It had been an ordinary day for Paul Blackburn. He'd filed all the reports from East City on the progress of rebuilding the sewer mains, assigned the next detail of soldiers to be rotated into the garrison there, and watered the half-dead violet on his window sill. A perfectly ordinary day. Nothing that would have led him to expect the visitor who walked through his door at precisely 3:46 in the afternoon.
First the intercom on his desk began buzzing like mad, Heinkel's voice calling out in hysterics over the crackling of the line.
"Colonel Blackburn! It's... It's..."
"It's what?" he asked.
Then the door flew open and slammed into the wall. The blond standing in the doorway scrunched up his face, looking rather annoyed.
But it couldn't be. It just couldn't.
"You're not Colonel Mustang," was all the blond said.
"Ah, no, umm... Brigadier General Mustang is on the third floor now," Blackburn replied. "East Wing. Can I--"
"What the hell is he doing in R&D?!"
Blackburn stammered, still not sure he could believe his eyes. "It's... That's not... I mean, Research is in the West Wing. The Brigadier General is in charge of internal security. Is there anything I can- -"
"Security, huh? Thanks," the blond replied, and turned to walk away without even closing the door.
Heinkel stood up from his desk outside, watching the unexpected visitor walk away and slam the door to the hall behind him, then turned to Blackburn with eyes looking almost panicked.
"Edward Elric," Blackburn answered with a nod, picking up his phone and dialing the third floor as fast as he could. His fingers were shaking, making it hard to aim for the right numbers.
"I thought he was dead!"
Blackburn only had time to shrug at his secretary to indicate that he had no explanation, as Mustang's aide always answered before the end of the first ring.
"Internal Security. This is Hawkeye."
"Ah, yes. This is Blackburn, Eastern Liaison. I, ah... I need to speak with Brigadier General Mustang, please."
"He's in a meeting."
"Ah, well..." He trailed off, suddenly not sure he wanted to commit to identifying the visitor. Mustang had to know to expect someone, but it wasn't as if he could be sure that this someone was who he appeared to be. His eyes might have been playing tricks, and if he were wrong, he'd definitely get a great deal of the infamous Roy Mustang's attention -- then probably a quick demotion out of Central. "There's someone... Someone just stopped by my office, looking for the Brigadier General, and... ah..."
"Short, blond hair, brown coat?" Hawkeye asked, not waiting for him to continue.
"Yes," Blackburn answered. "That was him."
"We're aware. Thank you for calling," she said, and the phone line went dead.
Running his finger slowly over the table of numbers, Alphonse double and triple checked all of the patterns he'd extrapolated. There was no doubt in the progression of the seasonal water levels near the Briggs Mountain Range that Russell and Fletcher had gathered in the last year -- the far Northern reaches were heading for a drought, and it didn't make any sense. Weather patterns hadn't changed at all.
If they were going to fix the imbalances, they'd have to look for another cause.
Alphonse looked up from his notebook with a start to see Schiezka standing in the door, a frantic expression on her face.
"Major Elric..." she said, panting hard and flushed as if she'd been running. "I was just in the cafeteria, and I heard Avia-san saying--! I mean, I couldn't believe it, but- -"
"What did she say, Schiezka- san?"
"Edward-san! Your brother! People all over the building are saying they saw him walking around!"
He was on his feet before he could think, and his pencil fell out of his hand onto his charts, rolling away. He heard it hit the floor, but he couldn't have said where. "Nii-san?" he asked. "Here? Where in... Which hallway?"
"Coming around the corner outside of Colonel Blackburn's department -- she nearly ran into him, and he helped her pick up all the papers she dropped. I told her there had to be some mistake, but she said it was definitely Edward Elric, because she'd helped him find some books once, and after he said he was sorry for running into her, he started muttering something about Colonel Mustang moving his office."
Leaping up and grabbing his coat from the back of his chair, Alphonse vaulted the corner of his little desk and ran for the door in a daze of nervous excitement.
"Then I know where he'd be going," Alphonse said, flashing Schiezka a grin. She backed up to let him through the door, smiling in response. "Thanks a bunch!"
His shoes squeaked on the tile as he cornered hard and started sprinting down the West Wing's main hallway. "I'm glad I could help!" he heard Schiezka yelling behind him. Everyone in the hallway stopped whispering and moved to stand by the walls when they saw him dashing past. He was in luck -- no higher-ranked officers were out walking between his laboratory and the skywalk to the East Wing. He didn't have to stop, and made it there in just a breath or two.
He still had odd dreams now and then; memories of the years he'd traveled with Edward as a suit of armor resurfacing, or visions of his brother growing older and working hard in a strange, foreign world. When the generals had told him that they were moving his brother from the lists of soldiers whose location was unknown to the ranks of the missing and presumed dead, he'd nodded and kept his peace. They had their own way of doing things that didn't have anything to do with the peculiar link between the two of them. It was his brother who had kept his soul from disappearing, binding it to this world with his own life. A bond like that wasn't easily severed; he knew Edward was still alive.
Alphonse knew he was working as hard as he could to get back, by any means he could. He'd kept a journal by his bed to write down every detail of his dreams when he awoke to be sure he wouldn't miss any hint that he got.
It was just like his brother to surprise him anyway.
Before he knew it, he'd gotten to the front office of the Internal Security department. Captain Havoc looked up from his book with a casual salute to kick open the door. Captain Hawkeye was waiting inside, standing up to attention when he entered. He stood still long enough to return her salute with a smile. She nodded her head at the door and said, "He hasn't shown up yet, but go on in."
Alphonse breathed deeply, trying to calm his heart, which was hammering against his chest like a drum after his sudden run. He turned the door handle slowly and stepped inside. Brigadier General Mustang was alone, sitting at his desk and inspecting a piece of paper.
"Pardon me," Alphonse began, closing the door behind him.
Roy Mustang put the paper aside and leaned on the desk with an elbow. He knew he was supposed to salute upon meeting a superior officer, but the Brigadier had made it clear that he didn't want any ceremony when he was talking with 'old acquaintances'. Even though Alphonse only barely remembered the day they'd met, from memories of another life, for Mustang that was over a decade ago. Of course, even the five years since he'd gotten his old body back might count as a long acquaintance, but he'd only seen the Brigadier on a truly regular basis since he'd joined the military as a State Alchemist three months ago.
Besides that, in the scattered, hazy memories he'd regained, Roy Mustang had been much closer to his brother. Even while they'd both been preparing for the State Alchemists' exam, the officer had usually spoken to Edward -- and moreso after he was technically Edward's commander. But the Brigadier had said not to be so formal, so he just stood with a nervous smile and waited for the older man to speak.
"Well, if it isn't the Renewal Alchemist," Mustang answered at last. His tone seemed brighter than usual, less like the brusque demeanor of the Flame Alchemist who had earned every enemy he had in the upper ranks. Today, even his eyepatch didn't make him look particularly fearsome. "How kind of you to stop in. Have you solved the water crisis in the North already?" he asked with a laugh.
"Ah..." Alphonse's eyes went wide. Captain Hawkeye had just verified what Schiezka had said, hadn't she? Surely the Brigadier knew he wasn't here to discuss the situation in the mountains. "Not quite. We've identified some irregularities in the soil, but there's still a lot to be done... Sir."
"Well, you've done well so far," the Brigadier said. "I've been reviewing copies of your reports to see if they correlate with the movements of the border raiders from Drachma." The hint of cheerfulness showing on his usually serious face broke into a smile as he looked back down at the paper. "It's work worthy of the one of the Elric brothers."
He nodded slowly. "Thank - -"
His sentence was cut off by Captain Hawkeye opening the door and standing silently to the side at attention. Half a second later, his brother stormed in, one metal leg clanking and a worn, brown trenchcoat billowing, carrying a crumpled piece of paper in his right hand. It could have been a scene right out of a daydream or even a memory -- though he'd clearly gotten slightly taller since he left. Even with the extra lifts added to the sole on his left shoe, his brother's stride was a little uneven as his metal leg didn't grow with him. He'd have to call Winry as soon as possible. Edward would probably be trapped in meetings with the generals for a long while.
And of course, his brother could have gone anywhere. He hadn't gone to Resembool, where Alphonse might have expected him to look for... well, him. Or Winry, even if he wasn't remembering to get a new leg and arm. He hadn't even taken the time to call anyone. He'd come straight here.
Still, he had to let out a long sigh of relief. It was one thing to have heard reports that he just knew had to be his brother. It was quite another to see Edward with his own eyes, really there. One look at the tension falling out of the Brigadier's shoulders told Alphonse that he felt exactly the same way.
"You're late, Fullmetal," Mustang said, relaxing back in his chair and crossing his arms across his chest with a smirk.
"Up yours." His brother reached the desk and slammed the paper down hard, the solid thump of his automail hand even rattling the window panes behind the desk. "Who's half-assed now, huh? Who're you saying sucks so much, he can't even find his way home across one little dimensional shift, and doesn't deserve to call himself an alchemist?!"
"Oh, so you found my note?"
Alphonse stared at the Brigadier, who looked horribly pleased with his brother's uproar. He was pretty sure he knew which piece of paper that was. He hadn't been able to read it, but soon after Edward had gone back to Earth three years ago, his brother found something in his pocket and gotten so horribly upset upon seeing it that the feeling had been strong enough to wake Alphonse right up from the dream. That had been a piece of paper, he recalled. A piece of paper just like this one, which he'd found while he was looking for his keys. And his brother had certainly been angry enough to want to yell at the Brigadier immediately upon arrival.
To think the Brigadier would have taken teasing Nii-san far enough to leave a note in his pocket!
Of course, there had been a kind of sadness about his dreams for the few nights before that -- a heavy, hopeless feeling that he'd almost forgotten about now, since it hadn't lasted long. If the Brigadier's decision to tease Edward from the other side of the gate was the reason that strange despair had disappeared, he might owe Mustang a thank you for his odd behavior.
Nii-san will never say it, after all, he reflected as he watched his brother's screaming fit.
"You can take your note and shove it where the sun don't shine," Edward barked, arched over the desk in the Brigadier's face with his hands planted to either side of a pile of paperwork, "and then you and your note can both go to hell!" If he'd been a cat, his hair would have been standing all on end.
"Nii-san!" Alphonse cried out. There was no mistake. That was his brother.
Edward's head whipped around and a huge smile filled his face. "Al!" In a flash of brown and yellow, his long-lost older brother sprinted back across the floor and squeezed him half to death with a hug. "Al! I made it! I'm back! How've you been?"
"I can't breathe, Nii- san!"
"Ah, sorry!" His brother stepped back, putting his hands up behind his head and grinning ear to ear. Alphonse knew his body was only fifteen, and his brother would be past twenty by now, but somehow he'd still managed to grow four inches taller.
Best not to mention it.
With a quick look at the uniform Alphonse was wearing, Edward continued, "Got you in blue, huh? Not bad."
"I decided to take the test again a few months ago," he answered, holding up his silver watch with a grin before remembering that they were standing -- even if without formality -- in a ranking officer's presence. Alphonse glanced quickly over his brother's shoulder at the Brigadier. He wasn't trying to reclaim Edward's attention, and he didn't look put out. In fact, he looked like he was just listening in.
His brother nodded his head back toward Mustang's desk, saying, "And now you have to put up with this jackass, huh?" The Brigadier General coughed quietly into his hand at the remark, but neglected to stop smiling. "How's he treating you?"
Alphonse waved his hands frantically. "Oh, no! I work in Research," he said, assuming Mustang's expression meant it was all right to let the comment slide. He wasn't eager to pick a nit with his brother about how the Brigadier wasn't really a 'jackass'; Alphonse got the feeling that mentioning anything of the sort wouldn't go over any better than mentioning their height difference. But when the man was sitting right there--
Well, it was Edward, of course. Brigadier General Mustang of all people should understand that.
"I was just stopping by to see you," Alphonse went on. "But Nii-san, how did you do it? I would've thought we'd notice another gate opening, like last--" He paused for a second, remembering 'last time'. In his excitement, he'd forgotten one thing: a gate was a gate. "There's not another army coming, is there?" he finished with some concern.
Edward looked up toward the ceiling, scratching the back of his head with a sigh of deep thought emphasized by his brother's particular dramatic flair. On the one hand, it was the sort of thing his brother might follow with, 'No, of course not! Who do you think I am?' But on the other hand, what if this was one of the times he planned to follow it with, 'Maybe? But just a little one!' ? Mustang made a more pointed cough this time, managing to look slightly less pleased overall. His brother's eyebrow twitched, but kept his back to the desk, ignoring it.
"Did you hear something, Al?"
He shifted his eyes nervously between his brother and the desk. "Ah..."
"Fullmetal," the Brigadier said intently.
His brother whipped around with a snarl. "There's no army coming, all right?! It's just me," he snapped in the direction of the desk.
"Thank you for the reassurance," Mustang answered, leaning his elbows on the desk and his chin on his hands. "I'm not sure I could have heard the invasion over your stomping and screaming." Then the Brigadier General checked his watch with a troubled sigh and opened a nearby file on his desk. "Now, I'm sorry to interrupt the family reunion, Alphonse-kun, but I'm afraid I will need to hear Edward's official report on crossing back before he's called to give it to the advisory council."
His brother bared his teeth in a slightly manic grin, as if there weren't anything he'd rather do. Alphonse remembered that look. That look usually meant trouble. Turning quickly back, he winked at Alphonse and slapped him on the shoulder. "You'd better tell me everything once you're off the clock," Edward said.
Alphonse nodded, and heard Captain Hawkeye stepping out and closing the door. Meanwhile, he was still standing there. Should he follow her? The Brigadier hadn't asked him to leave, so that meant it was okay for him to stay and listen, right? And he really wanted to hear. There was a chance the military would decide it was classified information, of course, but Edward would tell him later, which Mustang should know. Why not just stay to hear it now?
He followed with only a slight hesitation as his brother strode over to one of the chairs in front of Mustang's desk. While he took the other seat, he couldn't help wondering if perhaps the Brigadier was just too busy having a glaring match with his brother to notice that he was still here. Well, his brother was glaring. The Brigadier was just as focused, but he looked amused.
"You want a report, Colonel? I'll give you a report."
"Please. Enlighten me, Fullmetal," Mustang replied.
Edward opened his jacket and reached into a pocket inside, rummaging for a moment before pulling out a thin brown hardcover book, which he then threw on the desk. Alphonse sat nervously in his chair, keeping his hands folded in his lap and his mouth closed, even though he very much wanted to know what was written there. He'd find out soon enough, he told himself. Meanwhile, his brother waited with uncharacteristic patience for Brigadier General Mustang to pick up the volume and flip through a few pages. After a moment, the Brigadier's one good eye went wide and his eyebrow arched high. While he scanned the text, engrossed, a small motion from his brother caught Alphonse's eye. Keeping his attention fixed on Mustang, he leaned forward and silently pulled the note he'd been so angry about off the desk. After he slid the paper into the pocket where the book had been, he resumed his old position and waited, eyes still locked on the progress of the Brigadier's reading. Finally, Mustang closed the little book again, looked with some confusion at the cover, and proceeded to redirect that confusion at his brother.
"You published a novel?" the Brigadier asked, then glanced at the conspicuously empty desk where the note had been a moment earlier.
Alphonse raised an eyebrow, turning from Mustang back to his brother, not quite sure whose behavior confused him more. Now he was both extra curious as to what was in the book and somewhat afraid to find out -- though not quite curious enough to completely stop wondering why Edward would want to keep that note. Hadn't he come to return it?
Nii-san, he worried inside his head. What are you trying to do now?
His brother cleared his throat to call Mustang's attention back to the answer he was about to give and leaned forward on his knees, matching the Brigadier General stare for stare. Alphonse held his breath, waiting in a panic to hear what Edward was going to say.
"I fell down a rabbit-hole," was the reply.
He stared blankly at his brother's smug grin. Alphonse had expected something unexpected, but that was more unexpected than he'd really been prepared for.
When Mustang sat back in his chair, leaning on one of the arm rests, Edward fell back in his own and crossed his arms across his chest.
The Brigadier's expression turned deliberately calm, even though Alphonse was sure that anyone would still be confused after something like that. As explanations went, it was awfully strange. "You fell down a rabbit-hole," he repeated.
His brother just shrugged. "That's my story, and I'm sticking to it."
Cringing just a little, Alphonse wondered if Edward was trying to make it obvious that he was lying, or if this was just his usual complete lack of concern for people's opinions.
The Brigadier simply scratched his chin and replied, "I see." He didn't look very convinced. Alphonse had to admit, of course, that the story wasn't very convincing. Despite that, Mustang picked up a pen and set the point on the paper in front of him, tapping it a few times. He paused there, not writing, and turned the line of his attention back up to Edward with a troubled sigh.
"Was this a particular rabbit-hole, or are Leporids on this 'Earth' known for digging burrows that reach into other worlds?" he asked in a tone that Alphonse knew was sarcastic, but -- for once in his experience with the Brigadier -- thought might not be sarcastic enough. If he didn't know better, he would have said that Mustang was actually going to enter this into an official record, even though he had to know his brother was telling a story.
The Brigadier could tell. Alphonse was sure of it. Certainly, on an issue so important, when rumor had it Mustang had half the generals on the council watching his every move for another step out of line, he wouldn't help Edward tell a lie that bad.
His brother jumped to his feet, tapping the cover of the book with his left hand and turning red in the face as he yelled. "Did you even read the first page?! Freaking huge rabbit, with a watch, who talks." Alphonse sat up a little higher in his chair, trying to get a better look at the cover. Sure enough, there was a rabbit there, standing on his hind legs and wearing a vest. "How obvious does a chimera have to be?!" Edward demanded. "And this girl follows him into a world full of chimera and elixirs and... and playing card golems, for crying out loud! I thought it had to be a dimensional rift. So I found it," his brother finished, sitting down with a shrug and crossing his arms again. "End of report."
"Nii-san..." Alphonse broke in, wincing.
Edward turned to face him with a questioning noise.
"... Nevermind." He was sure his brother had thought about his story for a long time and determined that this was the best thing to do. It probably wasn't, since his brother was a horrible liar, but he certainly wouldn't be able to talk him out of it now.
He'd ask what Edward thought he was doing, telling a story like that, sometime later -- after they'd left Central Headquarters and gone home for the evening.
Besides, the Brigadier General would probably like to ask for himself, and there was some pretense that this was his brother's report to a superior officer -- even if it strained credibility. Mustang was flipping through the book again, clearing his throat. Looking pointedly at Edward and then back at an early page, he started reading out the text.
"Enquiries have been so often addressed to me," he began, and Alphonse saw an uncomfortable blush starting to rise on his brother's face, "as to whether any answer to the Hatter's riddle (see page 60) can be imagined, that I may as well put on record here what seems to me to be a fairly appropriate answer." Mustang narrowed his eyes at Edward, who looked up at a far corner of the room, brushing his bangs off his face. "Viz.," he began again, "'Because it can produce a few notes, though they are very flat; and it is... 'nevar' put with the wrong end in front." Shutting the book, he finished, "This, however, is merely an afterthought: the Riddle as originally invented, had no answer at all."
His brother turned back and laced his fingers behind his head. "And?"
Alphonse's head drooped, and his hands clenched tighter in his lap. He was fairly certain he was feeling enough embarrassment right at that moment to make up for his older brother's complete lack of shame.
The Brigadier dropped the volume back on the desk and pushed it towards Edward, shaking his head. "Honestly, Fullmetal. If you're going to try and sell the council this kind of a fantasy, the least you could do is tear out the author's preface."
"You want me to tear pages out of a book!?" his brother gasped, clenching his hands on the arm rails and turning as white as he'd been red a moment before.
The rising level of murderous rage in the air was enough to make Alphonse wince again. His brother really liked books.
"I'd prefer it if you'd tell me what you're so intent on keeping out of your official account," Mustang replied, closing the file and pushing it away. "Nursery stories aside."
Edward grinned, fishing inside another pocket in his jacket -- this time, one on the outside. "Check this out," he said with a laugh. His tone made Alphonse perk up. The glimpses of this and that he'd seen in his dreams over the past few years -- the strange diagrams and equations flashing piecemeal before his eyes as he slept -- were all things he couldn't trust himself to reproduce when he woke up, let alone understand without context. If Edward was about to explain what had actually happened, he didn't want to miss an instant.
A moment later, his brother set a brass machine not much bigger than a pocket watch on the desk. It stood on a tripod, with tube the size of his little finger on one leg feeding into a tiny maze of capillaries that surrounded a clear globe. Inside was another globe, mounted like a gyroscope and filled with tiny gears. The overall shape and construction was vaguely familiar. He could recall an image or two of his brother at work in a small, wood-paneled room, shaping grey spheres like the ones mounted in the gear-work and testing them somehow.
He remembered the iron shavings his brother used in the tests, how they snapped into lines radiating out of opposite points on the spheres, how Edward had measured the distance of the furthest row of shavings when he'd picked the ones he'd used, and how he'd marked the points on the surface where those lines converged.
Magnets. They were magnets, Alphonse recalled.
Edward pulled the book a few inches closer and placed the brass tripod carefully on top. Leaning down, he blew into the large tube gently, soft enough that Alphonse couldn't even hear him exhale.
The gears moved slowly, spinning the six magnets inside the central globe in erratic orbits around nothing. After the initial revolution, they rearranged abruptly with a clank, now spinning in cleaner, more perfect circles. As they did, both device and book seemed to wobble -- even while sitting firmly on the solid desk. Alphonse's eyes widened slightly, then darted up to look at the Brigadier. Even Roy Mustang wasn't bothering to look disinterested. His eyes were fixed on the unstable book and the strange little device with a great deal of fascination.
His brother stopped blowing and looked up at the Brigadier. As the gears slowed, the book regained its steadiness. "It's a Quantum Dimensional Oscillator," he said. "Those magnets spinning in there set up an electromagnetic field -- six of them to lay in an exact vector to push me back home. The faster they spin, the stronger the field."
Frowning, Alphonse considered that, even with the scattered dreams of his brother's years on the other side of the gate, he couldn't quite make sense of the explanation. He knew what magnets were, and he knew what electricity was, but he had never heard of electromagnetics, and he didn't immediately see how a spinning magnet could make you unstuck in space the way he'd just seen it work on the book. He'd only ever known them to stick to metal. That was fine, though. He'd have all the time in the world to get his brother to explain the theory properly. It was more the word 'push' that was bothering him, since it sounded like his brother had decided to put himself on the head of a kind of invisible battering ram to open the door between the two worlds. He'd seen the tremendous amount of power it had taken to open the gate Edward had stepped through to get lost in the first place, and the invading army's gate had uprooted most of the city. That was no small level of force.
Nii-san, why must you always dive in recklessly like that? What if you'd gotten hurt?
It was some consolation that his brother was standing right in front of him without a scratch, clearly unharmed by the trip. "I hooked this thing up to a steam engine," he was saying while Alphonse worried, "and boom! Here I was, headfirst in a haystack on some farm in the middle of nowhere. Gave the farmer what was left of the steam hose. I think he used it to patch a fence."
"Lucky for your head there was a haystack to land in, I suppose."
His brother scoffed at what Alphonse considered a perfectly legitimate expression of concern, and Brigadier General Mustang picked up the device to examine it more closely. "Please tell me that you built this, and that there aren't any more like it," he continued, his tone quiet and serious.
Alphonse turned back to his brother nervously. He'd said that there wasn't an army coming through now, it was true, but he'd created a travel device in only three years. What if more people in that world could do the same? What was more, he'd come through without anyone noticing him until he'd walked into Central Headquarters. The only thing that might deservedly put the country more on alert than a possible invasion was a possible sneaky invasion.
"That's the only one," Edward answered, which relieved Alphonse at least. Mustang didn't look nearly as reassured. His brother shrugged and sat down again, going on without the least concern. "I brought all my notes with me, too. Not that it'd do 'em much good if they had a spare, though, since it only worked because I didn't belong there."
The Brigadier General frowned, turning a questioning stare from the little object in his hand to where Edward was lazing in his chair. "What do you mean by that?"
"Well, in theory you could set it up so they could come here, or one of us could go there," his brother replied, scratching the tip of his nose while he scrunched up his face, and sounding more put-out by the second, "but you'd have to be able to align the magnets in the fifth and sixth dimensions, and you'd need a hell of a lot more power than I used." As he went on talking, Edward's face lit up with the grin he always had when he felt particularly brilliant. "It turns out, a strong magnet reacts to the way electromagnetic fields got warped all around me, and I figured that'd carry across to all the dimensions. I decided to try making the gears self-adjusting so they could set up a vector on their own. And, boy, could I feel it when I got that right. It was like a sock straight to the gut -- I couldn't even eat til the next day."
The comment left Alphonse's toes curling in his shoes. Possibly it would be more reasonable not to be overly concerned for Edward's general health and well-being because of a temporary inability to eat when his brother was now clearly safe and sound. He was just over -reacting. But on the other hand, his brother couldn't possibly have done enough testing to make sure his little mechanism was safe before he'd tried it. For all he could have known, this method he'd found could have put him in serious danger. Then again, was there an option he could have been sure was safe, without an arrangement that would let him see through the gate to the result of a 'push' to Amestris? The fact that his brother was sitting here at all was only because he took those kinds of stupid risks. Yelling out 'Nii-san, what if you'd died!?' would be like saying he shouldn't have bothered to come home. That was the last thing Alphonse wanted, to be sure.
Silence dragged on as Alphonse tried to put out of mind both the potential dangers and the fact that his brother didn't seem to notice them properly. Meanwhile, Edward looked quickly back and forth between Alphonse and Mustang. "What's with you two?"
The Brigadier was staring right back at his brother, not exactly looking as terrified for Edward's safety as Alphonse felt, but not best pleased either. Then Mustang closed his eye, rubbing his forehead with a quiet sigh. "Nothing," he said, turning back to reexamine the array of magnets in the apparatus his brother had produced. "So, you're saying this would be definitively impossible to align?" he asked after thinking for a moment. "Even for you?"
Alphonse was terribly uncertain what was meant by aligning anything in more than three dimensions, but as Mustang seemed willing to accept the concept for the moment, he bit his tongue as well. The fact that Edward meant it to sound difficult was clear enough, certainly, even without the glimpses of many-colored diagrams that had bled across the connection between his brother and himself, full of curving lines and unfamiliar marks and arrows pointing every which way. Another thing for the list of things he'd ask his brother to explain later, he supposed.
Edward's face settled into a dark scowl, and his voice fairly dripped with irritation. "Wouldn't be a piece of cake, but yeah, it might be possible."
"And how much power would you say is 'a hell of a lot'?" Mustang asked next.
"You know," Edward replied, "there's a reason why I don't want the military to have that thing."
Mustang broke his stare away from the tripod, turning a raised eyebrow on his brother as he set the device down on the desk. "Well, then. I imagine you must be certain that nothing like it will bring itself to their attention. So reassure me -- how much power?"
Edward's annoyance clearly wasn't wilted in the least by the Brigadier's expression, but no one would want to be the person who could have warned the country about an invasion and didn't. Alphonse was sure that even his brother would have to admit it was a relevant question. "To blow a hole in the fabric of the universe and turn it inside out? How about a metric fuckton?"
"In standard units, please, Fullmetal," Mustang said, crossing his arms and using a tone that anyone would know who'd seen his brother and the Brigadier in the same room together. It was a tone that said he was willing to be very patient, and that no one would be leaving until he got an answer he liked.
After letting out a frustrated sigh, Edward shut his eyes tight and dropped his chin down to think hard before answered. A moment later, he said, "Around... six trillion, seven hundred thirty-six thousand one hundred seventy billion, sixty-four thousand six hundred thirty-two million, four hundred forty-eight thousand two hundred eleven point eight joules." Opening his eyes again, he glared at the Brigadier. "Ish. You know, a lot." When the only response Mustang had was to aim an exaggerated look of concern at the device with a sigh, he shot to his feet again, slamming his hands on the desk. "You'd need the combined energy of about a billion loaded trucks doing 160, all right?" he yelled. "All aimed at the head of a pin!"
Alphonse cringed, recoiling from the tempers flaring around him and wishing they could just go back to being happy his brother was back home in one piece, as increasingly unlikely as the prospect seemed.
After considering a moment longer, Mustang took his seat, folding his hands and turning his gaze away from the strange little artifact in the middle of his desk to laugh softly at the overreaction. Edward, at least, seemed to calm down. Alphonse wasn't sure whether he should be more relieved that his brother had found some loophole that had kept him from needing that much power, or worried that some army from one world or the other would find a loophole like it and start another war. Both what he was saying about the astronomical force making a gate would require and what he was saying about having bypassed that force sounded like he was telling the truth.
Quieter now, with a little less irritation in his stance, his brother flicked the tripod with his finger. "I don't think a toy like that could take much more than I fed it without busting, let alone that kind of pressure. Not to mention the unlucky bastard who'd get splattered trying it out."
Alphonse saw the Brigadier's eye widen for an instant when those last words came out of Edward's mouth. As for himself, he thought his heart might stop. If there was anything more nervewracking than thinking his brother hadn't stopped to imagine the possible repercussions of his actions, it was knowing he had done so and then proceeded without so much as a helmet.
It seemed very unlikely that his brother had bothered with a helmet.
"Then I'm glad you had so much success with your steam engine," Mustang said, his expression turning stern. "If you were to 'splatter' like an ordinary man, I'd be in a bit of a difficult situation here."
"Are you calling me a liar?" Edward growled.
"Asks the man who's planning to say he fell through a rabbit-hole."
His brother's spine went straight and his face apoplectic with anger as he yelled "That's different!" before retreating a step to collapse into his chair with visible annoyance. Edward slumped down and closed his eyes, rubbing his temples with his fingers. "Where's Einstein when you need him?" he muttered. "I hate explaining this shit."
Alphonse had his hazy memories telling him that this was just how the two of them behaved, fighting like two cats with one fish to share over every little thing, but in a way, this was the first time he'd seen it with his own eyes. If they really did get along this badly, why was Mustang's office the first place his brother had decided to go? Surely even an aggravating note wouldn't make him head to Central to see someone he couldn't stand instead of to Resembool.
Well, actually... I suppose Nii-san just might.
Alphonse turned from his brother's slouched figure to the man on the other side of the desk, and when he looked, he had to blink to be certain he wasn't imagining things -- specifically, the way the Brigadier's face had changed after Edward had closed his eyes. The hard mask of the man who'd been chiding his brother not two seconds before had melted away into the face of someone who wasn't the least bit upset. He looked fond -- even happy, with a hint of a smile that was nothing at all like a smirk crossing his lips. Just... It was maybe silly to think, but Alphonse had the oddest certainty that Brigadier General Mustang was just glad to see him.
And why would Mustang have written his brother a taunting note anyway, if not to make sure he would find a way back? Even if it was only to throw that note in his face...
And then inexplicably steal it back to put in his pocket. Perhaps his brother wasn't as upset as he'd claimed?
No, Alphonse thought. That would just be silly. He was sure he could tell when his brother was really, actually upset and when he was playing. There must have been another reason.
The Brigadier caught his stunned stare before too long; Alphonse saw Mustang look in his direction quickly before clearing his throat and adjusting his expression again to one that was better suited to an officer taking a subordinate's report. "I'm quite clear on the level of power that was required to open doors between the two worlds in the past," Mustang said to break the silence, checking his watch, then pulling the file he'd opened earlier toward him and taking up his pen. "Human transmutation, the construction you described during the invasion... That makes perfect sense. Your steam engine and magnetic paperweight are another matter entirely."
Edward stopped brooding enough to open one eye and reply in a surly tone. "Yeah, well, I wasn't trying to flip time and space on their asses, was I?" he said, not even bothering to sit up. "I'd already done it when I walked through to their side."
"How convenient," Mustang replied, answering his brother's slouch by not looking up from the notes he was writing in his file. "Explain that, if you would, Fullmetal."
"It's like..." His brother sat up properly when he began, pausing and screwing up his face like he'd never thought harder in his life. "It's like there's not two worlds, there's just one world, but we're the front and they're the back. Or like... Here, look at this." Edward pulled off one of this gloves, waiting for Mustang to look up. "See this? How it's got an inside and an outside?"
From the way the Brigadier hid his mouth behind his hands when he leaned his elbows on the desk, Alphonse had a suspicion that he was smiling that smile again. "Oh, certainly," he said. "Go on."
His brother tore a hole open in the back of the glove with a jerk and reached in to pull a point of fabric from the inside up through the hole in a peak, twisting the whole glove around strangely. Alphonse remembered a diagram like this, too, from a little over a year ago. He'd tried to sketch it in his dream journal about three times and scratched them all out as too confusing before the image left in his memory had faded. "That was me. That took work. But to go back through..."
Edward picked the glove up by one end, and as the twists in the fabric righted themselves, the peak he'd pulled from the inside the glove fell back into place. "No major pressure required. And the whole matter-energy-space system has one big electromagnetic field that I'd gotten all twisted up around me because I'm from here, where everything's upside-down and backwards to there, and-- Don't laugh when people are talking to you!"
He looked up from his brother's glove demonstration to see that the Brigadier had dropped his hands and was trying to contain a full-blown grin. It only took a moment for him to succeed at containing it, resuming the pleasant expression he'd been wearing when Alphonse had first walked in. "It's good to have you here, Fullmetal," Mustang said and picked up his pen once more.
Pulling his glove back onto his hand, his brother grumbled, "Don't you even think I came back because of that stupid note you left in my pocket, either. I would've done it anyway."
"Oh, you fulfilled my expectations precisely."
The Brigadier and his brother stared each other down for another moment without speaking. The atmosphere wasn't exactly hostile, but Alphonse had the uncomfortable feeling that, as interesting as his brother's explanations were, stepping outside with Captain Hawkeye might have been a better choice.
His brother scowled and sighed, turning his eyes away as he clapped his hands and touched the rip in his glove, healing it up like it had never been. As he did, the Brigadier turned, thoroughly fascinated, to the little curiosity sitting on his desk. When Edward looked up and noticed, he spoke again, this time more quietly than before.
"I'm serious when I say I don't want the brass to know that thing exists. There's a known process to open that door from our end. If they find out they can get back here with no problem, they might want to use it."
The Brigadier General looked hard at the construction of metal and glass, pushing it slowly in a circle with one finger and narrowing his eyes in thought before finally pushing it back towards Edward. His brother didn't even say a proper 'thank you' when he picked it up and put it back in his pocket, but both men gave each other a look that told Alphonse they'd reached whatever understanding they'd needed. Mustang pulled the novel back across the desk and started to page through the text, tapping his pen on the paper. "As much as I'd like to let you go, I received a message a few minutes before you both came in that the Council of Generals wants to hear your official report today," he said, pausing to check his watch again before resuming his examination of the rabbit story. "...In rather less than half an hour. Congratulations, Fullmetal: your sudden and miraculous appearance at our front door has caused the Council to set new records for efficiency."
His brother let out a quiet laugh that didn't sound amused.
"I know that you and Alphonse have a great deal to catch up on. Quite frankly, I wouldn't mind taking you out for a drink myself, but I've been ordered to escort you to chambers at 4:30 PM. That doesn't leave much time here."
"What, you mean you're not Fuhrer already?"
Mustang looked up from the book briefly, but didn't reply.
"Look, I've got it," Edward continued. "I'll go, and we'll get this overwith." Then, he turned to Alphonse to say, "I'll find you over in R&D once they're done with me, Al. I'm sorry."
"Oh no, that's pretty much what I expected, Nii-san. I'll wait for you." He stood up from his chair, not certain if he should salute or not now that he wasn't technically alone with the Brigadier. Eventually, Alphonse decided that having his brother for company made the group less formal and not more so. He bowed quietly to excuse himself, and started walking towards the door.
Over his shoulder, he heard the Brigadier asking, "Are you certain that a magic rabbit-hole is the best you can do?"
Alphonse turned back around once he'd pulled the door open a crack, just in time to see his brother fishing something else out from inside his coat.
This time, it was a green book. "I've got one with flying monkeys and silver shoes," he said, not sounding any more worried than when he'd suggested the rabbit. "Would that be better?"
With a smile, he stepped out and closed the door behind him, saluting Captain Hawkeye again before walking slowly back to the laboratory. His brother was home, after all.
Everything was going to be all right.
1) "Down the Rabbit-Hole" is the title of the first chapter of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. Subsequent chapter titles have all been similarly chosen. Virtual cookies for anyone who can guess a source book.
2) Col. Blackburn: named for the Blackburn Roc (fighter plane, RAF)
Heinkel: named for a series of night fighters used by the Luftwaffe
Avia: named for a Czechoslovakian bi-plane.
3) Mustang's quote from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is from Lewis Carroll's original "Preface to the Eighty-Sixth Thousand", Christmas 1896. Later editions were revised such that "never" was properly spelled, but the original was intended as a pun (wherein the word "raven" had been "put with the wrong end in front").
4) "6,736,170,064,632,448,211.8 joules"
The amount of energy contained in mass equivalent to the weight of an average German adult, according to the formula E=mc^2 -- an attempt to estimate the energy produced by human transmutation. Because I lack any ability to "just make something up", this number was in fact calculated. It should not, however, be considered to have any more meaning than a random number, as the mass of the human is not shown to affect the transmutation. I simply wished to generate a number of sufficient scale.
The further estimate of one billion trucks was determined by using the approximation that a one-ton vehicle would use one megajoule (one million joules) of energy to move at 160 kilometers per hour. I used the maximum safe road weight of a 2-axle truck of the type seen in the series (approximately 7.2 tons) to determine a minimum number: 935,579,175,644 trucks. This was rounded up to the next place value to allow for variances in weight, and to make the number simpler to read (in contrast to the previous number, which was meant to be long and complicated).
5) "Thousand Billion"?
Edward's phrasing of this number is given in long-scale notation. Translating into short-scale notation (more common in America), the number Edward gives would be written as: 6 quintillion, 736 quadrillion, 170 trillion, 64 billion, 632 million, 448 thousand, 211 point 8 joules. The number of trucks he mentions would likewise be one trillion.
6) The Quantum Dimensional Oscillator
Fair warning: I am not a quantum physicist, and my theories may contradict subjective statements by characters in the anime or manga.
The "gate" between the two worlds seems to be a physical manifestation of the alchemical energy circulated from Earth through the alchemist, appearing when transferred in excessive levels. The path it creates to Earth is clearly a physical link, but also proceeds in an "invisible" direction reminiscent of a three-dimensional space intersecting with a fourth-dimensional motion. By analogy explored at length in the full note, I have related this to a three-dimensional cube that is the side of a tesseract -- with Earth being the cube as the "inside" limit of the tesseract and Amestris as the "outside" limit of the tesseract.
Though the two worlds have separate three-dimensional existences, forces such as alchemical energy and electromagnetism are active in the fourth dimension. When Edward transfers his material form from the "outside" of the four-dimensional space to the "inside", he thereby creates a tiny fold in the electromagnetic fields of the full, multi-dimensional structure in a similar fashion to the twisting effect he demonstrated with his glove.
As the relevant time period he spends on Earth is during the height of initial development for multi-dimensional space theory and especially quantum electrodynamics, it seemed plausible that the scientists he consulted would be able to introduce him to these concepts. Moreover, strong magnetic fields have a demonstrated ability to realign nearby magnetic fields -- such as magnetizing a piece of metal or aligning metal shavings. The Quantum Dimensional Oscillator was designed on the theory that the "fold" in the electromagnetic structure of surrounding space created when Edward came to Earth could be undone by application of a corrective magnetic force, thus placing his material form in its original plane.
The astronomically high estimate of power required to create such a fold reflects the observation that only levels of force found in black holes are able to exert such effects on electromagnetic structures. However, this also implies a resistance in those electromagnetic structures that should already be exerting great force on Edward while he is "folded". Given this, a much lesser force would be required to undo this fold than would be required to create one from nothing -- hence the steam engine and magnetic paperweight.
My apologies to science.
Chapter 2: "Home Again"
All heads turned to the furthest corner of the room, where Major General Saulnier cleared her throat and tapped her pen slowly on the table before looking at Brigadier General Mustang.
"I take it that you believe this rabbit-hole story?" she asked.
The echo of shuffling papers and the scratch of pens filling the silence in the council hall was doing little to take the edge off what had been one of the most harrowing half hours in Col. Blackburn's military career. He'd been on battlefields, had held his position and faced down enemies, but he'd never been the type to attract attention. He certainly didn't remember doing anything that would get him the kind of attention that involved being summoned without notice by the eleven members of the Council of Generals (with the Fuhrer Oliver H.P. Halifax himself also in attendance) to hear Brigadier General Mustang recount what he had called a folktale from this other world -- about a girl named Alice having a series of bizarre adventures in a place the storyteller had called "Wonderland".
Well, he wasn't quite sure what he'd just heard, as the story had been more than a bit bewildering, but he was even less sure why he'd been called to hear it. All he'd done was redirect Lieutenant Colonel Elric (it seemed the Fullmetal Alchemist had been promoted in his absence) to the office of Internal Security, where Roy Mustang appeared quite content to have taken responsibility for the situation.
Unnervingly content, really.
Blackburn flinched at the sudden scrape of Marshal Lavochkin's chair on the floor, cutting through the quiet room like a shot. Even from the other side of the room, the Marshal's otherwise silent dissatisfaction was enough to make him sweat; but when he turned his head slowly back to the witness table, he could see that Brigadier General Roy Mustang stood at ease, facing General Saulnier's question without any hint of concern. He'd only met the Brigadier a time or two before this, always in passing. That had been quite enough to terrify him, mostly because he'd never understood what made the man so special. In the hallways, the hum of the air changed when he walked by, and his career was a legend. It wasn't every man who made Brigadier by thirty, let alone getting his rank back by thirty-four after talking his way out of accusations that he'd killed Fuhrer King Bradley (better than half the officers were sure he'd done it, too) and the irrefutable fact that he'd been responsible for about one and a half coups d'etat within a two-year span.
And now he's in charge of Security!
But even if Mustang could do that, Blackburn still didn't know how he could stand before the leaders of the military and testify that Elric had returned through a rabbit-hole. Whatever spark it was that made the Flame Alchemist legendary, at least he could be sure he never wanted it for himself.
"What's not to believe?" Mustang asked. "From the reports during the invasion three years ago, it was clear that many people on 'Earth' have developed mythology of this sort around our world."
No fear, no worry. If he had to put any cast on that demeanor, it would have to have been 'surprise'. But then, the Brigadier General couldn't have been worrying that his story was ridiculous. Worries like that would have stopped him from telling that story in the first place, what with its vanishing cats and its mushrooms that changed your shape and size.
Was that meant to be here?
What the hell would make anyone think that the nonsensical fantasy land the Brigadier had described was meant to be here? Maybe he wasn't a genius like Edward Elric, but his understanding of reality did not include talking rabbits who made their burrows in 'natural rifts' that the Fullmetal Alchemist could use to travel between worlds. Nor any queen in any country in history who had kept an army of playing cards, for that matter. Surely someone would have noticed.
But beyond all those wonderings about incredible things, the point that Blackburn had the most trouble understanding was why he was here. In this room.
Blackburn shifted his gaze to Mustang's right to examine the newly returned Elric, who had yet to speak for himself. He was startlingly young to be a Lieutenant Colonel. Of course, Blackburn had known his story (everyone did), but now that he was sitting in the same room, it seemed that Elric was even younger-looking than the twenty-one years he understood the man to have. On the other hand, Elric seemed far more comfortable in front of the council than Blackburn felt himself. He'd yielded the floor right off to Mustang -- to whom he said he'd given a full report and who'd be able to tell the Generals what they needed to know 'efficiently' -- and then he'd started scowling. He was casting a steady glare over at the left-hand table, slouched just low enough in his chair that he could rest his right leg on the table rail.
If Blackburn wasn't mistaken, the young man was engaging in a staring contest with Lieutenant General Mistan Bloch, and the red-headed General was smirking back. Well, perhaps General Bloch knew something about the story that the others didn't? He was the Rubicon Alchemist, after all -- the only State Alchemist to be named to the Council to date. But surely if he'd heard something amiss, he'd have mentioned it. The man hadn't objected once in the course of Mustang's testimony. As Blackburn understood it, that was practically a record.
"I am given to understand that opening such a gate takes an extraordinary amount of effort, preparation and skill, Brigadier General." Hakuro's voice boomed across the hall from his new seat next to the Fuhrer. His recent promotion to full General didn't seem to have helped his temper. "The idea that any man could stumble upon one by accident is, quite frankly, ludicrous."
"Well, certainly, it takes significant work to create a link between the two worlds," Mustang replied without hesitating. At his side, Elric turned towards the Brigadier, the first time he'd broken his staring match with Bloch during the entire proceeding. "As you, my honored colleagues, will know, it also takes a certain degree of effort, preparation, and skill -– not to mention resources -– to build a canal, but rivers do exist." The blond alchemist snorted quietly and tried to hide a smile behind his hand, but Blackburn could see the very edge of it. Mustang turned his steady calm on the sound of amusement, finishing with, "Mr. Elric has explained to my satisfaction that this kind of link is no different."
The surly blond, who had begun glaring at Mustang after his last sentence, sat up straighter in his chair and removed his leg from the table rail while the council members whispered among themselves. If the Brigadier General had noticed the change in Elric's posture, he didn't give any indication of it.
"Clarify that, if you would, Lt. Colonel Elric," General Saulnier asked.
The alchemist cleared his throat. "Well, that's a bit simplified, but he's got the basic idea."
"I think we'd all like to know exactly what we're dealing with here." Blackburn's own direct commander, Lt. General Fieseler, was seated closest to their end of the room on the right, and his loud voice was even more humorless than usual.
Elric sighed, leaning his head back and rubbing his eyes. "Let's see. Interdimensional tunnels, huh?" He sat up and scanned all the generals' faces. "The thing is probability density, all right? You see, the energy we use in transmutation here exists in both worlds, but it's not energy in the normal sense -- potential, kinetic, whatever. It's... ah. Stuff. The scientists on Earth call it... well..." The blond coughed into his hand. "Since it's both a particle of matter and subject to interference patterns that're unique to wave forms, they call it a wavicle. It's a tiny piece of subatomic matter that can exist simultaneously on both parallel planes, 'cause it's essentially decomposed already."
