“So I hear the Demon kid killed a bunch of people in East,” Hughes said brightly over the phone. “Again.”
“Yes,” Roy admitted, and tried hard not to hate Hughes.
“I hear they had it coming. I hear they were evil thugs and without them half of the crime in South and East has dried up. Oh, and he saved a little girl from a burning building. And a kitten.”
Hughes had phrased it that way on purpose to make Roy’s headache worse.
“So, Roy!” he continued with unforgiveable glee. “Planning to head out and arrest him?”
“I hate that kid,” Roy said fervently. “I hate that kid like poison.”
Rogue alchemists were always a lot of trouble and paperwork, but the Demon Alchemist was special. He was the kind of vigilante that anyone could get behind. He never tackled situations that were morally gray; he stuck to rapists and murderers and people only a mother could tolerate. He’d been at this for three years, and by now, he was a hero to the average person on the street. They (the newspapers, not the military) had given him the title Demon Alchemist in honor of his tendency to transmute demon-shaped rocks and hurl them at deserving people. It was the kind of thing that made for an instant fan following.
All of which would have been fine if he hadn’t been a serial killer. (Though sometimes the hypocrisy of that thought choked Roy to a standstill.) A heroic serial killer. What was the law supposed to do about that?
“What are you gonna do, Roy? Gonna go have a chat about the deal?”
A headache which was never improved by the way Hughes, safely in Central, found it all so damn hilarious.
“At least this time it’ll be easy to find him,” Roy sighed.
“Yeah? How’s that?”
“He left a note.” To be precise, he’d stuck a note to the body of a dead man named Harris with Harris’s own knife. (Sergeant John Harris, distinguished service in Ishbal, violent drunk, penchant for killing pregnant women. Roy couldn’t even pretend to be sorry he was dead. And that was the problem, wasn’t it?)
“He left a note for you? Specifically?”
“I’m reasonably sure it was for me.” What’s up with it, Colonel? followed by an address and a time written in Roy’s own alchemical code, which was enough to give a man nightmares even if it hadn’t been written in blood.
And to think, Roy used to get love letters.
Read straight, the note appeared to be the story of a racy evening spent with two ladies of questionable virtue. More racy than was, strictly speaking, required by the code. Roy had a feeling the Demon had anticipated the looks on the faces of the investigation team when they read it. This was not the first time Roy had been the victim of his sense of humor.
“Trap?” Hughes asked, voice sharp.
“Not his style,” Roy replied with a confidence he didn’t entirely feel. But if the Demon Alchemist requested a meeting, he always went. Perhaps out of guilt.
Edward and Alphonse Elric.
Just too late.
“Be careful, Roy,” Hughes warned.
“I’m always careful,” Roy lied.
* * *
“Would you like backup?” Hawkeye asked, displaying an unusual amount of concern. She didn’t like these little meetings with the Demon. Then again, neither did Roy.
“This is one of the few imaginable situations in which I will probably be safer without backup than with it,” Roy said.
Breda gave a disapproving growl.
“He’ll notice you,” Roy said. “He notices everything within a hundred yards of him. Given the way his mind works, the only conclusion he’s capable of coming to is that we’re there to ambush him. And then he’ll kill me.”
Silence. Havoc lit a cigarette; his fifth in the last ten minutes.
“You know I’m right.”
Falman stared disapprovingly. Fuery was looking at him like he’d kicked a puppy.
“And whether I’m right or not, it’s an order.”
They stopped staring and turned back to their work, but the tension in the room held.
“Goodbye, sir,” Hawkeye said as he reached the door. She had the gift of an expressive voice, did Hawkeye. Not everyone could have said nothing but goodbye and so strongly implied if you get killed it will be entirely your own fault, you will have let all of us down, and I will spit on your grave.
“I’ll see you tomorrow, Lieutenant,” he insisted.
She gave a small frown that might have been a scowl on anyone else.
The problem with Hawkeye was that, in this case in particular, she understood him far too well. After all, she had been there, too.
* * *
“I’m looking for Edward and Alphonse Elric,” Roy said tightly. He’d searched the woman’s house for them and found nothing but a crying girl, but given the state of that room, they couldn’t have gotten far.
“Well,” snapped the old woman, hurt and hostile. “You’re just too late, aren’t you? They’re gone.”
“Gone? What do you mean, they’re gone?”
She didn’t answer. They stared at each other in a silence perfect but for the sound of the girl’s crying. Roy didn’t know what had happened here, but somehow even the presence of Hawkeye behind him wasn’t comfort enough.
* * *
But that had been years ago.
