Ten years ago:
His clothes were black against the white sand of the desert. It might have made him an easy target, but for the nimbus of white-hot flame around him. He reached out, and villages burned. He reached out, and rivers boiled dry. He reached out, and skin blistered and scorched, throats bled with screams until the fire ended their agony.
The demon lord of flame walked the desert, doing his Emperor’s bidding.
Five years ago:
The beast leapt at Al, its teeth sinking into his side. Al screamed, his blue eyes wide and panicky, blood staining his green shirt.
It’s all my fault, Ed thought, in the breath between horror and action. And then he was screaming, shouting, “That’s my brother! Let him go! Let him go!” and throwing rocks, and somehow it was enough. The creature dropped Al- too limp, no no no no- and turned to Ed, all black, bristling fur and teeth and yellow eyes. It tensed to leap.
But Ed reached down and finished the binding circle, and as it leaped, as its teeth and claws found purchase in Ed’s flesh, the binding completed. Ed rode the wave of magic and pain, somehow directing the ritual despite the agony of sharp teeth buried in his thigh. The circle had been made to bind Death, to bend it to the sorcerer’s will. Ed had no idea what the binding magic would do to a werewolf, but it was the only hope he had left.
The beast screamed, fur burning, scorching, falling away, and it was over. The magic faded, leaving behind a dead man with staring yellow eyes, and two wounded and bleeding boys.
“Al!” Ed screamed, and limped to him.
“Brother,” Al whispered.
Ed reached down and lifted his brother into his arms. His eyes, when they fluttered open, were no longer blue.
Four years ago:
“Watch yourself, Lieutenant,” Roy said, crouching on the ground next to the tracks. “The creature could be anywhere nearby. And they can stay in their wolf form for hours after moon-set, so there’s no guarantee that it’s lapsed into human form.”
“You watch yourself, Guardian,” Hawkeye told him, brusquely. “I’ll be fine.”
Roy took the lead, Hawkeye and her pistol at his back.
This was not the first time Roy had hunted a werewolf. He was on his guard, expecting to encounter anything from a naked and unconscious woman to a ravening beast.
He didn’t expect to find a child.
The boy- maybe twelve or thirteen; Roy was a bad judge- was blond, his hair a little shaggy. He was curled up, one of his hands near his mouth as if he’d wanted to suck on his fingers in his sleep. There was also bright purple-red scarring at his waist where something had torn viciously into his flesh. The contagion was spread by bite. This was his werewolf; there could be no doubt.
“Sir?” Hawkeye said, at his shoulder.
Suddenly a small shape barreled out of the trees, coming to rest near the sleeping boy. It was another blond child, this one wearing a t-shirt and shorts, his hair long and pulled back in a ponytail. “Get away from him,” the child snarled, taking up a defensive position between them and the sleeping boy.
Roy blinked. The boy’s eyes were lupine-yellow, but he looked human- and the moon had set barely ten minutes ago. Werewolves always had a period of dormancy after they reverted; if he were a werewolf, he couldn’t possibly be awake and active now. Just a child, then, and the yellow eyes a coincidence. Roy stepped forward. “Do you know who I am?” he asked. The black-and-silver uniform was distinctive.
The boy nodded slowly, his eyes never leaving Roy’s. “You’re one of the Emperor’s dogs,” he spat. “But I’m not going to let you hurt my brother.”
Roy was fascinated. People simply did not stand up to the Emperor’s Guardians. They were his most elite, most feared servants. “I’m not entirely certain how you imagine that you’ll stop me,” Roy said, cocking his head.
The boy raised his arms, and in a wide swath between him and the two soldiers, the ground began to undulate. Steel spikes, wicked and twisted, erupted from the ground in a wave. “Like that,” the boy said through gritted teeth, his yellow eyes alight. “Now leave us alone!”
Roy froze. Will and motion alone. That had not been hedge-magery, with its talismans and incantations- not that any hedge-mage could have managed something so complex. That had been sorcery. From a boy too young to shave. Who, more to the point, appeared to be completely human. Sorcerers needed a demon-bond to fuel their magic- but this child had no demon, as far as Roy could tell.
“What are you?” Roy whispered, eyes wide.
“Edward Elric,” the boy snarled.
He was running. He was in a forest, and the leaves were green. The sun filtered through the branches to land, scattered and dappled, on the ground. Running felt good- his muscles rising easily to the task, the ground crunching under him, the trees flying past.
Then everything went wrong. It started with a smell- wrong, enemy, danger. Then there was pain. There was someone he was supposed to be protecting. There was blood on the green, green leaves. Something was coming at him. He had to fight- he had to- something was- he had to-
Ed came awake on his hands and knees, panting. Al was kneeling in front of him with his hands locked around Ed’s wrists. “Shit,” Ed said, willing his muscles to relax. “Shit,” he repeated. He dropped back to sitting, leaning up against the wall. “I’m sorry, Al,” he said, closing his eyes.
“It’s fine, Brother,” Al said, sighing.
Ed frowned. Al smelled like Al, of course. There was no fear-scent on him, which was good, but there was an iron tang in the air. His eyes snapped open. There was blood on Al’s cheek running in four ragged lines, just the width apart of Ed’s fingers. “Al!” Ed cried, reaching for him.
“Brother,” Al said, gently. “It’s fine. Leave it.”
Ed shook his head, taking Al’s face in his hands. The scratches weren’t that deep, but they were bleeding enough for a small trickle of blood to make its way down Al’s jaw.
“Brother,” Al complained. Without thinking, Ed leaned in and licked Al’s cheek, wiping blood from the wound with his tongue. “Ed!” Al snapped, and pushed him away.
Ed hit the bed hard, his hands trembling and the taste of Al’s blood on his lips. “Fuck,” he said, in a small voice. He wasn’t a damned dog. He hated losing control like that. “Shit, Al, I’m-”
Al cut him off. “Dammit, Brother,” he said, exasperated. “Calm down. Just- just calm down. I know it’s almost the full moon, but if I can keep calm, so can you.”
Ed closed his eyes and concentrated on his breathing. He put a hand to his mouth. “Did I wake you up?” he asked, softly, after a long while.
“No,” Al said, and then he was a warm presence next to Ed. “I wasn’t asleep. It’s always hard to sleep at this time of the month.”
Ed nodded. It was hard for him, too. Not, of course, as hard as it was for Al. Never as hard as it was for Al. “Do you think you could sleep now?” Ed asked. He looked up. Al must have cleaned off his face while Ed was calming himself down, because the blood was gone; the scratches raw but clean.
“Maybe,” Al said. He looked embarrassed. “Could I- could I stay in here with you?” he asked.
Ed nodded. “Yeah,” he said. “Sure, Al.” They always ended up sleeping together as it got close to the full moon, piled together like puppies. Until the moon changed, and Ed became prey as much as packmate to Al. Ed supposed they should just give in and start sleeping in the same bed on purpose as soon as the moon started to pull on them. They’d both get more rest. But it was just one more reminder that they weren’t quite human, and both brothers resisted it.
Awkwardly, Al curled himself up at the foot of Ed’s bed, twisting himself a nest out of the blanket. Ed lay down next to him, close enough to have his nose filled with Al’s scent, but not touching him. “G’night, Al,” Ed said.
Al was already asleep.
Ed woke up with Al curled up on top of him, his head a solid weight on Ed’s chest and his knee pressing into Ed’s bladder. Ed groaned, and pulled himself gently out from under his little brother. Al shifted, but didn’t quite wake. Ed made his way down the hall and into the inn’s toilet.
By the time he got back, Al was blinking in the late morning sunlight. “We slept in,” he observed, running a hand through his short, blond hair.
Ed shrugged. “Yeah,” he said.
Al frowned. “Weren’t you supposed to report in to Central?” he asked.
“Whatever,” Ed said, reaching for his suitcase. “Shit happens. I’ll call Mustang when we have our train tickets sorted out.”
“Are we going back to Resembool?” Al asked, carefully.
Ed nodded. “I don’t like having to use so many chains,” he said. “It hurts, and you’re always so freaked out by it. You don’t like Granny’s cage, either, but you don’t... you know... hurt yourself on it.”
Al shrugged. “I like seeing Granny and Winry,” he said. “But it’s not such a big deal. I know we’re supposed to be in Central as soon as the moon phase is over. We could find somewhere nearer there; I don’t mind the chains.”
Ed frowned. “I mind,” he said flatly, pulling on his pants.
“I don’t want you to be in trouble with Guardian Mustang,” Al protested.
“He knows about the moon, Al,” Ed pointed out, pulling a new t-shirt on over his undershirt. “He’ll give me shit about it, but he knows.”
Roy Mustang, Guardian of Flame and Master of Xaphan, was irritated. He fought it, soothed himself. Anger fed his demon, and Roy couldn’t afford to give the beast any more power than it already had. Roy was the master of himself and his emotions, he reminded himself.
Still, dealing with Edward Elric inevitably tested that mastery.
“We’ll be back in a week,” Edward told him, not even acknowledging the fact that he was nearly an entire day late in reporting back from his last assignment. “We’re catching a train to Resembool in an hour, and then we’ll catch a train back to Central. Y’know, after.”
“Elric,” Roy said, trying to make his tone of voice reasonable, tapping his fingers on his desk. “You’re supposed to be here now, not in a week.”
“I’m not bringing Al back to Central right now,” Edward snarled through the phone.
“You have responsibilities,” Roy pointed out, his teeth clenched. It was the wolf, he told himself. The sleeping, half-formed wolf in Edward wanted to kill the demon in Roy, and Xaphan felt exactly the same about Ed’s wolf. Edward and Roy could hardly have a conversation without screaming at each other sometimes, and it was always worse around the full moon. “I know that you don’t bother much about them, but if you care to remain one of the Emperor’s dogs, then I suggest you try to remember it.”
Edward actually growled then, an animal sound low in his throat. Roy almost felt sorry for what he’d said- that kind of growling meant that Edward was losing control. Losing ground to the wolf was the younger sorcerer’s second-worst fear, Roy knew.
“A week, asshole,” Edward ground out. “Look at a damned calendar.”
Roy sighed. “I’m well aware of the date,” he said. “I’m also aware that you’ve more than enough time to make it from New Optain to Central before your brother is... indisposed.”
Edward snorted. “And maybe, if you’d give us enough time off of your fucking missions to make some fucking arrangements in Central, that would be practical.”
That was unfair. Edward probably even knew it was unfair, but- the full moon. “Elric,” Roy said, his voice serious. “Your youth and your status as a prodigy give you a certain amount of latitude in the eyes of the Emperor. I would not advise you to test that latitude farther than you must. If you can make it back to Central now, you should. It could be dangerous not to.”
There was silence on the other end of the line. “Fine,” Edward said, finally. “We’ll be there. But you fucking find me somewhere we can go with a basement, okay?”
“I am not your nursemaid, Elric,” Roy said, evenly.
“Fuck you,” Edward told him, and hung up.
Still much thanks to mebh and Evil_Little_Dog. :D
The train ride into Central sucked. He and Al spent much of the time sniping at each other; arguing about stupid shit that didn’t matter, their metaphorical fur bristling because of the damned moon. Al was hungry, too, which didn’t help. Ed could just about choke the train food down- over-seasoned and cooked to death- but it made Al throw up. It was too close to the change, and he needed meat, preferably raw, but they couldn’t get that in a train station. So Al went hungry, and it made him miserable and twitchy.
By the time they got into Central, both brothers were on their last nerve. Al stumped into their hotel room and started a shower without a word. Ed dropped his suitcase and went out in search of a butcher. When he returned half an hour later, Al was sitting on the bed in a t-shirt and shorts, clenching his fists, his hair dripping.
“Food,” Ed said, pulling out a paper-wrapped package and setting it on the table.
Al nodded, his body relaxing a little as he went to the table. He unwrapped the meat carefully, picked up the huge slab of steak that Ed had brought, and tore into it with his teeth. He ripped great chunks from it and swallowed them, grinning. After a while, Al looked over at Ed. His eyes were bright and happy, and his chin was dripping with blood. “Thank you, Brother,” he said, gratefully, smiling over at where Ed was lying on his bed watching.
Blue, Ed thought. Al’s eyes were supposed to be blue, not yellow. His little brother’s face wasn’t supposed to be smeared with blood. His teeth weren’t supposed to be sharp enough to tear raw meat. “You’re welcome, Al,” Ed said. “Geez, you’re a mess. Do you need help cleaning up?”
Al shook his head, licking his fingers and mouth contentedly. “That was good,” Al said, sleepily. “Would have been nicer warm, but it was still good.”
“I got another one, too,” Ed told him. “You can have it for breakfast.”
Al nodded. “I’m sorry I was being mean on the train,” he said.
Ed shrugged. “It’s fine,” he said. “I understand.”
Al frowned, licking blood from between his fingers. His too-long tongue curled around the ridges of his knuckles. “It’s not fine. It’s not an excuse. I shouldn’t be like that to you.”
“I was giving you shit, too,” Ed pointed out, leaning back against the headboard.
Al smiled a little. “You always give everyone shit,” he said. “I’m the one who’s sweet-tempered.”
“Ha!” Ed laughed. “Yeah, people think that.”
Al frowned, looking down at the bloody butcher paper in front of him. “Yeah,” he said. “I guess I’m not so sweet-tempered anymore.”
Ed’s throat felt suddenly dry. “It’s- Al- I’m sorry.”
Al’s eyes narrowed. “What for, Brother?” he asked, licking the last of the blood from his knuckle.
Ed closed his eyes. “Never mind,” he said.
Suddenly, Al was right in front of him. Ed’s eyes snapped open, looking into round, yellow eyes. Round, yellow eyes that looked pissed. “It wasn’t just your fault,” Al hissed. “It was my decision, too. Why do you keep trying to take that away from me?”
Ed glared at his brother stubbornly. “It shouldn’t have to be on your shoulders. I was older. I should have-”
“You’re only a year older!” Al shouted. He grabbed Ed by the shoulders and threw him sideways onto the bed. “It was stupid, the whole thing was stupid, but I was stupid, too! I could have stopped you if I wanted to, Brother! I thought about it, but I didn’t!”
“It was my idea!” Ed protested, rage bubbling up inside him. He clenched his fists, trying desperately to rein himself in. “It was all my idea, dammit!”
Al wasn’t quite so good at controlling himself, either because his wolf was stronger or because he just didn’t want to. He came at Ed snarling, barrelling his older brother to the ground.
Ed sucked in his breath as he hit. He twisted out of Al’s grip and flipped him, shoving him face-first into the carpet. “Al!” he cried “Alphonse!”
Al seemed insensible. He curled around, going for Ed’s leg with his teeth. Ed pulled his leg away, and jumped back as Al leapt up into a crouch. Ed was growling now, too, he realized. Part of him was angry- unreasonably angry- that his little brother would challenge him like this. The wolf, not me, Ed told himself. “Alphonse,” Ed snarled, trembling with the effort of holding himself still. “Calm down. Calm the fuck down, little brother.”