All through the council chamber, the commanding generals of the military nodded slowly, some of them hovering a pen over a notepad without being sure what to write down and all of them with wide eyes fixed on the Fullmetal Alchemist. Blackburn, personally, had no idea what Elric was talking about.
"If you get a high concentration of wavicles in one region, like when an alchemist does a massive enough transmutation, matter that's filled with 'em gets pulled through the aether, but it's a one-way trip. Obviously."
"Perhaps you could explain to those of us who aren't alchemists why that's so obvious, Lt. Colonel," said Marshal Lavochkin. Blackburn had been wondering himself, but the Marshal, as the second highest ranked officer in the military, was in a much better position to refuse to be bewildered.
"Have you ever tried to stick two magnets, north end to north end?" Elric asked in reply. "This has the same problem. You can't reverse the polarity."
"And we should take your word on that?"
Elric looked at him like he'd never heard a more stupid question in his life. "Well, you can try to do it, if you want. I won't stop you. But where was I?" He rubbed the back of his head as he thought. "Right. Probability density. So, in its dormant state, the wavicle is technically... well, anywhere and everywhere. Being close enough to decomposition to be in both planes means you can't actually pin it down to any one spot in any one world. So, given a spot in either place, or a cross-mapped point in both places, there's only a chance that any given wavicle will be there, and it's not an equal chance for each spot. That's probability density -- how likely it is that you've got a wavicle around. And when a region maps with a high probability density for a large enough number of wavicles, it's possible to have a convergence equivalent to what a major alchemical reaction generates, since all a transmutation really does is alter the probability density of the space around it. A natural convergence that size is rare, sure. Hell, before I tracked that one down, it was theoretical. But the story in that book matched the phenomenon way too well not to check it out. And so, here I am."
"Probability density," said Marshal Wright, the only man besides the Fuhrer who outranked Lavochkin. His voice dripped with incredulity.
But really, Blackburn thought to himself, if a genius like him took three years to study it, which of us will understand in less than three minutes?
"Yeah," Elric answered. "Probability density. What do you think made that Alice girl fall so slow?"
A hush fell over the council as the generals considered the alchemist's story and the calm smile on Mustang's face. Major General Saulnier tapped the end of her pen twice on the table, deep in thought, before finally saying, "So a canal and a river, as you said, Brigadier General Mustang. Please continue your report."
"Yes, Madam Secretary. I have nothing further," the Brigadier replied. "I merely commend Mr. Elric's creative use of local folklore in finding such a natural connection. His ingenuity in this case is not to be doubted."
"Certainly," said the Fuhrer, speaking up at last. "We'll need to study that book, of course."
"I want it back," Elric put in, sounding just as accusatory as he looked.
Mustang turned to look at him. Just looked, and the Fullmetal Alchemist, who hadn't had a word to say to Blackburn except 'You're not Colonel Mustang' glared back, but fell silent.
It was Marshal Levochkin who answered. "Your property will be returned when and if we determine that there is no danger to the state in leaving it unclassified. Thank you for your debriefing on the Lieutenant Colonel's report, Brigadier General. A few last questions, Lieutenant Colonel, if you would."
As Mustang took his chair, he knocked Elric's with his leg so smoothly that from the council's position it would have been impossible to see that he'd done it. The blond alchemist's chair moved back a few inches, while the man himself shot a dirty look at the Brigadier and stood with some reluctance. Through the whole scene, Mustang studied his notes as if nothing had happened.
"Yes, Marshal, sir," the Fullmetal Alchemist corrected himself.
The Marshal leaned over his table, intent on the blond. "Now, if you appeared in the East as Brigadier General Mustang related to us earlier, then I assume you did not have to, ah..." Lavochkin paused to examine the notes he'd taken. "Find yourself trapped in a strange, deserted building, which you could only escape by shrinking yourself with a magic elixir so that you could fit through an unusually tiny door?" At the words 'shrinking yourself', Elric turned red in the face and nearly flew over the table. He probably would have if Mustang hadn't caught him by the elbow just as he started to move. He was settled again by the time the Marshal looked up to say, "I'm not aware of any residence fitting that description within Amestris."
"That's right," Elric growled.
"But you fell through the same passageway? With the floating furniture and the, ah..." He paused to check his notes again. "The marmalade?"
The alchemist's eyes narrowed at the Marshal. "Well, I can't actually confirm the marmalade. I didn't check the groceries while I was falling."
"Where exactly did you appear when you fell through your rabbit-hole?"
Elric answered plainly, straight to the point. "Small farm, 6 kilometers due north of Stravik Town. Big red barn. Can't miss it."
Leaning back in his chair, Lavochkin narrowed his eyes at the alchemist. "Falling through the same rabbit-hole as this Alice girl, I would have expected a more similar result." He might as well have said, 'You're lying,' the disbelief in his tone was so thick.
"Why?" Elric replied, shaking his head. "Sure, the probability density on the other side is basically constant, but they can't use alchemy. If a two-bit alchemist on this side decides to transmute a scuff off his shoes, it'll change how wavicles are arranged. Over here, we've got a state of constant minor flux." If what he'd said before were true, Blackburn supposed that could follow. "What do you think half the stuff I'm responsible for would do?" he asked and flicked his eyes toward Mustang, then toward Bloch. "Or what my esteemed colleagues have done, for that matter? I would've been more surprised if I did land where Alice had, assuming it's even still there. That story isn't exactly from last week."
The Marshal let out a heavy breath as the rest of the council thought in silence. At last Marshal Lavochkin turned to Marshal Wright, who gave a small nod, and the assembled generals all shuffled their papers to new business. Among them, only General Hakuro looked significantly displeased. "Colonel Blackburn?" Lavochkin asked, turning his attention toward the side table -- followed by the eyes of everyone assembled in the room.
He dropped the pen he'd been holding to keep his hands busy and shot to his feet. "Yes, Marshal, sir!" Blackburn called out with a sharp salute. He heard his pen roll off the table and twitched at the clatter when it hit the floor, but he didn't step out of attention.
"Are you familiar with the region near Stravik Town?"
"Well, yes," he answered, confused. Of course he knew Stravik Town. He administered the East, so he knew all the towns --
Oh. No wonder they summoned me, then.
"I mean, yes, sir!" he amended.
"I'll still be overseeing the Colonel's work, Marshal?" General Fieseler broke in. It took all Blackburn's composure not to sigh in relief when the weight of those many highly ranked eyes turned away.
Lavochkin nodded. "He'll stay in your chain of command."
Blackburn's commander turned back to him to issue orders. "Find this farm and establish a watch," Fieseler continued. "We'll meet later to discuss your findings. This council will need to know if anything else appears, and what you can find out about the rabbit-hole. Whether there are any traces of it, any effects, anything or anyone drifting through. Whether it's a portal we can use to go the other direction."
"I'm sorry, were you not listening? It was a one-way rabbit-hole,” Elric interrupted.
Mustang coughed quietly, which got him another dirty look from the blond but also got the alchemist to sit quietly.
"Thank you, General Fieseler," Lavochkin said, ignoring the alchemist's outburst, before he turned back to face Blackburn. "Anything you can determine, Colonel. But be discreet. This is a matter of national security."
"Yes, Marshal, sir." He saluted and took his seat, ready to be ignored again at last.
The Fuhrer shuffled his stack of papers into a neat stack with a sharp rap on the table. "Well, if there are no further points of discussion, allow me to welcome you home, Lieutenant Colonel Elric.” The blond's upper lip twitched every time the Fuhrer or one of the generals used his rank. “Your talent has been greatly missed. Our next matter of business is assigning you to active duty."
"Given his previous experience in the East--” Marshal Lavochkin began.
Blackburn thought his heart might stop beating.
No, no, no! Oh, please, anything but that!
“--and the particular expertise he brings to this matter, I feel it would be best to assign the Lieutenant Colonel to the new detail investigating this end of the rabbit-hole."
Elric's head whipped toward Mustang, and the Brigadier General acknowledged him with a cool nod and a wave to sit back.
"I disagree," General Bloch responded. "From the way the Lieutenant Colonel described the phenomenon, I'd say that sending him to that farm to do further study is the most absurd waste of resources I could imagine. His expert knowledge indicates to me that the only thing we can be sure of is that the rabbit-hole won't open in the same place twice. Any research team should be based in Central. He'll be far more use here, perhaps finding a way to track shifting probability density."
Mustang delivered another subtle kick to the blond's chair, causing him to fall abruptly silent just as every eye in the room turned to face him.
"If you know something about tracking these patterns, Lt. Colonel Elric, you're free to share it with us," General Fieseler said.
The alchemist scratched the back of his head with an embarrassed grimace. "A guy named Heisenberg just proved that you can't actually track them. Measuring where a wavicle is changes how it moves."
General Hakuro pushed up from his seat with a snarl. "This is preposterous! Magic rivers of things that can't be seen or... or even measured, dragging people to other worlds? Am I really expected to believe this nonsense? Can you even prove these wavicles exist?"
"Well, yeah," Elric answered. He stood and clapped his hands while Mustang pulled his notes and pen off the desk with a smile. Blackburn had never seen Hakuro look more terrified.
Marshal Wright waved for Elric to stop. "That won't be necessary," he said, and turned to Hakuro. "This isn't a trial, John. It's a debriefing. The Research department can take up the science later."
General Hakuro sat back down, eyes still shooting venom at Elric. The little blond spitfire didn't seem intimidated.
Lavochkin cleared his throat. "Well, even if we keep Elric in Central to coordinate with Research, I don't think we can ignore the site where he came through. The investigation detail should still be sent."
"And we have no more important resource in this investigation than the Lt. Colonel," Fieseler added. "He should be assigned to Colonel Blackburn's office if not to the site itself."
Edward Elric looked from the nodding and murmuring Generals to stare straight at Blackburn. "What!?" he demanded, standing and planting his hands on the desk with a loud metal thud. The blond narrowed his eyes, as if sizing him up and -– so Blackburn would have sworn -– coming to the visible conclusion of 'You're still not Colonel Mustang.'
That was so very, very true.
"Why am I reporting to him?!"
The council buzzed at his outburst, but before any of them could answer, Roy Mustang spoke. His tone rang out clearly to every corner, even though he didn't seem to speak loudly. "Need I remind you, Fullmetal, that despite the leniency given you in the past and despite your time in another world, you are still a military officer?"
The alchemist sat back down, giving Mustang a less than satisfied look, but answering with only a moody, barely audible, "Yeah, I know."
Blackburn wasn't entirely sure that when the Fullmetal Alchemist said, 'I know,' there was any implication that the Fullmetal Alchemist agreed. He was more inclined to think that Edward Elric was never going to listen to a single word Blackburn said as his 'commmander'. He hadn't particularly heard any rumors that, as an officer, the blond did anything other than he was asked –- except for that incident in Liore where the entire town was destroyed, along with most of a regiment, and the alchemist had disappeared with his brother (who was now a perfectly respectable officer in his own right). But that had been so counter to Elric's brilliant record that, when Blackburn had heard they'd gone on the run with no warning, his only thought had been, 'What, really?' And by the time the revolution happened, it had seemed Edward Elric was back to being a hero, again with no explanations. How treasonous could he have been?
Of course, the one dispatched to bring him in when he ran had been Roy Mustang.
That Roy Mustang.
The one who still had a brilliant military career after being court-martialed for assassination and treason, and who demonstrated a firmer hold on the young man sitting next to him than Blackburn would have known how to begin creating. He'd seen the kicked chairs and dirty looks, so he could tell -- there was really no doubt -- that calling Elric 'insubordinate' was wholly insufficient to describe his attitude. Well, perhaps not insubordinate, per se, but he answered to Mustang, if he answered to anybody, and the generals should have been able to see that from the way Mustang was staring him down even if they hadn't seen the Brigadier kicking the blond's chair to keep him in line.
But if he's going to be under my command, Blackburn thought, I'll have to try.
Elric let out a heavy sigh and pushed his bangs off his face. Mustang's victory, and Blackburn couldn't say he was surprised. More importantly, the stare-down had ended with Blackburn's loss, as the Fullmetal Alchemist squinted at Blackburn's pants in a way that made him uncomfortably aware of his lack of an alchemist's watch.
"However, if I may address one fact to my honored colleagues on the council," Mustang said. He paused just long enough for everyone (including Elric, thankfully) to look at him. "Edward Elric is currently assigned to Internal Security, and his services are still necessary."
There was a shuffling of papers among the generals as they tried not to look frantic, searching for Elric's record. Major General Saulnier held up a single piece of paper and handed it to a nearby guard, who carried it to Mustang. "I was of the understanding that he was on the list of the missing and presumed dead," she said, giving Mustang a chance to look at the document. "He shouldn't have been assigned anywhere."
"Why was I declared dead?" Elric asked, peeking around Mustang's shoulder.
The Brigadier sat him in his chair with a soft push to the shoulder, ignoring the question. "When he left, Mr. Elric was my subordinate, on assignment to destroy the gate in the other world. Until he came back safely, he remained on that assignment and under my command. He was among the officers I requested be transferred to my new office in Internal Security, which request was granted in full by the generals on this council at that time." Mustang handed the guard a different sheet of paper out of his notes for the council to examine.
Blackburn didn't have the transfer records to verify what Mustang was saying, but the Generals seemed to find the paperwork in order as they passed it around. Still, the Brigadier General couldn't have. Who kept a man on his books who had no known way of coming home short of the Apocalypse?
Apparently Mustang's faith had been justified, but even then --
He paused to study Elric as the young man watched the Brigadier General speak. From their short acquaintance, he hadn't realized that the blond could be so tranquil, or seem so...
He had a strange, fixed expression that made Blackburn forget all about wondering why Mustang would have assumed that the Fullmetal Alchemist would be back. With that kind of look in his eyes, he could believe that the man would have torn the universe to shreds to get to Mustang's side. Blackburn had known -- because everyone knew -- that the Brigadier inspired loyalty in his men. He wasn't sure what he would name the look on Elric's face; only that 'loyalty' was too modest a word. If he wanted a shot in hell at earning the young alchemist's respect, he'd probably have to show Elric at least enough trust to believe, as Mustang had done, that he'd claw his way back across whatever impossible and incomprehensible lengths might present themselves -- not that the question would arise, what with the Brigadier having gone out on a limb like that to claim him.
"He is an integral member of my staff, and I should like to keep him," Mustang said. "Moreover, while I will not contest that Colonel Blackburn should coordinate any investigation in the East, the knowledge that the Fullmetal Alchemist has gained during his mission is -- as Marshal Lavochkin indicated -- a matter of national security."
When Mustang took his seat and glanced at his fellow officer, Elric's strange expression changed to a scowl. "So now I work for you?" he asked, sounding unimpressed. But also not blowing up in a rage.
"Yes," Mustang replied, barely loud enough for Blackburn to hear. Elric kept his peace.
General Fieseler was the last to examine the sheet of paper Mustang had offered, and he handed it to the guard behind him after giving it a long glance. "It appears the Brigadier has a valid claim." The General looked to Blackburn's table. "Lt. Colonel Elric could be an asset to you, Colonel. Do you wish to make a challenge?"
Challenge? Are you kidding? Let Mustang have him!
He stood, saluting, and told the council without hesitation, "No challenge, sir."
"Very well," the Fuhrer replied. "Brigadier General Mustang, he's your man. Lt. Colonel Elric, thank you for your time and dedication. I believe the quartermaster has a uniform for you, which you can pick up before you leave today." He stood, and all the officers in attendance stood with him. "Dismissed!"
Blackburn, along with Elric and Mustang, stood at attention, holding a salute until every member of the council had filed out of the door by the head table. When the door shut, he collapsed into his chair, breathing long and slow. His brain felt numb as he sorted the papers, still not quite processing the trouble he'd only barely escaped -- and only because Mustang had insisted on taking it himself. As far as he could tell, the Flame Alchemist had just saved him from an uncontrollable, pint-sized stick of dynamite with a very short fuse. He wasn't going to register a complaint, because now it was all over, and he could go back to his ordinary life.
As soon as he retrieved his pen.
He pushed back his chair, picking it up from where it has fallen when he heard Elric say, "Remind me why I have to work for you again?" from off to the side. "I've got my brother -- I don't need my arm back. What if I wanted to go home and retire?"
"Oh, does that mean I won't have to see you in the morning, Edward?" Mustang shot right back. He didn't make even the slightest sign of reminding the blond again that he was a 'military officer'.
And... 'Edward'? That's awfully familiar.
But then, Mustang had been the alchemist's commander since he joined the military at twelve (Blackburn sometimes didn't like to think about the kind of place this country had been up until very recently), and he couldn't deny that their relationship didn't seem normal. They could have been friends. He turned to look at the two of them, Elric standing on his toes with his face three inches from Mustang's and glaring in a way that certainly didn't look like they were friends. "Oh, I'll be there, Colonel! Whatever you've got, I can take it." Blackburn tried to make as little noise as possible as he put his papers away. He didn't want to attract any attention from either of them.
"Good. Nine AM sharp, then. Oh, and..." Mustang straightened one of the lapels on the brown duster the blond was wearing. "Don't call me Colonel."
"I'll call you whatever I want, Roy."
"Don't be late," the Brigadier replied, sliding a pen into his jacket pocket. Mustang picked a single folder up from the table and walked for the door, but before he turned the handle he looked over his shoulder as if he'd just remembered something that had slipped his mind. "One thing, Fullmetal."
"You've always been a plainclothes officer. I see no reason to change that. The uniform isn't necessary."
The blond scoffed, leaning against table and turning to study the side wall.
Meanwhile, Mustang waited at the door. "Are you coming, Fullmetal?"
"I'm going to R&D, Roy," Elric said, pushing in his chair -- possibly harder than necessary -- and joining the Brigadier at the exit.
"Then we're both going to the third floor, aren't we?" Mustang opened the door and let the blond through, looking after Lt. Colonel Elric's shuffling, insubordinate footsteps. As soon as Mustang started through the door himself, he paused to look right at Blackburn.
With a smile.
"Sorry," he said, and left without another word.
Blackburn watched the still door for a good ten seconds after it closed, blinking and quite unsure what he should think.
'Sorry?' he wondered.
Sorry for what?
Edward had the big brown-wrapped package Al had gotten from the quartermaster (before the Colonel said he didn't need a uniform) balanced on his head as he walked back to his brother's place, since there wasn't a good way to get a grip on something that unwieldy. He'd been using one hand at a time to hold it in place, but now he pushed down on both sides so he could roll his neck and work at the knot at the top of his spine. It'd been one hell of a couple days, between shunting himself across parallel dimensions, hiking cross-country, and going to bat with the biggest jackass in two worlds against the entire Council of Generals. The chance to finally sleep in a bed he could call his own was sounding really good.
"They gave you a house?" he asked Alphonse.
"Yeah," his brother replied. "Since I work mostly in Central, the administration said I didn't need to live in the dorms. Most alchemists have houses."
They stopped in front of the residence, and Edward dropped the package off his head into his right arm to get a good look while Alphonse unlocked the door. Porch, two stories, lots of windows. Not as big as Winry's place was, or as their parents' place had been, or even as big as Sensei's place, but so what? It was subsidized housing in the middle of the city, and it was good enough. All they needed to do here was sleep.
"Welcome home, Nii-san," his brother said from inside the door.
Edward grinned back and stepped over the threshold. "It's good to be he--"
He paused and peeked around Al, who had frozen in the doorway with his big smile and his eyebrow twitching.
"Mrrow!" he heard again, this time closer.
"Al," Edward said.
"What was that?"
"A kitty!" his brother declared. "I-I always wanted a kitty, and they were outside with nowhere to go, and --"
A tiny, furry head poked it's around Alphonse's leg, nudging his brother, then looking up plaintively. "Mrrow!"
Alphonse scooped the little cat up and held her tight to his chest. "Th-this is Ella!" he said, half hiding his face behind the cat's neck as he stepped out of the doorway. "And that's Boots on the chair there," Alphonse continued, nodding to a largish cat who looked up with a measure of disdain before dropping his head back on his paws to nap. "And Hijinx is over there by the --"
"Meow?" asked a fluffy white cat over by a standing lamp. He looked up at Edward with big eyes and turned his head curiously, padding across the floor to investigate the scene at the door. About halfway there, he ran into a yellow, bird-shaped toy and got distracted. The cat pounced immediately, biting at the toy in the most ineffective way Edward could imagine. There was no way his brother could have left something like that alone. Adorable and apparently helpless was a deadly combination.
Edward walked over to meet the cat, dropping his uniform on the floor nearby. When he looked back towards the door, Alphonse was holding the little cat named 'Ella' tight to his chest. "It's been my house, Nii-san, so I have a place to keep them! And I feed them, and I change their litter, and they've all had their shots and been neutered and everything!"
He'd wanted to see his brother so much over the past few years that all the feelings had piled up on one another into a big, dull numbness. Missing Alphonse, missing this world, missing... all kinds of things. That had been his every day for so long. Being back home was strange now, like the world didn't quite fit, but watching Alphonse defend the cats' right to stay made him feel more like this was home than he would have believed possible. That really was just like his brother, and -- for the second time today -- Edward couldn't have kept the smile off his face if his life depended on it. But since that bastard Colonel didn't really count...
Well, that was a lie. Roy had been ready to back him up the minute he stepped in the door. Had been waiting for him. It wasn't half a lifetime's dream like getting his brother back had been, but he couldn't deny that it counted. Not that he ever planned to tell the Colonel how much.
Seeing him smile, Alphonse grinned as well, and looked hopeful. "They're cute," Edward answered, reaching out to scratch Hijinx behind the ears. Then he asked, "They've all been neutered?" casting a questioning glance at the dainty little cat his brother was holding.
"So... Ella's a boy?"
Alphonse shrugged. "That's what the veterinarian said when we brought her in. I mean, him." The cat in question decided he'd had enough of being held then, and jumped down to the floor to groom. "But I'd already named him, you see," his brother finished.
Hijinx rolled over and started attacking Edward's right wrist instead of the bird toy, light pressure barely noticeable through the nerve relays of his automail -- like the memory of being tickled. He picked the cat up, staring into his big, clueless eyes, and informed him, "You're gonna have to do better than that, boss," before setting the cat back down near his toy and standing to look for the kitchen. "Man, I'm starving."
"There's plenty to eat," Alphonse replied, locking the front door and pointing towards one of the doors out of the parlor. "The kitchen is this way."
"Thanks." He'd had a good meal last night for dinner at the inn where he'd stopped, but today he'd practically forgotten to eat, what with the heading to Central and seeing the Colonel and getting reviewed by those idiot Generals. He couldn't believe they'd fallen for that 'wavicle' bullshit -– though now he wished he'd come up with a better name. Just his luck, that would end up in all the alchemical primers for the next thousand years, and he'd constantly have snot-nosed brats and their teachers asking him to explain it. The least he could have done was pick a cool name. Still, getting to watch the military chase his rabbit-hole for however long might make up for it, as long as they got him his book back. Mustang had let him hold on to all the pages he'd taken out (he'd threatened to hold them hostage, but hadn't done it in the end), so it'd be easy to put everything back together once Intelligence was done with it.
"Say, Nii-san..." Al broke into his thinking, pulling some cans of vegetables out of a cupboard.
Edward looked over, still rubbing his neck. That damn bed last night had been harder than a pile of rocks, but he'd been too tired from walking to think about transmuting it before he'd fallen asleep.
"I was just... wondering..."
"About what? Spit it out."
Alphonse stepped over to the refrigerator, turning a bit red in the cheeks while looking at his feet. "Well, about the note the Brigadier General gave you," he said at last.
Taking a seat on a stool by the counter, Edward propped his jaw on his hands and forced his face not to show anything. More than one of his research partners had asked about that damn note over the years. He'd gotten used to pretending it was nothing, but this was Al. His brother would have known it wasn't 'nothing' even if he hadn't been there when Edward had marched into the Colonel's office. That half-sheet of crumpled paper was complicated, though, for something with just over two dozen words written in faded ink. Couldn't Al have asked about magnetic forces operating in a tesseract? But his brother had picked the hard questions instead, and Al, at least, wasn't going to give up if he tried to dodge. "What about it?" he asked, turning away from the questioning stare to watch the big cat, Boots, stroll into the kitchen and over to his food bowl.
He could still feel Alphonse's eyes on him while he watched the cat eat, making a long silence feel longer. At last, his brother answered, "It looked important."
Edward shook his head with a bitter grin and jumped down from the stool. He couldn't sit still like this. "Roy was being a jackass, that's all," he said, sidestepping the question of whether or not it was 'important'. He always carried it around with him, sure, but why would that have to be anything but a reminder that he had somewhere to be? That was 'important' enough without the thing itself having some kind of hold on him. So what if he couldn't shake the memories of the stupid Colonel or the exhilaration quivering in the pit of his stomach when he thought about Mustang wanting him to come home? Those were, respectively, emotional and hormonal reactions on his part exposing an embarrassingly wretched taste in men, nothing inherent in the note itself. Objectively, that piece of paper and the words written on it were just Roy engaging in his usual jackassery and everything else was irrelevant to the question. Edward lounged against the counter next to the stove, watching Alphonse pull some kind of meat out of the refrigerator. "Look, why don't I help out with dinner?" he asked, moving for a change of subject. "Where do you keep the pans?"
"In the drawer under the stove." Alphonse pushed him the can of string beans along with a can opener. "What did he write? If I can ask."
He pulled a saucepan out of the drawer, shutting it with his foot while he shot Alphonse a confused look. "If you can ask?"
"Well, I didn't know if it might not be personal!" Al sputtered back, ears and cheeks burning bright red.
"Personal?" Edward scoffed, shaking his head. He thunked the saucepan down on a burner, back to his brother so Alphonse couldn't read his face. "Why would you think it was personal? I think it said, 'Well, if I never see you again, I suppose you're not the man I thought you were.' Something like that."
When he turned to pick up the can and can opener, Alphonse looked like he could see right through him. "Can I see it?" he asked.
"What's there to see? I gave it back, didn't I?"
"Nii-san," Al replied, asking with his eyes why Edward even bothered lying to him. "You picked it back up from the Brigadier General's desk."
Looks like I got caught, he thought. But as long as the Colonel doesn't think anything of it, I'm okay.
"Did I?" he asked, feigning ignorance for the moment.
Alphonse pointed at the right side of his jacket. "You put it in your pocket."
Pushing The Wonderful Wizard of Oz aside to get at the crumpled, faded, yellowed piece of paper, Edward drew out the note and turned it over in his fingers. "Huh. So I did," he said, and handed it to Al. "Go ahead. There's no big mystery."
Alphonse wiped off his hands before he took it, handling the paper like it was delicate or something. It wasn't delicate. Edward had crumpled it up at least a thousand times and pitched it at a trashcan as hard as he could, making wrinkles upon wrinkles that'd never come out no matter how long he kept it pressed between the pages of a book. He'd always missed the trash when he threw it, though. After a while, he'd stopped even trying and just kept it in his pocket or on his worktable. He didn't actually read it that often -- he knew what it said.
I never thought 'Goodbye' would suit the Edward I knew. It's a word for old men with no reason to return, after all.
-- Roy Mustang
After the first time he'd read it, the words were burned into his mind so deeply that he couldn't have forgotten it. When had the bastard even had time to write it, let alone slip it into his pocket?! And even the shape of the letters had looked snarky, just like Mustang's voice sounded. Watching his brother read it, he could hear the sound in his head, mocking him, same as he had for three years. Before very long, his brother folded it back in half and handed it to Edward again. "So why did you keep it, then?"
"No reason," he said, sticking it back in his pocket where it always stayed.
I wanted to see Al. I wanted to see Winry. That was enough without wanting to see that bastard, too.
"Nii-san," Alphonse started again, looking more and more uncomfortable by the minute. "Nii-san, what do you think about the Brigadier General?"
"What is this, all of a sudden?" He caught himself before he got too defensive and tried to laugh it off. “What do I think of him? What do you mean, what do I think of him? He's an asshole!"
"Ah, well..." His brother scratched his head again, suddenly very interested in looking at his own shoes. "What I mean is... You see, I've been thinking about everything that's happened today, while I was waiting for you and all, and..." His brother paused to take a deep breath, then looked him straight in the eye. "Nii-san. I know you two fight a lot, but you've got to see that Brigadier General Mustang cares about you. And you care about him, too. Don't you?"
Edward didn't answer. It was one thing for Einstein to ask, 'Is this 'Roy' your lover?' out of the blue, with no good reason. (Other geniuses were annoying as hell, it turned out.) Hearing Alphonse say things like that was another matter entirely. He couldn't write off his brother as someone who didn't know him that well, or as someone who didn't know the Colonel. When it was Alphonse asking, claiming it wasn't true came a little harder.
More than that, the Colonel had never been his 'lover' and never would be. Einstein had just been wrong. Al wasn't. Roy had made it clear enough enough that he cared what happened to him and his brother after the mess at Liore, and it hadn't been long after that Edward had realized he didn't just think Roy was a jackass. But 'care' could mean a lot of things. It was a complicated word, and he'd long since decided he wasn't going there with Roy Mustang of all people.
His brother wasn't going to settle for silence, though. "I just can't think of any other reason why you'd come to Central before going to Resembool," Alphonse prompted. "If you like him, why pretend you don't?"
He looked over his shoulder at the stove, then threw on his 'everything's okay' grin and walked over to slap Al on the shoulder. "What're you on about, huh? I don't like him even a little. I can't stand that bastard."
"Right," Alphonse said, pausing to study Edward's face before he decided not to argue.
What kind of question was that, anyway? Did he like the Colonel, did he not like the Colonel... Whether he cared or not, Roy was a fucking bastard, playing with his head and always knowing what buttons to push. Wanting to see him wasn't as simple as liking him -- not that he did, not really. Not for a minute. It was complicated, and he wasn't halfway close to ready to start telling Al about it, and it wasn't important anyway. Now that he was back and was going to be around Mustang's ugly mug every day and hearing his stupid voice all the time, he'd remember exactly how much he hated them. His ridiculous sentimentality would be gone in no time.
Because he didn't like the Colonel, no matter how much he'd missed him.
1 - "Home Again" is the title of Chapter 24 of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, by L. Frank Baum. The next chapter (please look for it in about a month) will be entitled "How the Leopard Got His Spots". The rest of the books will not physically appear in the story, but virtual cookies still go to people who can guess the source text.
2 - More OCs?!
Well, the bad guys from the anime ended up mostly dead, and there was a governmental upheaval. New people seemed appropriate for the council. I actually named and assigned personalities to all eleven generals, but several of them weren't necessary in the end. Maybe three of them (maximum) will be relevant to the continuing plot, but I can't say more than that without giving spoilers.
The generals named in this chapter were:
Marshal Curtiss Wright -- named for a fighter used by China, the Dutch East Indies, and Japan.
Lt. General Mistan B. Bloch (a.k.a The Rubicon Alchemist) -- named for a French bomber.
Maj. General Morane Saulnier -- named for a French fighter
Marshal Lern Lavochkin -- named for a series of Soviet fighters
Lt. General Storch F. Fieseler -- named for a German liaison aircraft
General Hakuro is, of course, the same Hakuro from the series.
The new Fuhrer, Oliver H.P. Halifax, is named for a British heavy bomber.
3 - Wavicles and Probability Density and Aether, oh my!
Oh, my senior year of college. The term 'wavicle' was used in class a few times, for the very reasons Edward related, but that doesn't make it any more scientific, and the way in which he's applying it here is nonsense. In fact, I think the only thing in there that wasn't complete nonsense was Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, though Edward's statement of it reflects an older understanding and not the more rigorous modern one. Also, probability density as it actually works wasn't well theorized until 1954, which puts it outside of Edward's timeline, but I don't feel too bad for fudging it. The presence of the aether in all of that is, finally, a nod to much, much older attempts to explain how something (namely, light) can behave as both a wave and a particle.
I believe this represents the final appearance of anything related to quantum physics in this story, though I can't make any promises.
Chapter 3: How the Leopard Got His Spots
Roy reached for another rubber band and sighted it over his finger and thumb toward the Drachman border on the map on his far wall. Discerning the probable location of the raiders' base of operations in the North was no simple task. The only conclusion he could reach was that they had no local base, as scattered as the approach patterns were. The soldiers stationed at Briggs Fortress, who had taken the incursion very personally, confirmed that. Although they were searching the mountains and surrounding lowlands with a tenacity that his sources assured him could not be adequately expressed in words, they hadn't been able to provide any hint as to how to take the raiders out.
The Drachmans had disguised their operations as simple raids for food and water, but these were military strikes. The effects of the attacks had been too debilitating to be caused by looting. Transportation and communication systematically destroyed, power plants ruined, attempts to rebuild foiled -- not to mention the unexplained water shortages. Amestrian military presence had been increased, especially near the border, but that hadn't helped much. The populace in the North had been riled to the brink of revolt in less than three months, and he knew better than to think the raiders were successful because Major General Armstrong's men were incompetent. They were anything but.
With a snap, he let his rubber missile fly off his finger and silently rooted for this one to hit, but it landed with a couple dozen others in a scattered pile on the floor instead.
One more time today, he'd come up short.
Luckily, one of the best and most intuitive visual thinkers he'd ever had the pleasure of usurping had rejoined his team yesterday. Roy had felt a particular hum in the air this morning when he thought about it, like a premonition that he just needed to throw the problem at Edward and they'd find the break they needed; so he'd asked Lt. Breda to take down the map of attacks that they'd assembled over the past few weeks. Edward had his own methods for doing things. Better not to get in the way.
Edward, he thought, and that smile that had been haunting him since yesterday snuck back into place while he pushed the marking pins for the map into a pile on his desk.
He must have imagined ten thousand times how that homecoming would happen, and though his fantasies had generally included more explosions, earthquakes, and destruction of property than did the eventual truth, Edward was always Edward. He remained singular and indestructible.
Thank goodness for that.
The other alchemist's insistence on keeping his note had been a strange surprise, of course. He'd fully expected his bit of paper to die honorably, shredded to dust in a fit of Fullmetal's anger. But there it had been, completely intact; and there it had gone, back into Edward's coat pocket if his ears hadn't deceived him. Well, in all fairness, he wasn't certain what he'd have done with it had Edward left it yesterday. If Fullmetal wanted to hold onto it still, Roy could be sure his embarrassing keepsake was in good hands.
As he looked down to push the marking pins into their box, he heard the door open and bang against the wall in a very particular way that no one in five years had been able to duplicate.
"-- never thought I'd see the day! Nah, Fuery?" Havoc was saying in the outer office.
"Well, it's good to have you back, Edward-kun."
"Oh, but that's Lieutenant Colonel Edward now, isn't it?"
His long lost protege barked, "Who the hell asked you?!" followed by a percussive shudder in the wall when he slammed the door closed.
Nine AM. Right on time.
"So you decided to grace us with your presence, Fullmetal?" He kept his attention locked on the paperwork on his desk until he could be sure he'd gotten that smile under control.
"Well, it's not like I can trust you to run the country on your own, Roy."
He could tell the difference between the strides and habitual sounds of every member of his staff -- Hawkeye's almost silent, smooth glide, Havoc's easy saunter, Falman's crisp march. The slightly uneven rhythm of Edward's footsteps was an oddly sweet sound after his office had been missing it for so long. The refrain ended with an equally nostalgic 'flump' as Fullmetal dropped into the chair in front of his desk and asked, "So, what've you got?"
Roy dropped the box of flags on top of the reports on the border raids. "Well, I hope you remember your local geography--"
When he looked up, his voice left him. It was certainly Edward slumped in the chair, with a bored expression on his face and one cheek resting firmly on a fist. Edward's choice of attire, however... that was the Amestrian military uniform. The Lieutenant Colonel's rank insignia on the shoulders meant, of course, that it was properly Edward's. Still, it seemed unlikely that the Fullmetal Alchemist had developed between yesterday and today the kind of military attitude that led to wearing duty blues out of some sense that he ought to, with or without Roy's permission to wear civilian dress instead.
Not that he was wearing it in a manner one could call 'regulation'. In fact, leaving the jacket half-open while walking the hallways was likely to get him court-martialed if one of the other generals caught him. There were some places and situations where the brass would overlook it, but a workday in Central Headquarters wasn't one of them.
The young man raised an eyebrow at Roy's long pause. "Because...?" he prompted.
Mustang coughed into his hand. "Edward. I believe I mentioned yesterday that you are a plainclothes officer. The uniform isn't necessary."
"These're clothes, aren't they?" the blond growled. "Now, what's the geography you need me to know?"
Well, that'd been unexpectedly defensive. Should he drop it? Tell Edward to button his jacket? No, he'd probably only get a warning if the brass caught him today, not a full court-martial. And if he was wearing the uniform because 'they were clothes', then it wasn't likely to be a problem in the future. The border raiders, on the other hand, were already a problem. He pushed the pile of incident reports toward Edward. "The North, around the Briggs Mountain Range. You'll be studying this series of attacks and submitting a written report on your findings to me by close of business today. You can use the map on the wall."
"Right," Edward answered. He picked up the pile and pulled a note tag off of the top report. After he twirled it around in his fingers and took a glance at the empty map, the blond shot a dirty look across the desk. "Roy?"
"Are these the same things that were on the map yesterday?"
"Well spotted, Fullmetal." He took his next piece of business from his inbox while his 'subordinate' threw the stack of reports back on the desk with a snarl. "Never let it be said that your perception has become at all dull."
"Is there a reason why you took the map down in the first place?"
"Of course. I want it to be put up by you. Is that so difficult?" The suspicious glare Edward shot him from across the desk was nothing unusual. It was the way he pulled at his collar that Roy wondered at. It didn't look too tight. And yet, Edward swallowed hard and unbuttoned another button, letting the jacket fall all the way open with a stiff shrug while he reached for the papers. Without thinking, Roy blocked Edward from taking the pile.
"What now?!" A hint of fire crept into the other alchemist's face as he jumped up and yelled, "Do you not want me to put your piece-of-shit makework map back on the wall?"
"After you change your clothes."
"That uniform doesn't suit you."
"Doesn't suit me?!" One of Fullmetal's eyebrows started to twitch, and the blond ripped the blue jacket off his shoulders to shake it over Roy's desk. "Well, I'm sorry if I don't match your decor! Except, oh wait... I do." He slapped the jacket down on the back of the chair where he'd been sitting. "Everyone in this damn place is wearing one! What's the big deal? It's just pants, a shirt, a jacket... okay, the skirt's kind of stupid. I might as well take that off," he said. One clap, and he tore away the flap hanging from the waistband on his pants and slapped it down on top of the jacket. It took all the composure Roy had not to laugh at the sight. "But they're clothes," the blond finished. "I'm wearing them. Why do you care?"
Roy twirled his pen while he tried to think of a reason other than Edward's own obvious discomfort. "Blue isn't your color," he answered. Edward would find that difficult to argue with, at least.
The tone of confusion was all he could have asked and more. "You're dismissed until you find a change of clothing, Fullmetal."
Instead of leaving, however, Edward sat back in his chair and crossed his arms. "Sorry, but no can do. You're gonna have to deal."
"I beg your pardon. Certainly you must be capable of changing your clothes. You did so between yesterday and today."
"My only change of clothes is in the wash. I've been wearing it for three freaking days straight, and I'm not going to keep transmuting it clean when I've got something else to wear." Roy's eye went wide, and Edward cocked his eyebrow at him again. "What? Did you think I brought luggage?"
"Last time I checked, we didn't have a shortage of tailors in Central."
The way Edward's nose twitched when he was annoyed still hadn't ceased to amuse. "Two days hiking across the East, bartering for food, then dealing with the freaking generals, and when I get off, you expect me to go clothes shopping?! I don't even have any money!"
"Your paychecks have been going to the bank for five years, Fullmetal." Roy rested his chin on one hand. This was more fun than he'd remembered. "You have money."
"Yeah, that's great," the blond spat back. "When the banks are open. And besides, what bank is going to take an ID card from another dimension? I've been on Earth, remember? No papers."
He did have a point there. He hadn't received his papers yet, as Roy had only issued the order to have them printed late yesterday and they hadn't been ready until this morning. The envelope had to be in here somewhere. Fuery had left it in his inbox, hadn't he? Roy found the packet handed it to Edward, who looked it over suspiciously. "Your identification papers. Go buy yourself some clothes. We wouldn't want you to have to go all week without a proper change of clothing, now would we?"
"Tsch." The blond peeked inside the envelope with a sigh. "Fine. I'll go find something that's less blue so it doesn't hurt your eyes to look at me. But just so we're clear," he said, pointing a finger at Roy, "This is weird, and you're a freak."
Edward stood, then tucked the paperwork and the remnants of what had once been his uniform under one arm. Roy had to smile again, watching him leave. Edward never walked anywhere. He always ran, sauntered, or looked like he was being force-marched in front of a firing squad. Of course, if he were ever actually taken in front of a firing squad, he'd probably be sauntering.
When he threw open the door, Havoc and Fuery had to jump back to let him pass. They couldn't pretend they hadn't been listening. "Leaving so soon?" Havoc asked.
"Take it up with Colonel Jackass." Edward stopped walking to yell over his shoulder. "He says there's nothing going on in Security that's more important than my coat not matching my eyes!"
"For the moment, there's not," Roy answered. "But don't dawdle. I still expect that report on the border raids on my desk by five PM."
"Can't I just tell you what I figure out?" he asked. Roy shot him a look to indicate, No, you may not. Edward understood perfectly, if Mustang could judge from his scowl and mutter of, "Asshole," before he walked the rest of the way out of the office.
It was certainly pleasant to watch Edward walk away in a huff when he'd be sure to return in a matter of hours -- far more so than it was to watch him walk away and never know when he might come home. Besides which, Roy knew he'd come back wearing pants he'd picked out himself rather than the baggy-legged trousers that the military issued to all of its officers. Forcing people with nice-looking legs to wear those things would be a crime as soon as he had any say in the matter, and Edward had always had very nice legs.
If Roy's mental processes had had tires, he would have heard them squealing on the theoretical pavement as he slammed on the brakes.
... 'Always'? Certainly he was just thinking Edward had been easy on the eyes yesterday. He couldn't really have meant 'always'.
A quick flash through his memories revealed that, yes, he probably did mean 'always'. Clear images from the invasion three years ago that he couldn't have formed without looking, and from the last time he saw Edward before...
He stopped flipping through the years before he got any further back. Best not to wonder when he'd developed that particular opinion, really. The answer probably wasn't legal.
Roy bit his lip and refocused on his paperwork.
Note to self: never mention this to anyone.
"-- and you'll be expected to give your presentation on the measures we can take to prevent increased smuggling of contraband materials," Hawkeye concluded, handing the agenda for the council meeting over to Roy.
He looked it over and sighed, but didn't respond.
Before she could glance at the next item that would need the Brigadier's attention, the door blew open like a shot and Edward stomped in, scowled at Roy, then took a pile of papers off the corner of the desk. Oddly enough, he still had a tag dangling from the cuff of his shirt. When he turned and walked toward the map on the wall, she could see that he had another tag hanging from the back of the red vest he was wearing.
"Good to have you back, Fullmetal," Roy called out.
"I'm not changing again," Edward answered without turning around.
Hawkeye looked back to the man who was theoretically in charge of this office and who needed to hear the rest of his day's schedule only to find Roy leaning on his hand with a tiny grin turning up the corners of his mouth.
As he ignored his paperwork in favor of watching Edward.
"No, you're fine," he said. Hawkeye sighed and wondered if 'watching Edward' was something he planned to get over quickly. A brief examination of his expression told her, 'No', of course. Sometimes, Roy Mustang brought new levels to the word 'incorrigible'.
"Thanks," the blond replied, and stabbed a marking pin into the wall with a force she could hear clearly, even above the noise coming from the outer office. A certain Brigadier didn't seem dissuaded from admiring his subordinate by the fact that anyone could tell the young man would rather be stabbing pins into his commanding officer than into the map.
After rustling through the papers he'd taken, Edward asked, "Did you organize these by attack target?"
Roy's gaze turned sharp for an instant as he thought about what the other man had said. "They're in order by date."
Hawkeye rapped on the desk twice to get Roy's attention and focus it on his own work again. Edward could handle Edward's job, and he didn't need his commander interfering or gawking. At least the Brigadier had the sense to turn back to his paperwork as soon as he saw Hawkeye raise her eyebrow at him. Over the years, he'd demonstrated a surprising capacity to concentrate on his duties even when he seemed distracted by a pretty girl.
Or, apparently, boy.
Hawkeye was well acquainted with the manner in which Roy turned to look every so often from the paper in his hand over in the direction of his newly-returned fellow alchemist. That was the look he used when examining a target that he'd decided to pursue. One might have expected him to know better than to pick that particular target, though. Probably the last thing Edward would want would be for his commanding officer to take an unexpected liking to him. Not to mention that it was Edward Elric. She looked over her shoulder, just to check that the alchemist hadn't changed more drastically than she remembered from yesterday. Edward placed another flag in the map, examined the placement of all the flags so far, then tore them all out while grumbling. He seemed like the same Edward. After watching him flip through the papers and deal them out in several rows on the table by the wall, she turned back to Roy.
Who was once again ignoring the meeting agenda entirely, locked in contemplation of the blond in the corner.
There was no question that Edward had grown up into an attractive sort of young man, and that the leather pants he'd found fit him extremely well, but there were limits, even for certain Brigadier Generals.
Still, she took care to speak quietly enough that the young man himself wouldn't be bothered. "Brigadier General Mustang, sir. Have you no shame?"
"I have no idea what you're talking about," he answered just as quietly. And he may have decided to turn his eyes back to his meeting agenda, but he hadn't bothered to wipe the cat-in-the-cream grin off his face. Who did he think he was fooling?
"I heard from Captain Havoc that you and Edward-kun had your first fight just after he came in this morning."
"Oh, well, that couldn't have come as a surprise." He looked up from the few notes he'd taken to smile at her. Well, at least it was an improvement over his earlier lack of energy. Hawkeye hated to admit it most days, but his concentration did usually improve when he had a fresh source of entertainment around. "Tell me, who won the betting pool on how long we'd last?"
