Chapter 1: Prologue
The idea for this story came from a prompt by an anonymous poster at Live Journal's FMA Kink Meme, and I did leave a slightly rougher version over there for the original poster's approval, but I never got any feedback. :( So sorry, OP, if this isn't what you had in mind, but thanks for the idea! Enjoy!
The gusting breeze caught at his long tail of gold as he turned away, and then he was gone, vanished into the darkness of the airship, Edward Elric offering himself up for sacrifice yet again. And Roy Mustang stood on the slowly separating platform, once again watching, once again letting him go. He should have known Edward's return to Amestris was too good to be true. The Fullmetal Alchemist was not the type to hold still for long, and it simply wasn't meant to be. At least now Roy knew the young man was alive, and that had to count for something, didn't it? Maybe just knowing that Edward was out there somewhere, alive though out of reach, Roy's world could rock back into some kind of alignment. The dark haired man turned his single dark eye on the distraught but quiet youth beside him. Clapping a hand on young Alphonse' tense shoulder, Roy knew what he had to encourage the boy to do.
As for Roy, all he could do was try to be grateful that he's had a chance to see Edward one last time.
The General had thought he was dreaming when he'd first seen that glowing golden hair, that familiar face and form crouched beside Alphonse on the spear of rock arrowing towards the enemy's flying machine, but this wasn't like any of the dreams he had before. It was the strange, subdued attire that helped Roy shake off his disbelief and convinced him that this was really happening. He didn't believe in a destiny pre-programmed into the pattern of life, but marvelled at the coincidence of his being in Central at the same time as the otherworldly invasion unfolded.
And to find Edward, after two long years secretly mourning his loss, a bit older, more centred, just as bold and still so uniquely beautiful, right in the thick of things, just like the good old days. Hope long since abandoned blossomed again. Hope for friendship, with the chance for something more. Hope that was now once again dying.
When Hawkeye told him that Alphonse had been discovered, literally in the flesh, alone in the city hidden under Central with no sign of Edward, Roy had levelled a glare at the ceiling above his hospital bed and flatly refused to believe that Alphonse alive meant Edward was dead, equivalent exchange be damned. It was inconceivable that the Fullmetal Alchemist, so relentlessly determined, so passionately alive, could simply be . . . gone. But as the weeks turned into months and finally into years, and no word was heard, finally only Alphonse truly held any real hope of ever seeing the Edward again, and Roy had resigned himself to regret not confessing his feelings to his youngest subordinate while he'd had the chance. Even in the thick of the endgame, watching the young man running to his little brother's rescue, Mustang had thought there would be time later, when the battles were won and the goals achieved, to find out if his suspicions were true, if the heat in the young man's scorching amber glare was fuelled by more than just anger. But then, suddenly, unbelievably, it had been too late. Edward was lost, and Roy was left frozen without the boy's blazing fire to warm him. And now, it was happening again.
"What are you waiting for, Alphonse?" Mustang said quietly as he gave the youngster a slight nudge towards the idling airship. "You've spent all this time searching for your brother. Are you just going to let him disappear from your life all over again? Go on. You don't have much time."
"As much as I'd like to, Sir, I can't," Alphonse said, deep regret in his tone. "I have to close the Gate on this side. I'm probably the only one in Amestris who can actually do it, and it's my responsibility." The young man turned solemn eyes sparkling with unshed tears on the older man. "So you should go, Sir. Before it's too late. Brother deserves better than to always walk alone. And you deserve better than to quietly freeze in the dark, regretting things left untested."
Mustang froze, jaw droping, and Alphonse made an impatient sound, hand on the small of the older man's back urging him towards the ever widening gap. Roy's eye locked to Alphonse face, shocked at his suggestion. Go with Edward? "Alphonse, what . . . I don't. . . How did you . . ." The airship canted slightly, and the gap was suddenly much wider. Mustang stood, still frozen, teetering on the edge of uncertainty.
"We don't have time to discuss this! In a moment you'll have missed your chance! Go!" Alphonse sudden anguished shout spurred the General into motion, decision made.
Mustang ran full speed toward the gap between him and the other worldly aircraft. The flying machine shuddered as he approached, tilting slightly as Roy sprang to clear the gap, arms outstretched, hoping his limited depth perception didn't play him foul. For a moment he thought he wouldn't make it, and faced a very long fall to sudden death at the bottom of a scream, but Roy just managed to span the distance. He landed hard on his stomach, legs stretched out over thin air, and the plane's sudden acceleration nearly left him behind. He could hear Alphonse cry out as Roy scrambled for purchase on the polished metal of the platform, and panic surged through him when he couldn't find a hold. His hips slipped over the edge as his fingers slid along the smooth surface, abruptly catching in a place where two pieces of sheet metal were joined. It wasn't much, but it was enough. Roy clung to the raised seam, heart in his throat, and pulled himself over the edge, crawling shakily away as he gained his knees. Looking back out of the aircraft, Roy was surprised to see that Alphonse was already just a franticly waving stick figure in the distance. Heart pounding and knees still weak from the adrenaline reaction, Roy stood and made his unsteady way deeper into the aircraft.
This might be the biggest mistake of his life, but somehow it didn't feel like it. Roy wasn't sure if it was a side effect of the close brush with death he'd just had or something else, but suddenly Roy felt more alive than he had in the last two years. He moved slowly through the flying machine's narrow, debris strewn passage, greatly anticipating the look on Edward's face when he saw his smirking stowaway. Whatever the young man's reaction, it certainly wasn't going to be boring. Mustang felt himself begin to thaw.
Chapter 2: Germany
Edward limped toward the daylight slanting in through the gaping hole in the airship's fuselage, picking his way through the debris and crumpled suits of armor strewn about the cargo hold. He had not been injured by his passage through the Gate, but was unused to the weight of automail after having to make do with Hohenheim's lightweight prosthetics for so long. Not that he wasn't grateful for the old man's efforts; they had been a vast improvement over the artificial limbs available in this world but were no match for Winry's exceptional masterpieces. Two years suffering limited dexterity had given him a new appreciation for his best friend's high quality designs, and intensifying his training regimen in order to get his balance and coordination back on track was a small price to pay for the nearly natural range of mobility he had so sorely missed.
A shot fired outside the plane brought him up short. He'd made it back to the Thule Society's villa, and he knew he was bound to run afoul of its members as soon as he stepped out of the wreckage of their aircraft, but this was an unexpected development. Who the hell was shooting at who? This wasn't Amestris, where there was always the possibility that some of the combatants could be on Ed's side. On this world, he was the only one on his side. He couldn't afford to get caught in the crossfire between rival political factions. He had to close the damn Gate, or who knew how many more xenophobic, power hungry nut jobs might get through? The blond edged forward, so intent on remaining unseen by whoever was outside that when the hand landed on his metal shoulder it took him completely by surprise.
The automail arm came up in a gleaming arc as Edward dodged cat quick under his assailant's hand, pinning the hand's owner to the bulkhead by the throat. The young alchemist leaned in, fist pulled back for the finishing blow, teeth bared, and found himself pinned in turn by a sardonic onyx eye. How the Flame Alchemist could muster a mocking smirk under the circumstances the younger man had no clue.
"What the hell, Mustang? Is that really you? " Ed sputtered incredulously. "What are you doing here? You came through the Gate too?"
The older man appeared to be quite amused. "Very good, Fullmetal. Your powers of observation never cease to amaze me. Now, if you'd be so kind as to brief me on our current situation . . .?"
Edward cut his former commander off in mid taunt. "Later. The first thing you have to do is get out of that uniform."
"Why Edward, how forward of you! I see the two years you've spent away have done nothing to deflate your enormous ego, though you do seem to be slightly taller."
"Shut the hell up you insufferable ass!" the younger man snarled. "There are armed men out there, and your uniform doesn't match theirs. Get rid of the jacket, and that god awful butt skirt too while you're at it."
Mustang shrugged out of the short jacket and balled it up, chucking it into a corner, the cavalry skirt quickly following suit. Raising his hand, he snapped.
Ed folded his arms across his chest and rocked back on his heels, head cocked to one side, watching. Mustang frowned and snapped again, sparks from the ignition cloth of his gloves clearly visible in the darkness of the aircraft, but that was all. No sudden crackle of an alchemic reaction broke the gloomy silence. No flame leaped to the offending blue cloth waiting to be incinerated. The dark haired man looked at his hand as if it had just given him the finger of its own accord, then looked at Edward, eyebrow raised, awaiting an explanation.
"Alchemy doesn't work here Colonel," Ed explained. "Just shove the uniform into one of those suits of armour. I need to see what's going on outside."
The older man quietly complied, and it gave Edward a small measure of satisfaction to note that the smirk had been wiped from his face, but at the same time he wondered what the hell the bastard was doing here. Had something forced him to jump aboard the plane at the last moment? And if so . . . "Is Al here too?" Edward asked, peering past the Mustang into the gloom.
"Alphonse is still in Central," Roy told him. "I suggested that he join you, but though he desperately wanted to do so, he decided that his responsibility to close the Central Gate outweighed his personal wishes."
"And you are here because . . .?" Edward prompted, frowning in confusion.
"Do we really have time for a Q and A right now Fullmetal?"
"Have you ever, in your entire life, responded to a simple, straightforward question with a simple straightforward answer?"
The smirk was back. "That depends on what you mean by simple and straight forward."
"That sounds like a 'no', smart ass. Fine. Stay behind me. I heard shooting outside, and that means something has changed since I left. We need to find out what's going on out there."
The pair crept closer to the tear in the metal fuselage, staying in the shadows, straining to catch a glimpse of what was occurring on the factory floor beyond. Edward could see what appeared to be some mangled pieces of armour strewn about, and a fair amount of wrecked masonry tumbled around, but that was all. Motioning for Mustang to stay back, he stepped out through the opening.
On the ground directly in front of the young alchemist lay Dietlinde Eckart, or what was left of her at least, blood like a gruesome halo spreading round her head. She still wore the armour that she'd hoped would protect her from whatever guarded passage through the Gate, though the resinous black membrane resulting from that passage had magically receded from her body. Horribly contorted, her face was a grim testament to the pain the trip had inflicted, and Edward wondered how it was that he, and apparently Mustang as well, had managed to avoid a similar fate. Just beyond the prone woman, Maes Hughes stood looking confused and sickened, legs braced wide, pistol in hand, staring at the young Amestrian. Edward half expected the German officer to shift his pistol's aim from Eckart to him, but instead, the older man's arms dropped to his sides as the tension seemed to flow out of him.
"Edward! Why did you come back?" Noa sat on the cold concrete floor, her voice high with stress, and Edward gasped to see Alfons Heidrich's head cradled in her lap. Two of the young rocket scientist's colleagues were crouched beside him, offering what aide they could, and Edward was relieved to know that his friend was at least alive. What the hell had happened after he left here?
Conscious of Mustang hidden behind him inside the crumpled aircraft, Edward resisted the urge to hurry to Alfons' side. The young rocket scientist was being looked after, and Edward had other matters to attend to. So instead, he looked overhead, into the shimmering golden chaos of the Gate. "I had to," the young man said bitterly. "I have to close that." He gestured upward with his chin.
"You can't be serious!" Karl Haushofer pushed his way to the front of the small group of onlookers, clutching at a wounded to his shoulder. "Do you have any idea how long I've been trying to establish a stable link to the other world? I won't allow it!"
'You're not going to get a vote Professor," Edward snapped. "The opening on the other side is being closed as we speak, and once that happens, your precious stability will be a thing of the past. Anyone going in there would hit a dead end. They'd be stuck inside until the pressure churned them to a bloody pulp and spit them back out the way they came in."
"You don't know what you're talking about!" the older man shouted, and his eyes widened as Edward scanned the room, then made for the nearest ladder on the surrounding scaffolding. Haushofer gestured wildly to Hughes. "You there, officer! Stop him! This is a military operation! He is trespassing!"
Hughes looked from the wild eyed Haushofer, to Edward's retreating form, to the disturbing spectacle of the yawning Gate overhead, weighing his options before casting his lot. Edward saw the decision to side with Haushofer clearly in the German policeman's narrowed eyes, and the blond was tensed to race up the ladder, when Roy stepped out of the crumpled airship. Mustang's jet black eye was fixed in amazement on Hughes, and Hughes eyes went as wide as saucers at the sight of Mustang. The two men simply stared at one another, stunned. All other eyes were also on this new development, and Edward used that to his advantage, scrambling up the ladder. Taking the rungs two and three at a time, he finally came level with the Gate's edge and the creature that encircled it.
The body of the huge serpent, Envy, his half brother, hung from its restraints, head dangling bonelessly, blood smeared jaws slack, and Edward tried not to think about where Hohenheim's mortal remains must now reside. This close to the Gate, the young man could feel the energy playing about its border, his skin tingling with it, and he breathed a sigh of relief. He had hoped there would be some residual power at hand that he could use to seal the thing shut. The hermetic emblems blazing on the homunculus' hide were propping the portal open, and they and their canvas had to go. If he did this just right, he could use the serpent like a drawstring, constricting its body to clinch the opening closed, finally tucking the massive carcass through at the end like a gigantic scaly button. Clapping his hands together, he placed them on the massive head of the serpent, but didn't feel the familiar surge of awareness that preceded the deconstruction phase of a transmutation. There was without doubt enough energy, but something was preventing the alchemist from using it.
Edward gritted his teeth in frustration. He was missing something big here. Pushing all other concerns from his mind, he thought it through. Hohenheim had said that the energy for transmutations in their world came from this one, through an internal link alchemists had with the Gate. The energy Edward had sensed before, when he'd initiated the only successful transmutation he'd ever done on this world, and right now standing under the threshold Hohenheim had created, wasn't being channelled that way. It's origin was the Gate right in front of him, an external source. Tendrils of its energy caressed his skin, power enough to vaporize the dragon and more. How had he managed to harness it that last time? The array was fixed in his mind, ready to direct the available energy to its assigned purpose. He knew he could cycle that energy with his body, because he'd done it here before, on the floor of this very room. What was different now?
The serpent's eye snapped open and Edward was quick to back out of range of the creature's jaws as the enormous orb rotated to pin him with a cold glower. The massive head turned slightly, shuddering, but it seemed the creature lacked the strength to move any further. Ed stayed back regardless. He wasn't about to take chances around the homunculus. Envy wasn't above using trickery on the humans he held in such utter contempt.
"Still here, pipsqueak?" the dragon breathed in its almost feminine voice. "Too bad our father is no longer around to see how his sacrifice was so callously squandered, and how spectacularly he failed." The creature sighed with mock sympathy.
The scaffolding rattled, signalling other climbers on the way up, Haushofer's goons no doubt. Edward moved closer to the dragon's bound coils and once again laid hands on the rough hide. "Can we just skip the heckling for a change? I'm kind of on a schedule here, so shut the hell up and let me concentrate."
"Well, what are you waiting for? Finish this. I have to admit, I'm more than ready to be shed of this dreary little world. My only consolation is that you'll be stuck here for the rest of your hopefully short, miserable life."
"You have no idea how much I'd like to stuff your worthless ass through that wormhole and slam it shut behind you, but as much as I hate to admit this, I have no idea how to initiate the transmutation I want to use," Edward told the homunculus, resenting that admission.
The creature's rough chuckle rumbled in the stillness of the chamber. "Why am I not surprised?" it said, almost to its self. "Even after all this time, you're still oblivious to the inherent cruelty of the universe, otherwise you would have figured it out by now," the creature mocked with a condescending tone. "Well, if you're expecting help from me, you're even stupider than you look."
Edward ignored the creature's taunts, forcing himself to focus, playing the memory of the previous transmutation circle he'd activated here over in his mind. Maybe he had to actually draw it out, the physical reality of tangible runes the factor that would tip the scales and set off the reaction. The crucial detail he was missing suddenly flashed in his mind: how he'd brushed the cut on his cheek before touching the array. His blood had been the trigger. Of course. When Hohenheim had started his transmutation from between the dragon's jaws, Edward had thought Envy had clamped down on the old man to prevent it. Now he realized that Hohenheim had counted on the homunculus' reaction, that his blood had been a necessary requirement to opening the Gate, and Edward felt a deep sorrow all over again. It had all been for nothing.
"I don't need your help, and I know better than to trust any you might offer," Edward told the dragon quietly. "Blood is the answer. Ironic, since you've enjoyed spilling mine so much, that now it's going to be the death of you."
"Aww. Still squeamish about killing, little boy?" The reptile's hide quivered as the creature rumbled another laugh. "Save your pity. I came from the Gate, and to the Gate I will return. I don't see it as death, per say, but more as a sort of après life. Or is it the spilling of your own blood that gives you pause? Believe me, if I could manage it, I'd be only too happy help you carry out that little task, though you'd be in no condition to execute a transmutation afterward."
If the homunculus was hoping to get a rise out of his half brother, he was in for a disappointment. Edward was already searching his pockets for the small Swiss Army knife he usually carried to make the frequent field repairs to his prosthetics. Pulling it out, he snapped out the blade and wasted no time using it to slice shallowly into the flesh of his forearm. The blood trickled down towards his elbow, and over the blade to splatter lightly onto his automail fingers. Taking a deep breath and hoping for the best, Edward clapped his hands and laid them one last time on the serpent's scales.
The blue-white arc of the reaction webbed between Edward's fingers, flesh and steel alike, startling him though he'd expected it, as Envy's final scream split the air, shrill, deafening. The symbols on the serpent's skin blazed and then shifted from their throbbing red to blinding blue-white as Edward bent the energy to meet his needs. After its initial scream choked off, the dragon fell silent, out of its misery at long last as the transmutation took hold. Contracting, the serpent kept its bulk, until it resembled a huge, scaly donut, only a handspan of golden light shining from the center of the single constricted coil. Then the huge toroid began to curl inward towards its own centre, shrinking, the snapping of gigantic bones filling the chamber, until the creature was gone, the Gate at last closed. Edward sank slowly to his knees, relieved and despondent all at once.
The trembling of the scaffold had the young alchemist jerking around to confront whoever was on the ladder. As much as he might hope for it, this wasn't over yet. Officer Hughes head had popped up over the edge of the platform, ever present frown in place. He locked eyes on the young alchemist with his usual air of disapproval.
"If you're finished here, come join us below," the officer said, and when Edward just watched him sullenly, making no move to comply, he added, "You're friend doesn't speak German, and he is probably feeling very lost right now." Hughes disappeared back down the ladder.
Oh shit. Mustang. All Edward really wanted to do was curl up into a tight little ball and let whatever was going to happen next just happen for a while, but he couldn't afford that luxury. He dragged himself to his feet and followed Hughes down to the ground. Mustang was waiting at the base of the ladder, Noa clinging to his arm with a strange expression on her face. Knowing her dubious talent, Edward wondered what she had gleaned from the Colonel's thoughts to make her look so uneasy.
"Colonel, this is Noa," Edward said tiredly, making a one sided introduction. "And just so you know, when she touches someone, she can read their thoughts."
His expression of calm curiosity never changing, Mustang moved naturally away from the gypsy girl and towards Edward, giving no indication that what Edward had said concerned him or directed his actions in any way. The younger alchemist almost smiled to see the master in action.
"Thank you, Edward," Mustang said, just as quietly. "And just so you know, it's 'General' now."
"Congratulations on your promotion. I hope you enjoyed it while it lasted," Edward said sadly.
"Actually, I've only had it for a few hours, and I didn't really want it anyway," the older man shrugged.
Mustang's cavalier attitude was starting to get on Edward's nerves. The man didn't appear to understand just what he'd gotten himself into. "You seem to be taking our permanent exile remarkably well, General. Or perhaps you didn't notice what I was doing up there by the ceiling."
"I did, and found your performance quite refreshing. It's nice to know that your methods no longer appear to exclusively consist of large scale destruction, Fullmetal," the Colonel said, and in the midst of exhaustion and grief and the aftermath of high drama, it was that goddamned title that finally tripped Edward's temper over the edge.
"Stop fucking calling me that! That's over!" Edward snapped, fists clenching convulsively. "Don't you get it Mustang? I just slammed the door on any hope we had of getting back home. Why ever the fuck you might have come through with me, I sure hope you were ready to stick around for the long haul, because there's no going back now."
Mustang's single eye suddenly blazed. He leaned in until his nose was a mere handbreadth from the younger alchemist's, and Edward felt a thrill of something like fear run up his spine, realizing that he was about to see something he had only ever seen once before: Roy Mustang losing his temper.
The dark haired man's voice slid icy calm between tightly clenched teeth. "Yes Edward. I was aware that I would have to stick around, as you say, for the long haul, but thought you'd appreciate some assistance for a change. Foolish of me, I know, to assume you might be grateful for the company at least, if nothing else."
"I never asked you to come along for the ride, Mustang!" Edward snarled back. Guilt over taking his frustration out on the Colonel sparked now, but it didn't stop him. "This was my mess to clean up, not yours! And I did just fine, as usual, all on my own!"
"This isn't about you, you selfish brat!" Mustang growled, fists clenched at his sides. "This is about protecting the people we love. You aren't the only one who cares about our world, and I don't need your permission to do whatever I see fit to protect it."
Edward fell silent, shame clamping his mouth shut at last. Mustang was right. This really wasn't just his battle. With a whole world at stake, he should be grateful that he didn't have to fight alone, that if he'd dropped the ball and hadn't managed to close the Gate, there was someone else standing by to pick it up and make a try of their own.
The older man's anger eased as quickly as it had flared, and for a moment Edward thought the other alchemist would reach out, perhaps clap a hand on his shoulder, but the moment passed. The fire went out of Mustang's eye, and he suddenly looked as tired as Ed felt.
"Edward. I know you likely feel a certain responsibility for my being here, and guilt is part of the reason for your anger," the Flame Alchemist said quietly. "But none of this is your fault. I'm here because I wanted to be here. Is it so hard for you to believe that I might just want to help? Have you been alone for so long that it's inconceivable to you that someone would want to share your burden?"
Edward looked away, unable to meet the other man's eyes. "No, you're right. I'm sorry. Of course I'm glad you're here," he said softly. "It's just . . . been a long time since I've had anyone other than myself to rely on. Hell, up until today, the only person I trusted enough to share my secrets thought I was delusional when I talked about being from another world." The blond looked over to where Hughes was supervising Alfons' colleagues as they transferred the young man's still form to a canvas stretcher, and Mustang's gaze followed, a strange set to his jaw.
"No apology necessary Full . . . Edward," Mustang said, and the corners of his mouth curved up slightly into a rueful smile. "I can't imagine what your life has been like these past two years, but I'm sure it hasn't been easy. And I'm about to get firsthand experience in that area myself. Can I count on you to be my guide?"
"Yeah, of course I'll help," Edward said, startled that the man would even think he had to ask. "You can stay with us, me and Alfons that is."
Mustang looked relieved, and it looked to Edward as if he was about to say something else, but Maes Hughes was rushing towards them, interrupting.
"We must leave here now," Hughes said quietly, taking both men by the arm and urging them towards the exit. "The Thules are upset about your interference, Edward, and they want to keep you and your friend here, but they're a little afraid of you right now. We must leave quickly before they find their nerve. I told them I was taking you both into my custody, but they are not happy about it."
"Where are they taking Alfons?" Ed asked, craning around to see what was happening to his friend.
"His friends are taking him to your flat, and a doctor will meet us there," Hughes said, hands still gripping both men's upper arms, propelling them towards the way out. "Come, we have to hurry."
"What's going on?" Mustang asked, and Edward mentally kicked himself for forgetting again that the Colonel didn't speak German. He hurried to explain the situation as he allowed Hughes to usher them out.
As the trio made their way to the flat Edward shared with Alfons, the young alchemist considered the circumstances he now found himself in. That Mustang was unable to understand the local language would present some challenges, but it might be a moot point. It looked like staying in Munich was not such a good idea anymore. English was this warped mirror world's equivalent to Amestran, so heading back to London might be a better option, for himself as well as Mustang. It galled Edward to think that they might be forced to leave an ill and injured Alfons to fend for himself, but it looked like they wouldn't be given a choice. The Thules would come after the Amestran expatriates, likely sooner than later. As much as he hated to impose on the woman's boundless kindness, Ed wondered if he could ask Gracia to keep an eye on his wounded friend, because chances were he and Mustang were going to have to get out fast.
Right now though, they had to find out just how serious Alfons' injury was, and it would also be nice to know just how advanced his tubercular infection was as well. Edward also wanted to know which of these Thule sons of bitches had shot the gentle blond in the back, because that sick fuck was in for a rendezvous with his automail fist sometime in the near future. Then Mustang, wow. So many questions to be answered and needs to be addressed. A good first step would be finding him some clothes that didn't make him look so damn military. The bastard was still taller than Edward, damn it, and he was heavier than Alfons, so he wouldn't fit into anything of theirs. And they both needed food. And rest. And probably about half a hundred other things Edward was too overwhelmed to think of right now.
In the midst of his planning, Edward realized something with a small shock that effectively slammed on his mental brakes. Mustang was stuck here, just like he was, and was counting on Ed to help him adjust, but while Ed had more experience with the ways of this world, Roy Mustang, Mr. Charisma himself, had a well deserved reputation as an exceptionally versatile tactician, clever strategy on the fly his speciality. The older man might be an arrogant, aggravating bastard, but he had always been someone the Elrics could count on when the going got rough. Edward might have given up his chance to go home, but somehow in the process he'd managed to gain a valuable ally.
Up until now, the young blond had been pretty much alone. Alfons was his friend, and they'd looked out for each other, but the young German could never understand the challenges Edward faced trying to adjust to a world he was not born to, or how badly Edward longed to go home. Indeed, he'd never really understood just how out of reach Edward's home was until that very day. Edward had been uniquely alone here simply because he was from so completely elsewhere. But now, after two long years of loneliness, his solitude appeared to be at an end.
Suddenly there was someone on Ed's side.
Chapter 3: Central
Alphonse made his way down the narrow winding stair under the abandoned church towards the underground city, Winry and Shezka following close behind. None of the three spoke, but the silence between them screamed with tension all the same.
Al had tried to talk the two women out of accompanying him into the cavern, but they had bluntly refused to let him go alone, worried looks in their exchanged glances. They perhaps thought he might try to jump through the Gate instead of closing it, but if that had been his intention, Alphonse would have gone aboard the other world's aircraft himself instead of urging Roy Mustang to go in his place. He'd opened the Gate on this side with the selfish intention of getting his brother back, and was responsible for letting the invasion forces through. The resulting destruction was his responsibility as well, and worse yet, it had all been for nothing. Edward was gone, stuck cleaning up the other half of his little brother's mess, and Alphonse would be damned if he let his big brother down by being selfish once again. He would close the Gate, ensuring that nothing else from the other side would ever get back though. Including Edward. And that was the most painful part of this devastating end.
Alphonse moved forward with grim determination, regretting what he had to do, but determined to do it nevertheless. He didn't know how he was going to live with himself after this.
Because on top of the guilt, he was ashamed. Ashamed that his impulsive actions caused so much pain and destruction. Ashamed that his selfishness and pride blinded him to risks he was taking with the lives of others. And ashamed that Edward had seen him at his lowest. That was the Alphonse his brother would hold in his memory now. A weak, irresponsible, reckless Alphonse. The young man gritted his teeth as the trio emerged from the stairwell into the main chamber, the sound of their footsteps on smoothly polished stone swallowed by deep silence.
The golden glow of the Gate lit the large cave like inverted sunlight, amber rays flashing and tracking across the cavern's ceiling, an easy destination to target in the tangle of narrow streets. Wrath's sacrifice, the red stones contained in his and Gluttony's bodies, were likely framing the energy to brace it open. Reaching the courtyard that bounded it, Alphonse took his time as he approached the massive construct, considering his options. He didn't want an impulsive action on his part to result in even more damage to the city above. If the red stones were indeed focusing the power, he had to find a way to pull the plug. He could disrupt the array that described the channelling of that power, but how could he ensure that the enormous amount of energy he suddenly unleashed didn't whiplash out to tear apart the cavern and the city perched on top of it as well?
The young alchemist looked at his two companions. "I think you should stay back," he advised. "The Gate can be very unpredictable." An image flashed behind his eyes for a split second - greasy black ribbons sliding around him, wrapping him, small, cold hands pressing, clutching - and was just as suddenly gone. Alphonse put his hands over his face and rubbed the heels of his hands hard at his eyes, stomach roiling queasily. What was that?
"Al?" Winry's strong hands gripped his shoulders tightly. "You should sit down. I thought for a second that you were going to fall over!" Sheska nodded a confirmation, hovering beside him, wringing her hands nervously.
"No, I'm alright," the young man insisted, though he took a moment to make sure he was steady before gently freeing himself from the automail mechanic's supporting grasp. "I have to closed this thing."
"Then do it," Sheska said, voice trembling. "What are you waiting for?" Her eyes kept darting towards the golden chaos marring the polished stone floor as if expecting some new horror to spring from it, and really, it was a perfectly reasonable concern.
"I'm not exactly sure how to go about it, and I don't want to rush and cause even more harm than I already have." Alphonse eased Wirny back, and her worried eyes followed him as he edged closer to the Gate's edge, hoping to see, or perhaps sense, a clue to the action he should take.
A low groan and movement from the surrounding rubble caused Alphonse to spin around, crouched and ready for some new hostile encounter. Whatever he was expecting, it certainly wasn't what he found.
Van Hohenheim lurched upright not five metres from the group of young people, buck naked, his thick blond locks hanging loose around his hunched shoulders, arms dangling limply in front of him. He looked at the trio blearily, then at the surrounding cavern, and finally took in the yawning Gate with a grimace.
"Wasn't expecting that," he said, speech somewhat slurred, and took three shambling steps towards his youngest son before falling to his knees.
"Dad?" Alphonse' incredulous gasp drew the old man's attention, and though he seemed confused and disoriented, he smiled at the youngster's shocked expression.
Winry finally shook off her freeze of astonishment and rushed to Hohenheim's side, quickly checking for injuries. The older man endured her prodding with a bemused smile and the occasional wince, until she finally pronounced him free of critical damage. In fact, given his state of undress, it was blatantly obvious that Alphonse' father was in excellent health, his skin amazingly free of any scar or blemish. The blonde mechanic helped as he struggled once again to his feet, Alphonse seemingly frozen in place, staring, Sheska hovering behind him, unsure of what to do. The older man pursed his lips, frowning at his son's stunned immobility.
"Don't I even get a 'welcome home'?" he asked, disappointed.
Alphonse, Winry, Sheska, and Hohenheim sat on convenient chunks of shattered stone, the Gate like some weird campfire shimmering in front of them. The ancient alchemist, Alphonse' long red coat draped over his lap, was spinning the tale of his adventures in the other world to the three rapt young listeners. The old man had been annoyed to learn that Edward had returned through the Gate to close it, but had easily given in to his younger son's demands that he explain his presence. Hohenheim was nearing the end of his story, almost caught up to present circumstances.
"When William, who you knew as the homunculus called Envy, bit down on me, I didn't even have time to register the pain before I was standing in front of the Black Gate," Hohenheim said to his spellbound audience. "My blood paid the exchange for opening it, and I had expected only death, but still I could feel it shuffling through my mind, making whatever judgments it needed to. Then finally the great doors cracked open, and I saw a thousand pairs of greedy eyes eagerly peering out at me, their latest victim, through the widening gap. The long black arms snaked out, reaching for me, binding me, the hands clutched at me, pulling, but I didn't struggle. It would have been pointless, and I just don't have that kind of strength anymore, to fight against what can't be fought."
Alphonse frowned. The description of those black arms brought back the vision he'd had earlier as he'd approached the Gate's edge. That must have been some kind of flashback to when he had been before the Gate himself! Did that mean his memories weren't lost forever, as he had assumed? Hohenheim was looking at him oddly.
"Yes, I'd forgotten that you have seen that Gate as well, Alphonse," the old man said, expression mild.
"Well, up until about an hour ago, I'd forgotten that myself," Alphonse admitted. "Please finish telling us what happened to you. How did you end up here?"
Winry frowned her worry again, and Hohenheim looked as though he might pursue an explanation for his son's strange comment, but instead he concluded his story. "Nothing more to tell, really. I was pulled into the darkness, and the next thing I knew, I was waking up here." The old man waved a hand to encompass the cavern.
"Well, I'm certainly glad to see you, and not just for the obvious reasons," Alphonse said, casting his gaze towards the eerie shimmer in front of them. "For one thing, I have to close that, and I'm really not sure how to do it safely. Do you have . . ."
"Close it?" Hohenheim straightened up in surprise. "I thought you said Edward had gone through. We can't close it yet, not until we get him back."
"You can do that?" Sheska asked, voice squeaking, nervous. "Without, like, levelling a city or anything?"
"It will take some careful planning, but yes, I believe we can do it," Hohenheim said, eyes unfocused as he thought it over, already making plans, and Alphonse was suddenly blindsided by another image – Edward, not the eleven year old haunting his last recollections, not the eighteen year old he had just met, no, this Edward had lived some when in between, a teenager, sharp of feature, sitting at a long table stacked high with books in a dimly lit room, chin resting on a cupped metal hand, thoughtful amber gaze a match to the one he'd just seen cross his father's face – and then he was back, laying on the ground, head in Sheska's lap, looking up at three concerned faces gathered around him.
"I'm alright," he said immediately.
"What happened, Al?" Winry knelt at his side, peering critically into his eyes, hands firm on his shoulders.
"I'm not sure," the young man said slowly. "I just . . . saw something. I think it was a memory from the time I was in the armour. I think I might be starting to remember." He struggled to sit up, and Hohenheim's strong right arm supported him.
"You don't remember anything from that time?" the old man asked, his expression guarded.
"Nothing. But lately I've been having dreams about living with brother in a different world, and just before we found you, I had another memory, about getting wrapped up in black ribbons and clutched at by little black hands like the ones you described inside the Gate."
Before anyone could comment, the sharp sound of approaching footsteps interrupted. Into the shattered clearing rushed a small platoon of tense armed soldiers, lead by Riza Hawkeye. The rest of Mustang's old team were with her: Jean Havok, Heyman's Breda, Vato Falman, and Kain Fuery. Spotting Alphonse and his companions, Hawkeye strode over, eyes casting around the scene, taking in Winry and Sheska, frowning at Hohenheim, and searching beyond them. Alphonse could easily guess who she was searching for.
"Alphonse." the First Lieutenant squatted down beside the young alchemist. "Are you alright? Can you tell me what happened?"
"I'm fine Lieutenant Hawkeye," Alphonse assured her. "And as for what happened, you probably know as much as I do. I opened this gateway and an invasion force came through."
"And Edward." This wasn't a question.
"Yes," Alphonse answered with quiet unhappiness.
"He took the flying machine back through that gateway, didn't he," Hawkeye asked, already knowing the answer.
"Yes," was Alphonse' cheerless response. "And General Mustang went with him."
The Hawk's slow nod and exchanged glance with Havoc showed no evidence that this news surprised her, confirming what Alphonse had long suspected about Mustang. The conclusions he'd come to from overheard speculation and quiet innuendo by the Flame Alchemist's former staff concerning the General's self imposed exile to the North, all when they assumed Al was out of ear shot of course, were the reason Alphonse had urged the General to join Edward on the aircraft in the first place.
With a deep sigh, Hawkeye turned towards Hohenheim and gave him an appraising once over. "Van Hohenheim?" she asked. "Did you come through this gateway as well?"
"I'm sorry, miss," the old man said apologetically. "You seem to be confusing me with someone else. I'm just an innocent bystander."
"If you insist," Hawkeye said. "Though I do wish you weren't. I suspect we'll need as many talented alchemists as we can find to safely close this monstrosity."
"Ah. About that," Hohenheim rubbed the back of his neck and gave the officer his most disarming smile. "Seeing as how two of our citizens have gone through, and closing this gateway would cut off their only escape, don't you think it might be better to leave it open, just for a little while?"
Another commotion of approaching footsteps interrupted, and more soldiers poured into the wrecked area around the Gate. Alphonse recognized General Hakuro as he came on the scene, and the man obviously recognized him as well, as he quickly made his way over to crash the discussion.
Hakuro glanced suspiciously at Alphonse and lifted an eyebrow at the half naked spectacle of Hohenheim standing casually by, Alphonse' red coat tied around his waist by the sleeves. The General then turned to his subordinate and barked, "Lieutenant Hawkeye! Report!" as he returned the woman's waiting salute.
"General Hakuro Sir!" Hawkeye started, stiffly at attention. "This alchemical construct is the means by which the invasion forces gained access to Central. These civilians were on hand to witness the airship as it went back through the construct. It appears that General Mustang was aboard at the time. We have yet to discover how the invaders were able to transmute this gateway, or how it can be closed."
"Closed?" Hakuro turned to gaze almost lovingly at the object in question. "I hardly think that closing the door on that incredible level of technology would be prudent," he said, giving Hawkeye a condescending smile. "Think of the tactical advantage our military would realize with weapons like those in our possession. Coupled with our superbly trained contingent of State Alchemists, our forces would greatly surpass those of our neighbours. We have to keep this open, carefully guarded of course, so we can use it to learn their secrets."
"If we don't close this door, those soldiers could come back through at any moment and attack us again!" Alphonse piped up. "I was on that airship! Its commander was only interested in our destruction! Keeping this thing open presents a terrible risk!"
"But our people are over there!" Hohenheim cut through Hakuro's response. "Yes, we have to close it, but not yet! We have to get them back!"
Hakuro held up a hand, attempting to gain control of the debate. "This is a military operation! Any unauthorized attempts to disrupt this gateway . . ."
Alphonse spoke over the General's rebuke, addressing Hohenheim. "The only reason I didn't go with brother was because he told me to close this side of the Gate, and that's what I'm going to do. He's closing the other side, so this one won't be usable anymore anyway."
"Not necessarily," Hohenheim said, again ignoring Hakuro and earning an exasperated snarl. "I have passed through the Gate twice now, and counting this time, Edward has been through five times that I know of. The majority of those passages have been successful even though the Gate was opened from one side only. This side. Closing this now would only mean reopening it later, and if you're not familiar with the risks associated with that kind of undertaking, I'd be happy to outline them for you."
Alphonse thought it through carefully. He desperately wanted to get his brother home, but didn't want to again endanger others to do it. At the same time however, he didn't want to arbitrarily dismiss this opportunity if the risk of collateral damage was low. He was done making rash decisions, in the name of getting his brother back or otherwise. "How long do you think we'd have to keep it open?" he asked after a few moments. "We really don't want to get invaded again."
