Actions

Work Header

Theory and Practice

Work Text:

Visiting Roy in his shiny new office in Central: best thing ever. As expected. It was so good to finally be in the same city.

“You can actually pick up what people are saying with these?” Maes asked, delighted. “These tiny little things?”

Fuery pushed up his glasses and looked Very Serious. Aw, he was like a small, fuzzy animal. Maes just wanted to ruffle his hair. And steal his electronics.

“They run out of power really quickly,” Fuery said. “Their lifespan is only…oh, a week? But the sound quality is good. They should be really useful, um.” He looked nervously around and lowered his voice to a whisper. “If Lieutenant Hawkeye ever lets me use them.”

“Spoilsport!” Maes gasped. He was scandalized, scandalized. He would never have suspected Hawkeye of being such a killjoy.

“She says I have to have a reason,” Fuery explained sadly.

He and Maes both sighed and contemplated the glorious little bugs they weren’t allowed to play with.

“You’re not even going to say hello to me, are you?” Roy asked, leaning against the doorframe with his arms folded.

“Roy!” To be honest, Maes had forgotten he was there. “Have you said hi to Ed yet?” He took a moment to savor Roy’s flinch. And Fuery’s.

Oh, yes. This was going to be all kinds of fun.

“I’m sure he’ll find me when he has a use for me.” Roy looked so uncomfortable. And to think he was the one who kept saying, ‘Try to trust Elric,’ ‘Elric isn’t as wacky as he looks,’ ‘I’m sure Elric was a decent kid before life smashed him.’

“I’m surprised he’s left you alone this long,” Maes said, and he was. Very surprised. Roy had been in Central for at least forty-eight hours. “Have you been hiding?”

Roy shifted and refused to make eye contact. Meaning he really had been hiding, which was…

In fact, Maes had no words for what it was. Hilarious?

“Chief, d’you want the desk over—oh, Lieutenant Colonel Hughes. Hey.” Second Lieutenant Jean Havoc with an enlisted guy in tow, carrying Roy’s desk between them. Havoc had the charming ability to coerce enlisted guys into doing all sorts of favors for him. Favors like lugging enormous desks around base for the benefit of Colonels to whom they were not accountable. Maes suspected this had something to do with Havoc’s aura of the common man, and he admired it.

“Havoc! Have you been letting your commanding officer cower in his office when he should be out socializing?”

“Uh…” Havoc fidgeted as best he could while carrying half of an enormous desk. “Chief? Where did you want the desk?”

“Under the window is fine, Second Lieutenant.”

Havoc’s preferred method of avoiding conflict was to pretend it wasn’t there until it went away or at least stopped involving him. Maes admired this, too.

“Let’s head to lunch, Roy,” Maes suggested. “I haven’t seen you for months!”

Checkmate. Roy absolutely could not admit that he didn’t want to go outside because he was afraid of Ed. And there was no legitimate reason for him to dodge: Hawkeye could oversee the resettling of the office a hundred times more efficiently than Roy could, and everyone knew it.

“…Fine,” Roy said. And then, “My treat,” because he liked to make Maes feel guilty. “I’ll be back in an hour,” he informed Fuery and Havoc. Who would tell Hawkeye. Who would send out a search party if Roy didn’t turn up precisely on time.

Maes loved Roy’s office.

* * *

It was disappointing that they made it to the restaurant without incident, but then, Maes had noticed before that Ed was never around when you wanted him. He preferred to appear at the most awkward possible moment, not infrequently spattered with blood.

Ah, well. It was probably for the best. Maes and Roy had plenty of things to discuss that would be better discussed in private.

“We’re sitting at the corner table,” Roy pointed out once they’d settled themselves.

“So we are.” Curious conversation starter.

“You deliberately picked the corner table.”

“Did I?”

“You did.”

“…And?”

“You never pick the corner table.” Poor Roy, his world was obviously thrown out of kilter by this. “You always pick the table nearest the window so you can watch everyone who goes by.”

“Ed likes to sit at the corner table,” Maes explained. He’d only eaten out with Ed twice, and was already picking up his seating habits. Unsettling. Maybe it was because Ed was so very determined about his seating habits.

“How often do you eat out with Elric?” Roy asked, voice faint with horror.

“Not as often as you’d think. Moving swiftly along to things that matter!”

Roy braced himself, knowing he was about to be inundated with either extremely treasonous information or a flood of Elicia pictures.

Treason first, Maes rather thought, and Elicia after that. Because she was cheering!

“The facts, as we know them, are these,” Maes said in a voice barely audible over the sound of cutlery. “Kimbley was set free, though this information hasn’t appeared in any official records, and we wouldn’t know about it if not for Ed. And Major Armstrong, but more on this later. The Fuhrer of Amestris has no personal history, but he did order Ishbal, and Ishbal…is one of the points on the array.”

“I’d like to see this array,” Roy murmured.

“If you’d stop avoiding Ed, you could.”

Roy scowled.

“On top of this, homunculi. The homunculi hang around Central because this is where their father lives.”

“Father?”

“Again, Ed will have to give you the details, but according to Greed, the party consists of six homunculi, who’ve been hanging around for hundreds of years, and their father, who’s been around even longer.”

“That was all Greed knew?” Roy asked suspiciously.

“That was all he managed to say before he was murdered,” Maes corrected. “Meanwhile, something strange is going on up North, but the Major hasn’t been able to tell me quite what. I hear Kimbley’s up there too, and I find that worrying. And Ed is looking into how to destroy homunculi because that’s just how he is.”

Roy was rubbing at his temples. Heh.

“Ed suspects that this whole country-as-array thing doesn’t make any sense; I will let him tell you why. Something to do with human sacrifices and the fact that he’s still alive. Alchemy. I’m really coming to hate it. How do you feel, Roy?”

“Old,” Roy mumbled.

“If it makes you feel better, I’m sure General Armstrong will be extremely annoyed that they’ve picked her base as a battlefield.”

Roy gave Maes a dirty look, indeed.

“What? Isn’t it nice that she’s on your side?”

“She has never once been on my side. Never in life.”

“A new experience!”

“Despite arguments to the contrary, the enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend.”

“Better the enemy of your enemy than the friend of your enemy,” Maes pointed out. “Speaking of which, Ed.”

“…What about him?”

“What are your plans for him, exactly?”

Roy tried to look innocent or at least blank, but Maes had known him far too long for that to work. “I wouldn’t say I have plans for him.”

“Of course you wouldn’t say that,” Maes agreed, “because you never willingly speak at all. But you do have plans for him, because that’s what makes you you. Spill.”

Roy nodded. He always was a good sport about being caught. “It wouldn’t be a bad thing for me,” he said, “if the fuhrer turned out to be in league with these monsters.”

Maes smiled. “Convenient that Ed’s uncovered all of this, then.”

Roy smiled back. “Convenient,” he said.

If Maes believed for a second that Roy had actually foreseen how useful Ed would prove, he’d have been even more proud. As it was, he was proud of Roy’s bullshitting abilities, for they were truly epic.

“And last but not least…your First Lieutenant. Whom I like to think of as your keeper.”

“Yes,” Roy sighed. “She doesn’t approve.”

“You astonish me.”

“Don’t you start,” Roy muttered, putting his elbow on the table and propping his forehead on the heel of his hand, the very picture of an overburdened soul. Not a very military posture, though. When Roy made general, Maes was going to have to train him to stop slumping like that. Possibly with cattle prods.

Hm. Assuming making general still meant what they’d thought it meant, given. Well. The end of the world, or whatever Ed decided was going on.

“And stop looking at me like that,” Roy said suspiciously. “I’m worried, Maes. Aren’t you worried?”

“About Hawkeye or about Ed?” Surely the end of the world was a given.

“Either. Both.”

“What if they join forces? Then we’ll need to be worrying about you.”

“God forbid.” Roy buried his face in both hands.

All in all, Maes considered this an excellent ‘welcome back to Central’ for Roy.

* * *

If Maes had been disappointed by the lack of Ed on the walk to lunch, he could find no fault with how quickly Ed found them afterward. They didn’t even make it ten steps away from the restaurant.

“What’s up with it, Colonel?” said the Voice from Above.

Maes had never seen Ed and Roy together before. He was prepared to be entertained.

“Elric,” Roy said, treating the name like something fragile. “It’s been a while. How goes the research?”

“All fucked up, Colonel,” Ed announced, bizarrely cheerful. “Fucked up like I never even imagined.” He hopped down and smiled up at them.

You couldn’t say that Ed looked at ease, exactly; Ed never looked at ease. But he did look less likely to flee or attack at any moment than he usually did. He was also smiling, not maniacally, but in a fairly friendly way. Smiling at Roy.

How very interesting. First the letters, now this.

Equally interesting: Roy clearly didn’t appreciate what special treatment this was—he thought this was scary. Apparently he’d never seen the backed-into-a-corner rabid animal side of Ed.

Though it was possible that Ed was, in some ways, less alarming when he didn’t like you. For one thing, he usually gave Maes more personal space.

“Miss me?” Ed asked, grinning, wild, and less than a foot away from Roy. “Shit, sorry about that. Didn’t think it’d be so bad you’d have to chase me to Central.”

“Elric, surprising though it may seem, I do have concerns in my life other than keeping track of you.”

“Uh huh. How’s that taking over the world thing working out for you?”

“Well so far, thank you for asking. And you? Still making progress on your plan to kill absolutely everyone?”

Ed bared his teeth, and, given how close his teeth were to Roy’s throat, that made Maes very uncomfortable. Nothing like as uncomfortable as it was making Roy, however. “You can’t help but be a dick even when you try, can you?” Ed said in a tone that Maes had to think of as a fond snarl.

“It’s so nice for me to have the crazy alchemists in the same city,” Maes cut in. It was good to see Ed happy, but since it was also creepy as all get-out, he thought it might be best to get everyone back on track. “Now you two can chat about the end of the world and I won’t have to pretend I understand. Go on.”

“Yes,” Roy agreed. “Hughes says you don’t think the country-wide array makes sense, Elric. I still don’t know how you came to discover that the country is an array. That letter you sent me was the most spectacularly cryptic thing I’ve ever read, and I regularly correspond with Hughes.”

Ed shrugged. Ed was not helpful. However, on the upside (or was that a downside?) he still seemed chipper.

“Ed decided the military was involved in this whole cannibalism, Philosopher’s Stone, human sacrifice thing,” Maes put in, hoping to encourage actual communication. “Which made me curious about military history. Once you look into military history, into old battlefields…well, it’s all fairly obvious if there’s a convenient alchemist at hand to explain it. And every day I am more grateful for Ed’s extreme paranoia.”

“Shucks,” said Ed.

“I suspect that if Ed weren’t so paranoid, I would have investigated through military channels.”

Roy was staring in horror.

“I expect I would be dead,” Maes said, just to drive the point home.

“Show me the array,” Roy said, face slowly shutting down into Grim Stoical. Maes defied him to hold that expression through the whole explanation.

“Ed, map?”

“What am I, your office boy? I don’t carry a fuckin’ map around with me.”

“I bet you can draw one from memory. Because you’re a crazy supergenius and besides, Major Armstrong could.”

“Is that supposed to make me feel competitive or some shit?”

“No. It’s supposed to make you draw a map. I’ll show you a picture of Elicia building a snowman if you do!”

Ed heaved a put-upon sigh, snapped, “Stop making that face, asshole,” at Roy, then, to Maes, “We’d better go to your hidey hole for this, assuming nobody knows about it yet. We should’ve had this whole fuckin’ conversation in there.”

“I’ll have to call Lieutenant Hawkeye,” Roy said. “On pain of death.”

Maes laughed.

“Lieutenant Hawkeye,” Ed repeated thoughtfully. “The blonde lady?”

Maes walked on a few steps before realizing that Roy had come to an abrupt halt.

“Elric, when did you see the Lieutenant?” he asked tightly.

Oh. Oh, my.

Ed did that head-tilting trick of his. “She came to the house that time, right?”

Amazing. Amazing the way he could speak and yet say nothing. Although Roy seemed to understand what he meant, so maybe it was just that he always spoke in code. “That’s true,” Roy agreed, cautiously reassured.

“Lieutenant Hawkeye,” Ed murmured almost to himself. “…Elizabeth?”

Elric.” So much for that tentative reassurance. Roy was now chalk pale, maybe with fear, maybe with rage, maybe with both. Probably both. If Maes was not much mistaken, ‘Elizabeth’ was Hawkeye’s codename, and Ed…well. There were plenty of things Ed knew that he shouldn’t know, but this one was bound to hit closer to home than most.

“Don’t flip your shit,” Ed said dismissively. “It’s not like I tell people stuff. Just curious. Whatever.”

Roy scrubbed his face with both hands, as undignified as Maes had ever seen him in public.

Ah ha. So this was why Roy had been avoiding Ed. Maes even sympathized.

“Time’s wasting, Roy. Call your keeper.” It was still a fact that Roy had brought all of this upon himself, though. And also upon Maes.

Roy shot him a wounded look, but obediently wandered off in search of a phone. Ed snickered.

* * *

Maes didn’t bother to listen to the explanation. He’d heard it before. He hadn’t understood it then, and didn’t see any reason he should understand it now. Why try?

Instead, he amused himself by watching Roy and Ed, for they were very amusing. They were arguing, despite the fact that there wasn’t much to argue over, despite the fact that Roy was clearly somewhat afraid to argue with Ed. Ed leaned in to fight for a point, Roy unconsciously leaned back. But he leapt to the next point of contention with just as much enthusiasm as Ed.

Roy was a born leader: careful, charismatic, given to scheming. Ed, meanwhile, was a born wild thing. Maes doubted he had a problem with authority; more likely, it had never occurred to him that other people’s authority might have any relevance to his life. Still, he seemed fond of Roy, though Maes wasn’t sure he could call it respect so much as tolerant amusement. Ed would probably be willing to do favors for Roy, if Roy was careful to advertise them as a favors and not as any sort of duty to country.

Roy respected Ed’s mind, and Maes knew very well how insidiously likable Ed became once you gave him an inch. Roy was trying to recruit him, and Maes wasn’t sure whether or not he was doing it deliberately.

Hm.

“Are you seriously suggesting the homunculi have been around long enough to cause every one of these battles?” Roy demanded. “That’s insane, Elric.”

“Don’t even fuckin’ bother me with what’s insane around here, Mustang,” Ed snapped. “None of this shit makes sense, and you gotta stop acting like it does. Are you stupid?”

Roy’s jaw tightened. “Pardon me for needing a moment to cope with the idea that my country has been overrun by evil, impossible-to-kill monsters bent on our destruction.”

Maes wondered if they’d ever been in the same room for this long before. He suspected not. Because on top of all the other interesting dynamics, they clearly drove each other nuts. Roy had never mentioned that, and he would have, if he’d been aware of it.

“They’re not impossible to kill,” Maes put in for the fun of it. “Ed killed one.”

“Yeah, but that’s because I got him,” Ed said unhelpfully.

“…What do you mean, Elric?” Roy asked carefully, abruptly reminded of what he was talking to.

“You know.” Ed leaned across the table to give Roy a friendly clap on the shoulder that made him flinch. “I got where he was coming from. And he read me all wrong. I had the advantage, but it sure as shit wasn’t physical. I’m not laying odds on taking down the others anything like that easy.”

“And yet it didn’t seem particularly easy.” Maes said for Roy’s benefit. “What with the blood. And the limp. And the arm injury.”

Ed gave him a wary look. “You notice a lot more than you let on, huh?”

