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Impetus ad Hominem: A Love Story in its Second Act

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Chapter 1

*

Summer was rarely a pleasant time in the heartland of Amestris, and this year had been worse than most.  The heat had been brutal as a stroke, turning any metal left unattended into an accidental brand.  Even Edward's arm became a deadly weapon if left in the sunlight too long, which Roy had discovered and re-discovered several times over the course of the season, much to his dismay.  

Heat, Roy maintained, was much worse than cold, because at least when it was cold you could bundle yourself up -- that, and his bed was quite warm, as was the person he often shared it with, and there were lots of things they could do together that made the cold quite irrelevant. Heat, though -- there was hardly anything you could do about the heat.  The Fuhrer's office, having recently seen the installation of something magical called "air conditioning," was the only place in the city you could go to cool down.  

You could only show up there with so many excuses, though, before people started to question your motives.  So, reluctantly, Roy constrained his skiving to his own office, and became an expert at making fans out of errant paperwork, a skill which was much in demand for a generous portion of the summer.

It hadn't all been bad, if he was being fair.  It had resulted in a rather appealing change of wardrobe for his lover, which he would never complain about.  The excess heat had begun to affect even Edward, who had eschewed his many layers in favor of going around in only tank tops.  He failed to notice that these, which had been a slim fit even back years ago, were quite a bit smaller on him these days.  This pleased Roy deeply, so he wasn't about to say anything about it.  It was quite worth dealing with an extra tightness in his uniform trousers for a not insignificant portion of the day if it meant seeing Ed like that.

The change in Edward really was remarkable.  When he had been Fullmetal, he had been known to wear three layers and gloves in the desert just to keep anyone from seeing his arm -- to see him baring it to the world without hesitation now made Roy's heart swell in a way he had gotten very good at ignoring.

He was not the only one to notice Edward blossoming into the prime of manhood, though.  The two had attended -- at Roy's request, then insistence -- a number of parties and soirees and other such social engagements together, which gave the general the best position from which to observe young ladies fawn over him, to his distress. 

This hardly made Roy jealous. In fact, he mostly treated it as a kind of observer's sport, like horse racing.  First they would make an overture, which Ed would not notice.  Then, someone else would arrive with the same intention in mind, which apparently signalled the beginning of their mating displays, which he also did not notice.  Then came the blunt suggestions, which Edward would have to be deaf and blind not to notice, but which also terrified him more than a little bit.

Usually, Roy took it upon himself to rescue his lover at that point, and swept in to pile charm on the ladies in question until they forgot which way was up.  Then, he would take Edward by the elbow, find some nice, secluded nook in the garden or library, and show Ed how much he appreciated those fancy clothes.

It had nothing whatsoever to do with staking his claim, and he would deny it to the death if asked.

But the women Edward came in contact with in the rest of his life were apparently much more tenacious than that, and had taken more active roles in pursing their romantic interests.  Some even went so far as to court him.  Even Edward's considerable obliviousness would not allow him to ignore such unsubtle and repeated advances, though they necessarily confused and agitated him. Roy, of course, found this adorable.

“I swear to god, Roy, this chick just has no idea when to let up!” he growled one night, lying atop Roy's covers beside the man, glaring up at the ceiling. “She's asked me to dinner prob'ly five times, and every time I say no it's like it bangs off some metal wall inside her head. It might even make her more determined to catch me. It's like I'm a fucking trout or something – she'll only be satisfied when she has my head on a wall.”

Roy laughed, running the knuckles of his fingers up and down the skin of Ed's neck.  He enjoyed Ed's neck: it was possibly the last place on the man with any softness left to it.

Roy had met the girl in question: she was a PhD student in the biological sciences, unusually gregarious for someone in her profession, and currently a researcher in Edward's lab. Roy had quite liked her, actually, and apparently she quite liked Ed. According to Ed she did good work, too -- her chief failing seemed to be that the single-minded tenacity which made her such an asset in the lab also applied in relationships. This, Roy knew from experience, was much less useful than it would seem.

Making the matter worse, the woman didn't know that Ed was quite thoroughly taken, and quite regularly also, over every possible surface.  They were hardly hiding their relationship, but if nobody thought to ask, they didn't usually volunteer the information, either. Mostly, this suited them fine –  they didn't have to deal with questions or tasteless innuendos (Roy's innuendos were always classy, thank-you), there were no awkward conversations or explanations. The one downside of this approach was that it did tend to lead to the misconception that Ed was what others liked to call an “eligible bachelor.”

The general wasn't at all jealous. In fact, he loved listening to Edward wail about his women troubles: it was somehow quite encouraging. He gained a nearly sadistic satisfaction from seeing them want him when they could never have him, from knowing that he was the only person who knew how Ed looked with his unbound hair all splayed out on the pillows, who had seen him flushed and panting, had heard how his voice cracked when he finally gave in and begged.

“Have you tried just telling her that you're not interested?" he murmured, deeply amused.   "That you're in a relationship?”  As always, such practical suggestions seemed to blindside the younger man.

“Well, not in so many words, no,” said Edward after a moment, scowling. Roy combed fingers through his lover's hair. “I've been trying that thing you . What's it called? Oh, that's right, tact,” snapped Edward, probably more sarcastically than he had intended.

“And doing admirably at that so far,” Roy said with some amusement. He was far beyond the point where such callousness on his lover's part had any effect on him. “Never in my life have I heard such tact and grace.  Well done."

Ed blushed, eyes flickering over to Roy for just a second.

“Sorry. I meant to say that nicer.”

“Of course you did," Roy said, and that was exactly Edward's problem. "Luckily, I don't mind," he added, gently scratching Edward's skull.  He pressed his lips together as if determined not to let on that he enjoyed it, but there are some battles you've lost before you even started.  "And that segues nicely into my point.  There is a reason that you avoid tact when possible, and that reason is that you are very, very bad at it. Subtlety is not your domain," he added, enjoying the way Ed's cheeks pinked further.  "Rather than trying to be tactful -- not that I'm suggesting you be rude, mind you -- I suggest pretending she's you're brother or me and speaking to her like you would us.  Except preferably without the expletives."  Roy, at least, found this funny, although Ed didn't seem to agree. "We can practice together if you want," he added, lips twitching up into an accidental smirk.

Edward rolled his eyes and huffed, the noise either irritation or amusement.

“I dunno why I let you be all patronizing like that, asshole. I get no respect at all.”

“Very simple,” said Roy, running his fingers down his lover's chest, slipping the hand under the covers to rest at the waistband of Ed's boxers. “It's because you know I'm right. And,” he added, smiling, “because I give fantastic blowjobs. If I were ever to somehow tragically lose the use of my tongue, though, well -- that would be the end of us.”

Ed laughed then, and turned a smile on his lover that made Roy warm all the way through.

“Not true,” said Edward, pressing a kiss to the corner of Roy's mouth. “If you couldn't use your tongue, you wouldn't be able to talk, and then you wouldn't be half so smarmy. I think it'd be a big improvement.”

“Hm, do you?” asked Roy, then placed a kiss on Ed's neck, his collarbone; pulled back the sheets and did the same to his chest, his stomach. “Well, let me remind you what you would be missing.”

Roy's tongue really was very talented, and so was the rest of him, and he didn't bother to be modest about it.  

It was with a distinct gratification that he noted that Ed had gotten hard already, just from his words and that brief drag of skin. He might tease Edward about how young he was, how easily aroused, but in truth Roy was always immensely flattered by the fact that he could turn his young lover on so easily. While men and women all over the city clamored in vain for Ed's attention, Roy had only to deliver an order – or even a suggestion – to have the Fullmetal Alchemist quivering with anticipation in his bed.

He didn't pull down Ed's boxers yet: the most pleasurable part of sex was the tease, the long slow wait before the sudden drop. He placed a light kiss at the waistband, moved up to flicker tongue over navel, tasting sweat-sharp skin, then slid to the side to suck at the sensitive hollow of Ed's hip. The blonde squirmed, made a tiny noise that Roy took to be encouragement. Out came the tongue again: licking, stroking, pleasuring.

Roy bit down there, right by the hip, and Ed moaned, his cock throbbing behind the thin cloth that separated them. Sliding down, smirking, he mouthed the outline of Ed's cock through the cloth, savoring the feel of it, the way Ed made tiny, tiny thrusting motions with his hips. Down again, further, past the bend where hip met leg, down the inside of his hard-muscled thighs to his knees.

Ed gave a weak laugh that was at least half a whimper.

“Come on, what're you fuckin around for? Just get on with it already,” he snapped, fisting his hand in Roy's hair almost painfully. Roy didn't move his lips, too entranced with tasting the flicker of Ed's pulse in the artery below his knee, but he heard the man's plea: he brought up a hand to grind the heel of it into Edward's straining crotch. A deep breath caught on a moan, and Roy increased the pressure – Edward's thrusting became more insistent – and then Roy pulled his had away entirely. Ed made another little noise, needy and bereft.

“Oh god, you're teasing me? What the fuck did I ever to do deserve this?”

“Well,” began Roy, licking up his lover's thigh, “among many other things, you looked drop dead gorgeous in a tank top, and without any effort at all made half of the city fall hopelessly in lust with you. I love the fact that no matter how many people try to get you into their beds, I'm the only one who can make you whimper and beg.”

Edward did whimper then, to Roy's great pleasure. The blonde collected himself just enough to make a sentence:

“Not – mm, jealous?” he asked. Roy grazed teeth across the artery on the inside of Ed's leg, suckled gently.

“To the contrary. I love watching other people want you. It reminds me what a supernova I have in the palm of my head. Makes me grateful for you.” Hard lips pressed kisses up the inside of his leg, and Ed was very nearly wriggling in frustration now. Then, against Ed's skin: “Keeps me humble.”

A breathy, barking laugh.

“Liar. You just like knowing that you're better than everyone else. You've never been humble in your life.” That earned a laugh: then, finally, the general pulled down the waistband of his younger lover's boxers. His erection bobbed free, and Ed hissed.

“Am I?” Roy asked, then gave a quick lick to the head of Edward's cock, too light to be anything but frustrating, he knew. Ed groaned, but knew better than to take his pleasure into his own hands. “Better than everyone else, that is.”

“Smug bastard,” said Edward, without much vigor. “Fucking get on with it before I do something you're gonna regret.”

“Now, Edward –” a light brush to the velvety skin of the man's balls “– is that how we ask for things?”

Ed laughed again, and ran a hand through his hair in deep frustration, turning his head to the side until his neck corded, each muscle displayed in prominent relief. The sight shot straight to Roy's groin.

“Son of a bitch. Okay, fine. Please,” he said, short and insincere. 

“Come on, Edward, you can do better than that.”

He kissed the tip of Ed's erection gently, so gently, then ghosted more of the same down the underside. Edward was rocking into the air in earnest now, and Roy was sure he didn't mean to make the tiny rough noises that were coming out of his mouth.

“Please,” he said again, his voice hoarse, ready to break. A pause. “Please, master,” he said, with more than just a hint of sarcasm.

Roy's body didn't even care a little bit about the sarcasm: he responded to the words with an instant rush of heat that hit him like a wall. The sincerity didn't matter – hearing that word from Ed's mouth was pure fantasy. Roy groaned, fisted the sheets with his unoccupied hands, and swallowed Ed's cock down.

The sudden overload of sensation made Ed cry out, his body rolling up to meet his lover's mouth as his hands trembled, strained. One of the things that Roy loved most about their sex was just how responsive his young lover was. Every pitched breath, every unstifled moan that escaped the blonde's lips just made Roy ache. Another swirl of his tongue brought Ed's hips upward, off the bed, thick cock sliding, sweet, through Roy's mouth.

“Mmm,” said Edward, on an open-mouthed groan, “you like hearing me say that? Dirty fuckin' bastard.” The words came out of his mouth as a litany, a prayer, an oath. Roy smiled and licked the shaft of his lover's cock.

“Call me that again,” said Roy, words rumbled against the sensitive skin at the tip. “Only, seriously this time.”

“What, bastard? I call you that all the time.”

“No,” said Roy, putting on his voice of authority, his cloak of power. He didn't say anything more. He hovered there, refusing to move to touch Edward's quivering length.

There was a brief silence: Ed looked at him with clouded eyes, half-lidded in lust, lips parted and flushed with his pounding blood.

“Okay,” he said, after a moment. “Please let me come, master. Please.”

“Why should I?” Roy said, keeping himself tantalizingly close. Ed's response hadn't been enough, but still his cock was throbbing.

“Because I'm gonna go crazy over here if you don't,” said Edward with a strained laugh.

“I'm not convinced. In fact, I'm considering just stopping altogether,” Roy said, sitting up and away from Ed's body. “You disappoint me.”

Don't,” said Edward, his voice cracking, and in that moment sounded so needy and bereft and completely broken that Roy felt a shot of euphoria through his whole body. “Please, master. I'll do anything.”

Roy groaned. That was it, what he had been looking for: that magical tone of voice, the absolute subservience that made Roy so fucking hard he couldn't stand it.

“Get the lube, then. I'm going to fuck you until you come screaming.”

Edward made a small, high noise and reached over to the nightstand for the container of lube. “Now,” started Roy again, pulling his own boxers down to free his erection and beginning to stroke it, “prepare yourself for me, so I can watch.”

“Yes, master,” said Ed, the word choked in his throat but managed nonetheless. He coated a finger in the fluid, then brought his hand down even as he spread his legs, bent them at the knee to allow Roy a better view.

Roy had a sudden vision of Edward tied up like that, his legs bound as far apart as they would go, utterly exposing his most delicate parts to all present. And in this brief fantasy, there were others present: a group of men watched him, touching themselves, eyes hungry, hands greedy –

And then he was back in the moment, because Ed had begun to let his slick finger circle around his entrance, let his eyes fall shut – then, as he slid the finger inside of himself, he let out a deep, wanton moan.

“Yes,” said Roy, the word almost hissed. “Do you like that?” A faint nod from Edward, accompanied by a short whine as the finger began to move inside of him. Roy watched, enraptured. “Do you do this to yourself, when you're alone? Shove your hands down the back of your pants and fuck yourself on your fingers?”

A whimper escaped Ed, even as he pressed his lips together. He breathed hard through his nose, then opened his mouth again.

“Yes,” he said, in that same pitiful way, and it was all that Roy could do not to just shove himself into the other man right then, to hell with preparation or anything.

“What do you think about?” Roy asked, savoring each image, both visual and mental.

“About you,” said Edward, then cried out and bucked his hips up as his fingers hit that spot inside of him. “About you, whipping me.”

Roy's cock wouldn't be ignored anymore, and he pumped his closed hand down its length.

“Mm, pleasuring yourself while you imagine me hurting you. You're such a dirty thing, aren't you? You'd do anything to get me to touch you,” Roy said, stroking his lover's leg as he watched those two fingers, thrusting into him, finding an unsteady rhythm. He added a third finger, and after a moment, pulled his eyes open to fix the older man in his gaze.

“I'm ready. Come on, fuck me,” said Edward, a demand born of desperation.

Roy smoothed a hand along the inside of Ed's thigh, then lined himself up at the younger man's entrance.

“So demanding. My little slut,” he purred, and slid in on the last word. Ed gasped, short and hard, almost loud enough to muffle Roy's own noise. If he could have made the sensation of that first thrust last for the rest of his life, he would have.

“God, Edward,” he said, voice rough-grained, letting himself break character to bend over and suck Ed's neck, twisting the hard pebble of his nipple between his fingers. Ed squirmed – Roy loved the way he writhed, unsure which direction to go, which pleasure to push into. He slid his lips up to Ed's ear and bit down: then, he was moving, taking in every beautiful sensation, sweaty bodies rocking together: Roy knew he had hit Edward's sweet spot when the man gave a pitched sob, screwed his eyes shut, moved his hand up to his own dripping cock, and began to stroke in time to Roy's thrusts. His hot tongue flickered out over the juncture of neck and shoulder, then replaced Ed's hand with his own, squeezing it, loving the steady throb and the way Ed moved his body to meet each motion.

Then, without warning, Ed's body went rigid, and he was coming, hard, all over Roy's stomach and his own: his keening wail sent shivers all the way down the general's body – an unendurable pleasure swept over him – and then Roy was coming, too, in a blinding flash – and then, together, they were still.

They lay there, warmth and arms wrapped around each other, for a moment: Roy breathed in the smell of them, listened to his lover's breathing as it calmed, slowed. Then, Roy kissed his lover, chaste and long, and rolled off.

“Mmm,” said Edward.

“Mm,” agreed Roy, taking a hand up to run it through Ed's hair. The man gave a lazy sort of smile.

“Thought you were gonna show me how awesome your tongue is,” said Edward, dryly.

“I got somewhat distracted,” said Roy, returning the expression. “I would be happy to give you another demonstration later, if you like. I am confident in my ability to convince you of my skill.”

Ed laughed.

“You never do give up, do you.”

“Coming from you, I'm going to take that as a tremendous compliment.”

“You do that,” said Edward, and Roy could have been forgiven for thinking that the way he didwas almost fond.

Then, the younger man shifted enough that the two were barely-but-not-really touching, enough that they could be close while still allowing him plausible deniability if he was asked whether he had planned it that way. Roy smiled, and said:

“With pleasure.”

After a long moment, something broke through the calm between them: Roy almost drew his hand away from Ed's hair when he sensed a sudden tension, but then Ed looked at him and said:

“Did you mean what you said earlier?”

Roy's brow furrowed as he considered the question. He couldn't imagine what Ed meant.

“I'm sorry, it escapes me what you might be referring to. Care to clarify?”

Ed flushed, turned his head a bit more to look down at the mattress, although even that couldn't hide the flush that stained his cheeks.

“I mean, all that stuff about supernovas and shit.”

Roy remembered then, and almost laughed – for Edward's sake, he didn't. He didn't want Ed to think that he was being mocked or something like that. Hardly. It was just so astonishing that Edward would be so blind to his own brilliance.

Edward lit up everything around him so intesnesly that everyone around him seemed to glow just by blessing of their proximity, and all he could see was how bright they shone.

Every day, the knowledge of just what Roy had in his bed, warm and willing – of just who he could call at the end of the day to talk alchemical theory or anything at all – humbled Roy, and made him grateful. He deserved nothing like Edward Elric, but he wasn't penitent enough to throw away a blessing like that when life had so wonderfully handed it to him.

He pulled the other man closer, and said:

“Oh, Edward, you have no idea. Of course I meant it.”

*

Academically, Roy knew that Ed could awaken early when he so chose, but in daily life this was much more legend than it was fact.  However, that day, when Major General Roy Mustang strode into his office at 8:45 in the morning, Edward was already there, his feet kicked up on Roy's desk and his hands laced together in his lap.

“You're in early,” said Roy, slipping his jacket off and hanging it on the rack by the door.

“G'morning to you, too. And I'm not really in early, I'm in late – haven't been home yet. Needed to watch some experiments all night.” Well, that explained that, then. “I had some time to kill waiting for some lab techs to finish testing the variations, so I came up here, and guess what I found?”

“Havoc having sex with one of the secretaries on one of the office tables,” Roy guessed, walking over to his own desk and sitting down on the edge, as his own seat was currently occupied.

“Nope, I – wait, what?” Ed made a face. “Is that... is that a thing that's happened?”

“Probably. I was just hazarding a guess. But do tell.”

“Gah, I'm never touching the desks outside again,” Edward said, looking genuinely traumatized.

“You and I have had sex in here. I don't see how that's any different.”

“Yeah, but you're not Havoc. Makes all the difference in the world, see.”

Roy laughed.

“Yes, I can see that. So what did you find?”

“Your planner. And guess what? You, Roy Mustang, have a clear schedule,” said Edward, making no move to get out of the general's chair, his grin fierce and wide and giving nothing at all away.

Roy raised an eyebrow.

“Are you usually in the habit of checking my work schedule before I come in? Is your life just so boring that you need to live vicariously through mine?”

“Asshole,” Ed replied, cheerily. “I read your schedule to keep up on your life. If you can keep tabs on me, I can keep tabs on you.”

“Perhaps, except one of us can keep it a secret,” said Roy, smirking, the combination of which made Ed scowl. It was cute, Ed trying to play Roy's game, and even cuter that he played it badly.

“Fuck you. I could have kept it a secret if I wanted to. I just don't want to.”

“I keep hoping you'll grow more polite over the years, but you dash my hopes once again. Also, could you? You're not really known for your tight lips – metaphorically speaking, anyway,” Roy added, his smirk growing briefly suggestive before flattening out into a more neutral smile. “Now, if you'd remove yourself from my chair, I'd be grateful.”

Ed snorted and swung his feet down from Roy's desk.

“You should know better by now than to pin any kind of hopes on me,” he said, standing and crossing his arms, but never losing the look of amusement.. “You just keep getting disappointed. And you're not gonna get any kind of lips, tight or otherwise, if you keep bein a jackass.”

“Disappointment does get a bit tiresome, I must admit, although I have yet to give up on you,” Roy said, fondly, as he moved over to take his proper seat, noting with half disgust and half amusement that Ed had left a heel-shaped ring of mud on his desk. He swept it off with a handkerchief, but said nothing about it – to his credit, he thought. “And I have no fear that you'll cut me off from sexual gratification. You like it too much yourself.”

Ed now moved his rather stunning ass to the desk instead of Roy's chair.  He studied the older man, his arms crossed loosely in front of him. There was an odd sparkle in his eye, a strange lightness to the young blonde that seemed out of place, given the trajectory of their conversation. Shouldn't he be fuming by now?

That knowing smile was about to drive Roy mad. Even the fact that his inbox was strangely empty of paperwork just made the whole thing that much more infuriating.

“Alright, out with it. I grant that my empty planner is strange, but it hardly seems justification for you coming in here and grinning at me like a maniac. So what else is going on? Have you planned something for me today?” he asked, half worried and half hopeful.

“Nope, guess again.”

“Major Hawkeye has taken her once-per-decade sick day, and I'm free to frolic till my heart's content?”

“Nope.”

“You plan to steal me away from my work and have erased all of the meetings on my planner for that reason.”

“You're a bad guesser,” Ed replied, with some glee.

“Well, you aren't giving me very much to go on. And that's it, I'm out of guesses. So what is it?”

Ed grinned.

“You may have to wait a whole five minutes to find out. In't that just gonna drive you crazy?”

Roy groaned: he hated it when Edward decided that he wanted to be a tease. Well, “hated” might be a bit of a strong word.

That was when a sharp knock at the door interrupted their conversation. Riza Hawkeye did not wait for an invitation, but opened the door, took a few paces in, then stopped to give Roy a smart salute. Ed turned to watch her entrance.

“Good morning, sir. Edward,” she added with a bit of a smile.

“Morning,” replied Ed, and Roy gave his own greeting.

“It's rather unusual for you to be here so early, Ed,” she noted, then crossed the rest of the room to Roy's desk.

“Yes, well. It's a very unusual day,” said Edward. Riza gave him an appraising look: then, after a moment, a nod of understanding.

“So how did you find out?”

“That it was today? Well, walked in here and saw that Mustang's planner was all cleared out for the day. But about it in general? Al was doing some serious listening, and when he heard, he let me in on it.”

“Have you told him already, then?”

“I'm feeling strangely left out of this conversation,” Roy muttered. “Especially considering that it seems to be about me.”

They continued to ignore him, though Ed's lips quirked irrepressibly upward.

“Nah, I didn't want to steal your thunder. He's all yours, Major,” Edward said, sliding off of Roy's desk to stand by the side and watch, his braid falling over his shoulder and his golden eyes focused.

Hawkeye took an envelope out from under her left arm and held it in front of her, in both hands. She extended it towards him: his eyebrows shot up as he recognized the Fuhrer's seal on the front. He sent her a questioning look: she just smiled. Unwilling to wait any longer, he tore the envelope open and pulled out the papers inside.

He stared at it for a moment in silence.

It is hereby our decree that on September 14, 1921, at 10:00 hours, Major General Roy Mustang is to report to the Office of the Fuhrer in dress uniform for his promotion to the rank of General of the Amestrian Army.

This, by the order of Fuhrer Hakuro, and signed by his hand.

Roy set the paper down on his desk carefully, then looked up to each of the others in turn.

“See? I can keep a secret better than you thought,” said Edward, proudly. Roy laughed.

“Congratulations, sir,” Hawkeye said, folding her hands behind her. She had seen him all the way from the fires of Ishbal to this point, and he could not have asked for a better friend or soldier, subordinate or partner.

“Yeah, congratulations,” said Edward, that bright little fireball that had spun into their orbits and changed all of their lives, that genius who had saved everyone in the country and gotten little and less recognition for it, but asked for none. They were two of the most remarkable people he had ever met, and their faith in him, their pride in him, meant more to him than anything else ever could.

The star was one more stepping stone on the road to victory.

“Thank you both,” he said, rising to his feet. “But there's no room here for complacency. Onwards and upwards. I'm headed to the top.”

Ed grinned, sharp and dangerous.

“You bet your ass you are.”

*

“That extra star is fucking sexy,” said Edward, the words growled into Roy's neck that night as Ed's fingers clutched at the older man's back. He licked, tasting the salt of the General's skin and the faint tang of his scented aftershave.

“You think so?” asked Roy, sounding only barely affected by the movement of Ed's mouth across his skin. “I'll have to keep that in mind. The famous Mustang magnetism was hard enough to keep under control when I only had four stars on my lapel. Your title of 'Central's most eligible bachelor' may once again be under threat.”

Ed snorted, then bit down on the muscle of his lover's neck. Roy made a soft noise, and Ed began to feel a certain hardness pressing at his belly.

“Don't even think about it. You're fucking taken, General Mustang, and don't you forget it.” Roy smiled, made a noise of agreement: he was taken. But, the way the general shifted his weight then to emphasize the difference in height between them, the way his fingers threaded through blonde hair to grasp and yank his head back, had Ed owned.

“I haven't forgotten,” said Roy, into Ed's ear. “And I haven't forgotten that you are mine. One more star doesn't change a thing.”

Then, he kissed Ed with all of the fiery passion that had defined his life, and Ed returned it, the golden star at rest between his fingers.

*

Truth had a way of coming out as rumor in Central Headquarters, without fail. There were always people there opening up their mouths just a bit too wide, being just a bit too indiscreet in their actions, leaving their words to hang in the air like smoke, for anyone to see. All of the interesting truths of the country gathered around that one complex of buildings like flies to a light, telling stories and baring secrets.

Truth was always available to anyone who would listen, and General Weimar was a consummate listener.

He loved listening to the chorus of it, of lies and desires, despair and treachery: power struggles played out quietly within that building, men living or dying by the strength of their bodies, their personalities, and their wits.

To ask the papers, the new-minted General Mustang had all three strengths in spades: they called him a new hope, a resplendent golden coin that somehow found its way to the top of the tarnished mass that was the rest of the military.

But Mikhael Weimar knew differently: he listened, he watched, and he saw the things that other men were blind to.

He had been aware of Mustang for years before their first official meeting: if you served in Ishbal, it was next to impossible to have not heard of the great Flame Alchemist. He had seen the man in the distance as he walked through one sandblasted camp or another, and thought that he looked rather shorter than his metaphorical stature would imply. Basque Gran had frankly towered over him, although Basque had towered over most men before that scarred desert dog had turned his head into a red rain on the pavement.

Mustang looked taller now that they were seeing each other up close, or perhaps he only seemed that way: Weimar was not as tall as he once had been, having served his country. The weight of the automail leg he had borne for the past thirteen years had charged its toll, and Weimar had paid.

Weimar watched Mustang, standing so tall with his chest puffed out, not a hair out of place. One would never know by looking at him that he fucked men, that he fucked men so much younger than him as to be obscene.

Mikhael Weimar had ears everywhere.

His mouth was moving, but Weimar heard nothing intelligent coming from between those pretty lips. Mustang turned back to the senior staff table, a fresh cup of tea in hand, his tone too nonchalant to host its traitorous content. He set the cup down on the table and sat down again, his eyes locking on those of each of the senior staff in turn, Weimar's included. Mustang's black eyes unsettled the older man.

“I simply think that our military resources could be put to better use than hunting down Ishballan refugees. That's all,” Mustang said, as if it were a reasonable declaration. “With Aerugo arming itself and Creta eying some of the iron mines in the western mountains, diplomatic relations those countries should take precedence in military strategy, closely followed by shoring up defenses to our eastern and southern borders. Should we really be spending valuable time and money taking out some disheveled group of refugees with no power structure and no resources?”

Of all the things General Weimar had been surprised to learn about the Flame Alchemist, one of the most off-putting had been that the man seemed to be an Ishballan sympathizer. He coated it in logic and patriotism, but you could see it, if you looked.

“But dealing with the criminal element within our own society takes precedence over dealing with foreign powers, wouldn't you say?” asked General Batir, raising a bushy white eyebrow at Mustang. “These remnants of Ishbal are dangerous, and are threats to the innocent civilians living within Central itself. Rumors suggest that they hide in the sewers, like vermin. If we had an infestation of rats, we would not hesitate to take them out. Is this not true?”

Fuhrer Hakuro sat with his chin resting on his folded hands, propped up on the table in front of him, listening to both sides. He may have been an ineffectual leader, but he was at least an excellent listener.

“Of course it is. But the Ishballan population in Amestris has not proven to be a criminal threat. Although by all accounts more are moving into the slums and sewers each day, crime reports in four out of our five largest cities have not increased at all, and two have in fact decreased over the course of the past six months,” said Mustang, his expression neutral but unyielding. There stood a man confident in his own abilities, in his own power.

“Because law-abiding citizens are taking extra precautions and not leaving their homes,” Weimar spat, voice booming through the room. “Because the police are raiding the Ishballan camps wherever they can find them. Because the military is on high alert.”

Mustang's reply was calm, unaffected.

“There is no evidence to suggest that the Ishballan refugees are any more given to violent crimes than the rest of the population, and they are significantly less well-armed than Aerugo, which has a structured and disciplined military.”

The cup of tea had grown cool in front of him, and Weimar's hand didn't shake at all as he brought it up to his mouth and drank. He hated the stuff. He wondered if Mustang liked it any better.

“For what it's worth,” piped in Grumman, from Weimar's left, “I think that General Mustang has a point. Targeted extermination isn't what the military is about. Neither is solving crimes. We defend the Amestrian people from armed rebellion and foreign threat. If the issue at hand is too many stolen cabbages: well, the police can deal with that sort of work. Don't you think, gentlemen? Or has the great Amestrian army been reduced to tracking lost vegetables, now?”

That earned a chuckle from a few of the men at the table, though the Fuhrer was mercifully unaffected.

“And besides,” Mustang slid in, before anyone else could get in a word, “to use the same metaphor as before, it is very difficult to rid oneself of rats. Often, the best you can do is to scare them off, to live another day in a different sewer. And if the military spends a significant amount of its resources on attempting to eliminate them fully, would it not be embarrassing for other countries to find out that we failed in such a simple task?”

There was a murmur of agreement from the men around him.

Weimar scowled. None of these other men had been maimed in Ishbal. If they had lost limbs in that desert hell, they wouldn't be so nonchalant about the fact that some of those people had survived, and were in fact crawling in a hive below them.

“General Mustang seems to have a point,” said Fuhrer Hakuro, sitting up straight in his chair, elbows relaxed on the armrests. “We'll leave the Ishballans for now. In the meantime, I fully expect some strategies as to how you plan to deal with Creta and Aerugo. General Mustang will provide me with political plans, and when the Cretan ambassador comes in a week to discuss national borders, you will be assigned to him for the duration of his stay. General Batir,” Hakuro continued, nodding to the thick-set man on the left of the table, with white powdering the roots of his dark hair and a snowy beard. “You will join the efforts that General Grumman has already begun in securing the southern border against a potential Aerugan invasion. General Weimar,” he said, eyes turning to focus on Weimar himself, “you will prepare a less... official response to the Aerugan threat. Whatever you do, I want no knowledge of it. Are we clear?”

When situations called for delicacy, the Fuhrer called on Weimar. He never went on missions himself, not anymore – but he was an excellent strategist, and he was proud to use the special operations teams to cut out undesirable elements with a minimum of fuss, in and out like a surgeon's knife.

If Roy Mustang felt anything with regard to these orders – and he did, Weimar was sure of it – his face betrayed none of it. The general nodded in acknowledgment.

“Yes, sir,” Mikhael said, repeated shortly by the rest of the sheep in the room.

“Dismissed. I intend to see detailed plans on my desk by tomorrow. Except for you, Weimar.”

The men stood, saluted their leader, and left. Mikhael Weimar left his teacup on the table: he didn't care for it and never had. He drank it, though, to be polite, and because the Fuhrer liked it, and because it was expected.

He passed into the hall, startled briefly by the suddenness of the warm air outside of the Fuhrer's conference room. His upper lip began to sweat, and he stared at the back of Mustang's self-righteous, prideful, traitorous head for a moment before he had to turn away, because that was all he could do for the moment.

Him with Fullmetal, he thought, and something hot flashed through him. How could that have happened?

He strode down the hallway in the opposite direction from the other generals, having no desire to spend any more time in their company that day than was absolutely necessary. It was late, anyway.

His skin crawled at the thought that an Ishballan could be running around in the sewers under his feet right at that moment. He had thought that the incidents with the Scarred Man all those years ago would have taught all of the military the dangers of leaving the Ishballan remnants unmolested, but apparently they had forgotten.

Weimar knew the kind of destruction the military had wreaked on that desert, and the Ishballans hated them for it. There were a thousand more like Scar, waiting to creep out of their dens to attack men like him.

The thought haunted his dreams at night: the thought of the scarred man's tattooed arm in front of him (he had been there when the man had burst Gran's head like a cherry), of Central laid to waste like Ishbal had been: a series of smoking craters, all semblance of order lost or abandoned, of children laid out in lines with their tiny heads crushed like Gran's had been, skulls no more than eggshells.

The ride home was filled with such images. On his orders, the driver let Weimar out a block before his house – because surely, no Ishballan would have the guts to get near his house, he would be safe for the moment – and went to the pay phone, closing the door and waiting for the military car to leave before beginning his business. He pulled a handful of change from his trouser pocket, then a small book from the one on his breast. He fed the machine, then flipped his book open to the right page – under the tab for N, two entries back, though the name was fake – and spun the dial for the right number, and the name attached.

The phone rang, and again. Then, the unmistakable sound of the receiver being picked up on the other side.

“Hello, Guy Harriet speaking. What can I do for you?” The reporter's voice was a warm baritone, and energetic: familiar enough, over the past several years.

“Harriet, this is Mikhael Weimar. I need some very delicate work done, none of which, of course, can be proven to track back to me.”

“Yessir, boss. Who do you need me to take a stab at?”

Their conversation continued only for the next five minutes, but Weimar had told Harriet everything he needed to know.

Within two weeks, the reporter had promised. Weimar hoped that was true. He didn't know how much longer he could stand it.

He opened the front door to his house and walked through the entry, past the grand staircase, to find his wife sitting in the drawing room, her legs crossed at the ankles under her summer-yellow dress, polishing the silver that she had used at that dull but unfortunately necessary high tea they had hosted not two days prior.

“Hello, Meredith,” he said, and she smiled to see him, on her feet in a second. She crossed the room to him and threw her arms around him, and he hugged her back.

“Mikhael,” she said, drawing away. “How was your day?”

“Ah, same as ever,” he said, as she helped him to take off his jacket and put it on the hanging rack. “Politics and backstabbing and the like. Nothing that would be interesting to you, I'm sure,” he said, keeping his face in its practiced smile. She frowned at him.

“You know I'm always interested to hear about your political gambits. And besides, it doesn't really seem like a 'same as ever' day. You're tense,” she said, running a delicate hand across his shoulder, brow wrinkled in concern. “Not that you're ever not. But especially so today.”

He laughed. In some ways, she knew him too well.

She took his hand and led him to the couch, and he told her about his day, about the Ishballans and about Mustang and about the campaign he was about to start. She nodded in sympathy at all the right places.

At the end, she rested her head on his shoulder, and said:

“Are you too tired to try again tonight, then?” she asked, sweetly, not even looking at him as she put a hand to the emptiness in her belly – and even though he wanted to say that he was sorry, but he was far too tired, he owed her this much at least.

“No, not at all,” he said instead, and his wife led him by the hand up the sweeping staircase, past the guest bedrooms and the study, to their bedroom. He laid down on the bed, and Meredith beside him.

“Shh, close your eyes,” she said, and he did, tried to relax: he let her unbuckle his belt, felt her hand on him, stroking him – and he thought of other things, let her hand do its work, imagined it was rougher, heavier –

and tried not to think of Mustang and his haughty eyes – Fullmetal, all gold and silver – tried not to wonder about the two of them, how they felt as they sinned against nature.

She touched him, hands soft, and he did his duty by her.

*

“So how's life as a general?” Edward asked, one leg crossed over the other knee at the ankle as he sat on the back of Roy's couch, watching his lover at the kitchen table, scribbling furiously on white paper. He had been doing more or less the same thing for the half hour that Ed had been there, and Ed was beginning to get impatient. “Seems exciting,” he said, dryly.