Hohenheim considered the variables and answered cautiously. "I think between the two of us, we can come up with a viable plan of action inside of a week."
"You were over there. How long would it take the otherworlders to mount a follow up attack?" Alphonse pressed.
Hohenheim could see that he was winning his son's agreement, and carefully thought out his answer. "The rocket they sent through was a prototype. I believe it would take them much longer than a week to prepare another one."
"Then our deadline is one week," Alphonse said with finality. "If we can't formulate a workable plan within that time frame, we close the Gate and work on getting Ed and General Mustang back some other way."
"Agreed," the old alchemist said reluctantly.
"No one is closing anything!" Hakuro barked, frustrated, just as the Gate erupted, belching out a glittering silver spray of iridescent mist, accompanied by a high pitched whine trembling just on the edge of human hearing. It raised the hair on every head in the cavern.
Soldiers and civilians alike scrambled to put some distance between themselves and the edge of the gapping disparity as the ground began to shake convulsively. More of the glowing silver mist puffed up, joined by an occasional chunk of something more substantial, ejected at high speed. From his vantage point behind a half crumbled wall, crouched between a whimpering Sheska and a cringing Winry, Alphonse was certain that the diameter of the transmutation circle was tightening. The Gate was closing. Looking wildly around for Hohenheim, wondering if they should try to stop it, the young alchemist almost missed seeing the serpentine creature that appeared within the churning mist, glowing emerald coils wrapped in oily black tendrils, struggling to break free. It was only visible for a moment before it was snapped back into the golden confusion below it, but Alphonse was sure it had been looking directly at him with almost tangible malice.
The ground was shaking so violently now that it was nearly impossible to stay upright. Alphonse clung to the dubious stability of the damaged wall, watching as the Gate appeared to swallow itself. The gap was shrinking more rapidly with each passing second, along with Al's hope that it wasn't too late to fetch Edward back through it. In no time at all it was a pinpoint of light much too bright to look at directly, and then it vanished entirely with an ear-splitting thunderclap. The ground stopped shaking just as abruptly as it had begun, and an eerie silence settled once again like a thick mantle over the underground city.
Still dazzled from the brilliance of the dwindling Gate, it took Alphonse a moment before he noticed that a dimly glowing something was lying directly in the centre of the spent transmutation circle where moments before the Gate had disappeared. The boy was just beginning to stand, intending to go and see if the object was what he suspected it to be, when Hohenheim pounded past him at a dead run, bare feet slapping the polished stone, Al's red coat flapping around his legs as he wove through the scatter of rubble. Without even breaking stride, the old man scooped up the glowing crimson article and disappeared into the tangle of underground buildings.
Sheska blew out a shaky breath. "Well, that's that," she said.
Chapter 4: Munich
Munich. That was what Edward had called this city. It didn't look all that different from a typical Amestran city, or at least the bits he had seen on his way to Edward's flat didn't. Bigger perhaps, more crowded surely, more sombre definitely, but this country had just been defeated in some kind of war and appeared to be preparing for another, Edward had explained, and things were pretty dismal right now. Sitting at the window, Roy could occasionally feel the younger alchemist's eyes on him, along with those of Maes Hughes, who looked like he was seeing a ghost. Roy knew exactly how the other man felt.
The time between his discovery of his old friend's double here beyond the Gate and this very moment had been filled with frantic activity. The wounded young man who so resembled Alphonse Elric was currently settled in his room, attended by Edward and the gypsy girl, Noa. A doctor had seen him, removed the bullet, stitched him up, and noted that the bullet may have actually done the young man a service. The youngster apparently had a tubercular infection in the lung the bullet had pierced, and the procedure in this world for dealing with it was to collapse the lung in hopes that the infection might be eradicated and the lung would heal stronger. Time and attentive care would tell.
Mustang had done his best to stay out of the way while all this unfolded, considering his situation, aware of the eyes on him, both Edward's and Maes'. The impact of being without his alchemy in this strange place was only just starting to hit him. He felt helpless and off balance, his gloves in his pocket no longer the comforting weight that they had always been. It was a familiar feeling. When he had lost his eye he had gone through a similar experience. Without binocular vision, his depth perception effectively eliminated, he hadn't dared to so much as light his fireplace for fear of burning down his house. It had only been in the last six months that he had finally begun to practice once again, in the far north where he could do harm only to himself, and though the new visual cues he used weren't as accurate with extreme distance, his medium and close range precision were good as ever.
Not that it mattered now.
Mustang cleared his throat. "Can you understand me?" he asked without much hope. Edward had been speaking with the people around them in a completely unfamiliar language between fielding Roy's frequent questions, and no one appeared to understand the two Amestrans' exchanges.
"I can speak English," the police officer said in oddly accented Amestran. "Who are you?"
Edward, coming out of his young friend's bedroom, leaned against the door frame, arms crossed. He kept silent, watching the exchange, for which Roy was very grateful. "My name is Roy Mustang. But you already knew that, from the moment you saw me. Just as I immediately knew your name was Maes Hughes."
Hughes slowly nodded, and with a slow exhale he leaned forward as he used two fingers to adjust his glasses. It was a mannerism so familiar to Roy that it was almost physically painful to watch. But as deeply as he might wish it, this man was not the Maes Hughes he had known. This was not his best friend, no matter how much he appeared to be. Roy had seen what had transpired from his vantage point inside the crashed airship earlier. This Maes had been a split second away from turning a gun on Edward, and the Maes Roy had known would have been more likely to turn a gun on himself. This man was a stranger, and though he appeared to have lent them a hand at the Thule's villa, he was still likely an enemy.
Hughes found his voice again. "You are from Shamballa? It really exists, this paradise? Is it . . . the afterlife?" The man's expression was guarded, and Roy wondered just what the other man was guarding. He looked closer.
And in that moment Roy realized that although he did not have his alchemy, he still had his ability to read the people around him with great accuracy, his deep understanding of human nature, and a natural talent for manipulating situations to his advantage. People were people, and Roy Mustang knew people. He was by no means helpless. He had come here because he wanted to be with Edward, and he'd be damned if he became a burden to the young man he was so fond of. Mustang kept his gritted teeth internal, and brought his considerable weapons to bear. Calm neutrality was the air he projected as he assessed the situation.
The man in front of him had been on the verge of doing Edward harm, and the only thing that had stopped him was Roy's sudden appearance. This not-Maes had an exploitable weakness, and it was Roy himself. Still, if this stranger was anything at all like the Maes Roy had known, and the fact that he had hidden his understanding of Roy and Edward's shared language until now showed that he was at least as crafty, it would be foolish to underestimate him. Roy had to play this situation carefully, because he and Edward were at a strategic disadvantage, alone behind enemy lines, and securing an ally was essential. With Hughes' willing assistance, Roy and Edward might just evade the danger Roy knew was fast approaching.
"I don't know about Shamballa," Roy said, quietly glancing at Edward, who shrugged. "And I'm not exactly who you think I am. I'm from another world, and in that other world there was another Maes Hughes. He was my friend."
Hughes stared at Roy for a few moments, digesting his words, then came to a decision. He stood and reached into a pocket, pulled out some crinkled paper, and passed it to Edward. "Go to the pub and fetch us some dinner," the officer instructed, then held up a hand to cut off the inevitable protest. "And for once don't argue. Your friend and I have to talk privately."
"Go on, Ed," Roy said, smiling reassuringly at the other's indecision. "We'll be fine."
Edward looked from one man to the other, lips pursed, then turned to leave, muttering something about being kicked out of his own home by a couple of cranky old coots. The door clicked shut behind him, and the German police officer sighed.
"He is difficult to deal with," Mustang said, "because he is stubborn, and because he refuses to compromise his principles."
"We have never been on good terms," Hughes admitted. "I warned young Heidrich against allowing Edward to move into these lodgings with him. I knew he would be trouble. He continually and shamelessly consorts with the wrong kind of people for one thing. And now look at what has happened now to poor Alfons."
"Well, that's one major difference between the Maes I knew and you," Roy said mildly. "He was very fond of Edward and his brother. He adopted the two of them, in spirit at least, and he gave his life in his efforts to help and protect them. And I'm not sure what happened earlier, but I know Edward well enough to know that he would never shoot a man in the back, as it appears young Alfons was."
"No, you're right of course," Hughes said, uncomfortable. "I didn't mean to imply that he did. But if not for Edward's involvement, I wonder if Alfons might not have been in danger in the first place."
"Personally? I wonder who actually shot the young man." Mustang said thoughtfully, still the picture of calm. "That is the person I would hold responsible for his injury. But I suppose that blaming an outsider is easier than admitting a friend or neighbour could be capable of such an act of cowardice."
Hughes looked sadly away. "You are very much like the Roy Mustang I knew. He had very high ideals, always taking the side of the underdog, probably because his German blood was not pure and he knew what it was like to stand on the margin. But he was deeply loyal to the Fatherland. We fought side by side in the Great War." The German studied Roy's face, and the Amestran saw his eyes catch on the small scar below his right eye. "That scar," the officer said finally. "Did the other Maes, my doppelganger, give it to you?"
"Yes. We went to a military academy together. It's where we met. We were practicing our swordsmanship, and he accidentally penetrated my mask."
"I gave the Roy Mustang I knew a scar, exactly the same, after we joined the army to fight in the Great War. Under similar circumstances." Hughes continued to search Roy's face, and Roy knew without a doubt what he was searching for, because he desperately wanted his old friend back as well.
"I'm not him," Roy said at last, and the other man's face fell, disappointment in every line.
"I know," Hughes said. "But you are so very like him, and not just in appearance. Our friendship was strong because each of our strengths complimented the other's weaknesses. I was the voice of reason he often needed to rein in his wildly idealistic beliefs, and he was the moral compass I often needed to temper my pragmatism with compassion. I have had great difficulty seeing the good in people since I lost him. What was this other Maes to you?"
Mustang chose his words with great care. "He was my best friend. He saved my life and gave me a reason to go on living in my darkest moment. He was married to the double of the woman I saw in the flower shop downstairs." Hughes sudden thoughtful expression was not lost on the Amestran. "Together they had a daughter who was the blinding light of his life. And three years ago he was murdered by order of the corrupt leader of my country because he knew too much. I will miss him until the day I die. And I know you are not him."
Hughes nodded slowly, sorrowfully. "Your double, he was also my best friend. He was an expert with explosive devices, and the destruction he caused, the lives lost, played heavily on his conscience. Near the end of the war he was forced to execute a civilian couple that our commander claimed was giving aid to the enemy. They were just small town doctors who didn't care to check the nationality of their patients, and to this day I suspect it was really my friend's loyalty that was being tested." Hughes gritted his teeth. "He never forgave himself for carrying out that order. He sank deeper and deeper into the bottle and self loathing, until one day I found him dead by his own hand. He had used the same gun on himself that he had used on those doctors. I realize as well that you are not him. But at the same time, I'm glad to know that my double in your world was able to save you from perhaps making that same, ultimate mistake."
"He did," Roy admitted. "After he was killed, I was very lost without his friendship and support, but I kept to the path he had set me on, determined not to let him down." He paused, considering just how much more he would reveal, and continued. "Then someone else important to me disappeared from my life, and it all came tumbling down. I lost my sense of direction. And now I'm here."
"Perhaps it is time to find someone else to give you direction," Hughes said, and Maes' quirky grin on the German officer's face made Roy's heart grieve his loss all over again.
"Perhaps it's time you found some new moral compass to help you chart your course as well," Roy suggested. "And perhaps that someone is tending the flower shop below us as we speak."
Hughes made no comment, though he appeared to be contemplating the notion. The two men sat in companionable silence, waiting for to Edward to return with their dinner, until Mustang finally spoke again.
"So, what can you tell me about my new home?" he asked with a smile.
Edward hurried to his assigned task, anxious to get back to the flat. He was feeling very protective of Mustang, and that was stupid. The General was more than capable of looking after himself. In fact, his current circumstances didn't seem to be shaking the man's serene confidence in the least. Still, Edward didn't trust Officer Hughes one bit, and with good reason. The young alchemist hoped that the German policeman's resemblance to Mustang's old friend wouldn't put the General off his guard.
Edward mentally shrugged away his concerns for his former commander to a sense of duty towards a fellow Amestran in exile. He had agreed to help Mustang get his bearings after all, and he took that responsibility very seriously. It certainly had nothing to do with any possible lingering feelings Edward may have for the older man. No. All that had been a long time ago, an adolescent rush of awakening hormones setting their sights far too high. And of course he had never let his Colonel know, showing only complete and utter disdain for the man at every opportunity, all in the name of self defence. If Mustang had ever discovered his youngest subordinate's secret attraction to him, it would have been one more thing the Flame would have held over the boy's head, a new trigger for that infuriating smirk.
So why had the fleeting notion that Mustang had come through the Gate for him given him such a jolt? And why had it stung so sharply when the man explained that his true motive for coming along was to make sure Edward didn't screw up closing the damn thing? Trapped here in this bizarre mirror world, Edward had often thought about the people he missed the most, and at first he'd been surprised to find that Mustang was one of them. The man had always been a royal pain in his ass after all, leading Ed around by the nose to do the military's dirty work while he relaxed behind his desk, smugly reaping the benefits of the younger alchemist's hard work. And the man had been beyond enraging, dark eyes sparkling with amusement as he picked away at all of Edward's inadequacies. The Flame Alchemist didn't have to use his alchemy to set Ed on raging fire, and had taken great pleasure in doing so at every opportunity.
Still, thinking back to those times, playing their interactions over in his mind with the perspective of distance and a bit more emotional maturity, Edward had come to wonder if the older man's teasing condescension was perhaps masking something else. Then, seeing him again, still drop dead gorgeous eye patch and all, fighting by his side, in the thick of furious battle, Edward had still felt that familiar hum along his nerves just to watch the Flame in action. Ah well. No surprise that in the end it had just been a disappointing case of wishful thinking. What the hell would perfect fucking Mustang want with someone like him anyway? Ed was nothing but a walking mass of scar tissue, both inside and out.
The young alchemist shook himself from his pointless ramblings. He was no stranger to the twisting paths his mind might lead him down in vain attempts to escape from loneliness. The trick was not to foolishly allow himself to believe he could have the things he wished for. Whatever the General's reasons for coming through the Gate, Ed was grateful that Mustang was here. It was like an enormous weight had been lifted from his chest, and breathing was easier now, just knowing that there was someone else around who knew who he really was. Edward had missed that when Hohenheim had disappeared, and was thankful that Mustang had shown up to satisfy that need. Ed hoped that by helping Mustang adjust to his new home, he could get to know the man better, and perhaps exchange friendship for their mutual animosity in the process.
He glanced into the beer hall as he passed its large window and then quickly stepped back out of sight. Was that Haushofer's pal, Rudolf Hess, there at the bar? Trying to remain as inconspicuous as possible, Edward leaned against the wall by the window, feigning a search through his pockets as he surreptitiously glanced inside the pub again. It was Hess alright, and he clearly wasn't there for the lager. Looming over the nervous barkeep, hands flat on the bar, intimidation was written all over the big German, and Edward could easily guess what information he was after.
Eyes on the scene in the bar, Edward stepped backwards away from the window, right into something solid and unyielding. He looked up into an unfamiliar smirk as big arms wrapped around him from behind, pinning his arms to his sides. The overgrown, bullet-headed man chuckled and started to say something, but was abruptly cut off as Edward's right heel hooked up between the goon's legs for a direct hit to the nuts. The man fell to his knees with a strangled cry, gasping and retching, as Edward sprinted away.
He didn't take the direct route back to the flat, mindful of possible pursuit, but Edward knew that it was only a matter of minutes before the Thules showed up there regardless. He darted through the back door and up the stairs, bursting into the flat and starling Hughes and Mustang to standing.
"We're out of time," he told them. "The Thules are on the way, and we need to get out of here." Edward looked at Hughes. "Are you going to try to stop us?"
"No, but what are you going to do?" the German was the picture of calm. "Run aimlessly through the streets? How typically impulsive of you Edward."
"It's Wednesday. This time of the morning, the shops are busy. We'll get lost in the shuffle until we can come up with a better plan." Edward said, mostly to Mustang.
"You can go to my flat," Hughes cut in, quiet voice all business. He reached into his jacket and came up with a key. "I live alone. Given our past relations, I'm sure no one will look for you there."
"Given our past relations, why would I trust you enough to go there?" Edward shot back.
Mustang reached out and took the key.
Edward stared, then his face darkened. "This guy isn't the Lieutenant Colonel," he said flatly.
"I realize that Edward," Mustang said. "But all the same, I think we should accept his help."
"He could lead them straight to us," Edward growled.
"He could, but I don't think he will."
"We are taking a big chance if we trust him."
Mustang snorted, amused. "Then I guess this is my day for taking big chances. It's your decision, Edward, and I'll follow your lead, but I don't think Officer Hughes will betray us."
Ed frowned. The Flame following his lead. That was novel. He studied Mustang's face, but as always, everything was hidden behind a featureless wall of cool confidence. Oh, how he wished he could break through that wall for a glimpse of what was going on in the older man's convoluted mind! The blond looked at the German police officer, standing quietly, awaiting Edward's decision. "Okay. Hughes' place it is, for now."
Hughes snatched a piece of paper from the table and scribbled down his address. "Can you find this?" he asked Edward.
"You're not coming?" Edward asked suspiciously.
"I will come after the Thules leave here. You don't want Alfons to be left unprotected?" Hughes smirked at Edward's scowl.
Mustang took Edward's arm and pulled him to the door, nodding at the officer as they left. The pair hurried out, down the stairs and cautiously out the back door. Running up the alley, Edward hoped they weren't making a big mistake, and said as much to his companion.
"I think we can trust him, but we're going to hedge our bets a bit too," Mustang smirked.
Edward smiled as he felt his apprehension slightly ease. Trust Mustang to always have something up his sleeve.
Finding Hughes' place wasn't difficult. The midmorning rush of shoppers on the streets provided excellent cover, and Roy was sure they entered the building unobserved. Edward followed along as they climbed to the second floor and found the flat, but passed it by. The older man could tell that his young companion was curious about what Roy had planned, but seemed content to wait and see it unfold. At the far end of the second floor hallway another stairway angled away from the landing. Opening a door directly across from these stairs revealed a small closet containing a mop, a broom, and a tin bucket, with a deep sink tucked in the back. Checking the door knob revealed a latch that could be operated from the inside, while a keyhole marked the hall side of the lock. Perfect. Mustang moved to the stairway, hitched up his pant legs, and settled himself down on a step.
"So this is your plan?" Edward asked, somewhat disappointed. "We wait in the hall to see who comes in, and hide in that closet if it's someone we want to avoid?"
"Very good, Edward. A simple plan I admit, but the simplest plans are often the most effective."
Edward shrugged and climbed up to sit on the step above Roy's. He sat quietly, but the older man could tell he had something to say, and his uncharacteristic hesitance made Roy smile encouragingly.
"I'm sorry I snapped at you back at the villa," the young man finally started.
"You already apologized for that Edward, and really, no apology is necessary. I know it was just the stress talking."
Edward sighed and leaned back on his elbows, his legs stretching out past the older man. "I took my frustrations out on you. You didn't deserve that. So yeah, an apology was necessary. I'm still kind of amazed that you're here. That took a lot of guts, jumping into a flying machine from another world, headed into the unknown, knowing that there was no way back. I never took you for the impulsive type."
Roy could see that the blond was working his way to what he really wanted to ask, but he didn't press. He'd let his former subordinate get to it in his own good time. Obviously the young man wasn't quite convinced that Roy's only motive for joining him on this side of the Gate was a desire to help him close it. Apparently the young man had gained some maturity in the intervening two years, no longer so quick to accept other people's assertions without question.
Edward tried again. "What did you expect to find here?" he asked, curious golden eyes on Roy's.
You, is what the older man wanted to admit, but he couldn't, not yet. "I honestly didn't have time to consider that," he told the young man. "But I knew you had managed to survive here for two years and didn't seem any worse for the wear, so I assumed it was possible for me to do so as well."
The young alchemist nodded, eyes still on Roy's. "It was tough at first. Alchemy had always been such a big part of my life. It took me a while to adjust to being without it. I missed it more than my automail, actually."
"I don't think I'll miss it as much as you did," Roy said with a slight grimace. "I haven't been using my specialty all that much of late. With one eye, my depth perception is rather limited. I put in a lot of practice when I was stationed up north and improved my aim, but never did get back my long range accuracy."
"You were up north? Let me guess. Brigadier General on the Briggs Wall." Edward grinned, sure he was right.
"Remote outpost sentry duty, Drachman border, voluntary."
Edward sat there for a moment, waiting for a punch line that never came. Finally he said, "You're not kidding, are you." Roy shook his head. "Why would you volunteer for that kind of duty, and why would the military allow a Colonel, the Flame Alchemist no less, to do it?"
"I was a Corporal at the time. As you might recall, the last time we saw each other I was on my way to assassinate Furher Bradley. I did manage to kill that . . . thing, but I suffered the consequences."
"Your eye," Edward said as he looked to the patch, gaze not sliding uncomfortably to the side as most people's did. The young man was too personally familiar with that type of loss to shy away from another's.
"That, yes, but my career suffered as well," Roy acknowledged. "Military Command was reluctant to accept the story I told about how I had uncovered a plot to kill the Furher but was unable to prevent it. The investigators wanted to dig deeper, and I was afraid that my team would be raked over the coals for their loyalty to me, so I made a deal with the Brass. I told them I would take sole responsibility for failing to protect the Furher, and agreed to give up my rank, in order to keep my team out of the proceedings."
"So you saved everyone from the sick fuckers who wouldn't have hesitated to all turn them into ingredients for a philosopher's stone, and as your reward, they took away your rank and shipped you up north to get rid of you." Edward growled.
Roy found the young man's anger at the injustice he thought done to his former commander touching. "No, I really did volunteer for that duty."
"Why?" Edward asked, incredulous.
Roy though carefully about what he wanted to admit to the young man, and decided to throw caution to the winds. This was, after all, his day for taking big chances. Before he could lose his nerve, he said, "I lost someone I cared for, someone I had hoped to someday confess my feelings to in hopes of having those feelings returned. I wanted to hide myself away, and grieve in private. Can you guess who that someone might have been, Edward?"
Edward stared at the older man, a look almost like fear in his eyes. He had to know Roy was talking about him. What was he afraid of? With a sinking feeling, Mustang though of an answer to that question.
"I suppose you might know how I felt back then. Perhaps you are feeling much the same way about leaving Miss Rockbell behind," he prodded.
Edward frowned at the turn this conversation had taken. "Winry? Well, I'll miss her, but crawling under a rock to hide would be an insult to her. She's my best friend, and she gave me this automail so I could stand on my own and keep moving forward."
Mustang mulled this over. "So tell me then, Edward. Are you and young Alfons Heidrich a couple?" the dark haired man asked, fearing once again that he already knew the answer.
The young man's alarm was replaced with horror. "You're kidding, right? He's, like, a mirror image of my little brother!" Edward looked sick.
"The gypsy girl, Noa then. Are you . . . ?"
"Holy shit, Mustang!" the young man cut him off, face pale. "I don't even want to shake hands with her knowing that she'd be rummaging around in my head while I did. I can't even imagine . . ." the young man's brows furrowed. "Why are you asking me this?"
"I'm curious to know whether you are currently in a relationship with anyone. Are you?"
The older man smiled. "That's a relief."
"Why is that a relief?"
Mustang mentally threw up his hands. The kid was either hopelessly clueless, or deeply in denial. "I think I'll let you figure that one out on your own, genius," he said, smirk firmly in place.
A sudden commotion downstairs interrupted any further commentary on Edward's part. Roy recognized Hughes voice, protesting something loudly in German from the sound of it. Edward sprang from his seat on the stairs to pull the older man into the janitor's closet, quickly and quietly closing and locking the door. It was cramped, and a faint tang of ammonia lingered in the air, but light seeped in through the gap between the door and its frame, making it a little less claustrophobic. The General could hear the irate voices coming closer, and a good number of booted feet on the stairs.
"What are they saying?" he whispered.
Edward frowned, and then began a whispered translation. "Hughes is insulted that they are questioning his loyalty. Some other guy is saying that if he has nothing to hide, why doesn't he just quit bitching, let them search his place, and get it over with." Mustang could see Edward's frown deepen. "Hughes is calling Noa a liar, and complaining about them taking a gypsy's word over his." A door opened, then closed, and the sound of voices was muted. Edward pressed his ear against the door, straining to hear, then shook his head. "That's it. I can't hear what they're saying." The young man leaned his forehead against the door and closed his eyes.
Standing so close he could feel the young man's heat, Roy rested his shoulder against the door as well, and took advantage of the close quarters. He leaned even closer to the boy, noting with satisfaction that Edward really had grown; the top of his bowed head was level now with Roy's eye. Breathing in deeply the older man caught a hint of Ed and iron, and smiled. Glancing down, he noted a narrowed, amber eye watching him, maybe not as clueless as he'd thought.
"It appears that we may be here for a while," the General whispered, suppressing a smirk with great difficulty. "Just to pass the time, would you care to hazard a guess about my real motive for coming here, Edward? Or would you perhaps like a few more hints?"
The blond reared back. "Do you always have to talk in fucking riddles?" Edward quietly hissed, greatly irritated. "Can't you just say what the hell you mean for a change?"
The light filtering in through the gap around the ill fitting door was enough for Roy to see the furious glint in the blond's eyes, and it lit a fuse along the older man's nerves. The small closet really was a tight fit for two, and always the opportunist, Roy pressed his advantage. He stepped closer to Edward, crowding him back until he was flush with the wall, then closer still, until their bodies were pressed together. Roy wound his arms around Edward's waist with a smirk. The anger in the blond's eyes was tempered now by confusion, as Roy slowly descended to capture Edward's lips with his own.
Edward's hands, pressed to Roy's chest to shove him back were suddenly clutching two fistfuls of the older man's shirt, anchoring himself, riding this out, and it was pretty clear the blond didn't have a clue, this was all new, as Roy tightened his arms around the younger man's waist. Teasing the boys lips apart with gentle nips, Roy pressed his tongue in to a taste like fresh air and summer sunshine. Edward's eyes were wide, stunned gold inches away, heat and confusion tumbled together, and a thrill rushed up the older man's spine when the blond's tongue tentatively stroked his. It was some moments before Roy broke the kiss, arms still pressing Edward to him.
"Was that clear enough for you Edward?" the General purred, all smug satisfaction as he observed the effects of his foray into the young man's uncharted territory. Edward looked quite thoroughly ravished, cheeks flushed, panting through slick and slightly swollen lips, his hands still fisted in Roy's shirt, holding on for dear life. Roy leaned to rest his forehead lightly against Edward's. "Really, you have no idea how long I have wanted to do that."
"I . . . what . . . is this . . . holy shit." Ed fell silent, cheeks burning so hot Roy could feel the heat across the small distance between their faces and the General placed his hands on the younger man's hips to gently ease himself away. Edward finally realized he still had a death grip on Mustang's shirt, and with obvious reluctance, his hold loosened. Hands shaking, the young man smoothed over the crumpled cloth, sending shivers down the older man's spine.
Mustang's lips brushed the younger man's ear as he whispered, "Why did you look so nervous when I asked you if you could guess who I had been so devastated to lose, Edward? Were you afraid that it was you?"
For a moment, it seemed the blond would not answer. Then, quietly, he said, "No. I knew it couldn't be, and I was afraid to ask who had died."
It wasn't long before the Thules left amid a flurry of stomping feet and threats disguised as apologies for doubting Hughes' loyalty. The closeted Amestrans waited, listening carefully to the sounds of the building, but the quiet hum of traffic filtering into the hall was all they heard. Mustang pulled out his watch, silver glinting in the gloom, and they continued to wait, listening, until a full fifteen minutes had passed. Then he quietly unlatched the closet door and made his way down the hall to Hughes' flat, Edward close behind.
"What if someone is still in there with him?" Edward whispered, laying a hand on Mustang's arm poised to knock.
"We have to take the chance," Mustang whispered back. "The Thules might be watching the building, and I'd like to wait until dark before we have to go out. We are also in need of a reliable ally, and I think Hughes fits the bill."
Edward thought for a moment, then pressed his ear to the hardwood. "Okay, I don't hear anyone talking, but that doesn't mean a thing. Go ahead, but be ready for trouble."
Mustang knocked, the sharp sound very loud in the quiet of the hallway, and Hughes opened the door, scowl turning to relief when he saw the two alchemists. Darting a glance down the hallway, the German quickly pulled his visitors inside and closed the door.
"It is lucky you did not get here earlier. You would have been caught," the officer told them. "You might still be, if anyone saw you coming in from the street."
"We were already here when the Thules came earlier," Roy told him. "We heard what happened."
Hughes did not press for details. "Then you know it's not safe for you here," Maes said gruffly, eyes fixed on Roy's. "You must leave Munich as quickly as possible."
"Oh, that shouldn't be a problem," Edward said derisively. "I'll just hoist Alfons up on my shoulder, collect Noa from Gracia's flat, then we'll all stroll over to the train station and hop on the Orient Express."
Maes rounded on the young blond and leaned in, shoulders tense, steel in his tone that Roy recognized even over the strange accent. "Be quiet and listen, foolish brat!" the policeman said. "The two of you will leave. Alfons will stay here. I will make arrangements with Gracia, and we will both look after him. Noa will not be joining you, and will not know of your whereabouts. She can't be trusted."
"If this is more of your anti gypsy crap . . ." Edward held his ground unflinching, anger surging.
Hughes raised his voice to cut him off. "She is the one who told the Thules that you were hiding here! She must have been eavesdropping when I gave you my key. She has now betrayed you twice. You can't afford to trust her anymore."
The older man waited, arms crossed, as the blond's temper cooled, and Edward wondered if Noa had overheard, or had touched Hughes mind to get that information. "By your own reasoning, I shouldn't trust you either," Edward growled, glaring at the other man.
Hughes shot an embarrassed glance at Mustang and sighed. "I realize that. I have taken a few risks on your behalf today however, and I hope that will make up for my behaviour last night at the beer hall, Edward."
"You are speaking as if you already have a plan," Roy said to the Officer. "What do you have in mind?"
"An old comrade of mine is driving to Zurich. He has agreed to make you part of his cargo. He leaves tonight."
"What's his cargo?" Edward asked resignedly.
"Does it really matter? Good German beer. Just because our government feels free to cancel our Oktoberfest celebrations, doesn't mean Germans will do without it entirely." The Police Officer smirked. "The Swiss do so enjoy a hearty, extended festival, and the Swiss franc is strong,"
"Alright," Roy said, after a glance at Edward, who shrugged. "I assume we are waiting for dark."
"Yes, that would be best."
"Great, then I'm going to get some sleep," Edward said, noting that the other two men appeared somewhat relieved that he would be out of their hair. Speaking to the General, the blond jerked a thumb at Hughes. "Get this guy to find you something else to wear. There aren't too many Germans running around Munich wearing combat boots and sky blue military issue pants, and we need to be inconspicuous. And tell him what I told you about Noa. He'll probably listen if it comes from you."
Eyebrows raised, Hughes herded Edward down a short hall to his bedroom, wished him a good night, and pointedly closed the door. It looked like the German still had things to discuss with Mustang. Well, if Ed's best friend suddenly rose from the grave, he guessed he'd have shit to talk about as well.
The young alchemist sat on the edge of the mattress and toed off his shoes, wondering just how similar their doubles' past experiences were. While Alfons Heidrich and Alphonse Elric had similar personalities, Edward had discovered that the life events influencing them had been vastly different. Were the two older men comparing their life stories now, just as he and Alfons had? Did they perhaps see this as a second chance to say things they regretted never saying to each other before it was too late?
Edward pulled off his jacket, hung it on the bedpost, then stretched out on top of Hughes' comforter, folding his hands behind his head. The young alchemist supposed that Mustang must have had a similar hope of revisiting missed opportunities when Ed had shown up in Central yesterday out of the blue. The older man had an incredible talent for making a confession, that was for sure.
The memory of that searing kiss in the broom closet closed around Edward's mind, sending flames to the young man's face and setting a slow smoulder deep inside him as well. Edward was by no means completely inexperienced, but he couldn't compare his earlier trysts, desperate kisses and clumsy caresses with interested strangers, stolen moments while on his quest to get Alphonse back into flesh, with . . . Mustang. It would be like trying to compare a kid playing the kazoo with a violin virtuoso. You could argue that both created music, but aside from that . . . well.
Edward's eyes were drooping closed all on their own, and he realized that he couldn't remember the last time he'd slept. Yesterday? No, the day before, when Noa had raided his dreams. He could hear the low drone of the two men's voices beyond the door, and let that lull him closer to sleep's edge. It was almost like being back in Central, bunking over at the Hughes' home with Al, about a thousand years ago. The only things missing were the tinny squeaks and groans of shifting armour, and Elysia sneaking in to snuggle close under his flesh arm. Such a pity that this world had no Elysia Hughes to brighten it. Officer Hughes should just pry the enormous bug out of his ass, get his shit together and hook up with Gracia. She could mellow the grouchy old douche bag out, if anyone could. Maybe looking out for Alfons together would be the common ground they needed to finally make that happen.
Ed fell asleep, and dreamed of fire.
Chapter 5: Central
When Alphonse got back from his final debriefing at Central Headquarters, he was only mildly surprised to find Hohenheim lounging on the bed in his hotel room, reading the paper and sipping a cup of black coffee, fully clothed this time thankfully. Ever since they had parted company in the underground city three days prior, the young alchemist had half expected to see his father around every corner, but the old man had not made an appearance until now.
Even with Hawkeye running interference for him at every turn, the very private 'public' inquiry had been little more than an ongoing interrogation of the youngest Elric. Following The Lieutenant's lead, Alphonse hadn't mentioned that he was the one who had opened the Gate in the underground city. His story, as counselled by the Hawk, was that he had discovered the already open Gate under Central while looking for the source of the earthquakes, citing the incident in Lior as his motivation to search for one. The panel of Generals and Parliamentarians conducting the inquiry had easily accepted that explanation. What they had been particularly interested in discovering however, were the whereabouts of the man currently relaxing on Alphonse' rented bed, catching up on the local news.
"Alphonse, at last!" the old alchemist said, laying aside his paper. "Tell me about these dreams you've been having."
"Hi Dad!" Alphonse chirped, noting that his red coat was back, hanging on the coat rack. "What's that? Why yes, I'm very well, thank you so much for asking!"
"Well of course you are," Hohenheim observed, eyebrows raised. "I wouldn't expect a few hard asked questions to do you any harm."
"And I should have expected you to disappear at your earliest opportunity," Alphonse retorted. "It's not like I haven't been abandoned by you before."
The older man looked chagrined. "Yes, and I do apologize for taking off like that. But I'm sure you must realize I couldn't afford to allow myself, or what appeared out of the Gate, fall into military hands."
Alphonse felt his annoyance fade. "Was that . . . what I think it was?" the youngster asked, almost afraid to hear the answer.
The old man nodded solemnly. "I'm not exactly sure why a Philosopher's Stone would result when the transmutation circle imploded, but I can hazard some guesses. There were three homunculi on the threshold, all animated by red stones. It's possible that those incomplete stones absorbed the lives of the other world's soldiers, killed when they passed through the Gate. Then the intense pressure that resulted from the Gate's collapse concentrated the raw materials into a perfect Stone." Hohenheim gave his youngest son a wry smile. "Of course, that's all speculation. I'm not entirely sure why I'm not dead right now either."
Alphonse frowned at his father. He had been little more than a toddler when the man had disappeared from his life, and so his memories of him were just simple impressions and faded images. The reality of this man lounging on the bed talking Gate theory was nothing like he had imagined his father to be. Al's internal picture was of a scholarly sage, coolly capable though mild mannered, supremely confident in his abilities, an inspiration to everyone around him. The actuality was this nondescript middle aged man, mild mannered, yes, but self disparaging, inspiring very little. The full blown animosity Edward had for Hohenheim stemmed from his abandoning their family, and Alphonse knew his brother would have been perfectly happy never to see their father again, but Alphonse had always hoped his father would one day return. Now that he had his wish, the youngster felt a mild disappointment that Hohemheim didn't exactly measure up to his expectations.
"What are you planning to do with the Stone?" Al asked.
Hohenheim looked surprised. "I would have thought that was obvious," he said. "We'll use it to bring Edward home." He smiled a smile of serene conviction.
Al suddenly felt a little more inspired. "How are 'we' planning to go about it?" he asked.
"First of all, I need to hear about these dreams you've had about living with Edward in another world," Hohenheim started, swinging his legs over and sitting on the edge of the bed, inviting Alphonse to join him with a beckoning pat on the mattress.
Alphonse took the indicated seat, willing to indulge his father's curiosity if it would help get Edward back. "I started having them about a year ago. I thought they were just normal dreams at first, the kind where you get what you've been wishing for. It wasn't very long before I realized they weren't normal at all."
"How did you come to that conclusion?" Hohenheim's eyes never left his son's, gaze intense.
"Well for one thing, although I'm taking part in the dream, I don't seem to have control over what I do. I'm talking, or doing something, but I'm not. It's like someone else is doing it, and I'm just along for the ride. Sometimes I don't even understand what I'm talking about, or I didn't until I saw the rocket that came through the Gate." Alphonse closed his eyes, trying to see the memories more clearly. "And nothing much ever happens in these dreams. Sometimes I'll be walking around with brother, doing mundane things like getting groceries or a newspaper. Other times we'll be sitting at a table eating, or working in a lab with other people, building something. We never do any alchemy either, never even talk about it, which I also found strange."
"Not so strange, if you're really seeing into the other world," Hohenheim murmured. "What else do you remember?"
Eyes still closed, Alphonse thought hard. "Sometimes I see familiar people, people I know. Lately I've been seeing a girl that looks a lot like Rose, but not exactly. I don't understand why I would see people from this world in that other one, but I still believe I really am seeing where brother is. I'm sure I have a connection to Edward in that other world."
"You definitely have a link to that other world, but I'm not sure it's with your brother, at least not directly," the old man said.
"Who else could it be? It can't be General Mustang. I've been having these dreams since well before he crossed over," Alphonse pointed out. "It has to be Ed."
