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Tears and Rain

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

Helplessness set Roy’s teeth on edge, winding his anxiety tighter by the second until it felt as if he would shatter apart. The hush of the military ward was broken apart by the fervour of the doctors as they worked to save Ed's life. They struggled behind closed doors, of course, but nothing could stop the tension seeping out from that small, sterile room and filling the narrow corridors with an invisible cloud. At least on the roof there had been something to aim for: keep Ed awake and try to stop the bleeding. Now it was all out of his hands. Ed could fight back, or... .

Roy swallowed hard, clenching his fists as he fought the urge to wring his hands. His mind was fogged with shock, and he struggled to understand the enormity of what had happened. An assassin on the roof, and Ed said the bullet should have been for him.

It wasn't a lie. Roy knew he was the only one in range of a gun from that distance, and he had been so beautifully oblivious to the dangers. If Ed had not been there, or if he had responded a second too late, then the first shot would have probably found its target rather than spinning uselessly into the sky. It could have been him at the doctor's mercy, bleeding his life away second by second.

Roy let out a shuddering breath, his heart twisting wretchedly. It should have been him, not because he thought he was stronger or had more chance of surviving, but because, for Ed, it should not end like this. He fought and struggled through every horror life threw his way and always carried on as bright and permanent as the sun. It wasn't right that anyone should be able to snuff Ed out with something as simple as a bullet.

‘Sir?’ Hawkeye’s voice broke into his thoughts, and he blinked uncomprehendingly at the small pile of folded clothes in her outstretched hands. ‘I think it would be best if you change before Alphonse gets here.’ She nodded her head to indicate what he currently wore, and the knot of nausea in his stomach tightened as he looked down at himself for the first time.

His shirt was beyond saving. There was barely any of the white fabric left untouched by the darkening brown of drying blood. His uniform trousers were saturated from the knees down, and the lines on his bare palms were picked out in vivid detail. He'd knelt at Ed's side, stripping off his gloves to use as cloth for the wound; not that it did any good. It just kept coming, trickling over his skin like the most precious claret.

Ed had struggled for breath as his body betrayed him, slipping beyond his control. He lost consciousness in Alex's arms, and for one terrifying instant Roy had thought that was the end. Armstrong's massive chest had heaved in a choked sob, fingers tightening around Edward as he cradled him closer. It took an eternity to find a pulse, and even that weak thud of life could not hide the fact that Ed's face was ghostly white, and every gasp of air was laboured.

'Sir?'

Roy nodded, taking the clothes from Riza's grip and turning blindly along the corridor. He vaguely heard her suggest that Alex go and clean up as well. The massive man's chest only provided a bigger canvas for the gruesome portrait of Ed's injury. Al would be terrified enough without seeing the blatant evidence of his brother's fight for life smeared all over them.

The bathroom was a stark, bare room containing nothing more than the essentials. White tiles gleamed in the sickly light. His reflection in the large mirror over the sink was the only colour in the place. Blue, black and blood, his image told its own story.

Roughly, he twisted the tap, watching cool, clear water turn pink as it poured over his hands and swirled down the drain. He splashed his face, gasping and spluttering as the chill sang along his nerves. Roy braced his arms against the surface, trying to drag together his scattered thoughts and reclaim his professional mask.

Too many soldiers of his rank treated those under their command as inconsequential, something to be frittered away as if people were no more precious than paper. Roy knew that it was his respect for their lives, intelligence and individuality that inspired loyalty in those closest to him. He would not change that for the world, but that did not mean he could have every emotion written on his face. The care he showed for his men, however moderate, was already perceived as a weakness by everyone from the rank of Colonel upwards. If anyone saw him like this over Ed – half-broken and shaken to the core – then they would not hesitate to leap to conclusions.

If it had been Havoc or Hawkeye, he would have been duly concerned, but anger would have been his primary emotion. He would have been demanding answers, staying in the office and finding out everything possible while the medical staff worked their wonders, but this was different. Even as he knew that the safest thing to do would be to walk away, he could not make his feet move. He could not leave Ed to face the outcome of what happened alone.

Quickly, he tugged off his shirt, casting the blood-marred cotton away. Patches of dark brown marked his skin, but he ignored them as he pulled on a clean uniform. It hid the dried stains from sight, and he slipped his watch into his pocket before facing his reflection again. It was normal apart from the paleness of his cheeks and the hollow, lost look in his eyes.

The stained clothes went in the bin, shoved aside as if by hiding the evidence he could wipe the events of the past few hours from his mind. It might not have been him who had pulled that trigger, but he felt like a murderer all the same. After all, no one else had walked into Risembool and offered a child the opportunity to enter the army. No one else had pushed that boy harder and harder to reach his full, dazzling potential.

It was easy to give orders to a kid and expect them to be followed, but Ed's stubborn ways won through. Commands were only half-followed, and Roy found that, as Ed grew, their disagreements became something more like a game, turning from one-dimensional insubordination and frustration to tolerance and wary respect.

Even that, over time, had evolved. Now the air between them was charged and heavy, full of things that neither of them could find the right words to express. There were so many reasons why even admitting that he was attracted to Ed and his bright, fierce passion was a stupid thing to do, but now they all seemed distant and pointless.

A tap at the door made him look up, and Roy had to swallow twice before his voice would work. Even then it was more of a rasp, a frail phantom of its former self. 'Come in. It's not locked.'

Hughes stood at the threshold, pale-faced and tired. He looked almost half a decade older than he had a year ago. There were more lines of worry than laughter on his face these days, and the first touches of silver were woven into his brown hair. Roy knew that most of that was because of the gunshot wound that Maes had barely survived. Almost a fortnight unconscious on the brink of death had stolen more from him than a life in the army.

'Any news?' Roy asked quietly, forcing himself to concentrate on his best friend's features. Green eyes were downcast and dark behind his spectacles. His lips were bracketed by tense concern, but there was no grief, at least not yet.

'No change. The doctors are still working on him. Al's here.' If Hughes noticed him flinch he didn't mention it. 'I tried to explain what happened, but I'm a little unsure on the details myself. I couldn't even give him any reassurance. Maybe you can talk to Alphonse. At least let him know as much as you can.'

Roy nodded, following his friend out of the clinical sanctuary of the bathroom and into the corridor. Alex had cleaned himself up and sat straight in one of the small plastic chairs, his frame too big for the little seat. His ruddy face was blotched with tear tracks and his eyes were bloodshot, but at least he wasn't sobbing any more.

Al was next to him, hunched and pale. His bare hands were clasped together and his eyes were fixed steadily on the doors that blocked them from Ed's bedside. He looked up as Roy approached, his expression open and blameless.

If the position of the brothers was reversed, if it was Al fighting for his life and Ed here, the blonde would have been spitting with fury. There would have been nothing to protect Roy from all of that unfocussed rage. Ed took every negative emotion and twisted it into something hot and fierce that he could use. Al just seemed to contain it, pushing it into steady, calm determination.

It was both very difficult and very easy to talk to Al. He always listened intently, and Roy just kept speaking to fill up the bottomless, understanding silence. He explained about the gunman on the roof, and how the bullet had been meant for him. With surgical precision he edited the fear and desperation from his voice, giving Al every bit of unadorned truth that he could. When he finally ran out of words, the younger Elric nodded and turned his eyes back to the door.

'Brother's never lost a fight yet,' he said quietly, his voice steel-strong with conviction. 'He won't lose this one either.'

Roy sat in the chair next to him, his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands. He wished he could have that much faith in Ed's ability to survive, but he had seen too many people die from smaller wounds. All he had was hope, and that was fading with every minute that passed. How long could the doctors keep going? How long could they nurture life in a body too weak to contain the spirit?

Time passed on silent feet. Havoc, Fuery, Breda and Falman all came and went, eager for news of Ed's well-being and always disappointed by the same old answer. They were helping Hawkeye find out who was behind the assassination attempt, and titbits of conflicting information kept reaching Roy's ears. Maes availed anyone in investigations who could help, but he stayed resolutely at Roy's side.

'It's not safe,' he said bluntly when Roy gave him a questioning look. 'It should have been you in there.' He gestured to the room where Ed lay. 'It still could be. Do you really think they won't try again? You can't be alone until we've got the person responsible in jail. You need to be with either me or Armstrong at all times.'

An ember became a flame in Roy's chest. Prison. What the hell kind of punishment was that for the person who had brought Ed so low with their careless plotting? Someone, somewhere was to blame for this, and if he had his way then they'd damn well burn.

The door creaked open and Roy looked up, the heat of his rage abruptly doused by fear. All this waiting for news and now, suddenly, he did not want to know. He would rather live in this uncertainty forever than face the possibility that Ed was gone. Ignorance was a sick kind of bliss, especially in a place like this, and there was nothing reassuring about the doctor's appearance.

He looked like the survivor of a war with no victors. Deep lines etched his haggard face, and there could be no apology in the world for all the blood that stained his medical coat. If Roy had been more aware, he would have noticed that none of it was fresh crimson, but the fact passed him by as he waited for the man to speak.

Wetting his lips, the doctor glanced at the linoleum floor before looking up again, meeting Roy's gaze head on. 'Major Elric is alive and stable. We won't know what the long-term effects of the blood loss will be until he regains consciousness.' He paused, his expression serious as he added, 'He was lucky. If it had been a half inch higher or lower there would have been no life left to save.'

Roy swallowed. His body felt numb, suspended between unnecessary grief and the relief he could not let himself feel. He knew what the man meant by long-term effects. The brain needs a certain amount of blood, of oxygen, to survive. Losing conciousness after a trauma was a self-defence mechanism to keep the tissue alive.

Sometimes people did not wake up again. Their hearts continued to beat, they breathed, but they never opened their eyes or regained awareness of the world. Others found their senses or sanity gone, or they lost their ability to move or function. He remembered one soldier who lost all his memories; he recognised neither friend, foe or family. It was as if his brain was on but wasn't recording what was happening. He didn't remember if he'd eaten lunch, even if the empty plate was right in front of him.

God, had he been praying for Ed to live only to curse him to a half-life? He had seen, once or twice, how much Ed loathed being helpless. Even when the automail threatened his life, leeching strength or heat from him, he would refuse to take it off. He was too strong, too used to depending on his own abilities to ever ask for help. The thought of Ed's mind, sharp and diamond brilliant, being ruined by this – He cut off the thought quickly, berating himself for the fatalistic horror of his doubts. Not now. There was no use worrying over something that might never happen.

He glanced sideways at Al, seeing the blatant, pure smile on the young man's face. He was just happy to have Ed alive. Maybe he had not thought of the potential consequences yet, or perhaps they didn't concern him too much. To Alphonse, Ed would always be Ed, regardless of how much life changed him.

'We're keeping him under observation, but you're welcome to see him,' the doctor said calmly, smiling as Al got to his feet. Roy looked away, crushing the impulse to follow. It wasn't his place, he reminded himself furiously. He was only Ed's commanding officer, and he would never be anything more.

'Brigadier-General?' Al's voice held an unspoken question, and when he looked up Alphonse's expression was expectant. 'Could you come with me? I'd like to have you there.' He hesitated, then added quietly, 'I think brother would as well.'

If a stranger had heard Al's request, then they would have put it down to his nervousness or some need for an adult to be with him at his brother's side, but to Roy there was an extra layer of meaning. It wasn't the first time that he wondered just how much the younger Elric knew. How much did calm, innocent eyes see when they looked at the world? Did Al realise that Roy was looking for an excuse, some reason to validate his presence at Ed's side?

After a couple of seconds, he nodded and got stiffly to his feet, feeling joints protest from hours of inactivity. Roy didn't miss the fact that Armstrong followed at a discreet distance as Hughes and Hawkeye talked in quiet voices.

The doctor led them through the doorway, standing aside to let them see his patient. The sparse, white room was illuminated by buzzing fluorescent lights, stripping away the coy shadows and bleaching out the colour.

Ed looked ghost-like and, for a moment, Roy wondered if he really had survived. Only the gentle rise and fall of his chest proved that he was alive. Now, it was hard to remember that Ed was only a young man rather than a veteran soldier. There was nothing youthful about his appearance: no soft flush or heated eyes or wary curiosity. His face was a blank canvas, waiting for some form of emotion to shape his distinctive features.

The sheet was pulled up to just above his waist, and swathes of bandages were wrapped around his torso. No blood darkened the dressing, and Roy felt the first shimmer of true relief. Up on the roof it had seemed like nothing would stop the flow of red from Ed's wound. At least the doctors had succeeded in that.

Al perched on a chair on his brother's right side, wrapping the cool automail fingers in his hand without flinching. Hesitantly, Roy reached out, touching Ed's left hand. He expected cold skin and instead found warm flesh, relaxed in sleep. Licking his lips, he willed the fingers in his grasp to move, even just a twitch, but there was nothing. He wasn't used to seeing Ed this still. Even when absorbed in alchemy there was still the rhythmic turn of the page and the quirk and twitch of his eyebrows as he explored each theory. Now there was none of that. If it weren't for the warmth of his body, he could have been made of wax.

'Thank you,' Al said quietly. 'I heard one of the nurses say that you got him to the hospital just in time.'

Roy frowned to himself, wishing he deserved Al's gratitude. 'It should never have happened in the first place. If security were better, or if I'd just stayed in the damn office rather than getting some air... .' He tipped his head back, staring at the blank white ceiling. A headache was beginning to build under his temples, droning out a thudding beat of pain. 'Ed shouldn't be the one who's hurt.'

Al gazed at him, solemn and steady, as if he was seeing right through every one of Roy's shattered masks to the truth underneath. At length he said, 'Everyone always thinks that I'm the good brother, the sensible one, but no one ever really sees that Ed's the one who's brave. People believe that he doesn't think things through, that he leaps into action without considering the consequences.' Al paused, his face flickering with a frown. 'Thing is, brother's never been like that. Not since what happened with mother. Not since losing my body. He knows what could happen, what the result of every one of his actions could be, and he does it anyway.'

Words were dead on Roy's tongue, stunned to silence by Al's quiet revelation. He knew that the younger Elric was trying to make him feel better, to reassure him that Ed had not stepped unthinkingly into the gunman's sights, but somehow that only made it worse. Every life had a value, and, with the cold cynicism of a soldier too long in uniform, Roy knew that some had more worth than others. His survival was not equivalent to the loss of a young man's life. He suspected that, if the worst did still come to pass, his future would be forever overcast by what it had cost.

'It should never have happened,' he repeated, meeting Al's eyes briefly before looking back at the figure lying on the bed. Firmly, he tightened his fingers around Ed's hand, hanging on until his knuckles cramped and his muscles ached.

Hours crept by. At first there was quiet conversation; they talked about nothing and everything just so that they didn't have to think about this. In the end the words gave way to nervous silence; Ed never so much as stirred. Eventually, Al slipped into sleep, head resting on the mattress by his brother's arm as Roy was left to keep up his vigil alone.

The creak of the door made him lift his gritty gaze from the bed. A menacing silhouette stood on the threshold, and his sluggish thoughts scattered like leaves before the wind. Assassin! some part of his mind hissed, the only sound in the emptiness of his own skull. The click of his fingers was instinctive, but it was a useless gesture, like the trigger clicking on an unloaded gun. No gloves, he remembered. The arrays wouldn't have worked anyway. Ed's blood had obliterated them.

Shade and paranoia cleared, leaving Hawkeye's respectable figure standing in the dim light. She watched him carefully, as if he were an injured wild animal, incapacitated but still dangerous. Something small and white was held in her hands, and she held them out to him. 'Another pair of gloves, sir,' she said quietly, her voice as steady as ever as she glanced at Al's sleeping form. 'We don't need you defenceless at a time like this. Major Armstrong is just outside the door, but that doesn't mean you're safe from attack.'

Roy accepted them without a word, pulling one onto his left hand but leaving the right bare. If he had been thinking straight getting new gloves would have been the first thing to do. He couldn't recall the last time he had been without them either on his hands or in his pockets. Grimly, he straightened his shoulders, leaning back in his chair and surveying the woman under his command, forcing himself to slip the mask of the Brigadier-General back over his features. In that cool logic there was at least a fraction of solace.

Riza's entire body was taut with disapproval; it was etched into every line of her stance, but for once it was not directed at him. Her right hand was clenched into a fist at her side, and he suspected she was restraining herself for hanging onto the butt of her gun. Her brown eyes swept the room as if searching for threats, and there was a furious downward twist to her lips.

'What is it, Lieutenant?' he eventually asked, knowing that, sometimes, Hawkeye needed things to follow a certain script. She took comfort in routine, and today had been anything but normal. It was easy to forget that she was human, just like the rest of them. She worked hard to make sure that the line between professional and personal never blurred, but time and familiarity had softened those edges, and he could see that she was equally distressed over what had happened to Ed. He also suspected that she was blaming herself. Hawkeye took breaches in security personally, even when they were far beyond her purview.

Riza blinked as if she were coming back to the present, her gaze lingering on Ed's pale face as she spoke. 'We searched the body of the gunman, sir, and found this.' She held out the piece of paper as if it were contaminated, pinching it between thumb and forefinger. The parchment was thick and creamy, officer's stationary. He had suspected that the threat emanated from in the army; there were far too many people uncomfortable with his brazen progress through the ranks. Still, he had hoped that, for once, that this had nothing to do with the military.

Roy opened the folded sheet of paper, eyes skipping the words and resting on the signature and seal. It was a brief, emotionless missive ordering his disposal. There was no humanity in the instructions and barely any emotion, not even a fraction of apology. It made the whole thing more chilling.

'This attempt was planned down to the last minute,' Hawkeye said bluntly. 'I expect that you were being watched almost constantly, sir, until the opportune moment.' Satisfaction fluttered across her features. 'The military police are on their way to make the arrest.'

'General Patton,' Roy muttered, rubbing the seal with his thumb as he recalled the portly man in his fifties: pig-eyed and ruthless. He had no designs on the Fuhrership, but he would do anything to keep his own position, including eliminating any threat he perceived in promising young officers beneath him. 'He'll deny it.'

'That letter is enough to search his home. I imagine we'll find evidence of his plans. This was choreographed, sir; it was not a spontaneous event.' She glanced back down at Ed, a melancholy smile perched on her lips. 'The gunman was a professional: well-trained and arrogant with it. If Ed hadn't been there -' She shifted uncomfortably. '-I doubt he would have missed, sir.'

What was he meant to say to that? The thought had rampaged through his mind again and again, tipping his mood between intense gratitude at Ed's behaviour and fury at his reckless self-sacrifice. He scowled at the young man tucked neatly between the hospital sheets. The shadows under his eyes, laid down by too many late nights studying alchemy, had darkened to angry purple, vivid against skin leached of its usual glow. His fingers twitched with the urge to reach out and smooth them away, but he fought it back. Not his place, he reminded himself. It never was, and it never would be.

'Keep me updated, Lieutenant,' he ordered. 'I need to know if Patton is still a threat. Ed could become a target for ruining his plans. I don't want anyone showing up to finish off Fullmetal.'

'Understood.' Hawkeye turned and walked away, wasting no more time on niceties now that she had her orders. He heard her speaking quietly to Hughes and Armstrong before she carried on her way. It would probably be hours before there was anything more definitive than Riza's suspicions. He knew Patton, knew how low the man would sink to keep his standing in the military, and there was nothing he would not resort to in order to side-step any charges. Like the bastard would ever get the chance. Patton would not get away with this; Roy would make sure of it.

Twilight swept towards true night as Roy sat at Ed's bedside. At some point one of the nurses gently roused Al, suggesting he use one of the spare beds. The young man was exhausted by his own worry and fear, but it was obvious he did not want to leave his brother's side. 'What if he wakes up? Ed would want me here.'

'I'll come and get you,' Roy promised, letting a fraction of his own tiredness show. 'Get a few hours rest, and then we'll swap places. That way Ed's never left on his own.' It was a simple strategy, but if it helped Al get a bit of comfortable sleep then it was worth it. He knew that Al was no more able to leave the hospital than he was; it was just unthinkable.

Al watched him carefully, and Roy got the distinct feeling that his façade may as well have been made of glass for all the good it did him. It was as if every intention and emotion was written on his forehead for the world to see. In the end the young man nodded in agreement, giving a faint smile of thanks before following the nurse's gentle directions to the room next door.

Rubbing a hand up the nape of his neck, Roy tipped his head back, letting his breath rush between his lips in a weary sigh. Time had no meaning here. It could have been minutes or days that he'd sat at this bedside. Either way it was an eternity of waiting. He sat in silence, lost in the numb sea of his own thoughts. Fear was a relentless whisper in his ear, murmuring every little worry again and again until there was no other sound but the voice of doubt.

Roy was a grown man, a soldier who had seen one horror after the other and fought his way free of them without shedding a tear, but this was too much – too personal.

He had always encouraged Ed to fight for what he wanted, but Roy had always been there to smooth the way. Now there was nothing he could do to help. This was something that Ed had to do alone, and all he could do was watch and wait for the outcome.

'Come back, Ed,' he whispered, his voice hoarse in the stifling silence of the room. 'Please come back.'

Chapter Text

Thick, clammy blackness swamped Ed's mind, smothering him in its endless clutches. He knew that there was a world beyond the night that surrounded him on all sides, but every time he neared the surface of wakefulness he was plunged under by another inky wave. Scrappy images, half nightmare, half memory, dappled his sleep like light breaking over water, and he did not even have the strength to flinch away in horror. His body was weak and crippled, as useless as it had been when he had first lost his arm and leg, and it refused to respond to his pleas for action.

Pain bit into his side like an animal, strong jaws ripping at flesh and crunching bone as it feasted on him. He wanted to fight back, but he was a helpless prisoner, chained by his own weakness with no way to break free. A lesser pain, sharp and brief, brought a tide of relief in its wake, chasing away the scavenger of agony and pushing him further down into darkness.

Finally, the tattered veils of sleep parted, releasing Ed's mind from the grip of unconsciousness and pushing him back into the world. His thoughts were thick and slow, cruising through his mind like icebergs, all jagged edges and hidden depths. Slowly, his aching body began to take stock of bruises and wounds, throbbing in a dull waltz of discomfort.

He opened his eyes a fraction, wincing at the stab of the dim light. It knifed through his skull, and Ed turned his head to the side to try and escape. The room swum sickeningly in response to his movement, and he closed his eyes again and swallowed against the the sharp, medical taste in his mouth as he tried to avoid the empty retch that clenched his stomach.

Normally, waking up in an unfamiliar bed would have brought the fast, hard bite of defensive confusion, but it was as if his body was shrouded in a thick haze. His responses were slow and his senses half-dead. He could smell the rough edge of antiseptic in the air, and the sheets against his skin were stiff with starch, but it was a distant sensation. It felt like there was a layer of cotton wool between him and the world, protecting him from the cutting edges of reality.

After a few moments, he risked taking another look at his surroundings. This time the room remained obligingly motionless. He didn't need anyone to tell him he was in hospital. White and bare, the walls gave him all the clues he needed. Nowhere else could possibly be this impersonal and sterile. The only feature was one long window looking out onto the night. He could see the stark pillars of tree trunks beyond the pane, and the glow of the street lamps made strange shadows dance across the floor.

There were no sounds in the air other than his own breathing, tight and slow, and the arrhythmic patter of raindrops against the glass. Whispered recollections poured into his conciousness, called forth by the drum of the water on the ground outside. A man on the roof – rain falling thick and fast – the gun in pieces – a shot like a thunderclap and the lightning strike of fire in his side... .

Ed tried to move his left arm, but the numbness faded and agony clawed at his ribs as soon as his muscles shifted. He gritted his teeth against it, holding himself still as he waited for the panging in his nerves to subside. With questing metal fingers, he found the thick swathe of bandages wrapped around his chest like they were the only thing holding him together, and his gentle probing stirred up the dull thudding of bruises and the sharper bite of wrecked skin and muscle.

'Fucker shot me,' he growled to himself in something like disbelief, letting his right hand fall back to his side as he blinked tiredly at the ceiling. He had been in the army for years and never actually been hit by a bullet. Not in any body part made of flesh and blood and bone, anyway. Still, for most of that time he had been nothing but a kid, and even the hardest soldiers tended to hesitate when pointing a gun at a child. The bastard on the roof hadn't even thought twice. He had enjoyed it – enjoyed the pain and shock even as he fell twelve storeys to his own death.

Ed shuddered at the memory, knowing he was lucky that he hadn't lost his grip and plunged to the unforgiving earth along with the would-be killer. Pulling himself back onto that roof had been one of the hardest things he had ever done, not mentally, but physically. He was used to his body being strong and supple, a tool he could rely on to carry him through the toughest fights and most desperate moments of his life. In one split-second, it had been rendered almost useless. He couldn't stand, let alone walk, and there was no way he could have got to the hospital by himself. Someone else must have brought him here.

Mustang. He remembered running footsteps and panicked, almost angry words as bare hands pressed at the wound in his side. There had been questions that Ed couldn't really answer and scathing things he wanted to say but didn't have the strength to voice. Armstrong had carried him away from the roof, had probably brought him here, but that was where Ed's memory failed him, succumbing to the pull of unconsciousness.

The bullet had been meant for Roy; it would probably have found its target if Ed hadn't made the shot go wide. Events kept replaying in his mind like an endless cinema reel, and his sluggish thoughts began to pick up speed as the questions started. Why would anyone want to shoot Mustang? He was an annoying bastard sometimes, but people didn't kill officers in the army just because they were irritating. Maybe he had fucked the soldier's wife and he was getting his revenge, but that didn't quite fit. A cheated husband would be unpredictable with anger, but the soldier was calm and collected, as if he shot people every day.

A professional, and that made him not just a gunman but an assassin. The word hovered in Ed's mind, strange and incongruous as he tried to fit it into his concept of reality. He knew that there were some sick people out there – men who would meddle with anything they could get their hands on and play games with the lives of others, but could someone really accept money to end someone else's life – not in self-defence but with cold-hearted indifference?

Something moved in his peripheral vision, and Ed turned to look at the door. There was a long, thin strip of glass, and through it he could see Mustang and Armstrong talking. He couldn't make out what they were saying, but he doubted that it was good news. Alex looked as if he were brimming over with indignant fury. His moustache was bristling as he spoke, and his eyebrows were snapped down into a viscious frown.

Roy was looking down at the cup in his hands, holding onto it as if it were a lifeline. His face was grim, and purple shadows bruised the pale skin under his eyes. Broad shoulders were slumped, and dark hair was tousled and sticking up in tufts as if he had spent most of the day running his hands through it. He wasn't wearing a jacket, and Ed could see that his sleeves were rolled up and the top button of his shirt was undone. It was probably late enough that he could be considered off-duty, so why was he still here?

Roy looked up, his dark eyes meeting Ed's as a flicker of something crossed his face. Happiness, or just relief? His body language changed, no longer tired and defensive, but stronger and more certain as he turned to Armstrong and gave him some orders before pushing the door open. The bitter aroma of coffee reached Ed's nose, drowning out the nauseating smell of the antiseptic. He tried to take a deep breath of it, but pain slashed through him again, making a groan catch in his throat.

'The doctor's given you pain medication,' Roy said as he put his mug down on the cabinet at Ed's bedside, 'but you lost a lot of blood, so they have to be careful with the dose. He said it probably wouldn't do more than take the edge off.' He looked at Ed closely, his expression still pinched and tense. 'How do you feel? Do you remember what happened?'

'I stopped someone from killing you and ended up being shot for it.'

Guilt clouded Roy's features, and Ed huffed out a tiny sigh. He knew he sounded petulant and angry, but with every minute the pain was getting worse. He felt vulnerable and horribly exposed, damaged and useless. If he could stand up he would probably feel better, but it was completely out of the question. He didn't have the strength. Instead he was left lying in bed weak and, worse, small.

'Why did you do it?' Roy asked, a frown on his brow as he watched Ed shift uncomfortably on the mattress. His expression was intent, as if he had been thinking about it all day and still hadn't come up with an answer. 'You could have run to get help or used your alchemy, but instead you tackled a man armed with a loaded gun with your bare hands.' His voice went clipped and hard, as if he were struggling not to let any emotion show in his words. 'He could have killed you.'

'I know that!' Ed snapped, but the response was frail in comparison to his usual fury. 'I'm not an idiot. There wasn't time for anything else. I didn't even know who he was aiming at, just that he was trying to kill someone. What did you expect me to do – stand there and watch? How would that make me any better than the guy with the gun?'

Mustang shut his eyes, and Ed knew the expression on his face well. He had seen it enough times in the office. He was trying to hold onto his patience, as if Ed had done something stupid and childish and now it was up to Roy to sort out his mess.

'You could at least show a bit of fuckin' gratitude,' Ed growled, wishing he could turn his back, but if he did that he'd be lying on his injured side; it hurt bad enough as it was. Any kind of pressure on it would only make it worse. Instead he shut his eyes stubbornly, clenching his jaw as he tried to ignore the presence of the other man in the room.

Obviously Roy thought he was naïve and stupid - thought he didn't understand the consequences of stepping in the way of a bullet. He did not seem to realise that it had not been a concious choice. Ed had not stood on that rooftop and deliberated about whether to act or not; he'd just gone for it.

Something tapped very gently against his flesh hand, and he opened his eyes grudgingly to glare at Mustang. The older man wasn't looking at him. He was staring at the floor, as if the words he needed to say were written on the linoleum at his feet. He sat on the edge of the bed, and Ed could see him forcing himself to put aside the distance of command. His back was half-turned and his eyes were shielded by dark strands of hair, but his voice was quiet and sincere.

'Thank you. Hawkeye doesn't think the gunman would have missed if you hadn't stopped him. You didn't just prevent me from being injured. You probably saved my life.' Roy fidgeted as if the idea did not sit well with him, and he twisted his hands together as he glanced sideways. 'I'm sorry it wasn't the first thing I said. I've been – worried about you.' He acted like it had cost him a lot to make that admission, and his gaze took on a wary, watchful look as Ed stared, trying to make sense of what was being said.

He knew that Roy cared about his men. They had offered some strange, silent pledge of loyalty, not just to Mustang but to that vision of a better military. In return, they were treated like people rather than cannon fodder, but Ed had never really thought of himself as being a part of that inner circle. He and Al had been involved in the military for their own personal gain, nothing more. Ed hadn't made any promises and Mustang didn't owe him anything, but he had been concerned anyway. What did that mean?

A tap on the door cut him off, and Ed turned his head slowly to see a calm, professional-looking man in a white coat standing on the threshold – the doctor, he guessed. Before the man could step forward, Al darted around him, hurrying to Ed's side and grabbing his automail hand. 'Brother, are you all right?'

The mattress shifted as Roy got to his feet, and Ed glanced quickly in his direction, seeing the normal, professional mask fall back into place as if that moment of openness had never existed. Now he looked every inch like the superior officer checking on his subordinate and, even though there were no stars on his shoulder, he was still a general through and through.

'I've been better,' Ed said, turning back to his brother and giving a weak smile of reassurance, 'but I'll be okay in a few days.'

The doctor cleared his throat, managing to make the noise sound both incredulous and doubtful. 'I'm afraid it will be weeks before you are back on active duty, Major Elric. The injury you sustained was far more than just a flesh wound. You are lucky to still be with us. You'll be in hospital for a while yet.'

'Sir?' Lieutenant Hawkeye hovered by the door, tense and strained. She bestowed a small, warm smile on Ed, but her eyes were haunted and tired. Her expression conveying far more than her words as she spoke guardedly. 'There have been some developments in the situation that I need to discuss with you in confidence.' Her eyes flickered to the doctor, and Ed realised that she wasn't trying to keep him and Al out of the loop. She was worried about the integrity of the medical staff. What the hell was going on?

Mustang nodded. 'Please keep me updated on Major Elric's prognosis, Doctor.' His voice was calm but firm, and he looked over at Ed once more before turning away and following Hawkeye's quiet footsteps.

'Medical confidentiality seems to be meaningless to the military,' the doctor said, giving a shrug of apology. 'I'm afraid I have to report all my findings and recommendations to your superior officer. Now, look at me please?'

Ed sat still while light was flashed in his eyes, giving short answers to the doctor's basic questions.

'Good, good,' the man said gently, giving Ed a long, hard look as if he was trying to see straight through his skull. 'There were concerns that the amount of blood you lost would have some long-lasting effects, but I can't see anything obvious.' He turned his attention to the bandages, cutting them open and peeling the thick pad carefully back from the wound.

Al had gone pale at the sight of what had been uncovered, and Ed risked a glance down at his side. He swallowed tightly, staring at the massive black bruise across his ribs. The actual wound was small and blistered, as if the bullet had scorched its way into him like a hot knife through butter. The dressing was stained with a mix of blood and suspicious, weepy fluid, yellow and putrid-looking.

'We had to cauterise it,' the doctor said, his voice thoughtful. 'Burning the flesh closed was the only way to stop the bleeding. Barbaric, but effective.' He pressed at the bruises with gentle fingers, his eyes staring blankly at the wall as he checked the swelling and nodded to himself. 'We got the bullet out whole, so you should not have any problems with foreign material in your chest cavity. From the feel of it, we managed to stop all the internal bleeding. Those are the two biggest risks with injuries such as this, but I'm afraid that your recovery is likely to be slow.' He reached into his pocket, hooking a stethoscope into his ears before pressing it to Ed's chest. 'Breathe deeply for me?'

He tried, but the air caught in his throat as his side throbbed with a bone deep ache. His ears buzzed sharply, and Ed gritted his teeth as he waited for the pain to pass. 'I can't,' he muttered, taking sharp, shallow pants as sweat beaded on his forehead.

'Is that bad?' Al asked, his hand on Ed's automail shoulder as he watched the doctor intently.

'It's to be expected. The path of the bullet missed Major Elric's heart, but it did a significant amount of damage to his left lung.' With a reassuring smile the doctor perched on the edge of the bed, taking Ed's wrist and counting his pulse as he spoke. 'Small amounts of activity will make you breathless and tired at first, but your body will adapt.' He reached for his chart, flipping through the pages before scribbling some notes.

'My main concern is infection,' he continued at length. 'If you start to wheeze, develop a dark rash or cough up bright red blood then you must seek medical attention immediately. Something as simple as a cold could threaten your life until this wound has healed, which will probably take a month or more. We will keep you here under observation for a few more days and see how you progress.'

Sharp eyes flickered up to meet Ed's stubborn gaze, and the doctor raised an eyebrow. 'I've heard that you are not a good patient, Major Elric, but I really must insist. If the bullet had been higher it would have hit your heart, lower and it would have struck a major blood vessel. If the angle was steeper it could have severed your spine. It would be a shame to have you survive the initial event, only to have you die of complications because you ignored medical advice, hmmm?'

He gave a small smile, and Ed knew that it wasn't a fight he was going to win. Not because he was afraid to go against the doctor's orders, but because Al had heard that little speech, and Ed knew his brother would sit on him to keep him here if necessary.

'I'll stay,' he said eventually. 'Feel like shit anyway.'

The man nodded in approval, and Ed forced himself not to scowl. 'A nurse will be along to redress your wound shortly, and she'll give you some more pain medication at the same time. Try and get some rest if you can.'

Al sat in a nearby chair with a sigh, scrubbing his hand over his face as the doctor departed. 'You scared me, Brother,' he said quietly, the hint of reproof in his voice loud and clear. 'Brigadier-General Mustang looked awful when I got here, like he'd just woken up from a nightmare, and Major Armstrong had been crying.'

'He cries at everything,' Ed muttered, reaching out with his right hand and pulling the blankets up to his shoulders, giving a grunt of thanks as Al leaned forward to help. 'Mustang was probably freaked out about almost having his pretty head blown off.' He pressed the heel of his hand to his eye, feeling the prickle of pain steadily intensify. 'I'm fine. It looks worse than it is.'

'Don't lie,' Al said softly. 'It's okay to admit that something hurts, you know. I'm not a little kid any more.'

Ed smiled at that, looking at his brother's open, honest face. It was already so easy to forget that he had ever been anything but flesh and blood. He had hauled Al's body back from the gate amidst a crashing rage of unpredictable alchemy, riding the lingering wave of the stone's power before the whole thing crashed down around their ears. He had been so sure something would go wrong, and even now he found himself half-expecting the gate to re-appear and demand its price.

Yet Al was happy and whole. His body had aged in the time it had been missing, not childish and chubby any more but clumsy and growing like a weed. He was still sweet and kind and the better of the two of them. Somehow, through it all, Al had never lost his optimism, and Ed was painfully grateful for that. He could take all the bitterness life had to give if Al could always see the silver lining.

'All right, it hurts, but it's still not that bad.' He frowned, glancing towards the door and seeing the hulking frame of Major Armstrong standing guard beyond the threshold. 'Do you know what's going on? The guy on the roof knew what he was doing. Someone paid him to kill Mustang.'

Al hesitated, his face thoughtful as he began to speak quietly. 'As far as I can tell one of the higher generals ordered it. Everyone's trying to investigate, but something's gone wrong. The person they thought was responsible has vanished, and there were some coded messages in his home. I think Lieutenant-Colonel Hughes is afraid that there's more than one mastermind.' Al shifted in his chair, taking Ed's hand. 'I'm worried that you've made yourself a target. General Mustang stays in one place most of the time – it's easy to protect him, but you move all around on the country.'

Ed sighed, shaking his head. 'They won't bother with me, and for all we know the guy on the roof was the only one. Maybe they'll give up. Besides if this was as planned as everyone's saying they're not going to mess it all up just to kill some kid who got in the way.'

'But don't you see? Because it went wrong, everything has changed. Now whoever is behind it will be trying to protect themselves. Everyone who knows about it will become a target.'

'So, all of Mustang's staff, the military police, you, me, and nurses or doctors who happen to have overheard anything that Hawkeye has said … .' Ed grinned. 'If they start shooting everyone who knows something about this now, they'll never stop. The Fuhrer might be an idiot, but he's not about to let one of his generals go on a killing spree within the military. If nothing else it would start some kind of coup or something.'

'What if the Fuhrer's one of the people behind it?' Al asked. 'I mean, it is his job that Mustang's after. He'd have plenty of reason to have him killed.' His eyes were bright with worry, and Ed wondered who he had been talking to. Was this what Roy's men were thinking? He had thought it was nothing more than a one-off attempt, not an opening move in a war.

'What have you heard?'

Al was about to reply when a nurse bustled in. She wasn't much older than them, and her pretty face was flustered as if she had been rushing around all night. She did not look like a threat to military security, but Ed shook his head anyway, silencing his brother with a look. Al was probably blowing the whole thing out of proportion, but Ed had a feeling that he could be right, and he did not want innocent people to die because of what they had they heard in passing.

With gentle hands and calm words, the nurse helped Ed into a sitting position, propping him up on pillows as she got to work. Bandages charted their smooth, white way around his chest, and she gave a sympathetic murmur of pity before covering the wound with a pad and holding it in place. 'There's still a little blood, but it should stop soon. Is that too tight?'

'No, it's fine, thanks.'

'All right then. Now, stay still.'

Before Ed had a chance to do more than squeak in surprise, she had his flesh arm in a tourniquet and was tapping at his veins, giving a satisfied nod as she found a likely target. Without a word, Al went around the bed and offered him a hand to hold. It was a comforting gesture, but that wasn't the main aim of it. With Al's flesh hand in his automail one, Ed had to concentrate on not crushing his brother's fingers in a clenched fist of panic. It gave him something else to think about other than the quick, sharp stab of the needle.

'You'll feel a little scratch and then it will be over,' the girl said soothingly, not looking up as she administered the drug. 'There we go. All done. You'll probably feel quite woozy, but it'll help you get some rest.' Calmly she readjusted his pillows, easing him down so that he was lying flat again before she collected up her things and went, promising to return in a little while with some water.

'Hate fuckin' hospitals. Why can't they use tablets like normal people?' He shuffled under the blankets defensively, as if he could use them as a shield against the prods and pokes of the medical staff. 'Not like I need more holes put in me.'

'They're only trying to help, brother.'

Al's voice sounded tinny and distant, and Ed's mind began to fuddle itself in the fog of the pain medication. It sounded like Al was back in the armour again, and he blinked slowly at the stranger at his bedside with Alphonse's face. Everything was moving very slowly back and forth, and his eyelids felt like lead. Each blink became longer until he couldn't open his eyes again, and the darkness took him back, as dense and thick as earth in a grave.

He dreamt that he was stuck on the operating table with his ribs held open, and Winry was cutting his heart out so that she could fit an automail one. Her blue eyes were smiling at him, and she was chattering away about nothing in particular while his blood dripped out of his chest and onto the floor.

Voices, concerned and confused, tittered on the edge of his hearing. Someone was talking about acceptable doses and side effects, but it was like listening to a radio turned right down. The words were nothing but a faint suggestion of shapes in the air, and he couldn't reach out and grab the ribbons of colour that they made.

Time moved strangely, gushing away in huge chunks and creeping along at snail's pace. After what felt like centuries, he opened his gritty eyes again, staring muzzily at the white ceiling. The air still smelled of coffee, and he turned his head , blinking as he saw Mustang leaning against the wall and looking out into the night beyond the window.

'What time is it?'

Roy looked around in surprise at his hoarse question, eyebrows raised as if he hadn't expected Ed to wake up. 'Nine-thirty at night.' When Ed blinked in confusion he added, 'You were shot two days ago. You've been out of it for a while. The pain medication has a sedative effect, and you didn't react very well. They've had to discontinue the dose because you wouldn't wake up.' He moved towards the bed, standing between Ed and the window as he looked intently at Ed's face, trying to read the truth from his expression. 'How do you feel?'

'Like crap.' Ed pressed his right hand to his aching head, swallowing against the dryness in his mouth. 'What's going on? Did -' He hesitated, trying to sort out in his head what was fact and what was just the ragged edges of his dreams. 'Did you catch the guy who ordered you shot?'

Mustang's face hardened, and his jaw clenched as he shook his head. 'No, General Patton has fled the city, and the more we look into it the deeper the plot seems to go. There's more than one person involved, but we don't know who. Two other generals have been killed. One in East City and the other in the South. Their deaths were made to look like accidents, but -'

'But you don't think they were?' Ed said quietly, a trickle of uncertainty working its way down his spine. 'You think they were murdered?'

'I don't know.' Roy's voice was thick with frustration and anger as he stared unseeingly at the wall. 'I'm not even sure how far this goes. It could just be some generals killing off the competition – that's happened before, but this time the Fuhrer's not putting a stop to it. Either he doesn't know or -'

'Or he's one of the people calling the shots.' Ed blinked, trying to understand what he was being told. It felt as if he had woken up in the wrong world. He was used to the army being a big, corrupt, fat machine, not something vicious and cunning, bent on self-destruction. He stared at Roy, seeing the strain that had cut its marks into his face. He looked older, his expression pinched and lined with worry as he bit his lip in thought.

A movement beyond the window caught Ed's eye, and he frowned at the branches shaking in the wind. Were the trees the only thing out there, or was there something else? His head was still fogged by the lingering traces of the drug in his system, but he didn't think he was seeing things. Was there a thicker shadow out there, hunched against the gale?

Metal flashed in the gloom, and Ed's mind screamed a desperate warning. Without thinking he lunged upwards, grabbing Roy's collar and hauling him down on top of him as the glass of the window broke, raining down in an icy crescendo in the bullet's wake. The gunshot echoed through the room, followed by a second which struck the wall by the door.

Before Ed even knew what was happening, Roy had rolled over, pulling him off the mattress and onto the floor. He tucked Ed firmly under his body, heart to thundering heart, protecting him as more bullets ricocheted through the room. They raised puffs of feathers as they hit the mattress and chimed off of the metal frame of the bed. Ed could hear Armstrong's roar of fury as he burst through the door, heading for the window as Roy yelled at Alex to get out of the way before he snapped his fingers.

The flame blistered the white paint off of the wall, scorching through the broken window like a vengeful god as it belched out into the night. Palls of smoke rose up in the air and, with a shrieking wail, the fire alarm began to sound. The sprinklers came on with a sibilant hiss, raining down cool water that drummed off the floor and formed into puddles.

'Fuckin' genius, Mustang,' Ed muttered sarcastically, looking up at him through the damp curtain of his hair. Roy was still straddling his hips, wound tight and tense in expectation of another attack. Weakly, he nudged Mustang out of the way as he struggled to push himself up from the floor. Pain roared along his side, stealing his breath as he hissed, 'Get off. I'm fine.'

'No, you're not.' Roy's weight shifted until he was kneeling at Ed's side, one hand tightened on his automail arm as he brushed at something on Ed's temple. When he lifted his fingers away they were wet with blood, and Ed blinked at it stupidly. It hadn't even hurt. He couldn't work out what had hit him, but Roy was already ripping off a bit of bed-sheet and pressing it against the cut as if taking care of Ed was his first priority.

'What about -' Ed gestured towards the broken window. 'Aren't you going to chase that guy?'

'I think Alex has got it covered. Since you don't seem to be able to stay out of the cross-fire, we need to get someone to see to this.' The rage was clear in Roy's face, and it made Ed flinch, even though he knew he was not the target. It might be clamped hard and tight, locked in a cage and held back from the light, but it was still there, all glowing eyes and horrible, murderous fury.

'What're you going to do?' Ed asked quietly, shivering despite himself as the water trickled over his skin and soaked into the bandage, turning the white cloth dark with its touch. Roy was dabbing at the cut on his head, fingers gripping Ed's chin tight as he held him steady. 'They're just going to keep trying until they kill you. How're you going to stop them?'

Dark eyes closed and, briefly, Roy looked young and lost, as if he were caught up in something he could neither understand nor control. It was more frightening than the anger, and Ed clenched his jaw as the whispered reply reached his ears.

'I don't know.'

Chapter Text

Roy opened his eyes, seeing Ed's surprise at his admission. One hand still held Ed's jaw still while the other dabbed at the blood that trickled from the wound on his temple, and he could feel the hammer of Ed's pulse, adrenaline-laced and fast, beneath his fingertips. He looked as if he could not believe what he was hearing, as if the thought that Roy would not know what to do had never crossed his mind.

Over the course of his military career, Roy had faced the machinations of the higher ranks and always seen a way to turn things to his advantage. This time it was different. He was not a spectator on the sidelines able to make the most of a bad situation. He was one of the targets in an increasingly complex plot, and he had no idea what to do to keep himself and those he cared about safe.

Water from the sprinklers dripped down Ed's cheeks and charted its path across his bare shoulders while puddles were forming unnoticed on the floor. Ed's eyes held a bright flare of shock at Roy's uncertainty, but it swiftly faded, replaced with a steady gleam of determination.

'We'll work something out. Fuckers won't know what hit them,' Ed said darkly, as if he were laying down the law. This was how it would be, no question, and suddenly Roy could see how he and Al had never really faltered in their quest for the stone. Ed had never considered failure an option, and his belief was rock steady. At another time it might seem naïve, but it was what Roy needed to hear: not questions, not even answers, just unshakable certainty that they would all get through this.

'Come on. Let's get out of here. I always knew hospitals weren't safe.' Ed's smile was genuine , but Roy could see the weakness and fatigue at its edges. Ed tried to get to his feet, but a cringe of pain flashed across his face and his hand went to his bandaged side as he wobbled unsteadily, pale and angry at his own weakness.

Roy reached out, wrapping an arm around Ed's waist and helping him up. He could see from the look in Ed's eyes that he didn't want any assistance, but he wasn't batting Roy's hands away. That alone made it obvious that he needed all the support he could get. His chest was warm to the touch, smooth and hard through the damp cotton of Roy's shirt sleeve, and he had to force himself to concentrate on not putting too much pressure on Ed's wounded side. The younger man was shaking like a leaf in a gale, trembling so badly that Roy wasn't sure he even had the strength to walk.

'You should be in bed,' he said roughly, letting Ed set the pace as they inched towards the door. 'You're not well enough to be up yet.'

Ed glanced pointedly at the bullet-riddled mattress, sagging sadly in the middle and pocked with holes. 'If I'd stayed where I was, I'd be dead.' His eyes narrowed again as he made a visible effort to stand up straight. Slowly, his gaze wandered the walls, and even if his body was frail there was absolutely nothing wrong with Ed's mind. He was seeing all the clues and processing them in a flash.

He turned to look at Roy, still leaning heavily on him as a frown wrinkled his brow. 'Either that guy had more than one gun or -'

'It was a semi-automatic weapon. They have bigger ammunition clips than pistols or revolvers,' Roy clenched his teeth, fighting the urge to snarl as he added, 'They're new military technology – still in the developmental stages and not very reliable. Only a few high-ranking officers would be able to get their hands on one.'

'Shit. You really pissed someone off, didn't you?'

Roy didn't reply as he pulled the door open, leading Ed out into the hallway. Here the sprinklers were inactive, and only the shrill scream of the alarm bounced back and forth along the walls. It cut out abruptly as someone finally turned the damn thing off, and Roy jumped in surprise as the doors at the end of the corridor slammed open.

Hawkeye and Havoc skidded to a halt and sagged with relief. Both had their guns out, safeties cocked and fingers tight around the triggers. Riza lifted the muzzle of her revolver to point towards the ceiling, still taut and ready to aim and fire as she approached. Havoc was less cautious, holstering his weapon and reaching for a cigarette.

'Sir, Edward, are you all right?'

'We'll live,' Ed muttered, his fingers slipping gently along Roy's arm to catch around his wrist before he disentangled himself and leant against the wall. His eyelids were already drooping, and a whisper of panic raced along Roy's spine. The head wound was not deep or serious, but Ed was hardly at maximum strength. He had already lost a lot of blood, and even a small injury could prove too much for his body to cope with.

'Havoc, get a doctor and some bandages,' he ordered, taking faint comfort that at least his men were still under his control. 'Lieutenant Hawkeye, what happened? Why weren't there guards in the courtyard beyond the window?' There was more bark in his words than he intended. Logically, he knew that Riza would not have made such a major oversight when it came to his protection, but he needed to hear it from her own lips.

'There were sentries, sir. The assassin slit their throats before they could raise the alarm.' Riza's sharp eyes read his expression with ease, and she squared her shoulders. 'They were Hughes' men, sir. No one we knew personally, and they knew about the kind of risk that associates with the Intelligence division.' Her words were calm and emotionless, a direct contrast to the heavy pain in her eyes.

Her statement didn't do anything to lessen the sick swim of guilt in Roy's stomach. More lives had been lost to protect his own, and he felt the tight buzz of furious fear shimmying under his skin. Would the people who planned this draw the line somewhere, or would they do anything to take him down? Ed had saved his life back on the rooftop, but how many others had he put in danger by spoiling the assassin's plan?

His voice was a dull rasp as he said, 'If they were under Hughes' command then they were among the best. Only Special Ops are better trained than Intelligence.' He leant back on the wall next to Ed, staring at the floor as he tried to marshal his thoughts. 'They're using weaponry that only the highest levels of the military have access to, and they're paid enough to risk their own survival for the success of their assignments.'

Riza shifted her weight uncomfortably, looking both ways along the corridor. It was sparse and bare, a quiet, private sector of the hospital, and there were no doorways or shadows that could conceal any threats. Yet she was still on edge, her knuckles white around the butt of gun as her lips pressed into a thin, flat line.

A ribbon of unease wove through Roy's stomach. Havoc had stood down as soon as he realised that they were safe, but Riza had never so much as relaxed her shoulders. Her gun was still aimed at the ceiling, but all she had to do was move her arms and pull the trigger and he would be dead. He had seen her take out an enemy before, and Roy knew he wouldn't even have time to blink before the bullet found its mark.

Paranoia came to the fore, closing his throat with clutching fingers and stabbing through his mind. Everyone around him was a threat, unpredictable and dangerous. He had known them for years, trusted them with his life, but now all that was gone. No one was safe from the clutches of corruption, and Roy knew that was how he would take a general down. He would go through the man's closest aide, blackmailing or persuading them to be the one to do his dirty work.

'Lieutenant... .'

His uncertainty must have been written all over his face, because Riza's expression melted from anxious to horrified. He didn't know whether she was hurt because he thought she might betray him or ashamed that she hadn't anticipated his concerns, but with a decisive “snick” she put the safety hammer down and holstered her gun. It was still there on her hip, easy enough to whip out and point at an enemy, but it was no longer a threatening presence.

'Sorry.'

They both said it at the same time, and Hawkeye gave a weak smile as she shook her head. 'My fault, sir. This whole situation has me -' She hesitated, trying to find suitable words. '-very uncomfortable. The hospital is almost impossible to defend. We don't know the staff, so we do not know who is a potential threat and who belongs here. There's no way to anticipate when the next strike will occur... .' She gave Roy a clear, determined look. 'The sooner we have you out of here, the better, sir.'

'Do you really think you're going to be able to find somewhere to keep him safe?' Ed asked wearily. 'I mean, if this is so well-planned then it doesn't matter how good the security is at the office. All they need is one tiny opportunity and he's dead, isn't he?'

'He is not exactly defenceless, Edward.'

'“He” is right here,' Roy muttered, rubbing a hand over his eyes. 'Hawkeye has a point. A civilian hospital has too many unknown factors to defend effectively.'

'What are you doing here then?' Ed asked sharply. 'If it's so dangerous, why did you stay?'

Roy scrambled to find something quick and dismissive to say. He had remained at the hospital because it had been impossible to leave Ed here, the victim of an injury that he wouldn't even have if he hadn't been protecting Roy, but that said too much. It spoke loud and clear of emotions that went far beyond the vague concern of a commanding officer, and Roy could not admit those feelings to himself, let alone reveal even a hint of them to Ed.

'General Mustang is not the only one at risk, Edward,' Hawkeye began, a faint smile of acknowledgement curving her lips as Roy gave her a look of gratitude. 'You're as much a target as he is. Since you could not be moved, we were forced to make the best out of a bad situation. At least by keeping the general in the same building, protecting the two of you became a marginally easier task.' She grimaced visibly, almost comically, but when she spoke again she sounded sick. 'The fact that we failed clearly shows that it is not safe for us to remain here any longer than is absolutely necessary.'

'Why do they care about me?' Ed asked, looking up as the door opened and Havoc walked through with a junior doctor in tow. 'Because I got in the way?'

Tense lines bracketed Riza's mouth, and her hands clenched into fists at her sides. 'Partly. When we searched General Patton's house we found some correspondence indicating that you should also be eliminated. I don't think you were such a high priority but -'

'But they would have got to me eventually,' Ed said flatly, and there was a cold, hard anger in his eyes. He opened his mouth to ask another question, but the doctor's flustered arrival interrupted him. The young man looked harassed and frazzled, as if this was far more excitement than he was used to, but he still worked competently, asking hurried, stammering questions as he examined Ed's head and side.

Roy moved away, gesturing for Riza to follow until they were out of Ed's earshot. He could still see Fullmetal answering the doctor's questions curtly and glaring at Havoc, who was trying not to smile at his obvious irritation, but at least they would not be overheard.

'What correspondence?' he asked, crossing his arms as he watched Hawkeye's face, trying to glean as much information as possible from her features. 'You didn't mention it before.'

'We only found it a short while ago, sir. There's no indication who the letters were from, but they – they spoke about Edward in a less than flattering light. In particular they put forward some theories about how he came to be a state alchemist in the first place.'

Everything he needed to know was right there, written between the lines of her words. Riza's entire body was tense, disturbed and disgusted, and her stare was intense as her jaw clenched.

'Let me guess,' he murmured. 'They suggested that he performed sexual favours for his status.' He sighed as she nodded her affirmation, running a hand through his hair as he glanced back at Ed. He was still submitting to the whims of the doctor, but he kept looking in their direction, puzzled and angry.

'It's not exactly a new rumour,' he said quietly. 'I've heard it more than once. People seem unable to believe that he could get in to the military on talent alone.'

'Then they don't know Edward, sir, or you. He was eleven.'

'It would be worse if he had been older,' Roy pointed out. 'People would have believed it more readily and have been louder in their accusations. I'll need to see the letters. I need to know just how much of a threat this could be to Ed.'

Hawkeye's throat convulsed as she swallowed tightly; her stance screamed her reluctance to comply, and Roy's stomach sank like a stone. This was more than just a few bitter words about Ed's acceptance in the army. 'Riza?'

It took her a few moments to find her voice. 'What was written was vile, sir. Vicious, personal attacks, and the tone -' She shrugged as if she couldn't understand it. 'Whoever wrote them did not simply want Edward killed. They wanted him punished. They sounded almost – almost like they enjoyed the idea of him being used in that manner. The order for your murder was straightforward and uninvolved, but what we found about Edward was far more personal. They want him to suffer.'

The doctor fumbled, dropping his stethoscope with a clatter that made them both jump. Riza's hand was already half-way to her gun before she realised there was no real threat, and she blew out a steadying breath before lifting her head. 'I couldn't protect you from the assassins, sir, but won't you let me at least spare you this? Isn't it enough to know that Edward is a target, one who has now probably been elevated to equal priority as you because of his interference in their plan?'

Roy glanced back towards Ed, clenching his jaw as he considered her words. Riza was not the kind of woman to be driven to such protective ends without reason, and he could not help but wonder what the letters contained. Her dread alone was enough to make his imagination run wild, creeping into nightmarish scenarios, but there was more reason to see the communications than satisfying his curiosity.

'If someone's using this plot as a vehicle for some kind of retribution against Ed, then the chances are that person will make mistakes,' Roy said softly, not taking his eyes off of her face. 'Emotional investment makes people clumsy. I need to see those letters. I may have more insight into the writer than you. If we can find out who wrote the communications detailing Ed's disposal then the others behind this will probably come to light. Find one, you find them all.'

'What about Patton?'

Roy rubbed his hand across his chin thoughtfully, staring down the corridor towards the doors. Ever since the day Ed was shot, Patton's involvement had bothered him. It had been too easy to pin the crime on him. For god's sake, the letter was right there in the assassin's pocket, easily found. There was no stealth involved and, after the initial scurry and thrill of events, Roy had begun to realise the truth of it.

'Patton was always meant to take the fall. If the attempt on my life succeeded, then he had high-ranking friends to protect him from the backlash. If it failed, then the documentation to incriminate him would appease any investigations. We were meant to find that letter and not look further.' He paused, his mind working quickly. 'What you found at his home was written in code, wasn't it?'

'And locked in a safe. It was well-protected,' Riza confirmed.

'It was insurance for him, blackmail material in case those who were meant to protect him from conviction sold him out.' Roy rubbed at his temples absently, feeling the throb of a headache beginning to build. 'He's not the main man behind this; he's nothing but a dead end lead. They thought we would be lulled into a sense of security, and that would make it easier to pull off a second attempt.'

With a quick, exasperated huff, he rubbed the nape of his neck with his palm, looking blankly up at the ceiling for a moment before meeting Hawkeye's patient gaze. 'Dust the documents you found for prints. See if you can find anything that might identify who wrote them. We need to know how far this goes.'

'What if the Fuhrer knows?' Riza asked quietly, her voice pitched to carry to his ears and no further. 'If he's a part of this, then what do we do?'

Roy inwardly recoiled at the thought. If Fuhrer Hakuro was one of the masterminds behind this plot, then it was not a simple matter of military discipline. It was an indication of a far greater problem – a rift within the army that threatened to tear the administration apart and drag Amestris down into ruin. 'Let's not jump to conclusions. I'm not ruling out the possibility, but we can't do anything without some kind of proof. See what you can find, Lieutenant.'

The doors at the end of the corridor parted, and Roy watched as Hughes slipped through. There was no smile on his lips, and dark shadows rested under his eyes. Despite his tiredness, Maes was still alert and aware, sweeping the corridor with his eyes and nodding to the doctor as the young man hurried away.

Silently, Roy moved back to Ed's side, frowning as Ed scratched irritably at the sticking plaster that had been placed over the cut on his head. He looked less tired, but he was still shivering fitfully. Havoc had given Ed his jacket, and his automail arm was shoved into the sleeve, the fingers clenched tightly around the lapels. The left sleeve hung empty, and Roy would bet anything that it was too painful for Ed to move his arm more than a few inches. If it came to it, could Ed even clap and perform alchemy? Could he defend himself if he had to?

'I'm not helpless,' Ed snapped angrily. 'You can stop looking at me like that.'

'You don't exactly look your best, Ed,' Hughes said softly as he came to a halt at Roy's side. 'What did the doctor say?'

'Just a scratch. It's nothing serious.' He gave a one shouldered shrug, making the gold braid of the uniform jacket gleam in the stark light of the corridor. 'Could have been a lot worse. Did Armstrong catch that bastard with the gun?'

Hughes nodded, but it was a weary gesture. 'Not that it did any good. He has a capsule of poison lodged in his tooth. Once he was caught, he broke it.' He lifted his glasses, rubbing at his eyes tiredly. 'He was dead in seconds and, unlike the other gunman, he wasn't kind enough to leave any incriminating evidence in his pockets.'

'What about the gun, can you trace that?'

'It's one of the new semi-automatics from lab three. My people are looking for a paper trail, but I'm not holding out much hope.' He gave a vague, nebulous gesture. 'Whatever's going on, it's not a spur of the moment thing. Someone has been planning this for months. I also received a report that General Matthews was killed when his car caught fire yesterday.'

Roy lifted an eyebrow, shaking his head in disbelief at the news. That made at least three successful assassination attempts in the past two days. 'What the hell's going on, Hughes? Is this high-ranking generals creating a promotion gap, or something else?'

'Promotion gap?' Ed asked, leaning forward to listen as Havoc took his unlit cigarette out of his mouth and rolled it between his thumb and finger.

'It's when high-ranking officers protect their positions by killing off promising soldiers immediately beneath them and filling their posts with men who couldn't find their arse with a map.' Jean's eyes flickered up to Roy's, a frown on his brow. 'They're not normally this obvious though. It's always been accidents, or sending them on suicidal assignments. Last time it happened I was only a sergeant and, to be honest, the lower ranks didn't know much about it.'

'It happened a lot in the Ishbal war. Anyone who deviated from orders was shot. Ranks lower than general were at risk, including alchemists,' Roy added quietly, watching the flicker of some nameless emotion in Ed's eyes. 'This time it seems that no one's safe.'

Hughes nodded in agreement with his assessment. 'The generals killed all have one thing in common.' His expression was pained as he murmured. 'They've all shown open support of you, Roy. It could just be a coincidence, but -'

'But it could be because someone's decided I've become too much of a threat.' His shoulders slumped beneath the burden of that knowledge. It dragged at him with grabby fingers, and he pinched the bridge of his nose as he tried to think around the growing darkness that spread through his mind.

A doubtful frown was wrinkling Ed's brow, and his focus was obviously on his thoughts rather than the world around him. 'Hate to tell you, Mustang, but I don't think this is all about you. Why kill off the people who support you? What's the point?'

'Without the backing of other men in the military, it would be impossible for Roy to coordinate any kind of decisive action or advance up the ranks,' Maes pointed out. 'By removing his support base, whoever is behind this is making sure that he's weak.'

'But why weaken him when he was meant to be dead?' Ed blinked as the others paused, thinking it over. 'The other generals who have died – it's been planned, hasn't it? They haven't been murdered because Roy survived. They were going down whether he lived or not.' He shook his head, staring blankly in the distance. 'This isn't about promotions; there's something else. When did the first general die?

'We got the news the same day you saved Roy.'

Ed winced at Hughes' words, and there was no mistaking the faint, embarrassed flush on his cheeks. 'Forget that. When was the guy killed, before or after they tried to murder Mustang?'

'It was early in the morning. He was on his way to work,' Maes said, eyes widening as he realised Ed's point. 'They all back Roy, but that's not why they're being killed. There's something else that's linking them all.' Hughes swore quietly under his breath, looking briefly towards the ceiling as if in prayer as he struggled to think. 'I'll see what I can find out. In the meantime, we need to move both of you to a safe house.'

Roy scowled, shaking his head as the tension in his muscles tightened further. 'Maes, I'm not going to hide and wait for this to blow over! It's my problem as much as anyone else's.'

'And what can you do that we can't?' Hughes pointed out, his voice steely as his eyes flashed with anger. 'Roy, we don't have time to debate this. You and Ed have both been confirmed as targets. If you won't do this for your own safety then think of everyone else. We can't get to the bottom of this if we're always thinking of your security. Besides, there's no guarantee that the next person who takes a bullet for you will be as lucky as Ed. Are you really willing to risk that?'

Hughes was right, and Roy could tell by the expression on his friend's face that Maes had known what to say to get the desired reaction from him. If anyone died because of his actions, the grief and guilt would haunt him for the rest of his life.

'We'll discuss this tomorrow,' he said flatly. 'There's got to be another way we can work this.'

He could see the tightness in Hughes' jaw, and he knew his friend longed to grab his shoulders and shake some sense into him. 'Just give me one more night in Central, Maes. One more night to think.' He knew it was childish, one last ditch attempt at pulling something salvagable from the ruins his life had become, but if he gave in and went to the safe house now, it was too much like running away. That was something he wouldn't do. Not while he still had other viable choices.

'One more night for them to kill you,' Hughes said, his voice low with undisguised fear. 'Why tempt fate? We could get you out of here now.' He must have seen the desperation on Roy's face, because he ran his hand through his hair before giving a weary nod. 'Fine, but Ed stays with you and I'll send some men to secure your place. It's adequately defensible for another twelve hours, but you'd better start packing when you get there. I can't order you to do this, Roy, but I'll hit you over the head and carry out of this city if I have to.'

His smile was a weak, and Maes' eyes held more than a little dread. 'Be careful. My men are well-trained, but these assassins aren't exactly amateurs. There should be a car waiting. Havoc'll take you.' He paused, frowning thoughtfully before carrying on. 'Ed'll be with you in a minute. I just need to talk to him about what happened on the roof.'

Roy gave Ed a quick, doubtful look, but the younger man did not meet his gaze, and he had no choice but to follow Havoc as Maes approached Ed, talking in a low words that Roy could not make out.

He wasn't an idiot, and whatever Hughes had to say it probably had very little to do with what happened on the roof. He could understand the need to protect Fullmetal, but sending them both to the same safe house wasn't standard policy. While having two targets in one place made them easier to guard, it also made the assassin's job easier. There was some other reason behind keeping the two of them together.

Maes wasn't in Intelligence for nothing. His mind was quick, sharp, and trained to think through the most convoluted series of events. No doubt he was racking his brain, trying to foresee every possible outcome. Making sure that Roy was safe made sense, and he knew that Hughes had a soft spot for both of the Elrics, but he did not believe that paternal concern was the reason behind Maes' plan.

'Been a hell of a couple of days, sir,' Havoc said quietly, interrupting Roy's thoughts as his eyes narrowed to scan the crowds. 'Thought the boss wouldn't make it for a while.'

'Something tells me it takes more than a bullet to stop Fullmetal, Lieutenant.' It was easy, now, to speak with such confidence, but from the quick, amused glance Jean shot in his direction he knew he wasn't fooling anyone.

'Yeah, well, don't let everyone's hard work go to waste by killing each other, sir.' Jean grinned as he walked through main doors to the hospital and trotted down the steps. 'I don't think the boss is an easy person to live with.'

Cold air hit Roy like a slap in the face, but it wasn't that which made him hesitate at the top of the steps; he would be living with Ed. His home was big enough for both of them to exist side by side in comfort, but any safe-house would probably be cramped and isolated.

The thought made him uneasy in more ways than one. Ed was infuriating and intriguing, frustrating and compelling. Ed's energy and passion slammed against all of Roy's restraint, urging him to fight back, to say what was on his mind, to forget about how he should act and just be himself. Every time Ed stood in his office, there was something thick in the air, charged and tight. Ed looked at him with something in his eyes that Roy could not interpret. It was not doe-eyed lust or breathless want, but something more jagged and raw, similar but different.

Until now it had been easy to fight against the wild, rough-edged emotion that lingered between them. In all but the most dire of circumstances they kept their wary distance from each other, and found themselves falling into petty little arguments that resolved nothing. More than once, Ed had caught Roy looking at him, and he could only hope that Ed had not seen through his distant demeanour. If the brat had any idea of how he made Roy feel – tense, aroused, uncontrolled - then they were both doomed.

Something must have shown through on his face, because Havoc's grin widened for a moment before he motioned for Roy to stay standing on the steps. His expression became serious as he tucked his unlit cigarette behind his ear and circled the car, running his fingers along door seams and handles before carefully checking the engine and the underside of the vehicle.

'What's he doing?'

Roy flinched in surprise at Ed's voice at his shoulder, and he cursed himself inwardly for his preoccupation. This was too dangerous a time to be caught up in his thoughts. He had to be alert and aware of his surroundings, not walking through life half-focussed. Already it felt like he had a target painted on his shirt, and it would be idiotic to rely on others to protect him.

'Checking the car for explosives. It's very easy to rig a bomb to the fuel tank. That's probably how General Matthews was killed.' He paused for a moment before asking, 'What did Hughes say?'

Ed looked at him sharply, but there was no expression on his face other than a frown of annoyance. 'He wanted to check he had all the facts about what happened on the roof, that's all.'

'Nothing else?' Roy muttered, not believing him for a moment.

'Nothing you need to know.'

Roy clenched his jaw, about to order the truth out of Ed when Havoc opened the driver's door and slotted the key into the ignition with a snick. Instantly, Roy tensed, fingers poised to snap. He did not want to create a spark, but the motion also activated the array on his gloves. If something did go off, then he could try and douse the flames by manipulating the gases in the air. It would not save Jean or anyone else nearby from serious burns, but it could be the difference between life and death.

With a gratifying purr, the engine came to life, and Roy let out a small breath of relief. Despite the intense scrutiny of the car, Havoc's entire body had been braced for some kind of violent retribution. He rolled his shoulders to loosen them before shaking his head and climbing into the driver's seat, waiting for Roy and Ed to get into the back.

As soon as they were settled and buckled in, he pulled away, guiding the car with confidence. Yet, even though they were on the move, Jean was still twitchy, blue eyes taking in every other vehicle on the road and assessing the people behind the windscreens. It would be simple for another driver to ram them and, should another gunman take aim, it would be as easy as shooting fish in a barrel. Nowhere to take cover – no way to get out … .

Roy swallowed against the sudden, clawing panic, looking out of the window to relieve the initial clutches of claustrophobia. The streets melted away beneath the car's tyres, and Central's urban sprawl drifted past the window. Empty roads greeted them at every turn, and it was only Havoc's incredulous question that notified Roy of how far they had travelled.

'What the -?'

Roy turned to look out of the windscreen, grimacing at the sight. The sky was glowing with bright oranges and reds. A dense pall of smoke reached up to stifle the stars, and he realised that he could hear the shrill and whine of fire engines. The blaze was two streets from where they were, and his heart sank in his chest, hard and heavy.

A few minutes later, they pulled up the safety cordon and Roy got out of the car on numb legs, leaning against the open door to stare at what was left of his home. The fire-fighters were doing their best, but the walls were already sooty silhouettes against the white-hot heart of the flames.

With a sharp sound, the roof caved in, sending sparks flying up into the air like stars returning to their place in the sky. Whoever had set the building alight was a professional. By the time it was extinguished, there would be nowhere left in Central that could offer a safe hiding place. Roy wouldn't take shelter with anyone else for fear of putting them at risk, and there was no way that the office could be considered a suitable sanctuary.

Whoever was behind this was steadily moving in, an invisible killer waiting for their moment. There were only two choices left: run or die.

He had wanted another twelve hours to gather his thoughts and form some kind of a plan, to regroup and recharge, but now he was being deprived of even that small luxury. The people behind this would not give him any chance to gain the upper hand. They wanted him off balance and unprepared as they gathered their strength for the final strike.

This was not about the military. It was not about promotion or privilege. There was only one thing that mattered to Roy any more.

Survival.

Chapter Text

Ed flinched as the roof of Mustang's house caved in, sending a shower of sparks up above the flickering grasp of the flames. The air was thick with the scent of smoke, and hissing steam drowned out the fire-fighters' shouts. A gentle wind carried the embers, but they died wherever they landed, snuffed out on the wet ground. Neighbours were standing around, wide-eyed and alarmed at the spectacle in front of them; they tittered to each other as they speculated on the cause of the blaze.

He had stepped out of the car to get a better look and now leaned back on the sleek, black vehicle. His body ached, weak from lack of food and blood. The thought of a solid night's sleep in a comfortable bed had been blissful, but that was looking less likely by the minute. He certainly wouldn't be finding any rest in Roy's spare bedroom.

Glancing across the roof of the car, he winced in sympathy. Mustang looked torn between fury and despair. He was scowling, and his teeth were clenched so tight that a muscle twitched in his jaw. Gloved hands gripped the top of the open door, the arrays on the white fabric stark and clear in the uncertain light.

'At least you weren't in there,' Ed said quietly, meeting the sharpness of Roy's gaze without blinking. The sound of breaking glass made him look ahead again, and he saw the curtains streaming in veils of flame through the shattered windows. 'Burning to death is a pretty horrible way to die.'

'This wasn't designed to kill me,' Roy said flatly, rubbing his fingertips over his eyes. 'If I woke up within a few minutes of them setting light to the place I could use my alchemy to escape. This is about making sure I have nowhere left to hide.'

Havoc had been staring at the wreckage through the windscreen, eyes wide and incredulous. With a visible start, he seemed to come to his senses, and he glanced over his shoulder before poking his head out of the door. 'Get in,' he snapped as the engine revved impatiently.

There was enough urgency in his voice to make Ed act without thinking, and slid into his seat before reaching out stiffly to tug on Roy's sleeve, breaking him free from his scrutiny of the scene. 'Come on, let's get out of here. There's nothing you can do.'

Roy slammed the door as he sat down, not bothering to do up his seat belt as he propped his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands. Ed could see that it was more about exhaustion than true misery. Life had pulled the rug out from under Mustang's feet, and the ordered world in which he thrived was now in disarray. What he needed was time to straighten things out in his mind, and it seemed as if whoever was after him would do anything in their power to deprive him of that.

Havoc threw the car into reverse, manoeuvring in a quick turn before getting it into gear and speeding away. Ed could see his eyes in the rear-view mirror, serious and alert as he drummed his fingers on the steering wheel.

'Did you see something?' he asked quietly, leaning forward to listen over the thrum of the engine as Jean shook his head.

'No, but whoever set the house on fire could have been waiting in the crowd to get a clear shot. I should have thought of it straight away, but -' Havoc shrugged uncomfortably and Roy lifted his head, absently reaching for the seat belt and fastening it.

'Don't worry about it, Jean. I should have thought the same thing. It didn't even cross my mind.'

'Your house was on fire, sir. I think you had a good excuse. If you got hurt on my watch can you imagine what Hawkeye would do to me?' Havoc's shudder was very real. 'I'd be lucky if she just shot me in the head.' He slowed down at a junction before turning left into the meagre traffic. 'Hughes is right. We need to get you out of Central tonight, both of you. We've been okay so far, but our luck could run out at any second.'

Ed grimaced, shifting uncomfortably as he stared out of the window at the speeding scenery. Roy's men were used to dealing with outright attacks and straightforward battles, not spending their time looking for the risks in mundane situations. All of their adult years, they had known without a doubt whose side they were on, and now the allegiances they had accepted without question were crumbling all around them. Their lives may not be at risk, but the upheaval was still cause for intense concern. They had all thrown in their lot with Mustang, and now that alliance could change every aspect of their future.

He had never trusted the military – knew it was a merciless machine that chewed up young Amestrian men and women and spat out their corpses, but Ed had to admit that he had never expected something like this to happen. It wasn't about being stabbed in the back by a petty peer; it was an emotionless attempt by someone high up to remove all potential threats to their plans.

In the end he did not give a fuck about what became of the army; it could fall apart and rot in hell for all he cared, but there was no way he was going to end up dead because some fat general decided it was for the best.

Besides, there was more to it than that. Just because he had not pledged himself to Mustang's rise to power, it didn't mean he didn't care for the bastard, and everyone else in the office too. They knew and understood some of what had happened to him and Al, more than anyone else could ever comprehend, and in that knowledge was something a little like friendship. He didn't want to see any of them hurt or suffering because of this. He'd do whatever he could to help Roy and his command. Equivalent exchange.

Yet this wasn't a simple case of stand and fight. It was all about secrets and lies. There was no one he could punch or punish to put an end to it. That was why he had not protested out loud when Hughes had suggested using a safe house. For once he had to do exactly what he was told. Still, that didn't mean he was comfortable with the idea.

Roy's vocal disagreement had matched his own feelings perfectly. When trouble came knocking he didn't hide from it. He liked to stare problems in the face and take them down, not cower and wait for them to pass. Besides, sharing a house with Mustang was asking too much. The effect Roy had on him was tolerable when he did not have to spend more than a couple of minutes a day in the man's presence, but how was he meant to keep his distance if they were sharing a few rooms for who knew how long?

There was no way that Roy would overlook the signs of attraction when they were right under his nose all the time, and Ed knew he was incapable of keeping them hidden. His body was keen and eager to betray him, desperate for every fraction of attention that Mustang bestowed. Even now it was almost impossible not to stare at him with a mixture of resentment and longing. He was such an ice-statue, cool, distant and utterly unobtainable. Or at least, he had been before today.

Ed risked a sideways glance through the shield of his tousled hair and felt something warm and soft flutter beneath his ribs. Now, Roy looked completely different from the general who sat behind that desk and gave out orders. His shirt was still damp from the sprinklers, the sleeves rolled up to the elbow and collar open to reveal a shadowed vee of pale skin. The blue jacket was long gone, probably left behind in the hospital somewhere, and there was no sign of his rank – nothing to distinguish him as a soldier except his rigid posture and the permanent flicker of strategy in his eyes.

It was easy to forget, sometimes, that Mustang wasn't some all knowing being – that even he could be pitched into confusion by the random spin of events. Now, even though he was tired, uncertain and more than a little afraid, he was still trying to plot his way through all this to the ideal outcome.

'Turn left here,' Roy said quietly, 'and head for the Hughes' house. There are a few things we need to do before we leave.'

'Like what?' Ed asked, feeling a blush warm his skin as Mustang looked in his direction, taking in his appearance with the faintest of smiles. Looking down at himself, he grimaced at the sight. He was still wearing the blue trousers that the doctors had dressed him in after treating his wound, and most of his bare chest was covered by swathes of fresh, dry bandage. Havoc's uniform jacket was still draped around his shoulders, blue turned to black by the gloom of the night. Only the boots on his feet were his own.

'Well, all my clothes have been burned to ash, and I expect you want something a bit more substantial to wear.' Roy's smile faded as his mind raced, trying to plan for every eventuality. 'We're going to need food, money, weapons... . I'm also assuming you'll want to talk to Al before we go.'

Ed nodded firmly as fresh, bright fear chattered through his mind. He knew that Al couldn't come with them, and he also knew how badly his little brother might take the news that they could be separated for an unspecified amount of time. While the doctor was checking Ed's head wound, Havoc had explained that Al was getting a few hours of much needed sleep, and Ed had made it clear that no one was to wake his little brother. By now, though, he would be aware of the second assassination attempt and was probably worrying himself sick. If nothing else Ed had to reassure him that he would be all right.

Another, darker thought unfurled in his mind, and he pressed his forehead to the cool glass of the window. If the killers were desperate to get to him and Roy, then they would not be above taking a hostage. He didn't know about Mustang's family, but there were two people in the world who would be perfect bait to lure Ed out of hiding. If the assassins got their hands on either Al or Winry then he'd give himself up to secure their freedom, no question.

Muttering a curse under his breath, he tried to think of the best way to protect them. Al was still too new to his body for Ed to be comfortable leaving him alone, but there was no way Alphonse would agree to be side-lined graciously. He had to give his little brother a reason to get out of Central, but what?

The slowing scenery interrupted Ed's thoughts, and he blinked at the leafy suburbs that surrounded them. Havoc parked in front of a short driveway that curved towards a neat house. Flowers bloomed in pots beside the door, bright splashes of colour in the light that glowed through the windows, and the front door stood open a little, silhouetting a man in its frame. Hughes looked harassed, and it was obvious he had not been relaxing that evening. With one quick motion of his finger he beckoned to them, standing aside to let them pass.

Gracia greeted them with a warm smile, her eyes full of concern as she took in their dishevelled appearance. 'I heard about what happened. I'm so glad you're both all right. Please sit down. You look exhausted!' She shook her head in kind dismissal of their murmured thanks before moving off towards the kitchen with a promise of hot coffee.

'My men contacted me about your house not long after you left the hospital,' Hughes said bluntly, not bothering with small talk as he walked into the living room and collapsed into an arm chair. His hands were smudged with ink, and papers were all over the floor. Empty mugs and plates littered the table, and the phone had been pulled close to the armchair so that it was within easy reach. It looked like Hughes had been working ever since they had parted, doing his best to prepare. 'Is there anything left of your things? Anything you can do?'

Roy walked over to the fireplace, staring blankly at the empty grate as he rested one arm on the mantelpiece and shook his head. 'No, they knew what they were doing. They made certain that nothing would survive.' He stared unseeing at one of the many framed pictures of Elysia, his expression unreadable. 'At least the building and what was in it are insured, but that's not going to help me tonight.'

'That's what I'm here for.' A tired smile perched in Hughes' lips, and he gestured at the disarray of documents and files. 'I've already pulled a few strings and got almost everything you need. Hawkeye's working out some weaponry for the two of you, as well as some replacement clothes.' He glanced at Ed, his expression softening with concern. 'No offence, Ed, but you look awful. Do you need anything? Food? A doctor?'

'Something to eat sounds good, thanks.' His smile felt wobbly around the edges, but Hughes didn't comment as he got to his feet and moved towards the kitchen, talking in a low voice to Gracia.

The feeling of being watched made Ed look towards the fireplace. Mustang was considering him carefully, taking in every sign of weakness and strain, and the urge to turn away and hide from that scrutiny was almost over-powering. Instead he lifted his chin, raising a questioning eyebrow as Roy blinked. For a split second something like guilt flickered across the older man's face, as if he were berating himself for not having thought of Ed's needs earlier.

Before Ed had time to puzzle over Mustang's expression, Hughes wandered back into the room, speaking like a man trying to plan his way through a messy tangle of problems. 'Al's already on his way over with some of your things. You two are going to have to discuss what to do for the best. I can't spare the manpower to watch him while you're gone, and I know you won't be content leaving him alone in the apartment.'

Ed nodded, gratefully accepting the mug of coffee Gracia passed to him. 'I'll think of something,' he murmured. 'It's making sure he does what I tell him that could be the problem. Al can get stupidly stubborn sometimes.'

'Must run in the family,' Roy muttered, not even blinking as Ed gave him a dark glare.

'Play nice,' Hughes said quietly. 'I don't know how long the two of you are going to need to be in hiding, so you're going to have to get used to one another's company.' He shot a particularly pointed look at Mustang, who sighed in faint acknowledgement. 'The place I've got set up is about a day's fast drive away and out in the country.'

'Is isolating us really the best idea?' Roy asked, capturing Ed's attention with his question. 'Wouldn't it be better to be near a town in case things go wrong?'

Hughes leaned back in the chair with a shake of his head. 'It's a difficult choice to make. Having you near a settlement would increase the chances of you being seen and recognised. It would also make you more accessible to potential assassins. At least in this location you'll be a long way from main roads and train lines. I've provided you with two highly-trained guards for protection. They're all I can spare.' He shifted his shoulders uncomfortably, looking between Roy and Ed with fierce eyes. 'I'm trusting the two of you to defend yourselves if necessary; do whatever it takes to stay alive, and please, don't do anything stupid like try get back to Central before I've given the all clear.'

His voice was desperate, thick and tight with concern as he got restlessly to his feet. 'I hate the fact that this has caught us by surprise. There are too many unknown factors, and I'm doing what I have to in order to keep you safe. I know hiding is the last thing either of you want to be doing, but I wouldn't ask it if it wasn't necessary.'

'What will you be doing while we're gone?' Ed asked quietly, watching his face intently. 'Have you found out anything about whether Hakuro's involved?'

'Nothing conclusive, but I suspect that the answer is yes. Some of these activities are too overt for him to be unaware of the situation. Roy, will your men follow my orders?'

'Of course, Maes.'

'Good. This plot cannot be without its flaws; we'll find the weak points and break it apart. It would help if we knew the reasons behind it, but... .' He shrugged, exasperated. 'It's going to take time, and that's something we haven't got. Do you have any orders you want me to relay to your command?'

Roy shifted his weight, his shoulders rising and falling with a sigh. 'Just tell them that, if this gets out of hand or I end up dead, then they should do whatever is necessary to protect themselves: even if it means joining the people behind this. I don't want anyone to take stupid risks.'

'You know they won't obey that,' Hughes pointed out softly, crossing his arms as Roy nodded wearily.

'That's their choice, but they need to know that I wouldn't blame them. If that's the way this thing goes, then that's what they should do. Changes can still be made if they're in the right place. They don't need me to make a difference in how the army is run.'

'It won't come to that.' Jean's voice was quiet but fierce, and Ed turned to look at where he stood in the doorway to the kitchen. The lieutenant had been talking to Gracia as she cooked, but it was clear that he had overhead Roy's words. 'It can't. We didn't go through all of that shit with Bradley for it to end like this.'

'You can't be sure. It's -' Whatever Roy had been about to say was interrupted by a firm tap on the door. Instantly the room fell silent, and Hughes cautiously peered out of the nearest window, ready to duck back if he didn't recognise who stood on the threshold. With agile fingers he brushed the curtain aside a fraction, peering out into the night.

'It's Hawkeye and Al,' he said, bursting the bubble of tension that filled the air. With quick movements, he pulled the door open to let them both in before closing and bolting it against the night.

Riza was as presentable as ever, calm and confident as she moved further into the room to stand a respectful distance from Mustang's side. Al looked shaken, and Ed winced as his brother shot him an angry glare. A small pile of clean clothes were bundled in his grip, and Ed could see that Al's hands were clenched into tight fists amidst the fabric. He moved up, making space on the couch so that Al could settle next to him: it was a wordless apology but, from the look in Al's eyes, Ed wasn't going to get away with anything that easily.

'Did you get everything they're likely to need?' Hughes asked, sitting down again.

Hawkeye nodded firmly. 'Clothes, food, weapons and ammunition are all in the car. It's a non-military vehicle, with a registration that leads back to a family living in the southern part of the city. It shouldn't raise any suspicions. I made sure there wasn't any form of paper-trail.' Turning to Roy, she took a deep breath, as though she was about to say something that she thought wouldn't be very well received. 'There is also a considerable pile of paperwork for you, sir. They all require your signature.'

She held up her hand before anyone could speak, giving a small shake of her head as she continued. 'It occurred to me that if you and Edward disappear without any kind of story to back up your reason for departure, then the people behind this need only put you on the list of deserters and their job is done.' She straightened her shoulders, looking at Hughes. 'If their names go up, then they can legally be shot by any member of the military that happens to find them, no questions asked.'

Ed blinked, feeling his stomach writhe. It was naïve to think that the army was anything but ruthless, yet he had never realised the brutal reality: that they would shoot people who fled ranks without hesitation, no trial, no second chance, nothing.

'The paperwork provides credibility to the concept that you are both on a form of sabbatical,' Hawkeye stated. 'You're out of the military compounds but still working on projects under the army's purview.' She turned to Roy. 'I thought it would be an excellent chance for you to catch up on your backlog, sir. I found a considerable amount that you misplaced down the back of the radiator, and several files that must have slipped under the rug.'

The expression on Mustang's face was pained, but he recovered admirably, schooling his features into something that looked more like an officer in the army and less like a scolded school-boy. 'Thank you, Lieutenant. Is there anything else I need to know about?'

His question was directed to the room in general, and Hughes chewed absent-mindedly on the side of his thumb before saying, 'Communication's an issue. We need to be able to keep you informed of the situation on the ground, but we can't risk giving away your location. I'll see what I can do about getting a secure line, but even then we can probably only get in touch about once a week – or in an emergency.'

'Ed?' Gracia called quietly from the kitchen. 'There's some food out here for you. Why don't you come and eat? You'll probably feel better for it.'

The smell of chicken soup wafted through the hallway, and Ed's stomach growled impatiently as he got to his feet. He was reluctant to miss out on anything the others said, but he would have to ask Mustang about it later. Right now his body was keening for some kind of sustenance, and hunger was quickly turning into greasy nausea.

Al followed, reaching out a hand to steady Ed's shaky progress. As soon as they were out of the living room he took a deep breath, his voice tight with anger as he said, 'Brother, why didn't you wake me up at the hospital? I didn't know where you had gone or what had happened to you!'

'Al, I'm sorry, okay? You needed the sleep and it wasn't like I was badly injured.' He ignored the flicker of Al's gaze to the sticking plaster on his forehead. 'Besides, with everything that's happening you were probably safer where you were.'

'What about you?' Al demanded as they walked through into the kitchen. 'You're anything but safe and you won't let me help you. I'm not a child!'

Ed noticed the faint, pitying smile on Gracia's face at Al's statement. He thanked her quietly as she gestured to the massive bowl of soup on the table before lowering himself gently into the chair. He tried not to wince as another arrow of pain bit into his side, but it was impossible to hide his discomfort.

Al give a small sigh as he sat down opposite, leaving the clothes he had been holding in a little heap as his hands clenched into white-knuckled fists on the tabletop. 'You can't keep me out of this, Ed. If you're in danger then I have a right to know about it.'

'I know that,' Ed said flatly. 'Look, none of this is under my control.' He grabbed a spoon and started to eat, talking between mouthfuls. 'For the others to keep an eye on me, I have to stay with Mustang. Do you think I'd spend time with the bastard if I had the choice?'

Al gave him a long, disbelieving look, asking with his gaze if Ed really wanted him to answer that question. When Ed just glared back, he shrugged, letting his breath out in a weary sigh. 'I'm not angry about you going to the safe house. I'm mad because you're not telling me what's going on. Everything I've heard about this has been second-hand. Major Armstrong was the one who told me about what happened in the hospital. You could have at least found me and let me know where you were going!'

Ed looked down into his soup, stirring it absently as he muttered, 'Sorry. It was – everything happened at once. I didn't really get a chance to breathe, let alone stop to think. We've been through a lot of shit, but nothing like this. I – I suppose I didn't really know what to do, so I just did what Hughes said. I should have come and found you.' He looked up, feeling wretched when Al closed his eyes and nodded in weary acceptance of his pathetic apology.

'You know we're going to have to be apart for a while, don't you?' He watched Al's face, seeing the flicker of fear and uncertainty, hastily smothered. Al was right: he wasn't a kid any more. Even when he had been in the armour, Ed had still felt like he needed to look after him. Now that protective urge was still there, but it was something he could force himself to put aside. Even though he wished it was possible, he couldn't keep Al oblivious to the horrors of the world forever.

'I know,' Al murmured. 'I'll be all right in the apartment by myself.'

Ed took a deep breath, putting the spoon aside and sitting back in his chair as he thought swiftly. 'Actually, I was thinking you could go to Risembool for a while and stay with Winry and Granny Pinako.'

'Why?' Al's voice was puzzled and hurt. 'Don't you trust me on my own?'

'It's not that,' Ed said quickly, running a hand through his hair. 'Listen, there's a good chance that whoever's trying to kill me and Roy could take hostages to try and lure us out of hiding. If you and Winry are together then you can both look after each other. You know what Winry's like. She's an impulsive psychopath with anger management issues half the time. If someone tried to catch her, do you think she'd have the sense to run away?' He sighed, ignoring the throbbing in his side as he carried on. 'You'd be doing me a favour, Al. It means I won't be stuck in a stupid house in the middle of nowhere, freaking out because I don't know if you're safe.'

Peace filled the kitchen, disturbed only by the sounds of Gracia washing up the pots and pans. She hadn't said a word throughout the brothers' conversation, but Ed noticed that she was watching the two of them in the reflection of the window with something tender and warm in her eyes.

Eventually Al crossed his arms, letting his shoulders fall in defeat. 'I don't like this. I don't like that I can't be there for you. We're always together, and now I won't know from one day to the next whether you're all right. Besides, you know I'll have to tell Winry what's happening. I'll have to sit on her to stop her tracking you down and killing you herself.'

Ed gave a short snort of laughter. 'You'll manage. She always liked you better anyway.' He rubbed his hands over his eyes, tired now that his stomach was full. He had slept so much, but weariness still dragged greedily at his body. 'I wish there was some way I could let you know that everything's okay at the safe house, but I think you're just going to have to trust me not to do anything stupid. Besides, it's not like I'm all on my own. Mustang'll be there, and he's not as useless as he looks.'

A sudden shiver danced along his skin, making his teeth chatter. It was fierce enough for Al to notice, and his brother nudged the pile of clothes across the table as he said softly, 'Get dressed, Brother.'

It wasn't the blatant acceptance that Ed had hoped for, but he knew from the look in Al's eyes that he would do what he was told. Whether he would stay in Risembool once he got there was another matter, but Ed knew that Winry wouldn't let him go anywhere alone. That was enough to ease some of the worry that nested in his mind. Al's alchemy was devastating, and Winry could probably kill someone with those wrenches of hers if she wanted to. With any luck, they'd be all right without him for a while.

Nodding obediently, he took the clothes and slipped into the downstairs bathroom before he set about changing into a more familiar outfit. The clothes he had been wearing on the roof were probably wrecked, but he had more than one pair of leather trousers and plenty of t-shirts.

Glancing at the mirror, he saw a faint dark stain on the bandages and pulled a face. The nurse had said that it might bleed for a little longer, but he had thought it would stop by now. Touching it gently with metal fingers, he swore as the pain thudded its warning against his ribs. He had been bitten, cut, stabbed, bruised, punched and burned, but he had never been shot. He had only ever experienced one thing worse: the ripping, clawing grasp of the gate as it had taken his arm and leg. Now, that agony was dulled by memory, but this was fresh and raw, blazing along his side with vindictive spite.

Moving with care, he pulled a t-shirt over his head, forcing himself to lift his left arm. There was nothing wrong with it, but the simple act pulled the injured flesh of his side taut. It took several attempts to get himself decently dressed, and by the end of it his dinner was churning in his stomach and his upper lip was beaded with sweat.

Weakly, he sat on the closed toilet seat, putting his head in his hands and concentrating hard on not throwing up. One thing he had not told Al, couldn't, because he knew it would increase his brother's worry a thousand-fold, was how much what was happening scared him.

Ed was used to crazy alchemists and chimeras that looked like something out of a horror movie. He could cope with almost all of the gory consequences alchemy could leave in its wake; it was something he understood and could fight against, but this was different. It took longer to clap and release alchemy than it did to fire a gun. These assassinations were not something he could study and understand. They were fast, brutal, deadly attacks, and he had no real way to protect himself.

'Fuck that,' Ed hissed quietly, forcing himself to stand up. There was no way he was going to be a helpless target for anyone. That just wasn't his style.

Opening the door, he walked back through to the kitchen where Al was waiting for him. A small pill container sat on the table. 'The doctor told me to give you these. They're painkillers. Take one every six hours if you have to.' Al tossed them towards Ed, who caught them neatly in his right hand. 'They'll make you dizzy and sleepy, but the doctor said that anything weaker wouldn't help you. It was the best he could do.'

Al bit his lip, watching Ed uncertainly. 'There are also bandages in the car. You need to change the dressing at least once a day and try not to get it wet. Brother, what if you get an infection or it starts to bleed again? You're nowhere near a hospital! How will you take care of yourself?'

'I'll worry about that if it happens.' Ed looked down at the tablets before closing his hand into a fist. 'Thanks for getting the bandages. It didn't even cross my mind.'

'I know. You never think of yourself, Brother.'

Someone knocked, loud and desperate, the rhythm echoing urgently through the house. Gracia dropped the pan she was washing into the sink with a gasp, and Ed and Al hurried through to see Hughes open the door to Fuery. The young man was breathing heavily, as if he had run all the way here, and his face was ghastly pale.

'General Hayne's dead,' he managed, doubling over in a struggle to get his breath back. 'Hakuro's ordered a perimeter set up around the city. Lock-down – no one will be able to get in or out. Says he's trying to catch the killer but I think it's to stop any other targets getting away.'

Hughes swore viciously, grabbing Kain by the shoulders and dragging him inside. 'How long have we got?'

'Half an hour, no more than that.' Fuery took a huge gulp of air, propping himself weakly against the wall. 'The north side's already shut off.'

'I think that's our cue to leave,' Roy said, pushing himself away from the fireplace. 'The north of the city is always easier to barricade because of the bridges. If we head for the south-east we should still get out in time.'

Havoc took the keys from Riza, yanking the door open and hurrying out to the small car that was parked and waiting. With a gentle noise the engine rumbled to life, and Roy glanced at Ed. 'Have you got everything you need?'

'Too late now if I haven't.' He hesitated on the doorstep, looking over his shoulder at Al. 'If you run, you should still be able to get the last train to Risembool before they shut the train lines.'

'I will. Be careful, brother.'

'I'll take him, Edward,' Hawkeye said firmly. 'Don't worry. He'll get out of here without a problem. We'll make sure of it.'

Hughes followed them out to the car, bending down to the open window as they buckled up. The street lamps cast his face into shadow and light, and fear was written over every aspect of his expression. 'Good luck, both of you. Come back to us alive, all right?'

'Take care of yourself, and remember what I said,' Roy replied, his voice quiet but commanding. 'If you can't find out who is behind this and find a way to stop it, then don't die trying. It's not worth it.'

Hughes gave him a small, sad smile. 'That's for us to decide.'

'Maes... .'

Ignoring Roy's anger, he patted the roof twice in mournful farewell and stepped back, allowing Havoc to pull away.

Ed twisted around uncomfortably in his seat, seeing Al still standing on the doorstop. He looked lost and alone, arms wrapped around himself in futile comfort, and it took every ounce of Ed's restraint not to jump out of the car.

Finally the house faded from sight, and Ed let out a tight, angry sigh as he thumped his head against the window, scowling out at Central. A couple of days ago he had thought of the city as something like home, secure and calm. Now, he saw nothing but a cage of masonry and commerce, waiting to trap them in in its grasp.

