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It starts with a twinge and ends with General Roy Mustang, decorated officer of the Amestriam military, undisputed pillar of dignity, lying on the floor fighting for the wherewithal to wheeze.

Well—really it starts earlier than that, and much more quietly, but Roy’s learned over the years that sometimes people stop listening halfway through if you don’t start the story off with something of impact.  Roy has also learned that sometimes you have to make up the whole story from beginning to end.

It would make for a poor story, for instance, to start with I was complaining idly about shoulder pain, and my best friend and primary source of solace said “Perhaps you’re just getting old, sir”; and the short streak of vicious lightning still illuminating my wretched life at unheralded intervals said “Better not try to get workman’s comp, ’cause nobody in their right mind’d believe that you spend enough time at your desk for it to happen that way” and then walked out of the room.

It would make an even poorer story to begin with I never even dreamed that he would come back to this den of wolves, let alone to the pack I attempt to lead around it, let alone willingly; and it was only after he had that I realized how much it meant, and how much it mattered, and I started to miss him every time he wasn’t there.

Roy is a connoisseur, after all, of regret.  He is no stranger to missing things: no stranger to wistfulness, to wondering, to wishing fervently and feeling weak.  He misses everyone he’s ever lost, and everyone he’s taken away.  He misses the days when he felt like the world was new, and vast, and unexplored, instead of endless and unfriendly.  He misses the days when his curiosity, not a sense of looming dread, was what drew him to discoveries, and when what he learned was a reward instead of an ever-unfolding well of worseness.  He misses burning the midnight oil because he wanted to, rather than because he has to hide his intellect in order to survive; he misses the days when burning anything didn’t send a rolling curl of frigid anguish up and down his spine.  He misses youth.  He misses innocence.  He misses looking forward to the rest of his life.

And he misses every single one of his exes, although one of them merits an order of magnitude more than any of the rest.  Love, then—he misses that, too, if he ever really had it at all.  Maybe he misses the shadow of it.  Maybe he misses what he thought it was, and what it could have been, if he hadn’t tried to close his hands around it and watched it dwindle down and disappear into the night.

That’s the worst story yet.  They should pay him for this sort of thing.  He should take up writing dime-store novels; he’ll make a fortune, and he can give it all away, and then his conscience might cede him a couple hours of sleep.

The long and short of it is that, on this particular evening, he’s barely even started complaining about the tingling feelings he keeps getting up and down his right arm—particularly in the fingers, which is clearly a sign that he’s strained something and needs to take a break from signing forms—when an incomprehensible quantity of concentrated agony strikes him in the center of the chest and fells him where he stands.

In the first instant, the shock overwhelms him so entirely that he doesn’t even feel it.

In the second instant, however, he sure as hell does—so acutely that the darkness at the edges of his vision winches inward, and so abruptly that it almost swallows him before he surfaces.

Stars blink and shimmer honey-bright and jet-black in front of his vision, followed by a rather worrying foggy swathe of white, but then everything clears in time for him to focus on Riza crouched down beside him, reaching for his shoulder.

“Roy?” she says.

It occurs to him that she is crouching because he is on the floor.  It also occurs to him that he’s been tracking mud all over this carpet all day, and now he’s pressing his face against it.  How positively unbecoming.

“Ow,” he says.

That’s not much better.

“What happened?” she asks.  “What is it?”

Someone who doesn’t know her quite as well as he does might expect her not to believe him.  Someone who doesn’t know him quite as well as she does might not realize that he’s not a good enough actor to replicate a fall like that.

He also wouldn’t have landed on his face.  Not ever.

“I have no idea,” he says.  He tries, through the whirl of This isn’t possible, isn’t possible, can’t be right, can’t be real twirling through his cranium, to take stock of the specifics of the sensations that have left him sprawled out on his office floor.  Breathing hurts like hell, which is more than a bit inconvenient given the necessity of that particular activity.  “I think… do you remember that time when I was sixteen, and I fell off of your father’s roof and broke three ribs?”

She stares at him.  “You were—standing.  You were just standing there.”

“I was working,” he says.  “Avidly.”

She gives him a look.

He was thinking avidly about work—which, in this business, in his position, is every bit as important as the paperwork a lot of the time, but given that speaking also hurts, he’ll have to save that defense for a time that he’s feeling less like a winded ragdoll that’s been run down by a truck.

