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Frozen Flame

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There’s one little hand stroking at his hair and one shaking his shoulder. Roy winches his eye open, blinks, blinks again, and manages to focus on Alphonse’s face, centimeters from his, bright eyes staring.

“What time is the first train to Central?” Alphonse asks.

Roy’s response is best approximated “Nngh hm?”

“We’re going to Central,” Alphonse says. “Today.”

“…the fuck time is it?” Roy slurs.

“I made breakfast,” Alphonse says. “Come on, General. You’re a tactician; you must have the train schedules memorized just in case.”

“Nine-thirty,” Roy’s brain produces. “If we leave soon after dawn at a quick-march—”

“Perfect,” Alphonse says, kissing the tip of his nose and then frolicking over to the fireplace. “You’ll have just enough time to pack.”

“I met your father once,” Roy mumbles, prying his shadowed jaw off of the pillow. “Should’ve decked him for producing you two when I had the chance.”

Alphonse is serving porridge and pauses to laugh. The sound should be grating so unholily early, but the Elrics defy expectation as a matter of course. “From what I understand,” Alphonse says, “you’d have to wait until Brother had hit him first.”

“Your brother was there,” Roy says, climbing down and convincing his legs that it’s time to function. “He wasn’t exactly spouting greeting card slogans, but to be fair, I’d riled him up in advance.”

Liore was a disaster. Seven thousand able-bodied soldiers vanished—into the Stone, Roy had suspected, a supposition Marcoh’s obtuse notes had later confirmed. The Elrics on the run, because seven thousand souls’ incalculable power had been poured inside Alphonse’s hollow chest. Roy thinking, over and over, that this was it—this was him and Fullmetal, finished, over, through. That if Edward couldn’t trust him enough to tell him what had happened, anything they’d had was a pretense at best. That it was his fault for lying about Liore the first time, trying to protect him, trying to polish that big-hearted innocence to an immaculate sheen.

It was a nice thought—the idea of becoming a repository of things two children shouldn’t have to know. But Roy’s nice thoughts rarely panned out. He wouldn’t have lasted two weeks in politics if he’d ever believed they would.

Then the look on Edward’s face when Roy and his team cornered them in the forest near Resembool—the betrayal. The desperation. The hurt. Catching him alone in the Rockbells’ house before moving out to head off the patrol, and not knowing what to say—not knowing what there was to say. Edward’s tongue sweeping over his upper lip, his left shoulder rising. I really… don’t need this right now. There’s too much else going on, Colonel. I just need you on my side, okay? Bewildered blinking at the shade of Roy’s feelings that filtered through to his face. What? Oh, you—for fuck’s sake, Colonel; I don’t need a lecture. Or a declaration of love. Or sex, or—whatever. There isn’t time, that’s all. The smile that stabbed straight through Roy’s chest every time and stuck out, dripping, on the other side. The soft one. Wistful. And… honestly, I don’t know how things are gonna go. So… just… be on my side. I’m on yours. A hug so tight it left automail imprints on the small of his back and a short, messy kiss.

They’d met once more, the last day, when Edward jumped down in front of the car as Roy and Riza started towards the Führer’s estate. Once the bickering and colluding were both out of the way, there wasn’t much left to be said. Riza gave Roy a look in the rearview mirror—a look he’d never gotten before, but he was fluent enough in the language to guess what it meant.

“Hey,” he said, clambering out after the boy whose narrow shoulders carried everything. “I—”

“Yeah,” Edward said, shoving his hands into his pockets and glancing over his shoulder at the road. “There’s a pretty good chance one or both of us will die.”

Roy did this to him. Roy took his raw pain and burgeoning talent and fashioned him into a soldier, baptized him in blood.

Edward shrugged. “The stakes have never been low, though, and that’s okay.” He smiled, the other one that made a Roy’s-internal-organs-kebab—a tired smile. Old. “If I did it again, I think… I wouldn’t change much.” He reached out and pushed playfully at Roy’s chest. “I certainly wouldn’t change you, even if you are a total bastard sometimes, since that’s what you don’t have the balls to ask.”