“It's not necessarily riveting, but it is important,” Roy said, looking up from his work and over at Ed with a wan smile. “I'm actually writing up a plan for our political response to the overtures from Aerugo and Creta. I'm to be the escort for the Cretan ambassador next week.” This time, he smirked. “And I actually hear that she's quite a lovely lady. I'm looking forward to it.”

Ed snorted and rolled his eyes both at once, a feat of multitasking he hoped his lover appreciated. 

“I think they call that 'taking advantage of your position.' Maybe even sexual harassment.” Some things never changed, and Roy Mustang was one of them.

“You wound me, Edward. I would never touch a lady without her explicit consent.”

This time, a snort of laughter.

“I'm sure. Good to know your new post is agreeing with you.”

“Did you expect anything different?” Roy asked, amused: then, he paused, and the focus of his eyes went distant. “Actually, there was something today that really unsettled me. I can't really put my finger on it. I went to my first senior staff meeting, and there was this air of – I don't know. Tension? We were talking about the Ishballan refugees, and the room went really cold.” He paused, thinking. “It was like somebody in there really hated me.”

Ed frowned.

“Hated you? But what reason would they have to hate you?”

Roy's smile didn't drop, but wore down at the edges.

“What reason would the old guard have to hate an up-and-coming political reformer, Ed? Oh, I don't know. Use your imagination.”

Edward could imagine a great many things.

“Well,” he began, hopping down off of the back of the couch and covering the distance between the two of them, smoothly. “I guess you're just gonna have to change their minds, huh? Isn't that what you do best?”

Roy laughed, and put a few more strokes to paper.

“Your faith in me is inspiring, but I'm not sure if it is entirely justified in this case. Changing the hearts and minds of the Amestrian people is one thing, but changing the minds of my political opponents is quite another.”

“Eh, it'll be good practice for ya,” Edward said. “But in any case, I'm pretty sure I know how to make you feel better.”

Roy's eyebrow arched, and his gaze flickered to the report in front of him, then back to Ed.

“Do you?” he asked, innocently. “And how might that be?”

Ed savored the look of surprise on Roy's face as he got to his knees and slid under the table, hands moving to the crotch of the older man's pants.

“Edward,” he said, sounding just a bit breathless, “I really have to finish this report. As appealing as your mouth on my cock sounds, I think it will be entirely too distracting.”

“Will it? Well, I'm sure you'll manage somehow, General,” said Edward, and pushed the man's legs apart.

***

Chapter Text

*

The day had been a lazy one, for the most part: Roy had been allowed that Saturday off, for the first time in several weeks. Edward, ever dedicated to his work, had stomped off to the lab with a croissant stuffed in his mouth at about nine thirty, and returned to the man's house at around two in the afternoon to find the general absently watering all of his plants from a ridiculously quaint metal can, a smile on his face.  Ed arched an eyebrow: if he wasn't entirely mistaken, Roy was -- humming.

“What's got you so cheery today?” Ed asked, kicking his boots under the wooden bench by the entryway. He sat down and and yanked the socks off of his feet, one at a time, leaving them on top of his boots so he could pad barefoot over the wooden floor, then the carpet, to flop down on the couch. He slung his arm over the back and turned so he could watch his lover behind it.

Roy twisted to look at him, the position of his eyebrows matching Ed's own, and turned the corners of his mouth up.

“Do I need a reason to be happy? It's been a beautiful day.”

A mostly unwarranted suspicion crept up on Edward.  Of all the people he knew, only Al was prone to humming and smiling and shit for no reason at all. Long experience told him that the distant look in Roy's eye probably meant he was daydreaming about something, and for Roy, “daydreaming” and “plotting” were pretty much synonymous.. Any plan that Roy was making that he didn't want to tell Ed about made him nervous.

“You don't need a reason to be happy, but you were humming,” Edward said, wiggling his toes just to stretch them. “That's not normal. I get nervous when I don't know why you're happy,” he said, words half accusatory.  "Knowing you, I feel like you're probably plotting something."

Leaving the watering can on the small, high table beneath the painting of Lake Ayre in the winter, Roy rounded the couch to stand in front of Ed.

“And you would be quite right,” said Roy, the curve of his mouth suddenly sliding into predatory. “I have been,” he said, his voice low and promising. “Planning something, even.”

Edward shuddered as a heated anticipation rushed through his blood. Somehow, the effect Roy had on him always caught him off guard.  every time he felt it was like the first time, a surprise and a thrill, his body frozen as much by that voice now as it had been in the beginning.

“That sounds ominous,” Edward said, cinching his brows together.

“Have I ever led you astray before?”

Well, no: but that knowledge didn't really make him feel any better.  It wasn't that he thought Roy was going to hurt him or anything: he just didn't like not knowing what was going on in the man's head.

“Depends on what you mean by 'astray,'" Edward replied, spreading his knees more widely, to get comfortable. Roy took advantage of the movement, eyes wandering up and down the younger man's body, unhurriedly. Edward's lips were dry; he licked them, and found that all moisture had left his mouth as well.

“No, I have not,” said Roy, serenely.  He rounded the couch and took a seat on it.  Ed could feel his body heat radiating into the space between them. “And with that in mind, I now have a proposition for you.”

Ed waited, hands pulsing with the sheer force of his heartbeat. He wanted Roy to kiss him, wanted the man to tie him up and hurt him, wanted to be punished and rewarded –

“I want to engage more people in our play. Say, maybe, five or six men, in a semi-public venue. What do you think about that?”

The still-conscious part of Ed's mind reared at that, startling Ed into an anger born of confusion.

What?” he asked, head suddenly straighter, shoulders tight. “Why?”

“Because I think it would be enjoyable for all of us. Because the idea of showing you off to a crowd is incredibly arousing.”

Edward barely even heard the man before responding:

“Am I not enough for you anymore, is that it? You need to have sex with a bunch of people now to be satisfied?” he asked, sharply.

Surprise flashed across Roy's face for a moment, before his brow wrinkled and he replied:

“Oh, no, Edward.” That look of consternation smoothed out into a long smirk. “You misunderstand me. It wouldn't be me having sex with other people. It would be you.

Those words dragged into a long silence as Ed tried to take in what he had just heard.

What, did that mean that Mustang wanted to give him up? He had thought that the man gained some sort of pride from being the only person in the world who could make the Fullmetal Alchemist get on his knees.

“But... why?” he asked, trying to rein in his fury. He had promised Roy he would be reasonable, that he would listen to the man's requests, that he would consider them rationally instead of letting his own insecurities get in the way of their relationship. He had promised to try not to fuck this up. “I don't understand why you'd want to.”

And then Roy was on the couch beside him, hands stroking hot skin: one, tracing his neck, the other drawing circles on the bare strip of stomach revealed as his tight tank top rode up his waist.

“Do you really not?” he asked, his voice a purr. “You don't find it arousing, thinking of a group of strangers touching you all at once? Wanting you?”

When he put it that way...

“Um, I dunno,” Ed managed, with some difficulty. Roy's hands on him alone made it very hard to think. “But why would you want something like that? What would you get out of it?” Weren't you supposed to get jealous when the person you were with got touched by somebody else? Ed sure as hell would be, he thought.

“Can't you imagine it?” Roy asked, every syllable defined and lustful. “Watching them want you, watching them need you and touch you but only at my command, knowing that you're mine and that you'll do whatever I order you to, even if it's to let other men fuck you...”

Roy's voice had turned low, rumbling, and the crotch of Ed's pants became suddenly much too tight, and his face felt very hot. His knees became the immediate point of interest.

“You want to watch me get fucked by strangers?”

“Yes, very much,” he said, in that voice that could make Edward come undone. “So much that it has been a constant distraction for several days, now. The thought has followed me through work, haunted my imagination even at the most inappropriate times.” He paused, face smooth, but Edward knew by now what Roy looked like when he was losing control, and he saw it in the general's face then.

Was this the impact he had on Roy Mustang? Could just an image of Ed, a daydream, break down the walls of his impeccable restraint?

Tied up, touched by strangers, fucked by them, a whore for their use and pleasure: he didn't want to be rock hard at the thought, but he undeniably was. Even in comparison to the things he and Roy had been doing for the past several months, it seemed weird; a large part of him revolted at the thought of anyone ever being able to see how he let Roy treat him, how he wanted Roy to treat him. Would anybody ever respect him again if this got out? Edward Elric defended himself when necessary. Edward Elric was a force to be reckoned with. Nobody could make him do anything he didn't damn well feel like doing.

And still, his cock throbbed at the thought. He didn't know which part made him harder: the image of getting tied up, beaten, and fucked by strangers, or the knowledge that he could affect Roy so powerfully.

The faint gloss of Edward's leather pants only accentuated the swell of his crotch, and the general looked at it, pointedly, his right hand slipping down from Ed's navel to the waistline. He traced a thumb back and forth there, right above the button, teasing.

“Can I take it from your reaction” – at this, Roy's hand moved down to brush against said reaction – “that, despite all your conscious reservations, you're interested?”

Ed took a deep breath, felt his cheeks begin to heat.

“Kinky bastard,” he said, then slid over to straddle Roy's lap, his lips hovering less than an inch away from his lover's as his erection throbbed, trapped between their bodies, the older man's length pressing up between his cheeks to tease at his entrance. “I'm a little freaked out by the whole thing – and I should be, 'cause it's weird – but I'll do just about anything if it's gonna get you so hot and bothered.”

“I thought you might,” Roy growled, then caught Ed's mouth in a violent kiss, frantic with need, with lust: their bodies were hot on each other, and they couldn't have pulled apart for anything in the world.

*

Roy's penchant for planning was the only thing that saved him, some days. After a challenging conversation, a political gamble, he could retreat into his own fantasies, his own ideas, his plans: as much as being a general was what he wanted to do, what he needed to do, he was beginning to learn just what it meant to be at the top of this card house. Every day, at all hours, he had to be in perfect form, absolutely focused and razor-sharp: the minute he relaxed would be the minute someone was there to knock him over.

So, in between meetings or at meals or on the drive home, he escaped into the world he created in his mind: one where he had all the power, where no-one could challenge him, where he could order one of the strongest, most brilliant men in the world to get on his knees for strangers and he would obey. Planning their encounter was almost like a meditation: he choreographed their movements mentally, decided what he would do, rehearsed his lines. He knew what turned his young lover on by then, which words, when whispered in his ear, would make him react. The perfect combination of it all was like poetry – deceptively simple, incredibly impactful.

This planning saved him, some days. He knew from the moment that he saw Mikhael Weimar approaching him in the Generals' dining room that today was going to be one of those days where he would need such saving.

“Hello, Mustang,” said General Weimar, sliding the chair out across the table from him and taking it without ceremony. One of the things that Mustang liked best and worst about his new position was that he no longer ever had to go to the mess hall: instead he got a proper dining room, with tablecloths on the tables and a waiter who brought you whatever it was you felt like having. Not only did this mean that he was supposed to eat better than his men – significantly better – but also that he had to suffer the company of the other generals regularly, and do so pleasantly.

He had begun to skip a lot of meals, since he had become a General.

Roy folded his hands on the table. He could see Weimar look down at them nervously, making sure they were bare – they were: why would Roy wear his gloves in the dining room? – before continuing on. Mustang smirked. With that one, tiny glance downward, the man had made his fear of Roy clear as a trumpet, putting Roy in control of this conversation.

He was glad for any advantage he had on this field, because something about Weimar made him uncomfortable. It wasn't his appearance: he was trim, about Roy's height, with a well-groomed beard that only hinted at growing grey, and he smiled easily. It wasn't even about their disagreements when in council together, as political differences did not always lead to personal animosity. He did get the sense that Weimar genuinely loved the fatherland, and would do anything to protect it. It wasn't even anything that the man had done that had made Roy uncomfortable. They had never interacted significantly outside of the council chambers, though Roy knew that he really should, and so he had little upon which to base such a judgment.

No, it wasn't any of those things: it was a strange sense he got when Weimar smiled at him. If he was honest with himself, it felt like he was being sized up and found wanting.

“Hello, General Weimar,” Roy replied, pleasantly. “What a rare treat for you to join me at lunch. I was just about to have a salmon filet.” His discomfort with eating so much better than his men was not always enough to quell his desire to avail himself of this new amenity.

“I'm not much of a man for fish, myself,” replied Weimar, unfolding his napkin carefully and placing it on his lap. So he intended to stay, for a while. “I think that steak is far superior. The chef here makes an excellent filet mignon.”

Roy nodded, doing the same with his own napkin, then taking a sip of the water in his wineglass. He didn't drink during work hours: plenty of time for that at home.

“I see no issue with enjoying them both. If folk wisdom is correct, then variety is the spice of life,” he said, with a polite but cutting smile.

“Perhaps, but constancy is her bedrock,” Weimar countered, signaling the waiter with a raised hand. The man started across the room towards them.

The man spoke in evasion and metaphor. Mustang's smile grew. This was a game he could play.

“Still, I prefer my variety,” said Roy lightly, crossing his legs underneath the table. “What brings you here to join my humble lunch today, General?”

“It occurs to me that we have never had the opportunity to get to know one another, though I certainly have known of you for years. I saw you fight in Ishbal. Most impressive.”

Roy had heard this a million times if he had heard it once. It might have annoyed him to hear the same tired, insincere compliments over again, except that by now it was a script that he knew how to follow, and he had to press every advantage he had.

“Thank you very much. Really, I was no more impressive than the ordinary soldier, though. Just flashier,” he said, with a wan smile. “Just the same, thank you for your praise. I'm just pleased to have done my duty.”

“You're too modest,” replied the other, with a flash of teeth disguised as a smile that implied he thought the opposite. “You were a human weapon, Mustang, and your spotless battle record speaks to your prowess. The conquest of Tabash and Kobal, the battle of Andor: all might have been lost, if you hadn't pulled us through, or if we had one, then thousand more good men would have died. If I'm not mistaken, you received four medals, for courage under fire and continuing to fight even while wounded,” he said, and he would have continued if the waiter hadn't arrived at just that moment. Weimar ordered his filet mignon and a glass of red wine. The gloves, though absent, weighed on the space between them.

The moment of reprieve did Roy good, allowing him to arrange his thoughts and words in the proper order. After all these years, one would think that he was used to having his battle record thrown in his face, but usually his opponent didn't provide such detail.

Each word was a memory, unbidden and unwelcome, but familiar: the battle of Tabash, and a young boy armed with innocent eyes, a gun, and fervent conviction, now just a shadow on the wall; Kobal, and two blonde doctors whose faces Mustang could never escape; the city of Andor, now little more than a smoking crater. He remembered very well indeed.

“There are a few other medals in your cabinet as well, if I'm not mistaken,” the man said, turning his eyes back to Roy. He smiled. “You're quite the impressive man.”

“I'm flattered that you know my battle record so well,” the Flame Alchemist replied, trying to sound that way, though “disturbed” may have run closer to the truth of it. Clearly, either the man had been doing some serious research, or he had been watching Roy compulsively for years, neither of which boded well. “I seem to recall that the Fuhrer honored you with a number of medals for your outstanding service there, as well, although I admit that I'm not as familiar with your battle records as you are with mine.”

“Oh, I read your file multiple times, when we were choosing the man to fill the late General Martin's place,” he replied, casually. “After a while, one begins to remember these things.”

Roy's salmon arrived then, dressed in a cream sauce and laid atop a bed of wild rice and dried cranberries, with a sprig of parsley for decoration. The staff here certainly never disappointed.

The waiter poured Weimar his glass of wine, and retired to the other corner, where he could stand with his hands behind his back and wait until he was called, a discreet distance from the electric conversation.

“Regardless, I'm honored that you would have spent the effort of remembering.” One careful bite, tines of his fork pointed down: the salmon tasted as delicious as it looked.

Weimar made a noise of acknowledgment, and took a sip of his wine.

“In any case, in addition to getting to know you, I wanted to extend an offer,” the general said, expertly avoiding a clink as he set his glass down on the table. “My lady wife is hosting a coffee for the officers' wives this coming Sunday morning. Mrs. Hakuro will also be in attendance. Would your own wife like to attend? I'm sure Meredith would be happy to meet her.” His eyes were sharp, calculating.

Mustang kept his smile on. If Weimar had read his file multiple times, then he would know that Roy had no wife.

He had Edward Elric, tied to his ceiling or to his bed, moaning and calling him master. He had a blonde-haired demigod writhing under his hand, and hard cries in his ear.

Once again, part of his mind found comfort and refuge in his fantasy. He would whip his younger lover while the other men watched – no, he would watch as one of the others whipped him at Roy's command. He took a deep breath, calming. He could do this. Compared to taming that wild thing in his bed, this game was easy.

The only possible point of Weimar saying such a thing would be to remind Roy that he didn't have a wife. He couldn't tell if the barb was intended to see if Roy's lack of a wife was a personal sore point that could be exploited, or to berate the younger general for not having the two-and-a-half-kids, white-picket-fence life that the public tended to expect of its politicians. Military or no, Roy was a politician, and so was Mikhael Weimar, and this was their battleground.

“I'm afraid that I actually have no wife at the moment,” he said, with a laugh intended to sound a bit embarrassed.

“Oh, that's right. I recall that your file did say something about you being quite the ladies' man. But, you know, settling down with one woman does a man good,” he said, and once again, though Roy could sense intentions beyond the veil, he couldn't tell exactly where the man was going.

“I'm sure it does,” Roy replied, politely. “But until that happy day arrives, I must be forced to make do with what I have. On that topic, I have yet to make the acquaintance of your wife. Meredith, did you say? Perhaps she could be convinced to allow me to attend her coffee myself instead?”

Weimar arched both of his eyebrows into the air. The waiter arrived and set his steak down in front of him. When he cut into it, the center was a bloody red.

“What, would you relegate yourself to the company and conversation of women for a full afternoon? Doesn't their gossip bore you?”

“I have found,” said Roy, his smile perhaps sharper than he had intended, “that there is little in life more pleasant than the company of an intelligent woman, and the company of half a dozen of them is even more stimulating. And if you chose her out of all the women in Amestris to marry, I'm sure that your wife is both intelligent and beautiful.”

Weimar laughed at that, and nodded, and Roy got the sense that he had given the right answer to that question.

“She is, at that,” the other general replied. “She is indeed. My other half. My better half, some might say.”

Roy had a woman for his better half as well, both intelligent and beautiful: but she wore a military uniform and a gun, and would never be caught dead hosting a coffee for officers' wives.

Not for the first time, he wondered if his life would have been easier if he had just taken Hughes's advice and found himself a wife years ago.

He smiled, mind suddenly very much focused elsewhere. His life might have been easier, perhaps, but not better. By no means better.

“I really must meet her, then. When would be appropriate for me to arrive?”

“Oh, I believe she is planning for about ten o'clock in the morning. Can I tell her you plan to call on us?”

“I would be honored,” Roy replied. “You can tell her I'm looking forward to it.”

*

“So how's the whole... thing, going?” asked Edward that evening, watching Roy leaf through books on Cretan political systems and customs, though he probably knew them all by heart: he was that sort of a man.

Roy looked up at him from his position on the couch and cocked an eyebrow.

“I'm afraid you're going to have to be more specific than that. I'm leaping to all kinds of conclusions.”

Edward, lying on the floor, put his hands behind his head and kicked his feet up to rest on the seat of the armchair. He sort of wished there was a fire, but the weather wasn't nearly cold enough yet. He turned his head to look at his lover, sideways.

“I mean that thing you were talking about the other day. The one... uh... in public.”

The eyebrow raised even higher, accompanied this time by a little smirk.

“Well, that narrows the field down, doesn't it.”

“Asshole,” said Edward, without force. “I meant that sex thing you were talking about.” He didn't blush or look away as he said it, which was quite the improvement.

“Ah, that one,” said Roy, his smirk lengthening and quirking further upwards. “It's going quite well, really. I have found five men to join us, and a semi-public space. There is a large room at the back of one of the bars on Duncan street that is regularly used for these kinds of things, and we have all agreed to meet there, though we have yet to set a date. Do you have an opinion on that matter?”

“Uh,” said Edward, wondering who these men were and what they would be like, “Whenever, I guess.” A pause. “Where the hell do you find these people, anyway? And how do you find those places? I don't even know how I'd do it if I wanted to.”

“Well, having a brothel madam for a foster mother has its advantages. I always know where to find these sorts of things, if I want them.”

If Edward had been drinking something, he would have choked on it. He jerked his feet off the armchair and stared at Roy, wide-eyed.

“You have a what?” he asked, wide-eyed, probably louder than he had intended.

“A brothel madam for a foster mother,” said Roy with a laugh. “She's quite the lady. You might even get to meet her sometime.”

His first thought was that he hadn't even known Roy had had a foster mother. In fact, it occurred to him that Roy's whole past was more or less a mystery to him, and what little he knew he hadn't learned from Roy, but from Dr. Marcoh.

His second thought, which he said aloud immediately, was:

“Oh my god, that explains so many things.

Roy looked like he couldn't decide whether to be amused or affronted.

“Are you calling me a whore?”

Ed grinned and flipped over to his stomach, propping himself up on his elbows.

“Maybe. You've slept with half the women in Central, after all. Remember, I know your alchemical code. By my count, there are two hundred and eighty one women in that book, and sixty-five men.” Eventually, Ed had gotten over his jealousy of all of Roy's former lovers – mostly, in any case. It had been pretty easy once he realized that Roy had only rarely slept with someone more than a few times, and that he had only ever had one relationship with a person other than Edward that had lasted more than about a month. Mostly, Roy's past was littered not with former loves, but with one night stands, and they posed him no threat. “That's about a whore's numbers, yeah.”

This time, it was actually Roy's turn to blush. Ed thrilled inside: he wasn't sure he'd ever seen that expression on his lover's face before.

“Well, imagine what it was like to be living in a room above a house full of sexually talented and very attractive women as a teenager. They were my friends, and they taught me – well, they taught me a lot of things. You should be grateful for a number of those things.”

“Oh, I am,” Ed replied, then paused for just a second, frowning. “Wait, you never actually – you never got paid for – did you?”

A bright flash of teeth cut away the look of embarrassment, leaving a grin behind on Mustang's face.

“I'm a generous man. I have never charged for access. For my whole life, no matter the situation, I've been giving all this –” he sat up straight and gestured to himself, from top to bottom “–for free. In fact, you might even think of it as an act of charity.”

Ed couldn't help but laugh at that.

“Smug bastard,” said Edward, and threw a pillow at the other man.

*

The air outside had cooled some since the boiling heat of summer, but even the chill of the evening breeze that hit Ed as he stepped out of the car wasn't enough to stop the bead of sweat across the back of his neck. The bar that they had decided to use was a fair distance away, too far to comfortably walk – and besides, Ed remembered the lassitude that overtook him most nights when Roy was done with him. He really didn't want to have to walk back afterward.

Ed took in a deep, steady breath. He remembered this panicky sort of feeling, mixed with desire an anticipation in a way that was heady but thoroughly confusing. He looked over at Roy, always so calm and unflappable, and circled around the car to walk by his side.

“You look nervous,” said Roy, his expression perfectly fond. “You going to be okay?”

“I'm fine,” said Edward, eyes to the ground. “Or anyway, I'll be fine once we actually get started.”

“I hope it will help to hear how much I am looking forward to this,” said Roy. Ed shivered – first cold, then hot. The heat stayed pooled in his loins. He risked a look up at his lover. “Even your nervousness is only making this more exciting for me. I want to overcome all of your reservations, to make you forget logic and good sense, to make you want to give in to me.”

It was obvious enough what Roy was trying to do: he wanted to start getting Ed aroused, and into that blissfully submissive state of mind he entered during play, before they even got into the building. Just because he knew what the man was doing didn't mean that it wasn't working.

“Asshole,” said Ed, without venom, “You're not supposed to like it when I get nervous.”

“Oh, but I love to see you squirm,” Mustang said, smiling with a predator's bared teeth. “It gets me more excited than words could tell you.”

“What, you up already?” said Ed, his body beginning to react with a rush of warmth low in his gut. “Jumpin the gun a bit, aren't ya?”

“No, not there yet,” Roy replied, the emphasis on the last word deep and promising. “But I haven't seen you squirm yet, either.”

Ed shivered again, his arousal warring with his anxiety: finally, just barely, the former began to come out on top. A smirk made its way across Mustang's face as a blush did the same across Edward's.

“Asshole,” said Ed, faintly, hunching over and putting his hands in his pockets. Roy's hand came up to rub the small of the younger man's back.

“You wound me, Fullmetal,” he purred, and the hand on Ed's back was suddenly a thousand times more important than whatever lay beyond the swiftly approaching wooden doors.

“You remember the safe words, right?” Roy said, quiet, suddenly the picture of concern as he pulled the front door open and ushered Edward inside.

“Yeah,” said Edward, giving his lover as reassuring of a smile as he could manage. “I say 'yellow' if I want less of whatever it is you're doing.” Fat chance of that ever happening: he couldn't imagine any of the people who were going to be in that room being able to give him so much of anything that the Fullmetal Alchemist would have to ask them to slow down. “'Orange' if I wanna kick a specific guy out.”

“If you feel like anyone's being disrespectful of you or your boundaries, or in some other way making you uncomfortable, you can do that. Can I trust you to do that?” asked Roy, his eyes crinkling in concern.

“'Course,” Ed replied, trying for nonchalance, not sure if he was telling the truth or not. “Don't worry about it. And before you ask, 'red' is the third word, and it means a full stop. It's like going for the chalk is usually, for us.”

Previously, in their play, Roy had provided a piece of chalk at a just-slightly-inconvenient distance from wherever Edward was tied up: if Ed wanted whatever they were doing to stop, he could go for it, then use it to draw a transmutation circle and free himself. At first, Edward had thought it was a pretty weird way to give him an escape route, but after thinking about it, he had realized that it had a few very important advantages over just asking Roy to stop. Most importantly, getting the chalk was something of a challenge, which meant that Edward could fight for his escape rather than just ask to leave. Ed hated giving up, and using the chalk instead of asking would allow him to feel like his escape was a victory rather than a defeat: so, he was more likely to use his out if things ever did get to be too much for him.

Roy always wanted to know that whatever position he had the blonde in, Edward was there because he wanted to be, and not just because he was too proud to ask the man to stop. The chalk had honestly been a brilliant idea on Roy's part.

“Right,” said the older man, smiling in return. “If you did get uncomfortable and decided that you wanted to stop, then transmuting yourself free would probably draw more attention than we're looking for. Or the wrong kind of attention, anyway,” he said, the look in his eyes intensifying again, hardening his smile to a knife. “You are going to be the focus of every person's attention in that room, tonight. Everyone is going to be staring at you, watching you, because they will want you.” He leaned in closer, so that even despite the insistent volume of the music through the room, Roy was the only thing Ed could hear. “And some of them will even get to have you.” Lips brushed across the shell of his ear, and he shivered. Then, after a moment:

“Fuck, you sure do have a way with words, don't you, you bastard,” groused Edward, sounding maybe a little bit more breathless than he had intended.

“It's one of my many talents,” Mustang said, sweeping them both through the sparsely populated bar towards a door at the back of the room. A thick-chested bouncer guarded it, watching their approach like he was displeased by their presence – at least, until Roy took a wad of cash out of his pocket and extended it in front of him, at which point the man nodded and reached out to take it. Ed didn't know how much money was in that wad, and decided that he wasn't going to care.

Edward watched Mustang's hands as the other man took the money from them, and realized that he wished there was a familiar transmutation circle on the back of them. For most of the time they had been fucking, when Roy wore those gloves, it meant that he was asking to do dirty, dirty things to Edward: by this point, the sight of them alone was enough to get the younger man hot and bothered, or sometimes even to get him hard. But although they couldn't go fully incognito – Edward's appearance was also quite distinctive, for a number of reasons – they at least could try not to advertise their identities, and Roy's transmutation circle might as well have been a personal brand.

But Roy, being Mister Always-Prepared, had thought to order himself a set of plain, unmarked white gloves made of the same spark-cloth, because the texture itself – somewhere in between burlap and sandpaper, rough but not enough so that it could actually scratch him when scraping across the delicate skin of his neck, of his cock – aroused Edward unbelievably.

Seeming satisfied with the amount Mustang had handed him, the bouncer motioned them through the door with a wave of his hand and not a single word. Ed shivered as they passed through and pressed his hands deeper into his coat pockets: his anxiety, which had briefly lost out to his arousal, was rising again. Thumbs rubbed circles into the nape of Ed's neck, but Roy wouldn't insult him by asking again if he was alright.

At the end of the hallway they had entered, they came to another door, which Ed opened for his lover, because he was perfectly capable of opening his own doors, dammit. Roy gave him a wry look, but passed through first, without a word of complaint. Ed followed.

What he saw was somehow not at all what he had been expecting, although he wasn't sure exactly what he had been expecting, either: maybe he had thought there would be medieval torture devices everywhere or something, with the room cast only in flickering torchlight, but the reality of it was quite different. Lit to a permanent dusk, the room was bright enough to see what one was doing but dim enough to enhance the fantasy, and lined not with torture devices but with couches, many of them filled with people in varying amounts. Pieces of metal furniture of odd design, with padded-leather seats or saddles or something, filled the floor of the room at fairly even intervals from each other. Most of it looked so odd that he couldn't even figure out how one was supposed to use it, though a few were occupied by people – naked strangers, oh god – who were tied up in various positions, assisted by the armature of the objects in question, which gave him a good hint.

Even a few of the unoccupied ones weren't hard to figure out, though. Chains hung from the ceiling every few feet, many with manacles attached, and one ten foot square metal frame stood upright near the back of the room, with chains and cuffs at all four corners. One didn't have to be a genius to figure out that that it was intended to hold someone in a spread-eagle position while allowing another person access to both the tied-up person's back and front.

Somehow, that one image turned the whole surreal landscape solid and definite, inerasable: he felt his throat clench, and turned his eyes back to the floor. Roy's hand continued its soothing motion on his neck, and he focused on that.

“Welcome to the Forbidden Fruit, Ed,” the man said. “I know the name's a bit cheesy, but don't give up on me yet.” Roy laughed, and somehow the silliness of the name helped Ed feel a bit better.

“Haven't so far,” said Edward, smile shaky. “Okay. So. Are we gonna do this thing or not?” A quick glance around the room told him who his partners were likely to be – they were the only ones focused on him as if he were target practice. Three of them shared a couch, their limbs spreading across the seats at odd angles; one was standing, leaning against a wall, another sitting in a large armchair perpendicular to the couch with his ankle crossed over his knee.

They were still far enough away that Ed wouldn't have to talk to them yet, which was nice. He wanted Roy to take the lead in that.

“Itching to get started, are we?” asked Roy, one perfect eyebrow arching.

“Better'n waiting around like an idiot and expectin' shit to get done anyway,” Ed said, which was of course true. He wasn't gonna get any less nervous by putting it off.

“Fair enough,” said Roy, and used the slight pressure on his neck to guide him over to the appropriate corner. Five pairs of eyes tracked Ed, unrelenting, as he moved closer. As they did, one of the men got to his feet. He was certainly attractive in his way, with brown hair that fell to his shoulders and soft lips.

“Hello, Roy,” the man said, eyes focused on Edward, despite the fact that he was ostensibly addressing Mustang. “Good to see you again.” With that, he finally let his eyes meet Roy's and smiled. “Very good.”

“And you as well,” the general said, taking his hand down from the back of Ed's neck. “Everyone, this is Edward,” he said, as many eyes slipped up and down Ed's body. His leather pants seemed to be a favorite point of examination. “Edward, this is Conrad,” he continued, with a gesture to the man in front of him. Then, waving to each of the rest in turn, he said: “Jan, Anton, Marcos, Erik.”

Ed doubted that he would be able to put names to the faces later, but it didn't really matter. He wasn't there to talk to them.

“Hey,” said Edward, hunching his shoulders. If he had been socially competent, that would have been the part where he said something else, but his brain and mouth froze up in tandem, like they did so often. Thankfully, Roy was good at shit like this, so he stepped in.

“Thank you all for being here tonight. We really do appreciate it, even if Edward is too shy to tell you so himself.”

“Hey! I am not fuckin shy,” Edward snapped, turning a glare up at his lover. “I'm just not as used to this kind of shit as you are, I don't know what the hell to say. Give me a fuckin break.” Roy smiled, but didn't reply, keeping his face turned to their audience.

“See? Gentlemen, not only does he have a voice, but he can actually in fact speak in groups of syllables at once, not just one. Although,” he continued, his voice growing low and suggestive, “I think you will find that this capacity deserts him entirely once you have his pants down.”

“Bastard,” Edward said, turning scarlet. If he hadn't felt like he was the only actor on stage in front of a tough audience, he might have hit the man. “Fuck you.”

The man standing in front of them – Conrad – laughed.

“Well, aren't you a feisty little guy?” he said, and Edward saw red.

“Who the fuck are you calling –”

But the beginning of his tirade was interrupted when Roy's hand came up to jerk his ponytail down and his neck back at a painful angle.

“I think that perhaps we should leave his height out of it,” said Roy, pleasantly, even as Edward steamed at the ears. “He's rather sensitive about the topic.”

“So I see,” said the man, looking entirely too amused. Then, his tone turned pointed, predatory. “Mm. He's everything you promised he'd be, isn't he?” Slowly, the grip released on Ed's hair, and he straightened, beginning to breathe normally again.

He wasn't sure if he wanted to know what Mustang had promised he would be or if he really, really didn't. Roy wasn't volunteering the information.

“Did you think I was lying?” the general asked, lightly.

“No, no,” said Conrad, “It just seemed improbable, is all.”

“It is improbable,” said Roy. “But not impossible, as you can see. In any case, are you all ready?” he asked, turning to the group. There was a chorus of agreement. Edward took a long, deep breath. He wasn't sure if he was.

Some of the men moved to stand, but Roy put out a hand to stop them.

“Please, don't stand up yet. Edward and I need a moment to prepare, by ourselves, if that's alright by you,” he said, more to be polite than because he was actually asking permission. “Though you are, of course, free to watch.”

“That's fine,” said Conrad, who was apparently the only one interested in talking at that precise moment. “Take your time, though I eagerly await my own turn.”

Edward's breath began to come fast and shallow. He swallowed, and licked his lips.

“It will come soon enough,” Roy said. Then, to Edward, his tone changing utterly: “Follow me.” These words struck Ed, deep and commanding: he couldn't help his shiver or urge to follow. That tone – the Voice of the commander, the drill sergeant, the ruler, utterly confident in his own divine right to rule, meting out reward and punishment as he saw fit – made Edward forget himself, lose himself, until he couldn't have controlled himself anymore even if he had wanted to.

When Mustang stopped in the far corner of the room, Edward did as well, without having to be asked. Then, the general turned to him, focused eyes on him, and he remembered again why he allowed this, despite all of the anxiety and embarrassment: in that moment, as the people around them melted into a distant haze, he felt like the only thing in his lover's world.

“On your knees,” Mustang growled, gaze rife with powerful intention. “Now.”

And with that first order, Edward felt his length begin to stiffen: the general's eyes tracked down to the evidence of his arousal – these pants hid nothing, only accentuated the issue – and smiled. He did as commanded, and the way the general ran fingers through his hair then, pulling it out of its ponytail and fisting his hand in it at the top of his head, sent a hot shiver down Ed's spine. His mouth fell open; his lungs were struggling under the tightness in his body, in his loins.

“Good,” said Roy, eyes dark and focused right on Edward's. “Now, I have something for you.” A hand dipped into Roy's jacket pocket, and drew out a thin band of leather, not more than an inch wide, with a metal buckle and a large ring on the front.

On instinct, Ed flinched back: a collar, a collar, today of all days, when he was meant to give himself up to all of these strangers?

“What the fuck?! A collar?” he snapped, the response automatic and unexamined. Though he couldn't see the men anymore, he was once again aware of their presence: the stares burned his back, as if they were physical.“The first time you pull this shit, and it's in front of all of these people? You trying to fuckin humiliate me?” Ed didn't know if the sight aroused or infuriated him more. Wearing a collar was one thing, something had considered – fantasized about – more than once. But doing it in front of all of those men...

The general's grip on the top of Ed's hair grew tighter, and the younger man pressed his lips together, determined not to make the little noise that threatened to escape.

“No,” he said, low, “I'm not trying to humiliate you. I'm going to show them how I own you.” His descent to one knee brought the two almost to eye level, but somehow intensified the power difference between them. The back of the hand that held the collar reached out, stroked Ed's cheek with rough knuckles – he was lost under the raw desire that lit Roy's eyes.

“Maybe you own me,” said Ed, quietly, with the last edge of his defiance, “but they don't.”

“No,” agreed Roy, releasing the top of Edward's head to have a second hand with which to affix the collar to Ed. Ed bit his lip, shivering. “But you'll let them think they do, for the night. You'll let them think they do because I want you to.” The collar settled, heavy, on his neck. “Isn't that right – Fullmetal?” he growled, into Ed's ear. The blonde whined as Roy bit down, then soothed the mark with his tongue. “I could ask you to do anything, things that scare you, things that you think ought to make you feel ashamed of yourself. Those men could ask you to do anything. But really,” he said, his mouth moving down Ed's neck with its words and spice-hot breath and scraping teeth, “you'll be proud of yourself, because it's your body turning them on so much, it's your actions, your reactions, your noises: you're the one in control, here. You own all of them.