'We'll come back,' Roy said quietly, his fierce voice pitched so that Havoc wouldn't hear him. 'We'll give them a week, and if things are not better by then, we'll take matters into our own hands.' He watched Ed with intense eyes, pale-faced but determined in the gloom, waiting for his reaction.

Ed grinned and nodded. Mustang wouldn't hear the voice of reason from him. Hiding may be in their best interests, but it was impossible for either of them to sit idly by while other people fought their battles for them.

One way or the other, they would end this.

Chapter Text

Havoc smacked his palm against the steering wheel, cursing as he glared at the barricade in the distance. Every road they took ended the same way, in a wall of hastily erected barriers and floodlights. The soldiers standing guard were distant figures, ambling back and forth as they patrolled its length. They were settling in for a quiet night, and it was obvious that they weren’t expecting any trouble.

It was tempting to storm the roadblock, to simply tell Jean to put his foot down and break through the ramshackle wood that stood between them and the countryside, but Roy knew that was not an option.

Getting out of the city undetected was essential. The more time they had before their absence was noticed, the better their chances were of making it to the safe-house in one piece. On the open road, he and Ed were at their most defenceless. It would be such a quiet tragedy, a car accident, perhaps, that stole their lives. At least, that’s what it would look like. They had to make sure that they did not give the assassins the opportunity to strike while they were so vulnerable.

‘We haven’t been seen,’ he said quietly, silently thankful that Havoc had the sense to drive at a normal pace. As much as they needed speed, they also had to be discreet, and any car peeling down the street at this time of night would attract the wrong kind of attention. They had to seem like normal motorists. At least that way no one looked too hard at the vehicle or its occupants. ‘Turn around and head as directly south as you can.’

‘You know another way out?’ Ed asked quietly, his voice not much more than a murmur. He was leaning forward in his seat, watching the barricade with dangerous eyes and taking in the movements of the soldiers as if he were calculating odds. He only blinked when Jean began to reverse, executing a turn before driving calmly into the night.

‘Maybe. The blockades will be set up in a pincer movement. They always start with the bridges, because they’re easiest. From there troops work clockwise and anti-clockwise around the city limits.’ Roy glanced out of the window, staring unseeingly at the blank façades of the houses. ‘In theory, the road that leads directly south should be the last to be cut off.’

‘You don’t sound very sure about that.’

Roy gritted his teeth, fighting against the urge to snap. Of course he wasn’t sure. He couldn’t even be certain that he would still be alive tomorrow! For all he knew the people behind this were one step ahead of him and had already cut off the southern route. ‘You’d better hope I’m right, because if the road’s not open then we’re trapped.’

Ed scratched absently at the sticking plaster on his head, gazing out of the window at the passing night. Eventually he said, ‘If it's blocked then we’ll force our way out. It shouldn’t be that hard. Pick a minor street, one without too many guards, take them out and drive through. Easy.’

‘I would rather avoid a confrontation if possible,’ Roy said, his voice flat as he considered the possibilities. ‘If we simply incapacitate the soldiers, they’ll get news back to headquarters about our departure. If we kill them, it will be discovered when the shift changes at dawn. At most we’ll only have a -’ He glanced at his watch, realising that both hands hung precipitously over the twelve. ‘-six hour advantage over any pursuers.’

‘That’s not enough, sir,’ Havoc pointed out, not taking his eyes off the road as he spoke. ‘We’re in a civilian car. Even once we’re out of Central we can’t do anything to draw attention to ourselves. Military vehicles can go as fast as they like, but we can’t break the speed limits and risk being caught.’

‘Then we’d better hope that we can get out before they seal off the city.’

Roy clenched his hands into fists on his knees, staring unseeingly at the dark horizon. His heart was thrumming in his throat, and his back felt like a wall of knotted muscle. For the past two days his body had been buzzing on a high-wire of stress responses, and the anxiety was beginning to take its toll. Logic was being lost to panic, and fundamental survival instincts were taking over.

His legs ached with the need to run, and his stomach was cold and dead. The skin between his shoulder-blades itched as if expecting the bite of a bullet at any second, and his palms were clammy inside his gloves. He had not felt this obviously threatened since Ishbal, and the edgy fear unlocked all the memories he would rather forget, parading them across his mind in a gruesome effigy of sin and despair.

The phantom of a sandy wind scraped at Roy’s face as the hum of the tyres on the road emulated the strange, glassy tones that filled the desert at night. Hazy light from the street lamps took on a reddish glow, and the scent of smoke and gunfire filled his nose and mouth, lying like blood on his tongue.

Something tapped his arm, a firm, decisive gesture that was gone in a second. It tore apart the shroud of false sensation like sunlight breaking through mist, and Roy forced himself to take a deep breath. He curled his fingers into the seat, feeling the thickness of it through his gloves as he tried to ground himself in the present. He needed his wits about him. Now, of all times, he could not be a victim of his past.

When he dared to glance sideways he realised that Ed was watching him carefully, as if he were an injured animal more likely to bite than accept any help. He didn’t say anything, but there was the faintest trace of understanding in his gaze. He suspected where Roy’s thoughts had been taking him and knew that he needed dragging back from their clutches.

The fact that Ed could read him so easily was unsettling. For years he had painstakingly cultivated an image to present to the young alchemist and believed he would look no deeper. Perhaps a year ago Ed had been satisfied with that superficial understanding, but now things were different. Eyes that focussed with such intelligent intensity on the distant goal of the stone had turned to gaze more closely at those around him, and something told Roy that he saw far more than any of them wanted to expose.

'Shit!' Jean's curse was loud as he slowed the car, staring at the barricade already being built across the south road. It wasn't complete, but the place was crawling with soldiers. 'Fucking shit,' Havoc muttered again, letting out a shaky breath as he rolled his shoulders. 'What now, sir?'

Roy pressed his fingertips to his forehead, staring at the uniformed men in disbelief. Hakuro had to know about the plot. There was no way so many of the military's resources could be thrown at blocking off the city without him being aware of the reason. Perhaps he had been lied to, had believed the stories he was fed, but Roy found that hard to believe. For all he knew the Fuhrer was the mastermind, although the intricacy of events did seem above Hakuro's rather basic intelligence.

Ed tapped Havoc's shoulder and pointed along the road. 'Turn your headlights off and take that turning. The road's rough and hasn't been cared for in years. In some places it's just a dirt track so try not to roll the car,' he warned. 'With any luck they've forgotten about it.'

'Where does it go?' Roy asked, trying to map out the city in his mind. The south-side was predominantly industrial, and a warren of tiny service roads tangled around one another in knots. 'I thought these were all internal streets.'

Ed's teeth flashed white in the gloomy car as Havoc killed the lights and did as he was told. 'That's what they want you to think. If you know the way, you can get to the warehouses and back out onto the main road south about fifteen miles down.'

Roy looked out of the window, frowning at the urban wasteland all around them. Most of the buildings were disused, their metal walls pocked with rust and their windows smashed. The occasional street lamp guttered, sending sick light across a road that was gradually being lost to spindly grass and churned up by tree roots. He shook his head, puzzled. 'How do you know that?'

'Havoc, take the next left,' Ed said quickly before glancing at Roy. 'I know because I spend half my life down here. Any alchemist who's lost the fuckin' plot and is looking to cause trouble needs an out-of-the-way place with a big, concrete floor to draw on. This is always the first place I look when you give me some assignment where someone's messing with alchemy they shouldn't.'

He said it with such confidence, as if that kind of simple, dangerous knowledge was as much a part of his life as paying a library fine, that Roy just leaned back in his seat and rubbed at his eyes. It was easy to underestimate Ed. He forgot, sometimes, that Fullmetal had been in the military for more than five years now, and had learned more in that time than most people did in their lives. He wasn't some naïve, idealistic alchemist with his nose in a book and his head in the clouds. His alchemy might be a tool and his body weapon-like in its strength, but his intelligence went beyond arrays and energy flow.

Hughes had once made a comment about some of the state alchemists. Not so much Roy, but those who seemed happy to hypothesise and experiment and never actually do anything. He'd called them lighthouses in the desert. Bright, but ultimately useless. Ed could have been like them, able to develop new arrays and ideas but incapable of even the simplest of mundane tasks, but he wasn't.

His brilliance was a diamond: flawless, stunning, precious and indestructible.

Roy glanced back at the younger man's profile, picking out the line of his jaw and the angle of his cheekbone in the dusky gloom. He was leaning forward, giving instructions to Havoc as the car jostled and rocked on its suspension, wallowing amidst the pot-holes and ruts in the road. Ed's expression was tense and serious, as if he was trying desperately to remember the way, and Roy shifted, following his gaze and pushing his thoughts aside as he committed the route to memory.

After what felt like hours of bone-jarring driving, the tyres found smooth tarmac again, and the car moved with confidence along the undisturbed surface. 'Think we're safe?' Jean asked, eyes glued to the rear-view mirror as if he expected to see a dozen military police cars charging over the horizon in hot pursuit.

'That's a very relative term, Havoc,' Roy muttered, watching the last of the urban sprawl begin to thin out, giving way to fields and true darkness. 'Safe enough to turn the headlights on at least.'

Miles passed beneath the wheels, measured out in silence. Havoc seemed to know where he was going, although Roy was pretty sure that the man was taking the most convoluted path possible to their destination. It made sense, on some levels. Any pursuers would be led on a wild goose chase, wasting time and effort in following their twisting trail. Unfortunately it also increased their chances of being seen and recognised. For every tactic to avoid capture there were advantages and disadvantages. Success and failure were equally likely and, when it meant the difference between life and death, that wasn't a comforting thought.

Stiffly, Roy stretched out his legs, forcing his body to relax one muscle at a time. He needed sleep. Tiredness had grown into a desperate, burning exhaustion that bit at his eyes and made his bones ache. Slumber had found him in fits and starts over the past two days, and now he was paying the price for his restlessness.

There was nothing he could do in the car. Its tight confines forced him to stay still but, even though his body was motionless, his mind was whirling. An endless litany of questions fogged his head, their chatter almost loud enough to drown out the high-pitched drone of anxiety. Desperately, he tried to stifle them, but it was hopeless. All he could do was shut his eyes and slump lower in the seat, a victim to the ceaseless “what ifs”.

He should be dead, if not by the gunman on the roof then by the attempt at the hospital, but both times the killers had failed. He wasn't stupid. He knew that the two scenarios had one thing in common: Ed. Twice, Fullmetal had made sure that the bullets didn't find their mark, and how was Roy meant to repay that? How could he place a value on his own life?

The dank suspicion that someone he trusted might turn against him still lingered, but he had never considered Ed in the role of the traitor. Even now the thought struggled to take root, weak and doubtful. It didn't make sense for Ed to betray him. After all, he was a target as well as Roy, and he had saved him from the previous two attempts. If he needed Roy dead, then why would he bother to intervene when the gunmen had tried to kill him?

Despite his logic, the insidious suspicions continued to whisper in Roy's ear. There were enough secrets in Ed's life to make blackmail a possibility. The plotters could have decided to use him and then murder him to cover their tracks. Ed would do anything to keep Al safe – anything.

But not that. He would not stoop to murder to protect himself or his brother.

If there was one thing that Roy could trust of Ed's mercurial behaviour, it was his conscience. He had drawn the confident boundary between what he would and would not do, and nothing could make him cross that line. He had his principles and he stuck by them, no matter what the personal cost. Ed might be capable of many things, but betrayal was not one of them.

The voice of reason rang through his mind, and Roy grimaced to himself as he shifted guiltily in his seat. Opening his eyes he looked across the car, watching as the moon broke through the clouds and ignited the world with quicksilver, shining its glassy light on Ed's face.

Now, caught up in natural sleep rather than drug-induced unconsciousness, he looked incredible: exposed but strong. Ed should have seemed child-like, but there was nothing innocent or defenceless about him. He wasn't a boy any more, not by a long-shot, and his appearance made Roy think of all the things he shouldn't: stolen kisses, soft caresses and days in bed where sleep was the last thing on the agenda.

Suddenly, Roy realised that he'd stretched out to brush a swathe of Ed's hair back from his face, and he froze in shock at his own familiarity. It felt like such a natural, instinctive thing to do, but in reality he knew he had no right to touch Ed uninvited.

They had rarely shared physical contact for more than a few seconds before the assassination attempts had started, but now that had all changed. On that rooftop Ed's blood had spilled over his hands, a warm, precious torrent that he could not stop. Back in the hospital Ed's body had been tucked neatly under his own as gunfire rained down all around them. It was as if, with every brush of skin on skin, Roy became more addicted to the feel of him, and the barriers between them were eroded away.

Snatching his hand back, he closed his eyes again and scowled to himself. If he was going to be spending the next who knew how long in Ed's constant company, then he had to stop feeling like this. For god's sake, even if it weren't for the age difference, he was a subordinate – he was Ed. Of all the people in the world, he was probably the most dangerous to take to bed. He had a habit of disturbing thoughts and feelings that Roy would rather remained untouched. Never mind that even just one night could destroy his career; it could crack open every mask he had and grind them to dust.

No, Ed was out of bounds and, for both their sakes, he had to stay that way.

It was impossible to pinpoint the precise moment when his thoughts began to lose their clarity, and sheer exhaustion forced his mind still. Vague, filmy dreams drifted in front of him, tinted with the golds of the desert and ruddy flames. There were no true nightmares, but a faint feeling of threat lingered on, smothering him with its dense fog until, at last, he sank further into sleep.

When he opened his eyes again, it was still mostly dark and a cold wind was blowing fiercely through the car. Havoc had the driver's window wound down and his sleeves rolled up. His eyes were staring at the road, slightly glazed above purple smudges of exhaustion, and his jaw was working furiously as if he were biting his tongue to keep himself awake.

'Jean, pull over,' he ordered quietly, rubbing a hand over his gritty eyes, 'before you drift off at the wheel and wrap us around a tree. I can drive for a while.'

Havoc jerked his head up, yanking himself from his trance-like state to blink at Roy in the rear-view mirror. Wearily, he nodded in agreement, slowing to a halt at the side of the deserted road. The lack of motion woke Ed, and he blinked around dazedly. 'We there?'

'No,' Jean groaned, rubbing a hand over the back of his neck as he put the gear stick into neutral. 'We're through the Black Mountains, but there's still hours to go yet. It's straight down this road most of the way.' Stiffly he got out of the car, moaning in pain as he stretched his legs and reached for a cigarette. The match flared briefly before the sweet scent of smoke drifted through the air.

Roy untangled himself from the seatbelt, wincing as his neck and back twinged. He wasn't used to sleeping in cars, and this one was hardly the height of luxury. The door opened with a hollow metallic noise, and he dragged himself upright, shivering in the cool night air. 'I miss my bed,' he muttered, scowling as he remembered his flame-shrouded house. 'Can't believe the bastards burned it.'

Havoc snorted a tired laugh at his petulance, turning to look at him over the roof. Ed's door was open, and as Roy rounded the back of the car he realised that Ed was still sitting in the back seat, turned so his feet were on the road. He looked up blearily, blinking in the hazy glow of the headlamps. 'They set fire to everything you owned. Should have known the one thing you'd miss was your bed.'

'It was comfortable,' Roy retorted defensively, opening the trunk and staring unseeingly at its contents as Ed's words sank in. Until now he had conveniently pushed all thoughts of the fire out of his mind, ignoring its glowering presence. Now the memories seeped back like rising flood water, making him frown. It was only possessions, only things, but that was not the point. His home was his sanctuary. It was a place he felt secure from the pressure of the military, and they had cracked it open like an eggshell and destroyed everything within.

With a sigh he began shifting around the contents of the trunk, searching desperately for something that might contain coffee. Even if it was cold, at least it would be strong. Surely Hawkeye had thought of such a necessity?

'Mmf, need food,' Ed muttered, his tone curt, and Roy glanced up to see him standing at his side. His hair was all over the place, and a patch of his face was red where it had been pressed against the cold window. A deep scowl marred his features, and there was a tense feeling of a lot of anger being kept on a short leash.

'Not a morning person?' Roy asked quietly, handing Ed an apple as he made a rough, growling noise in his throat.

'What the hell do you think?' he snapped, grabbing the fruit and biting into it before talking with his mouth full. 'Besides, this isn't fuckin' morning. It's still dark.'

He was right. The only sign of the encroaching day was the faintest suggestion of silver on the eastern horizon. The moon was gone, and the stars were faint specks of light gleaming through the veil of clouds. Only the headlamps provided any real illumination. At most they had probably only been on the road a handful of hours. Strange, it felt like years.

Finally, Roy's questing hands found a flask amidst the clutter in the trunk, and he twisted the lid off and inhaled the sharp aroma. Somehow coffee made everything manageable. It was a fragment of the mundane amidst the shattered normalcy of his life, and he poured some out into the cup before taking a gulp. It was strong, bitter and only lukewarm, but it made him feel human again.

Ed finished the apple in record time and flicked the core into the long grass before reaching out for the coffee. He declined the cup with a grimace. 'Don't want your germs,' he grumbled.

'I'm not diseased,' Roy muttered wearily, scowling as Ed shot him a doubtful look before drinking straight from the flask. 'So my germs are intolerable but you don't care about infecting the coffee with your own?'

'I'm immune,' Ed retorted, draining the flask dry before putting it down amidst the folders and closing the trunk, ignoring Roy's sound of disbelief. 'Come on. We can't hang around here forever.'

'What if Havoc had wanted some of that?'

Ed glanced pointedly at the back seat, where Jean was stretched out and already breathing deeply, almost asleep. 'He missed his chance,' he replied with a shrug, closing the door softly so as not to disturb the lieutenant before walking around the car and climbing into the front seat. 'Are you coming or not?'

'What if I'd wanted some more?' he asked as he got into the driver's side and buckled up before putting the car into gear and pulling away.

'Then you should have said something.'

'I didn't get the chance!' Genuine anger flickered in his voice, and he scowled into the darkness as Ed stretched out and murmured, 'Now who's not a morning person?'

'Brat.'

Ed gave him the finger, and Roy rolled his eyes in annoyance. To think that, earlier in the evening, he had been forcefully reminding himself of all then reasons he couldn't give into his attraction to Fullmetal. No one he had ever met had been so tempting and infuriating in equal measure. Ed was such a contradiction: childish and mature, fascinating and impossible, and the more Roy thought he knew about him the less he understood.

Scenery flickered past the windows, mere shadows in the pre-dawn light, and the dark plain of the road skimmed by, pinned briefly in the headlights before it flowed beneath the tyres and was left behind. It was easy to fall into a trance, to sink into his thoughts while his body reacted instinctively to all of the tiny demands of the car, changing up through gears and adjusting the steering with no real interference from his conscious mind.

He almost didn't hear Ed's words, and blinked in surprise as the faint sound sank through the mire of his worries and registered with his mind. 'What?'

'I said I'm sorry.'

Roy pursed his lips in confusion, trying to think why Ed might be apologising. 'For drinking all the coffee?' he hazarded.

'No!' Ed huffed as if he thought Roy was being ridiculous. In the next breath his voice softened, becoming something more sincere. 'I'm sorry about your house. Home doesn't mean much to me but – but it means a lot to most, and I'm sorry that yours is gone.'

Roy tapped the fingertips of his left hand thoughtfully against the steering wheel. 'Thank you, but you have nothing to apologise for. You didn't torch the place.'

'Was any of it – Was there anything that can't be replaced in there?'

Not a lot, actually, now that Roy thought about it. His home was more about sanctuary than sentimentality. There were no family heirlooms or mementos. It was just bricks and mortar, furniture and... . He grimaced, remembering what else had gone up in smoke.

'A couple of out of print books that I won't be able to get hold of again, including a two-hundred year old text by Foteinos.' Out of the corner of his eye he saw Ed tense in his seat for a second. 'Do you know who that is?'

'Yeah.' There was a faint edge of dark humour in his voice, but when he spoke again it was gone. 'A leader in the field of fire alchemy back in his day. A lot of the modern arrays used are based on his work, including those.' He flicked a finger at Roy's gloves. 'I mean, you adapted them and researched how to make them work for you, but they're based on his elemental designs, aren't they?'

Roy nodded, surprised. 'How do you know so much about him?'

'Probably just picked it up somewhere,' Ed said vaguely. 'Feels like I've read everything in the library looking for the damn stone.' He wriggled in the seat before putting his boots on the dashboard. 'So, other than the books, was there anything else you've lost for good?'

'A few bits of paperwork from the office were in my study and some of Hughes' photographs. It's not -' He hesitated, wondering why he felt the need to explain this to Ed. 'It's not so much what was lost in the house that bothers me. It's the fact that it was my home and they destroyed it so easily.'

'It was your safe place, and they made it so that it wasn't secure any more.' Ed sighed, and Roy thought he would fall silent again, but slowly he carried on quietly. 'I know what you mean. Everyone thinks that because me and Al don't have a home, we don't really understand what it means. They never seem to work out that we burned ours down for a reason. It wasn't about getting rid of bad memories or destroying evidence or anything like that. It was about making sure that, when the search for the stone hit another dead end, we didn't have any choice but to carry on.'

He kicked thoughtfully at the dashboard for a moment. 'If we still had somewhere to call our home, we would have just gone back when things got tough. I knew that if I still had a choice I would make the wrong decision and Al would be stuck in that armour forever, so I made sure I didn't have that option.' The next few words were almost a whisper, and Roy only just made them out over the growl of the engine. 'It was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do.'

Roy didn't know what to say, was so surprised by Ed's unexpected openness that he could only glance briefly across at him before looking back at the road. He knew that Ed and Al had burned their house down, and even vaguely understood that it was so they had no reason to go back to Risembool, but he had never stopped to consider how brave a move it had been.

They had been children then, and although both the Elrics must have developed a modicum of independence under their teacher's tuition, it was the last acknowledgement of everything they had lost. It was a confirmation to both of them that they couldn't return to the days of their innocence. All they could do was move forwards and try to correct their mistakes.

'I'm just saying that I kind of know how you feel, but home's what you make of it. It doesn't have to be about four walls and a roof, you know? It can be about people or things instead. Besides, Al and I do all right.'

Roy nodded, a faint smile curving his lips as he detected the hint of a defensive challenge in Ed's voice, as if he were daring Roy to say otherwise. 'You do better than all right,' he conceded. 'No one could ever say anything different.'

The conversation ebbed and flowed, clinging to neutral, mundane topics as dawn broke over the horizon, lifting the night's curtain over empty grassland. Here, the landscape was flat and unremarkable, undisturbed by the rise and fall of hills. Once in a while they would drive past a farm, the only sign of civilization in the bland wilderness.

Slowly the sun climbed up through the sky, and Roy shifted his foot on the accelerator, wincing at the cramp that twitched in his leg. He rarely drove anywhere any more; it was considered unseemly for anyone of high rank to be responsible for getting themselves from one place to another. He definitely had not been behind the wheel for more than ten minutes at a time for years, and he had forgotten how monotonous a long drive could be.

Ed had lapsed into silence a while ago and was staring out of the window. He was not asleep. Tension rolled off him in waves, and his shoulders were hunched. His automail hand was also pressed to his left side, and his flesh knuckles were clenched to white. More than once Roy had suggested he take something for the pain, but every time Ed stubbornly refused.

In the back Havoc gave a loud snore and jerked awake with a start, propping himself up groggily on an elbow as he peered out of the window. 'Ugh, where are we?' He clutched at his neck, and Roy gave a wince of sympathy. The back seat of the car was hardly a luxurious bed, and Jean looked as if he was paying for his few hours of rest.

'Middle of nowhere,' Ed replied. 'It's been about four hours since you fell asleep. Can we stop in a minute? I need to piss.'

'Shouldn't have drunk all the coffee,' Roy murmured, although he was secretly glad that Ed had asked. His body was beginning to make it loud and clear that there were several needs that had to be satisfied soon, including breakfast and a bathroom break.

As soon as they came across a few trees, he pulled up to the side of the road, sighing as Ed hopped out and ambled off into the vegetation. Jean already had a cigarette between his lips as he scrambled out of the back, stretching his arms and squinting in the sunlight.

Roy turned his attentions to the provisions they had, grabbing himself some fresh bread and beginning to eat. He hadn't realised how hungry he was, and by the time he had finished his meagre breakfast he felt something closer to human.

Once Ed was done, Roy went to answer the call of nature, returning to find Jean poring over a map spread out on the hood of the car. Ed was looking over his shoulder, scowling as Havoc drew his finger along the snaking road. 'In about twenty miles we'll start coming across some of the towns. It's better to drive around them than through the middle, so we're probably still three hours away from the safe-house.'

'How far from Central are we?' Ed asked. 'I thought we were going to be somewhere just outside the city, not halfway across the country.'

Jean winced as if that was a question he would rather not answer before admitting, 'About six hundred miles, give or take. I think Hughes is hoping the assassins won't bother looking that far, at least for a while.' Havoc glanced up at the sky before holding his hand out for the keys. 'If we get going now, we can probably get to the safe-house by lunchtime, sir. To be honest I'll feel a lot better once we're there.'

Roy nodded in agreement, sitting in the back seat next to Ed as Havoc slipped behind the wheel. It was obvious that everyone was getting sick of being in the car as Ed kicked the seat in front and Jean growled a brief curse as he graunched the gears. A headache was beginning to pound in Roy's temples, and he felt cramped, trapped, and increasingly aggravated by the close quarters of the vehicle. The thought of another three hours in the little tin can was almost too much to bear.

'How many of these safe-houses does the military have?' Ed asked once they were back under-way, probably trying to take his mind off of his discomfort. 'I mean, if the people behind this plot are in the army, is it really a good idea to use one of them? Isn't it going to be the first place they look?'

'Officially, the military doesn't have any safe-houses,' Roy explained tiredly. 'Most generals and other high-ranking officers make their own arrangements. The army doesn't provide protection for their soldiers. It's not really what they're about.'

'So how many do you have?'

'Four.' Roy gave a lopsided smile at Ed's incredulous expression. 'It's Hughes' job to be paranoid. Didn't you think it was a bit strange how he was able to set all this up within a matter of hours? He's been expecting something like this ever since I decided to become the Fuhrer.'

His face clouded as he remembered how he had laughed at Hughes' plans back when he had first suggested them. All those years ago, the thought of the military turning against him had been something Roy could not comprehend. Arrogantly, he had thought that no one could out-manipulate him. No one would be capable to taking him or his team by surprise. He would be aware of any plot before it came to fruition, and fleeing for his life would never be a reality.

Now he knew differently. Even after all his time in the uniform, the military was still a mystery to him, and he realised he would probably never fully understand the depth and breadth of its corruption. Dreams of being the Fuhrer, of taking control and making things right, seemed like little more than a childish fantasy. Even if he did make it to the top, would he be able to make any difference, or would his face simply be what people thought of when they witnessed the army's cruelty?

With a shudder, he forced the doubts aside. No. He couldn't think like that. If he did - if he gave up - it was acknowledging that this was all the army could ever be: a murderous organisation foetid with its selfish need for power. If he stopped trying to make a difference then he let them win, and that was one more sin to add to all those for which there was no forgiveness.

Jean flicked on the radio, and the minutes and miles slipped away beneath the wheels as the tinny music played. Small towns appeared and vanished again on the horizon, bypassed for the safety of the narrow, rural lanes.

When the needle on the fuel gauge hovered over empty, they were forced to stop at an isolated petrol station. Roy and Ed both slouched in the back, keeping out of sight as Jean filled the tank to the brim. He paid the old man running the place in cash before getting back in the car, letting out a nervous breath as they carried on their way.

The sun was beginning its long descent into the west when Havoc finally turned off the main road and gestured to a little house at the end of the driveway. 'There it is.'

It was a neat little building, painted white with faded terracotta tiles on its roof, and even from here Roy could see the faint wisp of smoke curling from the chimney. It was surrounded by flat, featureless fields, completely exposed. It meant there was nowhere to hide, and they would see any threats coming from miles away.

Roy looked up as Ed gave a little half-laugh, and he narrowed his eyes as he tried to read the emotions on the younger man's face. There was a cynical set to his jaw, and he looked at the safe-house critically as if cataloguing all of its weaknesses and flaws

'What is it?'

He met Roy's gaze with a faint edge of sadness in his eyes, the sarcasm plain in his voice as he muttered, 'Home sweet home.'

Chapter Text

Dust rose in small clouds around Ed's boots as he climbed out of the car and looked at the safe-house through narrowed eyes. The land sprawled out all around it, cloaked in wild meadow flowers enjoying their last bloom. Even Risembool was not this isolated. True, the houses had been far apart, but there was always a friendly face over the next hill. Here, it looked as if there was no one else around for miles.

Movement behind one of the windows made him jerk in surprise, and adrenaline flooded through his blood, wrapping his muscles in knots of barbed wire as the door opened on well-oiled hinges. His hands were already pressed together, the automail arm strong and solid as his left trembled under the onslaught of bitter pain in his side. The buzz of alchemy swarmed in him, waiting to be released as he glared at the two men who stepped out into the sunlight.

They were wearing civilian clothes, but Ed could see that they were more used to the Amestrian blue and gold. They moved as if they had forgotten how to do anything other than march, and saluted Mustang with the precision of men who had been drilled rigorously throughout their military careers.

Slowly, Ed relaxed. Neither of them had lunged forward to attack, and he vaguely remembered Hughes saying something about sending men to guard the safe-house. The two soldiers were stocky and muscular, but there was more to them than physical strength. Each had an intelligent look in their eye, and Ed knew that Hughes specially selected the men under his command. They would be strong, smart, and unquestionably loyal. Also, if they were here, then it was a sign that Maes trusted them the most.

Normally, that would have been a good enough recommendation to put Ed completely at ease, but he had been through too much these past couple of days to trust anyone he had never seen before. Cautiously, he looked them both over, forcing himself to take in every detail.

Both were empty-handed; the guns on their hips were strapped into their holsters and there were no other obvious weapons in sight. Still, he suspected they were armed with more than pistols. There were plenty of folds and pockets in their civilian clothes to hide smaller, more discreet things such as knives, and it was obvious from their appearance that they both knew how to use any blade they carried.

'Sir, Lieutenant-Colonel Hughes has assigned us to assist you during your stay here,' one of them said. He had cropped dark hair and tanned skin, with a faint trace of a Cretian-like accent. Brown eyes stared fixedly into the distance, politely disciplined, but Ed could see that there were the beginnings of laughter lines in his face, and one or two grey strands streaked the hair at his temples. He had to be at least ten years older than Mustang, but then seniority meant nothing in the army. After all, he was only eighteen, and he out-ranked half the soldiers he ever met.

'I am Lieutenant Pierce and this is Sergeant Brennan.' He gestured to his younger colleague with a massive hand, calloused and lined from years of hard work. It looked like they both spent a lot of time out in the field. There was a faint hint of something in their expression that Ed saw every time he looked in a mirror: they'd seen more than anyone should in one lifetime, and they had chosen to use that knowledge as their shield, rather than let it break them under its weight.

'At ease,' Mustang said calmly and, to Ed, it seemed like a fraction of Roy's uncertainty had washed away. In a world that had changed so abruptly, the procedures of the army stayed the same. It was something familiar, a script he knew, and there was comfort to be found in that. 'Lieutenant-Colonel Hughes told me you would be here. This is Major Elric and Lieutenant Havoc.'

'I won't be staying,' Jean said quietly with a quick smile at the two men. 'There are places I need to be.' He wandered around the back of the car and opening the trunk. Pierce and Brennan both automatically began unloading the supplies and never-ending paperwork, moving with the economic grace of people trained in hand-to-hand combat. They picked up the boxes without being asked and carried them towards the shady confines of the house, deliberately placing themselves out of earshot and busying themselves with the supplies.

'It's the way they're trained,' Mustang said quietly when Ed shot a doubtful look at their backs. 'Not everyone in intelligence is like Hughes. Most who aren't involved in information gathering will make sure they're not in a position to hear anything confidential. It means that, if they're caught, their captors won't learn anything from them. Maes will have told them the bare essentials, that's all. They won't want to know much more than that.'

Ed nodded in understanding. He had never spent much time examining the army and its interior factions, but he was vaguely aware that some departments had different priorities and rivalries than others. Now, more than ever, it seemed like the kind of thing he should learn more about. After all, it paid to understand the enemy.

'Where are you going from here?' Mustang asked as Havoc grabbed a map from the trunk before walking around to the front of the car and spreading it out on the hood. 'You can't go back to Central. The city will be entirely sealed off by now, and there's no way you can get back in without raising suspicion.'

Havoc grinned ruefully and shook his head. 'No chance. That was never on the cards anyway. I'm meeting up with Kain in a town about one hundred miles from here. We've got to check something out for Hughes. After that -' Jean shrugged, squinting up at Roy before looking at Ed. 'Actually, after that I'm kind of hoping this whole thing has blown over and things are back to normal. If not then we'll work out what to do from there.'

He glanced back down at the map, staring at it blankly before letting out a tight sigh. 'No disrespect, sir, but I know what you and the boss are like. I'm not an idiot, and I bet you're already thinking of some way to get out of here as soon as possible, but you really should stay put.'

Jean frowned, shifting uncomfortably before carrying on. 'Pierce and Brennan can protect you, and we can get on with cleaning up this mess without worrying that someone's going to shoot the pair of you while we're not looking. Can you – can you just promise that you'll stay here until we come and get you?'

Ed could feel the weight of Mustang's gaze on him, and he met his eyes squarely, knowing exactly what he was thinking. If they gave their word then they would only break it in the end. It was going to be enough of a challenge staying here for a week; any longer was unthinkable. The thought of being in the middle of nowhere indefinitely while people he cared for struggled to fight on his behalf made Ed's skin crawl. He shouldn't even be here now; he should be back in Central, finding out who was behind this and putting a stop to it.

Roy clenched his teeth, turning his head to look back along the road. He felt the same way; it was written loud and clear in every angle of his body. His arms were folded stubbornly across his chest, and his back and shoulders were straight as he scowled at the horizon. Finally, he murmured, 'Sorry, Lieutenant, but I can't do that.'

Havoc nodded wearily, picking up the map and trying to fold it. 'Thought as much, but it was worth a shot.' This time there was a sad edge to his smile, and he cleared his throat before adding, 'It might be worth knowing that part of the reason Hughes put you all the way out here was so that you'd find it hard to get back to Central. Brennan and Pierce have their own place to stay and sleep, and they'll probably leave you alone most of the time, but they're under orders not to let you go. There's no car, and we're about forty miles from the nearest town, which doesn't have a train station.'

'What about food?' Ed demanded. 'What happens when we run out?'

'Hughes will have arranged for more to be delivered,' Mustang growled. 'I should have known he'd think of everything. He's been my friend for too long to believe that I'd just sit here and let everyone else solve my problems.'

'We're only trying to keep you alive, sir,' Jean pointed out quietly, flinching a little beneath Mustang's glare but not backing down. 'If you were still in Central, you would probably be dead by now. Hughes thinks that this plot will only stay covert for a little while. If the people behind it are as powerful as we think, then they don't need to keep it secret for long.'

'And when they come out in the open, what then?' Ed asked. The thought that the bastards responsible for all this might get away with it filled him with sick fury. Wouldn't anyone say something? Call them out and see them punished for their crimes?

'They'll have some kind of story to excuse their actions. Those people who were actively assassinated will be accused of some crime or other, while those who died in staged accidents will be -' Havoc shrugged. '-forgotten.'

A gentle wind stirred the dusty yard in front of the house, making the grass whisper and wave beneath its touch. Ed stared at the bobbing flowers unseeingly, trying to understand how it had come to this.'Where does that leave us?' he asked quietly.

'Stuck here with nothing left to lose,' Mustang answered, and Ed could hear the anger boiling beneath his words. 'Jean, I know you'll be in contact with Hughes somehow. If the people behind this reveal themselves, then I'll need to know about it.'

'Why?' Jean asked, looking him up and down suspiciously as he shifted his weight.

'That was an order, Lieutenant, not a request. I expect to be kept informed of the situation, or I'll find my way back to Central even if I have to walk.'

From anyone else that would have been an empty threat, but Mustang meant every word of it. Jean realised that and, eventually, he nodded in agreement. 'Be careful, sir, whatever you do.'

With a lazy salute, he opened the driver's door and tossed the map into the seat beside him before climbing in. The engine grumbled to life, and Havoc wound down the window before calling out, 'Ed, Hughes told me to remind you about what you promised at the hospital. He's trusting you.'

Ed winced, knowing that Mustang would be demanding to know more as soon as Jean was gone. Roy didn't believe that Maes had wanted to make sure he had all the facts about what had happened on the rooftop, and he was right to have his doubts. Still, that didn't mean that he would be happy to know what had been asked of Ed.

'Tell him not to worry. I've got it covered.'

Havoc nodded, putting the car into gear and lifting his hand in farewell as he pulled away. The sunlight shone off of the blue paintwork of the car as it vanished back down the driveway and turned onto the road, a diminishing speck that finally vanished over the horizon.

'What, exactly have you got “covered”?' Mustang asked, his voice holding a dangerous edge as he crossed his arms. 'What did Maes say to you back at the hospital?'

A ragged sigh escaped Ed's lips, and he knew that Roy would not let it go until he knew all of it. Normally he would put it down to some childish need to be kept informed but, for once, he could understand Mustang's desire for openness. The world had become an insecure place, and the last thing that he needed was to feel like his best friend was keeping things from him.

'He asked me not to leave you on your own, no matter how much you piss me off, that's all.' Ed began walking towards the house, trying not to limp as a dull pain throbbed through his side. 'It's not a fucking secret that he cares about you.'

'So he decided you would be the best protector for me?'

The doubt in his voice rankled Ed, and he clenched his fists in irritation as he spun around, glaring at Roy across the few feet that separated them. 'I'm the only one who's stopped you being shot twice in two days,' he snapped, teeth bared in a snarl as the wind caught in his hair, spinning out tendrils of gold in its grasp. 'Believe me, I don't want to be stuck here, least of all with you!'

'You're hardly pleasant company yourself, Fullmetal.' His words were clipped and tight, and something pathetic curled in Ed's chest as Mustang's eyes narrowed angrily at him. Roy shook his head sharply before he spoke again. 'I didn't mean to question your ability to fight. I know Maes as well as he knows me, and he would not ask you to do this simply because it was convenient. Havoc said it loud and clear, Hughes trusts you, and that's not something he does lightly. Why does he believe that, of everyone in my command, you will make sure I get through this alive?'

Ed swallowed tightly as his anger twisted into butterflies in his stomach. Maes' words still rang loud and clear in his mind, as embarrassing as the moment he had first spoken them.

'I know how you feel about him, Ed. It's as plain as day to anyone who's really looking for the signs. I've seen how you take care of the people you love; I can trust you to make sure that, no matter what stupid ideas get into his head, he survives all this. Don't let me down.'

He had choked in disbelief at Hughes' assessment. “Love” and “Mustang” just didn't belong in the same sphere in Ed's head. He'd tried to explain that whatever Maes thought he was seeing it was just about hormones, just about sex, but Hughes had simply taken in the dark, thudding blush on Ed's face, given a mysterious little smile and waved him away.

'Haven't got a fucking clue,' he managed to say, his tongue feeling thick and clumsy around the lie as he turned away again, desperate to put some distance between them. Mustang was too perceptive for his own good, and Ed felt vulnerable enough as it was without being pinned by that carefully considering gaze. He was too tired and beaten to even attempt to hide his feelings, and the last thing he needed was for Mustang to read them so easily from his features.

Pushing the door to the house open, he left Roy to follow as he surveyed the tiny domain. Straight ahead of the front door, the stairs climbed to the upper floor. To the left was a kitchen, and to the right was a small living room with an open hearth, an armchair and a sofa.

Turning towards the left, Ed examined the kitchen carefully, trying to familiarize himself with this new environment. Quarry tiles covered the floor, scrubbed clean and unmarred by any cracks or breaks. The cupboards and surfaces were old but presentable, and Ed noticed that the windows were fitted with black-out shutters, probably one of Hughes' precautions.

Two chairs were tucked neatly under a solid, functional table which was stacked high with paperwork. The piles slumped a little, but nothing looked as if it was in imminent risk of falling, so Ed chose to ignore it. With any luck it would keep Mustang so busy that he would not notice Ed's weird behaviour.

Brennan was unpacking what looked like almost a month's supply of food into the cupboard. He offered Ed a gentle smile that seemed at odds with his burly physique and gestured with his head towards the back door. 'Pierce is checking the guns and ammunition you were supplied with. It looks like someone knew what they were doing when they kitted you out.'

Ed snorted, thinking of Hawkeye's rigorous attention to anything with a trigger. 'Yeah, unfortunately she neglected to remember that I don't know how to use a gun.'

Brennan looked alarmed at that, raising an eyebrow in surprise. 'Not at all?' His gaze took on a more penetrating quality, and Ed frowned defensively as he asked, 'How old are you, sir?'

'Eighteen,' He grimaced at the man's obvious surprise and added with a snarl, 'and don't call me sir. It's “Ed”.'

With a quick nod of understanding Brennan turned back to the shelves, his tone open and friendly as he carried on. 'I shouldn't have been surprised. Most alchemists will use arrays first and guns second.' He hesitated as if struck by another concern. 'Is the general trained in firearms?'

'Yes.' Mustang's voice was gentle but unexpected, and Ed jumped in surprise. He had not even heard the man approach. 'I was on the front-line in Ishbal, and I re-certified my proficiency a couple of months ago.' He glanced at Ed, a frown on his face. 'We're going to have to give you some training. Usually you wouldn't be allowed a gun fir a while yet, but these are hardly normal circumstances.'

'Aren't you forgetting something?' Ed asked with a shake of his head. 'Even if I wanted to learn how to use a gun, which I don't, my automail won't fit around a trigger and my left arm is fucked. I can hardly lift it, let alone aim at anything.' He shifted his weight uncomfortably before meeting Mustang's eyes. 'I've done fine with my alchemy so far. It shouldn't be a problem.'

Roy leaned against the door-frame, bowing his head before glancing out of the window. 'We need to think of some alternative for you to use, Ed. I know your alchemy has never failed you, but you never know when you might be in a situation where it can't be used.' He scrubbed a hand over his eyes, his voice rough with tiredness as he added, 'I'll talk to Pierce about it as soon as I get the chance.'

'It can wait,' Ed replied gruffly. 'You need more than a few hours of sleep in the back of a car.' He frowned as Roy glanced out of the window at the sun-strewn ground. 'It's another six hours until it gets dark, Mustang. I don't think you can wait that long to get some rest.'

'I can't go to sleep yet. There's too much to do.'

'Fine.' Ed shrugged. 'Do what you want, but I'm going to bed.'

'Me and Pierce can finish stocking the cupboards, sir, so you can get a bit of sleep. We're staying in one of the outbuildings.' Brennan gestured out of the window to a smaller stone shed. It stood roughly twenty paces from the back door, and, beyond it, there was an old, sturdy water-tower. 'We'll maintain a lookout from the tower at all times and rest in shifts. We'll only enter the house if there's a threat or if there's another pressing reason for our presence. Your security is our only concern.'

He sounded like he was reciting that last part from a training manual, and Ed realised that was probably the case. They weren't here as friends or colleagues, but as guards. All that mattered was that they did their job.

'Thank you,' Mustang murmured, his tense shoulders relaxing in defeat. 'I'll get the lay of the land when I wake up, in case we need to make a quick escape at any point. As much as I trust your training and abilities, I don't want to rely solely on you for my protection.'

'Of course, sir.'

Ed turned away, leaving the two older men in quiet conversation as he traipsed heavy-footed up the stairs, intent on the idea of sleep. Mustang would probably follow when he'd finally satisfied himself that he was probably safer here than anywhere else in Amestris, but Ed wasn't about to hang around and wait for him to make up his mind.

At the top were two doors, mirroring the layout of the lower floor, and he nudged the left open and blinked at the world of stately porcelain beyond its threshold. Bathroom. A warm trickle of relief ran through him as he thought of a long hot shower. He stank of the acidic, medical smell of hospitals and old blood, and the need to be clean weighed heavily against the thick, drugging urge to rest.

Eventually the latter won out, and he turned around to reach for the other door. A little way from its surface, his hand hesitated, frozen still as his slow mind realised the truth.

There was only one bedroom.

He muttered a disbelieving curse. Wasn't it bad enough that he had to share this tiny little house with Mustang? Now he'd have to sleep in the same room as him too? It wasn't that he was unused to sharing. Most of his life he'd drifted off to the little sounds of Al's snores or the creaks of his armour, but this was different.

Mustang was the focal point of most of Ed's dreams these days. What if Ed talked in his sleep? What if he woke up impossibly horny and really needing some privacy? It had been bad enough being in a dorm with Al, when Ed had to sprint for the bathroom before his brother noticed what was going on. Since they had got the apartment it had been bliss to have the fractional separation of different bedrooms. The thought of exposing the full extent of his want for Mustang to Al was embarrassing enough, but for Roy to realise the truth of it? Ed grimaced. He'd never live it down.

Yet, as he thought of all the reasons he should be wary of sharing a room with Roy, curiosity began to glimmer in his mind. Glimpses of Roy's vulnerability over the past few days had left Ed wanting to know more. Mustang was no longer just a physical presence that made Ed's flesh sing with need; he was a person, human and real, and Ed could admit, in the privacy of his own head, that he was fascinated by those new depths.

What would he look like asleep, not soaked in the shallows of slumber, tense and uncomfortable, but lost on its seas? Would he be relaxed and open, or would he sleep like a man who couldn't find any peace, even when his eyes were closed? Did he sprawl across the mattress or huddle up to stay warm?

The answers shouldn't matter, Ed knew that. He shouldn't even care, because painful, stomach-clenching lust didn't need to know the little details. All it cared about was another body, hot and hard and there. Sometimes even knowing the other person's name did not matter so much as the feel of their skin, but that wasn't enough for Ed. He didn't need to know the tiny facets and flaws of Mustang's life, but the desire to find out anyway was a warm, hazy feeling in his chest, curling between his ribs and encasing his beating heart.

Maybe it wouldn't be so bad. If he claimed the bed closest to the door then at least the dash to the bathroom was a short one. Besides, it wasn't like there was anywhere else to sleep. With a sigh of resignation, Ed pushed open the door, peering in cautiously. A couple of boxes of clothes had already been placed by the empty fireplace by Pierce or Brennan, but Ed paid them no attention. He was too focused on the bed.

There was only one, and it could barely be considered a double. There was just about enough room for two people to lie side by side, but there would not be any space left around the edges. A married couple who cared about each other very deeply and had no concept of personal space could probably sleep in it comfortably, but him and Mustang?

A blush slammed into his face, and he dragged in a hasty, desperate breath as he tried to stop that train of thought dead in its tracks. It was bad enough to control himself when he was standing on the other side of a desk from the smug git. There was no way in hell that Mustang would fail to notice the effect that he had on Ed's body if they were sharing that – that – bed didn't even cover it. It was more like a nest, somewhere safe and warm and intimate, and there was no fucking way... .

'Is there a reason you're just standing there, Fullmetal?'

It had to be Ed's frame of mind that made that question into a purr, but his stomach clenched all the same, and he blinked up at Mustang as his heart thrummed in his throat. He was standing close enough for Ed to pick up the spicy scent of his skin, and he took half a step back only to feel the pillar of the door frame dig into his shoulder blades.

His voice wanted to squeak in his throat, but he forced the sound back and eventually managed to snap, 'You're sleeping on the couch. There's no way I'm sharing with you.' It was a challenge not to let a panicky edge bleed into his words, and he huffed out a tight sigh as Roy looked past him into the room.

Mustang had spent years practising how to hide his emotions, but Ed had got used to looking for the tiny flickers in his expression. Still, that didn't mean he understood the faint lift of Roy's eyebrow or the strange glimmer of something in his eyes, and when he turned back to face Ed fully the mask was back in place.

'It's just a bed, Fullmetal,' The smirk was fractional, but it set Ed's teeth on edge all the same. 'I think I can manage to keep my hands to myself. If you have an issue with sharing then I suggest you take the couch. I'll be sleeping here.'

Ed glared, clenching his jaw stubbornly as he shot a glare at the lone bed before transferring it back to Mustang. 'I'm recovering from an injury,' he pointed out. 'A decent person would let me sleep in a comfortable bed.'

'I'm not stopping you,' Mustang replied, slipping past him and moving into the room, flicking open the buttons of his shirt as he went. 'I'm just not letting you have it all to yourself. It's your choice.'

He wandered around the far side of the bed, and Ed could see a pale stretch of muscled chest framed by the cotton. There wasn't any choice in it. If he lay down next to Mustang he wouldn't get any sleep. He'd spend the whole time trying desperately not to reach out and touch, not to stroke and explore and taste and give in and throw himself on Roy's judgement: acceptance or rejection.

No. Mustang owned too much of him already, and maybe Ed couldn't stop himself from wanting what he did, but he could make sure he wasn't in a position to do something about it.

'Bastard,' he snapped, stomping in to grab a blanket and pillow before beating a hasty retreat and calling over his shoulder, 'I hope you have nightmares!'

'Sweet dreams, Fullmetal.'

Ed stamped down the stairs, muttering obscenities as he went. A quick look in the kitchen told him that the house was deserted, and he dumped the bedding in a heap on the sofa before glaring at it critically. It was cabbage green and threadbare, but he had slept on worse - trains, hard earth under the stars, piles of straw that made him sneeze – and only suffered being stiff and sore in the morning.

He shrugged out of his jacket, easing it off his left arm before letting it fall to the floor. His trousers came next until he was wearing only a t-shirt and his boxers. Making a cocoon out of the blanket didn't take long, and he beat the pillow into submission with his automail fist before letting his head flump back onto it.

Sleep should have swamped him almost immediately, but it stayed elusively out of reach. Every time he shut his eyes something would dig into his back or side, and he found himself tossing and turning as he tried to find a comfortable position. His knees were curled up to fit his feet on the couch and, no matter where he put his head, his neck was at an awkward angle.

Eventually he gave up, scowling hatefully at the white ceiling. It felt like the cushions underneath his back were filled with nails, and the fabric covering the couch was scratchy and irritating. Of course, he could transmute it into a bed, but he'd tried that in the past and, although the shape might change, the materials didn't. Even if it looked like a bed, it would still itch and poke and groan alarmingly every time he breathed. It would be easier to use alchemy to make the double into two very narrow beds, but he'd still need extra wood for the additional legs, and it wasn't like there were many trees around here.

Hughes had probably done it deliberately, because he was an interfering bastard who liked to meddle in other people's lives. He'd probably thought that this whole thing would be a good idea, thought that Ed would let slip how he felt and Mustang would then laugh or smirk or otherwise reject him and then it would all be over and it wouldn't be an issue any more.

Except that Hughes wasn't like that. He was not capable of being cruel or heartless. If he thought Ed was setting himself up for a fall he would have found some way to warn him about it. Instead he'd talked about love at the hospital as if it was the most natural thing in the world - like the idea of Ed and Roy together was totally normal and acceptable to him, something he encouraged, and why would he do that? Did he know something Ed didn't?

“I think I can manage to keep my hands to myself.”

The memory of Mustang's voice murmured in Ed's ear, and he clenched his jaw tight. He hadn't thought anything of it when he'd first said it, but now... . Was he being sarcastic, questioning why he would ever want to touch Ed with his scars and automail and flaws, or had it been something more genuine, as if Roy reaching out for him was actually a valid concern? Was that what Hughes was hinting at, that Mustang might feel something more than tolerance towards Ed?

His automail clicked as he clenched his hand into a fist, and he pressed the heel of his palm to his eye as his thoughts chased one another in dizzying circles. In the end all he knew for certain was how he felt, and if he didn't dig up the balls and just ask then he would never know whether Mustang wanted him or not. The bastard was never going to come straight out and say anything one way or the other, and it wasn't like the looks he gave Ed were easy to read.

Restlessly, he turned on his side, yelping a curse and jerking upright when something jabbed into the sore flesh along his ribs. The pain sparkled along his nerves, bright and vivid as he drew in a ragged breath. One thing was for sure: He was not going to get any sleep on this mockery of a couch. That left him with two options, the floor or... .

He glanced towards the door, his body panging longingly for the softness of a real mattress as his pride whined in his chest. Going back to the bedroom was like admitting defeat and, even though he was achingly tired, his mouth still went dry at the thought of sleeping in the same bed as Roy.

After dithering for what felt like hours, he grabbed the blankets and pillow up with a scowl. Mustang was going to be intolerably smug about this, and the very thought of his knowing look was enough to make hairs prickle on the back of Ed's neck.

Climbing the stairs one by one, he didn't notice that the way was blocked until he almost walked straight into Mustang's bare chest. One hand shot out, grabbing his right shoulder to prevent him from losing his balance as he stumbled back a little in surprise. 'What're you -?' he stammered, feeling stupidly guilty for being caught returning to the bedroom.

Mustang was only wearing a pair of pyjama pants. They were slung low around his hips, and a track of dark hair led down the flat plane of his stomach, disappearing temptingly under the fabric 'You can have the bed if you want,' Roy said, and Ed jerked his gaze hastily back up to his face. 'You're right. You're still healing and you probably need it more than I do. I'll take the couch.'

Ed hesitated, giving serious consideration to letting Mustang find out for himself how uncomfortable the sofa was. With an irritated sound he decided against it. 'You won't get any sleep,' he said bluntly, adding in a mutter. 'It's too small for me, so it'll be even worse for you.' Quickly, because he could actually see some kind of short joke forming in Roy's mind he added, 'We can share, but you'd better not snore, Mustang, and stay on your side. And don't hog the blankets.'

'Anything else?'

'Just get out of the way,' Ed said tiredly, waiting for him to step back and wave him past before he took the last few steps and padded into the bedroom. The blackout shutters were closed, blocking out the afternoon sun, but it was still possible to see the hulking shape of the bed. The one remaining pillow was dented, resting on the side closest to the door, and Ed forced himself not to hesitate as he climbed in on the cool half of the mattress.

He turned his back, closing his eyes tight as the blankets stirred around him and Mustang got in next to him. Ed could feel the heat radiating off of Roy's skin, and he had to curl his fingers around the edge of the bed to stop himself from pressing pathetically against all that warmth.

Gradually, his muscles began to unwind, and his aching side quietened, dulled by the drowsiness that lapped over him in waves. It should have felt intimidating, lying that close to anyone who wasn't Al, but instead it gave him a strange feeling of security that he hadn't realised he needed.

As he hovered on the very edge of consciousness, he felt the blankets shift higher around his shoulders, as if someone was pulling them up to make sure that he didn't get cold. It was enough to ease the last twists of tension from his shoulders, and a small sigh escaped him as he nuzzled deeper into the folds and let himself begin to drift.

'Sleep well, Ed.'

He almost didn't hear Mustang's rough whisper over the tempting call of sleep, and he struggled to lift his heavy eyelids and marshal some kind of coherent response. When he finally found the words they felt natural on his tongue and brushed comfortably past his lips, as if he had said them every night for months.

'Night, Roy.'

Chapter Text

The first thing Roy felt when he awoke was a warm, comfortable weight pressed along his side. It was a pleasant presence, and a faint smile curved his lips as he nuzzled closer. As a rule he did not tend to sleep with his lovers; it gave them the wrong idea. Staying the night suggested the possibility of staying forever, and Roy made sure never to lead anyone on. He only stayed overnight if commitment was a possibility.

Instinctively, he tightened his arm around his companion's waist, letting out a faint, drowsy sigh as he tried to remember the previous night. Memory floundered towards the surface of his mind, and he opened his eyes blearily, gazing blankly at the oppressive darkness all around him. This was the safe-house, and it wasn't a lover lying next to him. It was Ed.

Now that his brain was waking up, he could feel the weight of the automail leg resting against his, and the point of Ed's nose brushing the side of his throat. His left hand was curled on Roy's chest, right over his heart, and tendrils of hair tickled his bare skin.

So much for keeping to their respective sides of the bed.

He would have liked to blame their position entirely on Fullmetal, to label him as a clingy sleeper and have done with it, but Roy was painfully aware that his arms were wrapped around Ed's lithe body, holding him close and safe. Not that Ed was submissively lying next to him; his leg was draped over Roy's, pinning him territorially in place.

It was surprisingly comfortable, neither awkward nor cramped, although Roy was precipitously close to falling off of the bed. Shifting away from the edge a little, he held his breath as Ed stirred and made a sleepy noise. God, if he woke up now, Roy wouldn't have to worry about assassins. Ed would kill him out of embarrassed fury. He needed to disentangle himself before Ed opened his eyes or he was done for, but Roy found that he was reluctant to let go.

Waking up to find Ed in his arms did not feel wrong – it felt natural, but this familiarity was not something he was allowed to have. He could not get used to Ed being such a major part of his life. Living together was temporary, and when it was over he wanted to feel relief that Ed was no longer in his personal space, not loss at his absence.

Roy forced himself to loosen his grasp and gently nudge Ed away, an excuse ready on the tip of his tongue in case those yellow eyes snapped open in the darkness. When he could finally move both of his arms, he reached out for the bedside lamp, groping across the unfamiliar furniture until he found the switch. It flickered to life, sending soft, mellow light spilling up the walls and chasing the night back beyond the black-out shutters.

Propping himself up on his elbows, he looked down at the young man next to him. The dark spikes of his lashes fanned across his cheekbones, and his fingers knotted in the blankets, clutching them close. His hair had come completely free of its band and spilled over his shoulder in a thick, touchable swathe

Roy licked his lips as something warm fluttered in his chest and flared in the pit of his stomach. The idea of leaning forward, of brushing Ed's hair aside and kissing him awake as he stroked his fingertips across sleep-warm skin, was almost overwhelming. It locked Roy's breath in his throat and made his muscles tense with the effort of holding back.

This was why sharing space with Ed was dangerous. Back in Central, Roy had made sure that he never had any real opportunity to reach for him, but now all that distance was gone. If he followed his instincts would Ed fight him, or would he respond in kind, meeting his caresses with pleasure? At times there was already something like want in Ed's gaze, and Roy was not sure that he could restrain himself if Ed gave him any more overt sign of his potential attraction.

Quickly, Roy twitched the blankets aside, shuffling off of the mattress and gasping as the cold air danced across his chest. It was enough to bank the fledgling heat of desire in his groin, and he pinched the bridge of his nose as he tried to regain his composure. He needed space. If he could not resist temptation then he had to remove himself from its presence at every opportunity - although in this tiny house that was easier said than done.

A shiver danced along Roy's arms, and he moved quietly over to the fireside, picking up the box of clothes meant for him. Central still hung on to the last days of autumn but, out here, winter hovered in the air. None of the fires in the house were lit and, while there was hot water, there were no radiators to give the place any heat. At least whoever had put together the supplies seemed to have the sense to give him winter clothes.

Ed slept on, sheltered from the nip in the air by the nest of blankets, and Roy allowed himself a faint, wistful smile at the sight before he slipped out of the door and entered the bathroom. Rummaging through the box, he found shampoo and soap, as well as a razor. With a flick of his wrist he turned on the shower, waiting a few moments before stripping out of his pyjamas and stepping under the spray. Hopefully Ed was a heavy sleeper and he wouldn't wake up at the splash of water or the clank of the pipes.

Roy shut his eyes, letting the hot cascade sluice around him as his mind gravitated back to the blonde in the bed next door. He spent several minutes listing all of the reasons why he should not let their relationship develop into anything beyond professional and platonic. Ed's age, military fraternisation rules, their disparity in rank – none of those issues had changed. It would be too hard to stop a personal bond from bleeding into their professional lives; it would be too easy for others to say that he had taken advantage of Ed or abused his power or accuse him of favouritism. Even if they did nothing more than have sex, just once, it would still affect the way they interacted with each other for the rest of their lives. Neither of them would ever forget what they had been to each other. There would be no going back.

Something twisted beneath his ribs, and Roy huffed out an irritated breath as he reached for the shampoo, ignoring the skip and skim of bubbles down his spine as he lathered his hair. About a year ago he had never thought twice about the rules on military relationships. They existed for a reason and he had made sure never to give serious consideration to any of his fellow soldiers. None of them were worth the risk they presented to all of his ambitions.

Becoming Fuhrer meant sacrificing more than just his spare time. It was a long, hard, tortuous slog, consuming night and day. It was a price he had been willing to pay, but then he had noticed the man that Ed was becoming. For the first time in over a decade, Roy had stopped to think about his goals and all he had to deprive himself of in order to reach the top.

One evening at the office, when he was finishing off paperwork to escape Hawkeye's wrath, he had picked up the thick tome of military procedures and rulings and actually read, word by word and with great care, the restrictions on fraternisation. He had expected to find a loophole, some little chink he could use, but there was nothing. The wording was precise and faultless. If discovered conducting a personal relationship with a subordinate, a commanding officer would be dishonourably discharged from the Amestrian army.

That left three viable options: get Ed out of the military, start a relationship and hide it from everyone, or do nothing.

Roy shut his eyes, letting water splash in his face. The third choice was the safest, and back in Central he had taken it and ignored the gentle sough of regret. At that time the army had been a cornerstone in his foundations, something he thought he understood. He had never really believed he would find himself in this situation: betrayed and on the run.

Swiping his hands over his face, he took a deep breath of the steam swirled air and scowled at the far wall. The military had broken the rules when it had turned against his own men, so why should he obey the dictates on fraternisation? He could just go back to the bed and take Ed in his arms. It could be the start of something – incredible or disastrous, it didn't even matter, because at least it would be better than this stupid stalemate of caged emotions.

'Like it's that easy,' Roy muttered to himself, turning off the shower and getting out. His toes curled against the cold tiled floor as he reached for a towel. There was more to this than the army's procedures; other issues muddied the waters further and left him feeling torn. In a way he would have preferred to be caught up in some kind of action, because at least then he would not have time to think. Here, in the safe-house, there was nothing else to do - except for his endless paperwork and he was putting that off for as long as possible.

Rubbing himself dry, Roy swiped mist from the mirror and made quick work of shaving before getting dressed. He suspected that he was fixating on Ed because, for all its associated desires and fears, it was easier to consider the problems in his personal life than the tempest in his professional existence. Far more pleasant to dally in daydreams of what could be than face up to the harsh reality: he didn't have Ed or the army to call his own.

Spreading the towel out to dry, he opened the window a fraction to circulate the humid air before grabbing the box of clothes and stepping back towards the bedroom. A tangled heap of blankets lay on the mattress, but there was no one curled up in their depths. The shutters had been opened, and Roy could see the first pink streaks of dawn on the horizon.

They had managed to sleep the night away, which was not a surprise. Exhaustion had drugged them both, pushing sleep towards the top of their hierarchy of needs at the expense of everything else. Food was a distant memory. When had they last eaten? An apple and a slice of bread yesterday morning? Time had blended itself into a meaningless cacophony of events, and it was almost impossible to work out how many days had passed since Ed was shot on the rooftop. Three? Four? More than that?

Roy put the box at the foot of the bed and reached for his gloves, tugging them on and rasping his fingertips together absently before turning towards the stairs. He could smell coffee and frying bacon, and his stomach roared in appreciation at the aromas that drifted out from the kitchen. Quietly, he moved downstairs and peered around the door, arching an eyebrow at Ed's turned back.

He was wearing the black vest he had slept in, and his leather pants were slung carelessly around his slim hips. A ragged ponytail kept his hair out of his face, but it was a sinfully rumpled mess. That and bare feet, one warm flesh and the other startling silver, gave Ed the appearance of someone who had done far more than just sleep in that bed, and a thrill raced through Roy's body at the mental image.

A cup of coffee was clutched in his automail hand and he took a sip every few seconds, as if it was as essential as breathing. The frying pan in front of him was spitting furiously, but Ed seemed not to care as he flipped pieces of bacon. Two massive slices of buttered bread were spread on a plate at his side, and Roy watched him shovel six rashers into the sandwich before closing it and taking a huge bite.

Ed turned towards the table, noticing Roy's presence for the first time and frowning defensively, making a “what?” noise around his mouthful.

Roy paused, clearing his throat to remove the husk from his voice before saying, 'I'm wondering if whoever packed the food remembered how much you eat.' He smirked as he added, 'Still, I suppose growing boys need their energy. Did you save any for me?'

'Fuck off, Mustang,' Ed growled after swallowing. 'Not your cook. Make your own breakfast.' His glare ebbed slightly as he gestured in the direction of sink. 'There's enough coffee for you, though.'

The dented metal pot steamed innocently by the sink, and Roy hesitated before reaching for it and pouring himself a cup. From most people it wouldn't be a particularly gracious offer but, after the petty squabble in the car over Ed drinking all the coffee, it seemed like a step in the right direction.

'Thank you.'

Ed grunted in response, too busy eating for any kind form of polite conversation, and Roy busied himself at the stove. His stomach groaned angrily, but he forced himself to be patient as he waited for the eggs to fry and the bacon to curl. Getting food poisoning at this stage would be nothing short of stupid and embarrassing, and Ed would bitch endlessly about having to look after him.

Roy was just putting food on his plate when Ed got up from the chair by the table, empty plate and mug in hand. 'You haven't used all the hot water have you?' he demanded roughly. 'You were in the shower long enough.'

'No, there's plenty left,' He sighed as Ed dumped his crockery in the sink, 'and I'm not a maid, Fullmetal. Do your washing up.'

'Later,' Ed called over his shoulder as he headed for the stairs. His pace was stronger and more confident than yesterday, but he still took the steps slowly, like a man three times his age. Roy listened to his receding footfalls, waiting until he heard the bathroom door close before shaking his head and settling at the table.

Ed had cleared a tiny space amidst the files for his mug, and Roy moved a couple of stacks to the floor so that he had room to put his plate down. He ate without pause, filling his stomach as his thoughts focused hard and fast on everything that needed to be done.

It was not that he didn't trust Brennan and Pierce, but he was not about to become complacent about his and Ed's safety. A safe-house was not the same as a stronghold, and he needed to know how well this place could be defended. If nothing else he had to be sure of more than one escape route. Thinking of every possible situation was Hughes' job, but Roy had not survived so long in the military without learning a few tricks himself. Today he would work out what to do about Ed's inability to fire a gun and get to know the landscape better. Somewhere there were flaws he could use to his advantage.

By the time the pipes had stopped groaning and the sibilant hiss of water had died away, Roy had finished his breakfast and was sorting the files into various piles, including one to accidentally misplace at the earliest opportunity. Eventually he became aware of a presence in the doorway, and he glanced up to see Ed hovering on the threshold.

He was bare-chested, and his hair fell in a wet tangle down his back, leaving trails of glassy water across his shoulders. It was a breath-taking sight, but the flicker of desire that arced along Roy's veins ebbed at the sight of the dense, storm-cloud bruise that marred Ed's left hand side. Blacks, blues and purples dappled their way over his ribs, and Roy gave an involuntary wince of sympathy. Ed must have been in constant pain, but he was not letting any of it show on his expression. Instead he just gave an irritated snort and stepped into the room, pitching the clean t-shirt in his hand onto the table.

'There should be some bandages somewhere among all this stuff.' He gestured to the supplies they had yet to unpack. 'The doctor said I need to change it every day.' Ed reached for one of the boxes, rummaging through its contents as Roy stared at the shift and ripple of the muscles in his back and shoulders. It was a gentle reassurance that Ed was still alive and strong, despite the hole the gunman had put in his side. It could have been so different.

'Thank you.'

Ed paused, looking up at him in surprise. 'For what?'

'For stopping the soldier on the roof,' Roy shifted uncomfortably. Last time he had expressed his gratitude Ed had still been in hospital and Roy had been trying not to shout at him for his stupidity. 'That bullet would have ended up in my head if you hadn't got in the way.'

'No it wouldn't,' Ed said dismissively, rolling his eyes as Roy opened his mouth to argue. 'The shot meant for you hit nothing but sky, and the gun was smashed to bits when the bastard dropped it. He got me with a pistol. Hawkeye said it was low calibre, probably meant for killing himself with if he fucked up.' He looked back at the box, adding flatly, 'If he had fired the gun he tried to use on you at me, I'd be dead. The bullet would probably have gone straight through.'

Roy reached over Ed's shoulder, pulling out a bandage and a sterile dressing pad. 'You still saved my life.' He smothered a smile as he noticed that Ed had let his hair fall to shield his face. It didn't hide the blush that dusted his cheeks, or the uncomfortable shift of his shoulder as he shrugged.

'Fine. You're welcome,' Ed said roughly, lifting his chin and glaring defiantly as if challenging Roy to make an issue of his embarrassment. 'Now can you stop mentioning it? It wasn't like I was being heroic or noble or anything.'

'Some people would say otherwise,' Roy pointed out gently before adding, 'If nothing else it was brave, Ed. Most people wouldn't have done what you did.' He put the bandage and dressing down on the table, stripping off his gloves and washing his hands in the kitchen sink before removing the dressing pad from the sterile container.

Ed watched him doubtfully, crossing his arms as Roy approached. 'What are you doing?'

'You're not going to be able to do this yourself, are you?' he asked quietly, watching the flicker of emotions across Ed's face. It took a few seconds for Ed to sigh and nod in reluctant acceptance of a point well made. If it had been lower down, or a flesh wound to his leg he could probably have managed to dress it himself, but his left arm was probably still too sore to lift properly, and the automail might not be dexterous enough to unravel the bandage. 'Just stay still, I'll be gentle.'

He lifted Ed's arm a little, feeling his bicep clench steel-hard beneath his skin and hearing a tight, pained breath hiss between Ed's teeth. 'Can you hold that there for a minute? I won't take long.'

When Ed nodded, tight-lipped and silent, Roy took a good look at the wound itself. It was clear of blood and fluid, and it looked like Ed had managed to dab it clean. There were a couple of burn blisters from the cauterisation, and the edges of the wound were blackened. Roy frowned, hoping that was normal. Havoc and Falman both had basic medic training, but Roy's was limited to the absolute essentials.

He brushed a feather-light touch to Ed's flesh, checking for unnatural heat. It didn't look infected, so he gently pressed the dressing pad over it and held it in place with one hand while grabbing the bandage with the other. At least this he was good at. He'd bandaged his own wounds and the injuries of others enough times, although less so in recent years. There was a knack to holding the dressing in place and unwinding the bandage at the same time, and he forced himself to concentrate on what he was doing.

Not that it was easy. He was very aware of Ed's warmth and the scent of fresh water and shampoo on his skin. Roy could see the skittish throb of Ed's pulse in the hollow of his neck and feel the tickle of his slightly uneven breaths against the skin of his throat. It was an undeniably erotic sensation, and he watched a droplet of water curve across one of the scars around the automail and trickle down Ed's collarbone, fighting against the fantasy of licking it from Ed's skin. They were only a few inches apart, and Roy could feel the ceaseless tug of attraction as if he were a compass being pulled towards north, stronger and more insistent than before.

Glancing down at Ed, Roy realised he wasn't alone in the way he felt. A rapid pulse and breathing could be associated with pain as well as other things, but there was nothing tortured about the faint pink tinge to Ed's cheeks. It was softer than his earlier embarrassment and, even though he was staring fixedly to the right and not meeting Roy's gaze, he could see that Ed's eyes were dark, his pupils pools of black rimmed with twin bands of bronze.

Roy's hands shook, and he jerked his head down to stare at the ribbon of white, trying to concentrate on the task at hand and ignore the beat of need that throbbed through him as he clawed for his restraint. The unfairness of it all stuck in his throat and he turned away, clenching his jaw as he reached for a safety pin.

With almost anyone else mutual attraction would be the only urging that he needed but, even if it weren't for all the social and military rules that stood in their way, there was still the undeniable situation that they had found themselves in. Both of their lives were at risk, and nothing meaningful could be built on a foundation of survival instinct. There was too much adrenaline, too much fear – it made people behave differently than normal, and the thought of Ed hating him for this when they got back to Central turned Roy's stomach. He couldn't be someone that Ed loathed. Not again. He had spent too many years being the focus of all Ed's youthful anger, and he did not want to go back to that.

Skimming his hand underneath the bandage to stop himself from jabbing Ed with the pin, he ignored Ed's sharply indrawn breath and the tremor that rippled over his skin. With perfunctory movements he fastened the cloth strip in place and took a hasty step back, clearing his throat before asking. 'Is that all right? Not too tight?'

'It's fine, thanks.' Ed's voice was rough and quiet, and when he glanced back at Roy there was a blatant edge of hunger in his eyes. A tiny frown wrinkled his brow as if he was trying to understand Roy's contradictory behaviour, and his lips parted as if he had something to say.

Roy tensed, not knowing what to expect. There was no way Ed could have not noticed Roy's desire. Was he going to call him out on it, demand answers? Was he going to force Roy to explain all the reasons that giving in to what they both felt was a bad idea? God, he hoped not. Ed could convince him that all his reservations were meaningless without saying a word. If he kissed him... Right now if he just touched him, his control would shatter apart.

No words came. Ed just let out a shaky breath and cocked his head to one side, his lips curving in a promising smile that made Roy feel light-headed. 'You're good at that,' he murmured, shifting his weight back. It was a fractional distance, but it was enough to let Roy breathe again. 'Bandaging, I mean. Better than the nurse, anyway.'

'I've had practice, and considering how every nurse I've ever met complains about how bad a patient you are, you were well-behaved.'

'Maybe I just never had the right doctor.'

Roy noticed the flash of Ed's grin before the younger man reached for his t-shirt and pulled it over his head, and he smiled in response. It was rare to see Ed happy, and practically unheard of for that smile to be directed at him. Normally he was on the receiving end of a scowl at best, not this: Admiration? Approval? Acceptance?

Hastily, Roy looked at the table, scowling at the scarred wooden surface. Perhaps he should have slept on the couch last night, regardless of how uncomfortable it had been. Ever since waking up he had been completely unable to get Ed out of his head, and the clash of need and duty were making his stomach writhe.

It took everything he had to clamp down on his desire. He needed a clear head, now more than ever. If it had just been his safety at stake he might have thrown caution to the wind, but Ed was also at risk. All it would take was one brief loss of concentration – a few short minutes where they forgot about everything but each other – to give the killers the chance they might be looking for.

Forcefully he pushed his need away, staring at the table as his heart stuttered and sank. The surface was still littered with the chaos of their hastily compiled supplies, and he picked up a brown tube that rattled in his hand. 'Didn't the doctor say you were meant to take these?'

If Ed noticed the ungainly shift of conversation to safer territory, he didn't comment. Instead he just gave Roy an unreadable look and shook his head. 'It doesn't hurt that much.' At Roy's disbelieving expression, he shrugged. 'It's more important that I'm alert and I know what's going on. Those will make me worse than helpless. I might not ache any more, but even if I'm awake I'll be spaced out.'

'I can take care of you if I have to,' Roy pointed out, rattling the tablets thoughtfully before putting them back down, 'but you're right. If you can manage without them then it's probably better. If we're discovered, I need you able to run away.'

'You think we will be?' Ed's question was honestly curious, and Roy looked up to see him staring thoughtfully at the water tower. 'They might not even know we're out of the city.'

'They'll work it out soon enough,' Roy said, his voice heavy with certainty. 'Whoever's doing this is not going to give up easily. As soon as they realise we're no longer in Central, they'll widen their search.'

'But why would they look here? For all you know we'll never be found.' Ed pulled out a chair, sitting on it before propping his boots on the table. 'That's why Hughes put us here, isn't it?'

He nodded, trying to find a way to vocalise his fears. It was tempting not to talk about them, to keep quiet and let them fester, but he and Ed needed to work together. For that, they both needed to be on the same page. Secrets from one another now could be the death of them.

'It would be very easy for someone to target anyone under my command. The army is not above using torture to get the information they need, and if the Fuhrer is involved in this plan then they won't even need to be secretive about it,' he explained carefully. 'They could barge into Maes' home and hold a gun to Elysia's head and no one would try to stop them.'

'Hughes would tell them where we are.' It was not a question, and there was no trace of judgement in Ed's voice. He knew what the love of family meant, and Roy was glad that he was not horrified at the thought of Hughes giving up their location to protect his wife and daughter. That was something neither of them would blame him for.

'He'll have covered his tracks and made sure that no one untrustworthy knows about his involvement in our escape, but if these people are as systematic and ruthless as they seem, then they'll probably begin some kind of offensive action. I just hope that the others have the sense to tell them the truth.'

Ed crossed his arms, his expression speaking loud and clear about Roy's foolishness. 'They won't turn you in. Hawkeye and that lot are loyal beyond reason. They might give false information, but I doubt they'll give you up to save themselves.'

'But to save one another they might,' Roy replied, trying not to let desperation creep into his voice. 'Their loyalty isn't just to me, it's to everyone else in the office, and I don't want them suffering on my behalf. They know me well enough by now to realise that I won't go down easily if I'm found.'

He moved towards the window, staring out across the fields. 'I don't think it's a case of if we'll be discovered. It's a case of when.' He looked over his shoulder at Ed, feeling the tight clasp of fear around his heart. As grateful as he was for Ed's presence, Roy knew he would give anything to see Ed safely out of the military's reach. Instead he was in the whole mess up to his neck. 'I'd feel better if you could shoot a gun. At least then you could defend yourself.'

The clap and crackle of alchemy took him by surprise, making him flinch as the walls flickered with brief blue light. He had only seen Ed transmute his automail arm into a blade twice before, and he had never had the opportunity to take a good look at it. Definitely not just for show, it jutted a long way beyond Ed's clenched fist, wickedly sharp. There were no nicks or any signs of damage, and he held his arm in an automatically defensive position with the point angled towards the ceiling.

'I told you yesterday, my alchemy's always been enough before.'

'And if you can't use it?'

Ed wrinkled his face as if he did not understand Roy's worries. 'Why would that happen? In what situation could I use a gun but not my alchemy?' When Roy did not reply he sighed, getting to his feet and walking towards the door. 'Look, if it makes you feel better I'll talk to Brennan or Pierce about weapons, but I don't see the point.' With a quick clap he shifted his automail back to the way it was. 'You let me face down chimera and alchemists and fuck knows what else without a weapon before. Why is this so different?'

'Because I know the people coming after us have guns. You might not get close enough to fight back.' Roy stopped, turning back to glare out of the window, his arms crossed defensively over his chest. 'I just want you to be safe as possible, that's all.'

The soft tap of Ed's automail hand on the door handle reached Roy's ears, and a waft of cool morning air wafted into the kitchen. There was no sound of departing footsteps, though, and Roy glanced over to see Ed standing on the doorstep

'I'll make you a deal,' Ed said calmly. 'I'll arm myself if you give me your gloves later.' His face softened a fraction at the doubt in Roy's expression. 'You never know when alchemy might be the only weapon you've got. I don't want you to be helpless because your gloves are wet or something. You have spares, don't you?' Ed shrugged self consciously. 'If I fuck it up it doesn't matter.'

Part of him wanted to say that the military was not about compromise or making a deal, that it was about taking orders and not asking questions, but pulling rank on Ed now would shatter apart the fragile strands of understanding that wove between them. Besides, out here the army was the enemy. Bringing it into these walls, even if only in the form of words, was like acknowledging the possibility of failure.

Eventually Roy nodded, picking up his gloves from beside the sink before moving to follow Ed outside. 'Deal, as long as you explain what you're doing.' He smiled as Ed rolled his eyes, nodding in reluctant acceptance of his terms before leading the way outside.

It was a clear, crisp day, and dew glittered in the grass like spilled diamonds. In a week or so it would become frost overnight but, for now, the iciness of winter was kept at bay. Daylight drifted across the land, chasing away the last stars as the sun showed its full face in the east. Long shadows jutted before it, creating pockets of colder air that made goosebumps race over Roy's skin.

Ed knocked on the door to the building that provided a home to Brennan and Pierce, smiling warily as the latter opened the door. The older man was less approachable than Brennan, but he looked at Ed with serious respect as he explained the weapon situation.

'Having as many options in a fight is essential to success. Come in. If there is nothing suitable for you among the weapons that were provided then I have some throwing knives you can use.' He looked at Ed's automail arm thoughtfully. 'I can teach you. A blade is better than nothing.' He grinned, his teeth flashing white in his tanned face. 'Besides, there's no kick on a knife, and you don't have to worry about running out of ammunition.'

'I'll leave you here, Ed,' Roy said, already turning away . 'I'll be up in the tower. I'd feel safer if I was more familiar with this place.'

'All right. Be careful, don't fall down the stairs or anything.'

The stairs were, in fact, a rickety ladder that climbed to the upper platforms. Brennan had seen him coming and reached out a hand to help him up before giving a tired smile. He was wearing several layers of dark and neutral coloured clothing, enough to keep him warm and help him blend in with the changing quality of light as the sun rose. A rifle was slung over his shoulder, and there were several other guns about his person, including the kind of revolver that Hawkeye favoured in a holster on his belt.

'Morning, sir,' he said cheerfully, a friendly smile creasing his face and making his eyes sparkle. 'Nothing to report I'm afraid, unless you count the wildlife.'

'Anything dangerous?' Roy asked, knowing it was doubtful. Most of Amestris' more deadly animals, like wolves and bears, preferred the alpine regions to grassland like this.

'No. A few deer and a vixen with cubs, but she won't be a bother. Some bats live in one of the old barns, but that's about it. We're on our own out here.'

Roy looked in the direction of the barn, seeing the timber building slumping drunkenly on its foundations. There were one or two other derelict structures, and he looked at them through narrowed eyes, wondering if they would be good hiding places for any attackers.

'We check them, sir,' Brennan said, no doubt seeing his uncertainty. 'They're clear of all hay and machinery. They're just four walls inside – nowhere to hide. We'd pull them down, but anyone passing by more than once a year might wonder what was going on.' He rolled his shoulders, pointing in various directions to help Roy orientate himself.

'Central's north-west – too far to walk. You'd need a train or a car. The nearest town is directly east. You could walk it if you have to, and there's a forest that starts up about a mile away.' He gestured to a smudge of golden-brown foliage on the horizon. 'It's not too overgrown and would provide good cover, better than walking on the open road, anyway. There's a river to cross though, and that curves south, too.'

'So you think we're defended on the southern side?'

Brennan nodded slowly. 'To some extent. An attack could come from any direction, and it'll come at night and on foot. In the dark you can see car headlights for miles, and in daylight you would see the vehicle approaching or people on the move. It's a good location for a safe-house, sir. We should be able to hold off anyone who tries to get past us.'

Roy nodded, feeling some of his fears begin to settle and crystallise into cool, steady logic. Hughes had chosen well with this place. Any escape route was also a way in, but they were well-defended. It wouldn't take much to make the house that little bit more secure and put a few traps in place. Even a few seconds' warning could be enough to save their lives if an assassin showed up. At the moment he would take any advantage he could get.

'Have you got any paper?'

Wordlessly, Brennan handed him a blank pad and a pencil, returning to his silent watch over the fields as Roy leaned against the short fence that surrounded the platform, sketching out landmarks and jotting down any information he thought might come in useful.

It was slow, steady work, almost meditative, and it demanded all of his concentration. He only paused once, watching Pierce showing Ed how to throw a knife at some small cloth bundles set up on posts. After Ed's first few attempts, all misses, he turned back to what he was doing, letting his hand trace lines and curve through coded script as if it were second nature.

By the time he was done, the level of the sun suggested it was mid-morning, and he automatically took the map he had drawn and the few pieces of paper under it. That way no one could find out what he had been doing from the indents in the pad. It was an old habit from when he had written letters to Hughes from the Ishbalan front line. No code was unbreakable, and he was not about to risk someone finding out a useful piece of information because of his carelessness.

Bidding Brennan a quick goodbye he made his way down the ladder and past Pierce and Ed, who was too busy concentrating on what he was being shown to pay any attention. At times his intensity could be startling, and he applied it to anything he thought deserving. Ed never did anything by halves. He threw himself into the moment, immersing himself so utterly that he could be lost to the world.

With a faint smile, Roy walked into the house, folding up the map and slipping it into his pocket as he closed the door behind him. One of the stacks of files wobbled in the draft, spilling across the floor in a slew of manilla dossiers. With a sigh, Roy bent down to scoop them up, pausing when he noticed a plain envelope slipped among their sheaves. Hawkeye's neat handwriting slanted across its surface: For the attention of General Mustang.

Icy fingers ran down Roy's spine as his memory stirred, and he reached out to pick up the envelope with trembling hands. He had asked Riza for the documents she had found that commanded Ed's assassination, and she had provided them despite her reservations.

Carefully unsealing the envelope, Roy pulled out the single sheet of paper. Taking a deep breath, he braced himself before unfolding it and letting his eyes settle on the words, trying to keep his thoughts clear of emotion as his heart beat a dead, sick pace in his chest.

By the end of the first paragraph he could see why Hawkeye had been as close to distressed as he had ever seen her. This was not a professional, military command. It was pornographic violence, all aimed at Ed. The writer pivoted wildly between loathing and lust, uncontrolled in their anger as they requested that Ed not be killed out right, but left for them to punish for his sins - sins which seemed to rotate around the assumption, or perhaps the fantasy, that Ed had spread his legs for most of the army from the moment he had joined up.

Roy's stomach churned as he tried to skip ahead, to ignore the details as odd words jumped out to brand themselves across his mind, but it was useless. He was mentioned, but they were oblique references. He was the commanding officer being manipulated, a victim in the writer's eyes, whereas Ed was – what? He was labelled with every derogatory word Roy knew: a slut and a beguiling whore who would be taught how wrong he was to tempt other men - who would be abused in every way until he was begging for an end, even if that meant death.

He dropped the paper onto the table, rubbing a hand roughly over his face as if he could claw the words from his mind. Homophobia was not something alien to Roy, but this went beyond simple loathing and disgust. It was passionate and righteous, as if the writer believed that by – by not just killing, but by raping and hurting Ed, he could put things right. Whoever this was had seen Ed and wanted him, and had decided to lay the blame for this deviance from his sexual norm at Ed's door.

There was no signature, but Roy had known that all along. He had expected to know from the handwriting or the tone who had held the pen. He had been confident of finding some clue, but all he was left with was a breathless, desperate fury burning hard in his stomach and the sharp taste of nausea in his mouth.

With shaking hands, he pulled a glass from one of the cupboards and filled it with water. It was tempting to gulp it, to drown in it, anything to wash away the slick, unhealthy sweat that prickled along his skin, but he forced himself to take it steady. If he drank too much too quick he really would be sick.

The sound of the back door opening made him jump, and he looked over at Ed with wide, startled eyes before glancing at the letter which still lay innocently on the table where he had dropped it. Ed hesitated, frowning in confusion before following his gaze.

'Don't,' Roy croaked when Ed moved closer to the table. 'Don't read it.'

'Why not? It's about me, isn't it?'

Roy closed his eyes desperately, wanting to lunge forward and snatch the letter away before Ed could even glimpse the hate-filled words. There were so many things he had been unable to protect Ed from over the years, but that – did he really have to read that about himself? Even if it was all lies, it was still vile and terrifying in its intensity.

Still, if he ordered Ed not to read it and hid it from him, what would that do to the tentative trust they had built? Ed would never believe that it was for his own good, would not understand Roy's need to shield him and would resent him for even trying.

'Ed – please.'

Ed watched him, his lips pinched and face serious before he shook his head. 'If it's got you this worked up, then it's something I should know about. I can't protect myself against threats I don't know exist.'

In one smooth motion he spun the paper around, ignoring Roy's weak protest as he braced his palms on the table and began to read, jaw clenched tight and a frown creasing his brow. He examined each line as carefully as is he was scrutinising an unfamiliar array, searching for a meaning beyond the face of the words. Finally, after what felt like an eternity, he lifted his head and looked at Roy.

His face was pale and his lips were twisted in a grimace of distaste. Even from the other side of the kitchen Roy could see that Ed was withdrawing into himself, recoiling from the bile in the letter. His hands were clenched into fists at his side, and there was a faint tremble to his left arm as if he were fighting against the urge to turn and run. It made Roy want to reach out, to fold Ed into his arms and promise to protect him, but that was not what Ed needed.

Slowly, inch by inch, Ed smoothed the tension out of his body, glancing back at the letter as a faint, triumphant light dawned in his eyes.

'I know who wrote this,' he said, his voice soft and steady, deadly quiet. 'I know one of the people who's trying to kill us.'

Chapter Text

It was like stepping into another reality, one where ever shifting emotion was written on Roy's face in a language that Ed could understand. He opened the door to the kitchen, and Roy looked up as if he had forgotten that there was anyone else in the world. His fingers were clenched around a glass of water, white-knuckled and tight enough to crush the tumbler in his palm, and his expression was one of a deer caught in headlights: breathless fear, numbing shock and thick dread.

Mustang's gaze shot to the table, and Ed turned to see what he was looking at. A piece of paper lay innocently among the files, dropped and abandoned, but Roy looked as if it was a coiled snake reared up to bite. His face was chalky pale, touched with a faint sheen of nauseous sweat. When he looked back at Ed his eyes were open and unmasked, gleaming with a desperate edge.

Slowly, Ed moved closer. His footsteps echoed on the tiled floor as he narrowed his eyes, trying to pick out the words outlined in an unfamiliar scrawl on the blank white sheet.

'Don't - Don't read it.'

It was Roy's voice, but the sound of it sent a fearful shudder up Ed's spine. He had heard a lot of things from him in the past but, whether it was respect or fury, his emotions had always been muted and smothered, bundled up in the chains of his words. Now there were no shields or veils. It was enough to make Ed hesitate, and he looked over at Roy's bleached out face.

'Why not? It's about me, isn't it?'

There was no reply. Roy screwed his eyes up tight, turning his face away in clear despair. Normally, even when he was angry, his posture and movements held a laconic, confident grace, Now he was hunched and rigid: a man living in his nightmares. Tension poured off him in waves, tangible and choking. He was an animal ready to bolt or bite, torn by his indecision.

'Ed – please.'

Unease solidified into a ball of ice that burned Ed's stomach, and he stared at Roy, trying to understand. Only an hour ago they had sat in this room, caught up in the kind of attraction that danced across his skin like lightning through the clouds. Since then, the atmosphere had turned slick with fear. What could that letter contain that had caused such a reversal? What had broken down every one of Mustang's defenses and left him this open and vulnerable in his shock?

Eventually Ed shook his head, taking the last step towards the table and reaching out. 'If it's got you this worked up, then it's something I should know about.' He hesitated, trying to find some way to let Mustang know that he wasn't a child sulking at being kept in the dark: this was serious. 'I can't protect myself against threats I don't know exist.'

The paper hushed beneath his automail fingertips as he spun it to face him before bracing his palms on the tabletop. The world shrank, no longer a house in a wide vista of fields but a rectangular horizon: ink like blood on the page, repulsive and rotten. Ed had heard the rumours; it was hard not to. Soldiers weren't known for their subtlety, and more than once he'd been the subject of leering, crude remarks about spreading his legs to get into the military. Yet even if that had been kind of sick, because he was a kid back then, it was nothing like this.

Hatred poured from every line, burning his eyes and burrowing into his brain. He wanted to pull away, to turn his back and push all thought of it from his mind. Ignorance was an unobtainable bliss. Whoever wrote this only cared about taking something as good as sex and turning it into the worst kind of punishment.

He couldn't believe it was about him. It mentioned his name - referred to him in every way possible, but the Ed that the writer saw was nothing but a figment of a twisted imagination. They made it sound like he was some kind of – of incubus or something, tempting soldiers left, right and center, destroying their lives by addicting them to the feel of his skin.

“Give me the tempting whore. I'll show him how little he is worth.”

Air hissed between Ed's teeth, kissing his lips with a sharp, deathly chill as his eyes went wide. Recognition was a punch in the gut, bruising with its force as he read that one phrase three times over.

He had heard it before – could still feel the flutter of the man's whisper in his ear and the solid, immovable weight of his hands on his shoulders, pressing him into the wall of one of Central Command's corridor. Ed had faced down all the shit the world had ever thrown his way without even faltering. All of it except that.

Lifting his head he glanced at Roy, feeling somehow disconnected from his own body as he withdrew his hands from the table, clenching them into fists at his sides. Horrified surprise made him dizzy, and he realised that his breaths were coming in staggering, uneven gasps as his vision tinted sepia at its edges.

With a jerk of his head he glanced back at the paper, forcing his body free from the bonds of adrenaline that clutched it tight. Better to think through the fear than be its victim. Better to see the silver lining rather than focus on the cloud. The fucker had given himself away. He had never meant for Ed to see the letter – couldn't have, because he must have known that Ed would recognise that phrase. It wasn't the kind of thing that he could forget, no matter how hard he tried.

Roy had put the glass of water down and braced his hands on the kitchen surface at his back, white-knuckled around its edge as he watched Ed, wary, disbelieving, confused – a hundred other things flickered in his dark eyes, too fast for Ed to comprehend. He looked as if he expected Ed to fall apart, was poised to step forward and hold his pieces together, but Roy made no move as Ed took in another steadying breath, relaxing his shoulders.

'I know who wrote this. I know one of the people who's trying to kill us.' He dragged his fingertips along his bottom lip, knowing that he wasn't mistaken. Certainty was a fire in his core, bright and steady as it chased off his fear. 'It's General Kerr.'

Mustang blinked, a tiny frown wrinkling his brow as he absorbed what Ed was saying. 'How do you know?' There wasn't a challenge in his voice, and his face was clear and open. 'It can't be the handwriting. Kerr dictates to a secretary and even his signature is a rubber stamp. What makes you think it's him?'

'Because some of what's in the letter, he's said to my face – almost word for word.'

'When – what-?' Roy gritted his teeth, dragging his thoughts together into a coherent question with visible effort. 'What exactly happened? Kerr normally tries to avoid all conversation with anyone below the rank of Major-General. Why was he talking to you?'

Ed wrinkled his nose, scowling as he crossed his arms. 'It wasn't exactly a conversation. He talked, I listened. It wasn't like I had a choice.' He stared at Mustang, trying to read his reactions as he explained, 'A few months ago I was walking through Central Command reading a book, and I banged into him. He shoved me into the wall - fucker's got a temper - but when he realised it was me his face changed.'

'How?' Roy's question was clipped and professional, and Ed knew it was an interrogation. He had seen Hughes slip into the same no-nonsense technique when he was trying to distance himself from his emotions in a bad situation. Mustang was trying to get to the facts and to draw judgment from them, rather than letting his instincts leap to the fore.

He tried to think of the words to explain how Kerr had gone from being a pissy general to something far more threatening. 'Calm. Like he had been planning it all along. He pinned me to the wall and said -' He gestured to the table. 'Basically what he wrote in the letter. Called me a whore and said that it was about time someone showed me how little I was really worth.'

'Did he do anything else?'

There was a lot more to what Roy was asking than those five words. Normally anything subtle went over Ed's head, but this time he knew exactly what Mustang wanted to know. After all, Kerr had spelled out what he intended to do with Ed's body if he got his hands on him.

'No. Armstrong turned up and he backed off.' Ed shrugged, staring unseeingly at the floor as he replayed the incident in his head. 'It didn't even cross my mind that he was thinking of doing – that. I thought he was just going to try and break my face or something.'

On the other side of the kitchen, Roy dragged shaking fingers through his hair, pressing the heels of his hands to his eyes before letting them fall to his side. When he spoke his voice was tight and hard with the kind of fury Ed rarely heard. 'Why didn't you talk to someone about this? Didn't you think it might be a good idea to tell me that Kerr threatened you?'

'Because it happens a lot,' Ed snapped. 'Not that bad, but if I told you every time someone suggested that kind of thing I'd never leave your office. You think it's the first time someone accused me of screwing around to get my way?' Ed smiled mirthlessly as Roy's lips pinched together. He had to know about the rumours, too. If nothing else, Hughes would have told him about crude whispers behind rough hands. 'It's been happening ever since I joined up. At first people were concerned, thinking you were taking advantage and whatever. Then as I got older it changed - became something more like what Kerr is saying. If you tried to do anything about it, people would think it confirmed the whole thing.'

'That isn't just talk,' Roy snapped, indicating the letter with a flick of his fingers. 'That's an expression of intent to rape and murder you.' He pushed himself away from the counter, approaching Ed and stopping at arm's length. He didn't meet Ed's eyes straight away, but when he did they were guilt-clouded and apologetic. 'When you first joined up Kerr's protests were the most vocal. He was a Lieutenant-General back then, and he tried every argument he could think of to stop you being accepted.'

'No one listened?'

'Yes, they did, but then they saw your test and evaluation,' Roy explained. 'The military can ignore anything if there's something in it for them. You were the embodiment of more alchemical genius than the army has got its hands on in centuries, and they weren't going to let you slip through their fingers. When you got your commission, Kerr told Bradley that he would open their eyes to what you were. I thought he meant that he would show them you were still a child, nothing else.' He reached around Ed and grabbed the letter, shoving it in the envelope as if it burned his fingers to touch it before pitching it onto the table and turning back.

'Are you okay?' He was searching Ed's face, although from his look of hopeless incomprehension he wasn't getting any clues. If he was honest, Ed wasn't even sure what he was feeling. Fear and anger mixed like oil and water in his veins, cold and hot but useless all the same. Normally he would fight, but what the hell was there to punch? Kerr was miles away in Central, and even if they were face-to-face, Ed could not forget the strength he had felt in the man's grip. He was no doughy general. He was hard and fierce, and it was a fight that Ed was not completely sure he could win.

'Ed?'

He blinked, giving a weak half smile and shrugging his shoulders, feigning indifference. 'I'm fine.' He knew Roy wouldn't believe him. After all, he had read the letter, but he did not know what else to say. 'What about you? You looked like you were about to throw up when I walked in.'

Mustang lifted a doubtful eyebrow, but he let Ed's answer go unquestioned, giving a curt nod of his head. 'It was hardly pleasant reading material. There's a world of difference between a distant assassination and a personal vendetta like Kerr's.' He paused, and when he spoke again he was wary, no doubt expecting Ed to snap at him. 'I know you can look after yourself, but I'll do everything I can to keep him away from you.'

His tone said more than the words themselves, speaking of clicked fingers and a white-hot flame of retribution. It was a protective, dominant statement, and Ed felt his hackles rise in automatic rejection. Mustang was right: he could look after himself, but, clenching his jaw, Ed pushed his knee-jerk anger back. If he had learned one thing in all the years he had spent looking for the stone, it was that he didn't have to deal with every problem alone.

