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World Without Roy

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WORLD WITHOUT ROY

BY MANALFEDZ

 

 

Chapter One: Rumpelstilzchen (Rumpelstiltskin)

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The prettiest Maid was brought to King’s court--

To spin gold from hay, as Father’s report;

Weeping, she sat at King’s spinning-wheel--

Where cam Wizard-dwarf, who ‘spinned’ out his deal…

 

 

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DAY ONE

 

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MILITARY TIME: 1500 HOURS

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“Maes Hughes is going to die tonight.”

Chills slithered like a snake down Roy’s spine, sliding from one vertebra to the next. He gripped the phone, the handle groaning under his panic-clenched fingers, and wondered why he was the unlucky person someone would alarm like this. “Whom am I speaking to?” he barked, managing to disguise his unease through the use of a sharp tone befitting of his rank. “Is that a threat?”

Heavy breathing from the other end of the line.

“An anonymous tip,” the person whispered, sounding like someone who guzzled desert sand. Static crackled. “…From an anonymous friend. Hurry.” Then the person hung up before Roy could say more. 

Forehead creased, Roy placed the phone down and up again, dialing a new number. 

“Yes, hello,” he said, drumming his index finger on his desk. “I’m Colonel Roy Mustang, stationed at East Area Military Headquarters. Could you kindly tell me the military code accompanying the phone call my line last received?”

“Sir,” a female voice acquiesced all the way from Central Command. There was the tip-tap from a typewriter heard in the background. Then a shifting of papers and a gasp.

“What is it?” He pressed his ear, listening carefully.

“There’s no military code, sir,” the woman responded in a professional tone. “It’s an illegal transmission.”

Someone had hacked into the (almost) unhackable military line? He grimaced as he sat down, relishing the soft padding of his leather chair, as he considered the given new info. “Connect me to the office of Lieutenant Colonel Maes Hughes. He’s in Investigations in Central Command.”

More static. Clicks of lines being switched and inserted into new ports. 

“Connecting you, si—“ The woman’s voice was abruptly cut off by the loud beeping reminiscent of a dead line.

“Hello?” Roy placed the phone down, picked it back up, and called the switchboard operator again. Beep beep beep. No change. “Hello?! What is going on?!

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M I L I T A R Y T I M E : 1 5 3 0 H O U R S

 

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“Sir!” Master Sergeant Fuery barged in with a salute, headphones cradling his neck, and glasses slightly askew. “I was able to contact an outside line, sir! The entire Central main military line is down.”

“What’s the cause?” Roy said as he waved a hand to put Fuery at ease.

“A huge electrical discharge,” Fuery reported, back straight. “They’re working on placing temporary lines.”

Roy put a hand on his chin. How convenient it was that the communications would shut down the moment he called for Hughes. This cemented the fact that the warning was most likely not a lie. Was this the work of Roy’s anonymous ‘friend’? Did he cut the line to halt attempts of caution or…? But the guy did warn Roy about it so, there might be two parties behind this. One killer, and the other an enemy of the killer looking to stop them. That explained the caution and anonymity.

But why all this…for Maes Hughes? Roy wished there was more context than an obscure forewarning. What a headache.

Roy stood, rubbing his temples. “Fuery, I’ll be needing your phone.”

“Sir!” Fuery dutifully led him to his desk where the line was set up. “Who’ll you be calling sir?”

“Hughes’ home.”

“Ah.” The communications specialist played with the dials and handed Roy the phone. “Here, sir.” 

The phone rang three times before someone picked up. “Hello? This is Gracia Hughes,” a cheery voice introduced herself. 

“Gracia,” Roy greeted, leaning his hip on the hard edge of the desk. “Is Maes there?”

“Roy! You know that Maes is at work at this time of the day,” Gracia chided lightly. “Why? Is there something wrong?”

Okay, how to break the news gently? “Someone tipped me off about his upcoming death tonight.” Gentle. “I tried to call him, but it seems as if the entire Central Command communications is down.”

“Is…is that so?” There was a rustling noise that made Roy suspect that Gracia had settled on something soft, like their sofa. Her words displayed that she was obviously trying to take the news in a stride. “He has a scheduled meeting this afternoon. I-I don’t know how long it’ll last. Am I allowed to barge in?”

Right, Gracia was a civilian. He was proud that the woman had the guts to ‘barge in’, to put it in her own words, if it meant the difference between life and death of her husband.

It then occurred to Roy that if someone was targeting his best friend, they were likely also targeting his best friend’s family. Damn, he was endangering Gracia and Elicia by calling them like this.

“You can’t,” he said, heart thumping. “Go to the nearest police station. I’ll be bringing my whole squad and we’ll be there in two hours flat. Don’t go within a hundred-meter radius of Central Command, and do not leave your daughter alone. Leave her to a trustworthy neighbor or something. Ask the police to send a warning to Maes. Is that clear?”

A small sob broke out from the other end, but it was quickly stifled and she replied, “Yes. Thank you.” 

Roy settled the phone back with a clang.

The office had gone quiet when he was talking, but immediately his squad scrambled to prepare for departure: Hawkeye and Havoc had moved to open their gun lockers and pulled out their extra weaponry; Breda picked up the phone Roy had just set down to call the station and book them tickets in order to save time, and Fuery had packed up his tech and radio to help keep them informed on the happenings in Central.

The moment Breda had settled down the phone, it started to ring again, and Roy answered it once more. 

“Roy,” Gracia said from the other end. “I’m at the police station. I’ve talked to them and they’ve already sent three policemen to deliver my message to Central Command.” 

“Good.” Roy allowed some of the tension in his shoulders to dissipate. “We’re on our way.”

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M I L I T A R Y T I M E : 1 6 0 0 H O U R S

 

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They boarded the train without any trouble. Roy’s instincts screamed at him to get to Central now now now throughout the whole ride, and the train couldn’t seem to go fast enough.

Fuery’s radio continued to report Central news. It was mostly about a thief caught red-handed in stealing some jewelry, a mother reunited with her kidnapped daughter, and a new statue of one General Caver placed near Central High.

No other incidents.

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M I L I T A R Y T I M E : 1 8 0 0 H O U R S

 

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The moment the train arrived, Roy and his team disembarked and rushed to grab a taxi. The taxi driver looked apprehensive when he saw their weapons but Roy held out a wad of banknotes, making sure the scent dulled whatever sense of self-preservation the man had.

”I’ll add an extra thousand cenz if you could get us at Central Command in ten minutes.” He promised.

Ten minutes of broken traffic laws, pedestrians with raised middle fingers, and a very happy driver later, they found themselves at the gates of their destination. Roy quickly ran inside to reception.

“Excuse me,” he addressed to a petite woman who gazed at him with wide eyes. “Was there any message of caution delivered to one Lieutenant Colonel Maes Hughes?”

The woman recognized the name, thank goodness. “There were policemen who had also asked for him earlier, sir,” she reported quickly, her thumbs twiddling against the other. “They did give me a message, but I wasn’t allowed to enter the meeting Lieutenant Colonel Hughes was attending, sir—“

“Where is he?”

“He left a few minutes ago, sir,” she said, and then gestured at the line of phones on the wall. “I tried to pass the message to him, but he waved me off and seemed to want to speak to someone, but the phones were nonfunctional at that time. Still is, sir. He was bleeding too,” she added fearfully as an afterthought. “I tried to give him first aid, but…he…” she gulped “…he told me not to follow him.”

Bleeding? With a frown, Roy inspected the telephones and noticed that one of them was smeared with blood. He gritted his teeth at the sight of red.

“Find additional personnel to assist,” he ordered Falman, who quickly turned and hurried to obey. “And tell them to search every public payphone in the area!”

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M I L I T A R Y T I M E : 1 8 3 0 H O U R S

 

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Heart thrumming in rapid, rhythmic beats in his chest, Roy sprinted ahead of his companions, while his direct subordinates led different divisions. Just ahead, he caught a faint silhouette of a man in a phone booth…and another silhouette pointing something at the man. For a creepy millisecond, Roy thought it was the familiar outline of Gracia Hughes.

As he drew nearer, however, Roy saw that it was a smirking unfamiliar woman who was aiming a gun at Maes’ back. 

“Hughes!” Roy cried as adrenaline pushed his legs faster. Gloved hands were already poised to snap— 

His best friend’s green eyes met his through the glass of the booth. His mouth had formed the word ‘ROY—‘

BANG.

BANG.

The woman shrieked in triumph, like that of a screeching banshee, as she hurriedly fled from the scene. Anger burned hot in the pit of Roy’s stomach as he followed and watched as the murderer climbed a wall.

Stop right there!” Roy snapped his fingers, but the woman swung out of the way with the skill of an experienced gymnast. The orange light lit her face and Roy’s eyes gathered some defining features, like the mole under her left eye.

With a final push off the wall, the woman was over the obstacle and out of sight.

Inhale. Exhale. Sweat dotted Roy’s forehead as he remembered Maes. He quickly jogged back to the booth, now surrounded by medics and his team.

Maes was bloody and still. A medic was applying pressure to the wounds (by his grim expression, it wasn’t doing much good), while another ran to, presumably, call an ambulance.

Roy knelt by Maes’ side and pressed two fingers at his neck, where the pulse beat about as loud as the march of an ant. Dark red bloomed like roses on his best friend’s uniform that not even a bit of Amestrian blue was visible. Hands shaking, sticky and damp, the colonel regained enough of his wits to grasp that cauterizing the wounds might prove beneficial.

He glanced to his right and saw that there were two holes in the glass of the phone booth, which meant that the bullets had gone straight through the body.

“Get me something sharp!” he commanded an approaching medic with a first aid box. With efficiency, the medic opened the container, rummaged, and pulled out a pair of surgical scissors, handing them to Roy.

Roy began cutting away the fabric around where the medic was putting pressure on the injuries. The moment the last obscuring strip fell, he wiped his ungloved hands with the provided clean towel and slipped on a fresh glove.

“Move out of the way for a moment, “ he ordered the medic. “I am going to seal his wounds close.” The moment the medic did as he asked, Roy rapidly assessed the damage and ascertained that there were four holes total: two entries and two exits. A probable direct hit to the aorta of the heart.

He snapped, and flames merrily licked the two entry wounds, burning the flesh and temporarily closed them to prevent Maes from losing more blood.

“Hughes! Answer me!” he shouted at the bespectacled man’s face. Maes, curse him, didn’t so much as twitch. Didn’t even stir at the scent of seared skin. “Hang in there!”

The medics flipped Hughes over with caution, and Roy brushed his finger against the side of his throat while the medics cut away the fabric around the two exit wounds. Lub dub……lub dub….went Maes’ heart. Blood trickled from the corners of the man’s mouth. His eyes were closed and his chest didn’t even appear to rise and fall anymore.

Roy snapped again as soon as the way was clear. 

The man was growing pale and cold fast. Roy heard the piercing alarm of the sirens and assumed that the ambulance had arrived. The flames shone bright in his eyes as he watched the exit wounds finish searing closed. His heart leapt with a small amount of optimism.

“Come on, you can make it.” Roy felt like it was he himself who he was trying to reassure rather than Maes. “Think of your wife,” he choked out. “Think of Elicia!”

The medics wheeled Maes away on a stretcher, the doors closed with an echoing finality, and the ambulance sped off.

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M I L I T A R Y T I M E : 1 9 3 0 H O U R S

 

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Dead on arrival.

After he had done everything—everything—Maes still died in the end.

…Everything…

Roy watched helplessly as the hospital staff draped a white blanket over his best friend. If he watched closely, he could almost imagine that Maes was simply asleep, the position of the folds aiding the illusion of breathing. Roy hasn’t even called Gracia yet, and whenever he strayed near a payphone, he just couldn’t muster up the courage and tell her that her husband wasn’t coming home.

It was an excellent night for rain. The clouds hung gloomy over the atmosphere, casting a dismal air over those present. But the dark clouds dared not start pouring. Lightning was too busy playing hide-and-seek behind them.

He had Falman bring him the profiles of all the military women currently stationed in Central. Thumbing through the papers, he came upon a second lieutenant with short hair. The mole under her left eye practically marked her as guilty.

“Her.” He pointed to indicate the picture to his silent team.

“Issue a warrant of arrest for one Maria Ross,” he commanded in a thick voice that felt detached from his being. “Search the entire city. Every nook and cranny.”

 There was justice to be served.

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DAY 2

 

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M I L I T A R Y T I M E : 0 0 0 0 H O U R S

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Ross was hiding at her parents’ house of all places. Roy regarded it as a personal affront to Hughes’ intelligence in investigating. Worst of all, she had the gall to lie, wearing that baffled face and insisting that she hadn’t left the house since she’d arrived at five that night. She wasn’t a bad actress, had released a startled gasp when she found out about Hughes’ death, as if she hadn’t been there a few hours before.

Her parents attempted to reason with the officers handcuffing their daughter, trying to provide an alibi about her visitation. When the mother started howling to let Maria, the killer, go, Roy had to step in and face them.

“Enough!” He swept his hand diagonally in the empty space between the couple. “I saw her do it. Stop trying to protect a criminal.”

“Our daughter is not a criminal!” The father clenched his fists and lunged forward.

Too slow.

Roy sidestepped the attack easily, grabbed the outstretched arm, and flipped the man onto the floor. He growled, “I would advise you not to interfere, or I’ll have you brought in as an accomplice.”

Leave him alone!” Maria Ross struggled against her restraints. “I’m innocent! I did not kill—!”

“Colonel Mustang!” Breda bounded up the stairs and went in front of him, a gun in hand. “We have evidence. A .45 caliber gun that discharged two bullets. Same type and caliber that killed the lieutenant colonel.”

“Two bullets?!” Maria sputtered in disbelief. (She really was good at acting. Roy almost believed her.) “But…I’ve only fired one since…”

The last part was mumbled so quietly, but Roy’s (and Breda’s, apparently) ears caught her words.

“Since what?” he snapped, whipping his head to face her.

Maria Ross flinched and stared at him guiltily. Which was all the damn proof he needed.

“Place her in an interrogation room,” he instructed. “I will deal with her personally.”

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M I L I T A R Y T I M E : 0 1 0 0 H O U R S

 

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“Colonel Mustang, this way please. Would you like additional guards with you?”

“No.” Roy waved off the saluting officer. “I’d like to interrogate her alone.”

As Roy had foreseen, Ross had dropped her innocent act and was grinning from ear to ear as he closed the door. Her wrists were shackled to the arms of the chair.

“So it was you,” Roy growled. It sounded so animalistic, even to his ears. “And you dare deny it—“

“But of course,” Ross purred, looking like a cat that had just licked some cream off its paws. “It’s human instinct to defend themselves,” she added as she cocked her head to the right. 

The only other soldier in the room was recording the exchange frantically.

Why?” Roy banged his fist on the table and inclined toward her. “Why did you do it?” His tone was low, and anyone in his or her right mind should know better than to provoke him any further.

Evidently, Ross wasn’t in her right mind. She simply shrugged. 

Answer me!” He grabbed Ross by the collar and pulled her towards himself, chair and all, until their faces were only inches apart. When she didn’t answer him, he shook her, making sure that her teeth rattled, until the soldier doing the recording stopped him.

Breathing hard, he let her fall back with a bang of her chair against the floor. He couldn’t… couldn’t…damn. He’d kill her accidentally if this continued. 

He needed out.

Just as he was about to turn the knob, he heard her laugh. And laugh. And laugh and laugh. 

“He…he begged me to spare him, you know,” she guffawed, as if the entire thing was a joke. “Says he has a wife and a daughter…so…” she snorted, “I shot him twice for good measure. Point-blank, Colonel!”

Roy didn’t look back at her.

“And you know what else? What else, what else?” she conveyed with much enthusiasm. “Do you know what else? I tricked him with this.”

It wasn’t Ross’ voice that said the last part, Roy realized. It was Gracia’s.

Alarmed, Roy twisted around, expecting Hughes’ wife to be sitting…

But it was just Ross. 

Maes, darling,” she mimicked expertly, tongue darting out to articulate every inflection. 

Slap!

Roy drew back his hand as quickly as he’d struck. He didn’t wait for her to recover, just hurried out, letting the door slam shut behind him.

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DAY 3

 

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“Colonel Mustang.”

Roy raised his bent head from his last wave of paperwork sent from East HQ and spotted Major Armstrong standing before his desk. “What is it, Major?” he asked in a tired tone. He hadn’t slept at all last night. This morning. Whichever. 

Not after personally relaying the heartbreaking news to Gracia and little Elicia. 

The major stared at him with his sad blue eyes.

“Come to apologize for your subordinate’s actions?” Roy guessed. He tapped the bottom of a finished stack against the desk twice to even out the alignment.

“She didn’t do it,” Alex replied, shaking his massive head in a grave manner. “She is a kind and generous woman.” 

Alex Armstrong: a good man. Too bad his emotions controlled him more than logic ever did.

Roy huffed at that. “Could’ve fooled me. You weren’t there, Major." 

“I don’t need to be present to know it wasn’t her, Colonel.” Alex looked like he was holding back his tears. “The ability to judge whether or not people are good has been passed down the Armstrong line for generations.”

“Clearly, you missed the gene and haven’t inherited it,” Roy murmured as he scribbled a signature.

“Sir?”

“Are you implying that I was lying when I pointed a finger at her?” Roy said aloud instead of repeating himself, pausing his writing.

The major looked taken aback. “I simply thought you might be confused, sir.” The man’s mustache twitched. “And that you have mistaken Maria Ross for someone else.”

“Even at night,” Roy answered, jaw tense, “I wouldn’t miss that beauty mark under her left eye.”

A knock on the door disrupted their chat.

“Sir?” Hawkeye peeked her head in, face stoic. “They’ve found another witness to the crime. They said he swore it was Maria Ross he saw. Shall I ask for him to be sent in?”

“That won’t be necessary. Thank you, Lieutenant.” Roy nodded once, dismissing her. He turned back to Major Armstrong who couldn’t meet his gaze.

“You’re also dismissed, Major.”

Alex then left without another word.

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DAY 4

 

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Breda burst in as Roy was speaking with a gray-haired lawyer. The second lieutenant sat opposite the lawyer, the cushion releasing air under his weight, as he handed Roy a piece of paper.

“What is this?” Roy reached for it.

“Sir, I have good reason to believe that Maria Ross is not our person,” Breda responded. The lawyer beside him struggled to sit still as a statue, which the second lieutenant appeared to notice. “Relax, man. You look uncomfortable.” 

Roy skimmed the paper without understanding any of the text. He sighed. “Just explain it to me.”

“I talked to her in prison.” Breda rested his left elbow on his knee and placed his chin on it. “Asked her questions. She was pretty cool about it. Then it occurred to me that something with the evidence doesn’t add up.”

“Oh?” 

“Yeah.” Breda nodded. He glanced pointedly at the lawyer. Said lawyer fumbled his way out of the room, saying something about coming back later. “She said she fired one bullet to protect a certain Alphonse Elric during an incident.”

“What incident?” 

“The collapse of Laboratory Five.”

Roy’s gaze swiveled to his subordinate. “…Go on.”

“She kept going on and on about armors. And then, someone called the prison. A guy named Barry. Barry the Chopper. Ring any bells?”

Roy cocked his head at that. “Nope. So what is special about him?”

“He’s an empty armor.” Breda scratched his fingernail on the wooden surface of his table. “Like our resident one. He’s a serial killer who was put on death row.”

Somebody else did what Fullmetal did?’ Roy mused over that as he leaned back. “What next? You went to meet him?”

“He promised he’ll cooperate and won’t kill us since he wanted to help Ross in her case. So we—me, Havoc, Fuery, and Falman—went. Told Falman to go interrogate him further about our suspect, and boy, was he too glad to comply. He showed Falman the bullet ‘wound’ on his right palm. There was exactly one.”

Roy’s lips curled. “Uh-huh.”

“Yep,” Breda said, popping the ‘p’. “So I went and collected data about the incident at Lab Five. Thing is…there isn’t a record of it anywhere.”

“She was lying,” Roy surmised, convinced. “Wouldn’t be hard to make up a story. Meet a shady suit of armor on the street; bribe him to get her out of incidents like this one. The murder of Maes Hughes could’ve been months in the making.” 

“Or…she was telling the truth,” Breda argued. “The paper I gave you…she had filed an ammo requisition form ordering a new bullet very recently, though before this incident. Just one, and I asked for a copy. They haven’t even provided a new clip yet. If it was her who did the shooting, her gun should’ve been missing three bullets. One from before plus two from now. She might be telling the truth that she has no part in this, Colonel.”

Maybe it was the grief, maybe it was their mistrust, or maybe it was the weather. Whichever it is, it cracked Roy into two.

“Why is it,” he got out through gritted teeth, “…that you people keep defending her?”

Breda blinked. “Sir—“

“I. Saw. Her,” Roy bit out. “Clear as day. I interrogated her. She laughed about it and admitted it—“

“That’s funny,” Breda interjected, straightening his posture. “Because she sure as hell wasn’t admitting to it when I visited her—“

“She’s playing us! Dividing us.”

Breda’s features twisted into skepticism. “She says you haven’t even talked to her—“

“There!” Roy rubbed his face in annoyance. "She is very obviously lying!”

“Sit down, Colonel. And there’s no need to shout.” 

“I’ll shout because I want to!” Roy glared at his subordinate.

Breda glared back, unimpressed. “She must’ve taken a lot of drama lessons then to be able to replicate the genuine distress of the accused innocent.”

“Yeah, that’s right,” Roy agreed, finding no fault in the reasoning. “That explains why she mimicked Gracia’s voice so perfectly.”

The second lieutenant stood up, holding up both hands. “Okay…are we talking about the same person? Because I inquired if Ross met the lieutenant colonel’s wife and she said no.”

Roy rolled his eyes. “Another lie.”

“You seem intent on dismissing everything she says as lies, Colonel.”

“Isn't it obvious yet? Everything that she told you was a lie, Second Lieutenant Heymans Breda.”

And everything she apparently admitted to you was the truth--?!

“Don't you shout at your superior officer—!“

Breda smashed the top of the Colonel’s desk with his knuckles. “This isn’t about you. She pleaded with her eyes, Colonel. Her eyes. I can fucking read people pretty damn well, sir. That’s why you requested me, remember?”

“I’m starting to regret it,” Roy snarled. Then snarled some more when he saw Breda’s reaction. “Don’t look at me like that. If you don’t trust me on this, then what about when I become Fuhrer?”

“This isn’t you.” His subordinate gawped at him with widened eyes. “This isn’t you. Who are you and what have you done with the colonel?”

“Get out, Breda.”

“No. Not until you see sense. Ross is—”

“Maria Ross will be publicly executed a week from now.” Roy sneered. “I’m not saying this again. Get. Out.”

Breda kicked the desk defiantly before he exited.

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“What is this?” 

His entire team had lined up before him, sans Hawkeye who had taken her place by his side loyally. Each had a piece of paper sandwiched between their hands. Striding forward, Breda slammed his paper down in front of Roy.

“I’m requesting for a transfer,” he said stiffly. “Please sign it…sir.” 

“Wow. This early.” Roy tsked as he brandished a pen. “And you’re giving up on me? How sad.”

“Right.” Breda scowled at him. “I wanted no place in your team. You’re starting to show your true colors, Colonel, and I don’t wanna be a part of your command.”

“Fine.” Roy signed his name with flourish on the line. Then he grabbed Havoc’s (who wasn’t even chewing on a cigarette, for once) and signed that too. Then he grabbed Falman’s and signed that too. Then he fucking snatched Fuery’s and signed that, too, making sure the tip scratched the paper.

“There.” He swiped the paper to the side and let it flutter, watching Fuery scramble to catch it. “Be free.” 

“You’re letting us go just like that?” Breda snapped his fingers. “I thought I was doing good to the country by serving under the command of a patriotic man.” He seized his signed transfer request, the paper crinkling in his harsh grip. “I was wrong. You’re a monster in disguise. A monster.”

The second lieutenant stomped out. Havoc and Falman didn’t even speak; they averted their eyes and followed their friend.

“Goodbye, Colonel.” With a bow of his head, Fuery walked away.

Hawkeye also departed, plainly done with her silent moral support.

Roy watched the door close behind her in silence, feeling empty.