"Then tell me this, Alphonse. When you are seeing things in your dreams of the other world, whose eyes do you use?"
The youth opened his mouth to make a sharp retort, then stopped, thinking it over very carefully. He had been about to say the eyes he used were his own, but that couldn't be. They weren't Edward's either, because he could see Edward, an external point of view. It had to be someone close to Edward. Al frowned at his father and admitted, "I don't know."
"I think I do," Hohenheim rubbed his bearded chin thoughtfully. "You told me that sometimes you see familiar faces in these dreams. That's because the other world is actually a different version of this one. That world is what this world would be without alchemy, and the people there are doubles of the people here. I think you are seeing through the eyes of your double."
Alphonse stood and walked to the window, gazing out at the busy street as he collected his thoughts. A world without alchemy? How would that even work? The young man tried to imagine it, but it was very difficult. Alchemy was wrapped up in so many different aspects of everyday life, it would be just as hard to imagine a world without gravity. "Did you know my double in that other world?" he finally asked.
"Yes. His name is Alfons Heidrich. He was a university student when I first met him, a gifted physicist. He and Edward met when Heidrich was in London visiting a colleague of mine, and they became friends. That was about a year ago." The older man didn't bother to point out the significance of the timeline.
Alphonse continued to watch the traffic in the street below his window. "How is this relevant to your plans to get Edward home?" he asked.
"Tell me about your particular brand of alchemy," the older man said, and Alphonse frowned at the apparent change of subject.
"I can attach a piece of my soul to inanimate objects, and gain control of them." And suddenly Alphonse could see where this was going. "You want me to try to attach a piece of my soul to whoever I've been linking up with in that other world, don't you?"
"That's part of my plan, yes."
"There are a couple of problems with that," Alphonse told him, turning to lean back against the window sill, crossing his arms. "First of all, I've never tried to attach myself to anything alive, let alone another person."
"That's not a problem unless you try and it doesn't work," the old man pointed out.
"Depending on the details of your plan, another possible problem is the duration of the transfer. It's very short lived," the youngster continued.
"My plan takes that into account, as I assumed multiple transfers might be necessary," Hohenheim explained.
"I also haven't had a dream about Edward in that other world since he went back," Alphonse finished.
Hohenheim pursed his lips, frowning. "Ah. That's a problem," he admitted.
"Why don't you tell me the details of your plan anyway?" Alphonse pressed. "Maybe we can work out the wrinkles."
Hohenheim leaned back on the bed and folded his hands behind his head. "I want to open the Gate from both sides again, and the transmutation circles have to be synchronized for proper alignment. We got lucky the last time, because you opened a stable gateway here at the same time that the Thules used me to open one on their side. The circles weren't synchronous however, which made passage impossible without the aid of a powerful, fast moving vehicle, and even with the advantage of speed, the passengers were still contaminated by contact with the Gate."
Alphonse thought of the oily black resin that had clung parasitically to the invaders' bodies, Dietlinde Eckart's included. "You believe that a synced passage would protect you?" the young blond asked.
Hohenheim nodded. "A clean, clear path straight through is what we need. Think of the difference between a tunnel and a sewer pipe. You want to walk through a nice wide passageway, not a narrow one that winds and constricts, so you don't accidentally brush against the tunnel's walls, and anything contaminating them." Alphonse wrinkled his nose at the visual, and his father continued. "If we do this right, I should be able to step through unhindered. Most of what I'll need the Stone for is to open both ends of the Gate, and . . . travelling expenses."
"So you want me to make contact with Edward and General Mustang through my double so that they can open the Gate on the other side?"
Hohenheim paused, eyeing the floor, and Alphonse realized that the older man didn't really want to tell his son what he was about to disclose. "I don't think that your brother or the General will be free to help us with this," the old man finally said.
"What do you mean?" Alphonse asked anxiously.
"Now that I'm not there, Edward and Mustang are the only people the Thules know of that can do practical alchemy. If the otherworlders want to make another attempt to open a passage to this world, they won't want to lose track of our people, so they'll probably have them locked up. The Thules will also need them as a resource for the . . . raw materials necessary to initiate transmutations."
Alphonse frowned, confused. "I'm not sure what you're talking about."
"As I said, alchemy can't generally be performed on the other side of the Gate, Alphonse," Hohenheim explained. "The energy required to activate alchemic arrays comes from there, but can only be used by someone from this side, and only if the alchemist includes his own blood in the activation process. Mixing our blood into an array makes the necessary connection to the Gate that allows the transmutation to take place."
Alphonse grew cold at his father's explanation. "So these Thules will want brother and the General because they are alchemists, and because, for their arrays to work, they have to be drawn with their blood?" The young man felt his stomach twist.
Hohneheim nodded, expression grim. "I worked with the otherworlders for a time because I wanted to find a way for Edward to get back to Amestris. When I discovered that they were actually planning an invasion, I tried to slip away, but they caught me. I seriously doubt the Thules allowed your brother and the General to simply leave their villa when they returned through the Gate. The Thules would have locked them up, and having been their prisoner, I can assure you their treatment won't be pleasant. That's why we have to hurry and get your brother and General Mustang home."
Alphonse felt numb, his father's revelation chilling him to the bone. There was no time to waste. It was time to call in the cavalry.
When Riza Hawkeye opened her door to late night knocking, the last person she expected to see was Alphonse Elric. The gentle young man had always been polite to a fault, and it just wasn't in his nature to disturb someone in the middle of the night without an urgent reason. The lieutenant immediately looked the young man over for obvious injuries and was relieved to find none. Then she stepped back and invited him into her apartment without a word. Black Hayate, stationed behind her, was wagging his tail so violently his whole body shook from the effort.
"I'm sorry to come calling so late, Lieutenant," Alphonse said, and the determination in his eyes gave Riza pause. He hadn't displayed this kind of intensity since before the Gate invasion disaster.
"It's quite all right Alphonse," the woman reassured him. "What's the matter?"
Alphonse looked around the small living room, and then shoved his hands in his pockets. "I need your help," he said. "But I have a lot to ask, so please hear me out. Then, if you don't think you can risk the possible consequences, no hard feelings. I only ask that if you aren't up to joining me in this, that you keep it to yourself."
"You should know by now, Alphonse, that your secrets are safe with me," Hawkeye smiled at the youngster, and took a seat in the armchair by the darkened fireplace, inviting Alphonse to make himself comfortable on the couch.
Alphonse nodded and sat, hands clenched in his lap, then took a deep breath and slowly blew it out. "My father showed up in my hotel room this afternoon. He has a plan to get brother and General Mustang back through the Gate, but it's . . . risky. It's going to mean another gateway open in both worlds, and I'm not just afraid of what might come through from the other side. I'm also worried about who'll want to use it on this side."
Hawkeye nodded her understanding. Hakuro hadn't been the only General disappointed when the gateway had closed. It was one of the reasons that the military was on the alert to locate and apprehend Van Hohenheim, as it was assumed that he was the one who had opened it in the first place.
"What do you need me to do?" the blonde woman asked.
"We need a place to draw a large transmutation circle, approximately five metres in diameter. It's going to be an extremely complex array, and it will probably take a couple of days to complete. The army is crawling all over the underground city, searching for dad, so we've had to eliminate anywhere down there as a possible site."
"So you'll need a safe location, and a security detail," the woman said thoughtfully as an obvious ally came immediately to mind. "I can think of at least one suitable place, if you don't mind a trustworthy old friend knowing about this. You wouldn't remember him, but he greatly admires both you and Edward, and he always did everything he could to help in your quest to regain your natural body."
"I trust your judgment Lieutenant," Alphonse said, offering the woman a tired smile. "I'm planning on talking to the rest of General Mustang's old team about this too. I think they'll be interested in helping to get brother and their commander back home safe, but I'll understand if they don't want to risk a court martial for getting involved."
Hawkeye pursed her lips, considering their options. Tomorrow was Sunday. "I'll invite the team over here tomorrow so you can talk to them." The blonde woman smiled at Alphonse' nervous determination. "I'm sure it won't take any persuasion at all to enlist their aid. I'll also invite that old friend I mentioned, so you can get reacquainted."
The young alchemist still did not appear relieved. "Time is also a concern," he said apologetically. "We have to get going on this as soon as possible, because brother and the General are likely in danger. My father thinks the otherworlders will try to force them to reopen the Gate."
"Then I'd best make some phone calls tonight," the Hawk said. "And if possible, I think your father should also be in attendance for this meeting."
"Actually, that was something else I was going to ask you," Alphonse said reluctantly. "He needs a safe place to hide out, and I was thinking . . ."
"How soon can you get him here?" Hawkeye asked, and was suddenly treated to the sweetest relieved smile she was sure she'd ever seen.
When Alphonse returned with Hohenheim less than an hour later, he wasn't at all surprised to find most of General Mustang's former command in Riza Hawkeye's living room. Jean Havoc, unlit cigarette at a jaunty angle in the corner of his mouth, leaned casually against the mantel piece, offering a smile and a lazy salute as the pair were ushered into the small apartment. Kain Fuery looked up from his crouch by the armchair and smiled as well, pausing in his efforts to give an ecstatic Black Hayate's head a luxurious scratch. Heymans Breda nodded nervously at the new arrivals from his seat, pressed as far into the opposite corner of the room as he could be, wary eyes on Riza's canine companion. The woman herself invited the new arrivals to make themselves comfortable, then sat once again on the armchair closest to the hearth, fire now burning briskly in the grate.
"I took the liberty of explaining what you and your father were up to, Alphonse," the blond sharpshooter began. "And we are all in agreement. We're ready to help in any way we can."
The rest of the gathered soldiers nodded gravely, Havoc treating the young man to a wink, and Alphonse felt some of his apprehension ease, realizing that he hadn't been wrong in placing his trust with these old friends. He wished he could remember his days in the armour, just so he could know them all the way they obviously knew him, and to recall what he and Edward had done to earn the respect and admiration of this group of honest, courageous people.
"We're just waiting for Vato Falman," Hawkeye continued. "I sent him to fetch . . ."
An urgent knock at the door interrupted the blonde woman's explanation, and she quickly went to answer it, motioning Hohenheim to stay out of sight.
Moments later, Hawkeye was back. With her were Warrant Officer Falman, and a familiar, bald-headed giant, blond handlebar moustache quivering with emotion.
"Alphonse Elric!" the giant boomed, advancing to embrace the cringing youngster. "First Lieutenant Hawkeye told me that you were in need of my assistance, and so of course I wasted no time in placing myself at your disposal!"
"Mr. Armstrong," Al squeaked from his buff, muscular confines. "Nice to see you again. I can't breathe."
The former Strong Arm Alchemist regretfully eased his embrace, keeping one massive hand on Alphonse' shoulder to steady him as the young man caught his breath.
"Ah, so you've already met." Hawkeye was pleased. "Alex Armstrong, this is Alphonse' father, Van Hohenheim."
The older alchemist smiled and started to offer his hand, then froze. Armstrong's angry glower rooted Hohenheim to the spot, and Alphonse watched the friendly grin drop from his father's face to shatter on the floor.
The giant looked Hohenheim over with obvious distaste, crossing his massive arms over his chest. "So this is the man, and I use the term loosely, that abandoned his terminally ill wife and his two defenceless children, leaving them to fend for themselves when he should have been there to guide and protect them," he said disdainfully. "I'm sure you are well aware, sir, of the responsibilities a father has for the wellbeing of his children?"
Hohenheim nodded, looking intently up at his accuser. "I am aware of my culpability regarding my sons, yes," the old man replied, solemn eyes on the giant's. "I also know that I can never make up for deserting my family, however compelling my reasons at the time. All I want right now is to bring Edward home safe, and I hope you will agree to help me do that. Not for my sake, but for Edward's, and for Alphonse' too."
Armstrong's glower was unrelenting. "I understand you have formulated a plan. I would like to hear the details," he said, arms still crossed.
Hohenheim sat on the edge of the couch. "I plan to open a gate to the other world, cross over, open a complimentary gate on the other side, and bring Edward, General Mustang, and myself back through it."
The scowling giant was not impressed. "As an accomplished alchemist in my own right, I am well aware that a great price would be exacted to satisfy the exchange for such an undertaking. I suspect that nothing short of a life would be required as payment, and perhaps more than one. Who do you plan to sacrifice?" Startling blue eyes narrowed dangerously.
"No one. Not even myself," Hohenheim told his interrogator. "I have a Philosopher's Stone."
The giant alchemist's scowl deepened, his opinion of Hohenheim obviously sinking to an even lower level. "I am also very familiar with what is required to produce such an object of power," the bald man growled. "For you to have one in your possession . . ."
"This Stone appeared when the gateway that the otherworlders used to invade us collapsed, Mr. Armstrong," Alphonse cut in, wondering what was required to produce a Stone outside of the Gate. Judging from the giant's scowl, Al decided he was probably better off not knowing.
Hohenheim had seen the look of frank curiosity on his son's face however, and didn't allow his youngest offspring the luxury of ignorance. "The energy necessary for an alchemical reaction is the energy of life, soul energy," the old man explained to the gathered allies, laying all his cards on the table. "A Philosopher's Stone is really just a storage cell for that kind of energy, which means that the main ingredient is living human beings. And it takes a lot of them, which results in a huge concentration of power. That's why it's possible to do quantum transmutations, ostensibly disregarding the first law of equivalency."
"Okay, I'm perfectly willing to leave all that technical stuff to the experts. I'll take your word for it that you can get over there and open up a gateway," Havoc cut in, snagging a chair from the dining table and straddling it, chin on the backrest. "But didn't Ed and the General go back there to close that thing up so we wouldn't get invaded again? What are you going to do this time? Just leave it open?"
"No," Alphonse told him. "That's where I come in. I've been linking up with someone in the other world when I sleep. Dad thinks that I might be able to take control of that person and shut that side without even leaving the comfort of my bed."
Breda looked doubtful. "Sorry kid, but let me get this straight. You have dreams about your brother, and you think you can dream the gateway closed?"
Hohenheim took over the explanation before Alphonse could make a testy reply. "We aren't just guessing about Alphonse' connection to the other side, Second Lieutenant," the older man said. "That world is a mirror image of this one, people and all. The first time Edward passed through the Gate, he left his body behind and his soul entered his double in the other world. I was there at the time. I witnessed it firsthand. Alphonse has been having dreams of that other world for some time now, and I'm certain that he has a link with his own double. If that's the case, and he can attach a piece of his soul to that other person, he can close the Gate after Edward, General Mustang, and I use it to return home. Problem solved."
Armstrong looked unconvinced, and Alphonse realized he saw the big hole in their plan: whether Alphonse was actually capable of attaching a piece of himself to his other, and if he was, if he would then be able to guide the other's actions. But before the big man could voice his scepticism, he was interrupted.
Furey spoke up timidly from his place by Black Hayate. "It sound like you'll need a lot of alchemical energy to get the job done. If the Philospher's Stone is like a battery, do you think there's enough of a charge to do everything you need to?"
All eyes swung back to Van Hohenehim for his answer. "I told Edward the first time he crossed over that equivalent exchange was a lie, because while it took the conservation of matter into account, it completely disregarded the fact that transmutations require energy as well." Hohenheim noted the thoughtful consideration on Armstrong's stern features, and continued. "In passage through the Gate, I discovered that the energy to perform natural transmutations in this world comes from the expended life force of people from the other world, accessed by alchemists through an internal link we have with the Gate. People have to die over there for us to be able to transmute over here. I thought that alchemy couldn't be done in that other world because while the energy was there, it had to pass through the Gate in order for an alchemist to harness it. I was obviously wrong; else I wouldn't be here right now."
"What was the flaw in your theory?" Armstrong asked the old man.
"People die here too. What happens to that energy? Unless it's soaked up by something like a Philosopher's Stone, I believe it's freely available to be used, recirculated by the Gate. An energy cycle, just as natural as the cycle of life and death in the physical world."
"All is one. One is all." Alphonse said softly, and Hohenheim nodded affirming it.
"So why can't this energy be used on the other side of the gate?" Breda wanted to know.
"It can be," Hohenheim told the portly redhead. "The difference is in how it can be harnessed. It has to be focused externally. People from this world have an intimate connection with the Gate, right down at the cellular level. Something of ourselves, blood for instance, mixed into an array, acts to absorb the energy just like the red stones do. But the people over there are missing that link to the Gate. They are blind, for lack of a better word, to this type of energy. It builds up on that side of the gate because nobody uses it, and the more I've thought about it, the more convinced I've become that the energy transfer between worlds is a natural process, like osmosis or diffusion."
"I can't believe I'm asking this, but what's osmosis?" Havoc asked, folding his arms across the back of his chair.
The old man thought for a moment before speaking. "When moving freely, particles of liquids or gases mix together naturally, seeking equilibrium. The particles of a gas, for example, will spread out until they are equally concentrated throughout the space they occupy." Havoc's blank gaze made the old alchemist smile. "It's the way the smell of dinner cooking in the kitchen finds its way into every corner or your home, or the way the vodka mixes with your orange juice." Havoc nodded his understanding. "It's a natural process; particles move from a high concentration to a low. Downhill all the way. If you want to go against that tendency, it takes effort to do it." Hohenheim noted that his audience was with him, and continued. "I believe the flow of alchemical energy between the two worlds behaves in much the same way. Think of the flow of alchemical energy as a river. It runs downhill from the other world to ours, high concentration to low concentration. Across the river is a barrier that lets only the water pass. That barrier is the Gate."
The huge, bald man's blue eyes widened with understanding. "You plan to use your Philosopher's Stone to penetrate the barrier, and as a source of energy to travel upstream, so to speak, to the other world, but hope that a perfect alignment of the paired gateways will allow you to return here carried by the back flow of energy," he said, keeping his booming voice surprisingly quiet. "Can you be sure that the initial passage won't exhaust the Stone's power?"
"No, and I certainly hope it doesn't," Hohenheim grimaced. "I'll still need its energy over there to open the Gate on the other side, and I don't want to have to bleed for it." The old man turned to Armstrong, determined. "Alphonse and I have mapped out the array and we're ready to go. All we need is a secure place to draw and activate it." His gaze settled on each person in the room, one by one. "Will you help us?"
Armstrong at last uncrossed his massive arms and his glower finally softened into a smile. The radical change to the big man's stern features seemed to fill the air around him with sparkles.
"Never let it be said that an Armstrong turned from a friend in need!" he boomed, his muscles straining the fabric of his jacket as he struck a dramatic pose. "The Armstrong Estate is private, secure, and has ample room for us to create your array and carry out this plan. Come my friends! Edward and General Mustang cannot afford to be kept waiting!"
Everyone in the room agreed that they couldn't have said it better themselves.
Chapter 6: Zurich
Sitting in a beer hall in Zurich, Edward was surprised to hear a distinctly familiar chuckle over the general noises of the crowd. Turning in his seat, he noticed Jean Havoc sitting at a table behind him, smoking like a chimney and amiably chatting with Sheska. Turning back to his companion, Ed noted the glass frozen halfway to his lips, eyes round, and offered a quiet laugh of his own.
"You'll get used to it Mustang," he said, smile a bit sad. "You can go for months without seeing anyone familiar, then bang! You suddenly walk into a crowd of familiar faces."
"If you say so Full... Edward," Mustang said, still staring at the two familiar strangers. "Who else have you seen?"
"Hmm. I had General Hakuro show up at my door in a plaid suit selling hats once. He got pretty upset when I couldn't stop laughing long enough for him to run his sales pitch. King Bradley's double goes by the name of Fritz Lang. He produces science fiction movies." Ed noticed Roy's face darken into a scowl, and hurried on. "I attacked Lang because I thought he was Bradley and kicked his chauffer's ass, so I ended up having to drive him over to this old castle where I joined a dragon hunt, and later he helped me escape from an angry mob by crashing his car into a beer hall. Don't look at me like that Mustang, it's the truth."
"I feel like I'm back at East Headquarters, listening to one of your more bizarre mission reports," the older man said, chin resting on his steepled fingers, eyebrow expressing his scepticism, and Edward felt a rush of nostalgia. Amused, he realized that back in the day, if anyone had suggested he might one day look back on being the bastard's show dog with fondness, he would have cheerfully pounded the shit out of them.
The ride to Zurich had been uneventful. Hughes old comrade had turned out to be another familiar stranger: Vato Falman. The stoic brewer spoke no English, and barely grunted two German words to Edward, but very efficiently enclosed the two fugitives in a beer keg fort in the back of his beat up old truck, even going so far as to stack kegs on planks over top of them. Hidden inside their little alcoholic nest, Mustang was quick to point out the advantages of sitting as close to each other as possible for warmth and comfort. He had snugged an arm around his blond companion's waist and leaned his head on Ed's flesh shoulder, not even bothering to smother his sigh of contentment. Not that Edward had minded. When the older man had promptly fallen asleep moments after making himself comfortable, it had given the young man a tender feeling he'd only ever associated with Alphonse. Edward had settled his head atop his sleeping companion's, but still tired despite the sack time he'd managed to squeeze in at Hughes place, the young alchemist couldn't settle into sleep himself. Unfortunately, that meant he was forced to spend time alone with his thoughts now that he had time for them, and those thoughts drifted along their usual regretful currents.
Alphonse. It was a relief to finally know for sure that his little brother was back in his natural body, but it hurt to think that Edward would never see him again. Of all the things he'd missed about his lost home, the comfortable weight of his brother's presence by his side was what he missed the most. Not his automail. Not even his alchemy. If he could have one wish, Edward wished he could have just a couple of quiet hours to spend with Alphonse, to talk, to see how he was doing, to hear what his little brother's life was like now that he had it back. Leaving Alphonse behind again was the hardest thing Edward had ever done.
But staying in Amestris hadn't been an option. Once again circumstances had arranged it so that Edward was between a rock and a hard place. His choices were simple. Stay behind leaving the Gate wide open and risk the possibility of another invasion, consequently endangering everyone in Amestris including Alphonse, or return to this world and close the Gate, consequently stranding himself here for good. And this was a done deal, too. He couldn't fool himself any longer that he would be able to return. Edward didn't believe in fate, but he did believe in equivalent exchange. He had to. He was living it.
The first time, two years ago in the lost city hidden under Central, Edward had been forced to give himself in exchange for his little brother, but he had always believed he would someday find a way home. This time, when he'd aimed the Thule's aircraft back into the Gate, Edward had resigned himself to this fate. He had no intention of reopening the Gate on this side and risking another attack on his native land, and he hoped that Alphonse would give up trying to get him back home and just move on with his life as well. Edward's immediate concern was to find some breathing space, a place safe from attack by the Thules, where he and Mustang could puzzle out how they were going to spend the rest of their lives in this strange world. And if it turned out that they decided to spend it together, well, Edward couldn't find it in himself to complain. It was comforting, really, to know that he wasn't as alone as he'd expected to be.
The trip to Zurich had not been an extremely long one. Falman's ancient Benz and Cie wasn't pretty, or particularly fast, but six hours of steady travel had seen them in Zurich with no trouble. After being released from their refuge into the early morning sunshine, Edward and Mustang had helped the curt German finish offloading his cargo and then parted company with him, their thanks accepted with a short nod.
The German Marks Edward carried were virtually worthless even in Munich, so it was fortunate that he had socked away a few British Pounds in case of emergencies. He'd had enough to secure a room for himself and Mustang in a rooming house, and to keep them fed for a few days while they looked for a ride in the general direction of England. So far Edward had not been able to find anyone willing to share their transportation, not surprising given the current political climate, but simply hopping on a train was out of the question. Mustang didn't have any of the necessary documents that would make international travel by conventional means possible. Edward planned to fix that as soon as they reached London, but they had to get there first. Through Hohenheim, the young alchemist had a few contacts in the Smoke that he knew could provide the credentials necessary to establish Roy's identity in this world, just as they had supplied Edward with documents to certify his British citizenship. It was frustrating to be sitting still when there were things to be done, but Edward had learned some patience since he'd left Amestris, so patient he would be.
In the mean time Mustang seemed quite content to follow his young countryman's lead. Edward was surprised to find that the older man was very good company in spite of the years of animosity between them. And the blond wasn't the only one practicing patience. After that single, searing kiss in the janitor's closet, Mustang appeared to be letting Edward make up his mind about where he wanted their relationship to go, either platonic or otherwise. He had not made any advances whatsoever, and while Edward was grateful that the other man was allowing him to feel his way through this, he was also a bit disappointed.
The pair had spent their Swiss time together bringing each other up to date on their lives since that last fateful day, two years before, and discussing the collective hazards of being from another world. Hughes had given Mustang a crash course in this world's social and political views, and Edward had to admit that the German policeman had given the Flame a fairly comprehensive overview, but there were many blank spots, common knowledge natives took for granted, that the younger man knew to fill in from bitter experience. The most pertinent one, given the older man's recent confession, was this worlds taboo against same sex relationships.
Mustang finished his supper and slipped his jacket, borrowed from Officer Hughes, over the back of his chair. The beer hall was filling up, and the press of bodies was warming the room. The evening pub crowd was well on its way to their preferred method of self administered stress relief, though the Amestrians were content with a quiet meal and a companionable drink afterwards. The General had taken quite a liking to German beer, much different from the dark ale of their own world. It was something he had in common with his young companion, and a pint after dinner was one of the few luxuries the pair afforded themselves.
"I wish I could tell you that you'll feel more at home here as time goes on," Edward said, noticing how his companion's eye was drawn back to the couple behind him. "I haven't, though with you here I feel more . . . comfortable now. I hope you don't come to regret following your libido into the unknown."
Edward's attempt at humour fell flat on its ass. "I didn't follow you because I wanted a quick roll in the hay," Roy said quietly. "I rather thought that was obvious."
"It is! I just, I don't know. It's just so . . . unreal." Edward looked up apologetically. "I don't have any experience with this kind of thing, you know? I'm having some trouble wrapping my head around the idea of you wanting . . . me."
"And I'm finding it just as difficult to believe that you're still . . . unattached, Edward." The older man countered.
"What's so hard to believe, Mustang? I was kind of busy, back before I left our world, trying to get Al back into his natural body, so I didn't have a lot of time for . . . that sort of thing," Edward ignored his companion's smirk and continued. "And over here? This world has some pretty archaic restrictions around same gender relationships, so that eliminated half my options. On top of all that, this world or ours, there isn't that much of a demand for cripples." Edward tipped back his stein to finish his beer, and missed his companion's shocked reaction.
"Is that how you see yourself?" Mustang's calmly asked question was edged with something else, and Edward's gaze snapped to other man's face, discovering that it was anger, though it didn't appear to be directed at him.
"Crippled, disabled, handicapped, choose your term. That's what I am," Ed told him gently, seeing how disturbed the older man was with the notion. "I'm missing two limbs. Without the automail, I couldn't so much as braid my hair." The blond smiled slightly at his companion's frown. "It's not pretty, but it's the truth. Take a good look. Still interested?"
Edward was surprised to see Mustang struggle with his anger, finally getting it under control. "I am looking. Shall I tell you what I see?" the older man asked, eyebrow raised.
"Spare me," Edward, said, rolling his eyes.
"No, I insist."
Mustang settled back in his chair, and trailed a gleaming eye over his companion's frowning features. Roy took his time, lazily examining the young blond, starting with his eyes, trailing over his nose, lingering on Edward's lips as he licked his own. The teen followed the eye as it regarded his golden hair, then slipped over the curve of his cheek. The gaze moved lower, sweeping across Edward's chest and broad shoulders, settling on the young man's strong, gloved hands clasped on the table between them, then wandered back up to settle on Edward's lips once again. The younger alchemist shifted uncomfortably in his seat, pulse quickening. He had almost been able to feel the other man's eye ghosting patterns over his skin.
"I see golden hair that shines like the sun, eyes of liquid amber, full lips just begging to be kissed." Mustang started quietly. He smiled at Edward's indrawn breath, and finally met his eyes. "I see smooth, tanned skin glowing with an inner vitality. I see a strong, fit body, beautifully proportioned, muscles firm and toned, steel limbs mated perfectly with flesh, superbly coordinated. I see a stunning young man. And because I know you, I see so much more than just that. I see the brilliance of your mind, the pureness of your heart, the beauty of your soul. That's what I see. And yes, I'm still interested." The older man lifted his glass in salute, and drained the last of his ale.
Edward had to clear his dry throat before he could speak. "Are you flirting with me Mustang?" he asked, voice a bit rough, trying to regain his composure.
"I am," Mustang confirmed, sleepy eye fixed once again on Edward's lips.
"I'm not a girl," Ed reminded him, trying valiantly not to blush, and failing.
"Believe me, of that I am well aware," Mustang's purr assured him. "I have successfully flirted with people of both genders, Edward, and have been on the receiving end of flirtations from both as well."
"So you're saying that flirting has nothing to do with a person's sex, then," Edward said, attempting to wrangle the conversation into more comfortable, clinical territory.
Mustang would have none of it. "Oh, I definitely wouldn't say that," he murmured with a smirk and a lifted brow, deliberately misinterpreting the blond's words. "In fact, I'd venture to say that flirting has everything to do with sex. Flirting is an aperitif that whets the appetite for the main course, if you will."
"You're . . . making me blush," Edward admitted, though it was hardly necessary for him to say it.
"Ah. So it's working then," and Mustang smiled a satisfied little smile, eye half closed like a contented cat, just before his eye went wide and something heavy crashed into the side of Edward's head.
Edward rolled with the blow, letting it knock him from the chair, following through with the motion, rolling to his feet, arms set in a guard position, ears ringing. The same big, bullet-headed German he'd practically neutered outside the pub in Munich was advancing on him, already throwing his next punch, the fight already won in his mind, and the small blond easily ducked around the driven fist to flatten his attacker with a swift, automail jab to the side of his head. A shouted warning behind him sent Edward dodging to his right, leg slicing through the air to slam a metal heel into a second assailant's jaw, snapping the man's head back, at the same time as a bar stool smacked into the thug's head from behind. The second man went down as well. Jean Havoc, bent cigarette clenched in his teeth, crouched low and hefted his bar stool, ready for more action. Edward spun round, looking for Roy.
Mustang was halfway across the beer hall, grappling with Rudolph Hess, and not doing too badly, considering that Hess was much heavier and a good deal taller than the dark haired alchemist. Edward darted toward the pair just as Hess managed to shove Mustang away. The German reached a hand into his jacket, pulling out a pistol, and Edward knew he'd never reach him in time. Then Sheska was there, swinging her heavy beer stein in a two handed grip, beer splashing in an amber arc. The sound the mug made when it connected with Hess' skull caused everyone in the room to wince, and the man dropped like his strings had been cut. The girl prodded his ribs with her toe a couple of times before dropping the stein and dusting her hands off each other in drunken victory. The crowd of shell shocked bar patrons offered a shaky, half-hearted cheer.
Edward's gaze swept the room for remaining enemies, and finding none, turned to Havoc. Sheska was plucking the broken cigarette from his mouth with a lopsided smile. "Thanks, we owe you one," Ed said to them.
"No problem," the taller blond said, a light French cadence marking his tone. "We should leave here now. Bullies like these usually travel in packs." Turning to the bartender, Havoc turned on a charming smile. "Have you a back door, mien Herr?" he asked sweetly.
Hurrying out the back way with their new allies, Edward noted a smirk Mustang couldn't suppress. "What?" he finally asked, annoyed.
"I was just thinking. One thing's for sure, Edward. You certainly don't fight like you're crippled, disabled, or handicapped in any way."
Edward snorted. "Yeah, well you do, Mustang. Starting tomorrow, we're getting in some regular sparring practice."
True to his word, the next day found Edward harrying a beleaguered Mustang in the courtyard of Havoc's rooming house. The younger man had removed his jacket, but kept his shirt and vest in place, as well as his gloves, to hide his automail from view. The older had laid aside his borrowed jacket as well, and fought in shirtsleeves rolled past his elbows. The sparring match had drawn quite a few spectators, the early morning alpine chill failing to deter onlookers, Jean Havoc among them. Edward's unusual fighting style was likely part of the reason, but not all of it. While Mustang was obviously outmatched, he was no novice in the realm of physical altercations. The older man was a reasonably good boxer and had some moves of his own to show off, which made for an interesting competition. The General was defending himself fairly well, putting his natural talent for strategic misdirection to good use, and though the contest was far too uneven for the onlookers to be placing bets, most were shouting encouragements to the older combatant.
Edward kept his metal limbs out of the fray as he put his former commander through his paces. Carefully pulling his punches and kicks, the young alchemist dodged and blocked, letting his sparring partner find his centre. As the battle wore on, the General's breathing became laboured, but just as the blond seemed about to call a halt to the match, Mustang suddenly launched a surprise offensive that caught the younger man off guard. Edward dodged aside, a neat one handed cartwheel putting him out of range of the dark haired man's longer reach. A graceful handspring landed the blond behind his opponent, who was tumbled to the ground a split second later, feet swept out from under him. The peanut gallery groaned. It was the sixth time Mustang had hit the ground that morning, bruising both his ass and his ego.
Roy accepted Edward's offered hand with a rueful smile, breathing hard as the blond tugged him to his feet. "I was sure I'd finally win a round with that attack," he said.
Edward laughed. "Never happen, old man," the boy smirked as he went to retrieve his jacket.
The onlookers gave the two Amestrians appreciative shoulder slaps before drifting away, realizing that the show was over.
Moving to a wooden bench by a wall, Mustang rolled down his sleeves, giving his already stiffening shoulders a satisfying roll. Edward had gone easy on him, but Roy had been using muscles long out of practice with this type of activity. He knew he'd be suffering by evening, and wondered if he might persuade Edward to give him a back rub later. The General sat on the bench to catch his breath, and was joined by the younger alchemist, followed by Havoc, ever present cigarette hanging precariously on the edge of his grin.
"I've never seen anyone fight like that before," the taller blond said to Edward, blue eyes considering. "I don't think I know anyone who could match you, one on one. You spend almost as much time in the air as you do on the ground. When you say that you are from far away, well, so am I, so it must be very far away, that's for sure."
"I started training when I was ten years old," Edward told him with an answering grin, knowing better than to try to explain his origins. "And if you think I'm good, you should see my little brother. He could always wipe the floor with my ass any time he felt like it." The young man's face glowed with pride for Alphonse, and Roy smiled.
After escaping from the Thules at the local pub, the two fugitives had spent the previous night in their new friend's rented room at his invitation. When asked, Havoc had been hard pressed to come up with an explanation as to why he had jumped into the brawl to Ed and Roy's advantage. He'd finally admitted he'd acted on impulse, and that it had seemed like the right thing to do, noting that he had always hated bullies.
Not French, but French Canadian, this world's Jean Havoc was just as easy going as his Amestrian counterpart. He and Sheska had met some weeks ago in Zurich as tenants in the same rooming house, and had hit it off. The young woman had been displaced from her home in Ukraine by the Germans, the Red Army, and the White Forces, and had been drifting across the European landscape for some months before reaching Switzerland. Havoc had been drifting as well, ever since his conscripted tour of duty in the Great War had ended, wanting to see more of the world before returning home. The two had sensed a kindred spirit in each other, and their friendship had rapidly grown. They had gone to the pub the previous night to decide if they wanted to travel together, and to where.
When pressed by the couple for explanations for the beer hall attack, Roy and Edward had been deliberately vague, suggesting that the less Jean and Sheska knew, the safer they would be. The older Amestrian's artfully constructed responses to questions had alluded to possible espionage on the part of the Germans, and left it up their new allies' imaginations to fill in the blanks. How the blanks got filled somehow resulted in Sheska volunteering to go to the train station the next morning to arrange for passage to London for the two fugitives. When Ed reluctantly revealed that Roy didn't have the documents necessary for international travel, Havoc had told them not to worry, that he had an idea, and refused to elaborate no matter how much Ed tried to wheedle it out of him.
"I would very much like to meet your brother one day, and to see a match between the two of you," Jean said, smiling. "For now though, I think I'll go and keep watch for my cute little comrade. She should have returned by now."
Jean wandered out of the courtyard to keep an eye out for his friend, leaving the two Ametrians to catch their breath.
"If they continue the way they are, I don't think it will be too long before those two have more than just friendship between them," Roy mused when the tall blond was out of sight.
'You're probably right," Edward said, grinning at the thought. "If we end up in Canada, which isn't a bad idea by the way, it wouldn't surprise me if we discovered them together there eventually."
The two sat in companionable silence for a while, the cooling sweat of their exertions finally chilling the older man enough to be uncomfortable. He shrugged stiffly into his jacket, grimacing once again at how out of condition his muscles were.
"Did . . . our Havoc end up with anyone special?" Edward asked, a wistful expression on the young man's face.
"Not yet," Roy told him, returning to his seat on the bench. "But I'm still convinced that it's only a matter of time before Jean figures out that Riza is interested, and Riza allows herself to be persuaded to give Jean a chance. After that, nature will simply take its course. I think those two would be good for each other." It was on the tip of his tongue to express regret that he wouldn't be there to see that prediction come true, but stopped short. He didn't want to hand Edward the itinerary for his next guilt trip.
"Hawkeye and Havoc," the boy said, leaning back on the bench, face tipped up to the sky. "Me and Al always figured it was you and Hawkeye all the way."
"Much like you and Ms. Rockbell, Riza and I have been friends since we were kids, but while that friendship is strong, it never evolved into a deeper attachment." Roy saw he had Edward's interest, and continued. "Her father was a master of fire alchemy, and he took me on as his apprentice. Riza has supported and protected me for years. It was a big disappointment to her when I let the Brass take my rank without a fight and went up north to lick my wounds in solitude. She tried to help me even then, and so did the rest of my old team, but I didn't want to be helped. I just wanted to be left alone."
Edward had no comment to make, but his eyes were on his former commander. There was no judgement in them, no censure, no pity. Just the quiet acceptance of someone far too familiar with grief and the many ways, good or bad, that a person can find to deal with it. Roy felt himself fall even deeper under the young man's spell, heart swelling. He wanted to fold the young man into his arms and see himself reflected in exotic amber. He wanted to drink in Edward's taste and feel the boy's heart beating against his chest. He wanted to touch, and be touched in return. He wanted . . . everything. Roy had been holding himself back, giving Edward time to reach out for him, but he couldn't be patient any longer. Roy braced himself and took the plunge.