She tucked the rest of the day's schedule under her arm. "I believe it was a four-way tie, sir. However, Capt. Havoc also mentioned why you two were fighting."
"What about it, Captain?"
Oh, Roy. She rolled her eyes as he glanced up yet again to admire Edward in the corner. "Please tell me you didn't order Edward-kun to change out of his uniform because you wanted a better view."
Pointing one finger towards her, Roy went back to composing the presentation for this afternoon (which he really should have written last week). "First," he said at full volume, then paused to double-underline something in his notes, "I didn't give him an order. I made a suggestion." After he counted off a second finger, he lowered his voice again. "And second, my motivations were unimpeachable. Any improvement to the view is a happy side effect."
The way his attention turned toward the happy side effect of his suggestion and lingered before he returned to his notes didn't particularly help his case.
"But this is Edward-kun," she sighed. "Must you?" Hawkeye didn't see any danger per se in allowing Roy to make a fool of himself, since she rated it more likely to end with the Brigadier getting punched in the face than with with any hard feelings. The volume with which Edward would probably object, however, seemed like good enough reason to avoid a dalliance of the week with the elder Elric brother.
Roy kept writing intently, but his voice sounded oddly tense when he replied. "There is absolutely nothing wrong with finding him attractive. I assure you, I didn't have a single impure thought about him until two and a half hours ago."
Hawkeye narrowed her eyes and stared at him in silence. The edges of his ears turned faint red as she watched, which meant he was unusually embarrassed about something. Very unusually embarrassed. And that... Well, that really had been a very specific thing for him to say in such a general context.
He set down his pen and looked up slowly, ears turning ever more red.
"Roy Mustang. Is there some reason why I should wonder when you started 'having impure thoughts' about Edward-kun?"
The Brigadier General in charge of national security cleared his throat quite uncomfortably and turned his gaze toward the paperwork on his desk. "Ah, no. No reason whatsoever," he muttered. "Well, I really ought to get this presentation ready." The way he rubbed at his eyebrow while he focused was a dead giveaway that he was hiding something.
Oh, please don't let him have meant what that sounded like.
Before she could think of anything to say, the shuffle of papers and the occasional footsteps from the other side of the room gave way to an echoing stride aimed straight for Roy's desk. "Coming through," Edward said. "Don't mind me."
Hawkeye kept her eyes on Roy while the blond circled the desk and opened a drawer. As soon as the younger man rounded the corner, a certain Brigadier's attention was fixed to his paperwork and his pen was diligently writing line after line of notes. He didn't even stop to ask Edward why he'd approached. The alchemist poked through the drawer and dropped one hand on the back of Roy's chair, prompting the Brigadier to sit forward suddenly. By now, his ears were just about crimson, which was the first time she'd seen them turn quite that shade. Finally, Edward pulled a package of colored markers out of the drawer and pushed it closed with his hip. Roy very carefully didn't see this, having put his hand up at the side of his face and leaned his chin sharply in the other direction.
Once the blonde turned to walk back around the desk again, Roy was willing to sneak a glance. A short one. He zipped right back to his paperwork when Edward stopped and reached into his pocket. "Oh, here," he said. She wasn't sure what it was at first, but saw quite clearly when the Fullmetal Alchemist walked back to drop the handful dead-center on what the Brigadier was writing. And Roy Mustang very nearly flinched at the sight of at least a score of rubber bands suddenly falling on top of his hand. "I found those."
His famous composure returned quickly. Even the blush in his ears receded a bit as he picked up one of the rubber bands and dropped it in the dish where he usually kept them. "Ah, thank you, Fullmetal," he told Edward with a nod. "I was wondering where those had gone."
Edward stalked off again with his markers, and Hawkeye watched Roy move the rubber bands one at a time to the dish without paying the least bit of attention to what he was doing. All of his focus stayed on the blond heading back over to the far wall. He'd clearly gotten over his attack of embarrassment, Hawkeye thought with a roll of her eyes. At least she could be fairly sure after that display that her friend and commander had at least a little shame. Also that he probably wasn't lying about having developed this particular interest earlier today. She'd have noticed something if he'd been acting like this yesterday (let alone before).
And that was really all she needed or wanted to know on the topic of Roy Mustang's 'impure thoughts'.
"So," she said, and paused to collect the Brigadier General's attention.
He looked back and forth between her and the rubber band dangling from his finger. "I can explain."
With a sigh, she shook her head and asked, "Have you given any thought to where Edward-kun's desk will be? There's a space he can take next to 2nd Lt. Fuery, though we'll have to move Capt. Havoc's diorama of the East City stickball pitch." Hawkeye couldn't say she'd be sad to see the coffee-cup masterpiece banished from their workspace.
"Oh, let him keep it." Roy shuffled away the last few rubber bands. "I don't really see Fullmetal sitting at a desk."
So much for taking out the garbage.
"Then you have a plan, sir?"
"Well, you know." He shrugged and rubbed his eyebrow again while he stalled. "I would imagine he'll be spending a lot of time in the field, like he used to."
"And while he's in the office?"
A wide grin broke across Roy's face. He turned towards the far wall and gestured out wide with his hands. "I've got all this room over here that we only use for planning sessions occasionally. There's a table he can have, and chairs, with plenty of bookshelves. And I think he'd fit quite well in the space by the window, don't you?"
Hawkeye pulled her list of the day's duties back out and crossed off 'Pick Edward-kun's desk' and 'Make Capt. Havoc move his art project', since those were no longer necessary. When a certain Brigadier had his mind made up as clearly as it was on this point, arguing with him was pointless. Even she couldn't say 'no' to Roy when he was excited enough to smile that way about moving Edward in. If they didn't get along, she'd always have the option of offering the desk next to Fuery later. "I think, Brigadier, that when you tell your plan to Edward-kun, you should try to sound less like he's a picture you mean to hang. Now, have you considered what you'll do when that space is needed for a meeting with other officers or any foreign dignitaries?"
No sense in waiting to address any issues that might be expected to arise.
"I'm certain I can issue him the necessary security clearances," Roy answered.
"You mean to have Edward-kun attending meetings with higher-ranked officers and visiting heads of state?"
"I don't see why not." He looked like he might be thinking of aiming his last rubber band at the back of Havoc's head. Hawkeye pulled it out of Roy's hand and dropped it in the storage dish, after which Roy could see that she was waiting quite patiently for him to explain why he felt Edward would be unlikely to cause an international incident. He went on with neither remorse nor shame. "He has good insights, and he may not like politics but he knows enough about how the game works. He can keep a civil tongue when it suits him, and when it doesn't suit him..." The Brigadier shrugged. "Any mess he can't get himself out of, it's always been worth my efforts to save him."
At least that sounded like he'd considered the situation before coming to a conclusion, and it wasn't as if Hawkeye had doubts about the alchemist's credentials. Good enough on that point. Not on some others. "There is, however, the matter of how much time you've spent ogling Edward-kun in the past while. Should I be concerned about your ability to concentrate on paperwork while he's in the room?"
"No need. I'm perfectly capable of balancing my recreational ogling and the expeditious accomplishment of my duties." As if he were trying to prove his point, Roy wrote two final lines on his notes for the presentation he was to give this afternoon. And didn't he look pleased with himself, too.
"Good," Hawkeye replied. "Because if I ever find myself under the impression that you'd be more efficient when fully blind, I won't hesitate to shoot out your other eye."
Over in the corner, Edward broke his relative silence with something that sounded quite a bit like, "Oh, shit." Both she and Roy turned to look at him. The blond had finished with his shuffling and rearranging, and stood perfectly still as he squinted at the map he'd covered with brightly colored notecards. The twist in his frown said he was deep in thought about something that wasn't particularly pleasant. "Colonel," he yelled, his eyes still fixed on the map. "I think you've got a problem."
"I'm sorry, Fullmetal, did you say something?"
With a loud sigh, he amended, "I think you've got a problem, Roy," sounding even more sarcastic than usual.
"I should say we do. Border raiders are inciting rebellion in the North. Make sure to include a solution in your report when you've analyzed the situation properly."
Hawkeye could have sworn that the young man's hair stood up even more on end when he arched his back and growled. He muttered something she couldn't make out, though she could imagine it was uncomplimentary and directed at a certain Brigadier General, then pulled a piece of paper to an open spot on the table. Edward yanked the lid off of one of the markers and scrawled something quickly, with extra loud squeaks as he wrote to make it perfectly obvious how annoyed he was, then marched across the office to Roy's desk. Any hint of a smile dropped off Roy's face as soon as Edward shoved the piece of paper into his commander's line of sight.
"Problem," the blond said, slightly louder than before, emphasizing each syllable.
Hawkeye bent behind Roy's head to see what he'd written. The purple streaks of ink read, "MY REPORT: Their orders are coming from Central."
Which would certainly constitute, as he had said, 'a problem'.
Roy took the paper and scanned it closely. "If you want a solution," the blond went on, "I say we find 'em and stop 'em. How's that?"
"Show me," Roy answered. His tone was all business, and Hawkeye nearly had to run to keep up with him as he followed Edward to the map.
The cities marked on the board were no different than they were yesterday or the day before, but Edward had added notes in various colors about what resources had been attacked by the raiders. "It's the research facility here," he said. The tag he pointed to had the word 'TRINGHAMS' written out in blue. "At first, I thought they got attacked because they were doing water reclamations, but that's not it. They're too soon. See, the Tringham's place was during the first wave, when the raiders went after telegraph depots, radio towers, and phone lines." He pointed out the three earliest attacks, with the names of lines that'd been destroyed listed in green. "Then they started concentrating attacks on transportation centers," Edward went on. He indicated two of the rail stations he'd marked in red, then moved onto the sites he'd marked in orange. "Third wave was power generators. They didn't start hitting water reclamations until after that. Al says most of those project sites didn't even exist back when the Tringhams got hit. They were just starting to set them up."
"Right." Roy nodded and squinted at the board. She remembered that the Brigadier had noticed the general pattern as soon as they'd been able to get any clear information from the area. That was how he'd known they had a guerrilla war on their hands, not an ordinary band of thieves. "So the research facility was taken out for another reason?"
"Yeah. Communications." Edward reached up with his green marker and added 'TG Line to Al' on the notecard. Hawkeye's breath stuck in her throat. She knew Alphonse had asked for Roy's help getting data from the Tringhams when all the communications lines had gone down, but the concern over water supplies had already been bad enough that no one had questioned the attack on the research facility. When Edward had capped the marker again, he frowned in Roy's direction. "Al said the Tringham brothers built their own telegraph system connecting to Central Headquarters to send in reports. Their work's classified, so it didn't go through any of the switching stations on the way. It was direct. Most of the hits the raiders made were things you could target based on local knowledge, but there's no way they knew about that line unless they had someone here."
"Someone high up," Roy said softly. "These attacks are targeted to destabilize the government's control. That's been clear from the beginning. I'd say you're right about that telegraph line, too, and I know a coup d'etat when I see it."
"So, remind me again why you're still not the Fuhrer?"
"Because I want to live in a democracy. So. We're going to need information on anyone close enough to power to grab for it."
Edward grinned from ear to ear. "You mean you want me to bug the offices of all the Generals on the council?"
"No, Fullmetal, I don't," Roy said with a sigh. "Speaking of which, we're not discussing any more of that here. Let's talk about the North. Now, messages are getting to the raiders somehow. All known communications lines are down, and we haven't picked up any open radio signals. That means couriers. Any idea where they might be coming in?"
"Well, their home base, probably. Where else would they go?" Edward tapped one of the cities on the map with his left hand: Hyrcania, a mid-sized rural town southwest of North City. If Edward were right about that, Hawkeye thought, a base of operations south of the attacks would support the idea that someone from inside was organizing the 'invasion'. It would also explain why the soldiers at Briggs had come up empty-handed. The raiders might not be crossing the border at all. There was a chance they weren't even from Drachma, though if she knew Roy, he wouldn't risk making an assumption like that yet.
The blond alchemist had his full attention -- no surprise, if Edward had found the base Roy had been hunting for these past few weeks. "You're sure that's where they are?"
"Duh. If you track back the patterns of roads that're cut off by general attacks, Hyrcania's the only place that's never been fully surrounded. There's always been a way in and and a way out somewhere."
He'd gotten that from what data they'd been able to scrape together from communiques with the front lines and the stories from civilians who'd managed to flee? In less than an hour? Over the past few weeks, their whole department had been analyzing those reports. They'd thought they had a break when they worked out how many individual units were operating in the area. Any patterns might have shown where the next strikes would be, where they were coming from, where they were going -- but there had been none. The attacks were chaotic. Had Edward managed to hold all that in his head and look through every movement for something that small? He hadn't even marked a single one of the minor scuffles on the map -- just major assaults on resources. How...?
But did it matter how? She'd seen Edward's analyses in action before, and they hadn't found any better ideas yet. If he was advising Roy to check Hyrcania, she wouldn't argue.
The alchemist knitted up his brow and scrached his nose. "Plus, if they've got couriers coming from Central, that's perfect. See, basic shifts in roadblock patterns break down into a twelve-day cycle. I make about four days traveling the hard way from Central to Hyrcania, eight round trip. Two days on each end would do to hand over orders, get local intelligence, and resupply. Twelve days total. So, yeah, I'm pretty sure that's where they're gonna be." The blond alchemist turned his head up to Roy and scowled. "Why're you looking at me like that?"
For a moment, Roy looked like he'd just received the most perfect birthday present he could imagine. Once he managed to rediscover his restraint, he turned back to the map and rapped his fist on the city of Hyrcania twice.
Then he started patting Edward on the head, which only caused the blond to intensify his scowl.
"No reason," Roy said, and dropped his hand off Edward's head to pull on his ponytail. "Good dog."
"I hate you."
"Wonderful. Now, Hyrcania has nothing for communications but a local telephone network. If we can get some kind of secure transmissions in there, we'll have an edge. Two-way radios would be the easiest to move, but they'll be short range."
Edward let out a long sigh. "Get me the best equipment you can find, and I'll see what I can do to boost the signal. Getting through to Central directly is probably out of the question, but..." He pointed to the pin for the Tringham's research facility again. "If we can get that line to Al repaired, I can turn the whole valley into the biggest damn radio receiver you've ever seen. A, B, C," he said, and moved his finger from Hyrcania to the research facility to Central. "...and we're set."
The Brigadier didn't make a single move to silence Edward, even though he always operated under the assumption that the office had been bugged. If they were dealing with an internal threat tied to this 'invasion', his assumption was more than likely correct. He must have decided to use Edward's plan as a cover operation. If so, he would (she hoped) let her know the real goal before putting anything into action. In the meantime, Hawkeye added 'Find radios' onto the day's schedule. They would need them in any case.
"Make sure Alphonse-kun knows that no-one is allowed to know when those transmissions start coming in." When Roy hatched a plot, he usually did so quickly. Hawkeye kept her eyes and ears locked on him, ready for the word on what to do. For the moment, he leaned back on the table and fixed one hard eye on Edward. "As far as anyone outside this office is concerned, that line remains down."
"Al's not an idiot, you know."
"Tell him anyway." Roy studied the map in silence for a few moments longer. When he spoke again, his voice was soft and serious. Most people would have said he sounded calm. Hawkeye knew better. She had rarely ever heard him sound as worried as that. "Fullmetal. Connecting the radio system that way means we have to send you out there as soon as we can make preparations. No one else can manage it. And..."
The other alchemist leaned against the wall and crossed his arms across his chest. "Yeah. And what?"
"And it means I can't let you take Alphonse-kun."
Edward turned his head away without saying a word.
"He can't go north, you're not to discuss this with him in this building, and if you want to discuss it at home, I recommend you search thoroughly for wiretaps and other surveillance equipment before you do. If we involve him in this, our enemies will be able to see through the objective. Someone else will need to be your backup."
"I don't need a babysitter for this," Edward grumbled. "It's just the Tringhams."
The expression on Roy's face was strange. Hawkeye had never seen him hesitate to send the right person for the job before, no matter how dangerous it was. "Of course you need a babysitter," he told the young alchemist after an uneasy pause. "That's a war zone." While Edward was still looking away, Roy turned his face so Hawkeye couldn't quite see it clearly, but she could see him swallow and take a deep breath to regain his calm.
And she couldn't miss the way he played with the button on the pocket where he kept his gloves.
Roy. You're not...
Part of her job was to know what Roy Mustang was thinking, and she was good at her job. Roy needed her to be. But as much as she knew he cared for every one of his subordinates and didn't consider a person he cared for to be expendable, she'd never expected to see him so troubled as this about putting someone at risk. They'd all earned his trust long ago, Edward included. But Hawkeye could just barely see his hand clenching against the table now, and heard the strained edge on his voice.
"If I could, I'd send a full battalion to back you up, but that's not an option. So you're going to make do with the best man I have to send."
"I don't need--"
"If you have any complaints--"
"Lots!" Edward yelled as he whipped his head around with his eyes flaring.
The Brigadier stared down the other alchemist in silence, but not for long. After a moment, he took the page with Edward's 'report' scrawled in purple marker off the table and walked away toward the filing cabinets at the other end of room. With his back to both of them, his voice echoed loud across the office. "Keep them to yourself. I'm going with you. That's final."
Hawkeye watched him pull out a drawer and thumb through the tabs, too far away for she or Edward to read the expression on his face. Once he'd retrieved a thick file, he walked back to his desk without another glance at the corner, the map, or Edward.
For five years, she'd watched him miss the boy who'd disappeared, and she'd said 'Yes, sir' every time he'd insisted Edward Elric would come home someday. She'd seen how much it bothered him to think he'd lost one of the best friends he had left. No wonder it had been such a surprise to see his behavior earlier this morning. Roy took his friends far more seriously than he took his lovers. The expression on his face now said he hadn't expected to be so afraid of losing Edward again, the day after he'd come home. Maybe for good.
Edward stared after the Brigadier, far more placid than he'd been before. "You, huh?" he murmured, biting his lip. After a moment, he kicked his left foot against the floor and pushed off the wall. One by one, he found all the scattered markers under the map and on the table, and collected them into their case. "I guess I can't stop you," the blond called out loud enough for Roy to hear.
The words seemed to ease his mind. He let out a long breath, as if he'd been holding it in as he waited to hear if Edward would keep fighting him. "I'll need a full report -- in writing, Fullmetal, for my eyes only." The Brigadier seemed to have recollected his poise once he looked up. "Still, this is good work. On our way out, I think I'll get you that drink I promised you."
"Why? If I'm thirsty, I'll get water."
A look of profound confusion passed over Roy's face as Edward took a seat at the table to work. The blond didn't notice, absorbed in his work as he was. "The intent is to go out somewhere and spend time together," Roy answered, now with a smile stealing across his lips. "The drink is a means to that end."
Edward's chair squeaked on the floor when he whipped around. "I don't want to drink things with you!"
"Don't be absurd. Of course you do."
Crimony, Roy. Do you have any idea that you're in love with him?
Well, as long as Edward seemed like he didn't want any part of being with Roy, she had no intention of raising the issue. "Brigadier General Mustang," Hawkeye interjected. "I can leave the rest of your schedule for you, sir, if there are any preparations you need me to make."
He turned and nodded. "Very good, Captain. I think it's going to rain on Sunday. If you could see to planning?"
"Yes, sir." She straightened up into a crisp salute and hurried away, with a stop to leave the schedule on Roy's desk as promised.
Once she reached the outer office, Capt. Havoc looked up from arranging his model stickball pitch. "Sounds like big plans in there."
"Brigadier General Mustang and Edward-kun are heading north to assess the situation at the border, so we'll have some work to do before they leave. The Brigadier has reason to believe it will rain on Sunday."
2nd Lt. Fuery joined Capt. Havoc in staring at Hawkeye, and Lt. Breda even consented to wake up from his nap and remove the book that had been covering his eyes. None of them wanted to hear those words, and she couldn't blame them. Investigating the upper brass to find out which member, or members, of the Council of Generals might be working with a foreign power to stage a coup and establish a new military dictatorship was risky and complicated. And if they got caught before they found what they needed, whoever they were hunting could roast everyone in their department with a tribunal, or worse.
But that was life when you wanted to work with Roy Mustang, and they all knew how not to get caught.
"Damn," Havoc replied, picking up the phone after the moment of silence ended. "Guess I'll have to cancel that picnic with Col. Armstrong."
"You have a code word for that?" Edward asked.
Roy had spent most of the walk from Headquarters to wherever this was explaining that the office was bugged, so they had to assume the enemy knew everything they knew, and from now on he wasn't allowed to breathe if he wasn't doing it in some stupid code where talking about the weather meant 'While I'm out of town, I think someone on the Council will try to overthrow the government, if you don't mind figuring out who he is'. That was worse than claiming 'Let's go out for a drink' actually meant, 'I want to tell you something secret and the office is bugged, so let's head somewhere noisy and public' and that Edward should have known all of that from context. How had that been even a little bit clear? It was saying one thing and meaning another, and if he didn't have the key to the code Mustang was using (which was a stupid code), then he was going to need a little more context than that to figure it out. This was why conspiracies sucked.
He sighed and walked through the door to the bar where Roy had led him. "I don't know how you people get anything done. What if you actually wanted to tell somebody you thought it might rain on a Sunday?"
"We handle the weather as it arises. This situation requires secrecy and pre-planning. Obviously, the code word was necessary."
"Yeah, well maybe you could have told me there was someone listening to our conversations before I explained how I actually got back from Earth, or did I not mention how I didn't want the military to know about that?"
"Your secret's safe, Fullmetal," he answered. They took two stools at the far end of the bar, a little ways apart from the crowd. "I take the bugs out of my desk. I leave them in the meeting spaces to keep our enemies from getting any more creative. Besides, covert intelligence is a double-edged sword." Roy took off his hat and set it on the bar beside them. "If my enemy knows something he could only have learned by spying, then I know my enemy."
Edward stretched his hands over his head. It'd been a long, sucky day. "I can't believe I finally get home and you're running another conspiracy."
Roy laughed as he waved over the man minding the store. "It's still the same conspiracy, Fullmetal. Nations are rarely rebuilt in five short years."
"Mustang-san. What can I get for you?" the bartender asked.
"Bourbon on the rocks."
Edward found himself staring back at the hard, blue eyes of a man with greying hair who clearly didn't think he belonged here. The bartender glanced back at Roy for a second, then puzzled up his face. Even before the man asked, he knew what was coming.
"... How old are you, kid?"
"Look, I'm twenty--"
But he swallowed his words before the number got out. He wasn't actually twenty-nine. The birth year his dad had put on his papers was just a (sometimes convenient) failure to do math -- and it wasn't going to fly now that he was back here. There was a slim chance he'd aged extra when he'd gone through, but only if time had done something when he'd jumped to Earth that he was pretty sure wasn't possible, and which still wouldn't make him 29 because it left open the question of whether coming back to Amestris had eliminated or reduplicated the effect, which might make him as old as... Four trips times six years (assuming the years had been dropped, not just numbered differently), plus twenty-three years he'd lived through... 47? So, no. No way. If that'd happened at all, it had been canceled out, and it probably hadn't ever happened. As for things that he did need to reconcile, he'd spent seven years over there and now everyone was telling him he'd been gone for five, and depending on which of four different things had happened, the relative rate of timeflow might have up to four different constants. Assuming he'd thought of everything.
What a headache.
'How old are you?' was a better question than he'd thought.
"You said it's 1920?" he asked Roy. The bastard nodded, with that smarmy-ass smile that Edward could never figure out why he liked. "Okay. So I've got to be twenty-one at least. Well, probably. I'll be damned if I know how I'd get any younger."
The bartender cleared his throat. "I'm gonna have to see some ID." With a sigh, he pulled out the stupid card Roy had given him this morning and handed it over, while the man himself laughed at the whole situation.
It wasn't funny. He really didn't know how old he was.
Okay, so it was a little bit funny.
"Sorry about the trouble," the bartender said, handing back the card. "So, what'll it be?"
Edward scanned the array of bottles on the back wall and pointed to something bright yellow in a bottle that stuck up five inches above everything else. "I'll have that."
The man put two glasses out in front of them and shook his head. "All right, kid. You want 'that' on the rocks or straight up?"
Which meant what, exactly? Well, Roy had ordered his 'on the rocks', so...
When the man poured the drinks, it turned out the distinction was between 'ice' and 'no ice'. No wonder Roy liked this place if you had to use little code phrases to explain things when you could just say what you mean. Codes belonged in research notes, or when you really had something to hide, not when you were trying to tell random people what you wanted to drink.
"Cheers," Roy said.
Edward clinked his glass against the Colonel's and took a sip of the yellow stuff the bartender had poured into it. Wasn't bad, whatever it was. Tasted kind of like vanilla.
Roy frowned at the brown stuff he'd ordered. "We leave for the North as soon as your mechanic can replace your automail," he said, but after starting in on business he fell into a quieter tone. "You finally get home, and the next day I ask you to go on a mission and leave your brother behind. I suppose that timing leaves a great deal to be desired."
That was more apology than he'd needed, really. They were going north for, what? A week? And not even immediately. He didn't want to leave Al, but at least he was still in the same dimension, and he wouldn't have begged off the job even if the Colonel had offered him the chance. It needed to be done. And as much as Edward hated to admit that he harbored any sentimentality for the bastard, it was moments like this that told him he was in denial. Sometimes, when Roy dropped his mask, there was a firm set to his jaw and to his eyes. Resolve, was what that was. It was a good look on him.
"So you're a jackass. I knew that." Edward shook his head. He didn't want to indulge that sentimentality, even if he did succumb to it sometimes. "And I'm not going to die, if that's what you've been thinking. Even if you don't come with me, I'll be fine."
The way Mustang looked at him sent a chill down his spine, just like that day after Liore when the Colonel had caught him running. "Yes, you will, Fullmetal. Anything else is unacceptable."
"Yeah, well." Edward took another small sip of yellow stuff. "That goes for you, too. Got it?"
That was when the Colonel started laughing again.
"Nothing. That chair suits you, that's all."
"What's that supposed to mean? And why are you the expert on what suits me today?"
Roy didn't give any answer beyond that damn smirk.
They settled into an oddly comfortable silence while they waited for the bartender to finish with another customer nearby and walk out of earshot, but once he was gone Edward figured he'd pick up with the conspiracy talk. That was why Roy had brought him here, wasn't it? Not to make a big deal about how somebody didn't want somebody else to get hurt, especially when this was something they could both handle without breaking a sweat.
"So if the the bad guys heard our whole plan before, like you said, I'm guessing that's not the real plan."
"Very good, Fullmetal. They'll expect us to go north and set up a telegraph line, which we'll do. That's still important for Alphonse-kun's research if nothing else. But in addition to that..." Roy swirled the brown liquid and ice in his glass before he took another sip. "You and I are going to end the war."
Edward cracked a smile. Of course that was what they were doing. No half-assed biscuit runs for Roy Mustang.
"And here I thought it'd be something complicated."
Omake: "Still At It"
Fifteen Years Hence...
Hawkeye managed to redirect Roy's attention from the scene of Edward working at the filing cabinets. She understood that her commander was easily distracted at any time when Edward was standing nearby (or sometimes sitting, for that matter), but he did need to finish these questions for the radio interview tomorrow. With ordinary paperwork, she could allow him to use his normal method of trading off looking and writing, but Roy simply couldn't be trusted with profile questionnaires, and the answers that went on this sheet would be the subjects of tomorrow’s questions. If she would need to double-check his work anyway, she might as well not let him get his hands on it to start with.
“What have we got now?” he asked.
She glanced down at the paper. “Next question. What is your favorite place in the world to be?”
“My favorite place to be?” Roy let out a laugh and glanced back toward the filing cabinets. Edward, meanwhile, finished what he was doing and stalked away, with Roy's gaze tracking him back across the room. “Isn't that obvious?” he asked, failing to suppress an impish grin.
And this was why she never let him do this himself. Some people might have expected him to grow a sense of propriety by the age of fifty, but Hawkeye had never been under a delusion that a bit of grey hair at his temples would endow Roy Mustang with mature restraint.
Neither was Edward, of course. As soon as he heard the response, he whipped his head around -- just quick enough to see Roy turn his attention to reorganizing the pen holder on his desk. “Oh, hell no,” the other alchemist informed him. “If you tell her to put my name on that paper, I will throw you out that window, Roy.”
“You don't expect me to lie, do--”
Before she could blink, Edward had reached Roy's chair and smacked their commander across the back of the head. The past several years hadn't reduced the frequency of their fights, and the net total of violence and shouting had remained constant. To a certain degree, the duration of any given fight had reduced, but only because regular practice had lent the two of them a great deal of efficiency.
“Ow.” Roy rubbed the back of his head, still grinning at the blond.
“You're good at lying. Make something up! Or do you want the whole country to think you're a dirty old man?”
“I simply feel the public deserves the truth, Fullmetal.”
“Speaking as someone who has to listen to you talk, trust me: they'd rather you didn't make an ass of yourself. Pick something else!”
While the blond tried to pull Roy's chair away from the desk and drag it towards the window (with Roy hanging on to the desk and apparently having the time of his life), Hawkeye wrote ‘Concert Hall’ under the offending question. Edward was going to win that argument. She’d make certain of it.
He found Edward in the same place where he always found the blond after a long day at work and before dinner. His ‘personal guard’, ‘gentleman in residence’, or whatever inappropriate term one decided to apply, liked to camp at one end of the living room couch with a book and a grim expression for a few hours around this time of day. Roy took his own book from the coffeetable. Obviously, if Edward didn’t want to be bothered, he wouldn’t sit in such an indefensible position. Those were basic tactics.
Like he did almost every day, he climbed onto the couch and laid down between Edward’s legs, resting his book on his companion’s chest.
He met his blond’s scowl with a smile. “What else can you expect when you lay there so invitingly?” The spine of Fullmetal’s book fell down on his forehead, and his companion turned a page with a sigh.
“Have it your way.”
“I always do,” Roy answered. The man might complain, but he never objected. Edward’s legs pressed against his side, and sometimes a stray hand ran through his hair. If he was particularly lucky, his companion wouldn’t object too strenuously when a chance to play with a long golden lock distracted Roy from his own reading. And if he were tired, he could close his eyes and lay his cheek on his lover’s chest, as the swell when Edward breathed slowly in and out rocked him to sleep.
It was as close to heaven as he ever expected to get.
1) "How the Leopard Got His Spots" is the fourth story in Rudyard Kipling's Just-So Stories. The chapter that should appear in the next month or two is entitled "The Gathering of the Nations", which source may be the second biggest challenge to guess out of all the titles. I look forward to seeing if anyone can claim virtual cookies by successfully guessing the book I nabbed this from.
I'm only footnoting this because I'd forgotten it existed before I wrote this chapter, and the way I found it was... roundabout. None of the swear words I could pull to mind sounded right, so I cast about for one that did. In that endeavor, I had absolutely no luck until (in a complete fit of desperation) I googled the phrase, "Well, I'll be a monkey's uncle".
... ... ...
Hey, it found me a list of mild expletives for use in expressing shock or surprise. I'll take it. (Specifically, I took the link to "crikey" and chose "crimony" -- or more commonly "criminy" -- from among its related terms.)
3) Edward's age
The complicated part of this will be a feature in the next chapter, so I won't go into the "7 vs. 5" year change at this time. I promise, it does work (even with the movie timeline of 2 years to 2 years) and I will explain.
Edward's beverage choice was made by randomly selecting a name from a list of items that would appear in a well-stocked bar. In case you're wondering, the bright yellow stuff in the oversized bottle is Galliano -- or at least its Amestrian cognate.
Omake: While I was stuck on a bit of characterization this past Saturday, I realized what I needed was to rewatch the version of the series from which this story is drawn -- and I had to do it quickly, because this release was already much later than I had intended. So, I sat down with my DVDs, a sandwich, and my cats; and when I was looped out on lack of sleep the next morning, this happened.
WARNING: DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME. Marathoning 51 episodes of anime between 7PM and whenever you finish the next day (this is noon, minimum, if you don't fast forward anything), then immediately driving an hour to run your weekly anime club is not recommended. For your safety and that of others on the road, try to sleep at least 6 hours before driving long distances. That being as it is, I am happy to say that no motor accidents were caused in the delirium that brought you the omake at the end of this chapter.
Chapter 4: The Gathering of the Nations
Practicing alchemy, his brother had declared earlier this morning, was like 'falling off a bicycle'. He'd had to learn how to get on not doing it, and had succeeded brilliantly, but to forget how the process worked or lose an ounce of skill was (Edward had said) too ridiculous a notion to be considered. Nii-san did like to bluster. In front of the Research and Development staff, he'd been the picture of confidence (although Alphonse knew that Edward had been testing himself in secret over the last few days). None of them could believe that -- after years spent unable to practice transmutation in any way -- his brother had maintained the level of precision he demonstrated in his scientific 'proof' of the existence of his pseudo-scientific 'wavicles'.
Nii-san also liked to make things up, even if he wasn't very good at it, and Alphonse wasn't sure what kind of miracle had kept the military scientists from questioning the demonstration.
None of them were willing to admit they hadn't understood it, he had to assume. Or perhaps they'd been distracted by the basic principle of Nii-san's experiment in showing that light appeared to have some kind of material component, and they'd forgotten that they were supposed to be evaluating whether or not there were magical wave-particles that had anything to do with alchemy or inter-world travel. Either way, his brother had clearly learned a lot of fascinating things during his five years away if he'd been able to come up with such a sophisticated sleight-of-hand so easily.
Well, Nii-san had told him it wasn't five years, actually. His brother had decided not to bother with explanations on that as far as the military's understanding was concerned -- deeming it 'unimportant' (whether that was in reference to the military or their understanding, Alphonse couldn't say) -- but he'd explained over dinner his first night home that he'd been away seven years.
Probably. That was what Nii-san was trying to figure out now. His brother had decided to stay in Research a bit longer to set up an experiment: observing a timepiece he'd brought back with him from Earth and comparing it to the most accurate local clock he could find. If the mechanisms showed any insight into the differences in the flow of time, Nii-san had concluded, he'd be able to work out precisely what age he ought to be. It made sense, after a fashion. He didn't have to stay here while he worked, of course; Nii-san could easily have taken down his table of numbers in Brigadier General Mustang's office. That said, Alphonse was quite glad to have him around a little longer before he went away on assignment.
Edward looked up from his work as Alphonse sat down on the stool next to his. Three or four lines of typed numbers trailed out on the ticker tape coming from the back of his machine. "What is it, Al?"
"Well, I was thinking maybe you should show me how to take notes for you. You'll be leaving for the North as soon as Winry can replace your automail, right? Will that be enough time to get all the data you need?"
"Enough for some math. Not enough to be sure." His brother stretched his arms over his head and yawned. "The system's pretty simple. I've got this keypad rigged so that the instant I enter an Earth time, the local clock prints a reading next to it. You just need to type the date and time shown on the watch every few minutes. And if I'm lucky, the clock'll read like it's running fast. 1.169 times as fast, if I'm really lucky, though I'm starting to doubt it."
Alphonse frowned at the little ticker tape device. "If you're lucky?"
"I calculated based on the exact dates I went from here to there and when I came back. It wasn't two whole extra years I spent on Earth, just 1.169 times as many days, approximately." Nii-san rubbed the back of his head and scowled at the numbers. "It would mean Earth people just counted days and hours and whatever differently and I hadn't spent any extra time there if that watch was running fast, I'm pretty sure. Doesn't look like it's gonna turn out that way, though. Not going to be the second best option, either."
"What do you mean?"
His brother sighed. The device ticked away, blissfully unaware that it was causing Edward such consternation. "Getting dropped into a timestream that's just... I don't know. Maybe in some part of the universe where time moves 1.169 times faster than here for some reason. But if that happened, a second would still be a second, and these times would match up precisely -- though the chances are basically nil that people on some other world have a time unit that's exactly the same as ours. Of course, their calendar and their hours and such matched up, and that's freaky enough, so maybe." Edward stretched his arms over his head again. "But it's no use getting into how that would work now. These numbers aren't tracking at all."
"So what does that mean?" he asked as he peeked at the few lines printed on his brother's paper.
Edward scoffed and threw him a manic grin. "Really nasty calculations. I bet I can extrapolate a little something tonight, but I'm definitely going to need at least a month of regular readings, if not more, just for a reasonable demonstration that the time interchange coefficient is constant. If the watch from Earth does something like count off twelve hours in the next twenty-four, and then count forty-eight hours the day after that..." His brother dropped into a whistle and shook his head, but didn't take his eyes off the apparatus.
Alphonse tried to imagine what a variable interchange of time might mean or -- more confusing yet -- how it might affect his brother's calculations. "I hope it doesn't do that."
"Yeah. So do I," his brother replied. He didn't look too upset by the possibility, though. Apparently, Edward hadn't outgrown his love of overcomplication. "It's too bad I didn't have a watch from here with me on the other side," he went on. "I could really use some of that data, too."
Alphonse frowned at the chain hanging off of his brother's belt and trailing into his pocket -- a new silver watch, the only part of his uniform and insignia that Nii-san had kept. But Edward had already forgiven him for the loss of his old one, hadn't he? And even if his original hadn't been vaporized along with the city of Liore when Scar had transmuted him into the Philosopher's Stone, it wasn't as if Nii-san ever checked his watch, or would have attributed a time discrepancy (had he noticed one) to anything but shoddy craftsmanship of the military's timepiece.
Edward's thinking out loud trailed off into a groan. When he drummed his fingers on the table, even through his gloves the sharp strikes of his metal right hand echoed harshly off the walls and drowned out the softer rhythm of his left. Maybe he was just oversensitive to the sound. After his brother had given up so much to get Alphonse his life and body back, this was still...
Broken. He wasn't any closer to finding a way to bring his brother's arm and leg back than he'd been when he started studying alchemy again five years ago.
"Nii-san," he said quietly.
From his seat on the laboratory stool, his brother turned to look at him, eye to eye.
"Nii-san, I'm still looking for a way to get your own arm and leg back." Edward's mouth drew tight, and he went back to entering times on his machine. "I haven't found it yet, but I'm sure--"
"Leave it, Al."
"What are you saying?" he asked with a wince.
The ticking second hand of his Earth-watch advanced through the silence, and Edward didn't look up at him. Looking at his brother's older face now summoned back a few more memories he hadn't recalled. In the bent of his eyes and the stubborn set of his jaw, Alphonse could see reflections of times they'd had this conversation before. But Nii-san had never told him to 'leave it' until now. He was sure of that much.
"Didn't we decide when we first took the State Alchemy exam that we'd --"
"I said leave it." Nii-san smiled at him -- that big, painful smile he used when he'd made a decision to take too much on himself. "This's been my body as long as anything else I've known. C'mon. Why don't I take that one on the chin, huh?"
"I don't want you living that way for my sake, Nii-san! I'll do whatever it takes."
"Is that why you became a State Alchemist, Al?"
He frowned at his brother. "Don't change the subject."
Edward scratched his nose and entered another line on his machine while heavy thoughts knitted up his brow. With a sigh, he spoke, but didn't look up. "Dad had a theory, like he knew about your amnesia or something. He thought the years we spent traveling together were the price you traded for getting your body back." He bared his teeth in another grin. "Well, you know me and him. We disagreed on a lot of things. How alchemy works, what to have for dinner, whether there was any way to get home. The memories you lost were just one more thing. But even if it wasn't the price, it was still an effect." When his brother looked up, it was easy to see he had trouble forming the words. Edward tapped his head. "Your mind had memories that were never burned into your brain, I think. As soon as your soul was back where it belonged, those four years were harder to catch onto than the memories your body had recorded. Given that, if you're still saying you want to get my arm and leg back..."
Alphonse stayed quiet while his brother stacked up the books and papers he'd brought with him. He wouldn't have known what he wanted to say, even if he did want to interrupt. Edward had come home on his own before any of his research could find a new way to move through the gate at all, let alone safely, but the dream they'd begun with wasn't quite finished. Alphonse had had some hope that his brother might even say what he'd done to bring his own body back. No one else really knew.
He probably wouldn't get to hear about that now. Not without promising not to try adapting it to help Nii-san, at any rate, and it wasn't as if he wanted to lie to his brother.
"Well, I guess you thought it was worth the trade," Edward went on. "That's a load off my mind, anyway. I wanted you back, but four years is a lot to lose when it wasn't what you'd bargained for. Now I'm going on closer to ten, at least." Edward took off his glove and stretched out his right arm, looking at it and flexing his metal hand. "Believe me, not a second of that's worth an arm and a leg. I've got things in those years I can't lose."
"Nii-san, you don't keep your memories in your arms. You wouldn't--"
"Might not lose anything." He slid the stack of books over and typed another line into his machine. "Are you sure about that, Al? Because all I've got is a theory. And what if something happened to you when you did the transmutation? Hell no. Getting you back in one piece might have been worth any price nature could take, but this isn't. That's where it ends."
"You don't have to be worried for my sake. I want to help you, and I know the risks. That's my choice."
"And this is mine."
He couldn't exactly tell his brother, 'No, it isn't,' and he knew better than anybody that the vague haze of his memories and the way he didn't quite know people who knew him was a sacrifice. They'd never done any kind of human transmutation yet but it had cost more than they'd bargained for; Nii-san was right about that much. That didn't make the thought of leaving his brother with an automail arm and leg any easier.
"I'm sorry, Al. I know it isn't what you want, but like I said..." He sighed and looked out the door before he turned back to Alphonse with a sad smile. "I've got things I won't risk losing." His brother rubbed his neck and acted like the conversation was over.
Maybe it was. Or maybe he just needed a moment to think of a way to explain that Nii-san couldn't stop him from looking for an answer.
"And if you've got your own reasons for joining the military," Edward started again after a moment of quiet, "I'm proud of where you've gotten yourself. But losing you to a war definitely isn't worth my arm."
Well, he was one to talk.
"And what about you, Nii-san? You could retire, but you're not going to."
"Yeah, and if I did, who'd keep an eye on Colonel Puppetmaster and make sure he's not wrecking up the joint?"
Alphonse folded his hands on the workbench and shook his head with a sigh. It would be nice if his brother would ever admit how fond he was of the Brigadier, and of the rest of the officers under Mustang's command. But that wasn't quite Nii-san's way of doing things. In the end, even that idiotic stubborn streak was part of his brother whom he'd missed so badly, and he wouldn't trade that for the world.
And maybe, if he thought about it that way, he could see why his brother wouldn't let him win this time.
"Captain Hawkeye can keep Brigadier General Mustang in line, I should think. But I know you won't leave. You've got things you can't lose, right? Well, so have I. And this is the best place I can be to protect them."
He knew from the way his brother sniffed and how his forehead relaxed just the tiniest bit that they'd both understood each other. That was enough.
"Besides, the country's changed while you were away. A certain someone has been lobbying the Parliament and the Council for the past few years to demilitarize the State Alchemists, as part of transferring control to the civilian government. He kept telling them that, to rebuild the country, we need to recruit a wider range of alchemists -- people whose skills are useful in peace as well as war. And he insisted the government could only do it if they stopped requiring alchemists to be human weapons." Which resolution, Alphonse couldn't help thinking, the Brigadier would probably like to see completed as soon as possible now that Edward was back. "A few months ago, he sent me word that the generals had finally agreed to examine the possibilities. That's when I joined up, to help support that."
Edward's face showed a hint of a smile that even his brother couldn't hide under a scowl while he typed another line for his experiment. "State Alchemist, but not a dog of the military, huh? I'd like to see the 'certain someone' who can make that happen someday."
"Don't play dense, Nii-san. You know who's doing it."
His brother made one of the two faces he only made when he was talking about Mustang-san. Of course, this one -- the happy one -- was quite a bit more rare than his particularly annoyed face. "That tricky bastard," his brother muttered through a bemused grin.
Most days, he only thought Nii-san was utterly intractable on purpose. Some days, he was certain.
How Roy managed to keep his office running was more of a mystery than ever.
"Lt. Falman, how did your volunteer hours at the student cultural exchange go?" The jackass didn't even look up from his paperwork to check on how half-dead his subordinate looked. Doing a full day's work at the office, then dedicating his spare time to 'volunteering' for a cause he didn't have any particular interest in, and doubling up his attention while he was there to memorizing every conversation General Hakuro's wife and family might have (and the General himself, whenever he showed up) was a quick ticket to running out of steam. Falman was holding up all right, he guessed, but he still looked like another week of that crap would make him keel over.
"No problems, sir. Another quiet night."
Edward had had to find a way to work the same phrase into something he said when he came back from lunch. It would have been easier and just as clear to say, 'Nothing going on with Lt. General Bloch in R&D,' but it had to be the code phrase, or apparently he hadn't really relayed the message. That message being, in Falman's case: 'I don't think General Jerkface is plotting a coup, sir. Can I maybe please go home and sleep at a normal hour this evening?'
"Wonderful. Keep up the good work," Mustang replied.
Falman sighed and went back to filing.
That filing cabinet was the worst part, really. That was freaking ridiculous. Not a piece of paper went in there but it had three different meanings you had to account for. Setting aside how the order of the pages and which direction they were facing could tell you who was investigating what, all the files had to include real intel, but never anything that mattered to any of Roy's super-secret investigations. That stuff was hidden in the patterns of letters using the bitchy little code Roy was making him practice on his wavicle report to the higher-ups. It was a pain in the butt inserting hidden messages into ordinary text, but he was almost done with it for the day and it wasn't that hard of a code. He was used to writing his notes in a much more sophisticated one -- he sure as hell didn't want anybody reading them, no matter what -- but the way the Colonel ran his conspiracies meant focusing on no one finding the messages instead of no one being able to crack them. It was a whole different set of muscles.
You have to know this process like the back of your hand, Fullmetal.
You have to be able to write it without thinking, no matter your situation, Fullmetal, and read what someone else wrote on the spot.
Why don't you learn to dance on your head and play pinochle with your feet while you're at it, Fullmetal?
Well, at least Roy hadn't actually asked him to do that last one, not that he would have had time. While he wasn't busy satisfying all the scientists' questions about the fake version of quantum physics he'd just made up, the Colonel had asked him to catalog every single member of ever single department in Central command with a complete report on the 'interaction of power dynamics'. Who answered to whom, who was loyal to whom, and fifty million other ridiculous minutiae that, unless Edward was very much mistaken, Roy probably already knew just by walking around the halls looking at people.