“I work in Intelligence, Ed.”

“Huh.”

“Let’s accept that Ed’s crazy theory is correct,” Maes went on. “Since he’s had a disturbingly good track record so far. In that case, they must have human support. Pawns. People who age. Otherwise they’d have been found out by now.”

“But who?” Roy asked, leaning toward Maes. “And how could they persuade humans to work against themselves?”

“Power, money, immortality,” Ed said.

“What about them?” Maes asked.

“That’s what you promise people, right?” Ed said with a blank face and dead eyes. “Power, money, immortality. And if you’re sitting on a Philosopher’s Stone, then you’re promising immortality, since you can get the other two other ways. What we’re looking for is some old fucks, probably military, who think they’re gonna live forever if the homunculi win.”

“I’ll take care of that,” Maes said cheerfully, because surely he could cheer away that scary expression on Ed’s face and the sickened one on Roy’s. Maybe. “Meanwhile, Roy! How will you be making yourself useful?”

“Is it time to call people in?” he asked seriously.

Oh. Good point. “Not quite, I’d think. Things can get much worse than this, and we’d better wait for it. We’re not there yet, Roy.”

Roy nodded, and Maes turned to Ed, expecting him to want to know what that was about. Instead, he looked bored.

“Can I go?” he asked, tipping his chair back onto two legs. “I got shit to do.”

He always did have shit to do, didn’t he? Maes was torn between wanting to know what it was, and very desperately wanting not to know. At least when Ed had been spending twelve hours a day in the library, he’d been easy to keep track of. Now he was only spending six hours a day, and that left a lot of hours Maes couldn’t account for.

“Roy, can we release Ed, or do you have more questions?”

“No questions,” Roy said. “I suppose we’ll see you…later, Elric?”

Ed hopped up and grinned. “Hell, yeah. Like I’m gonna do this on my own when I can make you do it for me.”

And on that happy note, he departed. Maes squinted one eye closed and tipped his head from side to side to check if that would cause the world to make sense again. Disappointingly, it did not. “‘How’s that taking over the world thing working out for you?’” he quoted.

Roy made no comment. He had a way of looking at you, did Roy, with serious eyes and a still mouth, and it meant that he was waiting to see what you would do next. It meant that this was a test, and he expected you to fail. Maes hated that expression with a passion.

“You’ve shared more information with Ed than I realized,” Maes pointed out in a calm, friendly tone that Roy would recognize as a prelude to pulling a knife.

“I didn’t share it,” Roy said evenly. Test still in progress. “I don’t know where he gets his information. Every time I turn around, he’s talking about Ishbal like he was there, he’s breaking my personal code, he’s throwing out references to my most closely held secrets—”

“Yes, yes,” Maes sighed. “I know. You might have told me that he knew. You might have mentioned quite a lot to me, Roy.”

“I know.” He was frowning thoughtfully now. A good sign; it meant that the test was over (Maes assumed he’d passed), and the next words out of Roy’s mouth probably wouldn’t be complete bullshit. “I wanted you to meet him first. I knew if you hadn’t met him…”

“I would have thought you were insane.” Maes hated it when Roy’s weaseling made sense. “Fine. What’s wrong with you?”

“There’s nothing wrong with me. He’s acting strange.”

“I thought that was his claim to fame?”

“Strange for him, obviously,” Roy snapped. “He looked uncomfortable. I’ve never seen him uncomfortable.”

Oh, Roy was more worried about Ed than about all life in Amestris, how…upsetting on many levels. And yet cute, in a peculiarly Roy sort of way.

“Central is foreign territory for him, Roy,” Maes pointed out. “From what I can find out, he’s never left the southeast, which he’s studied obsessively all his life. When he goes to a town there, he knows who’s who, what’s what, who to talk to about everything. He’s a big fish there. The big fish.

“He didn’t know Central at all. He only knew two people he’d even think about trusting, and them only by reputation. Both of them—pay attention, Roy—both of them connected to you. Think about what that means.”

“He did say he trusts me more than he trusts anyone else,” Roy admitted. Which might have been a good thing for him to have mentioned before. Anytime at all before now.

“He seemed odd to me, too, Roy,” Maes said, deciding that egregious communication failure was the theme of the day. “He seemed happy to see you.” Like he’d been greeting a much-beloved but somewhat stupid older brother. And Maes had watched the two of them—Ed’s fondness for Roy, Roy’s fear, respect, and fondness for Ed…and he couldn’t help thinking good cop/bad cop. He couldn’t help thinking that a politician like Roy was really going to need a bulldog. Someone less subtle than Hawkeye.

He had to stop thinking things like that, God help them all.

* * *

“General Grumman,” Maes said, trying not to strike a grim note right off the bat. “How much are you missing Roy?”

“Lieutenant Colonel Hughes, I presume,” said Grumman with a tolerant ah, young folk tone. “I’m sure your mother taught you that gloating is unattractive.”

His mother had been far too busy bragging about him to the neighbors to do anything of the kind. “It isn’t gloating, General! It’s concern!”

Grumman sighed. “What do you want from me, Hughes? I don’t owe you any favors—because I know what you do to people who owe you favors.”

“I don’t know what you’re suggesting,” Maes said airily. “And I only called to ask you a question.”

“I wait in fear.”

“How long would you like to live?” Ominous silence, and it occurred to Maes that that might sound more like a threat than a question. “Hypothetically! A purely hypothetical question. I mean, you’d like to live forever, wouldn’t you? Wouldn’t anyone?”

The ominous silence continued, but this time Maes was reasonably sure it wasn’t his fault.

Yes. A lead.

“Not you, too, Hughes,” Grumman finally in a low, unhappy rumble devoid of all humor. “I expect this nonsense from Raven, but you?”

“General Raven?” Maes did so love a lead. “What’s he up to these days?”

“He’s up North, I hear. Not that anyone tells an old fossil like me anything—I should say I overheard it. He went to deal with some problem they’re having up there, I’m not—” He broke off abruptly. “Hughes. What are you scheming?”

“Scheming?” Maes asked vaguely. “When are you going to visit us in Central? It’s been ages. You’ve never even met my glorious daughter! And you know, I think Lieutenant Hawkeye might be missing you.”

“Really?” Grumman asked with familial pride. “Missing me, you say? Well, in that case…I suppose I could leave these young people to look after things for a few days, perhaps in a month or two. I’ve built up a fair bit of leave. Nothing but work, work, work! What a life. You’ll let me know if she starts pining?”

A slight pause as they both tried and failed to picture what Hawkeye would look like, pining. “I certainly will,” Maes said honestly.

“Well. I might stop by in a month or two, then. Not for long, you understand. You let my girl know.”

“Absolutely, sir.”

* * *

“General Raven’s in on it,” Maes informed Roy, dumping a stack of paperwork detailing Raven’s personal history on the dusty desk between them. Ed glanced idly their way, then turned back to his book.

Ed showed no interest in the corruption of the military except as it related to crazy alchemy. But that was okay. That was what Maes and Roy were for.

“Raven,” Roy repeated. He sounded so pleased now that the prey had been spotted. Ed smirked absently, either at his book or at Roy’s tone. “Shall we pay a visit?”

“Alas, he is in North at the moment.” Which was…odd. “But certainly a visit is in order as soon as he gets back. I told General Grumman to stand by in case we need him.”

Roy frowned a question.

“Obviously not General Grumman, of all people, and try not to be paranoid. That’s my job.” Maes considered briefly. “And Ed’s.”

“The golden lion,” Ed murmured, ignoring Maes. His attention had wandered from the book, finally, and he was gazing at the flag outside the window.

“Golden lion? Rebirth, the Philosopher’s Stone. Gold, obviously,” Roy rattled off, frowning at Ed.

“Or, like, destruction of the base material and creation of something new and better.” Ed tipped his head back and laughed. “That is fuckin’ sick,” he shouted at the ceiling, then grinned at Roy. “Shit, Mustang. They’ve been tellin’ us all along. We’re base material.”

“You’re not serious,” Maes said blankly. “The flag—”

“The national flag—” Ed broke off momentarily to snicker. “The national flag of Amestris says, ‘We’re gonna fuckin’ kill you.’ I love it!”

He gave up the fight and dissolved into hysterical laughter. At least someone had the perspective to enjoy the humor of the situation.

Maes had thought of trying to assign tasks to Ed, but ultimately decided he didn’t have the balls for that, and this was precisely why. It is ill-advised to foist work off onto people who find proof of murderous intent hilarious. “That’s…wonderful, Ed. I’m happy you’re here to point these things out. What are you up to these days, anyway? You seem to have cut down the research hours.”

“Yeah, I guess I know basically enough to be going on with, library-wise. So I’m looking into stuff,” Ed said with his usual depths of unhelpfulness, but then, unexpectedly, “I’ll tell you when I find something out. You can’t help, and there’s no sense in you freaking about it in the meantime.”

He’d just volunteered information. It wasn’t much information, but even so…Edward Elric, full of surprises. Also, Maes wished he had a picture of Roy’s face right now, because if he did, he would treasure it forever and preserve it among the Elicia pictures and show it to absolutely everyone.

* * *

Another day, another mind-bending meeting with Ed and Roy, this one prompted by news from the North. He’d taken to having Roy leave messages with Madame Christmas for Ed, when they wanted to talk to him. The process only made his brain hurt a little. According to Roy, Madame Christmas was still responding to all inquiries about Ed with nothing but that deranged smoker’s cackle of hers.

“I talked to Major Armstrong today,” Maes told the mad alchemists. “He was full of news that I’d just as soon not have heard.”

“He freakin’ cried, didn’t he?” Ed muttered, and Roy shot him a disapproving look.

“Ah, worse still! Remember General Raven? Our lead, as I liked to call him?”

“The past tense,” Roy sighed.

“If I’m correctly reading between the lines, the past tense. Due to General Armstrong, who apparently didn’t take well to having him wander her base and order around her people. You know how she is.”

Ed nodded approvingly, and Maes spared a moment to pray that he and Olivia Armstrong would never, ever meet.

“A lovely woman, General Armstrong. Absolutely terrifying, of course,” Roy muttered, but Maes knew he secretly thought she was cool.

“The Major also implied that they found another homunculus underneath the base. It sounds like they tried to kill it, but it ran off down an underground tunnel, and poof! It disappeared. I imagine the General was annoyed.”

Roy was clearly torn between smirking over the General’s likely reaction to failing to kill something, and going grim over the prospect of another homunculus.

Ed wasn’t torn at all. Ed was crazy instead. “That’s great!” he said.

“Elric, I respectfully disagree,” Roy murmured.

“I’m serious, moron, think about it. Greed said there were six including him. Plus the Father guy, whatever. Greed died, I got Envy, so there’s four left. We know about the woman and the fat guy. That leaves two, and we found one up North. So, awesome, we’re down to one. We’re totally getting somewhere. If we hear something about Scar and Kimbley, shit, what am I gonna ask for for my birthday?”

“Birthday?” Roy repeated faintly.

Ed bounced happily to his feet. “Birthday. Most people have ‘em, Colonel. Hey, since things aren’t too fucked up and it’ll probably be a while before the homunculus up north gets down here, I’m gonna get my automail tuned before the shit hits the fan. You guys do your, whatever, political crap. Later.”

“How long will this take?” Roy demanded. Roy didn’t like to let his people out of his sight. It was getting to be a problem, Maes felt. Protecting the underlings was all well and good. Going overprotective older brother at every opportunity was less well and good; was, in fact, counterproductive. Conversations might need to be had.

“I dunno,” Ed said, walking backwards toward the door, grinning at Roy.

“Say hello to Paninya for me,” Maes put in. Ed’s grin fell away. He didn’t verbally reply, but instead stared at Maes for twenty-eight seconds (he counted) with an eerie lack of expression. Then he turned and left.

“Paninya?” Roy asked.

Maes was tired, and he wanted to go home.

* * *

Home at last. Home, near-spotless in a way that a house containing a three-year-old had no right to be. Maes gazed fondly at the garden, which was so flawless that it sometimes frightened visitors. He considered the highly organized stacks of biology books, math books, and geology books in Gracia’s study. “In case Elicia asks questions about it when she gets older,” apparently. In case Elicia came to have questions about advanced natural science at some point. Of course.

All this, and she still had time to spy on the neighbors.

“Have you ever considered going back to work, just as a vacation from your life?” he asked, wrapping his arms around her and peering out the window over the top of her head. Nothing exciting going on out there, as far as he could see.

“Papa!” Elicia cried, and he released Gracia to swing his daughter up into his arms.

“In its way, this is entertaining,” Gracia assured him, passing Elicia the binoculars, which Elicia took with the exaggerated care of those with underdeveloped motor skills.

Adorable, Maes thought.

“You’re teaching our daughter to spy on the neighbors,” he pointed out mildly.

“Tell your father how we feel about the neighbors,” Gracia said.

“We are very concerned about them,” Elicia said gravely, peering through the binoculars.

Maes loved Gracia, loved her with all his heart. And he thanked God every day that she was on his side. “Well, ladies, have we discovered anything about the neighbors?”

“Nope. We’re looking for the lady and the big man,” Elicia told him, and he went cold all the way to his lungs.

“What—”

“We haven’t seen them, Maes,” Gracia said briskly, but she gave him a gentle look. “Just in case.”

“If we see them, we’re going to call you and Uncle Roy and, and then we’re running away! But we’ll be sneaky, Mama said.” She turned to Maes, and in her mysterious, three-year-old way, decided he was upset. “Don’t worry, Papa,” she said. “We’ll remember our flashlights.”

“Well then,” he said. And because Gracia was watching him, careful and calm, he didn’t let himself have a panic attack. He didn’t let himself bundle them into a car headed to the sea.

Ed was probably right in thinking that it wouldn’t do any good anyway.

* * *

Ed took a trip out East for automail maintenance, and came back with a Xingian prince and a suicidal plan involving lots of explosions.

Maes was coming to expect this sort of behavior from Ed.

It was a glorious Saturday morning that Maes ought to have been spending with his daughter, and he was instead meeting Roy, Ed, and guests in a hotel. (Roy didn’t want to overuse the safehouse and Maes agreed with him.) The Xingian prince standing in the cheap hotel room and inspecting the flimsy, pastel curtains made the meeting especially surreal.

“Dickhead says he’s looking for the Philosopher’s Stone,” Ed explained to Maes and Roy, blithely ignoring the fact that said dickhead (Ling Yao, twelfth son of the Emperor of Xing, armed with two bodyguards, a sword, and a worrying smile) was standing immediately behind him. “So I figured I’d throw him to the homunculi and see what happened.”

“Do you speak Amestrian?” Maes had to ask the prince.

The worrying smile managed to become even more worrying. “Of course. It would be foolish to embark on a quest to a strange country without being able to speak the…native language.”

Maes wasn’t sure how he’d managed, with that simple statement, to imply that Maes was stupid and that the native language, the country, and all of the citizens therein were barbaric, but he had. Maes was impressed.

Ed had caught the implication, too. Maes could tell by the See? This is why we should throw him to the homunculi look he was aiming at Roy.

“Ed, if we throw him to the homunculi, he might die,” Maes pointed out, ignoring Ling for the moment.

Ed turned away from Roy to favor Maes with that old, familiar blank look. “I don’t care.”

Ling took on a wounded and long-suffering expression, but said, “I’m very resilient, Mr. …”

“Hughes. Lieutenant Colonel Hughes. And this is Colonel Roy Mustang. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

“Indeed, it is a pleasure to meet members of the Amestrian military. Very…potentially useful. And unexpected,” he added, glancing at Ed.