* * *
It was easy to feel confident in an office full of people who’d prefer that he remained alive. It was far less easy in the kind of decaying alleyway the Demon preferred for these meetings.
This neighborhood had originally surrounded the military headquarters, and been filled with shops and apartments. Once HQ moved closer to the center of town, it had slowly fallen apart. After some fleeting success as a red-light district, it had been converted to a warehouse district, and then largely abandoned. The few businesses and people remaining were only there because they couldn’t see any way out.
Roy wondered if the Demon had chosen the neighborhood because it was isolated, or because he meant it as a metaphor for something. It was hard to tell with him.
Roy came around the last corner in the warren of backstreets, and froze for a moment, struck by the familiar blend of guilt, protectiveness, fascination, and gut-clenching fear.
The Demon was already looking his way, of course. In three years, Roy had never surprised him. He was perched on a wall with his back against another, arms hanging loose, watching everything with wide, wild eyes. Ready for anything.
“Elric,” Roy said, voice pressed to careful blankness.
“Shit, you are the only guy alive calls me by my actual name,” said the Demon. “The fuck are you doing wearing that military crap in this part of town? Don’t you know having shiny shit on your clothes is a good way to get killed?”
“I’m sure you’ll protect me.”
“Uh huh. Right. You think that.”
Roy was almost sure of it, actually. If he was going to die here, then it would be the Demon who killed him.
“Elric…I appreciate getting Harris delivered to my doorstep, so to speak.” Like a present left by a cat. “But—we’ve discussed this before—stop killing people. Please. If you could just beat them into unconsciousness and tie them up, it would make my life almost infinitely easier. That’s a reasonable request, isn’t it?”
“Stop letting fucking psychos wander the streets. That’s a reasonable request, isn’t it?”
“I do everything I can—”
“Yeah, yeah, I know. You’re doin’ your best. It’s just your best isn’t quite good enough, Colonel. So while you’re doing whatever the hell it is you do, I’ll be here cleaning up after you.”
“Perhaps I would be better able to do my job if I didn’t have to spend quite so much time convincing my superiors that I’m conducting a manhunt for you.”
“Hey, I never asked for shit from you,” Elric snapped. “Come on, Colonel, I thought we had a deal. It was your idea.”
The deal. The deal was that Roy would never turn Elric in. In exchange, Elric would always provide Roy with evidence of the crimes his victims had committed. Roy had made the deal once he realized that his chances of actually catching Elric were vanishingly small. He often wondered if Elric knew that Roy's half of the deal was pure bluff.
If he didn't know, though, Roy wasn't about to tell him. “We do have a deal. That’s the reason you haven’t been arrested; it’s the reason my friend in intelligence calls up to laugh at me every time you do something unspeakable; it’s the reason I haven’t burned you to a crisp—” Brilliant, Roy. Taunt the homicidal maniac.
“Ooh, fightin’ words,” Elric growled. He flowed down the wall toward Roy like there wasn’t a bone in his body; like something carnivorous and feral.
Not so far from the truth.
Roy had been an idiot to start this. If there was one thing Elric loved unequivocally, it was fighting.
“Look, Elric, I didn’t come here to cause trouble.”
“No?” He prowled closer until he was standing uncomfortably (dangerously) within Roy’s personal space, and bared his teeth. Roy couldn’t call it a smile. “Spoilsport,” he hissed. “You’re lucky I like you. And stop distractin’ me, this isn’t what I called you out for.”
“Isn’t it?” Roy asked, trying not to gasp in relief as Elric stepped back.
“Obviously not. If I wanted a fight with an alchemist, I’d go fuck with Kimbley. Then I wouldn’t have to feel bad if I accidentally killed him.”
Meaning that he would feel bad if he accidentally killed Roy? There was a surprise.
“Kimbley? Zolf Kimbley? He’s in prison, Elric.”
Elric gave him a look that was almost…concerned. How bizarre. “Yeah? Funny I ran into him in South last month, then.”
“It couldn’t have been Kimbley,” Roy insisted blindly.
“Guy with arrays tattooed on his hands? Face just askin’ for a fist? Likes to blow shit up?”
Roy stared, horrified. Had Kimbley escaped? Or, worse, been released under the orders of high command without a single word to anyone else?
He had to bite firmly down on the impulse to warn Elric to stay away from him. It would be a very serious mistake to start thinking of the Demon Alchemist as one of his men.
“Yeah,” said Elric, watching his face. “I guess that ain’t good either. Typical. But it’s still not what I came to talk about, and you know what that means, right, Colonel? Means I’m gonna tell you shit that’s even worse now.”