And once he was done, he was supposed to rewrite it, hidden in the already-annoying wavicle report, using the stupidest code ever.
No one ought to need a map like this for navigating bureaucracy -- Roy Mustang least of all -- but there he was, sitting at his desk, feeling absolutely no guilt over the excessive levels of crazy bullshit work he thought everyone needed to do.
As if he could sense that Edward was thinking about him, Roy turned his head up a second later to watch him work. Again. Talk about unwanted habits. His stupid crush on the bastard wasn't anything Edward wanted to see a reason to indulge. He certainly didn't want the Colonel to think that mindless flirting was going to get him anywhere. Roy didn't say anything, of course, just locked eyes from across the room and smiled.
Why the hell did that asshole have to be just as hot as he remembered? He probably did it just to be annoying. At least the table was quite sufficiently too far away to smell Roy's aftershave. Sure, physical attractiveness was an end of personal grooming, but did it have to be that effective?
Edward scowled his worst across the expanse of the office and twisted his chair around with a squeal across the floor so his back was to the man's desk. This was better for working on his shitty assignment anyway, and it was easier to quash his stupid hormones without Roy making some kind of a damned come-on. Because there was dumb, there was moronic, and then there was flirting with Roy Mustang. He couldn't stop the Colonel from flirting at him -- the jackass did it like breathing -- but in no way did his own deranged sex drive obligate him to reciprocate in some meaningless exchange of 'meaningful looks'.
Six regular print letters for an A... he thought, and ignored the bustle of the office (along with his theoretical commander) as he focused on recopying another block of text into the patterns he was supposed to practice. N is two regular, two funny-looking, then one regular and one funny-looking...
At least when it was written down, you never had to assume that every damn word had a double meaning. Now, not being able to ask anybody, 'Did I hear that right?' or 'Do you actually mean xyz?' when they were talking... that really sucked. Though he had to admit that Roy knew what he was doing. It wasn't that bastard's fault if the thousand little pieces of strategic information he'd fed like tracking dye into every office in the military didn't surface anywhere. Maybe the culprit was onto them and was just as careful as the Colonel, or maybe there was some way someone outside the military could run this, or maybe the man (or woman) they were looking for just wasn't freaking paying attention. Roy didn't sweat it. It'd been less than a week, he'd say, and everybody who was hiding something had to slip up someday -- which was why he claimed he would never slip up. Because he was 'digging up the truth, not trying to keep it buried'.
What a load of bullshit. Like Breda wasn't hiding anything while he was busting his ass to get picked for Marshal Levochkin's sprint relay team for field day. You couldn't spy on someone and be honest about what you were doing. It didn't work that way. He just hoped one of their sources slipped up on something soon, because if Edward had learned one thing from his crash course in conspiracies, it was that they were every bit as bothersome as he'd expected. After almost a week of it, he was already on edge enough to start pulling out his hair.
Or maybe he was just stir-crazy. The last seven years (or whatever) had been one action-packed blur (okay, so more 'study' than 'action', but that was mostly the same in the end), like a race in a dream that never stopped or slowed down, and now that he'd finally crossed the goal line and woken up, even the fast bustle of Roy's office staff in full crazy mode seemed like an easy stroll. It was relaxing when he was working on something, but when a project was winding up, he kept itching for something new to do. Going up north might be a good way to get all those pent-up nerves out of his system.
Although Roy would be there. It wouldn't be so bad, objectively, to be in close quarters with the Colonel and no one else for however long the mission lasted, but subjectively the situation had considerable potential to get uncomfortable and/or embarrassing.
Well, I hope he gets over his staring thing before we leave, or I might have to introduce his face to a railroad track.
That was when Fuery stumbled across the threshold with his arms full of paperwork nearly up to his head. It was all he could do just to push the door closed with his foot.
"Ah, pardon me, I just--"
An effervescent-as-usual Colonel Armstrong burst in, and Fuery fell over in a white paper flurry.
"Oh dear..." The half-buried 2nd Lieutenant started sorting the documents back into several stacks, with the help of every other officer in the room -- provided Roy standing by in a supervisory position could be counted as 'help'. Edward only paused to copy down the rest of his last line before he headed over himself.
"Here," he said, and shoved the coded document into the Colonel's chest.
Roy flipped through the first few pages. "That was fast."
"Yeah, well I'm fast." He could just feel the man's eyes over his shoulder now. Laughing -- silently, but he could tell. What Roy thought was funny was unclear; still, he sure as hell wasn't in the mood for any of the officer's games. Edward whipped back around and brandished one of the fallen papers in the general direction of Mustang's stupid smirk. "Don't look at me like that!"
The smirk dropped off and Roy went back to flipping through the report. "Good work, Fullmetal. I'll be sure to put this to use."
"Whatever," he muttered.
Armstrong apologized to Fuery as he studied one of the papers he was sorting. "I hope I haven't done any lasting harm to the organization of your... ah..."
"They're provenances, sir," Fuery supplied. "Marshal Wright asked me to investigate some allegations of forgery at the foreign arts festival opening next month."
"Trouble?" Mustang asked.
"Ah, well... no, sir. Not as such. Aside from a few university and museum people at each other's throats over a few brushstrokes, you know. It was another quiet night."
Apparently, Marshal Wright wasn't showing any signs of working with Drachma either, which was extra special given that half the art at the show he'd sponsored came from there.
"Glad to hear it. But Colonel Armstrong, to what do we owe the pleasure?"
Their visitor stood up to attention. "Word reached me that you'd be traveling north personally. If it's not too much to ask..."
"I would be happy to take your regards to your sister, Colonel."
He pulled a letter out of his uniform and handed it off to Mustang with a bow. "Thank you very much, sir. Oh, and Lieutenant..." he said, turning to Breda with an aside that sounded a little too much like an afterthought to actually be one. "I saw an announcement at the gymnasium that Marshal Levochkin would have to pull out of the relay for field day. An urgent tour of the water reclamations facilities, I believe, to take stock of their current defensive situation. Had you heard?"
"No." Breda collapsed backwards in a pile as Armstrong bowed and excused himself.
Fantastic. Of all the offices to lose a point of contact in, it had to be that one. When Roy had told him the other evening how he was more worried about surveilling Levochkin than anyone because, 'he's a tightlipped bastard, and his secretary hates me', Edward had thought he was joking about exactly how few footholds there were in his staff. But no, apparently Roy had made a pass at the office manager's daughter ten years ago or something, and she'd never forgiven him for it. The entire office (except the Marshal himself) was under tacit instructions not to get close to Mustang or anyone who worked for him, and now their only good way in was closed because guess who was touring the very defenses they were trying to protect from the bad guys.
Maybe that'd show Roy not to play around.
Probably not though.
The man in question was flipping through the report Edward had handed him earlier, calm as could be. "New girl, hmm?" he murmured to himself. "Intern, 18 years old. Hired two weeks ago. She might..." He trailed off as he noticed Edward staring at him. "Can I help you, Fullmetal?"
The Colonel was using the bullshit report he'd asked for? And could seriously just read that nonsense, straight from undifferentiated blocks of patterned letters? That was sick. Kinda hot, too, in a way, but seriously...
Did I just think he was hot because he can read a code? Again? Okay, I really need to stop doing that. It's not healthy.
And he definitely couldn't mention to Roy what he'd been thinking. He'd mock. He'd mock so much. No good could come.
"I don't know, Colonel," he shot back. "I just couldn't hear you muttering over there."
"Oh, Colonel Armstrong's message reminded me that there's a new hire in Marshal Levochkin's office, that's all," he lied for the benefit of any spies who might be tapping the office. He must have been concerned nigh unto desperation if he wasn't rising to being called 'Colonel' instead of his proper rank, though he didn't look perturbed. "We really ought to send someone over to meet her, don't you think? Let her know she's welcome?"
Subtext: make contact with the new girl and win her loyalty to Roy Mustang before the Marshal's head secretary can turn her into another stone wall. Problem solved. Lower ranked people were more likely to spill anything they'd overheard anyway.
"I'd send Havoc," Roy went on, looking at the report in his hands with some concern. "But eighteen is a bit young for him."
"A bit young for Havoc for what?"
Roy stared at him with more thought in his expression than usual. After half a heartbeat, he finally answered, "I think she may not find him properly approachable, that's all. Someone closer to her age might..." He trailed off again and flipped another page in the report. "Well, I'm sure 2nd Lt. Fuery or Lt. Breda can manage."
Edward glanced at the silently panicking, overworked subordinates who'd been named. And who, unless he was mistaken, weren't significantly younger than Havoc. "Uh, Roy? You know I'm the closest person to her age here, right? Why don't I go?" He could use an actual mission that involved some legwork to take the edge off, and the rest of the staff was going crazy from being too busy.
"I was under the impression that you needed to prep the radio systems for our operation and to clear up any further questions that the high command might have about your miraculous reappearance."
"Yeah, and?" He stood up to face the officer. "You're holding the last report they asked me for. The radios are ready to go whenever. I think I have time to go say hello to some new girl."
"The radios are all completely ready, then? And should I also assume you've memorized their transmission frequencies beyond any doubt and are proficient in the code our radio operators will need to learn? I won't risk bringing that information in writing."
"Done, done, and done. Did you want to pack off North early, or something? Because I could leave now."
Roy looked like this was a much harder decision than it really ought to be. "I wouldn't put on your coat just yet. You won't be ready to leave until your automail is taken care of. No catching frostbite on my watch."
"That has less than nothing to do with me having time to go to Marshal Levochkin's office and make contact with some intern. What's the problem?"
Roy ignored him and walked back to his desk, nose in the report.
"Do you not think I can do it?!" Edward yelled at his back. "Is that what this is about?" The bastard had better not be implying that he couldn't manage a spy mission comprised of saying hello.
"Social interaction is a delicate art, Fullmetal, and you've yet to convince me that you've mastered it."
Called that one. Edward fumed internally and bit back the words, 'I made you that stupid report you're reading, didn't I?!' Screaming something about covert operations loud enough for the bugs on the other side of the room to pick it up probably wasn't the best way to demonstrate that he could handle the assignment.
And damn it, now this was personal.
"Maybe I'll surprise you," he shot back. "Let me handle it."
Mustang considered in silence for a moment, mouth narrowed to an uncomfortable line. "As long as it fits in your schedule, I suppose you'd be ideal, as you say." He cleared his throat and flipped through his schedule book. "When did you say your girlfriend is coming?"
"Excuse me?" Edward asked. If Roy was using a code phrase he was supposed to guess at, the man was really reaching, because that made no sense whatsoever in any possible context.
"I need to know when your girlfriend will arrive in Central," he answered, not clearing up a single thing. The bastard looked like he expected to be understood, too, but that was his problem for not speaking plainly.
"What the hell are you talking about, Roy?" Edward pushed. "I don't have any girlfriend."
"Oh," Roy said, clearly feigning surprise. "I was certain you and the young lady coming from Resembool to fix your automail were--"
"You mean Winry?!" Seriously, was there nothing Mustang wouldn't rather say straight? Why bother calling her his girlfriend now, anyway, when he'd always been content to call her his mechanic before? And if he actually thought Edward did have a girlfriend, why would Roy have been hitting on him all week?
Well, maybe that really was just a reflex and he'd been entirely right to think it didn't mean anything.
Not that he wanted it to.
Stupid Roy Mustang.
He frowned at the filing cabinets on the near wall and muttered, "Even if I were into girls, she's like my sister. Where do you get these ideas?" A flush burned across his face from the way he could still feel Roy's eyes on him. "And would you stop looking at me like that?"
"We were having a conversation, Fullmetal," he answered and turned to examine his paperwork. "Eye contact is a basic component. I do have my reasons for questioning your qualifications to make a social call. But I stand corrected: the young lady is not your girlfriend." As the other officers in the room finished cleaning up Fuery's provenances and hightailed it away from this particular 'conversation' as fast as they could, Roy's pen tapped slowly on his desk. "I don't suppose you have a boyfriend, then?" he asked at last.
"Well, no. When would I have--" Edward turned and glared at the Colonel, who was back to looking at him. "That has nothing to do with anything."
"On the contrary. You're an attractive young man with a bright career, and knowing how to handle a lover is a skill you'll need." He hadn't thought anything Roy could say would make him blush, but that was just embarrassing. The smirk that was peeking at the corners of his mouth again was more infuriating than any of it, though. "If you're having trouble, I'd be happy to provide you with some assistance."
Maybe it was all the training in hearing what people meant instead of what they said, or the fact that Roy's eyes started smoldering at him when that stupid blush burned on his cheeks, or maybe the jackass was just that good at making you know he was flirting no matter what came out of his mouth, but Edward knew they both knew that the 'assistance' on the table was a little more personal than the kind the Colonel usually forced on his staff.
"Cut the crap, Roy. I'm not interested." That offer was about the last thing he'd ever accept, he thought with a scowl. Unlike some people, he didn't have a compulsion to date anything and everything that moved. "Now, you asked me about Winry for a reason, didn't you?"
Mustang folded his hands with a heavy sigh and turned to look out the window. So much for eye contact. "If you're finished with your other assignments, we're just waiting on your mechanic to change your arm and leg before we go North. Should we expect her soon?"
"She'll be here tomorrow." Winry may have screamed bloody murder at him when he'd explained he was going North, but she still said she'd have some modified automail ready at record speed.
"Good," was all Mustang said for the longest time. Edward had to stare at him for a few seconds before before the Colonel turned back to face him. "What are you waiting for? As I recall, we owe a copy of your report on wavicles to the Marshal's office. You can take it yourself, and extend our welcome to the new intern while you're there."
He walked back to his table to get a spare copy of the report in question and narrowed his eyes at Mustang from across the room. The officer was absorbed in his work now, straightening stack after stack of paperwork with a series of hard raps on his desk and one hell of a frown. Somebody was cranky all of a sudden.
"And one more thing, Edward, since I know pleasantries aren't your strongest suit." Roy started signing a run of forms. "I have some instructions you need to follow exactly."
With a sigh, he asked, "What?" and walked back over.
When he stopped by the side of Roy's desk, the officer spoke without once glancing away from his forms. "Be sure to ask for her first name, to tell her that her eyes are pretty, and to smile at her before you leave. Can you manage that?"
"Ah, sure. I guess." What, was this more stupid code stuff? He didn't know how talk about a girl's eyes would trap the big bad, but it had to be. What else could it mean when Roy Mustang insisted on him saying things that didn't make any outright sense and that sounded awkward to work into conversation? Edward frowned in complete confusion and waited for the Colonel to look up. He always did eventually, but he was taking forever this time. "So..." Edward stepped in close enough to whisper. Close enough, too, to catch a faint hint of the aftershave smell he could never properly describe as being anything but 'Roy', but he was doing his best to ignore that. "Are you going to tell me what all that's supposed to mean, or do I have to figure it out?"
The officer's paper-signing flurry slowed, then halted, and he looked up with an eyebrow shooting into his hairline. Half a smile, too. "Oh, I'd like to see you figure it out for yourself, Edward," he said. The way the bastard was grinning now meant that bad mood must have been a passing cloud, not something he should have been concerned about.
"Weirdo." He glared at Mustang again and shuffled for the door. Hawkeye and Havoc were on their way in as he left, probably about to report yet another dead angle to the military's number one annoyingly competent jerk.
Never a dull day covering the would-be Fuhrer's ass.
"Hey there, Cat," he heard Nii-san say from the sitting room. That was how he'd taken to addressing Boots. Ella was 'Mister', if he recalled properly, and Hijinx was 'Fluff-for-Brains' when he wasn't 'Jinxy', which was usually, but Boots was always 'Cat'. He was Edward's favorite, and the feeling seemed to be mutual; the big cat had never warmed up to anyone quite so quickly. Alphonse was fairly sure it was because his brother sat so still when he was absorbed in his work, making him less likely to disturb Boots when he was in the middle of a nap. Nii-san, in turn, didn't mind because Boots didn't try to get in his way.
Well. Didn't get in his way as much as the others, at any rate.
The next words to drift into the kitchen where Alphonse had been getting something to drink were a more exasperated, "Oh, thanks. What am I supposed to do with that, huh? I'm still not gonna eat it."
It sounded like Boots had brought him another rodent. He'd been making a habit of it over the past few days.
"No, that doesn't mean head-scratches! You know, you remind me of somebody, Cat. And don't give me that look -- that wasn't a compliment!"
What could you do, really? He was a cat.
Nii-san walked through the kitchen a moment later, holding out a dead rat between two fingers. He stepped outside to put it in the trash bin and let the door slam as he walked over to the sink to wash his hands.
"How's your research going, Nii-san?"
"You're lucky you're in R&D," his brother said, throwing a look over his shoulder without properly answering the question. "This stuff is a mess. Why can't the country take care of itself without Roy poking at it with a stick until it behaves, huh?"
The Brigadier must have assigned some new investigation that his brother thought was unnecessary busywork now that he was done cataloging all the personnel in Central.
"You shouldn't have to trick people into doing what's right," he went on. Nii-san scratched the back of his head and groaned. "It's just... dumb. I don't know."
His brother tromped back into the sitting room and Alphonse followed, taking a chair near the couch where he wouldn't get in the way of Nii-san's papers. "I'm sure the country and the people could take care of themselves under normal circumstances," he said. "But if someone is trying to--"
He lost Edward's attention when Boots took their reappearance as an invitation. A black blur leapt onto the seat next to his brother and curled up next to his leg with a head on his knee.
"You know, he really doesn't appreciate those rats as much as you think he should, Boots."
The cat didn't look impressed by the insight into his brother's character.
"Look," Edward replied as he absently scratched the cat behind the ears. "I know he had to take on the whole show with the homunculi before. I know that went all through the upper ranks and no one could protect themselves from it. I remember. I even know the new government is just getting its legs, and there's not much in the way of infrastructure yet. Fine. But does that mean he has to play the same old game? I mean, why does he even want to be Fuhrer anymore? He's doing all right running the country from the back seat, and it doesn't look like any of the brass can tell."
"Nii-san, I don't think that's quite what he's doing." Goodness knew, he'd seen quite a bit of the country's day to day procedure that never crossed the Brigadier's desk even once. He was hardly acting out the Fuhrer's role from the shadows.
"C'mon, Al," he shot back. "He's certain someone on the council is trying to overthrow the new system, and is he even whispering that to someone in charge? No. He's just doing what he always does. Don't tell anyone anything. Don't trust anyone, least of all the people you're trying to protect. Make it all better and hand the brass the culprit in a collar, with a tag that says 'Courtesy of Roy Mustang'! How are we living in a democracy when you've got a guy running the show who's not just not elected, he's not even using the elected people as puppets?"
"But if there's a conspiracy in the military to overthrow the government, and he's in charge of Internal Security..." He paused to think while his brother scowled and pushed the papers he'd been working with off to the far edge of the table. "Nii-san, I think that might be his job."
"I know," he grumbled as he pulled his lab notes closer. His brother was the only person he knew who would use complex mathematics to relax when he needed to clear his head.
Not that it seemed to be helping tonight. After scribbling half a page, his twisted frown still hadn't settled into a calmer line, and his shoulders still looked hunched and tight.
"Nii-san, there's not something else bothering you, is there?"
"No. Why?" His brother crossed out everything on the sheet he'd just written, crumpled it up, and threw it hard at the ground.
"You seem more tense than usual."
"The only thing bothering me is the damn Colonel," he said, "And I don't want to talk about it."
While he tried to think of a response, Ella jumped up on his lap to start grooming himself; Nii-san must have been quite absorbed in his mathematics not to notice and say hello. Not so absorbed, however, that he failed to notice when Hijinx climbed onto the table and assumed a position to pounce on one of his pencils. His brother reached for the cat without taking his eyes off his paper and turned Hijinx 180 degrees around. The cat's eyes darted around the changed scenery, and he decided to pounce on the empty couch seat instead before he trotted away to find something else to play with.
"These numbers just don't make sense," his brother sighed. "Even if it were a combination of factors..."
Alphonse nodded quietly, ready to change topics if that was what his brother wanted. Antagonizing him certainly wouldn't help if he'd had a bad day. He waited for his brother to stop writing again before he broke in with the questions he'd been considering this afternoon after it had become clear that the watch wasn't doing anything simple. "So, Nii-san." Edward looked up and put his pencil to rest behind his ear. "If time is somehow different for each place, why couldn't our time -- from here -- have gone there with you? It's possible, right?"
Nii-san shrugged. "Sure, it's possible, I guess. In a way, everything that moves operates in its own frame of..." His voice trailed off and his eyes unfocused. "Fuck." Without another word, he grabbed a table of numbers he'd taken down in his experiment and started scribbling on a new piece of paper even faster than before.
From where he was sitting, Alphonse could see a large number of letters that looked like old Cretan and a series of square roots flying off his brother's pencil point. "Did you get something?" he asked.
"Time dilation," he answered, still madly writing away. "I feel like such a moron. The answer was staring me in the face the whole time. Just based on the difference between Earth and here, we'd be looking at-- Well, that can't be right. Why wouldn't I have felt something like that?" He held up the paper for Alphonse to see. "155,292,493 meters per second. That's more than half the speed of light. Don't you think I would have noticed that kind of force?"
"Nii-san, you're going to have to explain what you're talking about before I can have an opinion on it."
He frowned at the mathematics work written on his paper. "Oh, right. Umm. This is kind of weird, okay?"
"Is it more or less weird than you traveling back by magnet?" Alphonse simply refused to be concerned about implications of 'weirdness' after all he'd come to understand about Earth science so far.
His brother looked up from the sketch of a train he was drawing on the table to ask, "How was the magnet weird?"
Which Alphonse had no intention of trying to explain to his brother again. Honestly, he was surprised to hear Edward describe anything in his calculations as 'weird'. For the most part, he couldn't distinguish properly between things that he understood and things that were evidently sensible.
As a few more lines went down on the train track, Nii-san said, "See, this was kind of a side discovery from experiments on how light works. If this train were moving at close to the speed of light, someone standing by the tracks watching it would see that a clock on the train would run slower than his watch. That's time dilation. The faster you're going, the more exaggerated the effect."
More weird than the magnet, then. He was going to want some proof of that when they were finished with the point his brother was trying to make.
"If that's the case," Alphonse said, "It seems like the system contradicts itself. Someone who's riding the train sees the world outside as being in motion, not the train inside. Why wouldn't he see the clocks outside running slow?"
"That's a feature, actually. Two frames in motion relative to each other, time looks like it's slowing down from both perspectives. But when you've got a system where one man gets on the train, rides at near light speed for awhile, then stops, the fact is that significantly less time passes for the traveler than for the people outside. The same thing happens if you mess with gravity, too. Higher gravity means slower time, so it might be that the traveler in the high-speed example is affected by acceleration increasing the force of gravity operating on him. I'm not sure."
"Uh-huh." The illustration Nii-san had drawn of himself clinging the top of the railcar, with his coat flying out behind his stick-figure legs and massive arrows labeled 'G' pointing down from above didn't do much to clarify the science behind this time dilation effect, but certainly reconfirmed Alphonse's suspicions about how his brother preferred to ride trains. He pointed to the illustration and said, "So this would be us, here in Amestris, somehow 'moving' faster than your Earth, at a difference of half the speed of light, and the Earth would be represented by someone outside the train?"
"Or we'd be sitting in a gravity well that you'd need to go more than half the speed of light to escape," his brother replied with a shrug.
Alphonse sat back in his chair while he thought about all that. As the cat curled up in his lap settled down to sleep, he sighed. "Yes, I rather think you should have noticed something like that." Even if a few missing minutes every hour was something his brother might not have questioned, that level of gravity (or acceleration) sounded like a crushing force. Every new theory coming out of Edward's mouth was making him more and more glad to have his brother home again -- before he'd gotten himself permanently damaged. "But you're saying you can conclude that it's true based on the data from the watch?"
"Well, to be more specific..." He crossed out the figure of himself clinging to the railcar and replaced it with one running backwards across the length of the train. Just when Alphonse had thought this couldn't get any more dangerous. "The variance in the time change that I saw and the one the watch is showing means that probably I was creating a third system, moving relatively to both places." Nii-san scowled at the drawing again. "That better not mean that a lot less time passed for me personally. If I'm still sixteen, I am going to punch someone."
Of course that was Nii-san's major concern -- the ridiculous one. It might be easy to overlook a slight speed increase in the passage of time equating to nine minutes missing from each hour, but for his brother to still be sixteen the ratio would have to be closer to one Earth hour passing in what must have felt like six and a half minutes. Every hour. For seven years. That was just silly. And the whole question assumed there was any way to perceive and interact with the other world while this was going on, which Alphonse found less than obvious. When Nii-san got back from the North, he hoped they'd have some time to go over the details properly.
His brother must have been shifting in his seat more than usual, because the big cat sleeping on his knee looked up at the threat of violence and eyed him suspiciously. Nii-san stared right back and answered the cat's glare with a surly, "Well, I wouldn't punch you." That was apparently satisfactory, as Boots laid back down to rest. "I'll probably just hit Roy. He's always asking for it. I mean, what the hell did he think he was doing, anyway?!"
It would seem they were talking about Brigadier General Mustang again. So much for a change of topic.
Sitting up with his back extra straight and his chest puffed out, Nii-san waved his hands around his head in his usual 'Idiot Colonel' pose. "I'd be happy to provide you some assistance, Fullmetal," he said. "An officer needs to be able to handle a relationship, you know!" His brother threw his pencil at the table and collapsed back into the couch. "Like I care about dating. Stupid Roy."
So his brother had started to get that line from the Brigadier? He'd heard from Havoc and the others that Mustang-san had strong feelings on the subject, though within a week of when he'd come home was a bit soon to start picking on him for not having a girlfriend. It had been a busy week, too. Busy enough to put his brother extremely on edge, it would seem, because normally he'd brush off a comment like that and forget it in an hour. Still, it did seem that the Brigadier thought dating was important for an officer's mental health. "Nii-san, I'm sure Mustang-san was just showing a genuine interest." He smiled at the dark scowl Edward was shooting into the empty air between the couch and the bookshelf. "You know he--"
"What, he 'cares' about me?" His brother dropped all his paperwork back on the table and plunked his right foot beside it. "If you're talking about the way he checks me out all the time, that doesn't mean anything. Roy'll screw anyone with legs. That's just the way he is."
Alphonse was somewhat grateful that his brother was looking away in the midst of his sour mood, because it took him a moment to get the surprise off of his face. That... definitely wasn't the kind of 'interest' he'd been expecting from the Brigadier. Roy Mustang had been 'checking out' his brother? And Edward hadn't beaten him into the floor with his own chair? Well, maybe Captain Hawkeye or Captain Havoc had held him back. Although, obviously he couldn't allow someone -- even a friend who was usually a gentleman -- to bother Nii-san with unwelcome advances. That would have to stop. Especially when, as Alphonse knew from all the stories and as Edward seemed to be aware, he had quite a reputation for not taking relationships seriously.
"Never gonna happen," Nii-san insisted, muttering as he rubbed his eyes. This wasn't his angry voice, Alphonse couldn't help noticing. He didn't sound particularly tired, either. Just sullen. "I don't know who'd want to date that bastard anyway. Not me, that's for sure. He'd just move on to someone else three days later, and if there's one thing I won't be, it's messed around with."
Oh, Alphonse thought. So that's it. I should have realized sooner.
He'd probably want to see for himself what was going on in Roy Mustang's office. If his brother's heart were being toyed with by the Brigadier, he wasn't inclined to take it lightly. Edward wasn't currently behaving as if he planned to settle the situation, and he couldn't exactly sit around and watch his brother pine after a superior officer who had a habit of running through girlfriends like water. Nor could he put absolute faith in Edward's judgment of Mustang's behavior, since his brother was an exceedingly biased observer and prone to embellishment. Clearly, he needed to take some kind of action to ensure that his older brother wasn't being in any way an idiot.
"What is it?" Edward asked. He'd stopped looking depressed long enough to turn back and notice Alphonse was staring at him. "What's that look for?"
Alphonse smiled. "It's nothing. Nevermind."
He'd get all this sorted out tomorrow.
"I'm leaving for lunch," Edward announced to the room at large, then turned to glare at Roy. "Don't try to stop me."
"Wouldn't dream of it," the Brigadier replied. Hawkeye narrowed her eyes at him and watched carefully. He waited to look up from his paperwork until Edward had turned for the door, taking one of his now accustomed admiring gazes at his departing subordinate. Business was proceeding as had become quite usual in the office.
From what Breda had told her yesterday, it sounded like Edward had begun to lose patience. That had taken longer than she'd expected, but she was more surprised at Roy. Usually, he'd have let go by now, but the only changes in Roy's behavior were that he held his examinations until the other alchemist wasn't watching and didn't look nearly as happy about his situation. It wasn't like him, to tell the truth, and he wasn't going to make any of their lives easier by developing this sort of lingering interest in the appearance of Edward's rear end in leather pants.
"Huh," Alphonse said quietly as the door slammed shut. A certain Brigadier didn't seem to hear him, dutifully swamped in paperwork once again. Hawkeye turned to see the younger Elric watching Roy instead of looking at the notebooks he said he'd come here to study -- though what all of the Brigadier General's research notes from the last fifteen years had to do with anything Alphonse was working on, she couldn't imagine. "Nii-san's right," the boy went on. He turned to her with mildly surprised expression. "The Brigadier really does stare at him all the time. I thought I was going to need to watch longer than that to be sure, but it's really obvious, isn't it? Although he's wrong to think he's being toyed with. That's a relief."
Hawkeye was sure of exactly one thing at that moment. She had to get Alphonse out Roy's main office and out of potential earshot. "Would you mind stepping outside for a moment?" she asked, just as quietly as Alphonse's previous statements in the hope that Roy wouldn't get too suspicious. The younger Elric nodded and followed her to the outer office, where Havoc and the others were lounging at their desks, variously reading the newspaper, filling out mission reports, or working out little toy logic puzzles.
"What's up?" Havoc asked Alphonse. "You find what you were looking for?"
"I think so," the young man replied with a smile. "I'm quite certain that Nii-san and Brigadier General Mustang are both completely smitten with each other."
Havoc immediately sprayed a mouthful of coffee over his desk. "Excuse me, you said what?"
No one answered. Hawkeye, for one, certainly hadn't noticed Edward being 'smitten'.
Alphonse sighed. "It's too bad they probably won't figure that out if we leave them to themselves. I would imagine it'll be a big headache for everyone."
"You said Edward thinks he's being toyed with?" she asked.
"Of course he does. I only wish he'd believe anything I could say to explain that the Brigadier is serious about him."
"I repeat," Havoc said, raising his hand. "What?!"
Falman set his puzzle aside and rubbed his chin. "Are you sure? After yesterday, I wouldn't have thought... That is, I know he still has a habit of looking at Edward's legs, but--"
"His legs?" Hawkeye asked. "Not..."
She let the point drop as all the other officers in the room looked at her with complete confusion. As certain as she'd been that it had been the blond's posterior under examination, they all seemed to be in perfect agreement with Falman's assertion that it was definitely his legs, and the argument wasn't worth pursuing.
"Alphonse," she said instead, "I'm not one to involve myself in Brigadier General Mustang's affairs, and I'm generally not called to. But contrary to his own opinion, he can make mistakes, and if he's made a mistake with Edward, I think we all know the office could suffer for it. You're absolutely certain?"
The younger Elric's eyes went wide and he nodded slowly. "More than certain. He's a terrible liar."
Well, if anyone would know, it would be Alphonse. Hearing his opinion was almost better than getting a confession from Edward himself. That was more than enough to tell Roy to stop being an idiot. "You said you came to find out if he's got a serious attachment to your brother. I assure you, he does. If you were at all worried that Roy was toying with him, don't be."
As Alphonse nodded again, faster this time, the door swung open and an entirely different blond rushed in. "What's this about someone with a 'serious attachment' to Ed?" Winry blew past the officers' work tables with her portable repair case and left a storm of flying papers in her wake. She was practically bouncing when she got to the edge of Hawkeye's desk, with a starry-eyed smile that barely fit on her face. "He didn't say anything about a boyfriend!" She dropped her case on the floor and turned back and forth between Hawkeye and Alphonse. "Oh, who, who, who, who!?"
"Ah... well..." Alphonse nodded toward the closed door to Roy's inner office.
The girl's jaw dropped immediately. "Oh my god, you cannot be serious. Mustang?! You know, if he's putting one over on Ed, I've got a wrench with his name on it."
"He's not," Hawkeye said, and pulled out Roy's schedule for the evening. Nothing planned. Excellent.
"Ugh, Ed never tells me anything! Riza, when did this happen?"
"In approximately one minute," she answered. When Hawkeye looked up, the young mechanic was giving her a puzzled look. She picked up her pen and wrote in 'Dinner with Edward' on the seven o'clock line Roy's schedule as she clarified, "I just need to inform the Brigadier General."
Hawkeye tucked the revised schedule under her arm and opened the door to the inner office. Roy looked up with perfect calm. "That looked like some excitement earlier. Anything I should be aware of?"
"Yes." When she handed him the planner, the corner of his mouth pulled into a confused frown. "There's been an update to your schedule for the evening. You'll be taking Edward on a date."
He set the paper aside and returned to the report he'd been reading earlier. "I thought you were against that."
"With all due respect, sir, I'm against you making a fool out of yourself and wasting everyone's time. I have it on excellent authority that your interest in Edward is a mutual one."
"Whereas I have it from another generally reliable source that it is not," Roy countered. Assumably, that would be Edward's outburst yesterday. Given the content of most of Edward's outbursts, Hawkeye would have expected him to take a bit more stock in her new information.
"My source is unquestionable," she reiterated.
"So that's what Alphonse had to say, hmm?" He studied the paper and looked out into the room of waiting officers (and mechanic). Clearly he was unconvinced. "Well, it's unfortunate, really, but his judgement in this case--"
"Oh, when I find that bastard..."
A growl that was unmistakably Edward's echoed from the hallway and through the outer door. "I think this will be a fairly easy question to settle," Roy said, and put all his work aside with a distinctly unamused expression.
The outside door slammed open, stomping footsteps echoing through the whole office. "Hi, Winry. Just a sec. I have find the Colonel and kill him." He stormed through the open door into the inner office without bothering to take off his coat. "You!" Hawkeye turned around to see Edward pointing at Roy. "What the fuck did you do to me?"
"Would you mind clarifying the question, Fullmetal?"
"That chick, Katya, the intern." Edward slammed his hands down and arched over the desk to get as close to Roy's face as possible before he yelled, "I want to know what you did!"
"I take it something happened while you were out?"
The blond alchemist pointed back toward the hallway. "She was waiting for me. She brought me lunch! Homemade lunch, Roy. I'm not an idiot. I know what it means when a girl slaps heart-shaped decorations all over rice. You did something. What was it, and how do I make it stop?"
"All I did was give you instructions." Roy settled back in his chair, seeming as cool as ever. "And I must say I'm impressed. I expected to have to send you in to flirt with her at least three more times before she started seeking you out."
For the mission's sake, he was lucky the younger alchemist seemed more appalled than angry, though the shock on Edward's face made Hawkeye want to hit Roy herself. He hadn't indicated in the notes on Marshal Levochkin's office that he'd decided to send the blond in to entice someone, and it would seem he hadn't told his operative either. He had to have known Edward wouldn't be happy about it, and should have considered the risks to the mission even if he was determined to make an ass of himself. Exploding into a shouting match about the details of covert operations was the last thing they needed.
A certain Brigadier was overcompensating, even though he knew better than anyone what a delicate position they were in. For the first time in a long time, she was going to have to remind Roy that he needed to keep his emotions a bit further away from his work. Somehow, she wasn't surprised to recall that an Elric had usually been involved whenever he lost sight of that.
"You made me flirt with her?" the blond hissed.
Roy's expression didn't even twitch. "Well, you could hardly be expected to manage it on your own. Now," he went on, and sat forward in his chair as he switched to a fake smile. "I assume you'll be eating dinner tonight. If you've any interest in joining me, we could make a romantic evening of it."
Oh, for pity's sake, Roy...
"What the hell is your problem?!" Edward looked like he might throttle Roy at any moment. Hawkeye sighed quietly. Roy had asked for that one. "I don't want to hear anything from you except how I'm supposed to make her go away before she gets the wrong idea, got it?!"
"So that's a no to dinner then?" He drew two decisive lines through the addition Hawkeye had made to his schedule. "How unfortunate. But I'm glad to hear the young lady is still fond of you after an entire luncheon spent without my guidance. That's better than I could have hoped."
"You are fucking unbelievable. I want out."
Most men might have kept the safety of their desks between themselves and a short-tempered, battle-trained alchemist who looked about one push away from redecorating the office with a cyclone. Roy Mustang preferred to walk around front and meet the cyclone head-on, whispering into the eye of the storm. "I shouldn't have to explain why that's impossible, Fullmetal. You're her point of connection, and if she's taken with you, you're no longer replaceable. You persuaded me that you were the bait we needed, and the fact that you were right is all the reason I need to keep you on the job."
"If you think I'm going to do anything to make her think I'm interested," Edward grumbled back as he jabbed Roy in the chest, "You've got another thing coming. No dates. No kissing. No nothing. You can't make me."
"Well, I'd hate to think that any one of my officers would take advantage of a young girl's fancy in that way. Clearly, you're the perfect choice."
"You're going to tell me how to make her go away."
"If that was all that mattered, I'm sure you could manage."
Naturally, the blond couldn't keep his volume down for long while Roy was provoking him. "Maybe, unlike some people, I'm not a jackass!"
The Brigadier answered by walking back to his seat. "I believe your mechanic arrived, Fullmetal. Why don't you see about getting that arm and leg changed?"
"This isn't over," Edward shot back, pointing a finger in Roy's face before stalking off. "I hate you!"
He slammed the door behind him, and even though Roy was doing his best impression of going back to his work without any concern, she could read the strain in his expression. "If it bothers you to send him out on a mission like that, then that's one more reason you shouldn't have done it, sir."
He swallowed hard, keeping his attention on his work instead of looking up at her. "I don't know what you're talking about." He handed back his schedule with a purposeful calm. "Pity about your change of plans."
"Anyone would turn you down if you ask like that. Knowing you, if you put an ounce of effort into it, he'd probably still--"
The Brigadier cut her off with a look. She knew she'd said too much.
"I have no interest in seducing Edward," he told her. He sounded agitated but got himself under control, hand clenched on the desk. When he spoke next, he'd regained his air of calm. "How much effort it would take to do so is immaterial. It's not what I want." He looked up with a false smile. "Besides, he has a girlfriend now. I think the matter is closed."
"For the record, sir, you need to get your head screwed on straight where Edward Elric is concerned or you'll have more to worry about than a lack of dinner plans."
He went back to doing his paperwork. "I appreciate the sentiment, Captain, but I think I can handle myself."
Bang up job he'd done so far.
"Of course," she replied, and turned to leave.
Hawkeye opened the door just a crack at first to give all the officers who had their ears pressed to it a chance to back off without falling over. Everyone still in the room -- Havoc, Breda, Falman, Fuery, and Alphonse -- stood facing her at attention. Lucky for Roy, he had a well-trained staff with a fair level of autonomy over what ridiculous camouflage operations they pursued to disguise their covert missions. Besides, a bit of pain would be good for him.
"Gentlemen, we have a new objective. Roy Mustang and Edward Elric have engaged themselves in a situation that neither one has the good sense to resolve. That means it's up to us. We'll start brainstorming now."
Havoc was the first to raise his hand. "Can I just get one thing straight?" When she nodded, he pointed at the closed door to Roy's inner office and asked, "Edward, who is gay, has a girlfriend he doesn't want because Brigadier General Mustang tricked him into dating her, and now Mustang's saying Edward is off limits because he'd be stealing him from the girl?"
Hawkeye back over her shoulder to consider the matter, then back at Havoc. "Yes," she said at last.
"I hope the Brigadier's ready," said the captain, who, if she recalled properly, had lost (on average) five girlfriends to Roy Mustang per year for the last ten years. Havoc straightened his jacket and put on his serious face. Nodding at Hawkeye, he said, "Payback's gonna be a freakin' bitch."
1) "The Gathering of the Nations" is Chapter 11 in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's novel, The Great Shadow. Next chapter: "Going Aboard" (due late December or early January).
2) Codes and Spying
FMA contains almost no cryptography. My beta reader has duly told me that I'm a total geek for bringing this up, but I'm a proud geek, and I love codes. The concealed messages in the series are usually forms of steganography: stealth rather than encryption. To see an example of what Edward is practicing, see the full note on my LiveJournal.
Espionage vocabulary: The basic process Roy et al. are using to reveal their enemies is a form of canary trap. Plant identifiable information and watch for your troublemaker to use it, in its simplest form. For the most part, Roy's subordinates are just performing surveillance while pretending to have other business. Sometimes, however, one needs an insider to bring information to you – a spy. The operative who makes this contact, as Edward is sent to do with Katya, is an "access agent". When that agent is to seduce someone into spying, you have a honeypot operation. At least in KGB parlance, that makes Edward a "raven". A woman sent to seduce someone, as Lust went after Havoc in the manga, is a "sparrow". Also, Roy is absolutely full of baloney when he says that he would be against an operative behaving as if a honeypot operation were a real relationship. That's kind of the point. He's just jealous, I think. However, the intention of this particular scheme is to put Edward in a position to hear office talk, not to compromise the young lady in any way.
4) Special and General Relativity
Given the amount of pseudoscientific nonsense I've put into previous chapters, I feel compelled to note that everything Edward explained about time dilation is true.
For example: Scientists have noted for as long as man has been dropping things that if you let go a heavy object and a light object from the same height, you will observe them accelerate toward the ground at the same rate (resistance from the air and buoyancy aside, of course). What scientists could not say until more recently is that, if you drop an accelerometer, your gadget will measure no acceleration at all. The hell, you say. But that's general relativity. In areas of higher gravity, time runs more slowly. Anything you drop is subject only to inertial motion, not acceleration, and if it appears to speed up from the perspective of the observer, it does so because of time dilation effects as it approaches the stronger gravity near the ground. For the same reason, a clock will run marginally faster in the mountains than at sea level – you know, 22 nanoseconds to the hour, or something like that. As you get even further away from the Earth's pull, you reach our GPS satellite network, which functions based on clocks that must continually be corrected because time is just faster up there. Isn't that neat? I won't get into length contraction at the moment, or simultaneity, but this stuff is like magic. The universe will never be the same again.
The special theory of relativity is what Edward explains to Alphonse (easy mnemonic: gravity = general, speed = special), and it predates the general theory by a decade or three. I usually prefer it for demonstrations and for calculations, as lightspeed trains and people running with ladders are easier to visualize than gravity wells. This whole scenario is built on the model of the twin paradox, which theorizes one twin who stays on Earth for decades while another flies at near light speed for just a year or two. For all the math to make Edward's timeline work (as well as a diagram), again, the full note is on my LJ.
But in the end, a bunch of math and a few clocks running fast never made me appreciate relativity the way I do now, because it's near impossible to feel what's happening when you posit that a train is moving at 0.518c and crunch a few numbers. So, I'll leave you with a quote from Einstein himself, the man who managed to make special relativity work the way we use it today (without the aether), and who went on to formulate the general theory for gravitational fields:
"A man sits with a pretty girl for an hour, it seems like a minute. He sits on a hot stove for a minute, it's longer than any hour. That is relativity."
Chapter 5: Going Aboard
[Departure minus 14:05 hours]
Invasion or no invasion, if Winry could have her way, Ed and Mustang wouldn't be allowed to leave for another week or more, since she'd had to replace the mediator sockets entirely to accommodate a trip up North. Removing every single scrap of steel from the limb jointures and fitting in carbon-reinforced fibers to insulate against the cold was going to cause severe inflammation in the surrounding tissue -- not to mention the possibility that he'd reject the implants, or have an allergic reaction, God forbid. He'd never shown any allergies to her materials before, but it could happen. In any case, he'd need some recovery time before his new joints were securely healed together and he could, like, you know... walk or shrug without nasty stabbing pain. Most people who got full joint replacements needed three days before they could think about going back to work, and they weren't tromping off to the far, frozen reaches to take on an entire invading army!!
Yeah, Ed had told her they were just sneaking in to do some repairs. Whatever. He wouldn't come back until he'd knocked every Drachman soldier's head into a wall and left them in a giant pile with a red flag on top. She'd met him.
Likewise she knew she'd be wasting her breath telling him to wait a week. He'd run off just as soon as he could stand, and Mustang would be right there asking what took him so long.
"I swear, Ed, you have the worst taste in men."
"I don't need you to tell me that," he mumbled back, fingers on his left hand squeezing the edge of the research-bench-come-operating-table they'd found in an empty room. All those years without proper maintenance, outgrowing his steel fittings, and he'd still pushed through the most invasive bits of the surgery without a scream. Now that they were down to the fine-tuning before she fitted the casings, he shouldn't have been feeling a thing.
She shook her head and sighed. "If you want my advice--"
"Too bad. 'Cause knowing what an idiot you are, you're not gonna get over him. Just go out with him and see, before Al and Riza and everybody try to play matchmaker."
"I'm not fucking dating that bastard."
"Fine with me. He doesn't deserve you, anyway."
And he didn't. Even if maybe he was the only one who ever could. After everything she'd seen and heard, there were just two things she thought about Roy Mustang: having been a murderer couldn't change the fact that he was a good person; and knowing that he was a good person didn't make him not a murderer. As long as he was doing all he could to keep Ed and Al away from the same contradiction, she wouldn't fight either of her boys for wanting to be with him, or with the military, but that was it. "If your mind's made up, relax your back for a second so I can see if these bolts are too tight."
He opened up his hand and exhaled slowly, and the ridges of muscle across his spine and shoulder blades went slack.
"Much better." A half dozen turns of the screwdriver that her hands still remembered perfectly -- always would, no matter how much time passed -- and all the fine adjustments were done. "Okay, after I switch on the nerve relays, I'll close the casing. Then try to stay lying down for at least an hour?" Ed nodded his head against the table with a silent grimace. "On three."