Roy wrapped him into both arms and tried to memorize his shape, his warmth, his scent, the exact shade of gold his hair turned with the sunset painting highlights down his back.

Edward pulled away, smiling gently now. “Man up, Colonel,” he said. “I’ll see you around.” He was off and running, and then he paused. “Oh, yeah,” came the call over one shoulder. “I guess I’m supposed to say I love you and stuff. But you already know that, so get to work.”

And then he was gone.

And this is what remains.

Roy spoons down some porridge, barely tasting it—not that there’s much to taste—and tosses everything he’ll need into the rucksack he brought to basic, once upon another life. He was young, and pure, and naïve back then. He believed that things would turn out for the better, that the universe was kind. He believed in justice. He believed that he, personally, had a right to happiness. He believed in blue skies and best friends and truth and magic; in Equivalent Exchange and love, love, love. Idealism burned white and blue in the center of his chest.

Maybe—maybe with this bag on his back, with no colors on his chest, no stars on his shoulders, and a flashbang of sharp edges and unfulfilled potential at his side—maybe there’s one spark left.

Thirty-four isn’t too old to go down in flames.

 

 

Al’s ready.

The General doesn’t talk this time, as they step out into the snow-dampened, slowly-dying night and start for the city. But his eye is alight in a way Al’s never seen, and either he grew taller overnight, or he’s standing up straighter than he has since Al arrived. Everything is falling into place.

Except… there’s a problem. Well, there are several facets of a single problem, which all sort of manifest as separate issues, unless one is listing problems by way of categories, in which case they’re technically…

Al blows out a misty breath and watches it disappear.

The problem is that the General is still in love with Ed, and Ed is still in love with him, but also a little bit in love with other-Alphonse; and other-Alphonse is deeply in love with him; and Al is in love with Ed and also kind of the General too. And the General did wicked and wonderful things to Al last night, so he must not be entirely indifferent.

The whole thing is simultaneously somewhat funny and quite distressing.

Al slept soundly for most of the night, long enough to join Ed and other-Alphonse in running to catch their train (somehow Al knows that’s very much like Brother) and laughing giddily when they made it in the nick of time. The countryside started streaming by out the windows, and after a stern inspector checked their tickets and did a double-take more alarming than amusing at Ed’s eyes, the two young men settled and relaxed.

As much as Ed has ever been able to relax, that is. Alfons watched his flesh fingers tapping on the windowsill, his right foot jogging, his eyes flicking to one piece of scenery and then another.

“Are you all right?” Alfons asked.

“Just getting into the right frame of mind,” Ed said. “It’s been a while since my last expedition. It’s not something you forget, exactly, but… you know. It’s like remembering all the formulas and knowing how to solve them but not being sure your hand’ll move fast enough to write everything on the exam.”

“You sound like you expect something to go wrong,” Alfons said—but he was smiling, so he must have been accustomed to Ed.

“I’ll let you in on a little secret,” Ed said, grinning back. “I’d be kinda disappointed if nothing did.”

The train rattled on down the track, and Ed was quiet for a moment, fiddling with the collar of his shirt.

“If… we do get back,” he said; “if I trade in all my bad luck, and it somehow works out… There’s something I haven’t told you about.” He swallowed. “Someone, really.”

Alfons was silent, but Al could feel his heart pounding.

“Back home, there was… Well, it’s a little bit crazy. I mentioned I was in the army, right? This guy was my commanding officer. And he could be kind of a scheming bastard, but he was always looking out for my brother and me, and… he could also be kind of a gentleman, too. Smooth like Gracia’s jam—and sweeter when he wanted. So he and I had a… thing… for a while. And it was… nice. It was really nice.” He drew a deep breath and blew it out so that his bangs danced. “Anyway, I don’t even know if he’s still alive over there—probably, because he’s really hard to take down, and I’m talking from actual battle experience here—or if he… I mean, he had literally eight girlfriends in a week once, so he’s probably moved on, but… I just wanted to warn you that I’m going to be coming back to a whole lot of history. Of course I’m gonna take care of you, Alfons, but… I figured you ought to hear about that from me first.”