Roy wished Elric didn’t feel a seemingly compulsive need to rub Roy’s face in everything.
“So someplace in the desert—fuck if I know where, somewhere in that goddamn wasteland your guys made of Ishbal—”
And Elric didn’t, couldn’t know. But he had the instincts of a barracuda.
“—I ran into this guy eating another guy. And it was weird, okay? I mean, I seen some seriously fucked up stuff, but there was something…I dunno…just off about the way this was going down. There was some lady standing next to him watching the whole thing; just wasn’t normal. So I went to kill the guy, like I do.”
The disapproving sound slipped out beyond Roy’s control.
“Like I do,” Elric repeated pointedly. “Only he didn’t die.”
“He got away from you?” That was fairly incredible. Roy had heard what Elric was like in a fight; he hadn’t thought anyone ever got away.
“No, he didn’t get away,” Elric snapped. “I killed him and he didn’t fucking die. And I dunno what you make of that, but all I can think is Philosopher’s Stone.”
“The Philosopher’s Stone is a myth,” Roy whispered.
“Killed a guy,” Elric repeated impatiently. “Didn’t fucking die. How’s that for mythical? So I go to the library and look this shit up.”
Roy’s brain briefly shorted out at the idea of Edward Elric, the Demon Alchemist, in a library.
“And it turns out that—other stuff in the myth section—this tattoo the guy who didn’t die and the lady both had, it’s an old alchemical symbol. The ouroboros. Snake eating its tail, destruction and rebirth, eternal life. So I gotta think they think they’re gonna live forever. You know about this?”
Roy wanted to repeat that it was a myth, and he wanted to keep repeating it until the universe bent to his will and it became true. But he knew Elric would have no patience for that. “Monsters,” he said instead.
“Shit.” Elric sneered. “Ain’t we all? But you and me, people can kill us when we go haywire. No smart comeback, or I hurt you.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Roy murmured. And he wouldn’t. He wanted to outlive this meeting.
“These guys, though. I dunno, everything dies sooner or later, no matter what they think about it. The question is, how long’s it gonna take? Like, they got nine lives like a cat? They got a million lives and you gotta stick ‘em in a volcano? I dunno how much of a pain in the ass it’s gonna be, I’m saying. And I dunno how many of them there are. But when they left me for dead—”
“They left you for dead?” Roy yelped.
“I know, right?” Elric scowled at the memory. “Why didn’t they eat me? I don’t get it.”
Not quite what had bothered Roy.
“Anyway, they left, and they said they were going home to Central. So I need a hookup in Central. Who you got?”
Roy thought, I am too old for this conversation, and said, “Don’t you have anyone in Central?”
“If I had anyone in Central, would I waste my fuckin’ breath askin’ you?” Ed snapped. “Never been to Central. Felt like I should stay away from that much fuckin…civilization, whatever.”
“But you’re going there now,” Roy said, intrigued. This fascination, he recognized, was exactly like the fascination he felt for open flame. And a hundred times more dangerous.
“I don’t like people who eat people,” Elric grumbled. “And I especially don’t like it when they don’t die. Besides, got the best libraries in Central.”
Again with the libraries.
“Central has always had the best libraries. And yet you’ve never gone.”
“Never had anything in particular I was lookin’ for. But check it out. Now I do. Are you gonna stop asking me stupid fucking questions and give me a name, or do I have to wander around Central breakin’ arms until somebody tells me something worth knowing?”
Given the look in his eyes and all of his past behavior, it was very possible that he would wander around Central breaking arms if Roy didn’t prevent it. Unfortunately, Roy could only think of one person to send him to who would be safe for the both of them.
Good thing Hughes was a survivor.
“Ask for Lieutenant Colonel Maes Hughes,” Roy said, wondering when he’d made a habit of folding for Edward Elric. “Investigations. Give him this.” Roy pulled out a piece of paper and scrawled on it in a code he and Hughes had worked out between them.
Don’t forget that he’s a genius. Be careful with him. Roy felt that be careful of him was understood.
He looked up to find Elric directly in front of him, and jumped. This, of course, did not go unnoticed. Elric grinned, and his eyes trailed lazily over Roy, head to toe. Checking for weapons? Checking for sweat? Just fucking with Roy and trying to scare him (and succeeding admirably, if so)? Impossible to know.
“Nervous guy, huh?” Elric chuckled, and tugged the paper out of Roy’s panic-clenched fingers. He didn’t step back, though. Just stood there, within easy stabbing distance. Roy tried not to twitch visibly.