Then Roy bent down and kissed him, softly, tongue dipping in to caress Edward's own, his last concession to their bond with one another. He pulled away, brushing a hand across Edward's cheek.

“Be proud of yourself, Edward. Always be proud of yourself,” he said, with a slight crinkle of his eyes that might have been the beginning of a smile. Then without warning, the expression was gone: he clenched the collar hard in his right hand and stood up, yanking Edward to his feet as well. Spots began to appear in Ed's vision as the blood in his neck forced its way past the collar and up to his brain, down to his body, and god the way those men were looking at him –

Roy flipped him around, so the ridge of his arousal pressed into the small of Ed's back, tiny motions of his hips grinding the hardness into his skin. Facing the men, now, with nothing to block their view, he felt each gaze as he would a knife.

Embarrassment crept up on him again, unrelenting, but it was no match for the shot of excitement that sparked to his groin when Roy said:

“Gentlemen, come undress him.”

The words were met with possessive noises, soft encouragements, a growled “Fuck, yes” as the men stepped forward to touch him, run their hands across him. Roy released the hand on Ed's collar and instead twisted a length of his hair between long fingers, then jerked that back until his neck was bent painfully, but it was a good pain – the adrenaline was pumping through his veins, leaving him lightheaded, giddy.

One stranger's hand slid up his shirt, began to thumb at a nipple, and Edward hissed in a breath as he felt it begin to harden under the touch: the man gave a low, rumbling laugh, and did it again.

Ed whined, his mouth half-open to allow his shallow panting its escape. An anonymous hand came down to cup Ed's erection: he flailed on instinct – no-one had ever touched him there but Roy, no one had ever wanted to, with the metal and the scarring, except now the possessive grin on the man's face as he massaged the hardness between Edward's legs was fierce enough that it had to be genuine.

“You like it hard?” Roy asked, a deep rumble against Ed's back. “Do you enjoy being touched like this?”

Another set of hands began to unlatch the buckle of Edward's belt, even as the first man twisted Ed's nipple viciously.

“Answer me,” Roy said, purring.

“Haah,” said Edward, as best as he could. “I – ah –”

“With words, Edward.”

He managed to collect himself for just a moment, beyond the caressing hands, the teeth – oh god, a stranger's teeth – nipping at the skin above his waistband, the other hand that had slid behind Ed, between him and Roy, under his pants to squeeze the skin of his ass.

“Oh, god,” he said, voice dry and cracking. “Yes. I do like it. Please.”

He was rewarded for his effort by a hard pinch from Roy's hand to his nipple, by Roy's teeth sinking down into the flesh of his shoulder so hard that it might bleed, would certainly bruise – fuck, his cock was throbbing.

“Alright, Marcus. Enough with the teasing, for now. Tear his shirt off.”

And Edward's tank top ripped around him, fell to the ground. Rough hands unfastened the last of the restraints on Edward's pants, leaving them hanging low on his hips, wide open.

A man growled at the sight before him, and Ed could move his eyes just far enough to see that the owner of the voice had his hand fisted loosely around his cock to stroke himself at a leisurely pace. Then, the man's hand left his cock and slid over Ed's face: he shoved two fingers into Ed's mouth, past tight lips, and said:

“Suck, boy. Make it good.”

And Edward did, suppressing a groan at the back of his throat: he sucked and stroked the fingers with his tongue, twirled it around them, pretended it was Roy's cock in his mouth. He was hard, so hard, and even harder when the men at his waist pulled down his pants, his boxers, leaving him entirely exposed.

“Wait,” said Roy, stopping the men in their tracks. “Leave them bunched up at his knees.” They did as requested: and somehow, this made him feel dirtier, an instrument of intense, immediate lust. Everything from his thighs upward was bare to their eyes, open to their inspection, available for their carnal needs. The garment around his knees kept him bound, unable to defend against their gazes, their touches.

A hand ghosted over his cock, making it twitch and drawing a cry from Edward's unwilling throat. God, they knew exactly how much they were affecting him, they could hear it every time he opened his mouth, felt it in how his traitorous body moved against them, unbidden. He writhed against Roy's restraining hold on him, tried to kick, tried to fight it, fight them, fight how much he wanted that strange hand that slid between his legs and pressed at his most private places before pulling away.

And with that, Edward felt something warm, something – wooden? – brush up against the skin of his stomach: pain blossomed in his nipple as that warm something clamped down on it, sending shocks of pain radiating through his whole chest.

A thoughtless whimper escaped Ed's parted mouth: it hurt, not as much as so many other things he had been through, but it was all mixed up with these weird feelings of shame and need that clouded his mind, that he loved, that he was so afraid of. He looked down at his chest to find a clothespin there, latched onto that sensitive nub, and to see that Roy was opening another to attach to the skin next to it, and another, then another, until they hung in a line from one nipple to the other. Each clamp was tied to the next by string, and all pulled heavily at his skin, a line of fire across his chest.

“Now,” started Roy again, slipping a hand down the cleft of Edward's cheeks and teasing at his entrance: this was more familiar, this was right, this was good. Ed relaxed into his lover's body. “Touch yourself for us.”

Heat rushed to Edward's face. One last bubble of protest rose to his lips.

“I – I can't do that. Fuck, I don't know how to –” a sudden squeeze to his cock left him briefly speechless, breathless “– put on a show,” he finally finished.

“Don't worry about that,” said Roy in his ear, the roughness of the sound a delicious comfort. “I will direct you if you're in need of direction, but I doubt that you will be. You're something of a natural.” Then, more forcefully, when the younger man hesitated: “Edward,” he growled, threatening.

Ed brought his hand to his cock: it was hard as steel and hot, heavy in his palm. He began to move it, just slightly: that was good. A larger motion made his breath catch in his throat: that was better. He shut his eyes against the sensation of being pinned under their stares, but that only made his hearing more acute, and he heard the room fall silent around him.

They were listening to him, holding their breaths and straining to hear every gasp, every hiss of pleasure Edward made. Did they... like hearing him? Did it turn them on?

A throaty moan clawed its way from his mouth as his thumb scraped over the top of his cock. Six voices answered his noise, with groans or panted breaths or worshipful words on half-breaths. He let his eyes slide half-open again, gaze falling down to where his tight fist stroked his cock. It was flushed, dusky red at the tip, and he switched hands: his metal one encircled it, even as his left hand traced down to his balls. He squeezed down and cried out again: the pain from his cock merged with the pain of the clamps on his chest, leaving him dizzy, lightheaded, completely high.

A hand reached out to brush his stomach, the skin of it hot on his own. Then, it moved up, teasing at the clamp, at the string it attached to.

“May I?” asked the voice that hand belonged to, but it couldn't have been speaking to Ed because nobody would ask his permission for anything, then. They were not equals. He didn't have to make any decisions that night.

“In just a moment,” said the General's voice: then, he put on the full force of his authority. “Edward, stop.

Edward froze in place, his automail hand still encircling his cock, but he whimpered at the sudden retreat from the edge he had been fast approaching.

“Now, Anton, Jan. Take his arms and pull them apart. Hold him there,” Roy ordered, and before Edward could even think to do anything, those two had moved forward to grip his arms in their own. They pulled his limbs out straight from his sides, level with his shoulders, and kept him there, their arms securing him as tightly as any rope.

Ed struggled against firm hands, muscled arms more on principle than anything. Some part of him wanted to prove how much stronger he was than these men, than any of them, but that thought fell away as he felt a slight tug on the string attached to the clamps on his chest.

“Now,” said Roy's voice, rough and commanding and yet still lustful. Ed didn't even have to see him to know how much he –

A sudden flash of pain interrupted his train of thought as a tug to the string pulled off all of the clamps on his chest, from nipple to nipple. At the same time, lips came down to surround the head of his cock in a tight, wet heat, and Ed's body couldn't take it anymore, careening to the edge of orgasm –

– and then the lips were gone again, and Edward sobbed. The throb of his testicles actually hurt more than the sharp pain on his chest: he had to get a hand down to his cock.

“Oh god, please don't do this,” Edward said, writhing, pulling, and finding himself unequal to the task of escape. “Please don't leave me like this. Please just touch me.”

“You know, you might want to be more specific in your requests,” said Mustang, smirk raised, voice promising. “If you're not careful, you might get what you ask for. Erik?” he said, and though Ed couldn't see the general, he knew that a silent exchange between the two men was occurring. Then, he saw one man draw something out of his pocket with a gleam in his eye: the pencil-sized metal rod he held in his hand telescoped out to become a thin cane.

Why would caning be a punishment? His mouth went dry as he stared at it, his body reacting instantly to the sight of the toy. The pain of a hard blow was almost as good as a touch to his cock, or sometimes better. He needed something, needed anything, any kind of stimulation at all.

“Beg for it one more time,” the man growled, fixing the fingers of his free hand around Edward's jaw, his hard breaths hot across Edward's lips. “Beg for it.”

His need overcame his pride, and a red flush colored him from cheek to collar.

“Please, touch me. Touch me,” he said, words scraping and broken and needy –

And then, Edward felt the strike: not against his cheek, his side, his chest, but delivered straight to the hardness between his legs.

He cried out, then, for the first time, as fire shot up and down his length – a second blow came, right to his balls – and without further warning, orgasm hit him like a wall, flooding through his whole body and sweeping him away. Wordless, unconscious cries tore from his mouth as he rode out the shocks, body convulsing and jerking forward as he emptied himself all over the floor in white spurts.

The room stayed silent for a few moments afterward, as Edward's ragged breathing slowly quieted, and evened out. He was suddenly glad for the men who held him up by his arms, because he wasn't entirely sure that he could stand at that moment.

“Good god, Edward,” said Roy's growled voice in his ear, as the silence became less sacred. “You can come from getting your balls beaten when you're hard?” Heat pressed up against Edward's back.

Ed reacted with a whimper – fuck, that sounded so wrong, but –

“I'll have to remember that,” he said, sliding a hand around to pinch at Ed's nipple. He groaned – they still stung after the torture they had just received. Then, louder: “I never get tired of the way you look when you come. You're tempting me so much right now.”

Then, Marcus interrupted with a hand to Ed's now-softening penis. Ed tried to jerk back in shock, the over-sensitive skin unprepared for any more stimulation, but with Roy behind him and the two men to his sides, he couldn't. He whined instead, writhing as that hand squeezed his cock, but it was too soon for even that painpleasurewant to get him hard again.

“I'm done being tempted. I want to take him now,” the man said, and when Ed met his eyes he saw that they were as dark and lustful as the general's.

“But we have so much left to do,” Jan purred, from Ed's right. “We don't want to wear him out too quickly.”

“But he's not even up right now,” Marcus said, his meaning clear from the continuing stroke of his fingers on Ed's cock. “I won't touch his pretty cock while I fuck him. With any luck, he'll be hard as hell again by the time I'm done with him, and then he'll be yours.”

Roy considered this, finger drifting in lazy circles down Ed's stomach.

“Alright,” Roy said, finally, his voice smoldering. “How do you want him?”

Those words triggered an intense wave of nervousness in Ed, followed by a cold rush of adrenaline.

“I want him bent over, right here,” the man growled: Ed couldn't see him, but he had a feeling that the man had his cock out and was stroking it, savoring the sight. Roy pushed away from Ed's back and stepped around the two men who still held his arms.

“Yes,” said Roy as he came to a stop right in front of Edward, then grabbed Ed's hair and forced his head down, bending him over so that his bare ass was the most prominent part of him. The two men holding his arms changed positions to keep his arms straight, parallel to the floor and level with his body.

Roy's hand twisted painfully in his hair, and Ed's muscles lost all ability to resist.

“You look so good like that,” said Roy, pulling even harder. “So good.”

And then, two unfamiliar fingers slid into him, and Ed made an embarrassing noise of shock, trying to thrash away.

His heart pounded through him as he took in this new sensation: for a moment, panicked thoughts rushed through him, and he wondered if he should maybe just take it all back, recant, say that he had made a horrible mistake, that he wasn't ready, that the eyes and hands of strangers on him scared him too much.

He didn't know how someone could be ready to get fucked by a bunch of strangers in front of an audience. Shame, forgotten in the face of his arousal, raised its head again, teeth bared.

But even as one of Roy's hands kept Ed's head in position, the other had moved to his neck, brushing up and down, soothing, as if sensing Ed's inner turmoil and moving to comfort him.

He could do this. Really, he could. The stranger's fingers crooked downward, missing the sweet spot inside of him, but on the second try – or maybe it was the third – he felt that spark that warmed him through, forced his breath out in a deep sigh.

You can stop this at any time, if you want. You know what to do.

Then, the man behind him groaned: and Edward became aware of the erections pressing up against his restrained arms. It occurred to him then that they wanted him, wanted to fuck him and wanted to own him.

Suddenly, shockingly, Edward felt both desired and desirable: every man there had chosen to be there that day, and the evidence of their arousal was apparent enough. Nobody was forcing them to fuck him, and the sheer lust in their expressions had to be genuine.

Just as suddenly, he wanted that cock inside of him, wanted to feel the hot throb of the man's orgasm and the semen dripping out from between his legs. He wanted to know that the man had come, and that he had made it happen, with his body and his actions and his voice. He wanted the man to remember this night for the rest of his life.

“God, Marcus,” he groaned, putting just a tinge of desperation into his voice as he thrust back onto those fingers. “Stop teasing me and just fuck me. Please,” he said, not even caring that he had sworn he wouldn't beg them.

That affected his audience more than he had thought possible: this one concession, begging, had put him in more control of the situation than he had ever been. The men around him growled, groaned, said words that meant nothing by themselves but together meant, fuck, I want that, I want you, and then hands pulled the cheeks of his ass apart – he could feel every puff of air on the sensitive muscle there – and the evidence of that beautiful stranger's arousal came to rest, slick, at his entrance.

The first part of the thrust was always the hardest, for Ed, as his body tried to remember what to do. He parted for that cock slowly: the burning sensation of it was nowhere near the pain of being whipped, or putting his automail back in, but it was good nonetheless. He almost wished that the man had just fucked him dry, but he knew that some fantasies weren't meant to be reality.

Another inch of that cock split Ed down the middle, and he groaned, the burning sensation translating into a growing ball of sparks in his loins.

“He's so tight,” Marcus said, voice tight and straining. “God, I haven't had an ass like this in years,” he said, and pushed himself in a bit deeper. It was too slow: he wanted the man to start pounding into him until the thrill of the pain saturated him.

An attempt by Ed to thrust backwards onto that cock, to make it go faster was aborted by a sharp tug to his hair. The pain fed the fire in his belly, and Ed's voice came out a cracked moan. His crotch began to stir again, though he was far from hard, still.

And then, without further warning, the hot length of flesh shoved in to the hilt in one smooth motion: yes, that was it, that was perfect. The man pulled out, then shoved in again, not bothering with being slow or soft this time, and Ed whimpered his encouragement.

The one thrust moved into another, and another, each one faster until the man was pounding into him in a frenzy, and with every stroke the head of his cock hit that sweet place inside of him. That blissful pleasure blended with the burning sensation at his entrance – the pain of that hard grip on his hair – the helpless sensation of being held down, utterly unable to move – the sound of every half-spoken compliment, stiffening his cock nearly back to full readiness.

The man bent down over Ed's back until sweat-damp skin touched in all the ways that skin can touch, one hand hot on a nipple, the other still on Ed's hips, forcing him forward, then slamming him back even as he thrust into the younger man's body.

The rhythm sped up, then faltered and came together until there was no rhythm at all, just the frantic slide of skin on skin – and then a groan, a heavy pulse inside of Ed as the man filled him with his seed in bursts, each thrust growing shallower, paler, until he was still.

When the man finally pulled out, his semen began to drip down the insides of Edward's legs. He knew the sensation well, but somehow it felt different when it wasn't Roy's come spilling out of him. Marcus panted behind him, noise heavy, and the feeling of Mustang's fingers digging into his scalp was intense and all-encompassing.

“Good boy,” said Mustang, bringing his other hand down to finger Ed's collar, “Good boy. You're such a good pet.”

Ed tried to open his mouth, tried to speak, but couldn't, so settled for a wordless noise of acknowledgment.

Then, Mustang pulled him up straight by his hair, allowing his gaze to flicker about and take in the scene around him: the men in their group whose hands weren't occupied with Edward had their eyes on him, their hands stroking their erections as they enjoyed the show. Around them, activities in the rest of the room seemed to have ceased: many of those who hadn't been invited to join were watching, sharp-eyed, from their couches and chairs, and pleasuring themselves as well. One woman dressed sparsely in strips of black leather sat on a table with her legs spread, her knees up, one finger sliding in and out of herself as she locked intense eyes with Edward's.

He shivered. He felt like a circus animal, on display to do his best tricks – and they all seemed to like it, to like him, to like his body and the things he said and the way he moved.

He had a room full of strangers touching themselves, at his will. For a brief moment, he swelled with pride, feeling the power of submission – but then, Roy growled, and said:

“Bind him,” and all of that sense of his own power was lost under a renewed tide of his need, as everything in Ed's world focused down to the general's face, his lips, his hands in Ed's hair.

Distantly, he noted that his wrists had been brought in front of him, that deft hands cuffed them together, then hooked them to a chain. A tug against the chain pulled his hands into the air, drawing his body into a long line, forcing all of his weight rest on the balls of his feet. He pulled against the restraints above him, to see if he could get more leverage, put his feet down more firmly on the ground, but to no avail: he hadn't really thought that his halfhearted effort would result in anything, but he had to try, anyway, his last attempt to satisfy his pride.

By this time, he was hard again – the sharp edges of metal cuffs on his skin, the cold touch of air on his back, heightened his anticipation.

“Anton,” Roy's voice came, silky smooth and utterly controlled as his hand came down to squeeze Ed's ass, “Get your whip out.”

There was a rustling, as if from a bag, behind him – Roy leaned into his ear, close enough that Ed could feel him as if those lips were touching him.

“You have no idea what you do to me, Edward Elric,” he said, hotly, that hand sweeping up and down bare skin. The man's erection pressed against the small of his back, giving truth to his words. “And have you seen how these other men are watching you? You do the same thing to them.”

Ed closed his eyes, the sound of Roy's breathing and his own mixing harshly in his ears, drowning out the cacophony of silence beyond the space filled by the two of them, alone –

and then Roy pulled away, and Ed would have been disappointed by the absence if his body hadn't reacted instantly to the crack of a whip behind him. The general stepped around to his front, his hands folded behind his back, the carriage of his head imperious, regal.

The first blow of the whip hit him, and Ed caught a sharp breath in excitement. It was barely anything, hardly painful at all, but it promised so much. The second stroke was harder, earning a more cutting breath to match. The third almost stung enough to be satisfying, certainly enough to make his cock throb, to make his want glisten wetly at the tip.

And all the while, Roy watched him, his serious expression growing into a twitch of a smile, then a smirk.

The next strike actually hurt, and Ed moaned, the burning stripe of it exquisite on his back. Another strike, and another, another, another – Ed was whimpering, because god his back was on fire and his cock was steel, and he wanted to touch himself, to relieve this intense pressure, but the chains kept his hands far away from his pressing need.

The most savage blow yet crossed all of the others, blended with them, forcing Ed's throat into a sharp cry.

Adrenaline coursed through him, the fear and excitement and want a heady cocktail in his blood: as the endorphins raced to match the adrenaline, he found that each blow, though more severe, hurt less. The sound around him grew dull, muffled, distant.

The pain of it all only made the sensation of lips – soft lips, wet lips – coming down to the head of Ed's cock better, the wild pleasure matched immediately by dread: he knew that the general never used mouths to satisfy him when they were playing, only to drive him mad. Nevertheless, he cried out in earnest that time, his mouth hanging open, his eyes half-lidded and locked with the General's. Another stroke lined him from shoulder to the crack of his ass, and another, nearly parallel to it.

Then, suddenly, the mouth was gone, and so was the whip, and Edward whined – bereft, relieved, aching.

“That's good,” Roy purred, after a moment, and took a few steps forward to run the pad of his thumb down Ed's cheek. “Good boy.” Then, leaning in closer, his tongue and lips flickering over Ed's ear as he spoke: “You're gorgeous. You know how much they want you.” Just the barest hint of teeth on the shell of his ear: Ed's whole body flinched away, his arousal sharpening every sensation. “I want you. God, I want you,” he said, lower, rougher, as his gloved hands slid up Ed's back, and down: the soothing gesture made Ed whimper, the sharpness of the cloth stinging on his new welts.

The general bent over for just a moment, traveling down the front of Ed's neck to nip at the leather of his collar. The blonde let his head fall back to allow his lover access: gloves ran up and down his sides, the feeling all the more intense because of the lightness of the touch.

The room was light and indistinct, foggy around him as he felt himself being removed from the manacles, felt his weight shift back to the entirety of his feet, where it belonged. He shuddered, and found that his muscles couldn't support him: his right leg collapsed, sending him careening sideways, but Roy was there to catch him. The whip marks on his back burned in contact with the cotton of Roy's shirt.

“How are you?” the general asked, softly enough that the other men would hear no words, but only indistinct murmuring. The warm arms wrapped around him were a whole world, and Ed let himself lean into his lover's chest. He wanted touch between his legs, needed it, but right then, answering the general's question was more important.

“I –” said Edward, trying to get control of his lips again. With some difficulty, he managed: “Yeah. Um. Good.”

“Good,” said Roy, biting Ed's earlobe hard, which earned him a whimper. “But we're not done with you yet.” The growling, possessive sound of his voice robbed Ed of any further possibility of self-control.

This adrenal high that filled him – the dizziness, the feeling of distance from himself and everything else, almost like being drunk but different, better – had never been so strong, before. He was actually and physically intoxicated by his own endorphins: they turned pain into pleasure, humiliation into need, sharpened sexual stimulation... He couldn't get enough of this feeling, his heart beating a million miles an hour, his breath singing through his body, every hair sensitive to pleasure, pain inconsequential or delightful. Every time Roy beat him, or whipped him, or bound him, this delirium overtook him – sometimes weakly, sometimes intensely, but never before had he felt so utterly in its grip.

He didn't think he even could have refused an order at this point, if Roy had given it. All thoughts of safe words or safety had fled: his rational mind was lost to him. All he knew was that he was at peace with this, with what they wanted to do to him or wanted him to do for them, whatever it might have been.

And then, he heard:

“What do you say, boys?” asked the general, behind him. “I think he's ready, don't you?” Roy made his own readiness apparent, grinding his erection into the crack of Ed's ass. There were some murmurs of assent. “Good.” Roy picked him up, bearing his whole weight in both arms, and Ed didn't even mind. He lay there, boneless, and allowed his commander to do with him what he chose.

His commander set him down on some sort of chair, then, or maybe a bed, or table – the man sat down behind him, arms still wrapped around him – then, Ed heard:

“Alright, boys. Spread his legs for me.”

And then, he felt hands around one leg, and the other: some conscious part of his mind looked on in horror as if from above his body as the hands grabbed him, pulled his legs apart, held him there – laid open completely, everything on display for whoever cared to look. Roy's body remained solid at his back, arms encircling, supporting, knees up on either side of Edward's body, keeping him steady.

Marcus's come had dried in sticky rivulets between his legs, and Anton bent over to lap at it, dark hair falling in his eyes, meeting Ed's half-focused gaze as his tongue bathed Edward's skin. The blonde's lungs jerked, stuttered, as that tongue found his entrance, swiped a broad, hot line up the crease without warning. Roy's hands brushed across skin until they found Ed's nipples, tweaked them softly, then harder, and Ed was drowning, there was no other word for it – he closed his eyes, took a breath –

Then, a hard cock sheathed itself in him to the hilt, without waiting for more preparation. Ed cried out in surprise: then, the man began to move, and Ed's breath pitched outward, light and frantic, as the man's movements became smoother, more confident –

– then he heard a moan from deep in the general's chest as each of the stranger's thrusts pressed Ed up against Roy's erection, and a strange hand slid between foreign bodies, stroking Ed's cock, making him grind his hips up into that pressure. Breath pressed against his ear, heating the shell of it in quick puffs: it belonged to a different man, and there were six bodies on his, touching him. The general watched the obscene slide of a wettened cock in and out of him in fascination, his lips parted even as his hands clenched at Edward's sweat-salted skin.

After seconds or years, there was a groan from in front of him, and the man between his legs came inside him with a hard thrust and rhythmic swells. Edward's own cock was throbbing with need, but lacked for stimulation. He was on the edge, he was burning, but couldn't cross that edge without something else.

A second cock, Erik's, teased his entrance for a moment, then split him down the middle, though the man tried to be gentle: Ed gave a wanton moan, neck twisting and bunching as the hardness stretched him almost beyond what he thought he could handle – the heavy thrust of that cock inside of him made Ed's position on the edge just that much more precarious.

The man orgasmed quickly, thrusting jerkily as his breath came out in hitched, shuddered moans. His body carried him through orgasm for an impossibly long time, spilling his pleasure into Edward until he was fuller than he had ever been. When he pulled away, the combined seed of three men dripped from Ed's entrance to the floor.

Before Ed even had time to recover from the last man, another had positioned himself between Ed's legs and begun the press inward: this man moved infuriatingly slowly, sliding in and out at a pace that nearly made Ed sick with the need for more, for faster. He writhed, trying to increase the pace with frantic thrusts, but Roy held him still.

“No, don't move,” Roy rumbled in his ear, arms fastened tight around him. “You're going to take what he decides to give you, whatever that might be.”

That slow slide inside of him was maddening: every time the other man pushed in, the tip stroked Ed's sweet spot, but so lightly that it did nothing to help, only tightened the knot of arousal in his stomach. The very tip of the general's finger traced over Ed's nipple and Ed sobbed, a raw, broken noise, writhing in hopes of some more stimulation.

“Please, please, please, just fuck me harder,” he said, as fingernails dragged up his sides, barely there. The man continued his maddeningly slow pace – he might even have slowed down – and Ed wailed, and bucked his hips again, to no avail. A finger traced against the tip of his cock, light enough to actually be painful. “Oh no, don't do this, please, please, I want you to take me hard, I want you to –”

And then Conrad came with a hoarse cry. He stayed there for a moment bent over Edward's form – god, he wasn't moving, all Ed needed was for the man to move, to give him something, fuck – but after a moment, he pulled out, and the infuriating pain of the finger pulled away, just as unexpectedly as it had arrived. Edward couldn't tell if he was relieved or so disappointed.

After a minute that lasted a year, where Ed's testicles crawled and clamored for anything to relieve the pressure – he was going to burst – Jan finally positioned himself between Ed's legs.

This man was, thankfully, more needy than the one before him: he pounded into Edward without prelude, hitting Ed's sweet spot over and over until Ed had absolutely no control over the senseless noises that were coming from his mouth.

“Wait, Fullmetal,” said Mustang's rough voice in his ear. “Don't come yet. Don't come, until I tell you that you may.”

That growled order alone sparked more arousal in him than the cock of every man before him. Imminent release wrung a wail from Edward's raw throat, the sound cracked, broken, as his body hit its peak – but his commander saw what he had done, and flashed his hand down to squeeze the base of Ed's cock in a choke-hold, cutting off the orgasm before it could even start. He heard himself sob, whimper – how could the general do that, didn't he know how horrible the denial was? – and Roy stroked his chest, comforting, as the other man continued to pound Ed's ass.

Edward was hurting, all over. His arousal was like a tide, his body a dam, and the force of the water was beginning to crack the brick. He clung to the last vestiges of his self-control, because General Mustang was the only sanity he had left and the general had ordered him to stay there, and so he had to.

The last stranger finished inside of him, and Edward threw his head back: as the cock slid out of him, so Mustang slid out from behind him.

The dark look in the man's eyes as he moved to stand in front of Edward was unmistakable, even to Ed's hazed mind. He thought of what he must look like: utterly filthy, debased, sweat mixing with the seed that spilled out of him, with his own come dried in lines below the fresh wetness from his weeping cock.

“Good boy,” the general said, putting a hand to Edward's knee, stroking inward, stroking down. “Good boy. Now –” Ed's whole body paused as Roy did, hung in suspension between one thought and the next. “Come for me.”

And Edward's mind went white, a sudden blankness of thought and knowledge as a scream tore itself from his lips, around a word – some word, he didn't know which – and orgasm wracked his body with a sudden intensity. He barely registered hands on his hips or a new, familiar heat entering him, barely registered anything at all, except that he was still coming, or maybe he wasn't anymore but it didn't matter: his mind was frozen, there, hung immovably in bliss.

He registered – faintly, as if through a thick fog and half a mile away – the pulse of Roy's orgasm inside of him, that the man was whispering some words in Ed's ear as he pulled out – that someone had fetched a wet towel, had begun to clean him up, pressing kisses to the inside of his knee – that someone had picked up his body and moved him to a couch, wrapped him in something warm and soft, that Mustang's arms circled around him, and there were hands in his hair, across his shoulders –

Edward's eyes fluttered shut, then, and he was lost.

***

Chapter Text

Chapter 3

*

The only thing that General Weimar could hear as he lay in bed that night was the sound of Meredith's soft breathing beside him as she slept, one pale arm draped around his chest. In all of their overlarge house, only he still stirred, his restless thoughts disturbing all chance of sleep.

It had been days since he had told that journalist to investigate Mustang, to prove something damning about him, which was a very long time to not have heard back from his pet reporter. He almost wished that he had told Harriet to fuck evidence, to hell with finding sources or whistle-blowers, because Mustang was beginning to settle into his role as General: the man was becoming more dangerous by the minute, and that was the last thing Weimar needed. Mustang's guilt was so blatantly obvious, and many of his crimes so hard to prove, that General Weimar had no qualms whatsoever about using a few less-than-reputable or made-up sources to prove his allegations.

However, the more rational side of his mind understood that he couldn't be sloppy, not this time, not with something so important: no matter how well the Flame Alchemist had covered his tracks, there would have to be some evidence of his wrongdoing, somewhere. The more evidence the reporter could unearth, the more likely the allegations were to stick, and the more likely it was that the man would go down. So instead of calling Harriet again, Mikhael waited. He could be patient when he had to be.

Still, no contact for over a week...? The man had better start working faster, or else Weimar would begin to reconsider the large sum he had been depositing into Harriet's bank account every few days – depositing in fat wads of cash, just to be certain that there would be no traceable connection between the reporter and the General.

The automail port at his hip ached, as it always did to presage colder weather. At least the cold was generally more bearable than the heat: he preferred his body's dull ache to the memory of scorching sun and sand and blood on his tongue. Would it be fall already before his patience would be rewarded?

As if reacting to Weimar's thoughts, the phone by his bedside rang, startling him from his reverie: Meredith shifted in her sleep, and Mikhael threw a hand out to pick it up before the jarring sound disturbed her further.

“Weimar residence,” he said, keeping the snap in his general's voice down to a murmur.

“General, nice to hear you,” said a man on the other end of the line: Weimar recognized that voice. Guy Harriet. His heartbeat quickened.

“And to hear you as well. I've been waiting for your call. Can I assume that you've achieved what you set out to do?”

“Sort of, but not in the way you'd expect. Either nobody's had any proof that Mustang and Elric were screwing before he left the military, or nobody's been willing to give me any, but I've found something better.”

Meredith began to stir beside him, opening sleepy eyes to look at him, questioning.

“Oh?” he asked Harriet, mouth dry with his excitement. “Tell me.”

*

There was something a bit undignified about the Cretan ambassador arriving by train, Roy thought, as he stood at Central station with five military men and one Riza Hawkeye in attendance. Having nothing better to do, he watched the clock intently: five minutes till three. With the stroke of the solid bell that announced the hours, right on the first of three, the train would arrive, bringing Ambassador Rosenthal with it.

He hadn't been able to learn much about her in his research, except that she hadn't come from a wealthy family, or a political one, and had achieved her position by merit alone. That, and she was apparently an excellent player of billiards, a rumor which he fully intended to test at the nearest opportunity.

Although Roy personally had no problem with train travel and found it in fact quite relaxing, he had learned over the years that many ambassadors expected more specialized treatment than being shoved onto a car with the rest of the country's population, where they were vulnerable to thieves and pickpockets and the indignity of being forced to share a seat with a country bumpkin. But, taking an automobile across the full country of Amestris wasn't really an option: that could take weeks, even if she traveled lightly, if she would be able to make the trip at all. Roy couldn't personally guarantee that all of the roads from Central all the way out to the furthest Western provinces were well-maintained, or even still existent. It seemed to Roy that the country's budget for making and maintaining roads frequently ran out about a hundred miles from Central City.

However, the money devoted to the railways always seemed plentiful and well-managed. It would be uncharitable and unpatriotic of Roy to think that this was because the military liked to have an easy route to anywhere, just in case rebellion should stir up. The army liked to travel by train.

There were many disadvantages to the Amestrian system of government, but a few advantages as well, one being that the trains certainly stayed on schedule.

Even though the train was the only real option for Ambassador Rosenthal's journey from her country to his, they at least managed to commandeer a private car and outfit it for a woman of her statue. It was the least the government could do: Roy could only hope that was good enough. Beginning negotiations would be difficult if she had been unhappy with her travel arrangements.

He heard the rumble and clatter of the train perhaps a minute before it came careening into the station, its brakes screaming under the strain of such powerful inertia. The metal beast came to rest just over an inch away from the edge of the station platform, still chugging coal-smoke sluggishly from its smokestack.

He looked quickly down the train to find the twelfth car, chosen because twelve was considered an auspicious number in Cretan culture, and took off towards it. By the time the door slid open with a heavy puff, Roy and his entourage had come to a full stop in front of it, standing at attention, with Roy at the peak of the triangle they formed. Their hands shot up into salutes as she stepped out.

Ambassador Rosenthal was pretty, in a dark sort of way, with skin the color of coffee-with-cream and deep chestnut hair that she had either spent a large amount of time curling while on the train, which would be an admirable feat, or that had the most beautiful natural curl Roy had ever seen. It gathered at her shoulders in a bob, fashionable in a timeless, classic way. Bright blue eyes watched him intently, the color striking against the cream-dark of her skin.

He didn't let his eyes fall below her face. There would be plenty of time for that later.

“Ambassador Rosenthal, it's an honor,” he said, as she put a hand on the rail and descended the steps to the platform. Her dress was off-white, and made of a lighter fabric than was the fashion in Amestris – but then, it was warmer as a rule in Creta than it was in his own country, their painful summers notwithstanding. “I'm General Roy Mustang, and I'm here to be your escort and see to your every need while you're visiting our great country.”

“Very nice to meet you, General Mustang,” she said, her voice lilting, with just a hint of an accent.

She smiled at him, and offered a handshake. Roy extended his own in return, shook her hand, then turned it palm down and bent forward to bring it to his lips. He lingered there, his eyes locked on hers, for a beat, then another, then straightened.

“The pleasure is all mine,” he said, his voice low and velvety.

He was sure he caught a tinge of a blush on her high cheekbones.

“Well, General Mustang, you are a flirt,” she said after a moment, laughing. “I see why they picked you to handle me.”

“My dear lady, I have no plans to handle anyone, unless you would like me to,” he said, allowing himself just a hint of suggestiveness. He gestured to his men, indicating that they should open up the luggage hold on the side of the train to get Ambassador Rosenthal's bags. Two of the men broke formation to do so. Then, Roy continued, more seriously: “I'm actually here because I'm the most informed person on the Amestrian senior staff about Cretan culture and politics. I have brushed up on your current affairs, and made myself knowledgeable about the issue at hand. I'm not only your host, but also am head of foreign diplomatic affairs, second only to our great Fuhrer.”

She arched an eyebrow at him, and quirked a smile, shifting her weight to one foot and crossing her arms.

“You're a bit young for that, aren't you? You can't be more than twenty-seven.”

“You might not believe it, but I'm actually thirty-two, madam. And a bit younger than all of the other generals, yes, but I earned the position. I am very skilled.”

He could almost hear Hawkeye rolling her eyes behind him, though he was sure she remained as professional in demeanor as she always did.

The ambassador laughed, and glanced to the side to see Roy's men unloading her baggage from the cargo hold under the train.

“You're funny, sir.”

“I aim to please.”

“I'm sure you do,” she said, with just a hint of the same teasing tone he had used earlier. “And though I thank you for your chivalry, my assistants would have actually handled my baggage. They'll be out in just a moment: they were preparing my papers for the day. I'm sure that they'll be along shortly. Haron! Cyrie!” she called, back into the open door of the train. “Hurry yourselves up, there's a gentleman here who would like to meet you.”

“Yes ma'am,” Roy heard from inside the car, and presently the two assistants filed out of the train, of whom, regrettably, only one was female. She was a bit older than Ambassador Rosenthal, about Roy's age perhaps, but she had kept herself up admirably. She dressed in a pantsuit more or less identical to that of her male coworker, with the exception that hers dipped low to show off her ample assets. The man beside her was young, and looked dreadfully out of place in his own suit.