Alfons sat very still for a moment, and then he stood, wobbled on the train’s unsteady floor, and sat down next to Ed. He took Ed’s flesh hand in both of his and clasped it gently.

“This gentleman of yours,” Alfons said. “He has good taste.”

Ed squeezed Alfons’s hands and mustered a grin. “Oh, he’s gonna love you.”

The General nudges Al’s shoulder as the sun drags itself up from the horizon. “Are you all right?”

“Yeah,” Al says. “I’m thinking.”

“What about, if it’s not too private?”

“What the heck we’re going to do when Brother comes back with my other-world double.”

The General actually trips and falls face-first into the snow at that, so even though Al said he’d explain everything on the train, he gets started while they walk to apologize.

Al offers a fairly edited version of events, omitting details like the fact that a certain late ex-lover and best friend is still alive across an apparently flimsy barrier, and that the doctor in Resembool told Al that the dreams were hallucinations caused by the lack of sleep. Even so, the General takes the news extremely well.

“That’s what you meant about timelines yesterday,” he says. “And whether or not they’re exactly synchronous.”

No more messing around with qualifiers; Al is in love with him. “Yeah. I assume that there’s some leeway, since the Gate itself must be outside of time somehow.” He starts to rub at his eyes and then remembers that he’s wearing ignition gloves now, and he has to be careful—both not to strike a spark on his own face, and not to scratch a retina with the fabric. “In any case, the sooner we get to Central and pull the two worlds together, the sooner we get Brother back.”

“And… the other Alphonse,” the General says. “That concerns me, if he’s coming from a world without alchemy and is going to have to adju—”

“He’s an Elric,” Al says. “Or near enough.”

Instead of arguing, the General smiles. “Excellent point.”

They’ve reached the outskirts of North City by the time Al concedes that perhaps he hasn’t done all of his research, and the General concedes that Al should be able to figure out the right array from watching Ed’s side of things.

“I take it you’ll be trying to sleep on the train, then,” the General says. Al is sixty percent sure the gleam in his eye is mischievous rather than repentant. “Keep in mind that it would be much more difficult for me to help you there.”

Al blinks. “After such a long walk so early,” he says, “I’m sure I’ll be fine if you let me lay my head on your lap.”

The General’s cheeks have been pink for most of the journey because of the wind, but Al knows he sees them go a shade darker at that. He’d award himself some imaginary points, but he’s long since lost track of who’s winning this game.

 

 

Listening was easy. Understanding was a challenge. Accepting has, so far, proved impossible.

A part of Roy—a large part of him, most of him, everything that reasoned—had relegated Edward to the category of things he’s lost. The few fragments that held out maintained their position on the grounds that Edward Elric was the single stubbornest human being ever conceived, and anyone that obstinate was probably incapable of dying. But it was better—safer, wiser, healthier—to try to let go. To cherish the memories and crush the hope. To move on. To keep going. To run for his life and his sanity if it came to that.

What the hell is he supposed to do now?

Some part of him started believing, though, when Alphonse arrived and made the oath even before he hung up his coat. I’ll find him. Edward would have to be somewhere to be found; he would have to be alive. And suddenly the tide of the battle in Roy’s heart has changed.

There are many things Edward taught him, too many to number. One of them is humility.

It’s been four years, and the hardest part—bringing him back—is yet to come. Roy is not taking anything for granted. He’s not making any assumptions. He has a lot of practice settling for less than what he wants.

To dab some whipping cream on top of his shitstorm sundae, there is another Alphonse. The world is almost certainly not ready for another Alphonse; it seems to be having enough trouble with this one. Roy sympathizes.