Al growled and lunged at Ed; Ed leapt to the side and tackled Al, pinning him to the ground. Ed held his hand on Al’s neck. “Calm down, Al,” he hissed, his teeth bared. Ed hoped to hell that this would snap Al out of it; there was no way that Ed could last in a fight against Al for any real length of time, not at this time of month or any other.
There was a long, tense moment, and then all the fight went out of Al. He curled in on himself, hiding his face. Ed backed off, giving his brother space. After a long while, Al stood up. His eyes were unreadable. “I’m tired, Brother,” he said, quietly. “I should probably go to bed. Don’t forget to set your alarm; you don’t want to be late for your meeting with Guardian Mustang.”
“Yeah,” Ed said. “I should probably get to bed, too.”
Al was asleep by the time Ed got out of the shower, curled up on his bed. Ed sat down next to him and covered him with a blanket. Al relaxed a little, whether from the blanket or Ed’s presence, Ed didn’t know. “I’m sorry,” Ed whispered. “I’ll fix this. I’ll make this right somehow, I promise.”
Edward was late, of course. Roy suspected that he did it very deliberately. He imagined the kid accidentally arriving on time one morning and having to skulk around in the restrooms until he’d become at least half an hour late- Roy smirked.
Edward glared at him. “What the hell, Mustang?” he said.
Roy shook his head. “It’s nothing,” he said, smiling.
Edward glared harder, those unnerving yellow eyes shining. “Do you want your fucking report or not?”
“Temper, Edward,” Mustang said, sweetly, because he knew it would irritate the other sorcerer.
Edward’s face went flat. “I left Al by himself at the hotel,” he said, “and I still need to find a place for... for tonight. I don’t have time for your stupid fucking games. Not today.”
Roy felt a flare of anger, but tamped it down. “You might have considered being on time, then,” he pointed out, acidly.
Then, for a split second, Edward actually looked embarrassed. “I forgot to set my alarm,” he admitted, mumbling.
They sat in silence for a moment while Roy processed that confession. Edward seemed so young sometimes, even now. He had been barely fifteen when Roy had recruited him on the promise of a chance to cure his brother. Roy had been young when he had become a Guardian, but Edward had beat him by a full half-decade. He was just nineteen, now. Mostly an adult, but still- still sometimes a punk kid. Finally, Roy smiled. “Your report, Elric, if you please.”
There had been a hedge-mage up in the hills who had wanted to become a full-fledged sorcerer, apparently. He’d raised a demon, but not been able to bind it, and he’d become possessed by the damned thing. It had rampaged through New Optain before Edward had managed to destroy the demon and lay to rest the burned-out husk that had been the host. Roy shivered. If losing himself to the wolf was Edward’s fear, that fate was Roy’s.
“Good work,” Roy said, curtly, when Edward finished. It sounded like a bloody mess, both literally and figuratively.
Edward nodded. “Now, if that’s it, I need to get back to Al,” he said.
Roy glanced at the time. “Wait a few minutes,” he said.
Edward crossed his arms. “What are you up to?” he asked, suspiciously.
Roy cocked his head. “I’m not up to anything, Elric. You should trust me more.”
Roy could feel Edward’s wolf stir, just a little. “I don’t know why I should,” Edward snapped.
Xaphan murmured fire and rage to him, but Roy just leaned back and put his hands together. “It’s served you well in the past,” Roy pointed out.
“Maybe,” Edward grumbled.
There was a knock on the door. “Enter,” Roy called.
The messenger stepped in, saluted. “Guardian Mustang,” he started, and then seemed to register the room’s other occupant. “And- er- Guardian Elric. The Emperor requires your presence at 1200 hours, in full dress.”
“Thank you for relaying that wholly unexpected summons,” Roy said dryly. “We are, of course, at the Emperor’s pleasure.”
Once the messenger had gone, Edward snapped around toward Roy. “How did you know about that?” he asked.
“Know about what?” Roy said, innocently. “It’s lucky that you happened to be in town, Elric. It sounds as though the Emperor is gathering all of the Guardians. It would have looked bad if you had tarried on your way home from an assignment and missed it.”
Edward scowled. “I need to check on Al,” he said.
“You can’t,” Roy told him bluntly. “You’ve only enough time to change. You have your uniform here, I hope?”
Edward nodded slowly. “He needs food,” he said, softly. “He can’t go out, not today. And he needs to eat or- he’ll be sick tomorrow.”
Because, of course, the change took so much energy. Alphonse’s metabolism was so fast that he generally needed to eat more than a regular human, but his needs were almost doubled around the time of the full moon. Edward’s metabolism was nothing to sneeze at either. Roy sighed, and hit the button on his desk.
“Sir?” Hawkeye entered, efficient as always. She nodded to Edward, her eyes never quite leaving Roy’s face.
“Alphonse isn’t feeling well,” Roy told her. “And Edward and I have been summoned to see the Emperor. If you’ve some time this afternoon, could you check on him? He’ll need some lunch brought to him.”
Hawkeye nodded. “Of course,” she said, seriously. “I’m sorry to hear that Alphonse is doing poorly,” she said, looking at Edward. Hawkeye knew about the boys’ condition. She’d know what to do.
“Thank you, Lieutenant,” Edward said, with far more politeness than he ever managed to muster for Roy.
“It’s no trouble,” she told him. “Just leave me your hotel information and I’ll see to it.”
“We had best prepare for our meeting,” Roy said, standing.
Edward didn’t say anything.
Al always told Ed that he didn’t feel well on the days that he was due to change. It was only sort of true. He didn’t feel sick, exactly.
All the same, Al lay on his bed, fighting against the hunger and rage that threatened to consume him. That would inevitably consume him, Alphonse reminded himself. When the sun was up, the moon pulled on him viciously, but he could resist. When the moon rose, there would be no more resistance.
Al shuddered. Where was Ed? He should have been back by now, and he’d promised to bring food. Al was so very, very hungry.
He hated this. It wasn’t so bad when Ed was there, but he was alone, and he was trapped in here because, dammit, anyone looking at him would know there was something wrong. He knew that. But there it was, making him shake, making his legs twitch: the need to run.
Sometimes, he thought that the wolf was afraid; that it knew what was coming and wanted to get away. Al had told Ed that he didn’t mind the chains, but that was a lie. Every time he saw them, his heart started beating like crazy and he had to swallow the urge to just run, to be free, finally, after all these years- but he couldn’t be free. Al knew that. If anyone ever found out, he’d be killed. There wouldn’t even be a trial, because werewolves weren’t criminals; they were just put down for everyone else’s safety. Al twisted, curling in on himself. He was so hungry. He practically hadn’t eaten the day before, and the meat Ed had managed to get yesterday hadn’t been nearly enough. Ed had promised he’d bring more back.
Al trembled, trying not to think about what would happen if Ed didn’t come back, either because he’d gotten himself killed doing something stupid or because he’d decided that he’d just had enough of taking care of a little brother who couldn’t decide whether he was a man or an animal-
He smelled her before he heard her; perfume and gun oil and red meat. In another moment, she was at his door, knocking. Al scrambled to get up, suddenly realizing that he was wearing nothing but his shorts. He dithered for a moment, torn between bolting toward the smell of food and not wanting to be nearly naked in front of a woman- finally, he ducked toward his suitcase, grabbing for his pants and a shirt. “I’ll be there in a moment!” he called.
At least I’m still human enough to feel embarrassed, he thought, a little sardonically.
When he opened the door- his shirt still untucked- Lieutenant Hawkeye was standing on the other side. “Hello, Alphonse,” she said, mildly. “May I come in?”
Al opened the door. “Did Brother send you?” he asked, concerned. “He’s alright, isn’t he?”
“He’s fine,” Hawkeye assured him. “He and Guardian Mustang were summoned by the Emperor, along with the other Guardians. Edward was concerned for you, so Guardian Mustang asked me to come in his stead.”
It took everything Al had not to grab at the meat she was carrying. “Thank you,” he said, by rote. “It was kind of you to be concerned.”
She set her bag down on the table in the room, hesitating slightly.
“You don’t have to stay,” Al said, a flush starting on his cheeks. “I- I’m not so good at eating politely.”
Hawkeye smiled kindly. “I’m sure I’ve seen worse. But if you’d rather I go, I could wait outside and come back.”
Al was finding it difficult to care what she did. There was food right there. He was so desperately hungry, and all he could think about was red, wet meat; bloody and raw- tearing into it with his teeth, the gobbets sliding down his throat, the blood running down his chin and fingers-
Hawkeye carefully pulled the packages out of the bag and stepped away. That was the end of his resistance. For a time, Al saw nothing but food. The meat was rich and red in his mouth. He bit into it with relish. It filled his mouth with wet, coppery blood. He curled his tongue around it, savoring the texture. It was marble, flesh, tendon, bone. The bits of bone, he crushed and sucked. He scooped out thick, pink marrow with fingers and tongue. He gorged himself, eating until he’d emptied all of the packages. He licked the last drops of blood from his hands and the table.
It was only then, his belly sated enough to give him some peace, that he was aware enough to remember Hawkeye’s presence. He blushed red enough to match the blood spattered on the front of his shirt. Gathering himself, he turned to face her. Her eyes were unreadable. If she was horrified, if she was disgusted, it didn’t show. Al, though, could smell the acrid scent of fear/anger on her. She was in control of her body language, but she probably wasn’t even aware of the way her scent changed.
“I’m sorry,” Al blurted out. “Usually, only Brother sees me at these times. I’m sorry.”
“It’s not a problem,” Hawkeye said, smoothly. “Have you eaten enough? Are you still hungry?”
Al flinched, turning away. “It’s fine,” he said. “You don’t have to stay. Please go.”
Hawkeye moved around into his field of vision again. “Have I offended you, Alphonse?” she asked, frowning.
Al breathed, trying to keep himself calm. He liked Lieutenant Hawkeye. She was nice, and they usually got along well. But today was different. “No,” he said, and he wanted to run, wanted to fight, wanted to get out of his skin somehow. He couldn’t meet her eyes. “I know it’s awful. Thank you for bringing me food. It’s okay. I just- I just- will Brother be back soon?”
“I don’t know,” Hawkeye said, cocking her head as she looked at him. “They’ve been summoned by the Emperor. There’s no way to say. I interpreted Guardian Mustang’s orders to mean that I was to watch over you until Edward could return, particularly if their business keeps them out late.”
The idea that Ed might not be back before moonrise shook him. Al jumped up, pacing the other side of the room.
“If you would be more comfortable, I could wait outside. But it might look odd. It would be better for me to stay here, if you can tolerate it,” Hawkeye said.
Al put his hands on his head, pressing against his scalp, twisting his fingers up in his hair. The physical sensation grounded him, a little.
“Perhaps you should change your shirt,” Hawkeye suggested. “And then I brought a deck of cards. Cribbage or gin rummy might pass the time.”
Al stared at her. Her scent was regularizing; whatever distress he’d caused her earlier had faded. Perfume and gun oil- she smelled familiar and calming. He glanced down at his shirt, spattered with beef blood where he hadn’t been as neat as he could have been. “I suppose it’s too stained to wash,” he said, mournfully. “I can never get blood out.”
Hawkeye smiled slightly. “I might be able to help there,” she said. “Let me call down to the kitchen for some salt.”
Al got a fresh shirt out of his bag, and went to the bathroom to change. When he returned, Hawkeye had laid out his shirt in a bowl of cold water and was pouring table salt on it. “It’s a trick I learned at the Academy,” she explained. “The salt draws the blood out. We’ll just leave it there for a time.” She pulled a deck of cards out of her bag. “Do you prefer any particular game?”
Al shook his head. It was surreal, to be expected to sit and play cards on today of all days. It was civilized, and Al didn’t feel civilized. He wanted to scream- to howl- with fear and pain and anger. But Hawkeye was there, waiting, and somehow, he mustered himself to sit in the chair across from her. “Whichever you like,” he said, and watched her shuffle.
Thanks again to mebh for the beta!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Ed hated to admit it, but he kind of liked the Guardian’s uniform. It was badass-looking: a long black jacket with arcane symbols worked in silver and the Emperor’s crest on the back; black pants, boots. For formal occasions, the Guardians also wore masks; each one unique to that Guardian’s domain. Mustang’s mask was made of red-tinted leather, flames chasing up the sides to form a fiery, blank-eyed demon. Ed’s own mask was made of thin-beaten steel lined with soft leather, the lines of the false face hard and unyielding.
Of course, the arcane symbols on the cool-looking black jackets were actually binding spells, assuring that the Guardians would submit to the will of their master. The masks served to dehumanize them, making them faceless servants of the Emperor. Even though he sort of liked the look of the uniforms, Ed never let himself forget that.
The Emperor’s dogs filed, one by one, into their master’s presence. The Guardian of Flame, Master of Xaphan. The Guardian of Iron, Master of Thamuz. The Guardian of the Red Lotus, Master of Valafar. The Guardian of Strength, Master of Kobal. The Guardian of Crystal, Master of Deber. There were, perhaps, just shy of two score of them. Ed, the youngest, and still the newest, entered last: the Guardian of Steel, Master of None.
Ed was a sorcerer bonded to no demon; that was what had earned him a place among the Guardians. In general, there were two types of people able to do magic: hedge-mages and sorcerers. Hedge-mages used magic circles and rituals and incantations. They were limited, particularly if they didn’t have time to prepare. Sorcerers were able to tap directly into a source of powerful magic, but only at the cost of binding their souls to a demon. There were those who believed that all sorcerers were taken down to Hell after their deaths; the just price of the power they’d wielded in life.
Ed, though, had not pacted with Hell. Not precisely. Not a demon, but a wolf, he thought. In the moment he’d been attacked those years ago, he’d bound the damn thing to him. It made him master of his wolf. He didn’t change, and he could keep it secret if he wanted to. The binding had been no help to Alphonse, of course, who had manifested fully as a werewolf. Who was waiting for him back at the hotel. Dammit.
Ed, like the rest of his colleagues, marched into the room and knelt at the Emperor’s feet. This close to the Emperor, Ed could feel the pull of his uniform’s binding spell. Protect-serve-obey, it whispered into his heart. Yeah, right, Ed whispered back silently.
The Guardians were facing outward, so Ed could see the Emperor’s audience. The throne room was filled with what looked like foreign dignitaries- Drachmans, maybe. Apparently, the Emperor was using his Guardians as a display of power today. Black-robed and masked, Ed had no doubt that the group of them looked intimidating as fuck.