'Thanks,' he said gruffly. 'At least we know who's behind it, right? Or one of them, anyway.'

Roy gave a tense nod. 'If Kerr's in it then so is Hakuro. They've been best friends since they joined up a couple of decades ago. Normally I would say that Kerr is the brains behind it, but -' He paused before grabbing the envelope and stuffing it viciously in a stack of files. 'What he wrote suggests too much emotional investment and not enough logic. He's waiting for you to be delivered to him, not taking an active role.'

'So Hakuro's the one behind it. It won't be the first time we've had a Fuhrer who looked like an idiot and turned out to be anything but. I mean, look at what Bradley was doing,' Ed pointed out.

Roy was shaking his head before Ed had even finished, his expression closed-off and thoughtful. 'Bradley was cunning. Hakuro's not. He's a shallow, vain, bigoted man. Whoever planned this has paid attention to detail. Hakuro only sees the much bigger picture. The one where he's at the top doing nothing, and everyone else is obeying his orders.'

'Hughes still needs to know about Kerr and Hakuro, even if they're not the only two involved,' Ed said. 'Evidence is easier to find if you know what you're looking for. Is there any way to contact him?'

Turning towards the back door, Roy nodded, his movements taut and distracted as he said absently, 'Brennan and Pierce will have some way to contact him in an emergency, although I'm not sure what good it will do.'

Ed frowned at that, watching Mustang step outside and close the door behind him. Slowly, steadily, Ed was learning to read his little flickers of emotion, to draw conclusions from the tiniest hints of body language but, when he told Mustang about Kerr, he had not needed to try and understand some kind of code of expressions. When it came to Ed's welfare, it seemed that Roy was losing the ability to hide what he was feeling. It was only when it came to his professional life that he became a blank slate.

Shaking his head, Ed turned away. They had spent too long sniping at each other over the years to become open books in a matter of days. That kind of trust took time, and that was a luxury that they didn't have. To Ed, it felt like they were riding a wave of luck and, sooner or later, their good fortune was going to crash down and leave them high and dry. For Mustang that meant a quick death. For him... .

Pushing himself away from the table, Ed shoved the thought ruthlessly aside. It wouldn't come to that. He'd kill himself first.

Looking around the kitchen he let a wolfish grin curve his lips. Of course, death was hardly the way he was planning this to end. Any assassin might be well-trained and dangerous, but they weren't the youngest state-alchemist in history, and they generally had a fairly average IQ. Perhaps he and Roy couldn't out-gun the people they were up against, but they could outwit them. First, it was time to make this place a little more rough around the edges.

Every window, shutter and door was subject to his attention. A quick clap moistened the air and sent flickering welts of corrosion over the metal, making the hinges give agonising squeals at any movement. If he and Roy needed to sneak out, then they could always splash oil on them, but he suspected that, if they left the safe-house alive, they would be doing it at a sprint. Stealth would not be necessary.

Next came the staircase and floorboards on the upper level. Energy crackled, swelling the wood and loosening joins, making every step let forth a racket of complaint. Carefully he charted a clear path through the destruction, making sure that, if he put his feet in the right place, he could move around inside the house without being detected.

He would bet a month's wages that any killer would strike at night, and they wouldn't bother using the front or back door. A quick examination of the chimney showed that there was a grate wedged half-way down, rusted but solid. A brief clap ensured that the walls bottlenecked, still wide enough to let the smoke out but too narrow to allow anyone through.

That just left the bedroom window. Pushing open the casement, he sat on the sill, trying to work out how an intruder might get to it. There weren't any trees nearby, and getting on the roof would not be easy, but anyone who was truly determined could probably scale the wall. The window overlooked the watch tower, so any intruder would have to climb on the sheltered side of the house to avoid detection. After that they would have to clamber upto the peak of the roof and attack the window from above.

Glancing up at the overhang of terracotta tiles, Ed smiled to himself. They would be fixed to a series of supports, and weakening their fastenings would mean that anyone who trod on them would be deposited on the ground two storeys below amidst a shower of shattered clay pieces.

Checking his balance, he clapped his hand and reached up, screwing up his face in discomfort as the wound in his side pulled and protested. All it took was a tap of his fingertips to the closest rough-hewn edge and the alchemy flared up and along the eaves. With a soft sound the structure sagged a fraction, staying put only due to the equilibrium between friction and gravity.

Slipping back into the bedroom, he shut the window and glared at his reflection in the glass. No one could get in without him or Roy being made aware of their presence, but someone could still snipe at them. In theory Brennan and Pierce would spot any threat before it became a reality, but Ed had done guard duty before. It was boring and easy for the mind to wander. One slip of concentration on their sentries' part could be enough to let someone creep through the net.

Idly he tapped his automail knuckles against the window, listening to it chime. The structure of glass was uneven and loose. It was also easy to transmute, held alchemical charge and could be amplified with other materials. The stuff in the frames was old and looked like it could be shattered with a bit of well-thrown gravel. He needed to find a way to make it stronger.

Thoughtfully, he went down stairs and rummaged through the cupboards, grabbing a couple of heavy saucepans before opening the back door and looking at the ground outside. A long summer had made it dusty, and he managed to claw together enough of the fine grit to fill the pans. The sand content was relatively low, but it would have to do.

Starting on the upstairs windows, he lay the grit on the windowsill before transmuting a small portion of the pan into sharp, metallic dust and mixing it in. Eying the resulting mess doubtfully, Ed rubbed a hand over his forehead, visualising the array in his mind. With a quick clap, he pressed his palms to the window-frame and closed his eyes against the dazzling phosphorous flare of power.

Finally, he let the crackling energy fizzle away and opened his eyes, stepping back to check the pane of glass for cracks or breaks. The resulting window was still transparent, almost normal apart from one or two distortions and a strange, blue tint to the view. It had stayed whole and, other than a couple of scorch marks around the reinforced wooden frame, it looked undamaged. Now he had to see if it worked.

Trotting down the stairs, he wandered through the kitchen and out of the back door. Pierce was sitting outside the house he shared with Brennan, a whetstone in one hand and a blade in the other, but he was not sharpening its edge. Instead he was talking to Mustang in a low voice, nodding in agreement as he accepted a small bit of paper. As he approached, Ed heard the tail end of his reply. '-find a secure line, I'll get the message through. Lieutenant-Colonel Hughes said that it could be the start of a civil war if the Fuhrer was involved.'

'If there's anyone left to fight him then it could well be,' Roy agreed. 'I know a good two dozen officers who would resist this kind of power play, but I don't know many of them are still alive.'

'They could be in hiding,' Pierce suggested.

'Or they could be rotting in an unmarked grave.' Roy expression was bleak, and he leaned against the wall of the small building as he said, 'Just get the message to Hughes. There's a faint chance that Hakuro and anyone else can still be prosecuted through legal channels. We just have to find the evidence before they destroy it. If I can prevent Central becoming a war-zone, I will.'

'And if you can't?'

Roy looked up at Ed's question, his dark eyes hardening with resolve. 'Then we'll fight; it's not like we've got any other choice, unless you feel like spending the rest of your life on the run?'

He did not bother deigning that with an answer, just giving Roy a long, slow “don't be stupid” look that made Pierce chuckle. The soldier spun the knife in his hand around and handed it to Ed handle first before picking up a sheath from the ground by his foot and passing it over.

'That's one of the best throwing knives I've got - perfectly balanced. Just remember what I said about your throw. Your automail is stronger and works in a different manner than normal muscles, so you'll need to compensate for that if you're going to hit someone with it.' He glanced pointedly towards the targets they had been practicing on earlier. 'I wouldn't rely on the blade too much, if I were you, but it might help you out of a tight spot.'

Ed shifted the hilt in his hand, feeling the weight of it against the pressure plates in his palm as he murmured his thanks. 'Can you do me another favour?' When Pierce nodded, he gestured towards the house. 'Go and stand under the bedroom window and fire your gun at it. I need to check something.'

The soldier glanced at Mustang, one eyebrow lifted in curiosity before he agreed, removing his gun from its holster and walking towards the house. Once he was standing right under the window, he cocked the safety and took aim, his face becoming flat and professional as he prepared to pull the trigger.

'Is there a reason you want to break the bedroom window?' Roy asked, giving Ed a puzzled look.

'I'm testing something,' Ed said, squinting upwards. 'If it breaks then I can put it back together again.'

The gunshot echoed out across the field, startling some crows into flight and making Ed flinch, but there was no accompaniment of shattering glass. He smirked triumphantly as he saw the window still whole in its frame. 'Pierce, take ten steps back and do it again, but aim at a different place.'

The lieutenant did as he was told, firing several more test shots to Ed's specification. Each time the window stayed whole, marked only by dents and chips that shattered the sunlight apart into blue starbursts.

'What did you do to it?' Roy asked, incredulous. 'I've never seen glass withstand one shot before, let alone six.'

'I transmuted steel and silicates into the glass structure. It makes it stronger, but it's not going to be perfect.' Ed grimaced as he thought it over. 'It probably couldn't block a point-blank shot, and if they're using the new semi-automatic weapons it'll break because the bullets will be more focused. Should stop the first shot though, which'll give you the chance to take cover.' He pushed aside the kitchen door, moving back up the stairs and looking critically at the window from the inside.

This close he could see the cracks running like cobwebs across its surface. All of the ammunition had lodged in the surface, penetrating through like rocks frozen in ice, but they had not got any further. Carefully he poked them back through, hearing them tinkle on the dusty ground below before he clapped and pressed his hands to the weakened pane, erasing the damage beneath a wave of light.

Roy tapped his knuckles against it curiously, listening to the faintly metallic resonance. 'Did you just come up with this?'

'It's common sense. Glass can be made stronger by adding other materials to it,' he shrugged. 'It's not like its flawless or anything, but it should stop you being an easy target for a sniper.'

He bent down, grabbing the pots and frowning doubtfully at their contents. He was so busy thinking that he almost didn't hear Roy's words. 'Hmmm?'

'And you. I'm not the only one that needs keeping safe, remember?' Roy repeated, his voice hardening with a warning as he said, 'Don't protect me at your own expense, Ed. I can look after myself just as well as you can.'

'Yeah, you've done a great job of that so far.' Ed sighed as Roy scowled, moving through to the bathroom and setting to work on the other window. 'Look, I know you're not like other generals. I know that if you're threatened face-to-face you can burn them to a crisp, but these bastards aren't acting like that. If they had their way then you wouldn't know what hit you.'

Roy leaned against the door frame, watching Ed as he worked. 'So you're making it almost impossible for them to take us by surprise. I noticed what you did to the hinges and the floorboards. Is there anything else I should know about?'

'No one can climb down the chimneys and don't stand on the roof. That's all I've had the chance to do, so far. If you've got any other ideas then go for it. Better now than later when we're fighting for our lives.'

The sound of footsteps on the stairs made him look over his shoulder to see that Roy had gone. He could hear him moving around downstairs and briefly wondered what he was doing. It was very easy to forget that Mustang had not always been a general behind a desk. He had been on the front-line, had shot people dead and fought for his life in the past. He was right: he was far from helpless. It was not that Ed did not trust his abilities; he just knew that the assassins wouldn't hesitate to use whatever means necessary to take Roy down. It was his job to make sure that they didn't succeed.

It took him a couple of hours to finish treating all the windows, and his head was buzzing with arrays and calculations by the time he was done. Mustang had been doing his own thing, rigging other little traps through the house and studying a bit of paper that looked like a hastily sketched map. At some point he had brought Ed lunch, but he couldn't remember what it had been. He'd eaten it while calculating the best blend of metal and dust, and the only sign he'd even been fed was an empty plate with a few crumbs on it and a half-mug of cold coffee.

Walking through to the kitchen, Ed stopped on the threshold, one palm resting on the door frame. Roy was sitting down at the table, a file open in front of him as he read through the documents. No one was holding a gun to his head or giving him a hard look. He was actually doing work of his own free will. Hawkeye would probably have a heart attack if she knew.

A faint frown wrinkled his brow, begging Ed to reach out and smooth it away, and he bit his lip absently as his eyes skimmed the page. His pen twitched back and forth between long, graceful fingers, and his left hand propped up his head, digging into his hair and making it stick up at odd angles. The white gloves lay within easy reach, crumpled and forgotten.

It was tempting to walk over and pull the pen out of Roy's hands, to sit astride his lap and kiss him until all thoughts of work were well and truly out of his head. The desire was mutual – he knew that now. Any time he and Roy got close enough to touch, the air turned to fiery silk, wrapping around the both of them and pressing them together, enslaving them to their need. Earlier, Ed had almost asked Roy what was holding him back, but the words caught in his throat, and nothing he could do would force them out.

'It's rude to stare,' Roy murmured, looking up and giving a knowing smirk when he noticed the expression on Ed's face.

Ed blinked, fighting back against the hot wave of embarrassment at being caught openly admiring the view. It was too late now to deny it, and he sighed faintly as Roy's lips parted in a predatory grin. Maybe it was time to play along with Mustang's game.

Lifting one eyebrow and looking pointedly at the open file, he said, 'You're doing actual work. Of course I'm going to stare. It's the first time I've seen you doing anything useful without Hawkeye giving you that look.' He smiled at the subtle flinch that tightened Roy's eyes and turned away, opening the cupboards as he searched for something to eat. 'You know, I could tell her that you waste her time on purpose.'

'You wouldn't.'

The horror in Roy's voice was not entirely exaggerated, and Ed glanced over his shoulder with a grin as he asked, 'Why not? If I stay quiet, what's in it for me?'

Thoughtfully, Roy put his pen down on the table. For a fraction of a second there was a trace of hesitation and doubt in his features, as if he was struggling with some kind of decision, but in an instant it was gone, and he gave Ed a hungry look as he considered his answer. The chair scraped back as he got to his feet, moving with slow, sensuous grace across the tiny kitchen. That, coupled with the dark intensity of his gaze, made Ed's mouth run dry.

Turning away from the cupboard, he felt the edge of the kitchen surface press against his back, and he curled his fingers tight around its lip. Even if he wasn't trapped, he would not have backed away. His whole being was held motionless, locked in place by need, and his breath stuttered to a halt as Roy stopped in front of him, leaning in and bracing his palms on the counter at either side of Ed's waist.

'Anything you want,' he murmured, his voice a husky promise. There was no joking smile and no hesitation in his gaze. It was an open, earnest offer, and Ed licked his dry lips, excitement racing through Ed as Roy's eyes followed the movement, captivated. He was so close that Ed could feel the heat from his body reaching through his clothes and stroking against bare skin with invisible fingers, making him shiver as he responded eagerly to Roy's proximity.

The spicy, warm scent of him was in every uneven breath, filling Ed's lungs like drug smoke , and he fought against the urge to arch his back and press himself closer or reach out and tangle his fingers in Roy's shirt. Fire crackled through his veins, spreading an inferno through Ed until he felt as if he was burning up and could only be tamed by Roy's touch.

'Anything?' he managed in a rough whisper, stifling a gasp as Roy's thumb brushed back and forth against the side of his left hand hypnotically.

Roy lowered his head a fraction until they were nose to nose, angling his head slightly to the side until his lips hovered a hair's breadth from Ed's. 'Anything.'

A knock at the back door echoed like a gunshot, jerking them apart. For a moment neither of them moved, both lost in confusion as chilly reality swept over them. Roy was still pinning Ed in place, and he watched the muscles in his forearms bunch and flex before he took a slow, regretful step away.

'Sir? It's Lieutenant Pierce.'

'One moment.' He moved towards the kitchen table, pulling on his gloves and poising his fingers to snap as Ed shook himself free of his stupor. Just because the voice on the other side of the door sounded friendly, it didn't mean that they were safe.

Carefully, Roy nudged the door open a crack, ready to slam it shut again at the first sign of danger. It wasn't until he was sure that the only person on the threshold was the Lieutenant, unarmed and with both hands clearly visible, that he lowered his guard.

Pierce gave a faint nod of approval at their caution, his hand raised in a perfunctory salute. 'Sorry to disturb you, sir, but you asked me to inform you that your message has been received by Lieutenant-Colonel Hughes. He is now in possession of the facts and will act accordingly. The return message requested that you stay at your current location until told otherwise.'

Ed turned back to the cupboards, scanning their contents as he tried to act naturally. Pierce was trained to be observant and, while Mustang was good at hiding things, Ed had never been able to wipe his face clean of his emotions. His hands were still shaking, and his erection throbbed painfully in the tightness of his trousers. If the lieutenant had been a second later... .

Stupid fucking Pierce.

Ed heard Roy mumble his thanks, and the hinges shrieked as he closed the door before the wood sighed against his weight. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw Roy watching him, lips pressed together as if he was trying to work out what to say. A tingle of awareness trickled down Ed's spine, but he knew that the moment was gone.

Clearing his throat, he forced his voice back to normal and managed a weak smile. 'If you cook dinner, I won't tell Hawkeye about you doing your paperwork.' It was a desperate attempt to avoid actually talking about what was happening between them, and Ed watched the conflict flicker in Roy's eyes: a battle between want and reason.

His shoulders slumped in relief as Roy gave a nod of acceptance, pushing himself away from the door and flicking on the gas stove, lighting it with an absent click of his fingers. 'Fine, but you're doing the washing up.'

It was easy to grumble and complain, to splash bubbles and clatter dishes while Roy heated pans and made something that looked like a proper meal, but there was a friction in the air that made invisible sparks dance along Ed's skin. He felt painfully aware of Roy's every move, and their conversation died away, suffocated by everything that neither of them had the guts to actually say.

They ate in silence, the kitchen filled with nothing but the quiet chime of cutlery on crockery, and it wasn't until his plate was clear that Ed asked, 'Why're you doing paperwork, anyway? Are you really that bored?'

A smile flickered across Roy's lips at that, and he shook his head, swallowing his mouthful before replying. 'No, I was looking for something else and that file caught my eye. Besides, if I don't get these done, Hawkeye will make my life a misery.' He reached out, tugging something free from one of the piles on the floor and handing it to Ed. 'I'm not the only one with work to do. You're still meant to be finding out about those arrays in lab five.'

Ed scowled, snatching the book and glaring at the cover. 'Someone's trying to kill me and you're still going on about that? Why does it matter?'

'It's an unsolved mystery, and I like to know all the answers.' Roy put his knife and fork neatly on the plate and leaned back in his chair with a mocking expression. 'Unless you're admitting that this alchemy is beyond even your genius?'

He didn't reply to that, flicking a rude gesture in Mustang's direction before pushing his plate aside and opening the book reluctantly. He had developed a very personal loathing for the author, who rambled incessantly and probably couldn't write a shopping list in less than three pages. It took ages to get to the point, but there were insights amidst the dross like diamonds in mud. Not that they were any use. He had picked up the treatise on ancient alchemies in a last ditch attempt to make some sense of the unfamiliar designs. All he got for his efforts was a headache.

A gentle silence settled over the kitchen, and before long he was lost amidst the words on the page, buried so deeply between the lines that the world beyond the paper ceased to exist. The tiny sounds of Roy working hovered on the edge of his consciousness, quiet and oddly comforting: the tap of his pen on the table and the strange, irritated noise he made while reading a particularly boring or stupid report.

It wasn't until something touched the back of his hand that Ed lifted his head, wincing as his neck protested stiffly. Night had drawn in, thick and black beyond the windows, and Roy was waiting patiently for the trance-like state of intent reading to seep away. 'It's late,' he said softly, tugging the book from Ed's unresisting grasp. 'You should get some sleep.'

'Not a kid, Mustang. Give it back.' Ed frowned when Roy shook his head, wandering out of the kitchen door with the book in his hands. 'I was in the middle of a sentence, for fuck's sake. I don't tell you what to do!'

'That's because you don't outrank me,' Roy called back as he climbed the stairs. 'It's called following orders, Ed. Perhaps you've heard of the concept?'

Snarking under his breath, Ed got to his feet and glanced towards the back door, checking the bolts were slid home before flicking off the light. Climbing the stairs he slipped into the bathroom, washing his face and brushing his teeth while staring blankly at his reflection in the mirror. His eyes burned from reading for too long, and the wound in his side thudded bitterly as he turned away and shuffled towards the bedroom.

When the bathroom door closed behind Roy's back, Ed stripped down to his boxers and vest, swearing bitterly to himself as pain bit into his ribs, harsh and unrelenting. It was an incessant bitch of sensation, and he slumped back on the mattress, pressing his automail palm against the bandages gently as he let his mind wander.

The fire had been lit, just a small blaze tha sent a cheerful, unsteady light dancing around the room. The shutters were closed, and Ed watched the skipping shadows unseeingly as he pulled the blankets up to his shoulders and nestled into their depths.

Every muscle was locked taut under his skin, and he could almost fool himself that it was because he was in pain, but the truth was far more simple. Last night sleeping next to Roy had been surprisingly easy: he had been too exhausted to do anything but collapse into slumber. Now his body might be tired but his mind was racing, skipping like a broken record back to what had happened in the kitchen and lingering on what he could have asked of Roy.

Anything.

If it hadn't been for Pierce, Ed knew he would have accepted the blatant invitation. He would have kissed and touched, opened himself up and reveled in all that Roy had to offer. Even if it wasn't safe, even if the consequences pressed down at them from all sides, he would have given in, and so would Roy. That, at least, was obvious. It had been a moment of recklessness, a fraction of time where there weren't any repercussions or risks, there was just need, and now the opportunity was gone, leaving aching desire in its wake.

The bathroom door clicked open, and Ed turned to face the wall. He was horny enough without seeing Roy's bare chest and low slung pyjama pants, and he didn't think he would be able to resist the temptation to reach out and touch the expanse of hot skin and feel the reassuring beat of his heart. If it was just his future at stake he knew he wouldn't have been strong enough to resist, but it wasn't. Roy could suffer too. The last thing he wanted was to make Kerr's words true: to be the irresistible tempter that ruined Roy's life.

Like rising shadows, the inky darkness of the letter's contents rose again in his mind, snuffing out the heat of lust and leaving him blank and cold. He knew the bastard wasn't right, but that didn't stop the circling of his thoughts as the mattress dipped and Roy stretched out next to him.

What had Kerr seen that made him think of him like that? There must have been something in Ed's behaviour that inspired those suspicions. Did others see it? Did they look at him and see nothing but a slut, or were they just repeating the rumours of a doubting few?

The very worst thing was that, when he thought about it, he knew the truth. If that had been the price of retrieving Al's body - lying on his back and letting someone take what they wanted - then he probably would have done it. He'd already given so much of his innocence to the gate, so what did it matter?

Did that make what Kerr said true?

'Are you all right?' Roy's question was quiet in the calm of the room, only just audible over the crackle of the fire. 'You're thinking so loud that I can almost hear you.'

'I'm fine,' Ed mumbled, pressing his nose into the blankets and rounding his shoulders further before admitting quietly, 'Was just thinking about that stupid letter.'

The mattress springs creaked, and, after a moment, Roy tentatively brushed his fingers against Ed's bare arm, sweeping them back and forth soothingly. He didn't tell him not to worry or that it would all be okay, didn't dare belittle his concerns or question him. Instead he offered silent support: a reminder that he wasn't alone.

'Do you want to talk about it?' Roy asked quietly.

'Not really.' Ed sighed, frowning to himself before turning over, facing Roy without actually meeting his gaze. The rubbing on his arm paused as he moved before resuming, warm and comfortable. I – it's just -' He trailed off, huffing an irritated sigh and closing his eyes. 'Never mind.'

He expected Roy to push it, was already bristling at the thought of his demand for answers, but none came. Instead his hand moved downwards, resting on the slight dip of Ed's waist. The vest had ridden up, and the pad of Roy's thumb drew gentle circles against Ed's bare side. It was not a tempting, seductive touch, but something more intimate, protective and soothing.

Gradually the tension seeped out of his muscles, and the warm cocoon of the blankets made him drowsy. The snap of the flames nibbling on wood in the grate became distant and disconnected as his mind slipped closer to the border of dreams, and he was too far gone to stir when Roy's fierce whisper ghosted through the air.

'I will never let him take you away from me.'

Chapter Text

Boredom would kill him if the assassins didn't, Roy realised. It had been five days since they had arrived at the safe-house, and he was beginning to wish that something – anything - would happen, because he had been reduced to doing his paperwork to pass the time. At this rate, he was going to actually finish all the files Hawkeye had given him.

The truth was that there was nothing else to do, not any more. Over the past few days, he and Ed had made the house a veritable warren of alchemical traps and alarms. They had even gone out into the fields and worked out which areas of the periphery were most vulnerable to infiltration.

Along the north edge of the grounds, they had set up a series of huge arrays that would flash a bright white warning if trodden on by anything heavier than a dog. That, along with the river to the south, meant the road was the easiest way in or out, and Brennan and Pierce watched its snaking length for any threats.

Now, they were well-protected. Any other defences would be superfluous, and so he was left reading through one report after another and wishing for something to interrupt the monotony.

Roy tapped his pen glumly on the dossier in front of him, staring at the words without seeing them. Worries piled like snow drifts in his mind, crushing him with their icy weight. He had no way of knowing what was happening in Central. Hughes could be doing anything, could be on the run or making arrests, in prison or worse. Roy's men could have been tried and shot for disloyalty or might be on their way to get him. Either way, his ignorance was driving him half-mad. He longed to help, to be given all the facts so that he could plot his way out of this mess, but instead he was stuck here, safe but uncertain.

It wasn't the threat of silent killers that sent prickles of unease up his spine. After all, he was pretty confident that, between them, him and Ed could at least survive another attack. No, all he could think about was that, back in Central, the way of life he had carved for himself was falling into ruins. There was no place for him in whatever new regime Hakuro was trying to install and, without the army, without the dream of one day becoming Fuhrer, what was left?

Despite his outwardly calm exterior, patience had never been one of Roy's strengths. He had promised himself that he would give Hughes and the others one week. For seven days he would do what he was told and lie low. Any longer than that was out of the question - or it had been until he had read the order for Ed's assassination.

Memories of Kerr's letter kept bobbing to the surface of his thoughts like a corpse in a river, rotten and foul. Every time they made his stomach clench in repulsion, and his muscles tensed with the need to fight and protect. Before, going back to Central had meant risking their lives. That was a chance both he and Ed could readily accept. They were both used to danger, in their way.

Now what awaited Ed was not just a murderer but a predator, someone who could not see beyond their own strange cocktail of want and disgust to the truth. Kerr would take Ed and degrade him in the worst possible ways before killing him.

It was a miracle the general had not acted sooner. After all, he and Ed had both been operating out of Central Command. At first Roy had been puzzled. Why had Kerr not been more blatant before? Eventually, he worked it out. The general had been outspoken about Ed's presence in the military for years, but it was only a few months ago, when Ed was well and truly over eighteen, that the threats had turned sexual.

That must have been Kerr's limit – the one boundary he wouldn't cross. He had no qualms about abuse and torture, but only once Ed had passed the age of consent. The bastard didn't care about permission, but he had obviously drawn the line at raping a minor. It was a small mercy, but Roy felt no gratitude for it. All it meant was that, now, Ed was fair game.

Emotions flared and died, sizzling in his blood like flash fires. Rage was the only one he could sustain: a splayed hand of fury that unlocked all of his more primitive instincts and brought them to the surface. They were too haphazard and basic to be coherent. Every time Roy thought of Ed, one word seeped through his consciousness: “Mine”.

He tried to be logical and look at the whole thing in a professional light. Ed was his subordinate and responsibility – of course he was going to want to put his best interests first – but in reality that had nothing to do with it. He and Ed might not be lovers, but he was Roy's all the same: his to have and hold and protect from monsters like Kerr.

The whispered words of a few nights ago still rang true. He would not let that bastard take Ed away from him. Out here it was an easier promise to keep. The general was a distant threat, but, if they went back to Central, Ed would be walking right into his clutches.

Roy's entire being rebelled against that idea, and he closed his eyes for a moment, breathing out a heavy sigh as he considered the alternatives. Leaving Ed behind was not an option. He would never accept the suggestion. He had made a promise to Hughes to stay at Roy's side, and nothing short of death would make him break it.

No, they had to stay together. Even if it wasn't for Ed's oath, Roy wouldn't want to be apart from him. Divided, it was easier to hide, but when walking into the lion's den they needed strength, not stealth. Much to his surprise, he and Ed complimented one another. What Ed lacked in planning Roy more than made up for, and when Roy would rather not try than face failure, Ed would bull on ahead regardless. If they were going to beat Hakuro, they needed to be side by side. Besides, if they were separated, then he would be powerless to keep Ed safe.

The only other option was to stay here, restless and irritable, waiting for an assassin's bullet or the all clear. It was the safe choice; the easy way out. It was also unacceptable. Neither he nor Ed could tolerate being protected in this way for much longer. Being forced into inactivity made Ed resentful. He was locked up in anger that had no real target: a caged wolf pacing the boundary of his confines endlessly, longing to be free even if it meant facing the hunters.

'You've been staring at that page for half an hour.' A mug clanked on the table next to Roy's hand. 'What's wrong? You forgotten how to read?'

'Just thinking.' Roy picked up the cup and sipped the hot drink gratefully, leaning back in his chair and watching Ed take a gulp of his coffee. Black with four sugars, he recalled absently. Over the past few days he had learned all of Ed's habits and quirks, from the way he wasn't capable of civil conversation before ten in the morning to which side of the bed he preferred. None of them were ground-breaking revelations, but somehow it made Ed slightly easier to understand.

That didn't mean he was not still an enigma. Roy was used to reading people, even those who would never consider themselves an open book were fairly transparent to him, but Ed – Ed defied understanding. His moods flicked and changed like sunlight breaking through clouds, dappled and inconsistent, but facets of his personality remained constant and unchanging: his loyalty, his defiance and strength... .

Familiarity was meant to breed contempt, but whoever had said that was obviously sharing their space with the wrong person. The more Roy discovered about Ed, the more intrigued he became. Anyone else would have been broken by his past, crippled by the automail and drowning in the guilt, but Ed sailed on. Another man with his intelligence would have been cloistered and geekish, unable to communicate with anyone who did not share their brilliance, but Ed had a biting practicality that made his genius more comprehensible and gave him a startling maturity.

Roy took another sip, looking away as Ed glanced doubtfully at him, frowning in puzzlement at Roy's scrutiny. Perhaps that was the reason this attraction had not faded out. Normally, he would not have considered anyone Ed's age an eligible lover. Yes, it would be flattering for a while, and good for his ego that he could keep up with a sex-crazed teenager, but their immaturity would prevent it becoming anything more than a quick tumble.

But Ed was different – wasn't he always? He defied expectations of normality, surpassed them and forced people to look at him in a different light than first impressions would allow. Far from being a flash in the pan, the chemistry between them was only getting stronger. Since Pierce's untimely interruption the other day, they had both studiously avoided the subject, but that did not mean that the stormy, edgy tension had ebbed. Instead it was gathering momentum, tying them closer to one another with invisible bonds that wouldn't break or give.

It made the daily task of changing Ed's bandages tortuous, and sleeping next to him was an almost painful experience. Every morning he woke up to find Ed wrapped tight in his arms, supple and pliant, pressed close enough that, should he awaken, he would be made blatantly aware of how much Roy wanted him.

Every day dawned on a war between Roy's want and his logic and, to be honest, he was not sure how much longer he could hang onto his convictions. Each morning he had to fight hard against the urge to bend his head and kiss Ed awake, to taste the faint salt of his skin and lose himself in his heat, and every time it was more difficult to resist.

'What are you thinking about, then?'

Roy blinked, realising that he had been staring into his coffee cup. A growing hardness between his legs made him shift uncomfortably, and he glanced up to see Ed watching him intently, lips parted and head tilted to one side as if he was trying to puzzle his way through Roy's mysteries.

Quickly, he took control of his expression, slipping behind a professional mask as he put his mug down. 'We've been here almost a week,' he stated, clearing his throat before continuing, 'I've been trying to work out how much longer we should stay before we make our way back to Central.' It was sort of true, he had been thinking that before Ed had hijacked his brain. However, judging from the look on Ed's face he didn't quite believe him. There was an edge of doubt to his gaze, and he gave a faint grimace as if debating whether to call Roy out on his lie.

In the end he seemed to decide against it, leaning back against the wall as he said, 'When we got here you said we'd wait seven days. If you're planning on getting out of here the day after tomorrow, then we're going to need to work out how to get past Brennan and Pierce.'

Roy grunted in agreement. 'That's not going to be easy. They take their job seriously, and they're no more likely to let us out than they are to let a killer in.' He paused, frowning. 'Even if we do get away from here, there's still the question of how we can get back to Central without drawing attention to ourselves.'

'And once we do get back to the city, what do you plan to do then?' Ed's expression was emotionless, neither supportive nor doubting. 'Do you have an idea, or were you going to make it up as you went along?'

Swallowing back a rough noise of annoyance, Roy rolled his shoulders and tipped his head back. All day he had been thinking himself in the same circles, stuck in his helplessness but unable to see a way forward. “Stop Hakuro and don't let Kerr touch Ed” was not the most precise of strategies, but it was really all he had.

'What do you suggest, then?' he demanded. 'We stay here until someone comes and gets us?'

'Fuck, no,' Ed muttered, straightening up and looking out at the encroaching dusk with a scowl. 'I'm bored out of my head, and I'd rather be running for my life than have to look at those stupid arrays from lab five for another minute. I just -' He shrugged, irritated with himself. ' - kind of hoped you had an idea of what to do next. You can normally think your way out of anything.'

Roy shook his head, tapping his bare fingers on the table. 'When I know all the facts it's easy to come up with something, but this?' He waved a hand vaguely. 'There are too many unknowns. I can't even be sure why people are being assassinated, and there's still the fact that Hakuro couldn't be the mastermind. Anything I put together would be like a shot in the dark.'

'That's better than nothing,' Ed said quietly, walking over to the table and shutting the book that lay on the wooden surface. With a furious scowl he snatched the scrap of paper with the arrays on it and folded it in half before dropping it again, listless. Roy recognised the motions of packing away a project, and he also knew Ed too well to buy it for a second. Just because he loathed the incomprehensible alchemy, it didn't mean he had stopped thinking about it. The problem would plague him until it was solved.

'You hungry?' Roy asked quietly, grinning to himself when Ed just nodded. 'Why don't you talk me through the designs from lab five? Maybe it'll help.'

'I doubt it. I tried talking to Al about them but he had no clue.'

'So, what, because I'm not an Elric I couldn't possibly hope to comprehend your theories?' Roy asked as he reached into the back of one of the lower cupboards, his voice echoing strangely in his ears. When he retrieved the pan he needed, he looked over his shoulder, surprised to see Ed glaring at him with something like real anger.

'Don't be a prat. If it was about fire alchemy then I'd ask you because you're the expert, but it's not.' He rubbed his left eye and frowned at the floor. 'At least I think it's not.'

'Well, how do you know?' He wasn't really expecting to lead Ed to some kind of major breakthrough, but he found a rather academic pleasure in listening to him talk through a hypothesis. He thought differently than anyone else Roy had ever known, not in lines or circles but in webs, branching from one thought to the other and weaving together into a tapestry of ideas.

'There are no foundations of elemental patterns in them. They don't even look like real arrays just – just bits and pieces, like the planning stages of something. None of them could support any kind of transmutation,' Ed paused, and when he spoke again his voice was a little hazy. 'Can I see your gloves?'

'They're on the table,' he said. 'Would they overload, the arrays from the lab, I mean?'

'No, they wouldn't carry any power at all. It'd be like writing a sentence and expecting it to transmute. The only reason I know that they're anything to do with alchemy is because you told me so.' His next statement was hard and unforgiving, far too reminiscent of earlier times, when Ed's loathing for the military had bled into a hatred for Mustang in particular. 'If you lied about them and set this up just to piss me off, I will kill you.'

Roy reached into the kitchen drawer, pulling out a knife and cutting up some carrots and other vegetables. 'I wouldn't dare, Ed. There was a file that went with them, mostly scraps of raggy paper, but there was enough there to suggest that they were alchemical.'

The faint metallic sounds of Ed picking up a pen reached his ears, and the silence dragged on for a little while. Roy had got used to those pauses. Intelligence demanded its price and, for Ed, the cost was occasionally getting so lost in his thoughts that everything else became irrelevant. He had found it quite frustrating at first, the way Ed would stop mid-conversation, mid-sentence sometimes, eyes glazed as all of his energy focused inwards.

Eventually, he finished with the vegetables and reached for the oil, unscrewing the bottle cap. Before he put any in the frying pan, he looked over his shoulder, wondering if Ed had actually fallen asleep. This silence was long, even for him.

A flicker of shock sizzled through him, making the bottle twitch in his hands. Ed was drawing on his gloves, charting neat arrays on the pad of each middle finger. It was not a random, absent-minded doodle, but something with intent, and Roy forced down the knee-jerk defensiveness of his anger as he approached the table.

'What are you doing?' The bottle clanked on the wood, but it didn't quite mask the suspicious undertones in Roy's voice.

Ed didn't even look up from what he was doing, he just carried on drawing as he explained, 'If you've not got matches or a lighter and your gloves get wet, then you're fucked. These arrays will dry out the cloth in seconds.' He stopped, pen hovering above the surface as he checked the arrays to ensure that the ink had not bled through the material and ruined their integrity. Finally, he pressed his palms together and tapped his fingers to the fabric, setting the ink so it would not run. 'Don't know why you didn't think of it before.'

Neither did he, now that he stopped to consider it. 'I've been busy,' he mumbled defensively. 'Besides, unlike some people I don't rely one hundred percent on my alchemy.'

'No, you rely on Hawkeye to shoot anyone before they get to you.' Ed looked up, his absent-minded frown smoothing out as his face became serious. 'I'm just making sure that, if we get separated, you've got every advantage possible.'

Roy bowed his head slightly, trying to ignore the whimpers of his bruised pride as he murmured, 'Thank you. Can I try it out?' He took the gloves, sucking in a faint breath as his fingertips brushed the sensitive skin of Ed's palm. The caress only lasted a fraction of second, but Ed's eyes were already darkening, and Roy smirked as Ed looked away sharply, his eyes roving the stacks of files.

'Where is it then?'

'What?' Roy asked as he examined Ed's additions, aware that Ed's voice had a husky edge and that the atmosphere had thickened further, becoming dense with unspoken desire.

'The paperwork that came with the arrays from lab five. You never showed it to me,' Ed looked back at him and shrugged. 'Maybe there's something in there that can help work out what the fucking things mean.'

'Should be among that lot somewhere,' he replied, gesturing to the scattered piles before walking over to the sink, as much to put some distance between himself and Ed as to test the arrays on his gloves.

He drenched his hands with water from the tap until the cloth clung to his palms, sticky and cold. Cautiously, he did as Ed had instructed, pressing his middle fingers together and feeling the familiar flare of alchemy whisper through him. It was a delicate transmutation, perfectly balanced, and the fabric became pleasantly warm. Wisps of steam rose and, in a few seconds, he could click and create a bright, golden spark.

Turning around, he leaned back against the sink, watching Ed as he rifled through the dossiers, his scowl deepening as he failed to unearth what he was looking for. 'Tell me how the temperature regulation works,' he said quietly, still trying to wrap his head around the new arrays. The concept was relatively simple, but there was one thing that still puzzled him. 'The array makes the water evaporate from the material, but that requires a temperature that should give me severe burns, so how does it work?'

Ed glanced up from his hunt, giving him the kind of look a teacher might give a particularly slow student. 'Water evaporates because heat gives the molecules enough energy to become a gas.' He waved a hand as if what he was saying was common knowledge. 'I just used alchemical energy instead of a heat source. There's a regulation circle that stops the temperature rise caused by the reaction exceeding a certain level so you don't get burned.' He ran a hand through his hair and looked around in irritation. 'I can't find the bloody file.'

'You can come up with arrays like this in seconds but you can't conduct an organised search?' Roy asked quietly, moving towards the table and hunting methodically through the mess Ed had made.

'Fuck you,' Ed retorted flatly, slapping the documents in his hand down on top of one of the piles on the table, disturbing its tottering equilibrium. The paperwork shushed down in a small, whispering landslide, skimming across the tabletop and knocking over the open bottle of cooking oil.

With a hissed curse, Roy snatched what files he could from the encroaching flood of amber fluid, grimacing as one or two were irreversibly stained with grease. Ed had done the same, and he dumped another dozen or so sheaves of paper into Roy's arms before getting a cloth and starting to clean up the spill.

'What the hell did you leave the oil on the table for?' he asked irritably.

'I was distracted by you messing around with my gloves,' Roy growled, putting the papers on the floor out of harm's way and retrieving the sadly depleted bottle. 'I was cooking dinner, remember?' As if adding to the bickering, Ed's stomach grumbled furiously, and a reluctant smile curved Roy's lips. 'You finish cleaning this up, and I'll feed you.'

Ed scowled but nodded in agreement, dabbing at the oil and rescuing one or two forlorn bit of paper from its clutches as Roy lit the gas stove and set to work. For a while there was no noise but the spitting of the pan and the hush and shuffle of paper, and, when Ed swore in disbelief, Roy looked around in surprise. 'What is it?'

'I'm such a fucking idiot.' He motioned to the folded strip of paper with the arrays on it, sodden through with oil.

'It'll dry out. It's not like the ink has run or anything,' Roy said reassuringly, turning back to the stove.

'Not that,' Ed huffed. 'This isn't a series of arrays, it's just one drawn in several bits. It's a crappy old coding technique. Alchemist used to draw their designs on layers of see-through paper so that they only made sense if you had all the pieces.' He carefully picked up the paper, now rendered almost transparent by the oil that seeped through its fibres. 'Look, I only folded it in half, but it's already looking more like a working array.'

Roy flicked off the stove and looked over Ed's shoulder, eyebrows arched in surprise as he noticed that the nonsensical lines – bare scraps of alchemy before – lined up here and there, made logical by the neighbouring scribbles that now lay beneath them. 'Any idea what it is?'

'That's an ground-based sigil.' Ed circled a complete triad with his fingertips, 'and that's the trigger, but other than that I can't make out the rest of it yet.'

'You need to leave it to dry,' Roy said. 'You can't transmute the oil out without risking activated parts of the array.' He recognised the look of impatience on Ed's face as he scowled at the sodden piece of paper. After weeks of puzzling over the problem the solution had materialised in front of his eyes, and the thought of waiting even half an hour obviously went against the grain. 'If you try and work out what it is now, the chances are that you'll rip it and then we'll never know. Dinner's ready anyway.'

'I can't always be distracted food, you know,' Ed muttered.

'It's worked so far,' Roy smirked when Ed's only response was a half-hearted glare. 'Just give it half an hour, then you can mess with it as much as you like.'

Grudgingly, Ed did as he was told, picking over his dinner and glancing surreptitiously at the arrays when he thought Roy wasn't looking. Any attempts at conversation were met with monosyllabic answers, and Roy rolled his eyes to himself in disbelief. He knew that Alphonse was the patient, thoughtful one, but he was beginning to realise that he was also the primary carer of the two. Ed looked after the big things, but it was Al who did the day-to-day chores like making sure his brother was fed and got some sleep. If left to his own devices, Ed just forgot about everything else except the puzzle in front of him. It was taking dedication to the point of it being a personality flaw.

Finally, Ed got to his feet, daring Roy to comment as he put his plate by the sink and looked at the paper again. It would still be damp, but Roy knew better than to say anything. Once he knew the answers Ed would be civil, or at least as close to civil as he ever got. Until then it was probably better to hold his tongue and let him get on with it.

He washed and dried the dishes, putting them away as Ed locked himself a way in a thick fog of concentration. He had settled himself at the table again, hunched and tense as his mind raced. He probably wouldn't even notice if the house burnt down around him.

Roy closed the cupboard doors quietly and stopped what he was doing, allowing himself the luxury of watching Ed. He was too far gone to notice that he had Roy's undivided attention, and he could stare without fear of being caught out by Ed's questions.

It was incredible how things had evolved between them. A week ago Ed had been a stunningly attractive young man, bright and bold, but now Roy could see that he had been too caught up in appearances to notice other, smaller things, like the way his eyes lit up on the rare occasions that he truly smiled and the precise timbre of his voice. He had been able to read all of Ed's prickly, defensive body language, practically shouting its message for the world to see, but had never noticed the little flickers that gave away so much more.

He was tired and his side was hurting him again. It was written in the set of Ed's shoulders and the way he kept rubbing the back of his neck with his left hand. Grim lines bracketed his mouth, and Roy quashed the urge to step forward and pull him away from the arrays. As tempting as it was to take Ed away from his work and stroke the tension from his muscles until he was drowsy and relaxed, Roy knew it wasn't a good idea. Ed would never accept it as an offer for help – would only see it as a patronising interruption and react angrily.

Besides, the thought him lying face down, bare-backed as Roy rubbed his palms over skin and automail was painfully intimate. He would not be able to hold himself back from kissing the column of Ed's neck and tracing the scars around the automail with his lips. It would be an opportunity to succumb to temptation, and he could not give himself that chance, no matter how much his body ached for it.

With a faint sigh, Roy picked up a pile of documents, telling Ed quietly that he would be through in the living room. There was no sign of acknowledgement, and he gave a resigned smile. Ed would find him when he emerged from his theories, and if he had not worked it out in a few hours then he would order him to bed. Ed might bitch and whine, but he still normally fell asleep almost as soon as his head hit the pillow.

The carpet whispered beneath Roy's feet, and he put the files down on the battered but functional coffee table in front of the fire before snapping his fingers. Golden flames jumped in the grate, licking up the chimney as the logs caught, filling the room with a mellow, flickering light. Outside the windows it was almost true night, and Roy closed the black-out shutters before settling on the sofa.

A vindictive spring dug into his leg, making him wince. Ed was right, this thing was uncomfortable. After a few minutes, he found a part of the cushion he could sit on comfortably and reached for the files, picking up each and flipping through their contents. Somewhere among this lot there had to be the one that said something about the arrays from lab five. Hawkeye had the sense to include the book, so she wouldn't have left out the other pertinent information.

Opening one of the manilla folders, he blinked in surprise as a handful of glossy squares fell out in his lap. Elysia smiled up at him from the top one, joyfully throwing bread to the ducks in one of Central's many ponds. Hughes must have slipped them in before they left, a brief reminder of a normal life where his best friend tormented him with photographs at every opportunity.

They were all of Elysia, sometimes with her mother in the shot. They looked every inch the perfect family, and Roy had often wondered if things were always as wonderful for the Hughes' as they appeared. He hoped so, but sometimes it was hard to believe. Maes and Gracia had to fight sometimes, didn't they? Elysia must occasionally have a temper tantrum, surely?

Putting the pictures down on the coffee table, he continued his search, scanning and discarding one set of papers after another. Time passed quietly, marked out by the muted tick of the watch in his pocket. More than once Roy went back out to the kitchen, navigating his way around crumpled balls of paper and retrieving more folders. Ed never once looked up.

It took almost two hours, but eventually it became apparent that the information about the arrays wasn't among the documents Hawkeye had given him. His eyes stung from reading, and a shiver danced over his skin. In the hearth the fire continued to burn on a few stubby bits of burned wood, and he reached for the poker, moving to the grate and stirring up the ash before throwing on another log.

'Pyromaniac.' Ed's voice was gentle but weary, and Roy looked up to see him standing in the doorway, watching the flames distractedly. His hair was tumbling out of the ponytail he had put it in that morning, and a trail of ink smudged across his cheek. Stiffly, he walked further into the room, hunkering down by the fireplace and stretching his hands out to warm them. 'I think I know what the array was for.'

Roy frowned, trying to work out why Ed seemed so reluctant. Normally when he solved a problem he wouldn't shut up about it, but now he seemed edgy and uncertain. 'So, are you going to tell me?'

Ed sighed, looking up at him doubtfully before he shifted, sitting on the floor with his legs crossed as he traced random outlines with his fingertips on the hearthstone. 'You know that thing about turning base metals into gold?'

'That illegal thing?' Roy asked warily, wondering where Ed was going with this. 'Of course. Everyone knows it doesn't work, though. If it did, every alchemist would be an independently wealthy recluse.'

'It works,' Ed said flatly, 'but not for long. It changes back into whatever it was made of within half a day.'

'You know that how?' The look that Ed gave Roy was hard and irritated, as if he thought that Roy was picking at little details that didn't matter. 'Is this one of the many things you fail to mention in your reports?'

'It's not important. That array is an attempt to make it a permanent transmutation.'

Roy paused, taking the time to stop and think before asking stupid questions. Making gold from other elements was forbidden for a reason. It wasn't just the unfairness of alchemists being able to make their wealth from nothing. If everyone who could perform alchemy developed their own stockpile of gold the economy, both in Amestris and on a larger scale, would suffer. Gold bars were the manner in which a nation's wealth was measured. The fact that gold was rare kept its value high. If the market was flooded, the value of various countries' treasuries would go down.

'They're trying to turn common metal into gold?' he asked hesitantly, lifting his eyebrows in surprise when Ed shook his head.

'The ground-based element of it was for soil, stuff you dig up out of the garden, not metal. Somehow they're increasing its density and making it look like gold. They're creating fake bullion.' Ed must have read the confusion on Roy's face, because he got to his feet and glanced around as if looking for something. 'It doesn't make sense. Any bank is going to be able to tell the difference. They all have alchemists on their staff who'll spot the flaws in a second. I thought the file would tell us more.'

'It might,' Roy murmured, his shoulders rising and falling in a shrug, 'but it's back in Central. It's definitely not here. I've searched the lot.'

'Great,' Ed grouched, scuffing at the carpet with the toe of his boot. 'Fuckin' great.'

Roy straightened up, reaching out and pushing Ed gently down to the sofa. 'Just forget it for now. Once we get back to the city you can look into it again. You've found out more than anyone else has been able to.'

'Yeah, but it's not enough. It's not solved, is it? It's just more confusing than it was before.' Ed slumped back against the cushions, shifting uncomfortably as the springs groaned in complaint. 'Is that all you've been doing in here? Looking for the papers that were found with the arrays?'

With a slow nod, Roy sat down next to him, cuffing tiredly at his stinging eyes. 'All I found was a lot of work I don't want to do and some photos from Hughes.' He flicked his fingers absently at the coffee table, where the pictures lay fanned out like a winning hand of cards. 'Some things never change.'

Ed gave a grunt, glancing in their direction before looking back again, a frown creasing his brow. Leaning forward, he scooped them up from the table, propping his elbows on his knees as he scrutinised each one carefully.

'What is it? You can't possibly have forgotten what Elysia looks like. We've only been gone for five days.'

'It's not that. Who's he?' He pointed to a man in the background, a soldier, wearing familiar blue and gold and a long military coat. He appeared to be relatively young, with pale blonde hair and an angular face. His hands were in his pockets, but there was no silver chain to indicate a watch, so he wasn't an alchemist.

'Just someone who got caught in the shot. Central's full of soldiers, Ed. There's nothing ominous about it.'

'He's in every picture,' Ed said quietly, showing Roy a couple more, 'and it doesn't even look like these were taken on the same day. Elysia's in different places and wearing different clothes, but he's always hanging around in the background. Like he's -'

'Watching them,' Roy said flatly, focussing on the images as he tried to glean as much as he could. Alarm bells shrilled in his mind, piercing through his concentration and making his heart stutter and jump. He didn't recognise the soldier. He was not one of Hughes' men, nor was he anyone that Roy had seen around Central Command.

'He's one of them,' Ed said quietly, his voice edged with dread. 'Like the guy who tried to shoot you. You can see how new his uniform is.' He pointed to something peeking from the man's cuff 'It's still got the quartermaster's tags on it.'

'That's not a regulation gun, either.' Roy gestured to the holster on the man's hip, barely visible beneath the fall of his coat. All that was apparent was that the bright silver weapon did not fit very well and was at risk of toppling from its place.

Biting his lip, he closed his eyes tight, wishing he could deny what he was seeing. The people who were after him knew about Hughes and had been watching the small family all along.

'We need to get back to Central,' he said urgently, running a hand through his hair. 'I was all right staying here when I thought everyone else was probably safe, but now I know that they're not.'

'Maybe Hughes knew that guy was there,' Ed suggested. 'Maybe he's trying to tell you that it's a known threat.'

'If that was the case he would have adjusted the camera's focus. Elysia's still the center of these photos.' He looked back down at the picture, a fist of fear clenching around his heart as he said quietly, 'They have no idea that they're in danger.'

'So we send them a warning the same way as you told him about Hakuro.'

'And if they've been taken hostage or imprisoned then what good is that going to do?' Roy snapped, throwing the photos down on the table. 'If they're in danger then it's because of me, and I'm not going to sit here doing nothing about it!'

He was halfway to the door when Ed darted in front of him, palms hard against his chest as he blocked his way, holding him at arm's length. 'Let go, Ed.' His voice was a feral growl as he rasped his gloved fingertips together, feeling the fluttering heat of almost-sparks. 'Get out of my way.'

'Roy, don't be an idiot. You can't just leave!'

'Why not?'

'What are you going to eat while you're walking to the next town, or are you going to go forty miles with no food and no sleep? What about weapons and money?' Ed eased the pressure against Roy's chest a little, no doubt seeing the flicker of acknowledgement in his eyes. Slowly, he dropped his hands to his sides, still coiled and tense, ready to block Roy's way if he tried to get past. 'I'm not telling you not to go to Central, just to stop and think a minute.'

He was right. Every single word that Ed spoke was true, and he said them with the knowledge of someone who had been there before. Now that the first flare of panic was beginning to ebb, shame-faced logic was making itself known. If they leapt into action without giving it due consideration, they would end up dead for their efforts.

'What if I decide to leave tonight?' he asked roughly. 'What will you do?'

Ed frowned as if the question made no sense. 'Go with you,' he answered. 'It's not like I outrank you. I can't order you to stay here or anything, and I can't watch your back if you leave me behind.' He crossed his arms and narrowed his eyes. 'Are you really going to choose to walk through unknown terrain in the dark?'

Slowly, he shook his head. 'You're right. There are things we need before we can go anywhere.' He stopped, his mind racing as he dragged together a sketchy plan. 'Brennan should be in the outbuilding. They have telephone access in there for emergencies . Tell him to get a warning message to Hughes on a secured line.'

'Will he pay any attention to it?'

'Say that Elysia and Gracia might be at risk. He won't dare ignore it. If they're still able to do so, then they'll find a safe place to hide. Don't say that we're leaving here. Not to Brennan and not to Maes.'

Ed nodded in understanding, turning away to do as Roy asked before looking back at him distrustfully. 'What about you? What are you going to do?'

'I'm going to get some provisions together. You're right. The better prepared we are, the more chance we have of getting back to Central alive.'

He waited for the sound of the back door to close in Ed's wake before looking around, trying to think rationally. As always there was a war between the need to travel light and the urge to be prepared for anything. They would be chased, if not by the killers then by Brennan and Pierce, so moving quickly and quietly was essential if they were going to get back to the city without being forced to return to the safe-house or shot for their trouble.

A quick search of the kitchen revealed canned food and a tin opener, and he rinsed out every flask and bottle they had, filling them with water from the tap as his thoughts flickered and danced across his mind. Stacking the supplies on the kitchen table, he turned and hurried up the stairs, staring around the bedroom critically.

They would probably spend more than one night sleeping outside, but blankets were too bulky and heavy to carry. They would have to make do with layers of clothes, and he sorted through the boxes as he tried to work out what would be best.

Their outfits needed to be bland and unremarkable. Ed's penchant for black would serve him well, but anything that looked even vaguely military would have to be left behind. That left Roy with a small selection of civilian clothes which he bundled together along with Ed's things. Finally, he examined his long black coat. With winter drawing in, he wasn't keen on the idea of leaving it behind.

With a sigh he went back downstairs, adding the clothes to the pile of supplies before reaching for a kitchen knife and setting to work on the coat, trying to get rid of any distinctive military features that adorned it.

He had just finished removing the brass buttons when Ed came back through the back door, shivering from the night chill. 'Any luck?' Roy asked, pausing as he tried to read Ed's expression.

'Brennan was having trouble getting a secure line, but he's going to keep trying.' Ed shrugged. 'It doesn't have to mean anything ominous, so you can stop looking like that.'

'Like what?'

'Like you're already planning his funeral,' Ed said callously. 'It's not like Hughes is on his own. You trust Hawkeye with your life, so why not his? Breda and Falman are probably still with him, and so's Armstrong. You know how he is about honour and family and all that shit. He's not going to let anyone get hurt.'

Roy turned back to his coat, cutting away the threads that held the Amestrian emblem in place on the lapel before folding it up on top of the stack and glancing at Ed. He was leaning against the closed door, his right hand pressed gently to his side and his face pinched with tiredness. 'I'll get some weapons together. Why don't you go to bed? I'll be up in a minute. We can get a few hours of rest before we make a move.'

He didn't wait for a reply as he went through to the living room, opening one of the cupboards and reaching under the furniture. He had hidden various firearms around the house, loaded and ready to use in case of an emergency. Now he collected together three of them as well as some additional ammunition. With any luck they would not be needed, but he was not about to risk being caught unarmed at a crucial moment.

When he returned to the kitchen, the phosphorescent flare of alchemy was just fading from the air, and Ed was starting to load supplied into a couple of bags he'd transmuted out of spare clothes. He accepted the guns wordlessly from Roy, distributing them and the ammunition evenly between each pack. 'I know I can't shoot one, but this way it doesn't matter so much if we lose a bag.'

'Are you going to be okay to carry one? Won't it hurt your side?'

'I'll manage,' he replied, picking up the bags to see how heavy they were before putting them down on the floor near the back door. 'I packed the letter from Kerr too, along with the arrays from the lab.' On seeing the expression on Roy's face he explained, 'The order for my murder is evidence. A handwriting analysis should prove that he wrote it, and I don't want to leave the arrays here after I spent ages working out what they're for. Come on. If you're going to be good for anything tomorrow, then you need sleep.'

He wanted to protest, to tell Ed to go to bed without him because there was no way he could rest with this much worry, but one look at Ed's face told Roy that if he wasn't going to sleep, then neither was Ed.

Reluctantly, he did as he was told, his thoughts chattering fiendishly as he prepared for bed. By the time he crawled under the blankets, his mind was a shrieking hive of activity, filled from one edge to the other with fragments of plots and plans and shrouded with thick, choking dread. He wanted to believe what Ed had said, that Hughes and his family were fine and that no one had been hurt on his account, but the tight knots in his stomach told him otherwise. A bad feeling had seeped insidiously through to his core, and now it lodged like a tumour, touching everything with its malignant grasp.

Something had gone wrong back in Central: that suspicion pressed clammy hands of worry over his heart, stuttering its beat and making sickly panic flutter through his mind. He had left them all behind to face the fate that should have been his, and now they were paying the price. Hughes had always been there for him. At every moment of his life when things had looked their bleakest, Maes had held him up and helped him through, and he had never had the chance to return the favour.

Gritting his teeth hard, he scowled into the soft darkness of the bedroom, trying to edit the past tense out of his thoughts. Ignorance was feeding his fear, making him forget the facts: Hughes was a strong man, capable and deadly when he had to be. The goofy exterior hid a lethal capability, and he had the intelligence to match it. If anyone could elude the killers, it was Maes, and he would make sure his wife and daughter were safely at his side. Roy knew he had to cling to that hope, for his sanity if nothing else.

The blankets hushed as Ed moved next to him, and Roy dragged himself from his dread to focus on the present, feeling a faint frisson of surprise as Ed's fingertips brushed against his arm. He might have awoken to find Ed in his embrace every morning, but Ed had never consciously reached out for him – not like this, gentle and reassuring, soothing and soft.

'Stop spazzing out and go to sleep,' Ed mumbled, shifting closer and resting his forehead against Roy's shoulder. 'You're not going to be any help to Hughes if you're exhausted.'

'If it was Al, would you be able to sleep?'

Silence filled the room, somehow edged with danger, and Roy wondered if he had unwittingly overstepped some boundary by mentioning Ed's little brother. The hand on his arm slid down to his wrist, nudging it aside until Ed's palm was resting on his bare waist instead, just above the pyjama pants. His thumb skimmed absently back and forth across Roy's skin and, even as worried as he was, Roy couldn't help the flicker of desire that simmered through him at the caress.

'I'd try,' Ed murmured at last, 'if it meant I had a better chance of helping him.' He stopped stroking, curving his palm over Roy's hip and carefully tightening his fingers in emphasis. 'Even an hour of rest's better than nothing.'

'Normally it's someone else asking you to do the sensible thing – to think logically before charging off into the fray. You do realise that, don't you?' He felt the shrug in the bunch of the muscles in Ed's arm, and gave a weary smile as he heard the reply.

'Just means I know what I'm talking about.'

Faintly, Roy sighed, forcing himself to relax as he turned onto his side to face the young man next to him. Ed's hand moved with him, brushing across his skin until his arm was draped loosely over Roy's waist. It could have been Ed's way of making sure that he didn't sneak off in the middle of the night, but Roy chose to think otherwise. It was more pleasant to believe that Ed wanted to hold him than to suspect that he still did not quite trust Roy enough to believe his promises.

Gradually, minute by minute, his senses began to dim and his awareness faded, slipping towards murky dreams that overflowed with dark, formless shadows. There were no images, just a persistent sense of impending disaster that stopped him from sinking deeper, holding him prisoner in the shallows of slumber.

Something breached the wall of his consciousness, and he blinked in the darkness of the room, frowning in confusion. It was not dawn yet; no sunlight, strong or weak, crept around the shutters, but every sense was alert and sharp, startled into action as his brain was left without answers.

In his arms, Ed's lithe body was taut and tense, like a bowstring ready to snap. He could hear the quiet, unsteady whisper of his breathing and feel the flutter of his eyelashes against his bare shoulder as Ed blinked.

'What is it?' he whispered.

'Shhhh. I heard something.'

Roy narrowed his eyes, blind as they were in the darkness, and concentrated on listening until his ears rang and hummed with imagined noise. There was a whispering wind beyond the walls, and a fox yipped out in the countryside, but there were no sounds that did not belong. He was just about to tell Ed that he had imagined it when the peace was shattered apart, and every façade of safety crumbled down around them.

A muted “crack” punctuated the night, bringing utter silence in its wake. No soldier alive could fail to recognise the sound of a gunshot, even one fired through a silencer. The hairs on the nape of Roy's neck prickled in alarm, and Ed whispered a vicious curse as another shot cut through the air like a blade through black silk.

They'd been found.

Chapter Text

Maes sifted through the paperwork on his desk, pushing his glasses up to rub at his eyes as he stared at the piles arranged in front of him. A few days ago, he had received a communication from Mustang stating that Ed recognised the author of the letter ordering his assassination. Maes had not had the chance to read it himself, but he had gently retrieved as much information as he could from Hawkeye. Her opinion was never to be taken lightly, and it was clear that there was more to it than a simple command to kill. Eventually she had explained the threats of sexual abuse, of torture and death wrapped up in the name of cleansing Ed of imagined sins.

Now, whenever Maes thought of it, he had to force himself to keep his emotional distance. Protectiveness over Edward's well-being was something that came naturally. Ed would hate it if he knew, but a faint sense of responsibility hung over everyone in the office. They knew the circumstances that had surrounded his arrival in the military – understood that, although it was the path he walked, it was not what he would have chosen if there had been any other option. As such they all tried to keep him from the darker sides of the army.

Not that they had any luck. From day one Ed seemed to have a knack for falling right into trouble. It was watching him fight through it, all in the name of his brother, that had cemented Maes' confidence in him. Ed was loyal beyond all reason for those he cared for, and there was no mistaking his regard for Roy. Mustang would be safe as long as Ed was still alive, and Maes had known Roy long enough to be sure that the reverse was true.

He had noticed the subtle undercurrent of tense attraction between them for a while now, simmering and desperately ignored, but still there all the same. Roy thought of Ed as more than a subordinate. In fact, there were hints that he viewed him as more than just the next lover in line. There were little signs of something special that Maes had never really seen in Roy before. Normally anyone who caught his attention was treated as an object, rather than a person, but Ed reached in and shook the snow-globe of his emotions.

Maes smiled faintly. If nothing else it was worth the two of them being together just for the joy of seeing Roy unable to hide what he was feeling. Had anyone made him forget his masks before?

He pulled one file closer, trying to focus on the endless notes and make sense of the speculation. Every new little glimmer of evidence they found was just another piece of a massive puzzle, and half of it was conjecture and interpretation. If Kerr was involved then so was Hakuro, and that was a whole new can of worms.

So far, the actions against high-ranking officials had remained covert. Nothing was out in the open, but how much longer would they hold back? Hakuro would want to be sure he was un-opposed before making his plans known, whatever they were. If he was creating a new military regime, he would be as subtle as possible until he had a foundation of supporters, but something niggled at the back of Maes' mind. Coups were quick and ruthless: one night and the world had changed. This was slower and more cautious, almost like it was a front for something else, designed to distract the doubters from the real issue at hand.

Looking up, he stared at the blank brown panel of the office door. He kept expecting someone to burst in and put them all under arrest, but days slipped past and they were left in peace. He almost wished someone would try and apprehend them. At least that would mean they were getting too close to the truth for comfort rather than blundering around in the dark. Instead he got the feeling that someone was watching their attempts to unravel the plot with amusement.

Stiffly, he got to his feet, stretching the kinks out of his back and grabbing his mug from amidst the clutter on the desk. Perhaps the next cup of coffee would bring the answers he needed.

Stepping into the outer office, he paused, surprised even though he should have known better. It was getting late. The last flames of the sunset were cooling to frosty blues and darkening to black, yet none of Roy's men had gone home. They had all moved into the Intelligence office once Mustang had left, ostensibly on loan to help him with the endless cataloguing of trial documentation. It was an excuse that would stand up to basic scrutiny, and no one had questioned it so far.

He grimaced, realising that was another sign that they were not deemed a serious threat. Whoever was behind this must believe them either unwilling or incapable of helping Roy and were happy to leave them alone. Perhaps that would change when they realised that Roy and Edward had fled the city. The plotters knew they weren't dead, because his contacts reported a delicate, circumspect search of the city for both alchemists. Whoever was orchestrating this would lose their patience soon. With any luck they would get careless and give Maes the breakthrough he needed.

Hawkeye sat at her desk, ever the pristine lieutenant, but there were lines of strain on her features. Next to her Black Hayate lay with his head on his paws, mirroring his owner's uncertainty. Falman was obsessively polishing his boots, taking comfort in the little details as he tried not to look at the bigger picture, while Breda pushed food around on a paper plate, picking at it as if his late dinner had no appeal.

If Havoc and Fuery had been here, the former would have been smoking like a chimney while the other talked incessantly, giving voice to every worry and seeking reassurance from his colleagues. Instead they had the better end of the deal. He had ordered Jean to meet Kain after dropping Roy and Ed off at the safe-house. From there they were to travel to the major towns and cities of the East and find out as much as they could from the men of those generals assassinated. Every day they reported in and told the same story. No one was talking.

'Sir, we got a call on the secure line from Alphonse and Winry to confirm that they were still in Risembool. I spoke to Pinako Rockbell as well,' Hawkeye said, a faint smile twitching her lips, 'to ensure they weren't just telling us what we wanted to hear.'

'Al's not Ed,' Maes said quietly. 'He has a better tolerance for doing what he's told. Anything else I should know about?'

She held out a document towards him, waiting patiently for him to take it and flick through the neat type as she said, 'It's the report on the search of Patton's residence. Other than what we found in the safe, the place is empty. If there was anything else pertinent to the investigation then he took it with him.'

'We still don't have any idea where he's gone,' Breda added, setting aside his half-eaten meal and gesturing to a map pinned up on the far wall. 'He was last seen buying a train ticket to Creta from Central station, but we know he never arrived. Either someone killed him, or he never intended to get that far.'

'This is getting ridiculous,' Maes sighed. 'When it comes down to it, what do we actually know for certain?'

Hawkeye got to her feet, walking around to the front of her desk as her brow wrinkled in thought. 'Someone has ordered the assassination of several officers of various ranks, including General Mustang. At least four of those officers are now dead as a result.'

'They're made to look like accidents where possible,' Breda added, scribbling in shorthand on a piece of paper as he spoke, 'which suggests an element to the plot that won't gain public acceptance.' He paused, tapping his pencil on the desk. 'That's pretty unique, isn't it? When promotion gaps have been made before, the people have been informed that those killed were corrupt or disobedient, and opinion hasn't wavered one way or the other. What's different this time?'

'It's about more than changing who is in what position in the hierarchy,' Maes mumbled. 'There's something else behind this, something worse.'

'Worse than murdering innocent soldiers and promoting someone else into their place?' Falman asked, his thin lips twisting into a grimace of distaste. 'This is why so many people hate the army. They have evaluated human life and found it worthless.'

Maes noticed the others nodding in agreement and bowed his head. 'It won't always be like that. Not if we can help it. What else do we know?'

'Someone's also trying to kill Edward, and not as a result of his preventing the general's death.' Hawkeye's fists clenched a little at her sides, but Maes didn't need to ask her to clarify as she added, 'The letter giving the order was dated before the first attempt on the general's life.'

Silence, tense and worried, filled the office from wall to wall, and Maes frowned blankly out of the window, turning over the facts in his mind. 'Who is the highest ranking general to be killed?' he asked quietly, listening to the whisper of paper as Hawkeye searched through the files.

'Generals Hayne, Matthews and Vaughn are the highest ranking victims. They were the commanding generals of West, South and Eastern districts respectively.'

'True generals.' Maes nodded to himself. 'Ranking just below the Fuhrer. Patton, Kerr, and Bertrand are left. Common sense dictates that they are the people who are either masterminding this plot, or stand to gain the most from it.' He racked his brain before shaking his head. 'I've heard nothing about any attempts on Bertrand's life.'

'That's because there haven't been any,' Falman pointed out. 'One of his subordinates, Lieutenant-General Boss, died early on. The official ruling so far has been accidental death.' He lowered his voice ominously. 'Ate food contaminated with rat poison, apparently.'

'What are you thinking, sir?' Hawkeye asked, her voice edged with the faintest hope.

Maes held up a hand, mutely asking for silence as his thoughts raced and spun. In cases like this it was too easy to get caught up in the web of lies and intrigue, to let paranoia become the master of logic, but now his thoughts were changing angle, slipping one way and the other as they flipped the puzzle pieces around, putting them together and seeing a different picture entirely.

'This isn't just about promotions and hierarchy. It's not about generals who support Mustang either – it's about trying to hide something. The people who have died all knew about something and could not be bribed to keep quiet.'

'How do you know that?' Breda asked quietly, his dark eyes intense as he waited for the reasoning that would make it all make sense.

'Two things. Firstly, why kill all the high ranking generals first? When changing a regime and creating a better foundation of support, then it's normally the lower ranking generals, the discontent or the ambitious, that go. Most men who reach the top levels are happy to be there and go no further. Killing off half of the highest ranking men in the military makes the leader weaker overall, not stronger. It doesn't fit the pattern.' He tapped a finger against his lips, lowering his voice as he continued, 'The generals were killed because they all have access to top secret documentation and could expose something that the Fuhrer wanted hidden.'

'And the second reason?' Falman asked.

'Ed and Roy.' Maes walked over to the coffee pot, amazed he had not noticed the discrepancy before. 'There have been a few more deaths since they left, but none as low-ranking as Brigadier-General, let alone any other majors. They're targets because they know too much.' He poured himself a mug of coffee, ignoring the steam that whispered from its surface as he took a sip. 'Question is, what're the higher ups trying to make sure that no one finds out about?'

A knock on the door interrupted the thoughtful silence, and Maes looked up to see one of his men, Dyson, hovering on the threshold. He was young, a couple of years older than Ed, but without the latter's experience with the harsh edges of the world. Mustang could read even the most closed off of individuals, but Maes did not need any skill to see Dyson's emotions. He was afraid.

'It's your wife, sir. I've put her through on a secure line. She said it was urgent.'

With a bare nod of acknowledgement, Maes reached for the receiver as scenarios raced through his mind. Gracia never called him at work unless it was an emergency. Was Elysia hurt? Was Gracia unwell? Had something happened at the house?

'Gracia, what's wrong?'

'Maes, thank God.' Her shaky whisper hushed down the line, and when she spoke again her voice was tight with the effort of remaining calm. 'The car won't start.'

The blood drained from his face, leaving him cold and empty. They didn't own a car. The phrase his wife had just uttered was their danger message, meant to inform the other that they were in trouble without explicitly stating the problem. They had agreed on it early on in his career, when even a secure line could be tapped and every wall had ears.

'Which one?' he asked hoarsely. 'The black one or the white one?' Whichever answer he received made no difference, but he needed to understand as much of the situation as possible. White meant Gracia was being threatened but Elysia was safe, while black translated to their daughter being the one at risk.

He could hear the rattle of the receiver against her wedding ring, and her voice hitched on a real sob of terror. 'Both.'

Something must have shown on his face, because Hawkeye grabbed a set of car keys as Breda reached for his gun, checking it was loaded before getting to his feet. They moved as if they were prepared for anything, competent, professional and capable, and Maes realised that he had to be like them. He did not have the time for panic or shock. He had to act.

'Gracia,' he began, forcing his voice to be steady and strong for her benefit, 'answer yes or no. Are you both in the house?'

'Yes.'

Maes nodded to himself. Good. They had a location. 'Are you injured?'

'No,' she managed, and her voice took on an edge of strength as she repeated, 'no.'

'Is there anyway you can get to safety?'

'No, we're trapped.'

'Have they said anything to you?'

Gracia took a large gulp of air, and he realised that she had not raised her voice above a whisper for the entire conversation. 'Not really. They're waiting for something, but – but I don't know how much time we have. We tried to leave but they told us to go inside. They threatened to shoot us if we tried to escape. Nothing else.'

Maes dragged in a deep breath, putting the coffee down on the desk as he tried to think. There was no room for misunderstanding. Damn anyone who was listening. 'There's a gun in my night stand. It's loaded. Take it and Elysia up to the attic and hide near the water-tank. I'm on my way. Don't come down until me, Breda or Hawkeye comes to get you, no matter what you hear. Do you understand?'

'Yes.' He heard the shudder of her breath and knew that she was crying. 'There are more than eight soldiers surrounding the house, all with guns. Please – please be careful.' Fear collided with anger in Maes' gut, twisting like a clenching fist, and he tightened his hand around the receiver as she whispered desperately, 'I love you.'

Closing his eyes he swallowed a lump in his throat, praying he would get the chance to tell her again face-to-face. 'I love you too, Gracia. Don't let Elysia be afraid.'

Quickly, he cut the connection, already striding out of the office as he snapped, 'Dyson, Leeman, inform Major Armstrong I need his personal assistance at my house. Men in Amestrian uniform have surrounded my home and are holding my wife and daughter hostage.'

'Have they made any demands, sir?' Leeman, a serious, practical lieutenant, asked.

'No, none as yet.' He looked around at his men, noticing how they were all ready for action without even being asked. There was nothing more valuable in hard times than loyalty. 'The rest of you are with me.'

Normally, no one would have dared to question him, but he had forgotten about the additions to his team. Breda, Hawkeye and Falman matched his stride, and he glared sideways at Riza's profile as she said quietly, 'Sir, if no demands have been made then it is possible that they are relying on your wife to call you and bring you to the scene.' She checked the gun on her hip as they clattered down the steps and hurried across the parade ground to the rank of cars for military use. 'Their actions suggest that they have no real interest in Gracia and Elysia, only you.'

'That doesn't mean they won't murder my wife and daughter, Lieutenant. Are you suggesting I stay here where it's safe?'

Hawkeye slipped into the driver's seat, starting the car with practised efficiency. She barely waited for the doors to close before they pulled away, leaving the rest of his men to follow in other vehicles. 'No, sir.' She glanced at him before changing gear and pushing the accelerator down. 'I just wanted to ensure you realise that your family are not the primary targets in this attack.'

Maes stared out of the window, trying to smooth some of the tension from his body. He felt breathless and wrecked with panic, and keeping a lid on the churning fear was getting harder by the second. Everyone had their weak spots, their frailties that were their undoing and, for him, it was his family. Anyone who hurt his wife or daughter was striking at his heart, and the people behind the plot knew that.

The fact that he and Mustang were best friends was common knowledge. Those who wanted Roy dead knew he had fled the city, and they realised the best way to find out where he was hiding was to threaten Gracia and Elysia. For the sake of his wife and daughter's survival, he might have to give up his friend.

His conscience flinched at the thought, even as logic whispered that Roy and Ed were far from defenceless. They could fight back, but his wife and daughter were almost helpless. They had no alchemy, no advantage – only their courage and intelligence, and that would not be enough against the men who had turned their home into a prison.

'Sir?'

Hawkeye's quiet voice interrupted his thought, and he blinked at the familiar scenery. They were approaching his neighbourhood, and he motioned for the lieutenant to pull over. In the rear view mirror he saw two other cars do the same, and watched as his men got out, standing to attention as they waited for their orders.

Climbing out of the car, he looked west to where his house stood just a street away. Fear intensified, a wall of ice that pushed its way through his veins and clogged his heart until every beat hurt like a fresh bruise. However this went, whatever the outcome, life would not be the same again. Since Roy and Ed had left they had all been living a lie, trying to maintain their positions in the military as it changed and warped around them. All that was left was to fight or fall, and he could feel the pressure of events at his back, pushing him on. He did not believe in fate or coincidence, but there was still a faint edge of destiny in the air. What happened today might not be the beginning or the end of this plot, but it would be a defining moment.

'We don't have many facts to work with,' he said, forcing his voice to be as calm and flat as a mirror. 'The main objective is to get my wife and daughter out alive. Take prisoners where possible and be prepared to fight. These men are trained assassins with no moral code. They will not hesitate to kill you if you're injured - nor to open fire if you are unarmed. If you deem an assailant to be a threat then shoot.'

He straightened his shoulders, reaching inside his cuff and feeling the comforting texture of one of his knives in its wrist scabbard. 'Neutralise them by whatever means possible. If, after this operation, you are detained and questioned, instigate order fifteen.'

Around him, his men shifted their weight, eyeing each other. Maes searched their expressions for discomfort or uncertainty, but there was only an extra edge of determination. Order fifteen was a get-out clause for intelligence operatives that protected them from court-martial and prosecution for their actions, and meant they did not have to give their reasoning unless subpoenaed by a court. He would be the only one to suffer the consequences of what happened here today.

Efficiently, he divided them up into four teams, sending them off in each direction to surround the house, telling them to wait for his signal before moving in.

Finally, he was left with Hawkeye, Falman and Breda, each of whom watched him, bright and alert as they waited for their orders. 'Riza and I will approach from the front. You two head for the rear,' he said. 'Those are the only ways in or out. If they haven't already entered the house, those in charge will do so once the attack begins. We have to stop them before they get to Gracia and Elysia.'

'And if they're already inside?'

Hawkeye's question sent a wave of panicked nausea through him, and he forced it down as he tried to find the answer. She was only doing her job, trying to have a plan for any event, but he wished he could ignore that possibility. 'Then we make sure that they don't get away. Move quietly. When the first shot is fired, fight your way to the house.' He hesitated before looking back at Falman and Breda, 'and be careful. As far as we know we outnumber them, but there could be more than we're aware of.'

Silently, he and Riza crept towards the house, skirting the pools of the street lamps as they approached. A few of his men were waiting in the shadows, hunkered down with their guns in their hands as they surveyed the situation.

Mutely, one of them handed Maes the binoculars and pointed across the street, where a young man hunkered under the hedge and another lurked in next door's garden. A third was on the roof opposite his house, a sniper, nothing more than a faintly alien outline in the moonlight.

'Movement inside, sir.'

He narrowed his eyes, smiling despite himself. Gracia had left the lights on. He had told her once, years ago now, how to make a covert operation easier for a rescue force. Any intruders had no choice but to silhouette themselves in the lamp light. They did not stand right in front of the windows, but they were either clumsy or confident, and did not hide themselves completely from sight.

'How many?'

'Two. They're looking for things, sir,' the sergeant murmured, never taking his eyes off of the house. 'People as well as something smaller, like documents or an object of some kind.'

'How do you know?'

'They've been tipping drawers out onto the floor as well as searching cupboards. They've cleared the downstairs and are heading up through the house.'

It would not take them long to think to look in the roof-space, and Maes tightened his jaw in anger. 'Murray, you're the best shot. Take out the sniper. He's the biggest threat to us. All hell will break loose as soon as he goes down. The rest of you concentrate on taking down whoever is outside. We'll deal with the rest.'

'It will be be a race to your family, sir,' Hawkeye pointed out quietly, and he looked up, studying her serious face in the weak moonlight.

'Then you had better be a good runner, Lieutenant, because I don't plan to lose.'

With practised care, Murray took aim at the alien shadow on the rooftop, keeping both eyes open as his finger tightened on the trigger. The shot rang out, bouncing back and forth down the street as everyone leapt into action. The only shouts of alarm were from the intruders as Maes' men hurried in, subduing their targets by whatever means necessary.

Gunfire crackled back and forth: panicked or professional, surprised or planned, it made no difference. It was a miniature battlefield in Central suburbia, and Maes knew his neighbours would already be calling the police. Soon enough the street would be full of blue lights, and the military would be made aware of the situation. One way or the other, this had to be resolved before other agencies began to interfere. If nothing else there was no way he was putting his family's safety in anyone else's hands. There was no one he could trust with that responsibility.

One knife was already in his hands as he dodged towards the front door, certain never to present any gunmen with an easy target. Riza was right at his heels, her revolver ready to aim and shoot at a moment's notice. He jumped over a motionless body on the doorstep and slipped inside, pausing for a split-second to take stock.

Remnants of every day life littered the floor. Paperwork was everywhere and broken photo-frames spilled thorns of shattered glass across the floor. Furniture had been overturned and drapes were torn. His sergeant had been right. They were looking for something other than Gracia and Elysia, but what?

Shaking the question aside, he nodded to Breda and Falman as they burst through the back door, gesturing for them to clear each room as he crept up the stairs. The landing was well lit, but the doorways to the bedrooms and bathroom were all dark, gaping maws, pocking its length like nightmares. The hatch to the attic was closed, and Maes eyed it desperately, fighting the need to rip it open and climb up to his family's side.

'Clear the bedrooms first, sir, and please use your gun,' Hawkeye murmured quietly from his right, forcing him to think logically as she approached the first doorway. 'The last thing we need is to be shot in the back because we were not thorough.'

Silently he did as she requested, sheathing his knife and pulling the revolver from its holster on his hip. It was heavy and unfamiliar in his hands, but the motion of checking the chamber and cocking the safety hammer were instinctive, and he braced his arm as he darted across the doorway and pressed himself flat to the wall on the other side.

No shot rang out, but that did not mean there was no one in there. He unstuck his sweaty left hand from the gun's grip, reaching tentatively into the room. If someone shot his hand then so be it, but whoever was in there would be dazzled if he flicked on the light. It would give him and Hawkeye the precious seconds they needed to take aim and fire.

The switch clicked beneath his fingertips and Riza lunged inwards, sweeping the room with her gaze and the muzzle of the revolver before pushing the door right back to the wall. Stepping back, she shook her head. Empty.

One down, three to go.

Twice more they repeated their silent search, ignoring the whisper of floorboards beneath their feet as they crept along the corridor, skirting the attic entrance as if it were a guillotine waiting to fall. Each room proved as empty as the last, with nothing but strewn clothes and split mattresses to indicate that anything was out of the ordinary. Whoever had been looking had begun to get frantic. They had no care if they were discovered or not, and Maes swallowed a lump in his throat. The men in his house were confident of success. They did not plan to let anyone out alive, no matter what information they received.

Hawkeye waited as he reached out for the final light-switch, a faint gloss of sweat beading her upper lip and forehead as she darted inside. Maes stood in the doorway and stared into the room, instinctively ready to fire. His finger was tight on the trigger, joints knotted into twists of pain by the adrenaline that surged through his body, and it took a few moments for logic to over-ride instinct. There was nothing there to shoot, nothing to punish, just Elysia's soft toys staring at him with hard eyes and smiling faces.

Something creaked behind him and he twisted around, jerking his gun upwards as he realised what he was seeing. The attic hatch was open and the wide stairs had been lowered, allowing a man to creep down them. He had not needed to use his hands to keep his balance as he clambered down to the landing and now he stood in the passageway, a cruel smile on his lips. Locked tight in the clasp of his left arm with a hand over her mouth was Elysia. Her dark eyes were bright with frightened tears, and each breath caught on a whimper.

Pressed against her temple was the muzzle of a gun, hammer cocked and ready to fire.

'Throw down your weapons and kick them closer,' the man ordered, pressing the pistol firmly to Elysia's skin in emphasis, 'and tell your lady friend to do the same and step out where I can see her.'

His mind raced in panic, but there were no answers and no easy way out; there was nothing he or Hawkeye could do. Carefully, he put the safety back onto the gun, dropping it to the floor and kicking it to the middle of the no-man's land between them. Riza stepped out of the doorway, her hands raised in surrender and her finger clear of her gun's trigger as she followed the orders. Her eyes were hard and unforgiving, but Maes noticed a flicker of scared tenderness when she saw Elysia's distress.

'Knives too, and no heroics.' He nodded his head towards the hatch, and Maes saw a bigger, burlier man climb down the steps with Gracia clamped hard in his arm. Her feet didn't touch the floor, but she did not dare to kick or lash out at her assailant. She was frozen with fury and fear in his grip, cringing away from the gun that was pointed at her face. Like Elysia she had a hand over her mouth, probably to stop her crying out a warning, and her beautiful eyes were brimming with desperation.

'What do you want?' Maes asked roughly, trying to mask the terror in his voice for Elysia's benefit. 'What will it take to let my family go?'

The man holding his daughter gave a cruel sneer, eyeing him derisively. 'Sorry, but it's not going to work that way. What, did you think you could give us information and we'd let you and your family leave? Do you honestly think that you know anything we don't?' He laughed, a rough, harsh bark of mirth that sent a shudder down Maes' spine. 'I bet you thought you could tell us where Mustang was and we'd be grateful, right? After all, he and that Fullmetal brat he's got with him can look after themselves, right?'

A rumbling chuckle from the other gunman made Maes' blood run cold. 'Wrong.'

'We already know where they are. A farm house about forty miles out of Dunferrin. They've got guards. Two of your men – one loyal and the other?' The man shrugged. 'He's just like you. He had a baby boy and a wife to save. Pity they were already dead when he made the deal.'

Pierce.

Maes looked away in disbelief, feeling the tension of denial in Hawkeye's body at the betrayal. Brennan and Pierce were his two most trusted men, and now it turned out that even they weren't untouchable.

'Mustang'll be dead by dawn,' the gunman said flatly, as if he were talking about killing nothing more worthwhile than a cockroach, 'if he's not already.'

'So what do you want?' Maes growled, teeth bared in a snarl as anger and loathing crushed fear and threw it aside, filling him from edge to edge with boiling, visceral rage. 'What was the point of all this?'

A grin spread across the assassin's face, full-fledged and joyful, as if he had been told a brilliant joke. Smoothly he shifted his arm, moving the gun away from Elysia's head and pointing it at Maes' chest. His aim was true, that much was clear. As soon as that trigger was pulled, his life was over. Would it hurt? One split second of pain and then, what? Bright light, hot flames, the blackness of oblivion?

Time slowed down, moving like syrup around him as his heart thudded in his ears and every breath hissed between his lips, turning his mouth desert dry. His thoughts ran like rats in a maze, searching for a way out of this situation and finding nothing but dead ends.

'All we want is to take you out of the picture.' The assassin tightened his arm around Elysia in a parody of an embrace as Maes looked into his little girl's face, wanting her to turn away or hide her face. She couldn't. The grip on her was too tight, and tears tumbled over her lashes as her whimpers became higher and more panicked. Gracia was shaking her head, her eyes closed tight as she thrashed against the iron grip that held her in place.

'Don't worry, your wife and daughter will be right behind you.'

A crack split the air apart, shearing it in two like a hot blade through silk as another shot followed in quick succession, sending clashing, clattering echoes along the corridor.

The man holding Elysia pitched forward, his gun tumbling from his grip as life fled his gaze. Behind him Breda and Falman stood at the top of the stairs, guns still smoking as they raced forward. A rough, animal howl erupted from the brute who had Gracia, and he swore as she ripped herself free and staggered away, leaving him clutching the bloody mess that was all that remained of his gun hand.

Maes jolted with shock as his wife threw herself into his arms. Black spots danced in front of his eyes, and he sucked in a clear, steady breath as time resumed its normal pace. Burying his face in Gracia's hair, he murmured meaningless words of reassurance as he pulled her down to kneel on the floor and held his hand out to Elysia.

She stood still, staring in shocked surprise at the corpse of the man who had been threatening to kill her father. The tears had stopped, caged between her lashes as her breathing stuttered and her little body shook. With a faint sound she skirted around the body, not turning her back until Maes looped his arm around her, pulling her close.

'Did they hurt you? Are you bleeding?'

'No,' Gracia breathed, curling one hand in his jacket as she pressed her face into his shoulder. 'We hid behind the water tank but it was like they knew we were already there. I tried to shoot them but – but I couldn't. They knocked the gun out of my hands. I'm s-sorry.'

'Don't be. Don't be. It's all right.' He clutched them both close, not sure whether he was reassuring them or himself as he rocked them both gently.

In the corner of his eye he saw the surviving killer lunge forward, scrabbling for his gun with blood-slick hands. Riza moved like a striking snake, slamming her foot into his face and shoving his head into the wall with brutal force. Maes heard the crack of bone and saw piggy eyes roll back in his head as Hawkeye cursed quietly, backing away from the bright white froth that seethed from his lips.

'Cyanide, don't touch it,' Maes managed to warn her. 'Even a little bit can kill you.'

'I'd hoped to take him alive for questioning,' she said quietly, stepping back and retrieving her gun from where it lay on the floor. 'Are you all right, sir?'

He nodded, his muscles weak with relief as he rubbed a hand up and down Elysia's back before looking at Breda and Falman. 'Thank you,' he said earnestly, meeting their gazes unflinchingly. 'You saved our lives.'

'Just doing our job, sir. General Mustang would kill us if we let anything happen to you while he was gone,' Breda said, his grin falling away as he noticed the hard, tense line of Maes' jaw and the paleness of his face. 'Sir?'

'Roy and Ed's cover has been blown. The killers know where they are.' He glanced over to the window, staring at the blank black of the night and the moon's orb, high over the rooftops. 'We need to warn them. Falman, find Dyson and tell him to try and get through to the safe-house. He needs to speak with Brennan, not Pierce.'

Shakily, he let Gracia and Elysia go, getting to his feet as the reality of the situation crashed down on him like a wave. He knew that any warning he could give might already be too late, but he had to try. Ed and Roy needed every chance they could get to make it through this alive, and he felt his stomach lurch at the thought that they may have already lost that fight.

'Sir, they are not the only ones in danger. We need to get you and your family to a safe location before the military arrive,' Hawkeye said, her voice hard and practical. 'It does not matter if the soldiers who arrest you are corrupt or not, you will still be within the plotter's reach if you're in custody.'

Maes nodded, rubbing a hand over his face and trying to pull himself together. It was tempting to be a victim of relief, to be lost in the ebb of adrenaline and relax, but he could not give in to any sense of security. The threat to his family may no longer be imminent, but it had not faded away.

'Get them in the car and don't leave them,' he ordered Riza, allowing a faint smile onto his lips as she nodded in understanding, seemingly unshaken by anything that had happened. 'Keep Breda with you. I'll join you once I've spoken to my men.'

It hurt to walk away and leave his wife and daughter behind, but he knew that Roy's command would make sure they had everything they needed. Besides, he did not plan to spend more than a few minutes out of their sight.

On shaking knees he trotted down the stairs, his knife a reassuring weight in the palm of his hand as he surveyed the wreck of his home. No time to mourn broken possessions. At least all the killers had manage to destroy that night were things, not people. It could have been very different.

Nervous sweat still prickled along his hairline, and the skin on his chest crawled in anticipation of a bullet that had never hit home. He was a soldier, and injury was something he had grown accustomed to, but never before had he stood helplessly waiting for a man to end his life with one jerk of his finger on a trigger.

He had never before been so sure that he was going to die.

Shaking off the feeling, he pushed his way outside. There would be time to dwell on that later, when he was safe and warm with his wife in his arms. Now there were bigger matters to attend to.

'Report.'

One of his men stood to attention, saluting neatly as he spoke without emotion. 'Eleven targets dead, sir, and a twelfth on his way out. We've searched the grounds and are maintaining a perimeter. Major Armstrong is with the dying man.'

Maes followed the jerk of the soldier's head, noticing Alex's shadowy form knelt on the ground. Someone, either the killers or his men, had taken out the surrounding street-lamps, and the road was gloomy. The neighbouring houses were silent and still, but he knew that the occupants would be peering from behind their curtains, spurred on by morbid curiosity. They really could not hang around here for long.

'Anything?' he asked as he crouched at Armstrong's side, seeing the big man shake his head. A red stain spread on the front of the man's fake uniform, and his breath came in odd, rattling gasps. His face was flushed an unnatural pink colour, and he kept giving weak, useless coughs as he stared up at the night sky. 'What happened to him?'

'The cyanide capsule in his tooth came loose when he was shot. He swallowed it.' Alex's moustache quivered with suppressed emotion. 'He might have survived the bullet wound but -'

'As soon as his stomach digests the pill he'll start to die,' Maes finished. He knew cyanide well enough. If released into the mouth it was a quick, relatively painless way to go, but in the stomach it took time to digest, and the decline took a little longer. 'How much time does he have?'

'A few minutes before the paralysis sets in. He's said nothing.'

Maes looked down at the man, feeling his heart constrict painfully. Those who had taken his wife and daughter hostage had been ruthless killers. There had been no humanity in their faces, just cold, hard cruelty, but this man looked different. Life had beaten him down to this existence and, unlike the others, he still had a conscience. Maybe he could use that to his advantage.

'Roy Mustang is my friend,' he began, watching the assassin carefully, 'and the people you work for are trying to kill him. Your partners said that they knew where he was, that he was probably already dead. Do you know anything about that?' Silence met his question, and he added quietly. 'The people you have killed – they were more than just names. They had families, friends, lovers – they could have changed this world for the better if they had been given the chance. That's what Mustang wants to do. He wants to stop this kind of thing from happening. He wants the military to be something respected, not vilified and loathed. You don't even have to speak. Just blink once if you know anything that might help me.'

Slowly, he saw the resilience in the man's eyes fade and die, and he lowered his eyelids once before opening them again.

'Has his assassination been confirmed? Blink once for yes, twice for no.'

Twice, but there was a flicker of doubt in his eyes. His breathing was become deeper and more rapid, and Maes looked away, knowing that the cyanide was taking hold. There wasn't much time left. 'Thank you,' he whispered quietly, falling silent as the every drag of air between the killer's lips began to burble. He lost consciousness shortly after, and a few minutes later Armstrong placed his pulseless wrist at his side.

'It seems he had nothing to give us,' the large man murmured, his voice a rolling rumble in the peaceful street.

'He gave us hope,' Maes replied faintly. 'Not much, but some. The assassins know where Roy and Ed are hiding, and the two in the house implied that they might already have been taken out. From what he told us, that's not been confirmed yet.'

'He had some honour left, unlike his partners.' Alex looked up at Maes, his expression concerned. 'Your family? Are they safe?'

'Riza and Breda are watching them. We need to find a safe place to hide before the military arrive. If I go back to Central Command I'll be arrested for this, and God knows what will happen to Gracia and Elysia.' Maes grimaced, feeling his head start to throb. Fear and adrenaline had shattered apart the cohesive lines of his thoughts, and he was left scrabbling through the broken pieces, trying to retrieve some sanity from the mess. 'With the city closed down, I'm not even sure where might be best. They'll find us in no time.'

Armstrong got to his feet, straightening his jacket and looking down at Maes with bright blue eyes. 'My estates are beyond the perimeter, and the men on the boundary are volunteers from my father's old command. They are adept at looking the other way.'

Maes blinked in surprise at that revelation, feeling relief stir within him. 'How did you manage to arrange that?'

'The Fuhrer did not have adequate manpower for every inch of the blockade and was grateful for the assistance. He does not think that the old military families are a threat.'

A weak grin crossed Maes' lips, feeling stiff and strange. 'More fool him.'

Alex's blue eyes narrowed as he gave a dark-edged smile and nodded once in acknowledgement of a point well made. 'He will not be the first to forget how much of the army's strength lies in families with a pedigree such as mine. You and your men will be safe with me for a time. My mother and sister are out in the countryside, leaving myself and my father. It would be an honour to help a friend in need.'

Gratitude swamped through Maes like a warm tide, and he nodded his thanks. 'You're certain? It might be considered an act of war.'

Armstrong chuckled as if the idea of Hakuro labelling him a traitor amused him. 'My family has always been at the forefront of military affairs, and we have never fought for the wrong side yet, sir. Take your family to my home and say that I have granted you access at the perimeter. I will follow shortly with your men. Is there anything you require from Central Command?'

Maes rubbed a hand over his chin. 'All the paperwork on my desk and two men, Dyson and Leeman. If you can bring them with you I would be grateful. They're unlikely to question your authority but, if they do, explain that it's for their own good. They can make their own choice from there.'

With a brief salute, Armstrong turned away and called out orders, leaving Maes to walk tiredly back along the street to where the car was waiting, engine purring patiently. Gracia was in the back, a blanket wrapped around her shoulders and Elysia pulled close against her side. Her left hand was stroking the top of their daughter's head, soothing with a mother's instinct as she waited for his arrival.

Slipping into the back seat next to her, he tugged her close, encircling his family in his arms as he said to Riza, 'Armstrong's house, as fast as you can without raising suspicion.'

The car pulled away smoothly, devouring Central's streets as they hurried for the perimeter, and they reached the barricade without incident. As soon as Maes mentioned Alex's name to the elderly soldier at the watch post, he nodded and waved them through with a wink. 'If anyone asks, I didn't see you,' he said with a faint smile. 'It's amazing what I don't see, these days.'