Winry pushed the connections into place on Ed's arm and leg before he could reach 'three' and tense up, then screwed the bolts together while he was still gasping from the shock. "There, that wasn't so bad, was it?"
In between scowling and grumbling, he shrugged his shoulders against the table. The pain still made him wince, but this time when he gasped, it was surprise. "What'd you do to this thing? It's..." Edward rolled up to a seated position (ignoring his mechanic's orders already) and moved the new arm and leg up and down a few times -- as much as he could stand. "It's light. Like it's not even there."
"Yeah, welcome to, 'It's not made of metal, so you don't die in the snow,' Ed. I explained this already."
"Now lie back down so I can put on the casing? Unless you want your new arm getting cut to shreds by the first guy you fight."
"Huh. I didn't think of that." And obedient as you please, he set himself back down and stretched out his arm.
"Aren't you lucky your beautiful, genius automail mechanic has been watching the damage you get long enough to know you block everything with that arm? But normal metal gets brittle and freezes in a subzero climate, so..." Winry slid the first section of 'armor' onto his forearm with a grin. "Voila! 18% chrome, 8% nickel, ultra-thin steel alloy, bonded to the same fiber the rest is made of. Only adds a quarter-pound to the weight, insulation keeps it from sticking and you from freezing, and it'll still block a bullet at 400 degrees below zero. Am I not awesome?"
He grunted. That sounded enough like a 'Yes' for government work. She'd forgive him for not agreeing vociferously and effusively, without any hesitation, because his entire nervous system probably still felt like it was on fire.
"Now Ed, this kind of arm isn't as indestructible as you're used to, so watch that you don't knock it around like a maniac," she added, fixing the articulated plates to the surface.
He made another indistinctly affirmative grunt against the table. In the language of Edward Elric, that meant, "I never try to bust up the limbs you put your heart and soul into building for me."
"Remember, the alloys and structure are both on a very delicate balance. I don't want to hear about you transmuting it and adjusting the ratios or the elements or whatever. In that climate, it's suicide. So, if you do that and somehow come back alive, I will kill you myself."
No response but silence, but she'd have to assume he heard her. Nagging always ended in him doing what she didn't want just to prove he could.
However much she liked him, and however brilliant he was with matters of alchemy, the man's utter inability to think practically often made her feel like she was babysitting a toddler.
"This is an all-weather flint striker, Brigadier General," Hawkeye repeated, and put the box into his pack herself. "Two seconds after you start fighting in snow, your gloves will be soaked. That means they will be useless. You'll want to keep an alternative handy at all times."
"I don't know what I'd do without you, Captain."
He only said it because there was no one around to hear, but she appreciated the sentiment all the same. It gave her hope that he might have the sense to survive whatever mess he and their own Fullmetal Whirlwind would inevitably stir up. "Instead of thinking about that, you should consider how to make peace with Edward-kun. Everyone here is depending on both of you to come back intact, Havoc especially. He thinks playing Cupid for the two of you will serve as poetic justice for all the hearts you've stolen."
"I stand falsely accused!" Roy laughed. "I stole neither of his last two girlfriends, and he didn't manage to keep them any longer than the others." As she kept her eyes on him, he breathed out a more serious, heavy sigh and studied the straps on his pack far more carefully than they demanded. "Edward has never stayed upset about the little things for long. It'll pass." His face may have looked calm, but he was actually thinking, and actually having a hard time.
Good. At least he knew he cared.
"Very well, sir. One last thing. Are you sure you won't reconsider taking blankets with you? Major General Armstrong is likely to laugh you out of Briggs if she thinks you've underestimated the mountains."
Shaking his head with a frown, he answered, "If we could carry more weight, yes, but we can't. We have to move fast -- between radios and food, we're at our limit. Reports have the waystations decently provided for the weather, and they're within an easy day's hike of all cities. We'll make do."
"May I remind the Brigadier General that relying on ordinary infrastructure within a snow-covered guerrilla war zone is beyond ill-advised and bordering on asinine? Sir."
Roy zipped the last pocket shut on his bag with the sure hand of someone who wouldn't reconsider. "In the event of an emergency, I am quite competent to make a burrow in a snowbank, which I am in the unfortunate position to know provides surprisingly good insulation. Or, if you're worried we'll be captured, Captain," he scoffed, "I assure you, we're both far too valuable as hostages to let freeze."
"Anyone unlucky enough to capture you or Edward-kun separately, let alone together, would regret it within five minutes, and by morning would have let you go to ensure their own preservation."
Her commander picked up his pack and threw his heavy, winter coat over it -- haphazard by appearance, but neatly covering any trace of special equipment that might catch an enemy's eye. "I have no doubt, Captain. So you see? What could possibly be such a problem?"
[Operation Elite -- Day 5, 17:08 hours]
The last waystation before the Tringham's research facility was a cramped, gray affair from the outside -- clearly no one's idea of a luxury spot. The inside, however, went beyond that. When Roy Mustang recalled his rash bravado of five days past, he assured himself that no one could have anticipated this. No one. Perhaps they were paying for the good fortune they'd had to find everything in order on the first four nights, or perhaps Fate was simply amusing herself. Either way, this place was well past problematic and quite distinctly in the realm of the ridiculous. Howling winds, blinding snows, a pile of firewood soaked beyond use thanks to a poorly chinked crack in the roof, piles of beams and sundry mess lying in unrecognizable pieces where there should have been cots...
... And only a single, pitifully threadbare blanket to be found. Their two-man adventuring party was stuck in a scene taken straight from one of the preposterous romance novels that Fuery tried to pretend weren't his.
But there was never any use fretting over the trite humors of Fate. Roy drew the grey, dingy thing up to eye-level and threw his companion a smirk. "Well. As ranking officer, this should be mine by right, but I believe custom dictates that I offer to share."
"You can have it. I don't need it."
Still no bitterly sarcastic, 'Roy', he thought with a sigh, nor any appellation whatsoever -- be it 'Colonel', 'General', or otherwise. For nearly a week, he'd simply been 'You' no matter how much he baited the normally volatile blond. If Fullmetal wanted to punish him for his mission to connect with the new intern, he'd found a more effective means than Roy intended to let on. The cold shoulder itself didn't bother him -- Edward Elric wouldn't let him pass so lightly if he thought Roy had, objectively, gone too far. It was the duration that concerned. Unpleasant orders had never earned him more than an hour of moody silence before. So, every morning, Roy listened to the blond grumble himself into wakefulness and brush out his hair in long strokes while ignoring that someone was sharing his cabin, and every morning he tried to figure out what he was missing -- unsuccessfully.
He'd work out the puzzle eventually. In his own time, Fullmetal would explain everything he'd done wrong in an explosion of invectives, and most likely projectiles. Roy simply had to let Edward get his current stubborn mood out of his system.
That said, he had no intention of allowing Edward to be as stubborn as he pleased if he was planning to do something as stupid and dangerous as sleeping without any blankets in sub-zero weather. However, if he were to insist on sharing, he'd have to be careful. Somehow, his socially oblivious cohort had developed an uncanny ability to detect the slightest innuendo, and he'd certainly made his displeasure known. He'd keep his hands to himself, of course -- he wasn't a cad -- but Fullmetal might not believe that. Goodness knew, he didn't trust himself to sound innocent. He'd had much more practice making innuendos than not.
Pulling off his hat and tossing it on top of his pack, Edward finger-combed his hair out of the mess his braid had become over the hike. Up it went into an impertinent blond ponytail, bobbing over the bulky coat his companion couldn't remove in a building this ... well ventilated. Camping in the snows outside might be a better idea, Roy considered, but he did hate to interrupt Fullmetal when he was thinking. The molten intensity of his eyes was a sight he'd missed dearly for five years now. It complemented so well the scrunch of his nose and forehead when the young alchemist considered how the world presented itself and how best to transform it into the world he desired.
Grinning happily, Roy made a mental note to remind Hawkeye that her concerns were completely unfounded as soon as he returned home. She'd been perfectly sensible, of course, but he didn't need to admit that -- because as fast as Roy could think, 'No, Fullmetal, doesn't need to share the blanket, does he?" an assortment of detritus transformed with a clap and a flash of light, and the military was plus one quite spacious cherry-wood bed, flying a solid, arched roof on four tall posts. The whole thing was traced in gothic scrollwork and gilt detailing the likes of which he hadn't seen in far too long, and sporting red velvet drapes in addition to more than enough bedding to make their provided blanket redundant. He'd probably die laughing if he ever got to see the faces of soldiers who passed this way in years to come.
"You're right, Fullmetal. That looks much more pleasant."
One pillow from the mountain on the bed hit him in the face hard enough to hurt, despite being stuffed with feathers that smelled like the clover in sunlit fields particular to Resembool. He'd been there just often enough to recall. "Make your own bed!" the blond spat at him, stalking off toward the fireplace.
Which would be a spectacular idea -- if he had memorized any arrays for transmuting beds. He could improvise quite a few things, but he'd never given much study to furniture. Not all alchemists, alas, had the extraordinary intuition that Edward displayed with the least provocation, or that Alphonse had for that matter. The younger Elric's ability to design elegant arrays in seconds had been the talk of the Research department from the moment he'd walked through the door. Whether the skill was natural aptitude or training, Roy had no idea, but they both had it in a degree that boggled the mind.
Though only Edward produced results quite this spectacular. Unmistakeably so, like the alchemist himself.
Another flash turned the crack in the roof into a memory. The draft chilling the space vanished in an instant. The unsavory-looking woodpile underneath it, too, was fixed in more than image, as the bulk of the dank, hovering smell of the place freshened into something quite liveable. "Fire's on you," Edward said, refusing to do so much as look him in the eye. By mutual agreement, they'd foregone normal stealth protocols prohibiting cookfires. It was far too cold, and if they were beset by enemy forces on the road instead of at the Tringham's facility, they might spare the laboratory a few repairs. Unfortunately, the scouts they'd spotted had stayed too far back, and the bulk of the troops were out of sight. The attack would probably be soon after they arrived at the laboratory tomorrow, for better or for worse, with however many soldiers had been deemed appropriate for meeting a handful of State Alchemists.
Many, no doubt, Roy thought with a sour twist in his lip. Many, and nowhere near enough. He stacked a few logs on the hearth as he considered the coming fight. His gloves had, alas, gotten damp even in his pockets. Tomorrow, he'd be sure to travel with them in an oilcloth. For now, with one click of the flintsteel, yellow-orange tongues of flame erupted crackling out of the pile. The scent of cured pine, combusting into a pure flame as tiny trails of white smoke curled up the chimney was infinitely better than the oily stench of burning hair and skin. But he wasn't going to take a life tomorrow. He'd find other choices, for himself and for Edward. No matter how many men came at them, that laboratory wouldn't become another bloodstained wasteland.
Fire always seemed to stare back when those memories came to mind, and the burnt golds roiling over the crackling logs wouldn't let him blink. All he could do was breathe deep and turn away.
The rest of their tiny stone bunker was dull and chilled except for the brilliant reds dressing his companion's new bedframe and the shock of yellow hair falling over a thick coat, and that was a much more pleasant brightness. Edward stood by the window, and his eyes tracked the snow that fell outside in spinning helices as if it were the first blizzard he'd ever seen, though Roy knew full well it wasn't. The young man had a way of looking at things that made him look twice at the world himself, and find some shadow of beauty in a too-often graceless world.
It wasn't fair, Roy knew, to ask someone else to be the wellspring of so many of his hopes and dreams. But life wasn't fair. And he hadn't asked.
Roy wandered over to the window, leaning against the frame as the blond traced lines in the fog of his breath on the glass. As he looked closer, he saw the other alchemist had managed his doodle with precision that would have made a newspaper cartoonist die of envy. One of the sketched figures was clearly Edward, looking very pleased, standing near his brother, the Rockbell girl, sundry others. He had to assume the smug-nosed gentleman shooting fire from his fingertips was himself. And, scrawled near Fullmetal's self-portait were the words, 'Didja miss me?'
Before long, the flesh and blood Fullmetal scowled up at him. "Are you just gonna stand there or what?"
"Yes," Roy answered. "Very much so."
Although he shouldn't have needed to ask.
"I guess it's my turn to cook dinner anyway." Wiping away the sketch quickly, Edward pushed away from the windowframe and strode over to the fireplace. And just once, when he glanced over to check on the progress of the meal, he caught the other alchemist looking back.
Maybe tomorrow, he'd have a name again. At the very least, Fullmetal might find it confusing to call him nothing but 'You' after they met with the Tringham brothers in the morning -- and then, presumably, the uncounted legions of Drachman soldiers. If nothing else, the visit would give Edward the chance to demonstrate what he meant by saying he'd turn the mountain laboratory into the biggest radio receiver anyone had ever seen, and an opportunity to impress everyone always put the blond in a better mood. If everything went according to plan, it might not be such a bad visit after all.
[Operation Parliament -- Day 6, 09:22 hours]
That his brother had left him in charge of reporting something to Captain Hawkeye, Alphonse had understood. He had a clear picture from Nii-san's grumblings and bellows that the principal problem Brigadier General Mustang's team was trying to solve involved observing important people and then discussing them in code phrases so obscure that 'you'd have to be hanging from the ceiling by your toes trying to spell out Flamel's precepts backwards with a flaming ferret' for them to make sense -- so Nii-san had said. But then, all he'd explained when Alphonse had asked for a basic idea of the system was, 'It's just that wink-wink, nudge-nudge stuff. You'll do fine'.
He chose to believe that Nii-san was showing a great deal of faith in his perception, not being lazy, because a coup that threatened the lives and safety of the nation's people was the sort of thing his brother cared about. He wasn't lazy about things that mattered. Quite the contrary. But in his first meeting with the conspiracy, Alphonse wasn't doing fine at all.
"Maybe this would work!" 2nd Lieutenant Fuery called out, pointing to a line in a paperback novel. "We could put an extract of Lagophylla ramosissima into Edward's water. It seems to be one of the strongest aphrodisiacs--"
"In fiction." Captain Hawkeye pulled the book out of his hand and set it on the desk behind her. "Please make some effort to stay on topics that will be of use, Mr. Fuery."
The problem was that everyone else seemed to know what that meant. Or, at least, Alphonse presumed they did. Maybe the problem was that they had no idea how to handle his brother. The difference was less clear than he would have liked.
On some level, he realized that all the discussions about what means to use to entrap Nii-san and the General in quasi-amorous scenarios were meant to provide a smokescreen for their more serious investigations, but he also knew the officers in question had a history of following through on any and all ridiculous schemes that crossed their paths. It was an effective diversionary tactic, certainly. No one in Central looked twice anymore when Captain Havoc set up impromptu lessons on photographic portraiture in the officers' mess or Lieutenant Breda showed up on the Fuhrer's own doorstep to deliver a Cretan progressive jazz band, so all the notes traded under countertops went unnoticed and all the people they wanted to observe were more off-guard than they should have been.
Well, Nii-san wasn't likely to cooperate, so a bit of outlandishness could be forgiven, but the breadth of topics under consideration -- from signing them up for Major General Saulnier's football team to installing them with the medical corps in General Lancaster's experimental Air Force training program to things far too ridiculous to contemplate -- left Alphonse with no clue as to how these suggestions played into reporting sensitive information. He could very well implicate someone he hadn't meant to implicate, just with a stray word.
Comparatively, determining which Generals were his responsibility to observe had been simple. All he'd needed to do was consider what were the most ostentatiously ridiculous things his brother had been doing recently, and whom they would have put him in a position to investigate. The 'girlfriend' was the most obvious. She'd be General Mustang's connection to Marshal Levochkin's office. Then, given the fact that Nii-san had somehow gotten permission to do his interdimensional watch experiment in the main Research laboratories, his own superior, Lieutenant General Bloch, was the next likely target. They, along with Lieutenant General Fieseler, formed the entire committee to investigate Nii-san's miraculous return home, so those three generals made sense as a set.
If he needed any more confirmation, they were also the only three generals who hadn't yet been mentioned in a hare-brained scheme to strand two battle-ready alchemists in a mythological camp presumed to be part of a lost cliff-dwelling civilization. Everyone had really liked that idea for some reason.
Now if only he knew what he was supposed to be reporting on them, and how to phrase it in the form of a romantic rendezvous. Alphonse simply couldn't recommend such ideas as Colonel Armstrong's intention to assign his brother and Roy Mustang as bodyguards to a young, foreign nobleman whose father was a coal-researching dilettante for the upcoming parade that (he expected) would be a target for nomadic Hanshi gypsy-pirates (whom Alphonse couldn't believe were real) set on ending deforestation in the West. Maybe that would serve to bring the two of them together somehow, but no more so than bonding over any other mission. Their present mission, for example, was far more intimate. If he were going to make a serious suggestion for how to make his brother admit that he was in love with the General (which was the real problem), it would have to have more chance of success than that.
"Can we lock them in a closet, maybe?" Captain Havoc asked, flicking another dart at the list labeled "How to Set Up Ed with General Mustang" that he'd already sufficiently pinned to the dartboard. "Or an elevator? Sparks are bound to fly eventually."
Lieutenant Breda shook his head and laughed. "Probably the wrong kind of sparks."
Alphonse decided to hold off on reminding them until they sounded more committed that it was also completely foolish to think any closet could hold Nii-san.
[Operation Elite -- Day 6, 11:24 hours]
The unexpected door slam and the deafening clatter jolted Russell Tringham out of his sprint down the hallway. Elric. He'd stopped following again. It was bad enough that, three minutes after their relief from Central had said hello, waves of soldiers in gray fur hoods had surged over every surrounding hilltop and opened fire. You'd think maybe artillery bearing down on the research station from all sides and potentially hundreds of soldiers searching the compound would convince even Edward Elric to listen to him (as facility director) about which way to go. Apparently not.
"Don't you get smart with me, you pompous ass-hound bastard!" Elric's voice echoed from inside one of the hallway closets, loud enough to drown out the cannon squads Fletcher was handling with his army of trees and vines outside. The officer was nowhere to be seen, either -- the man Elric had introduced as 'Colonel Jerkface' who'd turned out to be none other than Roy "Holy shit, what do you mean you brought the actual Flame Alchemist?!" Mustang -- but Russell could hear him laughing.
The world was never going to believe that those two had just stumbled into a self-locking closet on their race from one explosive battle front to another. Russell barely believed it himself. Geniuses were morons.
"I was merely pointing out, Edward, that what you call a shortcut, I call a dead end. Now, if you'll allow me--"
The closet door and most of the wall transformed in a flash into a massive trellised construction (that, luckily, didn't break into the roof or either of the rooms flanking it) -- effectively neutralizing whatever locks had been on the plain oak it'd replaced. A steamed Fullmetal Alchemist barrelled out at full speed before the embossed crownings had quite finished solidifying, skidding to a stop long enough to transmute a sign that read, "CLOSET!!" in bold, block letters.
"All these damn doors look the same," he grumbled, kicking off straight into the next room.
Personally, Russell didn't think the sign was strictly necessary to differentiate this one anymore. And he would have paid good money for Brigadier General Mustang to wipe that entirely inappropriate grin off his face just once when he was running after Elric from behind. He didn't need to see that! This was a shooting war, with what felt like half the Drachman army threatening to take out his research facility. As he tailed them both, he had to wonder -- was it too much to ask that all of the alchemists defending the compound apply their full concentration to the job instead of splitting it with Edward's (admittedly long-missed and possibly attractive if you liked that sort of thing, though he certainly didn't) physical attributes? Whatever radio receiver Elric and Mustang were going on about building had damn well better be the communications marvel of the millenium, because Russell knew one thing for sure:
Over a thousand troops did not suddenly decide his outpost was worth leveling when they'd only rated ten soldiers a week for over a month now. That math didn't add up, and math was what he did best.
Well, math and impressions.
But these forces were clearly after the two alchemists from Central, so they'd be leaving his facility intact, or they wouldn't be leaving at all. He'd see to that, no matter how legendary the Fullmetal and Flame combi was.
Surprising no one, Elric had dashed across the courtyard fastest, so by the time he and Mustang arrived his lab already looked like a surrealist's nightmare. Bullet-shot transmuted barriers where before there'd been linoleum, chalkboards stretching out into ornate cages, and he would insist on turning lab benches into cannons, no matter how often he asked the loon to stop that. "You're lucky I had all of that in my notebooks, Elric! I'll be damned if your little mission won't set us back six months!"
"I'll put it back!" the other alchemist yelled, dodging a punch from the Drachman with whom he was currently engaged. "You were applying Lachmiller's theorems on absorption to the rainfall tables, right?"
"That was a lucky guess!"
As soon as they found an opening, the soldiers who weren't unconscious or caged up in reinforced slate ducked into the hallway, where they might have been able to break away if Mustang hadn't put a wall of fire between them and the exit. Handy, that, mostly in that it didn't destroy any of his lab equipment the way Elric did. Confusing in that it also managed not to set off his sprinkler system while it let that golden-eyed bastard start a fistfight with about six men at once (and twenty more waiting in the wings).
And had he just turned all of their guns into bouquets of daffodils?
He must have. Nothing else explained the flowers everywhere, confusing the men who used to have some very effective rifles.
Mustang managed to get to Elric's back before Russell could, but no matter. They made a fine pair, knocking out enemy fighters like they were dancing. The unconscious bodies they left on the floor piled up so fast that he had to transmute vines from the lab into manacles to restrain them five and six at a time to catch up.
None of which meant the quick invader in the back should have started at him with a knife, looking like he thought a hostage might help the situation. Russell knocked away the weapon in a blink, then put down the soldier with a crude but generally effective punch to the temple.
"That was for my hydrovitrionic winch, you ass-hat!"
About six seconds and another ten sets of manacles later, the dust cleared, the wall of fire came down, and their mad run down the hallways for more resumed.
"So, that's sixty-four so far and about three hundred to go, right?"
"Fullmetal, do try to hold off counting until the enemy are entirely contained."
"Why? I can count and take them out at the same time." Then, as if he'd just noticed Russell running alongside, he cried out and pointed. "Ah! About the Lachmiller! You weren't accounting for the sublimation ratios. I think that... You know, I'll just write it up when I put your chalkboards back."
Russell glared and shook his head. "You know, I hate you, Elric." Sublimation ratios. No, he hadn't brought that in, and if one went to look for additional ice formations it might theoretically account for the lack of running water, but how had he pulled that out of thin air when he'd been stuck on another damn world for five years?! And knowing him, he'd probably be right, too.
As annoying as he was, it'd be damn useful if he could stay longer than a day or two. Besides, if Edward were up here, they might have a better shot at getting Alphonse to move up as well. Then they'd really make some progress.
To be considered at a later time, Russell reminded himself. Right now, ducking for cover from another shower of bullets was more important.
[Operation Elite -- Day 6, 13:10 hours]
Once alarms had stopped going off, traps had stopped exploding, and the three of them had finished scouring the compound, the more tedious work of corralling all the several hundred prisoners into an unused basement of the storehouse began. Those, along with everyone Fletcher had restrained at the compound borders, probably translated into enough soldiers to make Drachma think twice about continuing the invasion.
He damn well hoped.
As he walked down one of the rows checking their restraints, a craggy young man who looked like a squad captain regained consciousness and gawked at the sea of cowed prisoners. "Maybe," Russell quipped at him, "that'll teach you to take on four state alchemists at once, hmm? Not your finest strategy decision."
Six yards to the right, Roy Mustang was examining the uniforms of every man they'd caught. "Edward, I believe we have a winner. Ah, Colonel, I presume this affair was yours to command?" Without a word, the foreign officer nodded and stood straight when Elric stepped over to take him by the elbow. Mustang directed him to a small room off to the side. "Ask him about the matters we discussed, if you'd be so kind, Edward? I'd like some answers before Major General Armstrong arrives to take our guests into custody."
Now there was a name all the invading soldiers had learned to fear. In the time it took Elric to disappear behind the door and slam it shut, the crowd of prisoners had one and all stiffened up straight, even the ones who were so far off that they had to ask someone what Mustang had just said. The queen of the mountains was all the reason they needed to abandon any dignified yet wary attempts to get loose from his restraints (which they wouldn't manage -- one of the benefits of using living plants) in favor of more frantic alarm.
And if Mustang wasn't loving every minute of it, he was putting on one hell of an show. "Nothing to fear, gentlemen. And ladies," he added, throwing a smooth smile at a few blushing regiments. "You'll all be well treated at Briggs. Now..." The Brigadier fell silent as he watched Fletcher lead in another few dozen men. Russell hadn't thought the grin on his face could get any wider, but somehow he managed. "Edward! It looks like there's a uniform small enough for you after all!"
It was hard to put words to how much Russell wanted these two out of his life. Clearly, Central found the smarmy asshole's competence and the pint-sized firecracker's brilliance were worth putting up with their tomfoolery. As a scientist, he'd have to observe more results to make his own determination. The only thing he could say about it at present was that the whine of metal sliced through his gut like a hacksaw as Elric ripped the door of his interrogation room off its hinges.
"What did you just say?!"
Some things had changed over the past five years. Other things made Russell want to pull a bag over his head and never come out again, because Elric was beyond any doubt the same Fullmetal Alchemist whose identity he'd stolen in Xenotime.
"Who are you calling so short no self-respecting invaders would have a uniform he could steal as a disguise, and couldn't manage to grow an inch even though he'd been stuck on the other side of a dimensional rift for five goddamn years, plus or minus two point three, you blue-bellied, rip-shanked jackass?!"
"You, Fullmetal, and I've found you a hat."
Soon, peace and quiet would be restored. Maybe he'd get to keep Elric, maybe he wouldn't, but either way, as long as Mustang wasn't around to piss him off, they'd be able to focus on reversing the water shortage once and for all. For now, he counted his blessings: one. Elric expressed his displeasure by stalking off instead of by becoming a living hurricane (again).
The twisted sheet of metal that used to be a door slammed back into the frame, this time sans doorknob, thanks to the brute strength of that automail arm. Russell mentally added that to his list of property damage as he walked over to where Mustang was standing. "Permission to speak freely, Brigadier General Mustang?"
No sense being rude when he was talking to the Flame Alchemist. Just because Edward Elric could get away with something didn't mean he could. History had made that clear enough.
"How may I help you, Major Tringham?" the General replied with an overtone of amusement that Russell chose to ignore.
"If it's no trouble, sir, could you please refrain from upsetting Lieutenant Commander Elric unnecessarily? We've had enough of the compound blasted up as it is."
There was something about his laugh that reminded him of everything his alchemical rival had ever said about Mustang using superpowers to be likable. It should have been annoying to have a perfectly reasonable request laughed off like that, but instead it somehow made a man out of blood-chilling legend seem friendly and approachable. "I assure you, that was quite necessary. Understanding a subordinate's habits, however simple they are, is the key to effective resource management."
"Which brings me to my second question." This being the first time in their entire five-hour acquaintance that he'd gotten Mustang's complete attention, Russell found that his voice suddenly didn't want to leave his throat. But he'd come this far. He might as well ask, even if the answer was 'No'. "Edward Elric's got to be no good as a spy. Maybe he's good in a fight, but he can't take orders, and he can't keep his mouth shut. Let him stay up here. It's the kind of work he's best..."
The words died on his tongue as Mustang smirked and wrote something down on his sheet. "You're right, Russell. He's a terrible spy. He has quite a few talents that I'm afraid I can't replace, but that isn't one of them." After a good, long gaze back at the bent up remains of a door, he looked back at Russell with perfect seriousness. "Edward is free to leave me any time he chooses. If he likes your offer, he knows I won't force him to stay. Go ahead. Ask him."
He saluted and jogged off to the makeshift interrogation room before the General could change his mind. Whether or not he could actually put up with Elric for long, he still wasn't sure; but if the Fullmetal Alchemist was helping them, they probably wouldn't have to. They might be done up here before the month was out. So as he pushed aside the door that he would make Elric fix before he left the building, he thought about how exactly he was going to phrase this.
"Th-that's..." the enemy leader stammered, jumping at his entrance. Then he went back to keeping a weather eye on the detached doorknob Elric was spinning on the table. "The address is 309 Brann Street. A yellow building, you can't miss it."
Effective resource management. Meaning, Elric looks and acts too much like a small, yappy dog to be intimidating until you get him pissed off, thus clarifying for your prisoner that he's got a hairtrigger temper, the strength of a factory steam press, and the ability to glare at you with the kind of righteous fury that would make an ordinary man explode from effort. As he was demonstrating right now. Once one got to know him, it was obvious that he wouldn't ever choose to do serious damage to a person, but the prisoner had no way to know that.
As for Russell, he found he was suddenly more daunted by Mustang than he'd been before, and that was no small measure.
"There a problem?" Elric growled as Russell came to a stop inside the door.
Best to get to the point, then.
"I think you should stay here. Work out the water crisis with me and Fletcher. Al, too."
All the while, Edward never stopped taking notes. "Look, I'll talk to you later, Russell. Kinda busy here."
"Mustang said I should ask you now."
He'd thought Elric's glare was fierce before, but the look he got when he mentioned the general's name was on another level. Combined with the way he slammed the doorknob into the table, Russell thought the prisoner might have a heart attack. The other alchemist tromped over and grabbed his collar, pushing up his toes to get up in his face and hiss, "Mustang said? You mean he's fucking playing you like he plays everybody. I know I'm not going to leave him, so get your ass back outside and tell him he's made his point. Which, by the way, he was making to you, not to me, because if that jackass doesn't know me a hell of a lot better than that, I will personally flatten him into next Tuesday."
"Are you serious?" he choked, watching Elric stalk back toward the table. "I thought you hated him! I'd think you'd want to leave."
"I don't expect you to understand."
"Maybe..." he started, but cut himself off as the particular chemistry they had on the battlefield and all the little things they'd been saying added up in his head. "Holy shit. You're not sleeping with him, are you?"
He hadn't worked with Elric more than a day or two here and there over the years, so he'd only heard Alphonse describe his brother's occasional rages. The kind where his hair twitched in silence, and the storms of hell seemed to wrap themselves up into a haloing spiral around his whole body. Russell backed slowly toward the door as the prisoner shot him a glance that seemed to say, 'Don't worry about me. Save yourself.' And really, the sight of the Fullmetal Alchemist, red-faced and on a rampage was enough to make anyone think ducking out was the better part of valor.
"How did you even--" Jumping up on the table, Elric pointed a more than accusatory finger at his retreat. "The next person who asks me that question dies in a fire!"
Which Russell translated to a definite 'Possibly' as he sped away across the sea of prisoners.
And he'd be damned if Mustang wasn't laughing again.
[Operation Elite -- Day 8, 17:35 hours]
Once they'd trundled all 1,256 enemy soldiers into the care of the guards sent down from Briggs, fixing up the laboratory hadn't been much work. Edward had no idea why Russell kept complaining about the way he'd used the available resources during the battle. He'd remembered how the tables were set up, and it wasn't like he'd transmuted anything with an active experiment on it! And when he'd put stuff back, he'd even replaced the laminate workstation counters with granite. Russell should have been thanking him for the upgrades, even if he'd been too mindblown to say much of anything about his new radio receiver.
Which was awesome! The mesh network Edward had installed an inch under the ground turned every damn mountain around that valley into an antenna for miles around. He'd gotten through to Al after they'd fixed the telegraph and did some tests. The radio system didn't quite reach to Central, but they got a clear signal from every outpost in the North equipped with one of the handsets he and Roy had been distributing on the way up.
Downed communications lines: completely circumvented. Address all thanks to the Fullmetal Alchemist, care of one Brigadier General Colonel Roy Jerkface in Internal Security.
One solid day's work done, and it was back on the road for him and the Colonel, this time by way of the Drachmans' headquarters in Hyrcania to cut the proverbial head off the snake. Officially, everything about their covert mission-within-a-mission was in A-plus shape, and since the last cabin on the road in was also the first cabin on the road out, Edward didn't even have to worry about whether he'd have a decent place to sleep tonight. That problem had been well and solved their first night here (for him, anyway).
But there was, unofficially, a major flaw. Namely, Roy Mustang. He kept ignoring one key detail about their situation that he couldn't not know.
From his perch on his bed back in the used-to-be-a-dump cabin, Edward peeked at the bastard over the edge of his notebook. Roy had finished bringing in new firewood and cleaning up the dinner he'd cooked without a single flirtation and only five meaningful gazes. He had to be playing dumb. Edward could understand if Al had figured him out, or Hawkeye, or Winry, and it wasn't any use trying to convince them otherwise, but where did freaking Russell Tringham get off saying shit like that? He clearly had a sign over his head that said, 'attracted to the world's biggest asshole'. And if it was that obvious that he had a thing for Roy, why was the damned Colonel acting like nothing was up? He had super-senses for reading people, way beyond anything Russell Tringham could ever manage.
Then again, Roy had asked him out before they left Central. It had sounded like a joke, but technically that'd still been an invitation. Which he'd refused. Had that really been all there was to it?
Kinda anticlimactic. Maybe he didn't need to worry about what the jerk would do when he found the mattress and blankets Ed had transmuted and hid under the remaining junkpile while the Colonel had been out chopping wood. Maybe nothing would happen.
Well, whatever! If he'd managed to throw Roy off his scent, that was a good thing, and the playboy colonel was sure to have a full roster of people just dying to not refuse, and maybe then life could go back to normal! Next, he just had to get over his stupid hormonal delusions and they'd all live happily ever after.
The fact that the thought of that was vaguely unsatisfying was just a symptom of residual overabundance of phenylethylamine in his system after prolonged exposure to Roy being fucking hot in his presence. The only cure was working through the clock experiment numbers he'd gotten off of Alphonse after they'd verified the telegraph was up and running again. At least, he told himself that would help. Maybe he'd get lucky and there'd be a placebo effect.
The proportions had stayed constant, never deviating from what he'd observed himself before he left, so if one day in Amestris was 20.529 hours on Earth, and the watch was ticking off about 23.967 hours per Amestrian day...
A series of soft, fast zips caught his ears over the crackling of the fire. It was Roy, he knew, smoothing out the edge of his straight razor on the back side of his belt. Edward looked up anyway. A layer of foam was on his cheeks and neck already, though the Colonel'd towel that off and put on a fresh round before he got to business. He made a production out of this, unlike Hughes had done however many years ago when he'd dragged Edward out and made him buy his first safety razor. Then again, Hughes had always had more stubble than Roy.
"You're shaving again?"
"Not all of us are blessed with your downy chin, Fullmetal."
The steam coming off the washcloth Roy pulled from his pot of water glowed a little in the firelight. He tried to make himself turn back to his lines of numbers, get some work done, but there was something hypnotic in the way the Colonel held the cloth on his skin. He didn't scrub off the lather -- just let it melt -- and as he left his face clean, the water dripping into his shirt pulled the opened collar down and away from his neck. Well, there went his concentration. Edward had tried not to watch this whole absurd ritual three times already this trip, and failed. In the process, he'd determined with absolute conviction that there was nothing more inexplicably enthralling in the world than the glossy shines and shadows where Roy Mustang's neck met his shoulders after his skin had gotten a little damp. It wouldn't be so bad if he'd do this in the morning when the sun provided more even lighting, but no~o, we couldn't have that. Gotta shave by firelight for maximum contrast, 'cause I'm a sexy jackass!
This was normally when he'd start mentally calculating the prime factors of something bigger than a billion to keep his anatomy from embarrassing him, but after almost a fucking week of this, he couldn't think of a number whose factors he hadn't memorized. He knew there had to be an infinite supply, but his brain was getting too fried to find one. Instead, he pulled his knees up and crossed his legs, shoved his notebook in front of his eyes, and pretended he was seeing any of the equations he'd been working.
And not thinking about Roy's collarbones. Not even a little.
When he risked a peek to see if the Colonel had covered himself in more stupid-looking white foam yet, Edward found just the opposite. Roy had turned away from the steel shaving mug he used as a mirror, all set to catch Edward at staring. But he didn't look like he was going to say something suggestive, or even say something at all. He just looked confused.
Crap. He'd totally missed his cue to make a fuss over getting called a baby too young to grow a proper beard. Too late now, though, and it wasn't like he cared. Shaving was a nuisance, all two to three times a month he had to do it. A damn nuisance, and a waste of time he could put toward something more useful. Like figuring out how old he actually was after getting trapped on Earth for seven years. "Fuck you, Roy," he called out, just to make the Colonel stop looking at him, and forced himself to write down the product of the ratios he'd been multiplying.
If his watch was reading that much less time here, that worked out to between 0.85 and 0.86 times the passage of time on Earth (to be determined more precisely when he had more data). But where was that differential coming from? It was like Al had said, he wouldn't be able to handle something moving half the speed of light relatively to him, and that kind of gravitational force would have crushed anything or anyone built for standard gravity. But theory could wait. Right now, Roy was slicking his straight razor down his cheeks and leaving his jaw all kinds of tempting, and he really needed the numbers.
Combine the differential of the traveling element with the base differential between the two worlds.
Multiply that times the approximately 6.4 years he'd spent studying rocket science and quantum physics.
Get his mental train shoved a mile off the freaking railway by Roy splashing on his stupid and infernally distracting aftershave. How was he supposed to rub two thoughts together when the whole room blew up with that smell, like he'd opened a tin of that kind of orange tea that was more spices than orange? And the instant Roy put it on his skin, it kicked off some strange chemistry that made a somewhat pleasant aroma into the scent that had taught him what puberty was. Not fucking fair. Never had been, never would be.
Edward rolled over with a huff and buried his nose as far in his pillows as he could manage while still scratching down his figures. Well, at least he had an answer to run with, barring something that made more sense.
"I take it your calculations aren't behaving?" He didn't have to look up to know Roy was standing by the foot of his bed, but he did anyway. The Colonel pulled the strap on his eyepatch back into place while he waited for an answer and raked his hair smooth again. Why he didn't just take the damn thing off if it got in the way, Edward had no idea.
But Roy didn't like it when people mentioned his eyepatch, so that was no way to change the subject. He couldn't exactly cop to what the actual problem was, either. Roy might start hitting on him again, and this time might not take, 'No,' for an answer. No other option presenting itself, he scowled at the numbers on his page and bluffed. "It looks like I'm gonna turn twenty-one just in time for my twenty-second birthday."
A soft chuckle sounded from behind him. At least somebody was having a good time. "That doesn't sound so bad."
And why the hell was Roy just walking over to the makeshift bed he'd put together with his pack and that sad-looking old blanket? He had to have been freezing the night before last when they'd stopped in this waystation before. Was he not even going to look for something he could turn into more bedding? How was he going to stumble on the blankets and stuff Edward'd made that were just waiting to be found under all the crap in the corner if he didn't look?
He jumped out of his own bed, stretching his arms over his head so he could surreptitiously take a glance behind him and make sure Roy's attention was fixed on prepping his bedding. "Yeah, well. You try suddenly being half a decade younger than you were. See how you like it," he growled, trying to sound extra pissed off so there was no reason to wonder why he suddenly kicked a piece of junk against the wall and made the whole pile crash down.
"Logically, you haven't actually de-aged, Fullmetal. You've lived the same amount of time you would have done if you'd never run your experiment. All that's changed is the number you're using."
"Yeah? If you're so good at logic, why are you using that blanket when I just found the other bed?"
That got his attention. Roy dropped the threadbare rag where it fell and met him over in the corner without wasting a second. "Well. I'm amazed we missed these before. They're so vivid."
"Must not've been looking right," Edward mumbled, pacing over toward the fire. There was nothing wrong with a couple bright colors. Nothing in the military regs said everything in these places had to look like it was dyed to match the dust.
"And unless I miss my guess, this quilt is stuffed with eiderdown." As he turned to look over his shoulder, he saw Roy looking over one of the blankets and smiling a weird smile. Hard to say what was weird about it, but it had to be -- it wasn't a smile Edward could call sexy, but it still kind of made his insides tie up in knots. Definitely weird. He moved as close as he could to the fire so the heat would cover up the spread of a blush on his cheeks. Hard to say how much it helped when Roy had walked up right behind him and all but blocked him against the mantle. "Tell me, Fullmetal. How do you think the military got an excellent quilt such as this into a neglected, old waystation so far North? Let alone one so fresh. The damp hasn't gotten into it at all."
Whipping around, he yelled, "I wouldn't know!" Possibly not his best idea ever, since Roy was right there in his space, being Roy and thus clearly aware that he was lying. But honestly! If he could tell they'd been transmuted, why not just say it? He didn't have to sit there, grinning like the country'd just elected him Fuhrer and smelling like cardamom and ginger, making implications. "What're you trying to say?" Edward demanded, and broke into a mockery of Roy's high and mighty proclamations as pushed into a less crowded part of the room. "Ah, Fullmetal! If you were going to find me a bed, you didn't have to go so far! You have a perfectly fine one right here, begging to be shared!"
The smug bastard was laughing now. Thrilled and amused. Fantastic.
"Well, no thanks!" The desire to scream at Roy had been making his toes curl almost every second of the last few days, and it made no sense that he was finally doing it now when the Colonel had saved his ass at least thirty-seven times back in the fight at the laboratory. But what was he supposed to do when Roy being Roy just pissed him off? He waved his notebook high over his head and tried to shout loud enough to wipe the grin off the Colonel's face. "I've got work to do, and I don't need your sarcasm or your big feet getting in the way!"
Since shouting wasn't working, he turned away and leaned against a bedpost with his nose in his notes. At least he couldn't see if Roy was still smiling. It didn't do him much good to look over his equations again, since his brain was twice as shot now as when he'd done them to begin with, but he pushed his hair out of his face and looked at them anyway.
Then he felt a soft tickle by his ear, and all his bangs fell right back in his eyes. First, his reflexes kicked in to smack away the hand responsible. Thank goodness for reflexes. It wasn't until a nanosecond later that he realized the Colonel had tried to play with his freaking hair again, and his skin started tingling like he'd touched a live circuit instead of having been brushed by Roy's fingers. Why didn't anyone make a vaccine for this? Dealing with a sex drive was probably the number one cause of inefficient thinking in history, assuming biology messed with other people the way it messed with him.
"Thank you," Roy said, even though Edward had turned his back again.
"I'm still mad at you, bastard."
The Colonel made off with all the bedding in the corner while Edward went back to pretending he wasn't watching. Good thing that Roy knew he was mad, too, because he was going to stay mad until a few very specific criteria had been met.
First off, Roy had to make the intern girl stop thinking he was boyfriend material.
Second, there had to be some lead, somewhere, that justified this entire investigation, because Edward wasn't going through this for nothing.
And third, he had to stop being so fucking hot. Was that so hard?
If history was any way to judge, the Colonel'd deliver on the first two in annoyingly fine style, sooner rather than later, and the last criterion would ensure that Edward would be pissed at him for the rest of forever. And damn it, he was too burned out to be sure he'd gotten these figures right! The steps this was going to require would never make his top ten list of favorite methods in the world, but what choice did he have? He had to do what he had to do.
"Hey, Roy," he called out, and the blue-suited nincompoop looked up from fluffing a pillow. Edward turned his eyes up to a far corner, holding out his notebook and hoping it was too dark for the other alchemist to see how red his cheeks were turning. "Can you check my math?"
Taking the book from his hand, Roy leaned up against the foot of Edward's bedframe and smirked. Again. "Is this your ridiculous 'Earth math' with its imaginary numbers?"
"i is the square root of negative one, and it works, so don't act like you can't remember that much! Besides, all of what I've got there uses real numbers. Stop complaining!"
"I'll give it a look."
While he leafed through the pages, Edward wandered over to where he'd dropped his pack. The last glows of twilight were nearly gone, and he was damn well going to sleep in something other than the clothes he'd hiked in all day. A minute or two hung by the fire should be plenty of time to get all the cold and the damp out of his spare long johns and flannels.
"Aside from your penmanship, this looks reasonable," Roy called over.
"Oh, thanks." Leaning against the wall to watch the fire crackle, he grumbled. "Trouble is, I haven't got a force to explain how time got crunched that way. I should have noticed anything that could cause a change that big, so this answer's nonsense. I must be doing something wrong."
The Colonel flipped a page back and forward again, and Edward pulled the newly warmed shirt over his head. It was always a little awkward getting his arms out of his old shirt and pulling it off through the neck hole, but it was better than being half naked in a tiny stone cabin up in the back of Mt. Nowhere in the middle of winter. He managed. By the time he was finished, Roy must've been done looking through his notes. The Colonel had dropped the book to the bed and was watching him instead, waiting on him with an odd tilt to his head and a calm smile.
"You got something?"
Roy glanced back at the page, but only for a fraction of a second before re-establishing eye contact. "Well, I'm not entirely certain where the variable x entered the equation."
"What do you mean? It's the ratio between the velocity of the moving frame and the speed of light!"
"Of course," he laughed, and snapped the book shut. "Well, I see nothing wrong with your arithmetic. Any problems must be in your premise, which I don't mind critiquing..." As Edward reached for his long underwear, Roy coughed into his hand and faced the back of the room. "... provided you explain what that premise is."
"Nothing new." He shucked his leather pants and old long johns as fast as possible so he could trade them for the new long johns even faster. "World-breaking forces make time go... "
Wait a second. There he was, looking for forces that could warp reality, and he'd been sitting on the big one all along.
"Oh, fuck. How could I be such an idiot? I was the force acting on the time-space vectors! Just having flipped the universe inside out basically guarantees something would go wonky!"
Roy turned back and raised an eyebrow at him suspiciously. "Then you've successfully calculated your age, and we can put the whole question behind us?"
"No," he snarled. With a sigh, he walked over, yanking the book out of the Colonel's hands. His flannel pyjamas could wait. "What the hell was the mass of that watch, anyway?" He flipped through the pages back to his earliest notes on setting up the experiment. Roy peeked over his shoulder, but with enough force, he could ignore it. Kinda. "Right. Ninety-seven grams, which means I massed, like... seven hundred thirty-one-ish times what the watch does. And that ratio works out to... " He scribbled some quick and dirty calculations that couldn't be called exact. They'd work for an estimate, though. "Fucking hell. That's like .991c! I really would still be sixteen!" All of a sudden, Roy's arm jerked away from where it'd been resting behind him on the mattress, and when Ed looked up, the Colonel was staring at his notes with a kind of blank anguish. "What's your problem?"