“My Guardians,” the Emperor said, his voice ringing out in the chamber. His voice was like hot breath on Ed’s neck. “My most loyal servants. A request has been laid before me.” His tone was light, amused. “These foreigners have asked that I display your abilities.” He actually laughed then, a low, creeping chuckle. “I would think that the world has had proof enough of your power, but it has been some time since we have done an assessment. I will grant the request. Today, we will have a duel to amuse our guests.”
It was almost insulting. Anyone else suggesting that a Guardian act as “amusement” would learn to regret it. But they were the Emperor’s dogs, and he could use them as he wished. Under his mask, Ed ground his teeth, wanting this to be over.
The Emperor laced his fingers together under his chin. “Guardian of Steel,” he said. “Newest of my servants. We have not seen you fight since your induction.”
Ed rose and bowed silently to the Emperor. He wasn’t supposed to speak unless he was asked a direct question. Fuck. He didn’t want to fight anyone. He just wanted to be done here.
The Emperor considered. “Hmm,” he said, leaning back on his throne. “Red Lotus,” the Emperor said, finally. Ed’s blood ran cold, and for a moment, he forgot about his need to get back to his brother.
To his left, a tall figure with an elaborately worked red-and-yellow mask stood and bowed. Kimbley, Ed thought. Ed had met him precisely three times.
The first time had been at Ed’s induction. Ed had been terrified that someone would be able to identify his wolf and that they’d figure out what he was, and then they’d figure out what Al was, and then-
Mustang had done his best to reassure him that none of the other sorcerers would be able to sense Ed’s wolf. Xaphan could only do it because Mustang already knew what the wolf was. At best, they’d sense it as a stronger-than-usual life force in Ed’s soul. Still, Ed had done his damnedest to keep his wolf tamped down and quiet. Then Kimbley had commented- at length- about Ed’s eyes. Repeatedly. They were such a unique color, etc. etc. It was as though he were playing with Ed; tormenting him on purpose.
The second time had been in the halls of the Palace. Kimbley had been walking somewhere. As Ed walked past him, he caught the smell of human blood, and formaldehyde and- was that brain matter? Ed had stopped, startled, as he caught the scent. “Hello, Elric,” Kimbley had said, pleasantly. He had smiled. “I love my job, don’t you?” Then he had started whistling down the hall.
The third time had been at an assessment. The Guardians were only ever assessed through combat. It was usually with each other, but occasionally there was a prisoner deemed worthy enough. This had been one of those times. Killing another Guardian at an assessment was frowned upon, although it happened sometimes. Killing a prisoner, though, was expected. At the end of their bout, Kimbley had transfigured a noose around the other man’s neck, levitated him into the air and started exploding his body parts. He’d started with the small ones first. Ed had been grateful that he was wearing a mask, that day. He couldn’t have controlled his face if it had been bare.
“Do you accept the challenge, Guardians?” the Emperor asked, in the here and now.
Protect-obey, the binding spell whispered. “Yes, Master,” he and Kimbley intoned, simultaneously.
“Let us withdraw to the arena,” the Emperor said.
Ed faced Kimbley across the sand of the arena. Kimbley, for his part, stood unmoving. His hands were clasped contemplatively behind his back, and his mask was fixed into a wide grin. The effect was disturbing.
Ed did his best not to be disturbed. He was a Guardian, too, dammit. He gritted his teeth and widened his stance, watching for movement from his opponent. He breathed, feeling his heart beat too-fast in his chest. The moon pulled on him, but he had to ignore it.
In trying to keep himself calm, Ed almost missed it- the barest flexing of Kimbley’s shoulders. He must have been moving his hands behind his back. Wind and sand whipped into a whirlwind, moving fast enough to strip flesh from bones, screaming towards Ed.
Ed just had enough time to bring his hands together and set his stance before the whirlwind hit him. Ed gritted his teeth, holding his magical shield steady against the onslaught. The wind broke on him, twisting and then dissipating. Ed looked up just in time to see Kimbley rising into the air, both arms moving in a sweeping gesture. With an enormous crack, the ground under Ed caved in. He fell, sand sweeping in to cover him.
Ed grinned. Kimbley was trying to bury him. In sand. Earth was practically Ed’s native element. I don’t think so, asshole, he thought. Ed swept his hands through the sand, and a glass staircase spiraled up out of the ground under Ed’s feet. As he rose up, Ed twisted his fingers, igniting the column of air that Kimbley was using to levitate. The crowd gasped as Kimbley tumbled to the ground, engulfed in flame.
But if earth was Ed’s element, fire was Kimbley’s. The flame reformed into an enormous, roaring, fiery lion. As the creature bore down on him, Ed had the sudden urge to attack it- to bite and run and claw until he’d brought it down by the strength of his jaws. His concentration broken, he barely had time to summon a sword and shield before it was upon him. The heat was incredible, and the pain was terrible. Ed thrust his sword up into the fire-lion’s belly, and it dissipated, curling around him.
Ed could just see Kimbley across the field, his arms whirling, before enormous, ball-shaped implosions began flying at him. Fuck this, Ed thought, shaking, his teeth bared. With a gesture, he dropped, melding into the ground beneath him. Above him, he could feel the concussive force of the explosions as they hit where he’d been standing.
Ed tried to take a little time to calm himself. This was a bad time for a duel. The wolf was at its strongest, which should make his sorcery stronger, too- except that sorcery required concentration, and Ed’s was pretty much for shit at the moment. Between worrying about Al and fuck- fuck- trying to get the damned wolf to shut up, Ed was having a hard time doing magic at all right now. He wasn’t going to last much longer if he didn’t calm himself down. And like he gave a shit about beating Kimbley, but if he didn’t make a good showing, then his title might be in question, and he needed to be a Guardian, because if he wasn’t, how would he protect Al? How would he find a cure?
Ed breathed, inhaling sand. Then he reached out into the ground around him, summon-binding an elemental. When Ed stood, striding out of the ground like it was water, he wore five thousand pounds of earth and stone as armor. The body he’d created was enormous- two stories tall and wickedly spiked. The face was an approximation of the shape of his Steel Guardian’s mask. He slammed his fist- as large as a car- into the ground where Kimbley stood.
Kimbley leapt out of the way, looking for all the world like a black-robed cat, but Ed’s next strike caught him. He slammed into the wall of the arena with a crunch. Ed stopped, peering at his opponent to see if he was going to move again.
Suddenly, Kimbley twisted onto his feet. With that movement, a wave of arcane energy hit him. And then, with a shattering sound, Ed found himself falling. The knees, he realized. Kimbley had transmuted his golem-body’s knees to glass. His heart pumping, Ed released the summon-bind before the construct could crush him. It dispersed into an avalanche of stone and sand instead. Ed landed at the top of the heap, panting.
And then Kimbley was there. “Hello, Elric,” he purred, his voice like silk. Neither of them was supposed to speak when they were in the masks, but what the fuck did Kimbley care? “You’re doing well for such a young pup.”
The wolf was much too close to the surface now. Kimbley was too close, and his scent was in Ed’s nose- blood and ambergris. It was all Ed could do to keep from growling at him. He breathed, trying to pull together the concentration to shield himself.
Kimbley stood, and Ed couldn’t figure out what the fuck he was doing. If he’d just attacked, instead of talking, he’d’ve won the bout already. But the asshole was just standing there, that fucking grin on his masked face, giving off that fucking smell, and the wolf wanted out-
Kimbley came closer. “You know,” he said, casually. His voice pitched lower, his tone disingenuous. “I am a bit surprised that your little brother isn’t here to cheer you on. What- isn’t he feeling well today?”
With a surge of rage, Ed lost his fight against the wolf. He leapt at Kimbley, growling. He sunk his too-sharp teeth into the other man’s neck. The flesh tore. He tasted Kimbley’s blood in his mouth.
Kimbley might have been expecting a sorcerous attack, but he clearly hadn’t expected that. He screamed and pushed at Ed, tearing his mask off in the process. Ed caught one glimpse of a pale face twisted in disgust before Kimbley clapped his hands together. With that, the arena exploded- fire and force and pain. Burning, shouting, Ed smashed into the outer wall of the arena.
And then the fire was gone and Ed lay stunned in the sand. He smelled Kimbley before he saw him, and he barely managed one last spell, the first offensive spell he’d ever learned. As Kimbley raised his hands to immolate Ed where he lay, the ground erupted in sharp steel, rushing to impale the older man.
And then, from the stands, they both heard a loud, slow clapping. It was the Emperor, Ed realized suddenly. Ed held his spell, closing his eyes against the pain and the rage both.
“Well done,” the Emperor said. “Nicely fought. An excellent demonstration on both sides, don’t you think?”
Kimbley was gone before Ed managed to get to his feet.
(Also thanks to my husband, for sitting down with Legos and choreographing the fight with me)
Thanks again to mebh for beta, and to Evil_Little_Dog for talking to me about canine behavior. Repeatedly. :)
Roy caught up to Edward as he was leaving the healers’ wing- not that there was much the healers would have been able to do for Edward. He couldn’t risk anyone seeing him with his clothes off, and healers had to work with direct skin contact.
Edward looked up, tired, still pulling his jacket back on as he limped along. “What the hell do you want?” he growled.
“Oh, hello, Elric,” Roy said, as though it were an accident that he was here. “Good showing in the arena- although Red Lotus did kick you around a little, didn’t he?”
Edward glared at him, eyes flicking to the clock at the end of the hall. “Did you have something you wanted to say? I have other places to be.” Asshole, he didn’t say, probably only because there were people listening.
“So do I,” Roy said smiling. He turned to go. “By the way, Elric- you mentioned that you might need to do some research while you’re in Central. I have a spare lab built into my basement you could use, at least until you can find your own space.” Moon-rise was in less than an hour. With the time the duel had taken, Ed would never be able to find another place for Al to change safely, and they both knew it.
Edward stopped cold, his mouth working silently for a moment. “Why would you let me do that?” he got out, finally.
Roy shrugged. “It’s no skin off my nose,” he said. “I can work here if I need to. Do you think you’ll be by the house this evening?”
Slowly, Edward nodded. “Yeah,” he said. “I’ll see you later.”
“No need to go back to the hotel,” Roy told him. “I’ve already let Hawkeye know; she’s escorting Alphonse there now.” Roy let a smug, self-satisfied grin show on his face. “Hopefully, you’re tall enough to see over my lab benches.”
Edward almost choked with the effort of not screaming at him. Finally, he turned and stalked down the hallway.
Roy watched Ed go, his smirk fading into a quiet frown.
Riza watched Alphonse carefully, not turning her back on him as he packed his clothes. He was usually a very pleasant young man- mild where his brother was abrasive; patient, intelligent. Riza had always rather liked him. This, however, was a different Alphonse. He was jittery and distractable, his eyes wild and his body language uncertain. Riza had watched him tear apart nearly five pounds of raw meat with his bare teeth. Riza had known that Alphonse was a werewolf since the moment she’d met him. Still, she wondered if this was the first time she’d truly understood it.
“Will Brother meet us there?” he asked suddenly, not looking at her face.
“Guardian Mustang will inform him. It may be some time, however. He indicated that their business might take some hours more.” She didn’t mention the assessment. She wasn’t sure how Alphonse would react to the idea that his brother was in a fight. Edward would certainly have become unmanageable if the situations were reversed.
Alphonse nodded, still not meeting her eyes. “I’m packed,” he said, quickly. “We can go if you want.”
Riza nodded, careful not to make sudden moves, careful not to impinge on his space. “Do you need me to help carry anything?” she asked.
Alphonse shook his head. “I’m strong right now,” he said. He hefted all three bags. It looked reasonable if you didn’t know that the square case was packed with heavy iron manacles.
They went to the car, and Riza drove. Alphonse curled awkwardly in the passenger seat, as if not quite sure how to arrange himself, as if his body didn’t quite fit. “What is the Emperor doing with Brother?” Al said, suddenly.
“Anything he wants,” Riza said, a little flip. “I’m sorry,” she added, ruefully. “But it’s true. It’s part of what being a Guardian means. On the one side- power and authority. On the other, submission.”
“Brother’s always been bad at that,” Alphonse said, his voice uneasy.
They parked, and Alphonse carried the bags out of the car and into the house. There was something strange about his gait, Riza realized. It was too smooth, too fluid- as if he might break into a long, loping run at any moment. Alphonse turned his head to look at her, his yellow eyes sharp. “Where should I put these?” he asked.
“The hall will be fine,” she told him.
He set down the bags and neatened them. As he stood, his hand caught on the handle of one of the cases, and pulled it askew. “Dammit,” Alphonse swore, and straightened it again.
Riza stood back and let him do it. “Would you like to wait in the sitting room?” she offered.
Alphonse nodded, and followed her. He sat down on the couch that she offered, but he seemed to be having difficulty getting comfortable. “How much longer do you think he’ll be?” he asked, suddenly, his voice tense.
“I couldn’t say,” Riza answered.
“The moon will be up soon,” he said.
Riza wasn’t sure what she should say to that.
“Lieutenant Hawkeye?” he asked, after a moment. “Are you afraid of me?” He tilted his head in her direction, his yellow eyes almost glowing in the dim light of the room.
That was an unexpected question. Riza considered her answer carefully. “I’m cautious of you,” she said, finally. “I’m a bodyguard. I’m used to assessing people as threats, and you are certainly a threat.”
Alphonse looked away. “That’s true,” he said. “You smell like you’re afraid,” he added, after a pause.
Ah. Of course; his sense of smell was sharpened. “This is an unusual situation,” she told him. “I’m concerned for Guardian Mustang. And I’m understandably wary of you right now.”
Alphonse flinched. “I would argue that I’m not a monster,” he said, darkly, “But we both know that’s not true.”
A smile quirked up at the edges of her lips. “I work with the Guardians,” she said. “I’m used to monsters.”
Suddenly, almost faster than she could follow, he was across the room. One of his hands pinned her throat to the chair, and the other was clenched around the stuffed leather. His teeth were bared, sharp and white. “I’m not a joke,” he growled. “Don’t laugh at me.”
Riza breathed, holding herself carefully still. “Alphonse,” she said sternly, her heart thudding in her chest, “This is inappropriate.”
There was a beat that lasted for one gasping breath, and then he collapsed in on himself, pulling away from her.
“I’m sorry,” he said in a small voice. “I didn’t mean it. I didn’t mean it.”
Riza’s head felt light, adrenaline making everything sharp. He was just a child, she reminded herself. He was a scared teenager who was losing control of himself.
“I’ll just go put away the luggage,” she said, her voice tight.
Fuck it, Ed thought, looking at the traffic. With a flick of his hands and feet, he levitated into the air. Flying inside the city was frowned upon, but there had to be some perks to being one of the Emperor’s dogs. With the uniform jacket still on, no one would say shit to him about anything.