"Remember that first day, when we landed in the Thule's villa, and I said that this wasn't about you?" Edward nodded. Roy smiled. "Well, I lied. It was always about you, Edward. I've had . . . inappropriate feelings for you since you were fifteen, and at first I wrote them off to a simple, physical attraction for an eye-catching young man. I wasn't blind, I reasoned, and one would have to be, not to notice how attractive you are. Of course I couldn't act on an attraction to my underage subordinate, but it was my secret pleasure to tease you, just to see that flame in your eyes, and to imagine I put it there for an entirely different reason."
Edward smiled at that, but made no comment.
Roy took that as a good sign, and continued. "The longer I knew you, the more I admired you. Your determination to give your brother back his life, but not at anyone else's expense. The fierce loyalty to your friends and allies, myself and my team included. The way you never turned away from a fight, or from those in need, or from your deeply held principles. It got to the point where you were on my mind almost all the time, and I realized then that I'd crossed the line from simple physical attraction into something more."
"Why didn't you say something?" Edward asked, but he knew the answer to that question before he even finished asking it.
"How could I?" Roy countered. "I had no indication that you would be open to such a confession. You were under so much pressure already, I couldn't burden you with that as well. I thought I'd wait until you were older, your quest completed with Alphonse back to flesh and blood, before I approached you. And then you disappeared. The grief I felt, the regret that I never had a chance to really know you, just devastated me." Edward's eyes were locked to Roy's, intense. Roy plunged ahead, needing to finish what he had started. "I made a split second decision to jump aboard that rocketship before you could disappear again, and I haven't regretted it. If friendship is all you want from me, that's fine, I can live with that, but ideally I would like to take this as far as it will go. I believe we could have something very deep and very special, given half a chance. What say we take that chance, Edward?"
Edward mulled this over, brows furrowed, amber eyes narrowed. "I don't think you know what you're asking," he slowly said at last. "You don't really know me, and I don't know you either."
"Time together will take care of that problem," Roy said. "There's no rush. We can take this as slow as you want."
"I have to admit, I'm very attracted to you," Edward said quietly. "I'll even admit that I had a major crush on you back when you were a Colonel and I was just one of your many lackeys."
"You were never anyone's lackey. The term implies a crude level of obedience completely foreign to your nature." Roy rubbed his chin and smiled his slow, easy smile. "A crush. I always wondered if all that angry barking and snarling was masking a different kind of bite."
"Funny, but I wondered the same thing about all the baiting and sarcastic commentary you used to treat me to. Now I know."
"I could never resist igniting all that passion. It wasn't quite the variety of passion I wanted to kindle of course, but it was exciting all the same," Roy said, a fondness in his eye.
Edward picked up a smooth stone from the garden by the bench, rolling it between the palms of his hands, and Roy watched the boy as he carefully considered what the older man was offering.
"If this doesn't work out I'll probably be the reason," the blond said as he looked up with a regretful sigh. "I'm not very good company. I tend to get lost in books for days at a time and forget to eat and sleep and talk. I'm also an expert at screwing things up, and I'll get into messes that you'll have to get me out of. You'll always be apologising for me. We'll fight all the time. I won't listen to you."
Roy smiled again that open, easy smile, the one that was just for Ed. "Good. That's settled then."
"How touching," an unfamiliar voice intruded. "A pity you won't be free to pursue this . . . romance, as you see fit."
Rudolf Hess stood just inside the courtyard, back to the only exit, flanked by three burly subordinates. The sneering German commander's gun was out, casually pointed at the two Amestrians, and he clearly believed he had the advantage, right up until the moment he was knocked cold by the swiftly flung stone Edward had been holding.
The blond alchemist was in motion before Hess hit the ground, advancing on the three remaining thugs with a shark toothed grin and fire in his amber eyes. Roy almost felt sorry for his young companion's attackers as it took them some moments to realized their prey was in reality a dangerously efficient predator, and by then it was too late. True, the young man was small, but he was also surprisingly strong even without the automail, and so much faster and more agile than his assailants that the Germans never really knew what hit them. Edward was a wraith, dodging and weaving between the three big men, tangling them up in each other, blocking punches while striking back with fists and feet, elbows and knees. The fight was over in moments. The thugs lay battered on the ground in unconscious heaps.
Edward looked over the destruction he had caused with great satisfaction. Then he frowned and leaned in closer. "What the hell! This guy again?" he said outraged, pointing at one of his victims. "This is my third go at kicking this bullet-headed guy's ass!"
"Never mind that, Edward," Roy took the young man's arm and pulled him toward the exit, stepping through the scatter of bodies. "We should be going."
The pair rushed out to the street, nearly trampling Jean Havoc on his way into the courtyard. The tall blond looked relieved to see them.
"The bullies are back!" Jean told them as he hurried the pair to his room. "They tried to grab Sheska on her way back from the train station. She barely managed to escape. She's not sure if she was followed coming back here, but she has your tickets. You'll have to get out of here as quickly as possible. The train leaves in twenty minutes."
The trio burst into Havoc's room, causing the Ukrainian girl to jump up from her seat on the bed, eyes wide. Jean rushed to the dresser and pulled it away from the wall, then reached behind it. With a smirk he pulled out his travelling papers, scraping off the wad of chewing gum that had secured them to their hiding place.
"These will get you safely to England," he said, handing the documents to Roy. "Once you're there, burn them. I'll wait for a week before I go to an embassy and report them stolen. I still have my dog tags. There shouldn't be a problem."
Roy looked at the papers, gratitude welling up. "I . . . thank you Jean," he finally managed. "And you as well, Sheska," he added, turning to the girl. "Your generosity for two strangers amazes me. I'm sorry for the trouble we've caused you. We are forever in your debt."
Havoc rubbed the back of his neck, quirky grin in place. "Ah, don't worry about it. Zurich is starting to get boring anyway, and it's time we were elsewhere. Odd as it may sound, I feel like I know you both somehow. And if you find that England isn't far enough away from your troubles, well, I'm sure I'll find my way back to Montréal eventually. Perhaps we will meet again."
Sheska jumped up and threw her arms around Roy's neck. She gave the dark haired man a kiss on the cheek, then turned to embrace Edward as well. Suddenly she froze, one hand squeezing the young alchemist's right shoulder. She pulled back, running her hand down his arm, tracing over the automail through Edward's thin shirt.
"Your arm. It's metal."
Edward nodded, then hesitantly peeled off his glove to expose his mechanical hand, flexing the fingers.
Sheska stared at it blankly for a moment before speaking. "Are you . . . aliens?"
Edward looked as if he was about to deny it, then stopped, a thoughtful expression on his face. "I never really thought about it, but yeah. I guess we are," he admitted.
"Wow," the girl said, awed. "Aliens!"
East City Headquarters, if he was not mistaken. He was in the bastard's office, but it appeared he had a new commander. Hohenheim sat behind the desk, tugging distractedly at the collar of his uniform, Colonel's stars winking in the pale sunlight slanting through the window.
"I thought you were dead," Edward told him.
"Really Edward?" His father frowned. "I'm over four hundred years old. That's because I'm damn hard to kill. I thought you'd be smart enough to realize that." The old man smirked a very Mustang smirk. "Now, let's hear about your latest assignment." Hohenheim steepled his fingers under his chin.
"So . . . you're sort of like a cockroach?" Edward asked.
A long-suffering sigh was part of Hohenheim's response. "No Edward. A cockroach is easy to kill. You just step on it. The difficulty lies in attempting to eradicate the entire species. Or the portion infesting you kitchen at least."
Oh shit, the bastard was going into full lecture mode! A quick dive through the nearest window might be his only hope of getting out of range. If he hit the pane feet first he might not be cut too badly. The young alchemist prepared for launch.
A glassy chime drew Edward's attention away from his planned course of action, and he turned to see Alphonse and Alfons seated on the couch in front of the fireplace. A bottle of Russian vodka, half full, stood tall on the coffee table in front of the two Als, along with a precariously constructed jenga tower. Ed watched as Alfons picked up the bottle. The young German gulped down a shot of vodka and then took his turn at removing a wooden peg from the rickety tower. Everyone in the room held their breath, and while the tower listed slightly to the left, it didn't collapse. Alphonse grimaced and grabbed the vodka bottle away from his double.
"Put that down, Al!" Ed shouted. "You're too young to drink!"
"Too late brother!" the younger Al sang, already quite drunk. "See what happens when you're not around to look out for me?" He took a swig from the bottle and squinted at the jenga tower, head tilted, planning his move.
Hohenheim sighed, leaning back in Mustang's big leather chair, putting his feet up on the desk. "Looks like abandoning families is not just my crime anymore," he muttered.
The jenga tower crashed to the table, and Alphonse swore. The two seated blonds began to rebuild, drunken hands clumsy. Ed compared their faces. Apart from their eye and hair colour, and the maturity of Alfons' greater age, the two were nearly identical.
"Edward, focus!" Hohenheim barked, banging a booted heel down on the desk and making everyone jump. The partially reconstructed wooden tower crashed down again amid the Als' outraged bilingual cursing. "I need your report before the train reaches the next station! I have a date with destiny, and you're wasting my time!"
Edward looked out the window behind his father to see the countryside flashing by. The office was on a
train? Why had he never noticed that before? Wait a minute! What fucking report?
"Don't mind him, Fullmetal," a smooth, familiar voice husked into his ear as a strong arm pulled him back into a broad chest, wrapping him tight. "He's almost as full of shit as I am."
Edward's hair suddenly tumbled loose from the high tail it was fixed in. The man behind him hummed appreciatively, running long, pale fingers through the blond fall. The young man glanced over towards the fireplace. The Als were busy with their drinking game, oblivious to anything else going on in the room at the moment, and Edward regretted that he'd be forced to kick Alfons' delicate ass for getting his little brother drunk. Ed returned his gaze to his father. Hohenheim seemed to be distracted by a photograph on his desk, running a shy finger along its polished silver frame, expression wistful.
An elegant hand reached around to cup Edward's cheek before stroking back through his hair. "So beautiful." The voice from behind was low and husky with lust. The gentle fingers continued to sweep slowly through Edward's silken hair.
The blare of the train's whistle lifted Ed's head with a jerk, scowling into the darkness rolling by the window of the private compartment, the dream shattered. Or most of the dream, at least. A gentle hand still moved through his hair, nimble fingers sifting through loose strands of gold. His head had been in Mustang's lap. He sat up, blinking, and the hand in his hair dropped to slide around his waist and pull him close. Edward didn't fight it. Instead he slipped his own arm around the other man's waist and leaned his head on his shoulder.
"You shouldn't do that Edward," Mustang said, voice low. "Watching you sleep has taken a terrible toll on my self control. I don't think I can trust myself to resist your charms."
"Do I look like I want you to resist them?"
That, apparently, was all the dark haired man had been waiting for. The older man took the blond by both shoulders and gently eased him back until he was pressed into the corner of their seat. Then he leaned in, and Edward was caught in the burn of his dark gaze. He raised a hand to trace along Roy's jawline, the older man's elegant features made human by light stubble rough against Ed's fingers. A cool palm brushed the younger man's flushed cheek in return; supple fingers played over parted lips, then slid back to his nape. Their lips met, and a bolt of pure want shot straight through Edward's body, pooling deep in his centre, warm and exciting.
All of his senses were hyperaware. The air around him was filled with the scent of wood smoke, sharp, clean sparks, and Roy. The man's taste was exhilarating, hot and heady. Heat from the arm tightening once again around his waist seeped into Edward's skin like some kind of drug, melting him against the dark haired man's body. Edward slipped his hands around Roy's waist, to explore the knobbed ridge of his back. The General responded, slowly stroking a hand up the outside of Edward's thigh.
The train's whistle sounded again, and Edward came back to himself, suddenly alert to exactly where this was happening. He tried to push the older man back, but the arm around his waist tightened possessively. "What are we doing Mustang? We're in public! Anyone could walk in on us!" Edward whispered, incredulous.
"I have a first name, you know," the older man whispered, his hand never pausing in its passage up Edward's thigh. "Don't you think it's about time you started using it?"
"Roy." Edward's voice was a growl. "There. Are you happy?"
"I am," Mustang's voice purred into his ear, making him shiver. "In fact, I believe my name from your lips is the most erotic sound I have ever heard."
"You're a pervert," the blond quietly accused.
"You say that like it's a bad thing," Mustang observed, hand stroking back over Edward's slim hip, slowly approaching virgin territory.
Edward didn't get a chance to confirm or deny this, as Roy's mouth again descending over his cut off any sort of reply. The older man's hand continued to tease, approaching sensitive territory but never quite reaching it, always backing off just shy of the more intimate parts of his anatomy. The younger man's hands were clenched in Roy's jacket, poised between pushing him away and pulling him closer. A quiet moan slipped past Edward's tightly held defences.
"Shh," Mustang whispered, his lips brushing Ed's. "You wouldn't want anyone to hear, would you?"
Edward wondered how he was supposed to endure this exquisite torture in silence. Mustang suddenly pulled away, just as the door to their compartment slid open. The slice of yellow light that fell into the small cabin was blocked by the conductor in the doorway, requesting their tickets with a somewhat amused smile. They had to be getting close to Calais, and the Channel ferry.
Sure enough, the train slowed to a gradual stop, and soon the pair were hurrying along with their fellow passengers towards the ferry terminal. The General strolled along beside his companion, occasionally giving him a lazy smile, all right with his world. Edward on the other hand, was flustered and half hard, finding it difficult to walk normally. He hoped his dilemma wasn't obvious to the people around him. Trust the bastard to arrange it so that he had to go through customs with a boner. If he got patted down, the border guards were going to think he was some kind of freak.
It wouldn't be much longer before the runaway Amestrians were in London. Hohenheim's flat would be a good first stop, though they'd have to be careful there. It was probably the first place Haushofer and company would look for them, so they would have to be in and out as quickly as possible. The old man had hidden away some emergency funds in those paid up lodgings, and the young alchemist thought it would be well worth the risk to go for them. The official documents necessary to make Roy legit wouldn't come cheap, and the pair would need money to cover their travelling expenses as well. Edward suspected that getting out of Europe altogether and disappearing into the wide world was their best option to avoid the Thules, and that was the blond's new goal. The next few days were going to be busy indeed.
But all that aside, Edward knew one more thing for sure. He definitely had to find a way to get Roy alone, with no possibility of interruption, and soon. Otherwise all this unresolved sexual tension would probably drive him crazy.
Chapter 7: Central
Alphonse opened his eyes to an unfamiliar, dimly lit room. It was cold, and he felt very weak, his left shoulder blade throbbing to the rhythm of his heart.
"Alfons, you're awake." Rose was there, but no, this wasn't Rose, not exactly. She looked concerned as she leaned to peer into his eyes. "Are you hungry? There is soup."
"Yes, thank you Noa," he said, or he didn't. The words felt unusual in his mouth, too deep in his throat. Not his words.
'It's a dream!' Alphonse realized, elated. It had been days since he'd had one, and he'd been very afraid he wouldn't dream like this again, forcing someone to stay behind and close the Gate on this side when the time came. Could he move? He concentrated on his right hand, concentrated on making a fist. The fingers twitched closed and he held them tight. Then his whole body jumped, sending a lance of pain through his chest.
"W-what in the name of God . . ." he didn't say, staring at his clenched fist.
The fist struggled to open, and for the first time, Alphonse became aware of another presence. The Amestrian immediately loosed the fist, and the other began flexing his fingers, relieved.
'Can you hear me?' Alphonse thought hopefully.
The alchemist quickly considered his options, and then concentrated on speaking. He would say something simple and friendly.
Okay, it was kind of lame, but he had been so concerned that he wouldn't be able to link up with his double again that he hadn't thought through what he would do if he did. Alphonse could feel his heart begin to pound fearfully. Well, if his own mouth suddenly started up a conversation all on its own, he guessed it would shock the living crap out of him, too.
"Um, I'm sorry to scare you like this, but I need your help," the Amestrian said apologetically.
Now that he'd become aware of the other's presence, Alphonse felt the touch of another's feelings, fear and confusion an adrenaline rush through the body he was sharing. He regretted frightening his brother's friend, but what choice did he have? He didn't want to forcefully take control of his double, if that was even possible. This friend of Edward's was in a unique position to help them, not only with closing the Gate, but also for intel to locate the two Amestrians stranded here, making it easier for Hohenhiem when he got here himself.
It was some moments before Alfons responded, speaking aloud self-consciously. "Who are you?" he asked.
"I'm Edward's brother. My name is Alphonse Elric. I need your help to get my brother home."
"I might have known," Alfons said, literally to himself. "Even far away, he still manages to make me crazy."
"Far away?" Alphonse prompted.
"Zurich, last I heard. He and his friend escaped from the Thules there, or so I'm told. Where they are now I have no idea."
Relief surged through him, followed closely by worry. Edward and the General weren't locked up, which was good, but on the run they'd be much more difficult to locate. Before Alphonse could offer a response to that, Noa returned with the promised soup, and neither Al was inclined to continue their bizarre conversation with the gypsy present. Alphonse settled back to wait for the girl to leave, impatient to tell his otherworldly counterpart how he could help. At any moment this dream could end, and the Amestrian boy wasn't sure when he might be back, if ever. It seemed like forever, but finally Alfons finished his soup and the young woman left the room, taking the empty bowl with her.
"Are you still here?" Alfons asked quietly.
"Yes," Alphonse answered, exhausted from the simple act of eating. "Why are you so weak? What happened to you?"
"I'm ill. I have tuberculosis. And I was shot a few days ago. By one of the Thule Society's people. I'm afraid I will not be very much help to you, confined to this bed."
Alphonse thought this over, frowning inwardly. In all of his twelve remembered years, he couldn't recall ever feeling as physically fragile as he did right now. It was a chore just to talk. How could he expect to do what he had to when he would be hard pressed just to get out of this bed? Frustration welled up, but he pushed it aside. Instead of worrying about the negatives, he should be focusing on the positives. If nothing else, Alfons would be a reliable source of information. Now, if he could figure out a way to make his connection with this Al a little stronger . . .
"Do you have a piece of paper?" Alphonse asked. "I want to try something."
Alfons reached to the bedside table and came up with a notepad and pencil. "I'm guessing that you're going to try your alchemy," the German Al said, surprising his counterpart. "I think you will be disappointed."
Alphonse took control of the hand holding the pencil, feeling the disquiet of the hand's natural owner. With practiced ease, the Amestrian sketched his signature arrays, one over the other for easy activation. If he could leave a piece of his soul here, passively anchored to his double, perhaps it would be easier to return.
"This is exquisite," Alfons said with pleased surprise. "The circles are perfect. The lines beautifully straight. I have never seen such an artistically rendered schematic. Amazing, that you can draw something like this freehand."
"It will be even more amazing if I can activate it," Alphonse muttered, laying aside the pencil and rubbing his hands together. Odd. They seemed to be very far away, and he couldn't feel them anymore.
The room dimmed. A rushing noise filled Alphonse mind and his vision tunnelled. There was a sense of motion, high speed through a dark tunnel, then nothing, as he returned to his regularly scheduled sleep state.
Alphonse awoke to the light of day in a large, elaborately decorated room, momentarily unsure of where he was. Then recent events slotted back into place in his mind. Ah yes. The Armstrong family estate, day two.
The entire rescue team had moved into the Amrstrongs' ancestral home at Alex urging. The estate's Master and his wife were vacationing in their southern holdings, but Alex insisted that in keeping with Armstrong tradition, the family was honour bound to accept and support his decision to assist in this effort any way they could. Alex' older sister, Olivier, was away as well, in the far North. A fully decorated General, the eldest of the Armstrong clan was Base Commander of the infamous Briggs Wall, final defence against Drachman incursions into Amestrian territory. The giant's other three sisters were present however, making every effort to prove Alex right about his family's level of commitment to each other.
Amue and Strongine were both older than their gigantic brother, and were similar to him in height, but that was where the physical resemblance ended. While Alex was a solidly built oak, the two girls were slim and graceful willows. The two elder sisters also matched their brother in spirit however, not shying away from the business at hand. When the particulars of the operation were outlined to the rest of the Armstrong household, Amue immediately took steps to ensure they had adequate supplies in the event of an extended stay by their guests. Not to be outdone, Strongine took on the task of setting an efficient security rotation that included everyone except Alphonse.
Catherine, Alex' younger sister and the baby of the family, was another matter. Soft spoken and tiny compared to her siblings, the youngest Armstrong was more comfortable staying in the background. Not that she didn't get involved in the activities. Her preferred duty was to take care of the details otherwise overlooked by those doing the bigger jobs, regular meals her specialty. She also took a special interest in Alphonse and his unusual role in the operation, making his comfort her priority. It was Catherine who chose the room he would sleep in, well away from any activity that could disturb him. And she always made sure there were fresh flowers there as well, explaining that the natural incense would promote a peaceful slumber.
The dynamics of this venerable family amused Alphonse to no end, particularly Catherine's subtle control over all her elder siblings. Though shy and unassuming, the petite blond had them all wrapped around her little finger.
Alphonse stretched and then slipped out of bed rubbing sleep from his eyes. He let his mind wander as he went through his morning routine on autopilot, waiting for his waking mind to link up with what his sleeping mind had been up to. The youngster knew that trying to force himself to remember what he had dreamed tended to push those memories even farther out of reach. His stomach grumbled about the length of time since supper the night before. Even some of Noa's weak and watery chicken soup would be nice right about now. Wait a minute. Noa? The memory of his dream conversation with Alfons sprang suddenly into sharp focus, and the young alchemist gasped. He had to find his father and tell him what he had learned!
The young man quickly dressed and raced out of the room, making his way to the basement and the improvised lab where the Gate array was taking shape. Sure enough, Hohenheim was there, along with Alex Armstrong, working steadily. Everyone in the manor was working almost obsessively at whatever duty was set them, but Hohenheim seemed the most driven, refusing to sleep until he was collapsing from exhaustion. Al knew how he felt. If his dreams weren't such an important part of the plan, he'd have given up sleeping in favour of completing the transmutation circle as well. The old man looked up at his son's approach, then jumped down from the scaffold he was perched on to meet him.
"What's wrong" Hohenhiem asked, concerned. Alphonse expression had obviously given away his agitation.
"Nothing! I did it! I made contact!" the youngster told him.
The old man's face relaxed into a relived smile. "Ah, I knew it was only a matter of time. Were you able to take control of your double?"
"I didn't have to, and I don't think I could, even if I wanted to. Alfons wants to help brother. He's his friend." Alphonse crossed his arms over his chest and frowned critically at his father.
"You were able to communicate with him?" Hohenheim asked, surprised.
"Yes. He says that brother and General Mustang are on the run, and the Thules are after them. The last place they were spotted was Zurich. Do you know where that is?"
"I do, but I'm sure Edward won't stay there. He'll want to get to London. The General will need documents to establish his identity, and Edward knows people in London who can arrange that." The old man scratched thoughtfully at his beard. "The next time you're there, get Alfons on a train to England."
Alphonse frown deepened. "I'm not sure I can do that either. He's sick. He's got tuberculosis, and on top of that he got shot by the Thules. He's very weak."
Hohenheim considered this, eyes distant. "Hmm. I'll just have to go to Munich and pick him up first so we can travel to London together." He turned to Armstrong. "How much trouble would it be to get the antibiotics necessary for a course of treatment for TB?" he asked.
"No trouble at all," the big man answered, climbing down from the scaffold to join the two men on the floor. "Antibiotics are not controlled substances. I will alert Amue to your needs. You will have to be careful administering the medication however, in case the young man is allergic to it."
"Are you allergic to any antibiotics Alphonse?" Hohenheim asked.
"No," the boy replied, frown still in place.
Hohenheim clapped a hand on his son's shoulder. "Then your double likely won't be either, but we will be careful. With my help on the journey and treatment underway to rid him of his infection, we can easily get our German friend safely to London." The old man smiled at his son's doubtful expression. "Don't worry Alphonse. We can work around these problems."
"I'm more worried about my role in all of this," the younger alchemist said. "The dream link is too unreliable. I can't control when I cross over, or how long I stay. I wanted to try attaching a piece of my soul to Alfons, just to anchor myself in place, but I ran out of time before I could activate the array. And there's no guarantee it would have worked anyway, since alchemy can't be done by conventional means over there. I'd need to use my blood, but I'm not really there." Grey eyes downcast, the young man's frustration was evident.
"Perhaps I can be of assistance," Alex Armstrong's booming voice interrupted. "I have been giving this problem a great deal of thought, and I believe I may have come up with a solution." Father and son waited for it. "Hypnosis."
Honenheim kept his voice completely neutral. "Hypnosis."
"An artificially induce altered state of consciousness characterized by heightened suggestibility and receptivity to direction," Alex elaborated.
"I know what it is." Hohenheim rubbed at his beard. "Are you proposing this as a sleep aid, or in terms of post hypnotic suggestion?"
"I'm suggesting that young Alphonse might be able to consciously link to his counterpart while under hypnosis. I practiced the art for fun and amusement as a child, and in the process became quite an accomplished hypnotist. It's all just a matter of using the specially developed techniques passed down through the Armstrong family for generations."
Hohemheim looked to his son, and Alphonse shrugged.
"It's certainly worth a try," the youngster said. "The array will be finished by tonight, and I'm the only part of the plan that's not ready."
Alphonse looked at the transmutation circle, nearly completed, beautiful in its form and complexity. Hohenheim had proposed that they draw it on a vertical surface, and the advantages were so immediately obvious that no one objected to this unconventional idea. A gateway opening on a wall would be much easier to step into, as well as out of.
It wasn't simply tradition that dictated most alchemic circles be composed on a horizontal surfaces however. Often the sheer size of a multifaceted array made a floor the easiest plane to work with. And this array was one of the most intricate, finely detailed creations Alphonse had ever seen. As it was, the assembled alchemists had had to transmute an upper room into their workspace to accommodate its five meter diameter, and erect a scaffold in order to sketch in its higher quarters.
The three alchemists had checked and rechecked their arcs, angles and symbol placement, and had found no miscalculations. With the power of the Stone, Hohenheim could use this alchemic masterpiece to open a path to the other world. Then he would be in a position to recreate the array on the other side and link the gates in order to return, bringing Edward and General Mustang home with him. And if Alphonse was unable to play his part in this operation, he knew Hohenheim would elect to stay behind when the time came, to close the Gate himself. The young man could feel the truth of this in his bones, and he couldn't allow his father do it. He had to forge a reliable link with his double, so he could ensure that no one would be left behind. He had no alternative. He couldn't let everyone down again. He'd try anything, take any chance, if it meant getting all his family back home safe.
"How soon can we try your idea Mr. Armstrong?" Alphonse asked, determined. "Is there anything we have to do to prepare?"
The big man rolled his shoulders, and if the seams of his shirt could have screamed, they would have. "We need a quiet room, dimly lit, and a small object to centre your attention." Then Armstrong focused on the younger blond. "But Alphonse! You have only just awakened, and have not yet had breakfast! You will find it much easier to relax with your stomach comfortably full!"
As if on cue, Catherine stepped into the room, smiling shyly at the three men. "If you please, might I suggest that all of you follow me to the dining room? Breakfast is served."
Though all Alphonse really wanted to do was try this hypnosis thing to see if it would work, he meekly followed the petite young woman out of the lab and up the stairs to the main floor. Preoccupied with his dilemma, the friendly exchange between the two Armstrong siblings and his father wasn't actually registering in his conscious thoughts. The small party arrived at the dining room, and Alphonse eyed the food on the sideboard with little enthusiasm. Hohenheim reached past him for a plate, making small talk with Catherine.
"It's very kind of you to take time off from the University to assist us," Hohenheim was saying, causing the girl to blush. "I hope your studies won't suffer."
"They won't. I have a friend who has agreed to take notes for me, and she'll inform me of any upcoming assignments as well," Catherine explained.
"That could only be the young Cartwell, girl," Alex put in. "A lovely young lady, and a fine friend to our Catherine."
'Yes, Nina has been a great study partner too," Catherine added.
"Nina Tucker?" Alphonse asked, still looking over the breakfast buffet, distracted.
"Nina Cartwell," Alex corrected, giving the younger alchemist an odd look.
Alphonse wasn't listening. In front of him stood a small girl, perhaps four or five years old. Orange blossoms crowned the auburn hair that framed her freckled face and hung past her waist, braided in two. Her deep blue eyes twinkled in the bright light of day, happy and trusting. He heard her voice, calling him big brother and laughing, watched her face tilt up, tongue licked out to catch snowflakes. He reached down, his leather gauntlet huge as he laid it gently on her head.
And then she changed. The head his palm rested on had become a tragic composite of human and canine, auburn hair now thick fur. The creature's deep blue eyes held only pain and confusion, and a plea for help. Alphonse' hand trembled, suddenly empty as the scene changed from a dimly lit basement to a moonlit alley, cracked brick splashed with auburn clotted gore. He spun away horrified, and was in the basement of his childhood home in Resembool, Edward beside him. The array designed to bring back their mother was active on the floor, a transmutation in full rebound. He heard his brother scream his name, saw Edward reach for him as Alphonse' ten year old body was pulled into the Gate and reduced to its most basic components, scattered into the darkness.
The dam had broken. Memories were surging through his mind now, crashing into him, drowning him. So many memories of so many people and places and events, and the sensations . . . what he was feeling was overwhelming, devastating, it was crushing him, he wanted it to stop, it was too much, but it wouldn't, so he did the only thing he could. He gave himself up to it, and it carried him away.
Jean Havoc hurried toward the dining room and breakfast, trying in vain to keep up with Heymans Breda. The big redhead was at his most agile where food was involved, and the generous fair provided by the Armstrongs was worth a bit of exercise as far as Breda was concerned. Havoc had just come in from making his rounds on the estate's grounds, cigarette smoke clinging lightly to him. He enjoyed outdoor duty for the freedom it gave him to indulge his addiction, but tried not to overdo it. He had a job to do after all.
It was Tuesday morning, and the team should have been on post, but Strongine had once again been way ahead of everyone in the facilitation department. A friendly call to Headquarters in the name of retired General Phillip Gargantos Armstrong, requesting the assistance of a few specific officers for an unspecified, personal undertaking, and the need for everyone involved to call in suspiciously sick was eliminated. Fortunately it was common practice for officers of high rank, retired and otherwise, to occasionally requisition the services of military personnel for non-military duties ranging from yard work to guard duty, so no eyebrows should be raised. Nevertheless, the security rotation continued. And Havoc had long ago discovered that he did his most dangerous thinking while on guard duty.
As they had been since arriving at the estate, the Lieutenant's thoughts were on the youngest Armstrong daughter. Although Catherine had made it abundantly clear that he wasn't her type when they had previously met, Havoc couldn't help but admire the young woman. Her sweet nature, her endearingly shy demeanour, her impressive family heritage, not to mention her equally impressive physical attributes, were a temptation he couldn't seem to ignore. He wanted to try his luck with her again, even though his common sense was shaking its head at the sheer stupidity of the notion. In all probability he would be in for another disappointment, shot through the heart, but his track record in the romance department was an ongoing litany of poor choices and bad judgment, and that had never stopped him before. Ever the optimist, Havoc always hoped that his next attempt at romance would be different. He knew he wouldn't be able to resist the urge to ask the girl out again, even with the odds stacked against him.
Arriving at his destination, the Second Lieutenant was pleased to note the object of his current romantic quest was in attendance, speaking shyly with her siblings and their guests. Everyone in the manor was on hand for the morning meal, but the dining room was large, and not overcrowded. Havoc edged closer to his quarry, surreptitiously including himself in Catherine's circle. Then he noticed Riza Hawkeye, seated across the room at the long dining table, lips pressed into a thin, annoyed line, giving him the hairy eyeball. What the hell?
The Armstrong girl was immediately forgotten in favour of more pressing concerns, specifically, avoiding high velocity projectiles. Havoc began searching his memory for some recent indiscretion he must have committed to earn the First Lieutenant's censure. Nothing came to mind, and he decided it probably had something to do with his smoking, a frequent complaint of the First Lieutenant's. Still, he hadn't lit up indoors, and his sentry rotation had been outside on the perimeter of the property, so the occasional cigarette shouldn't have presented a problem. Havoc was leaning back against the buffet, frowning his way through the last couple of hours, when out of the corner of his eye he saw Alphonse sway and begin to fall, and he was only just fast enough to catch the youngster before he hit the ground.
The boy was limp as a rag in the taller blond's arms. Havoc carried him to a couch by the window and set him gently down, then knelt on the floor beside him. Ever grateful for his field medic training, the Second Lieutenant made a quick check of Alphonse' vital signs, relieved to discover that the boy was in no obvious physical distress. Hawkeye, Breda and Falman were keeping the concerned Armstrongs and Hohenheim from pressing in too close, giving Havoc room to work. The room was dead quiet as the tall blond made his examination.
Jean timed Alphonse pulse and breathing, lifted one of the boy's arms and flexed it, then lay his palm over the young alchemist's forehead, noting the rapid movement of the boys eyes behind his eyelids. The older blond gently peeled back a lid. Alphonse eye darted around, unfocused. He gave the boy's shoulder a shake, calling his name. No response. He rubbed his knuckles painfully over the youngster's sternum. Nothing. The kid was out cold.
Havoc ran a frustrated hand through his perpetually messy hair and looked up at the anxious bystanders. "His heart rate is normal. So's his breathing. He doesn't appear to be feverish, but I'd like to get a thermometer and make sure. His muscles seem to be unnaturally relaxed, and his eyes are moving as if he's having a dream, but this definitely isn't sleep." Havoc sighed and sat back on his heels. "I'm wondering if this has something to do with that dream link you were hoping for," he said, and looked questioningly at Hohenheim.
The old man looked stricken, and Havoc realized that this was the first time he'd seen any sort of strong emotion on the old alchemist's face. "I . . . don't think that's the problem," Hohenheim said, and was that a tremor in his voice? "This happened in the underground city too, just before the Gate closed." The bearded man looked like he was going to say more, but didn't.
Hawkeye put a firm hand on Hohenheim's shoulder and leaned in, eyes steel. "If you know anything else, I suggest you share it with us. We're all in this far too deep to start second guessing each other now."
The old man rubbed an embarrassed hand on the back of his neck and grimaced. "I honestly don't know what's going on," he insisted. "The last time this happened, Alphonse thought he might be getting the memory of his time in the armour back, but even he wasn't sure about that."
"Do you think he's in any danger?" Alex asked. The big man looked close to tears.
"He came to on his own the last time, and he didn't seem to suffer any ill effects. Physically, I don't think he's in danger," Hohenheim said, eyes still on his son. "I think we just have to wait this out."
Havoc exchanged a quick glance with the Hawk, and as usual, the woman understood what was needed immediately.
"Let's get Alphonse back up to his room," Hawkeye said, taking charge of the situation. "We all have things we should be doing, and hovering over him isn't going to help. Lieutenant Havoc will keep an eye on him and let us know if his condition changes."
Alex nodded and strode forward. He carefully lifted the unconscious youngster, cradling him in his massive arms as he carried the boy upstairs to his room, Havoc and Hohenheim following close behind. The gentle giant placed the boy on the bed he had only been out of for a short time, and stepped back reluctantly to let Havoc take his place. Catherine hurried in with a thermometer and a cup of steaming black coffee, placing both on the bedside table, then took her big brother by the hand and led him out of the room. The door closed quietly behind them.
Havoc placed the thermometer under Alphonse' arm, and soon confirmed the absence of fever, but was at the limit of his medical abilities. Hohenheim had pulled a high backed chair up to the opposite side of his son's bed and sat, silently brooding, watching the youngster's face, and Havoc wasn't inclined to break the silence. The Lieutenant pulled a chair of his own over to the bedside, and relaxed into it. Sipping the coffee left for him, he absently noted that it was just the way he liked it. Thanks, Hawkeye.
Occasionally checking on his young patient's condition, Havoc kept a covert eye on Hohenheim as well. The older man was sitting still as stone, gaze never shifting from his son. The quiet knock on the door had no effect on him at all, and if he noticed Havoc rise to answer it he gave no sign.
"Hawkeye wants to know if you think we should be getting the kid to a hospital or something." Breda leaned to peer around his comrade, trying to catch a glimpse of Alphonse. Everyone in Mustang's old command had always been very fond of the boy. It was hard not to like Alphonse, in flesh and blood or a ghost in armour.
Havoc scratched his head, frustrated. "He's not having trouble breathing or anything like that," he said, keeping his voice low. "I don't know that he'd be better off in a hospital. I'll watch him. If he gets into trouble, we can move him, but I think the old man's right. This is something that's going on in the kid's head, and we should just wait it out."
"Do you need anything?"
"No. Wait, yes. Some more coffee," Havoc said, and cast a glance at the room's other conscious occupant, frowning. "Get some for the old man too. Looks like he's planning to stick around. For a change."
Breda pulled a face at his friend. "Don't be too quick to pass judgement, man. You know that old saying."
"Which one?" Havoc asked warily, knowing he was going to regret it.
"The one about walking a mile in someone's shoes before you get all critical and shit."
Havoc snorted, then looked behind him at the old alchemist, who still appeared oblivious to anything but Alphonse. The Lieutenant continued, voice even quieter. "Like I'd be stupid enough to criticise someone who could transmute my dick into dental floss."
"That's why those old sayings are so important. Think about it. If you piss him off, then you're a mile away, and you've got his shoes."
The blond took a swat at his friend's head, but the heavyset redhead dodged away and headed down the hall in the direction of the dining room. Shaking his head, Havoc returned to his seat by the bed.
"I know that I've been a bad father," Hohenheim spoke up, eyes still on Alphonse. "But believe it or not, I do love my sons."
Havoc said nothing, and Hohenheim too remained silent after that, the coffee Breda soon returned with accepted without a word as well.
Havoc continued to sip his own coffee, keeping an eye on his patient. Checking his watch, he was surprised to discover that nearly an hour had passed since Alphonse had collapsed. He still showed no signs of regaining consciousness, and Havoc wondered if he should be doing something more drastic. Fingers once again on the boy's pulse, he found it reassuringly strong and steady, but that didn't ease the older man's concern. Perhaps he should be getting the kid to the hospital after all, just to be on the safe side. It took the tall blond some moments before he realized he was being watched, and not by Hohenheim. Tired grey eyes observed him, seeming too old for the young face they looked out of.
"Alphonse. How do you feel?" Havoc asked quietly, and Hohenheim was suddenly at his elbow.
"Hungry. Can I have something sweet?"
"I think something light would be better for a start," the Lieutenant said with a grin. "You passed out, and you've been out for almost an hour. What's the last thing you remember?"