The upshot is that she’s the only one who bore witness to this feat of inexplicable agony: his team’s attention spans gradually degrade as the week progresses, at a rate consistent enough that he’s made progress on calculating the attention half-life of each of his officers.  On a Thursday night past six, their interests in their livelihoods have long since waned, and even Falman straggled out and homeward half an hour ago.  It’s just him, and Riza, and the utterly bizarre phenomenon at hand.

“Anything in the spine?” Riza asks.  “Can you get up?”

Roy takes the two hands she offers, even though raising his arms also hurts.  “Let’s find out.”

As it turns out, he can get up.

As it turns out, any motion that requires rotation, contortion, or aggravation of his torso sets his entire body aflame.

“I’ll bet you two thousand cens it’s a broken rib,” he says—gasps, really, but he’s trying his best not to notice that part.

“No,” Riza says.  She doesn’t specify which part is disagreeable, so most likely it’s everything, possibly including his entire existence.  “Come on.  Will Knox be at home?”

Roy attempts not to lean on her too much, and also not to move his upper body in the slightest in the process of walking.  Neither is particularly successful.  “Where else would he be?”

“Hiding from us,” Riza says.

“Park down the street,” Roy says.  “If he can’t see the car, he won’t have time to run.”

“Brilliant,” Riza says.  “You seem to be enjoying walking so much that I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t want to do as much of it as possible.  Perhaps a mile away will be enough.”

“Good point,” Roy says.  “If he tries to make a break for it, you’ll have to give chase.”

“Doesn’t it hurt when you talk?” Riza asks.

“Yes,” Roy says.  “But I’m sure it hurts you even more.”

Getting a laugh out of Riza Hawkeye is not inconsequential, which brings Roy’s tally to two implausible things achieved tonight.

“Good news is,” Knox says, sitting back and gesturing in a manner so vague that it would not connote anything like You can sit up now if it wasn’t for the wonder of context clues, “it’s not broken.”

Sitting up is agony.  Presumably that was Knox’s intention all along, since grimacing his way through it distracts Roy from saying anything more brilliant than, “What’s the bad news?”

“It’s definitely cracked,” Knox says.  “Which there’s nothing we can do about.  And your two options are to keep breathing really deeply until it heals—which is going to continue to hurt like the Devil tap-dancing on your ribcage—or to wind up with pneumonia.”

“I pick pneumonia,” Roy says.  “Definitely.  Much more fun.”

He can feel Riza slowly raising her eyes from her report to give him a look.

“Fine by me,” Knox says as Roy does up his shirt—which also hurts.  This is going to get very old very fast, isn’t it?  “Enjoy.  Fuck you, by the way.”

Roy pauses.  He hadn’t realized that shirt buttons were quite so controversial.  “What did I do this time?”

Knox gestures at him, every bit as vaguely as the first time.  “Stay in shape even though you sit at a desk all damn day long.  It’s criminal.”

“Procrastinating burns calories,” Roy says.  It’s much pithier and much less boring than the truth, and it garners him another glare from Riza for good measure.

“You’re a genetic miracle,” Knox says.  “Enjoy that, too.”  Roy attempts to enjoy sliding to the edge of the cot-examination-table-item he’s been inhabiting, which—shockingly—also summons a cascade of spears of pain.  “You want to tell me how this happened?”

“No,” Roy says.

Knox raises an eyebrow in a remarkably meaningful way.

“It’s really not a good story,” Roy says.

Knox raises the other eyebrow, which doubles the meaning.  He is, not so incidentally, standing in between Roy and the door.  “Try me.”

Roy heaves as deep a sigh as he can bear given how much it hurts.  “All right, it…” At risk of damaging a lung, he sighs again.  This narrative he intends to sell.  “We were leaving the office, and I was telling Lieutenant Hawkeye about all of the nonsense that happened in one of the morning meetings, and I was making some gestures—very tactful and understated ones, mind you—and I was… not exactly watching my feet, or the hallway, or anything ahead.  The Lieutenant was reading through the report that we’d just finished, which we were planning to hand in on the way out, so I may have made some… slightly less understated gestures to get her attention, and I was focusing on that, and… at that point, we both assumed that the other was looking where I was going, and… there was… a sudden encounter with a stairway railing.”

Both of Knox’s eyebrows have lowered, which makes for an expression that incorporates more elements of a scowl than Roy would like.

Then he snickers.

“You have to be careful with those railings,” Knox says, winding up the tail of his stethoscope.  “They sneak up on you when you least expect it.”

“So I’ve noticed,” Roy says.  He eases himself the last inch to the edge of the cot and gingerly puts his weight on his feet.  It is truly revelatory just how many varieties of motion require one’s torso, and are consequently tantamount to torture tonight.  “I suppose we’d better get out of your hair.”