Ed spread his arms, feeling the way they cut through the air. He didn’t really like flying. It unsettled him a little, and the cold made his old wounds ache. Werewolf bites, both of them. The one on his left thigh, from the monster that had attacked him the night he’d had the hubris to try and bind Death. The one on his right shoulder, from Al- no, from the creature that possessed Al every full moon. Ed refused to consider them the same being. Al was human, dammit. He wasn’t a monster.
Ed dropped lower as he spotted the street he was looking for. Mustang’s house, when he found it, was a modest-looking house with a reasonably large yard. It looked well-cared-for in the way that meant Mustang probably paid someone to take care of it. Ed landed, and went to the door, suddenly uncertain as to whether he should knock, or what.
As he raised his hand to the knocker, the door opened. Lieutenant Hawkeye stood there. “Edward,” she said, her face serious. “You should come in.”
“Is he okay?” Ed asked, concerned. He could smell her worry, and Al, somewhere.
Hawkeye shut the door and locked it behind them. “He’s upset,” she said, shrugging. “He got frustrated waiting, and-” She paused for just a moment, as if considering her words. “-lost control a little. He didn’t hurt me.”
Ed didn’t doubt that Al was upset. Al respected Lieutenant Hawkeye; he probably hadn’t liked her seeing him today when he couldn’t quite control the wolf. And for him to have lost control enough to attack Hawkeye...
Ed knew basically what to expect when Hawkeye led him to the sitting room. Al was curled up in a chair, his whole body hunched over and his eyes wild. He looked up as Ed entered the room, his lips pulling back to expose bright, sharp teeth. Ed could see the way he pulled away from Hawkeye- fear and anger and shame clear in his body language.
Ed turned to look at Hawkeye. “Go,” he told her, more sharply than he really intended. He softened his voice. “Sorry. Make sure there’s a clear space downstairs or something. But get out of here, okay?”
Hawkeye’s eyebrow raised, but she said nothing. With a quick nod and a last glance at Al, she was gone.
With Hawkeye out of the room, Al relaxed marginally. “Hey, Al,” Ed said, as he walked closer to the chair.
Al breathed out, a whining noise coming from low in his throat. “You’re hurt, Brother,” he said, not making eye contact. His muscles were taught, and Ed could see him shaking a little.
“It’s nothing,” Ed told him, firmly. He knelt down next to the chair, crowding into Al’s space.
“What did he make you do?” Al asked, a note of panic in his voice. He jerked his head to the side, his teeth showing again.
“It’s nothing,” Ed repeated, leaning in so that his nose almost bumped against Al’s cheek. Ed took in his brother’s scent, knowing that Al was doing the same. “Just an assessment. I’m sorry I wasn’t here. Lieutenant Hawkeye brought you food, though, right?”
Al nodded, his breath hot against Ed’s face. Ed felt weird being this close to his little brother, but it usually calmed the wolf down, so he did it. “I wasn’t very good company,” Al said, finally.
Ed reached up and laid his hand firmly on the back of Al’s neck. Al breathed, nosing Ed’s face, and then finally relaxed. His body uncurled a little, his feet dropping onto the floor. “It’s fine, Al,” Ed told him, pulling away to a more comfortable distance. “She told me about it. You didn’t hurt her. You kept control of yourself.”
“I won’t for much longer,” Al said, his voice dark with dread.
Ed nodded. “C’mon,” he said. “We better get you downstairs.” He stood, putting his hands in his pockets. “I don’t know why Mustang’s letting us stay here. He probably just wants to cover his own ass.”
“Brother,” Al chided him, his voice a rough ghost of its usual self, “You’re always so rude.”
“Good thing I have you to keep me in line, then,” Ed said, and made himself smile.
Copious thanks to Mebh, for beta-reading.
The moon was so close. Al could hardly think for feeling its pull on him. The wolf was excited. Al just tried to keep breathing normally. He tried not to let it show. He was human, dammit. He couldn’t forget that.
Lieutenant Hawkeye had cleared a space in the basement. Ed started doing spells. Al paced, waiting for him to finish. His heart beat too fast. He closed his eyes. He could hear it in his head. Blood rushing, heart beating. Ed’s heart, too. Ed’s blood. Ed injured, but he wouldn’t say why. Al could see the way he limped, favored his side. Assessment meant a duel. Al wondered who it was- Mustang? The idea made Al want to- want to- sharp teeth in the man’s neck. Fuck that he’d taken them in. Al didn’t like it when Ed was hurt. Al didn’t like people who hurt Ed.
“Okay,” Ed said. “That should keep the sound from traveling, and there’s a forcefield, too. You ready?”
“Ready,” Al repeated. He started unbuttoning his clothes. His skin felt wrong. Al hated being naked- too many scars. Bite marks on his belly. Ropy scars from the chains on his ankles and wrists. Al could only wear long sleeves for the rest of his life. Maybe not for the rest of it. Ed promised- Ed would find a cure- it probably didn’t matter. Al hated the way his body looked. And it didn’t even matter. It was the wrong body anyway. Al could feel the change coming. So close.
“C’mon, Al,” Ed said. Al looked down. It felt like his heart might hammer out of his chest. He made himself turn. He made himself stand still. He closed his eyes and turned around. He wanted to run. He didn’t. He never did. He was human. This was his right body. He wasn’t human. This body needed to change.
Al whimpered, closing his eyes. Ed fastened on Al’s manacles. Al’s hands behind him, chained to his feet. Couldn’t move. Couldn’t stand. Lay on his side and let Ed fasten on the muzzle. Too big for him now, but that’d change. Could see Ed’s eyes over the cage of the muzzle. Sad. Guilty. The same, every time. “Go,” Al said. His voice came out as a growl. “Don’t stay.”
“I’m staying through the change,” Ed insisted. He wouldn’t go. Al already knew it. He never went. Always stayed.
Moon was rising. Al could see it in his head. Round and silver. So bright. Pain- shock- running through his body. Legs cracking! Screaming- pain and silver! Ribs breaking! Cracking, screaming!
Ed’s scent. He always stayed. Ed’s voice. “It’s okay, Al. It’ll be over soon. It’ll be okay. It’s okay.” Scared, tired voice. Pain! Ribs breaking! Fingers cracking! Claws ripping through flesh!
Heart stopped beating- can’t scream- lungs changing- hurts- eyes- Brother- body-
Al howled as the last of him faded into oblivion.
Roy watched as Edward climbed the steps from the basement, his eyes dark with grief and anger. Behind him, the werewolf struggled and howled mutely behind magical barriers.
“What do you want?” Edward snapped at him, following his sight line back to the beast that had been his brother. “I know you’ve seen werewolves before. Don’t worry, the chains will hold.”
The magical barrier wasn’t enough on its own, of course, because magic didn’t work very well on werewolves. Which was a small fact that made Ed’s binding of one all the more remarkable. In his more curious moments, Roy wished he knew how Edward had managed that. In his saner moments, he was glad not to know. “I’ve guest bedrooms if you’d like to make use of them,” Roy offered.
Ed shook his head. “I can’t sleep tonight. I’ll just do some research.”
Of course Ed couldn’t sleep. He didn’t change with the moon, but it didn’t mean he wasn’t affected by it. “Well,” Roy said, “Make yourself at home, I suppose.”
“Yeah,” Ed said, and turned away.
Hawkeye was waiting for him in the sitting room. “Do you want me to stay?” she asked.
That was Hawkeye- both conscientious and efficient. He regarded her carefully. “It’s up to you,” he said, evenly.
She looked up at him, her brown eyes impenetrable, and stepped slowly into his personal space. “I’d prefer to stay,” she said, simply.
“As always,” Roy said, “You have your preference in this matter.” She leaned up to kiss him. He held himself still, letting her do as she wished. It always had to be this way. He was a Guardian, and she was his aide. If he initiated an encounter, she couldn’t say no- no matter their history together. The idea that Hawkeye- that Riza- might feel forced into being with him turned his stomach.
So he stayed passive, letting her lead him into his bedroom.
Riza came awake suddenly, unsure what had roused her. Roy lay still next to her. She allowed herself a moment to look at him, to take in the stillness of his sleeping face. There had been no sex last night, of course- not with Edward and Alphonse in the house. Still, she didn’t often stay over. Neither of them could afford to have others realize exactly how deep the attachment between them went. It was good to be close to him.
It was magic, she realized, suddenly. Magic had woken her up. Riza was no sorcerer, but she had been around magic her whole life. She had actually been present at the binding ritual that had made her father a sorcerer, and present again at the ritual that had transferred that demon to Roy. She knew magic, and she could feel that strange distortion beneath her; the edges of it a prickle just under her skin.
She considered. It was probably just Edward. Still...
She never slept naked, and her guns were always within reach when she stayed with Roy. She crept down the stairs, her senses on alert for any movement- or for the prickle of more magic.
She found nothing on the ground floor, so she opened the door to the basement. As she did so, she felt the wash of magic- and then she realized what it was: Edward was releasing the wards he’d placed around Alphonse’s prison. The moon had set, and Alphonse had reverted to his human form.
The scene as she stepped into the basement was strangely nostalgic: a newly-reverted Alphonse with Edward standing watch over him. She couldn’t help remembering the child that Alphonse had been when they had found him that night in the woods- small and scrawny, with that purple scar on his waist. He was man-sized now, tall and lanky, and that scar had gone white. He was still too thin, though, especially just after the change. She had arranged to have Havoc and Breda and Falman deliver meat to the house later; all purchased from different butchers so that no one would grow suspicious.
Edward had already removed the muzzle. It lay across the room, as though Edward had actually thrown it. He was unlocking the manacles from Alphonse’s wrists now. Alphonse was unconscious, of course. Riza wasn’t sure how long he would remain that way, but it should be some hours at least. The skin around Alphonse’s wrists and ankles was red from the shackles. Riza could see that they were padded and lined, but still, he had strained against them hard enough to hurt himself. As Edward unfastened the chains binding Alphonse’s hands and feet together, he gently stretched Alphonse out into a more comfortable position.
“Are you going to come help me?” Edward said, not looking up at her. Of course he knew she was there. He could probably smell her coming, she reminded herself.
“What do you need help with?” she asked, holstering her gun and descending the stairs.
Edward pointed to a jar of ointment and some bandages.
“I like to get him bandaged before he wakes up,” he said. “Just put on a little of the ointment and then wrap it up.”
Edward was still unlocking the manacles around Alphonse’s ankles, so Riza decided to tend to the boy’s wrists. There was no bleeding, exactly. Still, they were scraped up, the scar tissue there raw and inflamed. Riza treated it with the ointment, and then began taping gauze over it. Basic first aid was something she knew, at least.
“Granny made that,” Edward volunteered, suddenly.
“The ointment?” Riza asked, starting on Alphonse’s other wrist.
Edward nodded. “And the chains,” he said, setting the manacles aside. He reached for the jar of ointment. “You want to help me carry him upstairs?”
Riza taped down the bandage, and gently inspected Alphonse’s face for damage from the muzzle. There was a bit of bruising, but nothing that warranted treatment. “Certainly,” she said. “He’s gotten tall. He’d be awkward for one person.”
Edward bristled a little at that, but didn’t say anything. He finished taping Alphonse’s ankles. “I’ll leave the chains here for now,” he said. “We’ll need them again tonight, anyway.”
Riza allowed herself a small smile. “They’re not the most compromising thing I’ve ever seen in Guardian Mustang’s basement,” she said, dryly.
Edward looked at her sharply, his eyes narrowing. Then he snorted. “Bet not,” he said, smirking.
Riza took Alphonse’s shoulders and head, and Edward got the lower half of his body. Between the two of them, they maneuvered his limp weight upstairs and into one of the guest bedrooms. Edward covered him with a blanket, tucking him in carefully. That was something of a relief, Riza realized. She had been perfectly capable of behaving professionally about Alphonse’s nakedness, but covering him seemed more humane. It made him seem more man and less monster.
Edward stood. His eyes were dark-ringed, and his skin was pale. It made him look desperately young. “I’m sorry about earlier,” he said, awkwardly. “About both of us. It’s-” he blushed. “Thank you for taking care of him. It doesn’t matter what the bastard ordered you to do; you didn’t have to do everything you did. So, thanks. And I’m sorry.” He turned his face away, stuffing his hands in his pockets.
Riza closed her eyes, thinking of Alphonse’s inhumanly strong hand around her neck. It was true that she’d spent the afternoon with Alphonse because her Guardian had ordered it. It was also true that she remembered what it was like to lose a mother; to be alone, to grow up before you should have to. To lose control of your life to something dark and terrible. The tattoo on her back felt suddenly heavy and malevolent.
“I understand, Edward,” she said, kindly. “I’m glad that I could look after your brother when you couldn’t.”
Edward nodded, blushing harder. “Um. I’m going to go sleep now,” he said.
Riza nodded. Pale sunlight was starting to filter in through the windows. “Sensible,” she observed. “The room across the hall is empty. Sleep well.”
Edward crossed the hall, yawning.
Roy was waiting for her on the stairs up to the second floor.
“Everything all right?” he said, holding himself stiff with the body language that said he wanted to kiss her, but didn’t dare. She leaned up, pressing her lips gently against his.
“Edward and Alphonse are both in bed now,” she told him. “You and I should probably dress for work.”
Roy sighed exaggeratedly. “I don’t suppose complaining will get me a day off?”
“You have duties, sir,” she said, smiling.
“It’s still twenty minutes until the alarm goes off,” he pointed out.
“I suppose twenty more minutes in bed couldn’t hurt,” she allowed.
They were walking up the stairs when a knock came on the door.
Roy frowned, and pulled his dressing gown around him. Roy’s servants had been given the evening off, of course, and he could hardly answer the door half-dressed. Riza sighed, shooed him up the stairs to dress, and pulled on her uniform jacket in the hallway. Her slippers and blue sleeping pants were hardly regulation, but with any luck, she’d be able to see the visitor into the sitting room and get away quickly. Besides, she thought sardonically, it wasn’t as though she could ruin her reputation. It was practically expected that a Guardian’s aide should sleep with him.
Riza opened the door to find an unfamiliar corporal with courier’s tabs standing there. “Er- sir,” he said, saluting. Clearly, whatever he’d expected to see when the door opened, it wasn’t her.
Riza returned the salute. “Come in, corporal,” she said, stepping to the side. “I’ll let Guardian Mustang know that you’re here.”
“Thank you, sir,” he said, entering. “But I’ve actually been sent for Guardian Elric. I was told that he was staying here at the moment?”
Riza led him into the sitting room, keeping her expression carefully neutral. “I’ll let the Guardian know,” she said.
She passed a now-clothed Roy in the hallway. “It’s a courier, here for Edward,” she told him.
Roy sighed. “He’s probably already asleep. If one of us has to wake that brat up, it’d better be you,” he opined, practically.
Riza smiled a little. “I wouldn’t care to escort you to the healers to see about a black eye, sir,” she said.
“I’ll just have a word with the courier until you can get Edward up,” he said, and sauntered in the direction of the sitting room.
