Ed leaned back against the wall, sighing in relief as the cool wind lifted his hair from his face. It whispered across the rooftop, chasing fallen leaves in its zephyrs. They clattered along the distant ground in swathes of red and gold, rattling like dice. Summer was already a fading memory, and there was an icy edge to the air that promised a cold winter.
Up here it was calm and quiet, although it was still far from silent. There was always something to shatter the peace: car horns, traffic buzz, bird song and chatter, but those were the natural noises of Central. It was the constant sound of a living, breathing city and, to his surprise, Ed found himself comforted by it.
Gradually, he was coming to think of the metropolis as the closest thing he had to a home. His right to belong had been given up years ago - the first of many penances for the sins that Al insisted that they shared. Still, for the first time in more years than he cared to count, he was beginning to believe that he had a future.
Of course, it still involved the army. He might have got Al's body back and brought an end to the quest that had consumed most of his life so far, but he had also signed a contract. For now, the military held his leash, but even that wouldn't last forever. One day, he would be free.
'Can't come soon enough,' Ed murmured to himself, rubbing a hand through his hair and rolling his shoulders. He should probably get back to work, but his body was unwilling to move. It was easy, within the four walls of Central Command, to forget that there was a world beyond the windows. Besides, it wasn't like he could concentrate in the office, anyway.
The room containing Mustang's staff was a hive of activity. The phone was always ringing, and Havoc made the most irritating noises while he worked. Falman kept obsessively sharpening his pencils and Breda chewed with his mouth open.
Hawkeye ruled them all with an iron hand, as always, but Mustang had slunk off hours ago to avoid his paperwork, and she was letting everyone else feel the extent of her disapproval. Ed had taken the first opportunity to get the hell out, and he had been wandering around for the past hour, trying to find somewhere to hide and actually get some work done.
He had briefly considered the library. After all, it was easy enough to get lost in the stacks. He could stay down there for days and not be found, but the book he was still trying to read his way through was more than a week overdue. The fine, however big it was, could go on Mustang's expenses, but if a librarian saw him they would pry the massive volume from his grip with a crowbar, regardless of his protests. Of course he meant to return it at some point, but didn't they understand it was important? If he took it back some other fucker would borrow it and make a mess of it.
Normally, he could read his way through alchemy theory in a matter of hours, but this? This was obscure, half-myth and all stupidity. More than once he had almost given into his frustration and thrown the stupid book in the fire, but this research was keeping him in Central where Al needed him. This project was all that stood between him and another assignment, and there was no way he was trailing halfway across the country while his brother was still finding out what it felt like to be human again.
It had surprised him, actually, that Mustang had been considerate for once in his life. Ed had been expecting to fight for it, had been ready to snap and snarl and argue and rage if he had to, but in the end Roy had been one step ahead of him.
A series of arrays had been found among the burned out ruins of lab five, the tattered paper smudged with soot and almost falling apart. They were like nothing any one had ever seen, and Mustang had left it to Ed to work out what they meant.
For almost a fortnight, he had been poring over the designs, trying to get his head around the images that seemed to have no real base in alchemy as he knew it. It was driving him insane, and he would bet anything that Mustang was watching his struggles with something like amusement.
Ed huffed out a sigh of irritation, scraping his hands over his eyes. His head felt thick and heavy with alchemical theory and the close air of the office didn't help. It was not only the irritating din of other people working and the constant interruptions that were bothering him; it was Mustang.
It seemed that, every time Ed looked up, he found himself trapped by that dark, thoughtful gaze. It wouldn't be so bad if it didn't have quite such an affect on him, but, no matter how much his mind yelled at him to turn away he would be held transfixed, skin prickling with awareness as his stomach swooped and twisted itself in knots.
He knew he was weird, knew that it was men who grabbed his attention rather than girls, but did it have to be Mustang? Did Ed's body really have to sit up and beg like a dog at the slightest bit of attention from the smug bastard? Was he really that pathetic?
With a derisive snort he tipped his head back against the wall, looking at the overcast sky with unseeing eyes. The fresh, vivid air did nothing to cool the throb of a humiliated blush on his cheeks, and he lifted his steel hand to his face, trying to take the heat from his skin.