'Looks like the Fuhrer's not as popular as he thinks,' Breda muttered, ducking his head to look at the gargantuan building that Armstrong called home and whistling in amazement.

Gravel crunched under the car's wheels as they worked their way up the drive, and a large fountain splashed musically in front of the house. Steps climbed towards the doorway, and a huge man stood at their peak. He had curling grey hair and a huge beard, but there was no mistaking the familiar blue eyes.

A butler was also waiting at his side, but Alex's father flapped him away irritably and opened the back door to the car himself, helping Gracia out with a friendly smile. 'My son contacted me from Central Command, Lieutenant-Colonel Hughes,' he said, his voice a booming presence even at normal volume. 'Please make yourself at home for as long as you need.'

His face grew grim, and shaggy eyebrows curved down as he led the way indoors. 'I also have a report from a lad called Dyson. He was unable to get your message through, but he picked up an SOS code originating from the safe-house.'

'Does that mean that Roy and Edward are in danger?' Gracia asked, looking over the top of the car to Maes.

He nodded, noticing the rigid disbelief in Hawkeye's posture and the doubt in Breda's expression. Hope was a fading thing, and his stomach was hollow with dread. Turning to Alex's father, he asked, 'Sir, do you have a secure telephone I can use?'

'First door on the right, and call me Louis. I shall take your lady through to the living room and get her settled in front of the fire. From what I have heard you have all had a distressing time.'

Maes listened to the sound of Louis' voice fading away as the older man gently led Gracia and Elysia up the steps. Breda and Hawkeye followed, answering his intelligent questions about the attacks and current situation as best they could.

Quickly he followed them before slipping into the room Louis had mentioned, blinking at the opulent study before moving to the phone and dialling a number, hoping that it would connect. After three rings a bleary voice answered, and he recognised Havoc's sleep rough tones.

'Jean, how far are you from the safe-house?'

'About six hours drive. Why, is it over?' The hope in his voice was a tangible thing, and Maes swallowed tightly, shaking his head even though the lieutenant could not see him.

'No, things have got worse in Central, and we received the SOS signal from the safe-house tonight. I need you to go and find out what's happened. It might have been triggered by accident but -'

'But you think something's gone wrong?' He could heard the sound of Havoc moving around, spurred from the edge of sleep and into the alert expanses of wakefulness by the news. 'I can maybe make it there in five hours if I drive fast. Kain, get up.'

'Just do what you can. As soon as you know more then get in touch. Tell Fuery that we're at Armstrong's estate.'

Jean didn't question their location; he simply acknowledged the fact before disconnecting, leaving Maes holding the receiver and staring blankly at the embers in the fireplace. Armstrong and his command had arrived; he could hear Alex organising them all to bedrooms and treating the minor injuries many had incurred, gently persuading the majority to rest and putting a few to guard the boundaries of the estate.

With numb fingers, he hung up the phone, glancing at the clock on the mantelpiece. It was almost midnight, and his heart squeezed painfully at the thought of the long wait ahead. He did not want to believe that Roy and Ed were dead, that everything they were fighting for was gone, but the doubt was an insidious drug in his veins that sent shivers over his skin.

Absently, he opened the door, following the sound of his wife's soft voice and stepping into one of the many rooms of the house. Gracia was sitting on a large sofa, sipping a glass of amber spirit. Elysia was asleep in her lap, curled up close to her mother as the day's events took their toll.

'It sounds as if you could use this,' Louis said quietly, handing him a tumbler. One sip told Maes it was brandy, and he felt the spirit spread heat down into his stomach. 'I'll leave you to rest. I suggested a bedroom, we have plenty spare, but your lady did not want to wake the little one.'

'Thank you. We'll be fine in here for now. Could you pass on the message to Lieutenant Hawkeye that Lieutenant Havoc is heading for the safe-house. We should know more by dawn.'

Louis Armstrong nodded as he withdrew, leaving them alone. Gracia watched him from the sofa, smiling shakily as she held out a hand and pulled him down next to her, kissing him soundly. He could almost taste her relief, and he rubbed his nose along hers comfortingly. 'I thought they were going to kill you,' she whispered, tears edging her voice as she put her empty glass down. 'I thought I was going to have to watch you die.'

'Shhh, it's okay. It didn't happen.'

'But it could have,' Gracia whispered, rubbing at her eyes and shifting to curl up next to him, 'and now Edward and Roy are in danger. What's happening, Maes?'

He had no answer for her - could only press her head to his shoulder and hold her tight as he asked himself the same question. A week ago the world had been normal. Now it was an alien place that made no sense, and he was running himself ragged just to try and keep those he cared for safe.

Looking down at his wife, he smiled faintly, brushing her hair aside and pressing a kiss to her forehead. She mumbled sleepily, drained and exhausted, and he felt her breathing steadily even out as she listened to the beat of his heart. Elysia was snoring faintly, cradled between them, and he rested his hand on her dark head as he let his eyes drift closed.

He had not intended to sleep, had not really expected to find any peace, but when he awoke Riza was bent over him, shaking his shoulder gently. Her face was pale and pinched, and he glanced at the clock on the wall, knowing what was happening before she even spoke.

'Havoc is on the phone.'

'Has he said anything?' he whispered, gently nudging Gracia aside and getting to his feet, wincing as his stiff body complained.

'No, sir, but he did not sound positive.'

Maes swore quietly, walking across the hall to the study, seeing nothing of the antique furniture or brooding portraits as he hesitated at the doorway. Breda and Armstrong were waiting, pale and tense as they stared at the receiver that lay innocently on Louis' desk.

Wiping his sweating palm on his trousers, Maes waked across the plush carpet and picked it up, struggling to keep his voice steady. 'Havoc? What have you found?'

'It's gone.' Jean's words choked in his throat. 'There's nothing left of the safe-house but ash. I – I thought it was a fire, but Fuery says there's signs of an explosion. We found some bodies.' A trembling sigh rushed down the line, and he heard Havoc swallow convulsively. 'Your men. Brennan and Pierce. The younger one had been shot. The other had his throat cut. He didn't die straight away, and it looks like he started the SOS signal. A stranger, too, near the watch tower. He could be one of the killers.'

Maes shut his eyes, pinching the bridge of his nose as he listened. 'What about Ed and Roy? Any sign of them?'

Havoc blew out a breath, and there was something very close to grief in his words. 'No bodies, sir, but we – we found their watches and the general's dog tags in what's left of the house. Ed – Ed never wore his – wears his.' Jean made a shaky noise. 'We looked for any sign that they got away, but we can't find anything. Either they were very good at covering their tracks or -'

'Or they never made it out alive.' The words fell from Maes' lips like stones, and he looked up at the others. Hawkeye was shaking her head, her lips parted in disbelief as she rejected his assessment. Breda was staring at the floor as if he was seeing a different scene entirely, and Armstrong's eyes were brimming with tears. They couldn't hear the whole conversation - didn't need to - they could see the truth in his expression.

'What should we do, sir, look for them?' Havoc asked weakly.

'No. If they're still alive then that will draw attention to them when they're at their most vulnerable.' He stopped, forcing himself to think. 'I know Roy. If they can, then they'll head back to Central. He'll want to face this fight, not run from it.'

Taking a deep breath he spoke quickly, hoping he was making the right decision. 'Drive to Risembool and get Al and Miss Rockbell. Alphonse will need to be told what's happened to Ed and, once he knows, nothing will keep him in Risembool. I would rather he was with us than out on his own. After that come back to Armstrong's estate in Central. Maybe by then we'll know more.'

Wordlessly he hung up the receiver, trying to ignore the dank, heavy rot of his heart inside his chest. He had hoped for something definitive, some sign that Roy and Ed were all right, but all that he saw through Havoc's eyes told him of a brutal, painful death.

Quietly, he related the full story to the others, watching the flicker and ebb of hope in their expressions as they listened. None of them wanted to believe what they were hearing. Their denial was as plain as day, and Maes wished he could give them that luxury, but they had to know what might have happened.

When Maes finished speaking, Armstrong cleared his throat, blinking aside his tears with visible effort as he spoke. 'Roy Mustang and Edward Elric are brave, resilient men. I will not allow myself to doubt them. They will find their way back to us.'

'I hope you're right, Alex,' Maes murmured, looking out of the window at the rising sun, 'because, without them, we've got nothing left to fight for.'

Chapter Text

'Shit,' Ed hissed, rolling out of bed and reaching for his leather pants, tugging them on as he tried to pick out any other threatening sounds in the night. Apart from the faint whisper of fabric as Roy yanked on some trousers and grabbed a shirt, there was nothing, and the back of Ed's neck thrilled with unease. If they were able to, Brennan or Pierce would have done something to raise the alarm, yet there was nothing except for a dense, eerie calm.

The fire had not been lit, and the chilly air bit at his bare arm as he crept closer to the window and put his eye to the gap between the shutters. It only offered a thin line of the view, but he could make out bright, ghostly moonlight splashing over the field and the glow from the windows of the house that Hughes' men shared.

'We need to find out if there's anyone left,' Roy whispered, his voice no more than a suggestion in the air. 'It's possible Brennan and Pierce managed to kill them.'

'Then why haven't they come to get us?' Ed asked, shaking his head as he leaned back from the window. 'I think there's still at least one killer out there.' He shoved his feet into his boots, not bothering to tie the laces as he whispered, 'Have you got your gloves?'

'Of course. I've hidden some guns around the house. There's one under the kitchen table and another above the living room door. They're transmuted in place so you'll need to use alchemy to get them free,' Roy murmured, pausing to listen before he carried on. 'We need to try and get to the guard house. There's an SOS button in there which will send out a signal to Hughes. They might not be able to get here in time to help us, but we need to let them know that something has gone wrong.'

The floorboards sighed under Ed's feet as he moved in a half-crouch around the bed, pausing as Roy reached out to touch his arm. 'What?'

'Promise me you won't take anyone on unless you have to.' He must have been able to make out the reluctance on Ed's face, because his grip tightened a little as his whispers became fierce. 'It's stupid to go looking for a fight, Ed. What good will it do?'

'If they're dead, then they're not a problem anymore.'

'And if you're dead then it's all over. Please, Ed, don't hunt them down. If they catch you, then of course try and get free, but don't force a confrontation. I don't like it any better than you do, but this time it's safer to run away.'

Ed let out a tight sigh, grimacing before giving a nod of frustrated agreement. 'Fine, but the same goes for you. Don't pick a fight you can't win.'

He motioned for Roy to follow him towards the door, tapping his fingertips together and removing the corrosion from the hinges with a flicker of alchemy, praying that no one saw the brief dance of light. Before pushing it open, he waited, but there was nothing to suggest they had been discovered. They were safe, for now.

Peering down the stairs, he squinted into the darkness. Shadows jutted through the gloom, but they were silent and still. Nothing stirred within the night, and Ed tried to ignore the edgy thrum of his heart. Either the house was empty, or the killers were waiting for them to creep into their trap.

'Put your feet where I put mine,' he whispered, 'otherwise the floorboards'll make enough noise to wake the dead.'

Ed moved down the stairs with haphazard grace, trying to ignore the press of the high walls around him. A nervous sweat slicked his left palm and prickled along his hairline, but he cuffed it away it as he tried to make out any threat in the darkness. His eyes were almost useless – he could barely see more than his hand in front of his face, so he forced himself to concentrate on his other senses.

Fear flickered along his skin, drowning out sensation with its hoary buzz, but he felt a whisper of cool air stir the fine hairs on his arm. A window or door was open, letting in the breeze. It smelled crisp and frosty, bringing with it the scents of autumn, but a more gruesome smell lingered, one he knew far too well.

Blood.

The faint tinniness of it was a sharp memory on his tongue, and he felt Roy tense behind him, no doubt sensing the same thing. Either one of their attackers was injured and bleeding profusely, or one of their protectors had fallen foul of a bullet.

At the bottom of the stairs, the front door stood closed and locked against the world. They had not been through it since their arrival, and Ed could see that the bolts were still firmly in place. To either side, both the doorway to the kitchen and the living room stood open, and Ed tried desperately to remember if he had closed them before going to bed. He had been too busy concentrating on Roy - on calming his fear over Hughes' safety – to make sure the place was secure, and now he cursed himself for being so careless.

Something brushed the back of his neck, and he jerked away in alarm, teeth bared in a silent snarl before he realised it was Roy trying to get his attention. A tiny flame sprang to life at Roy's fingertips, shielded by his other hand and so feeble that it only gave enough light for them to see each other.

Roy's face was pale and serious, and his eyes were darkly intense as he gestured for Ed to search the living room while he took the kitchen. 'Be careful,' he mouthed as Ed nodded in understanding. It would be easy for an assassin to be waiting in one room or the other, gun pointed at the door as he waited for them to frame themselves in the threshold.

Ed forced himself to forget about Roy, to trust him to look after himself as he concentrated on his own survival. Taking a deep breath, he darted forward, making sure that he was always in motion as he lunged through the door, hands pressed together as the alchemy seethed in his mind. The shutters stood open a little, and moonlight striped the room in bars of white and black, but there was nothing there other than the furniture.

Slowly, he let the power in his hands ebb away, blowing out a shaky breath as he scowled. He would rather something attacked him, would rather fight it out and get it over with than play this stupid game of cat and mouse. He knew that there was a threat somewhere, but so far there was no sign of assassins in the house. Why? After all, as far as they knew he and Roy were unarmed and helpless, so why linger outside? Why not barge in and shoot them before they had the chance to gather their wits?

'Ed,' Roy called out quietly, his voice edged with dark emotion. 'Look at this.'

He peered around the kitchen doorway cautiously, half-expecting to see Roy as a hostage with a gun to his head, but the man stood in the middle of the tiled floor, arms crossed as he looked towards the back door.

Following his gaze, Ed grimaced. It stood open a few inches, admitting zephyrs that rifled the loose papers on the table, but that alone was not what was making him stare. Blood pooled on the floor around a limp arm and hand, fingers curled loosely and unmoving.

It was still attached to its owner, as if someone had been running for the house and had barely reached the door before they were gunned down. A quick glance at the lock showed that it had been smashed open. They had probably been sprinting to warn them and, even though there was not much blood visible, Ed doubted that they would be getting up again.

'Brennan or Pierce?' Roy asked quietly, closing his eyes in disbelief as Ed shrugged. 'Why would the killers shoot him dead but not enter the house? It doesn't make any sense.'

Ed bent down, peering under the kitchen table and seeing the gun Roy had mentioned. Gently, he pressed his palms together, releasing it from the clutches of the wood before handing the brutish thing over. 'Maybe they just know who they're up against. Think about it. They've tried to kill you twice, now, and they've not succeeded yet.'

'Because of you,' Roy murmured softly, checking that the gun was loaded and that the safety was on before tucking it into the small of his back. 'You're the only reason I'm not dead and buried, Ed.'

'So they're taking us as a serious threat rather than just a couple of targets to neutralise.' Ed motioned Roy towards the wall, feeling some of his anxiety abate once the brickwork was to his back. He still felt exposed and vulnerable, but it was a tolerable level of stress. 'How important is it that we activate the SOS signal? We could just grab the bags and run.'

Roy shook his head, rubbing his hand through his hair as he thought about it. 'If I was sure we could get away and contact Hughes from the next town I wouldn't bother about it, but -'

He didn't need to finish what he was saying, Ed knew what he was getting at. There was every chance that they'd both be dead by dawn and, even if they got away, there was no guarantees that they would make it to the next town alive. Forty miles was a long way through open countryside on foot. Anything could happen.

'I've got an idea, but you're not going to like it.'

He looked up at Roy, seeing the suspicion and doubt on his face at those words. It was never easy trying to convince Mustang to do something he didn't want to do, and Ed took a slow, steady breath before he began speaking.

'Go back upstairs to the bedroom, shut yourself in and booby trap the door so that no one can sneak up on you.' He held up a hand before Roy could interrupt, hissing, 'Just listen, will you? I need you to watch my back while I get to the signal. Just open the window a little and shoot any threats you see.'

'Why aren't you the one in the bedroom?' Roy demanded, careful to keep his words quiet but intense.

'Don't be stupid. I can't fire a gun, and my accuracy with a throwing knife is crap in daylight, let alone in the dark. Besides,' Ed pointed out quietly, 'of the two of us, you're the only one they'll kill on sight.' He grimaced. 'They've got other plans for me, remember? At worst they'll give me a flesh wound.'

'That's not very comforting, Ed.' Roy looked towards the back door, still tense. They were both trained to always be aware of their surroundings and, while their minds raced and strategised, their other senses were on full alert for anything out of the ordinary. Eventually he gave a reluctant nod, grabbing Ed's wrist and tugging him gently towards the front door. 'Go out this way and sneak around the house. If I was out there waiting for my target, I'd be watching the back door. They're probably expecting us to check the body.'

It made sense, and Ed nodded, watching as Roy pulled a piece of chalk out of his pocket and released another weapon from the wall above the living room door. It was not a pistol, but something with a longer barrel, better for sniping with. Roy handled it as if he was familiar with its weight: a brutal reminder that he was a soldier who had seen active duty, not just a general who sat behind a desk.

'Watch yourself. Just because they're meant to take you alive, it doesn't mean they won't kill you by accident.' Roy looked as if the last thing he wanted Ed to do was leave, but there wasn't much choice. 'If you can't get to the guard house then we'll run for it. Ideally we need to let Hughes know that this place is no longer secure, but it's more important that we get out alive.'

A faint smile twitched Ed's lips, and he waved his hand up the stairs. 'Get going. When you thought it was going to be you risking your life you were saying how important it was to activate the signal. Can't change your mind now.'

Roy looked like he was thinking about arguing, fingers white-knuckled around the stock of the gun, but he finally gave a weary nod and crept up the stairs, ducking out of sight into the bedroom. Ed listened breathlessly, waiting until he heard the tiny rasp of the window being opened a crack before turning his attention to the front door.

It did not take much to transmute the bolts away, letting the hinges swing silently open. The night waited, blank and breathless, and Ed glanced along the driveway. There was no car, not within sight, so whoever was out there had probably crossed the countryside on foot. A few stars twinkled up above, unveiled by clouds, but this side of the house was shaded from the moon's watchful eye.

Tentatively, he stepped forward, reaching down to rub handfuls of dust into his hair and smear his automail. It wasn't much, but it was the best he could do. Hopefully it would mute the shine and make it that much harder for an assassin to pick him out in the darkness.

An owl hooted, its cry a ghostly sound as Ed snuck out of the house, pressing his body close to the wall as his skin prickled nervously. He tried to keep his breathing steady as his boots crunched on the first frost and his mind whirled with plans and thought and fears.

People underestimated him, they always did. They looked at him, saw nothing but a kid and wrote him off as a non-threat, but these killers weren't going to make that mistake. He and Mustang were being treated with the wary seriousness their abilities deserved, and that stripped them of the advantage of surprise. Whoever was out here was expecting them to be smart and would be prepared for anything.

Well, he was just going to have to think outside the box.

The corner of the house pressed into his back, and he glanced around the wall before crouching lower and stepping forward, keeping his movements slow and measured. Shadows weakened as he approached the bright side of the building, and he scanned the bleached out view for any sign of life.

Jutting grimly into the sky was the water tower, a shambollic monument amidst the flat fields. Ed narrowed his eyes at the platform, trying to see an abnormal silhouette, but nothing stood out. If someone was up there, then they were well hidden.

He stopped on level with the wall that held the back door, glancing along its length to the body that lay sprawled on the doorstep. It was Brennan, eyes open and unseeing, his face wiped clean of all expression. He had fallen forward, and a dark circle of blood stood out on his back. He had been running for them when he was shot from behind. The back of his head was a gory mess, and Ed swallowed tightly. It looked like the first wound had paralysed him, and the killers had marched up and shot him between the eyes, finishing the job.

Ed's lips twisted against a welt of sadness, but he pushed it down, giving a mute nod of thanks to Brennan's body. He wouldn't have known it, but he had given Ed one important piece of information. No matter what kind of gun these people had, it wouldn't have enough range to make that shot from the water tower. Whoever had killed Brennan was closer to the house, out in the fields somewhere.

An ear-splitting “crack” rang through the air, and the brickwork next to Ed's face exploded into shrapnel, scoring a line across his cheek as every muscle in his body jolted into action. He was running before he even had a chance to stop and think, darting towards the guardhouse as Roy took aim and fired out into the night.

The few seconds of horrible exposure, of being the only moving target in open ground, lasted for an eternity, and Ed dove for the weak cover the outbuilding had to offer. He flinched as more bullets hit the ground nearby, raising clods of dusty soil. His heart was racing fit to burst, thudding hard against his ribs as he sucked in several breaths and tipped his head back against the cool stone, trying to gather his wits. There wasn't the time to panic. He couldn't risk being lost in fear; it could be the death of him. All he had to do was get to the signal and get back to Roy. After that they could deal with whoever was still after them together.

There was no point in being stealthy now, and he smashed in the glass of the window with his automail fist before climbing through, paying no attention to the jagged edges that caught his clothes. As soon as his feet hit the floor he reeled from the smell, gagging as the coppery tang hit him like a battering ram.

Blood splashed across the ground like crimson rain, and it took him a moment to realise what he was seeing. A small communications console was against one wall and, slumped over it like a puppet with no strings, was Pierce. Dark scarlet pooled across the controls, but it didn't hide the steadily flashing light a few inches from the dead man's fingers. The SOS.

Ed inched closer, noticing the jagged flesh across the soldier's neck. His throat had been slit, but not enough to kill him outright. He had just enough time to activate the signal before he lost his fight to survive.

Slowly, he glanced around, trying to work out what was bothering him about the scene. The door was shut and locked from the inside, but there were no bloody fingerprints on the wood. There were footprints in what was splashed on the floor, too steady to belong to Pierce, but they did not lead back outside. Instead … .

It happened in a split-second. His heart did not even have time to thrum one mad beat before the killer lunged at him, the pile of blankets he had been hiding beneath falling from his shoulders as the light caught the thin silver line of the knife blade in his hands.

Ed's palms crashed together without any instructions from his brain as he leapt to the side, avoiding the shining arc of the weapon by a hair's breadth. He rolled across the tacky floor, slamming his hands to its surface and narrowing his eyes against flying splinters. Spikes rose up like the jaws of some massive animal snapping closed. One jabbed into the knife-man's leg, and he howled in pain as he lunged forward, jerking himself free. He slammed into Ed, bearing him to the ground.

Lashing out with his left foot, Ed kicked at whatever he could reach as he grabbed the man's wrists, desperately trying to hold him at bay. His left arm shook with the effort as vivid pain screamed along his injured side. A thug would have not thought to change the angle of the knife, but the man above him was well-trained, and he twitched the blade in his hands, pushing it past Ed's defenses.

The cool metal point punctuated his thoughts, and he glared through the mess of his hair at the man pressed over him, trying to force his mind to think over the stutter of panic. He had known all along that they were dealing with professionals, but the emotionless face above his was chilling. He had expected some kind of passion about killing, some kind of blood-lust or joy, but there was nothing. He was being observed as if he was nothing more than a piece of meat.

'Aren't you going to finish it?' he spat, shifting his weight as he struggled for the strength to get free. If it weren't for his side he would have no problem, but the fucker knew he was injured and made sure to use it to his advantage.

'You're worth more alive, but don't think that means you're safe.' He gave a cold smile. 'Fight me, and I'll make you wish you were dead.' His eyes took on a hint of life, and his lips parted into a grin.

Ed clenched his teeth together, a foul-mouthed reply already on his tongue, but an explosion of gunfire tore his words away, making him jerk in alarm. Light flickered in bright, staccato beats through the window, coming from the direction of the house.

'Sounds like my two colleagues found your friend.'

Fury flooded through Ed, twisting the fear that filled him into something hot and fierce – something he could use. His arms were pinned by the weight of the assassin's burly arm across his shoulders, but he could still move his feet. In a flash he jerked his knee up, hearing the wheeze of air as the killer's eyes teared up. It was hard for anyone to be threatening when they'd been hit in the crotch. The knife wavered, scoring a thin, painful line across the flesh of Ed's throat, but it was all the distraction he needed to slam his weight upwards and pitch the killer off of him.

In a second he had scrambled to his feet and slapped his hand together, letting alchemy shift the floorboards once more until the guy was bound to the ground with wide strips of wood. Before the light had even faded away, Ed darted towards the door, ripping it open as his mind filled with a stuttering litany, half blasphemy and half prayer as he hoped against hope that Roy was unharmed by whatever was happening in the house.

A gun barrel pushed into Ed's chest, knocking the wind out of him as he charged outside. His stomach contracted on a painful wretch, bending him double as he coughed and spluttered. Metal kissed his forehead, right between his eyes, and he heard the fatal sound of a safety hammer being cocked.

'Going somewhere?'

Ed blinked up, lips parted as he gulped in air and silently cursed his own carelessness.

The massive soldier in front of him was wearing an Amestrian uniform with all of the gold trim ripped away. A scar tore across one eye socket, and the eyeball itself was a mangled, unblinking mess. The other was sharp, bitter grey with a tiny pupil, and the mind behind it was clearly tripping along the clinical borders of insanity. Muscles flickered with a horde of nervous tics, but his gun hand was rock steady.

Looking over Ed's shoulder at the whimpering ball on the floor, the man heaved a weary sigh. The barrel pressed a little harder to Ed's forehead in warning as he pulled another, smaller gun and aimed it into the room.

'M-m-marcus, what are you -?'

Ed's ears rang with the sound of the shot, and he flinched as the bullet seared through the air and cut off the knife-man's words.

Marcus tsked in irritation, holstering the other gun as he murmured, 'Amateur. Gareth may have made the mistake of seeing you as a child, Mr Elric, but I won't do the same. Straighten up slowly, please.'

'Or what?' Ed ground out, still clutching his bruised chest. 'You'll kill me? Don't think your employer would be too happy with that.'

'Or things will get very unpleasant,' Marcus said calmly. 'Your life is not the one you should be worried about.'

The blunt barrel moved away from his forehead and pressed sharply under his chin instead, levering his head up and forcing his back to uncurl. Muscles panged with pain, but the pressure against his jaw steadily increased until he was standing up straight. 'Hands in the air, Mr Elric, and no alchemy. If you behave I will make sure that your friend dies quickly. If not -' Marcus shrugged. 'We are in a secure, isolated location. No one but you will hear him scream. Do you know that skilled killers can keep a victim alive and bleeding for days?'

As if to add emphasis to his statement, there was another burst of gunfire from the house. Three rapid shots followed by one sharp retort. Whoever was in the building with Roy had an automatic weapon, but they hadn't caught him in their sights yet.

The heavy weight of Marcus' hand settled on the back of Ed's neck, applying enough pressure to break it should he make any sudden movements. A hard jab in the small of his back announced the presence of the pistol, but it was an unnecessary threat. The killers knew what they were doing, and they knew exactly which strings to pull to ensure cooperation. As long as Roy was at risk, they knew that Ed would not do anything to make the situation worse.

With a faint snarl, Ed staggered back towards the house, torn between anger at his situation and fear of what he would find. He should not have panicked, should have gone back out of the window rather than the door, but his head had been so full of getting back to Roy that logic had played no part in the decision. His body had just reacted, and he'd fallen right into Marcus' hands.

A sharp poke in the spine was all the signal he needed to reach forward and push the door open, stepping clumsily over Brennan's body. His footsteps were heavy on the tiled floor, and it took a bare second for him to take stock. Bullets chipped into the wall, random and haphazard as if the man firing had not taken the time to aim. Furniture was broken, as were several plates, and there was a faint smell of gas emanating from the stove. The two bags still rested by the back door, heavy with promise, and Ed spared them a brief glance as escape plans bloomed and died in his mind, each as futile as the last.

Roy stood over an unconscious man, gun aimed at his head, steady and sure. There was no sign of any bullet wounds, and Ed knew that Roy wouldn't pull the trigger against an unarmed opponent, regardless of the fact that he would not have been shown the same mercy.

Ed parted his lips, a warning already on the tip of his tongue, but the grip on his neck shifted, fingers curling around over his throat and pressing down without mercy, choking him. Marcus' thumb remained on his nape, biting into the space between the bones and sending arrows of pain down his back.

He felt the pistol move away, turning instead to point at Roy as the gunman murmured, 'Drop the weapon, general.'

At the sound of Marcus' voice, Roy looked up, relief already dying in his eyes as he took in Ed and the stranger at his back. His pale face bleached out further as he took in the blood on Ed's skin. Mostly it belonged to Pierce, but Roy had no way of knowing that, and his expression of fear and concern was utterly unmasked.

That was exactly what Marcus wanted. Ed could feel it in the tension of his muscles and the flutter of his breath on the back of his neck. He could have shot Roy without a word, but that was not what he was about. He wanted to make people suffer, and he seemed to think that Ed was the key to Roy's undoing.

'Drop it, or I forget what Kerr wants and kill him.' He tightened his fingers in emphasis, making Ed wheeze. 'One quick twist and it's over.'

Ed closed his eyes in disbelief as Roy did as he was told, letting the gun fall to the floor with a loud clatter as he raised his hands in surrender. Bleak light filled the room from wall to wall, and Ed bit his lips as he stared pointedly at Roy's gloves, trying to communicate without words. Why didn't he use his alchemy? One click and he could get away.

Roy shook his head mutely, and Ed grimaced, cursing himself silently. He was meant to be protecting Mustang, but instead of becoming his strength he had somehow ended up being his weakness. Roy was not going to leave him behind - was not going to think of himself and let Ed suffer as a consequence – and where did that leave them? Both too afraid to act in case the other was hurt as a result and, ultimately, both of them dead.

'You have been a difficult man to find, general, but I'm afraid your luck has run out,' Marcus said softly, and Ed could hear the grin in his voice. 'Kerr suggested that using the boy against you might be the only way to get close enough to kill you.' He shook Ed in his grip, fingertips biting into his flesh until he could feel the bones of his neck grating together under the strain. 'It seems he was right.' His words became edged with a leer as he added, 'You care for this boy, far more than a superior officer should.'

'Let him go,' Roy ordered, his voice hard and unforgiving as Marcus chuckled to himself. 'He's not done anything to deserve what Kerr will do to him.'

'I'm a murderer, general, not a priest. I don't care whether he's as pure as snow or the worst sinner in Amestris. I don't care if he's fucking you or not. All I care about is the price.' The assassin brushed his thumb over the nape of Ed's neck in a slow, sweeping motion. 'Now, thanks to Mr Elric's cooperation, I can complete the contract on your life. Really, I couldn't have done it without him.'

Ed's stomach swam and sunk as doubt flickered across Roy's features. Marcus wanted to make Roy think Ed had somehow helped them -wanted him to die with that last thought on his mind... .

White hot rage surged along Ed's nerves, firing through his muscles and blanking out any thought of self-preservation. There was no fucking way that he was going to let that happen.

'Goodbye, General Mustang.'

Ed threw himself sideways, ignoring the bruising agony around his neck and throat as he slammed into Marcus' gun hand, throwing the man off balance and knocking the weapon to the floor. The shot echoed back and forth between the close walls, deafening and alien, but, before he could see where it had landed, a backhand across the face caught him by surprise.

He stumbled back and was only kept from sprawling on the floor by Roy's arms wrapping around his waist and tugging him closer, pushing him half behind him in an effort to shield him from Marcus' fury.

The killer twisted, as agile as a cat as he pulled the spare gun from his waistband and took aim.

'Don't move, no matter what,' Roy ordered, curing one arm tight around Ed's shoulders. He snapped his fingers with forceful finality as Marcus yanked on the trigger, sending the bullet ripping through the air.

For one heartbeat there was silence, eerie and calm, before the whole world went to hell.

Fire exploded out and upward, flaring around them in white hot tongues that consumed everything in their path. The gas leaking from the stove caught as the flames chewed their way back along the pipes, igniting the cannisters. With screams of agony, they exploded, sending sharp fragments of metal scything through brick and wood like comets, carrying trickles of flame in their wake. Blazing tiles rained down from the decimated roof, driven upwards by the force of the explosion as timbers creaked and gave way, falling like the masts of wrecked ships to thud into the ground.

They should have been dead, Ed knew that, but the pounding thud of Roy's heart beneath his palm beat out its own message of life and hope. His face was pressed into Roy's chest, shielded from the fury of the flames. Strong arms were wrapped around his head, unflinchingly gentle as if they cradled something precious, and he could feel the press of Roy's stubbled cheek to his as he curled away from the heat.

The scent of blood and burning meat edged the air, but mostly Ed could smell the fire, brazen and cleansing as it tore through the scene, too wild for Roy to control. All he was doing was holding it at bay, and Ed could feel what it was costing him. His body was shaking with the effort, and the small pocket of air that surrounded them was almost too hot to breathe, full of smoke and ash.

Weakly, Ed tugged Roy downwards until they both knelt on the floor where the air was more clear. Bright whites and blues bit into his eyes, making them stream, and he swore to himself as he tried to remember which way was out. If they stayed here then they would still end up dead, but he did not dare to break Roy's concentration. If the alchemy faltered, even for a second, then the flames would roll in and consume them.

Unconsciously, he pressed himself closer to Roy's side, wordlessly reassuring him that he wasn't going anywhere as he untangled his hands from Roy's shirt. Fire alchemy was not something he had spent much time studying, but he knew the basics. Clearing a path to the door was something he could manage.

Clapping his hands together, he sent the transmutation flickering across the floor. Everything that was burning disintegrated into sparkling motes of ash that flickered and died, leaving an uncertain, wavering passage that charted the way to the door.

All around them, the house groaned as if in pain, and Ed knew they didn't have much time before the remaining beams crashed down around their ears. Gently, he pulled Roy after him, wincing as tongues of fire lapped out across his left arm, raising red welts in their wake. The air was parched, sucking the moisture from his eyes and making them burn as his mouth turned dry with every desperate breath. His skin felt as if it was cracking, turning from flesh to bone by the voracious hunger of the flames, but steadily, like prisoners squeezing between the razorwire that blocked their escape, they were making their way across the room.

Behind them, the alchemy fell away, filling the room with a hollow, hungry roar as the blaze rolled inwards, licking hot and fast on the untouched wood and plaster that remained. Ed felt a shift of power and huffed a sigh of relief as the narrow passage through the fire widened, pushed back by Roy's influence on the air. It was still breathable, but poorer, somehow, as if he was reducing the oxygen as much as he dared.

A firm hand on Ed's shoulder told him Roy was still there, in control of his body as much as his alchemy, and he felt a brief, disorienting wave of relief as they staggered forward

The bags still lay innocently by the threshold. One was nothing more than tatters of charred cloth and melted metal, but the other was almost intact. Ed snatched it up in his automail hand, ignoring the faint wisps of smoke that drifted up from the fabric. It sagged threateningly, but held together as they stumbled out of the door and into the blessed cool of the night.

Ed bent double a dozen paces from the house, gagging and retching on the clear air as he tried desperately to breathe. His legs shook weakly, and his head was throbbing with a desperate ache. His left arm stung from the burns, and his lungs felt as if they were full of ash.

Dizzily, he looked over at where Roy was crouched, hands splayed on the ground in front of him for balance. His face was smudged with soot, and his clothes were singed in places, but it was the spreading stain on his left shoulder that made Ed straighten up. He stumbled over, reaching out and ignoring Roy's faint hiss of pain at his gentle touch. When he pulled his fingertips away, they were wet with blood, and he blinked at the red gleam stupidly.

'I thought he missed?!' It was a definite shout, fuelled by ebbing fear and rising anger, and he scowled as Roy shook his head, waving a hand in weak dismissal.

'Just a flesh wound,' he managed, coughing and turning his head away to spit. 'We can't stay here. There could be others around.'

Ed snorted in disbelief as Roy stood up, wobbling unsteadily. 'You're not going anywhere. Come on.' He nudged him gently away from the burning wreck of the house. 'Marcus and the one you knocked out were the only ones left, at least according to the bastard who caught me in there.' He gestured to the guardhouse, leading Roy around the building until they were on its far side, shielded from the heat by cool, solid stone.

'You shouldn't believe what any of them say. There could still be others,' Roy mumbled.

'Sit,' Ed ordered, ignoring Roy's words and giving a faint nod of satisfaction when he did as he was told. Grabbing the bag, he pulled out one of the guns and handed it over. 'If you see anyone, shoot them. I just need a few minutes to stop you from bleeding. I can't drag your sorry arse around if you pass out. Take off your shirt.'

Roy raised an eyebrow but did as he was told, wincing as his arm protested to the movement. Ed snatched at the garment before Roy could pitch it to the dirty ground, slinging it over his shoulder as he reached forward and tried to see how serious the damage was. Marcus' shot was probably meant for Roy's heart, but it had gone wide, cleaving a bone-deep gash into the fleshy part of his shoulder instead.

It must hurt like fuck, but the bleeding had already slowed to a sluggish seep, and there was nothing in the wound. A quick search through the bag revealed a flask of water and one of the dressing pads for the injury in Ed's side. Roy made a sound of protest, but Ed just shot him a glare. 'I'm not the one who's still bleeding,' he pointed out. 'You need this more than me.'

He ripped the cleanest parts of the shirt into strips, concentrating on binding the dressing in place and trying to ignore the soft, welcoming warmth that radiated from Roy's skin. He smelled of smoke and spice and sweat, faintly underlined with fear and adrenaline, and Ed fought against the urge to bury his nose in the crook of Roy's neck and inhale.

Now was not the time for that, but his body did not care. It was shaken and trembling, caught up in the high-wire dance of fight and flight. Instincts twisted together, blending into one another until they were almost overwhelming; the only commands his flesh would obey.

Something touched his cheek softly, and he jerked in surprise, looking up with startled eyes. Roy's thumb traced the bloody line that crossed his face tenderly, and he tried not to give a needy whine at the caress.

'Where are you bleeding?'

It took him a moment to realise why Roy was asking, and he swallowed tightly, pushing back his want as he shook his head. 'Most of it's not mine,' he mumbled, his voice hoarse. 'Pierce had his throat cut and there was blood everywhere. I rolled through it when I was trying to get away.' He tied off the last strip of cloth and leaned back, deliberately not looking at Roy as he shoved the flask of water back in the bag. He didn't have time to appreciate the view, no matter how much he wanted to.

Licking his dry lips, Ed pulled out a spare shirt and handed it over, rubbing a tired hand across his face as he tried to take stock. All he wanted to do was lean against Roy's chest and reassure himself that they were both all right, that they were safe and secure, but that would be a lie. Even if there weren't any other killers nearby, it would not be long before more were sent to find out what had happened. They couldn't still be here when they arrived.

A dark thought flickered across his mind, and Ed narrowed his eyes thoughtfully. Slinging the bag over his shoulder, he wandered to the edge of the guardhouse wall and looked back towards the house, staring at the pall of smoke that rose in the sky. Now, at night, it was almost invisible, but by dawn it would be seen for miles around: a warning beacon for any who cared to look.

'How hot does a fire have to be to burn away all human remains?' he asked quietly.

'Very hot,' Roy replied, pausing in the act of doing up his shirt buttons to examine Ed's face. 'Why?'

'Can't you be a bit more specific?'

Dropping his hands to his side, Roy winced, rolling his injured shoulder before walking to Ed's side, his face turning ruddy in the firelight. 'Eight hundred degrees will do it in a couple of hours, but I don't think we've really got time for that.'

'So do it in a couple of minutes instead,' Ed retorted. 'If you pull enough oxygen down from the atmosphere it should get hot enough.'

'In theory,' Roy said hesitantly, his voice taking on a panicked edge as Ed set the bag down and walked back towards the house. 'What are you doing?'

He didn't answer, screwing up his eyes as he approached the house. The heat was like a wall, but he persevered until he was close enough to reach out and grab Brennan's ankles, pulling him free of the tenacious grasp of the fire. His pooled blood had kept most of the flames at bay, and Ed grunted an apology as he yanked him back towards the guard house.

'We can't take them with us,' Roy said quietly as he walked forward to lend Ed a hand, 'and we honestly cannot stay here and bury them, Ed.'

'No, but he doesn't deserve to be burned to ash with a couple of murderers,' he replied. 'I'm just thinking about buying us some more time. If there aren't any recognisable corpses in there, then they won't know if we're alive or dead.'

'They'll assume we survived,' Roy muttered.

'Not if we come up with a way to make them think otherwise.' He looked across at Roy, seeing him rub his chin absently. 'If you can make the fire hot enough, I can do the rest.'

Silently, Roy nodded in agreement, taking Ed by the elbow and pulling him back to a safe distance before snapping his fingers together. The spark fell away unheeded, but that was not the point of activating the arrays on his gloves.

Around them the air stirred, the grass bending double across the fields as the wind streamed inwards, changing to a heady, breathless mix that smelled vaguely of chemicals.

As soon as the breeze hit the burning house, the fire roared in appreciation, oranges and reds turning white and blue as the air baked and wavered like a mirage. Walls slumped and folded as the pillar of the chimney gave way, falling inwards in a clatter of bricks. Popping explosions of superheated metal and wood rang out like gunshots, and the ammunition in the abandoned weapons pocked the night with their retorts.

Ed dragged his eyes away from the scene, turning to look at Roy. Protecting them from the fire had cost him a lot, and now he was bleeding his energy away to keep the flames alive. His face had taken on a sallow tinge, and sweat beaded on his forehead and trickled down his cheek. He swayed on his feet, and Ed reached out, propping up his weight without saying a word as the wind died away and the fire returned to how it had been before, tame in comparison to its former fury.

'If it was too much for you, you should have said something!' Ed growled, lowering Roy gently to sit on the dusty ground and putting his automail hand to Roy's forehead. He turned to the cool metal as if it were a blessing, and Ed rubbed his thumb absently back and forth in comfort.

'I'm fine,' Roy rasped. 'That should be enough. It'll go out soon.'

'Good, give me your watch and your dog tags.'

He looked up at Ed as if he had lost his mind, and it was only when Ed reached under the cotton of his shirt and broke the chain holding the metal ID in place that he spoke. 'What are you doing?'

'Making it look like we were in there when the place burned down,' he said quietly. 'If anyone comes looking, then there's a good chance they'll find the remains of these and assume the worst. It'll give us the time we need to get safely away.' He held out his hand, waiting for Roy to reluctantly relinquish his watch before pulling his own free.

Throwing them into the hottest part of the blaze took no effort, and Ed watched the silver glimmer and sparkle for a moment before it winked out of sight. His pocket felt strangely empty, and he curled his hand into a brief fist as he thought of the inscription on the lid of his watch, probably already melted beyond recognition.

'We need to leave now, before it gets light.'

Roy's words made him turn, and Ed followed his gaze to the east, seeing the narrow band of silver light that heralded the dawn. 'How far can you walk?' he asked quietly, not missing the way Roy was shivering fitfully. Small transmutations were easy, but anything large could quickly result in the alchemist collapsing from exhaustion. Roy was already injured, and now he looked too weak to walk more than a few paces.

'There's a wood to the east and a derelict farm a few miles away. We should head that way.' Dark eyes, smudged with exhausted shadows, glanced his way. 'I'm not the only one who needs rest. Are you sure you're not hurt?'

'I'm fine. They weren't looking to kill me. I'm just a bit bruised.' He picked the bag up off the floor, slinging it over his shoulder as he began to walk. 'Come on, before you collapse or something. You're too heavy to carry.'

Roy's only response was an irritated grunt, and the peace folded around them as they turned their back on the shattered skeleton of the safe-house. The long grass rustled around their feet, clouded with frost, and the faint fragrance of wildflowers tickled Ed's nose as they were crushed under his boots, chasing away the lingering bite of the smoke.

After a few minutes, he heard the gush of water over rocks, and he blinked at the sight of the brook wending its way through the field. It was shallow and clear, like life itself, and he could not resist the need to splash some over his face, washing away the blood and grime. His hair was matted with rusty brown, and he didn't hesitate to yank it loose and rinse it out. If it had been anything else clogging the braid he wouldn't have bothered, but he had no clue when either of them would get the chance to have a shower again, and old blood stank.

'What did that man mean, when he said “thanks to your cooperation”?' Roy's voice was quiet, little more than a whisper, as if he was afraid of Ed's answer. 'Why didn't you try and escape or something? It wasn't the gun, because I've seen how you react to being held hostage, Ed. You always fight. It used to make me wonder if you even knew what being dead meant. What was different this time?'

Ed stopped wringing out his hair, staring at the dancing water for a moment before looking at Roy. He was kneeling on the bank next to him, face rinsed clean of soot and water dripping from his chin as he waited for a reply.

Eventually, Ed murmured, 'He threatened to torture you if I fought against him. Said I'd get to watch.' He shrugged, straightening up and tying his tangled hair up in a ponytail. 'I thought about trying to get away, but if I'd got it wrong he would've – ' Trailing off, he swallowed tightly before saying, 'It wasn't worth the risk.'

Roy was watching him with unreadable eyes, not angry or cautious but almost thankful. The tense set of his shoulders eased as he nodded once, blowing out a sigh and glancing back at the distant wreck of the house. 'So much for being safe,' he murmured to himself, and Ed made a rough noise of agreement before getting to his feet.

They continued to walk in silence, too busy watching where they were going to think of any words to say. It took all of Ed's concentration not to lose his footing and, by the time they reached the border of the woods, his eyelids felt like lead.

The two of them stumbled through the undergrowth, tripping over roots and clinging to tree trunks for support. It was tempting to just lie down on the carpet of leaves and sleep, but Ed knew it wouldn't be safe. The least they could do was try and get a roof over their heads.

Finally, the barns came into view, and Ed smiled as he heard Roy's heartfelt sigh of relief. The farm was dilapidated and had probably been abandoned for at least a year, but it was better than lying out in the open and hoping that no one shot them while they slept.

A tumbledown fence marked the edge of the fields, and Ed cautiously climbed over it, walking closer to the barn as he looked around for any threat. The whole place was quiet. He kept expecting shadows to jump out, brandishing guns and sudden, biting death, but all was peaceful.

The barn door opened with a creak, and he peered into the shady darkness. Straw rustled underfoot, and several tools were on the wall, rusting where they hung. A hay loft encircled the building, high up and easily defensible. It might not be perfect, but it was better than nothing.

'Can you climb the ladder?' Ed asked quietly, smiling tiredly at Roy's irritated look.

'I'm not that pathetic.'

'Could've fooled me. Go on then.'

He waited until Roy had inched up the rungs before following, scrabbling onto the higher level as the boards creaked softly under his weight. The air smelled warm and sweet, and he watched as Roy edged around to a point opposite the barn entrance before slumping down into the straw.

Quietly, Ed lowered the bag down next to him, watching as Roy struggled to keep his eyes open. Normally, he would have been making plans for their safety, but it was obvious that he could barely even find the strength to speak. He had already curled up on his side in an effort to keep warm, and Ed reached into the pack, pulling out the thick military coat before spreading it over Roy's long frame.

It was tempting to join him, to curl up under the rough wool and wrap himself in Roy's arms, but Ed's exhausted mind warned against it. It could be days, or only hours, before someone came to confirm their demise. Either way, as soon as they got here they would search the surrounding area. Roy was right. Even faced with melted metal evidence of their deaths, a good assassin would assume their target had escaped, and the hunt would begin all over again.

Ed grimaced, reaching into the pack for the last gun and shifting it uncomfortably in his left hand as he trained his eyes on the doorway. He had to keep watch. They couldn't afford to be complacent about their safety. Not now.

The fuckers had almost taken Roy from him once today. He wouldn't give them a second chance.

Chapter Text

A blade of straw tickled Roy's nose, pestering him from the vales of sleep. Before he had even opened his eyes, his body was complaining: aches and pains made themselves known, and his shoulder throbbed incessantly. Its metronome steady intensity made him scowl, and he opened his eyes groggily.

Something was wrong; skittish energy shot along his nerves as he tried to isolate the problem. Vague memory stirred like something from a nightmare, explaining why he was sleeping in a barn, but his dream-fogged mind continued to whimper, trying desperately to recall what was missing.

Where was Ed? Why wasn't he curled up next to him?

Adrenaline swept aside Roy's lethargy, and he lifted his head to peer around. Sunlight flooded through the cracks in the walls, sending golden shafts lancing through the air and splashing warm yellow across the floor. Almost instantly, his gaze fell on Ed's form, and Roy gave a faint sigh of relief.

Ed was sitting less than an arm's length away, his knees drawn up to his chest and his arms wrapped loosely around them. His automail gleamed, as did the gun that he was turning over and over in his left hand. Roy recognised the maneuver. Soldiers employed many tactics to stay awake through a long watch. Number games, theorising, anything to stop the mind from shutting down. Some of them would play with coins, letting the agile physical motion keep their minds occupied as stood sentry.

And Ed had been guarding him while he slept.

The thought sent a jolt of tender warmth through Roy's body. In an abstract way, he was used to the thought of other people protecting him. His men did it all the time, but none as blatantly as Ed. This felt – special, more personal than professional. He had taken on the promise to keep Roy alive, and he was not ashamed or shy to show his dedication to that cause, but Roy hoped that there was more to it.

They hadn't even been at the safe-house for a week but, in that short time, the distance that held them apart had narrowed dramatically. It had reached the point where waking up without Ed tucked against his side was unnatural and worrying. He was used to feeling a warm, lithe body in his arms and a heavy leg slung possessively over his, pinning him in place. He was used to the tickle of Ed's hair and his closeness. Without it, Roy felt cold and vulnerable.

Quietly, he pushed himself upright, wincing at the pain in his shoulder. The coat that was covering him slid down into his lap, and the flicker of movement jerked Ed from his watch. He looked over in surprise, amber eyes smudged with the warpaint of exhaustion. His face was pale, and the scrapes on his cheek stood out in stark contrast to the bleached out skin. Roy could see goosebumps dappling his bare arm. Ed was only wearing leather pants and the black vest, and there was a definite bite of autumn in the air. He must be freezing.

'Didn't realise you were awake,' Ed said roughly, straightening up with a wince and stretching his legs out in front of him. 'How's your shoulder?'

'Bit sore, but I've had worse. Thank you – for taking care of me, I mean.' He frowned when Ed just gave a tired nod, noticing the lines of strain in his face. He shifted his weight carefully, as if every movement caused him pain, and Roy felt a flicker of panic as he tried to see any serious injuries. Earlier, Ed had said he was just a little bruised, but it wouldn't be the first time that he had lied about his health.

He must have seen the doubt in Roy's gaze, because he gave a weak smile as he put the gun down amidst the straw. 'You can stop looking at me like that. I've been sitting here for hours and I haven't moved. I'm kinda stiff.' Ed stretched his arms above his head, arching his spine decadently only to spit a curse. 'My side,' he muttered by way of reassurance as Roy leaned forward, right hand outstretched automatically to soothe. 'It still hurts like a bitch.'

'This morning's adventures probably didn't help,' Roy pointed out, grasping Ed's shoulder and pulling gently, forcing him to turn a little towards him. 'Are you sure you're all right?' His eyes settled on the black marks around Ed's neck, and a jolt of anger raced through his veins.

Gently, he skimmed his palm over Ed's nape, wrapping his fingers softly around the column of his throat and seeing the correlation instantly. The assassin's hands had been bigger than Roy's, stronger, too, and it would have taken no effort for him to throttle the life out of Ed in one quick motion. From the looks of things, he'd almost done just that. It was enough to slam home how close a call it had been. While they were under attack he had been convinced they would make it out alive, but now he could hardly believe that they had managed it.

Carefully, he brushed his thumb over the bruises, twitching with surprise when Ed clasped his wrist loosely, giving a faint, reassuring squeeze. He made no move to pull Roy's hand away. He kept his chin raised and his throat exposed, open and trusting in a way Roy would never have believed possible even a month ago.

'He could've killed you.' He didn't mean for his voice to sound so rough and fierce, but there was nothing he could do to wipe it clean of emotion. If it had only been his life under threat, he would have found a way to accept that and take the logical course of action, but when Ed was a target at his side, all that filled his mind was a choking, vivid rage towards anyone who threatened them.

'It's not that bad,' Ed said matter-of-factly as Roy dropped his hand back into his lap. 'You're the one who's really hurt. You fell asleep almost as soon as you got here.' Something flickered in his eyes, frightened and vulnerable as he quietly confessed, 'I kept checking your pulse to make sure you hadn't died on me.'

The glare he cast in Roy's direction was furious, as if it was entirely his fault for being shot. It was tempting to point out that he had been saving their lives at the time, but one good look at Ed's expression warned him against arguing. He was tired and grumpy. For once, Roy would give in rather than fight it out.

'Sorry,' he said honestly, trying not to linger on the thought of Ed keeping such a lonely vigil over him. 'How long have I been out?'

Ed snorted. 'Fuck knows. I threw my watch in the fire, remember?' He squinted towards the door, trying to judge the quality of light. 'Maybe four hours? You missed breakfast.' He jerked his thumb towards an empty tin of food, the top of which had been clumsily hacked off. At Roy's raised eyebrow Ed shrugged. 'The can opener was in the other bag.' He scuffed the straw with his boot, staring at it blankly for a while before looking up. 'What exactly are we meant to do now? Walk back to Central?'

Slowly, Roy got to his feet, holding out the coat to Ed. 'You're going to get some sleep while I keep watch.' His shoulders slumped as Ed opened his mouth, a scowl already pinching his brow. 'Don't argue, and don't make me order you to do it. You're exhausted, and, when we get out of here, I need you to be alert.'

After a couple of seconds of indecision, Ed sighed in annoyance and snatched the coat from Roy's hand, but he didn't lie down. He behaved as if he thought the request was stupid and unnecessary, but it was as clear as day that he needed rest. Ed being too weary to fight was more than risky; it was a dangerous disadvantage. It was better if Ed could protect himself. That way they both had a better chance of making it through this alive.

'Shouldn't we get moving? I can always sleep later.'

Roy rolled his eyes to himself, grabbing the gun and checking it was loaded before placing a hand against Ed's right shoulder and pushing gently. At first he resisted, but, gradually, he let Roy nudge him onto his back, grumbling indistinctly as the thick, black wool was draped over him. 'Sleep, Ed. Let me worry about what to do next.'

Carefully, he settled in the hay at Ed's side, making sure that he had a clear view of the barn door. Normally it was best for a sentry to be standing, ready to run, duck and dive as necessary, but the hay loft gave him the advantage over anyone entering the barn, and it made more sense to stay low and unseen.

The press of something against his hip made him glance down, and he smiled tenderly. Ed had curled up on his side, eyes closed and the make-shift blanket clutched tight in his left hand as he unconsciously shifted closer. His forehead was resting on the side of Roy's leg, and strands of hair from his loose ponytail twisted across Roy's trousers, impossibly bright against the dark fabric. His eyes had drifted closed, and his breathing was becoming deeper and more steady as he succumbed to sleep.

Silently, Roy studied Ed's relaxed profile, following the curve of his cheek and the strong line of his jaw longingly. He wanted to lie down next to him, to cup his face and hold him close and safe, but that wasn't an option. Ed had guarded him against any threat, and now it was his turn.

Lifting his gaze back to the barn door, Roy let his mind drift. There was a knack to it, to letting your thoughts roam while keeping your senses on alert. It was a trick he had learned years ago, and it was surprisingly effective. He would detect anything out of the ordinary the moment it happened, but, until it did, he could concentrate on the concerns that nagged persistently within the privacy of his head.

There was no doubt that they needed to get back to Central. He and Ed could not stay on the run indefinitely, and they would both feel better if they could face the threat and fight it. Back in the city they might be in more danger, but they would have the resources they needed at their disposal. If nothing else, Roy had to make sure that Hughes and the others were all right. He had lost so much to the army over the years: innocence, idealism, faith... . He wasn't about to let it steal anything more tangible. Enough lives had already been lost, and he had to do what he could to make sure that no one else fell victim to the whims of the military's latest intrigue.

Still, Central was over six hundred miles away, and that kind of distance could not be walked with ease. Getting to the closest town was definitely the best option. From there they could find a faster means of transport. Havoc had said that there was no train station, but there was probably a track for cargo trains nearby. Very few towns were totally cut off from the rail system.

It might not be the most direct route to Central, but taking a freight had two major advantages over a passenger train. Firstly, there would be no one onboard to recognise them, and secondly, Hakuro may have closed Central's perimeter to new arrivals, but he would not have cut off the supply routes. The city relied on outlying towns for food and resources, and the Fuhrer could not afford to put his city under siege for his own whims.

Of all of their options, that was the most appealing. Stealing a car held too much risk, and the last thing they needed was the police being alerted to their presence. They could hitch-hike, but that meant putting too much trust in the people giving them lifts. It would leave them open and vulnerable on the road-side, and there was no guarantee anyone would take them where they wanted to go.

No, they would head towards the town and find the railway line. Cargo trains passed by several times a day, carrying imports and exports across the nation. Once they got back to Central – Roy rolled his head on his shoulder, easing the tension on his neck as he scowled. When they got there they would have to think fast. Making plans when he didn't know the situation on the ground was an exercise in futility. All they could do was be prepared for anything, good or bad, and hope that they could find some way to put a stop to the madness.

Next to him, Ed made a tight, rough sound, face wrinkling into a brief frown. Without thinking Roy reached down, resting his left hand gently in Ed's hair, silently reassuring him that he was still there. It seemed to work, because Ed neither woke nor stirred, remaining deep in sleep.

It was strange to feel needed, especially by Edward, who was so fiercely independent that he pushed everyone away. It gave their whole situation an added twist of complexity. This tension between them was not about lust alone, and Roy did not know how to react to that. His desire frequently left him breathless, returning full-force at the most inappropriate times, but that wasn't the limit to his feelings.

Yes, there was no denying it, he wanted to take Ed to bed and do far more than rest, but there was so much more to it. He wanted to keep Ed safe and sheltered - wanted to make his life easier and better, but even that was something he could not do freely. Worse, it felt as if the entire world was conspiring to rob them of the opportunity to talk about what was going on between them. All they had was unconfirmed hopes and the hot, heavy spark in every breath, nothing more.

Roy knew he was not alone in the way he felt. Ed's want was intense. His body gave him away whenever they got close enough with flared pupils and a hammering pulse, beckoning the same tell-tale responses from Roy. He was protective and, incredibly for Ed, considerate. They still bickered, but there was no spite in it any more. It had become a kind of game, and every hour it was easier to forget that rank even existed. It wasn't Major and General, it was Ed and Roy.

With a quiet sigh, he shifted his weight, wincing as his shoulder spat with pain. Sweeping the barn briefly with his gaze, he satisfied himself that all was well. Earlier in the week he had thought that his personal life was easier to deal with than the wreck of his career, but now the opposite was true. There was something base and linear about battling for survival, but what was going on between him and Ed wasn't a twisted knot: it was a tapestry of heat and denial.

He tried to think of what Hughes would tell him to do, and a smile crept onto his lips as he heard his friend's exasperated tones:

“You always have to make things complicated. There shouldn't be anything easier than this, Roy.”

Of course Maes would see it that way. He believed in love. He had faith that it could make a bad world good and give weak men strength, and he had been trying desperately to get Roy to see his point of view for years. The only adage that Roy acknowledged was that love hurt. Whoever he chose to give himself to would betray him eventually, so why get that close? Why expose himself to that kind of pain? He had seen too many people jilted by those they thought the world of, and he had promised himself that no one would ever bring him that low – not again.

Of course, he thought as he glanced towards Ed again, he had forgotten that anything to do with the heart was never a conscious decision. Whether it was lust or love made no difference, you fell into either one, breathless and bright, and there was no way to prevent it.

He rustled the toe of his boot in the straw, watching the parched golden blades shift as he tapped the stock of the gun idly on his knee. It wasn't as if he'd even spoken to Ed about any of this. Neither of them had said a word, and he didn't know whether it was better to keep his silence or ask – what?

Irritated, Roy quietly got to his feet, stretching out the kinks in his muscles as he wandered back and forth, trying to get the blood flowing to his legs again. There was nothing he could ask. When it came down to it, all the cunning in the world couldn't make them safer. He was willing to take a chance on a lot of things, including his future if he had to, but Ed's life was not something he was about to put on the line, not for his own selfish needs.

'Fuck,' Roy whispered to himself, leaning against the wooden railing that bordered the hayloft as his heart sank like lead. Being out here, away from Central and the constant nagging demands of the army, gave him a different perspective. It made the rules and regulations seem distant and less relevant. Instead they were replaced with constant, physical danger. Whether it was in the merciless bark of a gun or the creeping, insidious fear of being followed, it was always there.

At the safe-house, the possibility of giving in to his desire had been very real. His reasons had been weakening day by day, drained by distance from Central and his life as a general. Then reality had returned in a flurry of bullets and bruises, dripping blood and clinging smoke, bringing the danger back full-force.

He knew they would not be truly safe until this was all over, until the people behind it were dead or imprisoned. That outcome wasn't even guaranteed, and even if it was it simply meant that the military way of life would surround him again, no longer a shield but a shroud, stopping him from having what he wanted.

It was a catch twenty-two. Either way, the obstacles between him and Ed having any kind of relationship beyond the professional would always be there in one form or another. There was no escaping them.

He looked over his shoulder, his heart full and tight under his ribs as he took a steadying breath. Was that it then? Was it really impossible for him and Ed to see where their mutual attraction could lead?

With a sigh, Roy pushed himself away from the balustrade, walking over to where the pack lay in the straw. Whatever the answer, it was blatantly clear that he and Ed needed to talk about what was happening between them. Even if they couldn't do anything about their feelings, at least they would be acknowledging the existence of their need. In a way, that was the most important part. Talking about it turned attraction from an elusive, shifting spark into something tangible. It made it real.

The thought of starting that conversation with Ed sent a shiver of trepidation down Roy's spine. In the past twenty-four hours they had been through some heart-pounding ordeals, but this held a different kind of fear. He wasn't even sure what he was afraid of: that Ed would agree with him or that he would make him change his mind.

He would have to find the courage, somehow. Things could not stay as they were, not indefinitely. Sooner or later something was going to give, and it was better that at least they both knew where they stood before they found themselves the victims of desire far beyond their control.

Pushing the thoughts from his mind, Roy picked up the bag and crept back to Ed's side, feeling some of his anxiety ebb as he settled next to the sleeping blonde. Putting the pack in his lap, he rummaged quietly through the contents with his left hand. The gun stayed in his right, and he kept glancing up at the barn door every few seconds, listening intently for signs of any threat as he took stock of what they had.

A few spare pairs of clothes but, Roy noticed with a grimace, no underwear. He assumed Ed was wearing boxers, but all he had on under his trousers was the pyjama pants he had been wearing when the shots had gone off. He'd yanked his clothes on top of them, and he had to admit that they weren't exactly the most comfortable thing to be wearing on a long hike. Still, he'd coped with worse on the front-line and, if it got too bad, he could always take them off and go commando.

There was enough food in the bag to last them a couple of days, but after that they would be going hungry unless they could get hold of some provisions. His wallet had been shoved in the bottom of the pack, and he nodded in satisfaction to himself. That was one small blessing. There was enough money in there to buy what they would need and possibly pay for a room with a decent bed. Sleeping on the floor was going to be a necessity until they got to town, but both he and Ed were going to need eight hours of uninterrupted rest at some point.

A couple of pieces of paper rustled in his hand, and he pulled them out with a frown before he recognised them. It was Kerr's letter and the arrays from lab five. Roy did not believe in fate or destiny, but he had to admit that it was sheer luck that it had been this bag to survive. It could very well have been the other way around, and all of their tentative evidence would have gone up in smoke.

One thing that they were missing was bandages, and Roy scowled. He was not so bothered about his shoulder, which was shallow and could be kept clean and dry with ease, but Ed's side was another matter. It was less than two weeks ago that he had been shot, and it would still be months before he was back to peak strength. If he got an infection... .

It felt as if ice water was trickling over Roy's back, and he shivered at the thought. That, more than anything, galvanized his certainty that they needed to get to the town before they jumped on the train. He had toyed with the idea of trying to intercept the tracks and get back to the city that much sooner, but now he dismissed it as foolish. There was too much they needed if they were to get home in fighting condition. Better to find as secure a location as possible and regroup before leaping into action.

Carefully, he began to think of everything that could go wrong, attuning his senses to his surroundings as he picked his way through the tangled web of events, of possible problems and solutions that may stand between him and Ed and their return to Central. It might be Hughes' job to think of every eventuality but Roy had enough experience of it himself, and he was hardly lacking in imagination.

He grabbed a chunk of stale bread from the bag, gnawing on it thoughtfully as the morning slipped away and the sunlight took on brighter quality of early afternoon. Around him the barn remained peaceful, full of the little noises of small creatures that made their home in the straw and the creak of shifting timbers, and it was only when the dark sprawl of the coat to his left shifted that he looked down.

Ed was watching him with drowsy gold eyes, no more than amber slits as he nestled deeper into his makeshift bed and made a harsh, grumbling sound. Straw had twined itself into his hair, and Roy smothered a smirk at the pleasing image that sprang to mind. It looked as if he had been doing something far more energetic than sleeping. Reaching out, Roy picked a few blades free from the tangle, letting them drift back to the floor. 'Been rolling in the hay?' he murmured, grinning when Ed woke up enough to glare at him. 'We don't have a comb, so you're stuck with it like that.'

With a yawn, Ed struggled upright, skimming his palms through the ponytail and giving a shrug. 'Could just cut it off. Problem solved.'

Roy flinched at that idea, surprised at the abrupt clench and twist in his chest. Ed's hair had been at least down to his shoulders in all the time he had known him. It was hard to imagine him with it cut short, and Roy felt a moment of panic as he realised that Ed seemed to be seriously considering hacking off the ripple of gold that fell down his back.

'We don't have time to give you a makeover,' he managed, thinking quickly as Ed continued to remove grassy husks from his hair. 'It's going to take us until at least sunset tomorrow to get to the next town, and that's only if we hurry.'

'We're not going straight back to Central?'

Picking up the bag and slinging it onto his shoulder, Roy outlined his idea, secretly pleased that he had managed to distract Ed so easily. He led the way down the ladder, tucking the gun into the small of his back. As soon as his feet touched the floor he pulled it out again, searching the shadows carefully. He was relatively confident that no one had slipped into the barn, but he did not want to die because of a moment's carelessness.

'Our first priority is to get to the town without being seen,' he said quietly. 'Once there it'll be easier for us to blend in with the crowd.'

Ed looked doubtful, but he did not argue as Roy led the way out of the barn door. They paused on the threshold to scout the fields before moving towards the daunting dark fringe of the forest. Long, unkempt grass whispered past their knees, and Roy felt a flicker of memory stir from the previous night.

'When we were getting away from the safe-house, did we leave a trail through the meadow?'

'Maybe,' Ed replied, frowning thoughtfully back towards the barn. 'It's not like there's any way you can really hide it, is there?' He looked back at Roy and gave a helpless shrug. 'There was plenty of wildlife around there, everything'll make tracks, especially if they were running from the fire. With any luck they won't look that closely.'

Roy made a dubious noise in the back of his throat, carrying on as the grass thinned and gave way to the rich, dark soil beneath the trees. 'We haven't exactly had luck on our side, lately. At least here we've got some cover. If we can keep walking parallel to the road but out of sight, we should find our way without a problem.'

'Famous last words,' Ed muttered to himself as the last of the sunshine faded away, blocked by the canopy overhead. The trees were thick-trunked and old. Oak and ash, already turning from green to gold, were interspersed with pine, and the mulch underfoot let off a scent that reminded Roy of furniture polish.

It took them about half an hour to get their bearings before they set off in the right direction, keeping the road to their right as they picked their way over twisted roots. Shafts of sunlight stabbed down through the gloom and squirrels chittered overhead as they jumped from branch to branch. It was almost possible to pretend they were out on pleasant stroll somewhere, rather than struggling to keep a few steps ahead of the assassins on their trail.

They stopped only for a quick bite to eat and a drink before continuing on their way. The conversation flowed lazily between them, comfortable and mundane. Before now, Roy had never really thought he would be able to speak to Ed for any length of time without it degenerating into some kind of argument. For once, it was nice to be wrong. Ed had a quick, dry wit and was surprisingly good at listening, when he took the time to do so. It was easy to talk about various assignments: treks through snow and sand and across the plains, up mountains and deep into valleys the sun barely knew.

He even got Roy to tell him about some of the places he'd been, before Ishbal. It took his mind off of the steadily growing ache in his feet and the thudding in his shoulder. More than once Ed had offered to take the bag, but it was not until Roy gave an obvious wince that he tugged it from his hands, slinging it over his automail shoulder and carrying on.

'You're so stubborn,' Ed muttered, giving him an amused look. 'Why can't you ever do what you're told?'

'For someone so intelligent, you really do seem to be struggling to grasp military hierarchy,' Roy muttered ungraciously, grimacing as he rolled his shoulder and followed on behind. 'I don't have to do what you tell me. You, on the other hand, are meant to follow my orders without question.'

'Yeah, right. Admit it, if I started being all obedient, you'd think I was up to something.'

'I'd probably die from the shock.'

Ed gave him the finger, shaking his head as Roy gave a quiet chuckle, concentrating on where he was putting his feet. Gradually, as the miles crawled away and the sun sank back towards the horizon, the terrain had changed. It was no longer lush soil and leafy trees, but more rocky and rough. The forest consisted mostly of pines now, filling the air with their fragrance and littering the ground around their trunks with fir cones. The air had become colder as the afternoon seeped away, and Roy shivered as the wind rustled the branches overhead.

A patchwork of threatening grey sky was visible between the canopy, and he muttered a curse as one fat drop of rain splashed on his cheek, followed by another. They were the first sally of the cold, clear legion of the downpour. It trailed along the pine needles, collecting into thick trickles that ran like water from a tap, smattering into the sparse ground and turning the rocks slick.

The wind stopped sighing and began to roar, bending the upper reaches of the jagged tree-tops in supplication before its strength. It was enough to snatch the breath from Roy's lungs and shove at him with persistent strength. Perhaps the storm had been brewing for days, but neither he nor Ed had seen a weather forecast and, to them, it seemed to have appeared from nowhere.

'We need to find some shelter!' he called out, gesturing to the encroaching darkness. 'We can't keep walking through this!'

Ed nodded, waiting for him to catch up before they both continued onwards, slipping and slithering over the wet ground as they clambered over rocks and roots. Finally, Ed's shout made Roy look up from where he was putting his feet, and he followed Ed's pointing finger to the outcrop of rock that jutted like a broken fang in the distance.

It stood on a rise, sharpened to a point by time and the elements, but, even from a distance, Roy could see the ground under its overhang was dry and sheltered. It was hardly five-star accommodation, but it would be enough to protect them from the worst of the storm.

By the time they reached it, both he and Ed were breathless with exertion, and they staggered up the rise wearily. Ed dropped the pack on the floor with a sigh, glaring down at his drenched clothes. The vest clung to him and dripped water while his leather pants shone in the weak light. Goosebumps danced along his bare arm, and Roy heard the faint chatter of his teeth before he clamped his jaw tight and shivered instead.

'We're going to need a fire,' Roy said firmly. 'Can you go and get some wood and fir cones?'

'How are you going to make it burn?' Ed demanded, gesturing at the downpour. 'It'll be soaked!'

'Let me worry about that,' he said reassuringly, pulling some chalk from his pocket as Ed gave a doubtful snort and made his way back down to the forest floor. Roy reached into the small of his back, pulling free the gun and putting it at his side, keeping half an eye on Ed as he got to work.

Sweeping the rock clear of dust he began to draw, thinking carefully of all the factors from air to burn-time. After a moment's hesitation he added an additional circumference, drawing the sigils along its edge. He had developed it for one of his assessments, years ago now. It turned the distinctive grey banner of wood smoke into something almost invisible by taking out the carbon residues. It left a real mess on the floor, but at least it would stop them from being spotted from a distance.

He was just checking over the last portion of the design when Ed returned, arms laden with pine branches. A lot of them were wet, but Roy had worked with worse. He could make just about anything burn, if given half a chance.

Ed was looking at the array with open curiosity, his expression blatantly impressed as he took in the individual aspects and the way Roy had put them together. 'That's really good, I wouldn't have thought of that.' He pointed a toe at the outer circle. 'Guess I shouldn't be surprised,' he added, 'considering what a pyromaniac you are.'

Roy didn't rise to the bait, allowing himself a small, self-satisfied smile. Ed's praise should not have pleased him, but his words made Roy feel – stronger, somehow. He was used to being told that he had done a good job when it came to military matters, but it was more personal than that. Anyone could be a general, but there was only one Flame Alchemist.

It did not take long to arrange the wood in the middle of the circle and, as soon as his fingertips touched the array, steam billowed upwards. The wood caught, burning a soft yellow as the flames nibbles their way along the branches and spat in the pine oil. No more than a few feet above the fire, the cloudiness of the smoke faded away, filtered by the array.

 

Within a few moments their little nook filled with heat, and Roy emptied the contents of the pack, spreading out anything wet at the fireside. Thankfully, the bag had kept most of it dry. They had enough spare clothes to make a sparse bedroll on the unforgiving ground, and the fire would keep off the worst of the chill. All in all, it could have been a lot worse.

Roy looked up as Ed clapped, pressing his hands to his vest and pants. Steam wisped from their surface as the water evaporated, leaving them, if not dry, then at least no longer sopping wet. After a moment spent staring out at the forest, he took the chalk from Roy's palm and started drawing at the very edge of the circle of dry ground. They were offensive arrays, Roy realised. One stray sound and Ed could clap and activate them, sending javelins of rock arcing in every direction. He'd seen him use something similar before, and he knew how deadly they could be.

When Ed had finished he turned away, apparently satisfied, before he murmured absently, 'Stand up.' He pressed his palms together before tapping them on Roy's shoulders. The shirt dried out in a couple of seconds, as did the bandage underneath and, before Roy could blink, Ed had shifted his hands to rest, warm and cold, on his hips.

He barely felt the transmutation that dried out the fabric of his trousers. His mind was wiped blank and filled with the possessive curl of Ed's fingers near his waist, and it felt as if the subtle warmth of the alchemy had seeped straight into his veins, drug-like and torrid as it pooled between his legs.

Roy could smell the scent of leather and rain on Ed's skin, tantalisingly close, and his fingers twitched with the urge to reach up and cup his jaw, to sweep his wet hair aside and stroke the strong column of his neck. Roy's breathing was tight and shallow, and, when Ed looked up at him with dark eyes, pupils dilated and lips parted, it stopped all together, locked up tight and desperate in his chest.

A log on the fire popped, making them both look towards the flames in surprise. It was a short, sharp reminder of reality, and Roy shifted his weight away a fraction, trying to resist the magnetic, passionate pull of Ed's presence.

A rough growl of something like anger caught in Ed's throat, and his fingers tightened around Roy's hips, holding him in place as the desire in his gaze became a banked heat, still there, but hemmed in and controlled. He licked his lips, glancing to the side for one brief heartbeat before looking back and lifting his chin defiantly. 'Are we just going to keep ignoring this?' he asked. 'I know you feel it too, you can't deny it. It's just – I mean, why aren't we doing anything about it?'

Roy closed his eyes for a moment, cursing himself. He should have known that Ed would demand an answer sooner or later. He always had more balls than Roy when it came to facing the difficult, sensitive issues. When he opened them again, Ed was watching him like a hawk, intent and unflinching, braced for the truth, whatever it may be.

'Of course I'm not going to deny it,' he said quietly, knowing that if Ed believed nothing else, he had to believe that. Swallowing tightly, he added, 'For God's sake, I want you so much it hurts, but it's not that simple. It's –' His voice fell to a murmur. '- It's not something that we can have.' Roy reached out, gently holding onto Ed's arms, one warm and the other chilled as a heavy, hollow weight settled in his chest. 'I'm sorry.'

Ed tipped his head to the side, his expression doubtful as he frowned up at Roy. 'That's not good enough,' he said quietly. 'You can't just tell me “No” and not say why. You owe me more than that.'

Roy sighed sadly, stepping back and catching Ed's hand, tugging him further back under the rock and away from the biting edge of the wind. 'Ed, I'm your superior officer. You're a major under my command. There are rules against that kind of thing, and they're there for a reason.'

'Bullshit,' Ed hissed, pulling his hand away and crossing his arms. 'Half the generals in the place are screwing around with their aides, or they were, before they were all shot.'

'There's a big difference between “screwing around” and -' Roy trailed off, feeling suddenly exposed as Ed's eyebrows lifted with curiosity, urging him to finish. ' - and what we could have. The military is not known for its tolerance. They could make both our lives a misery.'

'And they haven't already?' Ed asked, waving his hand out at the storm-stricken forest. 'You're one of the best generals they've had. Good for Amestris, good for the army, but you're still running for your life. They don't play by the rules, so why should you?'

'Playing by the rules is what makes me a good general.'

'Don't talk shit. Breaking the rules is what makes you better than the rest of them. You're different because you treat soldiers like they're more than just walking corpses,' Ed snapped, his voice softening as he added, 'You're stronger because you know what military laws can be broken and which have got to be kept intact at all costs. Which do you think's more important: “Don't fuck your subordinate” or “Don't murder your soldiers”?'

Ed sighed when Roy didn't respond, giving a faint shake of his head. 'People might never find out. I'm good at keeping secrets. You know that. One more year and my contract's over. Once I'm out, there's nothing that they can complain about.'

Roy rubbed a hand over his face, feeling his thoughts twist and tangle together. He knew the look on Ed's face. It was the expression he wore when he was going to see an argument through to the very end, and there was no way out of it now. Desperately, he tried a different tack. 'You're fourteen years younger than me.'

'So what?'

'People will talk.'

Ed opened his mouth, his lips curled in a faint snarl, but whatever he had been about to say died as a different thought crossed his mind. Doubt bloomed on his features, and he looked away from Roy, staring blankly at the ground. 'Does it bother you, what people say?'

'Only what they say about you,' he replied, nudging Ed's chin with a finger. 'Don't you see? There will be people who see nothing except the fact that you're sleeping with a man almost twice your age. They'll judge you for it, and they won't stay quiet.'

'They judge me now,' Ed muttered. 'It's nothing new.' His gaze roved from Roy's feet up his body to his face, and when he met his gaze there was the faintest of smirks on his lips. 'Besides, it'd be worth it.'

A small huff of laughter escaped Roy's throat, and he dragged his fingers through his hair as he voiced the one, indisputable fact that blocked their way. 'It's not safe, Ed. Even if we forget about rank and age, we're still on the run. If we – if we do something about this,' he waved his hand back and forth indicating the two of them, 'they could take advantage and catch us with our pants down.'

'They could do that when you take a leak. Doesn't stop you pissing, does it?' Ed replied, but there was an edge of defeat to his voice as he shifted his weight back, arms folded defensively. 'We might not live to be completely safe again, have you thought of that? They might kill us before we ever get back to the city.'

'All the more reason never to let our guard down.'

'Some places are safer than others, Mustang. It's not like we're always sleeping out in the middle of the woods. Back at the house there were a couple of times when I thought -' He paused, looking awkward and angry. 'When I thought you'd forget your excuses. Whatever you say, you thought it was safe enough there.'

Roy bowed his head, staring at the stony, unforgiving ground as he said, 'I won't put you in any more danger, Ed. It's because of me that you're in the military and in this problem.' He cut off Ed's arguments with a glare before rolling his shoulders, biting his lip as something thrilled beneath his ribs. Ed did have a point: he was good at keeping secrets. They both were. When the immediate danger was over, when things were back to normal then it might be possible for them both to have what they wanted. Perhaps it wasn't all as impossible as it seemed. 'Maybe once we're back in Central... .'

Something in Ed's face made him stop, something like a flinch of pain, and he faltered as he tried to understand Ed's sudden shift of body language. 'What is it?' he asked.

Ed shifted his shoulders, and Roy noticed that he was still shivering from the cold. His clothes might be dry, but his hair was still damp, clinging to neck and trailing ice cold rainwater across his skin. Still, there was more than a chill behind the tremors, and Roy's muscles knotted with tension as he waited for the answer.

'Out here, you're just Roy, but back in Central you're General Mustang,' he muttered eventually, not daring to meet Roy's eyes. 'What would happen to you if we were found out?'

It was a question, even if it didn't sound like one, and Roy's stomach twisted uncomfortably as he tried to see where Ed was going with this. 'I'd be dishonourably discharged.'

'You want to be Fuhrer.' Ed's shoulders were rounded now, beaten down and defensive. 'Out here it's kind of like the military doesn't exist. It's like we've got an opportunity to work out if this is worth risking everything for without worrying too much about the repercussions. If we do something and realise it won't work between us, then no one loses anything, but once you're back in the office, even one kiss could ruin everything. I don't -' He scowled, and Roy felt a flicker of relief at the sight of his anger, even if it was directed at himself. 'I don't want to be what Kerr says I am.'

It was impossible for Roy to pinpoint the emotions that knifed through him. It was a cascade of multi-faceted feelings: hot anger and cool revulsion, hard loathing for Kerr and soft sympathy for Ed. He should have known that Ed would not take the letter as lightly as it first seemed. What Kerr had written was repulsive for anyone to read, but to be the target of those words... .

He strode towards Ed, closing the few feet that had opened up between them in two paces as he grabbed Ed's shoulders and gave him a gentle shake. 'You will never be what Kerr says you are. How could you even think that? You're not – you're not that person, and you never will be.'

'If you lose your job because of me, then how am I any better than that? You read what he wrote. It wasn't just about screwing half the army, it was about ruining their lives while I did it and then walking away.'

'But that's not you!' Roy said, his voice quiet but forceful as he bent his knees a little, trying to meet Ed's downcast eyes. 'Kerr acts as if he truly believes that everyone else is your victim. I'm not -' He paused, trying to find the right words. 'If I had sex with you, it would be of my free will. It's something I want to do, Ed, not something you're tricking me into. Don't you see that?' Pulling him closer he wrapped his arms around Ed's back, holding him firm and fast as Ed rested his forehead against Roy's chest. 'Please, don't believe a word of what Kerr says. He's a sick, twisted fuck-up, nothing more.'

The flat plane of Ed's back was tense beneath Roy's palms, and he could feel the shivers that danced over Ed's skin in waves. Gritting his teeth, he rubbed his hands softly up and down the arc of Ed's spine, trying to warm him up as he tried to think his way through Ed's logic.

It made sense, in a way. If they became lovers while they were on the run, then they would know definitively whether what they felt was more than just the brief, bright flare of lust or something more sustainable. They would know whether it was worth the gamble, but it still did not change the fact that they were in danger. In the end he would rather that Ed was alive and untouchable than dead because of their actions.

'I'm sorry, Ed, but until we're back in Central and this is over I – we – we can't.'

Ed's shoulders slumped as he huffed out a breath, shifting his hands to curl in Roy's shirt, keeping him captive as he looked up. 'And if we never get that far?'

There was no answer that he could give to that. The possibility that all this was pointless - the running, fighting and self-denial – was one he did not want to consider. 'We'll make it, Ed,' he said firmly, forcing himself to believe his own words as he moved closer to the fireside. Flickering heat bathed his skin, and he sank to the ground, stretching out on the gently warmed clothes and pulling Ed down beside him.

'You're cold and exhausted. Get some sleep,' he said quietly, ignoring Ed's faint sound of complaint as he pressed him closer against his chest. He reached for the military coat, draping the dry wool over the both of them and checking that the gun was still within easy reach. 'I'll keep watch.'

He expected Ed to argue or remind him that it was his turn – to point out that he couldn't be a very effective sentry if he was lying down, but it never came. Instead he curled up, wrapping his arm around Roy's waist as he murmured, 'What about this?' Ed tightened his embrace in emphasis, nudging his nose against Roy's chest. 'Is this something we can have?'

Roy glanced down at Ed's blonde head tucked neatly under his chin. His heart already ached, punched and bullied into submission by brutal reality, and, at the thought of losing this closeness, this tender intimacy, it broke and bled beneath his ribs. Truthfully, it was still the kind of thing that could ruin his career. If it came to light that he had spent his nights wrapped in the arms of a subordinate, no matter how innocent, it would still be construed as wrongful conduct.

Yet he would be damned if he was going back to that vast, yawning abyss of distance that had been between them a short while ago. There was a lot he would sacrifice, but this? This closeness was something he would fight to keep at any cost.

'I'm not letting you go,' he said softly by way of an answer. 'Just because we shouldn't be together, doesn't mean I don't want you, Ed.'

Gently, he nudged his nose against Ed's temple, breathing in the scent of his damp hair and warm skin before lifting his head again to stare out into the wild night, challenging the darkness to put forth its worst. He had something to protect, something to hold onto, and, as soon as this was all over, he would find a way to make sure they could have all each other had to offer.

For all of his uncertainties, Roy knew one thing: If there was anyone in the world worth risking everything for, it was Ed.

Chapter Text

Ed glared at the setting sun, steadily putting one foot in front of the other as the sky blazed with tones of gold and topaz. Last night's storm had left the world washed out and cleansed with its rain, and now the wind-ravaged forest was far behind them. The town they were heading for was a sprawling shape not far ahead, but the mile or so still to go may as well have been the size of a continent to his weary body.

Darkness had passed in patchy sleep, and his brain felt thick and slow. Roy was no better. Although they had taken it in turns to keep watch, Roy's eyes were downcast and tired, and stubble shadowed his jaw. His clothes were rumpled and his movements were stiff: a souvenir from sleeping on a rocky bed.

If physical exhaustion had been their only problem it would not have been so bad, but, after they had finally spoken about the simmering need between them, something had changed. Silences were longer now, and when they spoke it was in fractured, disjointed sentences, full of everything they couldn't say. Every time Ed opened his mouth, all he wanted to do was challenge Roy's excuses again, to drag them out and pound them to pieces so that they could both have what they wanted, but it didn't work that way.

Roy's reasons were valid, each and every one. Taken in isolation they were issues that could be solved or got around, but together? Ed sighed, glancing to the south where the straight line of the distant road slashed its way across the horizon. The whole thing was such a mess. Now the only way he and Roy made sense was if they were actually touching. Wrapped in each other's arms, the unfocused world took on a perfect clarity, and their problems didn't seem insurmountable. As soon as that physical contact was lost, Ed's hope waned and his pessimism returned.

A faint sound to his left made him look over, and he saw Roy wincing as he rubbed his growling stomach. Ed knew how he felt. His belly was hollow and painful. Not only were they out of food, but they had been rationing themselves since they left the house. Neither of them had eaten their fill over the past couple of days, and it was beginning to take its toll.

'We can get some food when we get there, right?' Ed asked, kicking a pebble and watching it skitter over the dusty ground. 'Top priority?'

'One of them,' Roy conceded, glancing at the sun as he tried to judge the time. 'We need a safe place to sleep as well, somewhere that neither of us have to keep watch.'

'Can't we do that on the train?'

Roy shook his head, slapping at a biting insect in irritation. 'Not really. Even though we'll be on the move, the trains can be stopped and searched at any time. We can't risk being caught unprepared. Even if we're just found by a guard, they'll still imprison us as stowaways.' He grimaced. 'I don't like the idea of sitting in a jail cell waiting for the killers to catch up.'

Ed slowed down, falling back until they were walking shoulder to shoulder. Roy's pace was slower than normal, not a march but a tired slog. Dust smeared his pale face, and his disheveled hair stuck up in all directions. He looked a million miles away from his normal presentable self, and Ed smothered a smile. He'd remember this next time Roy was sitting on the other side of that desk looking so perfect and untouchable.

That thought spread a heavy blanket of doubt over his mood, making his frown and look back out across the landscape. Working in Central Command seemed like a lifetime ago: a distant, mundane time completely at odds with the fight and dash of the past weeks. In the end that was what they were working towards, that return to normality, but going back to the way things had been meant giving up all that he and Roy had gained.

A small, selfish part of him wanted to never return to Central – to ask Roy to forget about being Fuhrer and just be with him instead, and he loathed himself for it. Even if Roy agreed, even if they vanished into the world and built a life together, Ed knew he would always be haunted by the spectre of Roy's potential. He would be Fuhrer one day, probably the best Amestris had ever had. What right did Ed have to ask him to leave that behind?

Grimacing, he shoved his hands in his pocket and scowled at the ground. After all he had been through, he should be used to not getting what he wanted, so why did this hurt so much? It wasn't like he even had the will to pull away when Roy reached out for him. He craved every little touch and embrace, even though they only made him want more than he was allowed. It was a bittersweet feeling, being wanted but unable to act, and it sliced into him every time.

A burst of music clattered through the air, making him jerk his head up in surprise and scan his surroundings. The town was closer now, and he could just make out rows of brightly coloured flags and street decorations. A skipping, exuberant melody drifted to his ears, distorted by the distance, and the hum of traffic had gone from the occasional whir of a passing car to a constant drone.

Next to him, Roy made a faint sound of wary surprise. 'Looks like a festival, and not just a small one.'

'What the hell's it for?' Ed asked, trying to think of any holidays that fell at this time of year. 'There's nothing like this at Central.'

'We're a long way east; it could be anything,' Roy pointed out, walking a little faster. 'Central might be big, but it's not exactly diverse. Maybe it's something only this town celebrates.' He nudged Ed's shoulder to get his attention and gestured towards the distant green smudge of a park, where lots of tiny dots were dipping and diving in the sky, leaving blazing pennants of colour in their wake.

'Kites?' Ed asked in the end, when he was finally able to make sense of what he was seeing. 'Is that meant to mean something?'

'Probably, but I've got no idea what.'

Ed frowned towards the road, watching the sunlight flicker on the steady, distant stream of cars. 'Should we go there if it's this busy? Isn't there more chance of someone recognising us?'

'Perhaps,' Roy acknowledged, 'but it will also be a lot easier to get lost in the crowd. Besides, we're not staying long. Just one night.'

'It's going to be fun trying to find a hotel room with this going on. Even if there are any left it'll still cost a fortune.' Ed grimaced. Last night had been far from restful, and he had been longing for the comfort of a decent bed. Right now he would even be grateful for the wretched sofa at the safe-house.

'Don't worry about that,' Roy said dismissively. 'I'll sort something out. Come on, this way.'

Ed's stomach jolted with pleasure as Roy reached for his wrist, tugging his hand out of his pocket before grasping his palm. It was a completely unconscious gesture, one without any forethought, and Ed glanced down at their linked fingers. It felt right, as if that was where his hand belonged. Normally if anyone had done that, had grabbed him and tried to lead the way, he would have pulled free instantly. This was different, not patronising or domineering, but tender, almost like Roy was doing it because he was afraid of leaving Ed behind.

They skirted north, picking their way over the dusty ground as they headed away from the main road. It didn't take long to reach the edge of the urban sprawl, and they took the back streets towards the centre of town.

Everywhere Ed looked there was colour. Ribbons had been tied in the branches of the trees lining the boulevards, and flashing tendrils of blue, green and silver danced joyfully amidst the crimson and gold of the autumn leaves. The shops were closed, but there were stalls and peddlers lining the road, taking advantage of the influx of people to sell their wares. Every breath of air was scented with mouth-watering fragrances of food, baked apples and burgers and some kind of spice that Ed didn't recognise.

He had been to festivals before, but normally he was caught up in some kind of assignment and didn't have time to do more than frown in confusion at the chaos. Now, right in the middle of it all, he wasn't sure whether to be amazed or unsettled. Every instinct he had was alert for danger as they entered the press of the crowd, but there was nothing there to threaten them.

Children ran among the adults, small kites fluttering in the air above their heads as they laughed and shouted to one another. Everyone was wearing bright clothes and various kinds of face paint. It didn't take long for Ed to realise a common theme in the designs, and he blinked in surprise. All of them had alchemical symbols somewhere on them, either on their clothing or in the garish make-up daubed on their skin. They weren't arrays; the shapes denoted the elements. Fire, earth, air and water, he'd recognise them anywhere.

Abruptly, the street opened out into a massive square, full of fountains and fire-eaters, magic acts and other entertainment. The park was nearby, and every tree was festooned with trinkets and ribbons that fluttered and jangled in the breeze. Kites made swooping shadows on the ground, and Ed squinted up at them, scanning the various shapes and sizes before Roy dragged him onward again.

'Where are we going?' he asked, raising his voice to be heard over the babble of the crowd. 'Do you even know your way around, or are you just guessing?'

Whatever Roy's response was, Ed didn't hear it. A flash of blue in the corner of his eye made him whip his head around, teeth bared in a snarl as he saw the soldiers. They were leaning against a wall, chatting to each other cheerfully as they watched the crowd with benevolent eyes. Both of them were young, and it looked like they were there to make sure that none of the party go-ers got out of hands. Ed couldn't see any guns or other weapons, but that didn't mean he was comfortable with their presence.

One of them glanced his way, and Ed saw his muscles tense subtly beneath his uniform jacket. The soldier's grey eyes narrowed thoughtfully, and Ed clamped down on the quick, sharp flood of panic. Hastily, he looked away, trying to act like a star-struck tourist as he tugged on Roy's hand, bringing him up short.

'We're being watched.'

To Roy's credit, he wasn't obvious about scouting the crowd. He pasted a vague smile on his face as he pretended to be admiring the kites, all the while examining the two soldiers out of the corner of his eye. 'They're not making any move to follow us. It's part of the reason Hughes didn't hide us here. The military presence is too heavy,' he explained. 'Come on, let's keep moving.'

Together they continued to weave their way across the square, no longer holding hands but never letting the other out of their sight. Roy kept stopping, and Ed gritted his teeth in irritation. As incredible as the celebrations were, he wanted to be out of the open and somewhere sheltered - somewhere that he wasn't vulnerable to attack from all sides. 'Keep moving,' he snarled the third time Roy paused, rolling his eyes a little as he shook his head.

'If we just march across the square, every soldier here is going to notice and think it's strange. Better to blend in than stand out.' He glanced down at Ed, a genuine smile flirting on his lips as he asked, 'Have you worked out what the festival's for, yet?'

'Elements,' Ed muttered, watching an alchemist sculpt an ice statue from flowing water with a series of carefully activated arrays. 'They're all represented in some way or another.'

'Close, but not quite. I mean, the elements are part of it, but that's not what this is really about.'

There was an edge of amusement to Roy's voice that made Ed look up at him suspiciously. To anyone who glanced in their direction, he was engrossed in what the alchemist was doing, but Roy's ease was an act. His eyes were alert and his body idly angled to move as quickly as possible should the need arise.

Ed shrugged, frowning as a little girl ran into his side and mumbled an apology before darting away. 'Nature? Balance? Power? Energy?' A thought crystallised in his mind, and he cursed himself inwardly. Now that he looked around properly there were definite undertones of – 'Sex,' he muttered. 'It's about sex, isn't it?'

'Fertility,' Roy replied with a smirk, nudging him onwards again. 'It's a celebration of plenty. Crops, animals, people. This town was probably a major farming community once. It's hung onto its traditions. This way.'

Ed followed quietly, easing his way through the crowd. It was typical. This was the way his life worked. He found something he couldn't have, and then the world seemed determined to rub his face in it. As it was the sun had almost gone, and darkness was starting to tinge the sky. Braziers were being lit, giving the whole scene a tribal appearance as the music changed from bright, cheerful melodies to something more bass and primal that hummed in his veins and sparked along his skin.

Gritting his teeth, he tried to focus his senses as he wove through the press of people. Everyone else here could fall victim to drugging rhythms and exotic spices, but a chattering fear about the soldiers lingered in the back of his mind, incessant and impossible to ignore. He couldn't afford to let his mind settle on a track that led straight to the bedroom. Roy was right; the danger did not stop for anything, not sleep or sex. They couldn't expose themselves to any kind of threat, no matter how much they longed to forget about everything but each other.

Roy paused in front of one of the better hotels, waiting for Ed to catch up before discreetly checking his reflection in the glass and rubbing the dirt from his face.

'What are you doing?'

'Getting us a place to stay for the night.' The collar of his shirt was already open, and he took off his gloves and rolled up his sleeves, still checking his appearance as Ed peered doubtfully into the foyer.

'In here? They're not going to have any rooms spare, and even if they do I think they'll be a bit beyond our price range – or were we going to do without food until we got back to Central?'

'Ed, trust me. Just, go stand patiently by one of the pillars and try to look -' He paused, glancing at Ed's appearance and smothering another grin. 'Never mind, just look like that.'

'Like what?' he growled. 'What are you so happy about, anyway? You haven't stopped smiling since we got here.'

'It's been a whole twenty-four hours since someone tried to shoot me. I'm looking on the bright side. Come on.'

Roy pushed open the door, and instantly his body language changed. All signs of true exhaustion were buried, and his weary stride became more graceful and predatory as he moved towards the front desk, where a young woman watched his approach with wide eyes and a growing flush in her cheeks.

'Great,' Ed muttered to himself, dropping the pack at his feet and leaning back against one of the sweeping white pillars that climbed from floor to ceiling. He was too far away to hear exactly what Roy was saying, but he could make out the intimate volume and depth of his voice, and one quick glance at the hapless receptionist told him that she was lost. She had fallen utterly for Roy's charms and probably wouldn't have noticed the hotel burning down around her ears. He almost felt sorry for her.

Looking away, Ed concentrated on the hotel, looking at the balconies all around the foyer and the large chandelier overhead. It had been strewn with ribbons to celebrate the festival, and silver charms hung from their length, twinkling in the light. The floor was polished stone, and subtle touches of wealth suggested his initial perception of the place was wrong. This wasn't just a “better” hotel; it was one of the best. Why the hell had Roy chosen it?

He examined the patrons carefully, but none of them appeared to be dangerous. Mostly they looked like the kind of people with an Armstrong-esque pedigree: old money and landed gentry, and Ed let himself relax a fraction as he noticed the security personnel. They were discreet, but definitely present. Perhaps that was part of Roy's reason for wanting to get a room here. They looked like the kind of men who wouldn't hesitate to throw out anyone they disapproved of.

One or two of them were giving him wary glances, and he quickly softened his stance to something less aggressive as he looked back towards Roy. What was taking so long? He narrowed his eyes when he saw that Roy was leaning forward into the young woman's personal space, his hand resting on the desk next to hers, close enough to touch.