“What of it there is,” Knox says.  “Take care, Roy.  You, too, Lieutenant.”

Roy chooses not to think too much about what it might mean that he doesn’t merit an iteration of his office, and Riza does.  “Goodnight,” he says instead, and Riza leads the way to the door, and that’s… that.

For a grand total of thirty seconds, at least, as that’s approximately how long it takes them to get out of earshot.

“Would you care to share why you didn’t tell him the truth?” Riza asks.

“I’m already in a more than sufficient quantity of pain,” Roy says.  “I didn’t think it prudent to tell the single most ruthlessly pragmatic person who’s ever menaced me with a scalpel something along the lines of ‘I cracked a rib apropos of absolutely nothing’.”

Riza’s quiet for a moment before she says, “I suppose that’s fair.”  Then she’s quiet for another moment before she says, “Has Ed never menaced you with a scalpel?”

“Only the letter opener,” Roy says.  “And I’m close to eighty percent confident that he was just looking for a visual aide and didn’t realize that it was sharp, so he had no idea how threatening it was.”

“Interesting,” she says.

He has no idea what that means, and after the evening he’s had, he doesn’t feel brave and/or self-flagellating enough to ask.

They’ve staggered their way—well, Roy has staggered his way; Riza is walking normally, albeit slowly, beside him—back to the car.  Instead of unlocking it, she turns to him.

“What if it’s part of something bigger?” she asks.  “Or something worse?”

“We’ll burn that bridge when we come to it,” he says.

“You are a piece of work, sir,” she says, but he can tell that she’s trying not to smile.

“Artwork,” he says.  “A celebrated masterpiece.”

“Yes, sir,” she says, and now she’s definitely smiling.

The timing is… poor, to say the least: winter is miserable enough without some indefatigable chest pain.  Ever since Hughes died, this sort of weather has sought him out and pinned him down like a vengeful demon—seeping into his bones, slipping into his veins, swimming inside him until he’s cold straight through, like a backwards premonition of the creature he could have become.

He knows it was cold before—he remembers that, clearly enough.  But it wasn’t cold like this.  It wasn’t the kind of cold that cut through him and swelled in him until the abstract thought of summer makes his heart feel weak.

The whole team always holes up together at their local pub on Friday nights, the better to moan about the trials of the week and indulge a slightly obscene abundance of the place’s signature cheesy fries.  Roy imagines they’d melt the cheese longer than normal and serve his extra hot if he requested it special, but somehow he knows that that won't help.  This is a different sort of cold.  It’s deeper.

It’s probably a good thing Ed won’t be back from the latest mission until Monday.  Tonight, on the heels of yesterday’s rather sleepless evening, Roy got a call several minutes after five—and picked up, only to be informed by the switchboard operator’s smooth voice that the originator was the very errant alchemist he’d been thinking of.

He was greeted by silence, however, when he answered the call with, “Pray tell how I may be of assistance, Major Elric.”

“You’re still here?” Ed asked after a series of seconds long enough that Roy had begun to wonder if the line had dropped.  “Shit.  I mean—obviously.  Don’t answer that.  Shut up.”

“There were a few things I wanted to finish,” Roy said, which was, for once, the truth.  He had had to walk very sedately to all of his meetings today to avoid aggravating the rib, and it set him back a bit.  “I’m meeting the others in a few minutes.  I can only dare to hope that Lieutenant Havoc will keep my seat warm.  Everything all right?”

Ed was silent for a few more seconds.

“Yeah,” he said, slowly.  “Why?  Do you expect something to be wrong?”

“Ed,” Roy said, “I always expect something to be wrong.  It’s the reason I’m still alive.  You get extra points for fulfilling my fears often enough that they no longer qualify as paranoia.  Thank you for that, by the way.”

“Whatever,” Ed said.  “Everything’s fine.”

“Good,” Roy said.  “Just don’t think this counts as your report.”

“Can’t hear you,” Ed said, every bit as clearly and calmly as the moment before.  “Line’s breaking up.”

“Lying to your superior officer is insubordination,” Roy said, as if either of them was anything less than infinitely familiar with the bounds of the term.  “It’s also rather rude.”

“So’s leaving me out of pub night just because I’m a hundred miles away,” Ed said.  “See if I ever buy you a second order of cheesy fries ever again.”

“Blackmailing your superior officer with threats to withhold cheesy fries is also insubordination,” Roy said.

“It is not,” Ed said.