“We all keep low company sometimes,” Ed muttered.

“Indeed,” Ling agreed cheerfully. Ed glared at him. He smiled back.

Well, if he could hold his own against Ed, his odds against a homunculus were better than even.

Anyway,” Ed said, dropping Ling abruptly from his attention. “I talked to Madame Christmas about all this shit before I left. She talked to some people, like she does.” Significant look toward Roy. “Turns out there’s this doctor named Marco who’s maybe not so much of a shit as most of those doctors in Ishbal were, and he should know something worth knowing. But everybody says he’s a fuckin’ rabbit, so that’s irritating. Besides, he’s missing.”

“Rabbit?” Maes repeated.

“Chicken,” Ed elaborated with false patience. “Scaredy cat. Wimp, weak-dick. You want me to draw a fuckin’ picture?”

“Missing?” Roy asked, shooting Maes an irritated glance.

“Yeah, and his house has puncture wounds. Sound familiar?”

“…Not really, Ed,” Maes said.

“I told you about Lust, didn’t I?”

“Oh, yes. The Ultimate Spear, according to Greed,” Maes explained to Roy. “You think Lust abducted Dr. Marco?”

“Looks like. And we should get him back and ask him stuff, because there’s some creepy research I bet he’s done that I’m just not gonna do. And this prince guy says he’ll help because he thinks he wants to see a homunculus up close. So you figure out where Marco is.”

We’re the ones figuring out where he is?” Roy asked dryly.

“Yeah, I’m busy,” Ed tossed off with a mad grin.

Roy scowled. Temper, temper, Maes reflected. It showed itself so much less often than it had when they were younger, but that just meant it was worse when it did show itself. “If you can fit it into your full schedule,” Roy said in a cold, civil tone of voice that was going to get him nowhere with Ed, “I’d like to know what exactly this research you’re doing is.”

“You wanna see my notes?” Ed asked, supremely unconcerned. “You can have ‘em if you can crack ‘em.”

“I don’t have time to crack them,” Roy snapped.

“Time?” Ed asked. “Ability? Shit, who knows. Something like that.”

“Pardon me,” Ling murmured to Maes with a polite smile. “Your alchemist told us to call again next week. He seems to think you’ll have found the doctor by then. May I ask how we should go about contacting you?”

Interesting that Ling had chosen to have this chat with Maes. Was it because the other two were busy squabbling, or was it because Ling could read the lay of the land that easily?

The twelfth son of the Emperor of Xing. Maes imagined that imperial children didn’t survive long if they couldn’t read a situation.

He gave one of Ling’s bodyguards the address of one of the safe houses and a time next week. He told Ling not to get his hopes up, and was met with a firm smile.

“People do keep telling me that,” Ling said.

No sooner had Ling and bodyguards closed the door behind them than Roy shouted, “Just tell me what you’ve learned, damn it!” at Ed.

There followed a very unpleasant silence. Maes had never before seen anyone back Roy down through force of glare alone, and Maes had seen Roy face off against some very scary people. He imagined guilt was factoring into this, though.

“I know you didn’t just try to boss me around,” Ed murmured at last in a dangerously quiet voice.

“No.” Roy took a careful breath. “That would be like suicide.”

“I’m not one of your damn minions,” Ed went on as though he hadn’t heard.

“I know,” Roy said. Roy was hard to read, and it was deliberate, but Maes knew him well. He didn’t miss that Roy was sad that Ed didn’t work for him.

And neither did Ed, who paused, considered, and gave Roy an almost regretful shrug. “Sorry.”

Roy blinked. “What?”

“What the fuck. Guess I’ll get the notes anyway. They’re at my place; it’ll take a while. It’s not like they’ll do you any good,” Ed said, and followed the Xing contingent out the door. Maes wondered if Ed was capable of feeling such a thing as embarrassment.

Roy turned to Maes. “What?” he repeated.

“Have I shown you the pictures of Elicia’s new dress?”

“Hughes!”

Ah, he’d probably been played with enough for one day. “Will you feel better if I go with him?”

Roy blinked, startled. “You think he’ll let you?”

Maes smiled, and tried not to worry that sometimes he understood the way Ed’s mind worked. “He’s been to my home,” he told Roy. “It’s fair.”

“Equivalent exchange?” Roy asked thoughtfully.

Ed had said that the equivalent exchange law was only functional. Maes remembered that, because it had been one of the more disturbing conversations of his life. He hoped Ed didn’t extend the law to his personal life. It being only functional.

* * *

Ed lived on the outskirts of town in a shack that had most likely been condemned years ago, and he made Maes walk all the way out there.

In a way, Maes could see the appeal: no one would dream that a human was inhabiting this dilapidated thing. The roof was sagging ominously, every window was broken and most were covered in cobwebs, everything that could rust had rusted. The wind rushed through the remains with an eerie, whining whistle. The net effect was about as creepy and unwelcoming as a man-made structure could reasonably be.

“How, ah. Rustic?” Maes tried. Although that was a lie, and bitterly unfair on rustic architecture everywhere. Abandoned desert-front property occupied an alarming architectural niche all its own.

“It’s just a place,” Ed muttered. “A place is a place.”

“Yes, but some places have central heating. And fewer insects.” Although the shack was, now Maes thought of it, very like the run-down buildings on the outskirts of East. Maybe Ed had wanted to stay someplace familiar.

The inside was almost as desolate as the outside. Four rooms. Maes knew there were four because there were holes knocked in every one of the walls, and he could see them. There were weeds growing up between the floorboards, which suggested there was no such thing as a foundation. Broken glass under the windows.

But, curiously, hanging upside down over the filthy, cobwebby sink was a bouquet of dried yellow and red flowers that looked familiar.

“Hey, Lizard,” Ed shouted. “He’s with me. He’s okay.”

A head peeked around one of the intact doorframes. A boy. Young, maybe ten or so. Presumably the “country kid” Ed had given the flowers to. Maes hadn’t realized they were roommates. He had also severely underestimated what Ed had meant when he’d described the kid as kind of strange. Kind of strange, in this case, clearly meant part reptile.

“Who is he?” the lizard kid snapped.

“Hughes,” Ed answered absently, digging a chest from beneath a shattered bedframe.

“Nice to meet you,” Maes said, holding out a hand.

The kid leapt back and snarled, “Don’t touch me!”

Lizard’s three favorite phrases, as Maes would learn, were: “Who is he?” “Don’t touch me,” and “Fuck off.” At least it was clear enough what Ed saw in him.

“I didn’t know you shared a house,” Maes said mildly.

“Yeaaah,” Ed drawled, now fighting with the lock on the chest. “That’d be because I never told you. He’s called Lizard, cuz people are just creative like that. He was one of Greed’s, but Greed sent him with me for a while, like a guide. And then Greed died, so he stuck around.” Ed shot a glance Lizard’s way. “Which was fucking stupid.”

Lizard scowled back, and edged slightly behind the doorframe.

Ed lost patience with the lock, snarled, clapped, and transmuted the entire chest into splinters. It seemed excessive.

“You couldn’t have transmuted the lock?” Maes asked, keeping a respectful distance, just in case.

“I’ll put it back. Fuck you, shut up. What are you even doing here?”

Lizard took this time to pitch a pebble at the back of Ed’s head, which caused Ed to leap up with a shout. Maes backed a prudent two additional steps away. Lizard, on the other hand, mouthed the word stupid at Ed, then pelted for the rear of the house.

“What’s your problem, you little shit?” Ed yelled after him.

Maes was noticing a trend among people who willingly spent time with Ed. They were brave to the point of madness.

“Here it is,” Ed said, hefting a tiny black book. “Dunno what he thinks he’ll get out of it even if I freaking read it to him. I didn’t get anything out of it. Don’t see why he should.”

Genius alchemists could be quite irritating.

Ed stood and marched to the door, book in hand, leaving Maes to trail after him. “Be back late!” Ed shouted.

“Fuck off!” Lizard shouted back. Ed rolled his eyes and closed the door.

“Is Lizard his real name?” Maes asked after a few steps.

Ed shrugged. “It’s just what Greed called him.”

Hm. “How do you suppose he ended up in a government lab?”

Ed’s shoulders were going tense, and Maes wasn’t sure why. Ed usually just dodged questions he didn’t like; he didn’t get angry over them. Was it because these weren’t his questions to answer? “Got no idea,” he muttered, low and hostile.

“I wonder if his parents are alive,” Maes mused.

Ed snapped.

“What fucking difference does it make?” he snarled. “If they’re dead, they’re dead and he’s not getting ‘em back. If they’re not dead, then shit, they sold him to that lab, didn’t they? And they never looked back. If some lizard kid comes up to ‘em now saying he’s theirs, they’ll beat him to death with a fucking shovel. You, you, and your goddamn…sunshine and daisies…it’s never like that for us. You got no fucking clue. No fucking clue what it’s like. Shut up. Just shut up and don’t ask. It’s got nothin’ to do with you. We don’t need you. We’re fine.”

Well, this explained the tension. “Look, Ed—”

Shut up.”

Maes let the silence be for the next mile, until they were well into town. He’d hoped Ed would be less furious by then. Body language suggested he was out of luck.

“I know I don’t understand, Ed,” Maes said, figuring another mile or another month wouldn’t make any difference at this point. “But that doesn’t mean I can’t help.”

“Actually, it does,” Ed said shortly. “Later.” He turned abruptly and stormed into a hardware store, slamming the door behind him.

Not the best day of their friendship.

* * *

“You look terrible,” Roy helpfully pointed out when Maes showed up on his doorstep.

“You’ll have to talk to Ed tomorrow,” Maes said, “because he had a tantrum and ran away.”

“You were going to bring him to my house?” Roy asked, appalled.

“Why not? I took him to mine.” Maes decided he’d done enough waiting outside to satisfy propriety, and elbowed past Roy on his way to the drinks cabinet.

Roy followed him silently, which meant he’d noticed that Maes felt as bad as he looked. Maes rummaged through the cabinet and found that Roy had a ridiculous amount of whiskey. How much whiskey could one man drink? Was there no vodka in the house? Gin?

And why did Maes feel so bad about today? It wasn’t because he was worried that Ed would hold a grudge. Ed never held a grudge, it was one of his more endearing qualities. If he didn’t kill you on the spot, your relationship would be fine.

Was this alcohol? Was this even drinkable? Surely no one should ingest something this improbable shade of blue.

The problem with Ed was, he wouldn’t let anyone help him. No, that had always been true. The problem was that now Maes considered him part of Roy’s team, which made the whole thing more immediate and personal. It was always a step back for every step forward with Ed. And a few steps sideways, just to give Maes a headache.

Vermouth. Well, worse come to worst.

Roy was staring at the side of his face. Very irritating, because Roy was quite good at reading people, and if Maes was refusing to look at him, why, that meant he didn’t want to be read, didn’t it?

Roy had a bottle of 1875 vintage brandy. Dear God. At what point in his life had he been able to afford that?

“I need this,” Maes announced.

“I was saving it for a promotion,” Roy murmured, but didn’t otherwise complain. Roy was worried. Sigh.

“Well, we must all make sacrifices for the cause, Roy. Sacrifices must be made.” Maes headed to the kitchen, Roy following him like a fretful sheepdog.

“What will Gracia say when you come home drunk?” he asked.

“One does not get drunk on expensive, expensive brandy. But if, hypothetically, I did, Gracia would say, ‘I wish you wouldn’t worry so much about everyone,’ and then she would put Elicia to bed and get me an ice pack for my head and hold me, and this, my friend, is why you should get married.”

“I suspect Gracia is unique.”

“Of course she is. And if you try to take her away, I’ll kill you.” Roy was at least being very obliging about not insisting on an explanation. Good man, Roy. In some ways stunning in his brilliance, in some ways quite stupid. A good man.

Three fingers of brandy was a reasonable start, Maes felt. Lovely golden brown, mm. He poured a finger for Roy, too. Ed was worth at least two fingers of 1875 brandy, so this was fair, reasonable, and aboveboard.

Maes seized his glass and the bottle and headed for the living room. Roy trailed after him. Maes should have fits of temper more often; he always forgot how docile they made Roy.

“Let’s talk about Dr. Marco,” Maes said once they were settled, dropping the bottle down on the coffee table with a thunk that made Roy wince. “Let’s talk about Ed. Let’s talk about the future. Let’s talk, Roy. We haven’t done that in a while.”

He knocked back half the brandy. It was very disrespectful, he knew. Roy was within his rights to wince about that one.

“What exactly did you have on the agenda?” Roy asked, leaning back, would-be casual.

“Well. Let’s start with Ed. And rescuing Dr. Marco, which you’ll need your team for, because if you think you’re using my men, you are very, very wrong. I refuse to send them on the kind of shoot-em-up and explosions missions your people like.”

“You’re telling me to introduce Elric to the team.”

“I’d suggest it. Assuming we go through with this at all…and why are we going through with this?”

“Elric—”

“Elric, Elric, Elric.” Maes sighed, but mindfully took a careful sip of the brandy. Very good brandy. Very expensive. Respect the brandy. “He is so often right, isn’t he? He’s fifteen.”

A small, careful pause. “I don’t understand your point,” Roy said.

“I don’t have one,” Maes admitted. “It just depresses me. If we survive this, you’ve got a one-way ticket to the top. Isn’t that nice?”

Roy laughed and slumped a little, genuinely relaxed now. “Yes,” he said, smiling at Maes. “That’s why we’re going after Marco. It’s meant to improve our odds of survival.”

There were, Maes reflected, very few people who could deal with him in this mood. There were fewer still who found it enjoyable. Happily, Roy was kind of twisted. Plus he had really good brandy. “Let us hypothesize wildly.”

“Let us, Maes, by all means.”

“Let us say that we all survive this, and that Amestris ends up under the somewhat worrying rule of you.”

“Well, you did say wildly.”

“At that time, what are you planning to do about Ed?”

Roy put a hand over his mouth to hide a smile. “I was planning to leave it up to Lieutenant Hawkeye.”

“Eeeeevil,” Maes said admiringly, and toasted Roy with his own brandy. “All the more reason to introduce them.”

“Agreed.”

“Sooner rather than later.”

“Yes, Maes.”

“Good. As long as you’ve thought that through, I shan’t worry.”

“Shan’t?”

“Yes. And I won’t, either. How’s the Ishbal contingent?”

“Ready.”

“Excellent.” One finger more. He could still walk home with one finger more. God, he’d become such a lightweight, these last five years. Maybe his liver was still annoyed about what he’d done to it the previous ten.

He noticed that Roy had hardly sipped his drink, which meant he felt he needed to be completely sober to deal with Maes right now. Heh. “Kimbley’s dead.”

A slight lift of eyebrows. “How?”

“Mm. Scar, probably. They found his body, or what was left of it, just inside the gates of Briggs, like a slap in the face. Armstrong is on his way back to Central. I understand the General will follow him down at the end of the winter. Who knows. Scar may be here already.”

“Hm.”

“I wonder if Ed knows.”

“You could ask.”

Maes made a face and Roy chuckled sympathetically. Maes was planning to give it a few weeks before he started asking Ed questions again. Crazy people were so exhausting.

“About the fuhrer with no history,” Maes said.

“I’ve asked Madame Christmas to look into it,” Roy said. It was cute how he always used her fake name when he had her doing a job for him. “She runs less risk of military observation than you do.”

Right. Topic covered, moving on.