“General Mustang, this is Cyrie –” a gesture to the woman “– and this is Haron,” she said, with a wave at the man. “They're my assistants. Can I expect to be allowed to keep them with me?”

“Of course, madam. And a pleasure to meet you both.”

Though Ambassador Rosenthal wore a soft linen dress and this new woman a man's suit, it was obvious where the power lay, here. Ambassador Rosenthal smiled prettily, but considered everything around her sharply, and commanded the attention of everyone in the room.

Not so very long ago, Roy would have made it his business to get such a woman into his bed. Even now, he would seduce her, of course: his ability to make others desire him was one of his great weapons, politically and personally, and he was quite proud of his skills. The only difference was that, now, he wouldn't bring her home: his bed already had another occupant, and Edward wouldn't take well to company there.

The young man could still be so adorably insecure with regards to his status in Roy's life. If he weren't so blind, he would see that he had nothing to worry about.

She is pretty, though, he thought, with just a twinge of regret. It had been so long since he had pleased a woman...

But, as always, the thought of an expanse of golden skin over tight muscles and a lithe body – of the way Edward's mouth fell slack when he was lost to sensation – of Edward's nearly-adoring smile when Roy had offered to let the younger man have his alchemy notes, the culmination of years of research – of Edward, bent half-naked over his desk –

Those images cured any desire the general had for Ambassador Rosenthal, which was probably for the best, anyway.

None of that would stop him from flirting, though. That was just a game, and one that Roy played expertly.

“Now, if you'll follow me this way,” Roy said, putting a hand to the small of her back to guide her in his direction of choice, “I'll take you to the car we have waiting outside. We'll get you settled in at your hotel, and then you and I can talk business. How does that sound?”

“I look forward to it.”

*

“So how was your meeting with Ambassador-lady?”

Roy smiled, picking up his black bishop and moving it to tile F6 on the painted-leather chessboard. They sat across from each other at the chess table in his library – the vintage one with the board built into the wood. It was rarely used, now, but each time he did get to enjoy it was a treat. He smirked, and looked his younger lover in the eye.

“Better than I could have hoped. She seems extremely... receptive.”

Ed's neutral expression turned into a scowl in a second. He slammed his knight down onto C4: not a wise move. He was so easy to rile. Sometimes Roy wondered why the man still fell for his taunts, even after all these years. He didn't mind.

“What, receptive to your dick?”

“Don't be so crass, Edward. She's a shrewd politician, and a lady besides. I meant that she's receptive to my political stances, of course.”

And your dick,” Ed snapped back, crossing his arms. “Don't lie to me, you've been buttering her up, and by noon tomorrow you'll have her ready to let you fuck her in the conference room.”

“I'm flattered that you think so much of my skills in seduction,” said Roy, arching an eyebrow as he perused his options on the board, taking in every detail. He never lost the smirk. “But I have no intention of fucking her in the conference room or anywhere else. We're both professionals. And besides,” Roy continued, more fondly this time, “Why would I want her when I could have you?”

Roy moved his queen to the far side of the board, just barely out of the reach of any of Ed's pieces, as a flush exploded onto the younger man's face. The blonde crossed his arms, and on the whole looked quite put out.

“What? You shit, why would you talk like that if you aren't even gonna have sex with her?”

“Because you're entirely too fun to tease,” Mustang said, putting an elbow on the table and resting his chin on it, smiling at the other man. “I'm a consummate flirt, you know that, and my sex appeal is quite useful in the political realm – no, I'm not modest, I never claimed to be,” said Roy, in response to Edward's snort. “But I wouldn't actually follow through with it. You should know that, too. Everyone else pales in comparison to you,” he said, lightly, and Ed barely even looked at the board before moving his castle.

Roy made his move immediately: his own castle came up from behind to pin Edward's king against the back wall.

“Checkmate,” Roy announced, sitting up straight again as he knocked the white king over with a flick of his finger. Ed looked down at the board again in wide-eyed surprise, as if he had forgotten that they were playing a game. “Care to play another?”

Ed stared at the board again, noticing for the first time how Roy had set him up, pinning his king with both bishops, his queen, and his castle. His scowl became more halfhearted, and he reluctantly allowed himself the hint of a smile as he said:

“Bastard. You're the biggest asshole in history, you know that? I don't even know why I put up with you.”

Roy smiled and started to move the pieces back to their places.

“Another game,” he said, happily.

*

Edward wasn't in Central the day the news broke: he was somewhere in the East, beginning his search for information about a plant alchemist who, rumor had it, lived in the woods somewhere between East City and the town of Grenada. Al didn't know the details: his brother had been bitten suddenly by wanderlust, as he was on occasion, and had given Al only about an hour worth of warning before spiriting off to God-only-knew-where, leaving him in charge of the lab.

Ed hadn't even been gone a day before the article arrived, innocuous, on their front doorstep.

Looking at the newspaper, feeling drawn and tired and sick, Al wasn't sure if he was glad of his brother's absence or not. On the one hand, Ed would want to be near General Mustang as soon as possible after this, and so his distance was inconvenient; on the other hand, he could be warned about the news ahead of time, and the inevitable explosion that would result would happen far away from Central. Hopefully, the train ride would cool him down some, and he would think better of coming home and laying waste to the man who had written this article.

The most pressing issue was that Ed became quite impossible to get hold of when he caught the travel bug. He might not stay in the same town for two nights in a row, and he almost never knew what town he would be in on any given night, so the only thing Al could do if he wanted to talk to his brother was sit and wait by his telephone until it rang. He knew that Ed would call: he still checked up on Al obsessively when they were apart, as if he thought that his little brother might just disappear without proper care and attention.

When the phone finally rang, Al yanked it up off of the receiver and clutched it to his ear.

“Hello?” he asked, hoping it was actually his brother.

“Yo,” said Edward, sounding his normal, cheerful self. So he hadn't heard. “How goes, Al?”

“Brother,” said Al, and he was surprised by how desperate his voice came out. “Oh god, I'm so glad you called. I didn't know where to reach you.”

“Sorry, I meant to call after I got into town last night, but I was so tired I ended up just crashing. Did something happen? Are you okay? Is Roy okay?” He paused, thinking, but not long enough for Al to get a word in. “Nobody had better have tried to assassinate the stupid bastard. I'd kick his ass myself for being so reckless.”

Al almost laughed: at the very least, it wasn't that bad. Ed did have a way of putting things in perspective.

“No, nobody's dead. I'm fine. Roy's – well, I don't know how 'fine' he is, but he's not injured. And there was no assassination attempt. Well, there was, sort of.”

“Just say what you're trying to say, Al.”

“Sorry. It's hard to explain.” It really wasn't terribly difficult to explain, he just didn't want to have to. His mouth and his brain were working at cross purposes. “Just – get on the next train back home, and when you find someone with a copy of the Central Times, borrow it. Nobody's dead,” Al added, just in case his brother wasn't clear on that point. “But... some reporter named Guy Harriet found out about Roy and – well, you. It's not a pretty story when you tell it the wrong way, and he definitely told it the wrong way.”

The silence between them sounded like shock, and sounded like fury.

“Motherfucker,” growled Edward, and Al thought that he might be able to hear the phone creaking in his brother's metal hand. “What does this reporter think gives him the fucking right to butt into our lives? How bad is it, scale of 1 to 10?”

“Probably about a 9. There are no actual inappropriate photos of you two, but he has everything else, and some stuff he made up besides.”

“Son of a bitch.”

“I checked the timetables, and there's a train from East City to Central at 9:30. Are you still in East City?”

“Yeah.”

“Good. You ought to be able to catch it if you run, depending on how far you are from a station. But Ed, promise me you won't go hunting the guy who wrote this thing down until you've at least talked to Roy.”

“Why the hell would I make a promise like that? I wanna break off his arms and stick 'em where the sun don't shine.”

Al laughed again, the sound thin and tired, but refreshing. He really did love his brother more than anyone.

“As fun as that sounds, you really shouldn't. I'm sure Roy has a plan, and I'm also sure that we don't want to get involved and accidentally ruin that plan by getting mad and doing something stupid. I know it's hard, especially for you, but we have to be rational about this. Otherwise, believe me when I say that I would have hurt him myself by now.”

“But we can't just let him get away with it!”

“Believe me, Brother. We won't,” Al said, cutting, direct, powerful.

When Ed spoke again, Al could very nearly hear his grin, an expression less a smile than a feral baring of teeth.

“You get him good, Al. Get him good, or I'm gonna.”

“I'm looking forward to it.”

*

The paranoid hallucinations started with whispers, then moved up to strange looks, then to awkward laughter: it took Roy at least an hour of being at Central Command to decide that he was not, in fact, delusional. Men and women of all ranks seemed to be talking about him behind his back, and the fact that they usually stopped as soon as he turned his head did nothing to make this any less irritating.

He was no stranger to these kinds of whispers: his ambition and charisma had led to not a little bit of bitterness towards him at various times during his career, and he had developed quite a thick skin to deal with it. Ignoring the twittering of the little birds was easier said than done, however, and he finally reached his breaking point when he passed one group in particular: a group of perhaps four men, ranging from private to second lieutenant, who refused to stop their chatter even as Mustang passed within feet of them.

Their laughter was quiet, but vicious, and they threw glances over their shoulders at him as he walked past: their expressions were full of – Roy frowned to see it: how could this be? – casual disgust. General Roy Mustang wouldn't stand for that kind of treatment. He squared his shoulders and turned on his heel to face them, planting himself on the ground as a mountain.

“Excuse me, gentlemen,” he started, words sharp below a veneer of friendly curiosity. “You seem to be enjoying yourselves. Any chance of you telling me what's so amusing?”

The men, startled out of their discussion, stood up straighter and collectively gained a guilty look.

“Sorry, sir. We weren't talking about anything, sir,” said one, his voice high-pitched and apologetic – Warrant Officer Everett Matthius, Roy remembered.

“My hearing must be failing me then,” said Mustang, faking surprise. Then, a threat flared up in his words. “Or perhaps it isn't. In fact, I'm sure I heard my name dropped in between all of that garbage. Anything you want to say about me, you can say to me, gentlemen. The military isn't paying you to gossip like schoolgirls.”

Though what they could be gossiping about, the general had no idea.

“In fact, you – Private McQuinn,” Mustang said, remembering Terrence McQuinn's name just in time, “go pick up a box of reports I have waiting for me down in records. And Second Lieutenant Lawrence, if you have time to chatter with your friends, you have time to report to the janitorial squad and ask which toilet needs cleaning the worst. If the rest of you still feel like you have free time, I can assign you more things to do. So get moving.”

Lawrence pulled himself up to his full height – just slightly taller than Roy, he noted with some annoyance – and stared the general straight in the eye. Not many people would have the balls to stare down the Flame Alchemist. He had to give the man credit for that.

The man pulled back his lips, and said: “I don't have to do anything you say.” There was fear or anger in his voice – Mustang couldn't tell which, and it didn't really matter.

Roy's stomach caught a burning frost.

“I'm sorry?” he asked, his voice just as icy as his his gut. “I did put my stars on this morning, didn't I? I am a general, and believe me when I say that I can make your lives miserable. I could have you court-martialed for insubordination. I could have you demoted so fast it would make you dizzy. I could send you all back to the little dark holes you crawled from,” General Mustang snapped, every word ablaze.

Beads of sweat had begun to form on Lawrence's forehead, though he didn't back down.

“You're disgusting,” said Lawrence. “You won't be a general for much longer. You're a disgrace to our uniform,” the man said, face twisted half in revulsion and half in a very real fear. Everyone knew that Roy Mustang was a dangerous man.

The general's glance scathed them all, one by one, lingering on each terrified face, before he stepped forward and brought his hands to Second Lieutenant Lawrence's neck. The man flinched away as if Roy were about to attack, but Roy was faster: he moved to Lawrence's shoulder and unpinned the single star on the gold and blue shoulder strap that indicated his rank, then did the same with the other. He tossed them to the ground.

“Report to the quartermaster for a new epaulette today. You're being demoted to sergeant,” he said, casually, then turned to Warrant Officer Matthius and unpinned the single circle from each shoulder. “And you do the same, Matthius. You're down to corporal.” He turned an icy gaze on McQuinn.

“As for McQuinn and – whoever you are,” he said to the last soldier, who he didn't know, though his epaulettes clearly stated that he was a private. “You two are already as low as you can get, so I can't even demote you, but I can ensure that you don't get a promotion for a very long time.” He paused, allowing his words time to sink in. “Now, I suggest you get out of my sight before I lose my patience.”

They didn't take a second to think before taking Roy's advice and turning tail. The general watched them go, then swept around and stalked back to his office, a storm on his face. He slammed the door open and shut it with the same force. Hawkeye and his whole team were arrayed in front of him.

“Major Hawkeye,” he began, dripping fury, “do you have any idea whatsoever what might have inspired a group of privates and warrant officers to call me 'disgusting' to my face and refuse a series of direct orders?”

The general's mind raced: his first, sickening thought had been that his actions in Ishbal had come to light – it was too early for that to happen, dammit, and he had to be the one to do it – but he quickly realized that most of the military already knew about what happened in Ishbal and didn't give a damn. Mowing down Ishballans was no crime in the Amestris military, and why not? There were no consequences for slaughtering animals, after all.

Hawkeye looked at him, solemn. In the bright morning light, he could see lines etched on her face, her eyes beginning to sag with the weight of exhaustion. Havoc watched him with something approaching pity, and Roy had to rein in the sudden surge of his rage – Havoc had done nothing wrong, he reminded himself, but he didn't need their pity, didn't want it.

“Yes, sir,” said Hawkeye, pushing herself up from her desk. “I have a very good idea. I take it you haven't seen the papers yet.”

Roy strode over to her desk and snatched the offending item off of it, snapping it open in front of his face.

His eyes lit on the first picture, the headline, and as he skimmed across the article his eyes widened, and his heart bottomed out.

*

Newly minted General Roy Mustang, Hero of Ishbal, may have a dark secret, say sources. New information has come to light suggesting that the man is not a hero, but a pervert, a sadist, and a pedophile.

Photographs taken by journalists at the Central Times confirm that General Mustang has multiple times been seen entering a bar that is a well-known front for a perverted sex club full of sexual sadism, orgies, and all manner of depravity. Anonymous sources within the establishment suggest that he has been seen there on multiple occasions, engaging in all the activities that the club has to offer.

“He comes to the club sometimes, yeah,” said one such source. “He was there less than a week ago, with some blonde kid with an automail arm and leg.”

The young man in question has proved to be the eighteen-year-old Edward Elric, the hero of the people and alchemical wunderkind. The former Fullmetal Alchemist was only twelve years old when he joined the military under the command of General Mustang. Evidence suggests that the general has lured the young man into a homosexual relationship – a “relationship” which involves this poor, innocent young man being on the receiving end of such sadism and perversities as I leave to the reader to imagine. Other sources suggest that this sexual predation began as soon as Elric entered the military at the age of twelve.

“The two of them\have been unnaturally close since he first joined the military,” said one military officer, who asked not to be identified. “Mustang let the kid get away with all kinds of things from the very beginning – let him get away with not wearing the uniform, let him spend military time on his own personal projects, paid him more than alchemists twice or three times his age... And they spent a lot of time alone together in that office of his.”

Under military law, statutory rape and fraternization with a subordinate are punishable by relieving the offender of his rank and a jail term of at least five years apiece.

Sources within the military say that General Mustang was on the short-list of men who might replace Fuhrer Hakuro when he resigns from the post. A court martial date has not yet been set.

*

The poor bastard Edward had stolen the newspaper from had absolutely nothing to do with it, he reminded himself. He clenched the paper so hard his automail tore right through it.

“I'm going to kill the son of a bitch who wrote this,” he growled, crumpling the paper in both hands. “I'm gonna fucking kill him.”

Fear crossed the man's face in a flash, and the man took a step back but Ed was way beyond caring. The paper became shreds between his hands, and fell to the floor of the train car in a rain of black and white. Half of the photograph from the front page fluttered, face up, to the other man's feet.

“Listen,” Ed snarled, shoving his finger at the man's chest for emphasis, “don't you pay any attention to the jackasses who wrote this article. Roy Mustang is the best goddamn thing to ever happen to this country. Anybody who doesn't see that is blind and stupid.

The photograph on the floor seemed to catch the man's attention then: he glanced down, then back up at Ed, then down again. The print was fuzzy, clearly taken in the dark, and the bottom right corner was gone, leaving only a ripped edge. Still, it was unmistakable: it showed Ed and Roy in front of the bar, a back-lit sign well visible at the top of the frame: “The Forbidden Fruit,” it read. His black-and-white copy had his eyes half closed, and was leaning on Roy – Is that really what I looked like when I got out of there? – and Roy was smiling at him, one arm around his waist.

“Wait a minute,” said the man, tentatively, “are you the Fullmetal Alchemist?”

That drew the eyes and ears of everyone in the compartment who wasn't already engrossed in their argument. What was he, some kind of circus freak to be gawked at?

Shit fuck shit fuck shit why do I keep going and drawing attention to myself? I coulda just sat down and shut up and then nobody woulda known I was here.

Former Fullmetal Alchemist,” he snarled instead. “And I'm the fucking expert on my own life, so you listen to me: I'm not anybody's fuckin' lap dog, and nobody fuckin lured me into anything. People are constantly deciding that I can't make decisions for myself because I'm too young but I've been a fucking adult for years and nobody seems to even notice! This whole thing is a bunch of sick lies, and you should be mindin your own business anyway. Take my advice,” he said, turning to the rest of the compartment, “if any of the rest of you've got copies of the Central Times, burn those shitrags you call newspapers, then go listen to Roy Mustang make a fucking speech. It'll do you a lot more good.”

The slam of each footstep as Ed spun around and stomped off to the other end of the train car were audible even over the rattle of the wheels across the track. A seat near the front of the compartment had no-one around it for at least five or six rows back: he slammed himself down into it and busied himself scowling out the window.

Whatever Roy's plan was to deal with all of this shit, it definitely couldn't be a better idea than just transmuting the guy into a suitcase, and it was probably way more complicated.

Ed slumped down, chin on the palm of his hand, as he glared out at the misty haze beyond the railroad tracks as if he could set it all on fire just by the intensity of his look. Smudges from the hands of a thousand passengers covered it in lined prints.

The plan was going to have to be pretty damn awesome to keep Ed from storming over to Guy Harriet's place to have a little chat with the man, because his patience was pretty much gone, and he needed a new suitcase anyway.

*

Head reeling, knuckles white, Roy gripped the chair back as he leaned over Hawkeye's desk, glancing once again over black type on grey paper, disproportionally harmful for what it was.

Too stunned even to keep hold of his earlier fury, he looked up at the group of his most ardent supporters: they were watching him, carefully, trying to judge his reaction.

“I see,” said Roy, immensely proud that his voice didn't crack on the words. “Well, that explains that.” He paused. “At least that upstanding piece of journalism was also poorly written, or we might be in some trouble,” he said, keeping his tone light. His men relaxed visibly, though he couldn't say the same for Hawkeye. She knew him too well not to recognize the mask he put on for their benefit. He was their leader, and someday he would be their Fuhrer, and he couldn't expect his men to keep calm if he himself could not. He kept his head high.

Underneath the immovable mask, perfected through long years of practice, his mind was in turmoil.

The worst of it was when they called him a pedophile. His and Edward's relationship hadn't begun until the younger man was two years past the age of consent – and two years past the age when Roy had begun to notice the definition of his muscles; his lean body, without an inch of fat on it anywhere; the strength of his jawline; the way his ass looked in those leather pants. At about sixteen, Roy's more or less academic knowledge that Ed had been an extraordinarily beautiful child and adolescent had blossomed into full-blown attraction. At sixteen he was going on thirty, a young man who was far too old for his years, jaded by the tender age of eleven and yet still determined to hold onto his idealist naïveté in a way that Roy had quietly admired. Perhaps the most extraordinary person that Roy had ever met, Fullmetal had been tantalizing and yet forbidden territory.

When Edward had still been under the then-Colonel's command, any advances would have been wildly inappropriate: fraternization was something he avoided, not because of the law, but because there was always a chance that his subordinate would be sleeping with him out of a sense of obligation rather than out of any real desire. No matter what the situation, he always wanted to know that his partner was there willingly. Even after Edward had brought his brother back to the flesh and retired from the military, which made the power difference no longer an issue, the younger man had remained extraordinary emotionally vulnerable in his own combative way. Also, he was notably uninterested.

So he waited and ignored his attraction, even as he started to become friends with the brothers. Such thoughts quickly became ordinary, unremarkable: there's paperwork in my inbox; the secretary has nice tits, I wonder if I can seduce her before the day's out; Lieutenant Hawkeye is out for my head; Fullmetal really should stop wearing those pants. Roy Mustang was a patient man. He didn't need immediate gratification.

He hadn't made a move on Fullmetal for a full two years after his sixteenth birthday. He had waited and kept his distance until after Edward had discharged himself from the military, after his greatest goals had been achieved, and after they had finally spent enough time as equals to become comfortable in the role of friends instead of as a superior officer and subordinate. In short, he had only made a move when such a relationship was unambiguously acceptable, in both the moral and legal senses.

Nobody appreciated the force of will that had taken, to wait and watch from a distance – to not just shove Ed up against a wall in his office and rut against him until he responded – until he threaded fingers through Roy's hair, gasped as Roy sucked at his pulse, moaned when Roy bit down –

“Good to see you're not too upset about the article,” said Havoc, breaking into Roy's daydream. “If it helps, we don't believe a word of it. Well, we know that some of it's true: you and the kid have been going horizontal recently, but that's not a big deal in the scheme of things. I figure somebody must have it out for you, General.” Fuery nodded vigorously, and Breda leaned back in his chair, one arm crossing his chest and the other tapping a pen against his chin. Falman just watched, his brow wrinkled as he watched everyone, and considered everything.

Roy straightened, kept his voice nonchalant.

“It just so happens,” began Roy, “that a significant portion of it is true.”

There was a stunned silence. After a moment, Havoc actually laughed in disbelief: Roy didn't blame him. The whole thing was actually quite ridiculous.

“Which parts?” asked Fuery, eyes wide. He fiddled with the pen on his desk without even seeming to notice, absently taking it apart only to put it back together again.

“Well, Edward's and my relationship began only a few months ago, which was long after both his sixteenth birthday and his departure from the military, and an absurd amount of time after the article suggests we began having one. Also, Edward is a full and willing participant in everything we do together. He has not been 'lured' or tricked into anything. Other than that.” A pause. “Other than that, in strictly the facts, it's mostly true, although I am stunned that such a poorly written article made it past the editors' desks at the Central Times. They are usually such a reputable and literate publication.”

There was a pause that was just slightly too long to be comfortable, broken once again by Havoc's laughter.

“Good one, General. You had us there for a second,” he said, grinning around his cigarette. “Funny.”

Roy sighed, ran a hand back through his bangs.

“I'm afraid I'm not joking. That photograph on the front of the paper is quite genuine.”

Another silence.

“Well goddamn,” said Breda finally, eyebrows arching. “You got caught with the Fullmetal kid going to a sex club? What the hell were you –”

“Don't ask those sorts of questions unless you really want to know the answers,” Roy said, suggestively.

Everybody in the room made a face, with the exception of Hawkeye, who was quite immune.

“Well, at least if you're gonna get your ass burned, you've done something fun on the way there,” said Havoc.

“Gentlemen,” interrupted Hawkeye, in a way intended to remind them that they decidedly were not. “We still have work to do.”

“That's right,” said Mustang, “let's stop gossiping and get someone on damage control.”

How long would it for Edward to find out? How would he react? What would the other man do? Roy wished that he could call and talk to him, but he was god-only-knew-where in some town in the east. Roy could only hope that by the time he heard about it, the whole thing had blown over a bit.

“Yeah, yeah,” said Havoc, leaning back in his chair and folding his hands behind his head. “So what's our strategy?”

General Mustang took a deep breath, pushed thoughts of Edward out of his mind, and did his best to stand under the weight of all those expectations.

*

Alphonse Elric caught Riza in the middle of her lunch, which she took at her desk that day: no time to be away from her work and visit the mess hall. A bowl of chicken and dumpling soup sat next to her, ignored, and the case file in front of her was distressingly thin. He had found her carefully inking in everything she knew about the writer of the article next to a grainy mug shot of him that she had cut out from the “About the Editors” page of the newspaper.

“Hello, Major,” he offered, as he came to stand in front of her table. The rigid tension in his shoulders made a lie of the calm smile on his lips. She nodded at him, and put her pen back in the pen holder.

“Alphonse,” she returned, lacing her hands together on the table. “Good to see you. What brings you up to the office today?” she asked, although she could guess at the gist of it.

“I'm here about that article,” he said, keeping his voice steady. “I want to know what the plan is, if that's alright by you.”

Hawkeye thought for a moment.

“Well,” she finally began, “we're starting by investigating the reporter who wrote it. Guy Harriet is his name. He's one of the senior reporters at the Central Times, and also the chief editor of the Society pages. We're looking both for anything in his past that makes him seem like an untrustworthy source, like crimes, which we could then release to other media outlets. We're also looking for any connections to political figures that might shed light on why the man wrote this.”

It was always possible that the man had written it just to be titillating, just for the extra newspaper sales that always followed a scandal, but she seriously doubted it. For this to happen so soon after Major General Mustang's promotion to full general... the timing was too perfect to not have been planned. Someone felt threatened by his presence, for one reason or another, and it was hard not to imagine reasons.

“And have you found anything useful?”

“Not yet.” But it had only been a few hours.

Alphonse nodded, and sat down in the chair on the far side of Riza's desk.

“Well, I have,” he said. “I brought you this.”

And with that, he opened up the leather bag that hung by his side and pulled out a binder, which he put on her desk and slid over to her.

“The minute I read the article, I headed over to the public library. They have an archive of newspapers going back about eighty years. I only really managed to look through the past year, though, before coming over here. In the binder, you'll find an index of all of the articles he's written since September of last year, with titles and key words. If I thought the article was especially important, I summarized it for you guys. They wouldn't let me cut up their newspapers to get you the actual article, though. But at least now you'll know where they are, so everybody can find them and analyze them.”

Hawkeye opened the binder to find, exactly as he promised, a list of article titles, page numbers, and keywords, organized beautifully even by her exacting standards.

“And you did all of this this morning?” she asked, never betraying a hint of her surprise. She shouldn't even be surprised: she knew that the Elric brothers were both geniuses. Al just lacked his brother's flash and flair, so it was easy to forget that the younger brother was a match to Edward in skill, even if their particular skills often differed widely.

Edward never would have made a list: he would have stormed into the office and told them what he had found out, and if they had asked for any kind of documentation he would have snapped back something like What the hell do I need to write any of it down for? I remember it all, isn't that good enough?

Riza much preferred Alphonse's methods.

“Yeah,” Al replied, as she browsed through page after page of articles. “I couldn't go in to the lab today, I was too distracted, so I went to the library instead. Evelyn's handling everything there right now.”

She could hear the sounds of commotion from out in the main lobby of the office complex, and wondered what the team was laughing about, now. She had a feeling that they were trading bawdy jokes about their commanding officer. She restrained her disapproval: she knew that all of them were busily pretending that the situation wasn't nearly as serious as it actually was, and that the chief way they had dealt with it was with humor – understandable, but she hoped the general wasn't anywhere around to hear their conversation.

“This is nice work.”

The young man gave her a brilliant smile, pinking at the cheeks in pleasure.

“Thank you, Major,” he said. “That means a lot, coming from you.”

She crooked a smile in return.

“Alphonse, how would you like to join the investigations team for this project?” she asked. That was probably why he had come: to try to put the idea into her head, so that she would invite him rather than him having to ask to join.

Al's smile turned calmer, pleasant, and he folded his hands in his lap, looking perfectly composed and in control.

“Oh, thank you, Major.” he said. “Yes. I would love to.”

Something about the look on his face reminded Hawkeye of General Mustang, when events were falling into place just as he had planned. She gave a soft laugh and closed the book.

*

Regardless of any personal or professional crises that may or may not have been happening at the time, General Mustang could hardly abandon his duties with regards to Ambassador Rosenthal. There was very little he himself could do about the article at the moment, he knew, and he reminded himself of this at regular intervals throughout the day. His team had full control over the matter. He had to trust them, and get on with the rest of his work.

The ambassador met him at ten o'clock, just as they had planned, in the lobby of her hotel. Some part of him wished that he could call a halt to discussion for a day – or a few days, even – but he knew that he couldn't do that. He had been the one to make the case for how important the Aerugan and Cretan issues were: if he put off discussions for a mere personal problem, then the other generals might begin to question just how important those issues were, and turn their gazes inwards again.

The understanding that he had to continue to perform didn't change the fact that Roy was undeniably distracted, and probably not at the top of his game in any sense of the word.

“Hello, Ms. Rosenthal,” he said as she descended the stairs, each step light and graceful. He gave a sweeping bow, then stood straight and gallantly offered her a hand, though of course she had no actual need of assistance. “You're looking stunning again today, if I may say so.” She did look beautiful: he'd never met anyone who could wear an unembellished white linen dress as well as she could. He would guess that she knew it, too, as her wardrobe seemed to largely consist of such dresses, in different lengths and styles.

“Flatterer,” she accused with a smile, taking his hand for the last step. “I know you say that to all the girls.” Her assistants followed behind her, each carrying a leather briefcase.

“No, only the ones who deserve it,” Roy replied, sweeping around to stand beside her. “I would only ever pay you a compliment if it were true.”

“I'll wager you say that to all the girls, too,” she said, eyes sparkling.

“That doesn't make it less accurate in this case.”

“You're very good at this, sir.” Roy laughed, and took that as the compliment it was meant to be.

“In any case, I trust you slept well? Did you enjoy the breakfast?”

At his request, each morning, room service brought her a traditional breakfast from a different region of Amestris, that she could sample his country's culture. Yesterday, they had brought her stewed flowers from the West. Today's repast had been Southern cuisine, which in this case involved a kebab stick of chicken spiced with hot peppers, next to a kebab stick of sweet and tart fruits, both with a salty yogurt dipping sauce, to satisfy all four of the traditional Southern taste categories.

“I liked it very much,” she said, as they pushed through the doors of the hotel lobby and into the fresh air of the burgeoning fall. On the steps down to the road, she paused, then glanced around, apparently looking for bystanders. Finding none, she looked back to him, and said, “What I enjoyed less was the newspaper that was also brought to my door.”

Roy kept his composure, because he had to. That was what he did. He met her eyes and tried to keep his tone light in the face of her serious expression.

“Oh, well. I hope the hotel staff isn't boring you with one of our less reputable publications.”

“Is the Central Times one of your less reputable publications?”

“Not usually, no.” Roy's pleasant mask remained steadily in place even as he deflated some inside. “However, the article on the front page was of a much lower quality than is their usual standard. I suppose that sensationalism is the fashion in reporting these days,” he finished, with a theatrical air of regret.

“So that article was a lie, then?” she asked, cocking her head to the side, watching him carefully. One thing he had learned about Ambassador Rosenthal in the past three days was that she seemed to be an excellent judge of character, and could sense a liar at a hundred paces. He would have to approach this delicately.

“Not entirely, no, although it is full of lies and half-truths, and such truths as it has are distorted in such a way that they might as well be false.”

“I see,” she said, nodding. She continued down the stair to the sidewalk, and took off in the direction of Central Command, which was less than a ten minute walk from where they stood. “I recognize that it's not any of my business, so feel free not to answer me if you don't wish to, but which parts are true, if I may ask?”

He explained the situation as best as he could without going into too much detail to be professional: he left some aspects of the article up to her imagination, hoping that she would imagine them to be untrue, even if they weren't entirely.

“I see,” she said again, as they approached the high walls of Central Command. She gave him a little half-smile. “Well, if it helps, I'm not at all bothered by it. In my country, there is a long tradition of great men taking young boys as lovers, though it's less common these days. All of the old emperors were known to do it. It was considered right and honorable for both the older and the younger partner.”

Roy kept his face straight, though he found responding to that statement to be a challenge.

“I would hardly call Edward a 'boy,' although he may be much younger than me. He's been a man for years now,” he replied, pleasantly. “And mentally he was a man long before he was legally. But none of that is particularly relevant, given that my relationship with him is quite a recent thing.”

She nodded, and they passed into the courtyard of the foreign affairs department. She knew where they were headed by this point, and he didn't even have to lead her to the correct door.

“Well, I have to say that I'm very sorry that this is happening to you. I hope it doesn't affect our professional relationship.”

“Oh, no,” he said, expertly weaving through the maze of hallways that made up the building. “I shouldn't think so. This ought to blow over by next week, at the latest. They won't be able to find any proof for their claims, and my team is furiously researching and collecting counter-evidence. All will be well.” They entered their preferred conference room and shut the door. The assistants set their briefcases down on the table and began to ruffle through them, as if hoping to find something.

“I hope so, for your sake. You seem a good man, General Mustang.”

“I appreciate you saying that,” said Roy, because he really did. “But now that all the interesting things have been taken care of, shall we get down to more important business?” he said, pulling a thick wad of carefully folded paper out of his breast pocket and flattening it out to reveal a map of Amestris, with thick red pen-lines drawn on the Western side.

“Yes, I believe we should.” She sat down in her chair, back straight, and was immediately an entirely different person: serious, unyielding, dispassionate. “I have considered the case you presented to me, and intend to prove you wrong. Those western provinces have been historically Cretan, since the early 15th century at least.”

Maybe, but then we took them over, Roy thought, wryly. We stole them fair and square. And now that they're producing iron, you want to steal them back.

“I'm happy to hear any new evidence you may have provided for your claims,” Mustang replied, then folded his hands on the table and lost himself in the game he played so well.

*

The article might as well have been a work of art: General Weimar only barely restrained himself from cutting it out and keeping it, like a badge, or a trophy. But that might connect him to it more strongly, and he had to keep this quiet.

Still, his good mood was impossible to disguise. Evening on the night of the article's publication found him smiling near-constantly as he helped his wife prepare dinner. Meredith was quieter than usual, listening to Weimar talk about his day, and speaking only to give basic directions on what she wanted done with the vegetables.

After perhaps twenty minutes of this, Mikhael stopped chopping the carrots and turned to her.

“Is something wrong, my love?” he asked her, frowning. “You've hardly said a word since I got home.”

She paused, then looked up at him, her beautiful hair falling in tight waves across her shoulders. After a moment, she said:

“I saw the front page of the Central Times this morning. I know that was your doing.”

The way she said it implied that she expected him to feel guilty.

“Yes? Of course it was. I need to discredit Mustang as quickly and thoroughly as possible, and get him demoted – or better, kicked out and jailed – so that he is no longer a threat to the country or to my own purpose.”

She frowned at him.

“I knew that you wanted to take him down, but I didn't know that it would be like this.” She looked back down at the stir fry on the skillet, and gave the vegetables a stir. “Something about it seems... Well, it seems dirty.”

Weimar put down his knife.

“Of course it's dirty. The things he has been doing are horrible, for a number of reasons. I wish you didn't have to see that article. I wish you didn't have to know such things existed.”

Meredith had never been entirely innocent of the evils of the world, but he wished that he could, at least, protect her from the most disgusting of human habits.

She added more of her sauce to the stir fry without glancing at him.

“Of course what he was doing is very strange, and also wrong. But it seems dirty to me that you would stoop to that level to get rid of your political opponents. General Mustang was charming and kind when we had him to our house for coffee. I understand that his political views would be detrimental to the nation as a whole, but couldn't you take him on honorably? I'm sure that the Fuhrer would come to see it your way if you made your case well enough.”

Part of what he loved about Meredith was her utter faith in people. Her naïveté about the political process was really quite charming. With silver tongs, she took two breasts of chicken off of the skillet and placed them on their own individual plates.

“Meredith, I'm glad you have so much faith in my abilities. And Mustang is charming and polite, as you said – but the fact that he is so charming is a large portion of what makes him so dangerous. His personal charisma has blinded many people to the folly of his political ideas. They see his pretty face, and listen to his clever flattery, and all of a sudden his ridiculous proposals seem really quite reasonable after all. He's an Ishballan apologist, Mary,” he said, those two words spat out like a curse.

“I believe you – he seems the type. And I see that that's wrong. But I can't help but wonder if part of the reason you're attacking him in the way that you are, instead of in any other way, is because you're jealous,” she said, the softness of her tone knifing into him like nothing else could.

The words were an electric shock.

“Because I'm what?”

“Jealous,” she said, even more quietly, lifting the pan up to scrape the cooked vegetables out of it onto their plates.

His mind ran through the possibilities. Jealous of Mustang – for what?

“Why on earth would I be jealous of that man?”

“Why indeed,” she murmured. “Would you put the carrots you chopped on the salad and take your plate to the table, please?”

*

The long day had faded to night by the time Ed arrived at Roy's house, exhausted both from the travel and from the effort of trying to keep his own anger fueled. Eventually, even his prodigious talent for fury had failed him, and the rage had collapsed to be replaced by worry: the best and worst thing about train rides was that they left you with vast stretches of silence, where your thoughts would go on. He could think too much sometimes, and that tendency didn't help him any now: over the course of the trip Ed had imagined a thousand different scenarios, and only about half of which involved him getting a new suitcase.