Edward didn’t answer to her knock, which meant he probably was asleep. After the third try, she cautiously opened the door.
Edward was sprawled on his back, wearing black sleeping pants and a long-sleeved black t-shirt. He looked dead to the world. “Guardian Elric,” she said, entering his space carefully. “Guardian Elric, there’s a courier from HQ.”
Edward didn’t respond. Riza sighed. “Edward,” she said, shaking his shoulder. His eyes snapped open at her touch, and he was up with his back slammed against the wall before he even registered who she was. “There’s a courier here from HQ, Guardian Elric,” she said, evenly.
Edward breathed, calming himself down. Then he nodded, taking in her uniform jacket and formal tone. “I’ll be out as soon as I’m dressed,” he said.
Again, much thanks to the inestimable Mebh for edits!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Fuck, damn, horseballs, Ed thought, pulling on his uniform jacket. He ran a brush through his hair and braided it back quickly. He looked at himself in the mirror. I look like shit, he thought. Of course he did. He’d barely slept what, five minutes? The goddamned wolf had spent the entire night howling in the back of his mind, till he could hardly even focus on the books he was reading. Fucking moon. Fucking wolf.
Ed’s hands were trembling as he clutched the side of the dressing table. Breathe, he told himself. Focus.
The courier snapped to attention when Ed entered the sitting room. “Guardian Elric,” he said, formally. “I’ve been instructed to escort you to HQ as soon as possible. The Emperor requires your service.” The man produced a scroll-case and passed it over. Ed opened it and pulled out a piece of parchment with the Emperor’s seal, written in the Emperor’s own hand.
Ed scanned it- it didn’t give any more information than that, dammit- and put it back in the scroll case. “I serve at the Emperor’s command,” Ed recited, flatly. “Do I have a minute to make a few arrangements?”
The corporal looked nervous. “I was told to return with all haste, sir.”
Ed nodded. “Guardian Mustang,” he said. Mustang was lounging in an armchair, drinking his coffee. “I left an experiment running in your lab. I hope it won’t be an inconvenience if it stays there another day.”
“Not at all,” Mustang said smoothly, damn his smug face. “I can have my aide check on it if it needs tending. Just write out instructions for her; she’s a capable girl.”
Ed barely managed to keep from choking at hearing Hawkeye described as a “capable girl”. “It’s nothing complicated. Just have her look in on it every so often, alright?” Hawkeye had seen what happened last night; she could manage if she had to. “It’s very important research.”
“I’m sure it is,” Mustang said, lightly, and sipped at his coffee.
Fuck, Ed thought, following the courier out to the waiting car.
Ed was ushered into the Emperor’s offices. At least it wasn’t the great hall; it meant that Ed didn’t have to wear the mask. The Emperor was sitting at a table with Kimbley, apparently having breakfast. “Guardian Elric,” he said, as Ed was ushered into the room by the courier, “Sit down. I suspect I’ve rousted you out of bed, so you might as well get some breakfast.”
Ed was definitely starving. The rolls and pastries on the table didn’t exactly appeal to him right now, but they were probably better than nothing. He couldn’t afford to go hungry. The hungrier the wolf was, the stronger it got. Ed carefully sat down and helped himself from the tray that the Emperor proffered. “Thank you, Master,” he said, using the correct term of address from Guardian to Emperor. God, Ed hated that etiquette shit. Unfortunately, it was necessary. He put a smile on his face and accepted the cup of tea that the Emperor poured him.
The Emperor sipped his own cup, letting out a sigh of pleasure. “Bitter orange oil in the tea,” he said. “Absolutely delicious. Do you prefer cream?”
“No, thank you,” Ed said. The room smelled heavily of orange oil and smoke and iron. It was already turning his stomach a little; he didn’t need to be thinking about milk products.
“Try the apricot pastries,” Kimbley advised. “The cooks have outdone themselves. You should congratulate them, Master.” He looked well-rested and un-bruised, the bastard. Then again, Kimbley had been able to have the healers work him over properly. Ed, on the other hand, still had a cracked rib, a swollen ankle, and a grapefruit-sized bruise on his thigh. At least there was no problem with the healers getting at his head; otherwise, he’d probably have been nursing a concussion, too.
“Hmm,” the Emperor said. “Perhaps I will. They are excellent.”
Ed had no idea what the fuck his lord-and-master wanted out of him, and less idea what that asshole Kimbley was doing here. But whatever- always take the opportunity to eat, sleep or shit if you get it, as Granny used to say.
Thinking about Granny made him think about Resembool. Resembool made him think about Winry. Ed felt a strange pang in his chest, thinking about her. Best not to dwell on it, he decided, downing a pastry.
After a few minutes, the Emperor set aside his teacup. He leaned forward, lacing his fingers together. “Well, Guardian Elric,” he said, affably. “I was just chatting with Guardian Kimbley about some intelligence I’ve received.” He nodded to Kimbley, who smiled and nodded back. “I’ve been pleased to see your mission reports in the last several years, and I think it’s time I made better use of you.”
He paused then, and Ed barely remembered to give the rote “I serve at your command, Master,” response. God, he hated that bullshit. But the Emperor demanded it of his Guardians, and Ed needed to wear the mask. So, fuck. Whatever. He’d call anyone Master if it meant keeping Al safe.
The Emperor smiled. “We’ve got information about a terrorist cell here in Central,” he said. “Find it and wipe it clean. Make it as public as possible.”
Ed kept his expression as neutral as he could. Wipe it clean- by which he meant, kill every man, woman and child you find in the place, and never mind the bystanders.
Kimbley smiled his unnervingly cheerful smile and nodded. “With pleasure, Master.”
Ed had known that this day would come. The Emperor did not allow dissent, and the Guardians were his enforcers. But- without the power that came with the mask, Al would have been discovered years ago. There hadn’t been much of a choice. Even though Ed was bound to no demon, he’d made his own devil’s bargain all the same. Still, Ed wasn’t sure that he’d have the stomach to kill, when the time came. “Yes, Master,” he got out, barely.
“Excellent!” the Emperor said. “It was fascinating watching the two of you fight in the arena yesterday. I look forward to seeing what you accomplish working together.”
And then they bowed, and then they took their leave.
“Well, Elric,” Kimbley said, when they were out in the hallway. “I suppose that makes us partners.”
“I guess so,” Ed answered, through gritted teeth.
Black-uniformed men from the Intelligence Services gave them the time and place of the rebels’ next meeting, and Ed and Kimbley went their separate ways long enough to don their masks and make whatever other preparations they felt were necessary.
Ed stood in front of the mirror in his office for a long moment, staring at the blank-eyed, steel-faced figure in front of him. The Steel Guardian was frightening. Implacable, unafraid, incapable of emotion. Ed suddenly felt trapped in his metal shell, exhausted and shaking.
I have to protect Al, he thought.
Al woke with an uneasy feeling. The bed was warm and soft, but he didn’t recognize the scent of it. That was fine; he usually slept in strange sheets. He sat up and suddenly registered several facts: he was naked, his wrists and ankles were bandaged, and he was alone. And then, of course, he remembered. This wasn’t any other day; it was the first day after the change, and he was a guest in Guardian Mustang’s home. His suitcase was sitting on a chair and his clothes were folded neatly on the bureau.
He carefully peeled the bandages off, inspecting himself. The wounds weren’t bad this time, at least; no real bleeding. He put on more ointment from the jar that Ed had left on the bedside table, and bandaged them back up. Then he shaved carefully in the washbasin and dressed in slacks and a nice collared shirt. He considered a tie and jacket, but decided it would be overkill.
He wanted food as much as he’d ever wanted anything. He ran his tongue over sharp teeth and hoped to hell that Ed had left him something to eat. He wasn’t sure; yesterday had been a bit of a blur. The day before the first night was always the worst. He felt a little more like himself today. Well, like himself and so hungry that he wouldn’t have batted an eye at having a live pig put in front of him. Actually, a live pig sounded amazing. Bones and organs and brains and warm, bloody meat-
Al swallowed, and left his room. He smelled Ed’s scent in the hall the same as it had been all over his room, but it was old. He’d smelled Hawkeye, too, but he wasn’t thinking very hard about that. The idea of Hawkeye seeing him like that made blood rush to his face. He heard someone moving in the kitchen, and decided to head in that direction.
It was Hawkeye, he realized by the time he was in the hallway outside the kitchen. He could smell Guardian Mustang on her, too, which was embarrassing to think about. Ed seemed to be nowhere around, which worried him. He smelled meat, though. He opened the door to the kitchen timidly.
Lieutenant Hawkeye looked up from her cup of tea. “Good afternoon, Alphonse,” she said. She stood. “There’s food in the icebox, but I can warm it up if you prefer. I’ll just read in the sitting room while you eat if you’re more comfortable with that.”
“It would be nice if the food was warm,” he said, uncertainly.
Hawkeye pulled meat out of the icebox and turned the oven on low. “How are you feeling?” she asked.
Al scratched the back of his neck, not sure how to respond to this influx of kindness. It brought back an almost-lost memory of green eyes and a soft voice. “Hungry,” he answered, truthfully. “Where is Brother? Did the Emperor call for him again?”
Hawkeye nodded, unwrapping the paper around two large, bone-in roasts. “Guardian Mustang asked me to stay here until you woke.”
Al flushed. “I’m really sorry about yesterday,” he said, awkwardly. “I wasn’t myself.”
She turned away to dispose of the paper. “I understand,” she said. “Don’t concern yourself with it.”
Al closed his eyes and breathed, trying to calm himself. He remembered yesterday; remembered the surge of rage that he’d felt. He’d actually laid hands on her, and now she was here, looking after him. “It won’t happen again,” he blurted out.
“I trust not,” she said, firmly. She stood. “I’ll be in the sitting room with my tea,” she said. “Clean up when you’re done.”
Al nodded earnestly. “I will,” he said.
Well, I'm off to Brasil. I'll be writing while I'm gone, but don't expect updates for a week or two.
As usual, my thanks to Mebh for beta-reading and hand-holding (and thanks to her, this story is now finished- expect frequent updates).
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Kimbley launched into the air as soon as they were clear of HQ, and Ed followed him. He was pretty sure he looked stupid flying next to Kimbley, but he was damned if he was going to compare himself to that psycho.
“I can shield us for vision and sound,” Ed offered, tentatively. “We could go under the street to where the meeting is and wait until they’ve all showed up. They won’t know we’re there.”
“Oh, Elric,” Kimbley said, and turned, his mask grinning coldly at Ed. “I suppose we could do that. But it sounds like altogether too much effort. And it isn’t really very dignified for the Emperor’s Guardians to go sneaking around in the sewers, now is it?”
Ed scowled under his mask, spinning into the wind. “What do you want to do, then? If we go charging in ahead of time, they’ll scatter. And if we go in blind, we risk missing some of the insurgents.”
Kimbley laughed, turning sharply in the air. Ed had to twist to follow. “We don’t go in blind, then. Have you never heard of scrying, Elric?”
Of course Ed had heard of scrying. He just sucked at it. Magic wasn’t a science; it wasn’t like you could just intone a spell and have it work the same way every time. Temperament mattered; the shape and working of the sorcerer’s mind mattered. Scrying involved a certain sneakiness and subtlety that Ed suspected he totally lacked. “You’d need an anchor,” he pointed out, sourly. “Unless you’ve been down there before.”
“I haven’t,” Kimbley said airily, “But the Investigations agent had. And look what he gave me?” Kimbley produced a small piece of rock, spun it in his long, thin fingers, and then made it disappear again. “An anchor. Now, Elric, follow me.”
With that, Kimbley dismissed the levitation spell. He dropped like a stone, head down with his arms spread. Fuck, Ed thought, and followed as closely as he could without free-falling. He finally caught up to Kimbley on the ground, and stumbled to his feet. “So slow,” Kimbley observed. “Come along, Elric.” He strolled down the street, his hands in his pockets. Was that asshole whistling? Ed scrambled to catch up.
It took him a moment to orient himself, but he realized that they were quite close to where the insurgent cell would be meeting. Ed superimposed maps in his mind, double-checking the spatial relationships. The meeting was supposed to be in the sewer tunnels under the city, but it should be somewhere under this part of the street.
He looked up and realized that they’d stopped in front of a building. “This is one of my favorite places,” Kimbley purred, pulling off his mask. Hesitantly, Ed did the same.
The place was hung with silk draperies inside. Kimbley had a few words with the man at the front desk, and they were ushered into a back room. There were chaise lounges with stuffed pillows surrounding a weirdly-shaped pillar with hoses coming out from it. Kimbley draped himself across one of the couches, his black uniform looking slightly sinister against the brightly colored silk. “Sit,” Kimbley commanded, waving a hand. “Do you smoke, Elric?”
“No,” Ed said, curtly. But he sat.
Kimbley picked up a hose, winding it sinuously around his wrist before putting it in his mouth. “I’m sure you won’t mind if I do,” he said, and took a drag from the hose. He blew out a cloud of scented smoke. “I love the smell of smoke,” he said, and grinned unnervingly.
“I thought we were supposed to be working,” Ed commented, turning his face away with distaste.
“So dedicated,” Kimbley purred. He produced that rock from nowhere again. He tossed it gently into the middle of the room, where it hung in midair. Kimbley dragged on his hose again, and then blew the smoke towards the rock. Ed watched as the smoke twirled and wreathed around the stone, spinning until it formed the picture of the insurgents’ underground meeting place.
Surreally, there was someone there setting up folding chairs. He looked like he was pretty young; probably in his twenties. He had brown hair. Ed tried not to think about the fact that he’d probably be dead within the hour.
“So, what is the mysterious Edward Elric thinking about?” Kimbley asked, blowing smoke in his direction.
Ed tore his attention away from the scrying circle and back to Kimbley. He should be more careful; Kimbley wasn’t someone he wanted to get comfortable around. “I’m not mysterious,” he protested, shrugging his shoulders.
“The Guardian of Steel, Master of None,” he intoned, mockingly. “And no one knows how you do it. Care to share the secret, Elric?”
“I don’t know the secret,” Ed snapped. “I started doing sorcery when I was a kid; I don’t know why.” It was the lie that he and Mustang had told the Emperor.
“Hmm.” Kimbley said. He leaned back and dragged on the pipe again. “Power is never free, Elric. So where does yours come from?”
The wolf, Ed thought. The damned moon. “I wish I knew,” he said, looking away. He didn’t like how this conversation was going.
Kimbley cocked his head, his blue eyes unfathomable. “Perhaps it’s something in your family line,” he suggested. “Were either of your parents sorcerers?”
“My dad,” Ed said, grudgingly, because it was part of the deception. Hohenheim had been a powerful sorcerer. It was just believable that he’d imparted some sort of power to his oldest son. The asshole. “Why are we talking about my family?”