“I’ll look it up,” Roy said.  “Are you sure you’re all right?”

“Is your hearing going?” Ed asked.  “I said I was, and I am, and it’s fine.”

“The repetition really sells it,” Roy said.  “Almost as well as the way you get more irritated the more I ask.”

“You’re the worst,” Ed said.  “I’m fine.  Everything’s fine.  Just—go have your damn cheesy fries and leave me alone.”

“As you like,” Roy said.  “I’ll have a few more than usual in your honor.”

“Better make it a whole basket,” Ed said.  “Good luck.  Hope you live, I guess.”

“Thank you,” Roy said.  “Travel safe, Major.”

“Quit calling me that,” Ed said, and immediately hung up the phone, which wasn’t even a surprise.

It’s good that he’s not here—not because Roy has an excuse to eat more cheesy fries, although that’s certainly a perilous side benefit.

It’s good because he always finds his way over to Roy’s side of the table and starts elbowing and commentating and making up odd little stories to explain the idiosyncrasies of the people sitting at the bar.  It’s good because he always insinuates himself between Roy and Roy’s histrionic tendencies and makes Roy laugh against his will instead of leaving him to wallow.  Roy has always been top-notch at wallowing.  It’s really a bit of a shame to have his talents so regularly disrupted.  Evidently Ed just has such a deep and fundamental aversion to weltering in self-pity that he can’t bear to witness it in others, and he feels compelled to battle it at every turn.  On an ordinary Friday night, Roy appreciates that more than he can quite put into words.

Tonight, then, for the first time in a long time, he’s grateful for Ed’s absence instead: tonight, laughing would hurt.

But it’s every bit as much a danger as a relief, isn’t it?  Left to its own devices, Roy’s mind is a pit of snakes, writhing and rife with venom, seething around itself.  This, too, is an ouroboros, built into the structure of his soul.  The wretchedness feeds itself by way of its own consumption, cycles endlessly, expands—

Every member of this team would lay their lives down for him.  Most of them came close.  And then all of them came back.

No man alive deserves that.  Roy Mustang is the last pathetic creature that should claim such loyalty—such feats of faith; such impossible heights of human decency; all of them should run before he drags them deep into the mire or cuts their throats with his own two hands.

“Hey, sir,” Fuery says.  He struggles to set the tray bearing the latest round of drinks down flat on the table, slides onto the booth bench seat next to Breda, and holds a slip of paper out across the table to Roy.  “The pretty brunette at the bar wanted to give you her number.”

Roy doesn’t glance over—there’s really no way to do it that isn’t self-aggrandizing, dismissive, or some nasty combination of the two.  Offhand rejection is difficult enough without the rejector deliberately grinding salt into any and all exposed areas of the wound.  In addition, Riza is still over there waiting for their fries, and if he hurts anyone’s feelings tonight, she’ll eat his share to punish him.  “Tell her I’m very sorry, but I’ve just started dating someone, and you’re available any night of the week.”

“First of all,” Fuery says, “I’m not, because I have to get a bunch of data for that power grid thing on Wednesday night—” Roy does not mention that he has no idea what the ‘power grid thing’ is, especially since he’s probably the one who asked for it.  “—and second… General.  Really?”

“What?” Roy says.  “You’re an extremely eligible bachelor.  You’re a catch.  Anyone would be lucky to have you.”

The look Fuery gives him is so deadpan that it should honestly be photographed and framed.

“Scoot,” Riza says from the edge of the table, and then she’s bumping his elbow with her hip to punctuate the command, since apparently he didn’t move over fast enough.  She sits down, sets a basket of cheesy fries in front of him, takes two out of it despite having an entire basket of her own, and then eats them.

“Good timing,” Roy says.  “You’ve just helped me sell my excuse without having to bribe Kain to go back over there.”

Riza wrinkles her nose.  “Am I your fake date again?”

“You say that like it isn’t one of the world’s greatest honors,” Roy says.

Riza looks him in the eyes, reaches over to his basket, and takes two more of his fries.

“Ah,” Roy says.

“Question,” Havoc says.  “Why aren’t you guys real-dating?”

“We can’t,” Riza says.

Falman tilts his head.  “The fraternization laws do have a few exce—”

“Not because I report to him,” Riza says, licking her fingers.  “Because he doesn’t put out enough.”

So much for not laughing.

Among the increasing number of signs that his age is starting to catch up with him: when he steps into his office Monday morning, flicks on the lights, and discovers Ed already sprawled out on the couch, it is no longer a humorous exaggeration to say that he veers extremely close to the edge of cardiac arrest.