The version Roy has lately come to know is bouncing on the balls of his feet, arms wrapped around himself, breath curling out in wispy tendrils as they wait on the platform. There is a throbbing at the back of Roy’s skull, and a very different one in the pit of his stomach. He wants to push the lithe, limber boy up against the stone wall and kiss him until he fights free; wants to pin him down on that bench and shove a knee between his thighs; wants to lay the new charcoal-colored coat right out on the ice and see how long they could go before their appendages froze. He never should have crossed that line, never should have gone that far. Now he’s tasted an illicit delicacy, and he’d kill for the chance to glut himself.

So much for self-control. Four years of snow and solitude have just worn his will to the point of brittleness; there’s been nothing here to resist.

He’s trying not to think about the complications that will ensue if they succeed in pulling Edward back into Amestris, where he belongs. He’s trying not to think about the moment a nineteen-year-old Edward Elric, a young god flushed with power, blazing golden, fully grown and wholly poised, looks at him and sees the sad, bedraggled failure consigned to hermitage. He’s trying not to think that the only thing they’ll have to talk about is the fact that Roy inaugurated Edward’s beloved little brother into the world of sex with an unsolicited blowjob and a pat on the head. He’s trying not to think about the rather strong likelihood that he’s going to get his other eye torn out for that.

Too much has changed. What does he have left of any value?

Alphonse grabs his hand as the train pulls in from the railyard, puffing hard, frost melting from the metal. Roy tugs him towards the front-most car; it’ll save them a few moments when they reach Central, as they’ll start out deeper into the station, and moments could matter if they’re reprising the good old days.

Alphonse watches the snowbound, silent world slipping away from them for a while, and then he drops onto the bench seat and, as promised, snuggles up with Roy’s thigh. Roy thinks the word inevitable should be altered in the dictionary to inelricable, and he strokes absently at Alphonse’s hair. A woman in a fur coat gets on at a station two hours in, spots them, assesses Roy’s uniform and the slight frame draped on his lap, and gives him the dirtiest look he’s ever received—including the ones from Edward, and the ones from that piece of shit Archer when Roy had him trapped.

The affront is good, though. The pain of guilt is good. It confirms to Roy that this is actually happening, that he’s actually here. It’s not some intricate fever dream cooked up by his half-frozen, agonizingly lonesome little brain.

He tucks the dark gray coat a little closer around Alphonse’s shoulders, settles down with the research notes he’s encoded as a logbook, and smiles faintly. Come what may, he’s headed home.

 

 

“…going to love alchemy,” Ed is saying as Al teeters into a dark night in a darker forest, the grit of the steep pathway scraping under his shoes. His suitcase feels heavy, and his head feels light. “And, I mean—well, physics still applies, of course; all the same universal laws are still in place. People just don’t study it as much. You and I could start a whole new branch of the research department for that, you know—physics, physics and alchemy, physics of alchemy.” He laughs, and Alfons’s skittering heart warms. “That actually sounds pretty damn awesome. I bet we could get Mustang to sign off. Hell, all of Amestris owes me one.”

Alfons flattens his free hand on his chest, wishing he could delve it inside and fix his lungs, make them kinder, make them cooperate. “The words… you use,” he manages. “They’re so… wild.”

It’s Hughes’s word, but it’s been circling like a carrion bird in Alfons’s head. This is wild, isn’t it? It’s rash and uncivilized, ludicrous and lunatic, and there’s a feral gleam in Ed’s hot yellow eyes that makes Alfons shiver in so many ways—like something inside of that surprisingly powerful mismatched body, something caged and muzzled, has been released.

This is all new to Alfons. He’s a city boy. He’s always played by the rules. He’s always clung to them, actually; physics and mathematics make sense, and if you follow their laws, you can do anything. Shouldn’t it be the same for life, for society, for humankind? Shouldn’t toeing the line and obeying the statutes set before you guarantee success?

Except… except for Ed. Some part of Alfons always knew that Ed was different at a basic level—far deeper than his bones; it’s in his atoms. Ed swept in, hurricane-resplendent, with his cat’s eyes glowing and his hair whipping like a tongue of flame. Ed argued with Einstein, doubted tenets, shook the foundations, believed nothing and no one but science and progress and proof. Alfons has never told Ed that he’s the reason they finished the first phase of the rocket program before Alfons fell too ill to implement the second—because his sheer energy was invigorating; because he was bright and new and brilliant; because he challenged every fundamental only to turn around and make outlandish leaps of theoretical faith. Because he was the textbook definition of an inspiration.