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DAY 5

 

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The first four days, he had been running solely on caffeine. So he decided to run on alcohol for the fifth.

“That’s quite enough, Roy-boy.” Madame Christmas tugged the fifth bottle of whisky and glass from his grip.

“S’not,” Roy slurred, tucking his head into his arms as the scent of alcohol assaulted his nose. He probably looked really pathetic. Thank goodness the bar was closed just for him. “S’all that Roses’ fault.”

He belatedly registered that he’d uttered the wrong name. He didn’t fucking care.

He heard his adoptive mother circle the bar and sit beside him. She laid a hand on his shoulder and squeezed comfortingly. “I talked with your team, Roy-boy.”

“Oh? Wha’ did they say?” he mumbled, tilting his head up a little.

“They just want what’s best for you, Roy.” The hand massaged his shoulder. Damn, he missed his mother. This was the reason he’d visited. Good whisky, good mom. “They’re afraid for you. They weren’t just your subordinates, they are your friends. It would be good judgment to trust them.” 

“But how about me?” Roy sounded a whine. “I’m telling the truth!” 

Madame hummed. “What does that adjutant of yours have to say about your actions?” 

“The L-l-lieutenant hasn’t been saying much lately,” Roy stuttered. “Silent as silence, my lieutenant. But I don’t…I don’t understand. Why do the others believe that damn witch—?” 

Roy,” Madame Christmas admonished, retracting her hand. “Such harsh words. I didn’t raise you up to call people witches, killer or not. Your real mother would’ve had a small heart attack if she heard that from you.”

Roy froze for a moment, before slowly shifting his eyes from the very interesting table finish to the Madame.

“From what I have understood about her personality from my late brother’s stories, anyway.” Madame Christmas bobbed her head.

Her late brother. Roy’s father. Father. Shfather.

Roy blinked as his sight blurred. Then blurred some more as his brain fogged up. “What…do you think happened…to them?”

His eyelids drooped. Sense of hearing dulled.

“…I wish I could tell you, Roy-boy…But given the circumstances, it would be better not to. For your own sake.”

Her tone was sad. So sad. 

Roy’s mind was out before she even finished the sentence.

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DAY 6

 

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Holy—

Maria Ross had escaped! 

Highlighted in red, uppercased, those words blared bright behind Roy’s eyes. The radio was broadcasting the news, alerting the citizens of Central about the killer on the loose. Commands were issued to catch her, and if she fought back, kill on sight

Kill on sight. Kill on sight.

The words flitted about like a broken record.

Riza Hawkeye wasn’t in the office so late at night, so the Flame Alchemist took matters into his own hands.

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Where would Ross hide?

The cold, night air buffeted against his back, cooling his skin, numbing the nape of his neck. The ends of his long coat flapped in the wind’s direction. Roy crouched atop a building, near an alleyway, listening to the radio transmitter for reports. 

“Clear on Nicolas Street. Over.”

“No sign of her on Cobblestone Way. Over.”

“Wait! We saw something—oh, just an alley cat. Over.”

“The stout armor with the wig has been sighted nearby the Lion Fountain! I repeat: the stout armor with the wig has been sighted nearby the Lion Fountain! The prisoner might be close. Over.”

Roy frowned. Stout armor? Wig? Must be Barry the Chopper. So…his former team was likely behind this, if they accepted the help of the so-called armor. And if he knew anything about his team, it was how they operated. Barry was nothing more than a flimsy distraction. Keeping the soldiers on a wild goose chase, that was the key.

Traitors.

Just then, his sharp eyes caught movement from the end of the alleyway he was keeping surveillance over. Dark silhouettes scuttled towards the alley beneath him. They stopped near a trash bin, and by the moonlight, Roy beheld the murderer and her rescuer. It wasn’t whom he expected.

As he scaled down the uneven wall, he called out, “I wasn’t aware that you’re in the habit of assisting criminals, Fullmetal.”

His youngest subordinate was quick to react, clapping his hands and extending his armblade. He stepped forward, keeping himself in front of a frightened Ross.

“Colonel,” Fullmetal said, eyes blazing. “So it’s true.”

 “You dare raise a blade against your commanding officer?” Roy questioned, keeping the level of his voice low. “Give Ross to me.” He raised a hand, palm up. “And nobody will die tonight."

“No one will be dying.” Fullmetal gnashed his teeth. “Not under my watch.”

“I’ll even forgive you for your actions,” Roy said, sweetening the offer, ignoring what the blond said. “That woman is the reason why Hughes won’t be able to return to his family. You deny them justice?”

A growl emanated from Fullmetal. Hackles raised. “Justice, my ass! This is revenge you’re instigating, you fucker!” He spat at Roy’s feet. “And, fuck you, Hughes was also important to me. But Ross wouldn’t have done it!”

“It’s true,” Ross pleaded, clasping her hands together. “Please, Colonel! I respect the lieute—“

“Shut up!” Roy exclaimed, features flickering with disgust. “Your admittance of your guilt is already part of the records—“ 

“Part of the records?!” Ross sputtered. “B-but I never admitted anything to you!”

“Your team was right, bastard!” Fullmetal yelled at him. “You’re being irrational!” 

“Former.” 

“What?” Fullmetal said, confused, still shielding Ross. 

“They transferred, Fullmetal.They’re just my former team now. And you’ll be my former subordinate, too, once I have you court-martialed for failing to obey my orders like a good military dog should. Now hand over that murderer behind you!” 

“You know very well that I am not a pup that barks on command, Mustang!” The joints of the automail arm clacked with obvious frustration. “Especially not when the one holding the leash is an absolute BASTARD who abuses his power to blame innocent people!”

“Fine.” Mustang raised his chin and glared at him, narrowing his eyes. “You’ve made your decision.” 

He pinpointed the space between Ross and Fullmetal (who belatedly realized he was dead serious) and generated an explosion, one that rocked the earth beneath them, producing distance between his subordinate and Maria. With another snap coming from his right fingers, he roasted Maria alive. 

Screams filled the night.

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Heavy, metal footsteps.

Roy saw Alphonse round the corner, quickly analyze the scene, and then kneel beside his injured brother, who was sprawled on the ground.

Fullmetal sported a scorched-through coat, showing his back seared with first-degree burns. The end of his braid was frizzy, smoking a little due to the heat from the first blast. 

“Uh, n-no…” Fullmetal flattened his hands on the ground and pushed himself up…but his arms shook and he was forced down again, disturbing the dust and dirt.

“Brother, t-take it easy.” Alphonse’s voice wavered as he held out his gauntlets for his brother to grab on. Fullmetal latched on like a dehydrated man begging for water.

“I f-f-failed, Al. Ow.”

“So you’re in this too, Alphonse?” Roy faced the armor, wrinkling his nose.

“Don’t blame him, Colonel,” said a voice behind him.

Roy spun to see Havoc climbing out of the trash bin.

Dressed in black from head to toe, with a rifle slung over on his shoulder, and the faintest scent of nicotine. Undeniably, Havoc.

“Yes, you dragged them into this,” Roy declared. “Helping Ross escape. Helping a murderer escape. What’s wrong with you?” 

Havoc didn’t answer. He simply stooped near Ross’ corpse, which was charred black, only a few pieces of flesh hanging on.

A sigh. “You really did it, didn’t you?” 

Roy huffed, turning towards Fullmetal and began walking. “Stand up, Full—“ 

“D-don’t come closer…” 

“Who are you to be giving me orders?”

With a creak of his metal head, Alphonse stared at Roy with those red soulfire eyes. “Don’t come closer, Colonel,” he warned in an icy, echoing tone.

Roy’s legs halted their advance. 

“Bastard.” Fullmetal’s feet finally supported him. “After I put so much of my trust in you…”

“Then why didn’t you trust me concerning the murder of Hughes?” The corners of Roy’s mouth stretched downwards. “Why?! Why can’t you people believe me?! Why did you let yourselves be manipulated by this..-this-woman? You all treat her like a saint when I know, she isn’t! Huh, Havoc? Fullmetal?!

“A w-woman like R-Ross-” Fullmetal exhaled “-who looked after my safety…would—wouldn’t hurt me by killing someone she knew was important to me.” He was shaking violently.

“Hmph. She could have been looking out for you because she wanted something from you.”

“You don’t get it—“ 

“Or maybe she just wanted your trust so you wouldn’t suspect her motives in the first place.”

Fullmetal took out his pocket watch and struck it at Roy’s feet. “I quit, Mustang. You don’t have to court-martial me. My brother and I can travel on our own from now on.”

“Do it,” Roy challenged. “See if I give a damn.”

Fullmetal marched forward despite his injuries and Al’s protests. “Fuck you.” He leaned in close and grabbed Mustang’s collar, twisting it around his knuckles. “From the moment Lieutenant Colonel Hughes died, you have dug your own grave. You’re like a father who doesn’t care about the children beneath him. Your best friend would’ve been disappointed in you.”

Mustang backhanded him hard, making Fullmetal’s head turn sharply to the right, and forcing him to release Roy. “What a disobedient dog. You’re more trouble than you’re worth, Fullmetal.” 

Al made an angry noise. He would’ve probably started going after Roy, if the military search team hadn’t arrived at that very moment. Havoc ran away like a coward.

“Colonel Mustang, sir!” The leader of the team saluted.

“Soldiers,” Roy addressed. “Take the former Fullmetal Alchemist to a hospital. And take Maria Ross’ corpse to the morgue.”

“Sir!” 

As they dragged the brothers away, Fullmetal gave one final farewell. Three scathing words:

I hate you!” 

Roy felt drained. He picked up the silver pocket watch and headed home.

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DAY 7

 

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He didn’t have the energy to go to work that morning. Figured that it would be better if no one were present when he finally went in.

When he entered his office late that evening, the door closed by itself behind him and the back of his neck prickled with static electricity. The click of a gun safety echoed through the office.

“You know, I can’t imagine a world without you, sir.”

Roy resolutely maintained his stare at the window. “Lieutenant, what do you think you’re doing?”

“Following your orders,” she said evenly. The firm quality of her voice reverberated deep from her gut. “You…you told me to shoot you when you’ve strayed from the right path.”

Roy angled his head down a bit, mulling over her statement, not understanding her implications. He had killed before, hadn’t he? And he had killed now. And Ross was a murderer. So how were things different?

Hawkeye continued. “But I know you, Colonel.” His rank sounded so absolute when she was the one who would say it, respecting the title and the person it pertained to, even at a time as low as this. 

But then, the faintest rattle originated from behind him. Her hands were shaking, Roy knew. He didn’t need to see it to confirm it. 

“This is all part of your plan.” She hesitated. “Correct?”

Now he was confused. For Roy had no ongoing plans aside from becoming Fuhrer. “Plan?”

“PLAN!” Hawkeye shouted, losing her temper and almost making Roy flinch. “You didn't really kill anyone.” 

“…I…”

A small heartbeat of silence.

“L-l-look, C-colonel.” She inhaled sharply. “There is only one thing keeping me from pulling the trigger: the question of whether or not you truly killed Lieutenant Maria Ross.”

Whether he killed her or not? “Y-you heard the news. You most likely talked to my former subordinates. You might’ve talked to Fullmetal—“

“The only statement I’ll accept is the one coming from you.

He couldn’t face her when she used that cross tone against him.

“The body you burned wasn’t Ross,” Hawkeye detailed, elaborating a nonexistent scheme. “You and Edward only put up an act to throw off suspicion. Maria Ross isn’t dead. She is being sent off to a safe haven. So you can find out what had truly happened yourself. That was your plan, isn’t it?” Her voice had cracked by the end.

The imported carpet had never looked so interesting before.

“Isn’t it?” The gun shook harder in her grip.

His shoulders slumped in a way a disheartened person would. Why would Hawkeye condemn him because of this? “…What happens after you kill me?”

A choked sound. “…Then there is nothing left for me to live for. My body will rot and the secrets of Flame Alchemy will perish with me.”

He had to ask. “…And if I say, ‘Yes, I saved Ross?’” …But for what reason would he save her?

The clipped response was full of steadfast resolve. “You live. I don’t.”

Because they both knew that what Roy would have said was a lie.

“And…” Roy’s eyes strayed to the farthermost corner of the office, “…if I say nothing at all?”

He could feel that her gaze was intent on him, scrutinizing his smallest movements. “I have no proof.”

So Roy said nothing and sustained his faux unperturbed posture.

“I see.” Hawkeye clicked the safety off and holstered her gun. “I have seen enough, sir.”

“Seen enough for what, Lieutenant.”

“The office is empty.” A note of solemnness accompanied her blunt announcement. “As you can see, I am your last piece standing.”

Roy looked up from the carpet then, sensing that the immediate storm had passed, and marched over to the far side of his desk. And—was the office really this spacious before?

Hawkeye stepped forward and stopped on the other side of his desk across from him, handing him a handheld mirror. “Have you seen yourself lately, sir?”

Wordlessly, his fingers clutched the handle, the grooves of which imprinted on his skin due to the tightness of his grip, and then gazed upon his face. Pupils constricted, eyebrows furrowed, mouth permanently set in a thin line, with the edges pointing downward. He looked like a demon with constipation, but he didn’t dare tell Hawkeye what he thought.

“This is—was the others’ last impression of you,” she enlightened him, jerking her head toward the mirror. “Sir.”

“They’ll come around.”

Hawkeye slammed her hands on the desk, making Roy jump. “No. They. Won’t. Sir.”

She straightened up again, resuming her former position, and acting like she hadn’t just lost her cool a second ago. Astounding how she did that. “Did you ever care about them? Breda?”

No reaction. Riza continued with the names.

“Havoc?

“Falman? Fuery?”

No reaction.

“Edward?”

Nothing. Roy felt nothing.

“You really have strayed,” Hawkeye deemed, staring at him with a suspicious shine in her eyes.

“Then why didn’t you shoot me?”

“Because I believe that you were telling the truth.” Hawkeye pressed her lips, taking a deep breath before expounding on her opinion. “But you went to the extreme. You used my father’s work for the wrong purposes. When you snapped and finally killed Hughes’ murderer, did you even stop—“ the intensity of her glare had almost dissolved him, “—and think how it would affect me?”

“I—“

“Sir.”

Roy studied her, the puzzle clicking into place, and finally fully understood what this was about. “…No.”

Hawkeye didn’t stray her eyes from him. She simply pulled a form out of nowhere and Roy recognized that they were resignation papers.

“They were right. The colonel in front of me is not Roy Mustang…” She swallowed like there was a giant lump stuck in her throat. “…But a monster. I am as guilty as you, because I have supported you like this.”

The papers crinkled in her hand. 

“…then execute me,” Roy murmured.

She mutely placed the papers in front of Roy. “…Be grateful that I haven’t. I said that I would follow you to the depths of hell, sir, and I have done so in the most disgusting way I never thought possible.”

Hawkeye clicked her heels and gave a salute to her superior. “I have followed but I won’t stay. I was too late. And I should have acted earlier.” She lowered her hand and bowed her head slightly. Bangs obscured her sherry eyes, reminding Roy of a hawk’s head hiding behind the feathers of its wing. “Farewell, sir. You’ll never see me again.”

She pivoted and strode away, her footsteps muffled by the carpet. “I’m sorry,” she whispered in a fragile voice, “for failing you.”

Roy could only imagine what her face looked like. His hand adducted toward her, wanting to stop her departure, and tried to make his voice work.

“L-lieutenant!” he managed, his other hand gripping the back of his chair. “Don’t—“

 “If you dare follow me,” Hawkeye said in a steady manner, still facing the door. “We’ll face hell. Together.”

 The slam of the door was like an alarm that splashed him in cold water.

 He gasped, pausing for a moment. The gravity of the situation smashed his lungs like a cannonball. A freezing hand bound his heart. He felt like a thousand years had passed; he felt like a day had stopped.

 “Lieutenant!”

 Forcing his legs to work, he rushed from his office, hoping to catch her.

 “Lieutenant!”

 He fled the Command, running out onto Central’s streets when he had finished combing through the hallways and he couldn’t locate her. Panting hard, he called for her. Her rank resonated throughout the quietude of the night as he marked off areas where she could’ve been.

“Lieutenant!”

He sought her in her temporary residence…

“Riza!”

…Every dark alley… 

“Riza!”

His house in Central.

“Riza! Riza! RIZA!”

There was one last destination that came to mind, but it was the place she had sworn never to return to. Roy coughed as air tried to fill his lungs, shuddering. Filled with determination, he dashed to the abandoned Hawkeye manor, everything blurring as his tunnel vision narrowed. 

Lady Luck must’ve pitied him, for when he arrived, she was there on the front lawn, staring at the decaying house.

Roy stumbled his way toward her, winded. “R-Riza—“

“Did you really kill Ross?” She didn’t even turn to appraise him with her glare. Too ashamed of him. 

Roy gritted his teeth, then he answered with the truth. “I did.”

“With my father’s alchemy?”

“I did.”

“In the name of revenge, and not of justice?”

He took a quick breath, in and out. “I did.”

Riza still didn’t turn, but she held out her right arm to the side, showing one of her guns to Roy. “You say, ‘I did,’ but whose fault is it really…that you were driven to the brink of this madness?” 

She turned off the safety and finally faced him, yet her eyes were shut tight. “Sir,” she said as Roy swallowed. “There’s only one bullet in the gun. Shall we let it decide…who will bite the dust for this tragedy?”

“What? Ri—“

Riza did not permit his interruption. “Close your eyes. Now.” Her tone left no room for argument. So Roy did as she asked, accepting his fate.

All he heard was a loud click.

“That was the first shot…pointed at me,” she said.

Another click.

“No bullet. Pointed at you.”

With a jolt, Roy comprehended she was leaving the decision to chance. One of them would die, and he didn’t know where the bullet’s location was in the cylinder— 

Click.

“At me.”

Click.

“At you.”

Heart hammering and with two shots left, Roy wondered if Riza would still kill herself after she is done with him. His hands shook in cold sweat, as he fervently hoped not.

Click.

“At me.”

There are six holes in a cylinder, which meant that the last shot would be his execution. The final verdict was at hand. Roy bowed his head, hearing the loud beating of his heart in his ears, acceptance in his stature.

He could almost distinguish the sound of a trigger being pulled—

BANG!

 

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The eighth day since Maes Hughes died.

 

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Hair ruffled. Uniform wrinkled in twenty places. Heavier than usual eyebags.

This wasn’t the image of a dignified military officer, but Roy didn’t care as he got off the train. His palm slid down his face, the action slightly hindered as he touched the rough texture of the unchecked stubble on his chin.

He ignored the peace in his East HQ office. Ignored the lack of action, of life. He only dimly acknowledged how he missed the scent of a hastily put out cigarette. Or how he missed the meaty smell of bacon sandwiches that usually wafted from the second desk at his right. Or how he’d strain to hear the pitter-patter of nuts and bolts, as a piece of technology was being reconstructed and improved. Or how he’d seek to listen to the piece of random trivia that would spew forth to break the dull monotony.

The boot marks on the door to his inner office mocked him as he pushed it open. Once he entered, he began pulling out folders from the cabinet, searching through profile after profile of alchemists who could probably help him with his problem. His numb hand strayed a little too far as he reached for a new stack across the desk, and knocked off the frame bearing the picture of him and his team. Glass shattered, but he merely disregarded it.

He operated like a puppet with strings pulled by an external force. He stood, he walked, he sat, etcetera. Stiff and numb. Stiff and numb, but he didn’t think, didn’t thi—

He felt desperate as the mountain of paper amassed higher and higher with every rejected profile of alchemists studying damn chimeras, damn biology, fucking water, bullshit energy, earthquakes, contracts…

He stopped before he pitched the last one to the side. Contracts?

His fingers ghosted over the cover, before he opened the file and read the name: Theofil Vertrag. Formerly known as the Deal Alchemist. Three years in prison. Released. Updated by Lieutenant Riza Hawkeye.

Ah, Roy recalled. The one who committed forgery and credit plagiarism. The one he had to act on in order to prove to all who were present that he and his people weren’t to be trifled with.

Only the truly desperate would crawl to a kick-out like Vertrag.

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Seeking out the address in the file, he was mildly surprised to discover that it was the huge, rundown house he had passed by three times. The man he had come for answered him on his second knock.

“Oh,” Vertag said flatly, lips curling. “It’s you.”

The man’s red hair hung over his eyes in disarray and he hunched over like he had back pain. “You look like shit.” Pot kettle black. “What are you doing here? Come to mock my bankrupt condition, Mustang?”

“I need your help,” Roy rasped before he changed his mind. “I’ll help you get back your certification if you have a contract that will undo the last seven days of my life.”

Vertrag barked out a laugh. “Is this about the controversial act you did? It’s all over the papers, you know?”

“Yes,” Roy replied unflinchingly.

“Huh.” Vertag inserted his index finger at the corner of his mouth, studying him. “You must be delusional to think I would help you. All my research was forged remember?”

“But you continued it anyway, didn’t you?” Roy guessed.

“Of course,” he answered. “I would be a fool not to. And I’ve got really good results this time! Three years in prison helped me clear my mind.” He chuckled.

“I’ll give you temporary access to your early research materials again,” Roy offered, face scrunching. “Please.”

Vertrag licked his lips. “Louder.”

Roy stared at him for a beat, and then acquiesced. “Please.”

“Apologize.”

Expecting this, Roy breathed out. “I won’t. You were at fault before. I’m sorry, but I won’t apologize for something you have done wrong.”

“Yeah, you’re right.”

The Colonel reeled back in surprise. He had expected denial, not affirmation.

A sigh. “I really did take advantage of Fullmetal. And hey! My time at prison helped me think rationally about my work without pressure and fear of being kicked out of the program! That’s a plus.”

“You seem…optimistic about this.”

“Heh, you have no idea.” Vertrag smiled brightly. “Alright, I’ll help you. How soon can we get temporary clearance on my research?”

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Roy had the materials delivered an hour later. Vertrag was rubbing his hands together when they arrived.

“Awww, I missed them!” he gushed. “My babies! My masterpieces!”

He dug around as Roy watched.

“Here it is!” Vertrag pulled out a red folder underneath. “My early design for reversing time!" 

He smacked it down on his table. “’Course I just need to adjust a few things.” A pen seemed to appear in his hands out of nothing and he twirled it once before he started scribbling and redrawing. 

Roy observed how the Deal Alchemist added symbols, measured the triangles with the ballpen cap, and dotted the i’s of his elegant script. 

“There.” Vertrag marveled at his modified array. “I’ve been working on this particular one for some time. I assume you’ll want a demonstration to certify my credibility, right?”

Roy nodded. “Of course." 

Vertrag pulled out a tiny cage from under his table and set it on the top. Inside was a white rat with a bulging stomach. It was busy nibbling on a piece of crusty bread.

“Sweet Corduroy,” Vertrag cooed. “I found her in my Corduroy pants,” he told Roy. “She’s been living in this dump for years, ahaha. Can you believe that? She even got herself pregnant. C’mere, Corduroy,” he coaxed.

Corduroy the rat meekly exited her cage. In a flash, Vertrag had her in his grip, dropped her on the array, and activated it. Roy noticed that the Deal Alchemist’s fingertips began whirling into spirals as it kept touching the edge of the circle. Like a clock.

“Tick tock.” Vertrag’s hand completed one revolution and between one blink and the next, the circle was crowded with furless rat babies. Roy’s eyes widened, fascinated.

“Tick tock.” Another revolution, and the baby rats had grown. Corduroy looked old and wrinkled, shivering in her own skin.

“Tick—“ 

“Stop,” Roy said, not wanting to witness the mother rat die. 

Vertrag stopped. “Okay then. I’ll make it young once more!” 

“What—“

Deal spiralled his hand counter-clockwise three times. The young spawn grew smaller before entering the womb. The mother rat grew healthier, and then its stomach shrank.

“There.” Vertrag looked very proud of himself. “Now I don’t have to worry about extra mouths to feed.”

Roy realized he had been holding his breath. “What happened to the offspring?” 

“Gone from existence.” Vertrag waved a hand. “I’m worried about little Corduroy. She’s pretty, see? I don’t want any other rats having her.”

“Ah,” Roy responded, trying to not to be judgmental. “I’m impressed. Your arrays could actually reverse the natural flow of things.”