The boy laughed without humour. "I remember . . . everything," he said flatly.
"Relax Alphonse. Listen to the sound of my voice. Watch the candle's flame. Concentrate on your left foot. Your toes are relaxing, one by one." Alex' voice was deep and soothing, and Alphonse tried to let himself be soothed, but it was proving difficult.
It had been two hours since he'd woken up, the four lost years he'd spent searching for a Philosopher's Stone with Edward finally found. It was like he was two different people, one superimposed on the other. One was an older Alphonse, centered despite his lack of flesh and blood to inhabit, the one that had stood and fought beside his older brother, striving to regain what they had lost, together. The other was a younger Alphonse, off balance due to the discontinuity of his years, the one that had reaped the benefit of his brother's forgotten sacrifice, but never gave up hope of seeing that brother again. Missing pieces of the young man's puzzle were gradually slotting into place, the filled, four year gap in his life giving Alphonse a new perspective on his present. It was going to take time for the two similar though distinct personalities to mesh, but right now he had no time to spare. He had to get his role in Hohenheim's grand scheme on track. And oddly enough, he had to hitch a ride in someone else's head to do it.
Alex Armstrong had wanted to wait a while longer before testing his hypnosis theory on the youngster, worried that the process would be too stressful after the ordeal of recovering his past, but Alphonse wouldn't agree to any further delays. If he had been driven to get Edward back before, regaining his memories made the youngest Elric even more determined to accomplish that goal.
And the first thing Alphonse was going to do when he had his brother home, safe and sound, was kick his stupid ass. Because Edward had broken his promise from long ago, made after their first encounter with Scar. Back then Edward had chosen to let the Ishballan kill him in order to protect Alphonse, and he'd promised not to choose that path again. But he'd had no intention of keeping that promise, had he, because Edward hadn't even hesitated to trade his life for Al's at the Gate, and that just pissed Al completely off.
He could remember all of it now. Standing at the Gate, Edward in front of him, the black doors looming over them. Alphonse had still been on the Gate's edge, fresh from using the Stone to restore Edward, his soul's container spent in the transmutation. He could hear the trade his brother proposed, himself for Alphonse, a one for one exchange. When the doors swung slowly open and Edward moved towards the dark void, he hadn't even looked back. It wouldn't surprise Alphonse to discover that Ed had also arranged for his little brother's memory loss, insurance against the younger Elric attempting to offer the same trade for the older. The thought made Alphonse grind his teeth that much harder.
"You must empty your mind, Alphonse Elric," Alex advised his subject. "You must concentrate on my voice, and the glow of the candle. Let the tension flow from your body just as the smoke rises from the candle's flame."
The youngster forced himself to calm, pushing his anger at his brother into the background with difficulty. Listening to the soothing rumble of Armstrong's suggestions, his body gradually relaxed, taking his mind along with it. The candle's flame wavered, a victim of random currents in the still room's air. Alphonse eyelids became heavy, and he closed his eyes.
It was an odd feeling. Physically, he was still in the room with Armstrong. He could even feel the plush armchair he was sitting on against his back and under his arms. But Alex' voice was receding, fading as if a great distance was opening between them, and in the darkness of his mind, Alphonse saw a glimmer of light. It looked like a thread of spider silk, but it glowed as if moonlit. Examining it more closely, he saw that it stretched away into the darkness, how far it was impossible to tell. Al reached out his hand and gently took hold, his fingers tingling where they touched the shimmering strand. He opened his eyes.
The room was dim. A single small lamp by the bed cast yellow light on the book he was holding in his lap. The words he was reading were unfamiliar, but he understood them anyway, the advantages of using the intrinsic knowledge stored in someone else's brain he supposed. No light seeped through the thin curtain closed over the window, telling him it must be evening. His back still ached, propped up on thin pillows against the headboard. He was alone in the room.
"I'm back," he whispered.
He started, but more in surprise than fear this time, though his heart rate did ramp up a notch. "I was hoping you would return," Alfons said, also in a whisper. "I have heard from Noa that the Thules are searching for your brother in London."
"That's where my father thought he would go," Alphonse said. "He wants you to go there too, but . . ."
"He's alive?" the German blurted out, then once again lowered his voice. "Professor Hohenheim is alive? We thought the serpent must surely have killed him."
"He's alive, and he's coming back here to get Ed and the General. We're going to have to get you to London too, though," the Amestrian said apologetically.
Alfonse breathed a frustrated sigh. "That will be a problem. Noa, the girl who is staying with me, is working with the Thules, and even if I did manage to slip away from her, I doubt I could make it to the train station alone in this condition."
"That's why dad is coming to get you. He's bringing some med . . . "
The door suddenly swung open. Noa stood framed in the light from the outer room, peering in, scanning the bedroom. Stepping inside, she closed the door behind her and stepped over to open the closet. Finding it empty, she moved to the bed and stooped to look underneath it. Frowning, she turned her attention to Alfons.
"Who were you talking to?" she asked.
Alfons yawned and rubbed his eyes. "Was I speaking? I was having the strangest dream just now. I must have been talking in my sleep."
"In both German and English, without a trace of accent?" The girl moved closer and reached her hand out towards the young man, her eyes narrowed.
Alphonse felt the cool hand on his forearm, and the sudden, even cooler touch of something that ruffled his mind like the pages of a book. The gypsy's eyes flew wide, shocked, and she started to pull away.
Both Als' reactions were pure reflex. Alfons grabbed the girl's wrist, and Alphonse clapped the hands left behind in the Armstrong's manor, activating the twinned arrays on his gloves. The Amestrian felt the transmutation take hold, and without stopping to consider what he was doing, pushed a small piece of his soul through Alfons' hand into the woman. Everyone froze, Noa and Alfons in shock, and Alphonse in hopeful anticipation.
Alfons very slowly eased his grip on Noa's wrist. Her hand hung in the air, trembling slightly, Alphonse realized, with the effort to move it. Her eyes were wide, terrified, staring into Alfons', but considering the telepathic assault she had just attempted, Alphonse didn't feel the least bit sorry for her.
"Go to sleep," he whispered, pushing all the exhaustion he was feeling into that little piece of himself attached to Noa. The girl settled gracefully to the floor and curled up on her side. Head pillowed on her hands, she closed her eyes and was instantly asleep.
The Als studied the sleeping gypsy for a few moments, until Alfons finally broke their silent contemplation of this completely bizarre situation.
"I thought you couldn't do that sort of thing here," he said, sounding slightly offended.
"Well technically, I'm not actually here," Alphonse countered, somewhat testily.
Alfons regarded their slumbering dilemma for a moment longer, and came to a decision. "I think I should be elsewhere when she wakes up," he said as he threw back his sheets and swung his legs to the floor. He slouched on the edge of the bed, and Alphonse seriously doubted he'd be able to make it out of the room, but instead of trying to stand, Alfons stamped his feet on the floor. The Als sat in silence for a few moments, and the Amestrian was just about to ask the German what he was waiting for, when there was an answering knock from below. Alfons stamped his feet again, and some minutes later they could hear someone enter the flat.
A head of short, light brown hair poked into the bedroom, followed by the rest of Gracia Schmidt. Her grey green eyes widened when she saw Noa curled up on the floor.
"Does this mean that you have decided to take my advice and sneak off to visit my sister in Stuttgart?" she quietly asked with a grin.
"It does," Alfons confirmed.
As Gracia moved to assist his frail host from the bed, Alphonse silently cursed, hoping that Hohenheim knew where this Stuttgart place was. Then, with a jolt of astonishment, he suddenly realized that his clap had ignited a transmutation. He could feel his hands folded neatly in his lap, his body waiting as patiently as ever for his wayward soul's return.
And he was not wearing his gloves.
Chapter 8: London
Roy was discovering that London was certainly a much bigger, much busier city than Munich. More crowded and smoggier too. Particularly down in the Docklands where Edward had lead them. They were going to a pub owned by a man Ed claimed could provide Roy with the documents he needed to create an identity for himself in this world. The trouble was, at the moment Edward seemed to be lost.
On arrival in the city, the pair had made a quick trip to Hohenheim's former, paid up lodgings to secure the funds the old man had hidden away in case of emergencies. It had been worth it, even considering that the Thules might have had the place watched. The old alchemist had a substantial amount of cash hidden there, and the fugitive pair were going to need it. Edward had slipped in and out through a rear window of the second storey flat under cover of the early evening darkness while Roy had kept watch from an nearby alley, ready to join in any conflict that might occur, but fortunately all had gone without incident.
With cash in hand the pair still hadn't stopped to rest. Edward seemed driven to get everything done before the day was out, and Roy wasn't inclined to object. The two Amistrians knew it was only a matter of time before the Thules began to search for them in the Smoke, if they hadn't already. The Germans knew all of Edward's likely contacts through Hohenheim, so it was in the Amestrians' best interests to do what they had to do as quickly as possible and move on. Straightening out Roy's lack of proper identification was next on their agenda, and with Hohenheim's cash they were well on their way to solving that problem.
If they could find the place Edward was searching for.
Ed finally located the establishment, and with a relieved grin he lead Mustang inside. At nine o'clock in the evening the pub was already well beyond busy. The noise level was very high, while copious amounts of tobacco smoke made the air quality very low. An intense game of darts was in progress, well attended by onlookers willing to put money on their favourites to win. Every table and booth was filled to capacity, and there was no place to stand at the bar, let alone sit. Edward scanned the room, vainly searching for his contact, and finally gave up.
"Greed!" Edward shouted into the crowded tavern, and a head of dark, spiky hair popped up out of the crowd placing bets by the dart boards.
"I'd know that annoying voice anywhere!" A tall slim man made his way through the throng to stand in front of the two Amestrians. He rocked back on his heels, mock frown playful. "Good thing, too, since you're not the only one calling me by that damn nickname anymore, Elric." Rubbing his square, clean shaven chin, Greed lifted an eyebrow as he gave Roy the once over. "And who might this be?"
"This might be the reason I need to see you in private," Ed told him. "Tommy Smith, meet Roy Mustang."
"Pleased to meet you, and welcome to my little establishment, Mr. Mustang," Smith said with a little bow. "And please do feel free to call me Greed as well. I rather think it suits me." Blue eyes twinkled as he shot a sidewise glance at Edward.
Roy accepted the man's offered hand with a firm grip and a friendly smile, but inwardly he frowned. He was catching signals here that he definitely didn't like. Greed motioned for Edward to lead the way to his office, laying a friendly hand on the smaller man's shoulder as if to steer him, and Edward wove a path through the busy pub, the other two men close behind. Greed's hand lingered on the young man's shoulder as he followed, gripping it almost possessively, running a long thumb over the rough cloth covering the boy's toned muscles, and Mustang gritted his teeth. This gangster asshole had just three seconds to get his hand off Roy's blond.
The Brit glanced Roy's way, and his brows shot up as he saw the countdown in the Amestrian's narrowed eye. He snatched his hand away from Edward like he'd been burned. "Ah, my apologies," he said.
"No harm done," Roy said easily, though he didn't completely relax.
Naturally the younger alchemist was totally oblivious to what had just happened, casting a puzzled glance toward the two taller men as he opened the door at the rear of the taproom. The trio moved into the office and shut out most of the rowdy bar noises behind the door. Greed's casual, lazy eyed grin was back in place as he took his seat behind a weathered, paper strewn desk, leaning his chair back against the wall. He planted his crossed legs on the abused piece of office furniture, put his hands behind his head, and smirked.
"What can I do for you?" he asked.
Edward told him. Greed outlined the gargantuan effort required to complete the task, and expressed his deep regret at the exorbitant price he would be forced to charge for his services. Edward allowed that the price was rather high, even for Greed's admittedly premium quality merchandise, suggesting that perhaps the cost could be offset if the transaction were completed at an accelerated rate, for example, by the next evening. Greed admitted that he could accommodate that schedule with minimal difficulty, particularly if payment was made in advance. Edward lamented his current lack of available funds, offering half now, and the remainder upon receipt of the merchandise. A time was agreed upon to complete the transaction, and as the pair clasped hands to seal the deal, Greed grumbled that he was helpless to prevent young blonds from taking advantage of his good nature.
Roy's eye shifted back and forth between the two negotiators, amused by the exchange. It was very much like watching a tennis match without net or rackets, though there was no lack of balls. Respectfully turning down Greed's offer of one for the road, the Ametrians made their way out of the noisy pub.
"That went well," Roy said when they were back on the street.
"Yeah, I guess," Edward responded. "I was half expecting those Thule assholes to show up though, because their timing sucks just that bad. Maybe we finally gave them the slip."
"You don't believe that anymore that I do," Roy remarked. "Where to from here?"
"Cambridge. It's a University town north of here. There's a friend of my old man's there, and I want to talk to him." Edward's expression was sombre. "He was helping me search for Hohenhiem. I have to tell him . . . that he can stop looking."
Sir Phillip Armstrong sat in his favourite armchair by the fireplace, flames crackling low in the grate to keep the damp October chill at bay. A deep maroon velvet robe was belted around his stocky frame, open book forgotten in his lap, the sweet smell of pipe tobacco tinting the air. The big house was quiet these days, daughters married and living out in the wide world, his wife and son . . . gone. The big man brushed a hand through his thick blond mane, grimacing at his mood. He wasn't the type to brood on life's dark twists, but sometimes his loneliness got the better of him. Rain tapped softly at the window, a soothing rhythm.
It was quite late in the evening when he heard the soft chiming of the doorbell, and he was surprised when his manservant came to quietly inform him that Van Hohenheim's son and another man were at the door. His missing friend's boy was the last person he'd expect to come calling, and with a feeling of foreboding the house's master sent the servant to bring his visitors to the study. The lad soon returned with young Edward, and a tall, dark haired man that Armstrong did not recognize. The older man stood to greet them as Edward introduced his eye patched friend as Mr. Roy Mustang, and Armstrong was surprised he did not include a rank. The old man prided himself on his ability to read a person through the telltale signs their bodies unconsciously gave away, and Mustang definitely had a military bearing.
"I'm sorry to come calling so late," Edward started, after introductions were made. "Mr. Mustang and I are preparing to leave the country, but I had to see you. It's about my father." And the boy expression confirmed Armstrong's fears, his apprehension justified.
"So, he has passed on," Armstrong said quietly. "A terrible pity my boy. Please accept my sincere condolences for your loss. Can you tell me what happened?"
"He got mixed up with a group that call themselves the Thule Society," Edward told him, doing an admirable job of keeping his anger at bay. "They murdered him."
"Ah, yes, Dietlinde Eckart's collection of vicious mystics. A few of my colleagues at the University have dealings with them. I will be sure to watch my back around them from now on." The heavyset man clasped his hands behind him and smiled sadly. "Did you know that it was your father's dearest wish to see that you returned home to your brother? I'm sorry to know that he did not live to see that wish fulfilled."
Edward frowned. It was clear the he wasn't quite sure of just what Armstrong meant by this. The boy knew his father well enough to know he wasn't the type to easily trust others with his secrets.
Armstrong had met Hohenheim two years ago when he had been part of Churchill's advisory staff. The eccentric stranger had mysteriously arrived on the scene near the end of the Great War, offering advice and suggestions so astute that they were impossible to ignore. At first Hohenheim's idiosyncrasies had set Armstrong's teeth on edge at the mere sight of him, but the man's genius was compelling. In many instances they found themselves arguing the same side of a debate, and Armstrong found a grudging respect developing for the stranger. A tentative friendship had taken hold, and grew. Then, when Armstrong's son had been killed , and his heartbroken wife's death had followed soon after, Hohenheim's undemanding presence had been the support Armstrong had come to count on through the ordeal. A trust had developed between the two, and Hohenheim had one day, almost casually, confided the fantastic story of his life.
When Hohenheim had become involved with the Thule Society, Armstrong thought at first that it was a harmless and almost inevitable alliance. The Thules were convinced that another world, Shambala, existed, and Hohenheim was searching for a way to return to that world. As time went on however, Armstrong saw the signs that Eckart's mystics were engaged in more than just a metaphysical speculation. He had warned his friend numerous times that perhaps the Thules were not as harmless as they appeared, but supremely confident in his abilities, Hohenheim had laughed and told him not to worry, that the Thules were no threat to him. And then the strange man from another world had disappeared.
At first Armstrong thought that perhaps Hohenheim had found his way back to his home world, but quickly dismissed that notion when a casual check revealed that his son was still in Munich, and had no idea where his father was either. Hohenhiem's driving obsession had been to get his son home, and there was no way he would leave him behind. So Armstrong began to search for his friend in earnest, but as time went on with no result, he began to suspect the worst. And unfortunately, he was now finding that his suspicions had been correct.
Armstrong nodded at Edward's frown. "Yes, your father told me of your origins, of the world that exists parallel to this one. Of course I didn't believe him at first. It's not uncommon for genius to walk hand in hand with at least a touch of madness after all, and Van Hohenheim's was one of the most brilliant minds I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. It took a great deal of persuasion, but he did finally manage to convince me that he was telling the truth. Are you from that other world as well Mr. Mustang?"
"Yes Sir," the dark haired man answered quietly, and did not elaborate.
Armstrong quirked a wry, self disparaging smile. "Now that I know of this other world, I find myself occasionally wondering how many more of your people secretly walk among us, though Van Hohenheim thought it unlikely that there were any others apart from you. I will miss him."
"My father once told me that he only ever had three real friends in his entire life," Edward said quietly. "I believe that you were one of them."
The stout man rubbed his neat beard, sad smile still in place. "We may have been from different worlds, but we had a lot in common," he said. "For one, we were both guilty of letting our sons down in the worst way." Armstrong considered whether or not to continue, and decided. "My son, Alexander, was killed in the Great War. I knew he did not have the temperament for field command, but I pushed him into it anyway, in the name of our family honour. I placed a tradition passed down through our family for generations above the wellbeing of my only son. Now, ironically, I have no son to carry on the Armstrong name and traditions."
"I'm sorry," Edward said. The boy appeared to have something else to say, but thought better of it.
Armstrong shook himself from his melancholy with a wry smile and stepped to his armchair to retrieve his pipe. "Well, it is quite late. Please, let me offer you a place to stay this evening. The weather is dreadful, and I won't see you off into the rain." The man raised a hand when it looked as if Edward might protest. "Let me do this one last favour for my old friend, your father."
The two otherworlders glanced at each other, and Edward nodded. "Alright. And thank you," the young man said. "For helping me look for my father. For being a good friend to him."
Armstrong pulled the bell rope and the burley young manservant was immediately in the study doorway. He had obviously been awaiting his master's call. "Tristan," the old man addressed him. "Please see that our guests are comfortably settled for the night."
The young man answered with a short bow, biding his charges to follow as he left the room. The two Amestrians offered their host a good night and quietly left.
Moving to the sideboard, Armstrong poured himself a snifter of brandy. Swirling the sweet spirit as he sampled its light caramel bouquet, he wondered where it was that old alchemists went when they died. Then he silently raised his glass to the memory of his friend.
The next morning saw Edward and Roy hurrying to the train station to catch the first train back to London. The streets were quite busy this time of the morning, but not overly so, the light rain hurrying pedestrians to their destinations and off the sidewalks. Phillip Armstrong had sent them on their way with his well wishes and assurances that he would be pleased to assist them should the need ever arise. Edward was still frankly shocked that his father had revealed their secret to the man. Hohenheim usually played his cards very close to his chest. In fact, the old man was so tight fisted when it came to information that he made Mustang look like a gossip columnist.
Ed had also been saddened to learn of Armstrong's son's fate in this world. He had considered telling his father's friend that on the other side of the Gate, there still existed an Alex Armstrong, strong and alive, but decided against it. The people on opposite sides of the Gate might resemble each other, but they were all individuals in their own right. Edward doubted that knowing there was someone elsewhere animating his dead son's face would ease this parent's grief.
"Why, if it isn't Edward Elric," a smooth drawl interrupted the young alchemist's thoughts. "What a surprise."
Edward turned to find Frank Archer, pallid features twisted into a sneer, moving to intercept them. This was bad. The younger alchemist briefly registered Roy's startled reaction to the intrusion, noted his carefully schooled expression, and the slight stiffness of his stance – then braced for the confrontation he knew was coming. Archer was the one who had introduced Hohenheim to the Thule Society, and he was probably well aware of their search for the escaped Amestrians. They had to ditch this asshole, and make sure he didn't get a clue to where they were headed, otherwise the Thules would be that much closer to finding them.
"Get lost, Archer," Edward growled. "I've got nothing to say to you."
"Of course not. I would never expect civilized discourse with someone like you. Your friend seems a more refined specimen however." Archer smirked, turning his attention to Roy. "Allow me to introduce myself, since Elric never learned respect for his elders." The sallow man extended a hand. "Frank Archer, at your service."
The hand hung unaccepted in the air between the two men, and after a moment Archer dropped it to his side, the smirk never leaving his face. Roy's expression was completely neutral, but Edward noted an unusual set to the older alchemist's jaw, evidence enough for Edward that the older man was uncharacteristically disturbed. They had to lose this creep fast and get the hell out of town.
"I'm not sure how it works here," Roy said, smooth as glass. "But where I come from, respect is earned."
"How interesting; I'm intrigued, and would love to learn more about your former home," Archer returned, sounding slightly bored. "Where I come from however, respect is something conferred by both merit and station. Young Elric fails to measure up in either department. Like his father, he is nothing but a pretentious mongrel setting himself above his betters. Be warned sir, that in this world a man is usually judged by the company he keeps."
"Setting himself above his betters?" Mustang finally managed a smirk. "I have yet to meet a better man in this world. Or our own, for that matter."
Archer returned Mustang's smirk in kind. "Only because you have only just arrived, and have been handicapped with the most callow of guides. I would be happy to take on that role, and assist in your integration to your new home."
"Judging by the treatment Van Hohenheim received from you and your colleagues, I think I'll pass," Roy said mildly. "Now if you'll excuse us, we have an appointment at the University."
"You are making a mistake casting your lot with Elric," Archer tried again. "This may be your only opportunity to avoid the same fate that awaits him."
"Shove it, asshole," Edward cut in, turning to go. "Why don't you run along and report to your Thule buddies. I'm sure they'll be happy to know their dog was able to sniff us out in Cambridge."
Archer turned a cold eye on the younger alchemist. "My condolences on the death of your father," he drawled. "Though I doubt he'll be missed, except as a source of biological material for my 'Thule buddies' as you call them."
Edward spun around, fists clenched. "You son of a bitch," he growled. "If it weren't for you, he would never have gotten mixed up with those murdering bastards in the first place!"
"Actually, he got involved with them because of you. He did so dearly want to get you back to your home." Archer laughed quietly. "Why he would want to expend so much of his energy on a pathetic little cripple like you I have no idea. I wonder what kind of lowborn garbage he must have consorted with to produce . . . "
Archer was lucky he was standing to Edward's left; otherwise the punch his face intercepted would have been steel instead of flesh and bone. The sallow man staggered back and sat down heavily on the sidewalk. The young blond was advancing on him, fists and teeth clenched, when Mustang threw an arm across his companion's chest to stop him, and then clutched the younger man's arm when he tried to surge past.
"Ed, no," Roy said, voice low. "Not here. Not now."
It took every ounce of will power for Ed to take the older alchemist's advice and rein in his fury. Body still poised to strike, he glowed with hatred for his pasty faced adversary, taking no satisfaction at all from the trickle of blood leaking from the man's nose.
"Miserable little savage," Archer spat, standing and straightening his jacket. "I look forward to hearing of whatever fate the Thule Society treats you to." The man turned on his heel and strode quickly away.
"Go fuck yourself, you piece of shit!" Edward shouted after him, turning more than a few heads his way, Roy's tight grip on his arm the only thing keeping the young alchemist from going after Archer again.
"Let it go, Ed," Mustang said quietly. "I know it's hard, but we can't afford to get arrested for assault right now. Come on, we have to go."
The pair made their way through to the train station, keeping a close eye out for anyone who might be following, winding through the streets and lanes of the University town. The train platform held only a few fellow travelers, and Edward eyed them suspiciously, knowing that any one of them could be tailing them for Archer and his German associates. He and Roy would have to be extra careful when they got back to London. The sooner they got Roy's documents and booked passage across the Atlantic, the better. Edward turned to say as much to Mustang, and words died in his throat.
In all the years he had known him, Edward had never seen him like this. Mustang's naturally pale face was even paler than usual, his dark eyes haunted. The younger man laid his hand on his companion's tense shoulder, eyeing him worriedly. A quiet, unsettled Mustang, emotional state in full display, was completely unnatural. "Roy? Are you okay?"
"I'm fine," was the terse reply.
"You don't look fine."
"I know that," Roy said. He looked behind them, as if he could still see Archer's retreating back. "It's just . . . . He's the son of a bitch who took my eye," he quietly explained.
Roy stepped from the rooming house foyer into London's early morning quiet, the overwhelming greyness of the atmosphere pushing his low spirits even lower than they already were. He pulled his ignition cloth gloves from his pocket and slipped them on. The arrays were useless, but the gloves could still provide adequate protection from the chill air. The streets were empty of any sort of traffic, and that suited Roy just fine. He needed to walk off his funk in private with no distractions, not wanting to pull Edward down into his dark mood. The dark haired man picked a random direction and set out purposefully.
The Amestrans had returned to London the previous day. Doing their best to stay hidden, the pair had taken temporary shelter in a rundown rooming house in the Docklands. Finally alone, Roy's mood prevented his initiating any sort of romantic pursuit, and Edward's disposition unfortunately seemed in tune with his older companion's. The younger alchemist kept his distance, not sure how to offer his older companion comfort. With anyone else, Roy would have welcomed the distraction of a casual tryst, but what he wanted with Edward was far from casual, and the older man didn't want this dark spectre of his past tainting their first experience with each other. Edward could also tell that the time was not right, and was careful not to cross the line Roy had drawn between them for the time being.
The meeting with Greed set for later that evening, Roy and Ed had taken advantage of the down time to discuss possible destinations. The dark haired man wasn't surprised to discover that he and Edward made a very efficient team when it came to making plans. Edward, always the consummate researcher, had a straight forward, grab the bull by the balls and get the job done sort of style. And Roy, the quintessential backroom analyst, had a sit back see what develops, then manipulate the players to the most advantageous outcome sort of style. On the surface, their strategies seemed to be at odds. In reality however, each one's strength shored up the other's weak areas, making them a solid team.
With Edward outlining their options along with the pros and cons of each, Roy was in a position to point out how they could make the most of those options, even pointing out how some of the cons were pros in disguise. In the midst of their planning, the pair had passed the time leading up to their appointment with Greed very quickly, safely off the streets and possible discovery by the Thules. Meeting Archer the day before had proven that their pursuers were a danger that had not passed, and keeping a low prifile seemed their best strategy at the moment. Edward had suggested that Roy stay behind while the younger man kept their appointment with Greed, but the Flame wouldn't hear of it. Splitting up just felt like a very bad idea, and Roy had learned long ago to trust his feelings in matters like these, so together they had gone to secure the documents that would finalize Roy's presence in this world. They had not met with any trouble, but Roy couldn't shake the unease he had become infected with ever since their run in with this world's version of Frank Archer.
That confrontation was still playing through Roy's mind, along with the overwhelming urge to find and reduce the man to a smouldering heap of charcoal. The sallow man's open hostility towards Edward and the young blond's explosive response to it told Roy that the Archer from this world was a fair match to the one from the other. An image of Archer, a nightmare of horrific automail enhancements, looming in the darkness outside Furher Bradley's burning mansion, flashed into the dark haired man's mind, dragging him into the past. The eerie red glow of the maimed soldier's mechanical eye often followed Roy into his darkest dreams, shrill maniacal laughter echoing through his soul, interrupted by a single deafening gunshot. Lost in the memory of that fateful encounter, it took Roy a moment to register just who was blocking his path on the sidewalk.
Van Hohenheim stood directly in Roy's way, hands in his coat pockets, a slight smile tilting the corners of his lips. "General Mustang, I presume," he said. "It's been a while."
Roy blinked. Twice. "Van Hohenheim."
The older alchemist smirked, and Roy suddenly understood why that same expression on his own face so infuriated Edward. "We thought you were dead."
The old man shrugged. "So did I. Fortunately we were wrong."
Roy resisted the urge to pinch himself. If he did, and this wasn't a dream, he'd look like an idiot instead of just feeling like one. "Where have you been?"
"Amestris. Central City to be exact." Hohenheim's smirk relaxed into a grin. "I came back to find you and Edward, and bring you both home. I just missed you at the Armstrong estate yesterday. You left two hours before I got there."
"How did you find us here?"
"I followed Frank Archer actually, but I lost him a short while ago. I was wandering around trying to spot him again when I recognised you. I almost didn't. The eye patch is new."
Roy had frozen at the mention of Archer's name. The only reason that bastard could be here was to look for the Amestrians. In fact, for the man to be so close to their lodgings meant he must have had them followed from Cambridge. And if he knew where they were, then so did the Thules! Roy grabbed Hohenheim's arm, intending to hustle the old man back to their room as he explained what he suspected, and was surprised by a rush of pure energy through his palm, straight into the array on his glove. His hand clenched on the old man's forearm, too tightly judging from the pained expression on the older man's face.
"What the hell?" Roy growled through clenched teeth, loosening his grip only slightly.
"I have a Philosopher's Stone," Hohenheim said, laying a hand on Mustang's, loosening it further with a grimace. "That's how I was able to come back to this world."
"Well, Van Hohenheim!" a smooth drawl interrupted. "It appears your death was reported in error. Pity."
Frank Archer stood in the darkness of an alley amid the putrid tumble of refuse, an appropriate setting for the man in Roy's opinion. Even in the shadow of the narrow space, there was no mistaking the glint of steel as the Englishman briefly exposed the gun he had hidden in his coat pocket. He motioned for the two Amestrians to join him, and reluctantly, the pair moved into the confines of the laneway.
"Mr. Mustang, so we meet again. How fortunate for you," Archer drawled, offering a thin smile. "My Thule Society colleagues suggested I try once more to enlist your willing aid. The gypsy they were counting on to pull information from you has suffered some kind of breakdown, and they are hoping to gain your cooperation. You don't have a choice about whether or not you will join their cause of course, just on the conditions you will experience as a participant."
Hohenhiem snorted, drawing an irritated glance from his adversary. He turned a narrowed amber eye on Roy. "Speaking from experience, making a run for it and chancing a bullet in the back would be your best option," the old man advised.
"Oh, but that would mean leaving young Elric behind," Archer returned. "I suspect that by now my German assistants have him in hand."
"That would be quite the achievement," Roy spoke up for the first time, anger slowly building under his calm surface, displacing his unease in the Englishman's presence. "Your colleagues have quite the track record for underestimating him."
"Only because we were unaware the he had somehow enhanced his prosthetics during his brief visit home," Archer drawled. "Our pet gypsy managed to discover a few interesting things from young Alfons Heidrich before he disappeared, about metal limbs that function almost like flesh, among other things. That's something else we are very eager to examine. And now that we will have three specimens from your world, our analyses won't have to be as delicate." Archer's muddy brown eyes were cold. "We need you for information and for the organic material necessary to perform your world's magic, but now, if we lose one of you, we have a spare." The pale man smirked pointedly at Hohenheim.
Roy saw it in his mind quite vividly. Edward, strapped down in some sparkling white, clinically spotless lab, automail removed ports and all, nothing more than a factory to produce fluids for the Thules' scientists to play with, dying by inches in the most painful way possible. His beautiful, brilliant mind would be the first thing to go. The Flame's anger flared and then collapsed into a single, diamond hard point of searing cold, leaving his mind clear. If this piece of shit thought he was going to steal away the young man for whom Roy had willingly left his entire world behind, he had best think again.
"Have you managed to seduce him yet?" the tall, pale man continued, lip curled in disgust. "The Thules did mention your unnatural attraction to the boy. Of course they would likely make him available to you for that purpose as a condition to ensure your cooperation if you so desired. Semen is a bodily fluid Haushofer also plans to harvest from the both of you after all."
Hohenheim glanced down at Roy's gloved hands and grimaced. Resting his palm on Mustang's tensed shoulder he quietly said, "We have to get to Edward. Try not to use too much. We'll need it to get home." And once again Roy felt a familiar surge of power run through him from Hohenheim's hand, drawn unerringly to the arrays stitched on his gloves.
Roy's smile was pleasant, and Archer frowned at the incongruity. "I must admit that I have met a number of people in this world that have earned my admiration," the Amestrian said as he slowly raised his right hand to tug the cuff of his glove, snugging it on more firmly. "You, of course, don't number among them. I do thank you, however. You are about to give me some closure for a situation I was involved in a couple of years ago."
Archer schooled the confusion on his face back to cool disdain, firming his grip on his pistol. "Please don't move. You're a unique specimen of great value to my German colleagues, and they did suggest that I try not to prematurely damage you."
"While fortunately, I am under no such restriction," the General said. And he snapped his fingers.
Edward paced the room, impatient to get going with his plans to jump on the next ship heading in the right direction. As soon as Roy got back from his walk they were going to book passage to whatever North American port the next ship was leaving for. Once across the Atlantic, the Amestrans could disappear into the vast reaches of that continent, hopefully leaving their Thule pursuers behind for good. Spending time with Jean and Sheska had placed the idea of Canada in Edward's mind, and the more he thought about it the more attractive that destination became.
The trip from Cambridge, once again by train, had been uneventful. It had started to rain again as the train pulled out of the station, and Mustang had slowly settled into a sombre mood. The dark haired man had been very quiet, pretending interest in the soggy landscape coasting past their window, and Edward had let him be. Their meeting with Archer had affected the older man acutely, and Edward felt a surge of anger all over again. He wished he could do or say something that would help, but knew the older man had to deal with this in his own way, so Edward had given Roy his space.
The young man was becoming more skilled at reading through his companion's many disguises, and although Roy tried to hide it, the younger alchemist could see the older man's mood continued to darken as the pair had made their busy way through the tasks they'd had to complete in London. Neither had slept the night before, sitting up together to fine tune their plan of escape, but as the sun's morning rays began to seep around the window blind, Roy had said he needed to clear his head, and Edward had known he wanted some time alone.
Roy had only been gone for a short while when the doorknob rattled, a quiet knock following. Wondering if the older man had forgotten his key, Edward quickly opened the door.
The first man through tackled Edward to the ground, winding him, using his full weight to pin the much smaller man down. The second man was on his automail arm before Edward could react, using all of his strength and considerable weight on that single limb. Apparently they weren't taking any chances with him this time. The third man grabbed his flesh arm and twisted while pulling it out straight, and Edward bit back a cry of pain, shoulder burning on the edge of dislocation. The forth man sprawled across Edward's legs, locking an arm around his automail ankle and bearing down with all his might. Edward bucked and writhed, but his struggles were to no avail. Panting, Edward glared as the first man eased himself up to straddle his captive's chest. It was Bullet Head again.
Stars exploded behind his eyes as the man's fist backhanded him. "That is for Munich," the man said, and then backhanded Edward again. "And that is for Zurich." The man smiled, and pulled a small brown bottle from his jacket pocket, along with a dirty handkerchief. Twisting off the cap, the man soaked the soiled cloth in the bottle's contents, smile becoming cruel. He leaned down and grabbed a tight fistful of Edward's hair and forced the young man's head back. "And this is nothing compared to what Haushofer has planned for you. By the time he's done, I think you'll be quite relieved to die."
"Fuck. You." Ed said through clenched teeth.
The man sitting on his chest laughed quietly, hand tangled in his hair to hold his head still while he pressed the damp cloth to Ed's face so hard his lips cut against his teeth, his lungs soon burning for want of air as he held his breath. He struggled against the men holding his arms, pulse pounding as someone punched him hard in the ribs and again and he gasped and the world tilted and went grey around the edges and then faded away.
Mustang flat out ran down the street, Hohenheim close behind, cursing himself for leaving Edward alone, hoping with everything he had that they were worrying for nothing, that Archer was wrong about how prepared for Edward his borrowed thugs were, that the Germans had underestimated the young blond again. Archer's pistol in his jacket pocket slapped against his hip, cold comfort but available if they needed it. Roy slowed when he came level with a delivery lane that ran alongside the rooming house as Hohenheim rushed past to dodge through the front door of the building. In a split second decision, the General slipped into the alley to check the rear exit. He had never once regretted following his hunches, and he wasn't about to change that winning streak now.
Roy quickly edged over to the bend in the laneway, taking the gun in hand, carefully silent. Hushed voices drifted to him in the early morning quiet, and with an adrenaline surge he realized they were speaking German. He eased his head out beyond the corner that hid his advance to see what he was up against.
A long black motorcar was parked by the back door of the rooming house, a large blond man behind the wheel. Another man was reaching to open the rear door of the car, grinning at another coming out of the building. A fourth man exited the building behind them and nudged the door shut with his heel, Edward slung unmoving over his shoulder.
Roy stepped around the bend, gun in a two handed grip, a calm familiar to any battlefield veteran settling over him. The man in the driver's seat saw him first, and was turning to warn his comrades that they were discovered, when Roy shot him through the windshield of the car. The man jerked back, then slumped forward over the steering wheel. The two men closest to the car froze, then scrambled behind the sedan for cover. The man carrying Edward was the most exposed, halfway between the car and the building, and he knew it. Crouching, he let Ed slide off his shoulder and hooked an arm around his back, holding the unconscious young man against his chest as a shield, his other hand fumbling inside his jacket. Roy took careful aim, thankful now for his extensive target practice in the far north, and fired. The bullet clipped the side of the man's head, snapping it to the left, and the German went down, Edward sprawled over him. Damn. He'd been aiming for the centre of the thug's forehead.
The back door of the building burst open and Hohenheim skidded out, taking in the scene. The two Germans crouched behind the car took that opportunity to make a break for the doorway, disappearing into the building, steamrolling Hohenheim in the process. Roy lowered his pistol, replacing it in his pocket as he rushed over to Edward's prone form.
Hohenheim dodged around to the driver's side of the car, and yanking the door open, tumbled the slumped driver onto the pavement. Then he slid into his place and started the engine with a roar.
"Get in!" he barked to Mustang. "We're leaving!"
Roy didn't have to be told twice. Scooping Edward up, he lunged into the rear seat and just managed to slam the door shut as Hohenheim pealed out, leaving twin rails of rubber and a mist of tire smoke in their wake.