Kimbley tucked an arm behind his neck. “I’m just making conversation,” he said. “What about that brother of yours? Has he got an aptitude for magic?”
Ed wished for his mask. “No,” he said, but it was a lie. Al was as good as Ed had ever been- maybe better. But he’d never be a sorcerer. Even if he was stupid enough to try to bind a demon, it would probably kill him. The wolf and the demon would fight for dominance, and Al’s body would be the battlefield.
In the scrying field, people were assembling. Some of them embraced each other as they arrived. Some looked furtive.
“It must be a difficult thing, to be the talentless brother of the famed Steel Guardian,” Kimbley said.
Ed’s head whipped around. “Don’t talk about him like that,” he snarled, and then wished he could take it back. Real emotion was weakness to a man like Kimbley.
Kimbley looked amused. Ed stifled the urge to punch him in his smug face. “Interesting,” Kimbley said. “We’re learning so much about each other, Elric. I wonder, for example, how many of the rumors about you are true?”
Ed refused to ask. He stared at the assembling crowd in the scrying field. Women and men milled around or took their seats. At least there were no children, he reflected tensely.
“Oh, come on, Steel Guardian,” Kimbley continued, grinning. “Aren’t you curious about what people say? You’re very well-known, you know. Do you have people buying you drinks when you go out?”
“People leave a Guardian the hell alone when he goes out, in my experience,” Ed observed.
“Unless he doesn’t want to be alone, of course,” Kimbley said. “It’s very easy for a Guardian to find companionship.”
“Why would I care about that?” Ed snapped. He knew that many of the Guardians slept with their staff- or indeed, whoever they wished to sleep with. Ed had no interest in those kind of sexual politics. It wasn’t that he never thought about it... but that was none of Kimbley’s goddamned business.
“What? A young man like you, not interested in ‘that’?” Kimbley smiled and dragged on his hose. He leaned his head back and leisurely let the smoke leak out of his mouth. “I wonder if that means that the rumors about you and Mustang are true.”
“Wait- what?” Ed turned toward Kimbley, his forehead furrowed up. “What about Mustang?”
“Well,” Kimbley said, smiling again, “For a start, there are the rumors that you’re his bastard son.”
Ed snorted. “That doesn’t even make sense. We don’t look anything alike, and he’s only about a decade older than me anyway.”
Kimbley shrugged. “The more popular rumor is that you’re his catamite,” he added, his eyes twinkling. “Although, to be fair, some people think both rumors are true.”
“What?!” Ed found himself on his feet.
“Well, that was delightful,” Kimbley said, standing. “Back to work now.”
Ed shook his head, trying to clear it. Kimbley was obviously poking at him, trying to find weak points. He didn’t know why, but he didn’t like it.
Kimbley looked back, his mask on and grinning ominously. “Come along, Elric,” he said.
Alphonse emerged from the kitchen with a clean shirt and the teapot. “Would you like some more tea?” he offered earnestly.
Riza looked up at him. He was obviously trying to make amends in some way. His manner was sincere; almost puppyish- if she could be forgiven the adjective. Riza put her cup out. “Please,” she said. He poured, careful not to spill. “Do you drink tea?” she asked. It occurred to her that she had no idea whether he could drink tea, and less idea whether he preferred it. She had known Alphonse for four years, but she had spent so little time with him. Roy had done his best to keep Edward away from Central as much as possible, and Edward had done his best to keep everyone away from Alphonse.
Alphonse nodded. “I’ll just go get a cup, if that’s alright,” he said, just a little eagerly.
He returned a little while later with a cup and the creamer and the sugar dish balanced in his hands. He seemed entirely different today, she thought. Yesterday, he’d been edgy; afraid. Today, he was friendly and open and clearly trying to make up to her for yesterday’s behavior.
Alphonse laid everything down on the table. Riza picked up the pot and held it up to pour for him. Alphonse blinked, and then shyly pushed his cup forward. “You seem more yourself today,” she observed, as she poured the tea.
Alphonse blushed, and Riza almost laughed. It seemed absurd that he should be still capable of that kind of innocence. “It’s always better after the first night,” he said, seriously, as he dropped lumps of sugar into his tea. He frowned. “I think the wolf gets restless throughout the month. And then it gets to be free, a bit. It doesn’t like being chained, but it’s quieter right now. It will be worse again later tonight, of course.”
Three nights, Riza knew. And Alphonse had only been through the first one. She nodded. “Hopefully, Edward should be back by then. He did give instructions that I should... assist you, if he’s unable to return. I hope that won’t be too uncomfortable for you.”
If he had blushed pink before, Alphonse blushed beet red now. “I- uh-” he stuttered uncertainly.
Riza tipped her head. “I know that you might rather not have a woman chain you up without your clothes on,” she said, dryly. “But if it comes to it, I assure you that I can be a professional about it.” That was probably as reassuring as she was going to get, she reflected.
Alphonse closed his mouth, and then opened it again a moment later. “You’re always very professional,” he agreed. “Guardian Mustang is lucky to have you,” he blurted out.
She shrugged. “I’m lucky to be able to serve a good man,” she said. Her eyebrow twitched upward. “Admittedly, he might have somewhat more difficulty remembering how to tie his shoes if I was assigned elsewhere,” she allowed. It wasn’t something she would have said to anyone else, but- there was truth to it. Roy was very good at grand ideas and complex scheming, and rather less good at, for example, remembering whether he’d eaten that day.
Alphonse smiled, and laughed, which was the point of the exercise. Riza smiled too, and leaned back into her chair.
“Did you help Brother this morning?” Alphonse asked, suddenly.
Riza looked at him sharply. “Yes,” she said. “How-”
“I could smell you,” he said, almost embarrassed. “In the room. And...” he gestured vaguely. “You’re being very kind to us,” he said.
She shrugged. “I was up,” she said. “It was a small matter to help. I’ve certainly seen and done worse things.” She sipped her tea, savoring the hot liquid on her tongue. “It seemed to be hard on your brother,” she observed.
Alphonse’s face grew cloudy at that. “He blames himself for everything,” he said, and there was no small amount of bitterness in his voice.
“I gathered that,” Riza said. “You don’t think he should?”
“No!” Alphonse snapped, his face gone stormy. “We both made the choice to be out there that night. We both knew it was the full moon. We weren’t stupid, we knew that magic attracts werewolves. We just didn’t think-” He sighed. “We didn’t think there would be a werewolf. We thought that if there was one, our wards would stop it. We were only thinking about our mother.”
This had the sound of something that Alphonse had rolled through his mind a thousand times. Riza nodded. “You were trying to bring your mother back from the dead,” she said. She’d gotten only the barest and sketchiest outlines of this story. Edward did not talk about it, and whatever Roy knew, he held private.
Alphonse nodded, sadly. “It sounds stupid now, doesn’t it? Just a kid’s dream.”
“A dangerous dream,” Riza commented.
Alphonse looked miserable. Riza wondered whether he’d ever talked about this with anyone, even Edward. The Rockbells, perhaps. “We found these books,” he whispered. “Dad’s books. Edward was the one who realized what they meant: a binding ritual for Death. It was like a demon-binding ritual, but- not quite.” He paused. “We never found out whether it would have worked,” he said, almost wistfully. “While I was recovering, Brother burned the house. The whole library went up in flames.”
“You were probably lucky,” Riza said, with a sense of dread born of an upbringing with a father who trafficked with demons. “Death is one of the great powers. If you had succeeded...” she paused. “It could have been worse.”
Alphonse nodded. Suddenly, he ducked his head. He reached a hand in his pocket and pulled out the deck of cards she’d brought to his room yesterday. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to go on about old history like that.” He swallowed. “I don’t know what’s happening with Brother and the Emperor. I’m afraid for him.”
Riza nodded. “I’m afraid for Guardian Mustang every day,” she told him.
I discovered in the course of writing this that apparently, the word "catamite" is not a word people generally know. Which I suppose is good, since it refers to a boy who is kept/groomed for sexual purposes by an older man. From Latin Catamitus (aka Ganymede) who was Zeus's companion/cupbearer.
I could have edited it to something else, but it's such an... expressive word. And Kimbley would totally both know it and use it.
Thanks once more to the inestimable Mebh, and also to my husband for helping me plot the later bits of this.
(P.S.: It earns the graphic violence tag in this chapter, if it didn't before. Fair warning.)
They stood in the middle of the road. Beneath them, under tons of steel and stone and pavement, the insurgents were sitting on folding chairs and listening to someone talk.
“You should put up a barrier around them before we start,” Kimbley said. “We don’t want any of them getting away, now do we?”
Ed was good at barriers. He might not have the right mindset for scrying, but forcefields were all about having the pure stubbornness not to let anything through. Ed had plenty of that to go around. “I’ll need the anchor to do it blind,” he pointed out. Kimbley tossed it at him. Ed caught it easily with his right hand. The stone was rough against his skin.
Ed closed his eyes, sending his consciousness down the sympathetic link between the anchor and the spot it had once rested, far beneath the street. As he filtered down into the earth, Ed could feel the movement of the city, and of the animals in the dirt, and of the small cluster of people around the anchor point. He encompassed the cluster with his will. With a movement of his hands, he slammed the barrier into place with a thoom perceptible only to magical sensitives. No one reacted. They didn’t know what was coming.
Holding the barrier, Ed pulled himself out through the anchor. He looked up to see Kimbley hovering in the air above the street. “Open the street, Steel Guardian,” he said.
Ed frowned. “We could teleport down through the anchor. No need to destroy the road,” he pointed out.
“Our Master ordered us to make it public,” he said. “And if you open it, it’ll be so much easier to put back than if I do it.”
And if Kimbley did it, everyone below would be crushed by falling rock from the explosions, and probably killed instantly. But the Emperor had been clear: he wanted the insurgents executed, not buried. Slowly, with a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach, Ed knelt. Tucking the anchor-stone into his jacket, he plunged his hands into the asphalt like it was mud. He clenched his fingers into fists and pulled.
In front of him, the road opened up like it was a flower. Earth and stone fountained up in waves as Ed peeled back the layers between the city and the sewer. By the time he reached the last layer, he could feel the vibrations of screaming in the earth, feel people slamming against his barrier as they tried to run. He pulled the sewer open, panting, sweat running down his face underneath the mask.
Kimbley’s voice rang out loud enough to be heard for a mile, his tone serious and official. “I come in the name of my Master,” he said- another ritual intonation. “You have conspired against him. You will be destroyed.” With that, Kimbley descended into the pit.
Ed pulled himself to his feet and looked into the hole. It was huge; roughly the size of a house. Already, people were starting to gather- curious, but cautious of getting too close. Ed launched himself over the side, dropping slowly through the air.
There was a ring of terrified people at the bottom, and Kimbley was in the middle of it. “Oh good,” he said. “I thought you were going to miss this, Steel Guardian. This is my favorite part.” With that, he reached out and brushed a fingertip against the forehead of a nearby man. There was a wet thump, the man’s head exploded. Eyes and brains and skull were reduced to red mist with the touch of Kimbley’s finger.
No one was screaming anymore. It was eerie, Ed thought, that the surrounding crowd were silent in the face of that horror. They were pressed against his barrier; as far away from Kimbley as Ed’s magic would let them get. Their faces were stony and white. Ed wondered what it would be like, to watch your own grisly death coming like that.
A man shouted, suddenly. “Fuck your precious Emperor!” He fired a gun at Kimbley.
The bullet flared white and disappeared as it hit Kimbley’s aura. Kimbley clapped his hands, and fire engulfed his attacker. The man dropped, screaming and rolling on the ground, the unnatural fire both inescapable and inextinguishable. “Who’s next?” Kimbley asked, his mask grinning. “So many people to kill, and who shall I kill first?”
Ed’s heart was pumping in his ears. He was frozen, hovering three feet off of the ground.
Kimbley yanked a young woman off the ground. She was shivering with fright, her brown eyes wide. Kimbley laid a palm on her chest. Her shirt burned away, and then her heart exploded out of her back. She dropped, her eyes empty.
Ed was a Guardian. He’d sworn to enter the Emperor’s service of his own free will. Obey-serve-obey, the binding spell in his uniform whispered.
Kimbley reached down to a man who was cowering next to a chair. He flicked his fingernails against the man’s cheek, and half his face blew off. Teeth and tongue hung broken and obscenely exposed from what was left. The man twitched and writhed, his one eye rolling, unable to scream.
The Emperor brooked no dissent, least of all from his Guardians. He would have Ed killed if he disobeyed. He would have Al killed, and how was Ed supposed to keep his promises if both of them were dead?
Kimbley walked face to face with one of the few men left standing. In a swift movement, he clasped both the man’s hands. They exploded, leaving blood pumping from the ragged wound of his wrists. The air filled with screams again as the rebel clutched his stumps to his chest, his life spattering red onto the floor.
Suddenly, Ed’s mind was filled with a vision of Al in the moments before the change, his teeth clenched and his eyes open. Al never gave up. Every time the full moon rose, he resisted with everything he had. Al didn’t want to be a monster. It was Al’s worst nightmare; that someone else might get hurt because of him.
I won’t thank you for killing for me, Brother, Ed could almost hear Al say. I won’t forgive you for becoming a monster.
Kimbley reached out and pulled a woman close. He brushed her lips with his knuckles, and the back of her head blew off, spraying red and wet over the people standing behind her. As she crumpled, one of them caught her. He sobbed quietly, the woman’s blood and brains running down his face.
Ed reached up and pulled his mask off, letting it clatter to the ground. He dropped his barrier with a sweeping motion of his hands. “Run,” he croaked, his mouth dry. He swallowed. “Run!”
Kimbley made no move to stop the rebels from scattering. He turned to face Ed. His mask, still grinning obscenely, was spattered with blood. “I see that the Emperor was right to have his doubts about you. Still, I wonder if he’ll have you broken, or have you destroyed?” Kimbley raised his blood-soaked hands. “Either way, I wonder if he’ll let me help?”
Ed floated to the ground. He was overcome by a surge of rage, fueled by grief and guilt. Six people dead, because he’d hesitated. Six people dead, because he’d thought that he could have power, but not consequences. Their blood might be all over Kimbley’s hands, but it was on his as well. “You sick fucking bastard,” he cried out, his teeth bared. He could barely think well enough to focus his magic. He just knew he wanted to destroy that grin, to stop Kimbley fucking smiling over the corpses of his victims. Wheeling his arms, he ripped a boulder-sized rock out of the ground and sent it flying at Kimbley’s head.
Kimbley crossed his hands one over the other with the palms facing out, and the boulder exploded towards Ed in a shower of jagged shards. Ed slammed a barrier around himself just in time. He dropped the forcefield as the dust cleared, but Kimbley had already moved. Ed spun, scanning the room for the other sorcerer.