“Nope,” Deal disagreed, shaking his head. “It still can’t reverse cold death.”

Roy’s hopes shattered like icicles. He wheezed out a laugh. “But what about Ross?” And Hughes?

Vertrag snorted. “That’s warm death! It didn’t occur more than a week ago, right?”

“The difference is in the number of days?” He gave him a skeptic look. “Are you sure about this?”

“Positive.”

“Then…let’s get to business.”

“Wow, you must be really desperate if you’re willing to be my first human experiment,” Vertrag said.

“There’s really no other option” was Roy’s response.

The redhead snatched a clean piece of paper. “Okay. So I need something in exchange from you to make this work.”

“Oh? And what would that be?”

“I need seven days of your life involving boring paperwork,” Vertrag stated, gesturing at Roy. “In exchange for undoing the entire last week.”

Roy’s expression must’ve conveyed bewilderment because Deal elaborated further.

“It’s base material for the array.” He coughed. “Equivalent Exchange. You need to sacrifice something from your life to convert as energy to make time flow back.”

Sacrifice days from his life, huh? The colonel mused over this. “What did the rat sacrifice?”

Vertrag shrugged. “I forced it to cast away some of her babes.”

That…explained a lot of things.

“Okay, but why paperwork?” Roy questioned.

Vertrag shrugged some more. “Thought yah might not like boring paperwork. Easiest days to give. What do you say?”

He extended a hand. He looked sincere.

Roy shook on it.

 

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“So where could I tattoo an array on you?”

“Anywhere,” Roy shrugged.

The redhead circled him once, humming. “The more blood underneath the array,” he explained, circling like a vulture, “the stronger the deal is, and the more severe the consequences when either party breaks it.”

Roy pondered this. Technically speaking, what his array would entail was only a simple exchange of days. “Place it on my wrist.” He pointed at the exact location he desired it. “Above my artery.” So he would see it everyday, and it would remind him of what he had done, help keep him from straying from the right path.

“Oh? Aren’t you worried that others might see it when you go back a week from now?” 

“I could hide it easily.”

“Right then,” Vertrag agreed.

The tattooing was a quick process and Roy managed to stay still despite the pain. Then the Deal Alchemist drew up the contract: the partner array to Roy’s which was penned on parchment. He dropped his own blood on the paper, the excess of which splattered, before he took out his pen and signed his name on the north of the circle.

“If you would just sign…here.” Vertrag’s index finger tapped beneath the array and handed Roy his writing tool.

This was it. The solution to all his problems.

His fingers carefully inscribed the loop-de-loops and zigzags of ‘Roy Mustang’, and ended the tail of the letter ‘g’ with an upward flourish.

“What now?” Roy asked tiredly after emblazoning his name in neat cursive, handing back the pen.

“Now,” Vertrag grinned. “You get what you signed for.”

 

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I’ll spin all the gold, if you give me First child--

In confusions’ agreement, she cried & he smiled;

—Dr. O. Drew Larson, Poet, 1992, Rumpelstiltskin

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//

Chapter Text

Chapter Two: Back from the Dead, Seven Days Back

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Spin—

 

Spinning—

 

Darkness.

 

Roy’s body had exploded into a thousand pieces, dispersing like confetti, which had started from his toes and travelled to his head. The scream of horror and pain died in his throat, even as the pain multiplied and lanced from the array on his wrist, spreading through his veins like poison. Through his peripheral vision, he noticed that the Deal Alchemist had vanished.

 

The floor had cracked as the walls of the house were diffused into sand and gravel before being sucked by the heavens. The fallen brown leaves on the lawn had floated upwards, with their midribs sticking back on their respective branches before the trees themselves were uprooted, joining the sand and gravel swirling above.

 

What’s more? Central had begun disappearing into a backdrop of white.

 

People on the streets: businessmen, parents, children, vendors, and other various civilians alike had walked in reverse, rear end first, as if a giant vacuum was drawing them back the way they’d come from, while the ground beneath them was bleached of color. Sounds buffeted Roy’s ears as the honks of cars, the chirping of birds, and the whirr of motorcycles was sucked into their sources, creating a whiplash of vibrations. Two families, who apparently knew each other, had backtracked and cheerfully greeted their acquaintances ‘oh well eh.’ The sun in the sky had gone opposite its usual route, slowly sinking into the east—

 

Roy would’ve mentioned more, but a sudden tug in his gut had pulled him into a void and then he was plunged into total obscurity.

 

Now, a distant flash of light caught his attention.

 

White ribbon-like tendrils broke through the light, revolving like the blades of a ceiling fan. He gravitated toward it, pulled by an unknown force, when he realized he was going far far far too fast and there was nothing to hold on in order to slow down his advance—

 

—Images flitted by him, reminiscent of rolls of film unraveling. It took him a few moments to understand what he was seeing as he began spinning around and around and around vertically, causing him to flail his arms like a suffocating fish—

 

Ross’ skin regenerating as the flames licked her body. Flames extinguished with a snap of his fingers—

 

Him (Roy was disgusted to say) vomiting expensive alcohol back to their respective bottles—

 

Ink flowing back into his pen as he traced over the signature and handed the transfer papers to his team…Breda viciously seizing the unsigned paper from his desk—

 

Night. Ross climbing down the wall as he backpedalled to the phone booth—

 

—Two bullets zipping back to the barrel of the gun—

 

—Maes Hughes coaxed onto his feet like a vampire getting up from his coffin, like those in the silent movies—

 

The white light cleared and revealed a texture of cobblestones, and his spinning became free falling…

 

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…falling…

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…falling…

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******

 

DAY ONE

 

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AGAIN

 

******

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AIR.

 

Fresh air entered his lungs as he fell through and he was finally able to scream for a grand total of two seconds before he hit the ground. Face first.

 

“Ow,” he said, then followed it with a muffled curse.

 

Laying still, he mentally took stock of his vitals: head hurting, face probably scraped (especially his chin), limbs intact though more likely bruised, and body shivering. Groaning, he pushed himself up onto his knees, the small bits of fragmented gravels between the cobblestones digging into the fabric. Immediately, the bright sunlight streamed into his pupils and he blinked rapidly before his vision adjusted. He massaged his throbbing temples, looking around, trying to figure out where the hell he’d been dropped. Thankfully, nobody seemed to be present when he appeared out of nowhere.

 

His hand dug around his right pocket, pulled out his watch, and clicked it open.

 

Military time: 1800 HOURS.

 

He shifted his eyes from side-to-side as he stood up and dusted himself off. A street sign stood by the corner, and as he approached it, he had a great urge to thank the Deal Alchemist for saving him time.

 

He was on Cobblestone Way.

 

Which was in freaking Central.

 

Holy—he had more than enough time to save Hughes from his tragic fate.

 

‘And thus,’ Roy thought, ‘save myself from my own mistakes.’

 

Just to make sure he hadn’t been tricked, he approached a newspaper stand around the corner and read the date at the top.

 

It was that day. Shit, he felt like crying. Which was, yes, very much uncharacteristic of him. A bubble of relief swelled in his chest and threatened to pop, and he couldn’t help it. He considered jumping for joy—

 

“Sir,” the newspaper vendor addressed him, and then pointed at the paper. “Are you going to be buying that?”

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Military time: 1815 HOURS.

 

A whole fifteen minutes before Hughes dies.

 

His legs had taken him as fast as they could to the accursed phone booth, the root of all his problems. There, he crouched behind the bushes, waiting for his best friend and his best friend’s killer to arrive. A pair of handcuffs was in his hands; though he also wore his ignition gloves in order to swiftly disarm Ross after his planned ambush.

 

He had a perfect view of the phone booth’s opening.

 

All that was left to do was wait.

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Military time: 1829 HOURS.

 

Roy held his breath and kept his senses alert, listening for running footsteps. He kept his gaze fixated on the phone booth. Kept all of his focus on that and nothing else.

 

He counted the seconds ticking by until a whole minute had passed. He perked up, expecting his best friend to…

 

The phone booth was still unoccupied.

 

Okay, maybe his watch was lagging a few minutes behind…or he had probably miscounted and that was why Hughes hadn’t arrived yet.

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He had kept up his vigil for another hour, after which he decided that he’d had enough. He slowly stood from his position, glancing left and right to make sure no one else was present.

 

Roy dreaded the possibility of the event having happened much earlier and he had missed it (a weak assumption, given the lack of police tape), so he went and inspected the phone booth for traces or smell of blood, but all he could smell was body odor, spit, and other stuff.

 

He decided to storm Central Command and drag Hughes out himself. Preferably alive.

 

He wondered if he should've contacted Riza first (his gut clenched as he did so), but decided to tackle one problem at a time.

 

He pocketed his ignition gloves.

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As the gates drew closer, his anxiety grew.

 

There weren’t any blaring sirens, ambulances, or gunshots to indicate there might have been a recent attack on any military personnel, much less Maes Hughes. He contemplated the possibility that Vertrag had, as a best case scenario, done something to prevent the man's passing, or, worst case, tricked Roy and it was actually possible to reverse time but impossible to reverse death. As he thought about it more, however, he realized that particular scenario would cause disappearances.

 

Roy's stomach churned at the thought. He understood that it wouldn't only be Maes, Riza, and Ross who wouldn't be present in the now, but also those who had died in the erased week.

 

And it would be entirely his fault.

 

Sighing, he passed by the military guard, a sergeant, who saluted him. Roy nodded back, though he did not stop his stride at the least.

 

His heart kept pounding on like a drum, and his breaths grew shorter and shorter as he entered the double doors.

 

The sound of his footsteps ricocheted off the walls as he passed through the hallways. He was coming nearer and nearer to the Investigations Department, and, although it was very late, hoped that Hughes was working overtime so he could immediately verify that his best friend had survived.

 

When he finally arrived at his destination, his eyes wandered across the evenly spaced cubicles, searching for the one Hughes’ occupied. There were at least three people working overtime, more likely doing their paperwork, scribbling details onto forms of whatever crime they were handling as of the moment. Roy decided not to bother them, all too well acquainted and sympathetic with their distress.

 

He suddenly remembered that Hughes’ cubicle was near the windows, as the man liked seeing the outside scenery. Hughes claimed that the view of the sky and the city skyline gave him a sort of freedom and focus that never failed to steer his mind away from Ishval.

 

So Roy made his way toward the direction of the windows, and he found that a man with black hair was asleep, head down on the desk in one of the cubicles. The four stripes and two stars on his shoulder stated the rank of lieutenant colonel. Glasses with square frames were folded neatly and resting beside the man’s head.

 

Excited, Roy’s hand drifted on the sleeping man’s shoulder—

 

The man woke up with a jolt and turned towards him.

 

It wasn’t Maes Hughes.

 

“Sir.” The man wore his glasses, saw Roy’s rank, and stood up with a salute. “Colonel. Do you need anything, sir?”

 

“At ease,” Roy said, slightly disappointed. “I’m sorry for disturbing your rest. I was looking for Lieutenant Colonel Maes Hughes.”

 

The lieutenant colonel blinked slowly, fatigue evident in his posture. Roy’s words seemed to pass over his head, though he appeared to have enough alertness in him to register the name.

 

“I could lead you to his desk, sir,” he offered. Hope fluttered in Roy’s chest. “I’ve heard from him that he’s also working overtime, sir.”

 

Roy glanced around. Strange. “Doesn’t he also work in this department?”

 

“No, sir,” the lieutenant colonel answered.

 

“Al…right,” Roy said uncertainly. “Lead the way then.”

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.

.

“He’s here, sir.” The lieutenant colonel pointed at the door two hallways away from Investigations.

 

“Thank you for your help,” Roy told him sincerely.

 

“May I continue my work, sir?”

 

At Roy’s nod, the lieutenant colonel was dismissed and he padded back.

 

‘Okay,’ Roy thought. ‘Moment of truth.’

 

He knocked and waited, preferring to be let in than to let himself in first.

 

No one answered.

 

He knocked again. His heart beat faster and his sweat dripped down the corner of his jaw. He inhaled the cold air as he attempted to calm his nerves. He gazed at the door, willing it to open and reveal his best friend.

 

And finally, finally, the door opened with a small creak.

 

A silhouette of a man stood stark against the harsh illumination from inside the office. When Roy’s eyes adjusted, he saw the man’s gaze travel from Roy’s footwear to his head. Then their gazes locked.

 

Roy felt his throat constricting. The bespectacled eyes. The scruffy beard. The familiar posture that makes the people around him feel curiously at ease.

 

“Maes Hughes,” Roy spoke. Relief blossomed from his gut, and all he could think of at the moment was ‘the array worked.’ But then, a part of him feared that the man might suddenly keel over with two bullet holes puncturing his chest, warm blood gushing forth and pooling around his boots—

 

Hughes stared at him, then—to Roy’s utter bewilderment—gave him a perfect salute. “Colonel, sir,” Hughes addressed to him. “Were you…uh, looking for me, sir?”

 

Oh. Haha, typical Hughes. He used to greet him like that in their early military days, before Hughes decided to just give him a heart attack by popping out of nowhere, screaming ‘ROYYY’ which usually led to…numerous embarrassing incidents.

 

Roy chuckled back, and felt a nostalgic smile play on his lips. “Hughes, it feels like a long time since I visited, doesn’t it?”

 

Hughes turned his head back in the direction of the office for a moment before focusing back on his face. “Uh,” he said eloquently. “Colonel—“ he rubbed his neck ”—do I know you, sir?”

 

A corner of Roy’s mouth tilted down as an eyebrow went up. “Alright, Hughes, you can knock it off now. I was just checking on you.”

 

“Er, thank you, sir. I guess.” Hughes offered an unsure smile, the kind a student gives to a teacher when they knew they gave a wrong answer to a question. Maes’ smile then quickly devolved into a frown. “I don’t really know you, Colonel. May I ask for your name, sir?”

 

An alien sensation spread throughout the entirety of Roy’s soul. His eyebrows furrowed as he snapped. “This is no time for jokes, Hughes.”

 

Hughes flinched at Roy’s tone, which—Roy found—was extremely worrying to witness. Hughes had never acted so...wary of him before.

 

“Hughes.” Roy’s voice gained a faint edge of pleading in it. “Is there…something wrong?” Then his eyes drifted to Hughes’ shoulders, then they widened in disbelief. “Why are you wearing a second lieutenant’s uniform?”

 

His best friend looked at him like he wasn’t sure how Roy attained the rank of a colonel. “Eh? Because…I’m a second lieutenant, sir.”

 

Roy could hear the ‘duh’ tacked on. Though, Hughes was dead serious.

 

“Sir, may I ask what your name is—?”

 

“Roy Mustang,” Roy snapped. “Your best friend? Now, knock it off.”

 

“Woah, there. Best friend?” Hughes raised his hands in a placating manner, still wearing the confused expression, and then he offered his hand to him. “That’s quick. It’s…it’s a pleasure to meet you anyway, Colonel…Mustang…” His voice faded at the last part, as if he recognized Roy’s surname for the first time.

 

Which was baffling on Roy’s part.

 

‘There’s something wrong,’ Roy realized. ‘What’s happening? Why doesn’t Hughes know me?’

 

Then, Hughes gave him his full attention. His eyebrows meeting at the center of his forehead, and Roy could almost see the gears turning in the man’s mind.

 

“Colonel Roy Mustang,” Hughes intoned thoughtfully and Roy stared at him. “I think…I recall someone wanting to see you.”

 

At this, Roy was certain that Hughes might be just pranking him after all. He decided to play along. Make sense of what made the man act this way. “Who?”

 

Hughes looked like he could taste the name and it tasted like spoiled milk.

 

“Colonel Theofil Vertrag.”

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…What.

 

Roy’s mind had gone into static the moment Vertrag’s name was mentioned because there was no way—

 

Shit. What had he done this time?

 

His oxygen intake increased exponentially as he marched down the corridors, made unfamiliar due to the largely different atmosphere he hadn’t noticed before. His mind flicked through the possibilities, pondering the questions of ‘What happened here?’ and ‘Why is Vertrag a colonel?’

 

Hughes marched in front of him, but before Roy could gather himself enough to speak another plea, the man knocked and entered a room, closing the door behind him. Roy gaped at the polished surface, wondering what lay at the other side. He was about to ask when Hughes exited almost just as quickly.

 

“Please enter, sir,” Hughes said, holding the door open for him.

 

Roy reached for his best friend’s shoulder; plead on the edge of his tongue. “Wait—“

 

But Hughes pulled back as if he had been burned by the touch.

 

Dazedly, after a final glance at Hughes’ apologetic expression, Roy retracted his hand and slowly entered the office. He was met with the sight of four more soldiers working overtime on their respective desks. As he heard the door close behind him, the first lieutenant occupying the nearest desk to his right saluted him.

 

“Go right in, sir,” the first lieutenant said.

 

Then before Roy could take another step forward, one of them moved behind him, grabbed his arms in a brusque manner, and handcuffed the wrists. The other two soldiers also moved to help.

 

“What the hell—!”

 

Roy was flung unceremoniously through the entryway of the inner office. He landed on his face (which was summarily what life had been doing to him lately), and as he was struggling to regain his balance, the door was slammed shut behind him.

 

“Ah ah ah! Leave some cheese for little Baldy!”

 

Roy straightened his posture and raised his head, focus narrowing on a certain red-haired man sitting behind the desk. Said man’s eyes—eye (he was wearing an eye patch)—locked with his, his lips splitting into a cruel grin.

 

“Hey there!” he greeted jovially. “Come to see my rats?” He reached out a hand under his desk and pulled up a cage, the metal clacking on wood as he set it down. Inside resided three squeaking rats, all sporting a different color. He pointed at the brown, the white, and the grey saying, “This one’s Troyyy. That one’s Baldroy! And this ickle one here is called Leroy! There’s one missing and I couldn’t find him—“ he whipped his head up and acted as if he only just saw Roy appear “—oh there he is!”

 

He cocked his head. “Mustang.”

 

Sparks burst behind Roy’s eyes at the implication. “You. What did you do?”

 

Vertrag feigned a look of shock. “Do? What did I do? It’s more of a case of what you did actually—“

 

“What. Do. You. Mean?” Roy growled word for word as he strode forward. “Why doesn’t Hughes know me? We had a deal, Vertrag, and the deal was to undo last week. You said that Hughes could be revived, and he’s here…but why—?”

 

“So many questions.” Vertrag rolled his eye. “Of course he won’t remember you—“

 

“Bastard!” Roy spat, leaning in close as he could across the desk. “You conned me! Didn’t you? It was too good to be true after all.”

 

“You found me out.” Teeth exposed like a rabid wolf’s, Vertrag tilted his head to the other side. He had opened the cage and was running a finger down the brown rat’s back. “And who allowed me to do so?”

 

Roy’s blood simmered, as he stared at the man in uncomprehending shock.

 

“The deal…heh, it was a great bargain, honestly.” The Deal Alchemist guffawed. “Worst week of your life erased in exchange for seven days filled with boring paperwork from you? It was practically labeled ON SALE!”

 

“If it was just paperwork,” Roy snarled. “Then why doesn’t Hughes recognize me? He—” Roy faltered, realizing what else had been terribly off. “He didn’t even pull out photographs of his family…”

 

Because strangers or not, Hughes had always—always had that nasty habit of trying to soften those people’s hearts with his wife and daughter’s smiles.

 

“Did I forget to elaborate again?” Vertrag hooked a corner of his mouth with his index finger. His eye shone with concentrated malice. “Days of paperwork. Where to start—?”

 

Roy kicked the desk. “Just get on with it! What did you take?”

 

“Lessee, lessee,” Vertrag mused, not even remotely surprised by the violent action. “Oh you know…seven days of paperwork. Paperwork from the time your subordinates were transferred directly under you…”

 

The blood in Roy’s veins froze.

 

“…Paperwork from when you entered the academy….Fullmetal’s recruitment letter…State Alchemy Exam…dang I don’t remember whaaat else—”

 

“You…” the word came out in a whisper as horror set in, “…took paperwork days that were important to me.” Extreme anxiety dug deep and twisted his insides, and he felt like the entire world had been pulled out like a carpet from under him.

 

“Yep! In fact, too bad,” Vertrag added with a grin as he leaned forward, “that one of those days you signed away to me was the day you were conceived. In other words…” Pause for conveyance of unsuppressed glee. “…You were never born.”

 

And that part struck a disconcerting chord in him.

 

He was never born. Roy was never born. He never existed and that explained the way Hughes acted—

 

Oh fuck. Fuck, fuck

 

It wasn’t just Hughes who was affected by his nonexistence.

 

“Would you like a demonstration?” Vertrag asked. He circled his desk, and plucked the silver pocket watch from him before he could unfreeze. The chain links broke apart when Vertrag pulled harder. He then went back to the far side of his desk and dangled the pocket watch in front of Roy by pinching the shortened chain.

 

Before Roy’s eyes, the pocket watch started to fade, growing transparent…

 

“In this timeline,” Vertrag started, as he swung the see-through pocket watch. “You never took the State Alchemy exam. Naturally, since this pocket watch of yours isn’t anchored to you, the only stable thing that originated from the timeline it came from, it will cease…” the pocket watch disappeared completely into thin air, “to exist.”

 

And then, with a wider grin, he said "Like you in seven days."

 

Ringing. Ringing in Roy's ears.

 

“You BASTARD!” Roy jumped over his handcuffed arms and he lunged, toppling the cage and all.

 

And of course, that shout of fury and sounds of struggle seemed to be the cue for the soldiers outside to come barging in and keep him in check once more.

 

The Deal Alchemist howled with mirth as the soldiers restrained Roy. “Quite a scene I have in front of me.”

 

Vertrag came forward and punched him hard in the gut. The coward.

 

As Roy wheezed, the son-of-a-bitch leaned in close and whispered in his ear. “And you know what else I've done?” Roy could hear the nasty grin in the man’s voice.

 

Maes Hughes is going to die tonight,” was ghosted in his ear, the breath accompanying it was cold against his skin.

 

A single drop of sweat traced his cheek as Vertrag pulled back.

 

“Sound familiar?” Vertrag’s smile was full of teeth. “It was the warning that started everything.”

 

“It was you,” Roy muttered. Then he started to struggle desperately against the soldiers holding him, itching to plant his fist into the Deal’s fucking face. “IT WAS YOU!”

 

He had been played with, Roy realized, as his face crumpled with pure fury. Like how a cat played with a ball of yarn. Like how a spoiled toddler played with a cheap doll. He had been a toy. A goddamn TOY.

 

“What did you do to my subordinates and everyone I care about? TELL ME!

 

“No need to shout and be such a big whiner about it,” Deal answered lightly, and then began to gloat, as he adjusted his uniform. “To answer your rather rude inquiry, all I need to tell you is that your former team is having a grand time being miserable. Riza Hawkeye has gone missing. The Elric Brothers are divided. Fullmetal has loyally sided with me…blah, blah, blah. It’s quite a list.”

 

Wrong. Wrong. Wrong wrong wrongwrongwrongwrong

 

“Oh, yes.” Deal beamed as Roy’s heart sank further. “Welcome! To a world without you…

.

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/////

Chapter Text

Chapter Three: 1907

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Theofil gingerly sipped his hot tea, the soothing aroma wafting through his nostrils and the liquid warming the back of his throat. His three darling rats snuggled under his right palm, and he caressed their fur, taking care to control the pressure of his strokes.

 

This is the great life,’ he thought. Everything he had ever wanted was here, bestowed upon him by his own hands, when he snatched those seven days from right under Roy Mustang’s nose.

 

He smirked as he heard the man cursing him, accompanied by half-assed challenges spurting forth for Theofil to face Mustang and settle the matter once and for all.

 

The Deal Alchemist had no plans to humor the rat by agreeing.

 

He had come so far after all.

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*

*

*


Roy Mustang, 22 years old


 

 

“…See this array on my glove here? This will raise oxygen concentration around something flammable…like a tree, an escape vehicle…the hand of a terrorist…

 

“Here. Let me demonstrate.”

 

Snap!

 

The sharp cracking sound produced by his index finger and thumb summoned forth a rush of flames that circled the room. His audience (East City generals, colonels, other high-ranking people, his sponsor Grumman) leaned back a little as the searing heat rushed past. Some of them whispered. But their faces—

 

Roy could see bloodlust etched in some. Thoughtfulness in others. Definite fear in one or two. Even Grumman’s glasses glinted with a strange sort of light that most definitely was NOT a reflection of his flames.