He didn't answer at first. It was like he couldn't quite find his voice as he rubbed his chin, then pulled the notebook out of Edward's hands. Roy studied the lines of numbers closely for a moment, shut the book with a ringing smack, and knocked the spine against Edward's head.
"Be twenty-one, Fullmetal." Book still in hand, Roy wandered over to his own bed and sat down with a thump. "I think that'll be easier for everyone."
Edward dashed after him, but Roy hid the notes behind his back and refused to let them go. "Just be twenty-one?! What, because the Great and Powerful Roy Mustang says so?"
"A flawless reason if ever I heard one," he answered with a smile.
"I don't care who you think you are, or if you're going to run the whole damn world someday! You can't tell the laws of physics not to apply!"
"I just did."
Looking absurdly pleased with himself, the jackass pushed the notebook back into his Edward's chest and stretched out on the sheets. He wasn't listening to another word, that much was clear.
So much for science.
[Operation Parliament -- Day 15, 14:02 hours]
Winry may have been willing to bring one of her old dresses to Central and take in the seams so it would fit 2nd Lieutenant Fuery, but she was less willing to accept the official reason. If there were any way Alphonse could have explained the reality to her, he would have done so, but undercover operations weren't topics one was allowed to discuss with civilians -- even childhood friends who thought you'd gone off your head -- especially when Nii-san had explained that Brigadier General Mustang had a policy of allowing his enemies to install covert surveillance in his office.
"Al, are you sure you guys have thought this through?" Winry asked, reattaching a bit of lace where she'd adjusted the collar. "I mean, I don't see how raiding a library at a ladies' university is going to help any situation Ed and Mustang have going on."
He let out a painful laugh and shook his head. Fortunately or unfortunately, that was exactly what was going to happen. And even if Nii-san and the General failed to notice their efforts entirely, the attempt would give the Lieutenant an opportunity to observe what General Princeton Motors had been doing in the library's archives. "It's a fairly complex operation," Al answered with a wince. No part of this conspiracy, as far as he could tell, required him to pretend all their plans were good ideas. "The... ah. The theory is that they'll need records on previous wars with Drachma once they get back. Stora Bakken University's military history project has the best records and transcripts on file -- to which 2nd Lieutenant Fuery will secure after-hours access."
By stealth and duplicity, Alphonse added in his head, that being another thing he couldn't say out loud.
As she knotted the thread into the end of a seam, Winry frowned at him and narrowed her eyes. "Accomplishing what, exactly?"
"We'll hide an object or text in the archive," he recited from rote. "One that Nii-san and the Brigadier are sure to find, and which will reveal their true feelings to each other."
Her unimpressed grimace was well deserved, Alphonse knew, but the ever growing list of things he couldn't say to anyone also included how accurate his brother's conviction had been that the overt war would be over by the time he got back to Central, and only the covert one nobody knew about would continue. There wasn't any real point in working out what could be used to reveal anything about anyone's feelings if Nii-san would never actually go to those archives.
Instead, he insisted, "We're going to figure that part out once we've gained access!" and Winry rolled her eyes at the ceiling.
"This plan is ludicrous, Al! You've got to know Ed's going to deny everything, no matter what 'object or text' you shove in their faces, so why go to all this trouble?"
He took the finished dress and started folding it neatly, mostly so he wouldn't have to try looking her in the eye while he gave an explanation. "Really, it's most important that we have a wide variety of back-up options available -- something for every possible situation where they might find themselves. And this really isn't the worst idea we've put into motion."
From the way she scrunched up her nose, Alphonse was most of the way convinced that Winry could tell there was more going on here. "How can this possibly not be the worst idea ever?" she asked, and shut her mending case with a particularly harsh click.
Any difficulties with phrasing an answer were, thankfully, unnecessary. Lieutenant Breda and Captain Havoc chose that exact moment to blow through the office door, with Captain Hawkeye shaking her head behind them. "Why is General Focke-Wolf working with white cerulean butterflies?" Havoc asked. It was hard to say whether the Captain looked more surprised at the mention of bugs or Winry did, even though the Captain was in the middle of spilling a pack of cigarettes all over the threshold. "It was supposed to be frogs and salamanders, not butterflies!"
Lieutenant Breda shrugged, maintaining much greater calm. "The salamanders hatched early."
"I so don't want to know," Winry muttered, throwing her hands out to the sides. "If you guys ever manage to get those two together, it'll be a miracle, but I guess I'll leave you to it. I'll meet you at the coffeeshop when you're done with work, Al."
Captain Havoc watched her marched out around the various officers' desks in the outer office and slam the hallway door without bothering to be discreet. As soon as she was gone, he nodded at Al. "Is Winry-chan, you know... gonna be around for a few days? Because she'd be a huge help on that project with the flying machines Falman's designing for General Hakuro."
The crashes from the outer office sounded like the gray-haired man had skidded around every chair but one, which clattered to the floor just as he poked his head into the main room. "Miss Rockbell does more than automail?" Lieutenant Falman had managed an astoundingly good job so far, but he wasn't an experienced mechanical designer.
"I let her mess with the General's car when she first came by this morning," Captain Havoc answered with a nod. "I don't know what she did, but it runs better than new and I swear it's getting four times the miles to the gallon."
"Sounds pretty handy," Lieutenant Breda agreed, before he and everyone else did a double take at the Captain. "Wait. You let her at Brigadier General Mustang's car with a wrench?"
"Ah..." He tucked his cigarette, which he still hadn't managed to light, behind his ear and glanced off to the side. "Well, she makes the boss's automail, you know? So she's good. I figured she'd get it back together." But Alphonse was certain the room was still staring because he wasn't the only one who could tell that Captain Havoc wouldn't be embarrassed over such an easy reason as that. Sure enough, a few seconds later, he burst out saying, "What? She's really cute! Do you know how hard it is to say no when she says, 'Pretty, pretty please'?"
Crickets chirping outside echoed through the whole room as Captain Havoc backed slowly toward the door. Alphonse had seen Winry ask to take apart quite a few machines in his time, and thus had seen a great many people manage to turn her down. At least, he figured, Brigadier General Mustang had a 68% chance of considering that an acceptable reason (supposing he found out), even if no one else did.
"Alphonse-kun. I believe you were waiting to pick up the dispatches?" Captain Hawkeye said, breaking the silence and somehow turning the atmosphere back to normal with her words. Thanks to a bit of discreet wirework perpetrated by Schiezka, they'd managed to redirect the Tringham's telegraph line to the security offices before Nii-san had gotten it running again eight days ago. Now, secure information about the front came straight to Captain Hawkeye, Alphonse could get his research data from her the same as he had done when it came through couriers, and they could maintain the illusion that the line was broken, as Brigadier General Mustang had insisted.
For good reason, it turned out.
"Thank you, Captain Hawkeye." He walked over and took the stack of papers she'd held out, trying to decide how best to make himself understood. Alphonse wasn't certain he'd worked out all the details of the security team's code system, and he hated to suspect his own superior, but he was sure this was exactly the sort of thing he needed to tell someone, no matter how he did it. "And... there's one more thing."
Captain Hawkeye knit her brow and didn't say a word, waiting for him to go on.
Well, he couldn't go too wrong saying exactly what had happened, could he? Surely they'd forgive him for not making this into a plot to enable his brother's relationship with the Brigadier General if he delivered it like normal, everyday news.
"You see, Lt. General Bloch was asking about Nii-san and Brigadier General Mustang's progress in the North. He was certain he'd heard the telegraph line was operational, so he was surprised I still had to pick up your dispatches. I told him that wasn't the case."
It wasn't a very graceful way to get the message across, but it seemed to have worked. The captain nodded once and bit her lip, jotting a note down in her planner. "I understand. We'll be sure to stay in contact with the Research office. I know the telegraph line is a matter of high concern."
More specifically, as Nii-san had explained, it was on the list of things no one could know who hadn't heard it from Brigadier General Mustang or from whoever was orchestrating the coup d'etat. No one in the office had said a word about it that wasn't in code. The news would have had to have come from the North through other channels -- channels supporting the invasion rather than opposing it. All Alphonse could hope was that Lt. General Bloch had heard that from someone else, and not found out because it was his coup.
The captain put her book away, and this time looked at him more kindly. "For now, I can say that Edward-kun and the Brigadier are safe and well. Our best guesses say they should be heading back within the week."
"I'm sure," he answered with a smile. The flashes of Nii-san's life bleeding through into his mind had stopped since his brother had come home, but Captain Hawkeye's estimate was easy to calculate based on how quickly the Drachman attacks in the North had been dwindling. In fact, communications from Briggs indicated that many of the captured soldiers had been talked into helping with efforts to rebuild what they'd broken. The trains might be running again just in time for Nii-san to complain that they should have waited another day instead of walking home.
Of course, if he wasn't making a small thing like that out to be the end of the world, he was sure to be complaining that all the Drachman soldiers together couldn't put up a decent fight between them. It was always one or the other.
[Operation Elite -- Day 18, 15:59 hours]
The dark-haired stranger had kept his back to her, and had bypassed introductions in favor of urgent questions about the status of their operation. Truth be told, Severskaya found it a fair impression of one of the state's interrogators. Some people might have been fooled. She knew, though. Interrogators weren't sent undercover; he should have been dressed in green. This man was dressed in the same grays as her, with the rank insignia of a general, and she didn't know him -- nor the blond who'd met her unit at the checkpoint door. They knew all the passwords, and they spoke without the atrocious accents that usually gave away foreigners; all the same, her gut said they were trouble.
Probably the same trouble that had kept Chaika and Yakovlev from returning to camp with new orders.
"Sir, that information should have been in our dispatches," she told him. Better to play along until she could determine who these people were. Maybe she could get away to report home if they let their guards down. It was a cloudy day, and he was facing a window. Now and again, the sky grew dark enough to catch a glimpse of his reflection. The cut of his jaw, his nose -- so far, nothing more. All she'd learned was that he was really quite good-looking on the lower half of his face.
Finally, enough of a cloud drifted over the sun to get a full reflection. The eyepatch over his left eye couldn't be mistaken. This man had been in their intelligence packets long before any plans to cross the border had been broached, and her orders were to shoot on sight.
Roy Mustang! she thought, bolting to her feet as she snapped back the release on her holster.
Or she tried to. It wouldn't budge, locking her gun to her side as the blond pulled a lever on the wall that dropped a cage around them before they could run.
How had they not noticed a giant cage hanging from the ceiling?
Or that all their gun holsters had been fused shut? Every one of her men checked his weapon, and not one of them could draw. Even if Mustang was an alchemist, he should have needed to draw one of his trick circles to manage it. But he'd never even approached them!
Severskaya attempted to retain some dignity, taking her chair and motioning for the others to do the same. "So you're the Flame Alchemist. It's an honor."
"I see my reputation has preceded me," Mustang said, turning around and smiling the devil's own smile as he took his seat.
"Again," the blond muttered. "You need to be less damn famous."
The Amestrian general chuckled under his breath, ignoring all his captives. Severskaya would have liked to think he'd foolishly underestimated them, but they were only six disarmed soldiers facing at least one Amestrian State Alchemist from inside a cage. This wasn't a fight they could win. They'd been completely had.
"Speak for yourself, Fullmetal. The last bunch recognized you before they got through the door."
No, definitely not a fight they could win. She eyed the young man with a frown that she could feel twitching on her lips. It was true, he had the gold hair, the gold eyes. But they'd heard a great many things about the Fullmetal Alchemist, Edward Elric -- not least of which was that he'd left this world for one that wouldn't let him return.
"The report of his death was an exaggeration," the Flame Alchemist sighed.
"Stop saying that!" the blond yelled. "I'm not Mark Twain!"
Clearly, he'd already heard the questions she wasn't asking. How long had this charade of theirs been going on?
Not that the past was her present concern. "It doesn't matter what you do to me," she told him. "Or any of us. No one in my unit has a loose tongue."
With a sort of lazy grace, the man flipped through a notebook on the desk in front of him. "Colonel Severskaya of the 150th, I presume? Currently stationed north of Kaling's Run. No, I don't imagine you could be persuaded." She kept her mouth shut. He wasn't going to intimidate her with any show of basic intelligence. "If I were your enemy, that is. You can relax, I won't be torturing anybody. As I'm sure you're aware, my only interests lie in restoring the peace to this region and cleaning up a small matter of a traitor in my own government. Anything you wish to say in the name of future goodwill between our countries, I'll gladly accept. Should you prefer to remain silent, I won't coerce you. The end result will be the same."
"And that is?" she asked.
"You'll be remanded to Briggs to await extradition." He leaned forward with a charming smile quite suited to a man who knew he'd won. "And when you get home, you'll give a message to whoever in your government decided to back this insurrection. Tell them their man is never going to run Amestris. I am."
1) "Going Aboard" was Chapter 21 in Moby Dick by Herman Melville, published in 1851. The next chapter is already underway, and will be the next thing I publish as my new fic schedule is based around "finishing things". Chapters 6-10 of this story will be coming out as fast as I can write them. That said, the title of Chapter 6 is next up on the "Guess the source and win a virtual cookie" contest, and that title is: "How a Gardener May Get Rid of the Dormice".
2) I'm aware that Edward transmuted hardened carbon to the surface of his automail in the manga plotline, but I thought about how I'd react to hearing about that if I were Winry for two seconds, and then zipped off to research physical problems with metal caused by cold and how to solve them. The ratios in that steel alloy Winry uses in this chapter were taken from an actual steel alloy used in cryogenic work, so I'm fairly confident that Edward's new arm could withstand the snow in the mountains.
3) I just want to state unequivocally for the record that Edward is not still 16. Alphonse is completely correct about all the reasons he's stated up to this point for why that's both stupid and impossible. Our hero will figure that out, too, but it won't be a big deal from here on out.
Brigadier General Jennessy Focke-Wolf was named for a German aircraft manufacturer (Focke-Wulf).
Colonel Severskaya is named for the Seversky P-35, an American fighter plane from the 1930s. The respelling reflects the grammatical declension of Russian surnames to account for gender.
Chaika was the nickname of a Soviet fighter, the Polikarpov I-15, and Yakovlev was named for a series of World War II Soviet aircraft.
5) I make music mixes while I'm thinking about plot structure, characterization, and setting. And then... I share them! The mix for this story has finally been completed. You can download it here
Chapter 6: How a Gardener May Get Rid of the Dormice
Roy had missed field missions. There was nothing like being tied to a desk to make a man dream about scaling mountains. Of course, behind a desk, a man also forgot that the more interesting a mission had been, the worse the paperwork was when you got home. It had been four weeks since they'd left the North behind them, and the forms had only cleared up today, just in time for medals all around. On the other hand, he hadn't enjoyed Friday evenings so much in years. Anyone with eyes would understand Edward's surface appeal, but it was more than a mellow shine on his leather pants in the low light of the bar, and more than something aged in an oak cask going to his head. This was exactly what Maes had warned him about, sitting where Edward was now.
Someday, Roy, you'll see. You won't even know what hit you, you'll just wake up and hers'll be the only face you want to see on your pillow in the morning -- an' I hope for your sake she feels the same way, 'cause if she won't have you, you'll be a mess, I guarantee. Like. You. Wouldn't. Believe.
Tell you what...
I'll bet you a fifth'a Greybeard you end up with a blond.
Maes had been a smart man -- too smart for him. He may have been laughing when he'd taken that bet, but now the words echoed in his head like a prophesy as he took a glance at the bright golden bangs falling around Edward's face.
Perhaps he'd always suffered from wishful thinking, but with both Hawkeye and Alphonse making such an effort to convince him Edward was playing hard to get, it was only human to wonder if they were right. He knew that. Contrary to common wisdom, however, he did have some experience with rejection, and his life didn't afford the luxury of being 'only human'. They had a country to protect.
"Seriously, Roy. You can't order your people to stop harassing us?"
"More trouble than it's worth." His companion twisted around in his seat with a sidelong squint at the shaggy figure in the corner -- Havoc in a wig and false moustache. "Try not to stare, Fullmetal. If anyone else makes him, we really will have to find him a new disguise."
As ordered, the young man swiveled to face the wall of bottles and glasses. "He ought to have something better to do than watch us."
"And are you worried about what he'll see?"
"Then let him have his fun."
Danny, the bartender, was prompt as always despite the crowd. "What can I get you, gentlemen?"
"Double scotch. Neat," Roy answered.
"And I'll..." After an instant's pause, Edward leaned over and grabbed his jacket by the elbow. "What do you call--"
"Don't worry, I've got it," said the bartender with a shake of his head and an incredulous chuckle.
Two measures of fifteen-year-old single malt went into one glass, some ice in another, and never had a jigger of gin with a pour of tonic water seen such suspicion. "Thank you," the blond pronounced.
"Any time, kid."
Tracking the bartender all the way to the other end of the bar with his eyes, Edward leaned back into whispering range. "How'd he know?"
"Because you're predictable," Roy whispered back, a smile peeking onto his lips.
The blond's indignant huff only proved his point. "Am--!" Fullmetal reduced his volume as soon as he saw Roy shush him with a finger to his mouth. It was so much fun to watch him scowl. "Am not."
"Are too." If Hawkeye could have seen them, she'd scold him yet again for that. A general ought to have more dignity than to squabble like a schoolboy, she liked to tell him, and she certainly had a point. Some of the most pleasant things in the world had nothing to do with dignity, though. A bickering match with Fullmetal was one of them. "I could've guessed everything you ordered last week, and the week before."
"You're full of shit."
"Right after we came back, you had bourbon," he said, pointing to the first bottle on the wall. "Straight up, then on the rocks, with water, and so on. The next week you moved on to the vermouth." Edward's frown got deeper as he pointed to the second bottle, then the third. "Next you got halfway through the gin. Do you think you're the first person to try drinking through the rack?" He took a sip of his drink as Edward crossed his arms over his chest. "Regulars have been calling that the 'Alchemist Slayer' since before my time."
"I guess that makes sense, then," the blond grumbled. He pulled in his slightly fizzing glass and studied it carefully. "So, what is this called?"
"A Gin and Tonic?"
"Yeah. What's it called? You've got funny names for everything."
Before Ed had come back, Roy had forgotten how it felt to grin so hard his cheeks hurt. "It's called a 'Gin and Tonic', Fullmetal."
A loaded finger jabbed at his shoulder as the blond leaned as far into his face as he could get without leaving the stool. "You say that like it's obvious, but just watch! The day I assume you call something what it is, the sun'll turn backward and do a jig three times around the moon!"
"I can't wait to see how you manage that."
Just like he wanted to see Edward order an 'Ice Shot' and find out it was hazelnut liqueur with milk.
After a quiet sip of his drink, Edward dropped his chin onto his fist with a steel-plated thunk. Roy didn't even see him shove his notebook over the bar -- just saw it stop precisely where he'd been planning to set his scotch down. "I know you read this. Marshal Levochkin's not your guy. Enemy communication patterns didn't change when he went up North to do inspections, and news about the telegraph line hit Central before he came back."
"Excellent deduction, Fullmetal." He patted the young man on the shoulder, as mock-serious as he could be under the circumstances. "I'm still reserving judgment until we have clear evidence."
"And what exactly does 'clear evidence' mean to you?" Edward snatched the notebook back and dropped it into his pocket. "It's not Levochkin. You don't need me keeping tabs on him, so make Katya stop asking me to go out for milkshakes! I hate milkshakes, and I'm running out of ways to say 'no' to tea."
Oh, that name.
He should never have let Fullmetal demonstrate how perfect he was for that job.
Him. Jealous. Of a girl interning in the typing pool.
Logically, he shouldn't have been. There was no reason at all, but the end of every lunch break still found him cursing the fact that her connections kept him from writing her out of their lives entirely. He could only remind himself that Fullmetal would never see her as a lover. Little good that did.
"Clear evidence is something I'll know when I see it, and so will you. If you can find it for me in time," Roy offered, swirling his drink and appreciating the scent of the pale amber spirit in his glass. "... maybe I'll give you some advice on letting the young lady down gently for your twenty-second birthday. Call it my present. You will be turning twenty-two in a month or so, won't you?"
Golden eyes narrowed at him with a charming little snarl. "I'm only agreeing because I had all the growth spurts Winry predicted, and because I can't tell any size difference in that watch or my books or my old coat. If length compression is that minor, then the effects of time dilation would be, too."
"I'll take it."
"Why d'you even give a shit how old I am?"
Roy opted not to incriminate himself. He took a sip from his glass instead, as silence hung over the clink of ice and the hum of the evening crowd before Edward finally asked the question both of them had been avoiding.
"... You really think Lt. General Bloch is your mastermind?"
"If I knew, we wouldn't be investigating." Personally, he hoped not. The Rubicon Alchemist had been one of the few senior officers who'd protested their orders in Ishbal. When Bradley's regime couldn't bring him to heel, he'd been sent South to hold the Aerugan border, then to molder in obscurity, but he'd never submitted. Roy wanted to think he still had those scruples, but the sad truth was that war found its way inside people. It wouldn't be the first time he'd had seen a soldier forget how to live without it.
"If one leaps to conclusions in this game, one gets destroyed," he explained, deliberately not addressing the concern no doubt first on his companion's mind: his brother, directly under Bloch's command. But if anyone could be trusted to see trouble and take appropriate action before it was too late, it was Alphonse Elric; Edward knew that best of anyone. "Clear evidence, Fullmetal. No suppositions clouding your observations. That's what I need from you in there."
"Great. Because you cancelled my relativity experiment by your mighty decree about the nature of time and space, so I've got no reason to hang out in the lab anymore! I'm making you come up with a new idea."
"Don't worry. I've got something picked out."
The young man sitting next to him scowled, knotting up his forehead and trying to stare him down. Edward kept trying that, and he lasted longer than most, but someday he'd learn that no one had ever -- ever -- made Roy Mustang flinch.
"And what does Brigadier General Mustang have you doing with Kyrian political essays?"
Leave it to that bastard to be five steps ahead. He could count 'How do I hate thee's' on Lt. General Bloch's freckles as the head of Research pulled books from his cart and read the titles off the spines.
Stupid Roy and his stupid projects digging through stupid democratic systems in stupid dead civilizations on a Saturday. This was why the Colonel had been slipping dusty language textbooks into his work pile for the past month? What was the point? Nobody talked about Kyrus anymore outside of fairy tales and high-art theater, a.k.a. 'boring shit', which was what all this looked like. Rubbing at his surveillance headache, Edward shrugged. "He says there's a code. Some lost alchemical formula he wants me to figure out. I'm supposed to crack these and follow up on the theories."
And here he'd always thought there hadn't been any alchemists in Kyrus.
Then again, the real work was for him to deliver a clandestine report on the various and sundry activities of Lt. General Bloch himself, hidden in the form of an essay on the public benefits and responsibilities of democracy, which made even less sense. Did Roy not realize he was a specialist in practical science? He'd never given two figs for political philosophy! Why hand him this crap?
The Lieutenant General frowned, puzzling over Edward's cover story. "I appreciate having someone of your caliber in my lab, but I'm surprised Brigadier General Mustang would stick out his neck to keep you, then give you work better suited to my department, in my department."
Great. Suspicion. As much as he wanted to say, 'I'm observing you for symptoms of a moderately advanced coup d'etat', he couldn't, and Al had made him promise that if Bloch started being nosy, he wouldn't try to make up a story. He didn't know why. He made up great stories. But he'd promised. Now if only he could remember whether a Brigadier was higher or lower than a Lieutenant General. If Roy outranked the head of R&D, he could brush this off. If Edward was right about the pecking order, though, he'd get Roy in a lot of trouble for that.
"It's for a security investigation," he answered. It was basically true, and conveyed as close to no information as he could manage. "I can't say more than that. Mustang didn't tell me jack shit."
The slant of the Rubicon Alchemist's eyebrow said he was about to order Edward to try explaining out of pure curiosity, and he definitely didn't want to see how far any alchemist would go for curiosity. After a long, hard stare, he said, "Well then, Mr. Elric. Tell our commander of security that I'll be looking forward to his report with great interest."
His lucky day, apparently.
"No problem." A moment of tense staring passed before he remembered to add, "Sir."
Hard to say if his luck had run out when Lt. General Fieseler stomped in on his automail leg (a blocky job perfect for an old warhorse, and just the kind of work that'd drive Winry nuts). It got Bloch off his back, but if Marshal Levochkin dropped in next, he might have to go through yet another review of his trip through the fictional rabbit-hole. At least he could bullshit that in his sleep. Edward dropped his special spying thermos on the table, chrome shined up enough to act as a mirror on everything behind him. Maybe he'd get really lucky and they'd forget he was even here. Observing people in reflections, reading lips, and hearing conversations from across the room were things he'd learned fast under Roy's tutelage, but it was a lot easier when the people in question weren't being careful.
Unfortunately, one of the first things he heard was Bloch asking Fieseler, "Do you ever feel like we're being watched?" It took all of his willpower not to cuss and snarl.
Fieseler kept his gaze on Edward all the time while he answered. "You mean Mustang's eyes? I wouldn't worry if I were you. It's when you can't see him coming that he's dangerous."
"That's very well, but he's working in my house, and I'd like to know what he's after." The Rubicon Alchemist narrowed his eyes in Edward's direction. "Enough about Mustang. You said you wanted to check my reports on the rabbit-hole? You have your own, don't you?"
The two generals drifted towards the back office, thankfully not calling Edward into any more of that mess. "I need to be sure I'm not missing one. There's a figure I--"
Bloch's office door clicked closed, cutting off the rest of the conversation, and Edward collapsed with his nose planted in the binding of some discourse on principles of orderly debate. What was the code word for, 'They can fucking tell I'm on surveillance!' again? Did he say that by telling everyone the dog with three spots had gotten adopted from the pound, or was it the one about seeing strange bones in the stone quarry? Maybe he'd be better off passing the Colonel a note when they were back in the office on Monday. At least the written code let him use real words.
Or even better! Al's party was tomorrow! The Colonel would be there, and he and Al had kept the house clean from wiretaps and surveillance bugs. He could shout it as loud as he wanted, right in Roy's face!
Then a light click on the other side of the tabletop cut short all his rejoicing. That was the sound of a lunchbox. A sensible, rectangular lunchbox for two that had become a source of fear and dread out of all proportion to what wood and lacquer deserved. The lunchbox was navy blue today, which was weird considering the bright green cardigan and lemony dress. She had at least fifteen lunchboxes that he'd seen so far, all in different colors, and the one she brought always matched her outfit.
"I hope I'm not disturbing you, Edward." She fluttered her eyes through wire-rimmed glasses as if she'd gotten dust in them, red hair set in curls around her face -- always a little too perfect to be natural. "I know I should have knocked, but you looked busy."
He swallowed the words, 'I am busy.' Roy's third rule of non-dating was, 'Thou shalt not make the girl feel unwelcome. Ever.'
"Hey, Katya." He nodded at the seat across the table to tell her to sit. Naturally, she pushed his book cart to a more central spot and dragged the chair around to where the cart had been. "What're you doing here? It's Saturday."
"Avia from the Records desk said she'd seen you in the Central Library checking out almost the entire Kyrian civics section." She shrugged her sweater off her shoulders with a practiced little dip and hung it over the back of the chair. "You know, I'm majoring in Political Science."
"I remember." He was also figuring out that this girl had some kind of serious information network running through the receptionists and other interns around Central Command, and could locate him like magic whether he was in the building or around town. He absolutely couldn't let Roy know about it or he'd never be allowed to break this off.
Clearing her throat, the intern swept herself up onto her seat, her skirt drifting to rest unusually high over her knees. As far as convergence of forces went, it didn't seem like the normal result of sitting or of crossing one's legs, but Roy probably would have liked it anyway. The Colonel had occasionally recited extemporaneous odes to the flash of a girl's garter back in the day, and if he'd been looking right, he probably could have seen from the top of Katya's stockings all the way to the white-edged navy pumps poking into his legspace. Like he cared what color her shoes were -- but that was rule number five: 'Thou shalt notice what she's wearing'.
Then he took a second look at the navy lunchbox.
"Oh. It's your shoes."
"Your lunchbox matches your shoes," he clarified. There was one mystery solved.
Her forehead crinkled over one eye and she shook her head at the far corner. "Gosh. I hadn't realized," she sighed, flicking her skirt into a more natural position. "But I just thought... If you're working with governmental theory, maybe I should help you?"
On the one hand, he could tell her that he was looking for encoded alchemical formulas, not studying ancient political systems, but then, you never knew when a better understanding of the subject would help. Also, if she was helping him with his research, he could do his spying and he might not have to risk getting asked on a date.
Verging on too good to be true.
"I have to read these in the original, though," Edward sighed, shaking his head. "I mean, you don't read Kyrian, do you?"
Katya brightened up with a proud little gleam on her glasses as she pushed them up on her nose. "Gignoskein teleos," she answered immediately. 'I know it perfectly,' Edward translated in his head. Of course she did. It was just a centuries-dead language that only stuffy old professors cared about, so why wouldn't she? And the lip-bit grin on her face said she was just so damn happy about it, too. "I had a tutor."
It suddenly made sense why Roy had him digging through ancient history, and he was going to print up his report in quintuplicate, bind it in iron, and use it to hammer that jackass into the floor. Worse, if Roy already knew how fast the girl could find out what a person was doing and where he was, any chance he could get off this detail was gone. He was officially fucked.
Except not literally. Eew.
He added this to the list of complaints he was going to lodge the next instant he saw Roy's annoyingly handsome face (because he had no intention of saying thank you as long as Roy was pulling the puppetmaster thing on him) and pushed one of his piles down the table at her. "Great. Knock yourself out. You see anything interesting, let me know."
"What are you looking for?"
Without looking up from the chart he was sketching of component-centric passages versus action-centric passages, he grumbled, "Common phrase groupings. Alliteration, maybe. Definitely any grammatical quirks."
Like he could explain how to crack alchemical codes to someone who wasn't an alchemist. And if she had been an alchemist, they wouldn't be having this conversation because he last thing he wanted was random alchemists getting in his business and studying his cryptographic techniques while he was mixed up in anything Roy had planned. That was just asking for trouble.
This had really, seriously better be of some use, somehow -- because five chapters on the finer points of disagreeing with other elected officials on the taxation of wheat and a big, sheep-shit pile of nothing on his decryption attempts later, it was very nearly pleasant to hear the red-headed intern's chatter breaking up the tedium. Insights on why anyone cared about the political theory of a long-gone civilization, commentary on who'd joined whose bowling league, who'd had a baby shower, and (possibly relevantly) what kind of fight she'd heard Levochkin had had with his brother up North. Didn't matter what she was saying, as long as it wasn't in freaking Kyrian.
And didn't involve his mind wandering off to contemplate getting stuck in another ice cream truck with Roy -- not that Wednesday's debacle following Fieseler to the grocery store could've been an accident. Winry had to have been involved in rigging that latch.
Katya tapped him on the hand, and he nearly jumped. "Huh? What was that?" She'd said something, but his brain had gotten sidetracked somewhere between the strange letters on yellowing pages and the image of that bastard's perfect but insufferable nose haunting him from the other side of a wall of Choco-Blast bars. At least yesterday, it'd been Roy's cheekbones he'd been stuck on, which was halfway normal to find attractive. Who liked noses?
"I was wondering if it was true that the Brigadier General was seeing someone."
"What?! No!" he yelped on reflex before his brain could give his mouth any directions. "Wait, which Brigadier General?"
"Don't be silly," Katya laughed. "Brigadier General Mustang. You'd know, wouldn't you?"
"Is he ever not seeing someone?" Clearly this girl hadn't been around long enough to know that Roy going out with somebody or other was the rule, not the exception. And she had better not be asking because she wanted her shot at him. Not that he cared who Roy dated, or that Katya was way more up Roy's usual alley than he was, he thought as he scratched out where he'd accidentally written "wheat" in his verb table. But still, she'd better not.
Whatever she was actually saying passed by Edward's ears without his thoughts latching on, and now he'd just managed to misspell "wheat" while adding it to the nouns. Where the hell had his ability to focus gone since he'd gotten back? And he definitely didn't want to talk about the Colonel lollygagging with women. Period. Especially when the superhumanly well informed intern should've known better than him who'd been the Girl of the Week this past...
Wait. Hadn't Friday been Roy's traditional 'date night' back in the day? And that was the night he and Roy went--
"This isn't happening," he muttered, scratching his hair into a rough mess and smoothing it back from his forehead. Nothing but nothing was going to make him hope Roy was off the deep end enough to try stealth-dating him behind his own back. It was as stupid as stupid ideas got, he was smarter than this, and he was letting himself in for pain if he went there.
And self-reminders that he'd look like absolute crap in a miniskirt.
As if to emphasize whatever he hadn't heard her say, Katya shook her head so firmly it sent her curls bouncing. "No, that's definitely what Claudia said. He turned her down."
The hell? Turning a girl down? That was like some bizarre alternate reality Roy, and the universe needed to snap back to making sense right the fuck now. He'd invested way too much in this being the reality he'd been born in.
Edward tried to scoff, 'Are we talking about the same Roy Mustang?', but all he got was a choke in his throat that he couldn't cough out. Instead, he winced with the distinct feeling that his voice had just turned into a rock on a string and dropped into his stomach.
"...Very nicely, she said -- and he turned down Yvette, too, last week, and before that it was Marjorie, but Claudia was the one who asked if there was someone special. That is, she told him people were saying there must be, and that whoever he was seeing must be pretty."
People needed to not ask Mustang out on dates if only so rumors like that didn't get to the point where he could hear them. It was against the rules of life for the Colonel to have a steady girlfriend. If that bastard was willing to get serious about someone, it just meant he wasn't good enough for--
When his pen skidded off his paper onto the table, he realized that at some point the phrase, 'introduce the motion' had transformed into 'int-ROY IS A FUCKING MORON'. He scribbled over all the text until all of it was blacked out and the impressions on the papers below it had been obscured, then crumpled the list into a twisted-up ball tight enough to ring when he hit the trashcan. He'd messed the whole thing up anyway.
And pretty. He hadn't even thought of that. If that was the criterion for dating Roy, then he was definitely out. Not that he'd wanted to be in, but he was still about as far away from 'pretty' as he could imagine. For no particular reason, Edward started organizing every word in chapter six of his book into alphabetical order. With a frequency chart. It might not help break this theoretical code, but it gave him something to think about that wasn't imagining the Colonel out with someone particular, right under his nose. The dry-mouthed, nauseous ache stealing over him after hearing the suggestion wasn't conducive to getting real work done.
Could he make Roy feel like this if he ever agreed to go out for tea with Katya? Not that it was worth giving her more of his time just to find out the answer was probably no. He picked up his thermos lid and took his last swig of water, keeping his eyes on the cup so he didn't have to look the girl in the face. "So what'd Roy have to say?"
With a puzzled sigh, she answered, "He said, 'Thank you'. No one's quite sure what he meant by that."
"As the resident expert in Roy-speak, I'd say he meant, 'Thanks for thinking I'm so hot, I should only date hot people.'"
"Well, the older girls are a little sad, but I think I'm happy for him." She drummed her fingers on the workbench, chin perched on her other hand. "It's lovely to find someone, isn't it? My mother always tells me, 'With sophistication and persistence, you can have anything you want -- but if you find the right partner, you can have everything.'"
"No one can have everything," he muttered, flipping over a page to see if he had any more luck with the next one. "Everyone gives up something to get what they want, even Roy Mustang. If there's a girlfriend, though, he sure as hell hasn't brought her around the office."
Rubbing a knot out of his flesh-and-bone shoulder, Edward considered the merits of crumpling up the paper with alphabetizations and chucking it into the trashcan like unchewably burnt toast crusts. On the other hand, he could finish it and make Roy read the damn thing as punishment. Tough call. All he knew for sure was that there couldn't be a girlfriend. Or possibly a boyfriend, since the Colonel, logically, had to be bi to have been checking him out. He hadn't been paying attention, so he might not notice a Somebody himself -- or care -- but Hawkeye would know if Roy were serious about--
On second thought, he wasn't pursuing that, because it led straight back to Mystery Person being him, and he was still rejecting that premise as a bad idea.
Because it was.
Why couldn't he have something interesting to distract himself with instead of dusty directions for running dead city-states?
"My brain's fried. I hereby declare this lunchtime."
"I brought croquettes, with soba and a salad," Katya declared, pulling the lunchbox off the table with all talk of Roy's love life blissfully forgotten.
"I saw. Thanks." He wasn't sure if he could eat it, since the conversation from before had given him a pretty severe stomachache, but that'd pass. It had to. Roy was not allowed to ruin his appetite with his fake, absolutely impossibly perfect girlfriend -- because if she did manage to exist, she'd have to be perfect, or Central's biggest playboy wouldn't have tied himself down. Stupid Roy. And stupid Assignment Girl for making him think about it.
She was just so young. It made him want to tell her to get as far away from the military as she could before she found something that made her grow up -- and it made him wonder how much shit Roy had shielded him from back when he was looking for the Philosopher's Stone. He thought he'd seen the worst people could do. With everything going on and everything he'd poked his nose into, it shouldn't have taken three years to find out he was wrong. He wouldn't have listened, though, no matter what anyone tried to tell him. And once the Colonel was done cleaning up everybody's messes, maybe this government wouldn't be such a bad place for a clueless intern.
When he stood, he saw a grey-haired figure waiting in the door with a stare more furious than the notch a bullet had cut out of his ear. "General Hakuro. Long time, no see."
Katya cleared her throat, pushing her bangs forcefully to the side. It looked almost like a salute, but she was a civilian. Civilians weren't supposed to...
Right. Saluting. He drew himself up to attention and cocked his automail hand at his forehead, and Hakuro returned the gesture.
"At ease, Lt. Colonel Elric." The older man brushed over beside his table, pausing to indulge in some silent contempt for slightly longer than Edward thought was necessary. "I see you're busy with your extracurricular activities," he said finally, with a look down his nose at the red-headed intern. "An apple never falls far from the tree, does it?"
If Edward could have figured out whether Hakuro was accusing him of skirt-chasing (like Roy -- at least, past tense) or making a hobby of surveillance shenanigans (also like Roy -- present tense included), he'd have cooked up some witty retort about how hilariously wrong he was, with a side order of embarrassing the General for using a cliche that should have been about Edward's father (whom Hakuro could never have met). His father might have been a skirt-chasing, obtuse jackass, but he was an entirely different kind of skirt-chasing, obtuse jackass from Roy Mustang.
On second thought, if Bloch had just figured it out now, someone as thick as Hakuro probably didn't know he was supposed to be spying on people, which made the 'skirt-chasing' thing more likely. And screaming, 'I'm gay, you numb-wit!' at the top of his lungs would probably mess up his assignment with Katya. Just a little. Plus, the General was always looking for something to get Mustang in trouble, and Internal Security was theoretically under Hakuro's control. He'd be damned if he ended up the knife that cut Roy's throat.
"I'm on assignment, actually," Edward growled. He shoved a stack of his handwritten notes in Hakuro's face. "Miss Hawker has been assisting me with my research in her capacity as an expert on Ancient Kyrian society. I'd love to fill you in on the details. Sir."
The general retreated half a step away from the charts full of squiggly, foreign words. "That won't be necessary." He turned toward Lt. General Bloch's office, glancing twice more at the paper with suspicious hesitation. "Carry on."
Edward didn't budge an inch until he saw Hakuro disappear behind Bloch's door. "That is just too much brass for a Saturday."
"Did he just call me an 'extracurricular activity'?" The girl looked actually ruffled by it, too, as she stared after the closed door.
Roy would probably take her arm and tell her some drivel about how pretty faces shouldn't frown, and it'd probably be the highlight of her day. He figured stuff like that fell on the wrong side of the 'dating' line, though, whether he could make it work or not. Instead, he pulled on his coat and made for the door. "Don't fuss about Hakuro. He doesn't like me, that's all."
The light clip of her shoes echoed off the floor as she ran. She was still pulling her sweater on when she got to his side, balancing the lunchbox in one hand. "Why wouldn't he like you? Everyone I've spoken to says you have a brilliant future."
Whatever that meant.
"Damned if I know. One minute he's all, 'Thanks for saving my life, kiddo -- here, let me sponsor you into the military!'" Edward answered, slamming the door to the lab shut behind him. Katya giggled into her hand at his gesticulations, so at least he didn't have to worry about making her feel better anymore. "Next time I turn around, I'm bad for his rep."
"He should be proud to have sponsored you, and he should definitely be nicer if you saved his life."
"Whatever. He just happened to be on the train when me and Al were saving it." Which was Roy's fault to begin with. As if he needed more reminding that the Colonel had been there in his special, asshole way since Day One.
He stopped hearing footsteps and turned around to see the intern staring at him with her eyebrows furrowed. "Alphonse-kun? But wasn't this ten years ago? He'd have been five. I know you were eleven, but--"
"It's not that simple," he answered, making a mental note to ask Al how he'd explained being fifteen to last year's examination board when, a decade ago, he'd been a six-foot suit of armor with ten-year-old cognition. That must have been fun. He'd want to get their stories straight before talking about it to anyone.
The girl zipped up to him with an apologetic bat of her eyelashes. "I'm sorry. Is that classified?"
"Um. Yeah." Man, had conversations with her gotten easier when he'd realized she'd drop any topic he said was 'classified' faster than a cat with a hot potato.
"Wow." Then he counted the silence for six steps down the hallway before she said, "I know this is sort of changing the subject..."
Which he didn't mind. What he minded was that five to seven steps worth of silence always meant she was asking him on a date. About three was, 'You won't believe what happened today!' Ten meant she was about to ask, 'How was your day?' and he should think of an amusing but harmless anecdote. If it was five to seven, though, he had to prep a way to say, 'Sorry, I'm busy' without incurring Roy's mockery.
"... You see, a friend of mine won some vouchers to the ice skating rink tomorrow, and she's got an extra. Would you like to come?"
"Ice skating, huh?" Winry's modifications would keep him from freezing or having weight distribution problems, but he didn't want to put his parts inside a tight-laced boot any more than he wanted to spend the day at the rink (even if running off with the girl and her friends would make Roy jealous, which it probably wouldn't, and he'd meant not to think about that anymore!). Blaming the automail, unfortunately, would probably put him in violation of the first rule Roy had given him: 'Thou shalt not make the girl feel like she's been insensitive'. If the Colonel knew a way to say, 'Sorry -- metal leg,' that didn't make people cringe, he'd never shared it. Luckily, he had convenient Sunday plans.
"Sorry. Al's throwing the Security department a party at our place tomorrow, for that commendation thing we got for that Drachma business. I'll be setting up in the morning, and it'll probably go late." With a snicker, he added, "You could come, but I guess you're busy," imagining shoving his own nonexistent girlfriend in Roy's face. Serve him right. Except that the Colonel wouldn't care, since it wasn't possible the man was seriously interested in him. There was no way. And he'd still have Katya at his house.
As soon as he realized the girl's footsteps had paused, he looked back to see her clutching the lunchbox to her chest with her grey eyes shining like silver.
"Gosh. I can ask Marjorie if someone else can take my voucher. I might be able to go."
"Oh." He pushed open the door to the cafeteria while he stalled for something appropriate to say. "Great. Well, it's at noon. Don't worry if you can't make it, but... yeah. Noon. My place."
"Okay," she answered in a higher tone than normal, then bit her lip and finished, "... I'll see what I can do."
Shit, shit, shit!
This had to be at least three different kinds of Roy's fault, even if he wasn't sure how yet. Once that bastard was done saving the country, he was dead meat.
The Elrics' house was a charming two-story affair, with a porch and a view of the woods across the street -- an easy half-hour's stroll from Roy's own townhouse, including a quick stop by the baker's for a party offering. Alphonse's invitation had been the perfect excuse to visit, despite the cold pinch of the winter morning, but he should have done this earlier. It'd been too long since he'd dropped in on friends with no reason, no notice, and no plans.
Shifting the basket of apple muffins to one arm, he picked up the knocker and rapped three times.
Odd that Alphonse wouldn't be waiting in earshot. Edward might ignore him, if he felt so inclined at the moment and knew who was at the door, but not Alphonse. All the same, there was no answer, and January winds bit even more while standing than when walking. Roy checked his watch while he waited for an answer at the door. It was 10:03.
Miss Rockbell had said ten, hadn't she?
Roy drew up the knocker again, and between the first and second strikes heard Edward call out, "Just a second! I'm coming!"
As surely as he could feel the tip of his nose freezing while he heard the latch click, he knew he'd been set up. Again. Even the armload of apple muffins wouldn't make his excuses for not double-checking with Fullmetal himself...
...who had his hair loose in damp waves about bare shoulders, a towel and an oil can hanging from his hand. Wearing trousers, thank goodness, but otherwise quite... exposed. And dear God...
Had he never seen Fullmetal with his shirt off? How could that be, after years of explosions that routinely shredded his wardrobe, and after living in close quarters for a month? But he would have remembered.
A shining metal arm shoved him in the chest, although Roy's eyes were caught by the gleam on his skin. "I have had it up to here with your asinine machinations, you miscreant cock-jack! I don't like politics, I don't want to read politics, and I definitely don't want to study politics for a girl!"
From the drape of his shirts, Roy would have sworn Edward had a smoother, slighter build, not that kind of definition. Damn it. Why, in the name of all that was just and holy, did society require clothing? Even with the pale scars edging his automail and ten years of fading blademarks -- aesthetically, he was flawless.
"Are you even listening to--" He was vaguely aware of a muffin tumbling from his basket and the soft thwack of Edward tossing his towel over the scarred seam of flesh and metal on his shoulder. "Roy?"
Edward pushed up on the bottom of his chin, and Roy's breath stopped in a panic as he saw the flush fading out of Fullmetal's cheeks over the scowl twisting his mouth. "HQ to Roy Mustang! Calling Colonel Eye-Contact."
This was embarrassing.
He'd been raised better than that.
"Fullmetal. Good morning."
"I'm sorry." He picked up the fallen muffin from the porch while he gathered the resolve to look up on his own terms. Thank goodness for paper wrappings. "I seem to have misremembered the time of your party."
"Your memory's not the problem." Before he could say another word, the blond whipped around and stalked back into the house. Roy tried to look anywhere but the curve of his spine disappearing into his waistband. He had to have enough will power for that. "Get the inside and close the door. It's fucking freezing out there."