Alfons anticipates regretting this—this world-hopping, if that’s what he should call it. He anticipates a lot of things going awry. He anticipates repercussions beyond Ed’s most pessimistic reckoning, as while Alfons has always favored the thought of flying in a rocket, Ed seems to prefer flying by the seat of his pants.

But he knows, like he knew that it was his last afternoon in Munich. He knows that Edward Elric will make it right.

Ed has stopped in order to look at Alfons concernedly, reaching out with his left hand. “Are you okay? We should slow down. Sorry the stupid thing’s so high-up—I guess that makes sense for a castle, but… Take it easy. No real rush.”

Alfons’s face goes a little warm as Ed’s hand chafes gently up and down his arm, but with any luck the dark will hide that. He’s just caught his breath when something roars, and a blinding light sears out of the woods beside them, and they both scream like children.

When the first flare of panic has been snuffed, Alfons realizes that the hulking, stalking monster is, in fact, a car. Moreover, it’s a car driven by a bearded man who wears his hair long and tied back, very much li…

Oh. Oh.

What the everloving fuck, Dad?” Ed shouts, right on cue.

Ed’s father carefully guides the car out onto the dirt path and then leans over the door to blink at Ed in some bewilderment. “I just… thought you might like a ride up. It’s a long walk.”

So you waited in the dark and then gunned the fucking engi—”

Alfons catches Ed’s shoulder. “Hey—it’s all right. He only startled us, and he has a point.”

Ed’s father is staring at him. “Young man, you… your eyes…”

“Yeah,” Ed says, snidely at best, although he holds the car door for Alfons and manages a quick smile for him. “Hohenheim of Light, Alfons Heiderich. Alfons, this is my… sperm donor.”

Mr. Hohenheim (Mr. Light?) doesn’t appear to hear the second half of Ed’s introduction, which is probably a good thing. He’s smiling at Alfons, two parts rueful and one part enigmatic. “I should have known,” he says. “I should have known from the start that you’d find him.”

Make that one part rueful, one part enigmatic, and one part unsettling.

“Had to find somebody,” Ed says, jumping in next to Alfons and slamming the door, “since you up and disappeared on me. Again. Where the fuck do you get off abandoning your children every decade or so? I’m just lucky you left me some cash this time—and really lucky I ran into Alfons, who happens to be the master of getting university grants.”

Ed’s father is quiet for a moment, and the car begins to grind up the incline. “I was working on this. On getting you home.” Alfons glances over, and Ed’s face has gone pale and still in the light cast by the headlamps. “I had some… false starts, you might say. I’m afraid I can’t make guarantees—and you wouldn’t believe them, would you?—but I hold out hope that this time, I’ve done it right.”

Ed is leaning far back into the seat, his arms tightly folded across his chest, and looking out at the dimly-outlined forest shifting by. “Guess we’ll see,” he says.

“Thank you for your help, sir,” Alfons says, because Ed never will.

Mr. Hohenheim’s smile is audible in his voice. “It’s the least I can d—”

“You’re damn right it is,” Ed mutters.

Alfons hadn’t realized that Ed avoided talking about his father because it sends him into a whirlwind of surliness and rage. With that in mind, his extremely obvious subject-changes in previous conversations were probably for his friends’ protection, and for that of any breakable objects in reach.

“So what’s your brilliant plan?” Ed asks when Mr. Hohenheim draws the car up in an open space beside the castle wall.

Mr. Hohenheim kills the engine and the lights. “I never said it was brilliant.” He gets out of the car and opens the trunk, from which he lifts a large crossbow and a quiver full of bolts.

Ed’s eyes widen, and then his grin does. “Now we’re talkin’, old man.”

Mr. Hohneheim does not look so amused. Instead, he looks like a stern father—which would most likely propel Ed into a seething fury if he wasn’t too busy fumbling with the buckles on his suitcase to notice.