“Decided you’ve had enough of being the Emperor’s dog?” Kimbley asked mockingly, from somewhere to his left. Ed spun just in time to see Kimbley’s hands twist. There was a rush of magic, and then Ed was engulfed in a pillar of flame. His mask, he realized in an instant of lucid thought. That fucker had just ignited his Guardian’s mask. In the next instant, he gathered the concentration to put the fire out. He clapped, and all of the oxygen pushed away from him in a wave. The fire smothered immediately, and Ed dropped to his knees, gasping as the oxygen slowly filtered back. Ed howled in pain, him and the wolf in agreement for once.
He looked up to see Kimbley getting to his feet, swaying slightly, the grin on his mask intact. This fight was pointless, Ed realized suddenly. Ed wouldn’t kill Kimbley, and that meant that the fight would last as long as Kimbley felt like toying with Ed. And then Ed would be dead. Fuck that. He had to get away. Maybe he and Al could go to ground- hide out in the woods, in the middle of nowhere. Maybe they could run to Drachma or Creta or, hell, fucking Xing.
Kimbley was bringing his bloody hands together again.
Ed slammed himself into the floor and reached. With a shake and a roar, the street caved in. Melding into the stone as it collapsed on top of him, Ed ran.
So much love for Mebh, who made this much better than it would otherwise have been.
Al considered his options, and finally laid down the two of coins.
Lieutenant Hawkeye laid down a knight, capturing both Al’s two and the Golden Seven.
Al felt a spike of rage. It wasn’t fair; he’d been trying for the Seven, and- he suddenly realized that he was growling. He laid down his cards and stood, turning away. He curled his hands into fists, feeling his nails dig into his palms. “I’m sorry,” he said after a moment.
When he turned back, Hawkeye was regarding him curiously. “What does it feel like?” she asked.
Al considered, closing his eyes and feeling the moon on him. “Like me, most of the time,” he said, a little sadly. “Just- I can’t always control myself. I don’t like being angry so much.” He paused, thoughtful. “Brother says that for him, it feels like the wolf is angry, and it pushes on him. I don’t think we’re so separate, me and my wolf.”
“I’m sorry to ask, if it upsets you,” she said.
He shrugged. “Can I ask you a question?”
“Certainly,” Hawkeye said, smiling slightly. “If I’m allowed impertinent questions, then why not you?”
“Why are you and Guardian Mustang helping us?” he asked. “Brother said it was Guardian Mustang trying to cover his a- to look after his own interests.”
Hawkeye nodded. “That’s true,” she allowed. “If you were to be discovered, it would be immensely damaging to Guardian Mustang. It’s certainly in his best interest that you have a discreet place for the transformation.” She cocked her head. “Still, Guardian Mustang is a complex man; he rarely does things for only a single reason. And as often as possible, he tries to make certain that his actions serve both his personal desires and his political aims.”
Al smiled. “He’s also helping us because he wants to, you mean.”
“He considers you and Edward his responsibility,” she said. “He’s immensely loyal to those he feels responsible for.”
Al smiled, and then frowned. He felt it before he heard it- a quiet rumbling under their feet. “Lieutenant!” he cried, and made to pull her away from whatever was coming up from the ground. At his warning, however, she was on her feet and hugging the wall with her weapon drawn. The planks of the wood flooring bulged and then buckled. Dirt and mud spewed up from the hole, followed by a figure in black.
Al knew that it was Ed even before the dirt sloughed off of him. He also knew that Ed was upset- angry, but mostly afraid. Ed’s anxiety burned acrid in Al’s nostrils. “What is it, Brother?” he said, his body tensing. To his side, Hawkeye relaxed, but did not put away her gun.
“We have to go, Al,” Ed said, his jaw set. Al could almost hear his heart thudding wildly. Ed suddenly registered Hawkeye in the room, and glanced down at the hole he’d put in Mustang’s sitting room. “I’ll put the floor back, you can pretend we weren’t here-”
“The sun will be down in a few hours-” Al protested as Ed made for the guest rooms.
“Edward,” Hawkeye broke in, her voice steady and commanding. “Report. What are we dealing with?”
“Kimbley,” Ed snarled, but then he looked- afraid. Helpless. “The Emperor sent me on a mission with him. It was- it was bad. I dropped a street on him.” Al stopped, his mouth dropping open in horror. Ed had attacked another Guardian? Why? Ed shook his head, glaring at Al. “Mustang’s house-wards should keep him from finding us for a little while, but we have to run-”
“Let me contact Guardian Mustang,” Hawkeye said, firmly.
“We don’t have time for that!” Ed turned, grabbing his bag from the guest room. “Al, I’m sorry,” he said. “I’ll figure something out for tonight. We just have to get out of the city before he finds us.”
Then there was a fluttering, rushing sound. Al felt a burst of magic.
Suddenly, a tall black figure appeared behind his brother. In the same moment, Ed’s eyes went wide and his body stiffened. Al smelled blood; Ed’s blood. “Al,” Ed choked out, his eyes going glassy. “Keep moving-” and then he went limp. Kimbley caught him, holding him almost tenderly. He pulled a bloody hand from Ed’s back and curled it around Ed’s chin. “The anchor, Elric,” Kimbley said, smiling. “I followed it here. You should have been more careful.” He let Ed drop to the floor.
Al stared at Ed’s unmoving body. He couldn’t breathe. He didn’t know what had happened. And Ed- Ed-
A loud noise startled him. He jumped back and turned to see Hawkeye with her gun trained on Kimbley. She fired twice more, but the bullets splashed into Kimbley’s hastily-raised shield. It blocked him and Ed both from Al’s view.
Al’s heart beat fast. He shook with fear and confusion and the oncoming moon. Surely, Brother couldn’t be- surely he would know-
Kimbley’s shield cleared, and the sorcerer clutched his bloodied arm where Hawkeye had hit him. His eyes had gone wild and feral. “Oh, hello,” Kimbley said, smiling, his eyes fixed on Hawkeye. “I didn’t see you there.” He gestured, and Hawkeye was slammed back into the wall by Kimbley’s force-construct, smashing into a table and a lamp on her way. The glass shade broke, scattering green shards over the carpet.
Al waited for the rage that he’d always fought against to overtake him. He wanted it at last. Ed was so, so still at Kimbley’s feet, and Al couldn’t move. Al couldn’t think.
Hawkeye raised her hand and fired, the bullets dissolving into Kimbley’s fiery shield. “It’s adorable that you think you can hurt me,” Kimbley told her, almost conversationally. “You’re Mustang’s pet, aren’t you? I think I’ll send you back to him in little pieces.” Kimbley twisted his hands- will and motion, Al thought, sick- and glowing ropes appeared and twined themselves around her limbs. His arms slashed viciously, and the ropes pulled. Hawkeye screamed, her composure lost.
If Al had been frozen, Hawkeye’s screams thawed him. He had relied on others to take care of him too long, he thought. He refused to let someone get hurt if he could do something about it. “Stop!” he shouted, his fists clenching.
Strangely, Kimbley listened. The force constructs on Hawkeye went limp as he turned to Al, his lips pulled up in a snarl or a smile. “You’re the brother,” he said, as though someone had given him a present. “You’re his weak spot, did you know?” he asked, nudging Ed with a toe.
Many people didn’t realize that the moon didn’t rise only at night. As long as the sun was ascendant, the moon couldn’t force him to change, but that didn’t mean it didn’t pull on him. Al could feel it now, the force he’d fought for the last five years. With a surge of fear and righteous anger, he gave in at long last. Al embraced the moon.
Ed hurt, and it was hard to breathe, but there was something he needed to do. He forced his eyes open. There was Al, feral and growling, his head down and his body tensed for an attack. Ed tried to move. Al was in a fight; he needed Ed’s help. His body wouldn’t work, though. Everything was confused; fragmented.
“Oh, by all means,” a voice said, somewhere above him. “Let’s play, Little Brother.” And that was wrong, because Al was his brother; not anyone else’s.
Al lunged, and there was a flash of magic. Someone was raising a shield. That was dumb, Ed thought, though he wasn’t entirely sure why.
Al recoiled, snarling, his gold hair singed. Al circled back swiftly, retreating for another attack. Then, as Ed watched, Al changed. He grew larger, more muscular. His face elongated a little, and Ed could see his teeth grow sharper and longer. Ed felt as if ice were in his veins. The moon. Something bad was happening.
“What?” the voice above him said, filled with shock, and why was that so satisfying?
Al was always fast. One moment, he was crouched across the room. The next, he ripped through the magical barriers like they were tissue paper. Ed felt them tear, felt the tatters fall to the floor in metaphorical pieces. He couldn’t seem to turn his head, but from where he was lying, he could see Al slam into Kimbley. Al’s teeth tore viciously at Kimbley’s flank. Kimbley screamed, surprised, and Ed thought werewolves and magic, dipshit, which was kind of satisfying. But then Al pulled back, his body taut and ready for an attack. Ed could see it, in his mind’s eye, what would happen. This would be the attack where Al ripped out Kimbley’s throat, the sorcerer’s blood spraying red across the room-
“Al...” Ed whispered, urgently. He knew what he had to do. He moved his head a fraction of an inch, consciousness beginning to spiral away from him in a haze of blood loss and shock. “Al.” Ed wouldn’t fall into that blackness, not yet. He refused. Al needed him, and he wouldn’t let go.
Suddenly Al was there. He was half-wolf, blood staining his face and hands. His eyes were a deep and vibrant yellow. “Brother?” he mewled, around teeth not made for human speech.
“You’re not a monster either, Al,” Ed spat. And that was what he’d needed to say. Al would listen. He always did, when it mattered. Ed closed his eyes and was gone.
Roy Mustang flew with fire on his heels. His house wards had been violated. And worse- much worse- His mouth pressed to a thin line. He’d long ago put a trace on his aide. The barest sliver of his own soul, just large enough to call to him if she were ever afraid or in pain. Too small to be noticed, even by her. Whatever had bypassed his wards, it had hurt Riza Hawkeye. Xaphan screamed fire to him, and Roy screamed it back in his heart.
His door was intact. He slammed it open. As he turned into the hallway, the first thing he saw was Alphonse kneeling over Hawkeye’s body. At the sound of Roy’s approach, Alphonse looked up, snarling, half-transformed, blood on his face. In his rage, Roy almost reached out and obliterated the boy. Roy had killed werewolves before. He wasn’t afraid to do it again. But Alphonse was too close to Hawkeye, and he couldn’t risk hurting her.
Then his feet brought him closer into the room, and then he didn’t know what to make of the situation. There were two other figures on the ground, and a hole in the floor on the other end of the room. One of the figures was Edward, twisted and bloody and pale. The other was- Roy could just make out the face of the Red Lotus Guardian. Fuck. Roy had no idea what Kimbley was doing there, but there was no possible scenario in which this was good.
He looked back at Alphonse, and finally took in the way that the boy’s stance had been protective; saw the fear in his eyes. Roy’s rage bled away. “I didn’t let him kill her,” Alphonse said, his voice strange and rough. “None of them are dead. I didn’t kill him. I’m not a monster.”
It sounded pathetic, coming from a mouth that was almost a muzzle; from a boy that had spent a quarter of his life as a creature. Still, Roy knew what it was like to make that choice. He’d had to make it himself once, long ago, in the desert. “We’ll get a healer,” he said, forcing his voice to be strong and even. “I know a healer who will keep this quiet.” He swallowed, not looking directly at Hawkeye. “How bad are they?” he asked, brusquely.
“He was pulling her apart,” Alphonse said, fiercely. He must have meant Kimbley. “She’s bleeding. I can smell it. Bowels and blood inside her.” There was a moment of helplessness in his expression. “Her heart beats.”
“And Edward?” Roy asked, pulling himself reluctantly away. Alphonse followed him, a tall and hulking shadow.
“I’m not sure,” Alphonse said, miserably. “He came through the floor. He said we had to run. Then Kimbley came and stabbed him.” He made a jabbing motion with his hand. “He woke up once. He doesn’t move. I tried to stop the blood.”
It wasn’t surprising that Edward didn’t move. Now that Roy was closer, he could see a gaping wound, high between Edward’s shoulder blades. Sorcery required movement. Kimbley had been smart enough to neutralize the Steel Guardian. Roy didn’t even know whether a healer could fix a severed spine. If not- well, it might be kinder if Edward had bled to death. He strode to the phone.
“The sun will set soon,” Alphonse said, tense. “Will you take care of Brother?”
Roy wanted to scream. Roy wanted to kill something. Roy looked up at him. “I will,” he said, his voice calm.
Alphonse nodded, looking at his clawed hands. “I’ll wait downstairs,” he said.
One last thanks to Mebh, who read through this not once, but twice, and held my hand while I flailed desperately through this last chapter.
Ed was so damn tired. Somebody was making him wake up, and he didn’t want to. His head hurt, and he just wanted to sleep.
“Come on, you stupid brat,” a voice was saying. “I need you awake for this. If you ever want to walk again, wake up.”
Ed opened his eyes. He didn’t recognize the man who was yanking his head all around. “Th’fuck are you?” he croaked out.
“He’s a healer, Edward,” Mustang’s voice said, and then he moved to where Ed could see him. “This is Doctor Knox, Master of Inmai.”
“Can’t- can’t see healers,” Ed said, frowning. He felt weird. “Can’t let them see...”
“Knox can be trusted. We need you to cooperate.” Mustang’s face was really fucking serious, too.
Ed tried to sit up. He wanted to sit up, except- nothing moved but his head, a little. “What- th’fuck-” With a rush of memory, he remembered. Kimbley. And Al. And fuck, Hawkeye. “Hawkeye? Sh’okay? Al- he din’t... I saw him... Fuck....”
“Hawkeye is fine,” Mustang told him. “She’s resting. Kimbley hurt her badly, but she’s fine now. Your brother was able to put her to sleep so she didn’t have to suffer through it, and then Knox healed her.”
“That was the damnedest thing,” Knox commented. “Never seen a hedge mage with the juice to directly affect the human body like that. There are plenty of sorcerers who can’t even do it- you two idiots included. That kid’d make a hell of a healer if he were demon-bound.”
“Alphonse is downstairs, Edward.” Mustang told him, evenly. “The sun set about an hour ago. Knox is going to try to heal your wound now.”
“I’m going to need his clothes off,” Knox said. “You mind?”
Mustang lifted his hands, and Ed suddenly realized what he was going to do. “No!” he protested. “Don’ you- fuck!” It didn’t matter. With a smirk, Mustang ashed Ed’s clothes. “Hate you,” Ed grumbled.
Knox whistled, looking down at Ed’s naked body. “No wonder you never let the healers treat you,” he said, taking in Ed’s scars. “You wouldn’t believe the theories that go around in the healer’s wing about why you won’t skin down for them.”
“Fuck you, too,” Ed managed.