 

Snap! KABOOM!

 

A spark. Concentration of gases rising. Instant destruction.

 

To be fair, exploding hay-stuffed dummies looked pretty underwhelming, especially as target practice. But if Roy mentally replaced the hay with parts of human—

‘This,’ Roy’s stomach flipped ‘was a bad idea.

 

The head alchemist of the panel jerked his arm to the side, a sign that he was to stop his demonstration. Said alchemist, with a grin stretching from ear to ear, marched towards Roy and shook his hands in congratulations.

 

“You’ll certainly pass,” he promised him in a gruff voice. “You’ll be able to help the people of Amestris with your alchemy.”

 

Roy bowed. “Thank you, sir.”

 

“Too controlled, though.”

 

The black haired man blinked as he straightened his back, confused. “Sir?”

 

The head alchemist brushed some imaginary dirt from his two-starred epaulets. “From what you’ve shown us, your alchemy seems only capable of individual casualties. Target practice is different from when you’re doing fieldwork, Mustang. Show us—” a beefy hand compressed into a fist directly in front of Roy’s face “—the most powerful attack you could render in a place like this.”

 

Perspiration emerged on Roy’s brow. His master, Berthold Hawkeye, had drilled into him again and again that fire should be kept measured. Precise. Master Hawkeye once told him that if fire were substantial he would quantify its amount piece by fiery piece in a measuring cup. What he is being asked to do now is to annihilate. But then, what else could’ve Roy expected the military required of him? A measly fireworks display for the masses?

 

He raised his head to face his evaluator, gauging the cold mask. The head alchemist raised an eyebrow in casual challenge, and Roy realized he was being sized up based on how obedient a dog of the military he could be.

 

Well. He started this. No getting cold feet and turning back.

 

He eyed the wall behind the panel, and as if reading his mind, the head alchemist spun and directed his associates away, giving Roy free reign.

 

“Go ahead,” the head alchemist encouraged him, patting his back once (and Roy could almost sense the imaginary knife digging in between his shoulder blades with that blow). “The State has plenty of money to pay for damages.”

 

But the State cannot simply buy Roy’s morals. And Roy discerned the head alchemist has read him well. He’d been cornered. So there was only one thing for him to do.

 

He held his arm as far away as he could from himself. He held it still for a second…two…three…

 

SNAP!

 

*

 

*

 

*


 

///


 

“Applause. Applause.”

 

The red-haired man waiting outside the examination hall fumed angrily as he heard the smattering of praise coming from inside. He was sitting with his butt flat on the floor after an earth-shattering sound disrupted his gentleman routine. The nerve! Now his tea was splattered all over the side table, going drip drip drip dangerously close to his immaculately clean coat sleeve.

 

Of course, Mustang would do well! Mustang would pass! What else did he expect?!

 

He straightened from his position then stood, exhaling sharply through his nose. He grabbed his umbrella from where it had toppled over beside him. In a moment, Mustang would walk through the doors and he’d show him up through mere height. Because if he couldn’t equal that man in his supposed charm, then he could at least surpass him in inches!

 

Mustang and Hughes. Interchangeably first and second. Nobody ever gives a thought about the consistent third in rank.

 

Mustang, top-Ranked in Battle Strategies. Hughes, top-Ranked in Academics. And himself, Theofil Vertrag, top-Ranked in Nothing.

 

Well…at least he got a reward for being third: a resounding slap in the face by his mother (now deceased thank goodness) who shouted that he wouldn’t ever live up to his late father’s legacy. Legacy his buttocks. He’d rather study alchemy forever.

 

It was what his father would’ve wanted for him anyway. So did his three older siblings and childhood friend. Or they had.

 

Yes, alchemy. While Mustang found himself a social recluse/hermit/loner for a teacher, Theofil had top-notch tutors. Mustang had been allowed to horse around, mooching off a branch of the science created by his master, while Theofil had developed his own. Something that would actually help people, not decimate houses to later be recycled on as firewood.

 

His train of thought derailed when the doors to the hall opened and a pair of military officers stepped out. “Mr. Theofil…Vert-rag,” one of them read off a piece of paper.

 

“It’s pronounced ‘Ver-tack’,” Theofil snapped, making a guttural sound with the last syllable. The addressed officer looked unimpressed, and only simply gestured for him to enter.

 

Right. Once Theofil had been declared a State Alchemist, his first command to the lesser ranked would be for them to spell and pronounce his name right.

 

Not Bertrag.

 

Not Vertgag.

 

It’s Vertrag.

 

He snubbed the officer and held his chin up as he walked past Mustang who was on his way out. True to his earlier word to himself, he unbent his spine, making sure it was as straight as a pole, and inwardly smirked at the fact that he towered over Mustang by a whole inch and a half.

 

And yet…Mustang hadn’t even glanced at him. Rude! Degrading even…to be ignored!

 

Can’t that idiot not occupy himself with his thoughts for a second and see that a RIVALRY is going on here?!

 

He let out a cross huff before remembering where he was. Then like a politician, he wiped his face clean of any sign of irritation and plastered on a smile that could most certainly pass as genuine. He strolled forwards confidently and presented before the members of the panel…who were standing by the side. There was a giant hole in the wall, or rather; there was no wall at all.

 

“Mustang’s work,” Theofil grumbled. “Can’t even leave a room clean for the next applicant.”

 

“Theofil Vert-rague.”

 

Keeping his annoyance in check, he respectfully replied. “It ends with a ‘g,’ but it’s pronounced as ‘Ver-tack’, sir.”

 

“Theofil Vertrag,” the head alchemist amended, pronouncing it right this time. “Please proceed with your demonstration. Do you require chalk?”

 

“Sir,” Theofil nodded.

 

Almost immediately, another officer stepped forward and handed him a long piece from a box. He silently studied the writing tool. Chalk. Calcium carbonate. Smooth-edged. Just the way he liked it. So he knelt down and began sketching his circle.

 

It was a prototype. One that seems a bit too simplistic for his tastes since it was only made up of basic shapes like squares, circles, and semi-circles. But he knew it was only a starting branch of Alchemy, and reasoned that he was applying for the SA program to expand his work using precious research material.

 

Theofil cocked his head to the side and winced as his neck cricked. He signed his name in looping cursive twice on the north and south of the array and sighed. There was still another circle to complete.

 

Walking at least ten feet away from the first one, he sketched out a circle a bit more complicated than the first, one that contained triangles and a hexagon. Outside the outermost ring, he wrote ‘Delectamentum Mes Capsicum assum et pullum magna laminam yum yum yum’ plus the other words that were necessary.

 

Once he’d finished his work, he stood, went back to the first one, and opened his arms wide.

 

“I present to you my contract alchemy!” he spoke to those present, which he noticed was a lot less than what Mustang had. Well, it was their loss. Not his.

 

‘An audience was an audience, no matter how small,’ he thought with optimism.

 

Theofil dug his right hand into his coat pocket and pulled out something shiny.

 

This is a pellet of gold.” He stepped forward and showed the panel the valuable piece of metal, no more than ten millimeters in size. Two out of the five members of the panel nodded, while the other three remained stoic. Theofil focused on the head alchemist.

 

“Sir,” he said. “How much do you think would this cost?”

 

The head alchemist studied the gold pellet. “Twenty-four karat, yes? Around two thousand five hundred cenz, give or take.”

 

Theofil grinned. “About the price of a meal in fancy restaurant, yah? Thing is…”

 

In one swift movement, he had dropped the gold grain in the first circle and slapped his palms on the ground. The familiar hum of alchemic lightning filled his ears, and his nerves tingled with excitement. The light from the first circle arched and connected with the second one. He could see the end product slowly taking form.

 

After a few more seconds, the light died down. There in the middle of the output circle, was a large plate of roasted chicken and mashed potatoes. It even looked freshly cooked, the chicken giving off vapors of that honeyed scent, and the mashed potatoes were coated in gravy.

 

Now the panel looked curious. Theofil could see it in their faces. Where was the Equivalent Exchange? How could a piece of gold turn into food?!

 

The head alchemist moved and examined the meal. He picked it up and ordered an officer to bring him a knife and fork. Once he was given what he needed, he cut himself a juicy piece (the panel tried not to look like they wanted to drool), and ate it.

 

“It’s genuine,” he marveled, and laid the plate on their table. The members of the panel immediately asked for their own utensils. “Explain Mr. Vertrag. How does this work?”

 

“See, sir—” Theofil beamed “—my arrays take into account the human value placed on an object and replaces them with something of the same value in human terms. In this case—” he gestured at the meal “—two thousand five hundred cenz amount in gold for a tender dinner.”

 

The head alchemist frowned. “But how? Your arrays are simple as they come. Amateurish even.”

 

Theofil swallowed past the retort building up in his throat. “I believe that the food came from somewhere—“

 

“You mean you don’t know?” a member of the panel inquired, a chunk of chicken hanging from his mouth.

 

“All I know is that the exchange transpired on a separate plane of existence,” Theofil clarified. “I’m not sure how…or where, but I will look into it more.”

 

“It’s too domestic,” the head alchemist commented in a harsh tone. “Why should we accept you?”

 

Theofil simply glanced at him as he swept his foot to erase all the words except ‘Mes’ then started walking back to the first array, dropping things as he did so: a quarter-filled bottle of iodine and a bottle of ammonia in the output array; another pellet of gold in the middle of the two transmutation circles and lastly…

 

“I’d step back if I were you,” he told the panel. Immediately, they clambered away, and Theofil dropped his last gold grain in the input array, his hand triggering the reaction—

 

electricity arched twice

 

B O O M!

 

The explosion rocked the room, and everyone present tried to shield themselves as chunks of rocks rained down upon them. Not too big thankfully. When the audience and panel attempted to compose themselves, they beheld the small crater in the middle of the hall. Theofil was near the doors, a good thirty feet away from the impromptu bomb. He held his umbrella open in front of him. Which, upon closer look, seemed to be made of aluminum.

 

Snapping it close with a shink, he stared deadpan at the panel.

 

“Nitrogen triiodide,” he said as he drank in their shocked expressions. “Highly volatile. Not to be trifled with. It’s a good thing gold is biologically nonreactive and balances the exchange. A blood offering, on the other hand…”

 

He didn’t finish the statement. This was just a way into the military. He wouldn’t actually waste his alchemy on something as mindless as using a bomb.

 

“What you did can easily be replicated.” The head alchemist straightened from his crouched position, glaring at him and challenging him head on. “We already have at least two state alchemists who can do far more efficient destruction than you.”

 

Ah…after everything he had done, he still has to earn his success.

 

“You know, sir…” Theofil adopted an air of confidence. “You see that first array? Have you wondered why I needed to sign mah name?”

 

The head alchemist didn’t even dignify his question with a response.

 

He continued anyway, “There’s a perfectly sound reason why I call my alchemy ‘contract alchemy.’ I’m both the contractor…and the client. Imagine, heh, if two or more people were involved in a contract and bound by the array. The contractor will have to provide a form of service to the client, and the client will have to sacrifice something to get what they want. Equivalent Exchange!”

 

Theofil bared his teeth as he lowered his chin onto his umbrella. “With enough of a research budget…why, my alchemy could have the potential to turn back time, erase mistakes.”

 

His piercing black eyes met the head alchemist’s. “Resurrect dead people?” Of course he researched the backgrounds of his evaluators, he had more than enough money. And the head alchemist in particular…he’d had a beloved daughter who had been dead for years now. Theofil observed how his eyes sparkled with distant hope.

 

“Honestly, all I need is a good source of energy, a lot of studying to eradicate sources of error. Contract arrays are pretty shaky most of the time.” He smirked. “Those two arrays I presented? It took months to perfect them. But, with the assistance of old theses and references, I think there is a good chance I’ll succeed.”

 

Later, he stepped back through the examination hall’s double doors with a triumphant expression and a bounce in his step. He’d lied, of course. Resurrecting dead people? Bah. Impossible.

 

The head alchemist had fallen for it hook, line, and sinker.

 

Theofil Vertrag passed.

.

.

.

 

The Fuhrer had dubbed him the ‘Deal Alchemist’ and added a silver pocket watch to the mix.

 

Theofil really could’ve used a flashier name…but it’d do. He’d make his given title great one day. In the future. Like next year.

 

His assigned superior, General Hakuro, told him to do well in his field.

 

Mr. VERTIGO, your results are only passable to my eyes,” Theofil mimicked as he dramatized an earlier conversation while alone in his lavish room. “Seventy-five percent? Unbelievable!

.

 

.

 

.

 

1908

.

 

The Ishvalan Massacre.

 

The idea in of itself sobered Theofil most of the time. But now that it was already happening, he found he couldn’t bring himself to care much. The genocide command of the Fuhrer had been looming above them anyways. The Ishvalans just missed the hint to escape.

 

Theofil has been desensitized to murder by then, though he couldn’t help but feel a pang of pity for the religious race. What he felt would’ve ballooned into sympathy, if he weren’t so busy feeling rage at Mustang.

 

While he was at his lab slaving away trying to make ends meet and produce headway into his research, the bastard was sent to the front lines by issuance of Order 3066. Of course with his Flame Alchemy, Mustang was immediately a STAR.

 

Theofil did try to apply to be part of the civil war, just to show up Mustang. However, his arrays were difficult to control on the battlefield at best, putting even his allies in danger if he were to be deployed. The higher-ups said he was better off in a lab anyway. It was probably for the best. He had no stomach for killing. If he were to derive any pleasure from this event, it would be that the title ‘Ishval War Hero’ bequeathed upon that bastard was absolutely psychological torture.

 

That night, an Ishvalan couple had ringed the doorbell of his mansion, asking for help. Begging for a deal.

 

“How do you know about me?” Theofil questioned them. Of course, he had to know where the good publicity had come from first.

 

“We talked to a man. He said he was your informant,” the Ishvalan man replied in a desperate tone. “He promised up and down that you’d help us. Said he’ll pay you a lot of good info about a…male horse and its family?”

 

Theofil let them in.

 

“What do you want?” he inquired, raising an eyebrow. “A way out of the country? I’m rich, but the Fuhrer and his lackeys are hard to bribe.”

 

“We…” The Ishvalan man hesitated, turning to his wife.

 

“We want you to change the color of our eyes,” the woman said evenly, not even glancing at her husband.

 

Theofil froze as he poured himself a cup of tea. The chemistry of eye color. Easy enough. All he had to do was adjust the melanin production, since it’s just a protein pigmenting the irises. It can be decreased or increased, whatever. They want blue or black? No problem. There were just two issues he had to deal with this.

 

“You’re willing to throw your heritage away?” The Deal Alchemist added a lot of milk into his tea.

 

The wife bit her lip. She wrestled her thumbs with each other. “Just for a few days? Is that possible?”

 

Theofil mused about the equation in his head. “Actually…it is.” Okay, so at least this couple wouldn’t be forgetting where they came from. That’s good. Now the last issue…

 

“Unfortunately, I’ll have to ask something in exchange from you,” he told them.

The Ishvalan man’s red eyes widened, horrified. “S-s-sir, we don’t have money. Your informant said—“

 

“I don’t need money,” Theofil cut him off. “I need energy. I need materials. Where would I get what I need?”

 

“W-what do you need?” The wife’s voice shook. The Deal Alchemist perceived how the woman’s hand strayed ever so slightly above her womb. Of course, she spotted where he was looking, and she gaped at him in fear.

 

No!” she exclaimed, clutching her belly. “I’ll give you anything! Just don’t—!“

 

“Oh calm your butterflies, woman!” Theofil snapped, irritated with the loud noise. “It’s just a hand!”

 

The couple’s expressions became confused. “Huh?” they said at the same time.

 

“I’ll be needing a hand from one of you, I’m sorry,” he apologized. “The melanin needed to darken your eyes’ coloration will be sufficient, taken from there. And the blood from there will be enough energy to power my alchemic array.” Hopefully…yep, cross fingers. “What’d yah say? Got yourselves a deal?”

 

There. No need to break it to them gently. The woman’s screeching proved she was willing to do this anyway.

 

The Ishvalan man requested he to take his hand instead. Sure why not? Same organic matter.

 

After dressing the man’s left stump, he directed them out of his house as they stared at him in thanks with their now-brown eyes.

 

“Those have a four-day limit,” Theofil warned them. “Get out while you still can.” Then he shut his door without saying goodbye. He grabbed his phone and cranked the dial until he finished his informant’s number.

 

“Hello, Geron” he greeted, delighted. “Thanks for the package you sent me.”

 

“No problem,” said a gruff voice. “S’long yah got money to pay for it. How did it go?”

 

Theofil chuckled. “Ah, you know. Frightened them into thinking I’ll be using their child as a base—thanks for that tiny tip. Ahaha…after that, the man didn’t have any qualms about my using one of his limbs for my little time-limited experiment.”

 

“Yah’re sick.”

 

“I’ll be sending the check over soon. Watch over them, okay?” He hung up the phone. He’s sick alright, but at least he got the family a safe passage out of the country.

 

He found out the next day about the male horse and its family history. He also found out that Mustang had been promoted to lieutenant colonel.

 

Ugh. Theofil really hated being put on the same level as average alchemists.

.

 

.

 

.

 

1910

.

 

The Deal Alchemist had already been a candidate for drop-out twice.

 

That had to be a new record for the military.

 

And that wasn’t the only bad news.

 

He was having a dandy day, strolling to East HQ for his evaluation, certain that he’d get recognition this time, when he accidentally peeked into the generals’ meeting room on the fifth floor. The evaluation center was on the first floor, but he…got lost.

 

“…special permission for this potential recruit to take the exam.” Theofil heard Mustang’s voice regaling the few higher-ups of Eastern Headquarters with a tall tale. “I came upon a sample array of his that was far too advanced for his age. Or anyone older than him, even.” Huh. The Deal Alchemist certainly has never caught Flame so excited before.

 

“What’s more…he’s certainly capable of plenty of research. It’s just an observation, sirs, but to my eyes, he could most certainly work.”

 

Most of the generals nodded. Theofil’s blood boiled.

 

“Why do you need special permission?” a brigadier general asked, clearly sensing something off.

 

“Oh,” Mustang smiled. “The potential recruit is just eleven years old.”

 

“ELEVEN?!” the brigadier general exclaimed as Theofil gapped and the others started buzzing. “He’s just a kid?”

 

“A child prodigy,” Mustang corrected, a serious demeanor taking over him. The clamor in the room quieted. “One we should get a hold of before other organizations hear of him. Yes?”

 

This time, a lieutenant general, the highest ranked in the room, addressed the black-haired man. He had an open file before him, presumably the prodigy’s profile. “Lieutenant Colonel,” he said tonelessly. “Are you sure about this?”

 

“Positive.”

 

“You’ll have to be one rank higher to be in charge of a State Alchemist.“ The lieutenant general closed his eyes, deep in thought. “Very well.” He stood up and shook Mustang’s hand. “I’ll be passing your name to the Fuhrer for promotion. Consider yourself a colonel.”

 

Theofil thought about the probability of finding a child prodigy on the streets as he sulked his way back home.

 

To put the cherry on the sundae, Hakuro sent him a letter a few days later (“Couldn’t even visit me in person,” Theofil fumed), saying that he had transferred him to be under the command of the new shiny colonel.

 

Life. Hated. Him.

.

.

.

1911

.

“Mr. Theofil Vertrag,” Mustang greeted when Theofil opened the door. He pronounced the name right. Small mercies. “Huh, you look kind of familiar…”

 

“We attended the same military academy, Mustang,” Theofil said with a neutral face, as he bit back a condescending reply. The hell was Mustang doing there anyway?! “Then I became classified as a civilian State Alchemist.”

 

“Ah,” Mustang said, obviously keeping his face blank as well. The copycat. “I apologize for not knowing.”

 

Theofil knew he wasn’t sorry. He could practically feel the bout of electricity sparking between their eyes. At least he felt it. He wasn’t sure about Mustang. “What are you doing here?”

 

“Hey Colonel!”

 

A young boy wearing a red coat came running up to Theofil’s doorstep.

 

Kid said, “Fuck you.”

 

Kid said, “You left me napping in the car!”

 

Kid said, “Thought you ditched me.”

 

It was far too early to deal with this.

 

“Mr. Vertrag.” Mustang’s deadpan stare never left him as the man absently swayed his right arm to the side. “Edward Elric, Fullmetal Alchemist.” Said arm hit the boy square in the face.

 

“Hey! Ow!” The boy—Edward Elric— shoved Mustang in turn.

 

Was it just him…or were Mustang’s eyebags considerably darker? Kid must be giving him hell. Hooray.

 

“Pleasure to meet you, Fullmetal Alchemist.” Theofil held out a hand for Edward to take, which the kid did. He felt the grip of the gloved automail, thereby verifying the claim of his informant. “Alchemy prodigy. Youngest State Alchemist in history. Etcetera.”

 

“Call me Ed.” Ed grinned as he smugly looked up at Mustang. “See? Not even a full year, and I’m famous.”

 

Mustang sighed as if the world had cursed him. “Mr. Vertrag, Fullmetal here is interested in your work on contract alchemy.”

 

“What of?” Humor them first. Then deny them entry later.

 

“The occurrence of Equivalent Exchange on a separate dimension,” Ed told him, eyes shining. Alchemy nerd persona taking over.

 

“And if I say no?” Theofil snapped, drawing back his hand from Ed’s. The two just stared like they couldn’t believe their combined charm couldn’t persuade him. “Got stuff to do, Edward. I need to pass my evaluation this time. Otherwise, I’m going to lose my job. Isn’t that right, Colonel?”

 

Theofil would have been proud to say that he’d been able to spit the title like it was composed of phlegm.

 

Mustang seemed to take the hint. His jaw clenched, but he otherwise kept his demeanor composed. “Of course, we’re sorry to bother you.” He turned to Ed. “Well, Fullmetal, looks like I’ll have to repay my debt to you sometime this week. Let’s go.”

 

“What?! NO! I—“

 

Poor kid alchemist. Can’t even follow orders.

 

Ed spun and faced Theofil. “Look…sir. I could help—“

 

“Can’t help me, kid.” He frowned. “I’ve been tinkering around with this for years. Prodigy or not, what does a punk like you know about contract arrays?”

 

“Fullmetal,” Mustang called from the military car.

 

“I don’ know shit ‘bout those!” Edward stomped his foot as his distinctively countryside accent shone through. “But hey! Not my fault if you don’ want to learn ‘bout…” The kid hesitated.

 

Theofil raised an eyebrow. “About?”

 

Ed shifted his weight from foot to foot, glanced once at Mustang, then turned back to him and whispered, “Have you ever wondered that there might be someone present in that separate dimension you mentioned in your alchemy profile description?” He wriggled his arms at Theofil like an octopus. “Someone to make sure that the principle of Equivalent Exchange wouldn’t be violated?”

 

Theofil blinked at that. “Someone?”

.

.

.

Theofil blamed his curiosity.

 

Now they were all gathered around the table, drinking coffee in dainty cups and munching on chocolate chip cookies of all things. Ed had a heaping plateful and had somehow flamboyantly finished all of it in two minutes. Mustang had winced.

 

Edward Elric was rude and obnoxiously certain about his self-importance. Trouble. Mustang probably thought the child prodigy was going to be the perfect subordinate.

 

“I…understand,” Theofil spoke up, after having heard the boy’s theory. Ed had told him about it as equivalent exchange for the Deal Alchemist sharing his work. “Human transmutation, huh? And there’s a gate involved. Parts of a body in exchange for information. Sounds painful.”

 

“It is,” Ed agreed, as if he had experienced it firsthand.

 

“How did you know all this?”

 

“Because I did it.” Ed pinned him down with those gold eyes of his. “I committed the taboo.”

 

Theofil slumped back in his seat. That explained why the kid was a freaking genius. He itched to hear the whole story, about whom Ed wanted to bring back, but he realized that it might be too much of a touchy subject. Ed was still focused on him, gauging his reaction.

 

He changed the topic.

 

“Why do you want to learn more about this...gate?”

 

“It’s intriguing.”

 

True. It was intriguing.

 

“Mr. Vertrag,” Mustang said. Theofil wanted to ignore him. “We would appreciate it if you would keep Fullmetal’s past actions a secret.”