A spark of jealousy snapped and snarled inside Ed's chest, but he pushed it aside. Everything Roy was doing was an act, and one he had probably played out a thousand times before. It wasn't just about his looks, Ed knew that. It was about the way he treated people. He could glance at someone and know exactly which buttons to push to get the desired response.

It was the one reason why, for years, Ed had bridled at the very sight of Mustang. He had hated it, hated being in his presence because it was impossible to tell whether or not the anger was his own or something Roy had somehow guided him towards. It felt like his, but that was part of Roy's talent. It was impossible for anyone to tell they were being manipulated until well after the fact. Roy smoothed over insecurities and charmed his way through almost every social interaction, and his victims were left dazed and helpless.

No one was immune to it, not really. A few were spared: Hughes, because he knew Roy's rules and how to get around them; Hawkeye, because she would make good on her threat to shoot Roy if she thought he was playing her - and now him, Ed realised. Roy might have done it in the past, but Ed was certain he hadn't tried to manipulate him since all this began.

Roy didn't put forward some kind of constructed image of approval and attraction when they were together. Ed had been around him long enough to know that he hated to be seen as unprepared or ruffled in any way, but there was nothing pre-meditated about the way they touched. It was artless and genuine and, more than anything, there was an underlying sense that Roy didn't just want Ed to return his feelings, he needed it.

The Roy Mustang standing at the desk exuded a different image all together. He did not need anyone to reassure him that he was loved: he already knew it. That arrogance should have infuriated people. Instead they were drawn to his confidence like moths to a flame, happy to bask in his attention without the need to return the favour.

A tiny smile crept onto Ed's lips as he watched the receptionist hand Roy a key. She glowed at his thanks, her cheeks pink with pleasure as Roy turned and walked away, giving her one last suggestive glance before gesturing to Ed to follow him.

'Have fun?' Ed asked sarcastically as they made their way up the sweeping stairs.

'Jealous?' Roy smirked, jingling the key in his hand as Ed scowled. 'There was more to all that than just getting a room for the night. By the way, if anyone asks, you're my assistant and you're sleeping on the floor. They only had a double left.'

'Assistant?'

If Roy noticed the warning growl in Ed's voice, he didn't flinch. 'I could not exactly tell her the truth. I had to make up a story, and it was the only way I could think of to explain the fact that a young man was accompanying me. It's not like I could pretend you were a relative.' He turned right along one of the corridors before coming to a stop in front of a particularly grand looking door. The key turned smoothly in the lock, granting them access to the room beyond.

Ed raised his eyebrows in surprise, looking around at the luxurious décor. Neither flashy nor obvious, it still spoke of far more cens than either Roy or he had to their name. 'Do we have any money left?' Ed asked as he stepped onto the gloriously thick carpet.

'I charged this to a military account. Intelligence, in fact. It's the best way I can think of to let Hughes know we're still alive without being too obvious. They'll get the initial bill before the night's over.' Roy took the pack and rummaged through it for clean clothes, already looking as if this place was his natural environment. 'Hughes and I have had a plan in place for situations like this for a while now. With any luck, he'll be waiting for it.'

'Why don't we just stay here and wait for them to come and get us?' Ed asked, standing at the foot of the inviting double bed and rolling his shoulders. 'Save us having to rough it on a cargo train.'

'Too dangerous. I chose this place to stay because it'll have excellent security – makes it harder for anyone to get to us. Still, that doesn't mean it's a good idea to hang around.' Roy looked up at Ed, his gaze rising slowly as if he were enjoying the view. It was enough to make the breath halt in Ed's throat, and he looked away quickly.'We've got one night, so make the most of it,' Roy said softly. 'We probably won't be this comfortable tomorrow.'

Ed looked back when Roy hesitated. He looked liked he wanted to say something else, but whatever it was he shook it away with a sad smile before wandering off into the bathroom. The door swung shut behind him, and Ed sighed as he heard the rush of water from the shower.

Instantly, the mental image of Roy naked under the warm cascade sprang to mind, and he gave a faint groan of despair as his body responded eagerly. Things were bad enough without torturing himself. He knew exactly how he would like to “make the most of it”, but, even here, behind locked doors, they were still at too much risk.

Wearily, Ed sat on the bed, yanking his boots off and wriggling his right foot. He was used to walking long distances when he had to, but that didn't mean he wasn't relieved to rest. Leaning back a little, he propped himself up on his hands, looking out of the large window at the square below. They were three floors up, and, from this viewpoint, the braziers made pools of warm light in the darkness. It looked like another world entirely, something exotic and unusual that he could only watch and not be a part of.

It took a huge effort to force his mind away from tantalising fantasies of Roy in the shower, in bed, in him - but Ed pushed them aside as he tried to keep his breathing steady.

Desperately, he focused his mind on more practical matters, ignoring the pulsing weight between his legs as he examined the other buildings lining the plaza. They were too far away for a sniper to be able to get a good shot, but that did not mean someone could not aim up from the ground below. Glancing around he saw a metal vase of some kind. It was more decorative than functional, but it would do the trick.

Within a few moments the window was reinforced, lending the night a eerie blue tone that edged the flames below with shades of indigo and violet. The hotel would probably never notice the difference and, even if they did, he and Roy would be long gone before they could ask any questions.

It was easy to fall back into the same habits he and Roy had developed at the safe-house: checking for ways out and making sure that there were weapons to hand. Only when someone knocked at the door did he pause in what he was doing, glancing back towards the bathroom before peering out of the peephole.

'Room service!'

A harrassed looking young man stood on the threshold and, when Ed waited a few more seconds, he pulled a piece of paper from his pocket and propped it on the trolley of tureens before hurrying away. He definitely looked like he worked here, but Ed wasn't about to answer the door to anyone he did not know personally. After all, how hard could it be to get a bus boy's uniform?

The scent of the food was making his mouth water and his stomach growl furiously, but he still waited a couple more minutes before opening the door. The corridor was quiet and empty, and he lifted each silver cover carefully, checking it was just dinner and nothing more ominous. Finally he checked under the floor-length white tablecloth, almost disappointed when there was nothing but the metal frame of the trolley underneath the fall of fabric.

With a self-mocking laugh he pulled dinner inside. He really was getting paranoid. Maybe when the military was done with him he could be someone's bodyguard.

Snagging the piece of paper he read the neat, feminine hand-writing, rolling his eyes in disbelief. It seemed Roy had really made a lasting impression on the poor girl at the front desk. Dinner was on the house. Still, he was not about to turn away free food, especially not stuff that smelled this good.

He had a forkful of steak halfway to his mouth before a cold suspicion slammed into his brain, scattering all thoughts of hunger. How easy would it be to poison this? He didn't even know who had made it, and it wasn't like he and Roy were eating it straight out of a tin. It had probably passed dozens of people between the kitchen and their room, and any one of them could have lifted the tureen and dripped something deadly onto the food.

A rumbling roar from his stomach made him wince, and he shoved the fork back on his plate and looked around desperately for something he could draw with. There was a cheap, complimentary pen on the nightstand, and he grabbed it before clearing the stuff off the trolley and setting to work. A tablecloth was not exactly the best thing to sketch on, but he managed to set out the array without making any mistakes. When he was done he picked up one of the plates and put it in the middle before touching his hands to the circumference.

'What are you doing?'

He looked up in surprise as the flash of alchemy faded from the air, seeing Roy standing at the bathroom door wearing a pair of trousers and an un-buttoned shirt. His hair was still wet and spiky, leaving damp trails around the wide spread of his collar as he crossed his arms and waited for an answer.

'The hotel sent this up,' Ed managed, forcing himself to look away from Roy and concentrate on the array. 'I'm just checking no-one slipped anything dangerous into it. If one of us gets poisoned then we're totally fucked.' He picked up the plate from the design and held it out. 'This one's fine.'

'They're probably all untouched, Ed,' Roy said, his voice softening as he added, 'but thank you for thinking of it. That hadn't even crossed my mind.'

'Everything we've been eating has been out of tins or from the supplies Hughes gave us. We didn't really have reason to suspect anything might be wrong with. This is different,' Ed pointed out, going through the rest of the meals one by one. Each time they came back clean, and he finally grabbed the steak and began to eat, too hungry to pause between mouthfuls.

Before long there was not much left but crumbs, and Ed made a rough, satisfied sound. It felt good to be full, for once, almost like a forbidden luxury, and he stretched his arms over his head without thinking.

The pain struck like a snake, sharp and fast, scything through him. Hissing a curse he cupped his cool hand over the bandage. It hadn't been changed for a while, and he kept remembering the doctor's blunt advice. In normal circumstances he could deal with an infection, but right now Roy needed him strong and well, not crippled by a wound gone bad.

He pulled a face, not missing the fact that Roy was watching him with intense concern. He didn't bother to ask if Ed was all right, probably because he knew he wouldn't get a straight answer. Instead he reached out, pulling Ed gently to his feet before nudging him in the direction of the bathroom. 'Go and shower. I'll call down to the front desk and see if we can get some bandages.'

'You need some too,' Ed pointed out, frowning when Roy shifted and flexed his shoulder. 'I don't care if it's just a flesh wound, Mustang. You still got shot. You need to look after yourself.'

'This coming from you?' Roy asked incredulously. When Ed crossed his arms stubbornly and scowled, he gave a reluctant nod. 'Fine, if it'll make you happy then I'll see what I can do.'

Stiffly, Ed walked into the bathroom and closed the door, taking a deep breath of the steamy air. It smelled of fresh water and shampoo, and he flicked on the spray before peeling off his travel-worn clothes and setting to work on the bandages.

Peeling off the dressing, he winced at the tattered mess of his side. The wound was closed and healing, but it was still a sullen, dark pink compared the skin around it. Years from now it would probably still be a bitter scar, as vivid as those that surrounded his automail.

Stepping under the shower he tipped his head back, letting out a faint sound of relief as the water poured lovingly over his skin. It made scrapes and bruises sting and ache, but it was a cathartic kind of pain. He stood with his eyes closed, letting the droplets glance off of his skin and brush their kisses over him before setting to work.

His hair was a tangled wreck, and everywhere he looked there were dark, grubby smudges of dust and grime on his skin. He scrubbed and lathered, wincing as he accidentally reopened a scrape on his arm. The blood welled up in a thin, bright line before the water swept it away again.

A knock on the door made him flinch in surprise, and he sighed as Roy called out, 'Ed, I'm going down to the front desk to get some bandages. They've got no one to spare to send them up.'

'Be careful,' he replied, trying to ignore the shimmy of unease that trickled down his spine. 'Take a gun.'

Roy gave a grunt of agreement, and Ed blinked as he heard the door to the hotel room close. Some of the tension that had been soothed away by the gushing water returned, making him scowl at the shining white tiles on the wall. This was getting ridiculous. Caution was one thing, but he was starting to jump at shadows. Maybe it was simply seeing the soldiers that had unsettled him but, ever since they had arrived in the town, he could not quite shake the edgy anxiety that buzzed over his skin.

With a flick of his wrist, Ed turned off the shower and stepped out, reaching for the dry, thick towels that were draped over the handrail. He wrapped one around his waist before scrubbing the other over his head, letting the damp tangle of his hair fall down his back. There was a comb by the sink, and he set about dragging the knots out of the blonde strands. When he was done, he looked down at his clothes, grimacing at the dusty leather and tattered vest. There was no way he was putting those back on.

There was still a change of clothes in the pack, and he opened the bathroom door cautiously, checking that he was still alone. The last thing he needed was to be caught in Roy's gaze when he was wearing nothing but a towel. Padding over to the bed, he rummaged among their sparse supplies, pulling out a vest and the spare pare of leather pants. They were scuffed and battered, but they would do. Unfortunately, he had no fresh underwear, and he grimaced as he realised he was going to have to make do with the old pair.

A rattle of metal made Ed jerk his head up, looking towards the door as Roy unlocked it and pushed his way inside. Instantly, his gaze fell on Ed, and whatever he had been about to say died on his lips.

The air between them thickened, pounding with the distant rhythm of the drums outside. Ed knew he should beat a hasty retreat - knew he should get dressed and try to keep the shaky barriers of self-restraint in place, but it was hopeless. He was paralysed by the wanton heat in Roy's gaze, and nothing could make him break away.

Nervously, he licked his lips, noticing with fascination that Roy followed the motion longingly before lifting his head to meet Ed's eyes. Desire was a fast-burning fuse, racing down his spine and pooling fire in his stomach and lower. The towel definitely wasn't going to hide much for long, and he stifled a sound of pure want as he saw the flush on Roy's cheeks and noticed the fast, hard throb of his pulse in the hollow of his neck.

'I – I should -' Ed jerked his thumb vaguely towards the bathroom, dropping his hand uselessly back to his side as Roy closed the door, never so much as glancing away before he stepped closer. His movements were taut and careful, as if he was afraid that Ed would bolt, and there was far more than simple hunger to his expression.

'Don't,' Roy pleaded, his voice a hush of words that curled like drug smoke through Ed's body. 'Don't go.' He dropped the bandages on the bed, paying them absolutely no attention as he reached out and took Ed's left hand in his own, pulling him gently closer until he could reach out and brush a swathe of gold back from Ed's face, tucking it behind his ear before cupping his jaw.

Ed's skin was sensitive and aching for Roy's touch, desperate for warm palms and tender caresses. He was shaking with need but, he realised with a mixture of pleasure and amazement, so was Roy. Every breath was a trembling gasp of air, and sparks swam through the drunken swirl of his blood, blocking out every other sensation.

It was a precipice of a moment, one where they both hung in equilibrium between the shove of desire and the pull of caution, and Ed knew which way he wanted to tip the balance.

Boldly, he turned his head a fraction and pressed his lips over the pulse in Roy's wrist. Nipping gently, he licked his tongue over the sensitive skin, closing his eyes at Roy's hoarse, quiet groan. Soft pressure on his jaw made him look up, and Roy let go of his left hand, skimming his fingers over the bare skin of his arm. His grip wrapped around Ed's waist, skin on skin above the boundary of the towel, holding him in place as he lowered his head and claimed Ed's lips with his own.

The bundle of clothes still clutched in Ed's automail hand fell to the floor with a whisper as he reached out, wrapping his fingers around Roy's hips and arching his back, pressing himself closer as he parted his lips eagerly to let Roy in. He meant to keep his hands still, but they made their way under Roy's shirt on their own, tracing patterns of desire over smooth skin and hard muscle, lingering over faint scars as if he could heal them with his touch.

His heart was racing, beating in harmony with the addictive rhythm of the music that still pounded outside, and he knew that Roy had to be painfully aware of how turned on he was. The evidence of that was throbbing between them, separated from the hard bulge of Roy's erection by nothing more than a few layers of fabric.

Roy's hand shifted, splaying across the small of his back and pushing him closer. The tight, desperate grind made Ed break the kiss, tipping his head back in pleasure and whimpering as Roy's tongue drew a hot, wet line up the column of his throat. He sucked tenderly before nuzzling the hollow behind Ed's ear, his breathing quick and ragged as he husked, 'God, Ed. You're fucking incredible.'

There weren't the words to reply. Ed could only stroke his hands up Roy's sides, shifting under the white cotton of his shirt as he mapped the contours of his chest with eager palms. Nudging Roy's temple with his nose, he waited until Roy lifted his head again before rewarding him with another open-mouthed kiss.

Beyond the window something hissed, sibilant and low. The sound barely penetrated Ed's consciousness until an explosion boomed across the town, dousing the heat between them. Desire was pushed aside by the sharp, bright flood of adrenaline, and relaxed, pliant muscles twisted into taut knots.

Roy jerked, his arms tightening protectively around Ed's back as they both flinched, looking towards the window with wide eyes. Ed's hand was tight in the collar of Roy's shirt, pulling him automatically out of the line of fire before he realised that there was nothing beyond the clear panes except a shifting veil of blue and gold stars. Something squealed, and a small shape darted up into the darkness before exploding apart in a crimson bloom of light, bathing them both in its glow.

'Fireworks,' Roy murmured with a sigh of relief as his shoulders slumped. 'Just fireworks.' He rested his forehead against Ed's and, even though he had not moved an inch, Ed could feel the distance opening between them. The mood had changed: In one moment, heady, reckless desire had been chased back into its cage as reality flooded over them both.

'You're about to say we shouldn't have done that, aren't you?' he asked quietly, looking down at the floor. 'That it was a bad idea.'

Roy's hand shifted, his grip tightening on Ed's side as he tried to get his attention. 'No, Ed. It – it's just – we shouldn't take it any further. Not here and not now.' He sounded as if it hurt to say that, and his shaky breath ghosted across Ed's cheek before he shifted, pressing a chaste kiss to Ed's brow. 'Please believe me when I say that I wish it was different, but -'

'But it's not safe.' Ed grimaced as he repeated the mantra that had dogged their steps. He wanted to argue, wanted to point out that they had four walls, a roof and a locked door, that they were armed and protected, but he bit his tongue hard to keep the words inside. Ed knew he could not tempt Roy into this, couldn't make him forget about caution and act against his better judgment, because it just made what Kerr thought of him more true.

The thought made his stomach writhe with guilt, and he gave a numb nod of understanding as he grabbed the bundle of clothes from the floor and turned away. He heard Roy swear quietly to himself, but he did not turn around. It was only when Ed had shut the door firmly behind him that he slumped back against it and scrubbed his hand over his face.

'Fuck,' he muttered. The sound of the fireworks going off had been more effective than a cold shower, but his desire was still there, glowing like banked embers in the pit of his stomach. How the hell was he meant to go back out there and sleep next to Roy without thinking of him like that - raw and hard with need? How was he meant to not reach out when all he craved was everything Roy could offer?

The unfairness of it caught in his throat, and he gritted his teeth as he dragged the towel free and pulled on his vest and boxers. The undressed wound in his side cringed at the contact of the cotton vest, but he pushed the pain aside, trying to drag together the shattered pieces of his control.

His lips and skin tingled with tactile memories of Roy's presence, silently begging for more, and Ed stared blankly at his reflection in the mirror over the sink. It was tempting to just sink to the floor, to curl up and hide in this room of white tiles and gleaming taps, because then there was something solid between him and Roy. Ed scowled at the floor beneath his feet before shaking the idea aside. If nothing else then he couldn't protect Roy if he was locked in the bathroom. Besides, there were a lot of things in the world worth hiding from, but Roy was not one of them.

Opening the door quietly, he paused on the threshold, his mind wiped clean of thought as he admired the sight. The lights had been turned off, leaving one small lamp to illuminate the room with its feeble glow. Roy was leaning against the wall by the window, looking out through the glass at the flash and flare of the fireworks. They splashed the ceiling with fleeting hues and sent ghostly reflections of their colour across his pale skin.

Ed had heard Roy called handsome more times than he cared to count. People said it with envy or desire, but they acted as if that one-dimensional word was all that was needed to describe him – as if the symmetry and uniqueness of his features and a muscular physique was the beginning and end of him.

Did they even know how wrong they were? His masks might be handsome, but what was underneath was far more than that: wild and hot, fierce and strong. Beautifully dangerous, just like his alchemy. In the end, it was those few glimpses of the real Roy, shown in choked off flares of temper and unguarded moments, that had drawn Ed in. It was that he wanted. Not the fraction that the rest of the world saw – General Mustang – but all of him. All of Roy.

'Are you all right?'

The quiet question dragged Ed from his thoughts, and he realised that Roy was watching him sadly, his expression one of painful regret. Ed wanted to tell him that it was fine, that he understood, but the words caught in his throat and he didn't have the strength to smile. In the end he could only nod.

'Come here?' Roy asked softly, holding out a hand as Ed hesitated. 'Please?' He said it desperately, as if he could not bear the thought of Ed turning away – like he thought Ed could actually refuse... .

Taking a deep breath, Ed padded across the floor. He didn't take Roy's hand straight away, not quite trusting himself to keep his distance, but Roy's fingers wove between his as if they belonged, urging him closer until he could rest his head on Roy's uninjured shoulder and stare out into the festival's night.

The weight of Roy's arm across his shoulders was a comforting burden, and Ed wondered how it could be like this: hot and wanton one minute, soft and loving the next.

Glancing up, he tried to read Roy's expression. It wasn't that he was trying to keep his face clear, just that Ed didn't understand what he was seeing. Whatever Roy was feeling, it did not fit the straight-forward label of any base emotion. 'What's wrong?' he asked quietly, frowning when Roy shook his head, pressing his lips together in a hard line.

'Nothing. I – I -' He blew out an irritated breath, rubbing his spare hand through his hair before looking down at Ed. 'It's just I keep saying one thing and doing another.' Three fireworks burst into dazzling life, lighting the sky with emerald sparks that fell to ground like green rain. 'If it hadn't been for the noise, I don't think I would have stopped.'

The quiet confession was something Ed hadn't realised he needed, but the words took the sharp, jagged edges off of his fears and insecurities, letting him relax a little more into Roy's embrace. 'Neither would I,' he pointed out, wrapping his right arm loosely around Roy's waist. 'Maybe it would have been a good thing.'

'I've got no doubts about that,' Roy murmured, a flirtatious smirk curving his lips as Ed rolled his eyes.

'Pervert. I meant that maybe we're blowing all the problems out of proportion: the rank, the age, all that....'

'But not the danger.' Roy's smile fell away as the finale of the firework display boomed out across the town, spilling tears of light from their burning cores. 'All the other risks I'm happy to accept, but not that. If anything happened to you... .' He trailed off, swallowing audibly. 'I'm sorry, Ed.'

He meant it, that much was clear. It wasn't a case of Roy not wanting him or not thinking he was worth it, but that didn't mean anything had changed. In the end they were still stuck in exactly the same situation, desperate and wanting but unable to do anything about it.

Roy's shoulders were slumped in defeat, and the poor light darkened the bruises of exhaustion under his eyes to purple and black. There was nothing Ed could say to make either of them feel any less lost or helpless, but at least he could make sure they were safe enough to have one night of uninterrupted sleep. Perhaps then, when morning came, they would be able to see a way to have everything that they wanted.

'Get ready for bed,' he suggested quietly. 'You look like you're ready to drop.'

'What are you going to do?' Roy asked, sending a flicker of pleased surprise through Ed. There was nothing like being wanted, and Roy was either too tired or too trusting to keep the need, not for sex but for Ed's presence, from his voice.

'Making this place as safe as possible. Last thing I want is a rude wake up call in the middle of the night.'

He set to work almost instantly, vaguely aware of the sounds of Roy brushing his teeth as he checked the locks on the door and secured them with a few simple arrays drawn on the wood. Guns, knives, gloves – they were all in easy reach of the bed, and Ed looked towards the window as he tried to work out another escape route. In the end, if someone attacked they'd stand more chance fighting them than trying to run. Transmuting a way down cost precious seconds, and it only took a heartbeat to pull a trigger.

'I think you've done all you can,' Roy said, flicking off the bathroom light and padding over to the bed. He was wearing the pyjama pants again, and Ed swallowed against the dryness in his mouth, pretending to double check the arrays on the door. It was only when he heard the whisper of the covers that he turned back towards the bed.

The blankets were pulled up to Roy's shoulders, and his eyes were hazy and half-closed with the weight of his tiredness. His hair was a spiky mess, and the stubble on his chin was strikingly dark. Ed hesitated before slipping into bed, trying desperately not to think of anything but sleep as Roy made a drowsy, happy noise and shuffled closer.

His arm wrapped around Ed's waist, heavy and sure, and Ed tensed as Roy brushed a feather-light kiss to his forehead. It was a sleepy, loving gesture, and he blinked in the darkness as Roy's breathing became deeper and more steady.

Carefully, Ed nestled closer, resting his head against the Roy's shoulder and placing his hand on his chest, feeling the steady beat of his heart against his palm. For all Ed's desire and the subtle hum of pleasure at Roy's proximity, tiredness was dragging at him with grabby hands, fuddling his thoughts as it worked its magic on his anxious mind.

He watched Roy's sleeping face through drowsy eyes, wondering how their mutual distrust and anger had grown into this – whatever it was. All his life it felt as if he had been sprinting from one disaster to the next, running into the worst kind of trouble and barely escaping with his life intact. Yet now, despite the plotters and assassins, the danger and the ceaseless fear, he felt safe.

Lust was not strong enough for that. It burned fast and hot and left nothing but ash in its wake, so what was this?

Closing his eyes, Ed concentrated on the thrum of life beneath his hand, taking comfort in the reassuring rhythm as he drifted towards sleep. He might not have the answer but, deep down, he was beginning to think that Hughes might have been right.

He took care of the people he loved and, right now, no one was more important to him than Roy.

Chapter Text

'Is this really going to work?' Roy asked doubtfully. He was sitting on the bed while Ed stood temptingly close, drawing careful lines on his temple with a fine brush and a strange, sticky black ink. It was almost impossible to think of anything except Ed's gentle grip on his jaw and the intoxicating, addictive scent of him, and Roy tried desperately to keep his breathing steady and his mind out of the gutter.

'Not if you don't stay still,' Ed growled in warning, nudging Roy's cheek with his knuckles so that he turned his head. 'You rejected all my other suggestions, remember?'

Roy glanced at Ed from the corner of his eye, still thrown by his change in appearance. His hair was tied back in its usual ponytail, but the dazzling gold had vanished beneath a cloud of rich brown. His eyebrows matched, and his face had not changed even a fraction, but Ed as anything but a blonde was too unfamiliar a sight. The only reassuring thing was his eyes, amber and, right now, intensely focused as he sketched the design on Roy's skin.

'I'd look ridiculous with anything except black hair,' he muttered. 'Besides, I don't think the people after us are going to be fooled so easily, Ed. They're professionals. They'll be able to see through small changes like this in an instant.'

Ed made a tight, angry noise, licking his thumb and rubbing out a mistake before starting again. 'We're not trying to infiltrate them or anything. When searching a crowd, people focus on obvious things like tattoos or hair colour. This just means that if we pass anyone looking for us, they'll think twice before they attack. A couple of seconds head-start is better than nothing.'

Finally, he stood back, squinting at his handiwork before busying himself cleaning stuff away as he carried on talking. 'If you weren't so determined to get supplies we could jump on a train and be out of here. We'd be in Central by eleven tonight.'

'With no food?' Roy asked, trying to ignore the gaping sensation of loss at Ed's distance. Holding in a sigh, he got to his feet and checked his reflection, smiling despite himself at the symbol of fire inked on the side of his forehead. It was only decorative, but Ed was a perfectionist and the design was flawless. 'Even when we get to Central, there's no guarantee what we'll find. We need to be as prepared as possible. It won't take more than an hour to get what we need, and then we can leave.'

'Good, because I'm sure there are more soldiers out there than there were yesterday.'

Roy looked out of the window, instinctively standing well back from the panes as he scouted the people below. The festival had not ended last night and, already, families were beginning to fill the square again as the performers set up their acts and the morning sun climbed higher in the sky. Today, though, the shops were open, their doors flung wide to welcome the visitors, and Roy watched the steady stream of shoppers buying food and souvenirs.

Ed was right. Mingled in among them were men and women in Amestrian uniform. Alongside the dazzling spectrum of colour, the drab blue looked sombre and out of place. Quickly, he did a head count, rubbing his stubbled chin thoughtfully. 'There are about twenty all around the square, but they're not looking for anyone.'

'That could change,' Ed pointed out. 'If whoever's behind this plot has worked out we're not dead, then they are going to suspect we're here. If they intercepted the bill you sent to Intelligence, then they might have worked out we're in this hotel.'

'The invoice wouldn't confirm anything except that there was someone with a valid military code here. Only Hughes will be able to link it back to me.'

'You hope.'

Roy nodded, knowing that Ed's pessimism was well-founded. Charging the room to an Intelligence account had really been the only option. They needed the security here, and it was the only way to afford the place. He had carefully weighed the options and decided that, even if the bill was intercepted and interpreted, he and Ed would be out of this town before anyone could catch up with them. When it came down to it, it was an acceptable risk, one he was happy to take in order to let Hughes know they were still alive. He just prayed that Maes was around to receive it.

Ed walked over to his side, stopping a short distance away and looking at the bustle below. His arms were folded defensively across his chest, and a worried frown creased his brow as he examined the scene. Roy was used to seeing Ed's emotions. His moods were normally transparent, but he was accustomed to confidence and determination, not this – a mix of uncertainty, sadness and dread.

Was that his fault? Was it because of him that Ed seemed so off-balance and shaken? Was it because of what had happened last night?

Roy's entire body tingled as the clear, rich memories warmed his blood and made his heart beat faster. He had not planned to kiss Ed, but that did not mean he regretted it. When he opened the door and saw him standing there, perfect and beautiful and everything he wanted, he hadn't been able to stop himself. The thought that it was something he should not do had not even crossed his mind until the sharp, fierce roar of the fireworks had ripped them apart.

Now, more than anything, he wanted to do it again. He wanted to wrap his arms around Ed's firm body and hold him close, wanted to taste his kisses and feel the warm, flat planes of his body edged with the rough ridges of his scars. The air between them was not just hot, it was volatile, and even the slightest, most mundane touch from Edward was electrifying. Roy ached for him, and, no matter how tightly he held himself in check, he could feel his restraint starting to fail.

Next time, he did not think he would have the strength to pull away.

'We should get going.'

Roy blinked at the interruption to his thoughts, realising that he had been staring longingly at Ed's profile. He was not stupid enough to believe that Ed had not noticed. A faint smile curved the younger man's lips, and there was a trace of a blush dusting his cheeks as he watched Roy out of the corner of his eye.

Hastily, Roy looked back out of the window, noticing the height of the sun and the thickening of the crowd. The sooner they got their supplies, then the sooner they could get back to Central. He wasn't sure what awaited them there, but he could feel the pull of the place in his veins, dragging at him like the moon on water. Somewhere within the city the answer to all their problems awaited them. All they had to do was get there in one piece.

With a silent nod of agreement, he checked that he had his gloves and his gun before picking up the pack and slinging it over his shoulder. His wound whined in complaint, and he shifted the strap away from the bandage. 'Got everything you need?'

'I guess so. It's not like we had much stuff to begin with,' Ed murmured, casting one final glance around the room before following him out. 'Hey, where are you going?' he asked as Roy locked the door and turned away. ' The front desk is the other way.'

Roy grinned, shaking his head. 'I don't plan to check out. Maybe whoever's following us will think we're still here when we're already long gone.' He jingled the keys in his hand before pitching them into the linen basket on a nearby maid's cart. They'd find them eventually, and the military could bear the cost of the room for a while longer. 'You said it yourself. A small head start is better than none at all. There's a fire escape down the back of the building. We can go out that way.'

'What about the alarm?' Ed followed his pointing finger towards the manual activation switches on the wall, frowning in confusion before he realised what he was looking at. 'They're not linked into the doors?'

'I noticed last night when I was on my way down to the front desk. We should be able to slip out without being noticed.' He looked back along the corridor, checking that the hallway was deserted before reaching out and pushing the fire door open. Despite his knowledge, he was still half-expecting the shrill scream of an alarm, and he felt the stiffness in his shoulders ease when the bells remained quiet. The only noise to reach his ears was the music from the festival and the chatter of the people.

Gone was the thudding bass of the night before. Now the melodies were piping and rapid, wending through the air in dizzy bursts of sound. The clatter of their boots on the metal steps created an unlikely harmony as they climbed down the narrow rungs. No one saw them. Everyone was too busy watching the entertainment to bother paying attention to the side-streets, and Roy hesitated, trying to plan the most efficient way forward.

'What do we need?' Ed asked, pushing a tendril of hair out of his eyes and scowling at an abandoned newspaper as it whispered in the wind. 'Maybe we should split up. That way we can get stuff more quickly.'

'No, we only need bandages and food. I need you to keep watch while I get the supplies.'

'Why me?'

Roy winced at that question, glancing over his shoulder as he tried to think of a way to explain what he meant without Ed ripping his head off. He was still wearing the leather pants and black vest, but he had put on a white shirt over the top. Its long sleeves hid the distinctive silver of his automail, but he had left the buttons open, revealing a tantalising view of his cotton-clad physique. Still, it wasn't what he was wearing that had made up Roy's mind, but his age. People did not look twice at teenagers waiting for their friends, and, as much as Ed hated it, he fit the bill perfectly.

'You look less out of place hanging around doing nothing,' he said. 'No one will bother you, and I'll be quick.'

Ed glared at him suspiciously but, for once, he didn't argue. 'Fine, but don't think that you're safe just because I'm watching you. Someone could still shoot you dead before I can shout a warning.'

Roy nodded, taking another moment to pick which shops he needed to visit before giving Ed a gentle push towards the square. 'Wait over there. You can keep an eye on both stores and warn me if you see anything suspicious. All right?' He waited for Ed to give a reluctant nod before adding, 'This is the best way, Ed. If we're both getting supplies then we can't watch the other's back, and if we're in the same shop and someone decided to take us down we wouldn't stand a chance.'

'Okay, I get it,' Ed huffed. 'Go already.'

He watched Ed lean back against the wall, crossing his arms and looking every inch the rebellious youth. To anyone sparing him no more than a casual glance, he was harmless, but Roy could make out the tense line of his shoulders and the alertness in his eyes. He was watching everything and everyone for even a hint of a threat, and he would not hesitate to lash out if necessary.

Roy turned away, reassuring himself once more that Ed was perfectly capable of looking after himself as he made his way to the first shop. The place wasn't too crowded, and the shelves were laden with fresh fruit and bread still warm from the oven. Hastily, he collected together some basic provisions, including bottles of water. If everything went according to plan then they would not be on the train for more than sixteen hours, but the past few days had taught him well: luck was rarely on their side, and it was better to be prepared than caught short.

As soon as he had paid for the supplies, Roy walked casually back out into the street, taking a moment to reassure himself that Ed was where he had left him. He hadn't moved, and was still scowling towards the square, ever-watchful of the shifting mass of people all around.

Quickly, Roy made his way to the pharmacy, ignoring the bell that chimed softly over the door as he entered. The place smelled of antiseptic, and bright, clinical lamps shone garishly off of the white shelves, making him blink as his eyes stung at their intensity.

Grabbing a few bandages and dressing pads, he was about to make his way to the counter when something caught his eye, bringing him up short. His mind raced, arguments chasing back and forth as he dithered. Eventually he reached out and picked up the small, discreet tube of lubricant, trying not to read too much into his decision. It was not giving up or giving in, he reassured himself, just being prepared.

The young woman behind the counter kept her face perfectly clear of any expression as she priced up the bandages and lube, and Roy tried not to smirk as he wondered what was going through her mind. She probably thought he was planning some kinky bondage sex games, but her deadpan expression was equal to Hawkeye's as she handed over his purchases and bid him goodbye.

Slipping the bandages and dressing into the pack, he tucked the lube into the very bottom, hoping that Ed would not come across it and start asking awkward questions. To be honest, it was the last thing he had expected to purchase when on the run for his life, but he was not an idiot. Last night it had been painfully clear exactly what would have happened next if it hadn't been for the fireworks.

If they ended up in that situation again – Roy smiled. At least now they wouldn't have to transmute something else into lube. Dragging a passion-stunned mind together enough to work out the array was not only difficult, it could go disastrously wrong.

Scanning the street, the smile slipped from his face, and he narrowed his eyes warily as he found the spot where Ed should have been standing. It was stark and empty, a blank stretch of wall no different from any other. He wasn't there, and Roy's mouth went dry as panic fluttered like white moths across his vision.

With feigned indifference, he melted into the bustle of people, forcing himself to look for brown hair, not blonde as his pulse staggered sickly in his veins. Maybe he had made a mistake? Perhaps he had been looking in the wrong place? He checked and double-checked, trying to be subtle as panic turned to terror, cracking like ice in his stomach. Ed was definitely gone, and he had heard nothing, No shout, no struggle, no gunshot – nothing. That wasn't right. When confronted, Ed fought, and he didn't do it quietly. He would have caused a scene, not melted away like mist before the dawn.

Pausing to stare blankly into a store window at the edge of the square, Roy studied his reflected surroundings carefully. The soldiers still seemed relaxed and easy-going. They were joking and flirting with their colleagues, standing at ease and offering advice to lost tourists. If they had just made a successful capture they would have been more celebratory, but their expression suggested nothing out of the ordinary.

Yet there was absolutely no sign of Ed.

'Shit,' Roy hissed to himself, pressing his hand to his forehead as he shut his eyes in despair. He had to stop thinking like a civilian, like someone who cared, and start acting like a professional. Ed was not stupid. Whatever had happened he would have tried to let Roy know about it somehow. All he had to do was look for the clues.

With a massive effort he managed to keep his expression in perfect control as he meandered back towards where Ed had been standing, making himself take in everything there was to see. The street was dusty, but there weren't any signs of a struggle, and the brickwork he had been leaning against showed no evidence of transmutation. Ed hadn't been taken by force. Wherever he was, he had gone there voluntarily.

Scowling in annoyance, Roy walked along the south edge of the square, trying to think of what might have made Ed move. Had he seen something or someone? Had he been driven away? Was he giving chase? Had he just been distracted and wandered off?

Something grabbed his arm, pulling him off balance, and he lashed out automatically as he was hauled into a narrow alley between two shops. A hard, unforgiving grip locked around his wrist, stopping his punch from landing as a hand went over his mouth, muffling his curse of surprise.

Ed looked at him warily, waiting until he was sure Roy wouldn't make any loud noises or sudden moves before he dropped his hands back to his sides.

'What the hell, Ed?' he hissed as relief succumbed to a raw wave of possessive anger. The alley was little more than a narrow, forgotten space and, even with their backs to opposite walls, he could easily reach out and grab Ed's shoulders, giving him a little shake. 'Don't disappear like that! I had no idea where you were or what had happened to you!'

'We've got a problem,' Ed said quietly, his voice pinched with unidentifiable emotion as he looked back out into the square.

Following his gaze, Roy frowned. It took him a moment to realise who he was looking at. A tall, burly man in his early fifties was talking to a couple of soldiers. Clean-shaven and stony faced, he was looking at the uniformed men as if they were below his regard. He was too far away for Roy to make out what he was saying, but that did not matter. He knew who it was.

General Kerr.

Roy dropped his hand to Ed's hip, unconsciously pulling him closer and shielding him with his body. He could feel the skitter and jump of Ed's muscles, and his rapid breaths tickled the skin beneath Roy's open collar, but a brief glance told him that Ed was far from afraid. His teeth were bared in a silent snarl, and he looked at Kerr like a wolf might look at a hunter, all wildness and ferocity. There was something reassuring in that, to know that Kerr and his perversity had not paralysed Ed, but enraged him.

'We have got to get out of here,' Roy said emphatically. 'I'll bet everything I've got that he's telling them about us.'

'What's he even doing here?' Ed spat, choosing to back down the alley rather than turn away from Kerr. 'Did he intercept the bill from the hotel or what?'

'Even if he did, he couldn't have got here that fast from Central. Something's changed,' Roy muttered, scowling as his thoughts raced. 'His orders for your assassination made me think he was happy to sit back and let others do his dirty work. The fact he's here means something's got them worried.' The smile that flickered on his face was utterly ruthless, and he relished the dark bloom of satisfaction in his heart. 'They're getting nervous, and that means they're bound to make mistakes. Come on.'

Grabbing Ed's hand he turned away, hurrying along the narrow gap and peering out into the next street. He checked its length for soldiers as he tried to get his bearings. 'We need to head south; the freight train depot is on the outskirts of town. Any heading west will get to Central. If we get separated for any reason, then head back to the city. I'll meet you there.'

'What? No fucking way, Mustang,' Ed snapped, pulling him to a halt. 'I'm not leaving you behind!'

'It's not your decision to make. That's an order, Fullmetal.' Rage flashed in Ed's eyes, and Roy softened his voice, carefully editing out the frantic edge of fear. 'Ed, think about it. Kerr is here, right here, and he's after you. If he catches me, the worst he'll do is kill me. If he gets his hands on you -' Roy swallowed back the sharp taste of bile as his stomach clenched at the thought. 'For once in your life, do what I ask. Please?'

Ed looked back along the alley, his expression briefly hidden by a swathe of dark hair before he shook his head. 'I won't have to. We won't get separated. We'll make it to Central together.'

He said it as if any alternative course of events was impossible, and Roy drew in a deep breath. They didn't have time to argue. Every instinct he had was on full alert, screaming at him to run while he still could, and each second that passed was a moment wasted. They had to get moving.

Wordlessly, he slipped out into the steady flow of people, attuning some portion of his senses to Ed's presence as he picked his way across the street. It would be quicker to take the main roads south, but they were probably riddled with soldiers. It was safer to use the back-ways and forgotten places of the town. There, at least, they would be hidden from plain view.

'Keep your eyes open. God knows what Kerr's been telling the military here, but it'll probably be enough to convince them that we're dangerous.' He dodged around a middle-aged woman and her gaggle of children as he muttered, 'The last thing either of us needs is another gunshot wound.'

'You think they'll open fire in a crowd like this? Won't they care about killing civilians?'

'It's never stopped the army before,' Roy said darkly.

Another narrow alley caught his eye, and he headed for its entrance gratefully. It lead behind a series of shop fronts and branched off in little avenues filled with abandoned crates and the other detritus of commerce. The echoes of their footsteps clanged along the close walls; the path was barely wide enough for two men to walk side-by-side, and Roy tried to keep heading in the right direction as the way ahead twisted and turned.

More than once they crossed a busy street, but the people were thinning out as they headed away from the festival's heart. The lack of obscurity made him feel even more exposed, and Roy gritted his teeth as his neck prickled with the constant sensation of being watched.

Finally, the distant clatter of metal wheels on steel tracks reached his ears, and Ed lifted his head like a dog catching the scent. The back-street they were in was calm and quiet, cleaving neatly through the older part of town. Here shops were boarded up and abandoned, and everything was in a sad state of disrepair.

Up ahead a shape moved, detaching itself from the grey gloom like a monster stirring in the depths of the ocean. More shadows shifted, and Ed spat a curse as the soldiers inched forward into the light, guns raised. They were all pale-faced and uncertain, not brutal thugs but new recruits, and Roy could tell that they were fresh off the parade ground. On one hand, it meant they were probably more likely to make rookie mistakes. On the other, they might pull their triggers in panic.

'Stop, or I'll shoot!' one of them managed, narrowing his eyes along the barrel of his pistol. His voice shook, as did his hands, and Roy put his left arm out to the side, nudging Ed back as the fingers of his right hand tensed to snap. 'We have orders to take you alive. Please come quietly!'

The flames roared their answer, leaping up in a sheet of vivid gold and bright white that forced the soldiers to retreat. Instantly, Ed grabbed Roy's arm and sprinted back the way they had come, not bothering with stealth as the sound of their footsteps clattered back and forth all around them. 'There's got to be another way out!' he called, slithering to an undignified halt at a cross-road.

All around there were shouts and curses as others were alerted to their location. They echoed randomly, making it impossible to pinpoint where they were coming from, and Roy looked around desperately as he tried to work out which way to go. The bark of a gun sounded, and the sharp, bitter strike of a bullet biting into nearby brickwork made the decision for them. Lunging back into a sprint, they headed west as the sounds of hot pursuit reverberated in their wake.

There was not the breath to spare to shout out warnings or give orders. All either of them could do was put their head down and run, hoping that the other would keep up. Jumping over crates and slithering through muck slowed them down, and Roy thought a vile curse as a tall, metal fence came into view. His body was making him brutally aware that he had spent at least the past five years of his life sitting behind a desk and not getting enough exercise. His side already burned with a stitch, and his throat felt parched and choked.

With a muffled groan he sped up, leaping at the chain-link barrier and clambering over the top. His shoulder was a vile mass of pain, and he landed clumsily before carrying on. Several more shots rang out, but they fell mercifully short as Ed turned sharply to the left and skidded to a halt.

'What are you -?' Roy panted, bending over double at Ed's side and blinking against the dazzle of the transmutation. When his vision cleared there was a solid wall between them and their pursuers. The stone was pitted and worn; it was even slightly damp, blending in perfectly with the other masonry around it. 'Is that a good idea?' he asked, spitting into the gutter. 'What if we have to go back?'

'Then I'll knock it down again,' Ed replied. 'Come on, we need to keep moving or they'll just trap us in this fuckin' maze.'

Roy stumbled back into a run, hating the fact that his legs ached so much. The rush of blood through his veins hammered in his ears, and his back was slick with sweat. The strap of the pack was digging into his shoulder, but he didn't have time to stop and adjust it as he followed Ed diligently, trying to watch where he was putting his feet.

Finally the silver-steel mess of train tracks came into view, surrounded by warehouses and rudimentary platforms stacked with crates and supplies. Slowing to a halt, he leaned back against a nearby wall, sucking in deep gulps of air as Ed bent double and clutched his side. It took Roy a moment to realise how pale he was, and he crouched down quickly, brushing Ed's hair out of his face. 'What's wrong? Is it bleeding?'

Ed coughed and shook his head, offering a weak smile. 'Doctor said my lung was fucked. Didn't believe him until now.' Roy's worry must have been less hidden than he thought, because Ed murmured. 'It'll heal. It's not like I'm going to die or anything, I just can't breathe so well.' He straightened up, wrinkling his nose in discomfort before squinting at the depot, trying to familiarise himself with this new location.

Roy frowned, trying to judge whether Ed was in a worse condition than he was letting on, but he seemed all right. Already his pants were evening out into something more steady, and the flush of exertion on his face was fading fast.

Staring around, Roy tried to think of what to do next. Several trains stood at the platform, their engines steaming and clanking as their cargo was loaded, and he eyed each one carefully. 'The soldiers can't be far behind. We need to get on one of these and get out of here.'

'Wait!' Ed's hiss was frantic as he snatched at Roy's shirt. 'Look!'

He pointed towards the road, and Roy swore as he saw several sleek, black cars skid to a defiant halt near the railway line. Dust flared in plumes around their wheels as soldiers piled out, guns in hands. Among them, moving like a predator surveying its territory, was Kerr. He was calling out orders, and Roy closed his eyes in disbelief as the uniformed people spread out and began to check the carriages.

'This way. Quick, before we're seen!' Ed moved with hurried stealth, never taking his eyes off of those hunting them as he crept towards one of the warehouses, taking shelter behind whatever he could and darting across open spaces. More than once he looked over his shoulder, checking that Roy was still behind him before carrying on.

By the time they made it into the shady shelter of one of the massive buildings, Roy felt sick with nerves. He kept expecting calls of alarm and the swift bite of a bullet between his shoulders, and his heart was thrumming fit to burst.

'Hiding isn't going to work!' he whispered as they slipped behind some of the crates that were cradled in the soft gloom. 'Kerr won't call them off until we're found.'

'Wanna bet?' Ed replied, dragging Roy down into a crouch and pressing his eye to a knot hole in the wall. 'One of those trains is going to leave in a couple of minutes - the driver's on board and everything - and the general hasn't got around to searching it yet.'

'You think he'll assume we're on it?'

'If we followed your plan, we would be,' Ed pointed out. 'At the very least Kerr will split his men and take some of them to stop and search it further down the line.'

'You can't be sure of that!' Roy whispered fiercely, flinching as one of the engines de-pressurised its steam system, filling the air with a thick, sibilant hiss.

'And you can't be certain I'm wrong!'

He was about to reply when the sound of footsteps outside made them both freeze, breathless and wide-eyed. Roy looked around frantically before pushing Ed down to the floor and pulling a pile of empty sacks down on top of them. The material was rough and dusty, but it provided more cover than the crates alone could offer. Someone could be standing right next to them and not realise they were there.

They lay, side by side and motionless, as the footsteps continued. Three pairs of boots, Roy decided, and they were moving with the creeping, erratic gait of men who expected their target to leap out and take them by surprise. He listened as they turned a corner, biting his lip as the sound began to echo. Whoever it was, they were inside the warehouse and getting closer by the moment.

Ed was pressed against his chest, and Roy could feel the tension singing in his muscles. He was wound up tight and ready to attack, but he was holding himself under control, his breathing steady and measured as he waited.

Beyond the blank shroud of the sacks someone let out a sigh of relief, and Roy heard the distinctive 'snick' of a safety hammer being put back into place. 'Seems empty – not that I even know who I'm looking for,' someone grouched.

'Deserters, that's what I was told,' a younger voice said nervously. 'They're to be put on trial.'

A woman gave an indelicate snort, her voice clipped and hard as she said, 'Don't be a fool, Reed. There's no such thing as a trial if you run from the army. They drag you to the nearest wall and shoot you. We're not being told the full story here -' Her voice dropped to a murmur. '- and I don't like it one bit.'

The sound of someone approaching, steady and unhurried, made Roy's breath catch in his throat, and he frowned as a smooth, well-educated voice said, 'It is not necessary for you to understand your orders, lieutenant. Simply follow them.' It was neither loud nor aggressive, merely matter-of-fact, yet Roy could sense the effect it had on the soldiers. Their uniforms rustled as they straightened up, and he could feel the fear in the air.

Ed flinched in his arms, his breath stuttering as he recognised the voice. His hands curled into fists against Roy's chest, and he tightened his embrace fractionally in wordless promise.

'Yes, General Kerr. Forgive me.' The lieutenant's voice shook slightly, but there was a well-hidden edge to her words that suggested something closer to anger than intimidation. Roy picked up on it because he was used to listening to what people said. He heard what was behind the words as much as anything else. Clearly Kerr thought such attention to detail was below him.

'Have you searched this warehouse for the deserters?'

Roy froze, pursing his lips as he closed his eyes in a mute prayer of desperation. He did not want to have to kill anyone in order to get away from here, but if he had no other choice he would not hesitate. He would do whatever it took to keep Ed from Kerr's grasp, even if it meant spilling the blood of a group of soldiers whose only crime was to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

'The crates in here are sealed, sir, and we have looked among the stacks. There is no sign of anyone hiding in here.' The woman's words betrayed no hint of guilt for the lie as she added, 'I believe we should concentrate on the trains.'

'I did not ask for your opinion, Lieutenant,' Kerr answered coldly. 'Your place is to be seen and not heard. In my presence you will only speak when spoken to, nothing more.'

The shriek of a train whistle echoed through the air, a banshee's wail among the buildings surrounding the train tracks, and Roy winced as the ear-piercing noise. The clank and hiss of the nearby engine changed frequency, and the wheels squealed as they slowly began to turn.

'Stop that train!' Kerr called out, his voice carrying across the depot. 'None are to leave until they have been thoroughly searched.' Someone must have replied, explaining that what he wanted was impossible, because the first wild streak of temper made itself known in his next words. 'Idiots! Then we'll stop the damned things at the next station and tear them apart one by one!'

One set of boot-steps walked away, pausing a short distance away and scraping as they turned on stone. 'Lieutenant, you and your men will remain here and watch the station. If you see any sign of the fugitives, then you will report it to me immediately. Do I make myself clear?'

'Sir.'

No one spoke again until the sound of several cars peeling away punctuated the silence. Gradually, the rough growls of the engines faded into the distance, and all that remained were the shouts of the depot workers and the soft hiss of the idling trains.

'Why did you tell him we'd searched the place? We hadn't even started yet.'

'Because I'm not a brainless drone, Clayton. I don't know what's been happening in Central, but you don't need more than two brain-cells to know that something's not right. My gut tells me this is part of it, and it also says the general is not to be trusted.'

'So you throw your lot in with God knows who? You only just came off of suspension for disobedience. If you do it again it'll be you up against a wall,' the man called Clayton pointed out.

'The chances are that no one will ever know. Whoever we were chasing was probably on the train.'

'And if they're not?' Reed asked. 'If they're here somewhere?'

The lieutenant gave a brief chuckle, and Roy heard the rough sound of her holstering her weapon. 'If they're still here then they might be grateful to know that there's a train at the last platform that takes a different route towards Central. It will bypass Kerr's checkpoint and get them there well before dawn. Perhaps they'll remember the name Kess Jennings and thank me one day.'

'Or shoot you in your sleep,' Clayton muttered, his footsteps echoing away. 'Let's get out of here. Might as well enjoy the festival before it ends.'

'What about guarding the station?' Reed asked querulously.

'Forget it. If anyone asks, we were here all day and saw nothing,' Jennings replied with a sigh, her voice softening as she added, 'Let's round up the others and get out of here. We have our own people to worry about. No-one knows what became of Major-General Avron, and when the higher-ups start fighting between themselves, it's a good idea to keep your head down. It'll come right in the end.'

Gradually, their voices faded away until they were lost among the industrious sounds of the depot, and Roy let himself breathe a heavy sigh of relief. They were safe, for now, but he knew in the pit of his stomach that their escape had nothing to do with skill and everything to do with good fortune. Jennings could so easily have been the kind of soldier to follow orders without question. Pure, dumb luck had let them off the hook.

His moment of bliss was short-lived as the spin of his thoughts wobbled with suspicion. Peeking out from under the sacking, he made sure that the coast was clear before getting to his feet, leaving Ed to follow as he crept towards the door and peered out across the platforms. Sure enough there was a train waiting at the far side, carriages almost loaded and the boiler stoked.

'So are we going for it?' Ed asked, peering around his shoulder. 'She said it would go straight past Kerr.'

'Did you believe her?' Roy looked down, seeing the flicker of uncertainty in Ed's eyes. 'It could easily be a set-up. For all we know we'll be delivered right into the general's hands. She sounded convincing enough,' he conceded, 'but it could have been an act. It's easy enough to fool people by telling them what they want to hear.'

'You should know. You do it all the time.'

Roy frowned at that, but didn't bother to argue. Ed was right. Like recognised like, and although he wasn't certain whether or not Jennings had been telling the truth, he was not about to put his faith in a stranger's word. 'We have to get back to Central. Maybe there's another way.'

'Not one as fast as this,' Ed pointed out, shoving his hair out of his face as he scowled into the middle distance, his eyes unfocussed. 'I think she was telling the truth, at least about that train being on a different track. Remember the map Havoc had? It showed a branching railway line. One part goes to North Central, the other to the south.' Roy's doubt must have been written all over his face, because Ed added, 'It's not like we're helpless. We're armed, and we have our alchemy. We can fight if we have to. I say we get on the train.'

Silence fell as Roy thought it over, his mind flicking from one scenario to the next before he finally nodded in reluctant agreement. Time was of the essence, and they needed the speed the trains could offer. As long as they were always on guard for anything out of the ordinary, then at least they would not be caught unprepared.

'All right. Let's go.'

The chaos of crates and bundles, sacks and stacks made it easy to get across the yard, darting from one hiding place to the next until they reached a ramshackle hut. The wall of the wood was rough beneath Roy's hand as he peered around the corner, glancing up at the window. It was closed against the chilly air, but the thin pane of the glass did nothing to block the station master's indignant words.

'-Bloody hell do they think they are? Damn military always sticking their noses in where they don't belong. Do they know what that's going to do to my schedule?' There was a heavy clank, like a mug being slammed down on a desk in anger. 'There's eggs, veg and meat on that train, and when Central gets a delivery of less-than-best food, do you know who'll take the blame? Won't be the bloody army, that's for sure!'

'They were chasing people, Steve,' a grating old voice pointed out. 'Could've been murderers for all you know.'

'Deserters. Lads using the sense they were given and getting the hell out, that's who they were after.' The station master's voice took on a softer tone as he added, 'My boy wants to be a state alchemist, and he wonders why I'm against it. What kind of army shoots their own just because they got scared?'

'It's the best in the world. Better than Drachma, better than Xing.'

'At what cost, Lars?' There was a heavy sigh, and the rustle of paper. 'Pass me that timetable, will you? I've got to try and sort out this mess.'

Roy grimaced as he crept along under the window, hoping that the occupants of the shack were too busy to start pacing the platforms. As it was there were plenty of burly men loading the trains, shouting out in coarse voices and laughing among themselves. He and Ed would have to jump down onto the tracks and dodge between the carriages to avoid being seen, and even then they had to hope that no one looked up at the wrong moment.

'Hurry up,' Ed hissed in his ear. 'If we miss that train then we're stuck here.'

Dodging behind a large pile of grain sacks, Roy jumped over the platform edge and landed on the shale. There was not much space between the carriages, and clouds of steam billowed from the nearby engine. By the time the vapour reached his face it was warm and clammy, rather than scalding, but he knew how dangerous this was. If the train started moving or one of the carriages jolted, he and Ed would both be crushed.

'We need to head towards the back,' he said as Ed snagged his shirt sleeve, hanging on tightly. 'We're less likely to be noticed there. Come on.'

They hurried along the slippery shale, pressed in the endless narrow gap between one waiting train and the next. Roy's nerves tingled with anxiety, and he snapped his fingers, letting the spark fall to the floor as he manipulated the gases and energy in the air. Within seconds his breath was leaving icy clouds, and Ed shuddered at the sudden drop in temperature.

'What are you doing?' he asked, frowning when Roy jerked his head to the train a bare few inches away to their right.

'Mining carts. It'll be too heavy for one engine. There'll be some in the middle, and if one of them lets off steam while we're trapped here -' He didn't need to finish the sentence, and he smiled weakly at Ed's noise of grudging surprise. It seemed that, for once, he'd out-thought the genius.

'There,' Ed pointed to a gap between the trucks, filled with metal spars and littered with stony shrapnel. 'We're far enough down that we won't be seen, and the platform's on the opposite side. We can jump into one of the box carts.'

Silently, Roy gestured for Ed to lead the way, trusting the younger man's keen instincts. He moved with a natural agility that made Roy feel ungainly by comparison, picking his way unfalteringly over the treacherous ground before looking along the tracks. Roy followed his gaze, seeing the endless switch and change of metal glimmering in the sunlight. There had to be order amidst the chaos, but to his untrained eye the whole system looked random, like the fluttering tails of the kites back at the festival.

Nothing rumbled down the rails, and Ed picked his way cautiously across until he could clap his hands and press them to the rudimentary wall of one of the carriages. The flash of his alchemy was subdued, but Roy still kept his guard up, searching for anyone who might give them any trouble. In a matter of seconds they had a way inside, and Roy followed Ed up as he crawled through the hole before sealing it behind them.

Light seeped in through the gaps between the planks that made up the cart's construction, and Roy took a moment to familiarise himself with the tiny room. The cargo was bales of something that, on closer inspection, turned out to be ravelled fabric. It had been strapped down but, even if the load shifted, it wouldn't be heavy enough to do them any serious damage.

The sliding door on the platform side was closed, and a quick tug indicated it was barred from the outside. Not that it mattered. Ed could blast it apart or he could burn it to ash if he had to, but anyone wanting to get in would make a lot of noise in the process, giving them a chance to either escape or hide.

Up ahead, the train's whistle let out a wail, and the carriage grumbled and creaked as the wheels began to turn. It was ponderous at first, slow and ungainly, but within a matter of minutes it had gathered speed, and they were on their way.

Sinking to the floor with a groan of relief, Roy propped his back against the wall, watching Ed press his palms together and touch them to the wood. A hole no larger than a sheet of paper opened in the planks, big enough to see through but not noticeable unless anyone was giving the carts a close inspection. It offered a view of the speeding scenery, and admitted a quick, cool breeze that stirred Roy's hair and danced along his skin.

'We made it,' Ed said , his voice only just audible over the din of the train. 'Now we just have to see if Jennings was right.' With a grunt he sat down in the corner next to Roy, looking at him with narrowed eyes as he asked, 'Are you okay?'

Roy cuffed wearily at his eyes, feeling drained now that they had sat down. 'Yeah, I'm just wondering what to expect at Central.' He rooted in the pack for the gun, pulling it out and placing it at his side before checking his gloves. 'I don't even know if there's anyone there we can trust any more. Hughes and the others could be in jail or worse.' Roy hesitated before confessing, 'Even if we make it that far, there might be nothing we can do.'

Ed looked at him dubiously, his expression fierce before he shook his head. 'You can't just give up.' He shifted uncomfortably, folding his arms across his chest. 'Make a plan. That's what you're all about, isn't it? Thinking your way around other people?'

He was right. More than anything, strategy was Roy's strong-suit, but this was not a war room. He had no maps, no concrete knowledge of anything but the nebulous cloud of danger and threat that he and Ed seemed to live and breathe, but they needed some idea of what to do when the train rolled into the city. They could not run into this mess blind.

Gradually, he began to speak, outlining the possibilities of what they might find. The list was endless and the variables innumerable, but Ed followed him through it all, focused and intelligent as he forced Roy to think of worst and best-case scenarios. It helped to put all of those fears into words, to acknowledge their existence and try and plot ways in which to turn disaster to their advantage. In the end, Roy suspected that Ed was keeping him talking just to stop him worrying, but he was grateful either way.

Hours slipped by, marked out by the endless rumble of the train. It was hypnotic and, more than once, Roy jerked himself from a hollow daze. He couldn't afford to drift off, to succumb to mental exhaustion, because there was no guarantee that they were safe. Even when Ed suggested he kept watch while Roy got some rest, he dismissed the idea. They might have left the town and its festival far behind, but Kerr might still be on their trail.

Panicky “what ifs” fluttered around his mind, and he reached for Ed's left hand, webbing their fingers together and holding on tight. Ed's skin was warm beneath his touch, and he swore to himself that he would never allow Kerr to destroy the life that fluttered in Ed's veins. Not while he was still around to stop it.

They ate as they talked, watching the sun set and the darkness claim the world. Out in the country-side the night was absolute, and the stars were dazzling overhead. Towns gave suggestions of light on the horizon, but this was the moon's domain. Silver splashed across the fields and slipped into the railway car like molten metal, bleaching the colour from Ed's hair and face.

He was looking up at the fraction of sky they could see, and his expression was not one Roy had seen before: Despite all the reasons he had to be afraid and angry, Ed looked peaceful. A shiver rippled through him, and Roy reached into the pack and pulled out the thick military coat. With a quick flick he spread it over the two of them, tucking the collar up over their shoulders.

'You're very quiet,' Roy murmured, shifting his hands and checking that his gun was still at his side. 'Is something wrong?'

Ed shook his head wordlessly, his face still turned away. At first Roy didn't think he was going to get a proper answer but, eventually, Ed said, 'They remind me of Risembool, the stars I mean. Can't see them worth a damn in Central. I used to sit on the roof looking at them when I was a little kid.'

It was an endearing image, and Roy knew that Ed would not have been gazing at the tiny, distant specks with a child's idealism. Even back then he probably thought like an alchemist, dwelling on chemicals and energy. 'On your own?' he asked, watching a brief smile flash across Ed's lips.

'Al was afraid of the dark. He used to lean out of the window instead and yell at me not to fall off.' The happiness at the memory vanished, leaving Ed's expression dark and bleak. 'I hope they're all right, him and Winry.'

Roy sighed, trying to think of some way to soothe Ed's concerns. In a way, that was the hardest part of all this – not knowing who was left. Anything could have happened to the people they cared for, and they had no way of finding out what had become of them. In the dark, logical corners of his mind, Roy knew that was how he would have attacked this situation if he had been on the offensive side. He would have lashed out at his enemies through those who surrounded them, weakening their position and threatening those they held dear.

A glimmer of reasoning ignited in his mind, and he wrapped his arm gently around Ed's shoulder, tucking him against his side. 'Al and Winry will look after each other. I've got no doubt about that. I don't think even the military can win against that kind of determination.' Carefully, he pressed a kiss to Ed's hair, feeling his own tension ebb as Ed leaned into the embrace. 'Besides, tactically speaking, prisoners are a lot more valuable when you can actively threaten the people you're after with their deaths. The assassins haven't known where we are, so they haven't been able to contact us. It's possible they thought that attacking anyone else was a waste of time.'

Ed looked up at him doubtfully, 'You really think that's true?'

'I hope it is.' Roy stroked his thumb idly over Ed's right shoulder, feeling the dichotomy of hard metal and yielding skin beneath his touch. 'I suppose we'll find out soon enough.'

Ed made a quiet sound of agreement, resting his head against Roy's chest as his eyes returned to the stars. It was a simple moment – a beautiful respite from the tangle of events – and he felt pathetically grateful that it was Ed at his side. Resting his cheek against Ed's head and watching the slow drift of the night sky felt like the most natural thing in the world, and they sat there in silence as time marched on and the miles passed in a rush of darkness.

Slowly, the quality of the light changed. It was a subtle shift, but they both looked towards the source at the same moment, and the tension coiled around them once more, squeezing mercilessly. Slowly, like an ebbing tide pulling back to reveal the ruins of a lost world, the fields were petering out and giving way to Central's hulking sprawl.

Street-lamps picked out the roads, sparkling in the distance like veins of light carving their way through the city. Houses and buildings rose from the ground in an unsteady skyline, dark-windowed and still. The breeze took on the edge of fumes from the factories and was edged with the sharp bite of car exhaust, mixing with more earthy scents to create a distinctive urban perfume.

Roy searched the view, his gaze settling on the tall, white edifice of Central Command. Perhaps it was his frame of mind, but it looked like a fortress, grim and untouchable. It was a symbol, not only of what he had to destroy, but of everything he needed to save. Whatever Hakuro was doing was throwing the country into disarray. Unless someone stopped him, the military would collapse around the rot at its core, and Amestris would soon follow.

With a deep breath, he straightened up, feeling Ed do the same at his side. They had come home, and now it was finally time to start putting things right.

Chapter Text

'It's like a fuckin' fortress,' Ed whispered, peering through the hole in the cart wall at Central's southern freight depot. Five minutes ago their train had passed unnoticed through the barricades. No one had bothered to stop and search the carriages, and now he could see why.

A thick wall skirted the perimeter, more than two storeys tall and sheer on the inside. Razor wire tangled along its crest in a jungle of metal thorns and a thick, wrought iron gate had been placed in the entranceway. The bars were too narrow to let a stray dog through, let alone a couple of alchemists.

'Neither Hakuro or Kerr would have paid this much attention to detail,' Roy murmured in his ear. He was surveying the way forward over Ed's shoulder with a strategist's eye, pressed close enough to Ed for him to feel the hum of tension in the older man's body. 'Neither of them would have thought of putting any kind of guard on this place. Someone else did this for them, and they were thorough.'

Ed grimaced as he looked around. There were too many soldiers to count: they clustered around exit points and prowled the platforms as the engines of incoming trains clanked and cooled. No one was bothering to search amidst the cargo. They didn't have to. Every way out was guarded. Anyone trying to sneak into Central or onto one of the trains would be caught as soon as they set foot within the wall.

Dogs snuffled around, tails wagging and teeth bright in the flood-lights. They looked friendly enough, but as soon as they were given the command they would turn into deadly, vicious things, as bad as any chimera. Ed grimaced at one of them sitting patiently on the end of its lead, waiting for the one word that would flip the switch in its head. He hated fighting animals: they were too unpredictable and focussed. A dog wouldn't show mercy or compassion. It would simply kill without hesitation.

'We should have jumped off before we got to the city,' he said quietly. 'It would have been easier to take on a barricade than this.'

Roy nodded in agreement, his tense sigh ghosting over the nape of Ed's neck. 'I didn't expect it to be this bad. I thought we would stand a better chance of getting to Hughes' place unnoticed if we stayed put.' He paused and, when he spoke again, he sounded furious with himself. 'It's not even like we can get another train back out past the blockades. There won't be anything leaving here in the next six hours, and we can't hide until then. They might not be searching the trains, but all it takes is for one of the dogs to catch our scent and we're as good as found.'

Ed frowned, his voice not raising a fraction above a whisper as he spoke. 'The only way we're going to get out of this is if we can cause a distraction. Right now they're just waiting for us to turn up. If we can give them something else to think about -' He made a quiet, irritated sound, annoyed at his restricted view. If he was going to do anything about this, then he needed to be able to see more of what was going on.

The door in the other wall of the truck was barred from the outside, but it wouldn't take much to transmute his way out. He almost clapped his hands together before common sense warned him against it. As brightly lit as the depot was, the distinctive blue light of his alchemy would seep out through the gaps in the planks like a flare. If anyone was looking in their direction, then they'd be caught in moments.

Inspiration struck like lightning, and he grinned as he asked Roy to pass him the coat. In a couple of seconds he had covered his arms with the thick, black wool. With a quick clap, he pressed flesh fingers to the steel of his automail. The light was almost completely shrouded by the fabric covering the transmutation and, because the alchemy was only working on metal, it did nothing worse than singe the coat a little.

'What exactly are you doing?' Roy asked quietly, wincing as Ed tested the edge of the blade with his finger, leaving a line of bright blood at the lightest touch. 'You can't kill everyone out there, you know. Even you're not that good.'

'I wasn't going to use this on anyone unless I had to. I've got something else in mind.' Snake-quick, he slashed the blade down the join of the door and wall, feeling a jolt of resistance before the bar gave way. The door sagged open a couple of inches, and he pressed his eye to the thin crack.

The other side of the depot was no less defended, and Ed scowled as he tried to see something he could use. There were probably a dozen other trains, all idle and still, their carts waiting for the workers to come and unload their goods in the morning. Other than that the place was clear and desolate. There was a platform on each side of their train, pinning it neatly in place. The gap between the carriage and the ledge was big enough for him and Roy to jump down onto the tracks if they had to, but that wouldn't do them any good unless they could slip away unseen.

A drop of water fell across Ed's line of vision, and he frowned upwards in confusion. The clear sky had been bleached out by the city lights, but he could just make out the leading edge of thick, ominous clouds coming in from the west. More rain pattered down, making the soldiers turn up their collars and shuffle towards shelter. The chill of the air took on a pervasive, damp edge, and Ed scowled, shifting so that he could stare back along the dark tracks.

The hulking shape of an abandoned engine caught his eye, and he nudged Roy in the side, gesturing to the toppled metal giants. They were rust-pitted and worn, left to rot in front of a mountain of coal. 'How well will that burn?'

He glanced up at Roy, seeing the first flicker of a grin as he considered the question. 'That depends on a lot of things. If the boilers are still fuelled and there's water in the tanks then they'll ignite easily. If not it'll take something a bit more explosive to get it going.' He shook his head, turning his gaze back to the soldiers who were huddled in the lee of the massive wall. 'Either way, I can't start anything from here. They'll see it and know exactly where we are.'

The rain thickened, drumming off the roof and splashing on the rough stone ground. It hissed off of the hot iron of the steam engine and gleamed on the tracks, collecting in puddles. Ed stared for a moment, his thoughts quick and dense as an idea formed. 'I think I can work something out, but I need to get under the train. Help me move these, will you?'

A few careful cuts set the cargo free, and the two of them hauled the bales of cotton to the walls of the carriage, where they blocked the cracks and holes in the planks. The roof was pretty solid and probably wouldn't let too much light out. There was nothing more that they could do to keep their location hidden, and Ed could only hope that it would be enough.

He took a deep breath before clapping his hands, concentrating on keeping the light to a minimum as he opened a large hole in the cart floor. There was no room to do more than crouch, and he shifted to the side, allowing Roy to follow him down. 'I need something to catch some water,' he explained as he transmuted some of the shale into a rough stone cup.

It would take ages to collect enough rain for what he needed, and he frowned at the mysterious tubings of the train before he found what he was looking for. One quick twist of a valve and water gushed forth from one of the pipes. It was no more than a high-pressure trickle, but it was enough.

'We gotta do this quickly,' he said, handing the water to Roy. 'I'm going to clap, and I need you to pour that into the transmutation. At the same time I need you to make sure there's plenty of oxygen between my hands, as well as a flame. Okay?'

Roy frowned in confusion, and Ed braced himself for a barrage of questions. It came as a surprise when Roy simply nodded. He might not understand what Ed was trying to do, but he trusted him not to make any mistakes. Ed just hoped that his faith was not misplaced. What he was trying to do was only theoretical and, if it went wrong, they wouldn't have to worry about assassins anymore. People would be finding bits of them for weeks.

'Ready?' He rubbed his gloves on the sooty ground, making sure that they were black with the stuff before he clapped. Hopefully, the platforms and the train above them would hide most of the glow. He couldn't afford to waste any concentration on keeping the transmutation subtle. All of his focus had to be on the elements between his hands; getting the balance even slightly wrong would be disastrous. 'Okay, go.'

Roy tipped the water out with his left hand, snapping the fingers of his right and letting a spark fall into the bright blaze of blue. It caught instantly, no bigger than a candle flame as it fed on the air. Ed vaguely heard Roy's indrawn breath of surprise as the water turned to ice, curving around in a perfect, cloudy sphere as Ed layered it again and again. Particles of soot were trapped in the surface, as were pockets of pure oxygen, and the fire imprisoned inside strengthened, melting the ice and turning it into steam.

'It's like a grenade,' Roy said softly, his voice hushed with amazement. 'You throw it, and when the ice breaks the fire explodes outwards. The oxygen helps to keep it burning.'

'Yeah, but it's got a really short fuse. Once I stop, we've got six seconds.'

'Can you throw it that far?' Roy asked doubtfully, setting the empty cup down and reaching to pull the pack back onto his shoulder.

'Well, we're about to find out.' Ed glanced sideways, seeing the point where their carriage met the next one along the line a few feet away. 'It'll be easiest from there. Wherever it lands its going to cause a lot of noise, so be ready to run.'

Abruptly, he killed the transmutation, feeling the slippery weight of the ice-ball in his metal palm as he hurried for the gap. There was no time to worry about who might be watching as he clambered up on the metal links that held the carts together and pulled back his automail arm. His injured side pulled painfully, making him wince, but he did not have time to hesitate. With one massive effort he hurled the make-shift grenade out into the rainy night. It glimmered in the flood-lights, glowing like a firefly before it shattered apart on one of the abandoned engines.

The results were devastating, and Ed turned his face away from the blast as red, black and gold belched into the air. Flames rained down in all directions, nestling among the coal and falling onto the other trains. Some of them continued to explode as the fire found its way inside their iron corpses and burned on the coal dust, building the pressure in the water tanks until the metal could bear it no more.

'Come on!' Roy shouted over the chaos, his voice hidden by the echoing thuds of the eruptions and the yelps of the dogs. Soldiers were hurrying towards the blaze, lured away from the gate and high wall by the hellish pandemonium. Their guns were drawn and cocked, ready to shoot as people started shouting for water and calling out conflicting orders.

Quickly, Ed shrugged off his white shirt, stripping down to the black vest as Roy vaulted up onto the platform and ran towards the gate, fingers already raised to snap. There was no point in trying to be stealthy. All that mattered now was speed. They had to get out of here as fast as possible, before someone put a terminal stop to their escape.

Hauling himself up onto the hard stone of the platform, he followed in Roy's footsteps, spitting a curse as the inevitable cry to halt reached his ears. They had been spotted, and the dogs snarled and barked, pulling on their restraints as the soldiers raised their guns and pulled the triggers.

Bullets rained down, pinging off the concrete as Ed dove for cover, tucking in his head as he rolled behind some crates. Up ahead, Roy did the same, ducking behind an empty shack as splinters flew in all directions. The soldiers kept firing with the blind fury of those who knew they had been tricked, and Ed flinched as sliver of shrapnel bit into his hand, sharp and deep.

A group of soldiers had Roy pinned, keeping him in his hiding place with their ceaseless gunfire. Ed bared his teeth in an angry snarl. With a sharp clap he slammed his palms into the floor, pouring the alchemy down into the neutral rock until it twisted, rolling like a giant turning over in its sleep. The trains bucked on their tracks as gaping cracks appears in the platforms, and orders turned to warnings as the gunmen scrambled to get out of the way.

'Gotcha!'

Ed spun around as the hand grabbed his shoulder, his mind deadened by his instincts as he clutched at the soldier's wrist and pulled him off balance. Teeth crunched painfully as Ed's automail fist slammed into the stranger's chin, and the man slumped helplessly to the ground.

The whip of a bullet past his face made Ed flinch away, and he broke into a sprint as another squad came running around the corner, leveling their rifles and taking aim.

A thick banner of flame screamed through the air, raising sweat on Ed's forehead as the soldiers vanished behind a veil of merciless yellow and blue. There were no cries of pain, but he could hear sharp, frustrated commands and stammering apologies. Roy wasn't killing anyone he didn't have to. All he was trying to do was make sure that they both got out of this alive.

Ed continued to run, slamming his palms together and picking up speed before he pressed them to the massive wall. He was dimly aware of Roy sprinting to his side, standing guard against any attackers as the soldiers struggled to reach them.

There was fire everywhere, and the air was thick with smoke. Every breath stung the back of Ed's throat, and his tongue was coated with the tang of alchemy as the energy screamed along the wall making, not just a hole, but cracks as thick as his arm in the stonework. It had been created by an alchemist, that much was clear, and it gave way easily to his touch, yielding like butter beneath a hot knife.

'Let's get out of here, quick!' Ed called out over the din. 'What are you doing?'

He watched as Roy turned back towards the depot, looking out across the chaos with an evil glint in his eye. When he snapped, the spark did not have a chance to fall more than a fraction before it fluttered to life, arcing through the air in a ribbon of flame. Like a falling star, it landed in the chimney of one of the derelict trains.

Slowly, like an inevitably rising sun, the engine began to glow an eerie red and flaws yawned like dark mouths in the iron. It ripped apart with a disturbingly human shriek, shaking the ground with its force and making the wall give a warning groan as dust and stones rained down from its peak.

'Fucking pyromaniac,' Ed muttered, grabbing Roy's wrist and dragging him through the hole, not bothering to stop and get his bearings as he hurried away. Puddles splashed beneath his boots, and droplets of rain wound over his skin and saturated his hair, falling into his eyes like tears in reverse.

Roy pointed at a dark side-street not far away, and Ed did as he was instructed, heading for the secretive gloom before staggering to a halt. Stopping went against every instinct he had, but they could not run aimlessly through the city. They had to plan where they were going, or they would probably end up heading into more trouble than they were leaving behind.

'Are you hurt?' Roy demanded, grabbing Ed's shoulders and looking him up and down. 'Did anything hit you?'

'Nothing serious. What about you?'

'No, they missed. We need to -' A deep rumbling interrupted him, followed by the sharp, brief “crack” of falling rock. Dust billowed up into the sky, mixing with the smoke haze above the rooftops and turning to mud in the rain. 'What was that?'

'The wall coming down. I thought I'd try and keep them occupied for as long as possible,' Ed replied, pulling back further into the shadows as more shouts echoed from a few streets away. 'How are we going to get to Hughes' from here? We've only got about thirty seconds before they start coming after us.'

Roy took a few steps away from the open road before turning and breaking into a jog. 'We're just going to have keep running. This place is going to be swarming with the military in no time. Hughes' place is across the river. With any luck, he'll be waiting.'

'And if he's not?' Ed asked, wincing at the tightness in his chest as he followed on behind.

'Then we'll worry about that when we get there.'

A chilling howl drifted through the air, making the hairs on the back of Ed's neck prickle. Looking back over his shoulder, he heard the barks of the dogs and the distant pitter-patter of paws. Automatically, he sped up, noticing Roy do the same as they broke free of the shadows and hurried across one of the main roads, dodging the circles of light left by the street lamps and splashing between parked cars as the rain hammered down.

It did not matter that Ed considered Central his home these days; there were still parts of it that were unknown territory to him, and he concentrated on following Roy's confident lead as he focussed his senses. Water sank icy teeth into his skin as his lungs heaved painfully, and sweat ran down his back. He could hear the sounds of fire-engines now, heading towards the tempestuous blaze he and Roy had left in their wake, and shouts still rang out all around them: confused, angry and fierce.

Roy pulled back until he was running at Ed's side, their footsteps thudding in perfect time. 'They've started searching, and they'll be methodical about it. We should be able to use that to our advantage.'

'How?' Ed panted, following Roy's directions down a side street and splashing through the gutter. 'Double-back?'

'We keep out of the main streets and don't take the most predictable route to Hughes' place.' Roy's face was grim in the meek light, and his jaw clenched tightly as a distant flurry of gunshots reached their ears. 'If we can confuse them, then all they'll know is that we're here somewhere. It's a big city; it should be easy for us to lose ourselves.'

They skidded out into another crossroads, cutting across the street and hurrying down the sidewalk. It was late at night, and the roads were empty of traffic as they darted across junctions, wove their way along alleyways and scurried through industrial yards. The buildings grew closer and closer together as they approached the centre of the city, but the sounds of pursuit followed them still, hard on their heels.

After what felt like the thousandth random turn, their luck ran out.

The gleam of gold trim and the cold, flat glimmer of light on gun barrels was the first thing to breach Ed's mind, and he slithered to a halt as the soldiers blocked the way ahead, forming two ranks. The first line knelt, taking perfect aim as the second remained standing, ready to pull their triggers at a moment's notice.

A flare arced into the air: it carved a bright red wound in the night, calling their location to every soldier throughout Central. Within moments there was the clatter of more than a dozen men approaching them behind, cutting off the retreat and making sure that they had nowhere to run. Ed closed his eyes in brief despair as Roy swore to himself, hands raised in half-surrender as the men remained motionless, armed and deadly as they awaited their orders.

The street was lined with shops, their windows reflecting the scene back and forth, and Ed scanned the frontages as he looked for something that he could use. Each doorway was empty and every wall blank and uninformative. There were only narrow little passageways between the buildings and blocked gutters that gushed rainwater from the high roofs. There was no way out.

'Brigadier-General Mustang, we've been looking for you, and your little – friend – too.'

'Little?' Ed snarled, scowling at the slim, neat man who stepped forward. Blade thin lips curved into a merciless smile, and he folded his gloved hands in front of him as he watched them with cruel eyes.

'General Bertrand,' Roy said quietly, face hard and unforgiving. 'I thought you were still in charge of the Northern region. I was not expecting to see you in Central.'

Each word was clean-cut and concise, and Ed could hear that they were carefully chosen. Roy knew these people, knew their names and their faces; he could pinpoint their weaknesses and keep pushing until tiny flaws gave way to the truth inside the lies. He was stalling – coaxing the man into a conversation while Ed scrambled for some kind of escape plan. If Roy was all about words then Ed's strength lay in his actions, and he was not about to be the one who failed.

Bertrand arched an eyebrow and brushed some lint from his jacket sleeve, giving an irritated sniff. 'Times change, Mustang. An opportunity presented itself, and I accepted my role. You, unfortunately, have become an inconvenience. You have -' He paused, as if the next word left a bad taste in his mouth. '-morals. Your naïve ideals have no place in the future of the military. I'm sure you understand.'

'You thought I would never be a willing participant in your plan?'

'My plan?' the general laughed, a rich, rough sound that echoed down the street. 'You do me too much credit, Mustang. This is not my doing. I am merely a facilitator.' The amusement went from his voice in a second, switched off like a lamp as his next words cut through the air. 'Please do not think I am foolish enough to enlighten you with the details. Dead men tell no tales, Mustang, but I won't take that chance. Your time is up.'

Ed's stomach clenched, and he glanced sideways, his mind abandoning hope of a reasonable plan and clutching at straws. Anything – anything – anyway out of this. Even a few more moments of life were better than nothing!

'Now,' Bertrand purred, 'if Major Elric will come with us... .'

Roy stepped sideways, standing between Bertrand and Ed in one quick movement. It was a symbolic gesture, but it gave Ed the chance he needed as he hissed, 'When I say so, you snap, I'll clap, then we both run like shit for the alley to your right. Don't get shot.'

He could feel the tension making Roy tremble in its grip, and Ed gritted his teeth as he turned so they were back to back. The rank of soldiers blocking their escape did not waver, but he could see the uncertainty on their faces. They recognised him. Fullmetal Alchemist: hero of the people. It was enough to make them cast sideways glances at each other, eyes narrowed with doubt. Good, that was something he could use.

'Come now, Mustang. It's no use protecting him. Kerr will get his paws on the little slut sooner or later.'

'NOW!'

Ed's palms thudded into the ground. It pitched like a storm-tossed sea, rising in a solid wall as Roy snapped, his gloves steaming as they dried and the spark bloomed outwards.

'Open fire!' Bertrand screamed, the end of his command cut off by the cough of the rifles.

Bullets tore through the wall of flame, trailing whispers of gold in their wakes, but Ed and Roy were already moving, scrambling over the tortured stone towards the waiting shadows. Sparks pinged along the blockade of rock that Ed had created, ricocheting back and forth as the ammunition glanced off the uneven surface. More shots were fired, one endless volley following another, but the shooters were blinded by the fury of Roy's alchemy, pushed back by the ferocious heat that turned the rainwater to incandescent vapour with its rage.

'It's a dead end!' Roy shouted over the noise, slithering to a halt.

'We're not going through,' Ed said, clapping his hands and watching the bricks twist and fold into a ladder. 'We're going up.' He did not wait for a response as he scrambled to the roof, hauling himself onto the tiles and pressing himself flat against the wet slate. As soon as Roy was safe at his side, he erased the ladder, watching the rungs smooth themselves away as if they had never existed.

They lay side-by-side, panting and drenched with rain and nervous sweat as they listened to the sounds of confusion coming from below. Moving stiffly, amazed that he was not riddled with bullet-holes, Ed rolled onto his stomach and looked up the slope of the roof. Its peak hid them from view, and he inched his way over slick moss and hard tiles until he could peer over and into the street.

The flames had died away, leaving nothing but a black line of charcoal in testament to their existence. His wall still stood, and would do so until an alchemist knocked it down. People scurried around, dashing back to Bertrand to offer panicked, negative reports. The suspects had vanished. They could be anywhere.

'Find them!' Bertrand snapped. Even from a distance Ed could see that his gloved hand was tight on the hilt of his ceremonial sword, as if he planned to hack the city apart to get to them. He jabbed a finger at a soldier, his snarl carrying over the distance. 'You, run to the bridge. They're to let no one across. I want soldiers in every street. They are not to get away!'

'Should we open fire if we see them, sir?' a colonel called out.

'Elric is to be unharmed. By all means, shoot Mustang, but don't kill him. That will be my pleasure.'

'Like to see you try, fucker,' Ed whispered to himself, giving a start when Roy's huff of tired laughter tickled his ear. 'What?'

Roy was looking down at the general's irate figure, a derisive smile on his lips. 'Bertrand doesn't change. Nothing is more important to him than his pride. I made him look like a fool, and he'll make me suffer for it.'

'He's got to catch you first,' Ed said firmly, turning onto his back and slithering back down the roof, trying not to make too much noise as he skidded to a precarious halt by the gutter and looked around.

This close to the centre of town the buildings were packed together, crammed in tight to accommodate people and businesses alike. He could make out the bridge in the distance, a gleaming beacon in the darkness. There were vehicles blocking it, and lights pointed both ways along the river, painting white circles on the endless black canvas of the turbulent waters.

'What now?' Roy asked quietly. 'We can't risk climbing down. We'll be caught in no time.'

'So we stick to the rooftops instead,' Ed said, pointing out a rough pathway over the tiled upper levels. 'We don't need to cross any wide roads, and half of these places are built no more than a few feet apart. We could almost walk from one to the other.' He got to his feet, leaping softly onto the next house in order to demonstrate. 'It might not be the quietest way, but they won't hear us from the ground.'

'What about the people who live in these places? What are they going to do? Assume it's really big rats?' Roy grumbled, hesitating a moment before following Ed's lead. 'Even if we get to the river, we're stuck. The only way across is the bridges, and they're covered in sentries.'

'We'll think about that when we get there.'

Ed picked his way along the gutter, trying not to slip on the slick tiles. Every roof was host to velvety cushions of moss, and they made the whole thing more treacherous. It was almost impossible to find purchase, and he swore as he tried to keep his balance. He had done this at a run before, but never on a wet night. One wrong foot and he'd be lying in a broken heap on the pavement.

More than once the soles of his boots lost their grip, and it was only Roy's quick reflexes that stopped him from going over. The third time it happened Roy grabbed his arm and wouldn't let go, choosing instead to hang onto his automail wrist as they crept onwards through the night.

It was painfully slow going, and more than once they had to stop to get their bearings. Tiles creaked and crunched underfoot, and roosting birds startled into flight as they picked their way onwards. They crept past soldiers in the road below, catching brief flutters of worried conversation:

'-something's not right with -'

' -won't tell us -'

'-didn't sign up to chase our own-'

'-a civil war-'

'Everyone's on-edge,' Roy whispered to Ed as they paused in the lee of a chimney, waiting for half-a-dozen sentries to move on. 'If morale is like this, then it's no wonder Hakuro and Kerr are getting nervous. They don't have the support of the lower ranks.'

Ed eyed the gap to the next house, realising they were going to have to take it at a running jump. 'Do they need it?' he asked, creeping closer to the edge of the roof and peering down into the street. 'I thought the brass could do whatever they wanted.'

'It's easier if your troops are resolved and sure of their purpose. If enough of them start asking questions, things can get messy.' Roy's voice took on a darker edge as he added, 'If the soldiers have any sense, though, they'll keep their doubts to themselves. Hakuro has little respect for human life. He probably would not hesitate to shoot people who openly oppose him.'

'Like us, you mean.' Letting go of Roy's hand, Ed put his head down and ran, ignoring Roy's tight noise of surprise as he launched himself over the alley and landed on the next roof, bending his knees to absorb as much of the impact as possible. A couple of tiles came loose and skittered down, smashing apart on the ground. When no one came running to investigate, and Ed let out a shaky breath of relief before looking over his shoulder.

'You could have warned me you were going to do that,' Roy muttered, his voice barely audible over the distance.

'Are you coming, or not?'

He stood aside to give Roy a bit more space to land, ready to reach out and grab him if he didn't quite make it. He needn't have worried. Roy landed with a lot more grace and stealth than he had, straightening up to pick his way over the rough slope of the roof. 'I'm getting too old for this,' he grunted, ducking down as one of the search-lamps for the river was moved, cutting the city in half with its bright beam.

'I'm getting too tired,' Ed replied, shivering as the water from his hair dripped down his back. The fingers of his left hand were senseless with the chill, and his automail ached incessantly. That, coupled with the constant pang of anxious tension that hummed through his veins, made him feel painfully weak. 'It's not much further, right?'

'Right.'

A few minutes later they were lying on the hard, concrete roof of the last building on the block, looking out across the treacherous swathe of water that cut them off from their destination. A little to their left was the bridge, and the riverbank stretched away to their right, lit by street-lamps and lined with opulent town-houses.

'Any ideas?' Ed asked, scowling at the soldiers. Cars formed a shiny metal blockade, and even from this far away he could see that the sentries were alert and on edge, staring intently at the city for any sign of their target. 'I can't swim it, and we can't use the bridge. There's got to be another way across!'

He looked over at Roy, waiting for some kind of reply. His dark eyes were fixed on something, and Ed followed his gaze to a small bunker at the river's shore. It looked old and dilapidated, but he could just make out a door. No one was guarding it, and the lights were turned away, leaving it cloaked in gloom. 'What is it?'

'An old service tunnel; it cuts right under the river. It was used during the construction of the bridge's foundations. I'd forgotten all about it.'

'Why isn't anyone watching it?' Ed asked doubtfully. 'Is it a trap? Are they trying to lure us in there?'

'I doubt it. The last report I read said that the tunnel was flooded and structurally compromised. They probably don't think we'll risk trying to go that way.' Roy shrugged. 'Either that or there are guards at the other end. We won't know which until we give it a try.' He sounded reluctant, and Ed watched him drag a weary hand over his face before he added, 'I think it's the best chance we have of getting across the river undetected.'

Ed stared at the blank metal door before looking back at the gushing waters. Even if the soldiers didn't see the flash of alchemy, there was no transmutation he could do that would grant them a clear way across to the opposite shore. An ice bridge would melt too quickly in this weather, and the water would simply rush over anything else and sweep them away in its grasp. 'What if it really is impossible to get through the tunnel? What then?'

Roy closed his eyes, bowing his head tiredly as rain dripped from the spikes of his wet hair. 'I don't know. I knew that we were dealing with dangerous people, but -' He glanced down as another squad clattered past. 'I didn't expect the city to in this state. It's almost complete martial law. Where are the civilian police? Even at this time of night there are normally some on the streets, but it's like there's no one here except the army.'

'The people are probably doing the smart thing. If you lived in a place where everyone you met had a gun slung over their shoulder, wouldn't you lie low until things had calmed down? You don't need to be in the military to know something's going on.' Ed took a deep breath before adding, 'You can feel it in the air – like everyone's waiting.'

Roy nodded silently. 'We need to get to Hughes and the others if we're stand any of chance of putting a stop to all this, and we're not getting any closer by lying around up here. We need to keep moving.'

With a quick flicker of alchemy, Ed created a way down, letting Roy lead before he followed. In this part of town the houses were more spaced out, and they had to creep their way towards the tunnel entrance, darting from one patch of darkness to the next. It was breathless and exhausting, and, by the time they made it to the door, Ed felt like the prey in a cruel kind of hunt, backed into a corner and vicious with fear.

'It's locked,' Roy muttered, tugging at the handle before he put his fingers to the keyhole and snapped. The metal bled in tones of red and orange as the tumblers melted away and the bolts sagged free, allowing them to push their way inside and duck out of sight.

A single caged bulb glowed feebly, casting weak light down the vertical shaft. There were iron rungs embedded in its side, and they groaned as Ed swung down onto them. 'There probably isn't much difference between us in weight,' he explained when Roy opened his mouth to question him. 'If they hold for me, they'll hold for you. Can you keep a flame burning?'

Roy looked around at the damp walls and smelled the rank, half-rotted air. 'Probably. Be careful. I don't know how far down this goes. A fall might kill you.'

Their footsteps chimed musically, echoing along the narrow walls as they descended further into the ground. It was grave-cold, and only the bright, clean yellow of the fire rippling in the air at Roy's side cast any light. The kiss of fluid over the top of his boots took Ed by surprise, and he looked down at the rippling, inky liquid with disgust. It had probably been water once, but now it looked like spilled oil, black shot through with greasy colours. 'Ugh, what is this stuff?'

'Most of it will be dust from the building work and silt from the river. How deep is it?'

Ed climbed down tentatively, wincing as the icy chill climbed up his legs. Finally, his feet hit solid ground, and he stepped back to let Roy down. 'It comes up to my waist, and it's fucking freezing!' he muttered, looking around. The tunnel was dank and non-descript, with nothing but the dancing reflection of Roy's fire to chart their path. Here and there bits of debris poked out of the surface of the water, and Roy tugged free a rusted pole, using it to check the ground ahead of him as he slogged forward.

'It's going to get deeper,' he said. 'Will you be all right?'

Ed narrowed his eyes, trying to work out if that was some kind of hidden jibe about his height. 'I'll manage. Give me the pack. We can't let the stuff get wet.' He waited for Roy to do as he suggested, holding the bag securely above the waterline and leaving Roy with his hands free. After a few moments of silence he asked, 'How long are we going to be walking through this stuff?'

'Maybe twenty minutes? The river's not wide, but it's not like we can march along here. For all I know the floor's given way or the roof's collapsed.'

Ed looked up as a dull roaring sound reached his ears, noticing the fine mesh of cracks that criss-crossed the ceiling. Some of them let forth sluggish drips of water, and every few minutes a piece of mortar would come free, splashing in the distance.

'Careful where you're treading. There's stuff on the floor,' Roy called out as the metal pole clanged off of something. 'Could be abandoned tools or loose stonework. If you trip, try not to swallow any of the water. God knows what you could catch from it.' The sound of something driving over the bridge resonated down to them, and Roy added in a whisper, 'We should probably stay quiet. I don't think the soldiers can hear us, but I wouldn't want to bet on it.'

Ed bit his lip, his breath stuttering in little gasps as the water lapped higher and wrapped its frigid grasp around the bottom of his ribcage. His teeth were chattering like castanets, and he clenched them hard as he tried to keep his shivering under control. The walls of the tunnel narrowed as the floor sloped, and he held the pack above his head, hissing a curse as he grazed his elbow.

Ahead of him, Roy stopped, his face grim as he looked back. 'We've got a problem.'

'What, is it blocked?'

'No, we're running out of air,' he gestured to the flame, already stuttering and edged with noxious green. 'There's no ventilation down here. We can make it to the other end, but we'll have to do it without any light.' Roy looked doubtfully back the way they had come before, inch by inch, he let the flame dwindle away, reaching out to take Ed's left hand as the last frail glow stuttered from the air.

The blackness was absolute, pressing down on Ed's eyes like dark velvet. Blossoms of light flickered over his vision as his mind played tricks on him, and he squeezed Roy's palm tentatively, keeping the bag clutched in his automail fist. 'Can't see a fucking thing,' he said roughly, trying not to let a tremor into his voice as he shuffled along. The tunnel was full of watery echoes, and he forced himself not to panic as his imagination started to run wild.

Roy must have heard some of his uncertainty, because he stopped, letting Ed get close enough to feel the broad expanse of his back. It was warm beneath the damp cotton, and Ed tangled his fingers in the shirt as he fought to keep his breathing steady. He was waiting for some kind of teasing remark about being afraid of the dark, but it never came. Instead, Roy quietly asked, 'Are you all right?'

Ed clenched his teeth, unable to stop thinking of insistent, clutching hands and wide-spread, waiting doors. 'I'll be fine. Can we just hurry up and get out of here?'

Setting off again, Roy began to talk. He kept his voice low, but he did not pause, speaking abut nothing in particular – paper work, his favourite bar, alchemy - in a steady, calming tone. After a few minutes Ed realised that it was for his benefit, a way to reassure him that he was not alone down here, and shaky gratitude uncurled under his ribs. Roy hadn't asked for any kind of explanation, and he hadn't made any snide comments. He was just trying to help.

'Guess you're not so much of a bastard after all,' he said softly, splaying his hand briefly over Roy's shoulder-blade in mute thanks.

'I'll take that as a compliment,' Roy replied, his voice edged with gentle laughter as he reached over his back and brushed Ed's hand with gloved fingertips. 'Not much further now. I think I can see a bit of light up ahead.'

His breath hissed in surprise, a split-second warning that didn't come soon enough. The floor beneath Ed's feet vanished, and he dropped abruptly, gasping in shock as the water lapped over his shoulders and slapped at his chin. 'Please tell me this is as deep as it gets?' he managed, grunting as a more intense shiver tore through him.

'I think so,' Roy said tightly as he let out a shaky sigh. 'Just try and tread in the same places I do. The ground's sunken, and I dread to think what the ceiling's like.'