Holding a hand over his heart barely aggravates the rib.  At least his life’s single most inexplicable injury has left him his melodrama.

He’d come in early on purpose to scrounge up a few minutes’ peace with his coffee and the newspaper before his crowd of lovable ruffians—including and perhaps particularly the one already eyeing him over the back of the couch—arrived, but evidently that little plan’s been scuttled before it made it out of port.  He crosses to the couch to hand over the newspaper, since Ed’s going to make a point of ignoring him at various points during their conversation anyway, and one of them might as well get caught up on current events in the process.

“You’re up early,” he says.

The slightest hint of an odd sort of tightness touches Ed’s eyes as he reaches up to snatch the newspaper out of Roy’s hands, but then it’s gone again.  “Couldn’t sleep.  Took a nap on the train, like an idiot, so it’s my own fault.”

Roy keeps his hand extended, blinking as slowly as he can.  His minute muscle control isn’t nearly as pronounced when he hasn’t yet had his caffeine, but he musters a nice, subtle, expectant bit of fingertip waggling nonetheless.

Ed, of course, has already cracked open Roy’s newspaper and commenced a stint of some well-practiced ignoring of his superior officer.  “Report’s on your desk.  Dropped it off when I showed up.”

Roy saunters over towards his desk, doing his best not to aggravate the lousy no-good excuse for a rib.

This is interesting.  Usually prying reports out of Ed is roughly akin to pulling teeth, and Ed does his admirable best to get away with an oral presentation supplemented by the vaguest of outlines.  “Thank you.  Is there a particular reason you were sitting in the dark?”

“Trying to snag a nap,” Ed says.  “I live in hope or whatever shit.”

“Bless your bountiful heart,” Roy says.  Gingerly, he sits.  The small, stapled stack of sheets on his desk is… unexpected.  He pages through.  “Is this… finished?”

“Jeez,” Ed says.  “You complain when I give you drafts; you complain when I give you shit that’s done; you complain when I give you overviews; you complain when I give you ‘novels’; you complain when the sun shines, and oxygen’s breathable, and—”

“I play to my strengths,” Roy says.  Fortunately, trying to skim and snark at the same time is one of his strengths, too, these days.  There has to be a catch to this.  “Your works of fiction are delightful, but if I put them in the records room, we’re both dead meat, and you know it.”

“We’re dead meat anyway,” Ed says.  “Just give it a couple decades.  Or in your case, a couple days.”

“My poor ego,” Roy says.  “Will it ever recover?  No one knows.  Can you give me a hint?”

“About what?” Ed asks.  “How to get that stick out of your ass?  I dunno how you fit it up there in the first place with your head there already.”

“About what’s wrong with your report,” Roy says.

“Holy hell,” Ed says.  “I show up at the crack of dawn and hand you the exact thing you’ve been begging me for all of these years, and instead of gettin’ down on your knees and thanking your every single lucky star for the day I was born, you wanna sit there and whine about it?”

“‘Want’ is a fascinating word choice in that sentence,” Roy says.  “Surely I don’t have to explain the concept of patterns and anomalies to you.”

“Maybe I turned over a new leaf,” Ed says.  “And maybe I’ll turn it back if you keep giving me grief about what you’ve been saying was a good thing all this time.”

Roy folds his hands on top of the fishiest report that’s ever landed on his desk, including the one that reeked of dead marine life after Ed ‘accidentally’ dropped his draft in a puddle at the market.  “You do realize that the harder you try to convince me that this is normal, the less it’s going to work.”

Ed scowls down at the newspaper.  “Whatever.  What time is it?”

Roy has learned to roll with the punches when it comes to the leaps of logic in Ed’s trains of thought: he checks his watch.  “Ten minutes to eight.”

“Cool,” Ed says.  “Library’ll be open by the time I get there.  Got some research ideas while I was digging through Robertson’s library.  If this pans out, I’ll tell you about it tomorrow.”

Roy opens his mouth to say I should hope so, but the words disintegrate halfway across his tongue, because a flicker of a wince crosses Ed’s face as he slings himself up off of the couch.

This is disconcerting for two primary reasons: firstly, Ed has such an unimaginably high tolerance for pain that any outward indication is a very bad sign; secondly, especially in this latest post-quest stage of his ostentatiously exciting life, Ed has developed a habit for attempting to minimize his impact on others, in some sort of bizarre and likely well-intentioned effort never to impose on anyone.  He would have been doing his damnedest to suppress even the slightest expression of physical discomfort showing through on his face.  If it bested him, this must be serious.