The bastard probably knew; he was probably laughing at the stupid young subordinate who'd found himself having the worst possible crush. Surely Mustang was too used to women practically throwing themselves at him to miss the signs?
Ed used to think they were delusional, but now he knew differently. He had seen sensible, logical female officers flush like teenagers just because Roy had smiled in their general direction. They melted, starry eyed and excited, if he deigned to speak to them. At first, Ed had thought it was because he was Roy Mustang, self-proclaimed sex god, but that wasn't all of it.
Mustang didn't just listen and look. He heard what people said, saw everything that they wanted to show him and all that they were hiding. Maybe he had always done that and Ed had been too busy to notice, but suddenly he found himself on the receiving end of all that focussed attention, and it made his body – well, not fucking melt, but hum.
Ed rolled his eyes, hoping against hope that somehow his commanding officer had failed to notice his strange behaviour: the blushes, the stumbling words, the half-defensive half-confused anger. There was already so much the newly promoted Brigadier-General could use against him, and he loathed the thought of adding something so embarrassing to the older man's arsenal.
The steady pace of footsteps on the stairs that led up to the roof made Ed grit his teeth in irritation. Couldn't he even get five minutes alone? Automatically, he pulled back into the meagre shadows. There were enough damn rooftops in Central; why the hell did they have to come up here? Maybe whoever it was would turn around and leave once they realised that they weren't alone.
Hinges, old and uncared for, creaked as the stranger stepped out onto the roof. Ed had been half-expecting Hawkeye, gun in hand, coming to track him down and put him back to work, but this guy was someone completely unknown to him. It shouldn't be surprising. After all, the army was a huge, man-eating machine, and only a small proportion of the total force occupied Central Command. There were bound to be some soldiers he didn't know.
Yet there was something, an elusive suspicion, that stopped him from turning away and ignoring the unwanted company. Instincts honed to the pinnacle of perfection were waking up, sending tingling alarm signals to his confused brain. Something was wrong, but what?
Through narrowed eyes, Ed watched the man saunter to the edge of the roof, stopping at the flimsy railing that charted the building's circumference. What was he here for? Not a smoke, because anyone with a habit would have been desperate by now. The cigarette would already have been lit and the first drag taken, so what, was he admiring the view?
Glancing quickly at the horizon, Ed dismissed that idea. Central was not a spectacular city even on a good day. Now, under clouds heavy with the threat of rain, it sulked, grey and blemished with the filth of the years. All the guy could really see was the tree-dappled plaza that spanned the distance between the command buildings, but he was watching that stretch of paving like a hawk, fascinated.
A prickle of unease unwound up Ed's spine, and he forced himself not to move. Years of practice locked his muscles and balanced his breathing from shallow, nervous gasps to something more steady and powerful. Adrenaline was already making flesh ache and automail hum with the tension. His body knew something was wrong even if his mind couldn't work it out.
The soldier was young – well – younger than most. He did not look far beyond twenty, muscular, with rich brown hair cut short. His uniform was impeccable, unstained and with the gold trim still so bright that it hurt Ed's eyes. It looked new, but even as Ed thought to look away and dismiss his fears as paranoia, he began to notice the subtle flaws.
Whoever this man was, he did not belong in that uniform. Broad shoulders pulled at the fabric, and the sleeves did not quite reach his wrists. His rank was first lieutenant, but one of the insignias was upside down. Shoes were black and shining, the upper uncreased by wear. Even if the soldier never set foot outside of Central Command, it was impossible to keep shoes looking that good. Ed had watched Falman buff his boots to a perfect shine every day for years, and within minutes they were scuffed and tired looking.
Everything about the man's appearance was designed to satisfy a hasty glance in the corridor. To anyone who just looked his way he was a soldier, one among thousands. On closer examination there were too many little inconsistencies. Even the way he moved was wrong. People in the army marched whether they were on the parade ground or not. It was as if there was always a drum in their head, pounding out the beat that dictated their lives. This guy eased his way along. There was not a rhythm to his step, but a steady, easy laziness that spoke of complete and utter confidence.