“Ling Yao,” Maes said, “is one scary kid.”

The reason Gracia didn’t enjoy dealing with him in this mood was because hers was a well-ordered mind. Maes liked to think he got there in the end, but he got there via highly random motion that drove Gracia a little insane.

Again, it didn’t seem to bother Roy at all.

“Is he?” he asked, not missing a beat.

Yes.”

“Should we try to back out of this?”

“No. He’s no problem for us, because we are not involved in the savage fight for the imperial throne. This turns out to be very lucky. Involved people tend to meet the Yao clan and die horribly. And then get made into soup, if you believe one terrified informant.”

Roy digested this in silence. Well, mostly silence. Roy had one of those old fashioned tock-tock-tock clocks that Maes despised, so it was a silence filled with tock-tock-tocking.

“Was there anything else?” Roy asked dryly.

There wasn’t, really. That had covered almost the full range of festering things that had been bothering Maes. His glass was empty, too, and since he was in a more benevolent mood, he no longer felt compelled to drink the whole bottle.

“No, that’s everything.” He stood, and Roy stood too, sighing. He shouldn’t sigh. Maes had gone much crazier on him before and probably would again. And vice-versa, come to think of it. This hadn’t even involved knives. Roy was just being whiney.

“Feel better,” Roy murmured, walking him to the door.

He already did feel better. Of course he did. It was the reason he was going home to his wife instead of staying and drinking the rest of Roy’s expensive brandy. “Thank you, mein Colonel.”

* * *

Ed did not hold a grudge over the Lizard Incident. But then, Maes had been sure he wouldn’t.

What he hadn’t foreseen was Ed sticking close for days, reporting in, practically hovering. He hadn’t foreseen something very like an Ed-style apology.

Sometimes he didn’t understand Ed at all. But Roy did. It was enough.

Understanding didn’t always help Roy, though. It didn’t prevent Ed from cornering him and reading out the entirety of his alchemy notes dating back three years. Maes was informed that there were a lot of lists of elements in Ed’s notes. The composition of humans, the composition of quartz, the composition of cheese. Maes was to know that Roy was now an expert on how to transmute swords from sand, among other things.

As Ed had promised, his notes hadn’t contained anything particularly helpful on the subject of the end of the world. Maes counted the experience as a win anyway. Parts of it had been quite funny, after all. And the rest had been revealing.

* * *

Introduction to the team: victim the first, Riza Hawkeye.

Maes was sadly unable to come along for that one, but he heard it was special, indeed. He heard it had involved Ed being borderline polite and Hawkeye saying, “Sir?” in that way she had when she was so angry she was thinking of shooting everyone to spare herself the aggravation. Shame he’d missed it.

He made sure he was the one to do the introductions for victim two.

“It’s a kid,” Breda drawled, eyeing Ed before giving Maes a dubious look.

“It’s a fat man,” Ed sneered back.

“It’s a brat, too,” Breda informed Maes. “There a reason we’re bringing a brat along?”

Maes smiled, well pleased. “Ed, this is Second Lieutenant Heymans Breda, who works for Roy. Breda, this is Edward Elric. Edward Elric, the Demon Alchemist.”

Breda raised an eyebrow at Ed. “You gonna kill me or something?”

“I don’t kill people for being fucking annoying,” Ed informed him. “You gotta work harder than that.”

Breda shrugged. “Right. I sort of like the kid. What’s the plan?”

Roy’s team. Oh, Roy’s team.

Maes sadly missed the rest of the introductions, being preoccupied with finding their target. Roy was careful to share the highlights, though, which was decent of him.

Fuery had been terrified, but tried to be nice, and the net effect had made Ed laugh, which terrified everyone.

Havoc had tried to hide bodily behind Roy, which, given their respective heights, must have been awkward.

Falman hadn’t shown any sign that he cared what Ed’s profession was. He’d been too busy grilling him on the details of the case. Maes worried that they might get along.

* * *

One of Maes’s men found a rumor of a hint of a suggestion that perhaps there was an Ishbal doctor being held in Lab 3. Perhaps the theoretical doctor was Marco. Conceivably.

“This is not a sure thing,” Maes informed Ed.

“Yeah, you said that five times already.” Ed rolled his eyes and looked horribly adolescent. “Can we just go?

“Promise me that if we go and he’s not there, you won’t have a fit of rage and destroy the building.”

“Shit, I’ll try my best, Hughes. Anyway, it’s a government lab. Destroying it would be a freaking public service, I’m just saying.”

“This is meant to be a discreet mission, Elric,” Roy murmured, checking over a map of the city. “What about here?” he asked Fuery.

“Too close to HQ.”

“Here?”

Fuery’s fingers traced over phone lines on the map. “Mm,” he agreed. “It’ll take us an hour to set up.”

“Falman will go with Fuery,” Roy said. “Hawkeye, Havoc, keep Elric from blowing up any buildings.”

“Hey,” Ed protested mildly.

“And I’ll—”

“Stay here,” Hawkeye said quellingly. There began a staring contest that everyone in the room except Roy knew he was going to lose.

“I’ll stay here,” he sighed eventually, bowing to the inevitable. Ed snickered and Roy shot him a dirty look. “Hughes?”

“Hm? What makes you think I’m not going home?”

“Your fatal curiosity.”

“It hasn’t been fatal so far,” Maes sighed. He hoped it never would be, but Roy had an unfortunate point. For example: “I’ll head to Lab 3 first, just to get the lay of the land, then I’ll keep Fuery and Falman company. My men are staying out of it.”

“Yes, so you said,” Roy replied, indifferent. Roy’s personality was going underground. It always did when he was using all of his higher faculties to scheme. “You can head over in your own time. We’ll send Elric first, and Hawkeye will follow after Fuery’s set up, in case anything comes up at the last minute and we need to abort.”

Havoc chose this time to arrive. He was the last one, and possibly for that reason was the one Roy punished. Roy went to meet him before he got out of the car, Ed and Maes trailing after.

“Havoc,” Roy said, “drive Elric to Lab 3. He’ll let you know the plan along the way, and the Lieutenant will meet you in half an hour.”

Havoc gave Roy the most pitiful look Maes had ever seen on his face, and that was saying something, because Havoc’s repertoire of pitiful looks was pretty extensive. “But Chief—”

“Nice car,” Ed said, leaning down to peer past Havoc. He leaned close enough that it would have been uncomfortable even if Ed had been a normal person. Which he wasn’t. Havoc stopped looking pitiful and started looking panicked. “Shame about the fucking cigarette reek, though,” Ed went on.

Maes knew Ed well enough by now to know that scaring the bejeezus out of innocent bystanders was his idea of a good time. Havoc did not know that. Poor, poor man.

“Havoc didn’t anticipate your delicate nose in his car,” Roy drawled. “You’ll have to try to forgive him.”

Ed turned away from Havoc to face Roy, but his right hand stayed propped on the window, metal in plain sight. Havoc was eyeing it as he might a snake. “I’m not gonna hold it against him,” Ed said with his just-for-Roy scary grin. “I’m holdin’ it against you. You’re supposed to be the boss, right?”

“I can’t control the Second Lieutenant’s smoking,” Roy said. “Or the weather,” he added reflectively.

Ed snorted, leaning back down to terrorize Havoc a little more. “Calm down, guy,” he said in a distinctly non-comforting fashion. “I hardly ever bite.”

Havoc swallowed. “Good to know.”

“I didn’t know you were into biting at all, Elric,” Roy said, arms crossed. Looking unsettled despite his best efforts. Aw.

“Well, you know.” Ed swaggered around to the passenger side. “Never say never.” He hopped into the car and slammed the door behind him. Havoc shot one last accusing glance Roy’s way, and off they went.

Farewell, brave Havoc. It was nice knowing you.

Ed in a good mood was almost as frightening as Ed in a bad mood.

* * *

“Isn’t Breda coming to the party?” Maes asked. He’d seemed so eager, after all.

“Breda’s taking care of the paperwork that explains why all of my staff is out of the office today,” Roy replied.

Maes blinked. “What did he ever do to you?”

Roy looked put-upon. “He and the Lieutenant are the best at destroying a paper trail. Unlike the Lieutenant, Breda is not an award-winning sniper, so he pulls paperwork. Interesting that he didn’t question me, but you did.”

“Well, I don’t have to report to you,” Maes observed. “Further to which, have I mentioned that this is a crazy idea?”

“Once or twice,” Roy murmured. “Or ten times. I told you why I agreed to support Elric, and you didn’t argue.”

Annoying but true. “You know someone killed the Silver Alchemist this morning,” Maes said. Spitefully. Throwing that out right then was definitely an act of spite.

Roy looked up from his map. “No.”

“I think we can change Scar’s being in Central from a possibility to a probability. So as soon as we’re finished with this, assuming we don’t all get killed or arrested, we should probably chase after him.”

“Have you mentioned this to Edward?” Hawkeye asked, and Maes and Roy both turned to face her, incredulous.

“I thought,” said Roy, “that you didn’t approve of Elric.”

“I didn’t,” Hawkeye agreed, unruffled.

“And yet….” Roy trailed hopefully off. Hawkeye looked blank. Roy gave up. “And yet you suddenly want me to talk to him?”

“Edward and I understand each other now,” Hawkeye said. Then she glanced at her watch and said, “Excuse me, sir. The Lieutenant Colonel and I should head to Lab 3.”

And she walked off, shameless, leaving Roy to gawp after her. Maes thought it was almost as adorable as Elicia. Almost.

Roy was so stupidly stubborn about his love life, about Hawkeye, and most particularly about the intersection of the two. Maes generally found this depressing. No man needed to be married to a practical woman quite as badly as Roy Mustang did.

Just at this moment, though, it was pretty funny.

“Be good, Roy,” he said. “Stay.”

Roy growled at him.

* * *

“Havoc,” Hawkeye said, stepping out of the car. “Check the front of the building and report back.”

Havoc beamed joyously at her, barely stopping himself from thanking her for the order. “On it, Lieutenant. And, uh.” A worried glance toward Ed, who was firmly ignoring everyone and staring intently through the fence toward the back of the lab. “So far so good?”

“Glad to hear it.”

Havoc fled.

“Y’know,” Ed piped up unexpectedly once Havoc was out of earshot, “that Second Lieutenant isn’t a bad guy.”

Maes and Hawekeye both stared at him, but that was evidently all he had to say about Jean Havoc. Maes wondered what he was looking for through that fence, or if he was trying to spontaneously develop x-ray vision and see through the walls.

“All prepared, Ed?” Maes asked. Ed hissed irritably in response. Everyone was making animal noises at Maes today. Was it the weather? “Sticking to automail and alchemy? I’m sure the Lieutenant would let you borrow a gun.”

Ed ignored him. He’d predicted that, but he wanted to see how Hawkeye would respond to this suggestion. Her response turned out to be…unorthodox.

“Edward doesn’t use guns,” she explained, loading her own.

“Oh?” It was true that Maes had never seen him with a weapon other than a knife or five. Occasionally a spear. He couldn’t see any reason for Hawkeye to know that, though. What exactly had been covered in this heart-to-heart Ed and Hawkeye had apparently had? “Why not?”

Hawkeye shrugged and looked inscrutable, which was something she had a natural aptitude for.

“Ed? Why not?”

Ed turned away from the fence with a scowl. “Huh? I’m busy.”

“Why don’t you use guns?”

“Why…? I dunno. They’re not as fun. Now shut up, I’m busy.”

Not as fun. Maes looked helplessly to Hawkeye, who met his eyes, pushed her cartridge home with a snick, and managed to give the impression that she’d found Maes wanting.

Why me? Maes thought. Why am I wanting? I’m the one who doesn’t like to beat people to death.

“Have you seen what you wanted to see?” Hawkeye asked coolly. He really was in trouble, wasn’t he? But why, why?

“I have seen,” Maes announced grandly. And he had. He’d seen that he had been quite right to refuse to commit his men to this lunacy. “And now I shall flee.”

Hawkeye nodded politely and Ed snorted. Maes got into his car and took off to the friendlier pastures inhabited by Fuery and Falman.

* * *

About half an hour had passed, and they had just settled into serious listening for any messages or hints of disturbance when their job was rendered irrelevant.

“No go,” Ed announced from the window, causing Maes and Fuery both to jump a foot. Even Falman looked unsettled. Hayate, on the other hand, ran joyously over and tried to lick Ed’s face.

First Nina, now this. All that babble about animals being good judges of character was clearly a fond delusion.

“Um. No go?” Fuery asked. Ed nodded, scratching Hayate behind the ears. “Why…why not?” Fuery persisted.

Ed shrugged. “He was dead already. Scar. That fucker, I’m about sick of his shit. He’d better have learned something from Marco before he splatted him, is all, or I’ll splat him.” Ed stood and looked at their uncomprehending faces. “Anyway,” he said. “Go home. I gotta find Ling’s guys before they do something stupid. Later.”

He ran off. As he was prone to do. Awkward silence followed in his wake, as was also typical.

“Um,” said Fuery. “Why didn’t they just call us on the phone? Or use the radio?”

Maes suspected someone’s bad sense of humor. In fact, he suspected Hawkeye’s bad sense of humor. He didn’t want to say that out loud, though, because if he did, it might get back to Ed. And that would be scary.

Was this propensity for playing with fire something Roy and Hawkeye shared? Because, if so, Maes took back all his wishes that they would get married.

* * *

Maes was very, very tired of finding so many leads that turned out to be a bust. He was surprised that Ed didn’t seem more put off by it. He made the mistake of asking why not, and was informed, quote, “Things go to shit all the time, what’s different about this? It’s way the hell creepier when everything goes fine.”

…Sigh.

Monotony. Futility. Paperwork. The constant awareness of impending doom. Maes found himself distractedly wishing that they would hurry up and start destroying Amestris already. A very familiar mad feeling, this one; he’d often had it in Ishbal. Sitting around for hours, wishing to God they would just shoot at you and get it over with.

Part of the boredom was caused by absence of Ed. Maes couldn’t torment him in the library anymore, and he apparently didn’t have any jobs for which he needed the military, so he visited but rarely. Maes almost never knew what he was up to. It would have been lonesome, if not for Roy, who provided him with daily worrying reports on various subjects. One of these reports was that even Madame Christmas was having a tough time pulling up history on the fuhrer without a history. A spectacularly bad sign, that.

It became obvious that Roy was somehow tracking Ed, as well. Maes discovered this when Roy marched into his office—his office, his office, where was the man’s famed subtlety?—and said, “He’s missing.”

“Who’s missing?”

Roy gritted his teeth and leaned forward. “Elric.”

Maes leaned forward in turn. “You are not his mother. Don’t you have enough paperwork to do? Should I give you some of mine?”

“I’m serious, Hughes! He missed a meeting!”

Maes sat back and studied Roy. Why so fretful? Maes didn’t find it amazing that Ed would miss a meeting. He might have gotten distracted by a serial killer and chased him halfway to Xing by now, after all. “When was the meeting?”

“Yesterday. He was the one who set it up; he said he had something to tell me.”

Maes sighed and scratched a hand through his hair. “Yes. Well, after all, Ed certainly never gets sidetracked…”

He set it up, Maes.”

Maes put both hands on the table and gave Roy his best serious look. “Ed is focusing on whatever it is he focuses on. You need to focus on your work. Ed has disappeared for much longer than this before. I don’t plan to worry for a while yet.”

Roy stood and scowled down at him, but shook his head and left without further comment.

Maes sighed again and tried to melt into his chair.