In typical style, however, Ed doesn’t give Roy time to comment.  “See you later,” he says, reaching for the doorknob.  “Maybe.  Possibly.  If you buy me food.”

“Edward,” Roy says.

Ed turns slowly and glares back over his shoulder.

Roy holds out a hand.  “May I have my newspaper back?”

Ed hesitates just long enough to take a breath before he turns, scowling again, and stalks back towards the desk.  “Whatever,” he says again, thrusting it out with his right hand for Roy to take.  “Nothing good in this one anyway.”

Roy lays it on the desktop and does not fail to notice the way that Ed’s eyes track it even after he’s let go.

“Don’t be a stranger,” Roy says.  “Everyone missed you.”

Ed’s nose wrinkles adorably as his whole face scrunches up in bewilderment.  “I was gone for, like, three days.”

It was four and a half.

“Even so,” Roy says.

Ed heaves such an overstated sigh that Roy can’t help feeling a swell of pride.  “Fine.  I’ll… keep you posted.  Don’t hurt yourself working too hard while I’m gone.”

“No chance of that,” Roy says, cheerfully.

“I was so worried,” Ed says, but before Roy can fire back, he’s slipping out the door, and—


Roy draws a deep breath—which hurts so badly that it chokes its way back out of him, rather than being released very slowly, as was the original plan.  Ed has always had a way of tangling up all of his devices.

It’s a pity about the nice little coffee-sipping session he’d intended, but now that Ed has piqued his curiosity with all of the equivocation, he doesn’t have it in him to leave the report where it lies.

It begins ordinarily enough: Ed sets the stage with several details about what he perceives as poor city planning, followed by a characteristic rant about the food, followed by a characteristic rant about the meddling military personnel he had to liaise with.  The interconnected tirades alone take up a full two pages, after which Ed—reluctantly, it seems—segues into talking about the actual investigation, and the merry chase his rogue alchemist target brought him on.  Roy didn’t run nearly so many missions as Ed, obviously, but he’s quite sure he doesn’t remember them involving so much reckless pursuit.  Ed’s many talents certainly seem to include provoking his quarry into making a break for it and managing to turn nearly any situation into a knock-down, drag-out fight.

Unsurprisingly, the latter he usually revels in—to the extent that the reports tend to describe every bout of fisticuffs in exquisite and sometimes excruciating detail.  Roy suspects it’s the one part of documenting these excursions that Ed actually enjoys.

Which makes it all the stranger that this particular report glosses over the final encounter with no more than two sentences about the target demonstrating ‘some resistance’, and Ed demonstrating the wherewithal to have ‘handled it’ before launching right into a description of the way that Robertson was abusing some clever work on intersecting arrays.

Roy sits back.  Embarrassingly, he forgot about his coffee; it’s probably transitioned to the most agonizingly disappointing stage of tepidness by now.  Perhaps if he thinks hard enough while he drinks it, he won’t notice how the temperature has marred the taste.

There’s something wrong here—something pointedly absent.  Something happened during that confrontation that Ed doesn’t want Roy to know about.

He tried to walk away with the newspaper, too.

What’s he hiding this time?

Roy has been careful—cautiously careful, picking his way along the boundary between compassionate and controlling—not to send Ed out on any undertakings that might compromise him emotionally.  There’s already so much at stake on a regular day; Roy knows Ed internalizes a lot of Roy’s stresses, knows Ed doesn’t sleep as well as he used to, knows Ed frets over Al’s assailable corporeal form like worrying will change the way of the world.  They both know it won’t.  But why give him more to carry?  Ed has dragged his weights from one corner of this miserable country to the other; he’s paid his dues plus interest.  It’s about time he had a chance to be as happy as he’s able to.  It’s about time people like Roy did everything in their power to cut him a break.

Ed would flip his lid if he knew that Roy was gently and gingerly but undeniably pulling strings on his behalf, but that’s a risk Roy’s willing to take.  It’s better this way.  Ed knows the taste of trauma.  It’s well past time that someone offered him an opportunity to heal.

The point is that that can’t be—or shouldn’t be, oughtn’t be—what Ed has clumsily tried masking with this macerated excuse for a report.

Roy skims the rest—Ed glosses over the usual ‘stab-your-own-eyes-out-boring-no-offense-Mustang’ witness testimony with the military police, once they’d finally caught up with his heroics, and then a quick retirement to his hotel room, and the dawning of the next day.  That, too, is odd: usually there’s a treatise on whatever meal he finds to reward himself with after succeeding.  Those are always extremely detailed and usually much less profane, which is part of why Roy suspects that they’re actually a restaurant travelogue that Ed one day intends to cobble together for Al, rather than really for himself.