The man, whoever he was, leaned casually on the railing with his back to Ed, still oblivious to the fact that he was not alone. Fingers drummed idly on the metal, creating a soft chime of flesh on steel. With every passing second, Ed thought about challenging him, demanding his name and purpose, but curiosity held his tongue. If he stepped forward now he might never know the truth. The lieutenant might just give some excuse and vanish into the throng of other soldiers, never to be seen again.
Suddenly, something changed. He saw it in the line of the stranger's back. Lazy ease vanished, replaced with something more taut and predatory as he straightened up and reached inside his jacket with one fluid motion. Words died on Ed's lips, sweat prickling his brow like thorns as the man withdrew a gun. With one twitch of his shoulders he lifted the weapon, pointing the slim muzzle into the plaza below. The barrel tip moved slowly, as if tracing the path of a moving target.
Don't think. Just go.
There wasn't enough space between them to accelerate to a sprint. In three uneven footsteps Ed had closed the intervening distance, grabbing the man's wrist and shoving with all his might. The bullet rushed past his face, the bark of the weapon a deafening report in his ear as hot gunpowder flecked his cheek.
It was an opportunity lost, and the stranger knew it. Despite this being an army compound, the sound of gunfire was not common. There was not a soul on the base who wouldn't recognise the noise and raise the alarm. Whoever the original target had been would have ducked for cover, and the surprise on the would-be assassin's face quickly twisted into something far more ugly and vile.
Blue eyes flared with rage as he saw the teenager who had spoiled his plan, and his teeth bared in a snarl as he fought to wrest himself free from Ed's grip. They were pressed together, locked in a parody of a waltz where the gun was the prize.
Ed knew that if he let go the next bullet would be for him, and there would be no escape from it. His life depended on him keeping his grip on the gun until help arrived. All he could do was hope that whoever came to help would not ask questions when they saw a well-known state alchemist struggling with a stranger. The person that came charging up those steps would no doubt have their gun in their hand, and it would be the unknown lieutenant in their sights.
One drop of rain, then another. The heavens opened, and the air became thick with silver trails of falling water. In seconds the roof was slick with the wet, collecting puddles in the dips and nooks as the two men struggled.
'Give up,' Ed spat, trying to twist the gun out of the man's hand as his boots slithered clumsily on the slippery roof. His gloves were making a secure grip hard to find, and, even though his automail fingers were locked around the man's wrist, the stranger still had the advantage of height. He was pressing down with all his strength, making Ed's shoulders shake with the strain of keeping the barrel pointed up into the sky and away from his face.
'Why?' the soldier asked. His voice was smooth and well educated, roughened only by anger. 'Think you're winning?' Snake-quick he yanked one hand free, keeping his left firmly on the gun grip as the right curved around Ed's neck, pressing hard. 'Doesn't look like that from where I'm standing. Stupid brat. Why couldn't you have just kept out of the way? Why would you even bother protecting your bastard of a commanding officer? Everyone knows how much you hate him.'
Ed choked, his mind going blank as he struggled for air. Mustang? This fucker had meant to shoot Mustang? Why?
Baring his teeth, he dropped his left hand, pulling at the man's wrist to try and loosen the clawing grip around his throat. With a quick jerk, he lashed out, scraping his automail foot down the guy's shin, grinding metal down bone as hard as he could and watching with satisfaction as the furious snarl disintegrated into a grimace of pain.
Air rushed back into his lungs as the soldier pulled his hand away, curling his fingers into a fist and smashing it hard into the side of Ed's head.
This was no longer a smooth struggle but a reckless, ruthless fight. Stars exploded across Ed's vision, turning the grey world white as he slumped back against the feeble railing. It gave a fraction under his weight, the concrete around its footings flaking away as it groaned a warning.
By some miracle he managed to keep hold of the gunman's wrist, but before he had a chance to take a breath the soldier slammed all of his weight into Ed's chest, driving the last air from his lungs and crushing his ribs.
With nothing more than a faint squeak of farewell, the fence gave way.