It was hard to believe this was the same Edward Elric who'd yell the roof off the office if he accidentally stared too long or said the wrong thing -- the blond strode off toward the staircase at the back of the room without a single accusation. Harder still to believe he'd ever been the tiny boy who'd looked so helpless in his stained bandages, unconscious and bled as pale as the bedsheets where he lay. The brash gait of a child who couldn't stand to fail had mellowed into the more measured stride of a man who'd learned how to pick himself back up.
Dropping a glance down at the floor, Fullmetal paused in the middle of his march out of the room. "It's just me here. Al and Winry went out shopping." Like a cello plucked out of tune, all the scattered thoughts dashing through Roy's brain knotted into one wordless hollow in his gut as Edward, apparently, decided not to go upstairs after all. He leaned against the back of the couch instead, the light catching on the clean cut of his still criminally bare torso. No one could have asked for a better replay of Roy's schoolboy follies before he'd learned how to book a hotel room. Only then, it'd been an invitation he'd been meant to take advantage of.
The sarcastic wrinkle of Edward's nose needed no translation. He could practically hear the young man's raw tone trumpeting, 'What's your problem?' in his head. Roy couldn't fathom any possibility that the blond alchemist was enough of a cocktease to understand how that simple phrase, 'It's just me here,' had sounded. And yet he was now painfully aware of the thrumming of his heart and the prick of heat rushing back too fast into his frozen fingers and toes, thanks to the reminder that he had the house and Edward to himself. He pulled off his hat and gloves and laid them on the table by the exit as he unbuttoned the top of his jacket. At least he could set himself partway to rights by easing the sudden heat under his collar.
As he did, a large, dark tabby wound his way out from the other side of the couch and walked up to sniff Roy's shoes. He didn't like what he found, if one could judge from the suspicious slant of his eyes when he turned his head up. Roy had seen cats look dissatisfied many times in his life, but never so markedly as now. It was as if the animal knew what Roy had been thinking about, and thought he should take a scrub-brush to his mind before coming within three feet of the blond.
"He's allowed, Cat. Be nice."
The strained moodiness of Edward's voice was as out of character as his frozen posture. If only Roy could rewind this Saturday about fifteen minutes and erase from history every mistake he'd just made -- but the world would be a very different place if he had that power. Instead, he'd make do somehow with having his hands full of outerwear and a basket of baked goods weighing him into the floor, while an accusatory cat marched away to confer with a friend who now wouldn't look up to meet his eye. He tried not to imagine that the cat wanted to get rid of him, and to convince himself that the distraught yowl was anything but a complaint about his intrusion, but there was too much possessiveness in the way he brushed back and forth against Edward's legs to let the thought go.
"Yes, that's Roy Mustang," the blond called at the animal. "I know you've heard me talk about him, so deal with it."
Uncanny, really, how the surly feline cast a glare right back across the room at him before he trotted out the far door. Enough to throw a chill down his spine, as if he weren't uncomfortable enough. But he had to be imagining all of that. He certainly wasn't going to ask Fullmetal if there was a reason to think this cat would dislike him. If the answer were, 'Because I made a cat that can understand what I'm saying when I complain about work,' they'd open themselves up to a whole new world of problems.
At least he could safely rule that out. It was beyond unlikely that Fullmetal ever would have taken up with chimera.
Casting about for anything he could say to reclaim the conversation, and perhaps his dignity, Roy found himself surveying the bookshelf-lined staircase running the length of the back of the room and the doorway cut out of the right wall near the landing. That was one thing he had to stop right away. There was no reason for him to be looking for escape routes in Edward Elric's house. He wasn't running anywhere. Breathing in slowly and pushing his shoulders back, he asked, "You named your cat, 'Cat'?" with a deliberate cock of his eyebrow, and dripped a generous helping of teasing over his tone to hide his nerves.
Fullmetal still didn't spare him a glance, all attention on the oil he was spraying into his elbow as he leaned against the couch. "Al named that cat 'Boots'," he said, and scanned the floor and steps until, turning his head over his shoulder, his eyes settled on a puddle of white fur sleeping on a coffee table. "That one's Hijinx. Ella's around here somewhere. They're also cats."
If he'd upset Edward enough that he wouldn't rise to a little sarcasm, then he had a more pressing problem than figuring out how to move his feet from where they'd rooted themselves in the carpet. He'd somehow broken through a bout of cold shoulder on their mission in the mountains, but he'd be damned if he knew exactly what had done it. He didn't want to put Edward or himself through another week of that.
And yet the young man stayed in plain view to look after his arm, pressing the tip of the oilcan to his wrist and flexing his joints, letting it coat all the metal and carbon fibers. It was hardly a surprise that he kept his gloves on at work and never treated his automail in public, but he'd made it clear on their trip together that he'd wanted real privacy -- always taking his oilcan to the furthest, darkest corner and turning his back -- which Roy had obliged by finding some notes that needed more reviewing. Assuming Fullmetal was actually upset with him, and it seemed a safe assumption, the scene he'd been allowed to watch felt like a kind of physical question.
'Do you really want to look at me like that when I'm part machine? To touch someone where he's got steel and chrome instead of skin?'
Then again, this was more a demonstration than a question. He could have said 'Yes' to a question. If Roy himself had ever wondered what his answer would be, now he knew. Right now, it definitely didn't matter.
As Edward oiled all the forged plates and bonded fibers, Roy found himself marvelling at how human he seemed. Even though he knew better, it was too easy to see some untouchable, uncorruptible paragon. But this wasn't the Fullmetal Alchemist standing in front of him. This was Ed, with his feet turned together and his shoulders hunched up around his ears -- stripped of his usual storm and drive, definitely suffering from more than unwanted attention from someone he'd never hesitated to criticize.
And Roy didn't know what the hell he could do about it, besides stop caring. Which he wouldn't do.
"So did you hear a word I was saying out there?" Ed's voice cut through the silence lingering like blast dust in the air.
He'd caught some of it. Asinine. Politics. Girl. That was more than enough to know what Edward was complaining about. Naturally the blond had realized the basic concept of Roy's plan. While always competent with patterns, Fullmetal was particularly adept at working out the ingenious ones. "I was under the impression you wanted a less romantic pretense for talking with the young lady. Was I wrong?"
"You're a jackass."
He swept at some dust on his trousers with his hat and laid the thing on top of the pile of paper-wrapped muffins that suddenly seemed so silly. "Yes, well. We knew that already."
If he had to guess from the spurt of oil that overshot his wrist to leave spatters on his hand, the admission had caught Edward by surprise. The blond looked up at him at last, letting Roy deliver his very best unapologetic smile. The hint of a laugh edging a put-upon sigh was just the sound he needed to hear. Ed was still braced like a statue against the couch, even after he set the oil and towel down by his foot, but he kept looking Roy in the eye. "I told you to come in. The closet's there," he said, nodding at a door to the left of the entryway, then cocked his head at the door by the foot of the stairs. "Kitchen's that way. Stop standing there like a bellhop."
His feet obeyed his command to step toward the kitchen as if Fullmetal's eyes had cured some kind of paralysis. "Don't mind if I do," Roy replied, feeling a deep breath enter his lungs as he walked.
The Elrics had a pleasant little kitchen, he noted, full of the odd scent combination of thyme mixed with pet food. He set the basket down on a long counter to the left matched with two barstools whose pine wood was a complete contrast to the cherry table and chairs to his right. The bookshelves along front wall, naturally, were the same oak as the ones in the parlor. But it was all very pleasant, down to the vase of fresh daffodils sitting on the table in complete defiance of the winter outside.
And he would have a pleasant visit, despite his colleagues' ceaseless attempts to throw him headlong at an unwilling Elric.
And despite the suspicious stare offered by the tabby Fullmetal had called 'Boots', now hunched over a bowl of kibble by the wall. He clearly had no intention of taking his ire elsewhere. Why he'd been named Boots was far from clear, as the dark fur on his legs went unbroken all the way down his feet. Roy's most pressing concern, however, was narrowing his own gaze at the creature's yellow-green eyes to see if he couldn't explain that he wasn't going anywhere.
The cat had showed no sign of flinching by the time Edward bellowed, "And in case you didn't know, Bloch and Fieseler can tell you're watching them!"
"In what sense?" he called out, not shifting an inch.
"In the sense that they're fucking onto you, Roy!"
He'd long known that Fieseler suspected him of general unscrupulousness as a matter of course, but under the circumstances Ed's observations on Bloch's attitude could give them an opening. And the fact that he was staying in the kitchen right now was in no way because he was still needed to calm down or because he was nervous about going back to face Ed again, Roy told himself. It was because he had important business. Some might have ridiculed his engagement in staring down a housecat, but his efforts were more than justified when the animal scrunched up his nose and surrendered the match. He was still undefeated.
Although he did have to wonder why Fullmetal didn't leave to finish dressing. Surely he wasn't the kind of company who couldn't be trusted or who needed to be entertained constantly. He could be left alone for the few minutes necessary to find a shirt. But Fullmetal was staying, and he couldn't hide in the kitchen forever.
The scowl on the blond alchemist's face when he walked out answered his question, and painted an entirely honest grin across his lips. Unless he was mistaken, Edward had forgotten in the middle of his temper that he was half naked. A reminder might be polite, Roy considered as he strolled over to the closet, given that company was coming. But then again, if Ed didn't mind, he certainly didn't mind. And Alphonse would probably come home in time to mention it before the rest of the party arrived.
As he set his hat on a shelf and tugged his coat off his shoulders, his fellow alchemist tired of waiting for the response that wasn't coming and finally explained what had happened. "They were calling me your 'eyes', okay? Trying to find what you're after. What do you want me to do, huh?"
"Exactly what you have been doing." Clearly, his trickiest suspects had their own eyes pointed in precisely the direction where Roy wanted them.
With his coat securely on a hanger, he felt oddly warmer than he had before he'd taken it off. Roy clicked the closet door closed and leaned up against it to admire the renewed energy in the blond's fury, glaring amidst he shafts of sunlight that broke through the window curtains to dance over the room.
"Are you shitting me? Just let them think I'm spying for you? That's your plan?!"
"You can't have forgotten what I told you about reacting to suspicion. If you run when they cry foul, you... Well. I won't be able to pass your actions off as innocent."
The murmured grumble from behind the couch was hard to make out, but it sounded like, "It's not me I'm worried about."
"A little faith, Fullmetal," Roy asked, wandering around to look at the shelves on the wall opposite the kitchen. He'd always wanted to see what kind of private library the Elrics would manage, and while he and Edward had seemingly settled their awkwardness for the moment but before anyone else showed up was the best possible time. A few old classics, none of their personal journals downstairs, but a truly startling collection of titles on beech trees that no doubt showed the Tringham's influence on Alphonse. Lying askew on top of the whole shelf, a few well-worn board games, as well. "You were always going to be too noteworthy to conceal. We're using the inevitable to our own advantage -- anyone who wants to take this country away from me covertly will go after you overtly, one way or another. Just stay in eyeshot and earshot, and I'll clean up any mess."
"Oh," Edward answered. "Well, why didn't you just tell me I was bait? I can't give you the answers you want if you fucking withhold information. You need to know who's after me besides the people chasing rabbit-holes, too, right?"
He tried not to be too sure of his own plans, but as someone who'd been a careful man for many long years, Roy knew exactly how Edward Elric had to look to their mastermind -- especially now that he was anything but a child. Even a mad fool would see him as a threat or an opportunity. Maybe both, but never neither. With a sigh, he took a seat in the chair across from the couch, judging that the best way to get through this conversation without giving in to the urge to kiss the blond's breath away. "That would be lovely."
"Then let's start with Hakuro showing up in R&D to get in my face yesterday. That, and Katya visiting my house," he added with a scowl. "But you knew she wanted me -- thanks so much."
"She's visiting? Why--" Roy was across the floor before he realized he had even stood up, and it was only the way Edward pulled back when he rounded the couch that made him remember himself. A commander had no place scolding an operative for a good strategic position, and his personal feelings weren't welcome here. Breathing in and out for a count of four, he made sure to keep his head the next time he spoke. "I wouldn't ask you to see her outside of the office. Did you find some reason to think it was a good idea?"
"No! It was an accident," the blond grumbled, turning his back as his grip on the far corner of the couch tightened into a white-knuckled fist. "She'd said she had plans for today. I didn't think she'd drop them like a week-old newspaper."
So she'd be here for the party, where he'd have to watch as she chased down Edward, whom he himself had ordered not to turn her away for the sake of world peace. Somehow, he'd survive that without developing an ulcer. Somehow.
Wandering closer, he reached out for Ed's shoulder, but the young man twitched his whole arm forward and away as if he could sense Roy's hand an inch off his skin. He dropped his fingers to the couch back where Fullmetal's had been a moment before, trying a joke to lighten the mood. "Well, not much harm in one day. Although I think Havoc now has to eat his hat -- he was sure you'd make it the whole mission without telling her your address."
Edward whipped around, practically nose to chin, and snarled, "I didn't have to tell her! She knew! She's terrifying! Besides, no one who's gonna be here ever says a damned word that isn't encrypted. I don't see why you care."
As the blond stalked away again and took a rough seat on the couch, Roy shot down the first six reasons to leap to mind that he should care. He couldn't and wouldn't treat Edward differently than anyone else to whom he'd given a mission. If he started doing that, he really would need to transfer the man out of his department or risk losing objectivity when a tough call came down. With a careful weight on his tongue, he struck a fist lightly on the couch. "I... I ask a great deal of anyone under my command, Fullmetal. I never want to ask more than you're willing to give." The stone-still figure set on facing straight away from him made no move to acknowledge when Roy down beside him. "But you're right. She's nothing to worry ourselves over. Now, can you tell me what brought General Hakuro to the Research department?"
He settled a few inches away on the couch, at what he hoped was a non-threatening distance, and turned to face Edward with all the considerable attention he could muster. If he had to play every conversational trick he knew to make his companion more at ease, he would. Twice if necessary. Although he had to grip his hand tight on the furniture to remember that his instinct to touch the other man or run fingers through his drying hair would backfire.
Finally, Edward sighed, the tense height dropping out of his shoulders like a car on popped tires. "Old Prickle-Pants didn't say why he was there. He just called me a miniature you, was a dick, and then walked off to talk with Bloch behind closed doors."
Roy wondered if the blond could hear him smiling. He couldn't have helped breaking into a grin if he'd tried -- the idea of the bull-headed, tempestuous Edward Elric being described as a copy of himself was ridiculous, and the rise of his friend's ears betrayed a nose wrinkled in distaste that Roy couldn't see but had memorized in all its insubordinate charm. Ed could definitely sense his amusement somehow, because he startled in his seat as soon as it struck and twisted around to furrow his brows.
Which only made Roy's smile broad enough to ache. He held Edward's glare and the laugh threatening in his throat just long enough to see the corner of the blond's mouth twitch into a smile as well. "I'm sorry," he quipped. "The General called you what?"
"I know, can you believe it?" After doubling over in silent laughter for a few seconds, his companion caught his breath, dropping his metal arm over the back of the couch with his fingers curling back a few inches from Roy's hand. "He's such a sap. I don't know how he got promoted." Old habit and long practice conspired, and Roy found himself staring and studying every movement the blond made while he talked. From the way he bit his lip to stop himself laughing to the odd way Edward cast his eyes down to the floor as he finger-combed his hair back into order. He would have called it 'shy', but Fullmetal had never been that. Of course, he was more accustomed to seeing those gestures over a nice dinner and a bottle of wine. And the lingering glance Edward shot at their hands, stretching out his fingers as if he might want to touch... Peeking at him out of the corner of his eye, then looking down again before tilting up his chin to look Roy in the eye...
Was he completely out of his head, and just seeing what he wanted to -- even though Edward had told him time and time again there was nothing to see at all?
Roy was suddenly too aware of his own breathing. He might not have an ascetic's control over his response to a lively gaze through the cover of blond bangs, but it was entirely inappropriate to get caught up in fantasies when he needed to be listening to Edward's report. Although, if Edward developed a habit of pulling up his leg on the couch, leaving himself open to a touch Roy wouldn't risk and settling his foot between Roy's seat and the back cushions, they might need to have a talk about how not to accidentally tease your commanding officer.
"Fieseler was after rabbit-hole stuff, like you said, but I didn't get anything from Hakuro except that he doesn't like me."
"I'll make a note of--"
The weight of two paws fell on his leg, and in a blink a golden cat who'd appeared out of nowhere jumped up on his knees. She kept mewling at him with concern written all over her face, as if she thought the world would end if he didn't notice her. "Hello there," he answered, trying to keep her mostly disentangled from his shirt as she attempted to climb onto his shoulder and butt her head into his chin simultaneously.
"Stop sweet-talking my cat, Roy!"
Edward reached up to pull the tiny creature off his shirt, though she complained bitterly in a plaintive little series of squeaks. "I only said hello," Roy protested. As soon as Fullmetal had her in hand, she tucked herself against his chest, and Roy wiped away the wet spot where she'd rammed her face against his jaw. "I take it this friendly little lady is Ella?"
"Yes." Edward pouted and, even though he played at clutching her away, Roy managed to scratch her head. He simply had to be careful not to let his arms drop too close when he leaned in. "And she's a boy," the blond said, rubbing the cat's chin. "Aren't you, Mister?"
"I beg your pardon?"
Just at that moment, a key turned in the lock.
But the sound caught more than Edward's attention. The golden cat's ears perked up, and she... or he... launched himself off Fullmetal's shoulder toward the door. And as every action had an equal and opposite reaction, before he could think, the force of the cat leaping left Roy with a young blond pressed against his chest.
His arms clasping Fullmetal's waist might have been his fault.
Roy felt he couldn't be blamed, however, for the white cat bounding a split second later from the coffee table to his own shoulders on his way to greet Alphonse. As such it was absolutely no one's fault that, while the entire house echoed with the sound of tiny feet scampering with a thunder he wouldn't have thought such small beasts could make, he was on top of Edward Elric, nose to nose on the cushions, feeling the blond's heart hammering against his chest.
"--home," Edward said in a choked murmur.
"That's odd," he heard Alphonse say from outside the door. "I'm sure I locked it before I left."
Roy heard it, but all of his attention stayed fixed on the fan of golden hair that still smelled like shampoo, and the fact that he couldn't move his hands without feeling smooth skin that trembled under his touch. But he couldn't stay like this.
Get up, Roy commanded himself, forcing motion back into his limbs as he tried to lighten the atmosphere. "The entire Drachman army couldn't touch us," he scoffed, "but two housecats--"
He'd only managed to draw up his head before he froze again, far enough to see that Edward was blushing like only a blond could. His voice fell away. The young man drew his other leg up, the automail joint now pressing against Roy's hip... This wasn't a position two people fell into because of cats' intervention, not really. You had to be aiming for it. He'd take his share of the blame for that, but was it so far-fetched to think Edward had wanted him all along? And it was almost six years ago, but he still remembered -- the last person who'd looked at him with eyes like that had been saying, 'It's my first time...'
But then, he could tell that Ed was a--
Oh, dear God. I deserve to be shot. What the hell am I thinking?
Once he took a breath to clear the delusions out of his head, he could feel the slow pull of the other man's muscles under him, tenser than a tightrope and drawing closer in as if Edward were trying to fit himself into a ball in the corner. But he couldn't, either because his limbs wouldn't answer him or because Roy was still in the way -- or both. Never in his life had he imagined Edward Elric would lose himself in a panic over a simple collision. Ed was a physical person, more likely to swat than to shy away from a touch. Roy knew that from experience.
Why this? Why now? He would've said Fullmetal hadn't been upset anymore, about anything that had happened today. Was he thrown, Roy had to wonder, because it was him and not because it had happened? His protege had made it painfully clear that he'd noticed Roy looking and didn't appreciate it. But if it was his arms that were so upsetting, why was Ed gripping them tighter? The clench of his hands on Roy's upper arms actually hurt, and his head was tucked under Roy's chin as if he were asking to be held closer.
"I'm..." Roy breathed, wrenching what sense he could out of the mess of questions that didn't have answers.
The word 'sorry' choked in his throat. He hadn't been prepared for any of this, and that only meant that somewhere, somehow, he'd made a serious error in his judgment either on Fullmetal or about their relationship, which he had to find and correct as soon as he could. But he couldn't manage the words, 'Tell me what's wrong,' either, and he couldn't remember the last time his entire body had felt his heart beat like this.
With a stuttered breath on his neck, the blond head now tucked under his chin quivered. "You shaved this morning," Edward said. Roy couldn't tell if the low voice was accusing or surprised. He only knew that, for the first time in his life, he was considering growing a beard if something about his personal grooming habits was that much of a shock. All he'd have to do was successfully campaign to change the military's policies on facial hair, which had to be easier than changing their policies on using alchemists as weapons.
As Fullmetal leaned back on the couch arm, eyes closed and seeming to breathe a little easier, Roy heard him whispering, "...is a million nine hundred nineteen thousand seven hundred sixty one times thirty-six million one hundred ninety-two thousand two hundred sixty-nine, which is..." It didn't occur to him that it might not be wise to lay his hand on Edward's shoulder until he felt the blond tighten his grip on Roy's shirt, then heard Alphonse make an incoherent squeak from the doorway.
Roy lifted his hand off again and pulled himself decidedly away from where he'd pinned Fullmetal against the couch. "Maybe it's best if I go," he declared.
The blond's grip on his shirt fell from his shoulders to his chest while a murmur of, "...is seventeen times fifty-three," faded and Edward picked up in his normal voice. "You don't have to."
"Ah..." Alphonse backed away onto the porch with the cats circling his legs. "Wow. Umm. Okay. I'll just leave you two... to... ah..."
"Al, what's the hold-up?" None other than Miss Rockbell herself pivoted the frozen Alphonse like a second door and walked through to the kitchen. "Geez, guys. Get a room."
Edward scrambled up against the back of the couch, yelling after her. "That cat pushed me into him. I mean, him into me! Nothing happened! And who told him the wrong time for the party so he'd show up when I was in the fucking shower, Winry?"
Leaning back through from the kitchen, the girl took a long look at the two of them in not quite flagrante delicto. "Hmm. Yeah, I'd say my work here is done."
"Winry!" Alphonse squeaked from the front door.
All composure regained, Fullmetal pushed past him toward the stairs and despite his bare feet stomped up each step with a hit heavy enough to make the cats' race for the door sound whisper quiet by comparison. "Excuse me. I have to go put on a goddamned shirt."
Alphonse shook his head in a blur, eyes full of a dread more urgent than Hawkeye had believed he could feel. "No, no! I really think we should focus on making them talk about their feelings! Trapping them together is no good!" Winry had told her a bit about why Edward was still locked in his room and Roy was sitting by himself playing checkers against a cat, so perhaps it wasn't so surprising. No one liked to contradict Alphonse anyway, not when he was that vehement. All the same, everyone around the Elrics' kitchen table -- none of whom had yet thought of a way to make either alchemist say anything productive -- sipped their hot cider in puzzled silence.
She wandered closer to the doorway and peeked in at Roy in the sitting room. Alphonse's request was just as well, since she didn't want to remind their cabal -- again -- that handcuffs would be ludicrous and dangerous, and most importantly would be as ineffective as every other form of physical restraint, but if she did have to do so, she'd rather the Brigadier wasn't in earshot. "You can't actually take the move from B4," he was telling the big, dark cat sprawled on the table on the other side of the board while a smaller golden cat snored in his lap. "There's a jump from H2. All jumps are required. Here..." As he moved his opponent's pieces, the cat stood and stretched, wandering off toward the stairs, but Roy showed no sign of giving up his game. They'd be safe for the moment.
"Al's right," Winry added from her perch by the counter, peeking over her shoulder at the Brigadier General. "They're both freaking out way too much."
"And also we just can't do that!" the younger Elric pleaded.
Sighing over the notes he'd crossed out on his napkin, Fuery shook his head. "But we have to make sure Edward-kun and the Brigadier General will stay in the same place long enough to finish a conversation. Isn't there some kind of metal no alchemist can transmute, or something your brother and General Mustang won't blow up?"
"No, Lieutenant, there's really not," Alphonse answered, dropping his face into his hands. Then, at a sudden knock on the door, he sprang to his feet and ran, yelling, "I'll get it!"
They all scanned the faces crowded around the table: Havoc, Breda, and Fuery sitting with Alphonse's abandoned chair, Falman leaning against the corner of a bookcase while a white cat with a duck-shaped toy in his mouth stared at them from one of the shelves, she and Winry closer to the door. "Isn't everyone here?" Lt. Breda asked. "Colonel Armstrong had family commitments, right? And Schieska-san was stuck in a book?"
As a room full of people murmured, a girl's voice echoed across the house. "Oh, thank you, Alphonse. I'm so glad I could come at the last minute like this."
Capt. Havoc dropped the unlit cigarette he'd been spinning. "You gotta be shitting me."
Hawkeye was fairly sure they all knew whose violently teal coat she could see Alphonse hanging in the closet. The red-head hurried past without noticing the Brigadier -- who'd frozen completely to his chair -- and flounced straight into the kitchen with her basket of muffins, each tied with a ribbon matched exactly to the lavender of her dress. "Congratulations, everyone. You did such a wonderful job working out the border situation. Marshal Levochkin said it was like a miracle. I brought muffins," she added with a smile, twirling towards the counter. "Edward loves--"
From her post a few feet away Hawkeye could see the girl's hands tighten into panicking fists and a frown settle in on her face. "Someone already brought muffins," she mumbled, then snapped her eyes up at Hawkeye. "Are they apple? They look like apple."
Hawkeye nodded silently. Everyone else in the room was actually holding their breath as they watched her, and Roy was shaking his head into his hand.
"Oh, fiddly-grimpets!" She turned a more decisive frown at the basket already on the counter with a huff, pushing it further from the edge to make room for her own. And if her ears weren't lying, Hawkeye thought she heard the girl whispering, "Well, those look store-bought. At least mine are homemade." When she spun back around, her smile was glued back in place. "So lovely to meet you all. Did... Edward step out?"
"I'm sure Nii-san will be down any minute," Alphonse answered, stepping through the door. "Everyone, you've heard of Katya."
The heavy silence continued as they all nodded, and Hawkeye made a mental note to apologize to Edward for thinking he'd been exaggerating.
"Katya, this is 2nd Lt. Fuery, Lt. Breda, Captain Havoc..." he went on, pointing around the table while the officers waved. "Lt. Falman, Captain Hawkeye, and Winry Rockbell."
Winry stepped around Hawkeye to offer the girl a shining, fake smile. "I can't believe Ed's letting us meet you."
"I... I didn't realize Winry was a girl's name. You're Edward's mechanic?"
"And childhood friend," she added with a wink.
"Y-you must be very close, then."
"Only about as close as a girl can get." Inspecting one of the be-ribboned muffins, Winry giggled at the young intern's slack jawed horror. It'd seem a potential rival was more upsetting than duplicate baked goods. God only knew what she'd do if she found out about Roy. "Oh, relax," Winry laughed as she brushed past toward the door. "I'm like his sister." The girl's sigh of relief, however, only lasted until she thundered, "Hey, Ed!" up the stairs. "If you're not down here when I count to three, I'll start showing your baby pictures! One!"
A door slammed upstairs and the screech of shoes on hardwood rang through the house.
"Two!" she hollered, a blur of blond and black barrelling down the staircase as the dark cat scurried for the coffee table.
"What the fuck, Winry?!" He spared half a blushing glance for Roy cleaning up his checkers game, and then went right on yelling. "What the hell is the problem?"
"You've got a guest, Ed." She stepped aside, breaking off a bite of the muffin while the intern smiled and waved as if nothing were out of the ordinary. "Why don't you give her the two-cens tour and then find her something to drink?"
Edward's hair was unbound and scrunched up into a mess on one side, with a red mark from sleeve buttons on his cheek -- and while he'd found a plain black button-down shirt to wear, it was completely untucked, his belt nowhere to be seen. Worst of all, he looked as though he were staring right through everyone without seeing a thing. Then, in a blink, he shook off the symptoms (if probably not the mood) and plastered one of his more painful grins to his face. "I thought you weren't gonna make it," he said, then pointed upstairs with an ungloved automail hand. "Why don't I show you the library?"
Unexpectedly professional, Hawkeye thought, blinking at how fast he'd picked up his part.
The girl floated up the stairs with her heels barely clicking against the floor, and reached up to smooth out the mess of Edward's hair. "Did you fall asleep studying again?"
"Something like that!" Jumping up a stair, Edward pulled his hair back into a rough braid. When he whipped around, his and Roy's eyes met -- he hesitated for an instant, but only an instant. Before Katya could catch up to the stair behind him, he pushed off for the second floor with a gruff, "Let's go."
Hawkeye studied the blank mask of Roy's face as the young man walked away, with the girl nearly sticking to his back. His good eye kept following the sound of their footsteps past where the stairs themselves would have blocked his view. If she knew anything about the man, he'd clean up his mess. Her job was to make sure it didn't get any messier.
Stepping back in towards the table, she joined the other officers waiting for Edward and Katya's voices to disappear out of hearing range.
"Your hair looks so nice when it's down."
"It gets in the way."
"And it's important to rest properly on a proper schedule to be your best," the girl's voice echoed out of the top landing. "I make sure to always get four whole hours every night..."
Capt. Havoc rested his cigarette over his ear, sharing an awkward frown with everyone else who'd been considered for seduction duty. "So. What're we getting the boss for his birthday?"
"Something he'll like," Lt. Breda offered.
"I recommend wrapping up this project." Hawkeye pulled her notebook out of her jacket. "Now, where were we?"
"You were deciding that handcuff scenarios have outlived their strategic usefulness," Roy Mustang announced from the doorway. Normally, Roy wouldn't have been that indiscreet, but Hawkeye supposed he was trying to make a point.
He walked over to the lavender-bedecked basket of muffins and pulled out a magnetic compass, circling it slowly -- the same compass he used to look for taps placed in his desk. She hadn't known the girl was a suspect, but better safe than sorry if he meant to break code. Satisfied that the muffins were simply muffins, Roy slipped the device back into his pocket. "We've absolved half the council that way, but the rest need deeper surveillance. Also, Hakuro is back on your list."
"How about I go see if Ed's okay?" Winry asked, sneaking out the door. "You all sound like you've got this covered."
The Brigadier General leaned up against the pantry and crossed his arms across his chest with a placid smile. "Thank you, Miss Rockbell."
"I was sure General Hakuro was clear," Falman murmured, shaking his head and screwing his eyes shut as if scanning through every memory stored in his brain.
"And yet he's sniffing around Research on a Saturday when he oughtn't be there in the first place. He's a suspect."
Roy had to know deeper investigations would leave them pressed for man-hours with General Hakuro back on the list. They couldn't afford to prioritize him over someone as established as Marshal Wright or as connected as Lt. General Bloch. Of course, it was difficult to prioritize anyone when the entire room was trading silent, nervous looks instead of bringing their ideas to the table.
"Please, gentlemen," Roy urged. "You can't have thought I didn't know what you were doing."
Stepping across the kitchen, Hawkeye reminded him in her sternest six-inch voice, "Brigadier General, sir. I believe the men are holding their tongues out of respect for general protocol, wherein we provide full deniability should you be called to answer for your presence."
"I'm confident that Fullmetal can be surprised and indignant enough for both of us," he commanded the room from his idle lean against the pantry doors. "Now, your plans?"
Capt. Havoc cleared his throat and shuffled his eyes around the room Hawkeye moved back to where she could keep an eye on the door. "Ah, well. We're settled on getting the Brig and Ed onto Major General Saulnier's football team, right?" The Brigadier listened without a single twitch of a muscle to say if he approved. "There's solid locker room potential..." he continued, jumping up as Alphonse's head fell with a thud onto the wood. "For conversation! Talking!" He waved his hands in a blur, shifting his attention back and forth between Roy and the younger Elric. "We'd just been saying how we think you two, you know..."
"Should talk?" Roy offered. "Novel concept. Definitely make that your focus." Hawkeye bit her lip to keep from smiling at the unmistakable tone of a man asking why anyone was giving him advice on romance. Of course, no one had expected him to be cooperative. "The new season begins recruitment on Tuesday, correct?"
Breda raised his hand. "I checked the league's rulebook yesterday -- no automail. Too much risk for busted equipment, broken bones... the usual. And good luck getting the boss to play waterboy."
"Too bad," the Brigadier mused. "That's an excellent approach to the Major General. Captain Havoc, didn't you always want to play football?"
"I'm more of a stickball man than a..." After two seconds facing down Roy's stare and pleasant smile, he amended his words to, "Yes, sir. Wouldn't miss try-outs for the world."
"I know!" All eyes turned to Fuery. "There's a lady officer on Major General Defiant's staff who's been planning to invite the Brigadier General to the indoor couples croquet game! If we arrange a misunderstanding there, where General Mustang and Edward-kun have to pretend to be--"
"Veto." Hawkeye shook her head, cutting off the Lieutenant before Roy turned the suggestion into Fuery himself hiding inside a cake. "Too complicated." Not to mention that the croquet game wouldn't offer the level of infiltration necessary for Phase 2 surveillance.
The sound of high-heels clicking down the stairs drew an irritated wince across Roy's face. "And I'd say we have enough of a fake love triangle already, wouldn't you?"
The intern whisked through the door, beaming. "Edward said he'd be another minute. And his friend, Winry? She's so mature." Hovering over Alphonse's chair, she bit her lip and asked, "Do you think Edward would like it if I pierced my ears?"
Sometimes, when Alphonse winced, Hawkeye thought the resemblance between him and his brother shone through more than ever. "Gosh, Katya. I don't... You know, I think Nii-san would like you the same no matter how you looked."
They were going to have to come up with a different code very quickly if this intern was going to be about. Sorting out Edward Elric and Roy Mustang's lack of an affair was all very well, but the young lady chirping, "You're so sweet, Alphonse," had a mission objective riding on her as well.
"He's quite right, Miss Hawker. You don't need to change a thing."
There was a subtle change in the posture of a woman of any age the first time she heard Roy use that tone. Her shoulders dropped as her back tightened, although sometimes (like now), she didn't quite manage to hide a tiny shiver running down to the base of her spine. Then her knees pressed together, one heel or the other popping up as she turned her toe ever so slightly in. It was astounding. Hawkeye had seen it at least a thousand times and the only variation was in how much they blushed.
This girl was crimson, as if she'd stolen all the color from the stricken faces of the officers around the table. Well, they never had believed her when Hawkeye had explained that Roy really couldn't help doing that.
"I thought Fullmetal must have been embellishing his stories about you, but I can see already -- you're everything he said and more."
Although that was perhaps laying it on a little thick.
For the first time this afternoon, the young intern seemed to have no idea what to do with her hands. As she turned around, eyes flitting from Roy's head to his toes and back up again, she settled on twisting a bit of hair around her finger. "C-colonel..." Her breath caught and she covered her mouth. "Brigadier General Mustang... I presume?"
Roy was actually flirting. He hadn't moved away from the pantry, but that tilt of his chin were famous for a seemingly magical power to draw girls in like they were on a tether -- present target included. But he hadn't shown interest in anyone but Edward in months, and this girl wasn't one he'd try to charm.
Unless he was plotting something.
"Edward hasn't made me out to be too much of a monster, I hope."
Just as she started shaking her head furiously, the blond alchemist stalked into the room, his hair now up in a perfect ponytail, and scowled at the scene of yet another lady succumbing to the Flame Alchemist. Stomping twice as loud, he marched right between them on his way to the pot of cider on the stove.
The girl blinked herself out of her trance and immediately looked around as if she wasn't sure how she'd ended up on this side of the kitchen. The steaming mug Edward pushed into her hands seemed no less confusing. In fact, she looked completely flustered by everything up until the moment Edward snarled, "Behave yourself," at the Brigadier General and stalked off into the sitting room. She looked from the cup to the General to the swaying ponytail, and dashed off after the blond as fast as her legs could go. Roy couldn't have looked more bewildered if someone in the room had found a signed confession from their mystery mastermind and a promotion to Fuhrer all in one big envelope stuck in the mail slot on the door.
Good lord, Roy. Did you actually think detaching her from Edward would make him happy if it was you she got stuck on?
As she watched, a certain Brigadier's confusion eased into a smirk, then broadened to a full smile. He trailed off behind the blond and the red head, pausing at the door to laugh, "Carry on," at the assembled officers before he walked away.
Havoc's face looked permanently frozen with his eyebrows in his hairline. "Tell me the Brig didn't just get the hot socks. From Edward Elric. Who's been trying to get out of dating that girl for a month."
Only Alphonse calmed down as if he'd caught on. Sighing, Hawkeye clarified for the rest of the room, "Brigadier General Mustang noticed that Edward would rather stay involved with the girl than watch her date him. That's a good thing. Shall we get back on point?" She pulled her notebook back out and scanned down her list of plots, coverage, and problems. Really, aside tailing General Hakuro -- which would have to wait until tomorrow -- intelligence on Regional Affairs had the most gaps. "Alphonse-kun. General Fieseler. Any thoughts?"
The alchemist shook his head to indicate that he hadn't found an opening yet. "I'll get you something before I leave for the Tringhams on Friday. I do have these, though." He laid two mauve slips of cardstock on the table. "Lt. General Bloch is inviting Nii-san and Brigadier General Mustang to a concert this Thursday. Nii-san won't want to go, but if I deliver them that night, he can't pretend to have the flu."
"Worth a shot," she answered. With Roy in the General's box at the concert hall for an evening, Bloch would either have a cell or a clean collar within two weeks -- assuming none of the alchemists blew up the orchestra pit.
All day, Edward had been revelling in glorious freedom. So far, no bullshit set-ups with Roy, no study sessions with Katya, and best of all no briefings with the brass about Earth, Alice in Wonderland, or subatomic pseudo-particles. For the first time in over two months and seven years, there was nothing but him and the research he wanted to do. He could have wished Al had time to work with him, but his brother was going up North now that the coast was clear. He had to shop, and pack. Sounded kinda questionable, really. Edward had never had trouble with throwing a suitcase together in fifteen minutes. But all the same, he was on his own with his books at the end of the day.
Winry had left the tattered box of charred manuscripts by the foot of his bed before she'd gone back to Resembool on Monday. He'd have to write her a thank-you note for that. A decade ago, he'd probably have been pissed that she and old Pinako had gone through the house he'd burned down for what could be salvaged, which was probably why she'd held onto them this long without a word. Books full of diagrams and script copied out by hand who the hell knew how long ago. And they had all his memories burned into their covers -- of Al toddling around, of their mother waiting to see what they brought home next, and tell them how proud she was. He'd tried so hard not to think about all that, no one could have blamed him for crying, but instead he'd stayed up half the night playing 'Do you remember when...?' with Al. Today, he'd finally worked up to reading something.
It wasn't that bad. And now that he'd been around, he had so many more thoughts to bring to it than all the hundreds of simple, straightforward guesses he'd bounced off his brother back in those days.
The turn of the door handle echoed conspicuously off the walls. Sounds always changed after 5:30, when everybody had scuttled out the door and there were no flurried rushes to dampen them. Every shuffle of paper or click of a pen cap rang like you were sitting inside a bell no matter how quiet you tried to be, and Roy opening the door was no exception.
It had to be Roy. Everyone else had gone. And maybe a twenty-something brunette down in Legal had waylaid the Flame Prettyboy, but he wouldn't have left without his coat -- the cold, clear sky and the broken-stair creak where automail met bone said it'd snow tonight. Roy never mistook the weather.
He fought off the urge to shy away when the Colonel met his stare and smiled. "You're here late, Fullmetal," he said, shucking off his uniform jacket.
"Lost track of time." He pretended to have some kind of organization to do at his table, just so he could find the voice to ask the questions he wasn't even sure he wanted to ask. If he were watching while the man settled in at his desk and unbuttoned his collar, he wouldn't have been able to get the words past the lump in his throat. "What about you? I figured you had a date."
An easy chuckle cut through the silence weighing down on Edward's shoulders. "And who, pray tell, did I have a date with?"
As he turned around, he could feel Roy's eyes on his back. If his skin wouldn't stop tingling no matter what, and his stomach kept flip-flopping just because the man had walked into the room, there wasn't much point in avoiding eye contact. Sure enough, the Colonel was looking questions at him and ignoring the papers in his inbox. "What's-er-name in General Defiant's office. You were seen. I told you I don't suck at this sneaky stuff."
"Her name is Hadley, Edward," Roy scoffed. "And she did make a very nice offer, but no. I had to decline."
"...Oh." He'd known there hadn't been a Someone when Roy had pulled that stunt to get Katya off his back, not that he'd asked for that kind of help. No matter how much the man messed around, he didn't break promises -- but that didn't preclude something casual. Hearsay being what it was, Edward had decided there must be extenuating circumstances. Conflicts happened, and the Conspiracy Circus did have them scheduled three ways to hell on a Tuesday. But watching the Colonel shuffling and sorting work that could wait instead of charming an officer Edward had been informed was very good looking for a woman, there was no chance of that. Mr. Balance the Job and the Girl actually wasn't dating.
He didn't even know why he cared. There was nothing to be gained by wondering why that bastard did anything. It was good that Roy wasn't getting distracted by flirting, right? When he stayed to work after everyone else stepped out the door, he could bust through his to-do list so fast, there was still time to eat dinner at a respectable hour. Compared to the goofing off he did while the sun was up, it was like...
Well. Like night and day. Sometimes, Edward speculated that between being an evening person and having no one to go home to, Roy liked staying late to finish his work in quiet.
"Are these your essays on Kyrus?" As the Colonel flipped through the pages, scanning them at his usual hyperspeed, Edward tried and failed to ask what he really wanted to know about all the non-dating lately -- 'Is it for me?' But when Roy looked up he had to stop thinking and start trying to pull his heart out of his throat.
That was stupid, anyway. Roy Mustang wouldn't go celibate as a plot to get his attention and then not tell him about it. There would have been a memo at least. Possibly a parade.
"Kyrus. Yeah." Edward had left that earlier, hoping to annoy the bastard in the morning when he saw his inbox wasn't as empty as he'd left it. He would have deserved it, too, if he'd run out with What's-er-name without his work done and without his coat. But that was moot now. He shook the half-formed questions out of his head and traipsed over to the visitor chair by the desk. "I put in a section on self-contradiction within the system, too. They would have been more solid if they hadn't emphasized a ruling class." No point in telling him there was nothing more to implicate Bloch, or to clear him. He'd gotten past the coded bits already.
"Excellent work. I hope--"
"Roy..." The fact that he had the other alchemist's full attention and the full amplification of late-night acoustics made the worn crack in his voice ten times as embarrassing as it would have been otherwise. But he was in, now. He might as well get answers as long as there were no witnesses. "Why aren't you dating that girl? Or... anyone, anymore?"
With a shake of his head, the Colonel went back to the reports. "That my own affair, Edward."
"Right. Because you've ever butted out of anybody's love life." He leaned over, eyes right to the edge of the papers, waiting until the bastard glanced up at him. "I don't want to wonder who you are and what you did with my Roy Mustang when I've barely settled in someplace I'd like to think is home."
The Colonel lowered the papers to the desk and considered him with the most infuriatingly blank expression Edward could imagine. "Well, in the interest of sustaining your grip on reality, then. I date because it's pleasant to spend time with someone. If I'm not in the mood to spend the evening with that person, it defeats the purpose, wouldn't you say?"
"I wouldn't know," he answered. "All the people I ever liked don't need to ambush me with theater tickets." Stepping back, Edward hooked the chair with his foot and dragged it closer to the desk. "Mind if I stay and read?"
"Not at all."
He dropped into the chair, twisting up his face at the manuscript Roy was still reading. There hadn't been any new developments with Bloch, Levochkin, Fieseler or anybody. It didn't make sense to go through the text that closely. Was Roy actually reading his commentary on distributing governmental power to keep one or two crazies from running amok? What difference did that make?
Flipping his book open to his last marker, Edward studied the man's face in silence. He could claim he'd been studying Jaros's appropriation of ghost imagery for 'the voices of the Unanswered, Unresolved, and Unredeemed' the whole time.
"I'll review this again tomorrow, Fullmetal. There were some points worth expanding, I think, starting with how..." Roy flipped back a few pages while Edward puzzled over why the man was suddenly so specific in his requests for bullshit. "... 'certain arrangements of domestic infrastructure may serve to promote peaceful international relations'. But there are several other hypotheses I'd like you to develop further as well."
"And I hope you don't mind that I plan to distribute copies."
"Whatever. I don't care." Lt. General Bloch was going to pitch a fit if he didn't get a copy of his final report anyway. Edward slumped down and held his book up higher -- where it'd be harder for the other man to look him in the eye and where it'd block him from looking at Roy. That wasn't why he was staying. He was staying because Al was busy at home, and one of them would inevitably get in the other's way.
Standing up from his chair, the Colonel walked over to get a proper look. "Your own research?"
He snatched the text and his hand to his chest, and pushed the chair squealing away over the floorboards. "You're the one who said I'm not allowed to work after 5PM, Roy." He'd been extra careful not to come into physical contact with that bastard since the Incident on Sunday (which technically hadn't been Roy's fault, but it wasn't like anyone else could be blamed for Edward getting turned on). His nervous system had been shot half to hell for five days now, and he was pretty sure the clenching, racing pulse in his chest wouldn't stop until he managed to forget having Roy's arms around him.
The Colonel had been giving him his space, too. No playing with his hair, no leaning over him to check his work. It was weird, and a little distracting, to tell the truth. Right now, Roy had backed off and leaned on the desk corner, but the distance seemed to screw him up more than Roy's presence had before.
Dropping a hand to his desk with a forced grin, the other alchemist answered, "I support thinking about other things. Just... wondering what you're working on."
Served Colonel I'm-Always-the-Coolest right to not be working on the awesomest thing in the room. He'd flip when he heard, Edward was sure. Laughing through bared teeth, he asked, "You really want to know?"
"I'm all ears."
"Then can you tell me why elemental reconstruction works? Splitting up compounds -- sure, fine, whatever. But what lets you turn so much sodium," he said, pointing his fingers from one side of his chair to the other, "into so much copper? Or vice versa?"