“You’d have to be able to move for that,” Knox pointed out. He waved his hands, and a wind blew the ash from Ed’s body. He didn’t feel it, and that was terrifying. There should have been cold, and the breeze against his skin, but there was nothing. When Knox laid his hands on Ed’s chest, he should have been able to feel the warmth and roughness of those knobby fingers. There was nothing.
Knox slid his fingers over Ed’s chest. “Burns,” he said. “I can take care of those. God help me, I’ve had enough experience.”
“What about his spine?” Mustang asked, frowning.
“I’ll get to it,” Knox said. “Kinder to heal the other things first, though. Unless you like watching the kid in pain?”
Mustang waved a hand. “Carry on.”
“Ribs,” Knox said. He slid his fingers across Ed’s chest, probing at senseless flesh. “You’ve broken those more than once, and let them all heal naturally. You’re an idiot.”
“Couldn’t let anyone see me,” Ed snarled. Obvious werewolf bites, combined with his eyes... any healer would’ve known what he was. Would have known what Al was, more importantly.
“And it never occurred to you to learn how to do it yourself?” Knox asked. “What, do you like being in pain?”
Ed flushed. “M’not good at that kind of shit.”
“Yeah, yeah. It’s no skin off my nose.” Knox worked for awhile in silence. Ed could feel the working of the healing magic, but that was about it. He felt himself drifting in and out.
Knox spoke up again. “And I can’t do anything about those old bites, of course,” he said. “Werewolves and magic.” He looked up at Mustang. “Help me flip him,” he said. “I need to get at that wound.”
And then fucking Mustang was picking him up, and there was shit all Ed could do about it. “Nnnnng,” he moaned, humiliated.
“Yeah, I’m not happy about it either,” Mustang muttered.
“Fuck you,” Ed said, miserably.
“At least you won’t feel it if I drop you,” Mustang answered, with a smirk.
“Drop my patient, and I’ll let Inmai at you,” Knox threatened. “You wouldn’t believe the imagination that thing has.”
Ed was manhandled onto his stomach. He tried to twist his head around, but he was having a hard time moving his head at all. “Damn it!” he swore.
“Be glad that you have access to healers,” Knox told him. “And stop trying to move.” He paused, and Ed felt his fingers here and there on his neck. The way that the sensation disappeared as Knox moved his fingers lower was disturbing. “This is probably going to hurt,” Knox told him.
It did. Fuck. It was like his body was on fire, like everything was being touched at once and his brain couldn’t even process it, like pins and needles everywhere, like being stabbed. Like dying. Ed gritted his teeth, groaning through it. He’d lived through worse, he lied to himself.
And then it was over, and there was no pain, and he could move. No pain felt like the best idea anyone had ever had. Knox half-lifted him to sitting. He sat there, panting and trembling, for a long moment. “Fuck,” he groaned. “Thanks.”
“Oh, the brat has manners,” Knox said. “You’re welcome. Now do me a favor and take it easy for a week or so. That whole area is going to be kind of delicate; you don’t want to sever it again because you were jostling it around.” Ed nodded, and Knox thumped him in the forehead. “And don’t do that,” he added. “Not for at least a day.”
Ed leaned back against the back of the couch they’d put him on. He swallowed. “Where’s Kimbley?” he asked, his voice sounding thin and thready in his own ears. “Did Al- I remember-” he trailed off, his eyes closing. He wasn’t going to cry if Kimbley was dead, but he didn’t like the idea of Al killing anyone, either.
“The other room,” Mustang said, his voice low. “Still unconscious from where Al knocked him out. Now, Elric. What the hell happened here?”
Ed cracked an eye at him. “Pants first,” he said.
Kimbley smiled. “Hello, Flame,” he said. “It’s been forever since we spent time together. Did you miss it?”
“You used to hang out with this psycho, Mustang?” Somehow, Elric was managing to summon up the energy necessary to be an annoying little ass, despite looking like death.
“We were stationed together in Ishval,” Kimbley said, his eyes fixed on Roy. “It was such a wonderful time in our lives. At least until you were sent to Daliha, and I went off to Kanda.”
“We serve at the command of our Master,” Roy spat.
“Well, I do, at least,” Kimbley said, smiling. “I don’t think he’s going to be pleased to find that one of his favorite pets is conspiring against him.”
“Is that what’s happening here?” Roy asked, disingenuously. He needed to find out what Kimbley knew.
“Little Brother is a werewolf,” Kimbley said. “You knew. When our Master finds out, he’s going to have him put down, and you besides.”
Elric lost it. There was an edge to his voice, and he looked a little green. He was probably thinking about the murders he’d witnessed earlier in the night. He’d refused to tell Roy much about them, but Roy was well familiar with Red Lotus’s methods. “Don’t talk about him, you sick son-of-a-bitch!” Elric shouted.
Kimbley just laughed.
“Control yourself, Elric,” Roy said. The younger man glared at him, but subsided. He knew that screaming at Kimbley wasn’t going to get them anywhere.
Kimbley grinned. “And that doesn’t even account for today. Refusing orders, Elric? Attacking another Guardian? The Emperor’s going to let the other Guardians eat you.” He cocked his head at Roy. “He’ll probably make you help.”
“Shut up, you psycho,” Elric snarled.
Roy looked at Kimbley, calculating. “No one saw you fighting him,” he said. “The only people who know about what happened down there are the rebels, and they won’t talk.”
Kimbley looked up at Roy, his blue eyes twinkling. “Oh, yes,” he said. “You’re going to kill me. This will be fascinating to watch.”
“We’re not going to kill him,” Elric snapped.
Roy crossed his arms. “We don’t have the luxury of mercy, here, Elric. You made your decision down there. Killing him is our best chance of survival. If we can come up with a cover for his death, then maybe we can pretend this never happened.”
Anguish flashed across Elric’s face, and morphed into anger. Stupid kid, Roy thought sadly. Everything he’d been through, and Elric still had hope that the world could be a decent place.
“He’s helpless,” Elric said, gesturing. It was true- Roy had taken a page out of Kimbley’s book and had Knox put a block at the top of Kimbley’s spine. The Red Lotus Guardian was paralyzed, propped up in a chair, the wound on his side still sluggishly bleeding. “If we kill him, how is that not murder, asshole?” He was so earnest. Maybe he felt that he had to justify his decision not to kill the rebels? If it was wrong to kill then, it was always wrong to kill?
Roy looked at the younger man. “I don’t know what you think I am, Elric, but I’ve taken lives before. I have plenty of blood on my hands.”
“This is different!” Elric insisted. “Fuck, I know you’ve killed before. Daliha, right? I’ve heard the stories about what you did there. The Guardian of Flame, Master of Xaphan, Daliha’s Murderer. But fuck, Mustang, that was orders. Have you ever killed anyone just because you wanted to, and not because he said to?” He flopped into a chair, his arms crossed. “It’s different. It’ll be different. You can’t do it.”
Roy set his mouth. He was about to speak when there was another voice in the room. “He’s right, sir,” Hawkeye said, behind him. She sounded tired. “I would prefer not to keep my promise today.”
Suddenly, Kimbley began to laugh. “Oh, you’re all wonderful,” he said. “This is thrilling. What’s going to happen next? Oh, perhaps you’ll take me downstairs and let Little Brother finish eating me? I don’t seem to be dying from werewolf bite at the moment, but surely he’d finish me off if you put me in with him now.”
Elric jerked up out of his chair. “Don’t you dare even-” he started.
“No,” she said, giving Elric a stern look. Elric subsided, his hands shaking.
“We have to run,” Elric said. “There’s no other way. If we keep running, maybe the Emperor won’t be able to find us. We can leave this jackass here. It’ll be a while till anyone finds him, and the rest of us can get away.”
“The Emperor will never stop looking,” Kimbley said, his grin vicious. “He’ll never give up until he has your hearts on a platter. He wants your secret, little Elric. He’ll know it or he’ll kill you.”
Elric turned to look at Kimbley, and then, suddenly, started to laugh. “What, you haven’t figured it out?” he said. “Damn, Kimbley, I didn’t think you were stupid.”
Roy frowned. “Don’t encourage him,” he said. “When were you supposed to report in?” he asked.
Elric shrugged. “When we were done. We might be able to stretch it out until dawn, but we’ll have to carry Al. I can move us through the earth, anyway.”
Roy pursed his lips. He’d worked for a decade to move quietly against the Emperor, to get close enough to the tyrant to bring him down. Now it was all going to be over, and just because Elric couldn’t bring himself to get his hands dirty.
And yet, Roy thought, he had never wanted to see Edward become a killer.
He passed close to Hawkeye on the way out of the room. She moved just slightly into his personal space. “Lieutenant,” he said. “I’m sorry about how this has turned out.”
She nodded, her brown eyes inscrutable.
“Are we packing?” Elric said, getting to his feet. “We have to take Knox with us. We can’t leave him here after Kimbley saw him.”
Roy sighed. “We’ll see what we can do.”
Ed felt like he wanted to throw up. He felt like an idiot. He’d fucked everything up so badly. He wasn’t even sure why he was so adamant that Kimbley not be killed except, fuck, he could still see people’s heads blowing up behind his eyes, and that was enough blood for one day. And Mustang- he couldn’t let Mustang execute an unarmed cripple. The guy had enough blood on his hands, and he didn’t need more. And Ed couldn’t kill Kimbley himself, and dammit, fuck, what was the point if they were just going to go around murdering like the Emperor?
Why had he done this? Why had he thought he could wear the damned mask? Shit. He was an idiot. He’d done some shitty things in his life, many of them in the service of his fucking Master, but apparently, he couldn’t do this.
Fuck, he thought. I’m going to die for this. I’m so fucking sorry, Al. I’ve just gotten you killed.
He followed Mustang out of the room, Kimbley’s eyes burning holes in his back.
“You’re just like Little Brother,” Kimbley said, suddenly, just before Ed was gone. “Master of None. That’s the answer that the Emperor sent me to find out. How can you be a werewolf and a sorcerer?” he asked.
“I’m not a werewolf,” Ed said, tired. “It’s the full moon, and I’m still human.”
“Human-shaped,” Kimbley said. “And yellow-eyed. But there’s something else behind those eyes, isn’t there?”
“Fuck you,” Ed said, and left.
Kimbley looked up at her, his lips curved into a cruel smile. “Hello, Lieutenant,” he said. “Thank you for speaking up on my behalf.”
Hawkeye looked him in the eye. “I don’t think that Guardian Mustang would feel particularly guilty for killing you,” she said. “But I would rather not let him get in the habit of killing people who get in his way.”
Kimbley laughed. “He was right, though,” he said, grinning. “I will destroy you if you let me live.”
Hawkeye had nothing to say to that. She drew her pistol and fired in one smooth motion. The bullet impacted right between Kimbley’s eyes, smashed through his brain, and left a messy exit wound on the back of his head. Blood splattered against the far wall. Hawkeye considered, and then fired again, putting the second bullet through the dead man’s heart.
Roy and Edward came running back into the room. “What do you think you’re doing?” Edward cried angrily. “What the fuck?”
Hawkeye turned to him, carefully snapping her pistol into her holster. “I’m a killer, too, Edward,” she said. “And this isn’t the first time that I’ve killed to protect someone I care about.”
“I didn’t ask you to-” Edward started, his teeth bared.
“We can use this,” Roy said, with relief.
Good, Hawkeye thought. He wasn’t giving up. She wouldn’t let him give up.
The aftermath of Kimbley’s death- of Hawkeye offing Kimbley like she was an avenging angel and no one had the right to say a word about it- was completely fucked up. The worst part was that Ed was glad that psycho was dead, because somewhere in the back of his eyes, he just kept seeing a man with half a face, twitching and bleeding.
The fucking moon was up, and Ed felt like he wanted to scream.
And then Mustang was talking to him, plotting out how they were going to get out of this; how they were going to convince the Emperor that they were still his good little dogs.
“You don’t have a choice,” Mustang pointed out. “You knew that when you signed up. This is our chance, Elric.”
“Go to hell,” Ed said, and he was suddenly afraid that he might lose it. Fuck Mustang for pushing him there, and fuck this whole situation. “I can’t go back. Even if he buys the story-” He stopped, trying to figure out how to explain; trying to keep his voice from breaking. When he spoke again, it came out a snarl. “He’ll ask me to do it again, and I can’t.”
Mustang looked him in the eye, and the wolf in Ed bridled at the threat. “The leader of our country is a monster,” Mustang said, simply. “I don’t want to make you a killer, Elric. But I need you in the mask. If we’re ever going to bring him down, I need allies. I have few enough.” He paused. “You’re no good to anyone dead, Elric,” he said, softly. “You won’t save anyone.”
“Fuck you,” Ed protested. But Mustang had a point, and Ed knew it. He couldn’t save the people that Kimbley had murdered. But he might be able to bear it, if he thought he could help build a country where that kind of thing didn’t happen anymore.
Ed dropped Kimbley’s body, pierced with a dozen steel spikes, at the feet of the Emperor.
“He went insane,” he said, summoning all the disgust he could manage. That was genuine, at least. Ed was thoroughly disgusted with this entire situation. “He attacked me, and let the rebels run free. He kept talking about my ‘secret’. I was forced to destroy him.” He paused. “Deepest apologies, Master,” he added, as an afterthought.
And this was it. Either the Emperor was going to buy this, or he was going to have the other Guardians execute him for a traitor. The Emperor looked down at him, his single eye hard and unreadable. The silence dragged on. Behind his new mask, Ed did his best to keep his face still and his body language unafraid.
“How unfortunate,” the Emperor said, finally. “Red Lotus was inspired. Still, I suppose he wasn’t entirely stable. Have him disposed of, and see that you clean up the rest of the rebel cell.”
“Yes, Master,” Ed said, biting back the sinking feeling in his stomach. He’d find another way. There had to be another way.
He could feel the Emperor’s gaze on him as he left the throne room. You will be watched, it said.
“Brother,” Al said, relieved. It was less than an hour until sunset- and the last night of the transformation- and it was good that Ed was back.
“Yeah,” Ed said. “I’m back. Everything’s okay, alright, Al? One more night here, and then we’re going to Resembool for a bit. The bastard promised. We could use a vacation.”
Al frowned. He could smell blood on Ed. Kimbley’s blood. “What happened, Brother?” he asked.
“I’m sorry, Al,” Ed said. Ed’s eyes looked... Yes, Al thought. They needed to go to Resembool. Ed needed Winry and Granny. He needed to be around people who knew that he was Ed, and not the Steel Guardian.
Al gritted his teeth, feeling the moon pull at him.
Hawkeye stood at the top of the stairs, watching Alphonse, chained, transform into a beast. Ed knelt in front of him, as if he couldn’t bear not to watch. Alphonse screamed and writhed and twisted. Finally, he lay, panting and growling, the transformation complete.
There, inside the radius of Edward’s prickling magic, Riza could hear both brothers begin to howl.