* * *

A day passed.

“How long are we going to wait?” Roy demanded, as miserable and tense as if Havoc or Hawkeye had gone missing.

“He won’t appreciate it if we come after him,” Maes pointed out.

“I don’t particularly care, Maes.”

Two days.

“He would have contacted us by now if he could.”

“Ed wouldn’t go down without a fight. If anything had happened, surely we would have heard something—explosions, screams, something.”

Three days.

“Where is he?”

And Maes accepted where this was going. “I don’t know, Roy.” Deep breath, and the sure knowledge that Ed would consider this a betrayal. “But I know where he lives.”

* * *

Roy took in the house…such as it was…with a sort of grim, resigned acceptance. He understood Ed better than Maes did, and he clearly understood the logic behind this house.

Maes was happy not to understand. “He has a housemate. Try not to react badly.”

“What do you—”

Mean, he would have said. But the housemate had shown up in the doorway and rendered the question unnecessary. Roy’s hand tensed, fingers ready to snap, despite the warning.

It was the slit pupils, Maes decided. That was what made Lizard’s face so very unsettling to look at. Even more than the occasional line of scales.

“Fuck off!” he shouted, and he might have been part reptile, but God, he looked young and scared and pitiful. He was blocking the door, holding a broken piece of glass that seemed as likely to cut him as to damage anyone else. He was trying, Maes could see, to be tough like Ed. He was failing.

“Is Ed hurt?” Maes asked quietly.

Lizard wavered on the doorstep. He didn’t want to trust them, that was obvious. He didn’t want to trust them, but he had nowhere else to turn and he was terrified.

This did not bode well for Ed.

“Can we see him?” Maes asked.

Lizard lowered the shard of glass, hesitant. He jerked his head in Roy’s direction. “Who is he?”

“This is Roy Mustang. He’s a friend of Ed’s from East.”

Lizard shifted nervously. “The…Colonel?”

Ed had mentioned Roy? Ed had volunteered information about his acquaintance in East? Curious. “That’s right. Colonel Roy Mustang.”

Lizard slumped against the doorframe, dropping the glass. “Come on,” he said, and vanished back into the house.

Maes and Roy exchanged a worried glance and followed him.

The décor hadn’t changed much since the last time Maes had been there. Maybe an overall decrease in dust and increase in bloodstains, but the sentiment was the same.

Someone without great dexterity—childish hands, most likely—had tried to repair the bed in the front room, and that was where Ed was. What was left of Ed.

Maes and Roy rushed over, while Lizard hovered behind them. Ed was unconscious, pale and sweating, gasping raggedly more than breathing. He was swathed in inexpertly-applied bandages that failed to hide the damage. Starting at the top, Maes could see a cut across his face, stretching from the edge of his mouth to just under his left eye, and a gash under his collarbone, which looked like an attempt at a stab through the heart. They were both deep enough to scar. His left hand was missing its ring and little fingers. His trunk was too bandaged to see much, and the rest of him was covered in ragged, stained blankets. It looked as if Lizard had tried to wash the blood out of Ed’s hair, but hadn’t met with much success.

“He’s breathing, at least,” Roy murmured, two fingers pressed to Ed’s neck, checking his pulse. His wrist was too bandaged to check it there. “Nothing looks infected. But—how long has he been unconscious?”

“He wakes up,” Lizard mumbled, ready to bolt. “Every day he wakes up. He said…he said no doctor. He said.”

“You kept his wounds clean, didn’t you, Lizard?” Maes asked gently. Lizard nodded, eyes sliding away. “You did a good job. We’ll take him to someone we know, all right? Not a hospital. Someone who can keep a secret.”

“He said—”

“He needs a doctor, Lizard. None of us knows enough about medicine to take care of him. You can see that too, can’t you?”

Lizard nodded again, reluctantly. Those eyes were human enough when they were filled with tears.

“Will you be all right on your own?”

The distressed look changed to one of hard suspicion. “Fuck off,” he snapped.

Maes sighed. So much for that. At least he could tell Ed that he’d tried. “Well, Roy? Dr. Knox?”

“Knox. Do you know where he lives?”

“Of course. I always keep track of old friends. How should we move him?”

“How did he get here?” Roy looked to Lizard with the nearest thing to gentle patience that Roy could manage. “Lizard, was it?”

Lizard nodded and edged a step back.

“Did he walk here?”

Lizard twisted his hands together. “He crawled.”

Roy’s eyes closed briefly, and when he opened them, he looked like Ishbal. “Then his back isn’t broken. I’ll carry him. Hughes, pull the car up front.”

Maes nodded. It was a good idea, and anyway, there was no arguing with Roy in this mood.

* * *

Dr. Knox, unsurprisingly, was not overjoyed to see them. Roy was a miracle-worker, though, and they’d blackmailed their way into the man’s disastrous living room in under five minutes. Which was lucky, because Roy had made Maes carry Ed in from the car. Ed was surprisingly heavy, considering how small he was. Turned out he was less small and more compact.

“Who’s so high-profile you can’t take him to a real doctor?” Knox demanded, bad-temperedly biting down on a fresh cigarette and glaring at Ed.

“The Demon Alchemist.”

The cigarette fell from Knox’s mouth to the floor. Maes was glad he hadn’t gotten around to lighting it.

“This…this kid is the Demon Alchemist?

“This kid has two metal limbs and weighs a ton, could I please set him down?”

Knox’s eyes widened and he gestured vaguely to…well, Maes supposed there was a bed under there somewhere.

“Roy?”

Roy obligingly dumped all of the books off the bed to the sound of Knox’s feeble protests, but then he stood eyeing it in much the same way Gracia was given to eyeing Maes’s study. “Maybe we should wash the sheets first,” he murmured.

Knox made an indignant noise, and Maes said, “My arms, Roy! Think of my arms! He’s wrapped like a mummy, I’m sure he’ll be fine!”

Roy grumbled and beat the worst of the dust off the blankets, then waved at Maes. Maes tried to set Ed down on the bed rather than dump him, but it was difficult. He managed to wake Ed up in the process. Ed moaned, Roy hovered, and Knox said, “Oh, for God’s sake,” and stormed into another room.

Ed’s eyes squinted slightly open, and he took in Maes, Roy, and the surroundings. “Th’ fuck…?”

“Who did this to you?” Roy demanded, harsh and angry. Maes wished he would get over this habit he had of shouting at people when he was worried about them.

Wrath,” Ed rasped. “Fuck’n…Bradley…”

His eyes rolled back in his head and he passed directly back out. He was allowed. As good as Ed was at talking at length and communicating nothing, he was apparently equally good at saying volumes in under a sentence.

“Wrath,” Maes mused. “Sounds like?”

“Greed, Lust, Envy, Gluttony,” Roy recited flatly.

“And the one up north. If Greed was telling the truth—questionable—then that should be all of them. But there is the more important point.”

“The Fuhrer President can’t possibly be a homunculus,” Roy said desperately.

“It would explain why Madame Christmas is having so much trouble pinning down a childhood for him.”

“Bradley can’t be a homunculus. He—”

“Did you just say the fuhrer is a homunculus?” Knox demanded, walking back in with a kidney-shaped dish full of gauze and ominous, pointy things. “Aren’t they mythical? And, more importantly, did you just say that in my house? Get the hell out of my house with your crazy, suicidal treason! Isn’t it bad enough that you bring wanted…children to me?”

“Roy,” Maes said, ignoring Knox, feeling the satisfaction creep into his voice despite his best efforts. “I don’t think this is as bad as you seem to think it is. You were the one who said it might be nice if the fuhrer were in league with the monsters. How much better is it that he’s one of them?”

“It has advantages, but if he’s immortal, it’s not what I would call an ideal situation. Elric couldn’t handle him.”

“Immortal?” Knox repeated. “Immortal? I wasn’t talking just to hear myself talk when I told you to get out of my house. Get out before you get me arrested for knowing you!”

“When will he be awake for any length of time?” Roy asked, edging politely toward the door. Maes, less polite, kept himself planted next to Ed until they had an answer.

Knox shrugged. “Could be tomorrow, could be a week. Give him a week. He’ll be in too much pain to do a lot of talking before that.”

Maes followed Roy out. “Next week,” he said.

They closed the door on the sound of Knox’s annoyed muttering.

“You have a plan for Bradley, don’t you?” Roy asked.

“Not a plan. But I was thinking we could do a little investigation into his family’s background. See where the wife and adopted son came from.”

Roy looked disturbed. “For leverage?”

Maes shrugged. “Maybe. But they might be interesting in themselves. Who knows?”

Roy nodded thoughtfully. “Who knows?”

* * *

The next time they visited, Ed was, as promised, wide awake.

Wide awake and bound, hand and foot, to the bed.

“Why is Elric tied down?” Roy asked in a carefully nonjudgmental tone.

“He was trying,” Knox announced in the doctorly voice of rage, “to lift weights.”

“I’m gonna get fuckin’ out of shape!” Ed howled, lifting his head as far as he could and glaring at Knox.

“You’re going to rip open that gut wound again, is what you’re going to do, you idiot,” Knox snapped back. “And when you do, I ought to let you bleed to death.”

Ed huffed and slammed his head back into the pillow. Knox crossed his arms and scowled.

Maes could not look at Roy. Could not. Because if he did, they would both laugh, and then Knox and Ed would kill them.

“May we talk to the patient?” Roy asked in an admirably even voice.

“Fine, but you can’t untie him,” Knox said. “I’ll be checking on you,” he threatened Ed, who snarled at the ceiling.

Roy sat in the chair to Ed’s left, and Maes stood behind him. Ed looked surprisingly good, considering what he’d looked like only a few days before. Good color. Alert. Bad temper intact.

“Lifting weights?” Maes asked.

“Shut up, shut up, you’re a dick and this is all your fault,” Ed snapped. And it wasn’t that Maes had expected gratitude, but really. “I’m gonna be fat by the time I get out of here!”

“Perhaps you feel we should have left you to bleed to death in front of your housemate, Elric,” Roy said in that smooth, nasty tone he got sometimes.

Ed flinched. Roy did know just where to apply the knife, didn’t he? And, like the sadist he was, he quietly let that sink in for a while, watching Ed squirm. Maes would never have done this to someone as dangerous as Ed, but that was what made Roy special.

“How did you manage to run afoul of the fuhrer?” Roy asked after Ed had worked himself into a state of misery.

Ed shuffled his shoulders a little. “Uh, I was talkin’ to the First Lieutenant.”

“First Lieutenant Hawkeye?” Roy asked with some surprise.

“Yeah…yeah, I wanted to hear about Ishbal. Sounded like a clusterfuck, and I figured… whatever happened in Ishbal is what makes you guys do what you do. I mean, I’d heard about the war, but I didn’t hear what you guys did during it. Not from you, anyway.”

Not from them? Who had he heard it from?

“Didn’t like not knowing,” he went on. Then he gave Roy a fond sidelong look, so apparently Roy was forgiven for the Lizard comment. That was quick. “Turns out I pretty much had you figured. You’re easy.”

“I am not—” Roy broke off, closed his eyes, and sighed. He opened his eyes again and tried to get his brain on track. It was fun to watch, despite the circumstances. “This doesn’t answer my question about the fuhrer.”

Ed shrugged and let his gaze drift to the ceiling. “I had you figured,” he said, “but I didn’t know the details. Didn’t know it was fuckin’ state-ordered genocide.”

He stopped talking, as if he felt that answered the question. Maes disagreed. But wait…considering Ed, considering Ed’s typical reaction to criminals…

“Ed—you didn’t. You didn’t really find out Bradley had ordered a genocide and then…” He couldn’t say it out loud. It was too insane.

Roy said it for him. “You tried to take out the Fuhrer President!?”

Another embarrassed shoulder shuffle. “Fucker has it coming.”

“That is not the point—”

“Ed, how did you get past his guards?”

“He’s not all that worried about keepin guards around. Actually, I think he tries to ditch ‘em.” Ed gestured downward with the fingers of his bound automail hand. “Guess I can see why. Didn’t expect a goddamn homunculus.”

“Is that why you let him humiliate you?” Roy sniped, concern pushed into irritation.

“Fuck you, bastard. Which one of us took down a homunculus before? Cuz it sure as shit wasn’t you, desk monkey.”

“I thought they weren’t hurting you because you’re a human sacrifice,” Maes broke in before the conversation dissolved altogether. “If he attacked you, why didn’t he kill you? And how did you figure out he’s Wrath?”

Ed frowned at the ceiling. “He…right, so he was about to chop my head off or something.”

Roy made a distressed and enraged sort of noise. Ed ignored him.

“And Lust came out of nowhere…had to have been Lust. I didn’t see her, though, she was behind me. She said, ‘Don’t kill him, Wrath. We’re short on human sacrifices as it is.’ So then he clocked me, and when I woke up, they were gone. I guess damage is fine as long as I’m not actually dead. And it looks like they don’t care what I know anymore, and that really fucking bothers me.”

“Yes,” Maes agreed firmly. “That’s ominous. Terrifying, in fact. Where did all of this happen?”

“Huh. Like three blocks from the fuhrer’s mansion.”

“And when you came to, you…crawled all the way home, Ed?”

“No.”

Roy’s fingers were twitching slightly. Maes imagined it was due to an overwhelming desire to wrap his hands around Ed’s throat and shake until answers fell out. That was why Maes’s fingers were twitching, anyway.

“Ed. Do I have to frame my questions in words of one syllable?”

Ed squirmed. If he hadn’t been tied to the bed, Maes was sure, he would have taken this time to dart down an alley and disappear. “Uh. The stupid prince carried me home.” Long pause. “Ling.”

“Lizard told us you crawled,” Roy said, voice flat.

“I didn’t let him take me all the way home, obviously.”

“Obviously?” Maes asked.

“Yeah. Like hell am I gonna let him figure out where I live. I had him drop me a few blocks to the west.” Ed eyed them both, confused by their confusion. “Obviously.”

In retrospect, Maes was stunned that he’d been allowed to see Ed’s home. “How did Ling Yao happen to be there?”

“I guess he doesn’t much like the fuhrer,” Ed said doubtfully, as if he hadn’t believed this explanation himself. “Says he’s no leader. What the hell that’s got to do with anything, I dunno. You know he’s freaking obsessed with the Philosopher’s Stone, the dipshit. Maybe he figures if anybody’s got one, the fuhrer has. And hey, turns out he’s not wrong.”

Roy did not look pleased. Maes sympathized. He wasn’t pleased either. Well, with one exception—the image of a whole string of murderous teenaged boys trailing around after the fuhrer like rabid ducklings was a pleasing one.

“Why’d you guys come to the house, anyway?” Ed asked.

“You missed our meeting,” Roy said.

“Yeah, but only by a few days when you showed up.” Ed scowled. “The hell’s the matter with you?”

“He was fretting,” Maes said, anticipating Ed’s reaction to this with glee. “He was panicking in my office the very next day.”

For once, Ed’s reaction was everything Maes had hoped. Horror hit him going one way and confusion going the other, and his poor face didn’t know what to do with itself.

Roy, meanwhile, scowled harder. Unfortunately, Knox reappeared and booted them out the door before he got a chance to reply. Pity.

“Well,” said Maes as they walked to the car, before Roy could start bitching. “As we’re waiting on Madame Christmas, it’s clearly time to run screaming to the press.”

“And what would you like the press to say? ‘Fuhrer exposed! Mythical creatures running loose in Central!’? No respectable paper would print that.”

“I have connections.”