Through the curtains of the front window, Edward could see the warm glow of Roy's living room lights. Without knocking, he unlocked the door and went straight inside.

The man sitting, legs crossed, on the front couch didn't really look any different from how he had the last time Edward had seen him. A short glass of what Edward guessed was scotch balanced on Roy's knee, supported only by the light press of thumb and forefinger. Judging from the level of amber liquid in the bottle next to him, this glass probably hadn't been Roy's first. In his other hand, the man held a book: he stared at the pages, and didn't look up when his front door opened.

Ed shut the door and put his key back in his pocket.

“Hey,” he offered, taking off his boots with more respect than usual: he didn't even throw them in a corner, but set them without a fuss onto the wooden rack where they belonged. “How're you doing?”

“You're back early. I take it you've seen the papers?” asked Roy, not even looking at Ed. The affectation of nonchalance didn't help Ed's worry: by this point, he knew what his lover's defense mechanisms looked like.

“Just the one article. Were there more?”

He crossed the room to Roy, sat down by him. Should he move to touch the man? He didn't know.

“Not really anything important, though another journalist got wind that I was going to be a story and published a rather unflattering biography of me. Reporters have been calling my house left and right, hoping to get some sort of comment. I actually had to disconnect my phone. And it hasn't just been me – even the Hugheses have been getting an extraordinary volume of calls. The reporters keep hoping they'll get some kind of confirmation for their theories from an old friend, I suppose.”

Ed groaned and let his head fall backwards to bounce off the top of the couch. He didn't want to think about Gracia Hughes knowing what he did in bed.

“And Al?”

“He's gotten one or two calls, he says, but your telephone number is not publicly accessible in the same way mine is. You didn't have a number when you were in the military records, and that's probably where they got both mine and the Hugheses' from.”

“Sons of bitches,” Edward said, unable to summon up his earlier fury.

“Indeed,” replied Roy, without expression. “I had hoped you wouldn't have to hear about this, given that you were in the middle of nowhere when the story broke.” His eyes had stopped scanning the page of his book, resting on one swooping illustration of a transmutation circle, bound on the outside by the encircling dragon.

“I might not have if Al hadn't told me something was up when I called this morning.”

“I see. Of course he wouldn't want to leave you in the dark.”

Edward almost felt like he ought to be offended by the fact that Roy had wanted to leave him in the dark, but somehow was not. The sentiment was appreciated, in any case: Roy knew how little he liked dealing with political bullshit, and kept him entirely out of it when he could.

“Yeah. He also told me that I wasn't allowed to go find the guy who wrote the stupid goddamn article until I came and talked to you.”

Roy laughed, strained, and for the first time looked over at Ed.

“Well, thank Alphonse for me. He's right. It wouldn't do for you to go attack this man. The papers would have a field day. It would be all across the country: Roy Mustang hires assassins to keep his secrets from getting out.”

Ed scowled. He had suspected that Roy would say something along those lines, but that didn't make it any less disappointing to hear.

“I'm not an assassin,” said Ed staring in the other direction. “I don't kill people.”

“Well, that I hire the most incompetent assassins in history, then,” said Roy. Out of the corners of his vision, Ed could see the edges of a soft smile, and that impossibly fond look that Roy sometimes favored him with. Ed blushed and shrunk down further.

“You give the weirdest compliments,” said Ed, even as he sprawled himself out so he was maybe just a teeny bit closer to the other man.

“I also like to stick to true compliments, so with you, it's natural that the two would go together.”

Roy moved his glass of scotch to the side table, then leaned forward to trace a finger down a strand of hair that had come loose from Ed's ponytail and become plastered to his neck. He spoke again, before Ed could say anything.

“I expected you to be on fire when you heard,” he said, drawing the finger around in little circles on Ed's neck. The blonde shivered at the faint sensation, riding the edge between uncomfortable and sensual.

“I was. I've just had a day of train rides and walking to cool me down. I'm too fuckin' tired to be mad right now. I will be again tomorrow. 'Sides, I figured that it was your turn to get to be all immature and upset, right? I've done enough of that,” he added with a lopsided grin. “But goddamn you, I come back and here you are, being all mature and shit, like always. You're always so fucking calm about everything.”

Apparently, Roy had some kind of unreasonable obsession with Ed's hair, because he kept on stroking the ponytail lightly, then bent in to kiss it where it spilled over Ed's shoulder.

“I'm going to take that as a compliment,” the general said, as he pulled away from the kiss. A pause: he looked Edward in the eyes. “So you don't have a problem with this?” he asked. “With what they said about you?”

“Of course I have a fuckin problem with it,” said Edward, crossing his arms with force. “They're liars and closed-minded bastards, and I'm still pissed off that nobody takes me seriously 'cause I'm young. I'm not even that young anymore, those fucking bastards. The military let me sign up for the death squad when I was twelve, they were perfectly happy to let me get fucked over back then, but now that I'm finally choosing who I fuck they freak the hell out? What kind of bullshit logic is that? And I just can't get over the fact that they're dragging you down over something that stupid anyway.”

Roy laughed and kissed him on the lips, which Ed thought was a bit of a weird response to what he had said.

“What I really meant when I asked that question, Edward,” said Roy, pressing his lips to the corner of his lover's mouth, “was, are you okay with being with me through all of this? Are you going to take off and disappear into the countryside without telling me? Are you going to leave me?”

Edward uncrossed his arms with just as much violent force and punched Roy in the arm, because he deserved it.

“Ow,” said Roy, faking injury.

“Don't be a dumbasss. Doesn't matter at all what other people think about us.” It didn't. Not at all. “'S long as you want me around, I'll be around. You and I are good. No problem there, unless you keep being a dumbass about it, in which case the only problem is that you're being a dumbass. If you ask me something like that again I'll break your face.”

“But I thought you liked my face,” said Roy, feigning hurt again but doing it very poorly: a grin was spreading across said face, slow but bright as fire.

“I do like your face,” Ed conceded. “It's kinda pretty, and it's attached to a body that turns me on like you wouldn't believe.”

“Oh, I don't know, I might,” said Roy, sliding a hand across to his lover, onto Ed's knee, up to his crotch. “I'm something of an expert in the area.”

“Yeah?” Edward said, words beginning to sound choked. “And modesty ain't one of your virtues.”

“Well,” said Roy, “I know that I'm excellent at what I do.” His voice dropped all in an instant to a growl. “And what I love to do is to make you writhe and scream and beg for more.”

“You think you're that good, huh?” Edward said, licking his lips, as they had suddenly gone very dry. “Well, I don't believe anything without evidence. So prove it to me.”

Then, like an animal, Roy sprung: pinned to the couch by two strong hands, by a warm body, by the heavy press of Roy's erection to his own, it was all Ed could do to keep breathing. The general brought their mouths together, his tongue breaking through the barrier of Ed's lips to plunder his mouth. Ed kissed back in a fury, the passion washing down through him to pool in his gut. After a moment, the general pulled away, taking a deep breath.

“Is that it?” asked Edward, mouth twitching up into a smirk as soon as it was unoccupied, “Man, after all that big talk, I was expecting somethin' a little more spectacular than that.”

“Shut up, Fullmetal,” said Roy, pushing himself upward to let his eyes rake up and down Ed's body. “Stop pretending that I don't own you. I'll have you, and you'll love it.”

And then, suddenly, Roy's words stopped – the fire in his eyes went out, and Ed's breath came back. He rolled off of the younger man to sit on the edge of the couch and, propping his elbows on his knees, put his head in his hands. Edward sat up, frowning.

“Roy?” he asked, because his his role seemed no longer appropriate for this moment. “What's wrong?”

“I can't do this right now,” the older man said, quiet, tired. “I thought it would make me feel better, help me calm down and get rid of some of this tension, but I can't do it. I just feel guilty.”

Ed stared at his lover, confusion marking his face.

“Um, about what, exactly?” The press of arousal low in his gut put a hitch in his normal though processes.

“I don't know. It's stupid. It's just that, even if those accusations are lies, they hit a little bit close to home. You were so innocent and virginal before I got to you. I actually and literally ordered you into our first sexual situation. I can't help but feel like I may have been taking advantage of your sexual needs for my own benefit.”

The confusion gave way to anger in moments, partly at Roy for saying something like that, but mostly at the man who had written the motherfucking bunch of lies that had stained the front of that goddamn newspaper that morning. Ed's fist met Roy's shoulder for the second time that evening – but harder this time, with feeling. He tried to take deep breaths, to keep his cool like Roy would have if their positions had been flipped, but fuck it: he was very different from the General, because even though maybe he should stay calm, he really didn't want to, so he spat:

“Don't you dare belittle my choice in being here, General.” He almost hissed the last word. On his feet in a second, hands balled up by his sides, Ed used the sudden difference in their heights to bear down on the older man. “That's what those bastards at the newspapers are doing – you're all acting like I didn't have a choice, like I'm some kind of toy that you toss around when you wanna, or a kicked puppy that follows you everywhere 'cause it doesn't know any better. Well, breaking news for you: I'm not a pet, I'm not a kid, I've been making my own decisions and taking care of myself since I was ten. You were the one who showed me that our play isn't something you do to me, it's something we do together – so if you know what's fucking good for you you'll stop acting like I'm some sort of mindless idiot who isn't smart or strong enough to decide what I want to do and what I don't want to do. Respect me enough to let me make my own goddamn choices.”

Ed took a deep breath and closed his eyes to the look of shock and pain that crossed Roy's face. Then, he opened them again, put out a hand to rest on the man's shoulder, and said:

“But it's okay if you can't get into it tonight. That's not what I'm mad about.” Another deep breath, and the lines on his lover's face lightened some, though they didn't go away. “You've had a really bad day, and even though it sucks that you can't get rid of your stress the way you like best, there are lots of other ways, too.”

Ed sat down again, right beside the man, and pressed a kiss to the back of Roy's shoulder through the linen of his button-down shirt, still crisp and clean even after his long day. Roy looked back at him in surprise: Ed wasn't given to displaying affection in such a way. With the exception of when they were fucking or generally in some sort of sexual situation together, Ed was far more likely to hit his lover than to kiss him, to curse at him rather than compliment him, but today... Ed knew he was at least in part responsible for everything bad that had happened that day, and if it ended up derailing Roy's career, he wasn't sure if he would forgive himself. The least he could do, right in that moment, was provide a brief comfort to the man. No one else was going to. No one else could.

The remnants of Roy's mask sank for just that moment below a sudden wash of exhaustion, and Edward saw age creep up over the older man as a sickness, painting his skin sallow and his eyes shadowed. He tried out a smile, and Ed hurt.

“Listen, just – let me get dinner tonight,” Edward said, squeezing the other man's shoulder. “Sit right there and keep reading, or do whatever it is you do when I'm not around. Build card houses. Organize your kitchen. Listen to music. Learn interpretive dance, whatever.” Roy smiled again, more genuinely this time, the shadows in his furrowed brow lightening. “But I'll come back with pasta or something, and we'll talk about my research and your notes and nothing at all that has anything to do with this, 'kay? Sound like a plan?”

A fond look grew across Roy's face as he reached a hand up to squeeze Ed's hand where it was still resting on his shoulder. The exhaustion began to drain away from his face and shoulders, and he sat up straighter again. Ed's cheeks tinted pink, and he looked away, suddenly really realizing that he had been caught out in that moment of affection, and Roy wasn't about to forget it.

“Thank you, Edward,” he said, and Ed didn't look back to him.

“Yeah, yeah,” he muttered, cheeks reddening further, feeling somehow unreasonably pleased with himself. “Well, enjoy it, 'cause I'm not gonna go making a habit out of it, you got me?”

If Roy would keep looking at him like that, he'd make a habit out of just about anything.

“Perfectly,” said Roy, fondly, like he didn't believe the younger man at all. Dammit, Ed had the worst luck: he already had a psychic little brother and then he got a psychic lover, too. “But regardless, thank you.”

“Whatever,” said Edward, and turned for the door.

***

Chapter Text

Chapter 4

*

For all of his earlier shock and fury, the whole situation didn't really hit home until that night. His trip to the restaurant and retrieval of food occurred without incident: he let himself think of other things, of his research and transmutation circles and just why the plants in Group F of this leg of his experiments seemed to be growing in random shapes, seemingly unregulated by biology or logic. It was frankly irritating to find out that a particular hypothesis was wrong.

His silent musings on science and horticulture were interrupted when, coming back down the road with a paper bag full of food in his hand, he noticed something moving in the bushes in front of Roy's house. Suspicious, a cold dread growing in his stomach, he increased his pace, stepping lightly and silently as he could.

Peering over the short, wooden fence, he saw a thing that made his blood run hot: a man in a fedora hat, kneeling down behind Roy's hedge, pulling back branches with one arm to give the camera he held in his other a clear shot at Roy's front door.

For a moment, he couldn't do much more than just stand there bewildered – this was so far out of his realm of experience and expectation that he took a few moments to even comprehend what he was seeing. His primal instincts clicked into gear before his brain did.

He put one hand on the fence and vaulted over it to land a few short feet behind the other man. Apparently the man was so engrossed in what he was doing that he had lost his hearing, because he didn't seem to notice Edward's arrival.

“What the hell,” he began, voice low and utterly dangerous, “do you think you're doing?”

The man spun around and to his feet, guilt spreading across his face: but then, his eyes lit on Edward, and a rush of delight infused the guilt immediately.

“Are you the Fullmetal Alchemist?” he asked, entirely too eagerly.

“That's none of your goddamn business,” Edward said, the growl growing in volume. “What the hell are you doing on Roy's lawn?”

The man's eyes became uneasy, and they flickered back and forth between the camera and the snarl on Ed's face.

“Um, I'm documenting the life of one of Amestris's most important figures,” the man said.

Documenting?” said Edward, with an incredulous laugh, his teeth bared. “What you're doing is fucking trespassing and violating privacy laws so you can try to smear shit all over Roy's name, just 'cause you find it kinda fun.”

The man seemed to have an answer prepared for this one, although he took a step back as Edward took a step forward.

“Reporting on the private lives of Amestrian public figures and celebrities is legal under section 8 of –”

“I don't give a flying fuck what you think you're quoting, the law never says that you can sneak onto private property to take photos of somebody without their permission, and it never says that you can fucking lie about them and expect it to be covered under 'freedom of the press' or what-the-fuck-ever.”

The little smirk the man gave him only fanned the flames.

“Mr. Elric, I only intend to present the truth. Photographs don't lie,” he said, in such a smarmy voice that Ed began to find restraining himself from violent battery extremely challenging.

“Like hell you do, and like hell they don't! Did you get any fun shots? Huh?” Ed sneered, balling his hands into fists. “Anything you could put in your paper next to an article telling people what a fucking pervert he is?”

“So you admit that he's a pervert?” the man asked, brightening up considerably. “If you could give me any details on –”

Real rage bubbled in him then, bursting through his determined calm: he dropped his bag and lunged forward, grabbing the man by the collar and pushing him back against the hedges hard enough that sharp branches scratched at them both. Sweat began to bead on the man's forehead, his upper lip: to a stupid fucking nobody like this man, Ed knew he must look terrifying, painted in the hard, angry shadows cast by the long light of the streetlamps.

“Stop twisting my words!” he snarled, fisting the shirt harder between his fingers, tightening the collar until it was nearly choking the man. “You and everybody in your whole damn job can go fuck themselves. I'm not saying a word to you except fuck the hell off, and you can quote me on that.”

With the backs of his legs pressed up against the bush and his face flushing red from lack of oxygen, the man looked so scared and pathetic that a sudden disgust replaced Ed's rage. He shoved the man back so he fell ungracefully onto the hedge, then took a few steps back to put some distance between the two of them. Unable to do anything else, he planted his feet and crossed his arms.

“The only reason – the only reason – I didn't kick your ass just now is because Mustang asked me not to. So I hope you know how goddamn lucky you are, and keep telling yourself that.” He paused, took a deep breath, and locked hard eyes on the other's.

“Now, get the fuck off of his property before I decide that the admission fee is a broken nose and a fancy-ass camera, you got me?”

The whimpering sort of noise the man made as he picked himself up out of the greenery and got to his feet was more satisfying than it ought to have been.

“You're going to regret threatening me,” he said, shakily, as he began his retreat, giving Edward a few feet of berth as he went.

“Am I?” said Edward, sharply. “Seems to me like it's prob'ly gonna be the best part of my day.”

The man, apparently having no idea what else to do, turned tail and fled. Leaning on the short fence so he could stretch over and keep watching the man, Ed waited until he had disappeared around the corner at the far end of the street before picking up his bag from where he had dropped it and turning to the door.

With a clap of his hands, he transmuted the lock open, only to find Roy standing barely two feet on the other side of the opening door.

“Oh. Hey,” said Edward, masking his surprise. He brought the bag of take-out up and practically shoved it in Roy's chest. “I brought food.”

“I thought I heard raised voices outside,” Roy said, frowning. “Is everything alright?”

“Raised voices?” said Edward, innocently. “I dunno, I didn't hear anything. Maybe some cats got in a fight. Is pasta with meat sauce cool?” He shut the door, which Roy took as his cue to turn around and walk back into the living room again, then through into the kitchen. “I got that angel hair shit you like so much, and garlic bread, too. Everything cool here?”

Roy looked suspicious.

“I'm certain I heard you. Your voice isn't the kind that one confuses with others.”

Ah, damn. It would have been nice if Roy didn't have to know about this at all.

“I guess it isn't. But don't worry about it. I took care of it,” he said, setting the bag down on the kitchen table and tearing it down the side so he didn't have to bother trying to maneuver the food boxes out of it. He took one box out and set it in the place in front of him, and set another on the place-mat in Roy's usual spot..

“Took care of what?” Mustang asked, an eyebrow raised. “And don't eat out of the box like a barbarian,” he added, as Ed opened the box and sat down. “We're perfectly capable of eating off of plates, like civilized human beings, even if we're getting take-out.”

“I just don't see the point in getting' a plate dirty when there's nothin wrong with the box. It just makes cleanup easier. Put the boxes in the trash, rinse off your forks, an' then you're done.”

At least Roy seemed to find that amusing.

“I guess that it won't hurt anything for one night,” the man said, going over to his silverware drawer and pulling out a set of forks. He turned back to Edward, sat down in the seat, then fixed the younger man in an intense stare. “But you never answered my question. Took care of what?”

Dammit, he should have known that Roy wouldn't be thrown off so easily. He opened the box with the garlic bread in it and tore off the lid, so they could both access it and it didn't annoy him by flopping shut randomly, as take-out box lids tended to do. The lasagna waiting in his own box assaulted his nose with its rich aroma, and Ed knew from experience that it tasted as good as it smelled.

“Nothin' major,” he said, as he took the fork from Roy and carved off his first piece of the delicious creation. Quite unable to wait any longer, he shoved it in his mouth, then continued, speaking around his food. “I just found a reporter sneaking around in your shrubs with a camera and told him to get the fuck off your property. Nothin I couldn't handle.”

Mustang's already raised eyebrow arched further.

“Don't talk with your mouth full,” Roy admonished, more intensely than he had probably intended. “And... how exactly did you handle this issue?”

Ed didn't stop chewing, but replied:

“Like I said, I told him to get the fuck off your property. I didn't break any bits of him, if that's what you were wonderin'. Or his camera, either,” Edward said, swallowing, then shoving another bite in his mouth. “Seriously. Cut me some slack. You told me not to go doin' anything stupid, and I'm not gonna.”

The smile Roy gave him then made his restraint entirely worth it, though it didn't dispel the weight that had settled in the place where his emotions usually went.

“Is that so?” the man asked, taking the torn paper bag and setting it on the floor next to them, so it didn't get in the way of their conversation. “Well, thank you, Edward. You handled that with remarkable maturity,” he said, then picked up his fork and began to spin his pasta onto it.

“Hey, you sayin' I'm not mature usually?” Ed shot back, around the lasagna in his cheek. “I'm twice as fuckin' mature as you are, you bastard.”

“Indeed,” said Roy, amused. “Yes, you astound me every day with both your ability to take care of yourself and your table manners.”

“Hey, I can fucking take care of myself! I've been doin' it since I was ten.” He ripped off a hunk of garlic bread and shoved it in his mouth.

“Really. I've never heard tell of you doing your own laundry.”

Edward flushed. So his brother did most of the household chores, big deal. He liked that sort of shit. So Ed didn't really know how to do most of it. So what? That was what he had Al for.

“That's got nothin' to do with anything.”

“Of course it doesn't,” Roy replied, with a little smile. Ed had just started to steel himself for another round of taunting when the man said: “In any case, I appreciate what you've done for me – I can imagine that restraining yourself in that situation was difficult, you being who you are. The press can be rather irritating, but I would really rather not make the situation worse than it already is by giving them any more ammunition to use against me.”

“Yeah, I know,” Edward muttered, swirling his fork around in the extra sauce. “That's the only reason I didn't fuckin' do anything.”

For a moment, Mustang watched him carefully, then said:

“Are you alright, though? I can see how your encounter would be upsetting.”

Ed flashed his lover a wide grin that was almost genuine.

“What, me? Upset, over somethin' so stupid? Who the hell do you take me for?”

Roy smiled softly, distantly.

“Of course. How silly of me,” he said, and took another bite.

*

Alphonse recognized the look that his brother wore when he came home the next morning: over the course of many years, it had become sadly familiar. His expression, drawn tight across his tired face, was pained, jaded – it was a particular look, one he only wore when he was world-weary and sick of believing the best of people only to have them turn around and prove him wrong.

If you had asked Ed, he would have told you that he had long ago stopped believing the best of people, but Al knew that deep within him, that last bit of idealism had yet to completely choke. That fragile, hidden piece of Edward was hurting. Sitting on their couch in his travel clothes, his hair in disarray, he looked a smaller person than he had been when he had left.

“Hey,” offered Al, leaning on the entrance to the kitchen, arms crossed.

“Hey,” replied Ed, trying out a smile for his little brother’s sake. It fell flat. “How’s it been?”

Ed could have been asking any number of things with those words. He would want to know how the media had been treating his little brother, how said little brother was holding up, how all of Roy's team was holding up, how the country was responding... Al answered the first one, which was the only one he knew the answer to.

“I haven’t had any trouble here. How’s General Mustang?”

“Holdin’ up. He’s got a plan, as always.” He moved to sit on the couch, and folded his hands in his lap.

“Yeah, as always,” Al said, strangely proud as he continued: “He actually has me doing investigations on this guy, you know.”

The smile Ed gave in response was genuine this time, though hardly free or easy.

“He said he had his best people on it. I thought he meant somebody actually in investigations, but of course he meant you.”

The words triggered a smile in Alphonse. Edward's absolute, dogged faith in him meant more than a million words of praise from anyone else.

“Well, I’m under the direction of one of the investigations guys, so it’s not just me. But still.”

“He couldn't teach you anything you couldn't figure out all on your own. I’m proud of you,” he said, leaning over to give his little brother's head to give his hair a ruffle. Al wrinkled his nose and pulled away, but didn't really mind. The couch creaked as Edward leaned back again, throwing an arm over the back in an attempt to look casual.

He wondered if he should make tea – but no, Edward had never liked tea much. It had never seemed to help him in the way it helped Al. And yet, the way he was sitting, crumpled against the arm of the couch, made Al want to do something for him. Long years of being trapped inside of a suit of armor had made him unused to physical contact: it never occurred to him to cross the distance and give his brother a hug.

“So, how are you holding up?” Al asked, watching his brother closely. “This must be hard for you, too. They said some awfully nasty things about you.”

Ed shrugged.

“Eh, I’m okay. I don’t let the shit other people spout bother me too much.”

“Brother…” Al said, giving the other a look. There was no point in Ed trying to hide anything from him. The lie was plain on every line of his face.

“What?” said Edward, looking a bit embarrassed, then pressing his lips together. “Really, I’m fine.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“Well, fuckin believe me, ‘cause I mean it,” Ed snapped. Some life started coming back into his face as he continued. “'m not upset or whatever. I'm just mad that those newspaper fuckers'd say something like that about Roy. He’s the best thing that ever happened to this country, and he’s gonna make the best damn Fuhrer in history, too.” His face twisted into some expression halfway between a scowl and a look of pain. “The article’s almost just worse ‘cause half of it’s true, but it’s not anybody’s goddamn business what Roy and I do in bed.” Then, quieter, mumbled: “Dunno why they’ve got such a problem with it anyway.”

Even though Ed had, over time, gotten over most of his issues with regards to his and General Mustang’s activities, Al knew that guilt and shame died hard in his brother's head. Al frowned.

“You know that this isn’t your fault, Brother.”

“I know, Al.”

“You're lying to me again,” Al said, absolutely confident in his diagnosis.

“What? No I'm not! Why would I lie?” Ed said, feigning a very nearly convincing surprise.

“To keep me from worrying about you, of course,” he said, smiling. “But it won't do you any good. I’m going to worry about you for the rest of your life whether you want me to or not, so you might as well just talk to me.”

The sinking of Edward's shoulders was not at all Al's intended result.

“It's not your problem, Al,” he said, voice little more than a murmur.

Something cracked inside of Alphonse then, letting all kinds of inconvenient emotions out.

“Why do you always say things like that?” Al asked, his voice raising in pitch as the emotions came out in his voice. “You always want to handle everything alone. Well, tough! You can't do everything by yourself! If it were me in this situation, you'd be up night and day trying to figure out how to help! Why won't you let me do for you what you would do for me? You have to trust me.”

The look Edward gave him might have been hurt.

“I do trust you, Al. More than anyone.”

“You don't trust me enough to let me help you,” said Al, even though he knew that was a little bit manipulative, maybe just a bit... But it was for the greater good, he told himself.

“It's not that I don't trust you to take care of me, it's just that I don't want you to have to.”

“But I want to. You’re my brother. You’re more important to me than anyone else in the world.”

Ed snorted.

“Even more important than Winry?’

Al could feel himself start to blush. He had kissed her for the first time not long ago, and she seemed to have liked it as much as he had. Thinking about it still gave him little fluttery feelings in his stomach.

“You would never make me choose,” said Al, with confidence. “Just like I would never make you choose between me and General Mustang. In any case, that’s not the point. The point is that we're brothers, and we take care of each other. It doesn't just go one way. You should talk to me – it helps, I promise, and I know when you’re lying to me. I have selective telepathy.”

He tapped his forehead to emphasize the point. Ed smiled and tugged some hair back into place.

“Are you worried?” Al prompted, after a silence.

“Yeah, I guess,” said Edward, words slow and thoughtful. “I dunno what’s gonna happen, and no matter what you say, I know it’s still my fault that Roy’s in such deep shit.”

Al shook his head, forceful.

“If somebody was following him around with a camera, like they seem to have been, they would have found out about the General’s interests anyway, whether he was going about it with you or not.”

This was true enough, for what it was.

“Yeah, but if it wasn't with me, they wouldn't have made him out to be some kind of – some kind of pedo freak. He’s a freak, sure – but not the pedo kind,” Ed added with a laugh that sounded almost a bit distressed.

“I know,” said Al, soothingly. “But you know, it will all come clear in the end. It will. General Mustang's whole team is putting everything that they possibly can into clearing his name, and so am I. If we work hard enough, we'll get what we want. That's equivalent. I promise that everything will be fine.”

For a moment, Edward's troubled frown deepened – but after a beat, two, he smiled.

“I guess it's a good thing that at least one of us is an optimist.”

“Well, somebody has to be your voice of reason. You can be so cynical sometimes, Brother.”

Ed laughed, unhappily.

“Well, can ya blame me? I dunno how you've managed to stay so upbeat all these years If there's a god, then he's an asshole. He just likes kicking us when we're down – or when we're up, whatever. Guess the bastard thinks it's funny. Doesn't that get you frustrated?”

Half hunched over on the couch, one arm slung over a raised knee, Ed looked so tense that Al had to do something for him.

He stood and walked around to stand behind the couch: Ed's head twisted to follow him, his expression furrowed in confusion. Gently, Al turned his brother's head back to the front, then put his hands on the other's shoulders and squeezed the hard muscle there, held it for a moment, then released it. Ed gave a long sigh as Al relaxed his grip.

“No, it doesn't frustrate me,” said Al, squeezing the muscle again, then beginning to knead gently. He was rewarded with a pleased noise from his brother. “It doesn't frustrate me at all. Life is full of challenges, Brother, and challenges give us a chance to show our stuff. If we have harder ones than a lot of people – well, it just means that when we overcome them, we get twice as much in return.”

Ed made another pleased hum as Al's thumbs dug into the base of his neck, first breaking up the tension with intense pressure, then soothing the area.

“This is why I keep you around, Al,” he said, beginning to relax into his brother's touch. “Sometimes I guess I need a kick in the ass to get walking again. That, and apparently you give great shoulder massages,” he said, letting himself hang forward so Al could have better access, then made another pleased hum. “I officially regret the fact that you never did this when we were hunting for the Stone.”

“You seemed like you needed one,” Al replied, smiling, suddenly glad that Winry had insisted he learn the art of the shoulder rub. He wondered if someday, she might let him give her a full-body massage, or might give him one herself... He doused those thoughts before they could get even more interesting, and pulled himself back to the conversation at hand. More quietly, he said: “But I know that you would get up on your own, even without me. You're too stubborn just to lie there and take it. Really, it just makes you twice as determined to prove you can do it anyway.” Ed laughed.

“Hey, life kicks me, I kick back, it's equivalent exchange, and everybody's happy.”

“Especially since you got the last word,” Al said, with some amusement, working inward to Ed's neck and the base of his skull. “Or the last kick in this case, I guess.”

“Well, that helps too. Seriously, Al. Sometimes I wonder just how other people get by without little brothers to keep them sane.”

“I imagine they manage somehow,” said Al, more touched than he would say.

*

The headlines the next day were explosive, full of exaggerations and exclamation points.

GENERAL MUSTANG CAUGHT ABUSING MALE LOVER!

EXPOSED: THE SECRET LIFE OF GENERAL ROY MUSTANG!

DR WATERS: HOMOSEXUALS CLINICALLY INSANE, DANGERS TO THEMSELVES

“Both of them should be locked up for crimes against decency.”

“'The homosexual affliction is not a crime, but a disease to be cured,' says popular psychiatrist Dr. Waters.”

“Mustang should not just be court-martialed, but prosecuted to the full extent of the law for the rape of a minor and for domestic abuse.”

“'We have been lobbying for anti-perversion laws to be put into effect for years now,' says one community organizer representing the group called Amestrians for a Brighter Tomorrow. 'This scandal only goes to show that such laws are absolutely necessary. If we locked up homosexuals and other sexual deviants before they committed these kinds of offenses rather than after, then young boys would be safe from this kind of assault.'”

Alphonse must have been a masochist himself, to go out before dawn and collect a copy of all of the papers published in Central City to peruse every messed-up, painful article. If he was going to investigate the case, he would need to keep up with all the news, no matter how sick it made him.

He read them, then burned them all in the fireplace before his brother woke up.

“Good morning, Brother,” he said, when Ed staggered down the stairs in only his boxer shorts, yawning, his hair a fuzzy mess: he had apparently forgotten to take it out of its braid the night before. “I've made pancakes. With chocolate chips,” he added, just in case they didn't sound appealing enough already.

Ed's expression went from half-asleep to lit up like a fire in a fraction of a second, and he was down the stairs as fast as Al could blink. His eyes fell on the stack of pancakes next to Al, and he grinned, bright and unimpeded. Warming at the sight, Al did his best to memorize the expression: he had a feeling that it might be a while before he saw his brother smile like that again.

*

The musty parchment-and-leather scent of old books was strongest back in the archives, where there was scarcely ever a visitor to disturb its rule: it enveloped Al like a security blanket, well-worn and familiar. The first time he had entered a library after getting his body back, the smell had actually brought tears rushing to his eyes: Edward had gotten this frantic look on his face, had started asking if Al was okay, if he needed a doctor, if he needed to sit down –

Al had laughed, then, out of sheer happiness: his brother's concern was touching, but not necessary. Of course he was okay. Few things in his life had felt more right than his first time navigating the labyrinthine collections of one of Central's most revered institutions on his own two feet.

Never again would he take even something like the smell of books for granted: but these days, the scent was more a comfort than a revelation, and it supported him as he pored through the Central Times archive. This paper declared the date to be July 18, 1915 – three years past, now. Interestingly, but not terribly importantly, Guy Harriet seemed to have written an article on Edward's exploits in the northern town of Anvale, where he had rid the nearby woods of a pack of escaped chimeras and tossed the alchemist who had created them in jail, to await trial for at criminal neglect at the very least and manslaughter at the worst. She had tried to hide her tracks, Al remembered, and had refused to own up to her mistake, which had made his brother terrifyingly angry.

At the point when he had written this piece, at least, Harriet had seemed to have some respect for Edward. Then again, it was never Edward that Harriet had seemed to blame for his and Mustang's relationship in his horrible article. It was always General Mustang. That was interesting to note.

Al sighed and put down the paper, folding it up again and putting it back in the archival folder he had taken it from, then moved on to the next one. Beside him, Myamar, the library cat, twitched in her sleep and curled up tighter on top of the stack of newspapers the alchemist had already examined. He gave her an absent scratch on the head, and she buried her nose further under her paw.

He shook the paper out, then scanned it for a moment – after a moment, his eyes lit on one headline in particular.

B. GEN. TORRIMAN CAUGHT IN TRYST WITH SISTER?

The photograph on the front of the paper showed a man – Brigadier General Torriman, presumably – with his arms around a woman, probably his sister, bending in for what looked like a kiss – though with the angle of the shot making their exact position unclear, he could have been aiming for her lips, or her cheek, or just leaning over to whisper something in her ear.

He continued on with the article:

Brigadier General Torriman has been advised to remain away from the media spotlight after allegations arose suggesting that he had carnal relations with his sister. News emerged over the weekend stating that Miss Torriman – allegedly a virgin – had been to see a doctor for issues of a feminine variety.

The article continued on in much that same vein for about ten paragraphs, though Al's favorite line by far was: The Brigadier General refused to answer reporters' questions as to when he began his sordid relationship with his sister, because it expertly implied that General Torriman was avoiding media questioning for reasons of self-protection. Al thought it rather more likely that the man had simply said “No comment” to all questions posed by the media – but that hardly made good storytelling!

The byline, surely enough, credited Guy Harriet with the article.

Carefully, Alphonse transcribed the entire article into his notebook, finished scanning that day's paper, then put it back. The next day's newspaper had even more sensational news: TORRIMAN'S SISTER PREGNANT WITH BROTHER'S BABY? And the day after, MISS TORRIMAN'S CHILDHOOD DOCTOR: SHE WAS 'NEVER QUITE RIGHT IN THE HEAD.' Then, another: INSIDE THE SECRET LIFE OF FAMOUS LABOR REFORMER TORRIMAN!

The last article title hit a bit close to home. An article with a disturbingly similar title now lay as ash in his fireplace.

Al copied those articles as well, faithfully, with a strange mixture of pride and guilt at his own pleasure. But the scandal in question had been over for many years, now, and what was done was done.

A year and a few months worth of newspapers later, Al found another article by Harriet: this time, one Colonel Grimmler had apparently been discovered to have Drachman heritage, which of course meant that he must have been spying for Drachma, because that's how logic goes.

Six months down the shelf, Al found another one, accusing another colonel of collaborating with Ishballan terrorists.

Although the particulars were different, in each case the allegations were swift, damning, vague, and hard to prove – or disprove. In most of them, the accused seemed to have disappeared conveniently without an opportunity for a trial, although in the case of the man accused of having a Drachman ancestor, Colonel Grimmler happened to have had what seemed like an Armstrong-like obsession with his family heritage. He had presented the newspapers with a family tree going back three hundred years, each branch provable through public record, and which showed no signs of Drachman affiliations of any kind.

In other words, in the one case where evidence had actually been evaluated, Harriet's accusations had been proved to be absolutely, undeniably false. Had Colonel Grimmler ever charged Harriet with slander? The newspapers didn't mention it: if he had, the accusations seemed to have come to nothing, or else the media had found it to not be in their interests to cover such a thing. Alphonse wondered briefly what he would have to do to gain access to the court records for April of 1917.

The cat opened one eye at Al as he stretched, then stood and began to collect all of the orderly stacks of papers that lay stacked around him. She stretched and got to her feet also, then mewed at him adorably.

“Sorry, kitty,” Al said, giving her a scratch behind the ears that she proceeded to press her head into, eyes squeezed shut in bliss. “I have to go now. But I'll be back soon, okay? I promise.”

She gave a disappointed mew as he lifted her from the stack of newspapers on which she had been sleeping and set her on the floor, then re-shelved the pieces of her bed where they belonged. He put his notebook in his bag and slung it over his shoulder, then sped out of the archive room and through the library. He gave a hurried word of thanks to one of the librarians before leaving the building and taking off at a trot towards Central Headquarters.

He liked this investigation stuff, he decided, pulling a red apple out of his bag and biting into it. It was almost like science, except with people, which just made it more unpredictable.