The remaining half-page is a standard—almost rote—complaint about the trains, the train schedules, the train seats, and the train conductors, who purportedly judge their passengers for having long hair.

Roy puts it down.

He looks at it for a few moments.

He picks up the newspaper.

There has to be a connection somewhere—

Commotion in the outer office indicates that the stalwarts have duly made their entrance—or at least that Riza has; given that it’s not yet quite the stroke of eight, Falman is the only other stalwart likely to be present at this point—but Roy has several articles to scan for some slight, tantalizing hint of… what?  What is he even looking for?

When he turns to the regional news section, it is almost disappointing.  He was expecting a bit of a chase—a dig, an excavation.  A part of him wanted to fight for it, to sink his teeth in and coax the gears in his head into turning ever faster until they whirred so fast that the motion brought him right up to the brink of revelation.

What he gets instead is a half-page photo of Ed, crouched down with one hand flattened on the cobblestones, blue lightning crackling up around his arm; and the other hand pressed to his ribs.

To—if Roy’s eyes do not deceive him—precisely the same area of his ribs as the area of Roy’s that burst into agony without warning a few brief and bitter days ago.

Roy stares at the photo, and not just because Ed is incandescently beautiful in the heat of battle and always has been.

Then he stares at the caption, which fails to mention the fact that Roy Mustang’s life just took a sharp turn for the incomprehensible and possibly disastrous.

Then he stares at the article, for long enough that his brain reluctantly shivers into gear, engages autopilot, and starts reading the words, at which point he discovers that the journalist responsible for destroying his entire existence saw fit to confirm, in the second line, that this photograph was taken on Thursday evening, shortly after six.

Roy’s voice betrays him, since apparently the rest of the world having done it already isn’t bad enough:

“Riza?” he calls, and it is distinctly possible his voice shakes—but who the hell would blame him?  The whole world seems to be shaking; surely it’s fair if his vocal chords give in to the peer pressure and follow suit; surely—

The silence is extraordinarily brief, followed by the swift footfalls, followed by the door opening a crack—just wide enough for her to put her head in and arch an eyebrow uncertainly.

Obviously he does not wave her over with a semi-frantic motion.  Semi-frantic gestures are for people who don’t have their lives together.  Roy, clearly, has never once in his thirty-four years felt the world spinning out of control beneath his feet.  He’s fine.  Everything is fine.

He… beckons.  In a stately sort of way.  That’s a much better story.

The eyebrow rises further at his extremely dignified and collected series of hand movements, and then higher still as Riza shuts the door behind her, crosses to his desk, and looks down at the newspaper that he’s swiveled around for her to read.

She pauses.

She glances up at him.

She looks down at the text again, and her brow furrows slightly, and she clears her throat, parts her lips, and says…


Roy despairs.

“It…” She glances up at him, like she’s gauging how close he is to hurling himself out the window.  Or perhaps like she knows exactly how close he is to hurling himself out the window, and she’s trying to remember if there are bushes underneath.  “It is… possible.”

“No, it’s not,” Roy says.  “And if you say ‘Anything is possible’, I’m never speaking to you again.”

“That would be an indescribable tragedy,” she says, so dryly that the desert separating them from Xing must seethe with envy.  “Besides which, I was going to say ‘It wouldn’t be the first time Ed has turned the impossible directly on its head.’”

“That’s basically the same thing,” Roy says.

“What a shame,” Riza says.  “I assume the speaking-to-me embargo starts after this conversation has finished.”

“Of course,” Roy says.  “There may be a slight delay lasting between an hour and several years while I work out the terms of the boycott.  But it’s—the point is—it doesn’t matter what he’s done.  He does unbelievable things on a regular basis, yes, but he doesn’t… he works within the existing fabric of reality; he just re-knits it around himself in the way that he wants.  This isn’t a matter of… This is a legend.  It’s a myth.”

The eyebrows go back into action.  “You’ve met a myth.  Arguably two, although the second one you didn’t actually see.”

“Thank you,” Roy says, “for the timely reminder.  That’s different.  The golden sage story was always clearly based off of a genuine historical figure; I just never imagined that he’d still be fumbling his way into our business multiple centuries after the fact.”

“What’s so different about it?” Riza asks.

“This is a concept,” Roy says.