“I believe you’ll find your connections are funded with state money.”

“Maybe so, but they would happily cut off their noses to spite their faces, which is why they became reporters. And I know a few editors of this description, too.”

“If you run to the press, this will be entirely out of our control.”

“Ah ha, but it will also be out of their control. And, unlike us, they won’t see it coming.”

“They’ll have us killed.”

“Will they? They don’t seem to care that Ed knows.”

“Ed is a human sacrifice. It’s not a huge concern if one person they’re planning to kill soon knows. I certainly hope they won’t feel the same way about the entire population of Amestris.”

“You know that they may.”

Roy pinched the bridge of his nose and looked old. He was looking old more and more often these days. Difficult to pin down the emotion this stirred up in Maes—something between wistfulness and panic. Roy had once been so painfully young. “Give me some time before you do this, Maes.”

“You’re going to miss your moment, Roy. This is why Breda always destroys you in chess: you’re too cautious.”

“Then why does he always destroy you?

“I’ll give you one week.”

“Two months.”

“Coward!”

“Maes!”

* * *

Knox was so inured to comings and goings at this point, and so very fatalistic, besides, that he didn’t even bother to lock his front door anymore. No one bothered to knock, either, since Knox only ignored them if they did. Maes managed to get all the way to Ed’s room without realizing there was anyone else in the house. He didn’t realize, in fact, until he looked through the doorway and saw Hawkeye sitting next to Ed. He ducked back to lean against the wall and listen.

He’d been wondering what the two of them found to talk about, and now he was going to know. He’d been working hard. Legitimate, paid work, in addition to investigating high command while pretending not to. Long hours! He was entitled to some recreational eavesdropping. He’d earned it.

“What you guys are doing isn’t any better,” Ed was muttering defiantly, though Maes could have told him that being defiant with Hawkeye never ended well. “It’s gonna get all of you killed in the end, too.”

“We’ve accepted that we might die in pursuit of our goal,” Hawkeye replied calmly. “But death isn’t the goal, it’s an unfortunate possible consequence. What’s your goal, Edward?”

“I want to take these homunculus guys down,” he said.

“And so do I,” said Hawkeye, “but that isn’t your goal, it’s incidental. Why do you wake up in the morning? What are you living for?”

Long silence.

“I’m not living for anything.” Ed was determined to break Maes’s heart. “You guys are freaks of nature, anyway.” Ah, good. Back on the attack. “Most people don’t have a specific thing they get up for in the morning. They just get up. They live because that’s what you freaking do, you don’t need an excuse for it.”

“Hm,” said Hawkeye. Maes had to agree. You couldn’t call Ed ‘most people.’

“I clean up after you guys,” he muttered, sullen now. “I have a job. What else do I need?”

“Hm,” Hawkeye said again, and Maes could hear her standing up. “I look forward to when you find your purpose, Edward. You will let me know, won’t you?”

“You’re very…bossy,” Ed said, sounding almost admiring.

“Get well,” she said, and in that tone, it was clearly an order. Maes loved Hawkeye’s sense of humor.

And so did Ed, apparently, because he laughed. Not many people understood Hawkeye humor. It made a certain amount of sense that Ed would be one of the few.

Hawkeye stepped through the doorway, noted Maes, and moved out of Edward’s line of sight. She then gave Maes a long look that made her opinion of people who eavesdropped on private conversations abundantly clear. After she felt he was reasonably chastened, she walked down the hall and out the door without a backward glance.

Ouch.

Maes waited a respectable amount of time, then went in to check on Ed himself.

“Funny I didn’t hear the door open,” Ed said, giving him a jaded look. Ed was an adorably suspicious little maniac.

“I’ve been in the house for a while. I was talking to Knox.” A half truth was better than no truth at all, right? And surely it didn’t matter, since Ed wouldn’t have believed him no matter what he said. “Did you have a good chat with Lieutenant Hawkeye?”

Ed rolled his eyes, but seemed basically tolerant. He gave the ropes an absent yank. To judge from the state of his left wrist, he did this at least fifty times a day. He couldn’t be serious about it, though. Maes had seen what the automail could do, and if Ed really wanted out of those ropes, he would be out of them. Interesting.

“Like you don’t know,” Ed said. “She wants me to find my life’s calling or some shit. I think she said I’d better find my life’s calling or else she’d have to fuck me up.”

“Nice that she cares,” Maes pointed out.

“Uh huh.” Ed seemed dubious, but that was only because he hadn’t seen what Hawkeye was like when she didn’t care about you. “She was like, ‘what’s your excuse for breathing?’ What’s her deal?”

“Well.” How to put this in a way that would not cause Hawkeye to shoot him? “She did tell you about Ishbal.”

Ed scowled. “Yeah, she told me.”

“I think it made her believe that her life, at least, needs justification. She feels she’s forfeited her freedom. That something is owed. She lives by her sense of duty, the same as Roy.”

“The same as you.” Ed huffed a laugh. “You guys and your second-hand sins.”

Maes didn’t consider his sins second-hand, but it wasn’t something he planned to argue about. Not with Ed, anyway. “She’s put you into the same category.”

Ed said, “I’m not the same as you,” which Maes had expected, and, “I’m worse,” which he hadn’t, though he should have.

“I wouldn’t try to argue with Hawkeye, if I were you,” Maes said.

“Oh, hell no,” Ed agreed.

They brooded over the likely consequences of arguing with Hawkeye for a moment, then Ed gave an impatient shrug that Maes recognized as indicative of ‘moving on.’ “How’s Lizard?” he asked, not quite making eye contact.

“He seemed fine the last time I saw him, but that was a few days ago. Do you want me to check on him?”

Ed responded to this question by violently hurling himself to the limit of the ropes, then flumping, defeated, back to the bed. Maes was so well-trained by now that he hardly even jumped. Ed closed his eyes wearily and sighed. “You better bring him here. I dunno how long I’ll be down.”

“I’m not sure how well he’ll take to being dragged to a strange place, Ed.”

“Should be fine if just the Colonel goes.”

Just the Colonel. Roy really was something special, wasn’t he?

“Idiot’s probably out of food,” Ed muttered.

Experimentally, Maes said, “He’s like a little brother to you, isn’t he?”

Ed’s eyes snapped open for a full-on Demon Alchemist glare. “He is nothing like my little brother,” in a voice teetering on the edge of insanity.

Hm. A step back for every step forward, indeed.

* * *

Roy fetched Lizard. From what Maes could gather, this passed off without a hitch. And now here they all were, awkwardly hovering in Knox’s kitchen pretending not to be watching the reunion.

Lizard was curled up next to Ed on the bed, carefully not touching him. Both of them were peering at a book. Knox had even untied Ed for the occasion. Maes hoped Lizard wouldn’t notice the rope burn.

“He’s not what you’d expect, is he?” Knox asked, wiping his hands on a dishtowel so filthy that Maes questioned the benefit. “From the Demon Alchemist.”

“Not at the moment,” Maes admitted.

“Has his moments, huh?” Knox snorted. “What’s the story on the scaly kid?”

“Oh, military medical experimentation. You know how it is.” Knox shot him a hard glare which he ignored. “As far as we can tell, everyone he knew died, and he ended up following Ed home.”

Knox abandoned the glare in favor of looking vaguely interested. “And he let the kid stay?”

“He talks about getting rid of him more or less constantly, but he’s never made any move to do so.”

They lapsed into a brief silence, during which Ed could be heard to say, “This one turns water into really shitty wine. You’d think the guy who came up with it could at least have bothered to make something worth drinking. People are morons.”

“He had me buy train tickets from Central to Rush Valley yesterday,” Knox said quietly. “Had me untie him long enough to write a letter.”

“To Paninya,” Maes guessed.

Knox nodded.

“You’ve mentioned her before,” Roy said.

“She’s an acquaintance of Ed’s,” Maes told him. “I can see why Ed would think that she and Lizard would get along.” Or at least deserve each other.

The three of them fell silent to watch the minor miracle that was Edward Elric making a little boy laugh.

“He won’t like it,” Roy said.

* * *

Ed made Lizard a hooded cape that hid most of his unusual features, and hustled him onto a train as soon as he had clearance from Knox to be driven as far as the station. Lizard did not, in fact, like it. Roy had been right. Ed forced him onto the train anyway. There were tears, but they passed unnoticed by the general public—there were always tears at a train station.

“He wanted to stay with you,” Maes pointed out once the train had gone.

Ed shrugged, face closed. “He’s ten. He doesn’t know what he wants.”

“Really? You’re only fifteen, Ed.”

“Yeah, and when I was ten, I wanted to bring my mother back from the dead. I remember real clearly how fucking stupid I was at ten, okay? Shut up.”

Maes sighed.

“It’s…” Ed trailed off, but then, unexpectedly, steeled himself for an explanation. “It’s not like this is the first time it’s happened. That I end up with some kid.”

Maes blinked, and he really should not be continually blindsided by Ed even now. “Oh?”

“I kill people, right? Sometimes these fuckers have kids. And, like, if they don’t have a place…I mean, I can’t let ‘em starve, that’d be…but they can’t stay with me. They hate me half the time, and I’m not a goddamn orphanage, anyway. I find ‘em a place. Okay? That okay with you? Stop looking at me like that, asshole.”

Maes obediently turned his eyes to the street and kept them there. “Let’s get you back to Knox before he revokes my permission to take you out.”

* * *

Ed escaped Knox two weeks later, and within two days of that, he was behaving as if he’d never been hurt at all. The scar on his face would be there for life, and the fingers were still missing, but he walked with an easy confidence that a person who’d recently been nearly disemboweled shouldn’t have. It strongly reminded Maes of the disappearing limp after that night in Lab 5. It reminded Maes that he’d never seen Ed severely injured before this, despite his line of work.

Which seemed very odd, now he thought about it.

“Roy,” Maes said as he and Roy and Hawkeye walked to a park to meet Ed. “Can alchemists heal injuries?”

“There’s a branch of medical alchemy,” Roy replied, giving him a curious look that Hawkeye echoed. “It’s not my specialty. From what I hear, Xing has been much more successful with it than we have. Amestrian alchemy has always been more focused on destruction.”

Maes nodded. Yes, yes, Amestris: nation of all screwed up. That wasn’t the point. “Has Ed ever been to Xing?”

Roy was beginning to look worried. “Not as far as I know.”

Maes shook his head. “Something’s not right. He’s healing too fast.”

“Healing too fast?”

“I saw him yesterday, and apart from the fingers, which he hasn’t grown back, he looked in perfect health. The way you alchemists talk, you don’t get something for nothing. So what’s he paying with?”

“If I had a Philosopher’s Stone, I could fake basic medical alchemy,” Roy said slowly. “But Elric couldn’t have…”

“He hasn’t had time. I’ve been keeping a close eye on him since he found out what a Philosopher’s Stone is, and he hasn’t had time to stockpile enough people to make one of his own. Besides, surprising though it may seem, I can’t picture him doing that.”

“No.” Roy frowned. “No. He’s always favored the direct approach.” Hawkeye nodded agreement.

They walked in silence the rest of the way. As they stepped through the gate into the park proper, Roy said, “I’ll find out.”

“You’ll find out what?” said Ed, who was, for the love of everything holy, in a tree. Maes and Roy both jumped, and Hawkeye had a gun halfway out of its holster before her brain caught up. You never did get used to Ed.

“I’ll find out why you think the answer to that question is any business of yours,” Roy said smoothly. Up in the shadows amongst the branches, Maes could just make out the gleam of Ed’s teeth as he grinned. “Why are you in a tree, Elric?”

Ed shrugged, dropping the grin, and swung down like a monkey to land in front of them. “I like trees,” he said. And he liked walls and fences and window ledges… “So I finally got to look in a mirror,” Ed went on cheerfully. “Check this out.”

He grinned again. Now that he was both out of bandages and on ground level, Maes could properly appreciate the grin. The scar cut diagonally across Ed’s cheek, and when he grinned, it twisted, giving his eye an evil cast and making that side of his mouth snarl. He’d always looked crazy, but that grin was grotesque.

“You’ll bring all the girls to the yard, Ed,” Maes sighed.

Ed laughed.

“Excuse me?” said a tiny girl with a tiny creature perched on her shoulder. Maes was now conjuring girls up by mentioning them. Thank God Roy had never developed this ability. “Um, I’m sorry to bother you, but I heard that the Demon Alchemist lived in this city. Do you happen to know where I could find him?”

Oh, help.

“Lucky you, you already found him,” said the Demon Alchemist, a cold about-face from his manner of seconds before. Maes felt special. “The fuck do you want?”

You’re the Demon Alchemist?” the girl asked with candid horror. When Ed just stared at her, she looked to the rest of them for confirmation. Maes nodded at her sadly. Poor thing. He didn’t know what she’d expected, but no one ever expected Ed. “Oh,” she said. Impressively, it only took her a moment to regroup. “I need to speak with an alchemist.”

“Yeah?” Ed asked, unimpressed, but at least no longer overtly hostile. “And why’d you come to me? Everybody knows I’m nuts.”

“Um, yes,” the little girl said, twisting her hands, while her little creature twisted its paws in sympathy. “But a very kind person in the town of Youswell said that I should never talk to a state alchemist because they were evil and selfish and mean and probably ugly.”

“Cover your ears, Mustang,” Ed muttered, and Hawkeye made a sound that Maes was almost sure was a choked-off laugh. Roy thought so too, because he gave her a wounded look. She stared straight ahead, innocently expressionless.

“…Also they let his father die,” the girl went on, more unsure of them by the minute. “And he said you were the only other alchemist he knew by name. He said you kill evil men. He said why haven’t you come to kill the man who owns their mine yet?”

“I can’t be fuckin’ everywhere,” Ed informed her.

“Is this how you get most of your jobs, Elric?” Roy asked.

“No. Shut up.”

“He didn’t say you were rude,” the girl announced, less nervous and more indignant.

“He told you what I was, right?” Ed was getting annoyed. Maes wished he wouldn’t. “What the hell did you expect?”

“You were supposed to be, be…” she broke off and resorted to pantomime. Maes wasn’t sure what all she meant, but she might have been indicating, among other things, elegant, exciting, handsome…cuddly?

“…tall,” she finally decided.

Ed’s reaction to this was priceless. It wasn’t that Ed was dramatically short, but he was slightly below average. Maes was mortally certain no one had dared comment on it in recent memory, though. What sane person would call the Demon Alchemist short? Ed was absolutely blindsided.

After a long time spent gaping, Ed pulled himself together enough to howl, “Don’t call me short, you maggot-sized little brat!

Hawkeye was making that choked-laughing sound again.

“A gentleman would never compare a lady to a maggot!” the tiny, crazy girl cried.

“A lady would never go looking for a murderer,” Ed told her.

“A princess would do anything for her people!”

“Holy shit, did you just say princess? You look Xingian. Hang on, are you a fucking princess of Xing? Why the hell did all you people feel the need to crawl across the desert this month, and why the hell did you all end up at my feet? Huh? Are you gonna steal my food now, is that how this is gonna go? Fuck off!”

Edward Elric: soul of diplomacy.

“Should we interrupt?” Maes murmured to Roy.

“No,” Roy whispered back.

No. Now was that a no because Ed, contrary to appearances, was not about to cause an international incident? Or was that a no because Roy thought said international incident would be funny? Maes had no confidence.

Thank God there was a nice, big desert between Amestris and Xing. Amen.