Chapter 9: Final Approach
Alphonse sat nervously in the dimly lit room chosen for his hypnosis sessions with Alex Armstrong, mentally preparing himself for another visit with Alfons. Jean Havoc had popped in to let him know that the big man was on his way, then stuck around. Alphonse guessed the Lieutenant was trying to distract him from his worries, and while the young alchemist appreciated the company, his anxiety remained.
The previous evening had seen the completion of the Gate array. With great anticipation, and admittedly a great deal of trepidation as well, everyone on the team, with the exception of those on sentry duty, had assembled to witness its successful activation. The transmutation had formed the desired portal, and with little fanfare Hohenheim had shouldered his backpack, shot a confident smile over his shoulder, and stepped through the glittering interface to disappear from the world. All that was left to do on this side was wait. And hope. Unless it was your job to hop aboard someone else's brain to keep track of things, and hopefully save the day.
Alex Armstrong's skills as a hypnotist were proving to be invaluable, ensuring that it wasn't necessary to rely on a hit or miss dream connection with Alphonse' counterpart on the other side of the Gate. He had been Alphonse' unobtrusive facilitator numerous times without a problem, and Alphonse knew that it would have been impossible to do this without the gentle giant's aid.
The young alchemist had made many voluntary trips to the other side once the first hypnotic transfer had been so successful. The first was to alert Alfons that Hohenheim would likely be putting in an appearance in the near future, then often to see if the old man had shown up yet, and then numerous times to check on the progress of the pair's journey to London. Alphonse had crossed over so often at this point that the process was becoming routine despite the outlandish nature of the task.
When Hohenheim and Alfons finally reached their destination in England, Alphonse had been amazed to discover that it was in fact the Armstrong estate. Not for the first time since this whole mess started he wondered if perhaps there was some conscious mechanism at work. The odds seemed much too high, in a world populated by millions of people, that the Amestrians should run across so many familiar faces. It couldn't be simple coincidence. But as amazed as Alphonse had been to meet this estate's master, the master of the house had been even more astounded to see Hohenheim, considering the news he had received the night before.
Finding out that they had missed Edward and General Mustang by a scant two hour margin had been disheartening, but at least the rescue team had confirmation that the fugitive pair were in the vicinity. Their new challenge became tracking them down before the Thules did, or before they disappeared across the Atlantic as it appeared they intended, and Phillip Armstrong had jumped at the chance to help, calling in his many contacts to assist in the search.
In the mean time, Hohenheim had begun creation of the complimentary Gate array, with Armstrong`s family retainers assisting. The last time Alphonse had crossed over, a few hours ago, his father had just left the estate to follow a hunch that might lead him to Edward and the General, and Alphonse was eager to find out if his father's inspiration had borne fruit. He fidgeted in the comfortable armchair, impatient for Alex Armstrong's arrival, checking the steadily ticking wall clock continually.
"Take it easy, Al." Havoc's easy drawl pulled the younger blond from his edginess. "Alex said he was on his way, and that you could probably start the relaxation exercises before he got here, since you've done this so often."
"I guess so," Alphonse returned, taking a deep breath, trying to exhale his anxiety with it.
"Will I be distracting you if I stick around?" the Lieutenant asked with a frown, leaning on the door frame.
"Not at all, but you don't have to stay if you have other duties," Alphonse told him.
"Yeah, I guess I should get going," Havoc said, grin sliding into place. "I'm due to relieve Sergeant Fuery on the perimeter pretty soon, and I don't want to be late. Hawkeye's been extra strict with me lately. I think she's pissed off at me for some reason."
"You've been paying too much attention to Miss Catherine," Alphonse said. "Lieutenant Hawkeye likes you. That's why she's pissed off."
Havoc's jaw hung slack for a few moments, staring at the young alchemist as if he'd grown a second head, finally managing a weak, "Huh?"
"Miss Riza likes you," Alphonse said again, slowly, as if patiently explaining a difficult concept to a child.
Havoc digested this for a few moments, clearly stunned by this completely unbelieveable explanation. "Okay, sorry kid, but you gotta be wrong about this. She's a comrade. We've always got each other's backs, yeah. But it's friendship. There's no way someone like her is going to be interested in someone like me, you know, that way."
Alphonse sighed. He considered giving this up, but his Elric stubbornness kicked in, and he plunged on, determined. "I'm not wrong. Even back when I was in the armour, I noticed. She's subtle about it, no question, but it's there."
Havoc's brows were raised skeptically, but appeared to be willing to hear Al out. The youngster rubbed his hands over his face and continued. "Think about it. Every time you start talking to the other guys about your latest romantic fiasco, she always ignores you for a while, then makes some excuse to leave the room. If you're still talking about it when she comes back, she gets angry and makes everyone get back to work. And it happens a lot."
Given Havoc's track record in the dating department, it certainly did. But-
"She always gets mad when the office is off task." Havoc reasoned.
"No she doesn't. She makes you guys get to work when you're slacking, but she only gets obviously mad about it when it's because you're lamenting your latest failed romance."
Havoc gave this some thought, chewing on his lower lip. "Naw, it can't be," he finally said. "Maybe she just gets tired of hearing me whine about it. Or because the way I'm always hitting on women offends her. Or she just thinks I'm a idiot for chasing skirts all the time. Maybe she gets pissed because she thinks I don't value her friendship . . . because . . . she's a woman . . . and I'm not great with . . . other . . . women. Or something," he finished lamely.
"There's other stuff too," Alphonse pressed on. "The General Mustang's team has always had a reputation for being a close-knit group, and you all work well together, but you and Lieutenant Hawkeye take it to the next level. The two of you click together like the cogs in an Aerugan clock. You're the perfect complement to the other, and it goes farther than just being colleagues. I've noticed that there are times when you hardly even have to say anything out loud. A look, and you both know exactly what the other needs." Alphonse crossed his arms and waited for Havoc's response, one eyebrow raised.
"So she's efficient," Havoc said weakly. "We've been working together for years. It's about camaraderie, and familiarity, and stuff."
"She even knows how you take your coffee," Al threw in, arms still crossed. "I've seen her get coffee for you, and it's always perfect. I know by that contented look you get from the first sip."
"Getting a friend a coffee isn't some kind of confession. It's friendship, that's all." Havoc told the youngster, but now he didn't sound quite as confident about this conclusion.
"She ever get coffee for Lieutenant Breda? Sergeant Fuery? Warrant Officer Falman? General Mustang even?"
"No," Havoc said, drawing the word out slowly as he thought this over. "But they don't get coffee for her either."
"Do you know how she takes her coffee?"
"Black, no sugar," Havoc said immediately, then looked surprised.
"And you know this because you get coffee for her, too." Al raised an eyebrow. "Why is that, I wonder?"
Havoc thought about it, seriously. Friendship was his ready answer, but was he being completely honest with himself? Might his belief that she could never possibly be interested in someone like him be the only reason why he didn't want to admit to more? "Okay," he said slowly, "if this is true, why wouldn't she say something? She's not shy. She could have asked me out."
Alphonse sighed. "Pride maybe? I think she might be hoping you'll finally notice she's a woman, instead of just another soldier. Then again, she's also your superior officer. It wouldn't be proper for her to approach you, and propriety is practically her middle name." The alchemist took in the older blond's considering expression and grinned. "I think friendship is an excellent foundation for a relationship. Don't you?" he asked sweetly.
The lieutenant's eyes narrowed. "Alright, you've made your point. I'm willing to test your theory. And if she shoots me down, literally, I'll come back to haunt you. Brat."
"She won't. You could start by inviting her out for a coffee, and approaching her like the friend that she is. Leave the cheesy pickup lines in that garbage can over there."
"I can't believe I'm taking romantic advice from a thirteen year old," Havoc muttered, scowling.
"I'm seventeen. And a genius. And it's good advice. And you know it," Alphonse retorted.
Whatever response Havoc may have offered was cut off by the sound of gunfire, followed by shouting and the clatter of running feet. Havoc rushed out, Alphonse hot on his heels, to see what new problem had arisen. They were met in the hall by Alex Armstrong, face scowling darkly.
"It appears General Hakuro suspects that we may be harbouring a fugitive," he said. "Von Hohenheim, to be specific. He insists on searching the premises, and is backing up his insistence with a tactical squad."
"He'll find the Gate, wide open!" Alphonse exclaimed.
"Precisely why we have denied him access," Alex said, glowering. "At any rate, he has no right to force his way into our private domain without evidence of wrong doing, and Amue is in the process of lodging a formal complaint with the Furher's office. In the mean time, we are resisting the General's offensive." The big man turned to Havoc. "Second Lieutenant. Lieutenant Hawkeye requests your presence at the main gate."
Havoc hurried away, and Alphonse started to follow, but a large hand gently gripped his shoulder, stopping him.
"Come, Alphonse Elric," Alex said, uncharacteristically quiet as he guided the reluctant youngster back into the sitting room, then over to the comfortable armchair awaiting him. "We all have our assigned duties. This close to the endgame, it would not do to be distracted from them."
"I might be able to help, to reinforce the outer wall or . . ."
"We must trust our friends to protect us, just as they trust us to complete our task. Have faith in them, Alphonse," Alex' gaze was intense, and Alphonse knew he was right.
So he closed his eyes, made a sledgehammer of all his hopes, and used it to beat his fears into submission. "Alright, let's do this," he said, determined.
Armstrong's sparkling grin lit the dimness, and he gently patted Alphonse knee before starting the boy on the relaxation phase of the hypnotic process. Alphonse had lost count of the times they had done this over the last twenty-four hours, and despite the distraction of the military's attack, the younger alchemist found himself slipping naturally into the routine. The silver thread appeared with almost magical speed in his mind's eye, and he was quick to take it in hand.
He opened his eyes to a room very similar to the one his body still occupied, in the wheelchair provided by Phillip Armstrong for Alfons' convenience, Izumi Curtis bending over him. "I'm back," he whispered.
"I know," the woman smiled. "I can tell just by looking into your eyes, that there are two of you looking out. Strange."
The first time Alphonse had caught sight of Izumi and Sig Curtis, and their son Tristan – yes, Wrath - his surprise had knocked him straight out his hypnotic trance. It was one thing to see a person who somewhat resembled Rose, but another to discover exact doubles of his teacher, her husband, and their homunculus son. Tristan Curtis was an older version of the Wrath Alphonse had known, the young man he would have become had the homunculus been a natural human. This youth resembled his mother in visage, but his father in build. In fact, he was well on his way to rivalling both Sig and Alex Armstrong in musculature, an imposing, intimidating presence, until he spoke. That was when his sweet nature became apparent. He was so soft spoken, calm and gentle in demeanour, he was nothing but a gigantic kitten, and Alphonse felt comfortable with him immediately.
And the feeling was obviously mutual. When unoccupied with his duties as Sir Phillip's manservant, the dark haired young man spent all of his time arranging for Alfons' comfort and well being. It was Tristan who saw to it that the young German man took his medication as directed, and made sure he suffered no adverse reaction to it. He'd made it his job to keep Alfons entertained and Alphonse distracted from his worries, and took great pleasure in touring his charge through the estate's grounds, blankets tucked around him against the mid autumn chill. Alphonse glanced behind and sure enough, the strapping young lad was indeed steering his host's chair, the grumble in Alfons' stomach signalling that the breakfast table was their likely destination.
A commotion in the main hall interrupted their exchange, and Tristan was quick to wheel the Als in that direction to see what was the matter, Izumi hurrying ahead. Alphonse felt a surge of relief to see Hohenheim rushing through the door, General Mustang close behind, but it was short lived when Sig followed, Edward cradled unmoving in the big man's arms.
"What happened? Is brother alright?" Alphonse cried out, and the General looked over in surprise to hear the younger Elric's voice from his older double's mouth.
"It's alright Alphonse," Hohenheim assured his youngest son. "He's just been drugged. He'll be fine."
Izumi moved to meet Sig. Giving his arm a pat, she directed him to carry his burden to a nearby guestroom, leading the way. Alphonse couldn't tell if it was his actions or Alfons' when his hands grabbed at the wheels of his chair in an attempt to chase after the two elder Curtises, but a big hand on his shoulder stopped him.
"Give them a few moments to get him settled," Tristan said quietly. "My mother was a doctor at the Abbaye de Royaumont during the Great War. Not a nurse, mind you, but a doctor. She handled many battlefield casualties on the front lines. She knows what she is doing. Your brother is in good hands." Tristan was so full of pride for his mother that he almost glowed with it.
"I'm sure he is," Alphonse said agitatedly. "I just want to see him."
"And you will," Alfons assured him, patting his own knee. "Let's just give Mrs. Curtis a few moments to make him comfortable and examine him."
Tristan raised an amused eyebrow. "I don't think I'll ever get used to the conversations you two have," he mused aloud.
He was sitting in Granny Pinako's kitchen. A big pot of stew simmering on the stove filled the air with the mouth watering aroma of savoury meat and vegetables. Of course Winry's grandmother's stew never quite measured up to Trisha Elric's, but it was close. The old woman knew it was Ed's favourite, and always made sure she made some for him anytime he visited, her way of saying 'I love you' Ed knew.
"And how do you say it, runt?" Pinako took up a ladle almost as long as she was tall, and dipped into the steaming pot, stirring it slowly.
"I say it by not kicking your shriveled old ass when you suggest that I'm SMALL ENOUGH TO FALL INTO A BOWL OF STEW AND DROWN!"
"Like you could take me down, midget!"
"Oh yeah? Well bring it, pocket battleaxe!"
"With pleasure, micro moron!"
"Alright, that's enough you two!" Winry walked into the kitchen, rolling up the sleeves of her coveralls, then slapping her biggest wrench into her palm threateningly, and the room fell silent except for the sounds bubbling up from the stewpot. "Granny asked you a question, Ed, and I'd like to hear your answer, too."
"What, there was a question in all that?" Edward said, stalling for time. These girly conversations about feelings and stuff were just torture for him, and Winry knew that. She was his best friend, and aside from Al, she knew him better than anyone. Why was she bringing this up? Ed felt there was something else he should be worrying about right now, but he couldn't quite remember what the hell it was. Something was wrong. Very wrong. As in major disaster, losing something really important, people getting killed wrong. Wrong with a capital W.
"I know you've got other things on your mind Ed, and you hate to talk about people stuff, but I think it's important," Winry said, and Ed wondered when she had mastered the art of reading his mind. "Now tell me," the girl insisted. "How do you say 'I love you'?"
"Why do I even have to?" Ed said petulantly. "You know I do."
Pinako made a humphing sound as she continued to stir the stew. "When I think of all the four letter words that fly so easily out of that mouth, the only one he has trouble with is the 'L' word."
"Why do I have to say it?" Ed whined again. "You know I do! Winry, you know too! And so does Al!"
"What about Roy? Does he know that you love him?" Winry asked, blue eyes wide, staring frankly into Ed's gold.
Ed's jaw dropped. He loved Roy? Did he really? How could he? They barely knew each other!
Pinako snorted. "Kid doesn't even know it himself, Win," she said, doing that mindreading thing again.
Winry shook her head. "You know him well enough, Ed. Think about it." The blonde girl started ticking off points on her fingers. "He helped you and Al right from the start, didn't he? He kept your secrets for years, even though it was dangerous for him. And when the military were hunting you, he stayed on your side, protected you, right? Then, when you told him the Furher was a homunculus, he never doubted you, did he. He trusted your word. Just like that. Then, when you traded yourself for Al, he felt so bad he hid himself away from the world. And when you went back to that other world again to close the Gate, he went with you. He left his whole world behind, just to be with you. He loves you. He even told you that. He wasn't afraid to say it. Why are you?"
The more he thought about it, the more Edward realized Winry could be right, but it wasn't being reminded of the things that Roy had done that made him become conscious of how he felt about Roy. Those things demonstrated what Roy felt for him. It was the time he'd spent with Roy, here in this strange mirror world that was playing through Edward's mind now. Sure, he'd had a crush on the dark haired man almost from the beginning of their association, but this wasn't just a crush anymore, and things had changed. Back in the day, there was no way Ed could find comfort in the Colonel's presence. Mustang was infuriating, constantly baiting his young subordinate, and hiding his attraction to the man had increased the raw tension Ed felt exponentially anytime he had to deal with him.
But it was different now. Ed found that he thoroughly enjoyed the man's company. He liked being with him, talking to him. Liked working together with him. He felt comfortable around his former commander as he never had before, no longer the untested, loudmouthed kid, but an equal partner, a friend. And he trusted Roy. But was it love?
"It's got to start somewhere, Ed." Winry moved over to the cupboard and took out two bowls, passing them to Pinako. "And from where I'm standing, it looks like you've got a very good start. You should tell him, so he knows."
"And the fact that the guy is sexy as hell doesn't hurt either," Pinako said with a wink. "I just wish you could stick around and help us eat this stew, but like you said, you have things to do."
"I do?" Ed said, surprised. "What things?"
Pinako walked forward and leaned in close to Edward, her nose almost touching his. "Shh," she whispered. "Listen carefully."
It was the crackling sound of fire that called Edward from his slumber. Struggling up from the depths of his mind was like swimming against a strong current, made all the more difficult by the feeling that something was terribly wrong, but he finally broke to the surface.
His eyes opened to a brightly lit room, warmed by a fire burning low in the hearth. He was lying on a comfortable bed atop the comforter, jacket and vest missing, shoeless. And Alfons Heidrich was sitting by his side, a concerned frown stamped on his features.
"You just missed your brother," the German man said. "He had to end his visit, much as he wanted to stay until you woke up. He had some urgent business to see to on the other side, and apparently shuttling your soul back and forth between worlds takes a lot of energy as well."
It was hard to concentrate when all Edward really wanted to do was throw up. He was still in the middle of some weird ass dream. Had to be. The last thing he remembered was that bullet-headed Thule shitbag sitting on his chest. Alfons was in Munich, recovering from a gunshot wound. And Alphonse wasn't going to drop in for a visit no matter how much Edward might wish he could. But at the same time, he had never felt so physically ill in a dream before. His face felt very tender where the big German had punched him, his left shoulder was stiff and aching, his ribs throbbed, and his stomach wanted to violently eject what little it contained. Was he asleep or awake?
"Alfons? Where am I?" Edward's mouth didn't seem to be properly connected to his brain, the words slurring together.
"This is the Armstrong family manor," his German friend told him. "In Cambridge. England." Alfons' frown deepened. "Are you feeling ill? You look a little green." The young man reached up to tug on a brocaded bell pull.
A young man Edward recognized as Sir Phillip's manservant stepped into the room moments later, followed by Izumi Curtis. Yup, he was definitely still dreaming. In fact, this dream was even more surreal than the one he'd had on the train a few days ago.
"Teacher?" he said, hoping she wasn't going to start kicking his ass or something, because then he really was going to puke, dream or not.
Izumi leaned in, eyes curious, but much to Ed's relief, not hostile. "Still a bit disoriented, are you?" she said with a cultured British accent, brushing his hair back to rest a hand on his brow. "Feeling a bit sick as well I'll wager. You're experiencing a hangover from the ether. It will pass. I'll get you some bicarb to settle your stomach." The tall woman straightened up and turned to the burley manservant. "Stay with them, Tristan. And keep a bucket handy."
"Yes mother," the big youngster said as the woman left the room, and Edward realized then why the dark haired youth looked so familiar. It also confirmed for him that this was in fact not a dream. This particular happy ending was something that never would have occurred to him for the Curtis family's story on this side of the Gate.
"Tristan," the young alchemist murmured with a small smile. "I'm pleased to meet you."
The strapping young man smiled back brightly, dark brown eyes twinkling. "Thank you, though I'm sure you'd be pleased to meet anyone not related to the Thules right now."
"True," Edward conceded as he looked back to Alfons sitting patiently in his chair beside the bed. Damn this grogginess. He felt like he was missing something important. It suddenly hit him, and he bolted upright in the bed, the room spinning crazily around him. "Roy! Where's Roy?" he cried, and Tristan hurried to push Edward gently back down.
Alfons hands were up, patting the air in front of him. "He's here! He's fine! Don't worry!" the young German said, then addressed Tristan. "Maybe you should go and get Mr. Mustang. I'm sure he'd like to know that Edward is awake as well."
"I think you'd better get me that bucket first," Edward groaned, clapping a hand over his mouth. Tristan rushed to comply, thrusting a metal pail into the alchemist's lap and helping him to sit up again.
The door suddenly burst open, and a widely grinning Hohenheim strode into the room. "Edward! You're awake!" he said with great enthusiasm.
Edward eyes widened at the sight of the old man. Then he threw up.
"So much for my grand entrance," the old alchemist said, disappointed.
The Armstrong Manor on this side of the Gate boasted an even more extensive library than the one on the Amestrian side, and that was where Hohenheim's alchemic masterpiece was under construction. It was the only room with a high enough ceiling, and thus a wall of suitable height, to hold the huge Gate array. The paintings of venerable ancestors had been carefully removed to free the surface for use, and Roy had thrown himself into the completion of the transmutation circle, using the work to distract him from his worries for Edward, and his guilt at leaving the young man alone and unprotected in London.
He was still kicking himself for his stupidity. How could he have left Edward alone like that? He was the one who had told Ed that it would be foolish to go anywhere alone, just a few hours before when they were due to meet with Greed. Why hadn't he stayed in the room, and just opened up to the young man about what was bothering him? It was an old, and very bad habit he'd fallen back on, pulling away from the person he cared about when he felt the darkness settle around his soul.
Maes Hughes had never let him get away with it. His best friend had always had a sixth sense about Roy's moods, always knew when his friend needed him, no matter how hard Roy tried to hide his mood. Maes would turn up out of the blue and drag Roy out of his shell, then lecture him unmercifully, continually pounding in this one, simple truth: that true friends weren't just for the good times. Pushing the people who cared about you away when you were feeling down didn't do you any good, and it hurt your friends, too. That kind of behaviour made them feel frustrated and mistrusted.
In trying to keep his haunted feelings to himself, he hadn't saved Edward from being infected by his dark mood. In fact, he'd achieved just the opposite. He's made Edward feel inadequate; made him think he couldn't help Roy, when in fact he was probably the only one who could. The boy was no stranger to the hard hand life could deal you. He was haunted by his past just as Roy was. Edward would understand what Roy was going through, because he'd been there himself.
But worst of all, because of Roy's foolishness, he'd almost lost Edward to the Germans. If Roy had not meet up with Hohenheim, if he had arrived just a few minutes later, if he had raced up to their room instead of checking around to the rear of the building, Edward would likely be on his way back to Germany right now. And so would Roy, because no matter how hopeless, he would have had to try to get Edward back, even if it meant his own capture. Even if it meant his own death. His thoughtlessness had resulted in a very close brush with disaster, and all Roy wanted to think about was anything else. So he worked on the array, and dared to believe that Hohenheim could get them all home.
The Flame had been carefully filling in and refining the details of Hohenheim's rough draft, and supervising Izumi Curtis as she assisted in that undertaking as well, speeding the process along. The woman was a natural, easily grasping the finer points of the task at hand, and Roy was not surprised. This world's incarnation of Edward and Alphonse' teacher was just as cleaver as the other's, but Phillip Armstrong's able housekeeper didn't appear to be as volatile as the Amestrian housewife had been. Of course this Curtis family had not suffered the crippling loss of their infant son, and Roy suspected that that made all the difference.
While Roy, Hohenheim and Izumi worked on the array, the rest of the household was on high alert for possible hostile company. It was only a matter of time before the Thule Society put Frank Archer's disappearance together with Von Hohenheim's reappearance, and came up with Sir Phillip Armstrong's estate as a likely refuge for the Amestrian fugitives. The Germans were certainly aware of Hohenheim's friendship with the British nobleman, and would be sure to attempt an invasion of the manor with as many of their British colleagues as they could assemble. Working as quickly as possible, Roy hoped that the Thules would arrive only to discover that their quarry had eluded them by returning to their home world, slamming the Gate closed behind them. It was a reasonable expectation. The Gate array was very close to completion.
Izumi Curtis strode purposefully into the library and picked up her chalk, grinning at Roy's raised eyebrow. The woman had gone to see why Alfons had signalled from the room where they had placed Edward, and Roy hoped it was because the young Amestrian had awoken. Hohenheim walked nonchalantly back into the library behind the lady, returning from his own trek to check on his son. Hands in his pockets, his smug grin scanned the room for Mustang, widening as it locked on its target.
"He's awake," the elder alchemist said. "And aside from the black eye, various other bruises, and an ether hangover, he appears to be fine."
Roy jumped down from his perch on the makeshift scaffold, wiping the chalk dust from his hands on the cloth tucked under his belt for that purpose. Izumi watched, amused, when Hohenheim gave the younger man's shoulder a pat as he hurried past. Roy strode quickly down the hall to Edward's room, thrusting open the door. He was greeted cordially by Alfons and Tristan, but the delighted smile Edward beamed at him as he entered the room was all Roy saw, and it made the older alchemist weak with relief.
"Alfons. Is Alphonse with you at the moment?" Roy asked, eyes still on Edward.
"No, I'm alone," Alfons answered, one eyebrow twitching upward.
"Then might I ask that you and Tristan give Edward and I a few moments in private?" the dark haired man requested, his tone brooking no argument.
"Certainly," Alfons said, amused, as he signalled the young manservant to wheel him from the room.
The moment the pair were through the door, Roy closed and locked it behind them. He wasn't going to take the chance of being interrupted. Edward just sat in the bed, pale and slightly groggy but still grinning widely, pillows propping him up against the headboard.
"Why'd you want to know if Al was here?" Edward asked.
"Because I wouldn't dream of interrupting your reunion with your brother," Roy told him as he came to sit on the bed's edge, Edward shifting over to make room.
"If you've got any pervy ideas, I should warn you that I threw up a few minutes ago," the younger man said apologetically.
Mustang shrugged. "I just came to make sure you're alright, not to harass you," he said, kicking off his shoes and laying down beside the blond, snaking an arm behind the young man's back and pulling him close.
The pair arranged themselves until they were settled comfortably, Roy now propped up on the pillows with Edward held tight against his side, the younger man's head cushioned on the older's shoulder, arms curled around each other.
"You're alright?" the Flame asked.
"Yeah, thanks to you," Edward reassured him.
"You scared the shit out of me," Roy said quietly.
"Don't apologize. It was my fault. I shouldn't have left you alone. I should have been there."
"Don't be ridiculous. I'm okay. You got to me in time. This isn't your fault. You just needed some space to sort out what was bothering you."
"No. I pulled away from you because I didn't want to burden you with my demons, when I should have trusted that you could help me to overcome them." Roy smoothed his palm along the curve of Edward's cheek. "You are the strongest person I know. I should have let you help me. I should have pulled you close. Wrapped you in my arms. Known that being close to you would make me stronger too. I should have rested my head against your chest, and let the sound of your beating heart soothe me. Instead I walked away and almost lost you."
The pair lay quietly together for more than a few moments, fire crackling from the hearth the only sound. When Roy spoke again, it was almost a whisper.
"You can't leave me again," the dark haired man said.
"I won't," Edward quietly reassured him.
"I'm serious Ed," Roy's voice was still a gentle murmur. "It was bad enough before, when you disappeared that first time. Back then my love for you was just a fantasy, an untested dream. Now that I've had a taste of the real thing, I think it would actually kill me to lose you."
"Yeah, well I have news for you Mustang. No matter what happens, no matter where we end up, I'm staying with you." Edward's soft words brushed against Roy's ear. "You're stuck with me."
Roy tilted the younger man's face up and peered searchingly into his golden eyes. "Are you saying what I think you're saying?" he asked hopefully.
"Yes," Edward whispered, meeting the Flame's dark gaze. "Do you want me to spell it out for you?"
The jet black of Roy's eyes burned as if lit from within as he nodded. Had he really won what he had hoped to for so long?
"I love you, Roy." Ed couldn't keep the smile off his face as he watched the older man's light up with joy. "I do."
Suddenly the doorknob was twisted roughly, rattling the locked door in its frame, and both alchemists turned towards it as someone then began trying to force it open, battering what sounded like a shoulder violently against it. The hardwood panel held, but the jamb began to splinter, and it wouldn't be long before it gave way. Roy rolled out of Edward's arms and off the bed, realizing that his jacket, with Archer's gun in its pocket, was downstairs in the library where he'd taken it off to work on the array. Shit!
"Oh for fuck sake!" Edward growled, staggering to his feet. "What's a guy got to do to get some fucking privacy around here?"
The situation at the Armstrong estate in Central was quickly coming to a head. Tension between the two parties of soldiers on opposite sides of the main gate was running high. It was only a matter of time before General Hakuro's well known lack of patience resulted in his breaking through the gate despite Furher Gruman's order to await his arrival, or the Furher ordered the Armstrongs to allow the General access. Gruman was on his way, due to arrive at any moment, and Second Lieutenant Breda was hard at work, seeing to it that his plan to camouflage the situation was in place before either eventuality. In the basement lab, assisted by Strongine and Catherine, both in coveralls, and for the moment Alphonse, back from his visit with Alfons, Breda directed his small detail quickly and efficiently to complete their task.
The Gate array was covered, thanks to Alphonse, by a thick sheet of pressed board standing three metres away from the original, now hidden wall, and covered by a floor to ceiling drop sheet, as were all the other walls in the large basement area. The portly redhead certainly hoped that he'd left enough space for anyone who happened to pop through the Gate to do so safely, but he hadn't wanted to make too large a difference in the room's original dimensions for fear of someone noticing and suspecting that one of the walls was just a front. He'd also had Catherine paint a large, red lettered warning on the array side of the false wall alerting the returning gate hoppers to stay quiet on arrival, just in case they had hostile company in the outer room at the time.
The Armstrong women were rearranging the scaffold previously used to draw the Gate array around the object taking up much of the large room's central area, also provided by Alphonse's alchemic skills. It was, of course, only partially complete, but Breda had to admit that the youngest Elric had quite a bit of artistic talent. The scenario wasn't quite right though. Ignoring important details could be their downfall. This ruse could easily be detected by the absence of little things that should be present, but were not. Like dust and debris for example.
"Can you kinda mess up the room a bit, kid?" Breda asked Alphonse, earning a pained expression from the young alchemist. "It's too clean. We need it to look like there's work being done here."
Alphonse nodded, and a quick clap produced the desired effect. A fine coating of dust fogged up, then settled on every surface in the room. Another clap, and chunks of debris of varying size sprouted up from the floor in a random jumble. That's what Breda liked about Alphonse. You didn't have to spell everything out for the kid before he got the picture.
The stout Lieutenant now turned to Strongine. "I need you to climb up to the top of the scaffold and scatter some of those tools around," he told the young woman, who smiled and vaulted onto the lower portion of the metal frame, scaling up to comply.
The Second Lieutenant stepped back and took in the entire scene. Something was still off. Ah, yes. "Okay ladies, I'm sorry to say this, but the only part of this scene that doesn't fit now is you. You both look too, well, fresh. For this to look legitimate, you have to appear to have been working on this thing, and the best way to get that effect is if you actually do work on this thing."
Neither Armstrong appeared to object to this suggestion. Catherine looked at her older sister, who nodded encouragingly from her perch at the top of the scaffold. Then both young ladies took up their tools and began toiling away, one at the top, and one at the bottom. In no time at all, both had worked up a sweat, to which the fine dust they were producing began to stick. Breda stood back, once again observing the overall picture, now satisfied.
He turned back to Alphonse, who was also surveying the room, a smile tilting his lips. "Okay kid, time to make ourselves scarce. Alex is waiting for you upstairs to send you out on your next field trip, and I need to get back to the main gate."
"Alright, Lieutenant," Alphonse said as he turned to leave the room. "I'll let Mr. Armstrong know that everything is ready down here." And with that, the young blond disappeared up the stairs.
Breda took one more look at his plan in action, and then hurried up the stairs himself, making his way out of the manor house toward the perimeter, where his comrades were holding General Hakuro's squad at bay. After the initial warning shots fired by Hakuro's forces, there had been no further gunfire, but the General's reputation as a loose cannon was legend. If it hadn't been for Amue's quick thinking to call Furher Gruman's office directly, Hakuro likely wouldn't have thought twice about opening fire on the officers resisting this unlawful invasion of private property. As it was, the man was still fuming, making threats, and demanding that he be allowed entrance despite word that the Furher himself was on the way to resolve the situation in person. The Armstrongs were an influential family after all, and Phillip Armstrong was a close personal friend of Thurman Gruman.
Heymans got to the gate just as a long black motorcar drove up, but it wasn't the Furher arriving to resolve the standoff, it was Phillip Armstrong and his tall, slender wife returning home from their sojourn to the South. Exiting the car, the burley elder Armstrong took in the scene, then, with fists clenched, he stalked over to General Hakuro, face darkened with anger.
"What is the meaning of this Hakuro?" the retired General challenged the younger officer with a growl.
"Ask your son and daughters that question," Hakuro snarled back. "They are refusing to allow my men and I access."
"And just why should they allow you access?" Armstrong leaned into his adversary's space, glaring. "This estate is private property. We are not required to grant free passage simply because someone demands it."
"I have reason to believe that they are harbouring a wanted criminal. I demand that you allow me inside to apprehend him!" Hakuro leaned in as well, placing the two men nearly chest to chest.
"You had better have some very solid evidence to back up your accusations," Armstrong warned, eyes glittering dangerously.
"I'll have all the evidence I need when I get inside and find Von Hohenheim hiding there!" Hakuro snapped.
"Why you insolent puppy!" Armstrong roared. "How dare you violate our civil rights to satisfy an unfounded suspicion, and worse, misuse your authority and involve our fine Amestrian military to carry out this unlawful invasion of privacy! I'll have you up on charges!"
"You'll be the one up on charges when my suspicions are confirmed!" Hakuro roared back.
The arrival of a second long black limousine interrupted the two officers before they could actually come to blows. Furher Gruman, along with a few of his aids, exited the vehicle and quickly strode over to the center of the action outside of the main gate, long handlebar moustache twitching in annoyance. In his late seventies, the current Furher of Amestris was still fit and agile. And definitely no pushover. The disapproving set to his features as he advanced, steely eyes locked on the two opponents, was enough to make Breda, still on the estate side of the locked main gate, take an involuntary step back, and Kain Furey looked as though he was thinking about making a run for it. Every right hand attached to every soldier present snapped into a sharp salute almost in unison.
"At ease, gentlemen," Gruman rumbled, returning the salute just as sharply and stepping up to Hakuro and Armstrong. "General Hakuro, report."
"Furher Gruman Sir!" Hakuro started, face still flushed with anger. "I have reason to believe that a wanted criminal is currently taking refuge within the Armstrong manor house, with the family's express permission. I assembled a small squad in order to search the estate and apprehend the wanted man, but have been refused entrance!"
Gruman gave Armstrong a grim look, the retired General meeting his gaze fearlessly. "Harbouring a fugitive is a grave, criminal offence," the Furher said. "Who is this wanted man, and what evidence do you have to support your accusations?" Gruman asked Hakuro.
"Von Hohenheim, the alchemist otherwise known as Hohenheim of Light, is the suspect in question. He turned up unexpectedly during the otherworldly invasion last week, and is likely responsible for opening that gateway in the first place," Hakuro told his leader. "His son, Alphonse Elric, is currently a guest of the Armstrong's, and the family recently requested a small retinue of officers for some unspecified, non military duties." The General cast a dark glower at his retired colleague, then continued. "The officers in question are all from General Roy Mustang's former command, and I found that highly suspicious, considering that Mustang disappeared through the gateway to the other world. Knowing the high degree of loyalty the man inspires in his subordinates, I believe that these people are attempting to reopen the gateway to that other world, and that Von Hohenheim and his son are assisting them. Such a dangerous undertaking should be conducted under direct military control, so we can be prepared in the event of another attack from the other world!" Hakuro finished, crossing his arms across his chest, glaring a challenge at Armstrong.
The Furher narrowed his eyes at his subordinate, and the smug look dropped from Hakuro's face. "In the first place, General, Von Hohenheim is indeed wanted for questioning. However, he is not a criminal until proven to be one, by a preponderance of concrete evidence and a fair trial by his peers. The days of Furher King Bradley's military strong arm tactics are over. You would do well to keep that in mind before you go off half cocked, attempting to violate the basic civil rights of our citizens based on rumour and speculation."
Gruman then turned to his old friend, face still grim. "But the General does make a very good point about the risks involved in reopening a pathway to that other world without taking necessary defensive precautions, Phillip," he said.
"I can assure you, Sir, that no self respecting Armstrong would risk action that might facilitate an invasion, from this or any other world, without considering the implications and taking precautions in the interest of national security," the retired officer stated confidently. "We Armstrongs have been Amestris' steadfast defenders for many generations, and I resent our loyalty being called into question!" The stout blond glared at Hakuro, teeth gritted.
"Then what do you say to allowing us to enter your grounds, to conduct a thorough inspection," the Furher said, clapping a hand on his old friend's shoulder. "And I assure you, it will be henceforth be conducted in a respectful manner." Gruman glared the order at Hakuro, who stiffened at the reproach and saluted, then stood at attention.
Phillip Armstrong once again saluted his Furher, sparkles seeming to appear in the air around him as his face lit up with a smile. "I say, Sir, that I would be only too happy to have you as our guest, and offer you and the men under your command unlimited access to our home to do as you see fit." The stout blond offered a short bow, and signalled Lieutenant Hawkeye to open the main gate. "My home is at your disposal, Sir."
Breda wasn't the only one who breathed a sigh of relief as the Furher strolled casually onto the grounds with his old comrade, Mrs. Armstrong walking demurely between the two older men. He did wonder, however, if Phillip Armstrong's timely arrival was planned, or just a coincidence, and whether or not the family patriarch knew what his children had been up to in his absence.
Izumi Curtis was on the hunt, her weapon of choice, a sturdy blackwood shillelagh, in hand. Her domain had been infiltrated, and that just wouldn't do. It was Von Hohenheim who'd sounded the alarm, discovering that the manor house's defences had been breached when two strangers had jumped him in the kitchen where he had gone in search of a snack. Izumi had heard the terrified shrieks of the men who'd attacked the elder alchemist, and rushed into the room to discover that the walls had sprouted arms. Hohenheim's two attackers were struggling wildly in the grip of white, kitchen tile fists, eyes mad with fear, while their intended victim looked on in sinister amusement.