 

Theofil cocked his head. “Of course.” Can’t tarnish your reputation right, Mustang? Got a subordinate with a dirty history.

 

He pushed his chair backwards and stood, beckoning Ed. “Well, time to show you my theories. I haven’t been making much headway though. Don’t get your hopes up, kid.”

 

“I’m not a kid!” Ed pouted.

 

“Sure, sure.” He walked along the hallway with Ed. Mustang in tow.

 

“You have a big living space,” Mustang remarked. “Where’s your family?”

 

Killed by someone. “Dead. I live alone.”

 

“No servants?”

 

Theofil bristled as he realized that this was some kind of interrogation. “Fired. I’d rather save money.”

 

“You mean…you clean all these rooms? By yourself?”

 

Is it that obvious that there isn’t a speck of dust on any furniture? Gosh, his neat freak-ness was showing.

 

“Yes,” Theofil told him as they reached the end of the corridor. “With alchemy.”

 

There was an unspoken duh.

 

He turned the brass knob and pulled it open. The door opened with creak and revealed a capacious laboratory, easily able to house a small orphanage. There was another door to their left, which led to the library, but instead of taking that, Theofil made a beeline to his array table to check his experiments. He grabbed a notebook thick enough to cause blunt trauma if he swung it, and passed it over to the awed Fullmetal.

 

Ed held the notebook parallel to the ground, staring at it with something akin to reverence, but then his eyebrows wrinkled in confusion when he opened to the first page.

 

“Uh,” he said. “Of Mouse and Man? A novel written by Theo the Fifth?” He flipped to the back. “Where’s the research?”

 

“Have fun decoding my work, kid,” Theofil smirked, leaning on the edge of his desk.

 

Ed ran his gloved index finger on the binder. “Hmm.” Then he surveyed his surroundings.

 

“You have a nice lab,” Ed said with approval as he flipped random pages absently. “I wish I had a lab.”

 

“Request a public one from him then.” Theofil jerked his chin to Mustang as he examined his work.

 

“Can’t…”

 

Theofil waited for the continuation of Ed’s sentence. He tapped three times impatiently, and finally looked at the kid to see what was taking him so long to—oh.

 

Kid was busy. His golden eyes darted from line to line. Theofil noted, with a little bit of shock, that Ed must’ve been at least on page fifty. And he swore that his handwriting was tiny.

 

“How long have we been standing here?” he inquired of Mustang in a ‘Is this kid for real?’ voice.

 

“Five minutes,” was the response.

 

Ten pages a minute. Impossible. And had he already cracked the code?! Theofil hoped Ed was only enamored by the story.

 

“He’s amazing, isn’t he?” Mustang chuckled. “Fullmetal can’t hear us anymore.”

 

“By the way, doesn’t he have a bodyguard?” It caught up to him what has been niggling at the back of his mind. The armor that almost always overshadowed the kid was nowhere to be seen.

 

“The armor? That’s his younger brother, Al.”

 

Mustang was toying with him. Unless the brother inside the armor had gigantism, there was absolutely no way he was the younger. But okay, whatever floated with the wind.

 

The colonel scratched the back of his head, frowning. “He’s back at their dorm right now. They just got back from the first mission I assigned them. Fullmetal demanded and I quote, ’to check out some knowledge worth checking out’ and pulled out all my folders until he saw yours.”

 

“Demanded?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“He’s that insubordinate, isn’t he?”

 

“Yes.”

 

With each affirmation, Mustang’s shoulders sagged a centimeter.

 

Still, with Mustang being generous, accompanying the kid and everything…huh…it probably meant the first mission was successful.

 

Theofil glanced at Ed who had probably inhaled half the notebook. “May I ask what the mission was about?”

 

“Nothing much. He just had to take down a gang dealing with illegal possession of weapons.”

 

Mustang had kept a straight face while saying that in a conversational tone. Nevertheless, it didn’t stop Theofil from hearing that hint of pride tinting the man’s voice.

 

He swallowed. “That’s inhuman.” He turned back to the Fullmetal Alchemist.

 

Said alchemist wasn’t at his side. He could almost see a dashed outline blinking on and off where Ed has been. Panicked, he pivoted around, searching…

 

Ed was right behind him, changing an array containing a dead white rat. Changing his array. AND PLACING A LIVING BROWN RAT ON IT.

 

“Hey! What are you doing with Brownie?!” he yelled as he made grabbing motions. Nobody…nobody should touch his Brownie. And arrays.

 

Fullmetal flinched and touched the edge of the table, activating the circle. The kid looked at him guiltily. “S-sorry, I got carried aw—“

 

Incessant squeaking interrupted them. Annoying, annoying squeaking. As one, the three gazed at the results: Brownie was dead. White rat alive.

 

“What just happened?” Mustang took a step forward. “I thought dead stuff couldn’t be resurrected.”

 

“Uh…they can’t.” Ed’s eyebrows were furrowed, as if he didn’t expect this to happen. “I, uh, see…animals have no souls—“

 

“Of course, they do.” Theofil glowered.

 

“No they don’t,” Ed countered back. “They have spirits, which is on a whole different level than souls.”

 

“You cracked my code?” he squeaked, disbelieving.

 

“I understood parts of it,” Ed replied. “Enough to grasp the important bits. Most of the text were obvious allusions to alchemical jargon. Etcetera. Shall I continue my explanation?”

 

“Go on,” Theofil urged.

 

“I…exchanged the rats’ brain waves and lives. Uh, not exactly lives because obviously the other one is dead. It’s simpler to swap. You know? Brownie is in the white rat, I think. But…yeah.”

 

But yeah, the kid had explained eloquently. Like Ed hadn’t just made a ten-minute breakthrough that would’ve taken the Deal Alchemist years. Was it that easy to study his branch of alchemy? Theofil felt ashamed.

 

“Oh! And I also changed the sigil for soul into the one for spirit. And wrote my signature.” Ed smiled and added, “I think the swap could be reversed.”

 

Theofil hoped he wasn’t drooling when he told Ed to do it. And Ed did. And they got Brownie back.

 

“That’s…” Mustang trailed off.

 

Ed grinned. “Awesome?”

 

“Unbelievably inconsiderate of other’s privacy and labor, Fullmetal.” Mustang rolled his eyes and turned about face. “I’ll be sending someone for you in the evening. Be careful.”

 

“Sure,” Ed said, “Colonel Bastard.”

 

“Mr. Vertrag, thank you for your help.” Then Mustang returned the way they’d come. Theofil heard the distant closing of his front door, and then he spun and regarded the child prodigy with wide eyes and a gasp stuck in his throat. Ed shifted his eyes away, embarrassed.

 

“Sorry for touching your work like that,” he apologized. “First time I’ve seen a State Alchemist busy in a lab.”

 

“It’s quite alright,” he heard himself saying. Not even an hour in his house and he had already created a soft spot for his little guest. He could see why Mustang appeared fond of this one. He probably earned a lot of praise from his superiors, despite getting hell from his subordinate’s attitude. “Would you like to see my library?”

 

“Hell yeah!”

 

“Don’t touch my encrypted work in the glass cases. And put the books back in the correct places after reading them.”

 

“No problem. Thanks!”

 

After leaving the Fullmetal Alchemist to his own devices, Theofil surveyed the improved array. He reached out a hand and grabbed Brownie who nuzzled happily in his palm. Sighing, he grabbed his logbook and wrote his observations. So far, the brown rat hadn’t been showing signs of instability. It didn’t begin attacking him. Didn’t run around the place looking violated. Didn’t appear to lose anything during the swap. No extra fingers. No extra mouth. Tail still attached. Didn’t begin roaring. Signs of a successful experiment.

 

Now Theofil only needed two more developments to be allowed to retain his certification. Thing was…he had a time limit of two days before his head is lopped off on the chopping block.

 

He pursed his lips, staring at the door to his library.

 

He wondered what Mustang’s research was. Colonel or not, even that man was required to pass a report of his own annually, though Theofil suspected that he had acquired a practical free pass for merely being able to function as a one-man army. Or…

 

Did Mustang have another agenda for recruiting Fullmetal? Sure, the action earned him an extra star and stripe on his shoulders but he couldn’t keep using the kid as a boost to promotion, right? That’d get old pretty quick.

 

A realization dawned on him.

 

What if Mustang was utilizing Edward’s skill to move his own study of Flame Alchemy forward?! For all Theofil knew, Ed had probably uncovered Apocalypse Alchemy, or worse, Volcano Alchemy. And it was only a matter of time before Mustang became Fuhrer and volcanoes Theofil’s useless butt off the face of the earth!

 

He slapped himself. Hard. He’s losing it clearly…

.

.

.

“Ed?”

 

He’d thought about this long and hard. For like two hours. Sitting on his plastic chair reflecting on the pros and cons. The pros far outweighed the cons. He must get Ed to transfer under him as a lab assistant. Or better…as a partner.

 

As he entered the library, he found Ed cushioned between two walls of stacked books, with his red coat spread out above him and serving as a makeshift roof. Apparently, Ed liked forts, and he suspected that forts composed mainly of tomes and manuscripts are the best ones. It seemed comfortable. Heh, Ed had assembled a com-fort.

 

But yeah, Theofil was very desperate. He couldn’t lose what he invested so much time and energy on. It would be an insult to his father, siblings, and friend’s memories if he got kicked out now.

 

He sat in front of the boy, careful not to crowd him. “Edward,” he called rather loudly. Ed raised his nose away from the text and blinked twice as he adjusted his focus.

 

“Mr. Vertrag.” Ed glanced at the page number and set the book aside. “What is it?”

 

Okay. Moment of truth here. This is Ed. A child prodigy. Child prodigies may be well-acquainted with their chosen field of study, but most of them are inexperienced with the crooked ways of the world. He’ll be easy to manipulate.

 

“I was wondering…” Pause for dramatic effect. “…If you would like to work with me on my Contract Alchemy.”

 

“Oh.”

 

Whatever Theofil expected as a reaction, this wasn’t it. He anticipated an instant yes. Or a hesitant no at least. This was the first time the conversation wasn’t going the way he wanted to.

 

“Oh?” Theofil echoed as he made the mistake of meeting Ed’s gaze.

 

The golden eyes were filled with the intelligence of equations, of concepts, and of morals. They had this look that screamed ‘Don’t fuck with me. I know a lotsa shit you don’t know.’ With a sinking feeling, the red haired man saw that they were also brimming with mild disappointment. They studied him intently, from his shiftiness to his posture to his (hopefully) blank expression.

 

This was the true prodigy. He wasn’t a child. Only a kid in body. There was something in that gaze that froze Theofil’s veins. It gave him the compulsion to run and never ask that question again.

 

“No,” Ed finally answered with a twist of his mouth. “Did you ask me so I could do your work for you?”

 

Crap. He was caught. He was caught and he didn’t like where this was going. He didn’t expect Ed to cut straight to the point like a well-honed knife. He was certain he wore the look of a deer caught in the headlights.

 

“I—“

 

“It’s fine.” Ed seized the book—Alchemia Energia, first edition, very rare—he was reading. Theofil blinked as Ed continued. “You aren’t the first official or person who’s asked me. Shit. I won’t hold no grudge for you attempting to take me for your own personal gain like I’m a tool. You did help me. But…wow, is everyone in the military a user?”

 

He sounded so bitter. Theofil winced.

 

“And Mustang isn’t using you?” he challenged.

 

Ed blew his bangs out of his face. “Of course he’s using me. I’m also using him, which, when you think about it…makes me sound like a fuckin’ hypocrite. Whatever.”

 

“I was asking you to become my partner.”

 

“Right, you were already caught okay?” Ed sighed. “No need to push it. I don’t want to be your partner or subordinate or P.A. I have other stuff to do.”

 

“Like reading mythology?” Theofil leaned back. Of course he knew what Alchemia Energia was about. The text was a detailed novel mainly about Philosopher’s stones, sources of unbelievable amounts of energy. Analyzing them and the tales centered on them. Fables. Children’s stories believed to be encoded recipes on how to make the rocks. Bollocks.

 

“There might be facts in mythology,” Ed assured himself. “I just heard this for the first time, alright?”

 

“So you were going to be searching for the stone,” Theofil surmised.

 

The boy flipped a page, not meeting his gaze. “What makes you say that?”

 

“Doesn’t every alchemist, at some point in their lives, try to attain one?” Theofil had; it would make deals much easier. “Why? What do you want Ed? Immortality? Power?”

 

The tables had flipped. Now it was him making the kid sweat.

 

“No,” Ed told him. “I just want to heal someone.”

 

“Your younger brother’s gigantism? Is that why he wears the armor?”

 

“I—what…no.” Ed denied with palpable uncertainty, like he wasn’t sure whether it would be beneficial for him to elaborate further. Then his face hardened. “Look, it’s none of your damn business. Thank you for the access to your books but I already did you a favor, didn’t I?”

 

Temper.

 

Theofil hated when people lost their temper.

 

Still the kid was right. Theofil walked away from the fort and exited to his lab. He tapped his pen in rhythm with the ticking clock, waiting. Once the escort (one Lieutenant Havoc) sent by Mustang arrived and Ed had departed with a small bow, he grabbed several sheets of paper to be passed for evaluation.

 

Time for forgery.

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“You didn’t even cite Fullmetal,” Mustang growled at him, clutching his research in one gloved hand. “Not even once! Or in passing!

 

Just his luck to be caught by his superior. They did have the same evaluation day, but Theofil forgot to avoid Mustang after all those years of trailing him. The Colonel had brought Edward Elric (now fidgeting) along in order to show the kid how the evaluation procedure worked and bumped into him, scattering his papers, Mustang picking them up, scanning them, and shit. Shit. Shit. He’d messed up BIG TIME.

 

The colonel’s cold eyes skimmed the words. “Aged up a rat and reverted it back to a baby?! And dated before Fullmetal visited when it’s obvious you had no such results?!”

 

Mustang was more observant than he thought.

 

Theofil tried to deny the accusations. “I didn’t—“

 

A flurry of papers bombarded his face. He flinched. A small crowd of officers was gathering around them.

 

“Colonel, it’s fine,” Ed tried to placate Mustang. “He needed my help—“

 

“It doesn’t excuse him not crediting you,” Mustang snapped. “Or forging products that don’t exist for that matter. Taking advantage of my subordinate like that…I could have you arrested for cheating the system!”

 

“And you!” Mustang turned on his young protégé who scowled back in defiance. “Don’t underestimate your intelligence. I thought you were arrogant about it. And now that it proven vital to Deal’s work that you’ve decided to throw him a bone?”

 

He pointed at two first lieutenants watching them, then at Theofil. “Arrest him.”

 

Theofil’s heart sank as he realized he wouldn’t be able to lie his way out of this one.

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The presiding judge slammed the gavel three times and declared him guilty.

 

It was a flurry of activity after that.

 

Something inside him just snapped.

 

All he’d ever studied.

 

All he’d ever worked for.

 

Wasted.

 

He twisted his wrists against and out of the handcuffs, leaving raw marks, as an animalistic sound grated against his throat. The guards tried to restrain him, but he slashed at them with a small knife he had transmuted in his cell and managed to keep hidden until that moment. He dodged the grabbing hands and sprinted at Mustang on the opposite bench.

 

HA! He wasn’t even wearing his Flame Alchemy gloves. It would be so easy to sink the knife in the man’s heart. Not even the blonde sniper woman could whip out a handgun in ti—

 

His weapon was deflected by a metal arm. Ed.

 

A bullet hit his foot. Hawkeye.

 

A scream filled the room as officers restrained him on the floor.

 

“DONE! I’M DONE FOR!” he cried, tears streaking down his cheeks. “Don’t you dare enter my library, Fullmetal Alchemist.”

 

Damn. How he wished. How he wished Ed worked for him.

 

And his Contract Alchemy. Damn, it could’ve bettered people’s lives. Fruitless.

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At least his cell was clean.

 

Now that he had been left to rot in prison for the next three years, he contemplated his revenge against Mustang.

 

First his family, now him. He banged his head against the stone wall.

 

He realized a few days of boredom later, that Ed’s attitude was all an performance act to make him appear as a hard-to-control subordinate. So no one else would be interested in taking him.

 

One month passed.

 

“Have you heard about the Hero of the People? The Fullmetal Alchemist?” the guards gossiped amongst themselves. Theofil strained his ears.

 

“Yep,” another answered. “I hear he stopped a bunch of lunatics from blowing up a building.”

 

“He accidentally blew up another building though.”

 

“Abandoned?”

 

“Yep. That guy…his superior? Dunno his name but he was heard stressing ‘bout it. Dunno why. He gets a lotta praises from them generals.”

 

“Uh-huh.”

 

The gossip aggravated him. He started cursing the guards in loud screeching noises whenever they would talk. Sometimes, he was able to land a headbutt or two when they tried to let him out for a little while. He considered these moments as chances to escape, though he never succeeded.

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After two years of terrorizing the prison guards, he was moved to a higher security facility. He had a companion too.

 

They didn’t talk for a while. Until the long-haired man wearing stocks as handcuffs spoke.

 

“How’s the world outside?” the man asked in a raspy voice. He had tattooed palms, which he splayed as he gestured his chin to a wall.

 

“How do you think?” Theofil questioned back as he pondered the man from behind his bangs. His dirty hair had grown of course, so that it looked more like splattered blood than anything.

 

The man grinned. “Chaotic. What’s your name?”

 

Theofil pondered the question. He’s been doing a lot of pondering lately. He decided the question was an innocent inquiry.

 

“Theofil Vertrag,” he said.

 

“Oh? And I’m Solf J. Kimblee.”

 

Crap. Theofil now understood why he was placed in the same cell as this man, the Crimson Lotus Alchemist. It was a ploy to get him to behave.

 

“Don’t look so frightened,” Kimblee admonished as he tilted his neck to the side. “It stirs my predatory instincts.”

 

Yes. He was definitely frightened now.

 

With difficulty, Theofil smoothened his expression as best as he could.

 

Kimblee grinned. “That’s better. Now…humor me. I’ve been here for quite a few years—“

 

“How many years?” Theofil interrupted before he could stop himself. He finally had someone to talk to, psycho (from what he heard this man had made of Ishval anyway) or not, so he’d gladly converse.

 

“Exactly five years, two months, three weeks, two days, five hours and fifteen—sixteen minutes,” Kimblee replied. It sounded so precise and genuine that Theofil didn’t dare ask how the man was able to count all the increments of time. “And you? What are you in prison for? You looked quite inexperienced compared to me. Killed anyone lately?” he added as if he had already explained the reasoning for his.

 

In a way, he had. What with Theofil’s reaction.

 

So he told Kimblee as he eyed the arrays on the Crimson’s palms.

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“Contract Alchemy. Interesting.”

 

“It is,” Theofil agreed. “If it would work the way I wanted it to. But, bummer, it wouldn’t.”

 

He had explained everything to Kimblee, who had kept quiet the whole time. The guy may have this untrustworthy air surrounding him, but the Deal Alchemist had needed to get his problems off his chest for a while now.

 

“How would you get it to work then?”

 

Theofil shrugged. “I don’t know. My arrays were supposed to be able to do anything if there was a power source to derive from. Like a Philosopher’s Stone.” He laughed with humor. “Alas, a myth!”

 

Silence blanketed the cell once more. The sound of dripping water echoed from the corner.

 

“You think?” Kimblee smiled and started to move his mouth like he was chewing gum. A moment later, he parted his lips and something blood red rested between his canines and incisors.

 

Theofil’s heart dropped to his stomach. His breathing stopped and hitched in his trachea. “Is that…?”

 

Kimblee grabbed the stone with his left hand. “I would demonstrate, but I don’t think the Fuhrer would appreciate a giant hole in this facility.”

 

“Could I…” He hesitated. “Borrow it? We could escape.”

 

His companion didn’t answer as he absently twirled the stone in between his fingers. He looked fond of it, but Theofil noticed that Kimblee was studying him intently.

 

“If I wanted to escape,” Kimblee said, throwing the stone in the air and catching it. “I would’ve done so long ago. It’d be easy. Like demolishing a sandcastle.”

 

“Then why show me that?”

 

“Tell me.” Kimblee’s smile was full of teeth. His tongue darted around like a snake’s. “How confident are you that your Contract Alchemy is capable of helping people?”

 

“Very,” he answered, trying not to get weirded out.

 

“Hah. And your beef with Mustang?”

 

“I want him to experience what I’ve been through.” He clenched his fists, imagining the bastard’s face squashed between them. “All of it.”

 

“Hmm.”

 

Silence again. Then…

 

“The Philosopher’s stone was made of human lives.”

 

At this, Theofil reeled back, staring at Kimblee in shock.

 

“I thought so,” Kimblee told him, reading his face. “You don’t have the stomach to use it. I don’t have to waste this on you then.”

 

Wait. Did Kimblee plan on actually giving it to him? Was willing to let Theofil play with it? But…it’s made of lives…human lives. It was on a whole new level of evil and he wanted no part in it.

 

But he’d be able to improve his alchemy with it. And mess with Mustang too.

 

“You’re letting me have it?” he asked.

 

Kimblee shrugged. “This was made of Ishvalan lives. It killed Ishvalans too.”

 

Theofil was internally disgusted with the casual declaration. Yet…the irony of it. It appealed to him.

 

Beggars couldn’t be choosers.

 

“I’d like to borrow it.” And then, because they were alchemists and there had to be some form of Equivalent Exchange. “What do you want in return?”

 

The Crimson Alchemist leaned forward, eyes wild. “To know whether you, Deal Alchemist, would have succeeded in your ambitious goals had the Flame Alchemist never existed.”

 

Another surprise. Theofil was coming to expect this from people he met.

 

“Pardon?”

 

“You said that your arrays could do anything,” Kimblee elaborated. “So do yourself a favor. But, heh, I own the stone you’ll be using, and all I want to see is some nice entertainment. A clash of wills. Who would win in the end?”

 

He gestured to all of Theofil. “An alchemist who has nothing left, who writes up contracts, desperate for his revenge and his power.” He motioned his head to the side. “Or an alchemist who has everything, who snaps to create fire, desperate to change how the country runs. You’ll let me see, yes?”

 

“Of course.” Theofil nodded. “With the proper array.”

 

“Excellent.” Kimblee swallowed the stone. “Draw it here. And I have rules for you before I give you the power source.”

.

 

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If you fail to succeed in a timeline where Mustang doesn’t exist, you will fail to exist yourself, Theofil remembered Kimblee saying as he was led out of the cell a year later. Kimblee smirking at him. And if you do succeed…the timeline replaces the current one.

 

He wouldn’t lose. He wouldn’t let it happen. The guard unlocked his cuffs, and he rubbed them to gain back the feeling.

 

“Why can’t I just kill him in this world?” he had asked.

 

“That would defeat the entire concept,” was the answer. “You wanted to replace Mustang, swap lives. You can’t allow people to be influenced by Flame.”

 

“So I also can’t kill him myself in the other potential timeline?”

 

“No. You’ll have to defeat him genuinely. And I’ll be the judge of that.”

 

“Those are your only restrictions?”

 

“If you lose, I also get my stone back.”

 

“…Fine. Is that all?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Nothing more, nothing less?”

 

Kimblee had grinned in response. “Yes.”

 

That was the last either of them spoke of it. And now, with the Deal Alchemist released…

 

With a breath of fresh air, a stone composed of a thousand souls in hand, and a really good glimpse of the future (in exchange for some of his sanity, which was overrated after all), courtesy of one of his test run arrays. (Just in case the stone given wasn’t the real deal.)

 

And he’d seen that Mustang’s downfall would start with the death of his best friend.

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And it did.

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//


 

 

Every move counts in the game of chess, and it how long it lasts, depends on the skill of the two players.

 

All it takes to win…is one good move.

Chapter Text

Chapter Four: Familiar Faces

 

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***

 

STILL DAY ONE

 

***

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In the hallway, just a few doors away from Vertrag’s office, a soldier each on either side of Roy pressed harder down on his handcuffed wrists as he thrashed, eyes seeing nothing but red red RED—           

 

The first lieutenant punched him in the stomach, in the exact same spot Vertrag had targeted before, and as he struggled to breathe, the soldiers were able to force him to march forward a few steps more before he started to resist their hold once again.