*

The first time Roy and Weimar saw each other after the publication of the article, it was in a hallway too small and too empty for them to ignore one another, and no good way to ignore the impending confrontation. He saw the older general coming about fifty feet ahead, and they pretended that the walk to where they met wasn't incredibly tense and awkward, that they weren't watching each other out of the corners of their eyes even as they looked elsewhere. Weimar's eyes glittered hard, like glass, as Roy approached.

They stopped about three feet apart, after about thirty seconds of walking towards each other in painful silence.

“A good morning to you, General Mustang,” Weimar began, smiling pleasantly, which set the tone for the whole encounter.

“Good morning, General Weimar,” said Roy, standing to attention, remembering just in time that he no longer had to salute the man. “I hope you're well,” he finished, having nothing else in particular to say, but unable to leave without being rude. Watching the other man carefully, Roy's intuition tugged at him, told him something was wrong: a suspicion sprouted unannounced, like a weed, in the back of his mind.

“Yes, I'm doing quite well,” said the man, lacing his hands together behind him. “But I was wondering about you, General Mustang. I saw the papers yesterday morning, and this morning as well. Nasty things. I'm sorry you had to go through all of this.” There was little sympathy in his voice.

“That's quite alright,” Roy said with a smile, replying to his words rather than his tone. They both stepped to the side to get out of the way of a lieutenant passing down the hallway, hauling a box of files half as big as he was. “The media is not a tame animal, after all, and I can't control what they say. They are invaluable mouthpieces of the nation, but they are also quite sensational. The newspapers will print anything that they think people will read. But my team is working on getting the truth out there. It will all come clear eventually, I'm certain.”

General Weimar's eyes focused on him entirely too intensely in that moment. A cold washed over Roy, his suspicion taking hold.

“Perhaps,” the man said, straightening himself out fully. “Maybe you would do me the favor of telling me what 'the truth' is, to begin with. How much of what they're saying is correct? Is this the reason you don't have a wife – because you've been keeping Fullmetal as your secret lover?”

The hallway chilled around them as Roy spoke, his hard, unwavering gaze matching the other general's.

“I don't see what business my relationships are of yours,” he said, each word emphasized, each blow delivered slowly for maximum impact.

If Weimar had been affected by the pointed intensity of his reply, he did not allow Roy to see it – but that meant nothing at all in the end. The man was a politician, after all, and adept at keeping his thoughts hidden.

“Oh, no business of mine, none at all,” the man said, as if their conversation were still casual. “You are, of course, free not to answer. I just ask to satisfy my own curiosity. I find it incredible and impressive that you have managed to be so popular among the people without a wife. The public always seems to prefer family men in its positions of power. And you have been under such scrutiny lately: I wonder how you managed to keep your young lover a secret.”

This conversation was going nowhere good. The suspicion grew from sprout to blossom in his mind, taking it over.

Most likely, Weimar was behind the articles, he realized, with a mix of dread and hot fury. If he wasn't, then he was at least sympathetic to the person who was: Roy was sure of that now. In any case, Weimar's interest in the affair was more than just casual. And the man certainly seemed to have a lot to gain if Roy were to fall from power...

“I have hardly been keeping my relationship with Edward a secret. If anyone had asked before now, I would have answered them honestly. I was simply not advertising our relationship, because my private life is and should remain private, and because I thought that there might be a bit of a commotion about it. I was not wrong about that,” Roy said, with hard eyes and knives in the smile that never left his face.

“Of course you would have been honest, you are an honest man,” said General Weimar, stroking his beard. “But it would have been understandable if you hadn't been. Your relationship is quite the liability, after all, isn't it?”

“It wouldn't have been,” Roy returned, icily, “if the journalist who wrote the article hadn't made up half of the things he printed in that paper.”

Weimar looked at him with eyebrows raised, as if he were surprised by Roy's answer.

“Oh? Are you denying the allegations, then?”

“Not all of them. But I've done nothing wrong or illegal, and I'm denying any allegations that say I have.”

“Really? That's excellent. It's good to know that the Hero of Ishbal always stays well within the boundaries of law.”

Roy took a deep breath, and smiled, though his attempt to be pleasant had a sharp edge.

“The most illegal thing I've done in my life is breaking the speed limit, which I confess to having done on a number of occasions. This is more than can be said for the majority of military officers, as I'm sure you well know.”

Technically, killing Fuhrer Bradley hadn't been illegal, because no-one had ever bothered to make a law saying that it was: such things were just understood to be in bad form. Plotting to dethrone the man, however, was technically illegal, although he wasn't about to confess to such a thing.

Weimar laughed, though the attempt at mirth didn't fool Roy.

“This is true. Well, I wish you the best of luck, Mustang,” he said. “The media is a difficult animal to stand against. The moment you think you have a handle on it, it changes entirely, and you have in your hands a totally different beast than you thought you did.”

“Your advice is welcome, General Weimar, and I appreciate your support. I'm certain that this circus will die down shortly, and then we can all focus on the real issues.”

Weimar made some meaningless noise of agreement as he walked away, then some kind of farewell, which Roy matched. For a moment, just before the man's face turned from view, he caught glimpse of a dark expression, intense. If this man was behind the scandal – and he was, the knowledge burned in Mustang's gut – then he knew with a sudden clarity that the issue wouldn't just blow over when the journalist was discredited or the public lost interest, as he had hoped. This was going to be a battle, played out through the newspapers and radios and public spaces, but never face-to-face.

This was going to be a long road, and he could only hope that he was ready for it.

*

As soon as the tap of Mustang's footsteps had faded to nothing behind him, General Weimar finally allowed himself to sink against the wall, putting his weight on it instead of on his long-abused automail port. He ran hands over his hip, massaging the muscles there, trying to make them relax, to ease the pain in them, but to little avail. In his pocket, he had a tube of soothing cream that Meredith put there every morning, but he rarely found time to use it.

Talking to Mustang had been a bad idea – this, he knew with a tired, painful certainty. Whatever else Mustang may have been, he was also clever, and Weimar knew that his words had founded a suspicion in the other man. Even though he had little fear that the other general could actually do anything to him, he still never should have let himself be put in a situation where the man would even be able to suspect him.

But seeing Mustang striding down that hallway, looking all presentable and put-together and imperious, had been a temptation too great for Mikhael to resist.

Because, after everything he had put into this, he wanted to see the man hurt, to see him tired and confused, to see even one goddamn hair out of place.

Mustang's face, his voice, his smirk, everything about him made Weimar lose his restraint, made inconvenient emotions bubble out of him in ways that he couldn't hold back, that he couldn't even recognize until after the moment had passed.

He shouldn't have let himself speak to the man, shouldn't have allowed the conversation to continue, but he had, and he hoped that his mistake would be trivial, temporary. Now alone, with no battles to fight or expectations to bear, exhaustion drained into him, filled him to the brim until all he could think of, all he wanted, was a hot bath – that, and maybe Meredith's hands on his shoulders, pressing out all of the tension in his muscles with expert strokes.

He loved her more than anything. If only all of – this didn't keep getting in the way.

Pulling himself up off of the wall, he steadied himself with one hand, and marched on.

*

“Check General Weimar's finances. Check his personal history. Find out anything you can about him,” Roy told Hawkeye, slamming her door behind him as he stalked into her office. “I want to know his dog's name. I want to know who his dentist is. I want to know who his wife went to tea with last Thursday morning. I want to know anything and everything about him.”

Hawkeye frowned at him, her eyes piercing and concerned.

“Sir?”

“Look at Harriet too, of course,” said Roy, dismissively. “It would be convenient if we could find some way to discredit him. But we were investigating Harriet mostly in hopes that we could find out whether he had a puppeteer within the military – my gut tells me that he does, and that I already know who he his. Investigate Mikhael Weimar well enough and we'll find proof of a connection between the two, I promise you this.”

After a moment of thought, Riza nodded in reply. She didn't even ask him for evidence, or for explanation. She trusted him that much. Sometimes, he wondered if he deserved it.

“Yes, sir,” she said, and he nodded back, then spun on his heel and strode out of her office.

*

The spotlight had always suited Mikhael Weimar: standing in front of the rest of the senior staff in the hearing room, with Fuhrer Hakuro's eyes on him, the other generals and cabinet members examining him just as intently, he was in his element. His audience watched him from a line of seats, each taller than the last, culminating in the Fuhrer's chair in the center, above all of the others. Someday, that chair would be his. At that moment two seats were empty: his own, and one other. Mustang had not been invited to this particular hearing.

“Surely, all of you have seen the media fiasco that has erupted surrounding the newest member of our staff, the newly promoted General Roy Mustang.” He could hardly conceal his bitterness as he spat those last words.

“Yes, but you're clearly seeing something that I'm not, if you've bothered calling us here,” said General Grumman, chin propped up on folded hands, eyes glinting. “So for the sake of those of us who aren't as well informed as you, explain yourself.”

Grumman was not going to be his ally in this fight, Weimar could tell right away. There seemed to be something of a friendship between him and Mustang, which was a bit inconvenient, he would admit. In the end, it hardly mattered, though: Grumman was old and powerful, but if Weimar could gain the sympathy of a majority of the senior staff, he could easily outweigh Grumman's vote. He directed his speech to the Fuhrer and to the other men of the cabinet. Many of them, he knew, were firmly in his camp on this issue, or at least undecided. Homosexuality made many military men understandably nervous, and Mustang's promiscuity was legendary: the combination of the two made the Flame Alchemist a threat in more than a few ways.

“Well, I'm sure every one of you has noticed by now that the newspapers have brought to light evidence that Mustang has been engaging in perverted and homosexual acts. Allegations against him also include rape of a minor and fraternization with a subordinate.”

“Allegations without any firm foundation,” said Hakuro, neutrally. Weimar couldn't tell what he was thinking. “The articles seem to have provided many implications and little proof.”

Proof, yes – proof was difficult to come by, so many years after the original offense. If any of the alchemist's staff knew anything, they certainly weren't talking about it, no matter what his investigators had done to try to loosen their lips. But now that the topic was out in the open for public discussion, he had complete faith that people who had more information on the subject and more flexible loyalties would begin to wriggle out of the woodwork. He had quietly been spreading the rumor that anyone who came out with information about Mustang or Fullmetal would be protected from any repercussions: but so far, all he had managed to gather was more proof that they had been having relations within the past several months, and he didn't need any more of that

“It is not the duty of the media to prove an allegation,” Weimar countered. “Guilt or innocence – that is up to the courts to decide. The media merely brings it to light. And the issue has been brought to the public eye in a major way: have any of you been listening to the radio? Reading editorials? The public response to this scandal has been overwhelmingly negative. Do we want the military to be dirtied by association with such an embarrassment? In the face of such widespread outrage, do we want to be seen to be doing nothing?”

Fuhrer Hakuro's eyes narrowed. He seemed about to say something, but Grumman interrupted again.

“Do we want to be seen responding to every whim of a fickle public? Do we want to be at the beck and call of alarmists and pundits? We are above such things. We are power, General, and bend to no-one. And more than that, do we want to risk alienating one of our best soldiers and generals? Should war break out against Creta or Aerugo, do you really want the Flame Alchemist behind bars?”

Yes, more than anything.

If war did start, the coward would probably make it to the border and then refuse to fight for some moral reason, anyway. During the Ishballan Rebellion he had been a living weapon, certainly, but Mustang was a different man, now. Though he hid it behind the line of medals on his chest, it was clear to anyone with eyes to see that the revered Flame Alchemist had become a goddamn pacifist.

“I'm not saying we should jail him without question. He would only be jailed if he has committed a crime,” Weimar replied, easily, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. “Even the senior staff should be held accountable in a court of law for such abnormal, disgusting and disgraceful acts.”

There was some murmuring among the men in front of him. This was the most controversial thing he would say that day. Most of the men there were already in agreement with him that Mustang's perversions were disgusting, but they would take some more convincing to be certain that they were worth putting him on trial over – it would set an uncomfortable precedent, to say the very least. At this point, Weimar hardly even cared.

The simple fact that hung unspoken in the room was that the Flame Alchemist made all of them uncomfortable for a number of reasons. Everyone knew it, Mustang included – when he fixed his cool intensity on you, it felt less like looking a man in the eye than it did like staring down the barrel of a loaded gun. His charming smiles and expert flattery blinded many to his inherent danger at first, but even his shining veneer tarnished eventually: now, many were beginning to suspect that he was interested in political reform, which was every bit as dangerous as the transmutation circle on the back of his gloves.

Then there was the little matter of Fuhrer Bradley's death, which had been cleared up to the satisfaction of the rest of the military, but not to Weimar's comfort.

Although the official record stated that Bradley had actually been part of a massive alchemical conspiracy and had died when a transmutation went wrong, Weimar never could forget the fact that the Fuhrer had died in a flaming mansion – and to the best of his research ability, which was considerable, no one could account for where Mustang had been at the time.

However, Weimar had found no proof whatsoever of any wrongdoing on Mustang's part, and in fact investigations had unearthed much evidence linking Bradley to this conspiracy to destroy the nation, which would absolve the man of his crimes in many people's eyes. After the revelation of the city below Central, most of the country seemed inclined to think that Bradley had gotten what had been coming to him. Fuhrer Hakuro didn't seem terribly inclined to question it, either – probably because he had gained so much from Bradley's untimely retirement.

But what if Mustang had killed him? The question wouldn't leave him alone. Who knew when the man would next decide that someone he disagreed with deserved to die, and take it upon himself to make that happen?

Whether Mustang had been involved in the Fuhrer's death or not, his plans for the future were at least as threatening as his past had been. Weimar couldn't shake the feeling that someday, the man was going to tell the country everything that had happened in Ishbal, and would paint the Ishballans as lambs in a slaughterhouse. In this selective retelling, all of the atrocities that the Ishballans had committed upon the Amestrian army would be conveniently eliminated, discarded because they didn't fit Mustang's chosen narrative.

Even if they hadn't been unenlightened savages, the Ishballan rebels had been a threat to the order of the nation, and any threat to order had to be eliminated for the good of the rebels. The military couldn't very well go around mollycoddling rebels, sending them flowers and apology notes and begging their forgiveness on bended knee – no, Amestris would be a laughingstock. The army dealt with rebellion swiftly and decisively, both to maintain its reputation internationally and to quell any murmurs of dissent in other parts of the nation.

Mustang wanted to stir up malcontent, wanted to watch as military order dissolved to be replaced by God-only-knew-what. Weimar had no intention of allowing that to happen on his watch.

“But trying him would go against centuries of tradition,” said General Batir, his bushy eyebrows pulled down low. “Those ranked at Major Generals and higher have been immune to criminal charges other than treason since 1782, when General Aegis Moran was tried for triple murder. Are you suggesting we set that precedent aside to try Mustang? You understand that this would make us potentially vulnerable to criminal law, as well.”

Every man in the room was chiefly interested in retaining his own power. Lucky, the non-military ministers of affairs had nothing to lose if Mustang were tried: they could be tried for anything at any time if someone decided it was necessary, and lived in fear of the day when the political tide would turn against them.

Batir, though acting in defense of his own power and privilege, had another weakness: he was quite the traditionalist, morally speaking. Squaring his shoulders, Weimar turned to the other man.

“True – but Mustang is also going against centuries of Amestrian military tradition by having carnal relations with men – and young men, to make it worse. His sexual perversions are tarnishing the name of the Amestrian military.”

“His alleged perversions,” Grumman pointed out, his long mustache twitching as he spoke. Grumman was really not on board with this. “And alleged relations.”

“Yes, alleged,” Weimar replied, the concession ground out through clenched teeth. “True enough. But the people of our great country are concerned with this, and how can they trust us if we don't seem to take their concerns seriously?”

There had been a great swell of anti-homosexual sentiment in the day since the first article had been printed. The newspapers were divided on whether Fullmetal was an innocent victim or a tawdry whore, but they were nearly unanimous in their condemnation of Mustang, who had so recently been their golden boy. Reading the papers that morning had been sheer delight.”

“There has been some precedent for such a thing,” the Minister of Finance offered, slowly, thoughtfully, “for such a thing. Only a few years ago, Colonel Avery Stilson was discharged dishonorably without trial for sexual acts unbecoming of an officer.”

Major Stilson had been caught fucking dogs. The situation was similar.

“Yes, thank you,” Weimar replied, with a smile at the other man.

“But Colonel Stilson was not a General,” noted another man.

Before Weimar could reply, the Minister of Transportation added:

“Also, I would hardly say that the allegations against General Mustang are proved beyond a doubt – certainly not enough to discharge him without trial,” he said, tapping a pencil slowly against the table in front of him, “especially given that he is such a powerhouse as an alchemist and as a weapon. He also has a large amount of support both within the military and without, regardless of what the newspapers would have us believe. If we simply discharged him without proving the allegations, I suspect that he would become something of a martyr.”

“I never suggested that we simply discharge him. But I do think that it would be appropriate to have a trial. To uphold the strength of the State, we also must uphold its purity – and to do that, we need to purge it of any undesirable elements. Don't you agree?”

Fuhrer Hakuro made a thinking noise, his fingers laced in such a way that they hid his mouth.

“I think that we have heard enough, General Weimar,” the man said, after a long moment. “I think that you are dismissed for now. You will take a recess, we will continue to discuss the matter, and I will come to a decision by tomorrow.” Since he was the petitioner, Weimar himself wouldn't be allowed to stay for the resulting discussion, despite the fact that he was part of the senior staff.

That was fine. He had played his part, here, and now all he had to do was wait for the wheels to begin turning.

Weimar saluted, keeping his expression neutral over the rush of his emotions. The Fuhrer would decide in his favor, he knew: the rest of the staff was as disgusted and disturbed by Mustang as he was. Anybody would be. Why would anyone in their right minds knowingly suffer someone like him in their ranks?

Victory sat in the palm of his hand, and all he had to do was close his fingers around it.

***

Chapter Text

Chapter 5

*

The court-martial declaration arrived at Roy's office complex without warning at two o'clock, a letter delivered by an unassuming young man who passed it over with shaking hands. As soon as Riza saw the trembling envelope, she knew what it was: she thanked the man and took it back to her office, never betraying the cold that prickled down the back of her neck, the dread that settled in her chest. She sat down at her desk and set the thing down in front of her, staring at it, willing it to be something other than what she guessed.

The ornamentation gave it away: the front of the envelope was held closed by the Fuhrer's embossed gold seal, and the back read General Roy Mustang, in the even curves of a steady hand.

She took her plain letter-opener from her desk and slid it through the top of the envelope, then pulled the letter out, sitting down at her desk as she unfolded it.

It is hereby our decree that one General Roy Mustang shall report for trial in the Military Court of Amestris on September the Eighteenth of this year, to defend himself against the allegations set forth against him. These crimes include fraternization with a subordinate and statutory rape, for his alleged homosexual relationship with Edward Elric, the former Fullmetal Alchemist.

The above-listed crimes shall be punishable by a dishonorable discharge from the Amestrian military and a maximum sentence of ten years in prison for each charge.

His guilt or innocence shall be evaluated in front of a panel of three judges, who will remain anonymous until the beginning of the trial. In the absence of a formal accuser, a lawyer will be appointed to prosecute him on behalf of the State. Both sides will be allowed five witnesses. The judges will decide the verdict after a maximum of a three day trial.

A bail of 100,000 cenz must be provided to the Bailiff of the Courts Martial by the date of September the Fifth, if jail time prior to the trial is to be avoided.

This, in the name of Fuhrer Hakuro, and signed by his hand.

Riza Hawkeye was not a woman easily swayed to any emotion, but the letter clutched between her hands made her afraid, just for a moment. In Amestris, “justice” was a word usually spoken with more than a bit of irony.

Over the years, she had gained some distant experience with the Amestrian Courts-Martial, and heard of the judgements of the civilian courts through word of mouth or newspaper reports. The accused were guilty until proven innocent, though proving someone innocent after the government had decided that he or she was guilty was no small task.

In all honesty, the general was lucky that his alleged crime was of the nonviolent type: if it had been a different type of crime, or the general less useful to the state, he might have been convicted and imprisoned without the state having to go through the “embarrassment” of a trial. A memory of Shou Tucker hit her, unbidden: she hadn't thought of him for years.

It was General Mustang's popularity, his celebrity, that was in this case his downfall, just as his utility was his saving grace. It was unlikely that the military brass would ever have put him on trial if he hadn't been so popular prior to the scandal: if that had been the case, then perhaps the whole country wouldn't have started gossiping about him so excitedly, and the incident might not have been so embarrassing for the state.

She let out a long breath and put the letter down on her desk. This new development necessitated a new plan. For that, they would need the whole team, brainstorming together, working together. She was not a political strategist, nor any kind of strategist: mostly, she was a good soldier, and did as she was ordered as efficiently as she could. Others took care of the planning. She just did what the general needed, when he needed it, and supported him in any way she could.

At that moment, supporting him meant not telling him about it – not yet. He was busy with his work, speaking and negotiating with Ambassador Rosenthal, both making sure that relations with Creta stayed amicable and expending as much of the military's energy as he could on the issue. He might alternately be discussing a trade benefiting Creta in return for them letting the issue of the border towns go, and directing border defenses the next, posting garrisons to towns there, giving protection to the men and women who worked the iron mines.

This work was crucially important for its own sake – but also, for Roy, it was important largely because if he made a grand fuss over foreign threats, the less the military was likely to have the spare energy required to exterminate the Ishballan refugees. At that moment, she couldn't interrupt him for personal issues, no matter how pressing they might seem. Many thousands of lives were on the line.

This had to be up to Hawkeye.

She folded the letter again and slid it back into its envelope, set it in her top desk drawer, then stood up. She would deal with this as quickly and discreetly as possible.

No sooner had she stepped around her desk than she heard a knock on her door – strange, as the day's mail had already arrived, Fuery and Falman were out on business, and neither Havoc nor Breda usually bothered knocking.

“Come in,” she said, and the door swung open to reveal one Alphonse Elric, a binder clasped between crossed arms.

“Hello, Major,” he said, moving the binder to his side and giving her a little bow, even though he had never been in any way her subordinate. Not even his brother had any ties to military hierarchy anymore. His politeness took strange forms sometimes, but it was charming nonetheless. “I hope I'm not interrupting anything,” he said, sounding almost embarrassed.

“Alphonse,” she said, feeling a tension she hadn't known she had been holding on to disappear from her shoulders as she realized that she was safe, for the moment. It could have been another letter full of bad news, or a newspaper article, but it wasn't. “It's good to see you,” she said, genuinely.

“Ah, and you too, Major,” he said, and she wondered if he would ever be comfortable calling any of them by their names instead of their titles. “I figured out some things, you know, about the investigation: I thought I should tell you.”

“Aren't you working under Lieutenant Colonel Mayer in Investigations? You should probably report your findings to him.”

“Of course. I already did that. I just thought you'd want to know, too.” He paused, then walked over to sit down on the chair on the visitors' side of her desk and plopped his binder down, there. She walked around the table and did the same with her own seat.

“Here,” he said, opening up the binder to a particular page and then turning the book around so that it faced her. “Take a look at this article.” There, copied in a neat hand and in all of its capitalized glory, there was a headline above a long article:

B. GENERAL TORRIMAN CAUGHT IN TRYST WITH SISTER?

And then, the byline: Guy Harriet.

Hawkeye frowned. The man who had written all of those things about General Mustang seemed to have some unsavory tendencies.

“And check this out,” Alphonse continued, flipping to the next page. There was another article, proclaiming similarly damning allegations against a different man, again written by Harriet. Alphonse flipped the page again, and there was a third.

“It looks like Guy Harriet has a history of instigating media storms around politicians over all kinds of scandals – many of them sex-related, but not all of them. At least one of the men he accused got off because he could prove that all of the stuff in the article was totally made up. I haven't managed to check court records yet to see whether he got sued for slander or not, but I did check through the military records of the men he accused.” He turned the binder around and thumbed through the pages until he found the one he was looking for. This was an official copy of one of the men's profiles, complete with photograph and medical history. “There seems to be a common theme: many of them were politically progressive, or at least as progressive as one could get under Fuhrer Bradley. One of them publicly opposed sending the State Alchemists into Ishbal. Another one of them was pushing for giving more power to the parliament.”

Certain factors within the military would not have taken kindly to that, of course.

Once, on a quiet walk from headquarters to their homes, Roy had casually told her that after Ishbal, he had considered running for election to the parliament, but further military experience had disabused him of that notion. The parliament was a sham, little more than a mouthpiece for the decisions of the Fuhrer: no debate occurred in that honorable institution on any issue more important than road repair. On anything else, they existed to spout out the Fuhrer's declarations as if said decision had been made in the legislature in a democratic fashion. Besides, even if the parliament had been allowed to vote and make decisions, the military rigged all of the elections anyway, a fact which was commonly known and met with a certain degree of resignation.

Military advancement was the only path to real power, and therefore the only way to effect true change in the world. It was sad, but it was true: in order to change the rules of an autocracy, he would have to first be an autocrat.

Hawkeye gave a thinking hum and scanned the page. This was certainly interesting.

“So,” she began, slowly, “you're saying that Harriet has been making up stories to discredit people politically and have them arrested for years.”

“Yes,” said Al. “Exactly. I think we may be looking at a more long-term connection between this reporter and someone within the military: this isn't their first time in the ring together.”

“Or perhaps he's just a journalist with a tendency towards sensationalism and a conservative political bent,” she said, just to offer an alternate possibility. She wasn't stupid, and she remembered General Mustang's comments about General Weimar.

“Maybe,” Al said, eyes roving down the page. “It's possible, I guess. But most of these men weren't exactly high-profile, you know? If a journalist was going to make up a sex scandal for the fun of it, you'd think he'd go more for the people in the public eye. And you know what's even weirder? That he keeps being allowed to write this stuff. Most criticism of the military gets shut down pretty quickly. Genuine scandals never seem to make it to the newspapers, have you ever noticed?”

A few years past, a major general had been accused of sexually assaulting a young waitress who worked at a bar he frequented. She remembered a police detachment marching up to headquarters, demanding to see the man so they could ask him some questions, and she remembered them being turned away at the door. She didn't think anything had ever happened to the man.

Riza nodded, and let her eyes slide across the paper for a moment, thoughtful.

“Thank you, Alphonse. You've done good work. We appreciate it.” She closed the binder, and pushed it forward, towards Al. “Now,” she started, sitting up straight in her chair, “Let me share some information with you. What do you know about General Mikhael Weimar?”

*

As the day grew longer, Edward felt the distant sense creep up on him that he was going to need to go see Roy that night. It was nothing so strong as a guess, but something more like intuition: his lover needed company. He said goodbye to Al at the door to the lab, ignoring the pitying look sent to him by Margaret from Inorganics, and flung off his lab coat onto the floor next to the rack as he trotted out into the failing sunlight. Roy’s house wasn’t a long walk from the lab, and he made good time, avoiding the main roads in favor of back streets.

The porch lights were already lit when Edward arrived, the first moths of evening beginning to flicker noisily about them. Ed tried the door: it was unlocked. He didn’t hear anything inside, so he went ahead and let himself in.

“Hello?” he asked, venturing into the entryway – he neglected to take off his dirty shoes before padding through the living room. This didn’t particularly bother him as the floor was mostly wood, anyway, and easily cleaned. What did bother him was the lack of a response.

“Hello?” he tried again, looking around for any sign: the liquor cupboard was open, which was a sign, but not a good one. Ed sped up, arrowing past the staircase to the hallway that led to the study. “Roy?”

“I’m in here,” he heard, through the doorway: a turn to the left, and he was in Roy’s study. He couldn’t see most of the man over the back of the thick wooden armchair that sat to the right of the tall chess table that had held many more wine cups over the years than chess pieces: true to form, that night it played host to a bottle and a glass cup. “What brings you here tonight?” Roy asked. His voice sounded dead, quiet, in a way that made Ed shiver.

“You, ‘course. Why the hell else would I be in this lousy dump?” Edward said with a little laugh, moving around to the front of the chair. “I figured you could use some company. What’ve you been up to today, General?” he asked, deliberately keeping his tone light.

The scene before him challenged his determined cheer: Roy’s eyes barely flickered towards him as the younger man walked in front of him – distant, unfocused, his gaze passed out the window and onto the street beyond. Drawing closer, Ed noted that the bottle of whiskey was half-empty. It had been nearly full the day before, Ed was sure of it.

Sometimes Roy’s alcohol tolerance scared him more than he’d like to admit. What dark times had the man gotten through with no company but his bottle? He didn’t think he’d like the answers he’d get if he asked.

“Hey, you,” said Edward, soft, his lips turning down into a frown. He reached out for the whiskey bottle. “You’ve had enough for one evening.” Before he could take it away, Roy put his hand out and put a hand on his bottle to stop him.

“It’s early yet,” said Roy, with a lopsided smile. “Plenty of time for more. Pour yourself a glass.”

“I would, if you weren’t already shitfaced enough for the both of us. This isn’t like you, Roy.” Not anymore, anyway. “What happened?” Forcefully, he pulled the bottle away: his lover’s hand slipped off like he hadn’t actually cared that much after all. Ed set it down on the floor under the library window, where it was just too much trouble for Roy to go over and get it.

“Oh, nothing happened,” he said. “I’m just a pedophile and a rapist, is all, watching my dreams and hopes crumble further around me with every passing day. That’s all. Nothing terribly important,” he said, bringing his cup to his lips to drain it of the last of the amber liquid.

Ed’s frown deepened as the knot in his throat tightened. He couldn’t decide whether to step forward or away. He crossed his arms.

“Roy…” he said. “That's nothin' to go getting drunk like this over. It’s not so bad. You told me yourself you have lots of people working on it. You have Al working on it. You told me the plan. You dig up shit on this reporter fucker – and I'm sure there's a ton of. All you have to do is find all that shit and tell people about it. When everybody realizes he's a lying bastard, nobody will take his accusations seriously anymore.”

The tense, short noise Roy made sounded nothing like laughter.

“Too late for that approach, Ed. I’m to report in dress uniform to the Amestrian military court for my trial in just a few weeks.”

Those words stabbed Ed through the stomach. If it weren't for me... Cutting that train of thought off at the source, he didn’t let his expression change. Part of him wanted to move to comfort the other man. He didn’t. Instead, he widened his stance, and opened his mouth.

“So what?” he snapped, hunching his shoulders further. “So fucking what? You gonna let that get the best of you? You just gonna sit around till then and mope about it? If you're gonna be Fuhrer of Amestris, you can't let something stupid like this stop you.. Just get up there and show those bastards what you’re made of, and then everything will be fine.”

For the first time, Ed felt like his lover's eyes really focused on him, actually saw him through the haze of the alcohol and – despair? The man crooked a smile.

“Everything’s so simple to you, isn’t it, Ed?”

No, thought Ed. It’s not that simple. But at the same time, it has to be.

“Of course it is,” he snapped, because that was what Roy needed to hear. “Whatever happens, you get back up and keep going. You don’t hear that some bastards want to knock you over and then do it for them to save them the trouble. This isn't like you, Mustang. You’ve been through a lot worse than this, and made it out fine.”

That seemed to make Roy sit up a bit straighter in his chair, his mouth curving downward.

“I’m not ‘knocking myself over.’ The damage has been done. Even if by some chance I am acquitted at the trial, the public has lost faith in me. Politics is a delicate process, Edward, not that I’d expect you to understand something so subtle. Unfortunately, I cannot control what people think of me, and their opinions are crucial to achieving my end goals. This could destroy everything I have worked for.”

The grim set of Ed's face covered his satisfaction. Every time he could provoke Roy, get a real emotional reaction out of him, he felt a strange pride – only he could break down the man's emotional walls, crack the calm mask he wore. He barreled forward.

“Or it could be a little bit of radio static that everybody forgets. Or, if you have the balls to take it on, it could even be a situation in which the innocent, unfairly accused Roy Mustang proves what a big man he is. Don’t go insulting my intelligence, old man. I get your political whatever,” he said, with a wave of his hand. “But if it’s gonna be too hard for you, you can just give up. Don’t fuckin' mope around about it, drinkin' yourself into a hole.”

“I’m not moping,” Mustang snapped back. “I’m just understandably concerned because I’m suddenly facing a situation in which I could conceivably be stripped of my rank, discharged from the military, and be jailed as a rapist all in one day. I think I have a right to my bottle.”

“Yeah, well, you’re innocent, and it’ll all come out in the trial. You wouldn't need to be worried unless the shit they're saying were true.”

“Your naiveté is adorable,” said Roy, his voice ice. “But innocence of the crime is no guarantee that you won’t be convicted in the great nation of Amestris. The media can condemn a person before they’ve even set foot in a courtroom: even if the newspapers don't give a damn about your trial, much of how the the sentence goes depends entirely on who has the judge’s ear, or who can write the biggest check. Don’t lecture me about things you know nothing about.”

“I’m not fucking naïve, don’t you say that again,” Edward snapped, an angry gesture thrown for emphasis. He had to end this soon, or they both would really be mad, and that wouldn't be good. “It's not like I think you're gonna be given the red carpet treatment. It's not like I think you're not gonna have to work your ass off for it. But you can’t sit there and whine about how it's all gonna be so hard if you wanna change this country. If you can't handle this, then you sure as hell can't handle being Fuhrer.”

Roy stood up from his chair, back painfully straight, and looked down at his lover, expression dark.

“Edward,” he began, carefully, “I suggest you stop before I lose my temper.”

And then Ed's expression broke into a grin – Roy's brow wrinkled in sudden confusion.

“That’s more like it,” he said, meeting Roy’s eyes. “Good. You're out of that goddamn chair.”

Roy’s brow furrowed.

“What?” he asked, a bit stupidly – but that was alright, the alcohol was probably scrambling his brains some.

“I was baiting you, dumbass. Tryin' to make you mad – it’s way better than you being all weepy and shit. You’re strong when you’re mad, and you need to be strong right now.”

“…Baiting me?” he asked, like the words had no meaning.

“Yeah. I couldn’t have you just sitting there and drinking your life away, worrying about shit, when you could be not worrying about shit. The worrying never helps – trust me, I know,” he said, with a dry laugh. “I knew I just had to get you mad, and you'd pick yourself up just to prove me wrong. I’m not stupid, I know how dangerous this whole situation is for you. I know it must be scary as hell. But the fact that you have to play this stupid game doesn't mean you've automatically lost. Besides, the Roy Mustang I know doesn’t let shit like this get him down.”

Mustang wobbled on unsteady legs, the look of fury almost melted into confusion. His metal hand shot out to support the man, to keep him from falling.

“You can do it. You may be a dumbass, but you’re the smartest dumbass I’ve ever met,” he said, with a soft laugh. “Now let’s get you some water.”

Roy gave a tiny smile that grew, slowly.

“Is that right,” he said, putting a hand out to Ed’s cheek, stroking it with the back of his hand. “Baiting me. You know, I used to do the same for you.”

Scowling, Ed moved himself under Roy’s arm where he could support the man properly, keep him from stumbling and falling flat on his face or hitting his head on something, which would be a really stupid way for the Flame Alchemist to die.

“What the hell are you talking about?” Ed's right arm wrapped tightly around the other man's back, they started off, swaying more than walking towards the kitchen.

“When you were younger. I'd do whatever I could to make you mad, to get you up on your feet again by making you want to prove me wrong. That's probably the fastest way to motivate you.”

Ed snorted. Of course he knew that was what Mustang had been doing – he had realized it a few years back, unfortunately after he had left the military and therefore too late for the knowledge to really do him any good. Who did Roy think Ed had learned to do it from? But he wouldn't admit that, especially not now.

“Like hell. You were just a bastard with a sense of smug superiority and a god complex. You made me mad because you thought it was funny.”

“Not denying that,” Roy said with a laugh. “It was pretty funny.” He paused, and when he started again his voice was quieter. Ed glanced up to see that the look in Roy’s eyes had once again grown thoughtful, distant. “But some days, you used to look... hollow. That’s the best way I can describe it. Like the soldiers in Ishbal, caught up in all of the terrible things you'd seen and done. Nobody so young should ever have to look like that.”

In the resounding quiet, Ed listened to the sound of his own breathing, their footsteps on the wooden floor.

Then, Roy spoke again, once again amused, teasing: “And you had such a hair trigger back then. Making you explode was so very easy.” Ed huffed. The man said, more seriously, “I’d rather you look angry than look so old. I’m sure you understand.”

Edward shifted his arm around Roy’s waist. Usually, the man wasn't so talkative on serious topics. It must be the alcohol, he decided, loosening his lips. He had only ever heard Mustang mention Ishbal a handful of times during the whole time they had known each other – it wasn’t something the general liked to talk about, and the younger man could see why. Ed never talked about his own sins if he could help it. It was bad enough that they lived in his head forever: why would he ever want to let them out in the open again?

Though he never would have admitted it out loud, Mustang's admission was a little bit touching. Back then, it had been easy to assume that the man didn’t care, that he was exactly what he pretended to be – an overcontrolling asshole, intriguing and infuriating, untouchable. But the very fact that Mustang would let on that he had cared so much meant that Ed had been allowed behind the mask, now – and the man underneath was far different from the one outside, and much more interesting.