“I don’t need you!” the Xingian princess announced, pointing an indignant finger toward Ed. “You! Who would want your help anyway, you tiny rice-grain man!? Even the other man with scars on his face was nicer than you!”

“The other man with scars on his face?” Ed demanded. “What kind of scars?”

“Eh? Like this.” She drew an X across her face. Of course she did.

“You’re talking about Scar,” Ed marveled. “Are you like magnetically drawn to murderers, stupid midget? Where did you see him?”

“Why should I tell you?” Indignantly folded arms.

“I’ll tell you about alchemy if you tell me where you saw him,” Ed said. Because—oh ho!—equivalent exchange. Maes did understand Ed. Sometimes. Rarely.

“Now?” the girl asked. She was getting more imperiously princess-like by the second.

“Tomorrow. We’ll go to the library. I’ll show you books, you’ll show me maps. Deal?”

The girl considered for one more long second, then stuck out her hand awkwardly, as if she’d read about this custom somewhere, but had never tried it. “My name is Mei Chang, Princess of Xing,” she said. “And this is Xiao Mei,” of the creature.

“Yeah?” Ed tested out his new grin. “I’m the Demon Alchemist.”

Maes turned to Roy and Hawkeye. He was glad to see that Hawkeye looked faintly worried. Roy, on the other hand, seemed thrilled. What do you think of that? said his silly, smiling face.

What Maes thought was that the homunculi were going to have to hurry if they meant to destroy the country before Ed and Mei Chang beat them to it.

* * *

With the clarity of hindsight, Maes could see that he had no one but himself to blame for the position he was in. He’d known, after all, that Ed was on a hunt. He also knew first hand what a very bad idea it was to be with Ed while he was on a hunt.

It wasn’t a proper hunt, at least; Ed assured them he just wanted to ask Scar questions—about Kimbley, about what had happened up north, and, ominously, about ‘what his problem is.’ Still, proper or not, a hunt was a hunt, and Maes had seen one already. No need to repeat the experience.

But he’d forgotten. Yes. Oh, yes. Roy was going to deliver unto him the Sarcasm of Doom. Maes hoped at least that Roy would never realize he’d let Ed steer him into the shady part of the downtown without paying attention to where they were, because Maes would never live that down.

Maes rather enjoyed Ed’s company. He just needed to keep in mind that there were times when, charming though he was, the pleasure of his company wasn’t worth the grief.

“There,” Ed hissed.

And there was a man with an X-shaped scar across his face standing at the mouth of an alley. Maes thought, Why me? Why is it always me, why can’t it ever be Roy?

“I have to call Roy,” he said, following that train of thought. “It’ll only take a second, don’t disappear until I call Roy, stay still for just a—Ed!

Ed did not listen well. Or at all. Tch.

Maes called Roy’s office anyway, and got Hawkeye. He asked for backup. Perhaps he screamed for backup. It wasn’t his fault; he was in a hurry.

By luck more than strategy, he managed to catch up with Scar and Ed; they’d stopped running. They were standing in an empty lot staring at each other, Scar almost uncertainly, Ed as if he were trying to place something. Maes wondered if he should throw out a comment. Please don’t blow up my city, that kind of thing.

“Oh,” Ed said in an odd tone made up of rage and satisfaction. “I know you.”

“You don’t know anything, boy,” Scar intoned in the tried-and-true commanding manner of violent fanatics everywhere.

Ed started circling. Maes knew how things played out when Ed started circling. He was glad he’d gotten hold of Hawkeye after all, because that meant Hawkeye would be the one driving. Roy had no sense of urgency behind the wheel.

“You,” Ed growled, “are the Ishbalan whose brother studied alchemy.”

Scar stopped dead, face abruptly wiped of all expression. Maes imagined his own face didn’t look much better.

Scar was Ishbalan. Oh, hell. That explained everything.

Ed laughed. “I thought so,” he said in a malicious hiss. “You used to argue with him about it, they said. You thought it was contrary to the will of Ishbala or what the fuck ever. I hear he saved you. I hear he gave you his arm and his life.”

Scar made a convulsive clutching gesture at his right arm, but didn’t answer.

“It’s funny,” Ed said conversationally, closing in. “I gave my little brother my arm, too, and I offered them my life. He died anyway. That doesn’t seem equivalent.”

Scar was now confused beyond his ability to cope with it, from the look of him. Wow, Maes hated it when Ed made him feel sorry for the bad guys.

“I have no quarrel with you,” Scar said quietly.

Ed grinned that new, horrific grin of his. “Too bad, cuz I got a quarrel with you. Know what else I know? It’s funny how chatty your people are when they feel like somebody’s on their side. Or maybe you’re just a disgrace to them.” Scar was stoic about this comment, which apparently pleased Ed. “I know you killed the doctors who nursed you back to health. Was that the will of Ishbala? Whatever. Can’t say it makes much fuckin’ difference to me what your reasons were.”

Scar’s eyes widened, and he took a step back.

He should have turned and run. Ed had stopped moving, and that wasn’t a good sign at all. “And I know something you don’t know,” Ed went on, still with a smile. “Those doctors? They were my best friend’s parents.”

He clapped and attacked.

“Ed! Ed, don’t kill him, we need—Ed!” To say that Ed was ignoring Maes would be a wild understatement.

His best friend? Ed had a best friend? Where had this person been hiding, and why wasn’t mystery friend around to help restrain Ed when needed?

Maes didn’t feel comfortable aiming a knife at anyone: they were both so fast there was no telling who he’d hit or how serious the damage would be. He didn’t want to accidentally kill one of them. That would be ridiculous.

And he’d be damned if he was getting any closer to a fight between two people who murdered for fun and profit. Again, why was this kind of thing always happening to him lately?

Oh yes. Because Edward Elric.

A car screeched up behind him, and at least Roy had always had impeccable timing.

“Is that Scar?” Roy demanded, leaping out of the car and tugging at his gloves for comfort, with Hawkeye half a step behind and armed, as always, and Havoc a step behind her. The gang’s all here. “What does Elric think he’s doing?”

“Ed claims Scar killed the parents of—and I quote—his ‘best friend.’”

“Oh, that’s fantastic,” Roy said sourly, snapping his fingers.

A gout of flame passed within inches of Ed and Scar, and they broke apart and leapt back.

It took Ed some time to readjust to the world of not killing people, but he got there eventually, spotted Roy, and shouted, “What the fuck was that for!?”

“You were the one who said we needed to talk to him, Elric,” Roy said, every inch the cold, distant commanding officer. “Do you really have so little self-control?”

“Obviously I don’t have shit for self-control, Mustang.” Ed laughed, high and wild. Oh, disturbing. “Thought you knew that about me!”

“Pretend you do,” Roy snapped, losing his cool a bit, “and ask your questions.”

“I’m not asking him shit,” Ed announced, kicking dirt in Scar’s direction. “Guy like him, there’s no point. He’s got no honor.” And then Ed leaned toward Scar, who was still torn between rage and bafflement, and hissed a word in a language it took Maes a few seconds to recognize.

Well, of course it did. Ishbalans these days spoke Amestrian. No one spoke Ishbalan anymore outside of church services and last rites. Except for Ed, apparently.

“I know what I am,” Scar rumbled.

Ed laughed again, more crazed by the second. “Is this what your brother would have wanted?” he cried out with wide eyes, and Maes doubted even he knew whether he was talking to Scar or to himself.

“Scar’s Ishbalan?” Roy asked blankly.

“But of course, Roy,” Maes whispered, feeling, oh, perhaps a little manic. “I think this is a lifetime best for us, as far as hideous awkwardness goes. Unless perhaps you got his sister pregnant. Oh, please, Roy, say you did.”

Roy reached out and gripped Maes’s shoulder hard enough to hurt.

Right, Maes thought. Calm down, Maes. Breathe. It’ll be okay, you’re only stuck in the bad part of Central with a sniper, a pyromaniac, and a couple of serial killers.

Nothing to worry about at all.

“I have no quarrel with you,” Scar repeated, then slammed his hand against the wall and blew up most of the side of the building. When the dust cleared, he was gone, and nobody had died. Perhaps because the gods protected fools.

Maes might have liked a moment to stand around and feel dazed. This was not permitted. Predictably, Ed no sooner figured out what had happened than he tried to dart away after Scar. Roy seized him by the collar, misbehaving-cat style (brave soul, Roy. Brave and stupid), and bundled him into the car. Ed snarled like a mad thing the whole way.

Havoc stood beside Maes, and together they contemplated the car they were meant to get into. The car, which now contained an angry Flame Alchemist and a psychotic Demon kid.

“I don’t want to,” Havoc said.

Maes sighed agreement. “Well, Havoc, we all die one day.”

Havoc didn’t seem to find this particularly comforting.

Hawkeye brushed past them and climbed into the back seat next to Ed, slamming the door behind her. Maes and Havoc glanced at each other, then, as one, turned to the car, clicked their heels together, and saluted.

* * *

“So you called the serial killer a nasty name in Ishbalan,” Maes said once he’d coaxed Havoc into the driver’s seat and they were on their way. “What was it? And why, why do you know Ishbalan?”

“Met some guys in the desert,” Edward said, doing his usual amazing job of failing to explain anything. He was still sulking over the collar-grabbing, but that was acceptable. Maes was just impressed there hadn’t been bloodshed over it. “And it meant, like, nameless.”

“Nameless?” Roy asked, twisting around in the front seat to face them. Ed scowled at him.

“Yeah. Sort of. There are a couple ways to say it. There’s like, the way when you’re a criminal and they take your name away because Ishbala gave it and you don’t rate anymore. Then there’s Scar’s way. Where you throw it away.”

“And what does that mean?” Maes asked.

Ed shrugged. “Like, he gives up on life. He did something bad, or something bad happened, or, I dunno, he just fuckin’ doesn’t care anymore. He doesn’t want to go to a god in the end. He wants to burn, and screw everything, he’s done with it. That’s what it means. And you can’t trust those people as far as you can throw ‘em, because obviously they don’t give a shit about anything.”

“He seemed attached to his brother,” Hawkeye mentioned.

“Well, his brother’s dead,” Ed said harshly. “Drop me here. I gotta see somebody.”

“Who?” Roy asked.

“Fuck off,” Ed snarled. Maes wondered if he knew that he sounded just like Lizard when he said that.

Havoc pulled briskly over and came to an abrupt halt. Jumping at any excuse to unload the snarling Ed. Maes couldn’t blame him.

* * *

Maes was becoming highly conversant with the ways of Edward Elric, and he knew that after an incident like that, he should properly give Ed at least a week to cool down. Possibly two weeks.

Events overcame his good intentions.

At this point, he had his people listening for any rumor at all, anything unusual, anything persistent. (Fuery’s glorious little bugs? They were glorious.) He was pulling a lot of static information, but every once in a while, he turned up something that seemed significant. Such as a girl who was asking around for Edward Elric. By that name.

Maes didn’t think there were very many people who knew that name.

He hunted the girl down. He didn’t like to use the word abduction, but, well, if it quacks like a duck…

He only had to talk to her for fifteen minutes before deciding that Ed needed to see her. Calling Ed had unquestionably been the right thing to do, though Maes might never be forgiven for it. The look Ed gave him when he walked through the door and found the girl sitting there was record-setting levels of evil.

“Winry,” Ed said blankly.

“You’re impossible,” Winry announced, utterly unmoved by the fact that Ed was the scariest thing ever. “Do you know how hard it was to find you in this stupid city?”

“Still looking for me after all this time?” Ed said with a strange smile that Maes didn’t like. Or maybe it was just the scar turning it strange. “I figured you’d lost interest.”

“Oh, shut up, Ed,” she snapped.

Ah ha ha. Maes had suspected she might be that kind of friend. Oh God.

“I wasn’t going to go wandering all over the place looking for you when you wouldn’t hold still for two weeks together! And nobody knew any Edward Elric, either. People would say, ‘Oh, the Demon Alchemist?’—and seriously, Ed, what is with that name?—‘Oh, he’s in East, South, Liore, New Optain, Rush Valley—he’s nowhere and you’re never going to find him.’ They’ve been saying you were in Central for months, I just didn’t believe it. But here you are. And so here I am. What don’t you understand?”

“Why you would bother,” Ed said fiercely.

“Why I would bother?” she repeated in a shout, and, much to Maes’s surprise, with sudden tears. He’d never seen anyone cry defiantly before. “What is wrong with you?”

Ed didn’t have an answer to this. It would appear that Ed didn’t deal well with tears from anyone—it wasn’t just Major Armstrong.

“You never came home!” she shouted, pointing accusingly. “I waited. I waited, I thought, he couldn’t possibly be so stupid as to wander off without any explanation. He needs automail, I thought. But then you went off to Rush Valley, you traitor, and I didn’t know if I’d ever see you again. Just like my parents, Ed, you jerk!”

She hurled herself into Ed’s arms with a howl of rage, thumped one fist against his chest, then proceeded to sob into his shoulder.

Maes waited for a violent outburst from Ed that never came.

“I knew you would cry,” Ed said, forcing himself to hold still and be held. It had to go against all of his instincts. “That’s why I didn’t come back, I knew—”

“I wouldn’t be crying if you had come back, idiot!” Winry wailed, and followed it up with a vicious punch to the stomach.

To which there was no reaction apart from the involuntary wheeze of pain. Ed the dangerous lunatic just stood there and took it. Was this an extension of the Nina and Elicia phenomenon? Was Ed just a soft touch with girls? No, he hadn’t been like this with Paninya or Mei Chang…

Maes wondered if Ed had any more childhood friends. Maes wondered if there was a way to persuade them all to come to Central and stay awhile.

“I’m crying because you didn’t come back! And I thought you were hurt or sick or in prison or dead! And look at you! You’ve gone insane!”

“I’m not insane,” he said. And the funny thing was, just for the moment, it seemed true.

Winry apparently didn’t think so, though; she pulled back and gave him an incredulous look.

“Okay, maybe I’m a little insane,” he admitted.

“You wander around and kill people, Ed,” she said, slowly and clearly. “That is your job. The job that you chose to go out and do. And you think that’s a little insane?”

“Somebody has to do it.”

“Oh my God.”

“And you spend all your time staring at tiny metal pieces and then wiring them to people’s nervous systems. How is that not insane?”

“It helps people live better lives!”

“Yeah? Killing murderers helps people live better lives, too.”

“Judge, jury, and executioner, huh? Thank God we have you around to know what’s best for everybody.”

Maes did not like the way this conversation was going. Even more, he didn’t like the way Ed was starting to tense up and look more like the Demon kid and less like Ed.

“I don’t know what’s best,” Ed hissed. Winry glared back at him, and Maes had to respect her for her guts, if not for her common sense. “I don’t decide. The law decides. I don’t go after people if I don’t have proof—”

“You could just give your proof to the military, Ed,” Winry said. “Or the police.”

“The military,” he sneered. Apparently he wasn’t going to mention his little arrangement with Roy. “People get away with shit all the time.” He pulled away from her and put his back to a wall. “People slip through. Doesn’t fucking matter how much they deserve to be punished, they—”

“Do you think you deserve to be punished, Ed? Is that what this is about?” Winry asked briskly, folding her arms. Maes edged forward, in case she drove Ed to attack her after all. “Do you think this is what Al would have wanted?”

Ed snarled, and Winry, for the first time, flinched. Al. That must have been the brother’s name.

And Ed had asked that very same question of Scar.

“It doesn’t fucking matter what he would have wanted! I killed him, he’s dead!

“You didn’t kill him!”

You can’t bring the dead back to life.”