'Good thing we can't see it then.' Ed blinked as water dripped in his face, screwing up his nose as he sensed the tunnel widen. The faintest threads of light began to glimmer off of the surface up ahead, and relief swept through him as he made out a rusty ladder leading back up towards fresh air.

'You go first,' Roy said, stepping back to let Ed through, 'but be quiet. There could be sentries.' He paused, and Ed could just make out his silhouette, head cocked and listening intently. 'I can't hear anything, but that doesn't mean we're alone.'

Hauling the pack onto his shoulder, Ed clambered free of the clinging grasp of the water. He could hardly feel the rungs beneath his palms, and his vest stuck to him like a second skin as the leather pants dragged at his hips: dead weight. Clumsily, he hauled himself to the top, careful not to make too much noise as he looked around.

The bulb on the wall was dead, but light streamed in from the street-lamps beyond the exit. After the deepest dark of the tunnel it could have been broad daylight, and Ed crept over the floor before pressing his ear to the door. The grumble of a voice from the opposite side made him scowl, and he waited for any kind of response.

Roy was watching him from the top of the ladder, and he nodded in understanding when Ed help up two fingers. There was one soldier on each side of the door, and their muttered conversation suggested they thought their presence here was a waste of time. They weren't expecting anyone to interrupt and had settled in for a long, dull shift in the rain.

The door was not locked, and Ed checked the threshold carefully as a plan formulated in his mind. They needed to neutralise the men before they could fire any shots or call for help. Three seconds was all they had to act, if that. There was no room for error. If he fucked this up, then he and Roy were as good as dead.

Turning sideways, he drew his leg back and lashed out, striking near the handle. The door flew open on its hinges, slamming back into the soldier on the right as Ed darted out and slammed his palm into the forehead of the one on the left. There was a heavy, dull crunch before the man's eyes rolled back in his head and he slumped to the floor, unconscious. The other one folded up quietly, his nose flowing with blood and his face already swelling from the impact.

'Well done,' Roy murmured, clutching the ankles of one of the soldiers and dragging him inside the bunker. 'Grab the other one and get his weapons.'

'How long do you reckon we have until they wake up?' Ed asked, untangling the rifle strap and handing the gun to Roy, watching him take the ammunition before throwing the various guns down into the shaft.

'Doesn't matter. They'll be out for the next few minutes, which is enough for us. Even if they raise the alarm, they won't be certain which way we've gone.' He looked at Ed, dark eyes raking over his shivering frame before he dug in the pack and pulled out the military coat. 'Here, put this on.'

'Why me? You're just as wet.'

'Because all you're wearing is a vest,' Roy pointed out patiently, waiting for Ed to shrug into the thick wool garment before peering out into the night. 'Are you ready to go?'

'Yeah, just lead the way.'

The brief scuffle with the guards had not been loud enough to alert anyone on the bridge, and Ed followed Roy, moving as quietly as he could. The streets here were calm, as if the army had not thought they would get to the other side of the river. The whole place was deserted, and, after a few minutes of creeping along, Ed began to let himself relax.

'Does this seem too easy to you?' he whispered as shops and boutiques gave way to idyllic suburbs. 'What kind of general doesn't plan for us getting across the river?

Roy shrugged, catching Ed's gaze for a moment. 'It's more likely that this area is guarded by someone other than standard soldiers.'

'Assassins?'

'Possibly. Hughes' house is in the next street. The generals might know that's our destination, so watch yourself.'

'You too,' Ed murmured, looking at the silent houses and trying to glean any hint of a threat. There were no signs of an ambush, and nothing to suggest that they had company, but some sixth sense was thrilling an urgent warning. The peace surrounded him, choking and dense, and he unconsciously pressed his palms together as they turned into Hughes' road.

The streetlights shone hazy halos in the rain-drenched air, and puddles ripped and danced on the pavement as he and Roy crept from one pool of darkness to the next. The sensation of wrongness intensified, and Ed grabbed Roy's arm, tugging him insistently off of the sidewalk and into the thicker shadows in the front garden.

'Door's shut, but it looks like it's been kicked in,' he murmured, looking down as his boot chimed on something metallic, 'and there are cartridge casings on the ground.' He crept across the lawn, crouched low as he tried to count the metal jackets of the bullets. 'Lots of them.' Stopping under the window, he scowled at the broken glass that littered the ground, trying to imagine what had happened.

'Shots were fired from inside the house as well,' Roy said flatly as he joined him. 'Glass breaks that way from a small, hard impact, and if it had been caused by someone firing inwards, the shards would be on the floor inside.' He swallowed, and when he spoke again his voice heavy with dread. 'I should have known they'd target Hughes.'

'That doesn't mean they got him.' Ed shifted his weight, wincing as he sliced his palm. 'Maybe if we look in the house we'll know more.' He saw the flicker of doubt in Roy's eyes, and knew his need for safety was warring with the desire to know what had happened to Hughes.

'All right,' Roy eventually replied, 'but be careful. For all we know whoever did this is still inside.'

Reaching up, Ed knocked out the last jagged teeth of the windowpane with his automail fist before climbing through, dropping to a crouch as he surveyed his surroundings. The light was poor, but he could still see that the house had been ransacked. There were possessions everywhere, as if someone had been searching for something in a desperate hurry. Ornaments had been broken and cushions ripped apart in the hunter's haste.

'Shit,' Roy whispered as he followed Ed, taking in the devastation. He had a revolver in his hand, ready to aim and fire at a moment's notice. 'What were they looking for?'

'Something small.' Ed pointed to the drawers that had been pulled from their homes and had their contents upended on the carpet. He glanced through the hallway, peering through the other doorways and seeing the same kind of chaos. 'They didn't find it down here. Every room's been tossed.'

'Look.'

He followed Mustang's pointing finger, seeing a dark spot on the pale carpet. A little further on there was another, and he grimaced as he realised what he was looking at. A small blood-trail, dry and old, led up the stairs. 'Maybe one of them cut themselves?' he murmured, following it carefully before stopping at the top.

Fear clenched a fist in his guts, and he swore quietly at the splatter across the floor.

'That's more blood than you'd get from a cut,' Roy said, scanning the landing before approaching the stain. There were smeared lines of brown-ish red on the wall, as well as a dent in the plaster, and he brushed his fingers lightly over the damage. 'What the hell happened?'

Ed looked away from the hopelessness on Roy's face, wishing there was something he could say that would take away the insidious fear. He wanted to believe that Hughes and his family were all right, but his mind kept skipping back to the stranger in the photos of Elysia and Gracia. With cold, disdainful eyes and a brutal face, he had not looked as if he knew what mercy meant, and it was hard for Ed to stop his mind from sliding into darker places.

'Come on, Mustang,' Ed said, forcing himself to keep his voice firm. 'Forget about that. The blood could be anyone's. If Maes was going to tell you where he was, how would he do it?'

Roy blinked like a man coming out of a dream, his gun hand flinching upwards from his side. 'A coded message somewhere. We had private ciphers back during the war. He'd use those – something not obvious to anyone who didn't really know him.' He looked around as if seeing the corridor properly for the first time. 'It wouldn't be up here, anyway. It'd be downstairs somewhere.'

Ed nodded, leading the way back to the ground floor and trying to ignore the gruesome path of the stains on the carpet. It was hard to see any order amidst the mess, and he let Roy take the living room while he wandered into the kitchen, frowning at the broken plates and toppled pans. Elysia's paintings had been ripped from the wall and cutlery clattered under his boots as he edged towards the back door, still locked tight and firm against the world.

He was about to go back to Roy's side when a glossy square of paper caught his eye. It was lying in an empty space on the floor, not out of place but definitely separate. Bending down to pick it up, he raised his eyebrows at the subject. It was an old group-shot. Elysia was no more than a baby cradled in her mother's arms, and Hughes' lips were pressed to his wife's temple as all of Roy's men ranged around them, smiling and laughing. The only people missing from the shot were him, Al and Roy. Even Alex was there, a looming sturdy presence in the background.

'Found something?' Roy asked from the doorway, stepping over broken pieces of crockery to look over Ed's shoulder. He reached out, tipping the picture to the light before pulling it gently from Ed's fingers and turning it over. There was something written on the back, and Ed watched as the worry cleared from Roy's face, revealing a weak flicker of a grin.

'They're at Armstrong's,' he breathed, shaking his head as he turned the photo over again. 'Why didn't I think of that? It makes perfect sense. The old estate is practically a fortress and, if there's one group of people that Hakuro will hesitate to go up against, it's the old military families. That's where we need to be.' Roy turned to go, tucking the photo into his back pocket as he headed for the front door.

'What? But how do we get there? It's out the west side of Central and on the other side of the perimeter,' Ed reminded him. 'We can't just -!'

'Quiet! Listen!'

Ed froze, eyes wide in the darkness as Roy began to back away from the hall, ducking around the kitchen doorway and crouching, gun pointed towards the ceiling as he gestured for Ed to get down.

'I can't hear anything,' he whispered.

'A car just pulled up outside,' Roy hissed, holding Ed back with his left arm as he peered around the corner. His shoulders were tense and hard, and Ed could see the grim set of his jaw in the weak light. Slowly, he cocked the safety hammer on the gun and aimed it at the front door.

Ed's heart jumped into his throat, hammering hard and fast as his muscles ached with the need to fight. Silently, he pressed his hands together, ready to transmute as he listened to the steady, measured whisper of Roy's breathing. Finally, Ed heard it: the faintest scrape of boots on the front path.

There was someone else out there.

Chapter Text

Roy's finger tightened on the curve of the trigger as he cradled the heavy, brutal weight of the gun in his palms. The fabric of the gloves clung lovingly to his sweating palm, and he stared through the gloom at the front door, ignoring the broken pieces of the Hughes' home scattered across the floor in front of him. Whoever was in the garden could be the one responsible. They could have spilled the grim epitaph of blood on the upper landing. They might have ended his best friend's life.

His knuckles ached with tension, and the metallic parts of the revolver clicked quietly against one another as he waited. It was rare, these days, that he fired a gun. While he wasn't as good as Hawkeye, he was still a fair shot, and he had no doubt that he could kill someone with a single blow if he had to. Still, he was more used to the quick, purifying gout of flames. They were his trademark retaliation, but he knew that they had no place here. Not this time.

He had never considered his alchemy particularly pure, but he did not want to be reminded of this moment every time he clicked his fingers. His gloves were already stained with the blood of the Ishbalans: innocent people massacred in the name of war. He would not taint their memory with the putrid lives of assassins and murderers.

'There's someone at the back door,' Ed breathed, his words little more than a suggestion in the air as he shifted away from Roy's side. The absence of Ed's warmth cut into his thoughts, and he glanced over to see him creeping towards the other side of the kitchen. The gold of his hair was still hidden beneath brown dye, and he was little more than a steel-highlighted shadow in the night. If Roy had not known he was there, it would have been easy to overlook him amidst the chaos of pans and cutlery that gleamed on the floor.

Roy forced himself to turn his back on Ed, trusting him to deal with whoever was trying to sneak up on them from behind as he handled the front assault. Imaginings skittered across his mind, almost drowning out the murmurs of logic. It would be easy to give in to his fear and ignore what his mind was trying to tell him, but he took a deep breath before concentrating on the evidence of his senses.

The intruders were well-trained. If they had been creeping up on anyone else, they would probably have not been detected. Even at this time of night the grumble of a car engine was not out of place, and it was only Roy's heightened awareness that had tagged the sound as a threat in his mind. Their footsteps on the path were muffled and carefully placed, and they had the sense to gather their thoughts before attacking.

These were not amateurs. They did not barge in, guns blazing. They knew the power of stealth and the value of patience. Better to let the target sweat; how many times had they been told that in military training? A cornered man can drive himself mad with anxiety. His actions become rash and unplanned, and strategy gives way to mistakes. Let the prey succumb to their panic while remaining calm. Six bullets that failed to find their target were useless. One that killed an enemy was worth its weight in gold.

A shadow danced outside the window, and Roy took aim as something rammed into the front door, sending it flying back on its hinges. The wood around the lock of the back door exploded in splinters, adding to the chaos.

There was a grunt of surprise and a flare of blue-light as Ed launched himself at a pair of shadows, knocking them down with a deafening crash before they could fire. The transmutation offered just enough light to glimmer off of a familiar figure in the hallway, and Roy jerked the gun upwards instantly, barely holding back the reflex to fire as he shouted, 'Don't shoot!'

'Sir?'

He had never been so glad to hear Hawkeye's voice and he closed his eyes in brief thanks before saying, 'Yes, it's me and Ed. Everyone, stand down.' Snapping his fingers, he let the flame cast an unsteady light through the house. It was not so bright that it could be seen from the street, but it was enough to illuminate the scene at the back door.

Ed was straddling Havoc's waist, the wicked edge of the automail pressed to his throat. Kain was on one knee, his revolver resting firmly against Ed's temple. As soon as he realised who he was aiming at, Fuery pulled the gun away and flicked the safety back into place, his breath escaping him in a shaky sigh as a weak grin flickered across his face. 'We thought you were assassins.'

Ed clambered off of Jean, erasing the blade in one smooth motion before helping Havoc to his feet. 'We thought the same thing about you. Could've fuckin' killed you. Are you all right?'

Havoc laughed quietly, shaking his head in disbelief as he looked from Ed to Roy and back again. 'I'm better than you two. You look like shit.'

'It's been a long night,' Roy replied, turning to look back at Riza.

A small, genuine smile curved her lips as she closed her eyes and let out a tight breath, her shoulders slumping before she regained her composure. In a matter of seconds her back was straight and her shoulders firm, and there was no mistaking the familiar stern gaze. 'With all due respect, sir, what are you doing here?' Hawkeye asked. 'I expected that you would have more sense than to enter a building that had obviously been the subject of an attack.'

'Hughes didn't,' Jean chuckled, rubbing the back of his head and grinning. 'As soon as he worked out you hadn't burned to a crisp in the safe-house, he assumed you'd end up here. Did you get the message he left for you?'

'This? Roy held up the picture they had found before nodding. 'We were about to head Armstrong's when you showed up,' He smiled, letting the waves of relief ease some of the tension in his body. He had been so sure that they would be facing an enemy; Now he found himself back among friends. For the first time in weeks, he felt as if he was able to seize some element of control over this mess of a situation. 'What happened here? We saw the blood at the top of the stairs. Who was hurt?'

'No one on our side,' Riza said reassuringly. 'We'll explain when we are at a safer location. The south shore of the river is crawling with soldiers, and there's no guarantee they'll stay there.'

'General Bertrand's in command,' Fuery added, his voice hard with disapproval. 'The city's been like this for days. The people are afraid and most of the army don't know who to believe and who to obey.'

'How did you even know we were here?' Ed asked, crossing his arms as he gave a puzzled frown.

'When we saw the smoke from the train depot we assumed you'd made your arrival,' Riza replied with a tiny trace of disapproval in her tone. She motioned for Roy to extinguish the flame as she checked her gun and gestured to the back door. 'Lieutenant-Colonel Hughes sent us here to look for you. I had assumed you would be waiting outside, and when we saw there was someone in the house we assumed the worst.' She paused, looking over her shoulder at him. 'I'm glad that we were wrong. It's good to have you home, sir. You too, Edward. When we heard about the safe-house we weren't sure what to think.'

'As soon as we're all together, I'll debrief you on what happened,' Roy assured her, motioning for her to lead the way. 'That is, if Hughes hasn't worked it out already.'

With a quick nod of understanding, Hawkeye gestured to the back of the house. 'Go out that way. I'll exit the front so that anyone watching doesn't grow too suspicious.'

'You think this place is under surveillance?'

'It's a possibility,' Riza murmured. 'Most of the soldiers will be involved in General Bertrand's hunt on the south-side, but all it would take is one reported sighting of either of you to change the focus of the search.'

'We'll worry about Bertrand when we're back at the Armstrong Estates. For now, let's concentrate on getting out of here.' Roy nudged Ed gently towards the back door, letting Havoc and Fuery take the lead as he surreptitiously checked Ed over for bleeding injuries. He looked unharmed, but his shoulders were slumped beneath the military coat, and his face was pale and drained.

Still, his exhaustion did nothing to dull the wary intelligence in his eyes, and warmth fluttered beneath Roy's ribs as Ed crouched low, his body still moving with the economical grace he knew so well. For all they had been through, they both knew that they weren't safe yet. Neither of them wanted to fall at the last hurdle, not when sanctuary was within their reach.

Roy was keenly aware of the houses all around, dark-windowed and still. He had assumed that their occupants were all sleeping, but Hawkeye's concern about being watched was founded. Had someone seen he and Ed enter Maes' house? Were the soldiers already on their way?

In the distance another flare sped through the night, and Roy blinked through the rain as bright sparks fell amidst the skyline. If he was in charge, then he would have spread his forces throughout the city. He would have taken the time to learn about his quarry and targeted their likely hiding places, but Bertrand was different. He was pompous and proud, and it would never occur to him that his methods would fail.

'How did you get through Central from Armstrong's?' he whispered. 'Didn't anyone question why a group of soldiers were driving around in the middle of the night?'

Jean's answering grin flashed bright white in the darkness, and he jerked his head towards the car parked at the curb. 'We had help.'

Roy raised an eyebrow at the sight of the vehicle. It was far from standard military issue. The sleek, black body shone and broke with rain water, and chrome gleamed in the night. Tinted windows hid the interior from view, screaming loud and clear about the status of the occupants. It looked like it would cost more than he earned in a year, and when Havoc reached out to open the back door the scent of cigars and brandy wafted out.

'Got 'em, did you?' a large voice asked, carrying easily through the night air. Bright blue eyes twinkled from the gloom, and Roy smiled as he recognised the hulking man who sat authoritatively in the back seat. He had only met Alex's father twice before, but the family resemblance was unmistakable. 'In you get then, General Mustang.'

'Sorry, sir, but you're going to have to lie on the floor. Edward, too. We were stopped several times on the way over here,' Hawkeye explained as she slipped into the driver's seat, adjusting a lever and pulling the seat forward. 'The rest of us can pass relatively unnoticed, but every soldier in the city knows your face.' She reached out to the passenger seat, pulling on her hat and lowering the peak over her eyes as Fuery got in next to her.

'Is that really going to be enough to hide us from anyone checking the car?' he asked, reluctantly doing as he was told. Various lumps dug into his side, and he winced as Ed clambered in next to him. There was just enough space for them to lie side-by-side, but he did not miss Ed's rough sound of pain as something jabbed his injured ribs.

'Bloody fools won't dare search the car of an Armstrong,' Louis said gruffly, taking a sip of the brandy in his right hand and shifting his feet so that Roy had somewhere to rest his head. 'Hakuro likes to think he's a wolf, but he's a nervous little dog around the military families. Doesn't dare to upset anyone with influence.' Armstrong's father sniffed disdainfully. 'Most useless Fuhrer we've ever had.'

'Then why aren't the old families doing something to stop what's going on?' Ed asked roughly as Havoc draped a couple of black military coats over them. 'If Hakuro's that scared of you, then you could put a stop to it in hours.'

Louis laughed in appreciation of the anger in Ed's tone, his eyes glinting in the darkness. 'Alex has told me all about you, Edward Elric. Unfortunately, the situation is not that straight-forward. Hakuro is not a threat, but that son of a bitch Kerr is another matter. He's vicious, and he will not think of the good of the city before he acts.'

'If the military families rose up against Hakuro, it would be considered an act of war,' Roy explained quietly as Hawkeye pulled away. The floor reverberated softly in time with the engine, and he winced as the ache in his shoulder intensified. 'Perhaps if it was just the Fuhrer behind this, he would be overthrown and that would be the end of it, but Kerr will fight back. He won't care about the people killed in the cross-fire.'

'He has no respect!' Louis growled, curving his hand over his mouth as he stared out of the window. 'I have been communicating with the other estates: Beckett, Parks, Avron. They have all lost sons and daughters over the past few weeks – dead or missing, no one seems to know. I doubt that the Fuhrer is aware of it, but someone's trying to wipe them off the map. Your friend Hughes thinks it's about information.'

'They knew too much?' Roy asked, absently curving his arm around Ed's waist beneath the coats. 'It would explain a lot.'

'Wasn't Avron the name of that woman's commanding officer? The one back east?' Ed asked. 'She said that no one knew what happened to him. He was a Major-General.'

'If people are being killed to keep something quiet then it's the higher ranks that will be targeted,' Roy replied. 'It could be that's what happened to Jennings' commander. Either that or he's had the good sense to go into hiding.' He sighed as exhaustion drag at his muscles and clutch at his mind. 'There's something to all this that we're not seeing.'

'We'll work it out, sir,' Hawkeye said from the driving seat, her voice as confident as ever, 'but for now I need you and Edward to stay silent. This road is heavily patrolled, and they're bound to stop the car and question where we are going.' She changed gear, making the floor rattle as the engine picked up speed. 'Havoc, make sure they're completely hidden.'

With a quick grin of apology, Jean tugged the coats up over their heads, shrouding them in thick, heavy wool. Despite the coolness of the night outside, it was stifling in their hiding place. The scent of cigar smoke tickled Roy's nostrils, and he fought against the urge to sneeze as the car jostled with another bump in the road.

Next to him, Ed's shivers had gradually subsided. Both of them were still dressed in sodden clothes, and Roy's shirt clung to him uncomfortably as Ed's automail hand curled in the fabric. His forehead was resting on Roy's shoulder, and he could feel the flutter of each tense, steady breath against his neck. He tightened his arm briefly around Ed's waist, narrowing his eyes in the darkness as the car slowed to a halt and someone rapped on the window authoritatively.

Roy held his breath, listening intently as the glass whispered downwards, admitting the wet patter of the rain and gust of chilly air. He could make out the sound of other engines rumbling nearby, and the thick weave of the fabric over his face did not block out all of the light. They were at a checkpoint. Since he could hear the roar of the river he supposed that they were on one of Central's three bridges.

'State your destination,' a soldier demanded in clipped tones. Roy could hear the rustle of paper and the drip of water from his hat onto the car metalwork. He had to be leaning almost into Hawkeye's lap, and, from Riza's response, he guessed that the questioner was ranked below a lieutenant.

'The Armstrong estate,' she replied, her tone only just holding back something like a sneer. She sounded perfectly arrogant, as any normal aide of the aristocracy would. 'It would take less time to walk. I have already spoken to one of you people earlier in the night.'

'Sorry, ma'am, but anyone travelling at this time is to be stopped. We are looking for two dangerous criminals who have recently entered the city. I am afraid we will need to search the car.'

'Impudence!' Louis Armstrong's voice roared through the car, slurred slightly as if he were drunk, and Roy grinned as he felt Ed's minuscule twitch of surprise. 'Are you suggesting that I would harbour such ruffians, man? Where is your commanding officer? I shall speak to him at once.'

'N-no, sir! I mean, yes, sir!' There was more rustling and the stamp of boots on the pavement as the soldier saluted smartly. Roy smirked to himself as he heard a quick, panicky discussion beyond the car. Officially, Louis was retired and held no valid rank, but that did not mean anyone was foolish enough to treat him without respect. As much as Central's politics had changed, it was still all about connections, and the Armstrongs could be a valuable ally or a fearsome enemy.

'My apologies, sir,' a smooth voice said eventually, oiled and falsely charming. 'Of course there will be no need to search your vehicle. Were you on your way home from the gathering at the Avron estate?'

'Of course. Where else would I be at such a devilish time?' Louis sniffed, and Roy heard the clink of a bottle on the rim of his glass as he poured himself another. 'Would have been home sooner, if it weren't for all these damn blockades. Makes getting anywhere bloody difficult.'

'I apologise for the inconvenience,' the new speaker murmured, tapping the roof of the car as Hawkeye pulled away. 'Drive safely, sir.'

No one spoke until they were over the bridge and halfway along the next street, and it was Havoc who muttered, 'I think I've gone deaf. Did you have to be so loud, sir?'

'Sorry, lad. It's what they expect. Bark and bluster at them enough and they'll do whatever you tell them,' Louis replied at a normal volume, nudging Roy's shoulder with his toe. 'You all right down there, general, major?'

'Cramped and sore, but otherwise all right,' Roy replied, pulling the cloth back from his face and blowing his hair out of his face. 'How much longer?'

'Another ten minutes or so,' Fuery replied, drumming his fingers on his knee. 'That won't necessarily be the only time we're stopped, either. They're surprisingly thorough, sometimes.'

'It's got a lot worse, too,' Jean said, shifting his feet and muttering an apology as Ed grunted in pain. 'Since me and Kain got back to Central they've pulled troops from everywhere and brought them back here. It's like they're expecting trouble.'

'They're expecting Brigadier-General Mustang,' Louis pointed out, winking down at Roy, 'and it's making them sweat. They want you caught and neutralised. Enough so that Hakuro's practically pissing himself and Kerr's strutting about the country. Never seen the damn man out of his office before.'

'Another checkpoint,' Hawkeye warned, giving Roy a chance to pull the coat back over his and Ed's faces before she slowed to a halt. All in all they were stopped three times before they finally reached the Armstrong estate. Each time Louis got louder and more obnoxious, and each time they were allowed to slip past unsearched. Roy knew that their immunity would not last forever, and he wondered how long the mansion would remain beneath the plotter's scrutiny.

'Home sweet home,' Louis growled, waiting for the car to come to a halt before opening the door and stepping out with a grunt. Roy and Ed extricated themselves and clambered out, looking around curiously.. 'You're safe here.' He told them earnestly, gesturing towards the wall that skirted the grounds. 'Even if the whole damned army turns up to roust you, they'll have to fight their way in.'

It would be one hell of a battle too, Roy could see that. Dawn light shone on landscaped gardens and calm ponds, but the tranquillity hid the more brutish, linear structure of the estate. It was eminently defensible, and the porter's houses in the walls were manned by soldiers, rather than retainers. Although he hoped all this could be solved without bloodshed, the Armstrong estate was a better place than most to make stand.

He looked up as the front door opened, smiling as Hughes trotted down the front steps, slowing down as he approached. 'Still in one piece then?' he asked, grabbing Roy's hand and tugging him in for a tight embrace. 'I should have known better than to doubt you - ' He glanced towards Ed, and there was a hint of mischief to his grin. ' - either of you. Are you hurt? Do you need a doctor?'

Roy chuckled, shaking his head at the flow of his best friend's questions. Maes' relief was heartfelt and palpable, and he squeezed his shoulder in reassurance. 'We'll be all right for now. We're a bit battered, but nothing life threatening.' He glanced Ed's way. 'Unless there's something you're not telling me?'

'Nothing new.' He shrugged stiffly. 'I need food, a shower and some sleep, but other than that I'm okay.'

'Come on, then, let's get you both inside.' Maes ushered them both up the steps as he continued, 'The whole city has gone completely to hell. We're doing our best, but it's hard to get the information we need. We don't dare set foot in Central Command. Assassins showed up at my house to finish me off the same night the safe-house was attacked.' Hughes smiled weakly, no doubt reading the questions on Roy's face as he added, 'Gracia and Elysia are fine. All those involved in the attack were killed, and now it seems the people behind this have other priorities. The only people they care about finding are you two.'

'How did you know we had got away from the attack on the safe-house?' Roy asked, following his friend wearily. as the massive doors closed behind them, sealing them in safe and sound. He followed Louis' expansive gesture towards one of the living rooms, his footsteps echoing across the stone floor of the entrance hall as he went.

'We didn't,' Maes confessed, leading the way inside. The décor was rich and resplendent, but all Roy saw was the roaring fire in the grate and a big, comfortable couch. His body keened gratefully as he sank into the cushions, not missing Ed's groan as he did the same. 'To be honest, I thought you'd both been killed before Winry pointed out what was missing from the ashes.' When Roy looked puzzled, he elaborated. 'Ed's automail. There was no sign of it, so we assumed he was still alive to use it.'

'You talked to Winry?' Ed asked, speaking for the first time since they had entered the house. 'Is she okay? What about Al?'

'You can see for yourself,' Hughes said gently. 'When we heard what had happened at the safe-house, we knew we couldn't keep it from your brother. We also knew that, if we told him, he would leave Risembool. I ordered Havoc and Fuery to pick them up and bring them here. They're sleeping upstairs.'

Ed nodded in understanding, already struggling unsteadily to his feet. 'Thanks. I'd better go tell him I'm all right - unless you need me here?'

His question was directed at Roy, who shook his head and offered a knowing grin. 'No, it's okay. I can get them up to speed. You go and check on your brother.'

With a genuine smile of gratitude, Ed turned away and walked out the door, leaving Roy to focus his attention on the others. Hughes was standing by the fireplace, his green eyes bright and thoughtful as he watched Roy closely. Louis had settled in the armchair, while Hawkeye, Havoc and Fuery all made themselves comfortable.

Everyone was hunched with tiredness, and their faces were lined with stress. The events of the past few weeks had been hard on all of them, and, even now they were all together again, things were still far from normal.

'He's limping,' Havoc said quietly, jerking his head after Ed's departing back. 'You sure he's all right?'

'You'd be limping, too,' Roy pointed out. 'He was shot less than a fortnight ago; he should be resting instead of being chased across the country by god knows who. Neither of us have had enough sleep or food since we left the safe-house, and then Kerr showed up in the east.'

'So that's where the bastard went,' Hughes muttered, drumming his fingers on the mantelpiece as he watched Roy closely. 'Thanks to Fuery, we knew he had left the city, but we could only guess where he was going.'

Kain's cheeks flushed a little with pleased embarrassment, and he mumbled, 'It was only possible because this place has its own telephone exchange. It was really just some quick wiring.'

'He worked his magic and got access to the military network,' Havoc said, tapping an unlit cigarette up and down between his fingers.

'Unsecured lines only,' Fuery added hastily. 'There's only so much I can do. Lieutenant-Colonel Hughes' men are monitoring the lines for anything that might help us work out what's going on.'

'Your men are here?' Roy asked incredulously, turning back to look at his friend. 'How has no one noticed that they're missing from Central Command?'

Hughes rubbed a hand over the back of his neck, his lips twisting into a rueful smile. 'Falman's encyclopaedic knowledge of regulations meant that we were able to substantiate their absence. People might suspect something but, as far as the military is concerned, it's all above board. Thanks to the Armstrongs,' He nodded gratefully towards Louis, 'we've been able to house a little more than a platoon of men here.'

Roy gave a huff of surprise, wincing and rolling his aching shoulder as he tried to get a grasp of the resources he had at his disposal. His own men were loyal and skilled, and, with the addition of Hughes' Intelligence corps, they had some of the best trained soldiers at their command. It was definitely better than nothing, and he rubbed at his temples as he tried to think. 'I assume at the moment you're trying to gather information.'

Maes nodded. 'We're working in shifts to maintain twenty-four hour surveillance, and I'm also trying to find out what happened to the commanding officers who are still missing. If we can get them here, then we'll be better able to face off the attack when it comes.'

'You say that like it's a sure thing,' Jean murmured, turning to look at Louis as the big man answered.

'It's a certainty. In theory, there are two ways this situation can go. Either you attack them, find evidence of their misdeeds, bring it to the attention of parliament and the courts, and have them ousted through legal means, or it's done with bullets and alchemy.' Louis swirled his brandy thoughtfully. 'In reality, parliament are too weak to go up against the Fuhrer and his ranks as they are now. They'll need to be overthrown by force and tried as civilians.'

His words were met with silence, and Roy could almost hear the shrilling, shrieking thoughts of his men. Riza was tight-lipped and tense, while Fuery's shoulder slumped and his head bowed in thought. Jean looked like he wanted nothing more than to smoke his cigarette, and Hughes was staring into the middle-distance, focused on the weave of his own plots as he tried to see a way through.

'Is that even possible?' Kain eventually asked. 'The army is massive. If it comes down to a fight, we're vastly outnumbered.'

'So we work on making sure that's not an issue,' Roy said, looking up at Hughes as an idea started to unfurl in his mind. 'The men already have reasonable doubt. Start rumours. Make them doubt the Fuhrer and the higher ranks even more. Do it however you can: crossed lines, “misplaced” documentation, just do it fast.'

'I'll also keep working on trying to track down people who might want to help us,' Maes answered. 'I need you to concentrate on finding out what this is all about. Unless we've got evidence to back up our claims, then we're the ones committing treason by declaring war on the Fuhrer.'

Dragging his hands across his burning eyes, Roy nodded in agreement, a smile flickering on his lips as he heard Al and Winry's voices drifting down the stairs. The house was starting to stir, coming steadily to life as those who had worked through the night headed for bed and others began their day.

Personally he longed for sleep, but there was too much to do. As much as his tired mind and body protested, he had to keep going. Things weren't going to pause just to give him the chance to rest, and every moment counted. 'I wish I knew where to start,' he muttered, staring blankly at the flames. 'I think you're right that whoever's behind this is trying to cover something up, but what?'

'I dread to think.' Hughes shook his head, shrugging his shoulders hopelessly. 'The military has a slice of every pie, and conscience never seems to come into it. The possibilities are practically endless. I mean, are we talking about something similar to what Bradley was doing? International espionage? Are we being sold out to the Drachmans?'

'I don't think it's any of that.'

Roy looked over his shoulder as Ed pushed his way into the room, two mugs of coffee in his hand. He gave one absently to Roy before taking a sip of his own, eye narrowed against the steam that billowed up from the lip of the mug. 'I was telling Al about the arrays and how we couldn't find the file to go with them, and I remembered something. Didn't you say that there were some files in your house?'

'Yeah, there were five or so, but there won't be anything left of them by now.' Roy frowned as he tried to follow Ed's logic. 'I can't remember what they were about. More than likely they were meaningless.' Hawkeye cleared her throat pointedly, and he hastily corrected himself. 'Meaningless to this. They were probably about supplies or something.'

'But you're not sure?' Ed pulled something out of his back pocket and dropped it on the table. It was the envelope containing Kerr's letter and the sketches he had spent so long puzzling over. With a sigh, he sat back on the sofa, moving up to make room for Al as Winry perched on the arm. 'We all assumed they burned your house down to make sure you had nowhere to run, but what if part of it was about destroying any evidence?'

'Why just the general's house?' Breda asked from the doorway, ambling into the room with a plate piled high with toast as he continued, 'The likeliest place for the file is the office, so why not look there?' He set the toast down on the table, grinning as Roy and Ed both grabbed a piece. 'Gracia said you'd be hungry.'

Roy nodded in agreement, too busy eating to speak as Ed carried on.

'They probably did search the office,' he said around a mouthful, 'but if they did it at night, then they would have had plenty of time to hunt for it. They were careful and made sure nothing was out of place when they were done, so we wouldn't notice what had happened. Hughes' house was different. They ransacked it looking for something, and maybe if the rescue hadn't gone right they would have burned the place.' He shrugged before looking at Roy. 'It's the only thing I can think of that someone might want to kill us over.'

'Did you work out what the arrays do?' Al asked. His hair was rumpled as if he'd got out of bed and thrown his clothes on, and his expression was still haunting with the ebbing tide of anxiety. It must have been hard on him not knowing what had become of Ed, and he was watching his brother intently as if he thought that Ed would vanish again if he looked away.

'It's something to do with turning soil into gold – a permanent transmutation.' He grimaced, his eyes tightening with brief pain before he continued, 'I was going to look at it again the next day, but the safe-house was attacked that night, and we've been on the run ever since. I've had not had the chance to study them again. Maybe I should -'

Roy and Al reached out at the same time, both stopping Ed from getting to his feet again with firm, heavy hands on his shoulders. 'It can wait a few hours,' Roy said softly. 'You need to rest.'

'So do you.'

There was no escaping the intensity of Ed's gaze, and Roy knew he was caught. Ed would not go to bed unless he did the same and, while his own well-being was negotiable, he could not stand by and watch Ed push himself to burn-out.

'We all need sleep,' Hawkeye said, her voice firm as she got to her feet and looked at Hughes. 'None of us can do our best when we are exhausted, including you, sir.'

Maes nodded as the others began to move, some excusing themselves to head upstairs while others waited for their orders. 'I'll give my orders to Breda and Falman and then catch six hours. We can't afford to waste more than that.'

'I'll carry on with the maintenance work on the guns,' Winry added, getting to her feet. 'I'm almost done, but since we pulled most of them from salvage, some are in pretty bad shape. I'll check your automail when you get up, Ed.'

'There's no need, really. It's fine. There's nothing wrong with it.'

'Ed... .' Winry glared at him meaningfully, waiting for his reluctant nod of agreement before heading off. 'I'll be working in the kitchen where the light's best if anyone needs me.'

'Thank you, Winry. If we can have two working guns per man by this evening that would be ideal.' Maes smiled in response to her determined nod before explaining, 'Since stealing guns from the military would get us noticed, we've been taking ones discarded for scrap. Without Winry, we'd be stuck.'

'As long as it's keeping her busy. She's nothing but trouble when she's bored,' Ed grouched.

'Brother, that's not fair,' Al said, but he was smiling. 'You're no better than she is.' He reached out for the envelope on the table, eyes widening in surprise when Ed grabbed it before he got there. 'I thought the arrays were in there? I can take a look and see if there's anything you missed - unless you're going to be stubborn about it.'

Ed scowled at that, but he shook his head as he fished out the scribbled designs and handed them over. 'Knock yourself out. There's other evidence in here, that's all.' He passed the envelope to Hughes, who glanced inside before he seemed to realise what it was. 'We need to keep that somewhere safe. So far, it's all the proof we've got other than the arrays.'

Roy knew that was not the real reason Ed had kept Al from seeing what else the envelope contained. It was bad enough that he had read Kerr's bile, but exposing Al to that would only make things worse. Ed behaved almost as if the fault for Kerr's obscenities was his, as if he was somehow to blame, and Roy scowled at the thought. It did not matter that the bastard had never laid a finger on Ed, he hated him all the same.

If Al thought his brother's behaviour was strange, he did not mention it. He was already looking at the circles on the transparent paper, making sense of the basic encryption and rotating them through various angles. 'I'm going to go work on these in the library. I probably won't find anything new, but I can at least double-check what you found.'

'I'll go and make sure everyone knows what they're doing before I go to bed,' Maes said, ushering Al out of the door. 'You two should do the same. You're safe here, and you both look like you need it. Just pick an empty bedroom upstairs.' Maes gave the two of them a meaningful look. 'I don't want to see either of you up and about for at least seven hours.'

'Seven hours?' Ed muttered as Hughes closed the door behind himself, leaving them alone. 'I think I need more than that.' He took another slow sip of his coffee, but it was obvious the caffeine was doing nothing to push aside his weariness, and Roy could see the exposed flash of every emotion and concern on his face.

'Are you all right?' Roy reached out, tucking a strand of Ed's hair back behind his ear. Not so long ago Ed would have batted his hand away, but Roy did not miss the fact that he leaned a little into the caress as if revelling in the tiny fraction of physical contact.

'Yeah, it's just -' Ed shrugged, putting his empty mug down on the floor. 'I knew it wasn't very likely, but I'd kind of hoped everything would have blown over. Now it's like the world's gone to hell, and I can't work out if there's safety in numbers, or if we're just going to lead the fuckers right to the people we care about.' He frowned at the fireplace, eyes thoughtful above deep shadows. 'Maybe I'll just go and look at those arrays one more time.'

'No.' Roy caught his wrist and pulled him closer, wrapping his arm around Ed's shoulders to hold him in place. At first he resisted, but eventually he relaxed, resting his head against Roy's shoulder. It was the injured one, but Ed seemed to remember, because he was careful not to lean on it too hard as he let out a sigh. 'You can hardly keep your eyes open.'

'But -'

'Please?' He looked down, noticing Ed's scowl and the stubborn clench of his jaw; he wouldn't go to bed, that much was clear, but that didn't mean that he could do without sleep. Stiffly, Roy stretched out along the sofa, nudging and jostling Ed until they were both lying down. 'Stay with me for five minutes. If you're still awake after that, then you can do what you want, okay?'

Roy smiled as he grunted in agreement, rubbing his hands up and down Ed's back as the fire crackled in the hearth. Their clothes were still damp from their hike through the flooded service tunnel, but the room was warm enough for it not to matter. Roy was too tired to really notice the discomfort, and he stared dazedly over Ed's head into the hearth, watching the twist and flutter of golds and oranges as they nibbled on the wood.

It did not take long for Ed's breathing to even out and for the subtle tautness of his muscles to go lax as his body claimed the rest it craved. Ed's face was pressed to the hollow of Roy's throat, and he shifted his right hand to brush his thumb repetitively over the nape of Ed's neck. Part of him knew that they should go to bed and seek sleep on a comfortable mattress, but his body lacked the strength to move. If they were found then the worst they would get was teased about falling asleep in one another's arms, and, besides, moving Ed now would only wake him up. Best to stay where they were.

Gradually, Roy's eyelids grew unbearably heavy. Every time he blinked, his eyes stayed closed for that little bit longer, until he could not find the strength to open them again. On the mantelpiece, the clock ticked onwards, and the sounds of the house slowly faded from his hearing. Lazy, comfortable heat unfurled all around him, dragging him deeper until there was only the darkness of unbroken sleep.



When he awoke the fire had died to nothing but ash in the hearth, and his arms were conspicuously empty. Thick curtains had been drawn to block out the gloomy light of an overcast day, and the room was peaceful and dim.

With a groan, he sat upright, blinking fuzzily at the blanket that fell from his shoulders to pool in his lap. Someone had made sure that he stayed warm and comfortable, probably Ed, but where was he, and how long ago had he left?

His mind cleared of the last tatters of sleep, and he snorted at the ridiculousness of his first question. He would bet a small fortune that Ed would be somewhere poring over the arrays with his brother. He was simply incapable of leaving any alchemical mystery unsolved. Ever since he was a child searching for the stone, it had been obvious how painfully determined and devoted he was. Even if Ed had grown from a boy into a young man, that fact never changed.

Roy was tempted to stay where he was, to pull the blanket over his head and ignore the world outside, but that was not possible. There was too much to do, and his mind clamoured with facts, brimming and bursting with hundreds of thoughts and fears. Wearily, he slumped back into the cushions and shut his eyes, murmuring to himself, 'Five more minutes.'

‘It’s like sharing a dorm room with you again. You never did like getting up in the morning.’ Maes’ voice was lilted with amusement, and Roy blinked blearily towards the threshold to see his best friend watching him. ‘I was about to come and wake you up. You know, you could have slept in a bed. There are plenty going spare.’

‘Ed fell asleep on me, and I didn’t want to disturb him,’ Roy managed, cuffing at his eyes before getting to his feet with a groan. Various muscles bitched at him about too many long days and hard nights, and he felt like something the cat had dragged in. ‘How long has he been awake, anyway?’

‘Maybe forty minutes, if that. He got a decent rest, if that’s what you’re worried about.’ Maes paused, his expression taking on a mischievous edge. You two seem very -’ He waved one hand vaguely. ‘- close. Is there something I should know about?’

‘You never could mind your own business,’ Roy replied, smiling to take the bite out of his words. ‘The double bed thing was deliberate, wasn’t it? I should punch you for that.’

‘Oh, and here was me thinking that thanks were in order.’ Hughes narrowed his eyes thoughtfully, raising one eyebrow as he asked. ‘So, which one of you slept on the couch?’

When Roy’s only response was a disparaging glance, his smile broke into a grin. ‘Oh, so there is something going!’ He held up his hand to stem any protests. ‘It’s no good arguing. I know you too well, and I recognise the look on your face. I haven’t seen it for a long time, but that doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten it.’

‘What look?’ Roy asked, following his friend as he turned and walked away, shaking his head. ‘Hughes, what look?’

‘Don’t play dumb, it doesn’t suit you,’ he replied with a chuckle. ‘You care for Ed a lot more than you care for anyone else, even yourself. It’s probably the first time you’ve felt that way about anyone for years.’

Roy shook his head in disbelief. This was what he got for having a friend in Intelligence. He worked every day for years at hiding his emotions, and Maes took one look at him and knew everything ‘It’s -’ he sighed. ‘It’s not that simple.’

Maes frowned at that, stopping in the middle of the hall and turning to face Roy as he crossed his arms. ‘You’re the ones making it complicated; both as bad as each other.’ He tipped his head to one side, eyes flicking back and forth over Roy’s features as he read his expression. ‘I bet I know exactly what’s “not simple” about it. You’re both worried about what’ll happen to your career, you’ve probably got some stupid guilt over the age difference and you’re basically his boss. Am I right?’

‘No – well, yes, but we can get around most of that if we have to,’ Roy explained, noticing Hughes’ pleased nod of agreement. ‘More than anything, it’s too dangerous. For god’s sake, we’ve got people trying to kill us and we’re fighting for our lives. You can’t build anything on a foundation of adrenaline and fear.’

There was a moment of silence, and Roy watched Hughes glance at the floor before looking back at him. ‘Fine, so circumstances aren’t ideal, but they never are. If you want each other enough, you’ll find a way to make it something you can have.’

Alex’s deep voice rumbled through the hall, his words indistinct, but it was enough to make Maes change the subject. ‘Unfortunately, we don’t have time to debate your love life right now, however much I want to. Gracia cooking lunch – breakfast – whatever you want to call it. If you’re hungry then the kitchen’s that way.’ He waved off to the right somewhere. ‘Otherwise there’s a bathroom upstairs, first door on the left. There are clean clothes in there for you if you want a shower.' He wrinkled his nose and took in Roy's bedraggled appearance. 'You could probably do with one.’

He couldn’t argue with that, and he promised Hughes he would be back as soon as he was done. Halfway up the stairs Maes’ call made him stop and turn, looking expectantly as his friend smiled gently.

‘It might be dangerous, Roy, but – right here, in this house – this is the safest you’re going to get until this is all over. However it ends. Think about it.’

There was something heavy in his voice, a hushed warning that Roy could not fail to miss. Maes was saying exactly what he did not want to think about, was giving the same argument that Ed had put forward a few days ago: there was no guarantee that they would be the winners in this fight. If the worst came to be, could he be happy with the choices he’d made?

With a nod of understanding, Roy turned away and carried on towards the bathroom, losing himself in his thoughts.

Hughes was right about one thing, of all the places he and Ed had been since they had fled Central, this was the safest. They weren't alone, solely responsible for their survival, but nor were they secure in the normalcy of their lives.

He wanted Ed, both in his bed and in his life; there was no question of that in his mind, but he could not bear the thought of Ed suffering even more because of his selfish needs. Maes said it was simple, and perhaps it was, but Roy's desire for Ed warred with his common sense, leaving his as painfully confused as ever.

Sighing, he realised that he was standing outside the bathroom door, staring blankly at the painted wood. With a shake of his head, he pushed his way inside, barely noticing the opulence as he undid the buttons of his shirt. Stripping off his boots and socks, he padded across the marble floor to turn on the shower.

A hot, high pressure stream cascaded into the porcelain tub, and he quickly shed the rest of his clothes before stepping under the spray. A quiet groan of pleasure rasped in his throat as he tipped his head back, letting his mind fall quiet as the heat chased off the clammy chill that lingered on his skin. It did not take too long to wash his hair and soap his body, scrubbing away the grime of the past day or so, and he reluctantly stepped out into the steamy bathroom and wrapped a towel around his hips as he approached the sink.

There was an unused toothbrush and toothpaste sitting on the side, and he looked critically at his hazy reflection as he cleaned his teeth, trying to organise his thoughts. He felt as if all he had was a load of puzzle pieces, and the one thing that would make the picture clear was missing. If he had that key fact, then he felt it would all all into place. Perhaps Ed was right and it was to do with the arrays at lab five, but they needed more to go on than a vague guess.

With a frown he rinsed out his mouth and dried himself off, reaching for the pile of clothes that had been left on the closed toilet seat. Hastily, he finished getting dressed, running a hand through his damp hair and grimacing at the stubble on his jaw. There wasn't time to do anything about that now. His stomach was expressing its disapproval at being over-ruled, and when he opened the bathroom door the smell of frying bacon made his mouth water.

It took him a while to find the kitchen, but when he did he realised he wasn't the only one who had followed his nose. Ed was already tucking into a sandwich that was more bacon than bread, and Hughes was giving a plate of sausages and eggs his full attention as Elysia sat on the floor at his feet, drawing pictures with crayons. Winry had the pieces of a gun arrayed in front of her on the kitchen table and a cup of steaming coffee by her elbow as she worked, while Al sat to her left, slumped onto the table with his head on his arms.

Ed looked up as Roy walked towards the table, sparing Roy the briefest of gentle smiles before taking a bite that would have choked a normal person. If he was still tired and sore, then he didn't show any signs of it. He looked a hundred times better than he had when they had arrived, and his hair, still damp from the shower, had returned to its usual vibrant gold.

'Any luck with the array?' Roy asked, smiling his thanks as Gracia handed him a plate full of food and pushed him towards one of the empty chairs. His question was directed at Al, since it was unlikely Ed would stop eating to answer, and he looked up as the younger Elric made a rough noise of annoyance.

'It doesn't make sense,' he mumbled tiredly, straightening up with a sigh. 'Brother's right: the array extracts and fuses the gold content of the raw materials, wrapping whatever you're using in a thin layer of gold, but I don't understand. You would have to add gold to the soil or stone to get it to work. The array doesn't create it from nothing, it just -'

'Makes whatever substance you transmute look like gold,' Ed finished for him, licking ketchup off his fingers as Alex entered the room with a bundle of papers in his hand. 'Let me see it again?'

Mutely, Al slid the pieces of paper across the table, and Roy glanced up to see Ed brace his hands on the table and concentrate on what he was seeing, as alarmingly focussed as he had been back at the safe house. The familiar sight was oddly comforting, and Roy took another bite of his breakfast, listening with half-an-ear to what Armstrong was telling Hughes.

It didn't sound like much had changed in the few hours he had been asleep. Bertrand had expanded his search somewhat, but it was still contained within the barricades. The arrogant general wouldn't even consider that they might have slipped beyond the perimeter. Hopefully that meant they still had time on their side.

Ed pushed himself away from the table, grabbing an empty pan and heading for the back door. When he returned, it was full of soil and loose bits of stone. Unceremoniously he turned it out on the floor, rubbing his hand over his chin as he thought. 'Anyone got any change?'

Roy shook his head. All of his money had been spent on supplies, but Hughes and Alex both produced a handful of coins, and Roy watched as Ed picked out the 1000 Cen pieces.

'You do realise the gold content in those isn't very high.'

'It's more than what's in Armstrong's garden soil. It should be enough to test a theory.' He looked up, seeing Roy's puzzled frown and flicking his fingers towards the array on the table. 'There's a portion of the array that Al and I can't recognise. It's something to do with heat, but the energy flow is strange. If I activate the array, then we'll know what it does.'

'Is it dangerous?' Winry asked from where she sat. She had turned in her chair to watch what he was doing, a wary expression on her face.

'No,' Al replied. 'It's actually quite a low-powered transmutation. If it goes wrong the only person who'll get hurt is Ed, and it'll just be minor burns.'

Winry snorted, her voice hard and merciless as she warned, 'You'd better not mess up my automail!'

Ed rolled his eyes, dropping the coins amidst the debris before clapping his hands and pressing them to the tiles. Instantly the small pile was suffused with crackling blue light. It wove around stones and stabbed into the soil, swirling and curving in an unusual medley of power as the pile began to change shape. It became more compact as the alchemy crushed it into a rough blockish shape. Through the haze Roy could see the coins melting, and liquid metal flowing over the surface. The pure gold was drawn upwards, glowing a rich yellow as it solidified in a wealthy veneer.

With a final flicker, the blue light collapsed inwards, pooling on the underside before it vanished entirely, leaving one piece of gold bullion where there had been nothing but mud and a few coins. Carefully, Ed reached out and picked it up, hefting it easily.

'Did it work?' Hughes asked.

'It looks like gold, but that's about it. It's too light, and -' He scratched a fingernail along its side, leaving a dark brown line. '-too thin. Anyone in the street would know this was a fake.' Thoughtfully, he turned it over in his hands, his face crumpling into a confused frown as he stared at the underside.

'What?' Roy asked, trying to read Ed's expression as he dragged the fingertips of his left hand over something, as if trying to understand it through touch. 'Is it marked in some way?'

Ed nodded, turning the piece over in his hands so that the underside was clearly visible, and Roy's breath stuttered to a halt in his throat. There, embossed in its centre, was a circular seal containing the familiar crest of the Amestrian army.

'Someone's making fake military gold.'

'What's the point of that?' Winry asked quietly, looking around at them all in confusion. 'Wouldn't that make it even harder to use?'

'This isn't meant to be in circulation,' Ed said, waving the bar as he continued to explain, 'There's no way it can be. No one would fall for it. More likely someone's been switching the real gold out of the military vault and replacing it with these.'

Silence filled the kitchen as his words sank in, and Roy's mind surged with a flood of implications. Questions ran riot, and he rubbed his fingers against his temples as he tried to understand.

'Wouldn't someone notice?'

Al's question made Roy bite his lip and he shook his head as the truth came into focus. 'In the entire military, only one person has access to the vault and can touch the gold, and that's the treasurer.'

'General Grange?' Hughes whistled, his voice hushed as he pointed out, 'He is an alchemist -'

'More than that, he used to work at lab five. He moved to the treasury about five years ago. If he's been doing this ever since, then how much gold has he stolen?' Roy rubbed a hand over his face, staring in disbelief at the metal ingot that Ed was still holding. 'Kerr, Hakuro, Patton, Bertrand – they must all be in on it and getting their share.'

'Accomplices in power,' Alex added. 'Grange is a general in name only, but he's a genius. Intelligent enough to conceive a complex plot. This is not a spur of the moment theft: It must have taken years to plan.'

'So all this shit – it hasn't been about rank or power -' Ed looked up at Roy, his eyes dark with grim anger. 'It's just about the fucking money.'

Chapter Text

Ed stared blankly at the bar of metal in his hands, trying to drag together the chaotic, angry roar of his thoughts. This was the reason someone had put a hole in his side and tried to kill Roy. It was why they had both been chased halfway across the country and shot at more times than he could count. He half-expected his palms to be smeared with the blood of those who had already died in the name of greed, but they stayed clean and unblemished.

No one spoke. If it weren't for the dripping tap and the sound of Elysia's crayons gliding over paper, the kitchen would have been filled with a dense, horrified silence. Yet he could feel the thick tension building in the air, and every face was locked with confusion and anger. Glancing at Roy, Ed could see that he was white with anger, his teeth gritted and a fierce frown creasing his brow as he considered the implications.

'I – I don't understand,' Winry confessed quietly, looking directly at Ed as if he held all the answers. 'Are you saying that someone's stealing the real gold and keeping it for themselves? How could they even spend it? Wouldn't everyone know that it belonged to the military?'

Roy got to his feet, putting his plate by the kitchen sink before leaning back against the counter. His fingers were curled so tightly around its edge that Ed expected him to leave dents in the wood, and when he spoke his voice was hard. 'It would be easy for them to melt the gold down and make items they could sell. It would be practically untraceable.'

'If an alchemist's helping them, then they don't even need specialist equipment,' Ed added, dropping the fake bullion back onto the floor. It broke in two, spilling grey ash-like sand from its centre. 'This is all the military's left with, and it's practically worthless.'

'Those funds are used to pay wages,' Armstrong said quietly, his broad face dark with anger. 'The money is for training and accommodation, food, uniforms... . Without it the whole institution will fall apart.'

Al shifted in his chair, his grey eyes intelligent as he kept up with the steadily building wave of realisation. 'Would that be such a bad thing?' he asked timidly. 'A lot of people might not be sad to see the army go. You can't start wars without any troops.'

'You can't defend yourself, either,' Roy pointed out. 'Besides, it's not just about having a fighting force. It gives hundreds of thousands of people a livelihood. Not just soldiers, but people who make guns and provide food, builders, doctors – the list is endless. Whether the people like it or not, the Amestrian economy relies on the military. If it folds, the country goes with it.'

It was easy to jump to conclusions, to race through to the end of a train of thought without taking in all the details, but something was niggling at the back of Ed's mind. It seemed liked there was more to this than straightforward theft; it was graceful and well-planned, not clumsy and reckless. 'I don't think they're trying to destroy the army.'

He looked up when he was met with silence, glancing around at the puzzled expressions of the others. 'If that was what they wanted, then they would have stolen all the gold in a day and vanished, leaving the army completely screwed. Yet none of them seem to have shown any sign of trying to run away with the money.' He gestured vaguely with his right hand. 'All this, it's not about driving the military to its knees, it's about having a massive steady flow of cash while maintaining their currents ranks.'

Hughes nodded, his eyes bright with comprehension as he picked up what Ed was trying to say. 'Why give up the power for riches, when you can have both? The Fuhrer's running the country and lining his pockets at the same time.' He straightened in his chair, shaking his head in disbelieving amazement. 'More than that, the military treasury is a self-replenishing source. Every year a massive amount of parliamentary funds is allocated to the army. It's all kept in that vault. If they were careful, the plotters could have kept this up for decades, maybe even their whole lives, and no-one would have noticed.'

'The army doesn't spend all the gold it's given?' Winry asked, her voice tinted with outrage. 'But that's people's money! In some towns, families go hungry to make sure they can afford their taxes.' She flinched as Alex's massive hand clasped her shoulder gently, and Ed could see that the man's blue eyes were bright with emotion.

'Before King Bradley, the military invested any money left over into the community – new schools, culture and defense. It was that which made Central the great city is today.' He sighed heavily, his brow creasing in a frown. 'That all stopped once the homunculus came to power, and it did not resume when Hakuro took the premiership. What isn't spent is stored. Just because that is the way it is, it doesn't mean it is the way the rest of us think it should be.'

By the stove, Gracia cleared her throat, her hands twisting in a tea towel as she looked at them all with wide, dark eyes. 'Are you saying that all the officers who are missing or murdered are in trouble because they knew about this?'

Ed glanced back at Roy, seeing him close his eyes briefly and give a fitful shake of his head. 'They probably didn't know all of it. Perhaps they had suspicions, or it's possible that they simply had these alchemical notes in their possession. They were found by General Hayne's team and given to a number of alchemists to decode. No one was successful.' He hesitated, taking a deep breath before carrying on. 'Eventually they came to me, and I passed them onto Ed.'

'About two weeks later, the shit hit the fan,' Ed added, drumming his fingers on the table as he counted back through the days and weeks. 'It doesn't make sense. It's not like I'd found anything at that point. Why did they choose that moment to act? Why didn't they start all this when the arrays were found. Why wait?'

Roy looked at him and, amidst the anger and confusion, there was the tiniest flicker of gentle pride. 'We might never know for certain, but, knowing Grange, I would guess he did not think anyone who saw the arrays would ever work out what they meant. It was probably only when they were handed over to you that he started to have any real concerns.'

Hughes looked up at him from where he was sitting, a faint, mournful smile on his lips. 'I think Roy's right. Grange didn’t feel threatened until you started researching the arrays. It probably took him those two weeks before you were shot to convince the others of the action necessary and to make contact with the assassins.' He rubbed his hands wearily over his face, sitting back in his chair and crossing his arms as he said, 'We still need to prove all this. All we've got are some designs that might have been created by Grange and our theories. That's not enough.'

'He'll have records of everything he did,' Roy said flatly, his expression hard and dangerous as he paced across the kitchen floor to stand by Ed. His presence was a solid wall of heat, comfortable and reassuring, and Ed resisted the urge to lean closer. 'I've had dealings with him more than once. He's almost obsessive. General Patton covered his back by holding fractions of evidence against the others. Grange will have everything documented. Every transaction, every squabble, every decision – it'll all be there somewhere.'

'We also need to know how serious this theft is - how much of the gold in the treasury is real, and how much of it is fake.' Maes scowled, glancing around at everyone else in the room before shrugging in defeat. 'Until we've got that information, we can't do anything. Someone's going to have to go into Central Command.'

Ed huffed out an unsteady sigh, getting to his feet and brushing dust off of his leather pants as Roy and Hughes started to debate the alternatives. The truth was, there were none, but walking into the military compound was practically suicide for anyone under Roy's command. Even those on Hughes' team were running the risk of being caught and questioned. Besides, it wasn't the kind of information that just anyone could gather. The papers might be easy enough, but how were they going to get into the vault? How were they going to count what could be thousands of gold bars quickly and without anyone noticing?

He walked over to the table, his eyes fixed on the scrappy designs that lay innocently on its surface. There was no denying that the arrays were well-crafted. If they were Grange's work, then the sketches showed a precise, logical mind, one that had no trouble managing several concepts at once.

Still, if that was the case, then there was one thing Grange wouldn't be able to do: improvise. If he had not expected events to take a certain course, then he would be helpless to stop them. He had obviously prepared for every outcome he could perceive, but Ed had to wonder if he had planned for open opposition from his so-called victims. Had he ever really expected them to fight back, or did he assume they would lie down and die without any protest? The chances were that Grange was not expecting any kind of organised retaliation. Maybe they could use that to their advantage: the plotters were expecting he and Roy to be out in the city somewhere, running for their lives. The last place they would expect to find either of them was in the corridors of Central Command.

'We need the evidence, Roy!' Maes said, thumping his fist lightly on the table. 'If we have proof then we can get the military police on our side. They answer only to their interior officers, not the Fuhrer or anyone else. They have the power to take him down by legal means. If we have something to back up our claims, then there's a chance we can also turn some of the lower ranks. Without it, we’re helpless.’

'So we have to send someone into Central Command, where they're very likely to be caught and imprisoned or shot.' Roy tipped his head back, defeated as he hopelessly asked, 'Are you sure there's no other way?'

Hughes nodded steadily. 'I'm sorry, but we're running out of options. This is all we can do. The question is, who do we send?'

'Me,' Ed said quietly, not flinching as every gaze turned his way in shock. He have a brief shrug as he added, 'Logically, I'm the best choice.'

Everyone answered at once, voicing their doubts loud and clear, but Ed was paying attention to the only silent person in the room. Roy was standing with his arms crossed, his face pinched with worry as his eyes darkened with regret. He knew what Ed was saying was true, even if he didn't want to believe it.

Taking a deep breath, he willed Roy not to speak out against him. This was like a test. If Roy held him back, then it would mean he was putting his personal feelings before professional need. It would be all the evidence Ed needed that this chemistry, this emotion they shared, could never have place in their lives after this was all over. If Roy could not separate his desire to keep Ed safe from the demands of an assignment, then they stood no chance of building a personal relationship while they were both in the army.

'Brother, you can't do go into the Command building,' Al said forcefully, getting to his feet and pacing around the table. 'It's too dangerous!'

'He is right,' Alex added, his voice carrying across the kitchen with ease. 'You are still wounded and not at maximum strength. It would be fool-hardy to send you on this mission.'

Maes was nodding in fierce agreement. 'Even if you were completely healthy, you're one of their primary targets. I'm not going to hand you over to them!'

'It's not up to you,' Roy pointed out quietly, not taking his eyes off of Ed's face as he carried on. 'I'm the one who has to give the order to someone to risk everything to get us the proof we need, and he's right. If we have to know how much genuine gold is still in the vault, then whoever we send has to be an alchemist who doesn't need to draw arrays.'

Hughes was staring at Roy, eyes narrowed as if he was a puzzle he was trying to solve. 'We do need that information,' he said eventually. 'It'll be the main point when trying to win others over to our side. Without it we sound like scaremongers, nothing more. I almost hate to ask, but is there a reason Al can't do it?'

The knee-jerk reaction to protect his brother tore through Ed's body, and it took all his strength not to blurt out an automatic denial. He had to be reasonable and rational, even if all he wanted to do was snarl his loathing of that suggestion. 'He could do the alchemy without a problem,' he agreed.

'So let me go!' Al replied, eyes bright and determined. 'That way you're not in danger.'

'But you are,' Ed pointed out. 'Al, you'd have no problem doing the array, but if you're caught, how're you going to fight back?' He sighed, seeing the flicker of emotions on his little brother's face. They could be equally stubborn, sometimes, and Al hated being left out of the loop. 'You're still weak from the gate; if it was just soldiers, then I wouldn't be so worried, but there's no guarantee you won't run into one of the assassins. They're definitely too strong for you, and if they catch you then they'll use you as a hostage to bring me in.'

It was the one thing he knew would make Al hesitate. He would never willingly let himself be used to put Ed in danger, and the very thought was enough to make him pause, hands clenched into fists at his side. 'I don't want to see you hurt,' he said quietly, his words tight with concern. 'We're lucky you and the general made it back here alive.'

'But we did. I'm not going to be walking into this blind. I know better than you who I might be up against and what I can do to avoid crossing their paths. I'm not going to go in there looking for a fight.' He frowned as Al gave him a dubious look. 'I'm not that stupid.'

Eventually, Al's shoulders slumped in defeat, and he glanced over at Winry. Ed followed his gaze, noticing the tense line of her back and the desperate gleam in her eye. She always worried about both of them, but Ed hadn't missed the fact that she had paled with fear when Al suggested he should be the one to go into Central Command.

Finally, his little brother nodded in agreement, murmuring, 'Promise me you'll be careful?'

'Of course I will. I'm not going to have gone through all that just to let them catch me now.'

'You're not going alone,' Roy said, his voice filled with quiet force as he straightened up.

'Well, you're not coming with me,' Ed growled bluntly. 'They'll shoot you on sight! I can't get what we need if I’m worried about trying to protect you!'

Roy shut his eyes for a second, nodding stiffly in agreement. 'I know that, but you should take either Hawkeye or Havoc. That way you can concentrate on the vault while they watch your back.' He sounded like he would rather be sending Ed in with a full compliment of armed guards, but that was impossible. They needed stealth and strategy for this mission to stand any chance of working. Even having someone to help him was another element Ed couldn't fully control.

'I'll take Havoc.' At Roy's curious look he grinned. 'He can pick locks, which is quieter and less obvious than me blasting them open. Besides, if this goes to plan, I won't need Hawkeye's sharp shooting.'

He could tell that Roy's mind was alight with different scenarios, estimating rates of success and plotting the best way forward. His eyes were slightly glazed, focused inwards as he rubbed a hand absently over his jaw. 'Get Fuery to concentrate surveillance on the treasury phones. Grange is a creature of habit; he heads home at five every day, but his staff normally work late. We need to know when that office will be empty. The vault's in the basement – no guards, but it's probably heavily defended by arrays and such. Can you bypass those?'

'I won't know until I see them,' Ed replied, 'but you'd better hope so.'

'Going in during the evening is probably the best time. There are still enough soldiers around that no one will question the two of you as long as you're in uniform.' He smiled faintly at Ed's blatant grimace at the thought of wearing Amestrian blue and gold. 'You're going to have to pretend to be a lower rank than Havoc and hope that no one asks you for identification.' He paused as if thinking of saying something else, his face softening as Ed tipped his head questioningly to the side, but he didn't continue. Instead he turned to the room and started issuing orders.

'Hughes, I'm going to need to know as much about Grange's activities today as possible. If we can guarantee he will be out of Central Command then Ed and Jean don't need to worry about him showing up at the wrong moment.' He hesitated before turning to Alex. 'If this goes wrong and Ed or Jean are caught or chased back here, then we could well find half the army outside your front door. Do we have your family's permission to commandeer this building?'

'It would be an honour,' Armstrong replied. 'Perhaps Alphonse could assist us in making the necessary fortifications?'

Ed smiled to himself as Al nodded, as eager as anyone to help out. Winry had already turned back to the guns, determined and adept as she set about repairing what she could. The air was tinged with nervous anticipation, and Ed knew that everyone was preparing for the worst. Even if he and Jean succeeded, retribution would follow hot on their heels.

Quietly, he slipped out of the kitchen, his mind racing as he tried to think of everything he would need. The large grandfather clock in the hall stated that it was almost three in the afternoon, and Ed frowned in confusion. When would he and Havoc have to leave? How were they even going to get through the perimeters to Central Command? How were they going to get out again?

With a shake of his head he pushed the questions aside. That was Roy's area of expertise, and he knew that he would not stop until every detail of this plan was certain in his mind. This was Roy's way of trying to keep him safe, and the thought sparked a warm, gentle heat in Ed's chest. He couldn't be in better hands.

Taking the stairs two at a time, he checked the bedrooms until he found the one that someone had put the pack in. It sat innocently at the bottom of the bed, and he glanced into the top, seeing the throwing knife Pierce had given him. It was sheathed, and he hesitated before picking it up. His alchemy and his wits were probably the only weapons that would do him any good, but it was better to be safe than sorry.

There was an old desk in the corner of the room, antique and well-carved, but Ed had no time to admire the furniture. Instead he grabbed the pen lying on its surface and tugged free a bit of writing paper, letting the whirling thoughts of his mind fall still as arrays and designs flooded his consciousness.

Ed sketched ceaselessly, losing all grasp of the world around him as he perfected his design. There were a number of unknown factors, but he could adapt it as soon as he knew what he was dealing with. If he used it correctly, he would be able to tell how much gold was in the vault in a few seconds. The energy flow was designed to use the gold as a conductor. If there was not much real bullion in the vault, the array would be weak and barely active. If not, then the alchemy would be dazzling.

Finally satisfied with the skeleton of the array, he straightened up, feeling stiffness bite into his neck. A glance at the alarm clock on the bedside table told him over an hour had passed, and he could hear the sounds of some of the others dragging themselves out of bed. It probably wouldn't be long until he and Havoc had to leave, and Ed checked his reflection in the mirror as he tried to think of what he would need to do to blend in with the crowd.

His face was still marked with scrapes and bruises, but there was nothing too distinctive or eye-catching. His hair, though, was another matter. It wasn't like they would be wearing dress uniforms, so they had no excuse to wear a peaked hat. The best way to hide it would be to dye it again, and Ed stripped off his vest as he headed to the en-suite bathroom, closing the door behind him.

Pouring a basin full of water he clapped his hands, pressing them to the surface and watching the transparent liquid turn cloudy and dark. As soon as he dipped the ends of his loose hair in, rich, chocolate brown began to climb up the strands. A quick dab of the dye on his eyebrows was enough to make the image complete, and he pulled the plug out before clap-drying his hair and pulling it back in a low ponytail.

Pushing his way back out into the bedroom, he sighed as he saw a pile of neatly folded clothes on the bed: a uniform. Boots were included, and he grunted in irritation as he shucked out of his leather pants and grabbed the dark blue replacements. Whoever had provided them had obviously done the rounds to try and find something that would fit him. He would bet anything the pants were Fuery's spares, and, judging from the lingering suggestion of cigarette smoke, the shirt and jacket were Havoc's second uniform.

Ed smirked, realising that Kain must be a bit chubbier around the waist than he was, but it was nothing a belt wouldn't solve. A quick check of the shirt and jacket told him that they were almost a perfect fit across the shoulders, but the sleeves were too long. With a shrug Ed set to work. He'd transmuted his own clothes enough times as he had grown, and he could make it look good enough for one day.

He had just shrugged on the shirt and started doing up the buttons when someone tapped on the bedroom door. Looking up, he smiled weakly as Roy stepped into the room and shut out the rest of the world. He looked weary and drawn out, as if those hours of deep sleep had never happened, and Ed's heart panged at the sight. He wanted to soothe away the lines of stress on Roy's face, to press himself against his body and forget all about the world beyond these four walls, but he knew that wasn't possible.

Roy parted his lips as if he was about to say something, but he shook it away. Ed felt a flicker of pleased surprise as Roy closed the distance between them and gripped Ed's hips gently, tugging him near. He leaned his forehead against Ed's, taking a deep breath as if he was trying to centre himself, but the faint shudder of his muscles beneath Ed's palm told another story. The man in front of him was not General Mustang, but Roy, and the last thing he wanted to do was let Ed walk into the lion's den.

'I'll be okay,' he said quietly, reaching up to brush his hand soothingly along Roy's stubbled jaw. 'I know what I'm doing, and I've got Havoc to watch out for me. We'll be there and back before you know it.'

A silent nod was his only response, and Roy drew in another shaky breath before he said, 'There's so much that could go wrong. We're relying on luck to get you and Jean through this, nothing else. All it takes is someone turning up at a bad moment and you've both had it.'

'Hey, don't under-estimate us,' Ed said firmly. 'Neither me or Havoc are helpless. It's not like we're going to surrender ourselves if we get caught.'

'So you'll fight and get killed instead?'

Ed dropped his hands to Roy's waist, curving his arms around his back and holding on tight as he rested his head on Roy's shoulder. 'We'll defend ourselves and escape. You know we’re capable of that much.’

He closed his eyes as Roy tightened his embrace, nuzzling Ed's hairline as if the physical contact gave him all the reassurance that he needed. He could feel the skittish throb of Roy’s heart in his chest and sense his fear, but there was nothing he could do to wipe it away.

'Promise that you'll come back to me?'

It was a taut, desperate whisper, and Ed lifted his head, meeting Roy's gaze unflinchingly. He could see everything – every tremulous hope and vivid fear. Roy looked like a man who was afraid he was about to lose everything, and Ed knew that it was a thousand times worse to sit around and wait for news than it was to be in the midst of the action. If Roy thought he could risk it, he would be at his side regardless of the danger, but there was too much at stake for him to throw his life so carelessly into the fray.
'I promise.'

Pressing himself up a little, he brushed a tender kiss against Roy's lips, licking at the sensitive skin and dipping inside. The taste of him was addictive, and Ed groaned happily as Roy responded, his grip taking on a harder, more possessive edge as he held Ed close.

They kissed like it might be their last chance, greedily taking all the other had to offer as they surrendered themselves. It was enough to make the blood sing drunkenly in Ed's veins and for the lank, heavy thoughts that clogged his mind to drift away, leaving him focused on the flick of Roy's tongue and the heady, hypnotic stroke of his hands.

With a faint gasp, Roy broke away, flushed and rumpled in the best possible way. His eyes were like the night sky, black with the faintest suggestion of blue, and his breathing was ragged as he pressed another kiss to Ed's temple. A rough noise escaped him as Ed arched his hips, feeling the hard ridge of Roy's erection through his trousers. 'If you keep doing that, I'm never going to be able to let you go.'

'Sounds good to me,' Ed husked, his eyes fluttering closed as Roy kissed him again, slower this time, like he was something to be worshipped. It communicated far more than words ever could, and Ed tightened his grip in the fabric of Roy's shirt, trying to hold him there forever.

He made a soft, questioning sound when Roy shifted, leaving him bereft. Warm, bare hands moved to cup his face, and Ed bit gently on the thumb that passed over his lips, smirking at Roy's sharp intake of breath. 'We can't.' Roy shook his head as Ed gave an irritated growl. 'No, I mean you and Jean have to leave soon.' His voice deepened, resonating through Ed's skin to the very core of him. 'When I go to bed with you, I plan to take my time.' He smiled, his eyes taking on a promising gleam as he added, 'I'll still be here when you get back.'

A timid knock made Ed glance over Roy's shoulder at the closed door, and he grimaced as Fuery stammered through the wood, 'Sorry to bother you, sir, but the treasury offices will be empty by six.'

'Thank you, Kain, we'll be right down.' Roy's smile was a little shaky around the edges, and Ed forced himself to return a stronger version as he stepped away, finishing doing up his shirt and shrugging on the jacket before he tugged on the boots and stood up.

'Do I look convincing enough?'

Roy raised an eyebrow, trailing his gaze blatantly over Ed's body in a way that made him feel like he was wearing nothing but skin. It was a hot, heavy look, and when Roy spoke there was a growl to his words that shot straight down Ed's spine. 'It looks very good on you.' He cleared his throat, his expression becoming serious as he added, 'Just remember not to slouch. Chances are people won't look beyond your appearance, but they're going to notice if you don't have a military posture. You ready to go?'

Ed didn't miss the dreading edge to Roy's voice, and he reached out, giving his hand a reassuring squeeze before he nodded. 'Might as well get it over with. How are we going to get to Central Command?' Relief curled in his stomach as he saw some of Roy's strength return, fed by his knowledge of the strategy. No doubt he and Hughes had hammered out the best way forward and, while it wouldn't be foolproof, at least it gave Roy comfort to know how to proceed.

He walked across the room, opening the door and leading the way along the corridor as he spoke. 'The guards at the perimeter near the Armstrong estate are loyal to the family. When the shift changes, a truck arrives to pick them up, and they've agreed to cover for you. There's a good chance the sentries at Central Command won't even stop them, but if they do then at least you won't be alone. Once they've got you into the compound, you'll be on your own.'

'What about getting out again?' Ed asked as they began to climb down the stairs. The hall stretched out before them, and Ed looked up as Hughes answered his question.

'There are supply trucks to this section of the barricade every two hours, truck number twelve. The drivers are trustworthy. If you can, then jump in the back. The last one leaves at eleven.'

'If we miss it, we have to make our own way back?' Jean asked nervously from where he stood. He kept obsessively checking his holster for his gun, and there was no sign of his normal good humour in his expression.

Maes bit absently at his lip and nodded. ‘If things go wrong then get back here as fast as you can. Try and make sure you're not followed, but if you're being pursued and you can't shake them, then don't worry. We'll make sure we're ready for them.'

'For god's sake, just don't get caught,' Roy added, fixing Jean and then Ed with a firm gaze. 'If it starts to get too risky, then turn around and walk away. I don't want to lose anyone over this.'

Ed's heart twisted in his chest as anxiety thrashed in his stomach. It was easy enough to pretend to be calm and confident, but he hated this kind of assignment. He could do stealth if he had to, but he would rather be brash, vicious and quick. He was built to fight, not hide, and when events took a political turn he always found himself powerless and frustrated.

'If you're not back by midnight, we'll assume the worst,' Hughes said gravely. 'If you're safe but can't make it back here, then try and get us a message so that we know you're still alive.'

Outside, a car horn gave a quick beep, making Ed look towards the front door. 'Time to go,' Jean muttered, taking a deep breath and letting it out in a rush. When he spoke again there was a welcome trace of his usual cocky confidence. 'We'll be back by the deadline, both of us.'

Ed did not miss the meaningful look that Havoc and Mustang shared, and he scowled as Roy caught his eye, trying to look innocent. He would bet anything that he had given Jean some rather specific orders with regards Ed's safety. It was hard to accept his protectiveness graciously, but he knew that, if the situations were reversed, he would be doing exactly the same thing.

'Be careful,' Roy murmured, his hands clenched into fists at his side as Ed nodded, giving a crooked half-smile before stepping out into the waiting evening. He forced himself not to look back, to keep walking – sure and confident – as if success was guaranteed. Roy had enough of his own doubts without them being fed by Ed's own uncertainty.

He and Jean didn't say a word until they approached the truck and jumped up into the back, settling themselves among the other guards as the driver threw it into gear and pulled away. Everyone was talking and laughing, happy to be at shift's end. It was otherworldly, and Ed found himself watching them absently, taking in their carefree expressions and listening to their conversations. If any of them were nervous about their part in the subterfuge, then they showed no sign of it.

'Anyone mind if I smoke?' Jean asked, grinning his thanks as someone offered him a light. The canvas roof was open at the back, letting in a cool wind and the last rays of sunset, and he exhaled away from the other passengers before leaning back. 'This is insane,' he murmured eventually. 'No offense, Boss, but I wish you'd chosen Hawkeye.'

'Not “Boss”. You outrank me, remember?' Ed smiled weakly as Jean pulled a face and swore to himself. 'Sorry to drag you into this, but you've got skills I need. Do you know anything about the vault?'

Jean shook his head, his shoulders moving in a tight shrug. 'I've never even seen it. All I know about the treasury is that they're tight-fisted with their money, and they're in charge of pay. When I got promoted it took them months to get my wages right.'

One of the men nearby glanced at them before calling out, 'Hey, Davis! Didn't you used to work for the treasury?'

A middle-aged man a few seats away turned around, his lined face puzzled as he nodded. 'Yeah, before that idiot Grange had me transferred.'

'Thought you were pinching stuff,' someone else murmured, laughing out loud when Davis grinned, flashing a couple of gold teeth in the gloom.

'Well, yeah, that might have had something to do with it. Why do you want to know?' Brown eyes looked from Ed to Jean, and the grin faded as he rubbed his nose and winked. 'Maybe it's better I don't ask that. The vault's underneath Central Command. I don't know much about it except that it's got fourteen locks, and Grange spent months scribbling all over the place in there.'

Ed nodded, listening intently as his mind raced. Alchemical defenses weren't unexpected, but it added an extra element of uncertainty. There was no telling what Grange might have done to protect his scheme. 'Anything else?'

He recognized a shifty look when he saw one, and Davis stood up, moving closer in a staggering half-crouch until he could talk in a whisper and be heard by the both of them. 'Grange asked for the blueprints and I – I might have given him an old set. I thought the bastard deserved to deal with a bit of shit, but nothing ever came of it. There's a network of storm drains under the city. One goes right under the middle vault. If you can get hold of an alchemist you might be able to get in that way.'

Glancing over at Havoc, Ed shared a grin. Maybe this was not going to be so hard after all. 'I don't think that's going to be a problem. Thanks.'

The conversation continued to rise and fall around them, carrying on as they passed through blockades unchecked. The men delighted in telling Ed and Jean about the low morale of the ranks. Most of the soldiers on the barriers didn't even know what they were looking for, and there was a lot of quiet, mutinous talk.

It was only when the driver beeped his horn, announcing their arrival at Central Command, that they swiftly changed the conversation to lighter, more mundane subjects, laughing out loud at jokes that made Ed blush and Havoc snort in amusement.

The truck pulled to a halt at the gate, and the driver conversed in quick, casual tones with one of the sentries. They probably came through here two or three times a day, but Ed’s heart still thudded hard in his chest as he waited for something to go wrong. Was it really possible that Hakuro was so busy searching the city for him and Roy that he had left Central Command exposed?

Within a minute they were waved through, and Ed shared a look of amazed relief with Havoc. They had expected to have to make up some story about their presence, but it seemed like the guards didn't care. The Fuhrer wasn't looking after them, so they sure as hell weren't going to take care of him.

'The sooner we get things back under control, the better,' Jean muttered. 'If this goes on much longer there's going to be real trouble: deserters, dissenters, the lot. Someone trustworthy and intelligent needs to be in charge before the week's out, or, at the very least, Hakuro needs to be gone.'

Ed nodded as they came to a stop, jumping down lightly and waiting for Jean to follow. 'Then we need to get started. You ready?'

'Yep, just follow my lead, sergeant.'

The place was winding down, and Ed kept his gaze averted as they passed soldiers leaving for the night. It took a lot of effort to keep his gloved hands from clenching into fists. He would have thought he would be used to feeling vulnerable by now, but walking across the parade ground towards the monolith of the command building put his teeth on edge. Anyone could snipe at him or Jean - take them down in the blink of an eye - but the encroaching twilight remained unbroken by threats.

'We can't afford to be recognised, either of us,' Jean mumbled, barely moving his lips as they climbed the steps and went through the door. 'If you see anyone you know, regardless of whether you think they're a friend or not, then turn off the corridor. It mustn't get back to Hakuro that we're here.'

It was hard to stay casual while scrutinising the passers-by and, more than once, he and Havoc had to make a random turn to get out of the path of someone they knew. Every moment Ed expected a soldier to cry out and blow their cover, but it didn't happen. So far, luck was on their side. All he could do was hope that it wouldn't run out.

'Treasury office is near the top floor, right under the Fuhrer's suite of rooms,' Jean whispered as they entered one of the many stairwells and began to climb. 'Fuery promised me it would be empty, but I'm not going to take his word for it.' He sighed, glancing back at Ed with a worried expression. 'Do you even know what we're looking for in there?'

'Anything that Grange might have that incriminates him or anyone else. It'll probably be in his private office, not the outer room.' Ed glanced back over his shoulder at the dizzying spiral of steps below them. 'Don't just barge in. Grange is not your average stupid officer. He might have alchemical traps around the place.' He noticed the sick expression on Havoc’s face, and hastily added, 'Don't worry, I can probably handle them.'

Jean didn't ask what would happen if he couldn't: the answer was not one that either of them wanted to voice. Ed wasn't an idiot; he knew that the others were relying on them. Without this information they had nothing to use against Hakuro and all the others involved in the plot. Without proof, they were helpless. He and Havoc couldn't afford to fail, and that knowledge was a heavy weight across his shoulders, dull and unyielding.

When they reached the top of the stairs, they peered out into the corridor. Up here, away from the general riff-raff of the military, there were paintings on the walls and crystal light fittings. Plush red carpet stretched from wall-to-wall, rich and dark. Of course, the treasury probably enjoyed the same splendor as the Fuhrer.

'This way.'

Ed followed as stealthily as he could, the sound of his breathing loud in his ears as he strained to detect any sign that they weren't alone. All around was peaceful and quiet. The lights were dim, and no sounds came from behind the closed doors that pocked the walls. Each had discrete plaques next to them identifying the rooms, and they came to a halt next to one with Grange's name scribed in its surface.

At Ed's quick nod, Jean pulled out some slender tools and set to work, licking his lips as his eyes narrowed in concentration. Lock-picking was a skill Ed had never learned. It was always much easier to simply melt the tumblers, but they wanted to go undetected for as long as possible. They had to be nothing more than shadows or ghosts, leaving no trace of their presence.

He kept unflinching watch as Jean worked, ignoring the man's whispered curses. He'd get there eventually, and it wasn't the kind of thing that could be rushed. Soon enough, their patience was rewarded; the lock clunked open, and Havoc tried the handle, braced for a cry of outrage from someone working late.

When none came, he pushed the door open wider, standing aside to let Ed cross the threshold first. It was much the same as Mustang's outer office, strewn with paper and full of beaten but serviceable desks, but Ed barely noticed. He was looking for the tell-tale flickering gleam of an active array, and his gaze alighted on a glimmer of something over by the entrance to Grange's inner sanctum.

'He's defended the door. I'll need to work on it before you can pick the lock.' He didn't wait for Jean to acknowledge him as he slipped across the room, taking a moment to examine the designs. There were two, one on each side of the doorframe, and he squinted at the lines. They were simple enough, and no bigger than his thumbnail. They were like a tripwire, designed to set off a bigger, explosive array in the arch of the entrance. If he hadn't noticed it, it would have been fatal.

Quickly, Ed pressed his fingers together before reaching out, touching both arrays simultaneously. The energy curled through him, brief and tempestuous before he neutralised it, easing the designs into inactivity. The one above his head also died, falling silent as he stepped away and gestured for Jean to take over.

'Easy as that,' Havoc murmured. His upper lip was glossed with sweat, and he wiped his palms on his thigh before shifting the picks in his fingers. Ed could see that his hands were shaking, but it was more likely to be about adrenaline than real fear. It was hard to work like this, always expecting someone to catch them in the act. Roy was right, it could all go so horribly wrong, and every passing minute was as tense as the last.

'I'm in.'

The urge to run forward and start looking was almost overwhelming, but Ed forced it aside as he examined the room. There were arrays everywhere, concealed in plain sight like the jaws of a waiting trap. 'Don't tread on the rug,' he hissed, pointing to the floor in front of the desk. 'You'll lose your legs.'

'What about that thing around the light?' Jean murmured, his head tipped back as he stared at the pattern on the ceiling.

'That's a decoy. It won't do anything. Just – just move carefully, all right? If anything bad starts to happen, run like fuck.' Ed inched into the room, feeling the shift and swirl of energy whisper across his skin like cobwebs. Grange was ruthless, but at least they knew they were on the right track. Somewhere in here there was something worth keeping safe.

The desk seemed like an obvious place to start and Ed de-activated a series of arrays around the drawers. It was like diffusing live bombs: one tiny slip and he and Havoc would be torn apart. Yet the lines fell quiet and still at his touch – sleeping tigers – and he slid open one drawer after the other. They revealed nothing more interesting than office supplies and a note from a woman who was probably Grange's mistress, and Ed scowled before bringing the defensive designs to life again.

'Anything?'

Havoc shook his head, stepping back from a very ugly picture. 'No safes, no hidden panels, nothing.'

'That's the kind of thing Hakuro would use. Grange is more intelligent than that,' Ed murmured, rubbing his chin thoughtfully as he stared blankly at the fireplace. It was bigger than Mustang's, but there was nothing laid in the grate. In fact, the whole thing looked as if it had never been lit. The hearth was unmarked by any alchemy, and Ed walked over, kneeling on the unforgiving marble as he pulled the glove off of his automail hand and reached up the chimney.

After more than a minute he shook his head, pulling back and getting to his feet. There hadn't even been much soot up there. Anyone'd think the bastard had it cleaned.

Ed frowned, glancing around. Now that he thought about it, the whole room was immaculate. He had got a sense of perfectionism from Grange's creation process with the array from lab five, but he hadn't realised that it bordered on obsession. All the pencils in the pen-pot were sharpened precisely, and there was a sheaf of writing paper in the middle of the desk. Everything was in its proper place, but somewhere there had to be some clue about what he was hiding.

'He's got a lot of books,' Jean muttered. 'I thought they were painted on or something, because they're all the same size, but they're real.' He brushed a finger down one of the spines. 'Kind of freaky, actually.'

'Probably had copies printed and bound personally. Some people are weird like that. What kind of order are they in?'

Havoc took a step back, squinting at the highest shelf before scanning down the stack. 'Alphabetical by author's name. That's got to be a sign of insanity, right?'

'Or librarianship,' Ed muttered, moving to stand at Jean's side and examining the shelves, his eyes skipping along titles and writers both mundane and extraordinary. He was so engrossed that he almost did not realise what he had seen, and his gaze skipped back, focusing on the one tome that was out of place. 'Why's Menintal in the “L” section?'

'There's a Cassidy amidst the “T”s as well, and a Senitar in the “Y”s.'

Smoothly, Ed pulled one of the books free, frowning at its bland leather cover and the edges of the pages. All the other books had gold leaf, but this one didn't. It looked well thumbed and grubby, and when he opened it to the first page he realised why. 'Got him! It's a ledger of all the gold he's switched out and who got what cut. Get the others.'

'You’d think he have them behind lock and key.' Havoc asked, yanking free the other misplaced books and staring at their contents. ‘This one’s minutes of meetings, and the other is details of the assassins he used. It’s all here and not even in code. Don’t you think that’s a bit convenient?’

Ed hesitated, considering what Havoc was saying. It could be that Grange had planted false evidence, but his instincts said otherwise. ‘They were safe where he could keep an eye on them, not locked away and forgotten. He was protecting himself with these.’ He waved the book meaningfully. ‘If this all went pear-shaped and they were prosecuted, he's got all he needs to cut a deal. If it’s in code then it would be worthless to help him. The police wouldn’t believe his decryption and it would be his word against the Fuhrer’s.' Ed smirked. 'Patton was just the same. Looks like they don't believe in honour among thieves. We need to -'

A noise cut him off, locking his breath in his throat and making every muscle in his body scream with the desire to run. Next to him, Havoc had paled, and they both stood motionless, breathless and desperate as they waited for the sound to repeat itself.

Within seconds it tapped out again, and Ed slumped with relief as he realised it was someone walking across the floor of the office above. 'Hakuro's working late.'

'Didn't think he worked at all. Here, give me that book. I'll keep them safe.'

Obligingly, Ed handed it over, frowning as the deep mumble of a voice carried down to them. He watched Havoc slip the ledgers into special pockets inside his jacket, barely paying attention as the tone of the words upstairs changed. Panic laced the speaking voice, which rose in pitch and volume. Jean glanced upwards, lips parted to make some comment, but whatever he had been about to say died on his tongue as a sharp, harsh sound barked out, followed by a heavy “thud” that made the chandelier shake.

There was no mistaking that noise. Even as his mind scrambled for some alternative, Ed knew they had just heard a body hit the floor above their heads.

'Shit!' Havoc hissed, grabbing Ed's wrist and skirting the deadly rug before he slipped out of the door. 'Shit, shit, shit!'

'Wait, slow down!' Tugging his hand free, Ed touched his fingers to the arrays on the door-frame, activating them with one brief press before shutting the door. The lock tumbled back into place behind him, and he turned to see Jean dithering in the outer office. 'It might not be what we think. It might be something completely different!'

'Someone just murdered the Fuhrer!' Havoc hissed, his words tripping over each other as he spoke as quickly as he could. 'Any minute now this place is going to go all to hell, and we're caught right in the middle of it!'

'We don’t know that it was the Fuhrer; it could have been Hakuo holding the gun.’ Ed swallowed tightly, knowing it sounded pretty unlikely. ‘Whatever happened, we’d better hurry. I still have to get to the vault.'

'What do you mean “I”?’ Jean asked suspiciously. ‘You're not going on your own. Mustang will kill me if I leave you here!' Jean's voice was clipped, and his expression was completely serious as Ed peered out into the corridor before darting towards the stairwell.

'Say it was an order. He can yell at me for it later,' Ed snapped as they hurried down the stairs. 'We don't have time to argue about this. We've got all the evidence we need – way more than we thought we were going to. Hughes and Mustang can end this tonight with what's hidden in your jacket. You need to get it back to them now!'

‘The general’s orders over-ride yours,’ Jean pointed out, stumbling down the steps in his haste. ‘Getting the evidence might be the highest tactical priority of the mission, but keeping you safe comes above that. If something happens to you –’ Jean sucked in a tight breath, changing tack as Ed shot him a hard look over his shoulder. ‘Forget about the vault. Just forget about it! We can work out how much gold is missing from what's in these ledgers, can't we?’

‘No, it’d take too long,’ Ed retorted, thinking fast. The array he had designed would only work if he was in the vault, but with a few alterations… . ‘We can still do this, Havoc. I just need you to trust me!’

The sound of a door opening echoed down to them, and Ed’s head shot up. He stared back the way they had come as his body tensed in alarm. He and Jean had both frozen on the spot, but the faint clatter of their footsteps still reverberated around them, and he saw a shadowy figure lean out over the rail at the top floor, leveling a gun down at where they stood.

‘Run!’

The bullet chimed off the metal railing with a flicker of sparks. It ricocheted harmlessly away, but several shots followed it in quick succession, biting through the air with deadly intent. They pocked the bland walls, and the cough of the silenced gun was accompanied by another set of hurried footsteps. Either whoever it was didn’t care about being discovered, or they knew how empty the building would be at this time of night.

Havoc swore as something scraped past his cheek, leaving a bright red gash in its wake. The gunman was shooting as he ran, and Ed gasped in a ragged breath as he jumped down half a flight and slammed through the door on the bottom level, his hands already crashing together as Jean followed him through.

Without a second’s hesitation, he slammed the door shut, fusing the wood and the wall together in a twisting mess of alchemy. It blazed bright blue, unshielded and vivid, and Ed heard their pursuer’s roar of rage as he realized what had happened.

More bullets bit into the wood, making it jerk, but they didn’t pass through, and Ed panted out ragged, uneven breaths as he backed away. The gunman was still running, the sound of his foot blurring together into a steady swathe of sound as he reached the bottom of the stairs and hurled himself full-force at the door.

It creaked on its hinges, but didn’t give way, and Ed made a choked noise of surprise as the man pressed his face to the small glass window at eye-level. Recognition was like ice water, starting up tremours that worked their way along Ed’s skin and down into bones.

There was no mistaking those brown, brutal eyes and hard jaw, nor anyway to deny the perverse smirk of victory on his lips.

It was General Kerr.

Chapter Text

Roy rubbed a hand over his face, gazing out across the grounds as he tried to calm the twisting fear that stabbed at his heart and made his stomach rot inside him. Everyone else was busy preparing the mansion for an attack; he was supposed to be helping, but every few minutes his mind wandered, his thoughts flying out over the city towards the white tower of Central Command.

Dimly, he glanced up at the night sky. There were no stars, no moon, just low threatening clouds that compounded his feeling of dread. When Ed was at his side he was able to face anything but now, alone, he felt diminished and weak. Part of him knew he was being ridiculous. He had managed for years without Ed, but surviving was not the same as living. What if he never came back? What if he really had sent Ed off to face his death, all in the name of getting proof? Was it worth it? Was saving the army and the country really worth losing him?

‘Stop it.’ A gentle hand on his shoulder made him turn, and he saw Hughes and Hawkeye standing to his right, watching him with intense concern. ‘You’re worrying yourself sick, and that’s not going to help anyone.’ Maes offered him a faint smile, trying to coax a similar response from Roy, but his face felt like a mask, stiff and unmoving. ‘Jean’s a good man, and Ed’s hardly defenceless. You know he’d sooner blow Central Command to pieces than let them take him alive, don’t you?’

The lump in Roy’s throat grew, threatening to choke him. ‘That’s what I’m afraid of,' he murmured. 'You know what Ed’s like: if they’re discovered, he won’t even think of running away. He’ll fight, and the two of them can’t take on the entire army.’

‘Maybe they won’t have to,’ Hawkeye said quietly. ‘Bertrand and his men are searching the warehouse district, and there’s been no sign of anything unusual at the command complex. It's possible that they’ll get the proof we need without anyone knowing.’ She hesitated before ploughing on, ‘With all due respect, sir, while your plans often border on the daring, they normally work. You have a knack for reading a situation; if you thought that the risk outweighed the gain, then you would never have let them go.’

Roy glanced guiltily away, trying to reconcile his fears with Riza’s reassurance. He wanted to agree with her, to put faith in his judgement, but it was impossible. He was too busy second-guessing everything, trying to calm himself with his rationale and only worrying more. There was far too much that could go wrong, and he was utterly helpless. He had no choice but to trust Ed and Jean to take whatever action the situation demanded and hope they made it back in one piece.

‘Look, Roy, all you can do is make sure that, when they get back, this place is as good a sanctuary as it gets.’ Maes gave him a little shake, nudging him back towards the house. ‘They might not turn up with killers hot on their heels, but I don’t think we’re going to escape the Fuhrer’s attention forever. I could really use your help inside.’

‘I’ve already set traps throughout the house, but my alchemy’s not as adaptive as Ed’s.’ He frowned, annoyed at himself for sounding so defeated but unable to give his voice any of the life it needed. ‘There’s only so many different ways you can burn something to a crisp.’

‘Actually, I need your insights, not your alchemy,’ Hughes replied as he climbed the steps, waiting for him to catch up before striding through the front hall. ‘I’m trying to work out the logistics of a potential assault, and you’re better at that kind of thing than I am. I know what the generals behind this eat for breakfast and where they meet their mistresses; you know how they fight.’