 

“I’ll just knock him out,” the first lieutenant grunted, and Roy felt the man grasp one of his shoulders from behind him—

 

He leaned forward as far as he could and threw his head back, making the first lieutenant stumble forward and get his nose smashed in a headbutt. In quick succession, he used his body weight to slam the ones flanking his left and right side (both hitting the walls after the impact) before jumping over his handcuffed wrists and running ahead. Heart pounding.

 

“GET HIM!” someone shouted. Grunts and pounding footsteps answered the order.

 

Powered by adrenaline, Roy attempted to jerk his arms far apart, but was unable to break the chain in between his cuffs through mere strength. Ignoring his aching head, he tried desperately to think of a place to hide in until the soldiers have been fooled into completely losing him. After which, he could then grab Hughes, get him to a safer place where they could talk, and get takeout dinner together like the old times.

 

Urrrrrgh. Time to get the soldiers off his back first.

 

He made a series of turns down branching hallways in an attempt to lose his pursuers, and their voices grew softer and softer as the distance between them increased. At one point, he accidentally slid on a smooth patch of the floor and knocked the edge of a huge table placed by the wall, then he recovered quickly to sprint a bit more before taking a right turn that turned out to be a dead end.

 

A dead end with a janitor’s supply closet.

 

Inspiration struck him as he halted, and then he peeked his head out to the bigger hall and began loudly shouting insults about how slow and pathetic the soldiers’ asses were. Luckily for him, that part of the building didn’t seem to have any soldiers working during the late hours of the night.

 

As he heard the faintest sound of running, he opened the closet door, grabbed and unsealed a three-liter bottle of bleach, spilling some of the liquid inside and allowing it to flow out past the doorway, before using both of his hands to hurl the bottle back into the closet, making sure it created plenty noise as all the mops and buckets came down, the tight space amplifying the din. Slamming the door shut, he quickly went back as he heard the soldiers’ voices getting louder (and therefore closer), and dove underneath the table as he reached it, then he hoisted himself up by wedging his feet into the bottom corners before bracing his hands against the top, as far apart as the handcuffs would let him.

 

The instant he was settled, the soldiers entered from an adjacent hallway a bit further away, then thundered past the table. The first lieutenant’s voice in particular was growling in frustration, as he appeared to be the one leading the chase.

 

Suddenly, the first lieutenant stopped. In response, the two soldiers with him followed suit.

 

Roy’s heart drummed against his chest, and hoped that they didn’t see the table shake ever so slightly.

And then he heard their footsteps shuffle to the right and into the dead end. Roy released a sigh of relief, came down from his hiding place and followed after them, peeking around the last turn first to see that they were all pointing guns at the supply closet.

 

Hah! Amateurs. Not even one bothered to cover his teammates’ backs. Vertrag did a rather poor job at training his direct subordinates.

 

The first lieutenant glared suspiciously at the spilled bleach as he inched closer. He knocked on the closet door, glowered some more at the bleach as if it called him a nasty name, and then called out for Roy to cooperate so nobody would get hurt. He then spat on the poor spilled bleach for emphasis.

 

In the time it took for the first lieutenant to threaten, Roy had come forward and hit the backs of the necks of the two other soldiers, whack whack, knocking them unconscious. He clasped both of his hands together into a ball and bashed the first lieutenant in the face as he finally turned to check on the noise, and the man also went down, dropping to the floor with a thump.

 

Roy took a moment to breathe, surveying the damage he had inflicted. He shrugged and set aside their weapons. He took out a piece of chalk, drew and activated an array on the floor, and then he hovered his handcuffs above it to break them. Next, he drew another array next to the door to stretch out the dimensions of the supply closet, so Roy would be able to fit three people inside. After which, he dragged their bodies and locked them in with alchemy.

 

He brushed his hair out of his face, his fingers trembling between the strands.

 

He hadn't realized he was walking backwards until he hit a vertical surface and felt the cool temperature of the wall seeping uncomfortably under his skin. And then, the overwhelming fatigue and stress of the past eight days crashed down upon him like a raging waterfall. Migraine pounded behind his eyes. Shivering, his knees buckled and he slid down onto the floor.

 

A choked sound escaped from his mouth and he immediately clamped a hand over it.

 

He had no right to cry.

 

After all, this was his entire fault, wasn't it? Wasn't it?!

 

Seven days. Everything he had ever worked for, invested in, poured his heart, sweat, and blood in…just…

 

…just…

 

Gone.

 

Fucking GONE.

 

If anyone had the right to cry, it would be the people he cared about. People who…

 

People he had shared a laugh with.

 

People he had protected.

 

People whose lives he knew he had influenced greatly.

 

People who…

 

…who didn’t know that he should have existed.

 

He held up his wrist, glaring at the array that had been tattooed on it. The sight of the black ink tainting his skin made his blood boil.

 

What was he doing? There was no time for self-pity! A few hours in and he was already starting to collapse.

 

There had to be a way to climb out of this shithole he had foolishly fallen into.

 

He dug his hand in his left pocket and fingered the coarse texture of his ignition gloves, which he was thankful for Vertrag forgetting about.

 

It should be easy to burn the tattoo, shouldn't it? Sever the link tethering him to the contract?

 

The glove sliding onto his right hand offered him a sense of comfort. His thumb and index fingers skimmed against each other, checking that, yes, the familiar piece of cloth was present. No, the glove hadn’t begun fading. Yes, it was still whole and real and…and existing.

 

Snap!

 

A thin line of fire jumped from his digits and targeted the middle of the tattoo. Roy bit his lip as he awaited his skin to start blistering, eroding the inked abomination away—

 

Nothing happened.

 

He sensed the heat, sure, but the fire…

 

Snap!

 

Fire leaped again, and fizzled out into smoke the exact moment it touched the array.

 

Snap!

 

Third time. Just slightly more intense than the last. Same results. Not even the faintest sign of a burn marring his skin.

 

Snap! Snap! Snap!

 

Fourth, fifth, sixth.

 

He was about to do a seventh try before he arrived to the conclusion that the deal array couldn’t be tampered with.

 

What was it the bastard had said? Something like…the more blood beneath the array, the stronger the deal would be and the more severe the consequences when either one of them breached the contract. Roy couldn’t remember the exact phrasing, which was rather dangerous, as he had quickly learned the value of wordplay in this whole contract alchemy business.

 

The ideal solution would be to lop off three-fourths of his lower arm, cutting off the array entirely and the blood connection to it. But would that count as breaking the deal?

 

Why not simply kill Vertrag?

 

After all, he was alone in his office right now. What the hell could stop Roy from roasting him?

 

It could be a trap, the pragmatic side of him said. He’s one of the few people who have been able to manipulate you. He could have anticipated your escape. You’re the Flame Alchemist and he just conveniently forgot about your gloves? Suspicious, wasn’t it?

 

Because if Vertrag knew fully well about it and decided to just let Roy keep the most powerful weapon he owned then, well, that’s telling quite a lot. It was like he was telling Roy that he wasn’t afraid of him and that his gloves were useless. Which in turn technically implied that Vertrag thought Roy himself was useless.

 

But if he did forget, then ambush him, his authoritative side ordered. Strike true. Kill him before he kills you.

 

But then…why hadn’t Vertrag done so the moment Roy arrived? Odd that he would do all that and just have him arrested to be thrown into prison. Any self-respecting strategist would do well to eliminate any obstacle as soon as the opportunity arose.

 

Which left two possibilities: either Vertrag wouldn’t kill him, or he couldn’t.

 

Info.

 

Roy needed more info.

 

He could still trust his not-best friend.

 

Right?

 

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/*/

 

WHO.

 

…Is. Roy. MUSTANG?!

 

Folders upon folders of the profiles of colonels stationed at different headquarters were strewn across the floor. And Maes STILL hadn’t found him.

 

How old was the man anyway? Thirty-five was a safe age assumption for a colonel, right? So minus the probable number of military years the man served in case the folder wasn’t updated—but no, wait…Mustang had declared that they studied together in the academy and that they were BEST FRIENDS, even (Maes decided to cast the benefit of the doubt that Mustang was drunk, or at the very least, confused), which meant that the man was at least close to his age. If so, then he was looking at the correct stack of records regarding the colonels the military had accumulated within the past five years.

 

But Mustang. Just. Wasn’t. There.

 

What if ‘Roy Mustang’ wasn’t his real name? Did he have to scrutinize each picture and…

 

…Urgh…what if this turned out fruitless like all the other—?

 

Cursing, Maes scooped up the other folders and replaced them on the shelves with ease, remembering where he had taken them from. He then scooped the stack he had set aside and started his way back to his office, remembering to lock the door in the process and to check that the pick and tension wrench he had used was still safely in his pocket.

 

As he briskly walked back, the utterly pitiable look Mustang gave him before the man entered Vertrag’s office flashed before Maes’ eyes.

 

…Interesting.

 

First, Vertrag specifically ordered him to bring the guy if they so happened to meet. Second, Mustang met him within the next twenty-four hours. And third—

 

The office door creaked as he entered. He had pushed it close and taken a few steps forward before it occurred to him that the lights weren't on.

 

The room was bathed in darkness, but Maes felt a slight shift in the air and he whirled as he flung the knife, which had dropped naturally into his hand, towards the person in the corner.

 

Maes wasn’t expecting said person to dodge that quickly, as if his knife throwing action was anticipated. Next thing he knew, he was pinned against the wall, both biceps held in a tight grip above his head.

 

Damn his poor reflexes. Kept getting poorer each day.

 

He thrashed, growling, “GET OFF—!“

 

“Shush, Hughes,” the person said in a quiet voice.

 

Maes recognized it, and he found himself calming down against his will. Which was weird. “You’re…Colonel Mustang.”

 

“I mean you no harm,” Mustang said while keeping Maes immobile so he couldn’t defend against an attack like a stab or a brutal punch. “I hid in case you were him, okay?”

 

Him? “By him, you mean—“

 

“Yes,” Mustang agreed quickly, appearing to not even have left room for the thought that Maes could either be pertaining to his bathroom-warbling neighbor or Vertrag. “I’m going to release you. Please don’t panic, alright?”

 

“At least turn on the lights,” Maes said as he felt the grip on his arms relax.

 

There was a click, and Maes blinked a few times as his eyes adjusted to the brightness. By the time he could see properly again, Mustang was back in the corner, watching him. His hair was sticking out in all directions, his forehead was slicked with sweat, and his breathing came out in short, quiet gasps.

 

“What the hell are you even doing here?!” Maes exclaimed as he pointed at the man. Why couldn’t Mustang have hidden somewhere else? Seriously. “Weren’t you with Vert—I…I mean, Colonel Vertrag?”

 

Instead of answering him immediately, Mustang’s eyes drifted to the folders Maes had dropped to the floor in his panic, no doubt reading the titles. “Investigating me so soon?”

 

Maes froze.

 

Mustang sharply threw his gaze Maes’ way once again. “What did you find?”

 

“Nothing,” Maes replied honestly, because why not? It would keep the man talking. “You’re not a colonel, aren’t you? Unless you were related to a major named Ford and gained the uniform at some point, altered the embroidery on the epaulets you know—?“

 

“So it’s true.”

 

The words were released in soft whisper, delivered in a defeated sort of tone that Maes suspected he wasn’t supposed to have heard at all.

 

He pushed his glasses up his nose with his ring finger. “What was true?”

 

Mustang dropped onto the seat behind the desk opposite Maes’. “I don’t exist in this world.”

 

Maes did not understand. “Ah.”

 

Mustang nodded once, more than likely misinterpreting him. “Yep.”

 

“I’m hallucinating then.”

 

Mustang’s tired expression drained, giving way to annoyance. Pretty soon, Maes speculated, they’d be bantering like old friends who hadn’t seen each other for more than a decade, and then, before the other even realized it, Maes would have extracted every juicy secret there was from him. From parentage down to the man’s toilet routine.

 

“First of all,” Mustang said, holding up his index finger, unaware that he was falling into Maes’ beautifully crafted trap. “I am very much real.”

 

“But you said you don’t exist—“

 

“In this world! But—“

 

“Exist: verb, means to have real being. What you said, sir, was rather contradictory—“

 

“Oh. My. God.”

 

“—but since you factored in the phrase ‘in this world’…

 

“...Why do I put up with this?”

 

“THAT could only lead me to one conclusion…”

 

“And that would be?”

 

“You,” Maes said in a playful tone, “are just a figment of my imagination!”

 

He waited expectantly for the other man’s laughter, or maybe a comeback. Or maybe even a standing ovation! But then he noticed that Mustang’s reaction was none of those choices, making him halt his tirade.

 

Mustang was watching him with utter horror, like Maes had grown a second head, or had knifed him thrice without preamble. He then inhaled deeply through his nose, as if some kind of harsh realization dawned upon him. Next thing Maes saw, Mustang had buried his face in his hands, and he realized he had apparently hit a nerve.

 

With regret pooling at the pit of his stomach, he opened his mouth to apologize, only for the other man to speak, his words muffled by his hands, “You’re not him.” Mustang’s head bowed lower as his hands travelled to rest at the back of his neck. “God, you’re not him.”

 

“I-I’m…” Maes stuttered, rather surprised at the show of vulnerability. Talk about mood whiplash. “I’m not who?”

 

“You’re not Maes Hughes.” And before Maes could refute that statement by affirming that he could show his birth certificate, the man’s shoulders sagged further. “My Maes Hughes.”

 

Maes stopped. He stared and stared and wondered what one would say to that. Because, wow, surely this man knew that there could be multiple people named ‘Maes Hughes’ in Amestris. Secondly, there should be no way Mustang would mistake Maes for his Maes Hughes, whoever that could be. Differences in appearance, background, attitude…did the guy just forget about that? Unless Maes had a secret twin brother who may have coincidentally shared a lot of things with him.

 

Nah. His birth certificate plainly stated he was the only one who was born to his parents on his birthday.

 

I don’t exist in this world, the man had said, looking all the while like he had been forced to run a million miles. And then there was the hiding in Maes’ office.

 

His pondering was rudely interrupted by three knocks on the door. Actually, it was less of three knocks and more of a BAM BAM BAM.

 

That was when Maes connected the dots: Mustang had escaped. From Vertrag.

 

“OPEN THE DOOR THIS INSTANT!” someone shouted.

 

The door was actually unlocked, but Maes didn’t bother to shout back that they could let themselves in at any time.

 

“Just a second!” he said instead, as he gestured his hand for Mustang, who had snapped up and assumed a fighting stance, to crouch under the desk. Their eyes met for a beat, and Maes read confusion and hope in Mustang's.

 

BAM. “WE’RE BREAKING THIS DOWN!”

 

Maes strode forward as Mustang dove below the desk, and threw the door wide open once he could no longer see the other.

 

“First Lieutenants Gob and Olsen, sirs.” Maes saluted as the two soldiers scowled at him. Scary creatures, these two soldiers, with their buff arms and buff legs and their entire general appearance resembling frustrated gorillas. “How may I help you?”

 

Second Lieutenant Maes Hughes.” Gob sneered. Maes resisted the urge to roll his eyes. “You are under arrest for harboring a criminal.”

 

“What criminal? And under whose commands?” Maes leaned against the doorway, making sure that he didn’t betray Mustang’s hiding place by keeping his eyes pointed forward. “Colonel Vertrag? Please tell him that he’s barking up the wrong tree.”

 

“Didn’t say.” A beefy hand shot out, clutched Maes’ collar, and lifted him up like a rag doll. “But orders are orders.”

 

“You can’t do that,” Maes wheezed as he clawed at the arm. “Not even a warrant of arrest?”

 

His complaint was met with a smile full of yellow teeth and the smell of tobacco. “Orders,” Gob whispered before his grip loosened and he began shrieking at the knife protruding from between the bones of his forearm.

 

The moment his feet touched the ground, Maes crouched, rolled, and chucked three knives at Olsen. Olsen dodged to the side, but was too slow to avoid getting three nicks in his shoulder. He roared, charging at Maes like a bull, arm pulled back. Another arm, Gob’s, took Maes by surprise as it squeezed around his midsection, arms and all, forcing the breath from his body. He gritted his teeth, braced himself for the punch—

 

Wham! Mustang tackled Olsen to the ground and pinned him with his legs, sat on the man’s chest and proceeded to punch him. Maes, on the other hand, wriggled his arm out and elbowed Gob in the space between two ribs. He gripped the man's forearm as he was released, spun on the ball of his foot as he twisted under the extended limb, then used the man’s weight against him by guiding him into losing his balance as Maes simply slid forward.

 

Once Gob was on the floor, Maes leaned down, still applying pressure to the twisted arm so the man would be unable to stand. “Payback for all those years of bullying me.”

 

He got a snarl in response, though it was cut short by a swift kick to the neck, knocking Gob out. It was a rather poor payback, but Maes liked to think of himself as merciful, that way. He had to stop the bloody arm from bleeding though.

 

He raised his head to see how Mustang was doing, and was rather impressed to find that Olsen was unconscious. And had one of his teeth knocked out.

 

Mustang met his gaze. “You alright?”

 

“Yeah,” Maes affirmed. “Uh, so, where are we going to hide them for the time being?”

.

 

/*/

 

Another supply closet, that’s where.

 

“It appears I’m also being hunted down,” Hughes said as Roy transmuted the knob. “C’mon. We, uh, need to talk.”

 

Rather surprised at the sudden seriousness the man was displaying, Roy followed as Hughes led the way through the halls and into the closed cafeteria, sneaking out the backdoor, and getting in a car that was parked near the exit.

 

Their entire walk through the building was thankfully undisturbed, but awkward. Not once had Hughes looked back at him. For a couple of minutes, Roy had a suspicion that he was being led back to Vertrag once again, but then he noticed that Hughes wasn't acting like that's what he had in mind. He would do things like check around every corner, look left and right at intersections, peek into open offices before passing them, etc.

 

For some odd reason, Roy noticed, Vertrag with all his powers as a colonel, still hadn’t made sure that he hadn’t escaped and had been safely locked behind bars. The two first lieutenants apparently didn’t count, since they were specifically targeting Hughes. That was…rather baffling to say the least. Vertrag seemed to be the type of person to gloat and lord his ‘achievements’ over another.

 

Why? What assurance could Vertrag have that meant he didn't feel the need to be hot on Roy’s trail, guarding his every action?

 

“Inside.”

 

His train of thought derailed as he found himself getting inside in response to Hughes’ order. Hughes circled the front and took the driver’s seat. The engine started, and both of them were quiet as their car passed the sergeant at the gate like any other day. With a salute to boot.

 

Only once they were driving through the streets of Central, did Hughes begin the questions:

 

“So…Colonel Roy Mustang, huh?”

 

“That’s my name and rank,” Roy confirmed.

 

“Real name…” Hughes paused to raise an eyebrow “Fake rank?”

 

“…It appears that I’m not a colonel here.”

 

“By here, you mean ‘Amestris’?”

 

“The world in general.”

 

“That doesn’t make any sense to me,” Hughes admitted, frowning. “You’re an alien?”

 

“No.”

 

“Alright, alright.” Hughes shifted with apparent discomfort. “Sorry for earlier, I guess.”

 

Roy blinked. “That’s…fine.” He turned his head to look out his own window.

 

The sound of the car’s engine filled the quiet that descended.

 

After a moment, Hughes cleared his throat and took a very deep breath. Roy knew, from incredibly agonizing experience, that Hughes was about to start singing.

 

He struggled not to sigh. “Just ask, alright?”

 

“Sure!” exclaimed the man merrily, grinning. “For starters, what do you mean about…not existing in this world?”

 

Cutting to the point. Roy liked that. “Well, you see, I had this little talk with Vertrag—“

 

Hughes let out an unexpected bark of laughter before choking out, “I get it now. You actually signed a deal with him.”

 

“What?” Hughes asked when Roy’s took too long to formulate a response. “It’s smarter to not sign contracts with that two-faced bastard. Too many repercussions. Really nasty.” The man gave a casual shrug. “People kept doing it though. Granted, I heard some demands were really easy but…it’s like pressing your luck the more one asks, you know? Some client requests were supposed to be a piece of cake though, and he does give them what they want…but his payments…just-”

 

Hughes gripped the wheel and changed the subject before Roy could interrupt, “So tell me about your deal, Mustang, oh otherworldly one. What do you mean your Maes Hughes?”

 

Gears still turning in Roy’s head as he mulled over Hughes’ rant, reeling over the fact that making deals with Vertrag was apparently a thing in this world, he resorted to multitasking by telling him part of the story. “Like I said, I’m not from around here.”

 

“Okay.”

 

“I signed a deal—“

 

“Okay.”

 

“…Because…one of the reasons I did so was that…you…” His voice withered. “…died.”

 

“Okay.”

 

A screeeeching sound shredded Roy’s eardrums as Hughes slammed his foot on the brakes. Unable to push hard against the metal handrail in front of him fast enough, Roy’s forehead was lightly acquainted with the windshield.

 

“Wait, wait, wait! Let me get this straight,” Hughes said as Roy barely managed to keep his soul from leaving his body. “You. Made a deal. Because I. Freaking died?!”

 

“To be fair, it wasn’t just you who died. Your death was just the beginning.”

 

“But still! I’m hardly important, Mustang. What did you pay?

 

“I—er—seven days—”

 

“SEVEN DAYS!” the bespectacled man hollered at the top of his lungs. “Hahahahaaaa! And to think…I believed you for a moment there!” He pointed at Roy’s face. “I’m no alchemist but even I could tell that that little exchange should’ve been impossible! And besides, I’m alive, see?” He aggressively patted his chest and stomach area for emphasis. “You can’t bring the dead back to life.” He folded his arms like a child denied of dessert. “Unless I’m a zombie and nobody told me.”

 

“And yet…” Roy gave Hughes a smirk, which he knew was unsettling to look at when coupled with his hollow gaze. “You’re here in front of me. Yapping.”

 

Hughes slouched in his seat, and Roy knew that the man was mentally asking himself why he was even humoring the stranger in the car with him. “Alright. You said a while ago that I was your best friend, right? Fine. A quick test then. What’s my favorite comfort food?”

 

Without missing a beat, Roy answered confidently, “Quiche.”

 

Based on the disbelief flashing across Hughes’ face, Roy knew he got his full attention.

 

“Favorite radio drama?”

 

Analiza and Fernando. Rather sappy if you ask me.”

 

“Freaking stalker. Favorite color.”

 

“Green.”

 

“Tsk. Favorite fruit?”

 

“Green apple.”

 

“Vegetable?”

 

“Spinach.”

 

Hughes pinched the skin in between his eyebrows. “There’s no way—!“

 

“…You clean your glasses at least ten times a day, scrubbing at them as if there was blood present that could never come off.”

 

From his peripheral vision, Roy saw Hughes’ hand drop bonelessly onto his lap.

 

“You always leave a light on during the night, because you are afraid that when you wake up, you’ll be back on that hellish battlefield.”

 

“…”

 

“You always have an extra canned good in your pack. A habit born from when you were never certain when the next supply of food would be delivered. You—“

 

Enough.

 

Roy snapped his jaw shut with an audible click.

 

Hughes leaned back in his seat with a huff, keeping his face turned toward the window on his side. “How?” he mumbled to the glass.

 

What transpired in Ishval was too big of an event to be simply erased, that’s how. Even without Roy’s participation as a war hero.

 

And though this world’s Hughes might not be his best friend, Roy had now confirmed that this was still the same Hughes who suffered guilt for his actions. But still, at the same time, Roy felt like he was chatting with a complete stranger.

 

He turned his gaze back to the windshield.

 

“You talk like you know me from the inside out—” Hughes took his glasses off and started polishing them “—but I haven’t even seen you before. You must’ve been an excellent investigator to have found out all those things about me or—” he put his glasses back on, the lenses catching the moonlight “—you’ve been telling the truth.”

 

He paused, then: “May I see your contract array?”

 

Without speaking, Roy pulled his sleeve up and exposed the transmutation circle for him to see.

 

“Tattooed on the wrist, huh?” Hughes tilted his head lower, eyes intent on the mark. “Hold on.”

 

“What?”

 

“Nothing. He just didn’t have the same finesse of tattooing when he drew this on you. Lines are a bit thicker…entire array is a little bigger…like he was out of drawing practice. You don’t happen to have the contract you signed on paper with you?”