“Ed, you didn’t kill him!”

“It was my idea.”

“It was both of you—both of you! It was a stupid idea, it was so stupid you couldn’t have come up with it on your own, it took teamwork! I watched you, I was there.”

“Whatever, this is pointless,” Ed said. The Demon kid said. “He’s dead and I’m not and now we all have to fucking deal. And psychos are destroying the country. Mind if I think about that for while?”

“Okay, Ed,” Winry snapped. “Run away. That’s what you do, isn’t it?”

“You should be glad,” he said in an eerie, distant voice. With which Winry was not impressed.

“Now you’re deciding what I should be grateful for, huh? You always were an arrogant jerk, but this is ridiculous.”

“What the fuck, Winry. What’re you even doing here?”

“I told you, I came to see you.”

“The hell you did. You came to see the kid you knew, and I’m not that. I don’t know how to go back to that. I can’t do shit for you.”

“Of course you can’t go back; you’re crap at going back, and you always were.”

“Hey—”

“But you can get over this violent idiot phase you’re going through.”

His hands twitched. “I wouldn’t be so sure about that.”

“You can try,” she said fiercely.

“Hell.” He did one of his unsettling total mood swings and grinned a scary grin. “I can try anything. But right now I gotta go beat somebody up. I’m gonna come back, so I’m not fucking running away. That okay? I got your permission and everything? Cuz I don’t wanna act like I know what’s best for, you know, anybody, since that really seems to piss you off.”

She stared at him. Fearless. So fearless that Maes was starting to wonder a little about her sanity. “Get lost, Ed,” she said.

He grinned again and was gone. Maes wondered who he was going to go beat up. Life’s little mysteries.

“Well,” Maes said briskly into the silence. “That should give me nightmares.”

“He is such an idiot,” Winry snapped. “What did he do with his fingers!?”

“He attacked the fuhrer with a knife,” Maes reported dutifully. “The fuhrer then cut his fingers off and sliced him up a bit. Hence the face.” And the chest and the gut, et cetera, et cetera, no need to get into the gory details.

Winry stared, wide-eyed, decided he was serious, and wailed, “Oh my God.” She covered her eyes in apparent mortification. “And what did he mean, psychos are destroying the country?”

“Oh…politics,” Maes lied. Winry probably didn’t believe him, but she didn’t press it. He liked to think she would torment Ed about it later. “You know—Winry Rockbell, was it?”

She nodded, hands still over her eyes.

“Winry. Up until recently, I would have said that Ed didn’t have any friends at all. You’re a bit of a surprise.”

Winry dropped her hands and looked suspicious. Everyone Ed knew seemed to have been born suspicious; Maes had identified it as a definite trend. Suspicious. Intelligent. Brave to the point of madness. Was this what it took to deal with Edward Elric?

“What do you mean, ‘until recently’?” she demanded. Being incapable of answering questions, could that be considered another trend?

“He recently tried to kill a man who’d murdered the parents of someone he called his best friend.”

She blinked rapidly. “Oh?”

“Mm.” That wasn’t the response of someone for whom all of this information was entirely new.

Maybe Ed only had one friend, and Maes was looking at her.

“Who…who was it? I mean, who’d murdered them?” Oh-so-casual interest.

“I think I’ll let Ed tell you about that,” Maes decided. “But onto the more immediate question! Where are you staying while you’re in Central?”

“Staying? At a hotel, I guess. I—”

“Stay with my family!”

“Your family? But I—you don’t know me at all, and I couldn’t—”

“Just wait until you meet my adorable daughter!”

He was absolutely not going to let Winry Rockbell out of his sight.

* * *

“I found the friend,” Maes informed Roy over the phone.

“…Friend?”

Roy had been pulling too many all-nighters. He was usually sharper than this. “Ed’s friend.”

What?

“Interesting girl.”

Girl?

“Winry Rockbell, automail mechanic. The girl next door, as far as I can tell. Nice young woman, very tough, very smart. She’s just like Elicia’s big sister!”

“You dragged Elric’s friend home with you.”

“It makes it easy to keep track of her.”

“You once dragged Elric home with you.”

“I’ve even dragged you home with me a few times, Roy.”

“We’re not stray pets, Maes.”

“Says you. I hear Ed’s getting his automail tuned on Wednesday. My place! Are you coming?”

“I’m coming.”

“Bring a newspaper.”

“You said two months, Maes. It’s only been one. You promised—”

“Yes, yes, yes. Ye of little faith.”

* * *

Ed was not happy about having an audience for his automail maintenance, but since it was happening in Maes’s living room, an audience was what he got.

Gracia had taken Elicia to the park to feed the ducks. Maes didn’t ever want to push Ed past the limit of his endurance. Particularly not in the presence of Maes’s family.

Ed wasn’t happy about the automail maintenance itself, either. He insisted he’d only just gotten it tuned. Winry took one look and informed him he’d gotten it tuned by an amateur.

Then Roy arrived. It was like adding vinegar to baking soda.

Ed visibly relaxed when Roy showed up. This visibly annoyed Winry, who started flinging metal around to work off her irritation. Roy made the unfortunate choice to comment on this, and Maes had to edge behind the bookcase for safety.

“Don’t piss her off,” Ed cut in an uncharacteristically pleased and placid tone. “She’s nothing but a psycho with a wrench.”

Winry snorted and gave Ed a borderline affectionate thump with the wrench in question. “I don’t have to take that crap from the psycho with the knife, thanks.”

Ed had been the one to defuse a situation. The mind fairly boggled.

“Blunt trauma, stabbing,” Ed said. “What’s the difference?”

“The difference, you crazy idiot, is that I don’t kill people!”

“Brain damage is tricky, Winry. Sure, they live to stagger away. But how long do they last after that?”

“Let’s experiment,” she suggested, hefting the wrench again.

“Hey, hey, whoa! Think of the equipment! You can’t kill me now, you just spent an hour on my automail!”

“Ah,” Maes murmured to Roy. “Young love.”

Roy’s mouth dropped open. “What?

It was so gratifying to share scary thoughts with Roy. “Did you bring the paper?”

He had. He’d brought several, in several different languages. Maes hadn’t known that you could find all of these papers in Central. He hadn’t known all of these languages existed.

“You didn’t specify which one,” Roy muttered, sounding about Ed’s age.

Maes snapped the Central Times out of the pile, refusing to encourage this behavior by commenting. “Page two,” he said, shoving it under Roy’s nose.

“Who wrote this article?” Roy asked eventually. “…I see, Mark Rhodes. So Rhodes is probably going to be shot for treason. Was that what you wanted to point out?”

He was turning so pessimistic in his age. “I wanted to point out that the newspapers will print blatant criticisms of the current government, contrary to what you seem to think. And look! The newspaper offices haven’t been burnt to the ground even though they’ve been at this all week.”

“I said two months.”

“You picked that number at random. Why so cautious? Never mind, I know why. You’re a giant control freak, that’s why. But I talked to Hawkeye, and she says everything is in place. Except for your brain.”

“You promised me two months. I’ve planned for two months. Everyone has been informed—”

“Fine, fine!” Control freak.

They lapsed into mutual annoyed silence in time to hear, “Oh, for the love of—did you lose your ability to hold still when you lost your sanity!?”

Maes thought it was nice that they all got along so well.

* * *

“I’ll be leaving next week,” Winry told Maes and Gracia the very next day. “Thank you so much for letting me stay with you! I’m sorry, I know I’ve caused you all kinds of trouble—”

“Not at all,” Gracia said warmly. She’d loved having Winry around. Maes suspected this was because it amused her when Maes was not only outnumbered by women, but also surrounded. “It’s been our pleasure.”

“Are you heading home to Rizembool?” Maes asked.

“Actually, Ed gave me the number of someone called Paninya in Rush Valley,” Winry said. “I talked to her yesterday.”

Oh please, God, no, Maes thought.

“She talked to her mechanic, and he said—eventually—that he could maybe get me an apprenticeship there. I’ve always wanted to see the town. It’s famous for its automail.”

Ed was never going to be safe in Rush Valley again. Maes felt just a little bad for him. Also like laughing for hours. In a way, it was only fair: Ed was accustomed to shipping his problems to Rush Valley, and now they were shipping themselves there. “You don’t want to stay here and keep an eye on him?”

“No, that wouldn’t work,” Winry said with authority. “It’s like taming a wild animal. I need to go away for a while or else it’ll be too much for him and he’ll break and run. He runs whenever you give him half a chance; Al would brain him if he could see this. But I’ll see Ed the next time he gets his automail repaired, and we’ll go from there.”

Gracia gave Winry a delighted smile. Maes was very fond of Gracia and Winry, generally speaking, but they could be a little scary.

But then, wasn’t this what Roy had done, too? He’d always been around, but he’d never cornered Ed, had never given him a reason to feel trapped. He’d been honest, consistent, and distant. And Ed was closer to Roy than he was to anybody else.

Maes hoped Roy hadn’t done it consciously, and if he had, Maes hoped to God he hadn’t thought of it in terms of taming a wild animal. Because that was upsetting no matter how you looked at it.

“Ah,” he said.

“While I’m gone…could you try to keep him from doing anything really stupid?” Winry asked.

“I’ll do my best,” Maes said, but he didn’t have much faith. Neither did Winry, who shrugged and sighed.

“At least try to keep him from busting his automail constantly. And if he could manage not to lose any more body parts? That would be great.”

“Men,” Gracia said, shaking her head at Maes. “What can you do with them?”

Maes tried to smile winningly.

* * *

“So I did end up talking to that Scar guy,” Ed announced out of the blue, pouncing on Maes in the middle of the street in the middle of his lunch break.

Really?” Maes had been quite sure the talking-to-Scar door had been slammed shut and locked. “What about?”

Ed shrugged. “His brother was trying to blend Xingian alchemy and Amestrian alchemy. And it worked, was the thing. I told him about the homunculi and stuff. He told me about some weird shit he saw when he went to kill Marco—I gotta tell Mustang about it. He said it reminded him of his brother’s research.” Ed absently transmuted his arm into a blade and back again, terrifying several bystanders. “Too bad I can’t ask him more about it.”

“So…he won’t be passing this information on to anyone else?” Maes asked, just to clarify his horrible suspicion.

“Silent as the grave,” Ed confirmed with a small, satisfied smile.

And every time Maes thought he was getting less unsettling to have around, sigh. “I thought we’d agreed you weren’t going to kill him, Ed.”

“You told me not to kill him,” Ed said, unmoved. “Can’t say I remember agreeing. I kept his arm, though.”

Erk. “As a…trophy?”

No, what the fuck is the matter with you?”

“Ed, is there any way for me to interpret ‘I kept his arm’ that isn’t extremely off-putting?”

Ed gave that serious thought, realized it didn’t deserve serious thought, and favored Maes with a sheepish sort of deranged grin. “Uh. Maybe not.”

“Thank you. Why did you keep his arm?”

“You know,” Ed said, though it had just clearly been established that he didn’t. “It’s interesting. Think I’ll show it to the Xing brat.”

“Ling Yao?”

“No,” Ed snapped, darting a scornful glance at Maes. “Ling doesn’t know shit about alchemy. The girl. She’s an alchemist; she should be able to figure something out. Xingian alchemy maybe has something to do with the human sacrifice thing.”

“Hm,” Maes said. The more he learned about alchemy, the less he wanted to know. “May I gently recommend not bringing her the arm itself?”

“Fuck you, I’ll redraw it on paper. Asshole. I do know how not to scare the shit out of people. Anyway, paper keeps better than, whatever, hacked off arms.”

Maes was silent. He was trying not to let the mental images become properly emblazoned across his brain. He was meeting with only limited success.

“I ran into Ling, by the way,” Ed said. “Speaking of him.” There was no reason for him to be refusing to meet Maes’s eyes, and yet he was refusing. Worrying.

“And how is our local Xingian prince?”

Ed was tapping his three remaining flesh fingers erratically against his thigh. Tap tap. Tap tap tap. “He’s had a rough time. I guess.”

What was Ed’s definition of a rough time? “Oh?”

“He says the shit’s gonna hit the fan two months from now. To the day, right? There’s an eclipse and everything.” Tap tap tap tap. Tap. “Thought you should know.”

“How did Ling Yao find out about this?”

Ed cracked his neck. “He’s had a rough time.” Tap tap. “Told the stupid bastard not to mess with the Philosopher’s Stone.”

Maes had never seen evidence of Ed pitying anyone before. He had to wonder if Ling Yao would have been better off dead. “Two months.” There was apparently something special about two-month time frames in Maes’s world.

Ed stared straight at him, eyes blazing. “Two months. You want my opinion? We’re fucked.”

Despite everything, Ed was usually quite the optimist. “Then I’m sending my family away.”

Ed nodded. “Yeah, well, like I said, it probably won’t help much. And good fuckin’ luck, anyway. I tried that with Winry, and she told me she’d kill me with a wrench. Like, what, over the phone? And Lizard hissed at me. He fuckin’ hissed, where’s he get this shit?”

Maes smiled diplomatically, ignoring the painful clench in his chest.

* * *

At a different time, under different circumstances, Gracia would have threatened to kill Maes with a wrench, too. As it was, she started to argue, the first words already past her lips—but then her eyes settled on Elicia. She didn’t argue. As it should be.

“I’ll call you every night,” she said. “You should stay with Roy until we come back.”

“Roy will not take well to that suggestion.”

“Oh, I’m sure he’d put up with you as a favor to me.”

“I am capable of looking after myself for a few months, dearest.”

She gave him a look of fond disbelief.

“I don’t know why you think it would be a good idea for me and Roy to be in the same house, anyway. We get along much better with a city between us. It’s fine for a day or two, but we did try the housemate thing once, you know, when we were young and foolish and single. Roy put tape down the center of every room and I wasn’t allowed to cross it. There were arguments over trash duty. Ultimately there were explosions.”

“You’re terrible on your own,” Gracia insisted.

“Roy and I are terrible together. I’ll be fine.”

“Maes. Please.”

There was no arguing with Gracia’s please. Which meant that Maes now had to argue with Roy, who wasn’t going to like this idea any more than Maes had.

* * *

Gracia and Elicia had been gone for two weeks. Maes had been at Roy’s place for all of that time, and wonder of wonders, they hadn’t killed each other. Quite.

Maes brought Ed to visit out of spite. Roy put tape down the center of every room and transmuted his drinks cabinet into a seamless block of wood. Maes considered taking a saw to it. There was passive aggressive refusal to wash dishes on both sides.

Just like old times. Maes suspected the stress of the impending end of the world was only making them behave even more badly. In the old days, they hadn’t kept each other up until the wee hours of the morning having panic-stricken strategy meetings based on too little information, tragically over-analyzed. Madame Christmas’s information on Selim, the adopted son of the homunculus fuhrer, hadn’t helped this state of affairs at all.

They had accounted for all of the homunculi. Now they seemed to have found one extra.

At least Ed provided a much-needed distraction by showing up at strange hours and laughing at the latest evidence of cohabitating woe. Apparently a house wasn’t scary as long as it didn’t contain small children. Or maybe—dare he think it?—they were making some sort of progress with Ed.

Ed was also unmoved by the prospect of extra homunculi. “We were fucked anyway,” he pointed out like the little ball of sunshine he was.

And very soon they had another distraction, because Roy’s allotted two months were up.

Maes picked up a paper on his way to work, and was near-blinded by the six-inch high headline reading, “FUHRER IS HOMUNCULUS!!!”

And Roy had said it couldn’t be done. Hah.