To the left, a pair of massive doors stood open, and Roy followed Maes through, blinking in surprise. He knew that Hughes had set up a communications room, but he hadn’t expected it to be like this. Equipment was everywhere. Cables trailed through the window and across the lawn, plugging into a distant interchange as several men listened to various conversations on their headphones, switching and changing as they tried to find anything relevant.

Fuery darted from one area to the other, re-wiring and hacking his way around. He was in his element, and his confident movements belied the shadows under his eyes. Breda and Falman were following his instructions to the letter, deferring to his superior knowledge when it came to all things technological.

In the middle of the room was a large table littered with maps and paperwork. Louis Armstrong stood over them, scowling down at the outlines of the city. His meaty hands were splayed on the parchment, and he looked up as Roy and the others approached. 'If we can’t outfight these scoundrels, then we need to out-think them,’ he said gravely. ‘Alex suggested that you would want to avoid bloodshed?’

His tone made it a question, and Roy nodded in response. ‘Most of the soldiers have nothing to do with the attempt to cover up this plot, and they don’t deserve to lose their lives over it. Injuries are unavoidable, but I’d rather not kill any of Amestris’ own unless it can’t be helped.’ He frowned at the map. ‘Where did you say Bertrand’s troops were?’

Riza pointed to the far-south of the city: the derelict warehouses that Ed had led him and Havoc through during their escape to the safe-house. ‘We think he has an entire company searching the area – almost two-hundred men.’

‘With that kind of man power, he’ll rule-out our presence there within a couple of hours,’ Roy muttered, forcing his mind to concentrate on the numbers. ‘There should be approximately five hundred men stationed around the barricades. Three shifts, so that’s one thousand five hundred devoted to maintaining the perimeter twenty-four hours a day.’

Looking up, he saw Maes grimace as he did the sums. ‘That still leaves a huge military force at Hakuro’s disposal. We only have two platoons of soldiers here. If you include alchemists and civilians we might manage to add up the numbers to ninety men, but those aren’t good odds against the rank and file.’

‘They won’t bring that many troops onto the streets.' Roy tried to sound confident. In this, at least, he knew what he was talking about. 'People are already asking why there are so many soldiers around. They’ve made some excuse about deserters and criminal activity, but they’ll do anything they can to keep this under wraps.’ Roy drummed his fingers on the tabletop. ‘All the assassinations have been about covering up what they’re doing with the gold. If they come here in force, people and parliament are going to start asking loud, inconvenient questions.’

Hawkeye moved to stand to his left, her brown eyes scanning the map as she pursed her lips. ‘They’re still likely to throw as many soldiers as they dare at breaching our defences. We can expect an assault force at least as big as that under Bertrand’s control.’

Roy nodded, tracing his finger along the approach to the Armstrong estate, following its brazen trail across the paper landscape. ‘If Bertrand leads his troops here, they’ll come by truck. If we reduce the presence on our section of the perimeter – take it down to one or two soldiers - we can bring most of the men inside the walls and still have an early warning system in place. Even a flare would give us a few minutes advantage.’

Briefly, he closed his eyes, trying to gather his thoughts. ‘The best thing to do is set up an ambush. The gate is the only way in, and it would act as a bottleneck for the attacking force, giving us the chance to fight them in smaller numbers. It’s the only way we’ll be successful, unless we can find some more manpower?’

Hughes made a doubtful face, his glasses shifting so that they caught the lamplight. ‘The rumours we've been circulating have been enough to make most of the lower ranks hesitant to follow any orders. They might not do Bertrand’s bidding, but they’re unlikely to side with us, either.’

‘You can’t blame them,’ Riza murmured. ‘If they ally with the wrong people, then they could face dire consequences. They’re more likely to hold their fire until they can tell which way the battle’s going.’

‘That’s better than nothing.’ Roy scrubbed a hand through his hair. ‘Have you heard anything about the missing generals?’

‘I have intelligence to suggest that a number of them are still alive, isolated in safe locations. I’ve tried sending messages to inform them of the situation, but - ’ Maes shrugged. ‘We’ve not had any response. It’s a bit like shouting into the void. I don’t know if there’s anyone there to hear it.’

Footsteps across the stone floor of the hall made Roy look up, and he smiled to see Gracia coming in with a tray laden with coffee and food. When she got to the table she kissed her husband on the cheek before putting the cups and plates down out of the way. ‘Elysia’s in bed, and Winry’s finished with the guns. She’s gone to make sure the men working on the wall are fed.’

Her expression flickered, and she tried to keep her voice casual as she asked, ‘Have you heard anything about Ed and Jean? It’s been two hours since they left.’

Roy’s stomach clenched anew at the reminder, and he reached for a mug of coffee as Hughes explained that no news was good news. It was true, but it still sounded like a vague platitude. They told Roy not to worry, as if anxiety was something that could be flicked on and off at will, rather than an insidious rot that carved him through and through until he was hollow with dread. Even when concentrating on the task at hand, it was still there, a flat, black mirror of emotion sitting at his core, reflecting nothing but shadows and fear.

‘I’ve got as many men as I can spare listening in on the phones to the sentry houses, as well as to any unsecured conversations from the offices.’ He glanced at Roy, his eyes intense with emphasis. ‘If anything goes wrong, we’ll know about it as it happens.’

It was meant to be reassuring, but the thought made Roy shake with a kind of revulsion. Was it better to be ignorant of their failure, or to watch it from the distant sidelines, unable to stop the steady unfurl of events? He already felt useless, and he pushed himself away from the table, approaching the unlit fireplace and sending the flames roaring over the logs with a quick, brutal snap of his fingers. The warmth lanced out into the room, but it didn’t do much to melt the icy shroud that rested over his skin.

‘Sir?’

A young soldier had materialised at Hughes' side, a piece of paper clutched in his hand. There was a faint, timid edge to his grey eyes, and enough evidence in his expression to know he wasn’t about to impart good news. Maes accepted the report as Gracia slipped out of the room again, leaving her husband to his work.

‘Are you sure of this?’ Hughes asked roughly as his eyes skimmed the scrawl. ‘There’s no mistake?’ He swore quietly as the soldier nodded, and Roy wrapped his hand tight around the mantelpiece as Maes turned to him, pale-faced and broken. ‘General Kerr just arrived at Central Command.’

Roy felt the blackness swipe through him, touching his throbbing pulse and slamming it to a stop as his breath stuttered away, choked with shock. It only lasted a second, but it felt like an eternity and all he could do was stare in disbelief.

A shrilling, shrieking, panicky rage ripped through him, wiping out the cold and surging outwards from his chest, flooding through to his fingertips and setting his heart racing again as his lips twisted in a snarl.

‘I thought he was still in the east.’ His voice was flat and hard, utterly unforgiving as he glared at Maes. ‘If I had known that Kerr was going to walk into Central Command, I would never have let Ed go!’

‘We weren’t able to confirm where he was,’ Hughes replied, his voice quiet thick with apology. ‘I meant to tell you but it - it completely slipped my mind. I’m sorry.’

Roy clenched his teeth so hard that they hurt, wanting to roar, but a tiny voice of reason spoke quickly in the torrid whirl of his mind. Maes wasn’t to blame for this. He might have forgotten to tell Roy about Kerr, but wasn’t he just as guilty? He hadn’t even asked. He had assumed that the general would still be outside the city and sent Ed off into the darkness.

Pushing himself away from the fireplace, he forced himself to breathe steadily. It had taken him years to master his temper, to appear as if nothing could shake him from his calm demeanour, but it was still there, lurking beneath the surface. All it needed was the right trigger and it leapt free, seeing nothing but red. He couldn’t afford to be its victim, not now. It would be put to good use later, when he tracked Kerr down and made him burn.

‘Is there any way we can warn Ed and Havoc? Anything at all we can do to let them know that they’re in danger?’ He closed his eyes as Hughes shook his head, wanting to sob. How had he let it come to this? He had promised Ed that he would never let Kerr so much as touch him, and now there was nothing he could do to keep his word.

He folded his arms across his chest, glaring into the fire as he tried to reclaim his elusive self-control. Being a general was about more than wearing the stars and signing the paperwork, it was about being a steady foundation for the men under his command. It wasn’t a duty that he could put aside because someone he cared for was in danger, he knew that, but it didn’t stop him from wishing that he could forget all about the risk and rush to Ed’s side – to protect him whether he wanted it or not.

Sensing a presence, he glanced up to see Riza looking into the grate, her face pale and determined. She didn’t say anything, even though it was clear that her mind was racing. Her shoulders were braced at attention, and he suspected she was waiting for some kind of acknowledgement.

‘I should have told Havoc about Kerr,’ he said quietly. ‘I told him to keep Ed safe, but I didn’t say what from. I should have explained or – or something.’

‘I did it for you,’ Riza replied, her voice little more than a murmur. ‘While you were upstairs saying goodbye to Edward, I gave him the letter.’ She lifted her head, looking him in the eye as her voice strengthened. ‘Jean is a skilled soldier, but he can only work off of the facts he knows. I knew you wouldn’t have explained the situation fully, and I must apologise to you and Edward for the breach in privacy, but –'

‘But you did the right thing.’ He sighed, feeling the first chink of hope break through the fear. ‘Thank you.’

Hawkeye’s shoulders relaxed a fraction, and she pressed her lips together as she nodded. ‘No one wants to see Edward harmed, sir. Even if things had not changed, we would try and protect him, but now – now if General Kerr hurts him then he’s hurting you too, and we’re not going to let that happen.’

Roy gave a tremulous smile; he should have known better than to think his men would not notice the changed dynamic between him and Ed. They had worked together for years, and they were more than colleagues. They all knew each other far too well - secrets were practically impossible to keep. Jean had given him a friendly, knowing look when he had ordered him to keep Ed safe at any cost, Maes had suspected it all along, and now Hawkeye was calmly saying that she realised how important Ed was to him.

‘It seems I need to work on being more subtle.’

‘Hopefully one day you won’t have to worry about being “subtle”, sir.’ Riza’s lips curved into a faint smile as she added, ‘However, perhaps if you could try not to look so obviously in love every time you set eyes on Edward, you might have a bit more luck keeping people guessing.’

He blinked in surprise, unable to deny her words. What he felt for Ed had sailed through friendship, lust, respect, and trust, and found safe harbour in the clear waters of love, and his fears fed on the growing concern that it would remain unspoken. There had never been the right moment to say it out loud, and now he didn’t know if he would get the chance to admit to Ed how deep his feelings went.

A shout from one of the men jerked him from his doubts, and Roy looked up in surprise,trying to understand what was happening.

‘Are you hearing this?’ one of the soldiers manning the phones asked, his voice carrying across the room to his colleagues. They all nodded, pale-faced and white-knuckled as they flipped from one line to the other, chasing the information. Fuery had reached out and snatched a pair of headphones from the nearest operator, his face blanching as he listened.

Eventually, mute and frightened, he held it out to Roy. The headphones felt heavy in his hands as he inserted the earpiece, frowning as a confused, startled conversation hummed down the line.

‘Unit one, repeat that last part. I thought you just said - '

‘Shots fired in the Command Building! Forces sent to secure Fuhrer Hakuro found him dead in his office – murdered! Who – whose orders do we follow? Who is in control of the military?’

‘Unit one, hold your post! There must be some mistake -’

The line disintegrated into static, and Roy ripped the headpiece off as he snapped, ‘Someone confirm that. Try and tap the military police lines. If it’s true then they’ll be all over the command complex in minutes.’ He looked over at Hughes who was removing another earpiece, a puzzled expression on his face. ‘Any ideas?’

'About who might murder Hakuro?' Maes shrugged. ‘Maybe something went bad and someone turned against him, maybe it was a disillusioned soldier. Could’ve been Havoc or Ed, although I doubt it.’

‘Could be that someone grew tired of him holding back from searching the military family homes for the fugitives,’ Louis pointed out, stroking his beard as he gave it some consideration. ‘I should warn the others. If it weren’t for Hakuro’s reluctance, Bertrand would have been tearing this place apart hours ago.’

Roy rubbed his fingers against his temples as he thought it through. 'You're probably right. Bertrand’s search is going nowhere. If someone’s worked out we’re hiding here and Hakuro’s been preventing them from mounting an assault, then taking him out of the picture means there's nothing to stop them any more.’

‘It would have to be someone he trusted,’ Hughes mused. ‘He met them in his office with no bodyguards; he didn’t think they were a threat.’ His jaw tightened, and when he spoke again his voice was flat. ‘Am I the only one who thinks Kerr’s arrival a short while ago is more than a coincidence? Hakuro wouldn’t think anything was wrong until he was staring down the barrel of a gun.’

Roy’s stomach swooped as he thought through what Maes was saying. It wasn’t the fact that Kerr had murdered Hakuro that made him feel sick to the core; the treasury office was right under the Fuhrer’s suite of rooms. Had Ed and Havoc been only one floor away? He tried not to dwell on it, but the possibility was a grim spectre haunting his mind. Whatever had happened, it put Ed and Jean in the middle of a very bad situation.

He pressed the heel of his hand to his right eye, wishing he could push every last thought out of his head. Roy felt trapped in his own skin, caged and cornered by his anxiety as his mind struggled to cope. Swallowing tightly, he strode away, not bothering to explain himself as he slipped out of the door, fighting the urge to break into a run.

As he walked across the hall, he heard Maes say to the others, 'Just give him a few minutes alone. He won't go far.'

It was tempting to prove him wrong, to sprint out into the night and find Ed – to keep him safe no matter what, but that was a risk he couldn't take. Instead he had to satisfy himself with stepping outside and taking a deep breath of the cold air.

His mind buzzed, hot and heavy, and he leaned back against the slender bulk of one of the pillars that adorned the front of the house, letting its immovable presence ground him as he stared out across the garden.

‘You’d better keep your promise, Ed,’ he whispered into the waiting night. ‘You’d better come back.’ Roy knew his plea would never be heard, but saying them made a difference. It gave voice to his fears of what the morning might bring, and, at least in that, he could find the strength to face them.

Blankly, he stared out towards the wall, watching the flicker of alchemy carve its way up the hewn rock. For hours, Alex and Al had been transmuting stone from the garden into the masonry, thickening the bottom seven feet to make it stronger. Lanterns flickered on the ground around them, and he could see Winry sitting cross-legged on the ground, talking to them both.

He couldn't make out what they were saying, but he could see Al's frustration and fear in every movement. He was worried about his brother, and Roy wished he could comfort him, but what could he say? He couldn't even reassure himself.

Minutes passed silently as Roy closed his eyes, listening to the sounds of the sentries on the gate, the chatter of the men arriving in from the perimeter and the distant noises of the city. Even at this time of night there was still the whisper of the wind and, on the horizon, the endless scorch of the floodlights on the bridges.

The ring of a telephone made him glance back towards the house, and he heard the rumble of Louis' voice before hurrying footsteps came his way. Hughes pushed his way outside, stopping short and breathing out a brief sigh. 'Are you all right, or is that a stupid question?' he asked softly.

Roy shifted his shoulders in a shrug, knowing that anything he said would be a lie. He didn't feel human any more: torn apart and desperate with worry, he felt like some bleached phantom of his former self. 'I'll feel better once Ed and Havoc get back. Who's on the phone?'

Maes' eyes brightened and his teeth flashing in a wide, wicked grin. 'It's Major-General Avron and Lieutenant-General Mackenzie. They got my message; it looks like you might get your wish for more man power after all. They're asking for you.'

He almost asked Hughes to repeat himself, unable to believe it. An hour ago they hadn't been sure that any of the other hunted generals survived, and now there were two, alive and presumably well. Straightening up, he followed his friend inside, feeling a fragment of his normal spark return as his mind thrilled with possibilities. 'Are they nearby? Did they say anything?'

'No, I warned them not to divulge too much until we could secure the line.' He entered the communications room, looking across at Kain and waiting for the young man's nod before passing Roy the receiver.

He took it, putting it to his ear as he said, 'Sir, you wanted to speak to me?'

'Mustang, thank god you're still alive. We thought the bastards had taken you down.' Avron's voice was as distinguished as always, but there was a weight of relief to his words as he said, 'Got your message. Took my men an age to decode it, but we understand you need all the help you can get. Do you have the time to get me up to speed?'

Paranoia ghosted through Roy's mind, making him hesitate. Perhaps the line wasn't tapped, but they had no idea where the call was coming from. Avron could be a prisoner with a gun to his head – a tool to extract information about their whereabouts or find out how much they knew.

Taking a deep breath, he chose his words carefully. 'We have reason to believe that the highest level of the military has been involved in some manner of indiscretion, sir, something that we all knew about. I believe that's why we have been targeted by assassins.'

He leaned his right palm on the desk, closing his eyes tight and trying to block out the surrounding noise of the office as he continued. 'We think we can take legal action if we have the time, but we are expecting an assault now that the Fuhrer is no longer able to act as a buffer.' He softened his voice as he added, 'Your household may also be at risk.'

For a moment there was silence, and he heard the rasp of a palm over the mouthpiece followed by Avron snapping something to one of his subordinates. 'They're being warned as we speak, Brigadier-General,' he said after a moment. 'I am impressed by your caution. A lesser man would have deferred to my authority out of desperation. Myself and Mackenzie have a dozen men apiece at our disposal, and we are camped outside the northern perimeter.' A deep breath hissed on the line, as if the man on the other end was not entirely sure he was doing the right thing. 'We await your orders.'

It was an act of trust, and Roy looked up to see Hughes making “hurry up” motions. He was running out of time and choices. Avron and Mackenzie were offering help, and he couldn't afford to turn it down out of fear. 'Make your way carefully to the Armstrong estate, sir. We'll expect your arrival.'

The receiver clattered in the cradle as he put it down, looking around the office again and noticing the disarray. Men were scurrying from one point to the other, scribbling feverish notes and exchanging incredulous glances. Automatically, Roy glanced at the clock, seeing the hands hanging precipitously over eleven. The last truck that could bring Ed and Havoc safely home would be leaving at any moment; he wished he could believe that they would be on it.

'Tell the guard on the gate to expect somewhere in the region of twenty-five men to approach within the next hour. They are to be escorted to the house and kept under armed supervision until I say otherwise.' He kept his voice matter-of-fact as he explained, 'I can't blindly trust that Avron and Mackenzie are on our side, but I couldn't say no to their offer for assistance, either.'

Hughes turned on his heel to do as he was asked, moving with the swift grace of someone who knew how valuable each second could be. Roy watched him go before looking at Riza, who stood a short distance to his right. Papers were clutched in her hands, and her hair was falling out from its clip. She had probably been rushing around all evening and, even now, someone else thrust a document at her, gabbling something that Roy couldn't make out before rushing away.

'What's going on?' he asked, taking in the panic in the air. Disbelief had faded long ago, and now every soldier was listening in on the phone-lines of Central Command, moving plugs as Fuery shouted out orders.

Hawkeye took a deep breath, maintaining an emotionless tone as she rattled off a list, skimming through the sheaf of information as she did so. 'The death of the Fuhrer has been confirmed, and the chief of military police is on the scene. Grange re-entered the building ten minutes ago, and Bertrand and his troops have been called back into the compound.' She paused, before pushing on. 'Kerr also appears to have taken command and has ordered a full search of the complex for two fugitives.'

Chilly nausea uncurled in Roy's stomach, making him swallow against the greasy, slick feeling in his throat. Two fugitives: Ed and Havoc. Somehow, Kerr had got them both in his sights. 'Is there anything else? Any sign that they've been cornered or captured?'

He almost didn't hear Riza's reply over the frightened hammer of his pulse, and, when her words sank in, he felt the tiniest trickle of warm relief. 'They were seen not far from the kitchens, at the bottom of one of the stairwells. Kerr recognised Edward, but, from what we've overheard, he couldn't get to them because the door to the corridor was sealed shut.'

'Alchemy,' Roy realised, his breath leaving him in a huff of shaky laughter. 'Ed probably trapped him there so that they could get away.'

Hawkeye shifted her weight, and the fledgling smile on Roy's lips died when he saw the uncertainty in her expression. 'The last piece of information I received, sir, stated that all departures from the command base have been suspended. The shift at the perimeter won't change, and that means that Ed and Jean can't use the truck to get back.' She pursed her lips, glancing away for the briefest of moments. 'I don't know how they're going to get out.'

His thoughts scattered like birds taking flight. He tried to grab at them, to hold them still long enough to give them due consideration, but it was hopeless. Anxiety was making his focus drift, and the cool domain of logic seemed far beyond his grasp.

It was all too easy to imagine Ed and Jean, frightened and desperate as they ran through Central Command like rats in a maze, trapped and surrounded on all sides by the advancing enemy. He had to force himself to remember that they were trained soldiers, both of them – that they had an equal chance of making it out alive as anyone else, but even his desperate reassurances did nothing to ease the creep of horror across his skin.

Walking towards the map, he stared at it blindly, trying to withdraw emotionally and let the strategist in him come to the fore. The command building itself was a tangle of corridors, some well-travelled, others forgotten, and even once Havoc and Ed were outside there was still the stretch of the parade ground and the treacherous twist of Central's streets. If it were him, what would he do?

Minutes slipped away as he thought it over, fiercely ignoring the shrill whine of panic that hummed in his ears. The doubts and recriminations were harder to push aside, and more than once he found himself drowning in the guilt.

He should never have sent them. There were always other choices, but he hadn't even tried to find them; he had walked the path as if it was the only road he could take. Roy bowed his head, the noise of the office growing distant as he sough to control his breathing, keeping his face calm as he shook himself apart inside: a victim to his own fury and fear.

'Sir!'

A private, one of Hughes' men, caught his attention, making him look blearily upwards and follow his pointing finger. Out of the window he could see the headlights of several cars sweeping along the distant driveway. The clock on the mantelpiece told him more than half an hour had passed, and he watched the approaching vehicles distrustfully. He reached for the uniform jacket that hung over the back of the chair and shrugged it on, doing up the buttons with swift fingers and absently checking his gloves.

'We've not heard anything to suggest they're an enemy, sir,' Fuery told him, falling into step at his side as he walked out of the room. 'All indications from Central Command are that General Kerr is still hunting for Ed and Havoc.'

'They've not been caught?'

'No, sir.' There was a hint of glee in Kain's response, and Roy looked down at the shorter man in surprise. 'It's getting more agitated by the minute. About a quarter of an hour ago, someone set off the fire-alarms. No one knows what's going on, and the general's furious.'

'Good.' A ghost of a smirk curved Roy's lips. 'It sounds like they're managing to stay one step ahead. Keep your ears open for anything unusual and inform me the moment you know more. With any luck, our new arrivals are friends, not enemies.'

He stopped at the front door, noticing that Maes, Alex and Louis were all watching the approaching vehicles, which pulled to a stop at the gate. Roy's muscles tensed in preparation for some kind of attack; his knuckles ached as he pressed his thumb and fore-finger together, ready to ignite painful retribution if a single shot was fired.

There were six cars in all, ragged, rust-pitted things that looked like they had been commandeered at a moment's notice. Their doors squeaked open in the peaceful night, and the soldiers emerging from them looked rough around the edges. Roy narrowed his eyes as two men, one in his fifties, the other almost a decade older, climbed stiffly from their seats and motioned for their armed escort to lead the way.

'Avron and Mackenzie,' Maes murmured. 'If they were in cahoots they would have already overwhelmed the sentries. They have the man-power.'

'Avron is the brother of one of my closest friends,' Louis added. 'He would put his life and soul on the line for his country. I highly doubt he's against us.'

'What about Mackenzie?' Roy asked, keeping his voice pitched to carry no further than the four of them. 'All I know is that he's good to his men and that he served in Ishbal.'

'He was in charge of my company in the war,' Alex replied quietly. 'He did everything in his power to stop it being a massacre, but he was as lost as the rest of us.'

'A colonel back then,' Hughes added. 'He's risen through the ranks from the very bottom and loathes corruption. It was no surprise to know the two of them had been targeted by the assassins. If they ever found out about what the higher-ups were doing, they would do everything they could to stop it. If they're our allies, then we've hit the jackpot.'

Roy was desperate to believe that, his hope so sharp that he could taste it. Everything hung in the balance: careers, futures and lives, and he would take all of the help that he could get. He just couldn't afford to let his guard down, not when a single bullet could silence him forever.

'Brigadier-General Mustang!' Mackenzie's voice carried through the night air, and he waved aside the automatic salute as if it were meaningless, the laughter lines on his face deepening as he smiled. 'It's good to see you still in one piece!'

'And you, sir,' Roy replied, turning slightly to include Avron in the statement, 'I apologise for the armed escort, but we couldn't be sure -'

'Which side we were really on?' Avron's expression was a little strained, but he nodded his understanding. 'I can hardly blame you for your caution, Mustang. We have surrendered our arms and are at your mercy, as you can see.' He waved a gnarled hand at the soldiers behind him. They stood to attention, tense and poised as they watched Roy closely, waiting for his response.

A few weeks ago, trust had been so easy. The uniform spoke loud and clear of a man's allegiance; that was all anyone needed to know. Now it didn't matter what clothes a soldier wore, he could still be an enemy, and all Roy could do was take a leap of faith. With slow grace, he gestured them all inside, letting Louis lead the way to one of the sitting rooms.

'Men, you're dismissed,' Mackenzie said over his shoulder. 'Defer to Major Armstrong for your orders until I say otherwise. We'll keep you informed of the situation.'

'If you see a flare go up from the perimeter, then arm yourselves,' Roy added, his voice perfectly pitched to inspire confidence in his orders. 'We don't expect to be safe here for very long.' At Avron's curious glance, he added, 'The situation is tenuous and liable to change at any moment, sir. We have to be prepared.'

The two men settled on the comfortable sofas, their faces briefly expressing their physical relief at such simple respite. However, after no more than a few seconds two pairs of eyes, one dark brown, the other steely blue, focussed on him, awaiting his explanations. Both men were older than him, more senior in years and rank, but they were looking to him for strategy and advice.

'I think you had better tell us everything,' Mackenzie said quietly, watching Roy steadily.

Standing next to the lit fireplace, he waited for the others in the room to settle. Hughes and Hawkeye were near the door, while Louis was making himself comfortable in the armchair. Roy could hear Armstrong giving orders to the new troops, and the constant buzz and rush of the communications room not far away. The world would stop for nothing, and he knew he had to explain things as succinctly as possible.

'We believe that Fuhrer Hakuro and Generals Kerr, Bertrand, Patton and Grange have been stealing gold from the military vault and replacing it with fake bullion marked with the army's seal.'

His words fell into the silence, stone heavy and sharp, and the genuine shock at his accusation was enough to chase off the last of his doubts. Neither Mackenzie nor Avron had known about this, and now their surprise was rapidly giving way to outrage. He could see their questions and uncertainties, their anger, and he quickly continued to speak.

'It was not until the arrays from lab five – the designs we believe Grange constructed - came into my possession that the assassinations began. We think that Grange did not view any other alchemist as a threat. He didn't believe they would discover what the arrays were for, at least, not until they fell into the hands of the Fullmetal Alchemist.'

'And he discovered their use?' Avron's silver eyebrows lifted towards his hairline. 'Those scribbles drove every alchemist I had half-mad with frustration.'

'It took him a while,' Roy conceded. 'We think Grange set the plot in motion as soon as Edward began researching the arrays. It would have taken time to get the agreement of the others involved, as well as work on the logistics. When things didn't go according to plan and we escaped, things started to get messy.'

'Messy?' Mackenzie repeated. 'We've been out of the loop for sometime, lying low in the North. What exactly has been going on?'

Hastily, Roy described Bertrand's feverish search of the south part of the city and the dissent among the troops. 'Things are falling apart at the seams. I think the generals know that they have to find and neutralise us within the next forty-eight hours, or they'll lose their grip on the ranks.'

'But they'll still have the gold. Surely they're not going to be too concerned about the military if they have wealth to their name?'

It was a thought that had crossed Roy's mind more than once, and he briefly paced in front of the grate, letting the warmth of the flames bathe his skin. 'If the military degrades into chaos, there will be an inquiry. The state of the vault will be discovered by parliament, and any general who has not fled will be detained and put on trial. Although leaving Amestris is not out of the question, I believe it's a last resort for the men behind this, with the exception of Patton, who vanished when it all came to light.'

Thick, steady peace settled over the room, disturbed only by the crackle of the fire and the tick of the clock. Roy looked at its bland white face and the numerals around its edge, feeling his stomach turn to dust as he realised the time. Five-past midnight. His gaze flicked to Hughes, searching for any news on Ed and Havoc, but all he got was a quick head shake. They'd heard nothing one way or the other.

'I heard one of your men say that you were thinking of taking this through legal channels,' Mackenzie said roughly, tapping his nicotine stained fingers absently on the arm of the sofa. 'Does that mean you have proof?'

'We're working on it, sir.' His voice sounded almost normal, a little strained, but Roy knew that couldn't be helped. His mind was a hollowed out cavern of ice, frigid with a fear that no reassurance could thaw. His skin felt chilled and his fingers clumsy as he tried to get a grip and concentrate on what he was saying. 'I've sent the Fullmetal Alchemist and a trusted lieutenant to try and gather information from Central Command. I have had dealings with Grange before, and I have no doubt he will have documented the details of this scheme.'

He looked at the clock again, straightening his shoulders as he added, 'They were due back some time ago, but their escape route was blocked when the complex was shut down. They'll have to make their own way here.'

Avron got to his feet, closing the few brief steps to Roy's side. His eyes were astute, and Roy did not miss the appraising look he was subjected to. 'You've done well, better than the rest of us in the same situation.' He linked his hands behind his back, staring into the flames as he gave the situation his consideration. 'If you plan to take this through the military police then you need to act fast. Do you have access to a secure line?

'Yes, sir.'

'Contact Cosco. Tell him that Benjamin requests his confidential presence at the Armstrong estate. If we can get the evidence into the right hands as soon as possible, we might be able to stop all this without firing a shot.'

'That may be a problem, sir,' Hughes replied, stepping forward from where he stood. 'Earlier this evening we believe that one of the conspirators killed the Fuhrer. Cosco is at Central Command, and there's no way we could reach him without alerting our enemies to our presence here.'

Avron and Mackenzie shared a glance, their expressions showing little grief at the news of Hakuro's death. 'When you said that the Fuhrer was no longer able to act as a buffer, Mustang, I did not realise you meant he had been so permanently removed.' The lieutenant-general waved a hand in a dismissive gesture. 'Then get hold of Pandora Knox. She's Cosco's second in command, and a friend of the family. She will have the authority to carry through with the actions we require. If he's at the command building, she'll be in the military police headquarters.'

Mackenzie waited for Hughes to pass the order on before he got to his feet, facing the room at large. 'We have to consider that we'll be attacked before we can make arrests, or that your men may never return with the proof we need.'

The sorrow in his dark eyes was genuine, and Roy felt his chest tighten at the open acknowledgement that Ed and Jean might never make it back. Swallowing tightly, he ducked his head, unable to speak. Mackenzie was a good commander who never treated his men as cannon fodder; any loss was one he felt keenly, but it would be nothing compared to Roy's grief if Ed did not find his way home.

'Are you ready to fight if you have to?' Mackenzie asked softly.

'It will be an act of outright war,' Avron warned. 'That's not something you can be uncertain about.'

'We've already discussed that likelihood and started to prepare.' Roy pushed himself away from the fireplace, walking across the soft carpet and towards the door. 'It's hard to construct a strategy without knowing what to expect, but we've been fortifying the estate for a direct assault. If you'll follow me?'

The communications room was still crowded, and Roy picked his way towards the table with the maps, making space for Avron and Mackenzie at its edge. Together they pored over the plans of the city, fingers charting possible lines of approach as Fuery periodically darted up with another piece of paper for Roy to read.

None of it was good news, and Roy found it more and more difficult to concentrate as time slipped away from them. He hated this – hated the steady flow of information that came his way and his helplessness to act. It felt like he was a prisoner, bound and gagged, forced to watch Ed's struggles from a distance and powerless to help him.

He kept having to drag himself back to reality, to concentrate on the well-being of the many rather than the one he cared about the most, and every time he looked back at the charts of Central, a fist tightened around his heart and the same question repeated itself again and again:

Where are you, Ed?

'Did you hear that?'

Roy looked up at Fuery, expecting to see the young man listening in on one of the phone-lines. Instead his head was lifted and his face turned towards the window like a dog catching the scent. Slowly, the din of the office faded away, and Roy felt a jolt of surprise as he heard the soft rumble of a car engine. It was approaching at speed, wending its way along the approach. No flare had gone up from the barricades, and there was only one set of headlights cutting through the darkness.

Hope thrashed through him, so uncontrollable and bright that Roy was almost afraid of its intensity. They had heard nothing from Central Command about Ed and Jean, one way or the other, and it was far too easy to assume the worst. Now, he watched the civilian car approach the sentries on the gate. It was waved through in seconds, the soldier tapping his hand in brief congratulations on the roof before he let it pass.

Friend, not foe.

It took every ounce of self-restraint Roy had not to run for the front door, but he did let some urgency into his stride as he left the communications room. If asked he could pretend he was concerned about the evidence, but all that mattered was setting eyes on Ed and making sure that he was safe and unharmed.

The sound of the car engine died away, and he was halfway across the hall when the front door opened, letting first Havoc and then Ed slip in out of the night.

Relief was like a flood, swamping through Roy's body from head to toe and chasing away the icy bite of fear with its balmy touch. His body sang, resonating with the simple joy of seeing Ed alive, and it took him a few seconds to see beyond the haze of happiness to their appearance.

Both were slumped with tiredness, and their uniforms were dusty and unkempt. Jean was pale, and a streak of blood had dried in a sharp, straight line across his cheek, but it was Ed that caught and held Roy's attention as fledgling concern thrummed its wings in the pit of his stomach.

Gold eyes were dim and weary, and his normally honey-coloured skin was tinged grey. He was leaning back against the door as if he couldn't hold up his weight, and Roy didn't miss the hunch of his body or the fact that his automail hand was pressed to his injured side.

'Are either of you hurt?' He closed the distance in three quick steps, resting his hand lightly on Ed's shoulder. His palm tingled at the contact, even though there were several layers of fabric between them, and he ached to grab Ed in his arms and hold him close. Instead he had to hold himself distant, painfully aware of Mackenzie and Avron standing a short distance away, surveying the scene. All he could do was try and communicate to Ed through nothing but locked gazes how glad he was to see him alive.

'We're okay,' Ed managed, and there was a faint gleam of something tender in his tired eyes as he straightened up with a wince. 'It was just a lot harder than we thought it would be.' He gave a smile meant only for Roy, one that shone through the mask of his weakness, warm and reassuring.

Reluctantly, he let his hand fall away, feeling a frisson of pleased relief as Ed caught his fingers in his own and gave them a firm, fleeting squeeze before letting go. The gesture was shielded from the others by the broad expanse of Roy's back, and it told him all that he needed to know: Ed might look drained and shaken, but there was strength left in him yet.

'We got what we went for,' Jean said, smothering a faint grin and reaching into his pocket. He tugged out three ledgers and passed them to Hughes. 'It's all there, every last bit. They're all in it up to their necks.'

Maes took them greedily, his eyes skimming the pages with something akin to delight. 'This is better than I'd even hoped for. If we can get these to the military police, this could all be over in a couple of hours. It's definitely enough for them to make arrests and get search warrants.'

'Fuery said that Knox is on her way,' Breda said from where he was standing by the door to the kitchen, 'but it could take a while. They've also locked down all communications at Central Command. I think they're onto us.'

Roy swore to himself, biting his lip as he tried to think. 'Get as many men together as you can and start scouting out good sniping positions in the mansion.' He frowned, noticing the faint shake of Ed's shoulders and the tight lines that bracketed his mouth. 'Falman, get Alex to help Breda, and tell Al and Winry that Ed's back. We'll be in the kitchen.'

He didn't wait for any kind of acknowledgement as he gently nudged Ed in the right direction, not daring to stray from his side. Every step was heavy, and Ed's movements lacked their usual grace. Roy exchanged a glance with Havoc over the top of Ed's head, seeing a mixture of exasperation and apology in the older man's face. It was enough to tell him that, whatever had happened, it was probably as a direct result of Ed's stubbornness.

Gracia was in the kitchen, and she beamed in delight as she saw Havoc and Ed. If she noticed their weariness she did not comment on it, instead putting some water to boil on the stove and stirring a large pot of food. Roy wasn't even sure if Hughes' wife had slept, and he wondered if there was any way he could thank her for making sure they were all fed and watered throughout the long hours of the day. Without her, they would have been lost to their strategies and half-starved by now.

'Sit down,' he ordered gently, 'both of you, and start at the beginning. We need to know exactly what happened.' He noticed Ed's suspicious glance towards Mackenzie and Avron, who had both taken a seat at the other side of the table. Any one else of rank would have decided the glare was insubordinate, but Mackenzie gave a snort of laughter and made the introductions.

'We're on your side, Major, we promise you that much. Did you find out anything that can help us get one up on these bastards?'

Havoc looked briefly towards Ed before starting to speak, explaining about how they approached the command building and got in without any real problems. He mentioned the soldiers in the truck, and a man called Davis telling them about the storm drains. 'Saved our lives,' Jean murmured quietly. 'We knew something had gone wrong when we were searching Grange's office. We found the books all right, but then there were raised voices overhead – a gunshot – a body hitting the floor.' He shrugged his shoulders uncomfortably, as if ashamed. 'We ran for it. I tried to convince the Boss to forget about the vault, I thought we could work out how much gold was gone from the ledgers, but when we were almost at the bottom of the stairs whoever shot the Fuhrer opened fire on us.'

'It was Kerr who killed Hakuro.' Ed's voice was hoarse, and he cleared his throat before carrying on. 'He recognised me, tried to kill the pair of us, but I transmuted the door in place so he couldn't get through. It bought us a bit of time.'

Avron shifted in his chair, his blue eyes lined at their edges and his lips tight as if he had just bitten into a lemon. 'Kerr is a repulsive piece of work. Hakuro might have been a fool and easily swayed, but he was a saint compared to his friend.'

'General Kerr has a personal vendetta against Fullmetal. We have all heard his arguments before, but it seems to have taken a more ominous slant,' Roy explained, deliberately keeping his words vague as Avron and Mackenzie both nodded their understanding. Even if they did not know the specifics, Roy had not doubt that they could guess what he meant. 'What did you do after that, Jean?'

'We ran for the storm drains and got inside before it all went to hell,' Jean explained. 'I don't know how many people even know they were there, but no one came looking for us. We had a while before we could get the truck, and the Boss convinced me he'd worked out a way to find out how much gold was in the vault without even entering it. He said he could do it from underground.'

'Which I did,' Ed pointed out irritably.

'You didn't tell me it would take so much out of you every time!' Havoc retorted, a distinct edge of unusual anger to his words. He scraped his fingers through his hair before turning to Roy. 'We didn't know where the vault was, so we kept having to use the array to find out what was above our heads. Every time the Boss clapped and pressed his hands to the ceiling, it was like he was losing a bit more of himself. By the third time, I thought he was going to pass out. By the sixth, I thought he was going to drop dead!'

'I'm fine,' Ed mumbled. 'Just tired and hungry, that's all.'

As if by magic, Gracia nudged her way towards the table with two bowls full of steaming hot stew, leaving them in front of Jean and Ed, who fell on it ravenously. Roy gave them a few minutes to eat, pouring himself a cup of coffee as he thought over what he was being told.

Alchemists did not have an infinite source of power. Each transmutation tugged on their reserves, using fuel that would otherwise be kept for the body. Day-to-day transmutations were all right, and even a few big ones didn't leave an alchemist helpless, but Ed looked frail and wrung out. 'What array were you using?' he asked, his voice dangerously calm as Ed paused with the spoon halfway to his mouth. 'It's not like you to be left so drained by your alchemy.'

'It was a basic quantifying design,' Ed replied. 'The only reason it used so much energy was because it had to be big, and it needed enough power to swamp out any interference from any defensive arrays Grange put on the vault. I had to use the whole thing every time.' He shrugged, admitting in a very sullen voice. 'It might have been a bit much for me.'

'That's an understatement,' Havoc muttered before raising his voice again. 'By the time we got to the vault, he looked almost too weak to stand, but the array did its job, even if it did set off the fire alarms in the process.'

'About thirteen percent of what's in there is real,' Ed added. 'The rest of it's all fake – worthless.' He glanced up at Avron's curse of surprise before going back to his meal. 'You can get the military police to check it by hand, but I know what I felt. Most of it's nothing but ash wrapped up in gold-plate.'

Roy knew better than to doubt it, and he perched his hip on the table at Ed's left side as he asked, 'What happened after that? How did you get out?'

Jean finished his food, his spoon clattering loudly in the bowl as he leant back in his chair. 'The whole place was crawling with soldiers, and they weren't letting anyone in or out, but they didn't know about the storm drains. We followed the tunnels out of the command complex and stole a civilian car, thinking we could just charge the barricades and make a run for it.' Jean shrugged, absently patting his pockets for a cigarette. 'Turns out that wasn't necessary. No one stopped us. The soldiers on the barricades are laying down their guns. They don't know what's going on, but they're not joining the fight.'

Roy looked across the table at Mackenzie and Avron, trying to read their expressions. The two older men shared a glance that seemed to communicate a great deal, and it was Mackenzie who eventually spoke up, addressing Roy directly. 'I am sure I don't need to tell you that, if the wrong side wins this battle, anyone who refused to fight will be shot as deserters. Kerr won't show mercy.'

'Some of the colonels and lower generals may have given the order to stand down, therefore shouldering the punishment themselves,' Avron added, 'but their lives are effectively in our hands.'

Roy sighed, feeling the weight of that burden drag at his shoulders and clutch at his mind. When he and Ed had been on the run, it had been a simple struggle for survival. Now, so much more was at stake. 'Then, for their sake, we had best make sure that Kerr receives the punishment he deserves.' Straightening up, he put a hand on Ed's dusty shoulder. 'I can spare the two of you the time to shower and change, but not much more. We have no idea how long we'll be left in peace, and I'll need both of you ready to fight.'

Ed's eyes met his, holding not even the faintest shred of fear. Instead they were filled with the familiar spark of determination. Ed believed that they could do this, that they could wage war and emerge the other side whole and unscathed, and that was enough to kindle a similar ember of belief in Roy's heart.

When he got to his feet, Ed's movements were still stiff and pained, but with a visible effort he pushed the discomfort away. He hesitated at Roy's side, lips parted as if there was something he longed to say, but a quick glance in the direction of the two generals made him swallow the words back. Instead he gave a shaky smile, subtly bumping Roy's shoulder before he made his way out of the room.

It took all of his control not to reach out and snatch him back. He longed to anchor Ed at his side – to keep him safe in his sights, but that was not an option that was open to him. Instead he had to watch him walk away for the second time that day and, even though he knew that Ed was in no more danger than any of the rest of them, it did not stop the unsteady, nervous thrum of his heart or the curl of worry in his stomach.

Mackenzie and Avron were talking among themselves, plotting and planning as they drew invisible maps on the table with their fingertips. Roy forced himself to listen as an empty bowl was placed in the middle to represent Central Command, and the flash of cutlery became the river. The salt and pepper pots were branded as the Armstrong estates, and hastily scraped together crumbs were the advancing horde, moving back and forth at the whim of the men's hands.

They had been bickering about the direction of Kerr's approach for almost ten minutes, and Roy was so busy trying to keep up with the argument that he almost didn't notice Gracia appear at his side. She had a steaming cup of coffee in her hand, and she glanced demurely at the generals before handing it over to Roy and saying quietly, 'I meant to give this to Edward before he went upstairs. If I weren't so busy I'd take it to him myself. Would you mind?'

Her dark eyes were lit with a knowing glow, and Roy had no doubt that she was giving him the excuse he was looking for. 'Of course,' he replied smoothly, taking the mug from her grasp. 'I need to check on his fitness anyway. If he's not able to fight then we need to adjust our strategy. I'll be back as soon as I can.'

'I'll let the generals know,' she said with a smile, glancing over as Mackenzie gave a growl of annoyance and started trying to talk over Avron. 'They may not even notice you're gone.'

With a nod of thanks, Roy turned on his heel, pushing his way out of the kitchen and hurrying up the stairs. The shackles and constraints of duty faded away, pushed aside by the simple, urgent need to have Ed in his arms. Hot coffee slopped over his fingers, but he barely flinched as he marched along the corridor and pushed his way into the room he had found Ed in earlier that day.

He was sitting on the edge of the bed with his head in his hands, blonde, damp hair spilling around his shoulders. When Roy closed the door behind him, he looked up in surprise, lips parted around a rough noise as he stumbled to his feet. He barely gave Roy a chance to put the coffee down before he closed the distance, wrapping mismatched arms around his waist and burying his face in Roy's shoulder. Ed's breath shuddered out of him, and he pressed himself closer with an edge of desperation

It was instinctive to hold Ed close and nuzzle at his hair, smelling shampoo and shower-clean skin as Roy's palms skimmed down Ed's t-shirt clad back and slipped beneath the thin fabric. He traced the ridges of Ed's spine, trying to commit him to memory through touch alone as he drank in the feel of his firm, strong body, hard and warm like life itself.

'I didn't think you were going to come back,' he whispered. 'When I heard Kerr was in Central Command -' He trailed off, his fears knotting in his throat as Ed's arms tightened around him: a port in any storm.

'Scared the shit out of me,' Ed confessed quietly, lifting his head so that he could look into Roy's eyes. 'When I saw him on the other side of that door I couldn't even do anything. Havoc dragged me away, forced me to move. If he hadn't -' Ed shrugged, shaking his head in confusion. 'Not that it mattered. Kerr recognised me in an instant.'

Roy realised that was probably why he had washed the dye out and peeled off the uniform at the earliest opportunity. It was all been a disguise, and, in the end, it had not shielded him from Kerr's gaze.

Gently, he tunnelled his fingers into the thick weight of Ed's hair, curving his palm around his nape and cradling him close. 'He won't get his hands on you,' he promised, his voice low and earnest. 'If you can't fight him, then I will.' He closed his eyes, waiting until he could feel the molten wealth of what he was about to say in his core. 'I won't let him hurt the person I love.'

It was like diving off of a cliff. All the adrenaline, all the rushing, stamping, surging hope and fear, and then helplessness. All he could do was wait, and hope that Ed caught him as he fell.

He had pulled back a little, wide eyes searching Roy's face for any sign of a lie. Yet with each passing moment he saw nothing but honesty, and Roy held his breath as he watched Ed's expression soften. Lines of exhaustion and strain were swept away as he pressed himself up, arms shifting to wrap around his neck as Ed brushed a feather-soft kiss to his lips.

'Took you long enough,' he said gruffly, a flush of pleased embarrassment dusting his cheeks as he took a deep breath, and his expression gilded with certainty. 'I love you too, you know.'

Roy's heart soared in his chest, his blood surging like liquid heat in his veins as he traced a finger along Ed's jaw and brushed his thumb over his bottom lip. 'I know it now,' he murmured, leaning in and tracing his tongue along the curve of Ed's mouth before dipping inside to taste him, free and wild and loved.

It was more than a flame inside him – it was a sun, burning bright and hot and inextinguishable, filling him through and through. Ed tugged Roy's shirt free from his pants, slipping his hands underneath and splaying his palms across Roy's stomach as if he could write how he felt on the blank canvas of his skin.

Roy was trying to touch Ed everywhere at once: his face, his neck, his arms, his waist – the tenderness of love furling into something more darkly passionate. He wanted to print his name on every inch Ed had to offer, to stake his claim physically as well as emotionally, and the groan that tore itself free of his chest was half-desperate, half-pained as he broke off the kiss with a wet, needy sound.

'We really need to work on our timing,' he gasped, stroking his hands up Ed's body to cup his face. 'This place could be attacked at any minute -'

As if answering his words, the dim room lit with a red gleam of light, making them both look towards the window. Roy stared blankly at the crimson arc that sliced its way through the night. It reached its peak, exploding into thick smoke and glimmering stars that rained back to the ground like blood: tears of the battlefield.

'What was that?' Ed asked quietly, looking back up into his face.

'The flare.' Roy tightened his grip on Ed's hip, trying to pour all of himself into a few brief seconds of contact before he stepped back, trying not to keen at the loss. 'Kerr and his men have just crossed the perimeter.'

He watched the tiny flicker of doubt in Ed's expression, saw him face each fear and push it down, twisting it into something he could use. Finally, he straightened his back and squared his shoulders, meeting Roy's gaze without hesitation as he took his hand and wove their fingers together.

'Then it's time to fight.'

Chapter Text

Roy's fingers slipped gently out of Ed's grasp, ghosting over the back of his hand as the light of the flare flickered and died. The last thing either of them wanted to do was let go, but they had no choice. After the icy shock of seeing Kerr and the mad dash through the storm drains, all Ed wanted to do was curl himself around Roy's body and sleep safe in his arms, but that was a luxury he couldn't afford.

It seemed that he spent most of his life coaxing his exhausted body that little bit further: one more step, one more punch, one more breath, one more array... . It was endless, and now his muscles whined and his injured side burned, making him hunch with its ferocity. The fire of Roy's touch was already dying, and he recognised the phantom of his own strength, fading fast and leaving a chill in its wake.

'If I asked you to stay out of this, to guard Gracia and Elysia and leave the defence of this place to everyone else, you'd just ignore me, wouldn't you?' Roy asked. He could have made it an order, rather than a question - could have commanded Ed to stay back, but Roy knew him too well to think that he would obey. The end result would be the same: nothing was going to make him stand back and let other people fight his battles.

Ed nodded his head, rolling his shoulders and forcing his body to stand straight through the pain. 'I'll make sure I'm always with someone who can back me up, and I won't use my alchemy unless I have to, but there's no way I'm sitting this one out.' He reached onto the bed, grabbing the sheathed throwing knife and strapping the scabbard around his forearm before walking towards the door.

'Thought as much,' Roy murmured, following him out into the corridor. They could already hear shouted orders and running footsteps throughout the mansion. No one had missed the flare's silent battle cry, and now they were doing their best to make sure they were ready for whatever marched their way.

A hand on Ed's shoulder made him pause, turning back to face Roy as he was tugged closer. He went willingly, unable to resist Roy's pull as his palm curved over the back of Ed's neck. It was such a simple thing, but instantly he felt safe and sheltered, protected from everything that threatened to drag him down. Roy lowered his head until his forehead was pressed to Ed's brow, and he could look up into the bottomless darkness of his eyes and see everything, bare and unmasked.

'I need to be able to use you as a major, even if it means ordering you away from my side,' Roy murmured, his voice cracked desperation. His hands moved to cup Ed's face, curving around his jaw as if he were the most precious thing in the world, and Ed turned his head to brush a kiss against the inside of his wrist. 'I'm trusting you to be careful. Please?'

Ed slid his hands over Roy's shoulders, butting at him gently. 'I'll look after myself as long as you do the same. Don't do anything stupid, okay?' He watched Roy nod, eyes closed tight as he scraped together his control with a visible effort. When he opened them again, he was every inch the commanding officer, strong and sure, even if a tender glow lingered in his gaze.

'How much time have we got?' Ed asked, trying not to shiver as they broke apart. 'The flare went off at the perimeter a couple of minutes ago; how much longer 'til they're banging on the door?' Distantly, he heard Hughes yelling up the stairs for both of them, and he fell in at Roy's side, their stride perfectly matched as they hurried along the corridor and down the stairs.

'Seven minutes if we're lucky, five if not.'

'We need more than that,' Hughes interrupted, his words stumbling over each other as he spoke. He nodded briefly to Ed, but his smile was no more than a flicker before it was gone. 'Avron's men are up on the roof, along with Riza. They'll snipe off any targets that they can. The aim is not to kill, but they can't make any guarantees. Half of Mackenzie's command are spread throughout the house, ready to take on anyone who gets inside while the other half are outside.'

'Make sure Mackenzie's men keep off the ground floor. When the time comes I need to be able to activate the traps without worrying about hurting any of our own.' He paused before adding, 'Tell everyone to take off their jackets. The last thing we need are fatalities due to friendly fire. He tugged at his own lapels, stripping down to the white shirt and blue pants. 'It will allow our people to shoot at any intruders without having to question whether they're friend or foe. Are Gracia and Elysia safe?'

Maes took a deep breath, his fingers skimming down the buttons of his jacket as he did as he was told. 'As safe as they can be. Louis has promised to guard them with his life. I tried to get Winry and Al to join them.'

Ed snorted and shook his head. 'They wouldn't, not in a million years. Where are they?'

'Out by the wall with Alex, my men and the rest of your command. They're still transmuting the stonework as best they can, but they're running out of time. The only person who's not there is Fuery. He's setting up radio links between each of our forces. Mackenzie and Avron have both deferred control of this operation to you, Roy. They're awaiting your orders.'

A year ago, Ed knew he wouldn't have thought anything of Roy being in charge of a situation like this. Even now, his understanding of the military hierarchy was patchy at best, and he tended to ignore almost anything to do with rank. It made sense that Roy knew the most about the situation and should therefore be the one giving the orders, but he knew from experience that wasn't the way the army normally worked.

The two old generals had more stars to their name, but it seemed that hadn't interfered with their common sense. They knew what was at stake: not control of a region or another boundary change, but the lives of everyone within the walls of the estate and the survival of Amestris as a whole, and so they handed over command without thinking twice.

Pride, soft and warm, glowed in Ed's chest as he watched Roy shoulder the responsibility with nothing more than a faint darkening of his features. Most other soldiers would have stumbled, confused and overwhelmed by the power, but Roy acted as if it was what he had been born to do. He spared himself a moment to think, his eyes glazed and unseeing as he looked into another reality completely, going through one scenario after the other. It was something that Ed had never been able to do. He dealt in immediate cause and effect, but Roy could plot out moves and counter-attacks and see his way through to the end of a conflict before the first shot was even fired.

'I need to get outside. If we seal of the gate we can buy ourselves a bit more time. Make sure every light in the mansion is turned off. We don't want to give away any idea of the size of our force or our positions.' He took a deep breath, glancing briefly in Ed's direction before looking back at Maes. 'Get my orders out to the men and try and find out what happened to Pandora Knox. If all else fails then we need to make sure that evidence gets into the right hands.'

Without waiting for an answer he hurried away, and Ed met Hughes' gaze, nodding in reassurance as Maes jerked his head after Roy's receding back. They might not be at the safe house any more, but his promise still stood. He would protect Roy at any cost.

The cool air fluttered across Ed's face as he stepped across the threshold and trotted down the steps, trying not to shiver as the breeze danced across his bare left arm and his breath steamed in front of his face. Dawn was still hours away, and the darkness was almost absolute. Only the glow of lanterns along the wall and the distant blaze of Central on the horizon gave the night definition.

He saw Roy's silhouette pause, waiting for him to catch up before they both made their way across the grass. Dew beaded their boots and soft tendrils of mist wove around their ankles, but Ed was focussed on the massive barrier that surrounded the grounds. When he had left earlier that day it had been standard stone, tall, but hardly a real fortification. Now it looked like something that belong to a castle.

The sentry houses had been sealed off, and rough steps climbed up towards a series of short platforms near its peak. There were already men perched there, peering through narrow slits that had been cut into the wall-face. All that remained was the arch of the gate, open and exposed, and Alex and Al were both standing within its curve, talking hastily.

Glancing at Roy, Ed saw the amazement on his face. The wall was far more than a strategic advantage, it was a monument to defensive alchemy. It looked like Al and Armstrong had thrown their all at it, and there were massive scars and pits in the landscaped garden where they had removed rubble and dirt to make up the necessary building materials. Now that Ed looked closer he could see that the top was packed earth, rather than rock. It was makeshift and hasty, but it looked strong enough to hold.

Ed lowered his gaze, meeting Al's eyes and grinning as his younger brother broke of his conversation and made his way towards them. Embarrassed protest fell on deaf ears as Ed was pulled into a crushing hug, and he patted Al's shoulders awkwardly in reassurance as his little brother muttered darkly about how worried he had been.

'I'm fine, see? Still in one piece.' He frowned as he realised that Al was shaking softly, not upset but exhausted, and a quick step back allowed Ed to get a good look at his face. Al's cheeks were smudged with dirt and dust, and there were dark shadows under his eyes; he looked pale and tired, despite the brightness of his smile, and Ed scowled at him. 'You look like shit. You've been pushing yourself too hard!' He growled as Al shrugged, giving him a meaningful shake. 'You're still recovering from being in the gate, Al, you have to be careful!'

'It's not like we have much choice. Besides, you're no better. Havoc already told me about what happened at Central Command.' Grey eyes held a trace of accusation, but it faded quickly, replaced with something softer. 'I'm sorry I didn't come and check on you sooner, but we had to finish this.' He motioned to the wall. 'It's all that'll hold the soldiers back when they attack.'

'Is it ready?' Roy asked quietly, crossing his arms as he squinted upwards, taking in the three storey rise of the impassive barrier.

Armstrong nodded, gesturing with a massive hand towards the gate. 'If we seal the entrance, we could give ourselves more time: minutes or hours, I cannot be certain. However, in doing so we also trap ourselves inside. It is a gamble, and one I was not sure you would want to take,' Alex shifted, gesturing towards the designs clawed into the driveways surface. 'The arrays are already drawn, ready to be activated if you wish.'

'Do it,' Roy ordered, barely stopping to think about it as he moved forward, splaying his gloved hand on the cold stone. 'We have four alchemists to blast our way out if we have to. We need to take any advantage we can get.'

Behind them, the lights of the mansion flicked off one by one, blinding the windows and transforming the building into a hulking shadow in the middle of the grounds, beastly and mysterious. Quickly, Alex activated the arrays, igniting the air with the glare of the transmutation. The energy lurched through the soil beneath their feet, and Ed took a step back from the shifting surface as rock and soil were pushed upwards, climbing steadily higher until they filled the arch and sealed them inside.

'What if they have alchemists with them?' Al asked, glancing up as Winry and Fuery ran over the lawn, carrying something with them and spooling cable in their wake. 'They could break the wall apart and be all over this place in seconds.'

Ed frowned, staring blankly into the distance as Roy cursed his lack of foresight. Al had a point. They had been so busy thinking of the attack in terms of soldiers that they had forgotten they weren't the only ones with alchemy at their disposal. All it would take was one well-placed array and all their hard work would come crashing down around them.

Thoughtfully, he clenched his automail fingers into a fist, watching the flat gleam of the metal as his mind raced. Ideas flared and died, too weak or complex or foolhardy to carry out. What they needed was something simple, something fundamental... .

'Sir, headlights!' One of the soldiers hissed down from the top of the wall, breaking Ed's concentration. 'More than a dozen trucks approaching fast.'

There was a brief burst of static as Kain switched on the radio transmitter, kneeling in the wet grass as he adjusted dials and flicked switches. His murmured voice went through a series of test phrases, and Ed heard the other two men assigned to communications answer, their voice tinny in Fuery's headphones.

'Warn the others,' Roy commanded, hurrying towards the steps that led to the platform and taking them two at a time. Ed watched him take a pair of binoculars from one of the soldiers, pressing them to the niche in the wall and peering through the lenses at the approaching vehicles. The need to follow him, to stick to his side like glue and never let him out of his sight was almost overwhelming, but neither of them could fight if they were always looking out for each other.

Instead he forced himself to focus on his other senses, listening to the distant purr of the engines that seemed more benign than threatening, but the squeal of tyres on the road told him that whoever was behind the wheel wasn't wasting time. They would be here in a matter of minutes.

'I have an idea,' he said to Al, talking quickly as he tried to put his sketchy thoughts into words. 'They might have alchemists with them, but they'll all need to draw arrays. We can use that against them.' He gestured downwards to the lush grass beneath their boots. 'The soil you used to make the changes to the wall is sandy, and the stones will have quartz in them. If we can heat it up, we should be able to bring glass crystals to the surface. It'll make it difficult for anyone to chalk a design.'

'But not impossible,' Al pointed out quietly.

'An alchemist is going to try and blast the wall apart. For that kind of destructive force you need accuracy, and they're not going to risk blowing themselves to bits because they couldn't get a line straight,' Ed snapped. 'It's not perfect, but it's all I've got, unless you have a better plan?'

Al paused, eyeing the wall doubtfully before shaking his head. 'One of us will have to do it,' he pointed out. 'Major Armstrong and the General would need to draw arrays on both sides of the wall for that to work, and we've just blocked ourselves in.'

Doubts curled through Ed's core, and he bit his lip as he hesitated. He had some strength left, but there was no guarantee that he wouldn't need his alchemy as the fight progressed. If it came to open combat, he would rather Al was recovering on the sidelines than in the middle of the fray. 'You do it then.'

The surrender spoke volumes of his current state, and he crossed his arms defensively as Al's gaze took on a more piercing edge, searching his face intently. 'Brother -' He trailed off, knowing that arguing would be hopeless. Instead he shook his head and moved towards the rock face, pursing his lips as he pressed his palms together. 'I can only do it to this portion of the wall,' he gestured to the length directly opposite the mansion's front door. 'The transmutation needs to go all the way through and I – I don't think I've got the strength to do all of it.' His voice softened as he added, 'Not if I need to look after you and Winry.'

'I can take of myself,' Ed said bluntly. 'You just watch out for yourself, all right? One side's better than nothing. They'll probably concentrate their forces here, anyway. You know what array to use?'

Al nodded, calling out, 'Can everyone take one step back from the wall, please?'

Ed saw Roy look down at them, confused and wary as Al touched his hands to the stone. Steam wisped and popped from pockets of air, and veins of minerals shimmered into life, changing with the temperature rose. The surface became patchy, rough and smooth, gritty and slick. The only way to draw an uncompromised array would be to carve it in deep, and that would take precious minutes that no one had to spare.

Al slumped, and Ed curved an arm around his waist automatically, holding up his weight as the last of the alchemy died away. 'That'll hold them for a while,' he said reassuringly. 'You going to be okay?'

'Yeah, just give me a minute,' Al mumbled, pressing his gloved hand to his sweaty forehead as the pallor of his skin deadened to white. He was trying valiantly not to sway, and Ed knew just how he felt. It always shocked him when his alchemy became more of a danger than a tool, threatening to take the last of his strength with its demands. It was so easy to step across that line, to pour a little too much of himself into a transmutation, and the result always left him wrecked.

The last time it had happened was when he had brought Al back from the gate, and he hadn't expected either of them to be forced to face their limits again so soon. 'Winry,' he called out quietly, aware of the silence that had settled across the grounds as headlights pierced the darkness, swinging across the landscape as the trucks rounded the last corner. 'Get him to the kitchen and feed him something. Bread, sugar, anything. Please?'

The young woman looked at him doubtfully, blue eyes intense in the darkness as she squared her jaw and nodded. 'What about you?'

'I can't leave.' He saw her eyes flicker up to where Roy stood, noticing the curve of one eyebrow and the purse of her lips. 'Me and Al are the only alchemists who don't need to draw arrays. They're going to need one of us ready to fight at all times.' He gritted his teeth, hating what he was about to say. 'As soon as Al's strong enough then bring him back out here. I can't do this on my own.' His admission made her flinch, and her expression clouded with concern as she nodded in understanding, wrapping Al's arm around her shoulder and ignoring his weak protests.

'We'll both be back in a few minutes, Ed,' she said firmly, shaking her head when he opened his mouth to protest. 'I'm not going to go and hide while everyone else is fighting. I made the guns work, and if they break again then you're going to need me.'

Arguing was pointless. He knew the look on her face far too well, had seen it time and again throughout his life, and he knew she wouldn't budge. In the end he hissed, 'Fine, since you won't stay out of the way then for fuck's sake get a weapon, all right? Might as well make yourself useful.'

If she hadn't had her hands full with Al, she would probably have whacked him around the head. As it was she narrowed her eyes him before turning away and helping Al back to the house. Ed grimaced, feeling the thick swamp of guilt for draining his brother's energy on what was, at best, a stop-gap. Any alchemist with half a brain would think around their measures, and he just had to hope that anyone who tried would be too focussed on getting in to think of the alternatives.

Silently, he hurried up the steps and onto the stone platform, stopping at Roy's side. 'Al made it hard for anyone to draw on the wall,' he explained, not bothering to wait for the inevitable questions. 'I'll do the rest.'

'You're not the only alchemist here,' Roy replied softly, his voice low with concern. 'You're exhausted. Let me and Alex help if we can.'

He thought about arguing, but gave up when he saw the expression on Roy's face. They didn't have time to for petty squabbles, not now. With a quick nod of his head, Ed peered out of the small gap in the wall. It was wide enough to aim a rifle or a pistol through but gave as much cover as possible to the shooter. The enemy would have a hard time hitting such a small target.

The trucks were close enough to see, and they skidded to a halt a short distance away, dust billowing around their tyres as men jumped down from the back. Roy was scanning their faces through the binoculars, and he motioned for everyone to get out of sight as he ducked to the side and pulled Ed close, whispering in his ear, 'I can't see Kerr, but Bertrand and Grange are both there. Looks like Bertrand brought his entire force. There's about two hundred of them, maybe two hundred and fifty.'

Ed muttered a curse, knowing that if anyone had the ingenuity to bring down the wall, it was the alchemist who had come up with this whole scheme in the first place. 'Grange could be a problem What we did to the wall won't keep him occupied for long. If I know where he is and what he's doing, then I can try and stay one step ahead of him, but I don't know how long I can keep that up.'

Roy looked at him, his features victim to a war of priorities. Ed knew that he was trying to balance the needs of the operation against Ed's safety, and he shook his head, hissing, 'Forget about me. For a few hours, pretend that nothing has changed. We can't win this if we're always worried about each other, you know that!'

'I'd still be concerned for you Ed, even if I was still nothing more than your commanding officer,' Roy replied. 'I can see how tired you are, and I don't want to burn you out in the first wave. Alchemy is the only reliable weapon you have got, and this is the last place you want to be helpless.' He glanced along the wall, grimacing as Bertrand shouted at his men. They weren't bothering with stealth. They wanted their presence to be known. Intimidation was a cheap tactic, but it worked, and Ed could feel the tension among the men rising steadily.

'Havoc,' Roy called out quietly. 'Order the men to pair up. When I give the order they're to set up volleys: one fires, the other reloads. Aim to disable the highest ranking officers first. If you can take out Bertrand and Grange, all the better, but I doubt they'll expose themselves that easily.'

Jean nodded in understanding, spreading the command along the perimeter. Most of the men were stationed along the front side, but there were also guards elsewhere, watching out for a rear assault and standing sentry on their flank, ready to send up flares at any sign of trouble.

'Ed, tell Fuery to let the others know the numbers we're facing. We're going to try and hold them off for as long as possible. If we can repel them, then they might back off and give the military police enough time to get here. Then at least we can hand control of this whole mess over to them.

With a reluctant sigh, Ed did as he was told, rushing down the steps and kneeling at Kain's side, conveying the message word-for-word as Fuery repeated it on all relevant frequencies, getting the okay from each communications station.

'Have you heard anything about that Knox woman?' he asked when the last whisper of static died away.

'She's left HQ, we know that much, but she's going to have more sense than to walk into a war-zone like this. We can't even risk getting the evidence out to her. The last thing we want is for one of our men to get shot and the proof we got to fall into the enemy's hands. For now we're going to have to sit tight and hope, sir.'

Before Ed could reply, a loud, arrogant voice cut through the bustle on the other side of the wall. He recognised Bertrand's tones instantly and gritted his teeth in a snarl, forcing himself to listen as his fists clenching at his sides.

'Mustang, I know you and Elric are in there!' The words echoed in the darkness as the headlamps of the trucks filled the air with an eerie glow. 'Surrender now and I'll spare your men!'

Ed looked up at Roy, seeing the tense line of his back. It was probably the one thing they could say that would make him think twice about going ahead with this battle, but even now he could see the resolution in the stance of the other soldiers. They weren't about to let themselves be saved at such a cost.

'Why isn't anyone shooting him?' Ed hissed to Fuery. 'They could take him out now and the whole thing would fall apart.'

'Probably can't get a clear shot,' Kain replied. 'Besides, if no one opens fire, then it's not officially a war. I heard Mackenzie tell Brigadier-General Mustang to make sure that Bertrand and his men were the ones that started it. That way, in the aftermath, we can claim self defence.'

Ed shook his head in disbelief, hating the army and its stupid rules. 'We've got to live that long first,' he replied, leaving Kain to his duties and creeping back across the grass. He kept low, listening to the sounds that shattered apart the night. He could hear plenty of footsteps, some almost running while others were more steady. An engine guttered to life again, and he heard the slow, gritty sound of it being moved a little way before it died out.

A tiny flash of white caught his eye, and he realised that Roy was beckoning him up to the platform. He had his back pressed to the wall, well away from the hole in the stonework, and was watching Ed intently as he listened to Bertrand's muted orders.

'Grange is moving to the far end of the wall, ' he whispered when Ed reached his side. 'There's a blind spot in our defences; he's at the wrong angle and sheltered from our snipers. I need you and Breda to try and stop him breaking through. Use alchemy as a last resort, Ed.'

'What else do you expect me to do?' he asked, ignoring the flicker of irritation across Roy's features. 'How many men has Grange got with him?'

'Half a dozen; protection only.' A frown cleaved Roy's brow as something heavy and metallic clattered down below, and a quick glance out of the hole made Ed freeze in surprise. Men were scurrying around, setting up tripods and screwing together the long barrels of what looked like small cannons.

'What the fuck are those?'

'Machine guns,' Roy murmured, risking a brief look over Ed's shoulder. 'They've been used on the front-line before, but I didn't think -' He shook his head, looking towards Havoc. 'Target the gunners,' he ordered firmly, watching the soldiers along the platform take stock of the situation. 'They'll aim for the gaps in the wall – try and kill us without ever setting foot in the grounds. All we can do is stay alive until they run out of ammunition.'

Ed's stomach twisted in a tight knot, and he stepped back from the gap, his lips pressed together as nausea caught in his throat. The weapons weren't precision instruments of death; they were made for slaughter on a massive scale, and they were aimed right at the holes in the wall, ready to cleave through and strike the life from the men who waited beyond them. Men like Roy.

'Do you need to be here?' he asked, trying to keep his voice calm as he moved towards where Breda was waiting. 'Up on the platforms? Can't you issue orders from the ground?'

'Yes, but I can't shoot anyone from down there,' Roy replied quietly, taking the rifle that Falman was holding out to him and checking the safety hammer. Ed's fear must have been branded all over his face, because Roy smiled softly. He didn't bother with vague platitudes, knowing that they wouldn't put Ed's mind at rest. Instead he tried to comfort him with simple, unadorned facts. 'Machine guns make a lot of noise and spit a lot of bullets, but their accuracy is appalling. They struggle to hit the broad-side of a barn most of the time. Chances are that none of the shots will even get through. They're a scare tactic, that's all'

'Last chance, Mustang!' Bertrand called out, a cruel smile curling through his words. 'Give yourself up!'

Roy's sneered at the general's offer, splaying his hand across Ed's back and pushing him towards the steps. 'Go! You do your job, and I'll do mine.'

'Fire!'

The peace was torn to shreds as the soldiers pulled the triggers of their beastly weapons. Bullets zinged off of the wall, sending fragments of stone in all directions as Roy yelled commands over the din, darting in front of the gap to shoot before ducking out of sight.

Ed's heart was in his throat, tight and choking as he stumbled back before turning and running down the steps. Phosphorous flashes lit the sky with white and gold, making his vision stutter like a bad film as he darted across the grounds towards the far end of the wall, trying desperately to ignore the shouts and the sharp, concise “cracks” of rifle shots over the continuous chatter of the machine guns.

He slammed to a halt against the wall, panting his breath out against the stone as Breda staggered to a stop at his side, close enough for Ed to smell the nervous sweat that covered them both. 'How do we know where the fucker is?' he asked, having to shout to be heard.

Ed shook his head, shoving a finger in his left ear as he pressed his right to the rock, trying to make out anything that could give them an idea where Grange was trying to break through. It took a while, but finally he heard the scrape of something on the rock, chalk, probably, and he gave a feral grin as he heard a spat sound of frustration. 'Fat lot of good that'll do you,' he murmured, motioning Breda closer.

Now his ears had acclimatised to the clattering blanket of sound, it was easier to push it back. It no longer blocked his hearing with its cacophony, dulling to a macabre rhythm that drummed through his bones and made his heart skitter and thrum. He did not dare look back, too frightened of what he might see. It was impossible to believe that their soldiers could survive the hail of bullets, that he could turn around and see anything other than their broken corpses littering the ground, and he forced himself to keep his attention on Grange instead.

'He'll be all right,' Breda said firmly, lowering his voice as Ed pressed a finger to his lips. 'Mustang's done this before. Most of us have. Those guns are fast and deadly in the open field, but in a siege situation like this?' He shook his head. 'They don't do any good. At worst it's going to prevent our guys getting a good aim at the enemy and take a few chunks out of the wall. Maybe if they concentrated their fire around the holes they'd be able to do some serious damage, but they're spraying the length of it at random.' He shifted his revolver in his hand, standing back as Ed crouched at the wall's foundation. 'Grange is probably more of a genuine problem right now.'

Ed looked up at Breda, giving a lopsided smile of thanks before he pressed his hands together and splayed them over the damp grass. It was a tiny array, similar to the one he had used on the vault, but much smaller. He was looking for anything out of place or unexpected in the soil on the other side of the foundation, and something flashed in the energy pulse, surging like an arrow through his alchemy. A metal point, like a nail or a knife, and it was moving.

'The wall won't hold a design, so he's drawing it on the ground instead,' Ed whispered, knowing that this was nothing but a guessing game. 'I can block him if I have to – change the composition of the dirt so his array won't balance right. If we're lucky it'll blow up in his face, but he's not stupid. Chances are he'll notice and adapt.'

'You all right to do that?' Breda asked doubtfully, checking the chamber of his weapon and shifting his stance, braced for anything as the noise continued to hammer all around them. 'You scared the shit out of Havoc earlier. Last thing I need is you passing out on me.'

Ed didn't answer as he lifted his hands, clapping again before returning them to their original position, pouring energy into the packed dirt. He shifted the minerals, keeping their forms in constant flux as he tried to make sure he didn't compromise the foundation of the wall. A crack ran up the stone in front of his face, splitting like ice in the thaw, but it didn't go too far, stuttering to a standstill as he toyed with the power beneath his hands.

It was hard work, like running a marathon: no longer about speed or strength but stamina. He could feel Grange like a fly caught in a spider's web, pulling the strings of the alchemy as it bled out through his hands and into the ground. He was sketching and transmuting furiously, growing more and more daring as he continued to fail.

'We can't even herd him into the line of fire,' Breda hissed. 'He's too close to the wall.'

'He won't shift anyway. He knows he's safe where he is and he's not going to budge. We can't -' Ed's breath caught in his throat as the heat surged up his arms, painful and punishing as Grange threw his all at bringing down the wall. The power shifted, becoming thorny, agonising energy that he stood no chance of controlling. Perhaps if he had been at full strength he would have been able to channel it off – let it dissipate into the air, but now it was tearing through his body and pulverising the foundations, reducing them to something like quicksand.

'Boss!'

Ed looked up as the wall groaned alarmingly, seeing the stones buckle and wide cracks yawning in its dark face. They were spreading at an alarming rate, letting through the sick green light of Grange's alchemy as rocks the size of his head shook themselves free. If he didn't do something, the whole thing was going to come down, taking all of their soldiers with it. He could already hear cries of alarm from both sides, and he tore his palms free, barely stopping to think before he shoved his hands against the cool rock-face, fingers outstretched as blue lines carved themselves in circles and lines.

'Get back, and shoot any fucker who comes through,' he yelled, not caring who heard as he felt his way through the stone, seeking out the little flaws and filling them to the brim with raw, vivid power. They burst apart, scribbling their way upwards in neat, parallel tracts that cut off Grange's web of devastation, slicing away the damaged section of the wall and leaving the rest standing firm.

For a moment the stone hung in perfect equilibrium, supported by its crumbling foundations. Finally, after a few, breathless seconds, the weight became too much and it sagged like a giant coming to its knees.

Without thinking Ed whipped his body to the side, hunkering down and covering his head with his arms as he sucked in wrecked gasps of hot, dust-choked air. The roar of the falling rock and earth drowned out the cackle of the guns, and, squinting sideways, he saw shadows moving through the veil of grit and debris, running in the half-crouch of those sure they are about to die. They were pale-faced and ghastly looking, jerking and crying out as bullets struck at arms and legs, biting into their flesh and bringing them down.

Ed forced himself to look past them, to ignore their gasps and curses as he stumbled to his feet and clapped his hands together, not giving himself a chance to hesitate as he threw himself into the transmutation. The ground heaved, crumbling and curving as flint and stone rose up, pushed on by the crackling bite of his alchemy, raw and teetering on the brink of his control. He could feel the wobble in the array, resonating back and forth as it gained momentum, thrashing against the chains that held it and trying to break free.

He knew that if he failed, he was dead. The power would whip back through him, wiping out life more abruptly than any trained assassin, but that would not be the only price. If he couldn't keep riding the crest of the wave, then the hasty patch in the wall would disintegrate, and the mansion would be left naked and exposed. The enemy could climb in, guns blazing, striking down whoever got in their way: Hughes, Winry, Al, Roy....

A sob caught in Ed's throat as he pushed harder, trying to hem in the energy as the ground surged upwards, blocking the hole inch by inch until it was complete. Clanks and creaked echoed through the air as the stone cooled, but it stayed miraculously firm as Ed lifted his shaking hands from the ground and sat back on his heels, trying to find the last grain of strength he needed to stand.

The bang of a gun made him jerk, flinching as the bullet whipped past his cheek and spun harmlessly away. His body reacted automatically, fuelled by nothing but the shriek of adrenaline through his blood as he rolled out of the way and dove for cover. Thick clouds of dust still drifted through the air, and he squinted desperately, trying to make out anything amidst the haze.

Breda was frantically reloading, blinking away the blood that dripped into his eyes from a long, messy gash across his forehead. Shouts from the walls could barely be heard over the ongoing din of the assault, and Ed hissed as he realised that no one on the roof of the house or high up on the platforms would be able to get a clear shot at any intruders.

He counted the soldiers groaning on the floor, making out six shapes in the dark blue of Amestrian uniform. They all had the good sense to stay still, and Ed grimaced as he realised that the one closest to him wouldn't have any other choice. His throat had been torn apart by a close range shot that seemed to have come from behind him.

Something shifted in the gloom and Ed tensed, shaking muscles ready to pounce as he watched the silhouette creep over the rubble. The man's pale face was streaked with mud and sweat, and his teeth were clenched in a snarl, lips pulled back and delicate moustache trembling with suppressed rage. A glint of silver chain leading to his pocket confirmed Ed's suspicions: it was Grange, and he was more than just an alchemist. His grip on the gun was competent, and his eyes were focussed intently on Breda, muzzle already lifting to take aim as his finger tightened on the trigger.

Ed lunged, whipping the knife from its scabbard on his forearm and cleaving it downwards in a strong arc that cut into Grange's right wrist, lodging in the bone. The revolver clattered on the churned ground beneath their feet, and he screamed in shocked pain, spinning to stare at Ed with wild fury. His expression locked in a rictus of disgust, as if Ed was the most despicable creature in the universe, and he flicked blood from his right hand before clenching it into a fist and leaping for him.

Rocks jutted upwards, trying to trip Ed as he danced out of the way. His feet stumbled clumsily, his body too tired to keep up with the screaming demands of his mind, and he grunted a curse as he sprawled backwards, narrowly missing Grange's swinging fist. Out of the corner of his eye he could see Breda circling like a wolf, trying to lock Grange in his sights, but the bastard was too fast.

Sharp stones tore at Ed's palm as he rolled out of the way and staggered to his feet, blowing his hair out of his face as he forced himself to change tactics. Ducking and diving would get him nowhere, and he would be exhausted long before Grange gave up. Abruptly, he darted forward, smirking with satisfaction as he saw the brief look of surprise on Grange's features. He pulled back his automail fist before putting all his might into the swing, sending it crashing towards the alchemist's jaw.

At the very last second, Grange ducked out of the way, grabbing Ed's wrist and whipping around to pull it up behind his back. Ed's spine arched as his automail twisted in its port, and another arm went around his neck, clamping down tight. Although he was not a muscular man, Grange had a wiry strength that held Ed fast and firm. He spat a curse as he tried to find the leverage to break free, but it was useless; he was trapped, his boots skidding on the loose rubble as Grange hauled him back.

'This is all your fault,' he murmured in Ed's ear. 'The death, the misery – If it weren't for you no one would have found out what I was doing . It wouldn't have come to this.'

'Fuck you,' Ed spat, struggling desperately. 'Someone would have worked it out. You're not that good!'

'But don't you see? They all tried. All of them, and none of them got anywhere. It was only you and that beautiful mind of yours that saw the truth.' Grange gave a rough laugh, his voice dropping to something more chillingly intimate. 'It's a shame, really. Once I hand you over to Kerr, your genius won't do you any good. He'll fuck your brains out before finishing the job with a bullet – if you're lucky.'

Ed screwed his eyes up tight, the tendons in his neck standing out as he pushed as hard as he could against Grange's choking grip before slamming his head backwards. Bone cracked as white stars exploded across his eyes, and he felt the gush of blood from the alchemist's nose splatter the back of his neck. He was released instantly as Grange stumbled backwards, eyes shut and hands pressed to his shattered face. One flashing uppercut was all it took to make him crumple to the ground, out cold.

Breda grabbed Ed before he could fall, grunting a little as he took his full weight without budging. 'You all right?' he asked roughly, shifting his feet before letting Ed sit down, panting frantically as he clutched the back of his head.

'Fuckin' ow. Bastard's got a face like a brick wall,' he managed to choke out, looking blearily up to see Breda's smile of relief. 'What about you, is that bad?' He watched the sergeant cuff the blood from his brow and shake his head.

'Bit of shrapnel, nothing worse. Sorry I couldn't get a clear shot of Grange. I took down the rest of them, but I couldn't see a bloody thing with all the dust.' He crouched at Ed's side, his big palm on his shoulder as he asked, 'Can you stand up?'

He didn't want to. More than anything Ed wanted to lie down on the cold grass and let sleep claim him, but he forced himself to get to his feet, ignoring the fact that his leg's shook like a newborn foal's. 'Don't exactly have much choice, do I?' he asked, taking a step forward and wobbling precariously as his knees tried to buckle. He batted away Breda's helping hand and pointed to the bodies on the ground. 'Get them secure and treat any major injuries,' he called out, his voice straining over the ongoing racket.

'What about you?' Breda shouted. 'You should get inside, get a few minutes rest!'

Ed grimaced at that, shaking his head fiercely as the older man scowled. 'I'll tell Mustang we got Grange. At least that's one less fucker to worry about.'

Turning away, Ed picked his way across the grass, putting one foot in front of the other as his body trembled and his head reeled. The roar of the guns had not yet abated, and he could see men hunkered down, hands pressed over their ears as they waited for the storm to pass. One or two, the best or the most stupid, took pot-shots when they thought the coast was clear. Once or twice they found their mark and one of the guns would stop as the man operating it was wounded, but they were never silent for long.

Finally he got to the steps beneath Roy's position and began to climb them, almost crawling up as his vision blurred and his breathing rasped painfully in his throat. Someone grabbed his wrist, helping him up, and he sagged pathetically onto the stone, bracing his back against the wall. It thudded out a grim beat against his spine, dancing in time to the bullets that struck it incessantly.

'What the hell happened?' Roy demanded, his lips next to Ed's ear and almost shouting in order to be heard. His dark eyes were searching Ed's face, taking in every sign of frailty, and he swept his thumb over the blood on Ed's neck, grimacing as his glove came away crimson. 'I thought I told you not to use your alchemy! Where are you hurt?'

Ed shook his head, a silent request not to worry as he said, 'If I didn't transmute the wall back in place, the bastards would have all come through.' He grimaced as Roy scowled. 'Grange made a breach. We took down him and his men and sealed it back in place! Bertrand's stuck out there.' Despite himself, Ed grinned weakly when he saw Roy's smirk. By taking Grange out of the picture, they'd come one step closer to winning, even if it didn't seem like it right now.

Mortar and dust spewed out from the wall above their heads, and Roy swore as he flinched away. Ed quickly checked him over, looking for the tell-tale stain of blood on his shirt, but there was nothing except a few dots of crimson and a deep rip in his glove that was tinged red at its ragged edges. He looked tired and grim, and his eyes narrowed angrily like those of a wild animal growing weary of biding its time, but he was still strong and healthy, which was more than Ed could say for himself.

'Sir, there's another truck coming!' Jean yelled, his voice cracking on the last word. 'A big one!'

'Backup?' Ed asked doubtfully, cringing as Roy risked a glance out of the small hole that offered him a view of the outside world. If there had been snipers on the other side, then Roy would have been dead in a second. As it was he braced his palms on the cool stone, keeping a few inches back and watching carefully.

'Doesn't look like it,' Falman replied, ducking back as a bullet struck sharp slivers off the stonework. 'Could be more guns, more ammunition, that kind of thing.'

Roy swore quietly, his pale face bleaching further as the truck pulled to a halt and soldiers scrambled to unload its cargo. His jaw worked furiously as he cocked his head a little, trying to get a better look before he stepped away. 'Pull back!' he shouted, grabbing his rifle and helping Ed to his feet. 'Everyone get back to the mansion now! Take your secondary positions!'

He practically dragged Ed down the steps by the elbow, only letting go when they got to the ground. 'You need to get inside, right now,' he ordered, walking backwards so he could watch the other soldiers scurry down from the platforms like rats abandoning a sinking ship. 'Go!'

'Not without you,' Ed snapped. 'What the hell was it?' His mind racing with possibilities as he tried to understand Roy's dread. He was used to seeing him calm and collected in the face of almost anything, and now Roy's uncertainty was making him feel sick. 'What did you see?'

'Heavy artillery,' he replied quietly, digging his fingertips into his scalp as he looked across the scarred garden, scanning the whorls of smoke and mist as if looking for inspiration. 'They'll blast their way through in a matter of seconds.'

'So we let the wall go.' Ed reached out, tugging on Roy's arm and trying to get him to walk faster as the rattle of the machine guns finally died, leaving an eerie silence in their wake. Within seconds that was filled with a heavier, ominous clanking sound, as if they were slowly constructing the barrel of a much bigger weapon. 'Something like that they'll only dare fire once. It'll send the whole city into panic and bring both the civilian and military police running. We've already cut down their numbers, haven't we?'

'Yes, more than thirty of their men down at the last count, and that's not including Grange and his backup.' Roy's eyes met his, and there was a flicker of gratitude in their depths. 'So we can assume they've lost almost forty men, to our one casualty.' His expression faltered when Ed raised an eyebrow, and he looked away as he said, 'One of Hughes' men got a bullet in the eye. He was dead before he hit the ground.'

Ice raced down Ed's spine, sending shivers out in its wake as he tightened his grip on Roy's arm possessively. Someone had died, and all he could feel was a sick kind of gratitude that Roy was unharmed. 'At least it wasn't you,' he managed, swallowing around the tightness in his throat as more noises clattered in the night. 'I don't think I could -'

He shook his head as he trailed off, giving Roy a tired, shaky smile. A gloved hand cupped his left shoulder, and he wished he could lean in, let Roy wrap him up and hold him, just until he had the strength to carry on. A few minutes, was that too much to ask?

The answer was obvious, and he shoved his needs aside as he took a step back. Ed needed the distance, otherwise he knew he would simply fold. 'What are your orders, anyway? Where do you want me?'

Something flashed in Roy's eyes, hot and wanton, but it was gone within a second, taking the brief smirk with it. 'You're not in a fit state to do anything, Ed,' he replied, glancing back at the wall before pushing him up the steps and towards the front door. 'Get inside. I'll send someone else to check the wall for anyone we left behind.'

Ed blinked, pulling away from his touch and shaking his head. 'That makes no sense. Everyone else is safe in the house. You know the logical thing is to order me to do it.'

He could see Roy's jaw clench hard as he hesitated on the threshold, his hand outstretched towards the door. Abruptly, it clenched into a fist, and Ed knew that Roy was battling with himself as their eyes met again. 'You're exhausted; I want you safe, Ed.'

'But you need me out here,' he said calmly. 'Look, you're the commander of all this. You need to be telling them what to do, not checking for stragglers.' He took a deep breath before adding, 'Besides, when it comes down to it, a general's worth more than a major.'

'Not to me.' Roy's voice was a shattered whisper, and his body twisted with pained indecision. Eventually, he took a shuddering sigh and managed one reluctant nod. 'Fine, we're wasting time arguing about it. Go as fast as you can and make sure there's not anyone left behind. It's easy in situations like this for orders to get confused and men to get cut off. I don't want anyone to die just because they didn't get the message to take cover.'

'What about you?'

Dark eyes flickered upwards, taking in the looming façade of the Armstrong mansion as his expression turned grim. 'There's no way to be sure the shell won't go straight through the wall and smash into the house. I'll get everyone to the back rooms and warn them to brace for impact.' He paused, thinking fast. 'When you're done checking the wall go in through the kitchen door, and don't take too long. As soon as you hear a whining sound that gets steadily higher, that means they're preparing the cannon. You've got maybe ten seconds to get to safety.' He hesitated, his gaze sweeping Ed's frame as doubt bloomed over his features.

Ed backed away hurriedly, not giving Roy a chance to change his mind. 'I'll find you as soon as I get inside,' he called over his shoulder, knowing that the reassurance was as much for himself as Roy. It hurt to leave him alone to face whatever fate the next few minutes held, but conflict didn't know about love. All the heat of battle understood was friend and foe; everything else had to be pushed aside, even if it felt like they were tearing out a part of themselves to do so.

With a massive effort, Ed forced himself to concentrate on the task at hand, sticking close to the house as he scanned the platforms. Roy could look after himself – had a house full of soldiers to watch his back. If anyone was in danger, it was him: drained, graceless and aching with every step. His eyes stung as he stared into the night, trying to pick out any shape amidst the sharp, straight lines of the wall. Each stairway was deserted, and there was no sign of anything alive in the gloom.

Rounding the corner of the house, a wisp of smoke tickled his nose, making him stare around in confusion. The machine guns smelled clean and bright, but this was a sulphurous stench that caught in the back of his throat and made him want to sneeze. It took him a moment to notice the hole, just over six feet tall and half hidden in the shadows. Someone had explosives and knew how to use them. They had blasted their way through the wall, using the roar of the machine guns to cover the sound of their arrival.

Roy and his men thought they were secure in the stronghold of the mansion, but they weren't alone.

Ed forced his legs into a sprint as one thought consumed him: he had to warn the others. Grass whispered against his boots as his breath whirled in front of him, haloing his head in ragged white as he ran towards the back door. The silence was unnatural, and there was barely any light to see by, but that did nothing to stop the howl of his instincts. Something was very wrong.

He darted past the kitchen window skidded to a halt, his hand pausing inches from the wood as his senses all shrilled their alarms. The door stood ajar, the lock shattered and useless on the doorstep. He could see the outline of a man's boot in the timber, and there were muffled noises coming from inside.

'Winry, don't!'

Al's desperate cry was smothered by the cough of a silenced gun, and Ed's mind went blank as his body took over, slamming through the door and half-falling into the room beyond. His teeth were bared, face feral as he launched himself at the nearest stranger, not bothering to take stock of the situation as he leapt.

He had the element of surprise, and it was enough to take the man down. Ed's fingers caught in scruffy hair, pulling hard before he slammed man's head into the tiled floor. He went limp in Ed's grasp as his brain shut down from the impact, knocked into unconsciousness by the ferocity of the blow.

It was easy to keep moving, to bully his body into the familiar, fluid dance of a hand-to-hand fight, but Al's cry brought him up short, making him pause for just a split second too long.

'No, brother! They're after you! Run -!'

One of the thugs smashed his fist into Al's already bruised face, and he fell next to Winry, rag-doll limp. A tight, high noise caught in Ed's throat as he saw the blood smeared across the floor, but he couldn't tell who it belonged to. All he knew was that two of the people he cared about the most were hurt – maybe even dead – and all because of him.

Fear and anger swarmed together as he took in the four soldiers left in the room. The door had been blocked, transmuted closed, and he wondered if AL had sealed it off to protect the others throughout the house, throwing himself and Winry to the lions. Not that it mattered. In the end they didn't care about the generals or the soldiers: they wanted Ed.

Behind him, someone closed the door, the sound dull and final as one of the gunmen casually pointed his revolver at Al's unconscious body. 'Move, and you'll regret it,' he warned, lips peeling back in a grin that revealed bloodied, broken teeth. 'Can't kill you, you're valuable, but them?' He sneered. 'Worthless.'

'Bastard!' Ed spat, fist still raised and body humming with rage. 'Fucking bastard. If you touch him -'

Something clamped over his mouth, cutting off his helpless tirade. His instincts screamed at him to struggle - to fight back and break free and kill the fuckers, but his arms were pinned at his sides. He thrashed, trying to get loose, but one gasped breath was all it took for him to realise his mistake. Sickly sweet fumes coated his tongue and caught in his throat, making him retch. His aching head swum dizzily as the numbness spread along his nerves, seeping down through his torso and into his arms and legs.

His movements weakened, at odds with the growing panic that tore through his frame. Thoughts were slow and disconnected, but Ed couldn't do anything. His body had finally betrayed him, and he couldn't even twitch a finger as his vision began to fade, edged with black and grey as one of the gunmen grabbed Ed's hair and jerked his head around, checking his eyes before nodding to his colleague.

'Let's go. We've kept Kerr waiting long enough.'

The room moved drunkenly as someone slung him over their shoulder, and Ed's eyelashes fluttered against his cheek as he tried to find the energy to kick or bite or yell, but he had none.

There was simply nothing left to give.

Chapter Text

A shrill whine trembled through the air, ghostly and ethereal; it chilled Roy to the quick and turned his mouth desert-dry. He began to count down from ten, his heart in his throat as his life was cut down to a matter of seconds. There wasn't time to do anything but yell at everyone to take cover, to drag the snipers in from the roof and cower back, waiting for the end.

He didn't know where Ed was. All Roy had were aimless, frantic prayers that he had made it inside. Logic was long gone, reduced to ash by the trembling fear that they were all about to die. He could smell terror in the air and hear it in the panting breaths of the other men in the room. This wasn't something they could fight. All they could do was hope that the shell brought down the wall and nothing more, and that Bertrand and his men did not have the ammunition or the courage to let off a second blast.

The rising note reached its crescendo, hovering like a death knell before the deep “thud” of the trigger hammered across the grounds, shaking Roy's ribs with its force and stealing his breath away.

Head down, eyes shut, hands over his ears and he still felt the shell hit the wall. The explosion didn't need to be heard. It roared into the front of the house, blowing out windows in a cascade of diamond splinters and making doors creak and sigh on their hinges. Dust rained down from the ceiling and the chandelier swung ponderously on its chord, but the mansion still stood, stalwart and proud.

Roy looked up, hand held out to silence the breathless whispers of relief from the soldiers as he strained to hear anything that could give away the next step of Bertrand's plan. The clattering rumble of falling rubble gradually died away, and shouts drifted towards them, disorganised and nervous. The general was in a hurry, as if he knew his time was running out.

Ed had been right about one thing: the blast would bring every police force out en-masse. Fire engines, ambulances, the lot. Someone would already be calling the prime-minister to let him know of an explosion just outside the city. Bertrand might have his excuses ready, but that would not stop the world from turning up to ask their questions. If he was going to finish off the men hiding in the Armstrong estate, then he had to be quick about it.

'Fuery,' Roy hissed, 'tell everyone to resume their positions. The snipers are to shoot as many as they can before they reach the house. We'll take care of the rest. Jean, get together half a dozen soldiers and follow me. Everyone else is to stay away from the ground floor until I say otherwise. The place is booby-trapped, and I need to be able to activate arrays without worrying about my own men.'

Roy hesitated, feeling a trickle of guilt wend through him as he added, 'Falman, find Ed. I could probably use his help.' It wasn't technically true, and if it was then Al would have been just as useful, but he did not care. A heavy, sick unease had taken root in his stomach, and only Ed's presence at his side would banish it. He would defend his decision later if he had to, but right now he had bigger problems to deal with.

Shifting his weight, he crept out of the door and inched towards one of the other bedrooms, heading for the windows. The shots of the snipers would let him know when Bertrand ordered the charge, but, for now, he needed to get a good look at what they were facing.

Mindful of the broken glass scattered across the carpet, he wrapped his fingertips over the windowsill and peered over its edge. The last thing he needed was to be silhouetted against the light. It would be all too easy to make himself a target in his quest for more strategical knowledge, but the gloom of the house hid him perfectly. He wasn't about to become a sitting duck for Bertrand's troops. If they wanted to kill him, then they would have to work for the opportunity.

Roy's heart jumped into his throat when he saw the long, black scar that cleaved its way from the gate towards the house. The shrapnel had stopped no more than ten paces from the front steps, slowed down by its nose-dive into the packed dirt of the driveway. He could see large chunks of the shell in the crater, and he swallowed tightly as he realised how lucky they were.

If even one of those pieces had hit the mansion, then it wouldn't have mattered where they took cover; it would have brought the whole thing down on their heads and left them there to rot in an unmarked grave. As it was, the devastation was incredible. The blank face of the wall had been torn apart, and clots of stone and soil the size of cars littered the garden.

'How's it looking, sir?'

Jean's question made him jump, and he shot a piercing glare in the lieutenant's direction before shaking his head. 'They're holding back for now, but it won't last long.' As if confirming his words, he heard Bertrand yelling at the top of his lungs, fury tainting his words as he bullied the men to form into ranks and pointed at the house.

'Couldn't give less of a shit about them if he tried, could he?' Havoc muttered sourly. 'He's going to send them running in while he stands on the sidelines.'

Roy narrowed his eyes thoughtfully, trying to pick out clues amidst the disorganised rabble. 'He's putting them in a three-pronged formation. He's assuming our force only has about thirty men and that we won't have the fire-power to hold them off.'

'His mistake.'