 

“No,” Roy replied.

 

“Shame.” Hughes huffed as he leaned back. “We could have brought it to a friend of mine to try figuring out the exit clause.”

 

“There’s an exit clause?!

 

Hughes flicked his wrists upwards. “According to my friend.”

 

“What does an exit clause do?”

 

Hughes frowned. “I don’t know…we haven’t even figured out mine.”

 

Roy stiffened at the last statement, eyes widening, before slowly shifting in his seat to face the other man better. ”You have a contract.”

 

“I’ll tell you about it later,” Hughes promised, unaware of the mounting dread inside Roy’s stomach. “Meanwhile, I’m not an alchemist so I can’t read the contract array drawn on you very well—“

 

“Hughes…wait—“

 

“—so I’ll have to contact that friend to decipher it for you—“

 

“—I—“

 

“— unless you can—“

 

“MAES. HUGHES.” Roy grabbed Hughes’ shoulders in a panicked motion, squeezed them in a vice-like grip. “What…why did you make a contract with him?!” He shook the baffled man twice when he didn’t answer. “Tell me!”

 

“I—” Hughes started, raising his hands in a defensive position, but Roy’s searching eyes frantically darted to the man’s palms or wrists, looking for any telltale sign of the tattooed array in case they coincidentally had the same bright idea of having it marked there. Instead, with a sinking feeling, he noticed something else.

 

H-Hughes,” Roy stuttered, gaze drawn to the fingers. “Where’s your wedding ring?”

 

He was shoved back, the back of his head hitting the car window. He groaned as he looked up at Hughes in astonishment, but that changed to concern when he saw the same expression mirrored, albeit coupled with terror, in the other man’s face.

 

“What wedding ring?” Hughes asked quietly. “W-what do you mean, Mustang? I…I’m not married in your world. Right?”

 

Roy let the silence speak for him, too stricken with disbelief at the implication.

 

Please tell me I’m right,” Hughes pleaded in a wavering tone. “Please tell me—“

 

Roy gathered his strength to speak, keeping the volume of his voice low. “W-why haven’t you talked about Gra—?”

 

Hughes’ hand clamped over his mouth as the man’s entire demeanor changed. The man leaned in as his eyes narrowed, a snarl carving an ugly, jagged line across his face, distorting his features into something grotesque. His eyes flashed with fury, lightning and fire striking as one. “Do. Not,” he growled as danger bells rang in Roy’s mind. “Do not speak of her name. Ever. It makes me hate her for absolutely no reason even more. Understand?!”

 

Numbly, Roy nodded. Hughes studied him for a moment longer, glaring at him like a tiger deprived of its food. Finally, with a long exhale, Hughes returned his hands to the wheel, pressed the foot pedal and started driving once more.

 

Roy, for his part, felt like he'd both just taken a step forward in getting to meet his best friend once again, and jumped a humongous leap back. He craved so desperately to ask about the finer details of Hughes’ contract. Because why? Why? What could push him to create a deal? Did Gracia do something despicable? No, Gracia’s practically an angel. And…what did he mean by ‘hating’ her?

 

But he couldn’t ask about that for now, couldn’t he? He might know Hughes, but this world’s Maes Hughes didn’t know him. Didn’t even think of him as an acquaintance yet, much less a best friend. And Hughes valued his personal life and his fami…

 

Oh.

 

Oh.

 

If this world’s Hughes wasn’t married, then…

 

Where was Elicia?

 

“If you’re that curious, you could ask her about it later,” Hughes spat so bitterly, it made Roy flinch a little. “If I tell you myself, it’ll make my blood boil just thinking about it. Mainly because she’s a big part of it.

 

“And also: fuuuck Vertrag.” He emphasized the statement with a hit on the steering wheel before he sharply swerved the car to the left.

 

“Where are we going?” Roy inquired, to dissipate the tension, as he seized the handrail.

 

“Safehouse. I don’t know why we aren’t being chased yet.” A sharp glance was thrown in his direction. “Once he starts tracking us down, it’s over for you and me.”

 

“Hey, Mustang,” Hughes said after a period of silence had lapsed. “Tell me a little about yourself. I find it unfair you know so much about me and I know nothing about you.”

 

Roy blinked, rather impressed with how quickly Hughes’ temper had cooled down. “Alright, what do you want to know?”

 

“How did we meet?”

 

Roy laughed a little as he rested his elbow at the window, then his face on his knuckles. “During our military academy days, we had this mini rivalry that started with you stealing the last quiche from the cafeteria.”

 

Hughes shot him a look that screamed ‘what the fuck.’ “That seems rather stupid.”

 

“We did a lot of stupid things. But, we still ended up at the top of our class.”

 

Hughes grinned. “Neat. How did I become your best friend?”

 

“…We survived together during the Ishvalan War.” Roy angled his head a little to the right. “We were emotionally and psychologically exhausted after. My foolish ideals of protecting the entire country were shattered, crushed underfoot, and I vowed…vowed to protect the people closest to me so that, in turn, they could protect the people closest to them—”

 

“Well, if you have an ideal that involves protecting this nation, you'll have to set your sights towards the top,” Hughes interjected.

 

“Haha! Funny, that's almost the same thing you said to me.” Roy brought his fingers together, intertwining them.

 

Hughes chuckled. “It’s still a naïve and simple ideal though.”

 

“It is. Though, my lieutenant once said that it was a wonderful dream.”

 

Hughes steered the car to the right. “Mmm, what’s the name of your lieutenant?”

 

“Riza Hawkeye.” Then Roy sucked in air shallowly through his teeth.

 

Riza Hawkeye has gone missing, Vertrag had said with that mocking tone of his, like he was reveling in his sick achievement.

 

“I need to go somewhere first,” Roy blurted out in cold sweat, as he tried to will away the blooming red stains from his vision. “Please.”

 

After a short odd look at him, Hughes checked the time.

 

“Alright,” he agreed, apparently judging that they had some to spare. “Where do you want to go?”

.

.

.

.

By the dim light of the half full moon at an hour past midnight, Roy witnessed another cruel revelation that he wasn’t ready for.

 

The icy wind stung his cheeks. Trees shivered, and the rustle of leaves filled the quiet atmosphere. The smell of timeworn wood and moss-topped stones filled his nostrils.

 

His eyes raked at what was left of the burned down, decrepit family estate of the Hawkeyes. The entire front lawn was charred black, dead, not a single blade of grass in sight. The main foundation was crushed to the ground. He trudged forward like a weary traveler as Hughes called out to him from the confines of the car.

 

He reached what he knew had been front porch. He circled around, squatted, and then dipped the tip of his index finger on the ground. Aside from soil, the tiniest bit of grey residue stuck.

 

Hughes’ footsteps came up from behind him. “You knew this place?”

 

Roy didn’t answer as he stood and walked around some more.

 

“What’re you looking for?” Hughes tried again.

 

“…A body.”

 

“Of whom?”

 

He scuffed the dirt with the tip of his boot. “…Someone I know.”

 

“Mustang.”

 

He twisted and saw Hughes crouching where his master’s study had been. He pinched a small amount of dirt. “Whoever you are looking for…they’re not here.”

 

The cold hand that had wrapped around Roy’s heart loosened its hold. “H-how would you know?”

 

Light glinted off of Hughes’ glasses. “Because I investigated this house.”

 

“What?” Roy went over to him as he stood up. “Wha-what happened?”

 

Hughes hummed. “There was a fire, but someone died first and was consequently removed approximately eighteen hours before the house burned down. Who do you think it was?”

 

“M-master Berthold Hawkeye?” Roy guessed, remembering the crippling fatigue etched on the man’s face. “Alchemist?”

 

Hughes exhaled through his nose. “Yep. Did this house burn from where you come from?”

 

“No. And besides, he’s not the one I’m looking for.”

 

The bespectacled man ran a hand through his face. “Oh? Did anyone else live in this house?”

 

“His daughter, Riza Hawkeye.”

 

His companion turned his head around so quickly that Roy jumped back in case it flew off and he needed to catch it.

 

“HE HAD A DAUGHTER?!” Hughes exclaimed. “I knew it! I was right!” He jumped once and punched his fist through the air. “And the folks at Central Command demoted me when they thought I wasn't on par with their standards—“

 

Roy’s eyes strayed to Hughes’ shoulder marks that denoted his rank as a second lieutenant, putting two and two together. “Wait…doesn’t the military have records of everyone in Central? What’s this…a…a detective guessing game?”

 

“Not you, too,” Hughes whined. “Look, there’s no recorded relative of Berthold Hawkeye. At least, none that he'd had contact with for a long time. I’ve checked, okay? In case there was a family feud and this is a story of family drama and the relatives wanted the land for themselves. And thing is, he had no daughter on record.”

 

Roy shook his head vehemently. “That’s impossible.” He couldn’t stop the distress from lacing his tone. “Then how did you come to the conclusion that he had a daughter?”

 

“Well not exactly a daughter per se,” Hughes shrugged. “But maybe a child? There are more than enough rooms where said child could’ve lived in. There were also a few toys recovered. No dolls, though. And with Berthold’s anti-social attitude, based on his neighbors’ accounts, I doubt he had a tenant. Whatever the case, someone burnt it down from the inside.“ He looked at Roy meaningfully.

 

They were silent for a few seconds, before the news sank its teeth into him. “Are you insinuating that Riza burned her own house down?! But…wasn’t the house unlocked when they collected her father’s body? What if the people who collected him were the ones who burned it down?”

 

Hughes raised an eyebrow. “For what reason would they do such a thing?”

 

He had a point there. Deliberately burning other people’s property, also known as arson, was a surefire way to end up in prison.

 

“What if the fire started from the outside?” Roy pressed on.

 

“The fire started from Berthold’s study.”

 

“How did anyone know he was dead, then? Someone must’ve called!”

 

Hughes shrugged. “Never found out who.”

 

“Fire caused by electrical issues?”

 

Hughes raised both eyebrows. “I was under the impression that they couldn’t even afford to pay the bills.”

 

The image of the Hawkeyes’ house, rather rickety and pest-infested, with the grimy windows and the flaking walls and the putrefying roof, popped into Roy’s mind.

 

“But Riza—“

 

“The house,” Hughes interjected, gesturing at the entire lot, “was burned down almost a day after Mr. Berthold Hawkeye was transferred to the morgue. I did ask those who had collected his body if anyone else was present in the house at the time of their visit. And you know what they said? They said the house was practically abandoned. One could conclude that someone unrelated to Berthold did the deed, but, deep down in my gut, I've always felt it was done by someone living with him.” Hughes sighed. “My hunches had never been wrong before, but, well, I was unable to procure a person.”

 

Roy pondered the implications if Hughes was telling the truth.

 

And then he grasped that if he was telling the truth…

 

Then Roy never truly knew his lieutenant at all.

.

.

.

.

“That seems rather unfair.” Roy pressed the side of his throbbing head against the cool window. “Demoting you for something so mundane.”

 

Hughes shrugged. “Eh…it has been building up for a while. Vertrag loves to get in on my case. In your timeline, did I ever antagonize him?”

 

“I don’t know.” Roy tapped his right kneecap with his finger absently, thinking of several things at once, including wondering what had become of his team and the two brothers. Then he thought of Vertrag’s personality, then of the contract, and of the system behind it. “Hughes, tell me what you know about Vertrag’s alchemy. How he implements it,” he clarified. “From what I gather, it’s a public ‘service’. Surely, there are laws to limit him and rules for his clients to follow.”

 

“Oh right! Yeah, I’ll just give you the complete list.” A slight rustling sound, a pause, then Roy was hit on the side of the head with what felt like a piece of crumpled paper.

 

“Thanks.”

 

Roy turned his attention from the sidewalk to the paper Hughes had thrown at him. He picked it up, smoothed out the wrinkles, and began to read.

 


 

 

 

Contract Alchemy Civil Service

 

The Rules:

 

  1. Any client at the age of majority (16+), who personally requests a contract to be made, is permitted to demand any equal trade* from the contractor. To ensure safety in this present time, when the aforementioned type of alchemy is considered young among academics, the only contractor in question would be the state-appointed Deal Alchemist, Colonel Theofil Vertrag, founder of this study.

 

  1. The client should be prepared to accept and give any price required by the contractor, as it will be the energy necessary to power a contract array. Bargaining is allowed, but the contractor has the final say on the matter. Rest assured that the prices required are usually reasonable, but largely depend on the proposed deal.

 

  1. It is highly discouraged to have two or more clients per contract. However, writing multiple contracts for one client is permitted. (Multiple clients per contract would mean multiple payments of required prices, i.e. body parts, etc., regardless of the intended final outcome.)

 

  1. All equivalent exchanges between client and contractor are considered final and nonrefundable once the paper is signed. Termination and cancellation of any deal can only be possible when counteracted upon by another contract.

 

  1. Ownership of the fine print of the contract may be retained by the contractor (for safekeeping) or may be transferred to the client. The client’s wishes take priority.

 

  1. Stealing a contract that does not belong to you in any way, from either the contractor or the client(s), is punishable with three (3) years of imprisonment.

 

  1. If the fine print of the contract is damaged or annihilated by the client’s doing, the client dies.

 

  1. The contractor (or any other third party) has neither right nor the capability to destroy the fine print of the contract. As such, only the entitled client can terminate the deal through brute force** (i.e. tearing it in half), if they wish to do so. However, be reminded that cases like these are treated by the court of law as suicide, and the Deal Alchemist will not be held accountable for the death.

 

  1. Contracts with time limits can be renewed, provided the client can pay the additional price.

 

  1. The contractor respects the privacy of the client, upholds the rule of confidentiality, and refuses to divulge a single word of any contract written by them to any third party. Violation of this rule is punishable by death, and is written in the fine print of the contract. The client, however, may relay the details to anyone if they chose to do so.

 

  1. Any consequence suffered by the client is not the liability of the contractor. Their signature implies that they have fully read, understood, and accepted the terms, meaning that any outcome is the cause of their own irresponsibility.

 

  1. It is the contractor’s right and prerogative to refuse a proposed deal for any reason, or to grant a client’s request pro bono.

 

____

*Acts leading the Deal Alchemist to commit disloyalty to the military, human transmutation, and creations of gold are extremely prohibited and outright illegal.

**The contract cannot also be simply destroyed by leaving it to the forces of nature.


 

 

Roy looked up. “I have multiple questions.”

 

“Doesn’t everyone?”

 

“About the rules.”

 

“Right, ask away then.”

 

“I know stealing is a crime and all,” Roy said. “But why is there such a heavy punishment for the theft of a piece of paper?”

 

Hughes hummed. “Contracts are considered proofs of purchase. To steal it would be like…er, stealing a contract of ownership for an estate or a piece of land. If something came up, they could be vital evidences.”

 

“What if the client loses the contract on purpose?”

 

“Their loss.” Hughes shrugged. “Nothing will happen to them. At least, from what I’ve heard. Unless it’s a controversial contract, and you’re summoned by the court, then you have to present the fine print. If you’re innocent but were able to present it, there should be no problem. Fail to do so, and you’ll be forced to shoulder trials until you’re proven guilty…or innocent, whichever comes first. They don’t accept evidence on skin, since the signatures aren’t there and the arrays could easily be forged by more skilled tattoo artists.” A sniff. “There’re rumors though, that you’ll grow long tentacles on private parts if you lose the contract on purpose. Easier for the police to track.”

 

“…You’re kidding me, aren’t you?”

 

Hughes smirked. “Maybe.”

 

Roy rolled his eyes and smiled a little.

 

“Oh yeah, I found out that Vertrag can’t kill people with his contracts,” Hughes added.

 

Roy’s interest peaked. “Is that so? How did you know?”

 

“I overheard some higher-ups talking.”

 

“You eavesdropped.”

 

“Do I have to repeat myself? I SAID ‘overheard’.”

 

“Whatever you say, Hughes. So what did you overhear?”

 

“What was it? Oh right…some higher-ups were getting worried about Ishvalans slaying their precious State Alchemists.”

 

“…Was this Ishvalan person dubbed ‘Scar’?”

 

Hughes shrugged. “I wouldn’t know. I was kicked out of Investigations far too early to know. I also didn’t care enough to look into it. But anyway, said higher-ups tried to settle the matter with Deal. They had brought someone from death row as payment for the serial killer’s long-distance execution. The contract array didn’t even light up.” He smirked. “I heard Deal was also so very shocked about it. Man, I would’ve paid my soul to see him brought down from the pedestal that day!”

 

Roy nodded vigorously before focusing his attention on the second and last rule. “Interesting.”

 

“What is?”

 

“Rule number two states that the client has to give the price required of him or her, and yet, the last one contradicts that by stating that Deal can grant requests pro bono. In other words, for free.” Roy tapped the backs of his fingers twice on the paper agitatedly. “How could he power an array when he doesn’t ask for something to satisfy the equal trade?”

 

“I was asking myself that same question,” Hughes admitted, scratching his index finger behind his ear. “My alchemist friend suspects that Deal uses a power source. Like a Philosopher’s Stone.”

 

“Philosopher’s Stones do not exist, Hughes.”

 

“I know that! It was just a speculation.”

 

“By the way.” The paper crinkled lightly in Roy’s grasp. “There’s nothing in here alluding to exit clauses.”

 

Hughes raised an eyebrow at the road. “You think Deal is the type of person who’d make it easy for the masses to wriggle their way out of their misery?”

 

“Not at all.” Roy peered carefully at the list of rules, analyzing each and every word. “The closest thing here to termination of contract is by signing another to…revise or oppose the original. I doubt Deal would let me do that, though. Not with rule number twelve. Know any stories about cancelling contracts?”

 

Roy waited for additional input, but Hughes kept staring at the road.

 

“Hughes?”

 

Hughes exhaled heavily. “Yeah.”

 

“Okay,” Roy said carefully. “Whose story is it?”

 

Hand squeezing the leather grip of the wheel. “Ours.”

 

“Oh.” Roy remained quiet, read the rules again, then looked at Hughes. “I want to talk to her.”

 

“Now?” Hughes asked irritatedly.

 

“Now.”

 

“We had too many detours—“

 

“Rule number nine. Contracts with time-limit.” Roy took a deep breath. “Have I told you that after seven days, I’ll cease to exist? Because apparently, Vertrag took the day that I was born?”

 

Hughes spun to look at him with widened eyes. “The fuck? Why didn’t you tell me that sooner?!”

 

“I forgot.” It was true, what with all the excitement.

 

“You forgot. How do you forget an impending death— Argggghhhhh fuck! Never mind—”

 

Then Hughes cocked his head exaggeratedly to look at something outside, presumably a road sign, before he took another sharp turn.

 

Roy was certain the man was trying to kill him.

 

“Right, you really do need to talk to her. Now. Shut up and I’m not speaking to you in a million years.”

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“Over there. Fourth door on the right, first floor.” Hughes parked the vehicle with the speed and temper of a rampaging bull. “Tell her I sent you. Go! You might need all the info you’re going to get, so scram!”

 

Roy was out of the car in a flash. The moment he was at the entrance, he took a quick look over his shoulder to see Hughes reclining back in his seat, visibly miffed. Sighing, Roy entered the building and followed Hughes’ directions.

 

The inside of the building was rather well-maintained, but the blank white walls and the eye-searing orange linoleum floor suggested that whoever designed the interior had poor taste. Lighting was good, though the ventilation could use some adjustments. Already, he could feel sweat rolling down his back.

 

He counted the doors as he passed, and came to a stop in front of what he assumed was Gracia’s apartment, knocked once, twice, thrice, then waited.

 

He didn’t have to wait long. Someone flicked the switch on and light filtered from under the door. After a few more seconds, the door itself was opened a bit, held in place by a security chain,

 

Gracia’s green eyes peeked out from behind.

 

“Good evening, Ms. Gracia,” Roy greeted, very much aware that it was not evening. But he was more aware of the bizarreness of being so formal to his best friend’s supposed-to-be wife. “I apologize for disturbing you at this time—“

 

“Oh no, it’s quite alright.” Gracia smiled, and Roy couldn’t help but notice the tiredness hiding behind it. “I couldn’t sleep. What business would you have here…er…“ She glanced at Roy’s epaulets. “Colonel?”

 

“Maes Hughes sent me.”

 

At this, her eyes widened, sparkled a little with what seemed like hope. “Maes? W-why?”

 

Roy ignored, for the moment, the fact that her tone sounded rather sorrowful. He turned his head from side to side, alert for any suspicious people. He lowered his voice. “He told me to ask you about his contract. He’s outside in a military car right now, actually.”

 

Gracia regarded him for a few seconds, considering. “Alright,” she said. “Just a moment please.”

 

Then she gently closed the door and Roy heard her footsteps retract, presumably to peek out the window and see if he was telling the truth. Then he heard her walk back and unchain the lock, before fully opening the door.

 

“Inside then.” Gracia ushered him in. “What your name, Colonel?”

 

“Please just call me Roy.”

 

Gracia gave him a funny expression, before Roy realized how personal he sounded.

 

“Or Mr. Mustang!” he amended, embarrassed. “Sorry.”

 

“It’s alright.”

 

Roy admired how Gracia seemed to take his late visit in a stride. But then, she had married Hughes in the original timeline.

 

“How did you know my name?” Gracia asked of him, which baffled Roy.

 

“Well, Hughes—“

 

“I know he can’t say or write my name,” she interjected, placing her hands on her lap. “Without getting angry.”

 

Roy paused, thinking, then decided to spill. “To tell you the truth…I knew you personally, Ms. Gracia.”

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Somewhere in Roy’s storytelling, Gracia had found time to brew them both some tea. A cup of chamomile warmed his hands, the scent inducing tranquility in him.

 

Gracia sipped from her cup, visibly digesting his tale. Roy told her what was necessary to save time. Like Maes, he offered her facts about herself, though there weren’t as many. He told her about his contract with Vertrag, and she was rightfully frightened when she discovered that Roy’s mistakes had started with Maes’ death.

 

“You’re a victim of his deception, too,” she empathized as she set her cup down. “Like us.

 

Roy met her eyes. “What happened?”

 

“During the Ishval War…” She paused, inhaled, exhaled. “Maes suffered from blunt trauma in the head…caused by an Ishvalan.”

 

Even in this timeline, Roy thought, wincing. Maes’ luck is equal to any number on the left side of the number line, depending on the situation. “Then?”

 

“The ones in charge of him took him off the battlefield and hospitalized him. H-he was comatose for some time. And I-I couldn’t do anything.” Gracia took a moment to wipe beneath her eyes using the back of her hand. “Two months passed and he still wasn’t waking up. I f-felt so useless, a-and so I sought a way to make him feel better.”

 

She closed her eyes. “I visited the Deal Alchemist…and requested a contract.”

 

Roy was afraid of where this was going. He clenched his fists, the word ‘stop’ on the edge of his tongue, but Gracia plunged on before he could speak.

 

“The Deal Alchemist took my ability to love in exchange for Maes’ consciousness.”

 

Roy blinked, having expected a different price. “Your ability to love? How is that possible?”

 

“I don’t know,” Gracia admitted quietly. “What I do know is that, during that time, I’d feel that nothing is right. Everything I was once happy about, felt dull and boring in comparison. I’d feel sad or angry instead, and nothing Maes could do normally would return me to my proper self.” She held her cup once more between trembling fingers. “It was horrible.”

 

“But…you seem…better now.” Then as Gracia stared at him, the answer hit Roy. “Oh, Hughes.”

 

Maes Hughes, that dumb and noble man, signed a countercontract, as allowed by the fourth rule. Because of course he wouldn’t be able to bear seeing Gracia suffer like that. And so he'd accepted the price, gave her ability to love back, and relinquished his own.

 

“The Deal Alchemist was kinder to him, though,” Gracia told him.

 

Roy gaped at her, scandalized.

 

“At least he only took Maes’ ability to feel love for me.”

 

Roy’s insides twisted and churned, the urge to vomit growing strong. Dizziness washed over him and he barely managed to squeak out, “Bathroom.”

 

Through the sudden fuzziness of his vision, he felt a hand firmly grab his elbow and lead him to the room. He knelt down in front of the porcelain and retched. From the corner of one his eye, he saw Gracia retreat and come back with a glass of water.