“Yeah, yeah,” he said, turning left into the living room instead of the kitchen. He walked carefully, Roy’s weight supported on his shoulder. “I still think you're full of shit,” he said, almost fondly. “Now let’s get you that glass of water before you pass out on me, then get you to bed.” He helped the other man sit down on the living room couch, and didn’t let his surprise show when the man grabbed his shirt and pulled him down to crush their mouths together. Roy's tongue slid across Ed's bottom lip, asking permission, and Edward relaxed, letting the man plunder his mouth, unhurriedly mirroring his movements. Whiskey flavored the kiss, a not unpleasant tang, and somehow that made all the difference: he threw intention to the wind, then sat down on the other man’s lap, fisting Roy's uniform collar in his metal hand.

When they pulled apart, Roy leaned forward, resting his forehead on Ed’s own.

“You understand why this is so worrisome to me. If I’m stripped of my rank, if I’m discharged or jailed, then I have no way to atone for the things I did.” To his credit, his voice didn’t shake much. “Well, 'atone' is the wrong word – nothing I could do can erase my sins. But if they take me down now, I won’t be able to do anything to change this country so it won’t happen again, to make reparations to the kinsmen of the men and women I murdered. What will I live for, then?”

The wound in Roy's voice was so plain, so raw, that just this once, Ed felt the urge to respond to his lover as he would Alphonse, with comfort and reassurance.

If that happened,” Edward started, giving his lover a faint smile, “you’d figure something out. But now's not the time to start workin' on Plan F – you haven’t lost yet. Just keep being General Mustang, and give ‘em hell. You’ll kick their asses.”

Roy laughed, the sound warm and rumbling below Ed’s fingers.

“You know, I never would have guessed you were such an optimist.”

“I’m not an optimist, I’m just stubborn as hell. If something doesn’t work for you, you punch it ‘till it does. ‘s worked for me so far.”

“Indeed it has,” Roy replied, before kissing him again, tongue darting into Edward’s mouth to stroke, twist – the younger returned it immediately, fiercely, flesh hand drifting up the man’s neck to thread through his hair. A sudden moment of decision: then, Ed swung a leg over Roy’s lap, straddling the man's legs and pressing their crotches together. He shifted, readjusting himself: the friction felt good on his cock, so he did it again, just to make their bodies rub against each other. A hissed breath sounded in Edward's ear, accompanied the twitch and increased hardness between Roy's legs – the blonde rocked his hips in a circle, then repeated it, grinding himself against the other man’s burgeoning erection.

“I thought you were going to,” started Roy, breathing beginning to strain, “get me a glass of water.”

Ed pressed himself forward – spreading his legs even wider, the pose wanton, obscene – continuing the steady slide. One particular motion sent pleasure crackling through him, connecting every nerve to the spark in his loins, and he gave a soft moan.

“I think the water can wait, don’t you?” Edward said, bending down to scrape teeth over Roy’s neck, then leaving light kisses where the trail of his teeth had been. “I think we have more pressing issues to deal with.” Those words shivered across Roy’s skin, hardening his cock and shortening his breath.

Roy hissed as the motion of Edward’s hips in his lap became regular, slow, deliberate: this was not a frenzied friction of need, but a tease, entirely intended to frustrate Roy with its precarious balance of “God, yes” and “Not enough.”

“Mmm, Edward,” said Mustang between passes in which he explored the younger man’s willing mouth, “I’m not sure I’m up to my regular standard tonight. You might want to stop while you’re ahead.”

“Oh, don’t worry,” said Edward, the words coming out a purr, a promise, “you won’t have to do much.”

With that, he slid off Roy's lap – a groan of disappointment met that, but he wouldn't mind for long – and onto to the ground in front of the other man. He pushed the general's knees apart, leaving himself room to lean forward and trace his lips over the hardness in the front of his lover’s pants.

“God, you – mm –” Edward's mouth teased the head of Roy's cock “– know how to make a man feel better, don’t you?”

A satisfied smirk was Edward's only response: he reached up to undo the clasp at the waist of Roy’s pants, then brought the zipper down. After a brief moment of arranging, he took the man’s cock in his hand, stroking it gently with warm fingertips, enjoying the velvet feeling of it, the heat on his skin. The general’s breath came harder: he wasn’t much of one for vocal expressions during sex, and Edward took breaking the man down until he cried out in his pleasure as a personal challenge.

He leaned forward and licked the tip, swirled his tongue around it to catch the spot underneath the ridge. The muscles in Roy’s legs tightened, and the sharp exhalation he made was almost as good as a moan.

The noise made his own body react, but he ignored his own sharp want, focusing on his lover's silken heat: he licked again, a short stroke, then drew his tongue in a line from base to tip, following the vein underneath. Roy’s fingers dug into the chair arms, turning his knuckles white. Even after all this time, Ed still couldn't believe how easily he could coax such reactions out of the other man.

He could do better than just this, though.

Ed reached into his large jacket pocket, then closed his hand around leather – one particular toy he had been keeping on him, planning to make use of it as soon as possible. Pulling away from Roy's cock, he drew it out, – Roy made a little disappointed noise that shivered straight down to Ed’s groin. Closing his eyes to hide any uncertainty, to shut down his moment of internal struggle – I'm not his dog, not anyone’s, not a possession – he brought the collar up to his neck and fastened it there. There was a moment of silence.

“Edward,” growled Roy, breaking through the quiet: his fingers trailed down the side of Ed’s neck, and the younger man leaned in to the touch. “You realize that when you’re wearing that, I may not be able to hold myself back.”

“I was counting on it, yeah,” said Edward, letting his own eyes slide open to see his lover’s, half lidded and lustful, focused on that one simple band. Adrenaline spiked in Ed then, at the knowledge of what Roy wanted to do to him, of what he could make Roy do to him, just by clasping a bit of leather around his neck. “I don't want you to hold yourself back. I definitely wouldn’t trust you with a whip or a cane when you're drunk like this –” though the thought of it sent shivers of excitement down Ed’s spine “– but I’m happy just to be spanked.”

Fingers closed around Ed’s collar, pulling and tightening until the press of it around the younger man’s neck became uncomfortable – a beat, two, another, as it dug in further, restricting the flow of blood, of air, shrinking his world to only the space around him, to his moment-to-moment survival – adrenaline spiked in him – his head felt somehow light, his body tingled –

Then, Mustang bent forward to speak into Ed’s ear.

“You don’t get to decide,” he said, and even the faint touch of whiskey on his breath was somehow arousing. “I’m your commanding officer. You’ll be happy with whatever I decide to give you.”

A sudden release of pressure brought blood rushing back into Ed's head and eyes, gasping as oxygen once again suffused his lungs. When his breathing had evened out, his conscious thought returned, he replied.

“Yes, sir,” he said, his voice small.

“Stand up,” said Roy, his Voice back: even copious amounts of alcohol couldn’t keep him from being utterly authoritative, almost magisterial.

Edward didn’t say a word as he rose to his feet.

“Tell me that you want to undress for me,” he said, casually, a man utterly certain of his own power.

Ed’s brow furrowed, confused by the request: usually, at this point in the play, Roy just gave orders. He didn't normally ask for votes.

“You make too many requests, Fullmetal. You need to learn to desire only what I want. My desires are your desires. You don’t get to choose what you want. That’s all up to me. You don't even know what you want. But I do,” he said, eyes half-lidded and lustful.

Ed groaned, deep in his throat.

“Yes, sir.”

“Close, but not what I ordered you to do. Try again: what do you want?”

“I want... to undress for you, sir,” Edward said, his eyes on the ground, his erection pressing painfully against the constriction of his pants.

“Now ask me,” the General said, eyes intense.

“Please, let me undress for you, sir,” he said, the man’s stare setting a fire in his skin.

His hands shook as he stripped out of his jacket, left it in a heap on the tile floor; next came his shirt, the buttons a challenge in his current state of nerves; then, the tank top underneath came off, crumpled on top of his other clothing, leaving him bare of chest and unprotected from Roy’s gaze.

“You are the most beautiful thing,” Roy said, and the look on his face was so enraptured that Ed faltered in the face of it. Then his eyes narrowed, his gaze even more intense: “I love breaking beautiful things.”

And that was it: Ed was over the edge, into that place where intention and focus became hazy, where the only two things that he could really think about were the General’s orders and his own intense arousal. His erection throbbed, but he wouldn’t touch it.

“Does this turn you on, Fullmetal?” the general drawled, never moving even an inch, never reaching to touch or to help. “You want me to break you, then put you back together again?”

“Yes, sir,” said Fullmetal, his words nearly coming out a whine, but he quelled his embarrassment at the noise: his needy abandon would please the General, and he would endure anything for that.

“Good, because I want to. Now, ask me to be allowed to take the rest of your clothes off.”

“Please, sir. Let me be naked for you,” he said, his voice shaking enough that it surprised him.

The General gave a long, slanted smirk that elicited shivers in the younger man before he even opened his mouth to reply.

“Since you asked so nicely, yes. I will grant your request. Strip.”

Buttons came undone: pants came down, followed by boxer shorts, leaving Ed’s erection uncovered and unmistakable. He kept his hands by his sides, fighting the instinctive desires to cover himself, or to touch himself,. He didn’t want to relieve the tension in his cock until Roy wanted him to.

“Mm, yes,” said Roy, moving a hand to the front of his own pants to slide fingers over what he found there, long strokes over skin that would be aching with need. “Now come here. Lay yourself down over my lap.” The general shifted, spread his knees to better support the other man. Edward did as ordered, unsure whether he felt more acutely Roy's eyes on his bare, vulnerable ass where it sat directly in front of the other man, or the painful throbbing of his erection, pressing into the space between Roy's legs, with nothing to grind on or touch for some measure of relief. The rest of his body lay on the couch, more or less flat, so the general could more easily access all of him.

Heat flushed through his body: no matter how many times he found himself in this situation, it still sent that same dual shock of shame and want through him – but in truth, he knew that the burning shame at the thought of what he was letting the other man do was part of the reason he liked it so much. The shame thrilled him, and the General's praise in the face of it gave Ed a sense of catharsis like nothing else in the world.

Titillating, infuriating, he could feel the tip of Roy's erection tracing across his stomach, leaving wet patterns on his skin every time he shifted.

He groaned and closed his eyes as Roy’s fingers began to dance over the skin of his ass, rough fingers over soft skin. Every movement, every faint scrape of nails, left a trail of memory over his skin so intense it was almost painful. The tease continued long enough that he almost wasn't expecting it when the hand came down in a hard blow.

Edward writhed: the sudden strike hurt his oversensitive skin, and all he wanted was some friction on his cock, anything to give him relief. He thrust forward, but still, his cock met only air: he whined, eyes closed, and was rewarded with another blow, then another – down his legs, up his back, each blow sending a rush of need to his already aching groin. Edward's stomach tightened and his pulse increased: another blow came, then Roy's teeth sank hard into his shoulder, red-hot bliss. A soft cry: he wished sometimes that he could contain his voice better, could make his lover work harder for that kind of mindless response, but really, in the moment, he usually couldn't bring himself to give a damn.

Without warning, Roy shoved something warm and wet all the way up Ed's ass until it was buried there. A finger, of course: it wriggled inside of him, and then –

“Oh, fuck,” he cried out as the finger hit his sweet spot, its tiny thrusting motions stimulating it almost more than he could stand – then, the feeling was gone again as the man's fingers pulled out, to Edward's dismay. Roy delivered another blow to Ed's ass, the feeling of skin on skin sensual, arousing but frustrating.

“Mmm, are you wanting something?” the general asked, the side of his arm connecting with Ed's back even more forcefully. Any returning words turned to mindless groans in Ed's throat, the churn of his thoughts slow and halting through the haze of endorphins and arousal. “Ask for it.”

The high whimper that tore itself from his mouth was almost a laugh of desperation: his lover was asking the impossible: he knew he wouldn't be able to form a coherent sentence. As it became increasingly clear that Ed wasn't going to reply, Roy clenched the collar with his free hand, restricting Ed's air flow.

“No? You won't ask?” Roy's fingernails clawed down Ed's back, and the sudden, sharp pain of it started his shallow panting. “And here I thought you were such a good little pet. Do I need to teach you obedience again?” A pause: he traced a finger around Ed's entrance, just enough to frustrate the sensitive skin, to make Ed need it more.

Whimpering louder, Ed rocked forward and again met only empty air, rocked back to find that the general had withdrawn his hand. The pressure on his neck loosened, and he gasped, recovering his world for only a moment before discovering that he had been flipped all around so that he laid on his back across Roy's lap, his body arched up towards the other man. He closed his eyes, as if that could be some defense against the general's hungry gaze – but he felt it, even when he couldn't see it.

“Don't get me wrong – I love hearing you whine, Fullmetal,” he purred, and Edward's body knew instinctually that the words were true. “I love hearing you cry because I've broken you down, hearing the noises you make when you've lost the ability to speak. But if you're going to get what you want, you have to be able to ask me for it.” he said, tracing fingers over the sensitive hairs on his back. I'm generous. All you have to do is say the words.”

Edward opened his mouth, tried to remember the right ones, remember which ones had turned the general on so much in the past.

“Please, sir,” he said, around the dryness in his mouth. Some days, the pleading still came hard to him, struggling as he was against a lifetime of instinct. He kept going anyway. “Use me, however you want. Whatever you want me to do, please let me do it for you. I want to make you come.”

The groan Roy gave at that was warm and thrilling, a physical sensation up the base of Ed's spine. After a moment, he said:

“And if what I wanted didn't involve letting you come at all? What if I wanted to tie you up, to leave you here, frustrated?” His hand moved to the insides of Ed's thighs, indicating with a firm pressure that he was to spread them, to allow the man better access. Flooded with intense relief, he did so immediately: he hardly needed to be asked again. “Mm... you're such a wanton little slut, aren't you,” he said, with a tone of such unmistakable desire that the words turned to a compliment in his mouth. The finger he traced over Ed's entrance was light to the point of tickling, and even Ed's sudden, violent squirm didn't help matters, didn't make the pressure any more satisfying. Roy kept on teasing, drawing the nails of his other hand lightly up and down the insides of the younger man's thighs, then moving up to do the same to Ed's nipple. He tried not to do move, not to whine or groan: his lover might take any noise he made as an answer, and any answer to that question would be the wrong answer.

The seconds drew on interminably, the teasing becoming almost unbearable: Ed bucked down into the General's lap, whimpered when, again, there was no relief. Finally, he forced his throat to speak, his mouth into motion.

“I would be happy,” he started, struggling through every word, “just to know that you were satisfied. That would be enough.” Most of him absolutely meant that: the other part could have started crying to hear it.

And then a warm, wet tongue slid from his nipple all the way up the side of Ed's neck. Edward let out a loud sob.

“Is that right?” Roy murmured, low, in his ear. “You would be satisfied just by feeling my come drip down the insides of your thighs? Tasting it in your mouth? Seeing it on your stomach?” The man's tongue flickered out to lick Edward's bottom lip, then he said: “Mm, could you come just from sucking me off?” That earned another whimper. Ed tried to sit up, to better capture those lips in his own, but the heavy force of an arm across his throat kept him down. His legs stayed open, and the sheer vulnerability of the position excited him, like it had so many times before.

“You're frustrated now, aren't you,” Roy purred, bending over the other man's chest to give another quick, wet stroke to Edward's nipple. The blonde's breathing had turned to panting, uncontrollable, and he moaned as he pressed upwards into that wonderful heat, but found the stimulation gone again as quickly. If the general kept on teasing him so terribly for much longer, then any touch at all would make him come. “You want it so badly. Your body is telling me that your mouth is lying. Your body is telling me that you're going to whimper and sob and beg until I give in and fuck you, and then you're going to scream until you come all over yourself. Tell me truly, Fullmetal. How desperate are you to have my cock up your ass?”

Ed found a sob escaping his mouth instead of an answer: Roy's mouth had descended on his nipple again, and this time it wasn't going away. He sucked, lightly, ran his tongue around the pebbled hardness, then flickered that tongue so quickly that pleasure flared all through his body, shooting from his chest away to his extremities. The attention continued, and Ed's mouth hung open, emitting little strangled noises with every breath: distantly, he wondered if he could orgasm just from that tongue, torturing his chest. He could feel himself getting closer, enough that it was beginning to drive him mad.

Roy's mouth pulled away, and Ed could have cried.

“Well, Fullmetal?” he asked, his voice dark and full of promise. “I'm still waiting for your answer.”

“I'm sorry, sir,” he said, in a small voice. “I'm so sorry. I lied, before. I want to come. I'm – I'm desperate. I want it so badly. Please. Sir. Master.” He writhed on the General's lap, then regretted it: he hadn't thought he could be more aroused, but the drag of the General's naked cock across his skin as he shifted just made it worse. The next breath he drew was ragged. “Sir. Please,” he said again, all thoughts of resolve long forgotten.

Then, Roy's lips covered his own: Ed's were open in a heartbeat, tongue dancing to match his lover's, tangling and stroking in the wet heat. When he pulled back, there was a smirk on his face that made Ed shiver.

“Yes,” he purred, bending down again to lick at Ed's neck, to nip at black leather, just to remind Ed it was there. “The invincible Fullmetal Alchemist, collared and begging in my lap. I can take pity on you. You look like you need it so much. And I'm the only one who can do this to you – make you lose your famous pride, make you give it up to me by choice. Sit up,” he purred, into Ed's ear, and he did, still in Roy's lap. “Now, pleasure yourself, gently: touch your own nipples.” Edward, squeezing his eyes shut, did as asked – but even that touch was interrupted by Roy's orders. “I said lightly, Fullmetal.” The lack of pressure made it less pleasure than it was absolute torture, and Roy watched, enraptured. That look on his face was the only thing making Edward keep going – part of him considered stopping, considered tweaking those nubs harder until his cock felt it, until he came – but disobeying would be cause for retribution, and right then Edward wanted satisfaction more than he wanted to be punished.

“Good,” Roy purred, closing teeth gently around the younger man's ear. “You're doing well. You're sexy when you look so tortured, so desperate.”

Ed groaned, and the general rewarded him with a gentle kiss to the sensitive skin of his neck.

“Alright. You may stop now,” he said, and Edward did, simultaneously disappointed and relieved by the lack of sensation. “Now, put your arms here,” he said, using a hand to guide Edward's limbs where he wanted them to go. Ed followed, putting his arms around the other man's neck. They kissed again, the younger man's naked, sweat-slick body pressed up against the uniform cloth, and Roy's erection resting, heavy, against Ed's own.

“Now, take the lube,” the general said – a quick glance around told Ed that the man had balanced the little glass jar of it on the back of the couch; he took it in hand – “and make my cock slick for you.” Two fingers dipped into the oil, coming away slick and dripping. Roy did the same with his own, after, and as Ed's hand came down to his lover's cock, the general's hands spread his legs apart again: then, fingers found his entrance, circled there, pressed, pushed in – first one, then two, then three. Edward's head fell forward to rest on the general's shoulder, even as his hand slid up and down his lover's cock, graceless but honest. The fingers seemed to be deliberately delicate, slow, avoiding the spot inside of him where Edward wanted them most: they were just spreading him out, getting him ready without giving him any satisfaction.

The preparation went on significantly longer than Edward thought it should: even now, Roy was still teasing, still trying to drive him insane.

“God, please. I'm ready. I'm so ready. Please just fuck me,” he said, his desperation evident in every dip and quaver of his voice.

Roy laughed, warm and rumbling. Never breaking his gaze from where his fingers invaded Ed's body, the general reached over to the side table to open the drawer in it, then, after just a moment of searching, pulled out a thick, leather strap, with a number of brass snap-buttons at the end. The blonde stared at the thing in desire and despair: he knew what Roy intended, knew that he needed it if he wanted to please his lover, but he wanted to come so badly.

“Since you ask so nicely,” he said, finally withdrawing his fingers, “I suppose I can do that for you. Kneel, straddling my lap.”

And Edward did. He knew what came next, but wouldn't move to do it – not until he was instructed to do so, no matter how much he wanted to end the torture already. All reason had abandoned him: all he could do was follow Roy's instructions and trust that he would get what he needed, trust that Roy would please him like he needed to be pleased.

Then, the man's hands came out and looped the leather around the base of his cock, tightening it until it it dug into him, until it almost hurt, then snapped it closed. Ed squeezed his eyes shut – he wouldn't be able to come like this, that was the point. Maybe he would get to enjoy this awful pleasure for longer, but fuck, he wanted to finish. That didn't matter, though: the general didn't want him to – not yet.

“Good,” Roy said, petting Edward's hair: he leaned into it, savoring. “Now, position yourself.” One of Ed's fumbling hands did so, his other tight on his lover's shoulder. “Now, let yourself go. Fuck yourself on my cock.”

Edward's next breath was harsh, released as a whimper.

“Oh god, yes,” he said, as he let himself slide down the length of Roy's erection until it was buried there, filling him as he was meant to be filled. “Mm, fuck, thank you –”

His words caught, choked, in his throat as the head of Roy's cock hit his prostate: a sob of relief replaced any coherent thought as the pleasure shot through him, blossoming out from that spot into the rest of his body. With his arms wrapped around Roy's neck, Ed's cock slid up and down the hard ridges of his lover's stomach as he did as ordered, muscles bunching and releasing as he pushed himself up and down, as he stoked his own pleasure. Judging by the half-lidded expression of lust and the flush on his lover's face, the general wasn't exactly unaffected, either.

A slight change to the angle of his motion made the head of Roy's cock hit his prostate with every thrust, the pleasure blinding, rhythmic, relentless – if he thought he had been close before it was nothing compared to now – every movement drew a soft whimper from him as it built, built, need and pleasure swelling impossibly against the choking string, his nipples hard as hell and sensitive, even to the light puffs of air.

Then, as the head of the cock stimulated him again, without any warning, the choking pressure of the leather strap was gone and Edward was coming, the orgasm cresting into stars behind his eyes and carrying him along as his lips parted in half a moan, half a scream. His body tensed against the onslaught of pleasure – and he spilled his seed in one burst, two, three, all over his lover's perfect stomach. His body pulsed, thrusting against Roy's hard stomach in the aftershocks.

Before Ed had even properly finished, the general had him on his back, his legs up in the air over Roy's shoulders, and he started to fuck the younger man like he had finally reached the edge of his patience. The look in his eye was ragged, his mouth hanging open, forehead glistening with sweat as his body moved in a frenzy, slamming himself into the younger man, pounding, until Ed could see his lover's pulse in the hollow of his neck and he looked half-crazed with pleasure –

And then, Edward had the satisfaction of hearing his lover's voice as he came: a deep, shuddering moan that never stopped being wonderful, no matter how many times he heard it. Roy's cock spilled itself inside of him, pulsing, and he gave another thrust, then another, and another – and then he was done.

He pulled out and rolled off of Ed onto his back, leaving one arm around the younger man's neck.

“Mm,” said Roy, tracing the edge of Ed's collarbone with a finger.

“Mm,” agreed Edward, letting himself enjoy the fond contact. They sat there, in silence, for a moment.

“You were fucking hot tonight,” said Roy, pressing lips to the edge of the blonde's shoulder. Ed laughed.

“You're also drunk. 'M pretty sure anything with legs would have turned you on at that point.”

“I'm not sure if I'm more insulted for myself, or for you,” Roy replied, sounding amused. “That isn't so. Those things you were saying – you were driving me crazy.” That's my line, thought Edward, but didn't say it. “Desperation is a good look on you.”

Ed blushed and looked away.

“You – you weren't so bad yourself,” he said, and immediately slapped himself mentally for being so useless with words. “I mean, you were great. Fuck. You know what I mean. Do I really have to say it?”

Roy laughed, and turned on his side to throw his other arm across Ed's stomach.

“No, you don't. You already told me everything I needed to know tonight, when you were naked and needy and begging for my cock.”

“Oh. Well, that's good,” he said, and felt Roy press a smile into the skin of his shoulder.

*

The meal of veal cutlets and creamed asparagus that Meredith had spent so long preparing was interrupted by a ring to the front doorbell. Weimar begged her forgiveness to be excused for a moment as he went to see who it was: she understood, of course, and waved him away with a little smile.

Upon arrival at the great carved oak panels that served them as doors, he saw a large envelope that someone had slid through the crack under their door. He picked it up: on the front, scrawled in a hasty pen, was a telephone number. He opened the top ungracefully, tearing it down the sides, but he didn't mind: he wouldn't be keeping the envelope for long. The first thing he pulled out was a sheet of paper, with the words on it:

You want me to publish these, or no?

His brow wrinkled: why on earth wouldn't he want Harriet to publish anything he had found on Mustang? The Flame Alchemist had been shaken, Weimar could see it: his political influence was lessening, until he was struggling just to keep his footing.

He slid a hand into the envelope, and out again with what felt like a photograph.

And then, he knew why Harriet had asked. He colored behind his trimmed beard, even as most of his blood rushed between his legs, a reaction both to the contents of the photograph and to the surprise of seeing it.

Because the picture showed Mustang with a very naked Fullmetal on his lap, bodies connected, heads thrown back in sinful bliss. If he looked closely, he could just barely see the place where Mustang entered the younger man.

He pulled out the next photo: how many of them had Harriet taken? The envelope was thick and heavy in his hand. The next photograph showed Fullmetal, a few inches higher on Mustang's erection, as if he were sliding up and down on it.

His breathing grew shallow and he had to wipe away the sweat that had begun to bead on his forehead. His stomach churned at the sheer wrongness of it, at the sight of Fullmetal and Mustang so blatantly, unashamedly, engaging in such sin. He shoved the photos back in the envelope, as if God couldn't see him if he put them away fast enough, and called out to his wife, still in the dining room:

“Meredith, I have some business to attend to for just a moment. I will probably be ten minutes, perhaps a bit more. Is that alright?”

“When have I ever said no?” he heard her ask, and so he thanked her and swept up the staircase to the bedroom they shared, automail creaking in protest against the speed. He picked up his telephone, and called the number on the front of the envelope.

“Yes,” he said, to the man who answered, “Publish them. Publish as many as your newspaper can print. The son of a bitch can't charm or fast-talk his way out of this one,” he said, to a laugh and acknowledgment from the man on the other side of the phone. A few more words were exchanged, then they both hung up, leaving Mikhael Weimar with an envelope, tempting and thick as the hardness between his legs.

He went to his armoire and stood in front of it, his vision clouding, his pulse racing. He opened both doors at once, and, pushing his way past coats and dresses on metal hangers, slid a finger down into a deep chip in the back right corner of the board that made up the floor of the wardrobe. With the correct application of pressure, the panel came up and off in his hands, revealing a compartment of about four inches deep that spanned the whole base.

He rifled past the memories – the love letters that he had never sent, the epaulette with three stars that had been entrusted to him – to find a tome of a book with a blank leather cover. He opened it, turned past photograph upon photograph that he had pasted there: some showed men's smiling faces, but mostly they displayed naked bodies: this one laid out seductively on rumpled sheets, that one on a beach, another in a bath, this one lying on a table with his legs spread to leave everything bare to the camera.

None of them showed two men together.

He finally reached a blank page, and pulled out the whole packet of photographs, and took the bottle of glue from the wardrobe.

Harriet – or whoever had been his lackey for this mission – had been thorough: the stack was perhaps fifty photos deep. The first one showed the two men, fully clothed, kissing, with Fullmetal on Mustang's lap. He pasted it into the next spot in his book. The next photograph showed Fullmetal, getting to his knees; then the next, pulling Mustang's length out of his pants; then with his mouth on the thing, the general's jaw slack and his forehead furrowed in what looked like pain but could only be pleasure. Mikhael had heard of such things before, and his body wanted – sharply, intensely, without his permission.

The pressure between his legs was becoming almost unbearable.

He pasted them all into the book, in order, from the first kiss through the collaring, through the spanking – Fullmetal looked like he had been writhing, like he had been perhaps about to cry – through their inevitable finish, with Fullmetal on his back, covered in his own seed, and Mustang's eyes squeezed shut as he came inside of the younger man.

Younger, yes: so much younger as to be obscene, but some part of Weimar could see the appeal. Even in these imperfectly focused photographs, the lithe, hard body which Fullmetal had been granted was entirely evident. Yes, with his head thrown back in sinful bliss, hair wild and bare body slick with sweat on Mustang's lap, he was beautiful.

His hands shook as he put the last picture in. A swell of illness rose to his throat: he slammed the book shut, hoping to still the feeling before it overwhelmed him.

There was only one remedy for this disease. Could he make it downstairs to Meredith before his lower regions lost their interest? She would take what she could get, and wouldn't ask questions.

But the very thought of conjugal activities with his wife began to make him soften again, and he cursed the luck that had given him this affliction.

He shoved the photo book back into the armoire along with the glue, set the false bottom back where it belonged, and thought of his marital duties until his erection was gone, though deep frustrations of many kinds replaced it.

But what did such minor grievances matter, in the end? He had resisted his unnatural urges for another day, and for that, God would commend him. He went back downstairs to the dining room, and smiled at his wife, who put her book away as he entered. Pulling his chair out, he sat down, and took a swallow of his water.

“Was it good news, or bad?” Meredith asked, blue eyes wide with concern.

“Good news,” said General Weimar, his grin a baring of teeth. “I think I've pinned Mustang for sure, this time.”

*

The next morning, by some act of god, Edward made it downstairs earlier than his lover: perhaps the events of the day would have gone differently if he hadn't, but perhaps such simple chance defines all lives, in ways both large and small. Walking into the front yard to retrieve the morning's deliveries – usually, mail, a carton containing two bottles of milk, and two newspapers – he found the thing sitting there on the porch, as quiet and immobile as such a thing could be.

Ed swallowed his rage, wouldn't let it out, but it boiled in him and turned his stomach to acid.

He took the whole thing and actually ripped it to shreds in Roy's fireplace: something about the physical act of tearing through the whole thick sheaf of papers at once gave him a certain satisfaction. Just to be sure, he transmuted it into ashes there, so it was as if it had never been. There was no need for Roy to see it before he absolutely had to. The man would find out eventually, but until then, Edward could leave him what peace remained in his quiet morning.

The carton of milk he set on the kitchen table along with the second newspaper and the mail – advertisement, advertisement, letter, response to an appointment request, a mailed interview form from the Star Telegraph (he gave it the same treatment as he had the first newspaper) – then walked over to the bottom of the stairs.

“Hey, Roy?” he called up, keeping his voice as calm as he could. “I need to head back to my place for some clean clothes before going to the lab. I’ll see you sometime later?”

“What, not staying for breakfast this morning?” came Roy’s voice, from what Ed guessed by the echoes was the upstairs bathroom. “You're in a hurry. At least let me come say goodbye properly,” he said, and Edward suddenly got an eyeful of temptation as Roy appeared, naked, at the top of the stairs. He resisted both of his twin urges: to go join his lover in the shower, to have some fantastic sex, to forget about the newspaper and whatever else was going on outside; and its mirror impulse, to tell Roy to put some clothes on so he wouldn't have to fight the first urge anymore.

They met halfway on the stairs, the steps accentuating their height difference in a way that once might have made Edward angry but now didn't seem to matter in the least. They kissed, warm and chaste, and wrapped their arms around each other.

“How's the hangover?” Ed asked, after a moment. “You doin okay?”

“I'm not exactly about to go run a marathon,” he said, with some amusement, “but mostly I'm fine. It's certainly not the worst I've ever had.” What had the worst one been like? Ed had never had a hangover, but they didn't seem pleasant.

“That's good.” He paused. “Okay. Well, I've gotta get going. So g’bye,” Ed murmured into Roy’s bare chest, not allowing himself to lick the sweat off of his lover’s skin. “Have a good day at work.” Even as he said it, he knew that it was going to be impossible for either of them – but the other man didn't. Not yet.

“You too,” said Roy, genuinely. “Now get out of here, before I decide to have my wicked way with you here on the stairs.”

Despite his lover's joking tone, Ed had to fight the immediate rush of arousal that filled him at those words – but it wasn't nearly as strong as his rage, so he stayed steady.

“Yeah. I’ll see you later. I'm prob’ly staying at my house tonight, you can come by for dinner if you want.”

“Tonight may be a late work night, with everything that's going on and my conversation with the Ambassador, but I’ll do my best.”

“'Kay,” said Edward, pulling away from Roy’s embrace. “See ya,” he said, then hopped down the stairs to where his work bag lay sitting by the door.

“Goodbye,” Roy replied, to which Ed responded with a wave, backwards, over his shoulder.

Having the immense space of the whole city around him felt somehow liberating, free from the confines of stone walls, free to run if he wanted, to run away or run forward. The fury bubbling up in his chest was twice as frustrating simply because he had no direction for it, nothing in front of him that he could destroy and no one at whom he could scream until he felt better.

About a block away from Roy's house, he gave in to his urge to swing a savage kick into a lamppost: the metal gave way under his foot with a satisfying clang, and his automail foot left a significant dent where it had been. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught two passers-by staring at him in horror.

“What the hell are you looking at?” he snarled, whirling to face them. They took the hint and turned to scurry away, like rats.

Maybe they had seen the article, and were watching him with some sick, horrified fascination.

Maybe they hadn't, and had just seen some crazy fuck kicking the shit out of a lamppost.

Maybe he had been hallucinating the whole thing – without the evidence there in front of him, who was to say?

But that was a stupid game to play. He knew what he had seen. The bile collected, burning, in his throat. Someone was going to have to fucking pay for this.

It had been almost surreal, like a nightmare. The content didn't register in Ed's brain for a good thirty seconds longer than it should have taken because it was so absolutely fucking unbelievable: right there on the front page of the Central Times, sitting on Roy's goddamn porch, had been a photograph of Roy and Ed fucking, from the night before. There, for all the world to see, one sat naked and the other fully clothed, Ed straddling his lover's lap on Roy’s couch, the nature of their congress unavoidably apparent despite the added blur. It covered all of the important bits, presumably so as not to offend delicate sensibilities.

If it hadn't been so horrifying, it almost would have been funny: those people's priorities were unbelievably fucked-up. They'd publish illicit pornography in their paper, but they 'd cover it up, just to make sure they didn't offend anybody.

The mystery of how the reporter had gotten those photographs had been solved when Ed had noted what looked like the sides of Roy’s curtains on the edges of the picture: apparently the man hadn’t drawn the drapes fully enough to be able to expect privacy in his own goddamn house. Worse yet, the collar was clearly visible on Ed’s neck, a private gift turned to a mark of shame.

And on page four, where the article continued after cutting off at the end of the first page, there had been more pictures, just as damning as the first. Edward, on his knees, sucking Roy off – Edward over Roy’s lap, the man’s hand drawn back, about to strike him – Edward straddling the other man’s legs while both men had been fully clothed.

The headline: GENERAL CAUGHT WITH MALE SUBORDINATE! The subtitle: PROOF OF GENERAL MUSTANG'S SORDID AFFAIR WITH THE FULLMETAL ALCHEMIST! By the end of the article, the reader was to be left with the impression that Mustang had raped Edward regularly for his whole time in the military, starting at the age of twelve and continuing on to the present day (though the writer didn’t even bother to specify that Ed wasn’t in the military anymore) – and if that weren't bad enough, it also suggested in imprecise language that he might have abused even more children or subordinates.

Alternately, it implied that Edward might have actually been to blame for such events: that Mustang had actually been the victimized party, and that Edward had used his looks and his masterful skills at seduction to wrap the Flame Alchemist and a number of other important military figures around his little finger. In this retelling, he owed his rank as much to his ability to spread his legs as to any actual talent.

The dual narrative was the most confusing and irritating part: how could he be victim and whore at the same time?

The dent in the lamppost actually improved it, Ed decided, so he neglected to transmute it away, instead moving on to the next lamp and kicking a dent in it, too.

Part of him, the part that had never quite gotten used to staying in one place, told him that he should just get on a train and take off to the north or something, but he knew how well that had worked out last time, when he had up and left Roy without so much as a word of warning. Besides, he had promised not to do it again.

And in any case, Edward Elric didn’t run away, he ran forward.

“Forward” meant having a plan. “Forward” meant working towards achieving that plan, every day, with every breath. Right then, he decided immediately, “forward” meant figuring out just who this Guy Harriet motherfucker was, where he lived, and going down to his house so they could have a nice little chat.

Edward burst into his own house just over half an hour later, the sound of the door slamming into the wall satisfying in the same way that punching the lampposts had been. Startled, Al looked over from where he was making coffee in the kitchen.

“Alphonse,” Ed said, darkly. “Tell me where he lives.”

“Where who lives?” asked Al, but his innocent face couldn’t fool Ed.

“Come on, Al, don’t play stupid with me. I know you’ve seen the papers.”

Al’s face twisted up then, like he couldn’t hold his emotion in anymore. His poker face had been bad even when he had been made entirely of metal, and it had only gotten worse since then.

“I’m sorry, Brother. I did see it. It’s horrible,” he said, sounding like it hurt him as much as it did Ed. It probably did. Just one more reason he needed to talk to Guy Harriet.

“Yeah, it fucking is. I thought people had the right to fuck whoever they want in private, and to do it however the fuck they want,” he snapped, and felt bad immediately: Al wasn't the intended target of his anger. He stomped over into the kitchen, looking at the floor and feeling the strain of keeping all of his emotion in. “Isn’t it illegal to take photographs through somebody’s window without their permission? Actually, I don't even care whether it is or not: if it's not, it oughta be, and in any case it's just wrong. I have to talk to this fucker, Al.”

