as we don’t make her a rallying point,” Kimbley said in warning. “We want Fullmetal disgraced and out of commission, remember. Putting the girl in a bad light will hurt him and hurt the military besides. The military specifically needs to be embarrassed.” His fingers laced together, forefingers tapping lightly against his mouth. “Hurting the Fullmetal Alchemist just makes it that much more fun.”
X X X
“I don’t understand, Prince, why you involved yourself with these commoners again.” Fuu’s moustache twitched in irritation as he studied his young master, lolling back on a ballistrude, his eyes closed.
“They’re my friends,” Lin said, not even opening his eyes.
“You have a duty to Xing.” Fuu folded his arms, looking down at the expansive garden below. The celestial gardens of Xing were far more lovely, he thought, though he could admire the sheer amount of greenery. “You have a duty to the clan.”
A single eye opened then, piercing Fuu. “Now you sound like you’re scolding Ran Fan.” Lin’s voice was disappointed. “I know I have a duty to my people, Fuu. That isn’t something you need to remind me.” He sat up, looking down into the garden and at a trio of blond heads. “But I owe them, too, and if that means I’m not going home quite as soon as expected, I have to risk it.” Stretching his arms over his head, Lin rose to his feet as if he pulled himself up on the air. “Besides,” and this was said soberly, without his usual good humor, “if it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t have the secret of immortality.” He tapped his chest lightly. “Even if it was taken away from me again.”
Fuu’s moustache quivered in response. Lin knew the older man would say nothing more, even if he wanted to. As a retainer, Fuu was one of the best. Not quite as amazing as his granddaughter but then, who was? It was a shame, really, that her blood wasn’t royal. Lin would not hesitate to take Ran Fan as his first wife if not for that – and knew what the other families would do if he tried. Ran Fan would instantly be a target, much more than she would be as his guardian. And even though it would hurt them both, him not being able to choose her as a wife, they both understood all too well the intricacies of court. That particular lesson had been drilled into them since birth and, while there were some things they would both fight to change, Lin knew that open affection – love – for Ran Fan when they returned home would be far too dangerous for her.
Lin wondered if Ed felt the same way. There was nothing stopping Ed from proclaiming his love for Winry – nothing short of Ed himself. At least, up until the celebration, when that man went after Winry. Lin wished he had acted more quickly during that exchange. Winry, after all, was his friend, too – not to mention, at least out-loud, a girl he fantasized about. He didn’t like her being put into a dangerous situation. Lin was both suddenly relieved and almost disappointed that the monster he’d hosted hadn’t really been interested in Winry. That could’ve proven to be problematic, at best, and at worst, well, Lin decided, it truly was not worth considering.
“What is it, young master?” Ran Fan was far too adept at reading him, something that made her both a worthy opponent and a trusted companion. In Lin’s eyes, she symbolized all that was the best of his clan, condensed into one person.
Lin glanced down at his friends again, his gaze lingering on Winry’s paler head. “What if,” he said quietly, “Winry isn’t the one they’re after? That man with the bomb, he said he was looking for the pretty blonde with the Fullmetal Alchemist. What if,” Lin raised his head, “it’s not just Ed someone wants to pull down?”
“What are you saying?” Fuu’s eyes narrowed sharply and he squatted down next to Lin, Ran Fan joining them, as if someone might be able to overhear their discussion on the roof of the Armstrong palace.
“That may be this is far larger than previously thought.” Ling touched his fingers to his chin. “I think we need to arrange a meeting with the Elrics and their Colonel Mustang.”
“And Miss Winry?” Ran Fan peered over the ballistrude, searching for the trio below.
“She’s a strong young woman. I think we should have her come, too.” Lin grinned, leaning so he rested against a chimney. “And it would make Ed and Al happier if they knew where she was.”
“I think they’ll be watching Miss Winry.” Ran Fan touched her lower lip thoughtfully. “These Armstrongs,” she clarified as Fuu bobbed his head once agreement.
Lin’s smile was positively brilliant. “Then we’ll have to spirit her away, won’t we?” He fancied the idea, himself; it reeked of romance and the tales he’d been told as a child by his older sisters. Even if he wasn’t the one Winry loved, the idea of stealing her out from under the noses of a strong family like this one appealed to him. The fact that Fuu had that expression on his face, the one that said that this was probably a stupid idea but he was refraining from telling his prince that, just added to the fun, in Lin’s mind. “We should make a plan.” He despaired of the Elric brothers reading Xingese writing. Learning their language hadn’t been too difficult but their written words, that was much harder, and Lin knew his artistic skills were not good enough to explain in a drawing what they wanted. “I suppose we’ll have to split up,” he said, “to let the Elrics know that we’re bringing Winry to them.”
“Are you sure this is the best idea, my prince?” Fuu’s reservations were spoken in that question.
“No. I’m not.” Lin shrugged. “But it is the only idea I have right now and I believe my friends should be aware of it.” His eyes narrowed as he looked down over the garden. “Besides,” he nodded at the tall blond woman, striding across the grounds, “sometimes I enjoy tweaking the tiger’s whiskers.”
“Far too much,” Fuu muttered, not quite under his breath.
Lin ignored his retainer, inclining his body forward to peer over the edge of the roof. He watched as his friends walked out of the garden, heading toward the house. Scowling a little, Lin realized that he’d never be able to find Winry in such a large building. But surely, as a woman they’d want to impress, they’d give her a room with windows and, no matter what floor her room was on, if there was a window, he, Ran Fan and Fuu could get to Winry.
He had the feeling she’d probably be happy to escape such a place.
X X X
“What’s taking so long?” Roy opened his pocket watch to check the time. They had been at the Armstrong residence for over an hour and Miss Rockbell, as well as the Elrics had vanished along into the garden shortly after their arrival.
“Sir, I’m sure they’re very concerned about Winry.” Hawkeye remained at her most urbane.
“Even so, we need to get back to the office.” He turned slightly to face her, taking a look at the mansion behind him as he did. “The Brigadier General has surely already returned to her duties.” Roy kept his voice deliberately low. “If we could get an idea where to locate Kimbley, it would certainly put all of us in a better standing.” He knew Riza would understand his meaning.
Her chin dipped slightly. “Even so, sir, the Elric brothers will surely want to make sure their friend is comfortable in her new surroundings.”
Roy rolled his eyes, mentally translating her answer as, ‘Edward is going to freak out when we leave anyway because he won’t think the girl is safe.’ He wouldn’t care how it would look to the fledgling government. Still, someone needed to get back to the office and while Roy thought that the Elrics could find their own way home, he was loathe to leave them here. It certainly wasn’t that they were unsafe in such a place but he thought that the protection of the Armstrongs might come at a high price. Edward had already proven his willingness to protect the girl from harm by selling his allegiance to the military. While he understood the reasoning behind it, Roy didn’t want the Elrics to find themselves in the same sort of deal with Olivia Armstrong. Alex Louis would protect Miss Rockbell with his life, without thinking of anything other than that being his duty, however, his older sister might try to capitalize on the situation. “And,” Roy muttered, almost under his breath, “that is certainly something we don’t want happening.”
“Sir?” Riza turned her attention to him, an unobtrusive tilt of her head.
“Considerations, Hawkeye. Considerations for various things.” Roy rubbed the thumb of his right hand over his fingertips. “I’m thinking that perhaps I should go out this evening and relax. I haven’t done that for some time.” His thumb moved against his fingers, as if testing the friction.
X X X