At the moment Sig and Tristan were stalking prey as well, but their style was very different from Izumi's. The Curtis men were more about lying in wait and pouncing, and they had stationed themselves in and around the library as protection for Sir Phillip and young Alfons. Von Hohenheim had returned to the library as well, intent on finishing the means for the Amestrians to escape from the Thules once and for all.
Unlike Sig and Tristan, Izumi's was a track and attack methodology. At the moment, she was tailing two German men as they crept quietly along the upstairs hallway. Although the hall was wide and straight, it also contained an elaborate collection of family heirlooms, ornate vases on pedestals and other such items of decor, which made for excellent cover. The pair of intruders were unaware of their malevolent shadow as they moved from door to door, listening at each one, then quietly opening them to peer inside. Not finding what, or who, they were searching for, they moved on to the next. Two doors further along the hall would finally get them to the room where the manor's other guests, Elric and Mustang, were resting, unaware of the Thule invasion. According to Tristan the invaders would find the door locked, and attempting to force their way in would be the distraction Izumi awaited to launch her attack.
The Germans moved to the room next to the Amestrian's. Listened. Opened the door. Peeked inside. Moved on. It was showtime.
The Thules listened at the Amestran's door, then stepped back for a whispered conference too quiet for Izumi to hear. Then one of the Germans gripped the doorknob as the other prepared to lunge into the room, but their plan was foiled by this door being unexpectedly locked. Casting stealth to the winds, the two invaders began trying to force the door open, battering their shoulders against it, and that was Izumi's signal to strike.
The dark haired woman covered the distance to her prey quickly and quietly, and was just about to bash in the head of her first victim when the door he was pushing against suddenly swung wide, sending both Germans sprawling to the floor. A small bed table swung in from the side of the doorway, smashing into one man's head, but the other rolled away and jumped to his feet, then lunged at the dark haired man wielding the table. He never made it. Hohenheim's son was on him from the other side of the door like a flash, and a single, right handed jab to the big Thule's temple laid him out cold. The man Mustang had clobbered was still semiconscious, but Izumi's swiftly swung cudgel put him out in short order.
"Well! You Amestrians certainly aren't pushovers," the feisty housekeeper observed, impressed.
"You British folk aren't too bad yourselves," young Elric returned with a lopsided grin as his dark eyed companion smirked his agreement.
"Let's get to a more defensible location," Izumi said, voice low, checking back down the hallway towards the stairway. "Everyone else is barricaded in the library. I think we should make our way down there as well."
"Has anyone called the police?" Mustang asked, also keeping his voice low as the trio crept down the hall toward the stairs.
"We tried, but the phone lines have been cut," Izumi explained. "We're on our own for the moment. But I'm sure we can hold the buggers off long enough for you to finish constructing your escape route, and when it's ready, you can use it and be out of their reach."
"We're not going to run off and leave you to deal with the Thules on your own," the younger alchemist growled. "It's our fault they're here in the first place."
"Don't be a fool, boy," The woman cast a sideward scowl at the young blond as they started down the steps, wondering if it was her imagination that he seemed to cringe slightly at the glower. "You Amestrians have a lot more to lose than we do. A fate worse than death as it were. Besides, these crazy Germans have no idea who they're dealing with. By the time this is over, they'll be running away with their tails between their legs, never to be seen here again." The housekeeper's barbed wire grin flashed in the dimness.
The trio had descended the stairs, and now scanned the large entry hall for enemies, finding it empty. The library was down a short hallway to their immediate right. Izumi swung around the banister at the bottom of the stairs, directly into the arms of the big German crouching there, his bullet head wrapped in a tight bandage. The clutter of the over-elaborate decor had worked against her this time, hiding the thug from view until it was too late. The large man gripped her right forearm, preventing her from swinging the weapon she held in that hand, and quickly twisted her around, slinging his other arm across her throat.
"One move, and I break her neck," he growled in English, glaring at Roy and Edward.
A giant shadow loomed up directly behind the thug. Then an enormous hand reached around to clamp down on the arm twisted around Izumi's throat, pulling it away from her, and snapping it like a twig. The German's eyes bulged out as his face went deathly pale, but the scream that waited just behind his gritted teeth never made it out of his mouth. A massive fist crashed down on top of the man's bullet shaped head, pounding him to the floor like a flimsy, ten penny nail, down for the count.
Izumi turned, beaming at her gigantic husband. "Honey!" she quietly gushed, grabbing Sig by his collar to pull him down for a peck on the cheek. "Don't tell me you were worried about me! You know I could have taken care of that rogue by myself."
"Of course I was worried," the big man rumbled. "Do you think I could sit still when that scoundrel grabbed you? No one puts their hands on my sweetheart!"
Izumi wrapped both her arms around one of Sig's, turning them toward the library with the two Amestrians trailing along behind. "Ah, my hero," she said, beaming as she leaned against her man.
"Oh darling," Sig rumbled, a small smile playing about his lips as he patted one of the arms wrapped around his.
"Oh dearest," the woman purred, smiling back happily.
"Oh brother," Edward said quietly, rolling his eyes, and Mustang, of course, just smirked.
Chapter 10: Last Stands
Against Alex Armstrong's grave reservations, Alphonse insisted on making another visit to Alfons as soon as he returned from the task Second Lieutenant Breda had set him. It wasn't just that the Furher was about to begin a thorough inspection of the estate that was giving the big man pause. The Strong Arm Alchemist had pointed out very sternly that the youngster was exhausting himself, and needed to recharge, or he ran the risk of being unable to perform his essential role in this operation when the time came. Alphonse knew Alex as right, and said so, but still was adamant that he be allowed a short visit. He had to know if Edward had woken up, had to see for himself that his brother was alright. Soft hearted Alex had relented, on condition that the visit was indeed very short, and so Alphonse once again opened his eyes in Cambridge.
He hadn't been in the library at all since his father had returned to the manor with Edward and General Mustang, and Alphonse was impressed with the progress made on the Gate array. From the look of it, a couple more hours were all it would need to see completion. Hohenheim was balanced on a ladder near the top of the array's inner circle, chalk in hand, leaning precariously over thin air to inscribe the capping symbol: Mercury, or more accurately Hermes Messenger, the traveler.
"I'm back," the young alchemist whispered.
"Alphonse?" Alfons said in surprise. "Why are you back so soon? You should be resting."
"I'll rest better knowing for sure that brother is alright," Al said, somewhat annoyed. What was this? Treat Alphonse Like a Little Kid Day?
Alfons smiled. "Then rest easy," the German said. "He has woken up, and appears to be his usual, irritating self."
"Alphonse?" Hohenheim had clambered down the ladder, brushing chalk dusted fingers on his trousers. "Shouldn't you be . . . "
The young alchemist cut him off. "Yes, I'm back so soon. Yes, I should be resting. Is it too much to expect that I might be worried about my brother?" he said, crossing Alfons' thin arms across his chest.
Hohenheim looked at the arms. "You really should be eating more Alfons," the old man said. "I'm going to get a snack. Can I get you something?"
"Oh, yes please," Alfons said. "Anything sweet will do. And a cup of tea, if you don't mind."
"Could you please either get Edward down here, or take me up to see him?" Alphonse called out to his father's retreating back.
"Ah, about that," Alfons said, rubbing the back of his neck self consciously. "Mr. Mustang asked for a few minutes in private with your brother. Do you think . . ."
A distant chorus of terrified screams suddenly drifted in through the library's doors, cutting off whatever Alfons was about to suggest. The screams stopped abruptly after a few moments, and the sudden silence was just as disturbing. The Als were frozen, eyes locked on the room's main door, and Alphonse was just about to transmute the closest inanimate object into a weapon when Hohenheim rushed in, closely followed by Tristan, Sig, Izumi, and Sir Phillip.
"It appears we have been invaded by the Thule Society," Armstrong growled an answer to the Als' unspoken question as Sig closed and locked the library's big double doors. "Not unexpected, of course, but I did hope we would be afforded more time to prepare."
"I believe we have made sufficient preparations, Sir," Izumi said, dark eyes serious. "With your permission however, I would like to go up to Edward's room as quickly as possible and escort the young man and Mister Mustang to the library."
"Yes, of course," Armstrong said, clasping his hands behind his back. "Our main priorities right now are to keep our Amestrian friends from falling into the Thules' hands, and completing this array so that they can escape to their homeworld, once and for all."
Everyone in the room nodded their understanding, and then Izumi and Sig carefully slipped out of the room. Tristan bolted the doors behind them, then took up station beside it, face grim. Hohenheim headed back toward the ladder by the Gate array, giving the Als a comforting pat as he passed by.
Alphonse stifled the urge to start a frustration driven rant. Worst case scenarios ran through his mind. Edward and the General captured and spirited away before Izumi could get to their room. Phillip Armstrong and his faithful family retainers hurt or killed because they chose to help the Amestrians. The Thules bursting into the library and capturing Hohenheim and Alfons, and forcing Hohenheim to complete the array so they could mount another invasion. Invading Thules exploding through the Gate to take Alphonse' allies on the other side by surprise. This was supposed to be a short visit, but how was he supposed leave in the middle of an attack? Since he hadn't been allowed to help defend the Armstrong estate on the Amestrian side, maybe he could be of use here. The agitated youngster cast his eyes around the room, looking for anything he might be able to do to make it more secure.
The library's high ceilings had made the room perfect for designing the Gate's array, but it was the windows that made it easy to secure as well. Situated high above the floor, where a second level of the room ringed the central, open area, the windows were grilled with ornate wroth iron, making access by that particular route impossible. The main double doors, and a small rear door that lead to Sir Phillip's private office, were the only ways into the library.
"It's locked," Tristan said, following Al's eyes to the small office door under the gently curving staircase leading to the library's upper level. "And the office's outer door is also locked, and barred from the inside. And the windows have ironwork decorations just like the ones in here."
A light tapping on one of the library's main double doors interrupted Alphonse' response. Two taps. Then three, a long pause between each. Then three more, close together. Tristan responded by tapping lightly, twice, quickly, and got four slow taps in return. The young manservant quickly unlocked the door and cracked it open, allowing his mother and father, along with General Mustang and Edward to slip through, then quickly relocked it.
"Brother!" Alphonse could barely restrain himself, squirming Alfons around the wheelchair in excitement.
Edward rushed over to peer into Alfons' wide blue eyes. "Is that really you, Al?"
Alphonse threw the young German at Edward and wrapped him in as tight a hug as his host's illness and injury weakened body could manage. Edward returned it with just as much enthusiasm, though he was careful not to hurt Alfons. Both boys sighed in unison, content to be back in each other's company, reluctant to end their embrace.
"Umm, I hate to rain on your parade, but we have urgent matters to attend to," Alfons said after a few moments when it appeared that the Elric hugathon wasn't going to be ending anytime soon.
Alphonse finally pulled away to sit carefully down in the wheelchair once again with his brother's help. "And I don't want to leave yet, but I have to," he said with obvious reluctance. "I want to let everyone know what's going on here, and the Armstrong estate in Central is being inspected by General Hakuro and the Furher, so I have to be available if they come to question me. I also promised I wouldn't stay here too long, because everyone wants me to rest," the youngster finished with an irritated roll of his eyes.
"Al, don't worry. The array is almost done. The Thules can't get in here. We're coming home," Ed said with a grin. "But we need you at your best to finish this off for us, so go get some sack time."
"I really wish everyone would stop treating me like a little kid," Alphonse said, annoyed, as he closed Alfons' eyes and opened his own.
Furher Thruman Gruman walked casually through the halls of his old friend's estate, surrounded by General Hakuro and his usual retinue of Aides. Phillip Armstrong was giving them the grand tour, and the master of the house was not holding anything back. At the main gate his daughter, Strongine, had given him no covert indication that they had anything to hide, but Phillip could feel the tension in his household. Even the servants, though outwardly calm, were on edge, a reaction that could easily be explained by the presence of the Furher himself, but Armstrong knew his faithful staff very well. Something else was up. And by the way, where were his other children?
Hakuro was like a hound hot on the scent, keeping civil through great effort of will, spending most of his poisonous glowers on the group of officers who had refused to admit him to the Armstrong estate on demand. They were a gutsy group, no question, to deny the man based solely on the fact that Hakuro's demands were unlawful, regardless of the fact that he was a superior officer that expected to be obeyed. Of course they all had formerly been under General Roy Mustang's command, and the Flame Alchemist had a reputation as an officer of outstanding moral fibre, so it was no surprise that he would surround himself with officers of the same calibre.
Take the always professional First Lieutenant Riza Hawkeye for example. Never one to let her self control slip, she appeared to be unaffected by General Hakuro's ill humour. The young Sergeant with her on the other hand appeared to be about to faint each time he intercepted one of Hakuro's lethal glares, but the stout, redheaded Second Lieutenant was handy to bolster the small, dark haired man's courage. Warrant Officer Falman tailed along behind the group, a studious set to his stoic features, one eye on Hawkeye, ready to follow her lead. A tight knit crew indeed, as loyal to each other as they had been to their lost commander.
It wasn't all that long ago that Mustang had been a newly minted Lieutenant Colonel at East City Headquarters. Future Furher Gruman himself had been Base Commander at the time, and General Phillip Armstrong had been his chief aide. Armstrong remembered the suave young state alchemist very fondly. Called the Hero of Ishbal more due to the way he had treated the soldiers under his command during that campaign than by any of the battles he had been involved in, Armstrong had been surprised to discover that the young man tended to brush off that nickname with barely disguised embarrassment. Surprised, because Central had warned East City that Mustang was hot for promotion, and brushing aside accolades did not fit the description of a man bent on climbing the ranks on a single minded quest for power. So Armstrong had looked past his preconceived notion of the Flame Alchemist, and discovered a fair-minded commander, a good officer, and an honourable man. He had missed the young alchemist when Mustang had been transferred back to Central Headquarters.
When what came to be known as The Bradley Incident hit the fan, Roy Mustang had been right in the middle of it. With military rule collapsing all around them, Amestris' most influential people, the Armstrong family included, had leaped at the chance to introduce a more representative form of government, and a new, elected senate was formed to take control. And in the midst of all the political and social upheaval, the military tribunal was only too happy to accept Mustang's offer take full responsibility for failing to protect Bradley, along with the Flame's proposed self imposed punishment, and wash their hands of the matter. Everyone involved knew that Mustang and his group of loyal officers knew more than they were telling, but in all honesty the only tears shed for Bradley had been his widow's. Everyone else was content to let the matter drop. Still, the elder Armstrong had always itched to know the truth.
"What's down there?" Hakuro's sharp query snapped the retired General out of his reverie. He turned to see the other man pointing towards a darkened stairwell leading to the basement, and without hesitation Phillip turned the group of investigating soldiers in the indicated direction.
"That would be the cellar," Armstrong said. "We use it mainly for storage, although we do have a large open area that the younger Armstrongs use for training in the martial arts when the weather doesn't permit them to practice outside." Phillip turned to his Furher. "Gone are the days of my own training, and I must admit that I do miss it," he said, giving his bulging stomach an affectionate pat.
"Nonsense, Phillip," Gruman returned as the group descended the stairs. "You're never too old to spend a little time in the gym. I suspect that all you lack is a suitable sparring partner, and I would be only too happy to oblige you in that area."
"I may just take you up on that, Sir," Armstrong said with a grin.
The group spent no little time on the lowest level of the manor house, examining each room briefly before moving on. General Hakuro was becoming more and more frustrated as each new doorway opened revealed no Hohennheim, and no illicit gateway construction underway. The man hadn't gone as far as looking underneath the furniture yet, but he didn't appear far from it. Not one to stoop to juvenile mockery, the senior Armstrong kept his face neutral, his smirk at the younger General's aggravation hidden inside.
The long door-lined hall ended at a pair of wide double doors, which the search party discovered were locked. Frowning, Phillip began to fish through his pockets for a key, Hakuro looking triumphant, when the door cracked open and shy Catherine peeked out.
"Oh dear," she said in a voice so low the party had to lean in to hear. "I fear our little surprise is about to be spoiled." The petite blonde stepped out of the room, closing the door behind her, and her father was surprised to see her dressed in coveralls, grimed with dust from head to toe.
Hakuro was on the young woman in a flash, leaning in with a shark toothed grin, causing the timid girl to cringe back. "Ah! So this is where you have been conducting your alchemical experiments!" he crowed. "Step aside, girl! This little charade has been exposed!"
"How dare you speak to my daughter in such a manner!" Phillip, red with rage, moved toward Hakuro, fists clenched, and the two men would surely have come to blows had the Furher not stepped between them. Laying a gentle hand on Catherine's trembling shoulder, Gruman shot Hakuro a withering glare.
"We aren't using alchemy for this project!" Catherine exclaimed, nearly in tears. "Brother said it would show the true depth of our respect and admiration if we did the entire thing by hand!"
"And what project would that be, Catherine?" Phillip asked, smiling at his youngest encouragingly.
"It was going to be a surprise," she said, eyes downcast. "You know how Alex has always admired General Mustang. He wanted to do something as a memorial to him, so we invited his closest colleagues here to help us." The girl cast a nervous look at Hakuro and the rest of Gruman's retinue, half hidden behind her father.
"May we see your project?" the Furher asked with a friendly smile. "I promise that your secret will be safe with us."
"Oh, it's not my project," Catherine said softly, reaching back for the door knob. "It's Alex' work. The rest of us are just helping him with it." The timid blonde swung wide the doors, revealing the massive object in the centre of the room.
His first impression was that it was big. It was so big, in fact, that even using an alchemical method, Phillip had no idea how it could ever be moved from the room. Partially complete, it was surrounded by a sturdy scaffold. Amue Armstrong peered down from its highest point, and then scrambled down to greet her father and their distinguished guest. The Furher politely acknowledged the greeting, but all attention was on the gigantic object dominating the room. It was still in the rough stages, but the artist's intentions were already clear.
Sculpted in white marble, the central figure was Roy Mustang, standing in a heroic pose, right hand raised as if preparing to snap his fingers. Arranged around him were his most loyal officers. The elder Armstrong noted Lieutenant Hawkeye standing at the man's right shoulder, her own sculpted palm resting on the hilt of her holstered weapon. On Mustang's left, Brigadier General Maes Hughes was easily recognizable, hand clapped to his good friend's shoulder. To Hughes left stood Vato Falman, face stern as always, hands clasped behind him. Second Lieutenant Jean Havoc was on hand as well, crouched in front of his former commander, assault rifle at the ready, Heymans Breda beside him in a similar pose. Kain Fuery knelt to Breads's left, one hand on the collar of a small dog. Edward Elric knelt to Havoc's right, hands pressed together in mid clap. Behind Mustang two tall figures stood back to back, arms crossed. One was a giant suit of armour. The other was Alex Louis Armstrong himself.
The entire group was silent, watching as the Furher circled the statue, hands clasped behind his back, awaiting his appraisal of the piece.
"Impressive. Even in its early stages, the likenesses are uncanny," Gruman finally said, rubbing his chin.
"I am pleased with your appraisal of my work, Sir. Thank you." Alex Armstrong stood in the doorway of the large room, a young man Phillip recognized as Alphonse Elric at his elbow.
"The pleasure is mine, Alex," the Furher returned with a smile."It seems that sculpting is another talent the Armstrong family can include in their long list of accomplishments. Well done."
"I couldn't have done it without the cooperation of my talented sisters, and my former fellow officers, who agreed to pose for me so that I might make my masterpiece as close to perfect as possible." Alex's voice dropped lower, and his face became solemn. "Of course, some of the people I wished to immortalize in stone are sadly no longer available to pose for me, not the least of which is General Mustang himself."
"The late Brigadier General Hughes as well," Gruman murmured. He stepped up to the rough figure of the Fullmetal Alchemist and peered at it thoughtfully. "And yes, Major Elric. I was always amazed that a person so small could at the same time be so powerful."
Alphonse Elric made a small, choked sound that Phillip took for distress. The youngster had his hands clasped loosely over his mouth, his shoulders noticeably shaking, and he looked completely exhausted, dark circles shadowing his eyes. The poor lad had recently endured a harrowing round of questioning over a three day period concerning his wayward father's whereabouts, and now was once again being glowered at by General Hakuro. As strong a front as the boy had put up during the recent hearings, the stress must have gradually worn young Alphonse down. The elder Armstrong was about to say something comforting, but Hakuro spoke up first.
"And just what is your excuse for being here, Elric?" the General snapped, eyes boring into the younger man's.
Phillip was on him like a flash. "How dare you speak so disrespectfully to a guest of this manor?" Armstrong said, again in outrage.
Alphonse smiled tiredly, unaffected by Hakuro's rudeness. "Mr. Armstrong invited me to see his master piece. We met recently in Lior, and I wanted to talk to him about my brother."
Ah yes. The boy's obsession with finding his missing brother was well known, though no one else held much hope of ever seeing the Fullmetal Alchemist alive again.
Catherine cleared her throat, then shyly looked to her father. "Might I suggest that we offer our guests some refreshment?" she asked. "It is getting rather late in the afternoon, and a spot of tea would be very refreshing, don't you think?"
"An excellent idea Catherine!" Phillip exclaimed, eyes still glaring at Hakuro. "Would you see to arranging that, my dear, while we complete our Furher's inspection?"
"Certainly, father," the girl replied.
"Tell me Alex," Gruman said, still gazing critically at the younger man's work in progress. "What are your plans for this tribute?"
"I had hoped to place it on the parade grounds at East Headquarters, Sir, but certainly wouldn't presume to do so without permission."
Gruman slapped the gigantic bald man as close to his shoulder that the older man could reach. "Granted with my compliments young man. I must admit that I'm curious to discover how you plan to transport it." The Furher turned to smile at Catherine, standing at her father's side. "Now, let's get the rest of this inspection over with. I'm certain I heard someone mention tea." He offered his arm to the girl with a small bow.
The blond girl matched her Furher's smile with a shy one of her own, then slipped her arm around his. Blushing prettily, she steered the older man from the room, the rest of the inspection team following behind.
Phillip Armstrong held back, watching the group leave with a cordial smile that dropped from his face as the last of Gruman's entourage was out the door.
"I'll be looking forward to hearing the truth of what is going on here Alex, as soon as our guests are off the premises," he said, voice low, his eyes locked pointedly to his son's.
"Of course, father," Alex replied, meeting the older man's gaze undaunted.
With a short nod to Alphonse, Phillip Armstrong strode to catch up with his guests, then paused to look back from the doorway. "And for goodness sake, find young Elric a quite place where he can get some rest. The poor boy is dead on his feet!"
The young alchemist shot the elder Armstrong an annoyed look that was totally uncalled for in the older man's opinion. Young people today. Who could possibly guess what was going on in their heads?
Roy stretched his arms above his head, loosening the cramp he was developing in his shoulders. Finally, the array was complete, and as soon as Alphonse returned Hohenheim would activate it. If all went well, the three Amestrians would be home moments later. The many hours of work put into an array that would only be used for only a few short minutes, then immediately erased by Alphonse in order to keep their home world safe, would be well worth the effort if it indeed worked as advertised.
It was hard to believe that it had only been a week since he had jumped aboard the Thule's airship, following Edward to this strange place. That fateful day seemed a life time ago now. And it was just as hard to believe that they would soon be home, seemed almost too good to be true. Roy had honestly never expected to see Amestris again, and had contented himself with the fact that it didn't matter as long as he could be with Edward, but he had to admit that the prospect of returning filled him with a cautious sort of excitement. Cautious, because this wasn't quite a done deal yet, not with the suspiciously quiet Thules lurking around the Armstrong manor, and an untested array to activate in a world where they shouldn't be able to activate one at all. Still, the dark haired man couldn't suppress the hum of anticipation that quickened his pulse.
Alfons was quietly talking to Tristan about his passion, rockets, and appeared to be infecting the younger Curtis with his enthusiasm as well. The German looked much better than he had when Roy had first met him. His face was still pale, and he was still too weak to move about very well without the wheelchair, but the bullet wound in his shoulder was healing well, and his bone rattling cough had all but disappeared, the Amestrian antibiotics making short work of his tubercular infection. Roy was happy to know that the young man who so resembled Alphonse could now look forward to a future free of that debilitating, ultimately terminal illness.
Edward was happy for his friend as well. Now that the array was complete, Ed was sitting beside the young German, listening quietly to the theories the enthusiastic rocket scientist was explaining to Tristan, grinning. From his expression this was obviously something he had been subjected to many times himself. Roy knew that the two young men had already said their goodbyes, realizing that when it was time for Edward to leave, they might not have the chance to say what they had to say.
Perhaps he felt Roy's eyes on him, because Edward turned to look, the smile becoming fond, even peaceful despite the situation. In the past Roy had often imagined Edward looking at him that way, but the reality was a hundred times more stirring. The young man's confession a few hours ago still played in the dark haired man's thoughts, with the promise of what they might have, if only they could leave the current threat behind. Roy fervently hoped that all would go as planned, but however this situation played out, Roy was going to be with Edward, wherever that might be.
Hohenheim was moving restlessly around the room, talking with Sir Phillip and the Curtises, then stepping over to listen to Alfons for a few moments, completing his circuit with Roy before moving on. The Flame alchemist took pity on the older man, inviting him to take a seat for a moment, which Hohenheim reluctantly did.
"As soon as Alphonse gets here, we can leave," Hohenheim said for possibly the ten thousandth time that afternoon. "Don't forget what I told you about the path."
"Stay on it, or risk being battered by the pressure of the alchemical energy surging through the Gate, yes," Roy said patiently.
"There are also contaminants in there that we don't want to risk coming into contact with. You saw what happened to the Thules that went through?" Hohenheim asked.
Roy nodded, but something was distracting him. A low, hissing sound. What the hell was that? He motioned Hohenheim to silence and glanced around the room, turning his head to try and discern where the noise was coming from. Above? His eyes tracked upward, coming to rest on the second story window partially hidden from his vantage point by the ornate railing around the upper level of the room. A bright light that the Flame alchemist immediately recognized as the burn of an oxyacetylene cutting torch shone through the glass, camouflaged by the setting sun's rays gleaming through the window. Roy leaped to his feet as the ornate grillwork dropped away and the glass shattered.
Five Thule Society soldiers piled through the window, rifles across their chests, and moved to the railing to level their weapons on the people below. A sixth man stepped through behind his comrades, and made his way down to the lower level of the library. He walked to the big double doors and unbolted them. Grinning delightedly, Karl Haushofer entered the room, followed by Rudolf Hess.
"It appears our little game of tag is at an end," the professor said. "If you Shamballans come with us quietly, you have my promise that your British friends will not be harmed."
"I know from bitter experience what your promises are worth, Karl," Hohenheim said. The old man folded his hands behind his back and glanced up at the soldiers above, a thoughtful expression on his face.
Roy's mind was racing, looking for some way to turn the situation around, and not finding it. Haushofer gestured to Hess, who reached into his jacket pocket, pulling out three pairs of handcuff. He tossed them to the Thule thug who had let him into the library and pointed at Edward.
"Him first," Hess said. "Lock his hands behind his back," the German directed blue eyes cold, then he called to the men lined along the upper rail. "If he resists, shoot him."
Edward crouched slightly as the German approached him cautiously. "Funny thing is, getting shot sounds like the least of my worries," he said with a barbed wire grin.
All eyes were on Edward, and from the corner of his eye, Roy saw Hohenheim move toward the curve of the stairway's banister, using the distraction to his advantage. Roy chose his target and waited for the right moment. It wasn't long coming. Edward dodged back as the Thule reached for his automail arm and spun his left heel into the man's jaw, flattening him, just as Hohenheim placed his hands on the railing. All hell broke loose.
A single gunshot split the air, and Roy heard the bullet ping off Ed's automail , but that didn't do a thing to stop the blond from racing for the stairs, Izumi and Tristan close behind. The wooden balustrade had surged up to wrap around the soldier's rifles, tilting them towards the ceiling, and was now attacking the soldiers themselves, lashing out at them as they tried to free their weapons, beating the shit out of them. The Thules were in a panic, shouting, eyes bulging at the sight of the polished wood coiling to assail them, and then Ed and the Curtises were among them. It was over in seconds.
Roy had lunged for Hess as the first shot sounded. The German was reaching into his jacket, going for a pistol no doubt, when Roy ploughed into the man, knocking him to the floor. Hess was a taller, heavier man, but Roy was desperate, and he had the high ground. The German tired to roll them, but the Amestrian planted his knees, crouching astride his opponent, throwing punches that the German blocked with his forearms. Roy heard the thud of feet approaching, and then someone was briefly on his back. He spared a glance to see Sig pulling Haushofer up by his collar, but that momentary distraction cost Roy a punch to the blind side of his head. He was only stunned for a split second, but it was enough for Hess. The German freed his pistol and shoved the barrel into Roy's face.
Everyone froze. Hess shoved Roy off and scrambled away, keeping the pistol pointed towards the Amestrian as he stood. Looking urgently around the room, and finding that Haushofer was his only comrade still conscious, the German's eyes fell on Alfons who had backed his chair up against a bookshelf, out of the way. Hess sidled over until he was close enough to pull the chair bound young blond away from the wall and stand behind him, the gun still pointed at Roy.
"Give up, you are outnumbered," Sir Phillip said quietly.
"And you are unarmed," Hess snapped. "All of you, move together, there, by the fireplace. And you," he said, pointing at Sig, Haushofer still dangling from his fist. "Put the professor down."
Sig dropped the man unceremoniously to the floor with a rumbling growl. Haushofer straightened his jacket and stepped away from the bearded giant, grinning triumphantly.
"Well done, Hess," he said. "Now keep an eye on everyone while I see to securing the prisoners."
"Yeah, come on over and secure me first, asshole," Edward snarled, fist clenched, as he moved to stand beside Roy.
Hess lowered the pistol until it pointed directly at the base of Alfons' skull. "It would be a pity to lose such a wonderfully talented rocket scientist, but he would be much easier to replace than you three Shamballans. If you don't agree, I suggest you cooperate."
And he lowered his hand to grip Alfons' shoulder.
Hess stiffened. Then his arm jerked up to point the gun straight above his head. Shaking violently, the pistol once again lowered, this time to point at Karl Haushofer. The triumphant grin the professor had been sporting slid away, replaced by a look of growing fear and confusion.
"Brother! Dad! General Mustang!" the voice from the young blond seated in the wheelchair definitely belonged to Alphonse Elric. "Activate the array and get through it, now!"
Hohenheim didn't have to be told twice. He practically launched himself across the room to slap his hands on the array's edge. The runes ignited like flares, a dazzling red against the early evening light slanting into the room from its high windows, and a shimmering, golden interface to the other world was instantly transmuted.
"Ed! Mustang! Go!" the old man shouted, waving the pair frantically towards the gateway.
Edward appeared undecided, obviously not pleased with the idea of leaving their unarmed allies to deal with the Germans alone. Roy made the decision for him, grabbing the young man by the arm, spinning him around and pushing him through the shimmering interface before he could react. Looking behind he noted Hohenheim braced to follow. Roy stepped through the Gate
to find himself on what appeared to be a narrow cement sidewalk on a featureless white plain, Edward a few steps ahead. The path was only about the width of Roy's shoulders, so narrow that he would have to step off to get around Edward if he so desired. Some twenty meters farther along, the walkway disappeared into a flat black hole, about two metres in diameter, which appeared to be hanging in mid air. The edge of the hole sparked and spit tiny incandescent rays, but the only sound Roy could discern was his own and Edward's breathing.
"Stay on the path," Edward reminded him urgently with a glance, and then he began to walk quickly toward the black orifice. His footsteps sounded oddly hollow, swallowed too quickly by the haunted, sterile atmosphere.
A sharp crackling announced Hohenheim's arrival on the scene. Roy looked back briefly to see the older man standing in front of a hole exactly like the one he and Edward were approaching.
"This sidewalk your idea of a joke old man?" Edward called out.
"Just be thankful I resisted the urge to make it look like yellow bricks," his father retorted.
Edward glanced back, teeth gritted. "Are you trying to tell me I'm so small I could be mistaken for a Munchkin, you old . . . " Edward froze in mid rant, a look of absolute horror washing over his face.
Roy spun around to see what had caused the young man's shocked reaction, expecting to see that an armed Hess or Haushofer had breached the Gate, and was suddenly faced with a living nightmare.
"Dad! Hit the deck!" Edward cried out, just as the gigantic winged serpent swooped down towards the old man, jaws gaping. Hohenheim dropped to flatten himself against the concrete and the creature's snapping teeth missed him by a hair.
Roy raised his hand and snapped, cursing when nothing happened.
"Forget it, flame for brains," the monster sneered in its not quite feminine voice, hovering above the hole Hohenheim had just come through. "This pathway protects you from the energy flowing around you, but separates you from it as well. You can't use your alchemy here."
It spread its wings wide and angled in for another dive at Hohenheim, nearly causing the old man to step off the path in his efforts to dodge the attack. Then the serpent whipped around, lashing its tail at Roy who stumbled backward into Edward as the scaly tip flashed past his nose. The thing was playing with them!
The monster's leathery wings beat in long slow strokes, rising once again above the walkway, its ominous laughter rumbling like distant thunder. Then it folded its wings in close to its body and streaked down, straight at Hohenheim once more, playtime apparently over. The old man didn't even try to dodge aside this time. He turned to face the creature, arms spread wide as if to embrace it. Edward cried out just as the serpent slammed into his father, but instead of crushing Hohenheim with the force of the blow, the giant snake was flung away in a crackle of alchemic energy.
Hohenheim went down on one knee, choking slightly, then spit a dull brown rock out of his mouth. It clattered onto the path, then crumbled to dust.
"Out of gas," the old man muttered as he hoisted himself to his feet and turned toward Roy and Ed, golden eyes haunted.
"You can't escape me, Hohenheim of Light!" The serpent screeched as it sped towards the sidewalk once again, lashing the air with its tail.
Hohenheim put his head down and just ran.
Roy stood aghast, watching as the events unfolded. Edward was tensed behind him, his back to their escape, ready to squeeze past Roy on the narrow bridge, ready to place himself between Roy and the serpent, ready to charge back to help his father even though there was no way to fight the serpent here. Hohenheim was running full speed towards them, eyes wild, the giant snake coiling and uncoiling erratically as it spiralled through the air, zeroing in on its prey from behind.
"Get him out of here Mustang!" the old man howled. "And get the hell out of my way! I'm coming through!"
The spell broken, Roy spun around, slammed his palms into a surprised Edward's shoulders, and shoved him hard through the Gate. Then without a backward glance he ran through himself.
Chapter 11: Arrivals
Jean Havoc sat in the chair Alphonse had thoughtfully provided, assault rifle resting across his knees. Sentry duty again. The blond sighed. He could map his entire career as a series of short, frantic events linked together by long stretches of standing guard over someone or something. Not that he minded of course. It was just that he got to do a lot of thinking while he was keeping watch, and unfortunately he usually ended up thinking himself into a corner.
Take right now for example. He kept his attention on the matter at hand, but his mind was replaying everything Alphonse had said about Hawkeye, over and over again. The young alchemist had presented some very good evidence to support his claim that she was interested in Jean, and when he really thought about it, Havoc wondered why it had never occurred to him before.
There was the coffee thing of course, but that could be explained away by the friendship thing. And sure she never got coffee for the other guys, but the other guys never got coffee for her either.
The way he and Hawkeye worked so well together professionally was easy to explain in other ways too. For one thing, they had been teamed up for a long time, since Ishbal in fact, so naturally they understood each other almost intuitively.
It all came down to trust in the end, and that left Havoc with what was distressing him the most about this. It had never occurred to him that Hawkeye might see him as more than a friend, and more than anything he wanted to know if he had a chance with her, but the Hawk trusted him, just as he trusted her. If he tried to carry their relationship beyond friendship and she rejected him, well, he was used to rejection, but she might be offended by his advances. He had to decide if making a move on this close friend was worth the risk of doing irreparable damage to their friendship if he was wrong.
The entire premise was a series of tantalizing ifs. If Jean took the chance that Alphonse' revelation presented, and he didn't screw up what could possibly be the best thing that might ever happen to him, his whole life would change. He would no longer be the lonesome loser, dismal dates and lonely evenings a thing of the past. Instead he would suddenly have someone in his life who thought he was worth having in theirs. He would belong with someone. If Hawkeye was attracted to Havoc it wasn't just a fleeting interest. As the young alchemist had so astutely pointed out, propriety was the blonde sharpshooter's middle name, so she likely wasn't in the market for a one night stand or casual fling. She would be looking for someone she could spend her life with. All Havoc had to do was convince her that he was that someone.
But interested or not, with Havoc's track record it certainly wouldn't be easy. The woman never did things without considering all the angles and calculating the risks. And she always made sure all bases were covered.
Which was why Havoc was sitting behind the false wall that hid the open gateway, armed and ready in case it wasn't just the home team that arrived from the other world. Hohenheim had naturally made sure that the opening would be too small to permit another flying machine to pass through of course. In fact, the old man had made it so small that people had to come through one at a time, hoping to ensure that an armed force couldn't emerge en mass to overwhelm the Amestrian side's guards. That has been good thinking on the alchemist's part, since the Furher's arrival had resulted in the gateway having to be hidden, guarded by Havoc alone. Hakuro might not notice that one of Mustang's men was missing in his frenzy to capture Hohenheim, but certainly not more, so Jean was on his own. At least Alphonse had thought to make Havoc comfortable.
A strange crackling sound called the blond man from his thoughts, and he left the chair to crouch down behind the small, waist high barrier Alphonse had also provided in case Havoc needed cover. He shouldered his rifle, but left it pointed at the floor, not wanting to shoot a comrade by mistake. Looking at the gateway from the side, about five meters away, nothing seemed different about it, except for the weird noise it was making.
The crackling sound stopped and suddenly Edward was there, stumbling backwards out of the array, nearly crashing into the false wall erected to hide the open gateway. The young alchemist glanced back to the wall behind him, taking note of the warning painted there in big, red letters, then turned his attention once again to the Gate.
"Boss!" Havoc hissed out. "Come over here and get behind me!"
Keeping his eye on the gateway, the younger blond did as he was told, surprising the hell out of Havoc. This had to be the first time the young man had ever actually listened to him.
"There was something waiting for us in there," Edward whispered, crouching down behind the older blond. "I might have to go back in if Roy and my old man don't show up pretty soon. If a big snake pops out, shoot it."
"I'm pretty sure I would have, even if you hadn't told me to," Havoc whispered back, tightening his grip on the rifle.