“You want me to leave it in code, or crack it for him and give it to him straight?” Elric asked.
“I’d be just as glad if you didn’t crack it, Elric,” Roy said, proud of how calm he sounded.
“Probably wouldn’t be any fun, anyway,” Elric griped, stepping back at last. “If it’s anything like your alchemy code.”
“I will be changing my alchemy code, while we’re on the subject,” Roy said, trying not to let his relief at the distance show.
“Yeah, you better,” Elric said carelessly. “I cracked your old one in like five minutes. That’s just freaking sad.”
Roy’s alchemical code should have required a fairly detailed knowledge of his personal life to crack. It would be conceivably possible to crack it without that knowledge—but not within five minutes, Roy didn’t care how much of a mad genius Elric was. Which meant that Elric likely knew Madame Christmas and her employees, and therefore more about Roy than all but a handful of his most trusted people.
This game was becoming more dangerous than the bid for the fuhrership.
“Why…” It was unwise to ask this question, but he couldn’t help wanting to know. Hawkeye, he thought, would not be at all impressed with his curiosity. “Why did you come to me with this? I’m a member of the military, for God’s sake. I should have you arrested on sight. Why me?”
Elric cocked his head. It might have been endearing, had it not been so…animal. “Whatever. I guess I trust you as much as I trust anybody. How’s that for fucked up?”
Beyond. It was well beyond fucked up.
“And it’s nice that you are in the military for something like this, cuz only the military gets access to classified shit that I’m gonna need to know if I’m gonna take these guys down. So you’re useful. Ain’t that nice?”
“Elric, many people find me to be untrustworthy. They find me scheming and unknowable. Why—”
“Shit.” Elric grinned, really grinned, less a baring of teeth than usual. “Everybody’s hiding something. What’re you hiding? Far as I can see, you got some sneaky awful plan to take over and save the country—and good fuckin’ luck, by the way. But I mean. I generally run with guys whose secret plan is more like, to leave all their people dead in the gutter and steal their wallets. Get what I’m sayin? You go save the country, you evil S.O.B. Knock yourself out. Doesn’t bother me any.”
Another conversational punch to the sternum from Edward Elric. “It may not bother you, but…Elric, if military high command finds out, I’ll be court-martialed and probably shot.”
“That’s okay, Colonel,” Elric said, sounding God-help-him playful. “I’m not real close with military high command. I dunno if you knew.”
“Yes, actually, I had noticed that,” Roy drawled, though it probably wasn’t wise to be sarcastic with Elric. “Maybe they’d warm up to you if—not to belabor the point—you would stop killing people.”
He waited for the snappy response, but it never came. Instead, Elric frowned and glanced away. He’d lived so hard that he usually seemed ageless, but this expression…
Hughes had always called him the Demon kid, but Roy was rarely forced to remember that he really was only fifteen years old. Just a boy.
“You probably won’t believe this anyway,” Elric said, looking appallingly young. “But I don’t usually mean to kill ‘em. Sure didn’t the first couple times. S’just like…I get so mad. I don’t know how to stop myself.” He paused. “Got no one to stop me, maybe.”
And this was the most terrible thing Roy had ever heard him say.
“Sometimes I don’t kill ‘em. You don’t hear about those, though. They’re always like, gonna turn over a new leaf, whatever. Some of them do. Some of them I just have to hunt down again and kill later.” He shot a sharp look in Roy’s direction, and no longer seemed young at all. “Typical, right?”
Typical seemed to be his favorite word. Apart from fuck.
“You said some of them do change their ways.” Being optimistic for Elric, Roy thought. How bizarre.
“Yeah, some do.” Elric shrugged. “Guess not everyone can be stupid.”
“Perhaps people who do bad things aren’t always bad people, Elric.”
Elric rolled his eyes. “Yeah, okay. Preaching to the choir, here. I don’t take people down until I’m pretty sure they’re fucking worthless, alright? What the hell, you my dad now?”
A violent sneer went with the word dad.
Excellent, Roy thought. On top of everything else, he has daddy issues.
“No, Elric. I am, in fact, the law in these parts.”
Elric stared at Roy with his wild eyes, and then, unexpectedly, burst out laughing.
“What the—did you hear that on the fuckin’ radio? I cannot believe you said that!” He dissolved back into laughter.
“Well, it’s true,” Roy huffed, crossing his arms. Elric laughed harder.
Roy realized, with some horror, that they were joking with each other.
There was something inside Edward Elric that he couldn’t help but reach out to. And it would most likely end with his hand burned clean off, Roy suspected. Not that the knowledge was enough to stop him.