“Mr. Heiderich,” Hohenheim says, “are you… going with him?”

“That was the hope, sir,” Alfons says.

Hohenheim settles the strap of the quiver over his chest, adjusting it around the cowled neck of his shirt. “Edward, are you sure that’s wise?”

“You lost your right to tell me what to do the second you fucking walked out on us,” Ed says without even looking up, shifting items in his suitcase. “If Alfons still wants to come, I’m bringing him with me.”

Hohenheim hesitates. “Even if we succeed in creating a working portal—and that alone would qualify as a bit of a miracle—I’m not sure it will have the structural integrity to carry tw—”

“Gotcha!” Ed says, raising what looks like the lovechild of a sharpened spade and a polio brace. He fits it onto his right arm—using his left hand to manipulate his metal fingers and tighten their grip on a small bar near the front—and the strange concave blade juts out over his clenched fist. He vaults over the car door and drops into a crouch, taking a few experimental punches. “And you wouldn’t make me an arm extension like this,” he sneers to his father. “‘Too violent,’ you said. ‘When would you ever need it?’, you said. Well, how do you like me now, Dad?”

“Often I fail to understand how such a remarkably gentle woman as your mother and I could produce a boy who’s part wildcat,” Hohenheim says dryly.

“Shut up,” Ed says, although his tone is almost loving, perhaps because he’s stroking the blade that now protrudes from his wrist. “So what’s this dumbass plan of yours?”

“The individual you know as Envy made it through the Gate,” Hohenheim says.

Ed stops slashing at the air, eyeing his father uncertainly. Meanwhile, Alfons’s head spins like a well-balanced top.

“As a dragon,” Hohenheim says.

“You’ve got to be shitting me,” Ed says.

Something roars—something that is definitively not a car.

“Oh, crap,” Ed says. “Heads up, Alfons. This… is going to be interesting.”

Calmly, Hohenheim fits a bolt into his crossbow and tests its sharpened silver tip with a finger. “‘Interesting’ is one word for it. Not the one I would have chosen, of course.”

“I said shut up,” Ed grits out.

And then something huge—something massive and sinuous and terrifying, something out of a nightmare, something that makes nightmares look like fairytales—soars over the castle wall.

Its vast mouth gapes open, lined with teeth longer than Alfons’s arm; its eyes flare violet, and its slavering tongue is red.

Hohenheim!” it screams.

Alfons scrambles over the door, barely holding onto his suitcase, and dives under the car.

“Boys!” Hohenheim says sharply, ducking as a rush of air buffets the vehicle, and another guttural roar emanates from much too close. “I’ve started painting the circle and camouflaged my progress, but I need more time. You have to distract him for a while.”

“This kind of shit is exactly why I hate you!” Ed bursts out.

“I know,” Hohenheim says. “I’m sorry.”

He dashes across the gravel and shoulders his way through a broad wooden door in the wall.

Hohenheim!” the monster howls again. “I’ve scoured every corner of this pathetic planet for your miserable corpse, and this ends now!”

“What—what—” Alfons’s vocal chords don’t seem to be willing to produce any other words.

Ed’s crouched near the trunk of the car, and his eyes are tracking the dragon’s sinuous approach. “You know that story I wrote, that you helped me get published in that magazine? About the evil witch Dante and her seven minions?”

“Yes,” Alfons says, unable to stop staring at the mass of moving coils, clutching the handle of his suitcase, breathing in the dust even though he knows he’d better not.

“Well, that was true,” Ed says. “All of my stories were. God, I hate my dad. Come on!”

The sequence of non sequiturs ends with Ed grabbing Alfons’s free hand, hauling him out from under the car, and hurling them both to the ground beside it. The dragon swoops low, sinking its teeth into the rear of the car—the metal squeals but punctures like warm clay, and Alfons has just enough presence of mind for terror—and then flings the whole vehicle sideways off the cliff.

“No more hide-and-seek!” The creature thrashes furiously, and then its cold eyes find them. “Elrics!”