The gateway was crackling again, and Havoc could feel Edward's tension, saw the younger man's hands raised to clap. The snapping built to a higher cadence, then Mustang was there, crouched low, looking over his shoulder, teeth gritted.
"Over here Roy!" Ed called, voice low.
Mustang moved quickly past Havoc, giving the older blond a shoulder clap greeting, typically all cool confidence as if he were returning from a walk in the park instead of a trip to another world. The Flame settled by Edward's side, pressed close in the narrow space behind Havoc's small barrier. "Was that the same giant snake that was at the Thule villa when we first got there?" he asked quietly.
Edward nodded, face grim. "If Hohenheim isn't through in about five more seconds, I'm going back in."
"If you are, then so am I," Roy told him.
"Hawkeye told me that if anyone made a move to go back through that gateway, I should shoot them in the leg," Havoc whispered apologetically. She hadn't of course, but if she had guessed something like that might happen Havoc was sure she would have, and he fully intended to follow her hypothetical order.
The gateway was making that sound again, a cross between a briskly burning campfire and rapid gunfire in the distance. Someone, or something, was coming. All three men crouched lower, and Havoc would have crossed his fingers if they weren't tight around the rifle's trigger. Edward's hands were again poised to clap. Mustang's gloved right hand was raised, ready to snap.
Then Hohenheim was through, moving at high speed. He crashed into the false wall and bounced, almost far enough to fall back into the gateway. The old man scrambled to his feet and lunged at the array's edge just as a massive, scaly snout plunged out of the golden shimmer of the gate. Havoc took aim, waiting for Hohenheim to be out of his line of fire, but Mustang was faster. Flames arced through the air, well over Hohenheim's head, then angled down to explode against the serpent's snout. The false wall attacked as well, Edward's contribution, stabbing a flurry of spikes into the creatures face. The muzzle flinched backward, then started to push out once again, but it was too late.
Hohenheim slapped his hands to the array's edge, and the hermetic symbols flared brilliantly to life. Something black, like thin eddies of smoke, swirled around the serpent's face and clung. Havoc blinked and the creature was gone, a shimmering golden afterimage outlining where it had been. Then the glow of the gateway bulged out, dissolving the spikes protruding from the false wall, reaching nearly to the limits of the wall itself. Suddenly the iridescent lump popped soundlessly, like a soap bubble, leaving a sparkle of silver mist hanging in the air.
The four men stood, looking at the now pristine wall where the otherworldly gate had been. No sign of the array or the Gate itself remained.
Havoc sighed in relief, shouldering his rifle. "Welcome home, gentlemen." He said with a grin.
Directing Rudolph Hess was taxing Alphonse to the limit. After the initial shock of having his body act without his consent, the German was now making a concerted effort to wrestle Alphonse for control. The hand gun was swinging erratically back and forth between Alfons and Haushofer, occasionally firing off a round as Hess and Alphonse struggled, and the young alchemist was frankly amazed that no one had been shot yet. Sir Phillip and the Curtises watched the bizarre battle from the dubious cover of various pieces of furniture, tensed and ready to act at the first sign of opportunity. Unfortunately, none had as yet presented itself.
That wasn't going to stop Karl Haushofer however. Confused and frightened by his comrade's behaviour, the professor still seemed determined to turn the situation to his advantage. Instead of seeking cover, he was edging closer to Hess each time the gun was not pointed in his direction, and flinching each time it swung back his way. The Thule scientist finally got to within two meters of the German officer and braced himself. The next time the pistol began to swing away towards Alfons, the man leaped towards his colleague, making a grab of his own for the weapon. Wrong move. The gun jerked back towards him when he grabbed for it, and fired as he tried to wrest it from Hess's hand. The bullet passed straight through his chest to bury itself in the wall by Sir Phillip's head. Haushofer fell backward to the floor, glazing eyes wide with surprise, staring up at the ceiling.
The shock broke Alphonse' control of Hess but fortunately not his hypnotic trance, though it was a near thing. The youngster could hear Alex Armstrong calling his name, felt big hands shaking his shoulders, trying to bring him back. The stress of the situation must have been showing quite clearly on the body he had left behind, but this wasn't over yet. There was no way in hell he would leave without closing the Gate. Already Alphonse could feel his connection with Alfons growing weaker, and it was a pretty safe bet that once he left this time, he would not be able to return. Hohenheim had been right. Although his link wasn't with Edward directly, their strong bond did have something to do with it, and now that Edward was no longer in this world, Alphonse no longer had anything to anchor himself here either.
By all appearances, Hess was not greatly affected by the accidental killing of his colleague, except as a strategic disadvantage. Teeth gritted, he was slowly backing away from the carefully advancing Curtises, trying to cover them all with the pistol, but with his back to the Gate there was nowhere he could go. The library's exits were behind the German's foes, and he had no hope of shooting them all before he was overpowered.
"I say again, sir! Give up!" Sir Phillip shouted, voice raised over the ragged breathing of their adversary. "Lay down your weapon and we will be lenient!"
Without hesitation, a cold smile on his face, Hess turned the pistol on Alfons and fired.
The sound of the firing pin snapping against the gun's empty chamber was deafening. Hess snarled, and tried once more before throwing the empty weapon at a charging Sig and running towards the open Gate. Tristan sprinted past his father, but only managed to skim his fingers along the retreating German's jacket before the desperate man dived through the shimmering interface. Tristan only just managed to slam on his brakes before he could fall through himself, and Izumi's relieved gasp exploded through the room.
Alfons was already staggering up out of the wheelchair, intent on making his way to the array, when Izumi pushed him back down into it and steered him to its edge. Without any input from Alphonse, the young German gently placed his hands on the array.
"What are you waiting for Alphonse," he said urgently. "It's time to lock this door and throw away the key."
The Amestrian nodded once, and clapped his own hands, left idle in Central, to cycle the alchemic energy. Adjusting Alfons' hands to the correct position, the alchemist poured that energy through his double to activate the all important outer ring Hohenheim had designed into the gateway arrays. The symbols flared to life, and the inner circle's capping symbol was now topped with an outer qualifier: Hades. Hermes Messenger became Hermes, Guide to the Underworld, where everyone's journey must eventually end. The golden gateway bulged outward, then simply dissipated in a haze of silver mist, the entire transmutation circle erased from the wall as if it had never existed.
Alphonse dropped his doubles hands into his lap, barely feeling them. He looked around at his gathered friends, suddenly very aware that he was slipping away, and would likely never see them again. He could feel himself becoming unfastened from Alfons, a feeling of being set adrift.
"Is that it?" Tristan asked, voice echoing oddly. "It's over?"
"It's over," Alphonse said with a nod. "And I'm going home. Something is pulling me away, and I don't think I will be able to come back."
"Ah, then goodbye Alphonse," Alfons said. "I am glad you have your brother back."
"Goodbye," he whispered. "Thank you for helping us. We will never forget you." Alphonse closed his eyes.
And opened them again. But this time he was not in the comfortable armchair back in Central. He was moving through a world of white, the shimmering strand of spidersilk in his hand reeling him along. And though he couldn't see them, Alphonse could feel others around him, moving in the same direction, much like grains of sand sinking through an hourglass. There was nothing to gauge how fast he was going against the background of unremarkable ivory, just the peaceful sensation of movement.
The young alchemist knew he must be on the plain of the Gate, but glancing around, the youngster found that the ominous black doors were nowhere to be seen.
Alphonse soon noticed that there was something out there however, off in the distance. It looked like a cracked, narrow strip of side walk, and someone appeared to be on it, but they wouldn't be for long. Not only was the walkway slowly dissolving from both ends, but a really big flying snake was attacking the someone, who Alphonse was unsurprised to identify as Rudolph Hess. The young alchemist winced as the giant reptile snapped up the German and shook him like a rag doll before swallowing him in a single gulp, and the youngster hoped that Edward, Hohenheim and the General had not met a similar fate.
The creature then looked Alphonse' way with ice cold hatred.
"Think you're getting your happy ending, do you?" it sneered, flapping its wings lazily to drift up close. "Well don't get too comfortable, little brother. You haven't seen the last of me."
The snake beamed a menacing grin at the boy, and then with a flick of its scaly tail, it sped away. Alphonse sagged with relief as the monster dwindled in the distance . . .
. . . and suddenly found himself lying on the floor of the Armstrong's Central estate, Alex gripping his shoulders almost painfully. The big man look relieved enough to cry when Alphonse blinked and reached to loosen the hands clutching him so tightly.
"Did they make it?" the boy asked, struggling upright with Alex' assistance. "There was a monster in there!"
The big man frowned. "I don't know, Alphonse. Rest for a moment, and we will go and see."
"I'm fine," the youngster said vehemently, jumping to his feet to prove it. "Come on Alex!"
Armstrong shot the boy a reassuring grin. "Ah, the resilience of youth!" he said. "Very well, but remember that we must be cautious. The Furher is still on the premises."
Alphonse already had the door open and was halfway down the hall towards the stairway leading to the basement. Alex had a hard time keeping up with the younger alchemist as he followed. The pair entered the lab-turned-sculpting studio, finding it empty, Alex's sisters helping to entertain their distinguished guest and his entourage. The colossal statue loomed over the two alchemists as they hurried behind it to the phony wall, the room dead quiet except for their hushed footsteps scuffing over the dusty floor.
Alex swept the dropsheet aside to let Alphonse clap and touch his hands to the wall, transmuting an elongated oval gap in the false panel. Both alchemists leaned in.
"Al!" The young man was pulled into the narrow hiding space and crushed into a hug. "Are you alright? What happened?"
"I'm okay brother," the youngster said, relief flooding him. "Everyone back in Cambridge is okay too. I. . . I accidentally shot Professor Haushofer while fighting to control Hess, and then Hess jumped through the Gate."
Hohenheim was closing the oval hole Alphonse had transmuted. "I wonder if he'll come through somewhere on this side." The old man said, almost to himself. "If he actually managed to survive the passage, it could be a problem to have him lurking around."
"He didn't," Alphonse told them, the revulsion in his tone obvious. "There was a monster in there. A giant snake. I saw it swallow him up." The young man turned to his father, who appeared distinctly uncomfortable. "It talked to me. It called me 'little brother', and said we hadn't seen the last of it."
The silence that met this revelation was uneasy.
Mustang broke it. "We've got more pressing concerns at the moment," he said. "The Furher is on the estate, and I would prefer that Edward, Von Hohenheim and I aren't discovered right now. Edward and I need time to come up with a plausible explanation for our reappearance that doesn't include knowing how to establish a stable link to the other world."
"We have made arrangements with those concerns in mind, General," Alex said. "For now, please come with me. There is a room in this manor house that appears on no blueprint, and is so artfully constructed as to be undetectable. Phineas Armstrong, my esteemed ancestor, was the master architect responsible for this beautiful estate. His clever design has ensured a secure refuge within these wall that has never been discovered by outsiders."
Hohenheim held up his hand, a thoughtful expression on his face. "You all go ahead," he said, then turned to Havoc. "The lieutenant and I have a meeting to attend."
"We do?" Havoc asked warily. "With who?"
"The Furher. You captured me, and I'm giving up without a fight."
Havoc looked nervous. "What? Why me?" he asked, then indicated the bald giant standing nearby. "Alex is more the heroic type." Armstrong struck a suitable pose to prove it, almost sparkling in the dimly lit space.
"Don't fight it, Lieutenant," Mustang smirked. "Really, I'd have thought you would jump at the chance to play the hero. The hero gets all the girls after all."
Havoc shot his commander a withering glare. "Maybe I don't want all the girls," he groused.
"I don't get why you want to turn yourself in, dad," Alphonse put in, worry written all over his face.
"He's doing it because he's a big ol' attention whore," Edward explained. "The bastard's over four hundred years old. He knows what he's doing. Let him have his fun."
Hohenheim gave his older son a fond smile. "I believe that is the nicest thing you have ever said about me, Edward."
"Yeah, well don't get used to it," the younger man returned, though not without fondness. "I still think you're an asshole. But . . ."
Hohenheim waited for it.
Edward cleared his throat. "Thanks dad, for coming back for me," he said quietly.
"You're welcome, son." Hohenheim's voice was content. "I'm glad I could do this for you, and for Alphonse too. The two of you deserve to be happy."
The old man then locked eyes with a cringing Havoc. "Now come on, Lieutenant! Let's get this show on the road."
Furher Gruman was just finishing his tea when Von Hohenheim walked into the sitting room with a smile, stunning everyone to silence. First Lieutenant Jean Havoc followed close behind with a deer in the headlights look on his face and a rifle held tight across his chest almost like a shield.
Hakuro was up out his chair so fast he nearly overturned the small table onto his leader. "Aha! So I was right after all!" he crowed gleefully.
Gruman was on his feet as well, staring at the alchemist. Never taking his eyes off the old man, the Furher addressed the soldier with him. "Lieutenant Havoc, what is the meaning of this?"
Hohenheim answered for him. "I heard that my son was here, and wanted to see him. This officer arrested me as I transmuted my way through the perimeter wall."
Hakuro glared at Havoc for a moment, then turned to one of his own men. Pointing at Hohenheim, the General snapped, "Take that man into custody. I will interrogate him myself."
"Well you could," Hohenheim said slowly, scratching his bearded chin thoughtfully. "But I wouldn't be inclined to cooperate with you. I have a strict policy of sharing my extensive knowledge, particularly concerning the world on the other side of the Gate, only with those I am allied with."
Gruman silenced Hakuro with a slash of his hand, preventing the man from snarling out his inevitable threats. "You would be willing to share that information?" he asked, eyes fixed on the older man's startling gold.
"Yes," Hohenheim said, eyes never wavering from the Furher's. "But I will not be coerced. I want to cooperate, but I will simply disappear at the first threatening gesture."
"Leaving your son behind to suffer the consequences?" Hakuro smirked his implied threat.
Phillip Armstrong was appalled. "You would stoop so low as to threaten a child?" he growled at the General, lip curled with disgust.
The Furher once again held up his hand, glaring at Hakuro. "As I must so often remind you, General, the days of Furher King Bradley are over." Gruman turned his attention back to the alchemist. "Rest assured that your son will come to no harm."
The old man raised an eyebrow, unconcerned. "Thank you for that, though Alphonse is more than capable of protecting himself."
"What is it you want from us, exactly?" Gruman asked, cutting to the chase.
Hohenheim shrugged. "A job," he said, and cracked an easy smile. "I've been on the run for a long time, and I want to settle down. My reputation precedes me I'm sure, but if you like, I can try to scrape up a few references."
Gruman thought this over for a few moments, carefully considering the old man in front of him. He could see that the master alchemist looked tired, and not just physically. Hohenheim appeared weary right down to his soul, and his statement rang true. On the other hand, the Furher had heard many things about this man, most of which were not flattering. Hohenheim was an incredibly talented alchemist yes, but he also had his own agenda, and it was virtually impossible to tell just what he might actually be up to. Could they really trust this man to share what he knew? And did they truly have a say in the matter? Hohenheim was here at the moment by choice, regardless of his transparent tale of capture by Lieutenant Havoc. Gruman was convinced that the old man could easily disappear if he chose to, taking his incredible talent and wealth of knowledge with him.
"You're hired," the Furher finally said, cracking an easy smile of his own. "Now, would someone get a cup for our new civilian consultant? He looks like he might enjoy some of this excellent tea while we hammer out the details of his contract."
The Furher sat back down, noting how Lieutenant Havoc nearly melted with relief. "Strangest job interview I've ever seen," the young officer muttered.
Roy had been expecting the Armstrong's safe room to be a small, underground chamber, and was pleasantly surprised to instead find himself in this bright, tastefully decorated room concealed in the sprawling layout of the manor's third floor. The building's design hid this spacious refuge among the other rooms with architectural sleight of hand; angles not quite what they seemed and walls not quite where they should be, both inside and out. The way in was through a sliding door disguised as a working fireplace, the latch a complicated manipulation of the mantle's ornamentation.
The dark haired man glanced at Edward, standing beside the window, gazing out at the estate's extensive rear grounds. The sun was low on the horizon, near setting, and the ruddy daylight slanting in burnished the young man's golden hair to brass. Behind the younger man was a canopied bed. King size, from the look of it. Knowing the Armstrong's preference for quality, it was likely very comfortable. The only thing that could make it more inviting was if Edward were sprawled across it.
"You're perving over there," Edward said, gaze still on the world outside. "I can feel it."
Roy closed the distance between them, slipping up behind the blond to slide his hands around the younger man's waist. "Guilty as charged," he leaned down to purr into Edward's ear. "I really can't help myself Edward."
The young man leaned back against him, calm and relaxed. "We should probably get some rest," he said apologetically. "We never got any sleep last night, for all the wrong reasons unfortunately."
"If you lie down on that bed, and I can't touch you, I think I might go insane," Roy warned him.
"Who said anything about not touching?" Ed whispered, turning in the older man's arms and tilting his face up, brushing his lips against the other's.
A sharp click signalled the unlatching of the fireplace entrance. The pair stepped away from each other as Phillip Armstrong strode into the room, closely followed by his son, and his youngest daughter carrying a tray of sandwiches.
"Give me one good reason why I shouldn't take you to Furher Gruman right now," the elder Armstrong demanded without preamble. "I dislike having to lie to my leader, who also happens to be a venerable old friend."
Mustang gave his former superior a salute, which the older man returned, Armstrong's stern demeanour never wavering. "I could give you several, Sir, but my main concern revolves around accepted Balance of Power theory."
Armstrong frowned, intrigued by a defence he had not anticipated. "Go on," he said, crossing his arms.
"If Edward and I are found now, it will be quite obvious that we have returned through the Gate. Even if we don't reveal how we managed it, the possibility of safe passage to the other world, and access to its superior technology, will be established."
Understanding dawned in the elder Armstrong's eyes. "Yes. And our people would begin to research ways to travel there to secure that technology for themselves."
"It would only be a matter of time before someone else discovered how to breach the Gate," Roy agreed. "Then, provided the other world's military didn't overrun us, their knowledge would be in our hands, and the international balance of power we now enjoy would be broken."
"But what would be so bad about that?" Catherine piped up, confused. "Surely having more advanced weapons than our neighbours would mean our nation would be safer."
"Quite the opposite, dear sister," Alex quietly explained. "The Balance of Power Theory as proposed by Charles Davenant has been proven correct throughout history. Their fear of our superior weapons would likely cause the countries around us to band together in the interest of self preservation, and to eventually mount a pre-emptive strike."
"And with the other world's superior weapons in hand, power hungry men like Hakuro would be bound to make use of them." Phillip pointed out. "The balance of power between states is what keeps us all in check. When that fails, there is nothing to stop a more powerful nation from attempting to exert its will on its neighbours, and the neighbours from resisting, until balance is finally restored, one way or the other."
Mustang nodded his agreement. "Can we afford to start down that path, knowing where it must eventually lead?"
The retired General rubbed a tired hand to his forehead. "Alright young Mustang, your point is made. You say there are other reasons to avoid this as well?"
"Yes Sir," Mustang confirmed. "Among other things, the political situation on the other side of the Gate is highly unstable. They are using their technology to destroy themselves and their planet, which I believe is what would happen here if we decided to retrieve it."
"I would love to discuss your experiences with you at length, after you have had a chance to rest," Philip said, intrigued, and Alex nodded to include himself as well.
"I'd be happy to share what I have learned, Sir," the Flame said with a grin and a short bow.
"So what do we do now?" Edward asked. "We can't stay cooped up in this room forever."
"Obviously not," Alex said with a sparkling smile. "Have no fear, Edward Elric. We Armstrongs are very resourceful, and will surely come up with a solution to your problem."
Phillip Armstrong finally smiled as well. "Indeed. But for now, get some rest," he said. "You both look exhausted. Come Catherine, Alex. The two of you look as though you could use a good night's sleep as well."
The Armstrongs filed out of the room, leaving Roy and Edward alone. The fireplace slid back into position. The latched clicked home. The pair looked at each other. Edward grinned, and then moved to the window, pulling the drapes closed.
"You heard the man," the blond said, eyes sparking with heat once again. "Time for bed."
"Far be it from me to argue with a superior officer," Roy said, moving to take Edward into his arms. "In fact, I'm more than willing to execute that kind of an order."
The blond man flicked at the button under Roy's collar, then unfastened it. "Then let me help you. You won't get a very restful sleep with this shirt on." Edward slowly moved down to the next button, then the next, until the shirt was completely unfastened and the blond could sweep it from the older man's shoulders to the floor.
Standing there in his undershirt, Roy cupped his hands around Edward's face, tilting it up and drawing it in close. He could feel hot breath through parted lips against his own, could see himself reflected in amber, caught that uniquely Edward scent, just as the loud click of the latch once again warned that now was not the time.
Hawkeye stepped into the room, a delighted grin gracing her features. "Welcome home Edward, General," she said. "I'm very glad you both made it back safely."
"Thank you Riza," Roy said, pleased to see his old friend in spite of what she had just interrupted. "I should have known you would do everything in your power to fetch me back, for which I am very grateful."
The woman raised an eyebrow, noting how close the two men were standing, along with Mustang's white shirt discarded on the floor like a deflated ego. Her grin widened. "I didn't mean to disturb your . . . rest, gentlemen, but I have a message from Phillip Armstrong. The Furher has left the grounds, but the General suggests that you stay in the safe room for the time being, as a safety precaution. He is also arranging transportation to Creta for you both. Apparently the family has a villa in one of the border towns, and he believes it would be a good place for you to lie low for a while."
"Ah, very good Lieutenant," Roy said, eyes twinkling. "I'm sure you can fill in the details of this plan for us later. Once we've had a chance to rest."
Edward's face was flame red, but he held his ground as Riza saluted and left the room, sliding the fireplace back into position.
"This isn't a safe room," the young man said as the latch clicked closed once more. "It's Grand Central Station."
Roy moved to examine the latching mechanism. "There doesn't seem to be any way to lock this thing," he muttered.
Ed grabbed one of the large, heavy armchairs and manhandled it onto the space between the fireplace and the wall, jamming it in tight to prevent the hearth from sliding open. Roy inspected the fit and nodded his approval.
"Now," the older man said, pulling the blond back in close. "I believe we were making ourselves comfortable." He brushed his hands up Edward's chest and eased the boy's jacket from his shoulders, eyes fastened on the young man's vest. "I like this; it's a good look for you."
"Take it off," Edward whispered.
How could Roy refuse? He slipped his fingers inside the snug waistcoat, easing the three buttons through their holes. The vest slid from Edward's arms to join his jacket on the floor as Roy reached up to release the young man's hair from its tie. Gold fell loose around Edward's up tilted face, sending a shiver of want along the dark haired man's nerves.
The latch clicked loudly, and both men turned to watch as the fireplace slid open, the armchair spit out of the corner like a watermelon seed.
"Brother!" Alphonse rushed in, clearly upset. "Mr. Armstrong just told me that you and the General will be leaving for Creta in the morning, and I can't come with you!"
"Calm down Al," Edward said, laying a comforting hand on his brother's shoulder. "What's going on?"
Al's explanation gushed out. "We're trying to come up with a plan so you and the General can come out of hiding, and the Armstrongs think it would be a good idea to send you away for a while, and I think so too, but they say that if I suddenly disappear and then come back with you, it will look like I went to the otherworld too and that's exactly what we don't want, but you just got back and I don't want you to leave again so soon!" Alphonse gasped in a breath, looking miserable.
Edward looked just as miserable. "I don't want to leave either, Al, but this time it's different. At least we're on the same planet." Ed looked to Roy.
"That's right Alphonse," the older man said. "This is a minor inconvenience that will only last for a short while, and the two of you can still keep in touch. I'm sure General Armstrong wouldn't object to forwarding some mail for the duration."
"Where have you been staying since I left?" Edward asked his brother.
"With Granny and Winry," Al told him.
"That's perfect," Edward smiled. "You won't be lonely, I'll know where to find you, and you can tell them what's going on, too."
The youngster calmed somewhat, but still looked doubtful. "I guess that's true," he said. "But it might be months before I see you again."
Edward snugged an arm around his little brother's shoulders, pulling him into a one armed hug. "What's a couple of months? We've got our whole lives ahead of us now," he said quietly.
The younger Elric sighed, and returned the hug. "I guess you're right," he said. Then his eyes landed on the clothing littering the floor, and then jerked back to his brother, taking in his hair hanging loose around his shoulders. "Oh hell, I'm interrupting something, aren't I?" he said, blushing a bright crimson.
"No Al, its fine!" Ed said, embarrassed.
Al started to back away towards the doorway, still blushing, but with a mischievous grin on his face. "I heard that General Mustang worked fast, but wow!" the youngster said, and Edward slapped his flesh hand over his face. The General, naturally, smirked shamelessly. "I guess I'll see you later, brother," Alphonse called over his shoulder as he fled through the door.
Again the latch clicked into place.
"Well, the last part of that exchange was rather uncomfortable, but it could have been worse," Roy observed. "This alleged 'safe room' is much too unsafe for what I was planing this evening."
"Visiting hour are over," Edward growled as he transmuted the fireplace securely to the floor so it wouldn't slide. "Should have done this in the first place," he muttered, disgruntled.
Roy took the young man's hand and led him to the bed with a smile. "I think we're safe now," he said.
And much later, his hands cupping the young man's face as he kissed him long and deep, Edward wild with passion underneath him as he finally sank into the boys warmth, his hips cradled by Edward's so perfectly as they began to move as one, the young man gasping his name like a familiar old song, golden hair spread behind a head thrown gloriously back, amber eyes locked to jet black, Roy knew in his heart that he was finally home.
Afterward, drifting towards sleep, Roy pulled Edward to him, brushing his lips against the younger man's ear. "I love you Edward," he whispered.
"I know, bastard," Edward whispered back, eyes closed and already halfway to sleep as well. "I love you too."
The futile clicking of the latch went unheard.
Hohenheim tried once more to operate the hidden latch on the mantelpiece, then gave up, deciding that he must have heard the directions wrong. He briefly considered transmuting his way into the room, but immediately decided against it. He just wanted to fill Edward and Roy in on the outcome of his visit with the Furher, and to reassure Mustang that he had no intention of handing the Gate array over to the military, regardless of how his little proposition might sound. Quite the opposite in fact. He had just placed himself in an excellent position to misdirect anyone else contemplating research in that area. All in all, the old man was proud of his accomplishments to date. He had set out to reunite his sons in the world they were born to, and had succeeded without sacrificing himself in the process, thus earning the privilege of perhaps becoming more involved in their lives. It just didn't get any better than this.
Hohenheim sighed, giving the stubborn latch a disappointed pat. Oh well, Edward and Mustang had probably gone to sleep by now. They had certainly been through a lot, and were likely exhausted. Tomorrow was another day. There would be plenty of time to talk before the two left for Creta. In fact, there was plenty of time for many things now, for all of them.
They were home.
Chapter 12: Epilogue
Alfons looked down Southampton Water from Dock Head, the early morning sun slowly burning through the light fog shrouding the port. Breathing in deeply, the young man was still enjoying the novelty of being able to do so without the previously inevitable tightening of his chest, and the horrible, lung clenching coughing fits that always followed. No longer was he a prisoner of the tubercular infection that had been gradually snuffing out his life. The Amestrian medicine had done its job, and the young German was a free man.
It had been six months to the day since Alfons had arrived in England, and he was finally leaving the sanctuary Phillip Armstrong had been happy to provide, though he was not homeward bound for Germany. He was on his way to Auburn Massachusetts, to meet with Robert Goddard. The Clark University professor had very graciously invited the young physicist to join his research team, and Alfons had jumped at the chance to work with the notoriously unconventional rocket scientist. Though the man's ideas were ridiculed in some circles, Alfons had found Goddard's proposal of liquid fuelled, multi staged rockets to be most intriguing, and had written to the man to clarify some points with him. That had marked the beginning of a very satisfying, ongoing correspondence, culminating in the invitation that Alfons had recently accepted.
Although the young man still missed Munich, the prospect of going to America wasn't quite as daunting as it could have been. Tristan Curtis was coming along after all. Friendship between the two young men thrown together by pure chance had grown until the two were practically inseparable. It was a foregone conclusion that where Alfons went, Tristan would follow as confidant and protector, and Alfons wouldn't have had it any other way. Though reluctant to see their only child off into the wide world, Izumi and Sig had known there would be no way to dissuade him, and so had given the boy their blessing. He stood now beside Alfons, following his friend's gaze across deep water, hands clasped behind his back, a wry smile quirking his lips.
"What are you thinking about to smile that way?" Alfons asked, curious.
The muscular youth glanced aside to his friend before returning his gaze to the sea. "I was just thinking about the voyage we will be taking, and wondering about our Amestrian friends. I still wonder sometimes if their journey saw them home, safe and happy."
Alfons often found himself thinking of the otherworlders as well. Since Alphonse had bid them farewell and slipped away, there had been no further contact, and thus no way to know if the Edward, Hohenheim, and Mustang had survived their passage through the Gate. Of course there was no reason to doubt that they had, but still, it would have been nice to know for sure. There was absolutely no way to find out though, and Alfons had realized a taste of what Edward had been going through for the two years he had spent trapped here on earth, completely out of touch with his loved ones.
"I'm sure they're fine," Alfons said reassuringly. "They are a strong and stubborn bunch. Jumping through wormholes to different worlds would almost be a walk in the park for the likes of them, particularly after all they had been through."
"Do you think we will ever hear from them again?"
"When I look up into the night sky at all the stars, I wonder if one of them could be the sun that lights their world." Tristan grinned at his friend, eyes twinkling. "Maybe one day you will build a rocket that could take us there."
Alfons returned the grin, reaching up to clap a hand on the taller youth's shoulder. After all, when it came right down to it, all he had ever wanted to do was build rockets. Travel through space, to the moon and beyond, was his dream.
Who knew what the future might hold?
Alphonse hopped off the train and scanned the busy platform for his father. Central Station was a chaos of rushing people, but the old man's height made Von Hohenheim easy to spot as he made his way toward his youngest son, contented smile in place. The young alchemist's face lit with a grin of his own as he moved to meet the older man.
"It's good to see you Alphonse," Hohenheim said as he took hold of the boy's luggage. "You're looking well. Resembool obviously agrees with you. How was the trip?"
"It was three days sitting on a train," Alphonse said with a shrug. "And it's good to see you too, dad."
The pair pressed their way to the exit amid the crush of early morning commuters, out to the street and the waiting military car. Behind the wheel sat First Lieutenant Havoc, unlit cigarette balanced on his grin.
"Hey Al!" Havoc greeted the boy.
"Hey Lieutenant Havoc!" Al returned the greeting. "Has anyone heard from brother and the General?"
"Edward called me last night to say that they were in South City, and would likely be arriving in Central sometime tomorrow morning, right on schedule," Hohenheim told him as he tossed his son's suitcase in the trunk and slammed down the lid.
Although he had been expecting it, Alphonse grinned from ear to ear at this long awaited news. He could hardly wait to see his brother again. The last six months had seemed longer than the previous two years. "And how is your new job going, dad? Are you getting along with Furher Gruman?"
"I suppose," the old man said, scratching his chin thoughtfully as he nudged his son into the back seat of the car and slid in to join him. "I'm somewhat impressed to be honest. For a politician, and a military man on top of that, he's surprisingly intelligent. He has a great deal of personal and professional integrity as well. He's no Churchill of course, but I'm sure few people could measure up against that standard, on this or any other world."
Havoc shot a questioning glance through the rear view mirror at Alphonse, who shrugged. The young alchemist sometimes wondered if his father knew what world he was currently inhabiting, or if he even cared. Then he caught the amused look his father cast in his direction and smiled. So, he was being had. Well that was fine. It might take him some time to get to know his father before he got a handle on the man's strange sense of humour, but when he did, Hohenheim had best watch out. Alphonse would be only too happy to give as good as he got.
The youngster turned his attention to their driver. "And how about you, Lieutenant Havoc?" Alphonse asked, a twinkle in his eye. "Are you and Miss Riza still the talk of the town?"
Havoc's face lit up with a spectacular grin. "You bet," he said, and then said no more, his smile enough to say it all.
"Well, let's get you home and fed, Alphonse," Hohenheim said, giving a little wave to get Havoc moving. "We'll likely get very little time to relax after Edward gets here tomorrow, so we'd best get our catching up done now while we have the chance."
Yes, it was bound to be busy once brother and the General arrived in Central. There would be tales to spin, secrets to keep, and the inevitable public inquiry to deal with. But the end was in sight. Edward was home safe and sound, and that was all Alphonse had ever wanted. Before long things would go back to normal, or as normal as it ever got in a family of genius alchemists.
Alphonse looked forward to discovering what it would be like to just live for today.
From his comfortable vantage point, head pillowed on Roy's shoulder, Ed watched the early morning sunlight slanting through the window creep slowly across the bed to cast shadow patterns amidst the rumpled sheets. Its measured advance gradually spread a golden glow across Roy's pale skin, and Edward's fingers followed that slow progress with a touch too light to disturb the older man's sleep.
Edward smiled lazily, sighing quietly, contentedly. It had been six months since the pair had returned from the other world, since their first night in the Armstrong manor, and the young man still found himself wondering what he could possibly have done to deserve this. In a life tainted by sin and guilt, bad choices and worse fortune, how had a total mess like him lucked into such an amazingly happy ending? The pair would soon be back in Central, the final phase of their plan ready for execution.
Edward thought back to those days, months ago, when he and Roy along with Alex Armstrong had worked out a plausible explanation for their return that did not include voluntary travel through the Gate from this world. The plan they had agreed on had been for Roy and Edward to lie low for a while, then surface far from Amestris and journey back.
From the Armstrong villa in Creta, the two alchemists had set out, their ultimate destination Xing. Avoiding Amestrian soil entirely for fear of being recognized, Roy and Ed had travelled the long, southern route through Creta to Aerugo's southern coast. Then, making their way to the deep water port of Oua, they had booked passage on the first ship bound for the Far East. Using no alchemy, and keeping Edward's automail hidden, the pair had arrived incognito at their destination without incident.
The journey had been no great hardship. In fact, Edward found it almost therapeutic after what they had been through. Spending time alone with Roy, no imminent threat hanging over their heads to intrude, gave them a chance to really get to know each other, and their relationship had flourished. As much as he used to bitch and complain about it, Edward had always secretly enjoyed the nomadic lifestyle that seeking the Philosopher's Stone with his brother required, and it was good to once again be traveling with someone he loved and trusted. Of course traveling with Al had never been like this.
As he slowly traced his fingers over the landscape of Roy's chest, down to dust lightly along the curve of the dark haired man's hip, Ed let his eyes map the contours of his lovers sleeping face. The Flame's exotic features were completely relaxed in repose, his dark hair ink splashed against the white spread of the pillow. Roy's lips held the hint of the smile he had fallen asleep with, his special smile that was just for Ed. His eye patch lay discarded on the bedside table, and Edward found the smooth, crescent shaped scar marking where Roy's left eye had been did nothing to detract from the older man's attractiveness. Roy was always beautiful, but never more so than when sleeping so peacefully by Ed's side. It was a sight the younger man never tired of. But as of tomorrow morning, his time for a lazy, early morning appreciation of his slumbering lover would likely be at an end, for a little while at least.
They were on their way home. The mere thought made Edward tingle with anticipation. His contact with Alphonse had been far too brief and erratic for his liking, and the older Elric looked forward to spending some long overdue time with his little brother. They had a lot of catching up to do, and Edward looked forward to it. He also looked forward to seeing Winry and Granny Pinako again. Some down time in Resembool after the military had satisfied themselves that he had no otherworldly secrets to divulge sounded just about right.
The stage was set for their official return to Amestris, Roy already having contacted Furher Gruman from Xing to say that he had returned to this world, was on his way to Amestris, and the Fullmetal Alchemist was with him. Their story would be quite simple. The pair had spent their time in the other world as prisoners of that side's military. A gateway to the other world could only be opened from the other side, and even the otherworlders couldn't predict where they would come out in this one, which was why Roy and Ed had found themselves in Xing. Worse yet, the gateways were so unstable that they often caused widespread destruction when opened, substantiated by the earthquakes in Lior and Central. And to top it all off, they were prone to collapsing spontaneously without warning. As for any intelligence on the other world's fantastic technology, the pair planned to claim that as prisoners of that world's military, they had not been privy to the specifics of those scientific advances. Indeed, they had been lucky to escape their captors, who had wanted their prisoners' alchemical secrets as bad as Amestris' military wanted the other world's weapons.
On the surface, their story seemed sound, and Edward only hoped that it would hold up in practice. The younger alchemist wasn't looking forward to the interrogation they were sure to be subject too. According to Phillip Armstrong, General Hakuro would likely be in charge of the investigation, and he was a hard man to deal with at the best of times. Frustrated by what he would unreasonably perceive as a lack of cooperation, like a cranky toddler deprived of a desperately wanted new toy, he was bound to be at his worst. Still, if Edward and Roy remained consistent to their tale, it would eventually work out in their favour.
For Roy the hope was that once their story was accepted he would be welcomed back into the military with his rank intact. And for Edward? Well, with his whole life was stretching out in front of him, the young man was content to wait and see. He had a future, and what he did with it was his to decide, but the only thing the young alchemist was sure he wanted at this point was to spend that future with Roy. There was no rush to make those decisions right now. Edward could at least wait until the furor their arrival in Central was sure to cause had died down before looking beyond.
At the moment however all the drama was still a day away, and Edward wasn't going waste these last few moments of calm worrying about the coming storm. There were more important things to be concerned with. Like coming up with a creative way to awaken his lover for example. If he played his cards right, Edward was sure he could convince Roy that there were better things to do right now in this bed than sleep. Come to think of it, knowing Mustang, he could probably do that even if he played his cards wrong.
Then Roy opened his eye, and a sleepy smile moved close to brush against Edward's. It was times like these when the younger man wondered if this were a dream, but never in his wildest had he imagined this, to be loved like this, to love like this. Trapped on the other side of the Gate his dreams had been of Al, and home, and he had been sure that he would never see either again.
His thoughts were swept away as Roy's lips against his became more insistent. This wasn't a dream. No dream could make him feel the way Roy did, strong, confident, invincible to the attacks they were sure to face very soon. It had been years since he and Al had burned down their house and walked away, and he had never looked back, never once felt that sense of belonging that makes a home. Until now.
This was Edward's dream come true.