Dangerous, so dangerous, this boy. The kind of brilliant, charismatic sociopath who could conquer nations, if the thought struck him. Roy supposed he should take comfort from the fact that Elric had never shown the slightest interest in controlling anyone alive. Just in culling the herd.
Maybe it wasn’t much of a comfort, after all.
“Not a happy face, Colonel,” Elric said, laughter trailing off, head cocked again. Like a bird, Roy decided. A raptor.
He thought of all the people who found him unreadable, and wondered for the thousandth time why Elric couldn’t be one of them.
“Just thinking about the past,” Roy said, sounding bitter even to his own ears.
“Big fucking mistake,” Elric agreed, with the weariness of someone four times his age.
“But speaking of the past,” Roy went on.
“Thought we agreed that was a bad idea.”
Roy ignored that.
“When—I realize this is a prying question—when I went to Mrs. Rockbell’s house, she told me that you were gone. She seemed quite serious, Elric. Where were you?”
“Huh?” Elric looked, not angry as Roy had expected, but more puzzled. As if he had no idea why Roy was asking. “I crawled away when I heard you coming. Then I crawled back and made them make me automail. This is a boring story, why do you care?”
“I assure you, I’m very interested.”
Elric gave him a suspicious look. “Well, that’s weird. I don’t go back there anymore, anyway. Go to a guy in Rush Valley.”
“You ask a lot of fucking questions, you know that? I dunno. Because I’m a goddamn mass murderer, and it’s like, shit, I don’t wanna track blood in the house. You know?”
Roy knew. And that was strange in itself. The average vigilante would feel he was absolutely in the right. Roy had never known one to refer to himself as a murderer, and Roy had had more than his share of interactions with vigilantes.
“How did you get into this line of work, Elric? You were awfully young to take up crime fighting when you did.”
“Yeah, well. If I’d been older, I’d probably have had better sense,” he muttered, only adding to Roy’s bafflement. “I guess you could say it was equivalent exchange. Or the closest I could get to it, if killing’s all I’m good for. It’s like, if all you’re good for is catching rats, then you might as well be a rat-catcher. You got any brothers, Colonel?”
The question seemed out of the blue. Roy carefully shook his head. He knew this was dangerous ground.
Edward and Alphonse Elric.
Just too late.
“Huh, too bad. Brothers are awesome.” Elric wandered away toward the wall, back to Roy. Roy wasn’t sure whether to take it as a sign of trust or of scorn. “Mine’s dead, though,” Elric said, and hopped up onto the wall. Conversation apparently over.
“How did he die?” Roy asked before his common sense could stop him.
Elric paused at the top of the wall and stared incredulously over his shoulder. “How do you think, Colonel? I killed him.” And he disappeared.
Roy had often wondered what drove the Demon Alchemist. He’d never expected it to be something as simple and familiar as self-loathing.
* * *
“Did you survive?” Hughes asked.
“Barely,” Roy answered.
“How did it go?” Hughes continued with his usual rabid curiosity.
“It was terrifying every second it wasn’t depressing,” Roy said. “As usual.”
“So? What did he want?”
“Oh, this and that. Answers to a few alchemical questions.”
Long pause. Hughes knew there was a novel hidden in that sentence, but he didn’t have the grounding to figure out what it was. That was the problem with discussing Elric on a military line; no names, no real explanations. Hughes would understand soon enough, though.
“Did you have his answers?” he asked eventually.
“No. I sent him to you,” Roy replied with perverse satisfaction. It felt so good to share the pain.
“You’ve always been so curious about him, Maes. I thought I was doing you a favor.”
“Very funny, Roy. I—”
Pause. Hughes’s mind had apparently caught up with his mouth.
“Is he…working for you?” he asked cautiously.
“He doesn’t have it in him to be loyal to anyone at this point,” Roy said. “But he’s not an enemy.”
“I see,” Hughes said. Hughes was very insightful, though he hid it well. His voice sounded nothing but sad.
“He should arrive in Central late tomorrow.”
“I’ll look forward to it,” Hughes said, and hung up, subdued.
If they’d wanted Elric on their side, they should have started courting him sometime before he got into the habit of accidentally killing people. Before he broke inside. Before his brother died.
Just too late.
* * *
Three days and five phone calls from Hughes later, Roy received a perfectly ordinary letter in the mail. It wasn’t in code; it was written in plain ink. It didn’t even have bloodstains.
He’d just never expected to see his name in that handwriting.
What the fuck, Mustang, it read. He calls me Ed.
Roy smiled, and, despite his better judgment, reached for a blank sheet of paper and began a reply.