Somehow Alfons doesn’t think that correcting the dragon about his surname will lead it to apologize and slink off into the forest.

Move!” Ed says, dragging them both to their feet, and they sprint for the corner of the castle wall. They swing around it, and Alfons spots a gate—Ed, too, judging by the way he pelts for it, towing Alfons by the wrist. Scales scrape on the gravel, and a low growl rumbles behind them, and then Ed’s hacked straight through the padlock and hauled them inside, instants before the huge green body slams against the wall, jaws snapping shut. Alfons doesn’t have the breath to scream as the creature shifts, and the purple eyes glare in through the open gate, but then Ed’s dragging them up a staircase and into a corridor.

“I d-don’t remember a dragon in the Dante s-story,” Alfons pants as they pause by a window, Ed peering out with his arm-blade raised.

“Envy’s the shapeshifter,” Ed says, in a tone indicating that such statements seem perfectly commonplace to him. “I guess he changed while he was moving through the Gate, and when he reached this world, he got stuck.” Ed’s eyes narrow. “I’m gonna beat his ass six ways from Sunday. He’s the one who killed me—with a fucking cheap shot.”

On second thought, perhaps Alfons is not entirely prepared for the goings-on in this Amestris place.

Before he can say that—or, more likely, blankly gasp out, “Oh”—the window smashes, shards raining down, a wash of green beyond the windowpane. Ed slashes with his makeshift sword, earning a spatter of blood and a thunderous roar, and then he seizes Alfons’s hand, and they race down the hall again.

“Come and get me, ugly!” Ed shouts over his shoulder.

There’s a dizzyingly tight spiral staircase and several doors, which Ed makes briskly short work of. Alfons’s chest burns, and his vision is starting to go a feathery black at the edges; his breath stings in his throat, but he has to—he has to—

They emerge onto a low wall overlooking the courtyard. Alfons’s first hazy observation is that the orange stone, warm even in the starlight, draped with ivy and tipped with delicately pointed shale roofs, is stunningly beautiful and a tribute to the pride of Germany.

His second, less-hazy observation is that the dragon is bearing down on Ed’s father in the middle of a strange, circular design, and Hohenheim’s crossbow bolts don’t seem to have any effect but for piquing its rage.

Hey, asshole!” Ed calls. “Pick on someone from your own generation!”

Before Alfons can figure out how Ed and a horrifying dragon can possibly share anything other than their bad tempers, the creature snarls up at them—and then undulates nearer to Ed’s father, mouth a chasm of gleaming teeth.

Ed plants his left hand between the crenellations, and—

Don’t!” Alfons cries.

It’s too late—Ed’s cleared the wall. He sails through the air, coat flapping, and plunges the blade on his arm straight through the dragon’s scales; it anchors him as he scrabbles for a handhold. The monster screams, writhing, but Ed keeps his grip and swings a leg over the frill along its spine.

“Alfons!” he yells. “Find me something to kill thi—whoa!”

The dragon twists and rolls, and Ed clings to its back.

“Don’t kill him!” Hohenheim shouts, running beneath them, dodging the coils, with what appears to be a paintbrush in the hand not holding the crossbow. “Keep him over the circle!”

God damn it, Dad!” Ed howls.

Alfons runs for the nearest turret, fighting to keep his hammering heart inside his chest. The suitcase knocks against his knees; he can feel the bruises beginning to form, but there isn’t time to worry about it—he skids to a stop in front of an open window overlooking the courtyard, sets the suitcase on the floor, and battles with the latches. A sharp bit of brass slices his fingertip, but then he’s popped them; he rummages helplessly through his clothes, through the books—come on, come on

Alfons!” Ed screams.

Cold metal greets his hand, and he tears Officer Hughes’s pistol free of one of his shirts.

His heartbeat sounds very slow in his ears as he pushes himself up to his feet, kicks the suitcase aside, and positions himself in the middle of the window. Distantly he hears Ed screaming, Mr. Hohenheim shouting, the beast roaring like a pack of fiends. He wraps both hands around the butt of the gun, raises it, and levels it carefully. He closes one eye. He calculates.