He smirked at the smugness in Jean's tone and backed carefully away, moving in a crouch until he got to the corridor. 'At most they have two-hundred and twenty soldiers, maybe a few less from what I saw,' he explained quietly. 'In close quarters it's not about numbers, it's about skill. If they get into the house, then we have to hope we're better fighters than they are.'

'You said something about traps?' Havoc whispered, jerking his head towards the six men waiting for them at the top of the stairs. 'What do you need me and the boys to do?'

Roy tightened his gloved hands into fists, feeling the tension dragging at his knuckles as he frowned at the white cloth sheathing his fingers. 'Watch my back, and be prepared to shield your eyes when I say so. They've had their turn to intimidate us; now let's see how they like it.'

He looked over his shoulder, peering through the gloom as other soldiers took up their positions, guarding every window and stairway. Once all the traps had been triggered they could swarm the bottom floor but, until then, they would have to take the enemy down from a distance.

Roy moved down the stairs like a shadow, his boots whispering against the carpet before he got to the stone floor of the entrance hall. The front door was still standing, grim and forbidding in the dusky room, and he skirted the walls, keeping his senses sharp for anything that might indicate he was in danger.

The air smelled of wet dirt and shredded grass, as well as the rougher, gritty scent of rock dust. Flitting, inconsequential shadows kept catching his eye and making him hesitate, deer-like and wary, but there were no scuttling figures aiming guns, just the curtains flapping in the breeze. Shattered windows haloed the outside in fractured light, catching the headlamps of the trucks and throwing rainbows in all directions. Beyond the glare, Roy could see a faint silver tone in the night sky: dawn was on its way.

It was simple to drift into the rooms on each side of the hallway, activating the arrays he had drawn earlier beneath windows and in fireplaces. They were silent dangers, like mines beneath the ground, invisible and harmless unless trodden on. As soon as the energy flow in the designs was compressed in any way, they would ignite, giving intruders a hot, smoky distraction. At worst they would suffer minor burns, but it would be enough to make the soldiers' already shaky morale falter and fall.

Eventually, he moved back towards the hall, checking the array carved into the middle of the floor. This one needed his personal attention, and he squinted up at the galleried ceiling, checking he had the space. Tiny piles of metal were arranged around the circumference of the design, and he checked them over meticulously, his heart hammering in his throat as the sound he had been waiting for reached his ears.

'Charge!'

Bertrand's roared order echoed back and forth, fierce and desperate. Roy heard the edge of panic to the man's command, and he knew the soldiers would have picked up on it. There was nothing worse in a battle than doubt. It bred and twisted, mutating into something that crippled an armed force and rendered them useless. How were they meant to believe they could win if their own commanders couldn't be sure of their chances?

The bark of the snipers' first volley cleaved the peace, loud and abrupt, and out of the corner of his eye Roy saw some of the advancing figures fall. Some would get through, he knew that. The force was too big to be taken down from a distance, and it wouldn't be long before they barged through the door.

A cold smile curved Roy's lips as he glanced across the hall, seeing Havoc and his men waiting, guns poised. Hastily, he gestured for them to turn away, seeing Jean's face pinch with uncertainty before he did as he was told, clamping his eyes shut tight. The others followed suit, blinding themselves to the attack as they maintained their unwavering guard.

Shambling footsteps pounded closer, and Roy counted them off, seeing the approach in his mind's eye. He had a very small window in which to act. Crouched in the middle of the floor, he was an easy target, and if he reacted a second too slow, it would only be Jean and his men that saved him from a sudden death.

He blinked sweat from his eyes as he listened to the soldiers, his breath panting in his throat as they thudded over grass and dirt before clattering up the steps.

The doors burst open, and Roy slammed his hands down onto the array, turning his head and closing his eyes as the heat roared past his face. He heard the hiss of the magnesium catching alight, and the screams of the attacking soldiers clawed at the air as bright white light filled the hall and spilled from the broken windows, lashing out with lances of intense illumination.

Even with his eyes shut, Roy could still see it, painfully incandescent, and he pulled away, stumbling gracelessly to the side as stinging tears caught in his lashes. Jean and the others weren't much better, but they still had the advantage over the first wave of men who were curled on the floor, clutching at their faces. Retina burn could last for minutes or days, but for now it meant that almost a dozen men were firmly out of action, hunched and helpless on the doorstep.

Snatching for his rifle, Roy lifted it and took aim, hearing the sounds of more volleys outside and the yelps of the unwary as they trod on the arrays. Sweat prickled along his brow as he backed towards the stairs, picking his target and pulling the trigger. Jean and the others were firing and reloading, the shots deafening thunderclaps as Roy took a deep breath of the chemical burned air and bellowed, 'NOW!'

Reinforcements appeared at the top of the stairs, some lining the gallery and aiming downwards while others rushed down the wide staircase, standing six abreast as they fired one round after another. Jean grabbed Roy's shoulder, pulling him back into the safe press of men and out of the firing line without a word.

It was an unfair fight in their favour, but Roy was not going to complain that, for once, fortune shone down on them. They knew the house and the terrain, and they had no doubt of their orders. Their certainty was a striking contrast to the doubt of the men attacking them, and Roy knew it was only a matter of time before they caved.

It was a brief, volatile battle, full of spitting gunshots and whimpers of pain. The paintings on the wall were pocked with holes, and statues chipped and fractured under the hail of bullets. One whipped past his ear and cleaved into the bannister, leaving a deep wound in the wood, and he could hear the occasional sound of a falling body amidst the troops that were inching their way down the stairs, claiming ground step-by-step.

There would be time to stop and worry about the death count later, but now he was searching the intruders for General Bertrand. The bastard had to be there somewhere, and they needed to capture him. If he got away then he would slip off into the wide world and always linger on, a subtle threat to the future. Better to end this here and now than to let it fade away and fester.

Dropping the empty rifle, he snatched his revolver from his holster, feeling it jerk in his palm as he pulled the trigger. It went against years of training to maim rather than kill, and he gritted his teeth as a grey-haired captain caught another man's bullet in the chest rather than the shoulder, folding like a puppet with cut strings. There were always going to be fatalities; it was foolish to think otherwise, but it didn't stop each pointless death from adding to the dreading ache in his chest.

Finally, after what felt like hours but was probably only a handful of minutes, the tide turned. No order was given, but the attackers knew that they were on the losing side. Some surrendered, throwing down their guns and falling to their knees, hands up and fingers splayed. Others turned and ran, stumbling over the prone forms of their colleagues in their efforts to get away.

Roy swore quietly, shaking his head in disbelief as he searched the mess for any sign of Bertrand. Had he already fled, leaving his men to face reality? This part of a fight was always the worst. Chaotic and desperate, men would succumb to panic and fear, killing at random. Caught up in the adrenaline, logic failed and let instincts, primed and vicious, take over.

'Take the injured to Gracia,' he ordered, his voice carrying clearly across the hall. 'Disarm the prisoners and make sure they understand the situation. Secure the building. Check and clear every room! We don't want to stand down only to lose lives in an ambush.'

He gritted his teeth, ignoring the throb of a tense headache in his temples as he approached the front doors carefully and looked out across no man's land. It was over, he could see that, so why did he still feel so threatened? Something was wrong, Subtle and persistent, his worry lingered, and he swallowed against the dryness in his mouth as he added, 'Havoc, you and your men are with me. We need to secure the perimeter.'

'Sir!'

Falman's voice made him glance back at the stairs, and his heart sank like lead as he saw the expression on the man's face. His eyes were nervous, and his lips twisted in a thin, flat line. 'I've searched the top floors. No one has seen Miss Rockbell or the Elrics, not since they were out at the wall.'

A bead of icy sweat trickled between Roy's shoulder blades, and his breath came in an uneven stutter as he felt the fear rise up and grab him in its clutches. It was not the quick, clean terror of battle, but the insidious feeling that had plagued him while Jean and Ed had been at Central Command. It clung on tight, infecting him and robbing every movement of its strength. His mind dulled with its thick fog, and he blinked in slow disbelief, forcing himself to think.

'Check every room in the house,' he ordered, ignoring the broken rasp of his voice. 'They might have made it inside. Get men out to stretcher the wounded and count the dead. Anyone with medical training is to help Gracia with treating the injured.' He raised his hand to scrub at his face, but his fingers were still locked around the butt of his gun, stiff and unmoving. Limply, he let it fall back to his side, trying not to drown in the rising chill of horror. 'Tell everyone to keep their eyes open for Ed, Al and Winry. We'll check the grounds as we go.'

He gestured sharply for Jean, marching out of the mansion on legs that felt like they belonged to someone else. Panic was something he had to control, and Roy tried to calm his breathing as part of him screamed and roared in the blankness of his mind. Ed was missing. He hadn't found Roy in the mansion as he had promised. Why hadn't he questioned that sooner? Why had he just believed that Ed was taking shelter in another room? After all they had been through, how had he been so stupid to take Ed's safety for granted?

Men hurried past him as he made his way along the drive, picking his way around the crater the shell had left in its wake and scanning his surroundings instinctively. His training took over, guiding his numb footsteps and questioning every shadowy movement as his conscious mind fell into a spitting, snarling rage of worry and self-hatred.

Ed might be somewhere on the ground floor, he told himself. He knew enough about alchemy not to be hurt by Roy's arrays. Falman hadn't had the chance to look there yet. Or he had been outside when the blast went off, safe behind the mansion. He would turn up any minute, pissed off and loud as always.

Roy swallowed, wishing he could believe his own reassurances as nightmarish scenarios gibbered in his mind: Wounded... Dead...Gone...

His gaze skittered to a body on the ground, blonde hair shining in the pearly first light, and his heart banged hard against his ribs. For a moment he was struck blind by fear, and it took several ragged breaths for him to see the truth. The corpse was wearing a uniform, and two flesh hands were curled, limp and lifeless on the ground. Not Ed. Someone's son, brother, lover, but not Ed.

'Sir.' Havoc's hand on his shoulder made him look up, and he saw the stubborn line of the lieutenant's jaw. 'You can punch me for this later, but I've got to say it. We need you here. Right here -' He jabbed his finger at the wrecked ground in emphasis. 'Not somewhere else in your head. I don't give a shit about duty, or honour or any fucking military rules, but I do care about keeping you alive. The last thing I want is to tell Ed, when he turns up, that you're hurt or dead because you weren't focused on yourself.' He swallowed tightly, eyes narrowed in a wince as if he were expecting Roy to set his hair on fire. 'It's not safe yet, sir.'

Closing his eyes, Roy nodded weakly. Of course Jean was right. The world didn't stop for anything, least of all a Brigadier-General locked up tight in his own despair. Even now, an assassin only needed one fleeting opportunity and Roy would be dead. He was leaving himself vulnerable; Ed would be the first to say he was being an idiot.

'Sorry, lieutenant,' he murmured.

'Don't apologise for being human, sir.' He jerked his head towards Central's distant glow, and Roy heard the far-off wails of sirens. 'Sounds like we'll have company soon.'

Roy rubbed his hand across his forehead, closing his eyes before blinking at the horizon. 'Then let's get this place secure. Winning here was only half the battle – we still have to convince the police and parliament that we aren't the rebel force. If we can get Bertrand into custody, then that will be a lot easier.'

They inched forward, moving agilely around the grasping hands of the wounded. White-shirted men ghosted around, retrieving guns and checking vital signs, stretchering the seriously injured back to the house and helping others to their feet. Smoke still drifted through the air, tickling Roy's nose, and the constant sensation of being watched by the snipers on the roof was an eerie form of comfort.

As he skirted around another dead body, he automatically checked its face, shamefully relieved to feel no sense of recognition at its blank features. His fears were still murmuring in time with his heart, saying Ed's name with every beat, but the brutal dread was something he had to tame. It was too tempting to throw his gun aside and start searching, to check and check again until he knew the full truth of what had happened to Ed, but there was more at risk than his own life. The war did not end because the battle was won; he had to see this through to the end and leave the hunt for Ed to the others.

Self-loathing marred his expression, but he pushed it down inside him, black and rotting. He had to concentrate. If he didn't, then all of this would have been for nothing. As much as he hated it, he still had duties to perform. One of the responsibilities of rank was always putting the army first, no matter how much his sick, screaming heart begged him otherwise.

Steadily, he inched past the boundary of the wall, letting Jean and the others fan out to cover the area as he searched the wreckage of the front-line. The trucks were all still there, silent shapes with headlights staring like blank eyes. Machine guns had been abandoned, their ammunition cartridges empty and the ground around their tripods spattered with blood.

Nearby, a pair of badly injured soldiers pleaded hoarsely for the acceptance of their surrender, and Jean crouched briefly, giving his reassurance that someone would come and help them soon. 'Have you seen General Bertrand?' he asked a dark haired private, barely any older than Ed from the looks of it. 'Did he run?'

The youth didn't answer, but Roy saw the fast, frightened flicker of his gaze. His teeth were locked in a terrified grimace, and he was staring over Roy's shoulder, back towards the last jutting ribs of the wall's stonework.

He threw himself to the floor as the shots rang out, brutal and merciless. Havoc's cry of pain and anger was muffled as Roy rolled out of the way, huddling behind a chunk of debris and checking his weapon as he waited for the gunfire to stop. He counted bullets, smirking as the final chamber emptied and Bertrand's panicked, frantic curses coloured the air.

Back at the mansion, people were already running to help them, and Roy held up his hand to keep them back, making sure not to stretch beyond the cover of his makeshift shield. More men would only interfere with the situation, and Bertrand was already unpredictable with fear. He didn't want to drive the shamed general to anything rash, like suicide or hurling himself at them in one final, pointless attack.

Hastily, he checked on Jean and the others, seeing the lieutenant wrapping a scruffy bandage around his bleeding palm. He gave a weary shrug of apology, nodding in understanding as Roy motioned for his men to spread out, cutting off all the escape routes. If nothing else, he was going to make sure the general didn't slip through their fingers.

'You're out of ammunition,' he called out, his voice bouncing back at him. 'If you surrender now, there's a chance of leniency.' Not much of one, he had to admit, but Bertrand probably knew that already. The people behind this would be getting life in jail at best, but they were more likely to be lined up against the wall and shot. The military didn't like to be embarrassed, and neither did parliament. They wouldn't show mercy to anyone who had pulled the wool over their eyes.

A high, choked off chuckle reached his ears, sobbing on every hitched breath. Cautiously, Roy glanced back towards the wall, just about making out the tips of Bertrand's boots. He was hiding behind a slab of rock, head down and body hunched tight as the unhealthy giggling continued. Finally, he managed to take a gulp of air, and his voice drifted to Roy's ears.

'Lost something, Mustang?'

The snarl rumbled in his chest, wild and unstoppable as he shifted his grip on the gun. His gloves rasped, deathly rough across his palm, and his vision tinged with the phantom flash of fire. 'Where is he?' he growled, trying to steady the furious shaking of his body. 'If you know anything about Ed -'

Bertrand's laughter cut him off again, more high and strained than before. Without a word of warning Roy took aim at the one bit of the man that was visible, his boot, and pulled the trigger. He almost didn't hear the noise over the shrilling fury in his ears, but the wounded man's squeal of pain was swift and cathartic, acting like a brief balm to Roy's feral anger.

'Fuck!' The general's voice wobbled as he swore to himself, and Roy threw down his empty revolver as more words drifted towards him. 'You know, Kerr was right. We should have listened to him all those years ago; the Fullmetal Alchemist is nothing but trouble. If it weren't for that brat none of this would have happened. No one would have found out about any of it – we could have kept going forever!' Bertrand dropped to a murmur. 'It's not even like it was my idea. Grange did it – all the plotting and planning and scheming. He needed high-ranking allies for it to work. He said no one would find out what was happening... .'

Roy shifted his weight, knowing he needed to get closer. As long as he thought he was safe, Bertrand would tease them with glimmers of truth among a mire of lies. Shrugging off Havoc's restraining hand, he hissed, 'I'll find out what he knows about Ed even if I have to burn it out of him!'

'No, wait! It could be a -'

A sharp “crack” made Roy duck back for cover, hunkered low like a threatened animal as Bertrand's words died in his throat. He glanced around the rubble, spitting a string of curses as he saw the general body slump sideways. A small, red circle bloomed between his eyebrows, weeping blood across his blank, white face. Dull eyes staring blindly at the sky, and no sign of life stirred the man's body.

'There!' Following Jean's pointing finger, Roy saw a running figure weaving amidst the debris. The bark of the lieutenant's rifle was almost deafening, but the shot found its mark, scything squarely into the back of the man's knee and bringing him to the ground in a billowing cloud of dust.

Roy hurried forward, ignoring the thudding footsteps of the others. Part of his mind gibbered about other gunmen in the gloom, waiting to get a clear shot, but he ignored them as he raced towards the wounded man.

He was scrabbling in the dirt for a small tablet that had fallen from his mouth when he went down and, with a brutal kick, Roy lashed out, hearing the man's wrist break beneath the impact. The cyanide capsule rolled from the killer's limp fingers, and Jean's men pinned him down, restraining him as he thrashed and spat in helpless anger. Broken teeth, still glossed with blood, gleamed in the weak light, and scratches marred his face. He was wearing an Amestrian uniform, but it was tatty and ill-fitting; not a real soldier, but something worse.

The assassin sneered derisively, no doubt waiting for a litany of questions, but Roy held his tongue as a plan began to form. 'Take him back to the house, empty out a room, tie him up and take away anything he could use to kill himself.' Clenching his shaking hands into fists, he added. 'Don't bother asking him anything; he won't talk. Guard him at all times until I say otherwise.'

'Why not just kill him now?' one of the soldiers asked curiously. 'If he won't tell us anything then what good is he?'

Roy looked down into the killer's brown eyes, feeling the flare of his anger crystallise into something icy and flawless, chilling in its intensity. 'He's invisible. Meaningless. He's the only person involved in all this that I can burn to nothing but dust without anyone asking questions.' He waited and, just there, behind the stubborn bravado, he saw the first flicker of fear. 'Get him out of here.'

Jean stayed by his side, watching him with an unreadable expression as the assassin was dragged away. Rubbing a hand nervously over the back of his neck, he glanced along the driveway, narrowing his eyes against the flash of approaching blue lights. 'We've got company, sir – lots of it.'

'Looks like it won't be our problem for long.' Roy watched three figures making their way towards them from the mansion, recognising Avron, Mackenzie and Louis Armstrong in an instant. He tried to read the expressions on their faces, but it was only when they approached that he saw the harsh, tense lines bracketing Mackenzie's mouth, and the sorrow in Armstrong's eyes.

'Get back to the house, Mustang,' Avron said, 'that's an order.'

'We'll deal with the police,' Mackenzie added. 'If you get caught up in their questions, it'll be hours before they let you go, and you need to find your major.'

There was something about the way he said, almost tenderly, as if he understood, that added fuel to the icy fire of Roy's fears. 'Have they found any sign of them? Anything at all that can give us an idea what might have happened?' He didn't know what he was hoping for, but the weak ray of light in his chest died as Louis made a grim, uncertain gesture.

'They searched the whole house and found nothing, but the kitchen door has been sealed. Alex is trying to break his way in while others are going around the back to check.' He took a deep breath as Roy closed his eyes, his imagination running wild. 'I don't know what they'll find, but I think you should be there.'

'Thank you, sir.' Roy didn't wait for any other form of dismissal as he dodged around the officers and dashed across the lawn, jumping over debris and ignoring the bite of the air in his mouth and lungs. The old wound on his shoulder was aching, but it was nothing in comparison to the bruised mess of his heart. There was one scenario that haunted him, one he hadn't dare to let himself consider, because he knew it would break him.

Ed might not be dead or injured, but captured: taken away for Kerr's enjoyment

Panic turned Roy's stomach, and he staggered to a halt by the back door as he scrambled madly for his control. There were already two soldiers on the threshold, grim-faced with shock. Numbly, they moved apart, letting him see Alex, muscles bulging and slick with sweat amidst the shattered remains of the other door. Hawkeye and Hughes were crouched down next to a pair of bodies, and the smell of blood coiled in the air, cloying and dense.

It took Roy a moment to realise that the hair was the wrong shade of blonde, too sandy and too bright. Riza was applying pressure to a wound in Winry's chest, her fingers pressed firmly to the pulse in the girl's throat as Hughes gently felt Al's head, checking for breaks. 'Are they -?' Roy couldn't even bring himself to finish the sentence, and he huffed out a sigh as Maes looked up at him.

'Still alive, although I'm not sure that the people who did this meant for them to survive.' He looked back down into Al's bleached out face as he added, 'We need to get them both to hospital. Gracia can't do enough; they need professionals.'

Roy rubbed a hand over his lips, trying to push aside the screaming questions that howled in his mind. 'There are ambulances at the gate,' he told one of the soldiers at the door. 'Get the paramedics as fast as you can. Is there any way we can wake one of them up - find out what happened?'

'No, sir, I don't think so. I've been trying to piece things together but -' Riza shrugged, looking around the room. ' - there's not much to go on.'

'I sent Ed to check the wall for stragglers and told him to come in through the back door.' Roy clutched his head hopelessly, clenching his hands into fists. 'He probably walked right into the middle of it.'

A tap behind him made him glance towards Jean. His face was stark white, and there was something clenched in his right hand, tattered like a crushed flower in his tight grip. 'I found tire marks in the grass beyond the wall, and footprints, three or four men. I also found this.' He held up the damp rag, swallowing hard as he explained, 'It smells like chloroform. I think we can't find Ed because he's not here. Someone took him.'

Roy felt the blood drain from his face, seeping away so quickly he was amazed it didn't pool beneath his feet in a noisome tide. The room blurred and lurched drunkenly as his ears buzzed and darkness rose up to consume his mind, snuffing out every last bit of heat left in him.

'Kerr.' His voice cracked on the word, hoarse and broken as his shaky self-control collapsed. All along the one fear he had refused to acknowledge was the one that made the most sense. There was so much at stake in this battle, and yet Kerr had stayed away. Now his absence made a horrifying kind of sense.

'We don't know that's what happened,' Maes said quietly, but only the bleached out skeleton of hope lingered in his voice.

'Of course we do,' Roy choked. 'Maybe in the beginning Kerr cared about gold and rank and power, but now his only priority is Ed.' He clamped his teeth down on his tongue, tasting blood as his eyes stung with tears he refused to let fall. Having Ed delivered into his waiting hands was all the general wanted. The consequences of this - arrest, firing squad, disgrace - were all insignificant to him when weighed with the reward of having Ed to punish as he saw fit.

His next breath hissed between his teeth as he huddled where he stood, wanting to weep and scream and rage. Every part of him was twisted with bitter fear, ripped apart and scattered by the sick knowledge that, even as he stood there, Kerr could be doing who knew what to the man Roy loved.

He didn't even know where they had taken him, but that didn't mean he wouldn't tear the city apart looking. Roy had promised Ed that he wouldn't let it happen, wouldn't let the sick fuck lay a finger on him, and he wasn't about to break that oath, not now.

Fury surged through him, pushing aside every other emotion and slamming the door on them as it spread through his body, bringing with it a raw, febrile heat. Prickles danced over Roy's skin, and he scraped his thumb repeatedly over his forefinger as he forced himself to look around the room, taking comfort in the steady fizzle and flare of sparks at his fingertips. Somewhere here, there was something that would help him find out what had happened to Ed. All he had to do was find it.

Despite the blood, the kitchen still looked much the same as before. Random pieces of weaponry were broken down into their component parts on the table, and an empty bowl rested by the sink. The back door was sagging on its hinges, and Roy could see the detritus of the lock just beyond the threshold, gleaming in the breaking dawn.

'They kicked their way in,' he said quietly. 'How did we not hear it?'

'Could have been when the shell went off,' Jean suggested.

'More likely it was during the machine gun fire. Assassins are all about money,' Hughes pointed out. 'I doubt anyone could afford the fee they'd want to come in here while a shell was being charged. They must have got through the wall somehow and burst in.' Maes idly brushed some of Al's hair back from his forehead, standing back as the paramedics bustled in and took over. 'That could be part of the reason why Al and Winry are still alive. The assassins might have planned to use them to make Ed more cooperative, but if they weren't paid for the kill then they probably wouldn't bother.' He gestured at the blood, jaw clenched. 'It's likely that this was just to keep them out of the way.'

'Wouldn't they want to remove witnesses and make it more difficult for us to follow them?' Riza asked.

'Possibly, but if Roy's right and they're delivering Ed to Kerr, then they're not going to care what happens once they get their gold. It's simply not their problem.'

Taking a deep breath, Roy ordered, 'If we can spare them, get Falman and Fuery to go to the hospital. Maybe Al or Winry be able to tell us more when they wake up.' He shifted his weight, fighting against the impatient urge of his body to be moving, hunting, shouting, doing something. It went against every instinct that he had to stay still and think, but it had to be done. He would waste more time by blundering around in a panic. If he could just put the puzzle pieces together... .

He cocked his head as Winry was lifted gently onto a stretcher, staring at a few whitish chips that gleamed on the floor. 'What the hell are those?'

Riza bent down, picking one up gingerly and wrinkling her nose. 'Looks like bone.' She pointed to a wrench not far away. 'I'd say Winry hurt one of her attackers before she went down.'

Memory bloomed in his mind, and his muscles twitched with realisation. 'Not just bone – ' He looked over his shoulder at Havoc, watching the lieutenant put two and two together. 'Didn't the man who killed Bertrand have newly broken teeth?'

'He was here,' Jean murmured as he realised what Roy meant. 'He knows what happened to Ed.'

A beautiful, deadly kind of calm settled over Roy's frazzled nerves, galvanising his strength as he strode across the kitchen and brushed past Armstrong. He was dimly aware of Maes giving orders in his wake, stepping in to smooth over the details. Gratitude was a butterfly caught in the blowtorch of his other emotions, lasting only a split-second before it drifted away, ash on the wind.

There was a time and a place for conscience and morals. This was not one of them. Perhaps it was time to remind people why alchemists were sometimes called human weapons.

'The assassin's in the last room on the right at the top of the stairs.'

He hadn't noticed Jean striding along in his wake, and a quick glance over his shoulder told him that Maes was there as well. Neither of them tried to stop him, to ask questions or make excuses; they both knew he would not listen.

Roy climbed the stairs and marched along the corridor before moving to open the door, his eyes snapping with anger when Hughes grabbed his wrist. 'Let me ask him a question, just one,' his friend murmured, the light reflecting off of his spectacles and making his eyes unreadable. 'That way we can say we gave him a chance. If he doesn't cooperate, then he's all yours.'

Slowly, he gave a nod of agreement, not daring to open his mouth and utter a word. There was too much fear bottle up in his chest, caged beneath his hollow, straining ribs. Despair for Ed's safety was tainting the bright, white light of his fury, muffling it in darker shadows with every passing second. Time weighed heavily down on him, dragging at him with grabby hands as shivers trickled over his skin. He knew if he spoke, his voice would break, his strength would falter, his heart would shatter - better to stay silent and feed his anger than give into the alternative.

Maes opened the door, nodding a dismissal at the three guards who watched the prisoner. Silently, they moved out of the room, leaving Jean at the doorway as Roy followed Hughes inside.

The assassin's hands and feet were bound and his eyes were mutinous, but he didn't say a word. Instead he stared at them, his nose wrinkling and his lips twisting into a smirk as Maes spoke.

'I'm trying to save your life,' he said frankly. 'Help us, and you won't die within the next ten minutes. Believe me, it's your first and last chance.' He paused for a split second, and his next words were rough with loathing. 'Tell me everything you know about what happened to Major Elric tonight.'

The silence stretched around them, dank and stifling as the killer lifted his chin defiantly. He didn't say anything. Cocky and confident, he thought he knew this game, and Roy felt a perverse satisfaction at the flicker of fear that crossed the man's face when Hughes turned away.

'Try to muffle his screams, if you can,' Maes murmured. 'We'll deal with his corpse later.'

Jean grinned, his teeth flashing in the weak first strains of daylight creeping in through the window. His blue eyes flickered disdainfully towards the assassin as he murmured, 'He's invisible. No one'll miss him.'

The door closed behind them, leaving Roy standing statue-still in front of the prisoner. He didn't do anything, barely even blinked, and it didn't take long for man to find his tongue.

'You don't have the guts to kill me,' he spat, shuffling frantically in his ropes as he tried to get free. 'Everyone knows that you're too fuckin' noble. Too soft. I don't have any reason to be afraid of you!'

Calmly, Roy relaxed his fists, staying perfectly quiet as he checked first one glove, then the other, tracing the familiar path of the arrays with his gaze before looking back up at his captive audience. He wasn't an amateur, that much was clear. Despite the faint, nervous sweat glistening along his hairline, the killer seemed unflustered. His upper lip was curled in disdain, and Roy allowed himself to glance, lazy and unconcerned, towards the window.

He moved to the bed, grabbing the sheet and ripping off a ragged strip with a jerk of his hands. The sound of the material tearing was a visceral noise, and, out of the corner of his eye, he saw the man jolt in alarm, wound tight and flinching away despite his courage.

Casually, Roy bundled the cotton into a ball and turned around, crouching down and cramming it into the man's mouth before binding it in place. 'I'm not interested in talking,' he explained quietly, ignoring the bloom of blood from the assassin's lips. 'You had your chance.'

A gruff growl caught behind the gag, and Roy took a deep breath. His body felt full to bursting, straining with the pressure of his emotions. One snap would ease that for a while, would drain it off as he put all of himself into the perfect arc of flame, but this had to play out differently. This couldn't be quick, not if he was going to get what he wanted.

'You and your friends stole someone from me, and you have handed him over to one of the most despicable creatures on the planet.' The words was perfectly level, untainted by emotion as he tugged absently at his gloves. 'Kerr used to work in a commonly denied area of Intelligence. He was a fantastic interrogator, well-versed in torture techniques, and now he plans to use those skills on Ed.' His voice cracked a little, but he carried on regardless, watching the gradual rise of dread in his captive's eyes.

'I expect you thought I'd be harmless. After all, I care about human life, about duty and honour and doing what's right. Unfortunately, you have committed the one act that would make me cast all those things aside. Do you have any idea how dangerous that was? Do you even realise what I can do to you?'

He snapped his fingers, watching the man cringe away. At first it seemed as if nothing had happened, but Roy could feel the subtle whispers of alchemy in the air. It would take a while, but he wanted this to be slow. 'I don't know where Kerr is, so I'll just have to punish you for his crimes.' He smiled coldly, watching the sweat trail down the assassin's cheek. 'Too warm?'

Standing up, he moved back, half of his mind always on the subtle manipulation of the energy in the room. The rest of him was concentrating on every nuance of his posture, every artful crack in his mask. He had spent his whole life showing others what he wanted them to see, and, even now, it was second nature. All it took was the right intensity of his gaze, the steadiness of his breath, the easy, casual posture – and the killer believed he would not show mercy; this was his chosen path, and he would blaze his way along it to the end.

'I've learned a lot of things, thanks to the military,' he said smoothly, watching the growing redness of the man's face and the widening of his eyes. 'There is a certain temperature, a tiny window of heat, where the human body experiences maximum pain without leaving a mark. It's very precise. Too little lacks persuasion and too much -' The man's whimpered breaths rose to a scream, his heels kicking helplessly on the floor as he struggled to get away from the invisible agony. Welts rose over his cheek bones, bright red and weeping. ' - well, you can see what happens. You don't need flames to bake a person in their own skin.' Roy remained stoic, ignoring the steady sink and swim of nausea in his stomach. 'The best thing is that I can keep it up for days, and, believe me, it will take you that long to die.'

Softly, subtly, he let the energy fall back, listening to the taut panting and soft cries of shock emanating from behind the gag. The man's shoulders slumped, his head lolling forward as his hair flopped over his brow. Dark eyes glared hatefully at Roy, but there were flaws in his bravado. Every-time Roy moved his hand, the heat fluctuated, bringing wails or sobbing gasps, kicks and twists and weak, sagging stillness.

Within a few minutes the muffled noises took on more definition. Courage fell away, and Roy curled his fingers thoughtfully over his lips as he watched the desperation on the assassin's face. 'This isn't even your punishment to bear,' he murmured gently. 'Kerr must have paid you a great deal to buy this kind of loyalty. A shame you won't get to spend it.'

Another click, and this time fire, pure and true, flared across the room, scorching the wall on either side of the prisoner. It singed his uniform, filling the room with the scent of burning hair. The assassin was shaking his head frantically, hands twisting in their ropes as he screamed unintelligible words at Roy.

Slowly, he walked closer, seeing the tears spill over the man's lashes and mingle with the sweat and blood on his face. Jerking the gag out of the way, he huffed a sigh of irritation at the gabbled, desperate words.

'Fucking bastard said you'd never hurt us! Said you were too soft! Didn't say anything about – about –' The look on Roy's face was enough to bleach the last of the colour from his face, making the burns stand out against his skin. 'I don't know where they took the brat! I swear I don't!'

'Then what fucking good are you!'

The roar pushed itself free from Roy's throat, fuelled by every ounce of desperate fear. His masks fell away, no longer an act but an earnest ruthlessness that spoke volumes. He had not intended to kill the assassin, had hoped to push him through the veneer of his bravery and out into the barren wastes of terror, where his tongue would loosen and he would tell Roy what he needed to know, but now... .

Fingers wrapped like iron bands around the killer's throat as he pushed with all his might, lifting him up the wall and pinning him there, heels drumming uselessly against the plaster. He could feel every lump and ridge of bone, every wheezed trickle of air and sickly, vile gush of blood in the man's veins. Life was reduced to a rhythm beneath his palm, and all he wanted to do was squeeze.

A squeak from the man's throat made him hesitate, clawing his wrath back under weak control, and he looked up at the face that had gone from white to puce in a matter of seconds. 'One – one thing,' he wheezed, fingers curling between them, plucking at Roy's uniform pleadingly. 'All I know!' He sucked in a breath as Roy loosened his grip just enough to let him speak more clearly. 'Hakuro's town house. The ones who took the kid had the keys. Saw them myself!'

Roy's temper thrashed on its leash, straining against Roy's self-control, and his voice was a menacing growl as he bit out, 'You honestly think that'll save you?' He shook him like a dog would a rat, slamming his head back into the wall. 'You really think that's enough?'

'Please!'

A sharp, acrid scent filled the air, and Roy glanced down at the sodden front of the man's trousers. This was too good to be an act of terror, and he stepped back in disgust, letting the man fall to the floor with a damp sound. 'Worthless,' he hissed, keeping his back straight and his shoulders firm as he turned away. 'Killing you is a waste of my time.'

Roy crossed the threshold and shut the door in his wake, taking a quick breath of the clean air before he leant back against the wall and let himself shake. His rage drained away, leaving him weak. He felt sick to the core, as twisted and vile as when he had crawled back from the horrors of Ishbal.

It was easy to say that the man he had just tortured was a killer, a piece of callous, vicious filth with no right to mercy, but Roy was not sure if it was enough to warrant what he had done - and yet, if he hadn't, they would not have even that crumb of information as to Ed's whereabouts.

Dragging his hand through his hair, he swallowed against the bile in his throat. There would be time enough for a moral crisis later on. For now, he had to make sure that the ends justified the means.

For his sake and Ed's, Roy had to find him before it was too late.

'Anything?' Maes asked from where he waited a little way along the corridor. He and Jean were both stony-faced. If they had heard the man's screams, then they showed no sign of it. Their eyes held no trace of judgement, and Roy pushed himself away from the wall, walking quickly along the corridor as he explained about the town house.

'Someone get the prisoner water and a change of clothes.' He glanced back over his shoulder, feeling compelled to voice the question that lingered in his mind. 'Did you know that I was manipulating him, or did you think I'd go through with it and kill him?'

He felt the weight of their exchanged glance behind his back, and let out a tight breath as Hughes murmured, 'We hoped you wouldn't, but no one would blame you if you had – the same way no one would blame me for killing someone who had a hand in threatening Gracia or Elysia. I take it from your orders that he is still concious?'

'He was when I left. The firing squad can deal with him. I don't need his blood on my hands.'

'What about Kerr's?' Jean's timid question was almost inaudible, and Roy hesitated, glancing back at the lieutenant out of the corner of his eye before turning away. He didn't answer – couldn't, because he knew that it would be the same as proclaiming murder. If Kerr had hurt Ed, if he had even touched him, then Roy would make him pay.

'We need to get to that town house. Maybe Ed's not there, but we might be able to find something to tell us where they took him.'

Roy hesitated at the top of the stairs, looking down at the cluster of people in the entrance hall and making a tight sound of impatience. Dark-uniformed military police milled around, helping Hughes' men in their duties and guarding the doors. Avron, Mackenzie and Louis stood talking to a woman that he assumed was Pandora Knox, and a tight-lipped captain stood at her shoulder, watching him with a frosty expression.

Turning to Maes, he murmured, 'Find out what you can about Hakuro's properties in Central. We need to know exactly where this place is, or it will be like looking for a needle in a haystack. I'll deal with getting us out of here.'

Slowly, Roy descended to the hall, watching Hughes hurry away before turning his attention back to the assembled officers.

The captain stepped forward, lips parted around a disdainful question, but Mackenzie got there first, his eyes intense with concern as he asked, 'Have you managed to find out anything of Major Elric?'

Roy looked at the older man's features, noticing that Avron was watching them both, his worry unguarded. 'We think the assassins were paid to capture him, and the only clue we have is that they had the keys to Hakuro's town house.'

'There is no such thing listed in the victim's manifest,' the captain said in a clipped voice, his tone slick and uncaring. 'I think you've been lied to, Brigadier-General.'

'Sloane,' Pandora Knox said, her voice heavy with warning. Dark grey eyes pinned the man with an uncompromising gaze, and her lips pinched into a tight line of disapproval. 'It is common knowledge that many military officers don't make their full list of properties known to the public or the military police. Fuhrer Hakuro may have had a dwelling in the city that we are unaware of.'

She turned to Roy, inclining her head respectfully. 'Please forgive Sloane, sir. He has a brilliant tactical mind, but sometimes he fails to put it to good use.' Her hand tightened on the ledgers in her grip, and she looked down at their bland covers before glancing up at him thoughtfully. 'This evidence you acquired is very compelling. I have already sent a message to Cosco requesting his presence, and we will begin our investigations immediately. As soon as we are done, we will search for Major Elric.'

'We don't have that kind of time!' Roy sucked in a deep breath, glancing away as his snapped words echoed through the hallway. 'We need to find Fullmetal immediately. His life's in danger. Forgive me, Commander Knox, but this is a matter for the military, not the police.'

'The military's business is our business,' Sloane said coldly. 'Is a major's life really more important than the Fuhrer's murder?' His eyes narrowed, but he did not flinch away from the dark weight of Roy's gaze. 'Surely catching his killer takes precedent?'

Roy resisted the powerful urge to grab the stupid man and hurl him out of his way. 'Hakuro's killer and the man who has Edward are probably one and the same! General Kerr was seen in the vicinity of the Fuhrer's office when the shots were fired, and we have known for weeks that he has a personal vendetta against the major.' He enunciated each word clearly, taking one slow, dangerous step closer to Sloane as his hands clenched into fists at his side. 'If you plan to keep myself and my command here, then you'd best be prepared to fight. We'll force our way out if we have to.'

'Commander Knox!' Sloane squeaked in outrage, his eyes bugging alarmingly as Roy rasped his thumb and forefinger together. 'They're suspects! We can't let an armed force out on the streets. For all we know they're the ones who killed the Fuhrer! They've already admitted they had men in the complex at the time. This could be a ruse to slip out of the city!'

It was impossible for Roy to choke off the rising snarl in his throat, and he barely heard Avron and Mackenzie's protests to the slur to his name. His ears were filled with the thrashing thuds of his own heart, beating out its straining rhythm beneath his ribs and filling his veins with hot desperation.

He took one step closer to Sloane, his voice pitched low. 'I'll only ask once more: get the hell out of my way.'

'Perhaps this will help you to realise the seriousness of the situation, Commander.' Riza's words were bell clear, cutting through the tension smoothly, and Roy looked her way to see her holding an envelope. He recognised it instantly, and his body flooded with nausea as he realised that Kerr could be acting out his vile narrative of punishments on Ed's body while Roy stood here, helpless.

'Sir, do I have your permission?'

Hawkeye's question was gentle, but he still had to fight the urge to snatch the envelope from her grasp and tear it to pieces – to destroy it in the hopes that by ripping the words apart he could annihilate Kerr's intentions.

Eventually he managed a quick nod, watching as Knox accepted the envelope and read the document inside. Bit by bit, the colour drained from her face, her thin lips twisting in disgust. When she got to the end she folded it neatly, her gaze focussed hawk-sharp on Roy's expression as she asked, 'How do you know that General Kerr was the one who wrote this – this -' She floundered, unable to find a suitable word.

'Major Elric recognised some of the wording. Kerr threatened him verbally a few months ago, but he didn't think much of it at the time.' Roy straightened up, not flinching from Knox's scrutiny as he asked, 'Please, commander. You can see from the letter that we don't have time to waste. If Fullmetal has been handed over to Kerr -'

'We know exactly where the town house is,' Hughes interrupted, nudging his way to Roy's side and holding out an unfolded map. 'It's on the south bank of the river, and it wasn't officially acknowledged on any military documents. It's a good hiding place, and it gives Kerr the kind of privacy he'll need for what he plans to do.'

Roy watched Knox smooth a strand of grey hair away from her face before she looked over her shoulder, her expression professional and strong as her eyes settled on one of her men. 'Devone!' she called out, 'Assemble your men and accompany Brigadier-General Mustang to arrest General Kerr on suspicion of conspiracy and murder. This may be a hostage situation, so defer to the Brigadier-General's orders and proceed with caution.'

Knox turned back to Mustang, slipping the letter between the pages of the ledger. 'We will add additional charges once the major's well-being has been established,' she said quietly. 'I hope, for his sake, that it will be unnecessary. If you can capture Kerr, sir, rather than kill him, then please do so. I shall contact Cosco and follow on behind. We have been looking to question the general once we realised he was no longer within the command complex.' She grimaced. 'I suppose now we know why he fled. He had better places to be.'

With a minuscule nod of thanks to the commander, Roy barged his way past Sloane and strode across the hallway, ignoring his surroundings. All of his being was focussed on the town house, as if it were a beacon that was calling to him across the sunrise. Ed was out there somewhere, and he would find him, no matter what it took. Behind him, he could hear the others hurrying to keep up, but it was all background noise to the flash and spin of his thoughts. He didn't know what they would find, and did not dare to let his imagination dwell on the possibilities.

'What exactly is the plan?' Breda asked, panting as he picked his way over the debris. 'Are we just going to barge into the place and take Ed back, or what?'

'We can't know until we see the situation first hand,' Hughes explained. 'I've already sent some of my men along with military police details to secure Kerr's personal property – or at least the ones we know about. We're having to make a lot of assumptions here, and there's no guarantee that he'll be in the town house.'

'I hope he is,' Roy asked roughly, 'otherwise we're back to square one and no closer to getting Ed back.' He stopped at the wrecked remains of the gate and looked around, ignoring the ambulances and fire-engines, police cars and milling personnel. Instead his gaze caught on one of the trucks parked with its doors wide open. In the ignition, sparkling in the dawn light, was a set of slim, silver keys.

Hurrying over, he was about to climb in when Hawkeye pushed him gently aside, shaking her head. 'Let me, sir. I'm more likely to get us there in one piece. You think about how we're going to pull this off.'

'We'll follow on behind, sir,' Devone called out, already heading for the black military police vans.

'Be discreet,' Roy ordered as he walked around to the passenger side. 'The last thing we want is to alert Kerr to our presence and have him make a run for it. I'm not about to let the bastard get away.' He didn't wait for any kind of acknowledgement as he clambered into the truck, listening to the engine splutter and choke before it came to life.

Riza barely waited for them all to climb on board before she pulled away, shifting up neatly through the gears and swerving away down the drive. Within a matter of minutes they had crossed the tattered remains of the perimeter and turned into Central's streets. At this time of day they were almost deserted, and no one stopped them as they sailed past the command complex and carried on towards the river.

Roy stared blankly out of the window, trying to hear the voice of logic over the heady thrum of panic that shrilled through his body. He had to plan for everything, to see each scenario through to its end and prepare for it, but his mind kept getting caught on the details. It had already been over two hours since the machine guns had stopped their assault on the estate. Ed had been missing for almost that long. How much would Kerr have done by the time they got there?

The worst thing was that he was hoping the general took his time, because that at least meant that Ed might still live. He may be broken, bloody, violated – but at least he wouldn't be dead. Kerr's letter had been sparse on details and intense with loathing, but he had made his ultimate goal of killing Ed utterly clear.

If nothing else, Roy had to stop that from happening. Everything else – everything – he would find some way of helping Ed through it, helping him heal, but if Kerr put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger, snuffed Ed's life out for good, then Roy knew it would be a grief he couldn't survive.

'There.'

Roy looked up, realising that they had pulled to a stop by the sleek, silver flow of the river. Grimly, he followed Maes' pointing finger to one of the opulent buildings that looked out across the water. It was a large, stately place, made of red brick and white stone, and he stared breathlessly at its façade, trying to see any clue as to whether Ed was inside.

Drapes were drawn across the windows, leaving them blank, and the front door was shut tight against the world. A sleek, black car, military issue, was parked at the kerb, and Roy realised the gate was open a little way, not latched properly. Gradually he let his gaze sweep upwards, sucking in a breath as he realised what he was seeing. The chimneys stood proud and tall, silhouetted against dawn's blush and, drifting from the stacks like a ghost in the breeze, was a wisp of smoke.

'Someone's inside,' Roy said quickly, his heart surging with a dizzying combination of hope, fear and rage. 'The fire's lit. The place isn't empty.'

'And the Fuhrer's family are in protective custody,' Hughes added, already moving to climb out of the truck. 'We need to take a closer look – see exactly what we're dealing with. There's no telling what's going on in there.'

Suddenly, the morning peace broke apart, shattering into a thousand fragments. Roosting pigeons took flight from the trees that lined the streets, and dogs began to bark and howl.

Roy's stomach went from a writhing mass of anxiety to a dead, cold stone, heavy in his core. He knew that sound, had heard it enough times during the war. It still haunted his dreams at night and lurked in the back of his memory, sobbing and agonised.

A human scream.

Chapter Text

The comforting crackle of the fire reached Ed's ears, nibbling on the edge of his hearing. It dragged him free from the dizzy fog and spread its soothing heat across his skin. He was in the safe-house with Roy, sheltered and warm in the bed that they shared.

Except that something was wrong. His body ached fiercely, and there was a strong, medical taste coating his tongue with its brackish sting. His shoulders burned, and his arms and legs felt strangely heavy and twisted. The pain in his head intensified as he stepped further back from the brink of his dreams, and a breath hissed between his lips as memory bloomed like a black flower in his mind.

Al's cried out warning and the flesh-on-flesh sound of a landed punch - Winry lying prone and still on the floor -The cloying smell of the rag shoved over his mouth and the heavy uselessness of his limbs. He had been helpless to stop them from taking him as he sank deeper into the blackness, unable to stop them from bringing him here, to Kerr.

Panic seized him, turning his pliant spine into a steel bar as his muscles twitched. Instinct drove him onwards, jerking him around in a frightened, vicious tangle: ready to fight – ready to run. Except that he could do neither. A weight around his wrists yanked at his arms, and his legs were flat against the mattress and locked immobile at the ankle, giving him nothing but the tiniest amount of freedom.

Yet it was the cool, slick pressure around his neck that stopped him dead, breathless and snarling in the peace. It didn't feel like a collar, but a barbed chain looped around his throat and somehow attached to the bed. It had been too loose to notice when he awoke, but now the slipknot had tightened with his struggles, garrotte-like, and slim, sharp barbs bit into the skin over his pulse, drawing a warm trickle of blood.

Ed twisted his wrists in the restraints, checking their strength as he forced aside the first, animal reaction and made himself take stock of the situation. He was lying on a four-poster bed, one that looked as if it had been carved from solid wood, strong and unbending. Smooth sheets draped on the mattress beneath his back, and the canopy overhead had been removed, allowing him to see a white ceiling with intricate plasterwork dotted over its surface.

There was nothing like this at Central Command. It almost looked like it belonged in the Armstrong estate, but this wasn't a room he recognised. Besides, he'd been driven away from there, away from the battle and his brother and Roy. He didn't even know if they were still alive; anything could have happened. For all he knew, he was the only one left.

Ed swallowed the growing lump in his throat, dragging in a stuttering breath as he forced himself to concentrate. The only thing that he knew for sure was that, right now, he was the one in danger. The one small blessing was that he seemed to be alone, but there was no way of telling when Kerr would come to check on him. He had to move!

The restraints clinked together, and he shifted on the luxurious bedding, mindful of the thing around his neck. Ed glared at the shoulder-width metal bar that separated and manacled his wrists. It was several inches thick, hollow but strong, and attached to the bed by a few links of chain. No chance of clapping, not unless he ripped his arm out. His hands were pulled awkwardly above his head; he couldn't even scratch his nose, let alone break free.

His legs were the same, spread apart and fixed in place in a way that made a sick sweat burn over his skin. He felt too vulnerable, naked despite the clothes he still wore. Ed's muscles screamed with the urge to press his legs together, to protect himself from the unseen threat that lingered in the room, but it was impossible.

Carefully, he lifted his aching head. Whatever drug they'd made him inhale still lingered on, making his vision weave uncertainly, but he blinked it aside. Ed winced, gritting his teeth in discomfort as the thorny chain around his throat shifted. It was longer than the others and had enough slack for him to get a good look at his impromptu prison.

The area around the bed had been meticulously cleared of anything useful: only a long, low table rested along the right-hand side of the mattress, strangely bare. There was a fire, his senses hadn't been lying about that. It burned cheerfully in the grate to his left, a poker propped in its glowing coals and a bucket of fuel by its side. Drapes were pulled across the big windows, and he couldn't see any sign of daylight. Only the faint first twitters of the dawn chorus gave him any idea of how long he had been unconscious: an hour at most. He had been helpless just long enough for them to get him here without a fuss, to steal him away and spread him out like some kind of sacrifice to Kerr's perversion.

'Fuck!' Ed hissed, letting his head fall back to the pillow and squaring his shoulders before pulling with all his might against the cuffs that held his hands in place. The chain chimed musically, and the bed creaked a warning. The muscles in his arm stood out and the plates of his automail groaned alarmingly, but there wasn't even an inch of weakness to be found. Even at his best he wouldn't have been able to get out of this. Now, he had no chance.

He needed help, and the only ones who could give it to him were probably miles away. Ed grimaced, wishing he knew more about what was going on back at the estate. Had the mansion survived the shelling? Was the battle still in full-swing, or was it over? Were they looking for him? Did they even know he was gone? His heart whimpered in his chest as he thought of Al and Winry. Were they even still alive, or had they both been killed by the assassins in the name of capturing him?

A sound beyond the door made him freeze, frightened anger swirling in his veins as indecision tore at him. A second later he forced himself to go lax, eyes closing blissfully as he tried to control his breathing. Any advantage was better than none. Maybe he could surprise the fucker. Just let him get close enough Ed would show him how dangerous a chained prisoner could be.

He heard the latch click shut and the soft rasp of a bolt sliding home before slow, steady footsteps whispered on the carpet. He recognised Kerr's gait; it had been the same when he and Roy were hiding at the station in the east. Confident and easy, it was as if he knew everything and held the world in his palm. Kerr was in control, and he knew it.

'You're awake.' The words were rough and callous, not as threatening as they were uncaring. 'Your body is giving you away: racing pulse, tension in your jaw and, of course, you would not have slept through the choke-chain cutting into your neck, even with the drug in your system.' He said it clinically, as if he were a doctor describing an illness, and Ed opened his eyes, meeting the general's gaze without the tiniest flinch.

Whatever Kerr's voice had implied, his physical presence told another story. His big hands were clenched into fists, white-knuckled at his sides, and his expression was a strange mix of loathing and excitement. Dark eyes gleamed in the flickering light of the room, and a gloss of sweat beaded his upper lip.

Tucked beneath his arm was a rolled up piece of leather that reminded Ed of the sheaths in which Granny Pinako kept her more expensive tools. Kerr saw the direction of his gaze and nodded, as if pleased by Ed's attention to detail. Without a word, he unfurled it along the table, revealing a gleaming, glittering array of things.

There were probably more than thirty objects, and the word “implements” slipped insidiously across Ed's conciousness. They looked like something out of a nightmare, a cross between a mechanic's tool box and a doctor's surgery tray, and Ed's stomach twisted painfully. He had seen similar things when he was a kid having the automail installed, but they had been different. They spoke of a purpose other than pain, but these – these had nothing to do with healing.

His heart had turned to stone in his chest, grating painfully with every beat, and Ed couldn't have kept the expression of horrified doubt off of his face if someone had paid him. This was a tactic, something to scare him, something to make him – what? Talk?

He closed his eyes, swallowing tightly as the icy truth wrapped around him like a shroud. Kerr wasn't after information. He wasn't looking to find Ed's weaknesses and exploit them. All he cared about was punishment. All he wanted was to see Ed's pain and hear his pleas. Nothing Ed could say would change the general's mind or make him see the error of his ways. This wouldn't be a negotiation: it wasn't even going to be a fight. It would be prolonged, painful murder.

Ed had seen the letter, had known, in a distracted way, that it was about him and he was in danger, but he would never have thought it would come to this. Before it had been one of Kerr's fantasies, but now, like a nightmare come to life, it was turning into the grimmest kind of reality.

Kerr was watching Ed's face hungrily, drinking in every flicker of horror and realisation as if they were his sustenance. A smile curved his lips, but it was mirthless and cold. 'You are wondering if I have the strength to go through with it, aren't you? If I can honestly stand here and inflict unrelenting pain on another person?' He reached out, picking up one of the tools and turning it this way and that, letting it wink out a morse-code of corrupted firelight. 'The answer is yes.'

He turned away, twitching the blade between his fingers as he opened a drinks cabinet and poured himself a tumbler of something. The bottle “chinked” on the glass, and clear liquid, like water, sloshed into the bottom of it. Kerr took a swig, rolling it around his tongue as he turned back and considered Ed through narrowed eyes.

'I have tortured hundreds of people,' he began quietly, 'extracted information with more violence than you can imagine, and it has always amazed me how easy it is to kill. All that ambition, life, passion, kept in a body that can be destroyed with a single blow. The right cut in the right place, and that's the end.' He smirked, and when he moved back towards the bed there was a swagger in his step and his next low words trembled with excitement.

'And yet in that same weak body there is so much capacity for pain. It fights to survive, strains to live even when the only thing in life is agony. It takes practice, of course, to know where to draw the line, but -' His voice became a purr. ' - I can assure you that I have had the opportunity to perfect my skills.'

He put the glass down on the corner of the table before unbuttoning his uniform with steady fingers. 'Really, you only have one thing to be grateful for: I don't have the luxury of time. I could keep this up for weeks, given the chance, but I shall have to make do with one day.'

Ed watched him turn away and shrug out of the jacket, seeing the bunch and flex of muscles beneath Kerr's shirt. Nervously, he licked his lips. He had never been one to back away from a fight, even when the odds were stacked against him. Maybe if he could rile Kerr into making a mistake, then he could find some way to get free.

'Why are you doing this to me?' Ed asked, letting a sneer taint his words. 'What did I do? I saw your letter, saw what you think of me, but you can't be that fucking desperate to get laid.'

He expected the blow, but it didn't stop the explosion of stars across his vision or the bright flood of blood across his tongue as Kerr spun around and slammed his fist into Ed's cheek. His head jerked around, and a few drops of bright crimson fell to stain the pillowcase as the choke-chain tightened further.

'Don't you question me, you slut!' Kerr snapped, his face a dark, thudding red. The guise of control was gone, and Ed ignored the hammering pain in his cheek as he examined the man's weakness. Defiance made him angry and, while that would lead to pain for Ed, it would also result in clumsiness on the general's part.

He closed his eyes briefly, knowing he could use that if he really had to. Back in the safe-house he had thought that he would rather die than let Kerr rape him, and it hadn't been an exaggeration. To the general, pain was all part of the foreplay. It should be possible to make him slip up, to make one cut too deep or break one bone too many.

Ed worked his jaw, blinking back the bite of tears that stung his lashes. It should be a last resort, but he could already see his options narrowing down to that one, definitive decision. If he could provoke Kerr, then he could reclaim that last bit of control over the situation. He could dictate when this came to a terminal end and, if nothing else, he could have the satisfaction of knowing that his decline into death would buy him the tiniest of victories.

Gritting his teeth, he watched Kerr smooth his hair back into place and glance at him with cold eyes. Working smoothly, he rolled up the cuffs of his shirt, his face marred with hatred as he picked up the glass and took another swig before wiping his mouth. 'You know why I'm doing this. You spread your legs and gave Mustang what he wanted, and in return you got the State Alchemist qualification.' Kerr frowned, his lips curling in disgust. 'You never thought twice about the others. Those who tried to win it fairly, rather than whoring themselves out to the highest bidder, did you?'

Kerr's fingers tightened around the tumbler, and he put it down forcefully before he reached into his pocket and pulled out a thick, leather glove. With quick, efficient movements he jerked it onto his right hand before reaching out and wrapping the length of thorny chain behind Ed's head in his grasp. He held it taut as he bent down and whispered, 'You tempted the weak in the military, and you killed my son. This isn't just a punishment; it's justice.'

The chain jerked, tightening around Ed's neck and cutting off his furious hiss of pain. Barbs shifted and sliced, digging in deeper as he struggled for breath. He didn't know how long it lasted - how long he fought to get anything into his lungs. It was instinct to pull away, to try and escape the noose, but that only made the situation worse, and all the while Kerr was watching as if Ed were a bad dog on the end of a leash.

Finally, he felt a gloved fingertip loosen off the knot, allowing him to drag in a gasp of the air. He almost retched on it as his heart hammered in his ears and his body shook, too weak to stay still any longer. 'I didn't kill anyone!' Ed meant to spit it, but his voice betrayed him, cracked and ruined. 'Everything you think I did is all in your fucking head!'

'The rank you hold, the watch you wear, they all should have been his! All his childhood he wanted to be an alchemist, studying hard and pushing himself further every day, and then you walked in and turned them all blind to his brilliance!' Kerr's snarl died away and he straightened up, turning away as he struggled to regain his composure and the upper hand. 'Deny it all you want, but it doesn't change anything. He walked away with nothing that day, and it was the end of him. If it weren't for you, he would still be here.'

Ed drew a deep breath, his mind racing as he tried to think of a way to keep Kerr talking. The longer he spoke, the less time he had to use the things lined up on the table, and the more chance Ed had of finding a way out of this. 'You weren't even there,' he growled, swallowing convulsively as he twisted his wrists in a futile effort to break free. 'You didn't see what happened.'

Kerr stayed silent, tugging off the glove and reaching for a small bottle. It was full of clear liquid, and he inverted it before carefully filling a syringe. The needle winked lewdly in the firelight, and Ed stared at it blankly as it was put aside.

'I didn't need to.' Now there was a different kind of light in Kerr's eyes, one that turned Ed's stomach and made his blood run cold. 'Everyday I see more proof of your tempting ways. I see the way they look at you. How many of them have you crawled for? A few, a dozen, all of them?'

The knife chimed on the table as he picked it up, his eyes never leaving Ed's mutinous face. Ed tried to arch away, but there was nowhere to go as the point touched the skin above his navel. Slowly, as if savouring the moment, Kerr drew it upwards, slitting the black vest open and leaving a faint line of blood in the blade's wake. Two quick cuts and the material lay in tatters on the mattress, allowing the air to ghost wantonly over Ed's bare chest.

Kerr's gaze swept along Ed's body, drifting from his eyes and down his torso, lingering below his belt before he licked his lips and looked back up at his face. 'They all want you,' Kerr husked, 'and it's Mustang I pity the most. He's helpless against you – can only watch and wait as you fuck around behind his back. Maybe occasionally he gets a taste, but I've seen how he stares at you, all heat and want and desperation. Not that I can blame him. Not when you grew into this.'

Reaching out like a man in a trance, he cupped Ed's jaw, his fingers slipping in the blood from the wounds beneath the chain. His pupils flared as Ed turned his head, trying to get away, and the grip tightened painfully. Kerr's thumb swept back and forth over Ed's bottom lip, dragging at the dry skin as if he couldn't resist it.

It took a split second to change tactic and attack. Ed snapped his head around, ignoring the pull of the chain as he sank his teeth deep into Kerr's thumb, feeling soft flesh give way to hard bone. His mouth filled with the taste of tin, but he ignored it as he hung as tight as he could, watching the bastard's face crumble with pain.

He didn't scream, holding the cry inside as the tendons in his neck stood out and his face turned an ugly shade of mottled purple. Kerr's spare hand pushed at Ed's face, scrabbling helplessly as he tried to gain purchase. Eventually, he gave up, twisting around to fumble among the silvery tools on the table and picking up something. Without hesitation, he slammed it into the soft skin next to Ed's automail port.

It was a calculated move, one that made Ed's back arch off of the bed as the needle-like blades pressed against the joint of wiring and nerves, creating horrible spasms that tore down his spine. He lost his grip on Kerr's thumb, feeling it slip free and hearing the man's snarling pants as he clutched at his injured hand.

The metal weapon was still embedded in Ed's shoulder, and he squinted through the incessant agony to see it jutting out gruesomely. His arm was raised above his head, and it felt like it had lodged between bone and the hard, metal rim of the port. There wasn't much blood, but that didn't mean anything. Even in a moment of panic Kerr knew what he was doing – knew how to inflict the most pain, and Ed watched, teeth gritted and pulse thudding as the general reached down and gripped it in his bloody palm before slowly twisting it around.

'This is nothing,' he murmured calmly as Ed thrashed and panted, trying to jerk himself away from the grating sensation . Bright sparks of agony danced through his body and filled his mind with their blinding light, drowning out everything but Kerr's voice. 'I've been told automail surgery is one of the most painful things to endure, but I am sure I can prove that wrong.'

Finally, he wrenched the thing free, leaving Ed to slump back against the pillows, biting his tongue and trying to ignore the sweat that caught along his hair-line. Panic was rising, and the warm room suddenly seemed stifling, clogged with the scent of the burning coal and the alcohol on Kerr's breath.

He could smell the other man's excitement, see it in the slight shake of his body as he wrapped a clean bandage around his thumb. He was acting as if injury was an occupational hazard, something to be expected. If anything, he seemed more pleased by Ed's attack than annoyed, and Ed stifled a harsh, sobbing sound as he realised that was exactly what Kerr wanted. He wasn't looking for a victim, but a challenge.

The more he fought back the more Kerr would enjoy it, but what other choice was there? Being calm and docile, beautifully submissive, was not an option. Ed knew he couldn't lie back and let the general fuck him. He'd do anything to stop that from happening. He was Roy's, no one else's, and he wasn't about to let Kerr steal that away.

Looking at his shoulder, Ed expected to see an open, bleeding wound, but there was nothing there except for six tiny beads of blood and a spreading bruise beneath the skin. He looked up sharply, teeth bared in a snarl when Kerr made a soft, mocking noise and murmured, 'I wouldn't want to ruin my playground.'

'I'm not your fuck toy!' His anger only made Kerr's smile widen, and Ed shuddered as the man brushed warm fingertips to the tiny wound he had just left, pressing hard and creating more phantoms of pain.

'Not mine, but someone else's?' he purred, skimming up to Ed's neck and tracing patterns in the sticky blood that tainted his skin, ignoring Ed's struggles to pull away. 'Not for long, I'm afraid. By the time I'm done with you, no one would even think to challenge my claim.' He shrugged, snatching his hand away as Ed snapped for him again, dealing a sharp, back-handed slap of retribution. 'I hope Mustang taught you not to bite where it matters. I had plans that involved your mouth.'

'Try it,' Ed hissed, baring his bloody teeth in a grin. 'Just fucking try it. If you put your dick anywhere near me, I'll make you wish you'd been born a woman!'

Kerr gave him a level, cold look before turning away and moving towards the fire. 'You're a filthy little savage, aren't you? Barely more than an animal.' He bent down, stirring the coals as he continued to speak, 'I'll make you mine before I kill you, you little whore, in more ways than one.'

He moved so quickly that Ed didn't even have time to flinch. Hard, strong fingers gripped his right ankle, and he saw a glowing smear of red light before pain exploded across the sole of his foot. The air was filled with a strange hissing and the cooked meat scent of burning flesh, but Ed barely sensed any of it. His mind was brimming with the scream locked inside his throat, no more than a muffled, choked back cry as tears spilled from his eyelashes, splashing down his face and dripping into his hair.

There was no space left for any thought. Every last inch of him was consumed with the scorching heat. The fingernails of his left hand cut into his palm as he clenched his fist tight, pulling against the chains. He writhed and twisted, but Kerr held him firmly, pushing the hot metal into the sensitive arch of his foot as he murmured soothing nothings, his words little more than a faint sound behind the squealing in Ed's ears.

Finally, the agony ebbed, reduced to a sharp stinging sensation that shot its lances up his leg and spread an unhealthy warmth over his skin. He blinked away the tears, ignoring the tell-tale paths of wetness that trailed from the corners of his eyes as he watched Kerr put the metal back in the coals. It wasn't a poker after all, but a brand. Its intricate pattern had darkened as it cooled, but even now it was returning to bright, cherry red.

'Burns are one of the most painful types of injury a person can suffer,' Kerr said calmly, as if he had just done nothing more unusual than buying groceries. 'Mustang would know that and yet he still uses fire alchemy.' He hesitated, wiping his hands on a cloth before picking up his drink again. 'What kind of man does that make him?'

'At least he's not too much of a coward to fight for what he wants!' Ed managed to choke out as he dragged in one panting breath after another, trying to pull his scattered mind together and think around the pain. He wanted to clutch his foot, to plunge it in cool water and wipe away the biting sting, but there was nothing he could do.

His whole body ached as if every joint had been stretched. Both shoulders hummed and his side was a thudding mess of sensation. Even his hips felt wrecked, and he realised he must have tried to curl into a ball, pulling against the chains' unfaltering captivity in his efforts to escape the branding iron.

Tipping his head back, he bit off another haggard sound as the tether around his neck scratched and shifted. All his life he had fought against those who tried to hurt him, but now he didn't even have that ability. He had been reduced to nothing, unable to clap or punch or transmute his way out of this mess. He was utterly at Kerr's mercy, and the man had none to spare.

Blinking miserably at the headboard, something caught his eye, shoving everything else to one side as a tiny sliver of hope shot through his heart like cupid's arrow. People could find strength they never knew they had in a crisis, and now he was staring at the bar that joined the manacles together, seeing his face in its polished surface and, running around its circumference, a hair-line crack.

It wasn't much, but Ed was willing to clutch at straws. Anything - anything to get out of this! If he could bend it just enough to get his fingertips together, it would be better than any key. He could blast his way free, and then he would finally be able to give as good as he got. He just had to keep the general distracted, keep him talking or hitting - anything to stop him looking at the restraints.

Kerr took a step towards him, and Ed couldn't help but flinch away, cowering despite himself. The pain was over-riding his strength of mind, making his body act on its own, and greasy nausea rolled in his throat as he noticed a visible rise in the crotch of Kerr's uniform. 'That's more like it; a bit of humility at last.'

Ed winced as a hand tangled in his dishevelled hair, grabbing a fistful of the tresses and yanking hard, tipping Ed's face up and exposing his throat. He held himself rigid, cringing as Kerr bent and lapped at the bloody gloss on his skin. The general carefully avoided the thorny collar, murmuring in his ear, 'You've contained yourself so far, but I promise you this: when I fuck you, you'll scream and beg and plead for me to stop.'

He ducked out of the way with another laugh as Ed tried to bite. He didn't do any damage, but he did manage to use the motion as an excuse to shimmy as far down the bed as the chains would allow, slipping the manacles into the right position. It was easy to snap and snarl and stare all of his loathing at Kerr, and it made sure the general was too busy watching the play of emotions on his face to notice what he was doing with his hands.

If he stretched his fingers he could just about curl them around the bar. His palms were slick with sweat, but he gripped the metal as hard as he could, hoping that Kerr would take it for white-knuckled fear. The manacles bit into his flesh wrist, hurting the raw skin and making his automail creak slightly, but it was a pain he was willing to bear if it got him the hell out of here.

Biting his lip, he watched Kerr prowl back around to the tools laid on the table, running his fingers over their handles as if he was playing a musical instrument. He was focussed intently on making his choice, and Ed forced his face to stay expressionless as his muscles bunched and he strained to have any impact on the restraints. Almost imperceptibly, the bar began to move, bending fractionally around the flaw.

'You won't get out,' he said softly, looking up at Ed with a smirk. 'It won't break no matter how hard you try. I had it made especially for you, and I've been waiting to use it for quite some time.' He picked up something that looked like a sharpened stake, serrated at intervals down its length and filed to a wicked point. He flicked it into the air and caught it by the handle, smiling as Ed's gaze followed its gleaming path warily.

'That first assassin, the one on the rooftop? I could have killed him myself when I heard what happened.' Kerr moved closer to the mattress, his eyes focussed on the yellow and green bruises around the healing bullet hole in Ed's side. 'His orders were clear, but all he could think of was his wounded pride. Still, I suppose I should be thankful. His mistake set this whole thing in motion and brought you here, to me.'

His eyes gleamed, pupils flaring hungrily as he whispered, 'Did it hurt when he shot you? Was it painful to find someone you couldn't tempt?' He breathed in through his nose, eyes narrowing to hot slits as he trailed the stake down over Ed's stomach and across the leather of his pants, resting on his fly and applying the faintest, threatening pressure.

'I'm not going to let you fuck me,' Ed hissed, his hands slipping on the bar as he continued to flex it, his motions getting more and more desperate. 'Like I'm going to spread my legs for a pervert like you.'

'Oh, but you already have.' Kerr trailed his fingertips up the chains in emphasis, plucking at the links that held Ed's legs in place before turning his attention back to the body lain out before him. He shifted the weapon to his other hand, skimming his palm up the inside of Ed's thigh and laughing lewdly as Ed thrashed, trying to push himself further into the mattress.

'If you really make things difficult, I have a trick up my sleeve. A wonderful drug the military developed. It makes it very hard for a person to move, but still leaves them with all feeling. Some even claim it has a sensitizing effect. You'll know exactly what I'm doing, and you won't be able to stop me.' Kerr's fingers trailed over the front of the leather trousers, his eyes never leaving Ed's face as he gave a rough, painful squeeze. 'I've used it before, and I have no doubt of its effectiveness.'

There was something about the way he said it that made Ed pause, eyes narrowing as a seed of suspicion sprouted in his mind. The thought turned his stomach, clamping his guts in a vice-like grip as he prayed that even the fucker in front of him wasn't really that sick. The rough rasp of his own voice sounded loud in his ears as he spoke two words that made Kerr stiffen in shock.

'Your son.'

Ed watched the desire in Kerr's eyes deepen with rage. 'He killed himself, didn't he, when he didn't get the state alchemy qualification?' His chest heaved as he applied the last vestiges of his strength to the bar, not daring to look up and see how far it had bent in case Kerr noticed. 'I bet it wasn't because he was that desperate to be an alchemist. I mean, he didn't need the state certificate for that. I think he wanted to get away from you.'

Kerr's face had turned a patchy, uneven colour, and his hands were shaking at his sides as he looked down at Ed, lips curled in a snarl. The few cracks Ed had seen in the general's control were widening, showing the real depth of his temper, but he carried on walking the fine, dangerous line, knowing that this was his only chance. Any minute now the spell would be broken, and Kerr would realise how close he was to breaking free.

'If he became a state alchemist, he would be safe in the barracks. He might even be posted somewhere else, somewhere far away from you.' Ed's voice dropped to a whisper, hateful and accusing. 'How old was he when you started slipping him that drug, when you started making sure he couldn't fight back when you fucked him?'

He moved like a striking snake, so fast that Ed couldn't do more than close his eyes as agony burst along his wounded side. Kerr's weight was over him, pinning him down as his hot breath fluttered over Ed's face. His left hand was clamped over the barbed chain, not caring that it cut into his own palm as he pressed down, choking Ed to silence. The right held the stake, which was pressed into the new flesh of the gunshot wound, angled so it slid along just beneath the skin rather than into his chest.

Kerr licked his lips, eyes burning with rage and want as his nostrils flared, and Ed shuddered as his whispered answer reached his ears.

'He needed punishing, just like you.'

Clenching his teeth, Ed threw everything he had at bending the bar, knowing that his time was running out. He could feel the hot seep of blood from the cut in his side, and the hard ridge of Kerr's erection was pressed wantonly against him, obscene and repulsive. Hot lips sucked at his collarbone, biting mercilessly as dark moth-wings of unconsciousness fluttered across Ed's vision.

He couldn't breathe, couldn't think. All he could do was persevere through the bone-deep bruise around his flesh wrist and the screaming of his muscles as he bent his hands at an awkward angle, stretching his fingertips towards each other across the twisted metal divide.

The array exploded into life, turning the bar and cuffs to sharp, glittering dust as the light seared out across the room, throwing everything into stark contrast. It was as if all of Ed's trapped, roaring rage flooded to the surface, giving him the strength he needed to slam his automail fist into Kerr's temple. The force was enough to shake the plates of his arm, and he bared his teeth in grim satisfaction as Kerr crashed over sideways, shocked and reeling, into the low table full of sharp tools.

Ed didn't spare him a glance as he clapped and clapped again, freeing his feet and breaking the links that tethered the vicious chain around his neck to the bed. The barbs were embedded deep in his skin, and they stung bitterly as he wrapped his metal fingers around it and pulled it free. Fresh blood dripped onto the tangle of white sheets, but Ed was too intent on escape to notice it.

Kerr roared in fury and pain, pulling blades and spikes free from where they had impaled themselves in his flesh. A bruise was already darkening on the side of his head, but it did nothing to slow him down as he lunged for Ed, scrabbling to grab his ankles and pin him down.

A swift kick to Kerr's face gave Ed the time he needed to scramble away from the bed's loving clutches, and he staggered upright , grabbing at the wall to keep himself steady. Drunken dizziness whirled through his mind as pain tore up his leg from the burn on his foot, and he lurched sideways, clutching at his head as he tried to focus.

Warm laughter reached his ears, and he glared furiously at Kerr, watching the man straighten up and smooth out the creases in his shirt. He seemed utterly unconcerned about Ed's escape, sneering as he stumbled towards the fireplace, bracing his hand on the mantelpiece as the room waltzed around him.

'Did you think I wouldn't be prepared?' the general asked quietly, reaching down to pick up something out of the glittering mess on the floor. The needle cut a long, metallic line of light in the gloom, and Kerr tapped the liquid-filled chamber professionally as he glanced back to where Ed crouched, panting and wretched. 'I drugged you before you woke up. Not much, of course. I wanted you to be able to fight back. You probably thought it was the effects of the chloroform: poor coordination, weakness, disorientation.'

He shrugged, and a disappointed frown wrinkled his strong face as he paced around the corner of the bed. Ed tried to back away, but his body was useless, too riddled with pain and fear to control. The only thing stopping him from falling flat on his face was his grip on the fireplace. Besides, Kerr was backing him into a corner, and he was falling into the trap like a frightened animal, too driven by instinct to stop and think.

'It seems that the game is over,' Kerr said, his dark eyes alight with anticipation as he inched closer, syringe in hand. 'One little shot of this, and I can take what I really want. You might fight – believe me, I would love to see you try - but it won't work. I doubt you even have enough strength left to perform another transmutation.'

The general was right. Adrenaline and desperation had given Ed the energy he needed to get free, but it was a flash in the pan. All the alchemy he had used at Central Command and at the wall had left him drained. His body was trembling visibly with his weakness, his automail rattling alarmingly as the shudders tore through him. All he had to do was get out of here, but the dozen or so paces to the door may as well have been miles.

Looking helplessly down at the crackling fire, Ed tensed, a plan erupting into life in his mind. He was too weak to outrun or overpower Kerr, but maybe there was another way. He would only get once chance, and he couldn't fuck it up. He had to let Kerr get within arm's reach, or the bastard would jump out of the way and Ed would have lost the only advantage he had: surprise.

He hunched away, cringing closer to the grate in a genuine show of fear. The uneven racket of his heart was loud in his ears, and his teeth were bared in a feral snarl as he pressed his back to the chimney breast, knees bent and eyes wild as Kerr approached. Victory flashed in the older man's eyes, and his lips parted, wanton, heavy breathing rasping in the air as Ed stayed locked in place.

Suddenly, he reached out his automail hand, grabbing the cool end of the brand and whipping it up between them. There was just enough time to see Kerr's eyes widen, to see the abrupt shroud of horror descend over the fucker's vile features before Ed slammed the glowing end into the general's face, right over his left eye.

The scream was ear-splitting, sobbing and agonised. It was the most human noise Kerr had made since Ed had woken up, and he dropped the brand in shock. It clattered on the hearth, ringing like a struck gong as Kerr clutched at his face, his cry of pain twisting with fury.

'Fucking bitch! I'll -'

Whatever Kerr had been about to scream at him was drowned out by an explosion of sound. The room shook and dust drifted down from the chandelier like grimy snow, but Ed ignored all of it as he stumbled gracelessly around the general's hunched form and limped for the door.

Clumsy, senseless fingers scrabbled with the lock, tearing at it as if he could pull it right out of the wood. The rattle of gunfire beyond the threshold made him jerk back, and a whimper of relief escaped his throat as he heard Roy yelling an order. Ed tried to grip the bolt and wrest it free, his fingers slippery with nervous sweat as a rough, hacking sound reached his ears.

Kerr was laughing. Hoarse and cracked, it sounded more like a death rattle than anything else, and Ed winced in horror as the man lowered his shaking hand from the charred side of his face. The eye behind the mess of burns was probably blind, but the one that remained was wild and staring, drinking in Ed's hope. 'The assassins are paid until the end of the day,' he wheezed, wiping his bloody hand on his uniform trousers. 'They'll do their job and make sure we're not interrupted again.'

Ed didn't waste his time responding to that, turning back to the door and hauling on the bolt as he heard Kerr pick something up off the floor behind him, grunting as he threw the object towards Ed. The knife scored a line across his bruised cheek, shuddering to a halt hilt-deep in the wood, but he was already away, hurrying across the threshold and out into the corridor.

Ed spun around, clapping his hands together unthinkingly as he tried to seal Kerr in the room, but the transmutation spluttered like a wet fuse, making him sway. Shakily, he splayed his hand across the wall and turned away. All he could do was run. There was no fighting back, not now. For once, he was going to have to let someone else take care of him.

The gun shots still hadn't stopped, and he could hear people slamming open doors and shouting to each other. Roy was calling his name desperately, roaring it over the din, and he hobbled closer to the sound, not daring to look back. He knew Kerr was behind him somewhere – knew too well that the fucker wouldn't give up, not until he got what he wanted or died trying.

He had been kept in a bedroom sheltered away from the rest of the house, and Ed staggered down the narrow corridor before he found himself on a big, open landing. There were bannisters all around the wide stair-case, and about ten other doors hid bedrooms and bathrooms behind their blank panels.

Swallowing down nausea, he limped forward so that he could look down, seeing the scrambled mess of the fight down stairs. People lay dead on the smooth tiles. Some were assassins, but others wore the black uniform of the military police. Ed blinked rapidly, trying to clear his swimming vision and make sense of the chaos. Finally, he saw a familiar dark-haired figure, and his heart surged in his chest.

'Ro – ahhh!'

Something heavy slammed into Ed's side, bearing him to the ground and pinning him there. He twisted like a cat, writhing around until he was face to face with Kerr's crippled leer and one wild, staring eye. There wasn't the leverage to get him off; Ed could only shove and bite and thrash as he was pressed back into the carpet, and husky pants whispered in his ear as Kerr purred, 'Not done with you yet.'

Thudding footsteps stumbled up the stairs, getting ever closer as a low, furious snarl rumbled through the air. A dark shape moved in the corner of Ed's vision, and Kerr's weight vanished, leaving him free to curl on his side. The wall shook with the force of something slamming into the plasterwork, and Ed blinked hazily upwards to see Roy's gloved hands curled in Kerr's shirt collar, pinning him in place.

Kerr stared steadily back at him, hands curved loosely around the younger man's wrists as he sneered, 'How noble, Mustang, saving your slut.' He panted out a ragged laugh, glancing towards Ed as he added, 'Now that I've fucked him I know what all the fuss was about, but I can't say I think he's worth it.'

Ed tried to deny it, tried to tell Roy that Kerr was just messing with his head, but the words wouldn't come out. His head was swimming more fiercely than ever before and, even though there was nothing holding him down, his limbs felt leaden and numb.

Glancing down, he made a faint sound in his throat as he saw the syringe still sticking in his thigh, the plunger down and the vial empty. He hadn't even felt the needle go in, but the drug was already dragging him slowly into its clutches.

Roy's shoulders heaved with each breath, his hands tightening in the cotton of Kerr's shirt as he jerked him back against the wall. His teeth were bared in a snarling grimace, and he showed no pity as Kerr's head slammed backwards, leaving a bloody smear. The wrathful hiss of Roy's words whispered in the air, loud enough only for Ed and Kerr to hear.

'For every second that you touched him, for every moment that you hurt what is mine, I am going to make you fucking burn.'

Something glinted in Kerr's hands, half-hidden in the curve of his palm, and Ed's heart thudded into triple-time as he thought of all the tools that had been arranged on the table. The idea of him using any one of them on Roy was enough to drag together his foggy thoughts and bully one muscle after another into some kind of movement.

'Watch out!' he shouted hoarsely, pushing himself up onto his elbows and cursing as his entire body shook pathetically. 'He's got a knife!'

Automatically, Roy looked towards Ed, and it was all the distraction Kerr needed. With a sharp, chopping motion he broke Roy's grip and slashed upwards with something sharp. The blade missed Roy's face by a hair's breadth, but it was enough to push him back and give Kerr the space he needed to rip himself away and break into a sprint.

He stumbled along the landing, heading for an open door near the top of the stairs. The room beyond it was full of promising, shadowy gloom, and Kerr lunged for it as more footsteps hurried up the stairs and gunfire broke out again, all aimed at the general's retreating figure. One clipped him in the shoulder, making him stumble, but he kept on going until he could slam the door behind him and slide the bolts home.

Ed closed his eyes, bowing his head and huffing harsh breaths at the carpet. People were giving orders and calling out to Kerr, but none of them sounded like Roy's voice. He knew he was here somewhere, but he couldn't even drag together the strength to look up.

With fingers that felt as if they belonged to someone else, he yanked the syringe out of his leg and threw it aside, blinking furiously as he tried to see straight. He felt sick to his stomach, choked and smothered by nausea, and every part of him ached.

Someone touched his cheek, and he flinched away instinctively, too high on adrenaline and fear to prevent the reaction. As soon as he opened his eyes he realised his mistake, and his stomach clenched with guilt. Roy was kneeling at his side, hand still out-stretched and his expression riddled with hurt, dread and horror. There was no colour in his face, and Ed saw him swallow convulsively, his fingers curling back towards his palm as he pulled away.

Ed shook his head frantically, ignoring the rise of dizziness as he all but fell forward into his arms, clutching at his shirt and pressing his face against Roy's chest as he whispered, 'Sorry – sorry.'

Gently, as if Roy was afraid he would pull away or cry out in pain, strong arms wrapped around Ed's bare back, holding him as if he were glass-fragile. There were things going on by the door – people trying to kick it down and shouting through the wood, but it could have been in another world. It was only when Ed glanced along the hallway that he realised Hughes, Breda, Havoc and Hawkeye were standing in the way, blocking him and Roy from what was going on as they stood guard.

A soft pressure on his jaw made him look back into Roy's face, and he winced self-consciously as feather-light touches traced bruises and scrapes. 'What did he do to you?' Roy whispered, the question choked off and fearful as his eyes fell to the wrecked wound that encircled Ed's neck. 'What was in that syringe? What happened?'

The questions hummed through Ed's mind, and he buried his face in the crook of Roy's neck, dragging in deep breaths of his familiar scent. Roy was shaking, or maybe it was him, or perhaps it was both of them: it was impossible to tell. Roy's left hand was un-gloved and bare, cupping the nape of Ed's neck tenderly as he pressed a kiss into his hair. Ed could hear the unsteadiness of his breathing and feel, above the fear, the cool, solid wrath of Roy's fury singing in his muscles.

'Bottle's through there.' Ed tried to lift his arm to point back to the bedroom in which he had been held prisoner, but his hands refused to shift from Roy's shirt and his body felt lifeless. It was Hughes who followed the path of his eyes and turned away, going to investigate as Ed added, 'Think it was a sedative.' He blinked, and it took a very long time to open his eyes again. 'To keep me quiet. Keep me still.' A mirthless laugh huffed out of him as he added, 'Fought too much – Didn't give him the chance to fuck me.'

Roy's heartfelt sigh of relief stirred Ed's hair and the embrace tightened possessively around his body, tender but unbreakable all the same. 'Thank god. I didn't know –' He drew in a breath, and there was the tiniest crack in his voice that made Ed look up. ' - Didn't know what he would do to you.'

'Roy?' Hughes' voice was soft but dark, echoing a little along the hallway. Ed blinked as he saw the man walk back towards them and crouch down, his eyes searching Ed's face carefully as he held out a small bottle. 'It's a kind of paralytic drug. With the right dose you can restrict someone's movement while keeping them awake. I'm guessing it was a back up plan, in case the restraints didn't work.'

'Restraints?'

The single word fell from Roy's lips like a stone, low and furious. He moved, standing upright and guiding Ed gently to his feet, coaxing him to stand up on legs that felt far too weak to hold his weight. Without thinking, Ed put both his feet on the ground, hissing in pain as the burn spat with agony.

Strong, gentle fingers around his ankle coaxed him to bend his leg so that they could see, and he grimaced at Hughes' exclamation of sympathy. Beneath his palms, Roy's chest had become a wall of tense muscle. His jaw was working furiously, and Ed could feel the shivers take on an extra edge of intensity as Roy stared at the bloody, tattered flesh and the intricate knot-work of the burn.

'What else was in the room, Maes?' It was a question full of deadly intent, the words trembling with unspeakable rage. Ed could see the fire burning in Roy's eyes, could see the fate that was waiting for Kerr. All that kept Roy from tearing his way into the room and burning the man to a crisp this second was the fact that his need to hold Ed close and safe was greater. Even now, he could see the balance between priorities was shifting rapidly. If Roy saw what was in the bedroom … .

Hughes didn't answer, and Ed swallowed convulsively as Roy's eyes slid to the distant open doorway. Warm, mellow firelight filled its frame, a stark, inviting contrast to the gruesome scene just out of sight.

Weakly, Ed clutched at Roy's shirt, his tongue clumsy in his mouth as he asked, 'What good'll it do? You don't need to see.'

Gentle hands curled around his arms, nudging him aside and propping him carefully against the wall. Roy's breath stuttered in his chest as if even the fractional separation caused him physical pain, but his expression was resolute. 'Yes I do, Ed. I need to know exactly what Kerr did to you, or I'll spend the rest of my life imagining the worst. I couldn't be here to stop him from touching you, but I can be here for you now.'

'I can just tell you,' Ed mumbled, pressing his automail hand to his fuzzy head as his words slurred.

Roy leaned closer, pressing his forehead softly to Ed's brow. 'I won't make you relive this if I don't have to. I'll be right back.' Stepping back, he called out to Havoc, waiting until Jean was standing firmly at Ed's side before turning away. 'Guard him with your life,' he ordered quietly, and Ed closed his eyes as Roy strode away.

'He's going to fucking freak,' he whispered, tipping his head back and blinking at the ceiling. He felt sick and exhausted. His knees were shaking, and his teeth started to chatter as soon as he lost Roy's vibrant warmth. Havoc nudged him softly, and he looked at the proffered black jacket stupidly before reaching for it and shrugging it on.

'He's been losing it ever since he found out you were gone. Besides, anger's better than the alternative. I've never seen him so close to crying in public before.' Blue eyes lingering on Ed's bruises and bleeding cuts, flashing angrily at the sight of the painful wounds.

Softly, Jean called out to Breda and Hawkeye, 'Can you two keep watch? I want to check these injuries, and I can't do that and hold a gun at the same time.' He turned back to Ed, revolver holstered and palms outstretched questioningly. 'Is that okay? I just want to make sure you're not bleeding to death while we're standing around here doing nothing.'

Slowly, Ed nodded, lifting his chin as Jean squinted at his neck. 'What's going on, anyway?' he asked roughly. 'Why aren't they arresting Kerr?'

'He's armed and hiding in there,' Breda replied, leaving Havoc free to continue his gentle examination. 'If they knock down the door then Kerr can pick off anyone who charges in to arrest them. They're waiting to see if it's possible to break in through the windows. That way they can surround him and have a better chance of taking him down.' He shrugged. 'At the moment he can't get away, but we can't get at him, either.'

'What the hell?' Jean's whispered exclamation made Ed freeze, a whimper of pain dying in his throat as something was pulled free from one of the cuts. It was curved, like a cat's claw, and razor-sharp: one of the barbs from the choke chain. 'Boss, what did the bastard do to you?'

Before Ed could reply, fast, furious footsteps announced Roy's return. He didn't even hesitate or glance in Ed's direction as he stepped out onto the main landing, tugging the glove onto his left hand as his face twisted in a snarl.

Hughes had followed him to the bedroom and back, dogging his footsteps as if he didn't dare leave Roy alone, but now he stopped at Ed's side. His face was still and serious, unmarked by his normal goofy grin. Green eyes took in Ed's expression, and he pinched his lips in a tight line as he said, 'He saw the brand, the knives, the bed, the blood, what was left of the restraints - and then he saw this.' He held out the thorny snake of metal, smeared crimson and broken at one end. 'It was the last straw. Kerr had you collared to the bed with it, didn't he,' Maes swallowed, making an obvious effort to keep the anger out of his voice. 'so it tightened whenever you tried to get away?'

It was impossible to speak, so Ed nodded instead, his teeth chattering quietly as shivers twitched across his skin. Breda swore and Jean turned away, choosing to concentrate on Ed's wounds rather than face the things that had created them. 'Burning's too good for him. How can anyone do this to another human being?' Havoc asked quietly, looking at the bruise by the automail port before checking on Ed's side. 'They're not life-threatening, but they must be fuckin' painful.'

'That was kind of the whole point,' Ed croaked, wrapping his arms around himself as he frowned in confusion. 'Why was it the chain that set Roy off?' he asked quietly. 'Of all the shit in there, why that?'

He glanced up when a small, cool hand tapped his shoulder, seeing the seriousness on Hawkeye's face. Her pretty jaw was set in a stubborn line, and her dark eyes were bright with sorrow and anger. 'You don't know what it is?'

When he shrugged, she took a deep breath, squaring her shoulders as she began to explain. 'It's more than just a choke-chain; to Kerr there's a certain significance. During the Ishbal rebellion, there were illegal slave rings in the region. We broke into one, shut it down -' She shook her head, her voice tightening at the memory. 'Every one of the people that were going to be sold had one of those chains around their neck, like they were animals. Kerr wasn't just trying to punish you, he was leaving the Brigadier-General a message: you were Kerr's slave.'

Fury, hot and fast, surged through Ed's blood. He should have known that Kerr would try and rub it in Roy's face. Every moment with the general had been about staking some kind of claim, and he should have realised that there was more to the leash than inflicting pain. How dare the bastard drag Roy into this? How dare Kerr use Ed as a tool to hurt him?

Pressing his palm flat to the wall, Ed braced his weight against it, limping to the end of the corridor and peering out onto the landing. He could see Roy shaking his head at one of the military police officers, eyebrows drawn into a scowl and hands clenched into fists at his side. The man was listening intently, biting his lip as he nodded in understanding.

'What do you need me to do?'

'Get your men out of the way, Devone,' Roy said flatly. 'This game's gone on long enough.'

'Yes, sir. Remember, we have to try and take him by conventional means if necessary.' He glanced along to where Ed stood, and a wave of comprehension crossed his face before he turned back to Roy. 'If he resists arrest, then he's all yours. No one will question your actions.'

The police scrambled to get out of the way as Roy checked his gloves, moving back until he was level with the corridor where Ed and the others were standing. He waited impatiently, dark eyes sweeping the scene as everyone hunkered down in the other bedrooms or tucked themselves safely around corners, out of range. Finally, he dragged his thumb and forefinger together, the “snap” far louder in Ed's ears than any gunshot.

Fire burst forward, an avenging phoenix as it howled towards the door and unfurled along the wall, making plaster explode with the pulsating heat and reducing everything to ash. Flames nibbled at the carpet and the ceiling, gorging themselves before Roy extinguished them with a flutter of alchemy, choosing instead to feed the crackling inferno between him and Kerr's hiding place.

A chatter of gunfire rang out, slipping through the curtain of gold with ease, but the bullets flew off aimlessly over the stairs and into the far wall, giving Roy all the warning he needed. Ducking back, he pressed himself against the plasterwork at Ed's side, breathing steadily as he gradually snuffed out the fire.

His face was streaked with sweat and soot, and his eyes were like a hawk's, staring unflinchingly at the wooden spars and slumping restraints the blaze had left in its wake. The door was completely gone, as was the wall, leaving one side of the room exposed. Furniture which had probably been piled up high to block their way lay in splinters, and the air was wreathed in smoke.

'No, you idiot!' Devone's shout rang out across the hall, but it was too late for one of the policemen who had darted forward, taking aim only to be mown down by a spatter of shots. He twitched as the bullets struck, one after the other, too quick to be a standard revolver, and Ed swallowed back bile as he realised what Kerr had. 'One of those guns from the lab, like the assassins had?'

Roy nodded grimly, his eyes narrowed as Kerr's shouted words drifted through the air. 'Give me the boy, Mustang! Let me have him and I won't kill the rest of your sorry command.'

'You're not in a position to be making demands!' Roy snapped, glancing briefly at Devone before adding, 'You're under arrest for the murder of Fuhrer Hakuro and the assault of Major Elric. You're finished, Kerr.'

Silence hung in the air, filled with the tiny, popping sounds of cooling stone. Ed could see the makeshift barricade in the centre of the bedroom and he knew Kerr was hiding behind it, biding his time. Most other men would be thrown into panic, but the general was too ruthless for that. He wasn't going to give up. He would keep poking and prodding until he found something he could use.

'Assault?' The word was little more than a murmur, and Ed's blood ran cold as Kerr's voice took on a husky quality. 'Such a small word for the pain he suffered, for the tears he wept. Such a crass label. It says nothing about the fear in his eyes, or the way his screams caught in his throat.'

Ed took a deep, shuddering breath, not daring to look into Roy's face as Kerr fell quiet. He could hear the tense grating of Roy's teeth against one another and the harsh rasp of almost-sparks at his fingertips. He could sense the fount of wrath reaching boiling point, straining to break free and eat its fill on revenge.

'Are you resisting arrest?' Roy called out, his words taut and clipped, as if it was a struggle to remember anything so civilised as language.

'He bled for me, fought me... I'd heard he was wild, but I'd never imagined -'

The crystal chandelier over the stairs hummed with Roy's shout 'Are you resisting arrest? Yes or no!'

'As if I would ever surrender to you!'

The smile on Roy's face was chilling and ruthless, without even a fraction of regret. 'Good.'

He stepped out into the corridor, pressing himself to the wall as he snapped his fingers decisively, unleashing all of his fury into the blast. It was more precise than before, not a wave but a lance that speared through the air and cleaved into the room just as Kerr dodged out from behind his makeshift shield and aimed the automatic weapon.

Before his finger could so much as twitch on the trigger, he was gone, engulfed in the white-hot heart of the flame. It was being fed on nothing but air until it struck his uniform, and the colours flared through gold and red as they found alternative fuel. The last few bullets in Kerr's gun ignited, spitting out sparks and screaming their protests as they spun harmlessly away. Black, grimy streaks cleaved through the face of the inferno, and Ed could vaguely make out a flailing, human form in the heart of the blaze, clawing frantically at the burning air.

For all the pain and horror and death he had caused, Kerr was suffering at Roy's hand. He deserved it, there was no question about that, but still... .

'Wait.' Ed pushed himself away from the wall and staggered to Roy's side, gripping his wrist and tugging weakly. 'Stop.'

Roy looked at him as if he was speaking a foreign language, dark eyes still clouded with anger and hate. 'You can't possibly expect me to show him any mercy after what he did to you. You can't want him to live!'

'Of course not!' Ed hissed, his mind flitting back to the thought of Kerr's son, a nameless, faceless entity who had suffered far more than him. 'Just leave enough of him to put in front of a firing squad. If it was only about me then you could burn him to fucking dust for all I cared, but it's not.' The argument that the general's punishment had to be public, had to be shared among all those who had suffered, drifted through Ed's hazy mind but he wasn't articulate enough to put it into words. All he could do was tighten his grip on Roy's arm and murmur, 'Please?'

For a few heartbeats, Roy remained motionless, his expression clouded by confusion as he stared at Ed, trying to understand. Gradually, the thick fury, primeval and untamed, ebbed from his face, and he blew out a heavy breath before moving his hand, forcing the raging flames to abate. They dwindled to tiny flickers before vanishing completely, leaving peace in their wake.

'Thank you,' Ed whispered, pressing his forehead to Roy's shoulder and letting out a shaky breath when a warm arm wrapped around him, taking some of his weight as his knees sagged. Something white fluttered past his vision, and he realised Roy had tugged off one of his gloves with his teeth before brushing his palm over Ed's cheek, tunnelling his fingers in the mess of his hair and holding him in place as if he needed this closeness.

No one said anything about what Roy had done. There were no voices of censure or blame, just the deep, stunned silence of those who had witnessed something both beautiful and horrifying. Ed could hear each of them weighing up the facts in their mind, reaching their own conclusions before they began to move.

Without a word of instruction, the military police rushed into the room, keeping their guns trained on the curled figure on the floor. Everywhere Kerr's flesh was exposed was a blistered mess, gruesome to see, even from a distance. Panting whimpers passed wrec