A cartwheel of sky and ground and stone and one flailing, desperate automail finger caught on the lip of the roof. It was a fraction of purchase, but it was enough. Instinctively, Ed's hand clenched around the one thing that was saving him from a twelve-storey fall, and he heard the mortar crumble under the strength of the metal hand.
His flesh shoulder was screaming in pain, and it took him a heartbeat to realise why. The soldier had gone over too, caught by surprise when the railing failed to hold. Now he clung to Ed's left hand with grim determination, fingernails cutting into skin and vein as his jaw worked in fury. A distant clatter announced what had happened to the gun, and Ed saw the glimmer of metal pieces on the plaza below.
'Give me one fucking reason why I shouldn't just let go,' he hissed, grimacing as the man who clung to him flexed his fingers like claws, drawing blood.
'Do what you want,' he gasped, and the grin he gave was tripping along the border of insanity. 'I'm dead either way, but at least I can take you with me.'
There was no time to see or think; no time to even work out where the other gun had come. There was just the sharp “crack” of the bullet discharging and a hot, hard pain that locked every muscle into some sick form of paralysis. Ed could feel the tendons on his neck standing out as he clenched his teeth, struggling not to scream as the painful weight of the soldier hanging onto him became too much to bear. He let go – as if he had any other choice – but there was no relief. The bastard was clinging on and pulling with sick joy.
Ed's entire body felt like lead, dead-weight and useless. Even his automail was clumsy, gripping the rooftop by sheer mechanical strength rather than through any will of his own. Sick and sweaty, he tried to work out what was happening, to plot some kind of escape, but his brain was sluggish and thick. He thought he heard hurried footsteps and shouts of alarm, but he couldn't really be sure. Pain filled him from one edge to the other, roaring along his veins like a wild thing – all teeth and claws and shredding, ripping rage.
He forced his eyes open, looking down the length of his arm into the hating face of the man who had shot him. The gun, a one-shot pistol, was still clutched in the soldier's right hand. Fresh blood, vivid red, connected them, running over Ed's skin and soaking through the glove. He knew before it happened how it was going to end. Perhaps the first whisper of fabric against his palm gave him a clue but, like glue coming unstuck, the glove slipped off his hand, kissing his fingertips lovingly before it fell.
It was all the gunman had been holding on to. There was a short, breathless scrabble for grip, and then nothing. He dropped like a stone and landed heavily. There was no blood, nothing gruesome except the odd twist of his body. He looked like a discarded doll that had just been chucked aside by a child. It was hard to imagine that he had ever been alive, ever been a threat, ever pulled a trigger....
Ed blinked, knowing that if he did not do something he'd be just the same: broken body on barren ground and nothing that could put his pieces together again.
With a massive effort he concentrated on his automail arm, forcing himself to focus on mechanical plates and joints. Normally it was easy to move, barely any different from the real thing, but now it seemed as clumsy as when it had first been attached and far too alien to be of any good.
Taking a deep, shuddering breath, he ignored the taste of blood in his mouth and pulled. His left arm wanted to be a useless, listless thing, but he forced it into action, feeling rough stone beneath his palm and grit, dagger-sharp, under his fingernails. Muscles shifted, forcing more blood from the wound in his side, but he kept going. If he gave up now then that was it. He was dead. He had to carry on – just a little more.
He pitched forward, sobbing and hacking against the rooftop. Blood splattered on the grey stone, but he couldn't understand what it meant. There was solid ground under his knees but he was falling anyway, sprawling onto his uninjured side. Numb fingers clenching uselessly as if he could reach out and hang on to life, but it was slipping beyond his reach. The world was a sluggish place, narrowed down to nothing but rain, air and agony.
Every breath grated in his throat and Ed blinked slowly, trying to work out why everything looked so hazy, as if a grim fog had descended. Only a nearby puddle was clear, the reflected sky tinged pink with staining blood as it danced to the rain’s tune.
There were definitely running footsteps now, staggering and tripping up the stairs. The door was thrown open, banging against the wall with enough force to crack the wood. Puddles fractured apart, shattered by the splash of someone’s boots before warm hands were pressed to his cheek, his shoulder, his side, spreading fire everywhere they went.