Roy leaned on the edge of his desk, arms crossed over his chest. "That's like asking why exposure to a magnet will polarize something, Fullmetal. No one has come close to knowing more than that it works."
"If you say the word 'wavicle', I will suspend your access to the Central University Journal of Transmutation for a month."
Flipping to the first marked page in his book, Edward groaned, "Take it easy. I'm just saying, on the other side of the Gate, they can't restructure atoms. And it's damned impressive what science thinks up if you sit it down with a locked box and no key for three thousand years. Analyzing out subatomic bits. Clocking weird crap they do. Particle teleportation, action at a distance, although that might be total bullshit... But if I told you I think I could make a filter that turns heat directly into electricity--"
"-- I'd ask for your research notes so I could be sure the universe wouldn't disintegrate when you clapped your hands." With a smirk, the Flame Alchemist unbuttoned his cuffs. "Keep talking," he said, rolling up his sleeves.
He'd never liked doing research with anyone but Al, but how could he say no to that? When you got right down to the bittersweet gritty details, the man was fucking brilliant. Not that he'd ever admit it to Roy's face. Stilling the trembling in his jaw and looking for his voice somewhere under the pulse pounding through his throat, he focused on the passage he'd marked out. "I've been digging through works on the genesis of transmutation circles. Whatever's acting as our key to atomic reconstruction, it's gotta be there. So listen to this."
He cleared his throat and read out, "'A thing that is infinite and eternal hath no qualities, since it hath all qualities. This nothingness or fullness we name the pleroma. ... It is quite fruitless to think about the pleroma, for this would mean self-dissolution. Creatura is not in the pleroma, but in itself. The pleroma is both the beginning and end of created beings. It pervadeth them, as the light of the sun everywhere pervadeth the air.'" When he glanced up, Roy looked like his eyebrows were trying to shoot off the planet into outer space. "Roy, what the hell is that face for?"
"Fullmetal. What are you reading?"
Flipping the book shut, he glanced at the etching in the leather cover that the burn marks could obscure but not destroy completely. Not that he had to look. "It's Jaros. Seven Sermons to the Dead. Why?"
"The Seven Sermons to the Dead supposedly copied individually, by hand, to give only to members of his inner circle -- and I say 'supposedly' because, as you've clearly not spent any time in academia, all works by Jaros have been lost for centuries, causing modern scholars to debate whether the man was a myth entirely?"
"Oh." He opened up to the title page and looked at the inscription more closely. Written out this day the eighteenth solstice of our acquaintance by Jaros, under the auspices of phoenix and ash, for my friend and comrade, Hohenheim. "Umm. Probably." When Edward looked up, Roy had his evil smirk on. He was pretty sure he couldn't have gotten the Colonel out of his business now if he'd wanted to. Which he didn't, really, want to. This was fun. "I might let you read it when I'm done," he said, holding up the slim, leatherbound book.
Roy walked over and drew his fingers along the top of the cover, drawing in a sharp breath. "We should hand that over to the library to make a facsimile edition." The man's eyes said he didn't want to, though.
Fine by him. "Let's not and say we did," Edward answered. Academia could find their own lost copy in some ruins somewhere. And it was lucky he'd said it before Roy's hand had trailed over to where his was holding the book. So much for remembering to avoid contact. Automail wasn't supposed to have the synaptic capacity for a touch to send shivers up his spine like that. Was there such a thing as phantom arousal?
Without giving him a chance to catch his breath, the Colonel leaned in, braced on the arms of the chair. "All right, then. And Fullmetal..." He seemed to be trying to say something, but stopped before the words came out and shook his head with a dazed grin. Standing up and grabbing the back of the chair, Roy dragged Edward -- furniture and all -- behind the desk without a care for the screeching and stuttering of wooden legs against the floor.
"Hey! What the hell?!"
The chair came to a stop next to Roy's, and the other alchemist pulled a stack of scratch paper from his drawer. "Tell me everything," he said as Edward scooted the chair up. "Everything you've worked out so far, all of it. With diagrams."
Not how he'd expected to spend his Thursday night, but he wasn't going to complain. For the first time in a week, the strange mix of jitters and fascination he seemed doomed to suffer around Roy Mustang wasn't destroying his ability to think. Maybe there was something to be said for acclimatization. "Okay," he said, twirling a pencil around between his fingers. Notation was hard to forget when it was the language of what he saw around him everywhere, but he wasn't as much of a whiz at it as Al was, and so far he'd only been brainstorming.
"For starters," he said, sketching out the mark of the Crucible across the cradle of the circle. "On the subatomic level, matter really does have no temporal qualities in actuality and all qualities in potentiality. Substance becomes insubstantial, and the visible world forms out of configuration. So I want to address configuration directly, not through macrocosmic manipulation."
At the top of the circle, he scratched the symbol for gold, and across the major diameter drew antimony, sketching out the continuum of the material world from noble to base. "If we can show this as reduced to constituent parts--"
Roy drew his finger across the imaginary line between them. "I know it's not traditional, but if you pair up each element with its prime solvent, I think--"
"I think you're right." Twinning up gold with aqua regia and antimony with aqua fortis, Edward studied the overall balance. That sure was 'reducing everything to constituent parts'. It could work. "Screw tradition anyway. It's probably trying to prevent us disrupting the fabric of reality."
"Fullmetal, on behalf of everyone who lives in reality, thank you for telling me what you were doing before you decided to do it."
He laughed at the Colonel's pointed sarcasm with a grin taking over most of his face. "No sweat."
It felt like no time had passed at all before the desk was strewn with dense, scripted pages of notes, half-drawn and annotated circles, and arcane lists of factors neither of them were sure could be relevant, but weren't determinately irrelevant either.
"I'm telling you! The pleroma and the subatomic structure are distinguished by the same thing! It's like he says here -- 'The Effective and the Ineffective. Fullness and Emptiness. Living and Dead.' In balance. What's the big objection?!"
"Philosophically, I don't disagree with you," Roy shot back, raking the mess of his hair into a slightly less obtrusive mess with ink-stained fingers. "What I'm saying is that I've never seen someone actually use the Major Seal of Abraxas as an activation principle. The crown point adaptation is more stable--"
"I know what I'm doing!" His pencil whipped around the edge of the new circle, jumping from the figure for Rebirth in Destruction across the Bend Dexter to the figure for Absolute Potential.
"Then I assume you have a reason for drawing this out of order."
"Yes." Edward put his last strokes down emphatically before starting in on the next quadrant with the figure for the Necessity to Deconstruct. "It's the right thing to do. If Planck can square an operator, so can I!"
"I see. You're using it to activate the array, but as a component, too."
Even as he finalized the figure for Potency to Change at the top of the Bend Sinister, he could see the ramifications coming out of the design. A thousand options for mutating the shape, altering it for a thousand different ends played out in his head faster than he could name them, but it was like Roy was saying -- they were all too volatile. There was no way he could test this. Trials always meant explosions, and everything he'd studied on Earth said explosions on this level would be bad.
Very, very bad.
With a sigh, Roy traced around the outside of the whole mess. "I don't like the concept of tapping directly into a pure force of change without any controls."
"Yeah." He pushed his legs against the desk, balancing his chair on two points and drumming his pencil on the arm rest. "But it's mathematically impossible to have certainty when you're working with subatomic particles. Like, the more you know about position, the less you can know about velo-- Wait a second."
Roy was watching him patiently with that silly smile on his face again. It was weird, but he knew he could make his pulse stop racing, even though the Colonel was standing inches away, looking hotter than ever with his oddly mussed hair and shirtsleeves in disorder. He just didn't need to. The passages he was flipping through made perfect sense, and all the focus he'd been missing had snapped into place.
"It's right here, above where he addresses how, 'The operation of the whole is Abraxas, to whom only the ineffective standeth opposed.' The two composite forces unifying the creatura. See? 'Eros flameth up and dieth. But the tree of life groweth with the slow and constant increase through unmeasured time.' That's classic duality between volatility and determinacy."
"So it is, now that you mention it."
"Yeah, now that I mention it, it's freaking obvious. I have definitely been away from alchemy too long." Root sigils for each arcanum went on either side of the minor diameter, if he was seeing this right. One for Logos, and one for Eros... "We should be able to lock the two into a proportionate ratio. The burning force preserves vitality, the growing force keeps matter itself from being consumed."
"That doesn't sound pleasant."
"Seriously. One mistake, and kaboom! No more Central City."
"Let's not do that, shall we?"
"Working on it." Creating the lock was the tricky part. The two figures had to link into one, and while he could draw the tree of life with his eyes closed, Eros arcana had always been more trouble. "Damn it," he muttered, pencil coming to a halt as he drew the first lines of the salamander's tail. "I hate this. It's like statistics. It just feels like guessing."
Roy took the pencil from his hand, sparing a moment to lean into his space and murmur, "Far be it for me to leave you with nothing but a guess against the utter annihilation of reality." The older alchemist sketched out a set of graceful, curving lines without a moment's hesitation -- from the winding tail to the lizard's fire melding with the end of the tree figure at the center of the circle.
He stood up to examine the whole array more closely. "I guess there's a point to keeping you around."
"Not to belabor the obvious, Edward," the man answered, brushing some of the hair out of Edward's eyes, "...but I am the Flame Alchemist." His reflexes didn't snap into place like always, and while he stood there staring he realized he was letting Roy trail his fingers down his cheek. He could only figure he was learning to like it more when the Colonel touched him, which wasn't the way he'd wanted to go.
Edward pulled the hand off his jaw, just an inch, meaning to let go, but they both ended up jumping back when they heard the hall door slam open beyond the outer office. A second later, pounding footsteps reached the inner door, and it flew open. "Nii-san!" Alphonse yelled. From the red-faced exhaustion and the panting, Edward had to wonder if he'd run all the way from home.
His brother trotted over to the desk, leaning on the edge. "Nii-san, what are you still-- Holy shit!" Almost as soon as he'd caught wide-eyed sight of the array they'd sketched, he clamped a hand over his mouth, then drew it down slowly. "Sorry. That was rude."
"I'll fill you in."
"Please! I mean... later, please. Do you know what time it is? You were supposed to be home for dinner!"
"It's not that late, is it?" But sure enough, the sky outside the window had gone ink-black and the stars were all twinkling. "Shit. I'm sorry. Nothing happened, did it?"
Once he'd caught his breath, Alphonse pulled two mauve slips out of his pocket and dropped them on the desk. Then he backed away toward the door, talking too fast for anyone to get a word in edgewise.
"It's an invitation from Lt. General Bloch, so there's really nothing to be done. You know, duty calls? And he did ask for you two specifically. Sorry I can't stay and talk! So much to do! Have a nice night!"
"Al! What the..." The door closed with a slam and the pitter-patter of running feet faded into the distance. Well, he didn't need to ask what'd just happened. It looked like his long-awaited, hard-earned night off had just gotten overwritten by yet more spying and shenanigans. Of all the goddamned times to get called to action for the covert good of the nation, right when they were on to something interesting. But the big question was, what did he and Roy have tickets for this time?
According to the fancy print on the off-lavender stock, it was a violin concert. Great. Because he'd ever cared about the melodic frequencies of catgut stretched over wood and resonated with horsetails. Couldn't the generals on the council ever want to go to a street festival with stilt walkers and hot dogs on sticks? Straightening up one of the piles of scrap paper, he found himself a clear view of the clock on the Colonel's desk.
The concert started in less than an hour.
"What the hell, Al! you could have given us these before you left work!"
"And give you time to excuse yourself to the Lt. General directly? I think not." With a heavy sigh, Roy's eyes lingered on the circle they'd just barely started to crack. "Well, duty does call," he murmured, and fished in his top left drawer for his comb and a little bottle of brilliantine.
"I'd rather work on this array," he muttered. "Do you think they'll let us skip the concert if I kiss you?"
Roy's comb clattered on the floor, echoes bounding all around the office, and Edward tried to beat down the sudden heat rising in his cheeks.
Crap. He'd said that out loud. He hadn't even wanted to be thinking that. But as Roy stood up from picking up his comb again, and as he stepped into Edward's space to block him against the desk, he had trouble getting his mind onto anything else. Also, if that smirk was Roy's pre-kiss face, then a lot of his embarrassing dreams had been really accurate.
"That's a fascinating conjecture, Fullmetal." The blood rushing past his ears was so loud, he was surprised he could hear anything, but the man's whispers came through perfectly anyway. "Would you say more about that?"
"What?!" In the back of his head, a voice was telling him, 'If you run, you won't be able to pass it off as innocent.' He just had to play this off. And even though it felt like his pounding heart had consumed his chest and he couldn't find the space in his lungs for a breath, he found a way to keep talking. "We don't suspect Bloch that much, do we? So this has got to be about 95% set-up, 5% business, tops! Ergo, we make them think doing research with you is more likely to turn me on." Which, as a sidenote, it was. "Why would they make us go to a concert instead? I might be willing to kiss you for science."
As he swallowed and tried to calm down -- which Mustang was not making easy with the way he let his stare stray down to Edward's lips and slowly back up in silence -- he remembered who's advice that'd been. Roy's. Damn it. Was that bastard's trick good enough that he'd fall for it himself? Or was he just digging himself deeper into a hole? And Edward wasn't sure how much longer he could stand here without being able to breathe.
But if he could smell that cardamom scent of the Colonel's aftershave, then he wasn't not breathing. And the other man's face was close enough now that he could smell it clearly. Hell, he could taste it. "I shouldn't need to remind you that Lt. General Bloch is, in point of fact, a prime suspect, nor that your brother said this was an invitation from the General himself. We'd have to go no matter how much I turn you on." With a damned cocky smirk, he added, "Theoretically."
"They might stop planning stuff like this anyway. It's worth a shot."
Why wasn't his mouth listening to his brain before it started blabbing?! He wasn't trying to talk Roy into this!
Wasn't talking Roy into this the last thing he wanted to do?
He froze in place with the edge of the desk cutting into the small of his back, awareness that the man was right there clenching up every muscle -- except for some blasted reason his stupid jaw, which let his lips part instead when Roy's nose brushed past his own. And then he just stopped there. Teasing him. That asshole.
"And would you be willing to kiss me if it weren't for science?"
The correct answer to that question was definitely not to close the millimeters between them and keep convincing the Colonel they didn't need to go anywhere, so it was probably for the best that he couldn't make himself move. And if the right answer wasn't 'Yes,' then...
"No," he forced himself to say through the choked mass of his throat.
"Then, no," Roy answered. The rush of clear air as he stepped back felt so cold by contrast, Edward found himself shivering. "They won't stop planning anything for that."
"You don't have to be such a jerk about it!"
Ignoring him completely, Roy studied his reflection in the window behind his desk and ran the comb through the wild disorder of his hair. "If we're to meet Lt. General Bloch at the concert, no doubt his wife will be with him. Be sure you mind your manners."
"I always mind my manners."
If the Colonel had heard him mumbling, which he probably had, he didn't give any sign of it. He just picked up his brilliantine from the window ledge and shook a bit on his hand to comb through his hair, brushing it all back from his forehead. The strap running around his head got in the way, which looked like a real pain. Didn't Roy know he could just take it off? In the reflection against the dark sky, Edward couldn't make out the eyepatch, though -- just a ghostly pale image of a cheekbone and a chin and a neat hairline. It looked just like the face that had nearly given him a heart attack from the bottom of Einstein's staircase a few months ago. Then he'd heard the words, 'May I introduce Mr. Frederick Cottrell of the University of California. He's asked to discuss the work you did with Oberth.' Those were the crazy facts about getting stuck in a parallel world. Sometimes you found out your object of infatuation had a doppelganger working with Goddard.
"Don't slick your hair back, would you? You look like Earth You and it's creepy."
That got Roy's attention. He pivoted back with comb in hand and hair still partway disheveled. "There was an 'Earth Me'?"
"He wasn't you you. He just looked like you. You're way more of a pompous bastard, even if he was an American." Which didn't explain why the Earth version hadn't made his pulse race anymore after that shock of an introduction. Not even when he'd smiled.
At the time, he'd thought it was a sign that he was starting to get over a stupid predilection that wasn't going anywhere, but obviously that wasn't the case. Apparently, he just hadn't been Roy. And even if Roy was turning down every date offer he got but jumped a half-assed suggestion from him, there still wasn't any chance it would work. He kept saying 'No'. But it wasn't like he could say 'Yes'! Not when it was Roy Mustang.
Edward swallowed back the nausea surging up into his throat and tried to breathe normally as he walked off to where he'd hung his coat, but it kept coming out broken. "Anyway, your hair looks better when it's a mess." Then he had to freeze again, one arm in his coat sleeve, and one side hanging down. There were fingers in his hair, pulling out his hair-tie and sending shivers down his spine that made him feel about seventy-three thousand times as guilty as he already did.
And still, weirdly, it was the first time he could remember when the Colonel touching him had made it easier to breathe.
"Yours doesn't." Without a word, he let Roy pull his hair back up into a neat ponytail and turn him around by the shoulders. He even bit his tongue when the man pulled a black bowtie under his collar and tied it there, all the pointed fabric tickling the bottom of Edward's chin. "Now, I may be a pompous bastard," Roy went on, rebuttoning his shirt at the cuffs, "but I'm a pompous bastard who happens to know a restaurant by the theater that never makes me wait on a table. Perhaps you could tell me more about how action at a distance is 'total bullshit' over chicken and barley stew before we meet our fate."
Roy'd raked his bangs back down over his eyes where they, by right, ought to be, so Edward only felt a little conflicted as he pulled on his other coat sleeve -- not creeped out of his mind.
"Sounds good to me."
"You did remember to give them the tickets, didn't you, dear?"
Bloch glanced up at the large, gilt-edged clock mounted in the cornice over the entryway. The grand foyer was starting to empty as everyone filed into the theater proper, and before too many minutes passed they'd be lowering the lights. "Alphonse-kun promised to deliver them himself. He's dependable."
Usually Mustang was, as well, although he'd be damned if he knew what that man's game was with the Fullmetal boy. Sending that kid to spy on anyone? He was as obvious as a tinsel hat on a flop-tailed terrier. Not to mention that the military had procedures for dealing with State Alchemists who couldn't be housebroken: install them in some out-of-the-way house to mind their own business, and go chat with them twice a week to make sure they weren't building a race of rabid chimera that were about to overrun the streets. Bloch had been against giving ranks to anyone who hadn't gone to the academy in the first place. At least Mustang had the sense to dress him out of blues, but he was asking for trouble keeping that kid in Headquarters at all.
Of course, Roy Mustang and trouble had had a notorious fellowship ever since he was a bright-eyed lieutenant all those years ago.
"That must be them," his wife laughed. "Well, you did say the Fullmetal Alchemist was blond and recalcitrant -- although it looks like Brigadier General Mustang has him in hand."
"He does at that." Sure enough, Mustang was dragging the kid in by the arm. This time, however, Elric wasn't throwing a fit. He seemed entranced by the structure of the hall, pausing to stare up at the frescoes and gothic moulding. His commander actually had to take him by the shoulders and push him along. If he'd wanted to see how the Flame Alchemist managed the kid, he already had his answer: he did so aggressively.
The Fullmetal Alchemist was like a dog from the pound who snapped at everybody but the man who brought him home, near as he could tell. Bloch was sure the kid had reason to be neurotic if Roy Mustang had thought the best thing for him was the life that had put so many alchemists through hell, but no idea what that reason was. Details were hard to find with the Flame Alchemist covering his tracks, and Alphonse was a little too good at changing the subject.
"...don't even like violin music," he could hear the young man muttering softly.
"Consider this research, Fullmetal. The variations within a fugue are a brilliant expression for the more mutable structures we'll be working with. Now..." Mustang stopped and saluted, and the blond followed suit half a step later. "Lt. General Bloch. It's an honor."
"Let's leave the formalities at the office, shall we?" he answered, reaching out to shake the Brigadier's hand. "I believe you've met my wife, Lucy."
"Yes, I have, although it was Lucy Wright at the time." The old rake of a Brigadier smiled at all women that way, Bloch knew, although with a wife over two decades his junior he did make a point of never asking how well she'd known Mustang. It would've been before she'd moved South to help put the place back together after the wars, and there was too much to know in life to ask uncomfortable questions that didn't matter. "I hope Marshal Wright is in good health?"
"My father's very well, thank you. And this gentleman is...?"
"Mrs. Bloch, may I present Edward Elric, the Fullmetal Alchemist."
Her soft, politic smile trembled for the blink of an eye when she took his hand. She may have been raised with the society of soldiers, but the smooth plates of the automail prosthetic under his glove were more of a shock on a man so young as that. "Mistan and my father have told me so many interesting things about you, Edward. I'm glad we can finally meet."
"It's a pleasure, ma'am," he replied, as mild-mannered as you please. So the kid did have it in him to be polite without acting like wild horses had dragged it out. Unbelievable.
"Please, call me Lucy. But here, you haven't checked your coat. We still have a moment," she said, pointing him off to the far wall and stepping toward the attendant's counter. "Let me show you..."
The first thing he did, Bloch noticed, was glance at Mustang. A nod came from the Brigadier, barely more than a twitch, and the blond walked off without hesitation. So much for Hakuro's rants about Elric getting worse under the Flame Alchemist's influence.
"Lt. General Bloch, if you wanted to speak privately, you had only to ask."
"Save it for the ladies, Mustang." The best poker face in Central smiled back at him, untouched. "I'll make this quick: Your Elric's not as well-adjusted as Alphonse is. Even you can't hide that, so if you can't tell me his story, don't make him my problem. I can work with men who couldn't find respect for authority on the other end of a string, but not if I don't know where they're coming from."
"I saw you'd been inquiring into his history. Certainly Fullmetal's record speaks for itself?"
"None of it says why a kid who was barely out of trainers had a metal arm, could transmute without an array, or wanted to be a State Alchemist in the first place. You must have done a real piece of work covering for him if there's nothing in his background files."
"Me? No, I'm sure anything missing is an oversight," the other alchemist said with a laugh. "There were quite a few bad records from those days, if I recall."
"Like I said, good cover. Except that local records from the Resembool municipal office were expunged, too -- like the Elrics never existed. The only thing that hasn't been wiped out is his mother's grave."
"You do thorough work, Lt. General. But if you don't mind a fellow soldier's advice... Don't ask Edward about his mother." He knew how careful men like Roy Mustang were about every emotion they showed; Bloch was hard pressed to say if he thought the simple, sad twist to his expression was real or not. All he knew was that it wasn't the panic of someone who'd been caught falsifying records. Not that lack of panic meant much with this man -- one of the reasons Bloch liked him. "He was only five when she passed. I fear he'll always be a bit sensitive."
Fair enough. They'd all lost people who cut too close to talk about.
As he studied the kid leaning on the coat check counter across the room, smiling at Lucy (and who knew he could smile?), Mustang started up his history again without even being asked. That had been suspiciously easy. "The family next door looked after the two of them for a few years, then they--"
"The father was dead, too?" With a troubled sigh, the Brigadier shook his head no. He had to be getting closer to something Mustang didn't want to tell, though, for the Flame Alchemist to look like he was starting to sweat. "Don't tell me the bastard ran out on them? At that age?"
"Some time before, I understand."
No wonder the older brother had such a ground-in problem with authority. Given the timing, Alphonse must have been young enough not to remember. Bloch knew too well how that could eat a kid to pieces.
"And that's about everything there is to know about the Elrics' home life. When Edward was nine, they started studying with Izumi Curtis in Dublith. I'm quite certain she appeared in Fullmetal's service record a few times, so you'll have heard of her."
"Heard of her? I was assigned to recruit her once Aerugo settled a bit after Ishbal. Dear God, she could throw a punch." He'd had a black eye for a week, and it probably would have been worse if those two blond kids scratching circles in the dirt outside hadn't been waiting with a cold compress.
Bloch looked harder at the young man Mustang had brought in and tried to remember the voice on the smart-mouthed kid, all of eleven or twelve short years ago, saying, 'I told you not to bother. Sensei hates State Alchemists.' Maybe the other was Alphonse, and maybe not, but he'd bet good money that must have been Edward Elric hassling him. "Well, I'll be damned. Small world, isn't it?" And to think that woman's students ended up in the military.
"So there you have it," a too-calm voice said beside him. And with a shrug, the Flame Alchemist started walking toward the coat check himself. "The unvarnished youth of the Elric brothers."
Shaking his head, Bloch matched him stride for stride. "There's not a damn thing you just said that's worth suppressing, Mustang, and you of all people know how important it is to understand the men around you. So you can tell me what they're hiding, or I can find out on my own."
"We could discuss this in your office." The man lowered his voice to a whisper as if to emphasize the acoustics of the hall.
"Oh, for crying out loud. I don't want to leave a trail for someone else to find if they were in real trouble. They're good kids."
The tight line of his lip was about as much distress as he'd ever seen from the man. "In point of fact, their father was Hohenheim," he sighed. "Edward and Alphonse might not mind if you let on, but I'm sure you understand--"
"Fucking hell, Hohenheim had kids?" He knew Mustang had been looking into the man back then, but he'd never told anyone he'd found anything. And if ever there was a case for talent running in the family... Having a full-fledged legend for a father wasn't exactly a crime, but part of the legend was that he'd known how to make a Philosopher's Stone. It'd certainly get them the wrong kind of attention. "Don't tell people things like that, Mustang! And if you want my opinion, keep him out from under other generals' feet. He'll just get himself in trouble."
"My apologies. He's been apart from Alphonse for so long, I'd hoped he could spend his research time in the lab; but if he's disrupting your work, of course I'll ask him to stay in Security."
"Is that all it was?" He should have known Roy Mustang wouldn't have been stupid enough to engage in such blatant spying. Could the blond have any sense of how much his commander looked out for him? If he had, he might not call him 'that bastard' all the time. Or maybe he would at that. He seemed the type who didn't waste time on insults when he didn't care for somebody. "Well, I don't mind if he visits, but yes, park him in your own house if you don't mind."
"Consider it done." They approached their two companions at the coat check, Mustang now wearing a bright grin as if he hadn't just been having an unpleasant conversation. "Well, Fullmetal. Mrs. Bloch. Shall we go in?"
"Waiting on you, Roy," Elric answered him.
Mustang took a card in exchange for his coat and caught the blond alchemist around the back to lead him toward the stairs. "Ah, Fullmetal..." he said, snatching away the book in the blond's hand. "Notebooks, at a concert? The point is to listen."
Flushing red in the face, Elric grabbed the volume back. "You said I could learn something! I want my notebook on the off-chance you're right!"
"They're quite the pair," his wife whispered, taking his arm. "And Edward is absolutely delightful. Did he tell you he designed rockets to go into space while he was on Earth? The idea of it!"
"I'm more interested in what kind of transmutation Mustang has him studying. First politics, now music? And Kyrus didn't even have alchemists!"
"Well, if you're finished grilling the Brigadier General on where he found the boy, you should ask them. At. Intermission."
"I just might," he said, trying to peek at the circles sketched in the notebook. From what Mustang had said, it sounded like Alphonse wouldn't mind him asking when he came home if he was really Hohenheim's son. And if he was, that'd be that.
Edward kicked at a rock on the forest path, sending it ricocheting off a few of the trees with a sullen pout. "And you didn't say anything about transmuting our mother? Or about Al, or the Philosopher's Stone?"
"What do you take me for, Fullmetal?"
He'd been somewhat surprised that Edward wanted his company, all things considered, but the young man had been right that his house was on Roy's way. Unfortunately the bridge across the creek at the edge of the treeline would be the end of their moonlit stroll. The road ran along the little wooded block separating the neighborhood from the city, and across it shone the Elrics' porchlight.
"Does this mean I can't see Al at work?" Fullmetal asked, dragging his feet to a stop.
"And can I can stop--"
"You can't stop talking to her." The blond scowled, pacing off ahead down the road. "But I'll find a way to stop her trying to date you, assuming you can put up with political humdrum."
Roy saved up a few salvos about how Fullmetal clearly couldn't sustain his ruse without the situation becoming volatile. Anything not to say how jealous he'd been. Imagine his surprise when Edward stopped in his tracks and turned around with a simple, "Thanks." He waited on the little dirt trail for Roy to catch up, just before crossing the footbridge onto the street. "And... I'm sorry. About the kissing you for science thing. I thought you didn't care."
There was nothing he trusted himself to say to that, whether Edward knew he was long since forgiven or not. With all that'd happened in both their lives, a thoughtless comment shouldn't even have registered, but the little things always hurt more in the moment. Roy's slow steps brought him close, and he brushed the first snowflake of the evening into damp nothingness on Edward's hair, smoothing his ponytail free of his coat. Not even the moonlight, it seemed, could strip his golden hair of all its hue as it turned the rest of the world to monochrome. The front of his jacket was flying open again, rolling in the night breeze and doing absolutely no good against the winter chill. Roy tugged the one side to meet the other and started fastening the buttons himself.
"Try not to undo these again, Fullmetal."
"We were walking! It gets stuffy!"
"You'll catch cold." The moon peaking high up on their left was stronger outside the woods, and he made himself sigh away the urge to cup Edward's cheek, burnished by the winds, as the young man's impatient huff blew in a white cloud and faded. Roy fastened the last closure, flicking Ed's nose with his finger. "I won't have it."
"Hmph." The blond shoved his hands in his pockets and kicked the post at the end of the bridge. Then with a laugh, he shook his head. "You know the weird thing? You're just like this song Earth You sang before he left, when everyone was asking how life was in America. Maybe it's just a coincidence, I don't know. I wish I knew how the two worlds are tied together. It can't be just different points in space, or physics would be the same and they wouldn't be... You know. Mirroring us."
"I recommend taking it up with a philosopher. But my other self must have made quite an impression. I thought you didn't care for music."
"He wasn't you." The young man cleared his throat and looked off towards his house, pushing up onto the bridge railing. He towered most of a meter over Roy's head as he shifted his weight between his feet. "And what I don't like is sitting still for three hours listening to something that hasn't got a beat."
"Well, then. Sing me a few bars. I'll let Hawkeye know what you'd rather hear in the future."
The blond scowled down, pacing slowly forward on the bridge rail while Roy trailed at his side. "I don't want to sing it for you."
"Of course you do."
"Give me one good reason."
"So I don't ask you to sing it in front of Havoc and the rest of the office tomorrow."
"This is blackmail," Edward informed him, pointing a finger right at his head. Then, with a heavy sigh and his eyes forward where he couldn't see Roy's spreading grin, he broke out in a rough, overdramatic countertenor. "Button up your overcoat... when the wind is free..." His stride on the rail changed, hitting his heel hard on one beat and dropping his toes on the next -- almost. Close enough for Roy to hear where it ought to have been a quick swing beat. "Take. Good. Care of yourself. You belong to me."
As he reached the edge of the rail, he tapped his toe in place and bent his knees for the jump down. "Eat an apple every day... Get to bed by three..."
The snow on the edge of the bridge wasn't thick, or sticking yet, but had made the wood slick enough that Edward's footing slipped when he hit the ground. He probably would have caught himself, but there would be no way to be sure. The instinct to reach out for someone falling doesn't ask how well a young man might otherwise have found his feet. And with a laugh, Roy finished out the phrase on Fullmetal's song, drawing him away from the creek's edge.
"Take good care of yourself. You belong to me."
He didn't quiver like he had Sunday, or like earlier this evening, even though Roy had pulled the blond rather closer than he'd meant to do until after Edward had said 'yes'. It was as if he'd been surprised into still comfort with Roy's hands on his hips gripping their bodies together.
Roy was ready for a familiar punch to his jaw, maybe a scream to high heaven that he had to learn to keep his hands to himself, and Edward never did disappoint. One snowfall of silence later, the blond pushed his way out of his arms, and he stomped out into the street while Roy cursed himself incoherently in his head.
"You need to cut that the hell out, Roy!" He turned in the middle of the road, marching backwards toward the curb as he bellowed. "I may know better, but it's 'cause you do shit like that, Al thinks you're serious about me! He's going to keep thinking that until you stop being confusing!"
"Fullmetal. When have I ever been anything but serious about you?" he asked with all of the force at his command.
It was possibly the most awkward endearment of his entire career, but it was enough to make the blond stand still and quiet as the words echoed back like a rebuke for speaking too soon. He couldn't see Edward's eyes from here, in this light, and this was one hell of a stupid risk if he was wrong. He could very well alienate the friend he'd been waiting for all these years, make the office hell for everyone... if he was wrong. But if his instinct was right, holding back right now would be stupider by a level of magnitude.
Without another word, Edward turned on his heel and paced toward his lit porch, but what was the point of training oneself to walk quickly without looking rushed or panicked if one didn't use it to catch up to a cross blond whom he couldn't afford to let get away? The other alchemist gave no sign that he'd seen Roy fall in at his side, but his 'Ignoring You' face was more than familiar enough. Taking a deep breath, he caught Fullmetal's arm before he could vault the steps and run in the door. If he was going to act on a hunch, at the very least he'd have the decency not to be confusing. "Edward, I'm quite in love with you. Don't make me say this twice."
"How can you expect me to believe that?!"
With a smile Roy knew perfectly well Ed found infuriating, he answered, "Because I said so." Moving Edward closer to the side of the steps, despite the stubborn resistance in the blond's shoulders, he said, "Now, if you'll take a seat, I think we have some things to discuss."
Edward whipped around and jammed a fist up against Roy's chest. "Who the hell are you calling so dense he'd take a fucking onion for a turnip?! I'm not even your type!"
"Oh, aren't you," Roy laughed. This was going to be good.
"I've read your notebooks, you know, and I've verified the numbers." The young man held up five fingers, and counted them down one by one. "You've never shown a bias for hair color or chest measurements -- those track with national averages -- but..." Lowering his third finger, he said, "... 83% of the girls you take out have their hair cut above shoulder length! That's statistically outside the norm."
"I thought you didn't like statistics?"
"Shut up!" Roy had to bite his cheek to keep from laughing at the absurdity of looking up the average length of a woman's hair. He wouldn't have even known where to begin. "The point is, my hair's long! I've never heard of you going for someone who isn't all... soft and pretty, and...!" Fullmetal pointed his last finger straight at Roy's face. "Legs, including shoes, account for at least 50% of the height on any woman you've dated, with the average hovering somewhere up here." The young man held a hand up to his side, slightly under his lowest rib. Roy (heroically, he felt) restrained himself from dying of acute hilarity. "53% to 56%. My legs are only 45.9% of my height, and I don't even have a matched set! You favor three distinct characteristics, and I run counter to all of them. Wait. There's four. Did I mention that I'm not a girl?!"
"Demographics mean nothing to me, Fullmetal." There was, after all, only one Edward Elric, and goodness only knew why he seemed set on proving that he wasn't someone Roy could find appealing. Reality would never bear him out. He shook his head, sighing at the young man with the furious pout, admiring the way the porchlight brightened everything from the gold of his hair and the deep red of his coat to the windbite flaming in his cheeks. "Although, let me assure you as someone who looks at you every day -- your legs are extraordinary. They're far from..." Roy caught his tongue just in time. "... too muscular for my taste."
"You were going to say 'too short'."
"Never. I like living." Pointing down at the porch step, he said again, "Sit." When Edward sat sullenly on the snow-dusted wood, he took a seat himself with a grin and a quieter, "Stay."
"Don't you even think about telling me to roll over. So help me, I will end you."
He shook his head at the petulant expression glowering back through the flurries of snow swirling down around them. "How many times do I have to tell you to trust me?"
"This is different, Roy. You've always been a fucking playboy, no offense."
Snowflakes out on the yard were starting to stick to the blades of grass and shadowed pavement like white stars, glistening and melting into the night. It was the sort of night when he felt he really could build anything new, so now, naturally, he had no idea what to say. One magic word could make the walls around them shift and change. He just didn't know what it was.
And yet, Edward's left hand was on the stair painfully close to his, gripping the wood now tightly, now letting go, as the young man stared without focus and without a sound toward the road. He was scared. Scared enough that Roy found himself wondering, when was the last time the blond had dreamed something that didn't hinge on sundering the natural order of the universe? And he'd only make himself more scared sitting there with his thoughts falling in on themselves. Roy slowly took up Edward's hand, fancying the adolescent knot in his gut was a measure of the other man's distress he'd stolen with a touch, even though he knew better. He laced their fingers together, squeezing once he'd gotten the young man's attention, but trying not to hold on too tightly. "If you honestly doubt me, tell me to leave and I'll go. But I don't think you do, and you haven't said once since we left my office that you wouldn't have me."
The young man pulled his hand away, propping up his coat collar like a screen against the wind, and crossed his arms over his chest. "Remind me never to introduce you to Freud." With a huff, he glared over the few inches between them, but spoke with more seriousness than snarl. "I've been out-bluffing Generals all week and I'm sick of it, so fine. Think what you want. But I've seen you date, Roy, and I'm not interested in screwing you once after dinner and once in the morning and then watching you move on. I'd probably have to check into rehab."
None of which sounded like, 'Get off my porch,' Roy thought, feeling a smile steal across his face. And goodness knew, that scenario had never been a risk -- although, if taken properly, it could be considered a well-deserved compliment. And close enough to a confession for him. "I think I owe Hughes a bottle of very old whiskey."
Roy slipped off his gloves so that when he touched Edward's cheek and worked his fingers into his hair, he could feel the superficial chill of the young man's skin warming under his hand. "If I kissed you right now," he said, leaning in close enough that he could feel uncertainty tensing in both their limbs even as Edward's hands gripped his coat in tight fists and stuttered breaths brushed his chin. Once tonight, he'd nearly convinced himself that the gravity between them and the silent entreaties he thought he saw on the man's lips were enough reason to push his advantages. He was sure he'd snap if he got the wrong answer again. "...would you stop me because you're trying to bait my interest indefinitely?"
"No!" A jolt shot up the blond's spine, leaving an opening for him to block Fullmetal in with an arm about his waist. "I didn't say--"
The complained vanished off of his lips -- before the kiss landed home, Roy was pleased to note. Warmth seemed to glow through his wind-numbed skin, melting a haze of cold until all he could feel was the two of them together. The snow still fell around them, but it couldn't have mattered less. Ed's hands pushing against his chest had curled around the folds of his coat now, and somehow the blond had twisted closer to him so that their knees seemed to be locked in a hopeless tangle. Some tremor rode through his body, fluttering in his veins where his heartbeat should have been. Roy was used to the pulse of close moments, but he didn't know what to call this.
As Edward caught his breath with a gasp that tickled all the way down Roy's spine, he pushed their foreheads together and waited there so close to the young man's lips that he could still feel their warmth. Brushing his thumb over Edward's ear, he waited for an answer, and for the last remnants of stiff surprise to melt out of his back.
It was probably a good sign that the other man didn't let go his grip on Roy's jacket. "That was a trick question," the blond muttered.
"Had to be done." He pulled one of Edward's hands off his chest gently and laced their fingers together with a smile, wondering vaguely how he'd managed to control himself thus far when the unforgiving steel pushing back through layers of gloves felt so impossibly dear. "I need you to help me test a theory." Wary gold eyes looked back over the brush of space between them with impatient silence. It wrenched his pride to say this, but the only pride that mattered was the pride that made him do the right thing. "After five years of missing you around every corner, I won't take you lightly."
Edward Elric had the most honest face of anyone he'd ever met. You could read annoyance in the pinch of his brow, pain in the set of his jaw -- and now, surprise in the way every strained line fell away and his eyes went wide and confused. Perhaps a smile peeking at the corner of his mouth.
Roy thought he saw a smile, anyway. He didn't pause to stare when he felt the hand still on his chest push up to hook around his neck and draw him back in. A porch facing the street at somewhere long past midnight when they had work in the morning might not have been the proper time or place, but he wasn't going to hold back now if holding back had been his mistake all this time. The hit of Edward running against the wooden column on the porch shivered through him, with a metal grip on his own back. His hand had squeezed the stair edge to keep them from falling over, holding so tight that a corner dug into his thumb. If the brush of his lips before had been a question, the searching push now, giving way to his tongue to draw out a whispered moan, was the last chance he'd ever risk wasting.
Probably for the best that they both had learned to jump at sudden sounds like bolts turning on doors, or when Alphonse stepped out onto the porch, he'd have had a more legitimate fright than they'd given him at Sunday's party.
"Nii-san! Brigadier General! It's snowing out. If you need to talk, you should come inside."
"He was just leaving!" Ed yelled. If it hadn't been for the weakness in the blond's knees as he stood, betrayed by a deathgrip on the porch railing, and for the tingle of a playful bite still fading on Roy's lip, he might have taken the tone badly. As it was, Roy was fairly certain nothing could ruin today, and that even if their mastermind struck at noon with an army of ten-foot autonomous, walking tanks, he could have them in lockdown before afternoon tea. "Al, what are you even doing up? You're catching a train in three hours!"
"Well, I had been asleep, but I heard some yelling and I thought it might be you."
"Go back to sleep. We're fine."
Alphonse didn't seem to notice the way Ed kept a hand trailing along the side of the house on his walk to the door in order to steady himself. The younger Elric just nodded at them both and stepped back inside. "Have a good night, Brigadier General Mustang."
"Good luck on your trip, Alphonse." As he stood, Roy felt some sympathy for Edward's difficulty walking. For the first time in a long time, he couldn't trust his own legs either -- not with the way they seemed to have storms racing on his bloodstream and with how they shivered as if some drug had taken away his control over his muscles. "I hope you and the Tringhams can clear up that drought once and for all."
"Thank you," he answered as his older brother shoved him bodily into the house.
Roy barely made it to the door before Edward could slam it in his face, stepping up on to the threshold to watch as one Elric disappeared up the stairs and the other stripped off his coat with quite a bit of silent fury and a candy apple blush burning across his cheeks. "Go home, Roy. It's late."
"I want to hear you say you love me."
The young man had managed to find an umbrella somewhere, he saw as Edward marched back over, whose handle he jammed up under Roy's chin. "And I want you off my porch!" Then the blond pushed the whole length of the umbrella into his hands, pushing him back outside in the process. "Here. Don't you dare catch a cold or I will fucking kill you."
"Wouldn't dream of it."
The next thing he knew, he'd caught another fresh, untrained kiss from the young man, who had pushed up on his toes and was balancing with one hand on the doorknob and one on Roy's arm. Edward kissed him like tomorrow wouldn't ever come, and it was still over too soon.
When Ed pushed away, he kept looking Roy in the eye as he backed up inside and pointed a finger straight on at Roy's nose. "When I test a theory, I don't skew the results, so you'd better make this count." The door that slammed in his face then, without a moment's hesitation, had to be the sweetest door slam Roy had ever heard, and all he could do was grin at the blond miming, "Go home!" in a silent scream through the window.
The whole world had dyed itself in frost tones during their few stolen minutes, like a blank white sheet under the moonlight, without a single track save the footprints he left behind.
For the sake of having a solid source text upon which I could base a complex system, I hunted down alchemy texts, although it was hard to find ones in the right corner of the playground. In a stroke of fantastic luck, the one that worked best was a book I already had on my shelf: an appendix to Jung's memoirs. For those interested in the context, the following are resource notes:
1 - "From that time on, the dead have become ever more distinct for me as the voices of the Unanswered, Unresolved, and Unredeemed; for since the questions and demands which my destiny required me to answer did not come to me from outside, they must have come from the inner world."
Jung, Carl Gustav. "Confrontation with the Unconscious" (1961). Memories, Dreams, Reflections. Ed. Aniela Jaffe. Trans. Richard and Clara Winston. New York: Vintage Books, 1989. Ch 6, 191-192.
2 - "A thing that is infinite and eternal hath no qualities, since it hath all qualities.
"This nothingness or fullness we name the PLEROMA. Therein both thinking and being cease, since the eternal and infinite possess no qualities. In it no being is, for he then would be distinct from the pleroma, and would possess qualities which would distinguish him as something distinct from the pleroma.
"In the pleroma there is nothing and everything. It is quite fruitless to think about the pleroma, for this would mean self-dissolution.
"CREATURA is not in the pleroma, but in itself. The pleroma is both beginning and end of created beings. It pervadeth them, as the light of the sun everywhere pervadeth the air."
Jung, CG. "Septem Sermones ad Mortuos" (1916). Memories, Dreams, Reflections. Ed. Aniela Jaffe. Trans. H.G. Baynes. New York: Vintage Books, 1989. Appendix V, Sermo I, 379.
3 - "We must, therefore, distinguish the qualities of the pleroma. The qualities are pairs of opposites, such as—
"The Effective and the Ineffective.
Fullness and Emptiness.
Living and Dead."
Jung, CG. "Septem Sermones ad Mortuos" (1916). MDR. Appendix V, Sermo I, 380.
4 - "Eros flameth up and dieth. But the tree of life groweth with slow and constant increase through unmeasured time.
"Good and evil are united in the flame.
"Good and evil are united in the increase of the tree. In their divinity stand life and love opposed.
"Innumerable as the host of the stars is the number of gods and devils.
"Each star is a god, and each space that a star filleth is a devil. But the empty-fullness of the whole is the pleroma.
"The operation of the whole is Abraxas, to whom only the ineffective standeth opposed."
Jung, CG. "Septem Sermones ad Mortuos" (1916). MDR. Appendix V, Sermo IV, 385.
5 - I transcribed a passage whose notes I used for designing the structure of the diagram: "Mandalas" (1955). Thanks to Sumeria for taking my initial design and making it awesome. The transmutation circle Roy and Ed made above looks like this:
6 - Frederick Gardner Cottrell: real person. I believe his foundation actually endowed Goddard's experiments rather than him participating, but he was himself a chemist. He looked like this:
Not perfect, but a reasonable match given that I was constraining myself to eminent figures in the scientific world during the 20s and 30s, whose pictures I could find. It may simply be asking too much of reality to find one of those eminent scientists with the right feature set who's also as ridiculously hot as Roy.
7 - I'm aware that the timeline Roy gives to Bloch above is completely in contradiction of the canon timeline, where Ed was ten when his mother died. Roy is lying through his teeth, for a variety of reasons.
8 - "How a Gardener May Get Rid of the Dormice" is Chapter 61 of The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, published in 1844. Varying translations of the novel may render it different ways. The title for Chapter 7 will be "The Innumerable Troubles", which will probably be the most difficult source work to guess.