People have been telling Alfons Heiderich that he’s a physics genius since he was seven years old. The moment that a bullet pierces the dragon’s violet eye, just off-center to the left, is the first time in his life that he believes it.

There’s a spurt of blood and an Earth-shaking bellow, and the monster winches its damaged eye shut and flings its head back and forth in agony, blood seeping between the eyelids and rolling down its scales.

Alfons swallows, struggles to steady his breathing, and lines up another shot. This time his hand trembles—his wrists are aching from the recoil, which doesn’t help—and the bullet sinks into the monster’s cheek, just missing the lizard-like fin. Alfons chokes down the first deep, ominous itch of a wracking cough, kneels, and braces the gun on the windowpane. He takes his time, sights his target, does the math, does it again, and—

You bastards!” the monster screams, blinded now, blood flowing from both eyes; this bullet almost arced down and landed too low, but it served its purpose. Alfons can see Ed, grim-faced, hauling himself up the writhing creature’s back, jamming his blade in for handholds. “Hohenheim!”

Speaking of Ed’s father, he has almost finished… something. Something that tickles at the back of Alfons’s skull.

There’s a different tickle in his chest—a bad one.

He careens down the closest staircase and bursts out into the courtyard, but his heart’s pounding like a piston, and his head is swimming, and his lungs convulse. The sudden unbalance almost knocks him out—well, it does, but only for a second; he comes to on his hands and knees, and his diaphragm slams upward, and he coughs like he used to, before Ed worked some kind of magic no other doctor could.

Except… this is worse.

He tries to direct it into his sleeve at first; just after he registers that the fabric is wet and sticking to his skin, it’s too violent to endure without both hands planted on the ground. Blurrily he watches the puddle swelling on the cobblestones; there’s a thin cord of pink saliva dribbling from his lips. The blood is not bright and red like it used to be; it’s dark and clotted and thick.

He drags his forearm across his mouth and fumbles for the gun lying on the stones beside him. He doesn’t know how many shots he has left. He assumes that a Luger round is six; isn’t that true of most handguns? But he doesn’t know if Officer Hughes loaded it fully—or reloaded it; he might have fired it once, or twice, or even three times. This could be an empty piece of metal, not a weapon, not a tool. He might be useless.

He can just see Ed, on the ground now, slashing at the monster’s belly—deep gouges that spray red and make the dragon screech and sway. Is this the real Edward Elric? Is that who he is?

Like a boxer he darts away from a new gush of gore, and then Mr. Hohenheim is racing back from the far end of the courtyard, unarmed. He seizes Ed’s elbow and tows him back towards Alfons. “It’s done! Don’t provoke him any more!”

Provoke?” Ed jerks against Hohenheim’s grip. “He’s the reason I got trapped here in the first place!”

Is that really what he th—

Alfons!”

Almost all of the fake skin has melted off of Ed’s right arm with the motor running for this long, but his other hand is urgent and gentle, and his voice is terrified.

“Alfons, holy shit! Look at me—come on, please—Alfons—”

Alfons lets himself be pulled to his feet, but he doesn’t look at Ed—he looks over Ed’s right shoulder. He balances the barrel of the gun on the plate of the prosthetic, nudges his mind to do the work one more time, and fires into the open jaws descending towards Ed’s voice.

Another splash of blood; another scream.

“Step back!” Hohenheim says. “The portal is going to form directly above the circle. I’ve tried to design it so that it’ll pull you in—”

Ed drags Alfons a few steps back from the black paint on the stones. “Stay with me,” he says, and his eyes are wet. Alfons tries to raise a hand to touch the curve of Ed’s cheek, but he’s so tired… “Listen—there’s a Gate inside you, okay? And you have to find it and open it as we go through the big one. I’m going to do everything I can to help you, but you have to hold on. Come with me, Alfons. Please.”

“I’d follow you anywhere,” Alfons says.

Hohenheim presses his palms to the painted lines.