“A Xerxesian concept,” Riza says.  “Which happens to be manifesting in one of the last two surviving carriers of Xerxesian blood.”

“No,” Roy says.

“‘No’ is not an argument,” Riza says.

“It is so,” Roy says.  “And this doesn’t—it doesn’t make sense.  It can’t be—the whole point is duality, and I couldn’t be further from being a descendant of Xerxes, so the whole thing—”

“Roy,” she says, in that tone that always kills the words that have started coiling in the back of his mouth, tensing up to spring.

She waits until he presses his lips together and looks at her—dubiously, still, of course.  He’s not letting go of this one without a fight.

“Philosophizing won’t have any bearing on the facts,” she says.  “If it is true, you’re going to have to find some way to deal with it.”  She tilts her head, considering him.  “You should talk to him.”

He sits back in his chair and spreads his arms.  A grander display of exasperation may be called for, but he doesn’t want to play all of his melodrama cards at once.  Besides, his damn rib hurts.  “And say what?  ‘Welcome back, Ed; I think we’re soulmates’?”

She continues to consider him.  The left corner of her mouth twitches—incrementally, infinitesimally, but he sees it.  She’s laughing at him.  After all this—after everything they’ve done for each other, all the tears and the blood shed, all of the miseries they’ve survived—she is laughing at…

Well, it is a bit funny.  In a sick sort of way.  And it would, admittedly, be nigh-on hilarious if it was happening to someone else.

“Ed does like to get to the point,” she says.  “Perhaps being… direct… actually is the best approach.”

“No,” Roy says.

“‘No’ is still not an argument,” Riza says.

“It’s going to have to be,” Roy says.  “I can’t believe you’re treating this like it’s real.”

“Roy,” Riza says again.  That’s the second usage of his given name in as many minutes.  He is, as certain individuals with whom he categorically does not share some sort of mystical connection would say, fucked.  “You’ve been sweet on him for a while.”

“‘Sweet on’ and ‘soulmate’ are two drastically different things,” Roy says.

“Drastic is your specialty,” Riza says.

“I’m already having an existential crisis,” Roy says.  “Do you have to be mean?”

Her mouth twitches much more noticeably this time.  That proves it.  Roy is forsaken.  This is the end.

“Let’s think about this logically,” she says.  “There has to be a scientific way to examine the available evidence and test the hypothesis.  It’s theoretically tied to simultaneous shared experiences of one party’s pain, isn’t it?  That should be extremely easy to investi—”

“If you were looking for an invitation to practice hand-to-hand and fling me to the mat in several dozen different humiliating ways,” Roy says, “keep looking.”

“You should talk to him,” she says again.  “Ed’s a terrible liar.  He’ll give you something to go on whether he likes it or not.”

Roy can’t help the cold curl of horror in his chest.  “This is one of those times where I’m inexpressibly grateful that you’re usually on my side.”

“If you get all of your work done,” she says calmly, “it might just stay that way.”

The problem is that Riza has a slightly warped perception of the honesty premise, due to the fact that no one on the face of the planet is capable of lying to her.  Whether Ed can look Roy in the eye and carry off a smokescreen is a different matter altogether—he’s gotten craftier over the years; he’s better at hiding than he ever was.  Roy knows precisely who’s to blame for that.

“We’ll see,” he says.

Riza raises both eyebrows this time, which means he’s really in trouble.

“What are you so afraid of?” she asks.

Two can play at this game: Roy raises his eyebrows right back.  “How would you like me to organize the list?  Alphabetical, chronological, topical, in order of likelihood of destroying one or both of our entire lives—?”

“You don’t have as much to lose as you think you do,” Riza says.

“No?” he says.  “You’re ready to watch him walk out that door and not come back this time if I push my luck too far?”

At least that makes her pause for a second.  Slowing down the verbal evisceration counts as progress, even if he’ll never manage to stop it.

“He wouldn’t,” she says.  “He owes you too much.”

Roy sits back and folds his arms.  “And you want me to leverage that?  His sense of obligation, and the very loyalty that makes him such a valuable member of this team?”

Riza shrugs.  “He also likes you too much.”

Roy can’t help making a face.  “Are you sure about that?”

“Yes,” she says.

He makes a bigger face.  “Sure enough to risk an explosion of unprecedented proportions?”

“Yes,” she says.

“Damn it,” he says.  “Fine.  I’ll—see what I can find out.”

“Very good, sir,” she says, and she’s charitable enough to say it looking only slightly smugger than a cat with a mouse in both paws.