 

“I’m sorry!” she exclaimed. “The tea might’ve been brewed too strong for you.”

 

He waved a hand after wiping his mouth. “No, it’s just…it’s not the tea.” His fingers encircled the cool glass and he gulped down half of the liquid.

 

Gracia, who Maes’ considered almost his whole world, fixed him a worried look as he stood up.

 

“I better get going,” he said. “I’ve troubled you enough.” He bent his spine, bowing to her. “Thank you for your time, Ms. Gracia.”

 

“Of course,” she said as she accompanied him to the door. “Take care, Mr. Mustang. Call me if you need anything else. Tell Maes…” She drifted off, seemed unsure as to what to say.

 

“Please sleep well,” Roy told her as he nodded to show that he understood. He was about to step out when he saw a vase of flowers sitting on a desk by the door.

 

It was a perfectly innocent vase containing perfectly innocent flowers, blooming bright in contrast to the rather dreary room.

 

“Yellow roses, Xingese chrysanthemum, cape jasmine,” Roy named as Gracia turned to see what he was gazing at. “A beautiful bouquet of joy. The chrysanthemum is a bit telling though.” He spun to face her. “I seem to remember that you used to work in a flower shop, Ms. Gracia.”

 

“I still do work in one, sir.”

 

Oh right, different timelines. He needed to get used to this. “How is the business going?” He tilted his head a little.

 

Gracia blinked. “…Quite alright. It’s not far from headquarters, so it’s a bit popular for soldiers to visit and buy flowers.”

 

“I’m going to take a wild shot and guess that that is where you’ve heard about him?”

 

Understanding seemed to dawn in her eyes. “Yes…”

 

“I hope to receive irises sometime.” Roy feigned a thoughtful look. “You’ll be receiving my payment, of course. I’ll call. Or maybe find a way to pick them up? Though I would prefer new arrivals in stock.”

 

“Of course…but could I interest you in dogsbane?”

 

Roy grinned, marveling at the wonder that was Gracia. “Crush those. I don’t mind.”

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Instead of Maes lounging in the military car, Roy was met with the sight of Maes lounging in a vehicle that appeared to have been salvaged from the junk shop.

 

“What is this?” he asked of the world in general and Hughes in specific as he got in, eyeing the dusty car door a little distrustfully.

 

“It’s fast,” Hughes said as way of explanation. “Also, we've got to leave a separate trail for Vertrag to chase, you know, in case he starts tracking us.”

 

“Where’s the other car?”

 

“On another street.”

 

Roy shifted around. “How did you get this…trash?”

 

“Hey!” Hughes adjusted his position. “Just because it has scratches and dents, it doesn’t mean it’s already trash!”

 

“There’s two bullet holes in this door,” Roy observed. “And the seats are moth-eaten.”

 

“Yeah, whatever. It’s fast, less conspicuous.”

 

“So, how did you get this?”

 

“I borrowed it.”

 

“You hotwired the car.”

 

“You always seem to mistake my words for another, Mustang. I borrowed it.”

 

Roy relented as he folded his arms.

 

“So, any more detours?” Hughes asked. “Takeout?”

 

“Let’s just go to your safehouse,” Roy replied. “Aren’t you going to ask about my chat with her?”

 

“I don’t care, so I’m not going to ask.”

 

“Caring…loving,” Roy muttered, contemplating. “When you think about it, love is simply produced by the hormones dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin being in equilibrium in your body. If one is unable to feel love…well, that means the feeling is suppressed as the dopamine levels rise and the oxytocin levels drop. All that giddy, warm sensation replaced with depression. Must be what Deal did to you.”

 

“That would be an alchemist’s explanation, yes. Thank you for the much needed science lesson.”

 

They lapsed into another of those awkward silences as the night sky started to become lighter. Roy mused how painfully familiar their banter with each other were, how great it felt to have even a part of his best friend back. Mannerisms, word choice, intelligence…it was all there. The only missing thing was Hughes’ experiences of fatherhood.

 

“In my timeline,” Roy said, gazing at the roof of the car. “You have a daughter named Elicia.”

 

Hughes grew rigid, seemed to stop breathing altogether. Roy was concerned he was going to blow his top again, but then Hughes surprised him. “According to the legends, the people of Xerxes believed in a place in the afterlife called Elysium. The land of bliss and happiness.”

 

Elysium, plus the name of the woman that captured Hughes’ heart.

 

“It’s beautiful,” Roy approved, a sense of purpose sparking in him. “I’m going to make sure you get your kid back.”

 

If Hughes noticed how Roy’s eyes crinkled with emotion, he didn’t comment, and instead patted Roy’s shoulder.

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“We’re here.”

 

Roy jolted from his mini nap as Hughes parked the car. He darted his gaze around, trying to pinpoint their location.

 

“Looks like a district near the outskirts.”

 

Hughes hummed an affirmation. “By the way, since you slept on me, I forgot to tell you that you have a housemate.”

 

“Can he keep a secret?” Roy asked as he stumbled groggily out of the vehicle.

 

“As far as I know, she can,” Hughes answered. “Well, actually you have two. But the other one isn’t around right now. Anyway, I found her in an alley when it was storming a few days ago as I was walking home. She looked rather shellshocked and begged me not to call anyone about her. So I gave her a place to stay here. She roams around from time to time, though.”

 

“That’s kind of you,” Roy said. So what Gracia had said was true: empathy, after all, was correlated in some way to feeling love, and Hughes was capable of feeling empathy for strangers, like he had for Roy himself. But he had none for Gracia.

 

He followed Hughes, keeping a sharp eye out for potential spies.

 

“The entrance is through the trashbin,” Hughes whispered. “There’s a hole behind one.”

 

Roy was hit with the sense of déjà vu, remembering the time Havoc had climbed out of a bin. But a quick glimpse around confirmed that they were in an entirely different destination.

 

“Hello?” Hughes called out as soon as they got through the hole. “Anyone home?”

 

The sound of a chair being pushed back announced that someone was present in the room adjacent to theirs.

 

“Mr. Hughes?” a woman’s voice croaked back. “I’m eating in the kitchen.”

 

“I’ve brought a friend.” Hughes walked forward, while Roy turned around to judge the place.

 

“Oh?” Footsteps treaded on the wooden floor, and then stopped at the entryway. She leaned at the side, smiling at the two of them. “Hello! Nice to meet…” Her gaze locked with Roy’s before a sharp intake of breath rasped against her throat as she took a hasty step back.

 

Roy’s full attention snapped to her as recognition and fear flashed in her eyes. An icy frostiness filled him, encasing his heart in a sharp embrace.

 

Because the woman’s identity was unmistakable. Unmistakably her.

 

HER.

 

You.” And Roy basked in the fact that the single word alone was an earthquake that almost made her collapse. “Maria Ross.”

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Chapter Text

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“All conversations will be recorded.”

“Sir.” Maria Ross tamped down on her urge to salute; she as a prisoner was banned of that right. She looked up from the floor to survey the room, empty of furniture save for the metal table and the three metal chairs surrounding it. She made her way to her seat, expecting Major Armstrong or Second Lieutenant Breda or any other soldier for this visit. When the door opened a second time and she found herself staring into the warm eyes of her mother, she exhaled and almost collapsed with relief.

“Mom.” Her breath hitched at the back of her throat as it took all of her willpower to remain in her place, with her body yearning for a tight embrace from the person across the frozen metallic sea. But Maria knew that even a few seconds of contact, just a short moment, that would allow her to feel safe and protected would be prohibited. “They finally let you in! Where’s Dad?”

The sides of her mother’s tired-looking eyes crinkled with mirth. In the past few days since Maria had last seen her, her gray hairs seemed to have multiplied in number. Her posture was also a bit more hunched than before, as if the weight of the world pressed down on her shoulders.

“Yes, finally,” her mother said. “Your father is meeting with the lawyer, Maria dear. The guards here have been treating you well?”

Maria appreciated the way her mother’s gaze roved accusingly to the faces of the few soldiers surrounding them. “As well as they could to a soldier turned criminal.”

“You are not a criminal,” her mother snapped sharply as she pinned Maria with a piercing stare. “I know my daughter. I know her like the back of my hand. Every mole, every birthmark, every scar accounted for. I raised her by feeding her nothing but love for her family, her friends, and her country. Maria dear, I know you were not the one who killed that Hughes fellow.”

Despite knowing that not a single drop of the late brigadier general’s blood had landed on her palm, uncertainty had crept into Maria during the small amount of time she was in prison. She had been racking her brains, trying to remember if she’d been to any phone booth before visiting her parents, questioning herself if there was any chance she had inhaled a substance that altered her perception of reality. Her gun had fired two shots after all. Where did the other bullet go?

But at that moment, her mother’s conviction granted her courage, not unlike the way adrenaline would boost one’s body to do an impossible task. If her mother said she was not a criminal, then Maria was most definitely not a criminal.

“Thanks, Mom,” Maria said, willing away the prickliness behind her eyes. “You have no idea how much I needed it.”

Her mother’s stern expression softened as they chatted for a bit, mostly questions of what was happening outside, before hardening again at the soldier who had stepped closer behind Maria. “Yes, yes, my visiting time is almost over, officer. Just a moment.” She stood, her chair screeching as it slid back. “Maria, I want you to hold onto something for me.”

“What is—?” Maria trailed off as her mother removed the gold band adorning her ring finger, placed it securely in the center of a cupped hand, and presented it to her daughter.

“You will return it to me,” her mother instructed when Maria made no move to receive it. “Once you are proven to be not guilty. Understood?”

Speechless, Maria reached for the ring with numb fingers as someone moved to escort her mother out. The piece of gold on her palm felt warm and comforting, like the sensation of sweet hot chocolate pouring down her throat.

She cradled the ring as her gratitude traveled down her cheeks, down her lips, almost like a plea for help.

 

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The cold air outside stung her eyes, but less so than the prison air ever did. Her breath came out in huffs and puffs, but she kept her focus on Barry the Chopper as they weaved in and out of alleys. 

Suddenly, her armor companion stopped before he was about to turn left, backtracked, then steadied Maria’s shoulder as he turned to face her when she had caught up to him.

“This alley’s guarded!” he informed her. “Alright, missy, run straight that way then turn right ‘til you see a tiny brat who looks fun to mince into even tinier pieces! Go! I’ve got soldiers to dice—distract!” Then he shoved her in the direction he wanted her to take before he took off his head and threw it to the guarded path.

Maria heard several muted shouts of alarm as she stumbled into another alley. The last she saw of Barry was of him taunting the soldiers as he recollected his helmet and continued sprinting past the former route. She ran in silence and darkness for a while, only the sound of her heartbeat keeping her company as she scrambled to locate the ‘tiny brat’ Barry mentioned.

The moment she turned right as per Barry’s instructions and saw a pacing figure, she finally understood whom the armor was talking about.

Edward Elric’s worried face melted into relief as she approached him. “Second Lieutenant Ross!”

“Edward!” she gasped, thankful to see a very familiar face. “You’re a part of this?”

“I saw the newspaper,” he said, frowning. “Then Second Lieutenant Breda called me to be part of their plan to bust you out.” He folded his arms, eyes boring into hers, and Maria couldn’t help but notice how drained they look. “Hughes…he…you couldn’t have done it, right?“

“No,” she replied the same way she had multiple times. “Never.”

Edward nodded. “Of course, you didn’t.” He held out a gloved hand, the left one, and tightly grasped Maria’s when she reached for it. “Let’s go, Second Lieutenant.”

 

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She couldn’t move, she couldn’t think.

Edward was shouting something at the beast, her predator, defending her even if the chase was long over. Her mouth moved, an instinctual response of deny deny deny.

The first snap was a whip.

The second was death.

 

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The paper bag of grocery crinkled merrily in her arms as she hurried to her parents’ house. The gray ceiling high above loomed over the city, motivating Maria to pick up speed before rain fell. Only the sound of her footsteps echoed across the vacant streets. In fact, most shops and stalls were closed. People were inside their homes today, especially since the military had placed Central under high alert when a few soldiers spotted an infamous pair of serial killers in the city.

She slowed down as she turned the corner, having arrived at the house of her childhood. The pink geranium flowers waved in welcome from their small pots on the windowsill as she climbed the stairs. 

She adjusted her grip on the bag and had rapped her knuckles on the door thrice when a muffled gasp sounded from somewhere behind her.

Maria spun, gun drawn from her hip holster, only to aim it at empty air. She thumbed the safety off when the clanking of a can sounded from the dark and narrow alley on the other side of the street, only for her to see an orange cat emerge instead. 

“Who’s there?” she called.

The door creaked open, making her flinch and face her mother who smiled in greeting before she noticed the unconcealed firearm. “What’s the matter, dear?”

The beginnings of rain had begun to drop from the heavens. Maria swallowed, looking back once more before handing the grocery bag to her mother. “It’s nothing. Let’s get to the kitchen, mom. I bought your favorite pastry.”

As Maria was about to close the door, she glanced around one last time to make sure of their safety. Already, the rain sheeted down, limiting the visibility of her neighborhood’s surroundings. But from behind the watery curtains, she was able to glimpse nothing more than a harmless-looking woman, soaked to the bone, dashing towards the other end of the road.

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Chapter Text

Chapter Five: The Victim, The Witness, and The Accused

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Maria had met Denny Brosh when they were still children. She found him pressing his back against the patch of bricked wall below her front window, muttering choked ‘helps’ like someone was squeezing his windpipe. Settling the watering can on the floor, Maria rushed out to locate the source of the boy’s problem.

A fat spider, as big as the span of her hand, crawled towards the other kid. After three seconds of disbelief, she had scooped the creature up onto her palm, causing the boy to scream bloody murder, before she flung it across the street. She had laughed at Denny (the name he offered after thanking her) and teased him for not jumping over it or running away since spiders are generally slower than humans. With a pout, her new friend told her that he simply couldn’t move at all.

In Hughes’ safe house, Maria realized she should have escaped the moment she entered Mustang’s line of sight. She could have kicked him in the groin and bolted for the exit. She could have grabbed a knife in the kitchen, wielded it as her first line of defense, or better yet, filled a glass with water to splash him useless. She could have moved away, stepped back, get as far from him as possible. She could have fought, scratching, screaming, and cursing the Flame Alchemist’s name for her dilemma.

But she didn’t. And by some sort of miracle, neither did the colonel. And then he took an echoing step.

Her body refused to cooperate, choosing instead to anchor her soul in a vulnerable stance. The floorboards beneath her shoes sung a low and steady beat that gradually grew louder in volume, while the vibration increased in intensity and made her teeth chatter. Mustang had mostly closed the distance between them, his face a mask darkened with cold fury. His chilly demeanor had stolen the remaining warmth from her that she wondered if she would even feel his hand around her neck when her nerve receptors had grown this numb. She attempted to withdraw, but her limbs shook when triggered with even just the slightest movement. He was upon her now. All it would take was a sudden seize of her throat.

Wind stung her cheeks as the colonel silently strode past.

Somehow, that was scarier. Maria blinked as the spraying sound of faucet water filled the expanse behind her. A wheeze escaped from her lungs. She forced her eyes to meet Lieutenant Colonel Hughes’ concerned ones.

Perhaps he sensed the stifling tension in the air because then he broke the silence. “You two, er, know each other?”

The sudden clink of empty glass on the table startled Maria into halfway facing the man behind her.

“Oh yes,” Mustang said quietly, keeping very still, hand wrapped around the glass. His dark eyes, rimmed with red, seemed to be searching her face. “I’m amazed, Ross. You managed to show some self-control in keeping him alive.”

There it was again. The pressing accusation, the never-ending back and forth spat that only grew to be more suffocating every time it was uttered. She chanced a breath. “I—“

“Maes, you’ve been harboring your killer all this time.”

The expression that Hughes gave nearly killed her that she forgot to deny. The bespectacled man stepped back from them, like a silent permission for Mustang to take care of the situation. The respectable Lieutenant Colonel Hughes himself, the man who was known for his uncanny hunches and accurate readings of a person’s character, had backed away.

Colonel Mustang inserted a hand into one of his pockets, drawing her eyes to the movement. “How did you arrive here?”

“In…in this house?”

“This world.”

At a loss, all she could do was close her mouth.

“I see. You are covering up for Vertrag like the good accomplice you are.”

Hearing the unfamiliar name spoken aloud made her shake her head. She was so tired of this. “Who,” she asked without much interest. And then the adrenaline in her veins spiked, emboldening her to ask a question of her own. “What are you falsely accusing me of this time, Mustang?”

The deafening snap caused her to recoil.

A minute had passed before she realized that the hand he had extended was gloveless. Mustang slowly retracted his limb and set it by his side, never once blinking, never letting his hard glare drift away from her no matter how much Maria wished that it would.

“I am tired of your games,” Mustang relayed in a low voice. “I am tired of your drama, I am tired of your denials, I am utterly tired.” He let the silence linger a little longer, allowing the weight of it to hammer his words in. Maria fruitlessly tried to work her voice.

But the colonel gave no room anyway. “My most trusted companions,” he continued, “had deserted me due to a single lie. Your lie about you not killing Maes Hughes. Roasting you alive apparently did not give me the closure I was looking for, so how about this, Ross?” Shadows veiled the upper half of his face. “Gloves off. I am going to make you confess whether you like it or not. Just by making you talk.”

She flinched again, internally cursing as she did so.

“Are you the murderer of Maes Hughes? Answer me.”

“N-no…” And she knew—knew that the dreaded sound was coming but Maria was still unable to stop the phantom burning sensation that sparked with the snap.

“Oh? You weren’t near a telephone booth on that night at eighteen thirty hours?”

She bullied her spine into a more dignified stature. “I was in my parents’ home, as I’m sure you remember. I wasn’t anywhere near the lieutenant-colonel during that night.”

“You shot him twice.”

“I didn’t shoot him!” 

Mustang scoffed. “Try me again. The very morning following that night, you confessed to your crimes by detailing—with utter jubilation, I might add— how you carried out his assassination. You even mimicked the voice of his daughter to mess with his mind. What changed, Maria Ross? Why the sudden scramble to retract all of your previous statements?“

Talking to the man was like talking to a wall. Copper tang lined the tip of her tongue and made speaking a grueling task. She blinked, and her eyes went the other direction to fall upon the only other person in the room. “The one thing I confessed to you was that I am not his murderer.”

The colonel growled. “Look at me when I’m speaking!”

She turned her eyes back, feeling the heat radiate from the pores of her face. “Even the lieutenant colonel can see that it’s not me.”

Enough of your lies.” There was something in the way that Mustang reacted that was too fast, too erratic, that she almost slipped as she backed away from him. A vein jutted out from his neck. “You will tell the truth. I will pull the truth from you if it is the last thing I am destined to do and nothing. Is going. To stop me.”

The words ‘It’s not her’ cut the interrogation like a shard of glass slicing skin. Maria panted and silently thanked the heavens for rendering her observation right.

Mustang whipped his head to see his friend giving him an apologetic look. As if to save face, he tried to relax his stance, but the stiffness did not vanish from his shoulders. “Maes?”

Hughes’s forehead wrinkled, seeming to continue his appraisal between the two of them, no doubt weighing the dynamics. The lieutenant colonel—second lieutenant in wherever they were—had always been extremely perceptive. Surely, he could see that something was amiss? Surely, it came to his mind that if Maria were his killer (or had the mind of a killer) she would’ve done him in already?

“She’s...not a murderer,” Hughes declared. “She doesn’t have the eyes of one. Can you see the difference?”

Her sigh of relief masked the small laugh that bubbled from her throat at seeing Mustang’s shocked expression. How absurd the concept was: to see his murdered comrade defend the accused?

“Come on, Maes.” Mustang flicked a hand in a sharp gesture to her direction. “You can’t fall for this act too.”

“You have to trust me on this then,” Hughes asserted. “It’s not her. I find that she’s also prone to speaking her mind, you’d think she would’ve blurted out the truth already.”

“And what about me, Maes?” countered Mustang.

“I’m not saying I don’t believe you,” Hughes said carefully. “Because…this is going to sound like I can’t pick a side because I am not picking a side. Roy, if others have noticed something wrong, as I do, too…” he cleared his throat, “…then there must be something that you’re missing. There’s something that they’ve gotten a whiff of that you haven’t.”

“Ross,” Mustang snapped without looking at her. “Do you happen to have a twin?’

She frowned. “Twin? No, I don’t.”

“As I thought. An only child that is born to Mr. Josef Ross and Mrs. Esther Ross—“

Hughes grumbled. “I am not implying a twin theory, Roy.”

“Then what are you implying? Poor eyesight, perhaps?” Mustang bit out.

“Let me clarify where I stand, alright? Look.” Hughes gestured at Maria. “I am not completely pushing away the probability that she may have had a hand in murdering me. People can look very deceiving. But I can’t prove her guilty using just your words. Forgive me, Roy but…as of now, you are the only one claiming that she admitted it the same way Ms. Ross is the only one denying it in this world.” He hesitated. “Unless you’ve managed to bring evidence.”

Mustang scowled as a bit of hope bloomed from within Maria’s chest. She held her breath as she watched him tap an index finger against the side of the glass numerous times before he stopped, his knuckles white as cracks snaked from his fingertips to the fragile container. With a sigh, he relaxed his grip, set the glass down and gently slid it away from him.

“However,” Hughes continued after Mustang had finally calmed down. “I think we must make sure of the fact that she isn’t allied with Vertrag.”

Almost in sync, they spun to examine her, with one set of eyes significantly more suspicious than the other.

“Is there anyway we could know for sure?” Mustang asked as if she wasn’t even in the room. “Because if there isn’t, we keep her under house arrest. Or perhaps take shifts on keeping a very close eye on her at all times.”

She couldn’t believe her ears. “Wait, no!” she said, appalled, as they both glanced at each other and then continued to stare at her.

Hughes cleared his throat. “Roy, I don’t think—“

“I beg your pardon, Ross?” The colonel folded his arms behind his back. 

“I understand that this makes me look guilty of association with this...Vertrag, but you are not putting me under house arrest. Sir,” she added as she raised her chin and tried not to shift her legs apart. “Actually, am I even supposed to acknowledge you with a ‘sir’ in wherever we are, Colonel? Seeing as the marks on your shoulder mean nothing here?”

There was a flash of an emotion (doubt, perhaps, or maybe surprise?) that broke through his stone-cold façade. It was an earned reaction in Maria’s opinion. The poor man truly needed to be slapped across the face with a reminder. 

“Oh yes, I noticed your palpable absence—“ she threw her gaze down and up his person “—during my longer stay here. Imagine falling in an alley of all places. An alley in front of a house. My house. But then there’s another woman on the doorstep, knocking. And she looks like me, talks like me, acts like me.” For a second, her throat seized up and made her voice crack. “And then I realize that my parents already have their own daughter. A daughter who loves them the same way that I do. Oh, and I can’t visit because what if they see that I’m not their Maria, huh? And then they reject me? So now I have to push down this…this urge to run over to them and content myself with observing my former home instead!

“So, if you think I’ll allow you to detain me in a house and force me to do nothing all day but glare at your old mug, you’d be absolutely wrong—”

“Keep on babbling and I will push through with my threat,” he answered coldly.

“Oh please!” Her mind summoned images of a distressed Heymans scrubbing his face with a palm as he sat across the metal table, of Ed with his armblade out and risking his very life just by being present near her. Maria pointed her index finger at Mustang. “You blame me for the distrust I’ve apparently sown between you and your most trusted people. But shall I remind that it was you who put your youngest subordinate in danger when he was protecting me? How you insulted Second Lieutenant Breda just because he didn’t share your opinion? You are the reason, not me, Colonel Mustang.”

His hand twitched towards his pocket, and she knew that she should stop metaphorically poking at the beast’s stomach with a stick. But the temptation overpowered her, so Maria leaned in close, the closest she dared to without actually touching him, and breathed near his ear. “I dare you to, in front of your friend, murderer.”

Mustering all of her remaining courage, Maria turned her back on him and headed for the exit. The possibility existed that Hughes might have called her. She thought how it might be his hand that brushed her knuckles, but by then she had already rushed into the hole and climbed out of the bin, tumbling into a heap when her legs proved too unstable to support her weight. She sniffed before she slowly got up, picked the direction of her (not) home and ran, unable to understand how she got roped into this agony.