‘Ed, you idiot!’
Mustang - fashionably late as always. Ed wanted to say something scathing, but he couldn’t think of the right words. Besides, the same instincts that had warned him about the soldier were still there, awake and alert beneath the pain, noticing what his mind did not have the sense to see.
Roy normally sounded aloof and disinterested. Every word was smug and confident, but not this time: too much pain - too much humanity. It couldn’t be Mustang; he’d never let himself sound so afraid.
‘Ed, you have to tell me where it hurts. I – I can’t – shit, there’s so much blood. Ed, can you hear me?’ Fumbling fingers at his throat, checking for a pulse. No gloves, skin on skin, and Ed could feel how much Roy was shaking. The stuttering gasp of Mustang’s breath seemed louder than it should, oddly out of time with the rush of air between Ed’s own lips.
‘My side,’ he managed to grit out, hating how much the simple effort to speak cost him. ‘Hurts like fuck.’
Another hand, this time right over the wound, and the comforting fog vanished, torn apart by the swift blade of pain. The sound in his throat was not quite a scream, but it was close enough. Gritted teeth held it back, kept it quiet, but there was no way he could stop the grimace contorting his face or the sudden agonised arch of his spine.
Blurred edges came back into sharp focus and dead senses re-awakened, jolted from peace by the screech of every nerve. His heart was thundering in his chest, thrumming like bird wings against the cage of his ribs and roaring in his ears. Someone shouted orders; they may as well have been in a foreign language for all the sense they made.
Something blue was draped over him, tucked around his shoulders like a blanket, and the spicy, smoky scent of Roy went a little way to block out the tell-tale copper tang that choked the air. The pain had not gone again, and he dimly told himself that it was necessary. Mustang was applying pressure, trying to keep the blood inside him. It had to be done, but he wished he’d just let go. It’d stop on its own in the end, wouldn’t it?
'What happened?' Roy barked the question like it was an order, and Ed looked up into his pale face. Mustang looked ill and bloodless, and Ed found himself looking closer, searching for any kind of injury that could explain his appearance. Had he been hit after all? Was he bleeding?
'Saved your life, idiot,' he managed to hiss, but it sounded weak and distant, and he wondered if Roy had even heard him.
'What?' He sounded frightened and sick but, before Ed could answer, Hawkeye spoke.
‘Sir, we need to get him to hospital.’ Her voice was sensible and unshaken, the same as always, but she was speaking in the calm, rational tones someone might use to get the message through to a child. ‘Armstrong can carry him. We don’t have much time.’
‘Are you sure he can even be moved?’
Ed wanted to snap at them to stop talking like he wasn’t even there, but he was too tired. Keeping his eyes open even a tiny fraction was a struggle, and every time he blinked it felt as if he would not open them again.
‘I don’t think we really have a choice, sir. I sent Havoc to alert the medical staff. They’ll be waiting to do what they can.’
Roy must have nodded because the next thing Ed knew he was being lifted up from the cold ground. A massive pair of arms cradled him as if he were made of glass, fragile and precious, and he could feel the broad wall of Alex's chest beneath his cheek.
Their footsteps echoing strangely in the stairwell, clattering back and forth. The sound seemed to go on forever, getting further and further away until it was nothing more than a faint rhythm on the edge of Ed’s conciousness, distant and dream-like.
‘Don’t you dare die, Fullmetal,’ a voice commanded, fierce and shaking with something that could have been fury or fear. ‘That’s an order!’
All Ed could do was close his eyes and fight against the heavy, leaden darkness that seeped over him, touching every muscle and nerve with its cold contact. He’d forgotten what it felt like to be warm, and the growl of Alex’s voice beneath his ear should have meant something. There was worry in his words, and they were edged with the tears the big man was never afraid to shed, but Ed didn’t understand why.
Everything seemed to be slipping away from him and, whenever he tried to hang on, reality danced out of reach. There was something important. He couldn’t fall asleep, mustn’t, but he couldn’t remember why. He was so damn tired, but he had to fight it. Had to.
He didn’t even notice when the darkness won.