Al frowned. Even he knew that this wasn’t the sort of situation you could just ignore.

“Yes, it is illegal, and horrible, and I'm sorry. I can’t tell you where Guy Harriet lives, though. I can tell you that our research has turned up suggestions that he’s connected to General Weimar.” Ed watched his brother blankly. The name rung no bells. After a moment of the silence, Al realized what the issue was, and continued: “That’s right, you don’t know anything about politics. and General Mikhael Weimar was just a brigadier general when you were in the military. Well, to put it one way, he is not one of General Mustang’s supporters. He would be happy to see General Mustang and his political ideas go down in flames and not get up again.”

Edward darkened, and Al put out a cautioning hand.

“But that’s not an invitation to go punch General Weimar, either. Punching is not the answer to every question.”

“It sure as hell oughta be!” Edward took a deep breath, thought about it for a moment. “Alright, Mustang can deal with Weimar or what the fuck ever. I’m going to go find this jackass who takes photos through private windows and then publishes them in public newspapers and calls them perverts and I'm gonna transmute him into shoe leather.” A pause: Al watched him, brow furrowed in concern or pity. Ed almost bristled again – he didn't need anybody's pity.

“I’m not going to tell you where he lives, Brother. I'm not going to imply that I condone this.”

“But you know.”

“Yes, of course.”

“Well, if you won’t tell me, I’ll go to the Central Times headquarters and transmute all of their printing presses into statuary.”

“No! Edward, don’t do that. That’s going to get you and everybody else in so much trouble.”

“Then let me threaten him in private. What he’s doing is just wrong.”

“Not everybody has the same ideas about right and wrong as you, Brother. Most people have more of a concept of a moral grey area.”

“You think taking pictures of me and Roy fucking in his house is a moral grey area?!”

“No, I think it’s wrong,” Al said, his face stone and his words decisive. “But most people would also consider you attacking him for his crimes to be morally ambiguous at best, if not outright wrong.”

“I never said I was gonna attack him,” he muttered, crossing his arms. “I was joking about the shoe leather. Mostly,” he added, just for the sake of honesty. “I told you, I'm gonna go talk to him.”

Al frowned and crossed his arms too, his brow furrowed – Ed knew exactly what was going on in his mind. He knew his brother wasn't happy with this, but his anger fueled the part of him that just didn't give a damn.

“'Talk' to him being code for 'interfere with the freedom of the press' at best, and 'commit assault' at worst. Promise me, at least, that you’re not going to go to the Central Times headquarters and make a scene there. I can't even tell you how awful that would be.”

“No can do,” said Edward, more than a bit vindictively, “not unless you tell me where this one bastard lives.”

Al sighed, running a hand through his hair: that look on his brother's face was Ed's fault, he knew, but he wasn't about to change his mind.

“Fine,” said Al, tiredly. “The address is in my notes. I'm pretty sure he's at home right now, because he stayed up all night writing the story, but if he's the kind of person I think he is, he'll probably be going back to the Central Times headquarters pretty soon to take care of more stuff. If you want to make sure you get him, you should probably catch a cab, or run really fast.”

“Thanks, Al,” said Edward, taking a deep breath. The man was already going back to do more damage? Had he not hurt enough people for one day? “I owe you one.” He paused. “I owe you a million,” he said, flashing his little brother a quick smile, gone as quickly.

“You bet your life you do. Don’t do anything too stupid,” Al said, and Ed couldn’t tell if it was exasperated or fond.

“Funny, Mustang told me the same thing the other day,” the blonde grumbled, half amused. He should get those two out of the same city. They were dangerous enough separately. “You know, you two should definitely stop hangin' around each other. You're getting to be too similar in a lot of ways that are really weird to me.” And inconvenient, to boot.

There was a short laugh in response. A bit of his hair had fallen out of place, and he tucked it back. Then, half to himself, he said:

“Are we?” A pause. “I really hope I don’t regret this.”

Ed's reaction was automatic, practiced:

“Don’t worry ‘bout it, Al. It’s not your problem.”

Holding up the smile the younger man gave him proved to be too much effort: the expression sagged, drawing out the shadows around his eyes. Funny how everybody involved with the whole damn situation looked ten years older. Ed wondered what he would see if he looked in a mirror.

“Idiot,” Alphonse said, sadly. “We've been over this. I love you. Of course it's my problem.”

The words weren't any easier to hear the second time. He stepped forward to ruffle his brother's hair, gave the other a grin, then said:

“Really, don't worry. I'll be back before you know it.”

“You'd better be,” said Al, and after a brief pause, stepped forward to give his brother a quick hug – awkward, adorable, like he had forgotten how. Ed squeezed back, for just that second, and gave the other a wave as he turned to run – away, and forward.

***

Chapter Text

Chapter 6

*

Once again, Roy found out about the article at work, though mercifully he did so from Hawkeye rather than from hallway gossip or by random chance. As he entered the outer office, where Havoc and Fuery and the rest worked at their desks, he saw her looking at him – pointed, immediate. Not a word had to pass between them for him to know that she needed to speak to him. Striding over to his personal office, he kept the silence and she followed him, shutting the door behind him. He sat down at his desk, and she stepped over to stand in front of it.

“What is it, Major?” he asked without prelude, lacing his fingers together on the wood.

“Sir,” she said, her face carefully blank. “Have you seen the papers?” Roy's heart sank.

“How I have grown to hate those words,” Roy said, trying to keep his voice light. “What nonsense are they spouting this time?”

“Nothing new, exactly,” she murmured. “Except that they have a collection of photographs. Inappropriate photographs,” she added, and his stomach turned.

“Photographs?” he asked, voice hardening.

“Taken through your window, it seems, sir.”

“Show me,” he said, anger hitting him with even more force than the shock had.

Hawkeye paused, watching him, considering. After a moment, she said:

“In the top left drawer of your desk.”

Roy slammed the drawer open, yanking out the folded newspaper and spreading it in front of him.

Sure enough, there on the front page, three quarters of it set above the center fold, Roy could see himself and Edward, naked on his chair as they had been the night before, joined together in mutual bliss. At the bottom of the article he noted a little italicized addition: Continued on page four, it read, as if the first page wasn't enough. He slammed the paper open to the page in question and stared at what he saw there.

The grim set of his mouth betrayed everything he felt, his mind's disbelief at what his eyes told him must be true. He held the paper up off of the table, still staring – so many photographs of what had been such a private moment, taken without permission and published for the world to gawk at.

He slid a glove from his breast pocket onto his right hand, then snapped. The paper glowed orange at a corner, and then after a flickering moment, lay as ash on his table.

“Why would someone do this?” he asked, his voice tight, crushing together his many emotions into one.

“To hurt you,” she said, quietly. “To hurt your team’s faith in you. To hurt the country’s faith in you. For money, and a politician’s support.”

Roy turned his eyes on her again, and for the first time wondered what she thought of the whole situation. What did she think of seeing photographs of him in the newspapers, of hearing all of these things about him that were better left unspoken? Did she think him sick and twisted? Was she hurt, jealous?

To Roy Mustang, the most important living people were his mother, Edward Elric, and Riza Hawkeye, in some undefined order. As much as Edward suited him, as much as he enjoyed the younger man's company, as much as Ed made him happy, Hawkeye suited him just as much in another way. She made him a better man, kept him driven and focused, strengthened the parts of him that were weak and protected him from all comers. Friends and acquaintances had often wondered when the two were going to start a romantic relationship, but somehow, between her professionalism, his multitudes of dalliances, and the inconvenience of fraternization rules, such a thing had just never happened. Having her as a woman was so much less important than having her as a soldier that he had never even tried.

As these thoughts flashed through his mind, it occurred to him with a mixture of amusement and discomfort that Hawkeye probably would not take well to being dominated in bed. She might be entirely disgusted by the thought of the kind of activities Roy enjoyed: on the slim chance that she wasn't, he suspected that she might possibly prefer their roles the other way around.

That being said, over the past several months a long-ignored question had begun to surface and resurface in the stream of his thoughts: how did she feel about him? Had she been hurt when he had begun a relationship with Edward? Had she wished it it had been her, instead? And now, another question arose: was she happy that she had never tried anything now that his perverted tendencies were on display? Did she find his kinks as base and disgusting as the rest of the country?

Instead of any of those things, after a moment he asked:

Is your faith in me hurt?” He met her eyes and locked them there, together.

“No,” she replied, immediately, automatically: that immediate confidence warmed Roy through.

“You aren’t disgusted by what you see here? By what you’ve read?”

She shook her head.

“What you do in the privacy of your own home is your own business. What you do in the privacy of your office when the door is closed is a bit more of a grey area,” she said, with a soft upward crook of her mouth. Roy almost gave a nervous laugh at that, but the situation was too serious. Of course she knew he had been having sex in his office. Why wouldn’t she? The woman's omniscience was well-known and feared throughout the department.

“Our team hasn’t been shaken. We’re still behind you, one hundred percent. However, I think you can expect a lot of teasing, once this has all blown over,” she said, amused. “And it will blow over,” she added.

Roy tried to smile back: the anger churning in his stomach made happiness difficult, but gratitude – that he could manage.

“Thank you, Major. Your support means the world to me. I don't know how I'd manage without you.”

“You wouldn't, sir,” she said, firmly. “Now I would appreciate it if you would sweep all of that ash off of your desk and get to work. You have quite a pile of paperwork to go through and many important decisions to make before your meeting with the ambassador, so the sooner you get started, the better.”

Roy groaned theatrically as he slipped off his flame glove and used one bare hand to brush the pile of soot into the other hand before depositing it in the nearby trash bin.

“Come on, Major. You can't even give a man a break for ten minutes after his life's been violently spun about?”

She gave him an appraising look, and thought for a moment.

“I'll send Fuery to get coffee. I'll check in on you after he's delivered it. If you're not working by then...”

She let the end of that sentence hang, unspoken, in the air. She was the kind of woman who didn't even need to speak her threats aloud.

*

The crowds of people on Carell Boulevard parted to led Edward through as he careened down the street, stare focused, feet unflagging. They glanced at him, then looked away, without the energy to care about some other human's troubles. No-one recognized him: to careless eyes he was just some racing madman, not the social pariah from the newspapers nor the Hero of the People, which was all for the best. He didn't know what he would have done if he had been recognized.

By the time he arrived at Guy Harriet's house, his forehead was slick with sweat: even at the peak of his physical fitness he would have found a twenty-minute sprint tiring, and he was no longer at his very best. Despite the coolness of the day, he felt himself beginning to warm uncomfortably: the heat of his exertion stayed trapped below his many layers of clothing, compounding itself. His automail, hidden below the brown leather of his long jacket, had begun to overheat, straining the skin at the port. But he wouldn't slow down. He was not in the mood to wait.

The house itself was unremarkable, just a single-story building in a style that had gone out of fashion twenty years ago, one of a neverending row of a bunch of houses that, with the exception of slight variations in color or texture, all looked exactly the same. It had a little yard out in front: quick inspection showed no gate or walkaround to a back yard. Edward grunted. A backyard would have been more private, convenient location for this kind of confrontation. That option taken away from him, he slid to a stop on the stone of the man's entryway. A heavy lions-head knocker adorned the wood of his door – Ritzy, he thought to himself with some derision as he pulled the hood of his jacket up over his head to hide his distinctive hair. The man must have been a pretentious asshole.

As he stood before the door, out of nowhere a bout of nerves attacked him: his stomach swam, noticeable even through his anger, and his adrenaline spiked. He set his warm hand flat out on the door to support himself through this wave of dizziness. Fuck, what had brought this on?

Some inexplicable instinct told him that something was off. He didn't know what it was, but it was something.

Am I making a really bad decision? That instinctual part of his brain seemed to think so, and the realization shook him. Edward took a deep breath and a step back, wondering if maybe he should think this through better, find some other way, at least do this when his emotions weren't so turbulent –

And then he lost any further choice in the matter, because the door opened in front of him, leaving him with no defense.

The man standing there was not what Edward had expected. He was young, maybe twenty-five, with a too-long nose and an early balding patch that Ed just caught a glimpse of before the man covered it with a bowling cap. He probably thought himself handsome, but he had a sniveling, untrustworthy face. He dressed sharply, at least, Edward had to give him that.

Guy Harriet stared at him, blank, for a moment, and Edward froze, the man's mirror. He didn't know what he had planned to do, or at least couldn't remember – now that he was here, in front of the man, that nervousness in his belly shackled his feet to the ground and his mouth shut.

“Can I help you?” the man asked, neutrally polite. He adjusted the bowler cap on his head, then straightened his back. “I'm sorry, did we have an appointment? I don't recall, but things have been so busy over the past couple of days. I was about to go into work, so unless it's urgent, might you wait?”

No, I'm not gonna wait,” said Edward, not quite summoning up the fury he had intended, but nevertheless managing a hardness that seemed to startle the other man. He took a breath and hunched his shoulders. “You and I have business.”

“What manner of business?” he asked, then paused: he looked Edward up and down, searched the man's face under the hood, and then his eyes narrowed, practically glinting. He grinned, and the expression twisted his face, darkened it. Then, delighted, he said:

“Oh, I see. You're General Mustang's little whore, aren't you.”

Edward's heart almost stopped. He surged forward, slammed the man against his front door and pinned him there by the collar with his automail hand, savoring the look of shock on the man's face. There was no fear there – yet.

“What did you say?” he growled, increasing the pressure on the man's neck. “What did you call me, you cowardly sneaking spineless sonova bitch?” The reporter tried to struggle, but it was useless: even Ed's flesh arm was twice as strong as either of Harriet's. The alchemist didn't even pause in his tirade. “You have the fucking gall to run around taking photographs through other people's windows of shit they do in private, publish them for the world to see, make money off of it, then write an article calling me a pervert? You have no right.”

The man had begun to look afraid, now: Ed bared his teeth in a snarl. His voice of caution and moderation had begun to disappear, drowning under the force of his anger.

“I do have a right,” the man began, his voice hoarse, forced through the pressure from Ed's fist, “and a sacred duty as a journalist.” Ed's eyes narrowed, his emotions catching up even as his brain stayed stuck on the first sentence. “And Amestris has a right to know what its leaders are doing, to know what kind of men they are. Do they want a pervert and a rapist for a general? For a Fuhrer? I doubt it. Better that they know beforehand than find out when it's too late to do anything about it.”

Edward's vision flashed red, and before he knew what was happening, the ridge of his knuckles collided with the journalist's cheekbone with a cathartic crunch. Guy Harriet stumbled to the side, eyes wide, looking even more surprised by the sudden meeting of bones than Ed had been. The alchemist hadn't meant to let his fist fly just then, but he couldn't say that he regretted it.

“You're right, they do have a right to know what kind of men their leaders are. And thanks to you, they have no fucking idea who Roy Mustang is. He's a great man.”

Why had he confronted the man on his front lawn? That had been the first of many bad ideas. Around them, heads had begun to peek out of windows, and people were stopping on the street to watch, out of curiosity or their own voyeuristic tendencies. Ed let go of the reporter's collar to shove the man backward, childishly satisfied by the man's quick stumble. Harriet righted himself, though, and put one hand up to his cheek to feel the damage, then spat onto the grass, probably to check for blood in his mouth. There might have been a pale flash of red on the grass, but it wasn't significant.

Collecting himself, the reporter shoved his hands in his pockets. His next words bit.

“It's not surprising that you'd say that. After all, you've been his little puppet since you were twelve – and his personal sex toy, if my sources are to be believed,” he said, his voice sharp, pointed, intended to cut Edward through and succeeding. There was no reason for that comment, no possible motivation other than cruelty, a vindictive pleasure in the pain of another.

“I'm not anybody's anything!” Ed snarled, digging his fingers into his palms. “I go my own way. I decided to be with Mustang – once I was significantly past the age of consent – and I decided to support him politically, and the two were not connected. Also, fuck your sources, they're either made up or they're liars. And speaking of little puppets, let's talk about General Weimar,” Edward said, the last words pointed, mocking. “I know you journalists are sleazy bastards, but I thought at least that you had some standards. We know about the money you've been getting from the General on the sly.” He had made that part up, but by the way the man's eyes widened, Ed's guess had been right on the mark. “How much was your integrity worth, huh? How much does he pay you to be his bitch? Does he make you get up in the morning and ruin other people's lives, or is that just something you do because you think it's fun, and he pays you just as a little extra bonus?”

The man gaped, and Ed could feel the astonished stares of their audience on the street. Edward spun around to face them. A few drew back at the look on his face, but he couldn't say he cared.

“Get the hell out of here, this is private business! I'm not a goddamn circus act.”

“They're not going to go away,” said Harriet, from behind him. “If there's one thing I know, it's that the public loves to watch train wrecks, Elric. Schadenfreude, as they call it. People will talk about this. You can't stop them. Some of them might even recognize you, and put two and two together. You're really quite famous, you know.”

Edward turned on the man, mouth open in a snarl. Harriet thought this had moved back onto his turf again. His goddamn mistake.

“You ain't gonna scare me with that kind of talk. I don't give a shit what people think about me.”

“Clearly you do care what people think, or you wouldn't be behaving like this over one little newspaper article.”

“You son of a bitch. Anybody would care about this.”

“If you have nothing to hide, if none of the things I've written about are true, then why are you so frazzled? I must have hit a nerve, hm? Or are you just ashamed of yourself? Is that the problem?”

The labor of Edward's chest grew tighter, heavier, with every word the other man said. Each syllable froze him further to the ground.

“Are you ashamed that you like men? That you like it when another man whips you senseless? Or,” he asked, giving a long pause for dramatic effect, “are you ashamed that you bought your way into your military position with your body? Tell me, did Mustang seduce you, or was it the other way around? Was he the first man you paid off like that, or were there others before him? I wouldn't be surprised, you really were a very pretty child –”

And then Edward flew forward, his automail fist connecting with his opponent's stomach, then his other fist with the man's jaw, then his jaw again, and again –

The sight of blood dripping out of the corner of Harriet's mouth stopped Ed short: he threw the other man to the ground with a heavy noise. When he slid to a stop, the alchemist noticed with dread that the man was smiling. The faint cry of sirens reached Ed's ears, growing louder by the second: one of their audience members must have made it to a telephone booth and called the police.

In that moment, he missed his silver pocket-watch for one of the first times since he had tossed it back onto Mustang's desk two years prior. If he had still been a state alchemist, he probably could have gone ahead and arrested the man for being a lying bastard and for his horrible invasion of privacy. Would it have been legal? Maybe not precisely, but State Alchemists could pretty much make their own laws.

“Fuck you and your theories. You're pulling shit out of your ass and then making up 'anonymous sources' to prove it. We're onto you, bastard. We know who your real boss is, we know what you really want, and I'm telling you, give it up. Roy Mustang and I are none of your business. If you keep on with this, I swear to god you're gonna regret it worse next time.”

The man laughed, and sat up from the ground, and the flood of Edward's emotions turned from hot to cold in a heartbeat.

“We'll see who'll be regretting what, won't we?” he said, smiling: but the police sirens had drawn too close for Ed to challenge it. He knew he had to leave, and so – to his shame and against every battle-hardened instinct – he turned to run, feeling the pounding of every footstep deep within him.

*

At ten o'clock, Roy arrived at the Ambassador's hotel: strangely, she wasn't awaiting him in the lobby, so he asked the attendant at the front desk ring up to her room. There was no answer. After a second try, the man asked who he should tell her had called if she should wish to know. Upon hearing the general's reply, he gave Roy a quick look of – surprise? Maybe – and fished a note out from under his counter.

“Ah, the lady told me to give this to one General Mustang, if he happened to come by,” the man said, beady, mouselike eyes watching him warily even as he extended the note. Roy strode forward and snatched the paper from the man's hand, giving the thing a hot glare as he read it.

General Mustang, the note read, the last “g” smudged, as if she hadn't had time to let the ink dry properly, I have been escorted to headquarters today by one General Batir. I asked him where you were, and he simply said that he would be in charge of my case from now on. I don't know why he has taken over for you, but I can guess, and none of my guesses are happy ones. In the event that no-one has bothered to inform you and you show up to the hotel looking for me this morning, I hope this manages to find its way into your hands. Good luck to you. If you need anything, just ask, and I will do everything in my (admittedly limited) power to help you. – Ambassador Elena Rosenthal

One hand crumpled the paper as he spun and stormed outside, and the other hand snapped: the paper burned, left only as ash on the concrete.

He should have known something like this would happen. Why would the senior staff decide to court-martial him, then let his life and duties continue on as normal? No, that would have been too kind. That would have presumed his innocence.

As frustrating and inconvenient as it might have been, he kept his mind focused on one aspect of it: he was absolutely certain that General Weimar was behind it all. This wasn't simply a personal issue – this was a political embargo, putting Mustang safely behind a little barricade of law so that he and his ideas were less threatening.

Even if the tense meeting between Mustang and Weimar in the hallway a few days prior had never happened, after this revelation, Roy still would have guessed that the other generalwas behind it all. Out of all the men on the council, he was the man most dead-set opposed to Roy's political views in almost every arena – but specifically, and most importantly, with regards to Roy's position on the Ishballan survivors.

Funny how, even after all those years, for Roy, everything went back to Ishbal. He guessed that the same was probably true for the other man.

Roy laid out the situation in his head as he walked, at least, the situation as he guessed it: if he was any judge – and he was – then Batir was Weimar's closest ally among the senior staff, though he doubted that Batir had anything to do with the newspaper articles. Grumman was in Roy's camp, and he was an older, more powerful ally than Batir, though also more ambitious. If the man thought that he could become Fuhrer by taking Roy down, he probably would, but the two generals were friends, after a fashion. He had been Roy's political mentor – and perhaps a bit of a co-conspirator – back in East City. More importantly, their political philosophies seemed to line up quite well, although Grumman was unlikely to make Amestris into a democracy should he be appointed Fuhrer.

Fuhrer Hakuro sat in the middle of his divided staff, not throwing his lot in with one or the other. Roy appreciated this relatively unbiased approach to rule, although it made the man into something of a wild card. The Fuhrer's vote was crucial in any disagreement – his opinion would not only break a tie between the generals, but sway the whole rest of the room.

So Roy came out on top when weighing their support among the other generals. However, so far as he had gathered, Weimar could count at least the Minister of Finance, the Minister of Transport and Development, and the Minister of Commerce as his men. On Mustang's side, there was only the Minister of Civilian Administration, though thankfully the Ministers of State and Justice seemed not to have picked alliances as of yet.

Though the delay and his own impotence grated at him, he had to keep focus. He wouldn't go down quietly, wouldn't just let this happen without fighting it. He refused to let himself despair, even for a moment.

The short walk and the cool breeze allowed him some time to collect himself, which was good: it wouldn't do to let either his subordinates or his enemies see just how much this had affected him. By ten twenty, he had arrived at the Fuhrer's office, and heard an invitation from behind the solid oak doors when he knocked.

Roy entered and shut the door behind him, then saluted, his heels clicking together, body held straight as a rod.

“Oh, General Mustang, what brings you to see me today?” Fuhrer Hakuro asked, though he had to have been playing ignorant: there was no way that any of the generals would do what they had done without informing the Fuhrer. He looked up from what was surely an important document. “At ease, Mustang.”

Roy assumed the “at ease” position, his feet spread and his hands clasped behind his back.

“Sir, it has come to my attention that the Cretan ambassador has been removed from my care. This is unusual, and counterproductive, given that I am the head of foreign relations, and I have more knowledge of the issue at hand and the Cretans in general than anyone else on the staff. Besides, I am already a good week into negotiations, and in this delicate situation, starting her with a new diplomat is more or less the same as starting over. May I ask what your reasoning might have been?”

Hakuro sat up straighter in his chair, and put his pen back in the inkwell. His eyes were sharp above steepled fingers.

“I thought it best, given your situation right now, to keep you out of the public spotlight. After all, the courts have yet to decide if you are a criminal or not. The staff and I decided that it would be best to remove you from negotiations before you are convicted, rather than after.”

“With all due respect, sir, I haven't been convicted, and I won't be: I've done nothing wrong or illegal.”

Hakuro's expression grew dark then, and he said:

“I'm certain that the court will come to the proper decision. But regardless, the articles that keep coming out in the newspapers are frankly an embarrassment, Mustang.” The man opened a drawer, pulled something out, and tossed it onto the table so that it faced Roy. It was a copy of the newspaper from that day, with that photograph, damning enough even alone, on the front.

Calm, cool, unruffled. Roy's face was a stone wall, and he allowed nothing in. He had been hurt far worse than this.

How would Edward be handling it? Would the people at his lab pull it out and wave it at him, laugh at him? Would they treat him differently? Was he getting into some kind of trouble, like he always did? Was he hurt, ashamed? After all, it was him who was naked in that photograph, not Roy.

“I can't have someone who is consistently embarrassing to the great institution of this military dealing with foreign relations.”

Roy's voice as he replied was even.

“Those photographs were taken illegally and the reporter is spouting illegal slander. I find him much more of an embarrassment to the country than I am.”

“It's not slander if it's true.”

“Correct. But again, with all due respect, Edward is no longer my subordinate, and he hasn't been a minor for two years. So, unless there are laws that I have never heard about which dictate the kind of sexual activity in which one can engage in the privacy of their own home, I have done nothing illegal. I don't see that who I choose to be with is any of the state's business.”

The man's hard look did not soften.

“Yes, so you have said, I hear – but your defense is as of yet unproven. You seem confident that your name will be cleared. I am as well,” said the Fuhrer, in a way that implied the opposite, “but until your name is officially cleared, you are under suspicion of criminal activity and have been temporarily relieved of your position in my council and as head of foreign affairs. You may continue to conduct the affairs of your own office as you see fit, but I recommend that you spend the majority of your time, now, collecting the evidence you will need in court.”

This news hit him like a cannon, but he had better control than to show it. He would never allow this man to see his weakness, not today or any day.

“I see,” said Roy, as if he were being delivered a mildly interesting tidbit of information. “If that is your command, sir, then I am happy to obey. But if I have not been relieved of my rank or position officially, then may I assume that my second-in-command will take my place on your council, as she would if I were traveling or indisposed?”

The Fuhrer thought for a moment, then responded:

“I think that is allowable. Major Hawkeye is of an unusually low rank to be allowed onto my council, but if it is only temporary, then I think it will do no harm,” the man said, eyes glittering. It certainly would be temporary, either way: win or lose, she would not have to play that part for long.

“Your graciousness does you credit, sir,” Roy said, saluting again.

“You're welcome, General. Now, if you have nothing else to say, you are dismissed.”

“Sir,” said Roy, and turned to let himself out.

*

“You were right, Al,” said Edward, on opening the door to their house. “I should never have gone. I – god, I fucked up. You were right.”

“I know,” said Al, though he said it sadly.

*

The knock on the Elrics' door came at about five o'clock. Edward was sitting in the living room, books piled up around him, sketching a transmutation circle on thick paper when he heard it. He jumped at the sound – he had been dreading that sound ever since he had returned from Harriet's house that morning: there was no way that Roy wouldn't hear about his escapade. For the length of the day, he had had little else to do but wait for that knock: he didn't think he could handle one more look of disgust or pity from his coworkers without turning on someone, and so he stayed at home, alone, where at least he couldn't get into any more trouble.

He sprung up to his feet to go open the door, out of courtesy, though he knew that Roy had a key and could get in on his own, if he wanted. He ignored the pool of cold nausea sitting in the pit of his stomach: was he the Fullmetal Alchemist or was he a coward? Steeling himself, he turned the knob.

“Hey,” he said, risking a glance up to the face of the man in front of him, then shooting his eyes back down to the ground again.

He didn't want to see that cold look in Mustang's eye, that pale face frozen and immobile as it only was when something much worse was lurking just behind that mask. The man's stare burned on Ed's face, so he turned around and said:

“You coming inside? Better than standing on the doorstep.”

Edward heard footsteps behind him and the slam of his door.

“Edward,” Roy said, and that one word struck fear in Ed's heart. “Look at me.”

Turning around, he met the general's knifing stare, unflinching.

“I can't believe you would do something like that, Edward,” the man began, every syllable enunciated, every word detailed. “I knew you were stupid, but this?” he asked, his hands clenching into tight fists by his side. The ice in his voice affected Edward more than any amount of screaming ever could. “We talked about this. We agreed that you weren't going to see this man. We agreed that you were going to take the high road, that you were going to try to be a goddamn adult for once. Instead, I go off to work, and what do I hear? You've assaulted a reporter, done damage to my cause that is perhaps irreparable, and now the fucking police are looking for you, too.” His voice grew harsher, and Edward wasn't sure if that was better or worse than that cool, detached indifference. “They can't prove it was you – at least you had the sense to put your hood up to hide your hair – but they aren't stupid. The only reason they haven't come over to arrest you, I suspect, is because you are the Fullmetal Alchemist and he was just some reporter. Until they find hard proof or collect sufficient witness testimony, I suspect you are safe. But that doesn't mean you will stay that way.”

Some part of Ed wanted to snap back in anger, to give as good as he was getting, but he didn't. Really, he deserved it.

“Edward, I don't know what I'm going to have to do to show you how damaging your little temper tantrum was. I honestly don't know. I thought you understood what you needed to do, but evidently I was very wrong,” the general said, icily. They stood, facing each other, Edward's head bent forward so he wouldn't have to meet the other man's eyes.

“I know,” he said, trying not to sound the way he felt. “I'm sorry. I was just – I was so mad, you know? I just wanted him to stop saying that kind of shit about you. It just – it's so wrong. So fuckin' wrong, and I wanted him to pay for what he'd done to you.”

Roy's face didn't soften at all.

“Admirable, but stupid. You're not a state alchemist anymore. You don't have carte blanche when it comes to the law. What happens if you get thrown in jail, Edward? What then? What do I do? Politically or personally.” He paused, collecting himself back into that focused blade. “You know this is going to be in the morning papers. How does 'General's Lover Assaults Investigating Journalist' sound as a title? How do you think the public will take this?”

Ed's mouth moved without his permission, as it so often did.

“You would have attacked him too if you heard the shit he was saying.”

He must have sounded hurt, or disgusted, or something, because Roy paused for a moment and examined him, considering.

“Perhaps, or perhaps not. But above all, I would not have put myself in that situation.

“I know,” he said, staring at his scuffed-up boots. “I'm sorry.”

“I wish that apologies would make this go away, but they won't, Fullmetal. What will you do if this is the last nail in my coffin, politically? Will you say you're sorry again if, in two weeks, you're in prison for assault and I'm there for child rape? Will you wave at me from across the hall?” he asked, with a nasty laugh.

Ed's gaze shot up, and he froze there, stunned, his mind working around something to say.

“But – I –”

“But nothing, Fullmetal. I understand that you meant no harm to me, but if I can't trust you to stay out of trouble, what can I trust you to do?”

Those words hit home, just like they were meant to.

“Roy – I'm sorry,” he said, reaching out for his lover's sleeve, but the man pulled it away.

“I'm not ready to hear apologies from you. Not yet,” he said, and for the first time Ed could hear the hurt in his voice. “I trusted you, and you betrayed that trust.” Roy took a step back. “I will call you when I'm ready to talk again – assuming you're not in jail by then. I will do my best to make sure that doesn't happen, but we both know what my influence is worth these days, don't we?” he said, his tone cutting.

And then, before Edward could think of anything to say, Roy turned on his heel and left, slamming the door behind him.

His chaotic thoughts did not tame easily: he stared at the wood that separated him from his lover for a moment, trying to pull them into line, where he could take stock of them and move on. When he couldn't, he took two steps over to the couch and fell onto it. Unwilling to expend any effort on staying upright anymore, he slumped over to lie on his back, staring at the ceiling.

Goddammit, he thought, simultaneously wishing that Al was there and glad that he wasn't, you really managed to fuck everything up good this time, didn't you, Elric? Christ, he was calling you Fullmetal again, like he forgot you aren't a kid anymore.

He sat up and shook his head.

“So this is why people go drinking,” he said aloud, and made the kind of bad decision that Roy especially could not blame him for.

*

The full sound of laughter and the clack of billiard balls, interrupted periodically by the sounds of players hooting or cursing their bad luck, made a constant backdrop in the bar, a raucous white noise that bothered Edward not at all. In fact, he hardly noticed any of it: he was slumped over one of the tables, chin resting on the arms that were crossed in front of him, running a finger around the rim of his drink to hear the light, toned noise it made. Only his third glass of beer, and already he was beginning to feel slow, distant, maybe a bit numb.

Now I get why people drink so much. Even though that conversation was all he could think about – broke my trust – so childish – Fullmetal he felt somehow detached from it, like it had happened to somebody else, like that morning had been an entirely different lifetime. He could examine it dispassionately, academically, from all angles, because it wasn't his problem.

A voice beside him startled him out of his reverie.

“Yo,” he heard from far too close to him, and looked over to see who had interrupted him: to his mild surprise, Lieutenant Havoc stood next to him, his hand raised in casual greeting. “Didn't expect to see you here, Boss. Didn't know you were the drinking type.”

He sat himself down in the chair across from Ed without asking permission. Ed watched him from where he was huddled over the table, his cheek still pillowed on the back of his hand.

“I am tonight. What're you doing here, Lieutenant?”

“You can just call me Havoc. I'm off duty, and you're not military anymore, anyway.”

“Sure I will. Soon's you stop calling me 'boss.'”

Havoc laughed.

“Touché, kiddo. Anyway, I'm just here to scout some pretty ladies. It's been a pretty stressful couple of days.”

Ed righted his head just enough to be able to take another swallow of his beer.

“Yeah, tell me about it,” muttered Edward, twirling the cup around. Havoc winced.

“Sorry, that was probably pretty insensitive of me. I'm sure it's been way worse for you and the General than for anybody else.”

“Don't need to apologize. Shit's been fucked up for everybody.”

“Yeah, it has.” Havoc raised a hand to a pretty waitress, beckoning her over to the table to order a glass of whiskey, on the rocks. Edward wondered why you would want to put rocks in your whiskey, but didn't ask, because he had a feeling that Havoc would probably laugh at him. “Anyway,” he continued as the waitress left, “you doing okay, kid? I guess the General got pretty mad at you today, huh.”

“So you heard all about that,” said Edward, sitting up and leaning back in his chair, then putting his glass to his lips and draining it. When he finished, he slammed it down on the table again. “Dammit. Everybody knows?”

“Yeah, pretty much,” said Havoc, grinning. “You're the talk of the town, kid. Man, speculating about what your and the General's relationship must be like is the most entertaining thing we do all day. It's been a good time for months, and now it's ten times as much fun.”

“Don't you have jobs and shit to do?”

“Well, yeah, but we get bored and talk, too.”

Ed snorted and crossed his arms, tilted his chair back so it was standing on only two legs.

“Talk? Gossip, you mean. Like little schoolgirls.”

The pretty waitress came back with Havoc's drink, which had no rocks in it, to Edward's disappointment. The older man told her to bring around something for Ed – something stronger than beer – and to put it on his tab. Ed didn't protest.

Havoc grinned across the table.

“Call it what you wanna call it, I guess. We were all surprised this summer when we heard that you and the General were doin' it.” Ed couldn't help but wince at the phrase. “We had no idea that either of you guys were, you know, into dudes. Thought General Mustang loved the ladies.”

This time, it was Edward's turn to snort.

“You got that fuckin' right. I guess he jus' likes me, too. Sometimes, though, he complains that I've taken him off the market, or goes all poetry and shit about how beautiful women are.” Ed smiled, just a bit, then tilted his head back to watch the ceiling fan. It was going around really quickly. “But really, he doesn't even look at 'em when I'm around. And a good thing, too.”

“Ha. You a jealous man, boss?”

Edward blushed and let the front legs of his chair slam back onto the ground again. His mouth opened and started talking without him ever deciding to do so.

“Well, wouldn't you be? If you ask anyone who's interested in men, Mustang's the hottest damn thing on two legs. He could have anybody he wanted.”

“'Hottest damn thing on two legs.' Can I quote you on that?” Havoc asked, a gleam in his eye, like he wanted to start taking notes or something.

“Fuck you, asshole. No, in case you really weren't sure.”

The waitress returned with some kind of unidentified brown liquid in a glass, two pieces of ice floating up at the top. Ed asked what the hell it was, but all he got was a smile for his trouble. He took a sip through the attendant straw, and found that it it didn't taste nearly as disgusting as it looked. It was kind of sweet, actually, almost enough to cover up the heady taste of the alcohol.

“Seriously, though,” Ed muttered, between sips, “We fight so much that sometimes I wonder how much longer he's gonna put up with me. After today, 's he just gonna give up? I mean, I wouldn't blame him. Him bein' with me is seriously fuckin up his life goals. And then I go and do stupid shit, and he comes over to my place and he's so stone-cold angry that I wonder what the fuck he's thinking, if I'm worth all this shit.” He took a long swallow of his drink, and Havoc set his down on the table.

“Let's be clear,” Havoc said, and Ed looked up in surprise at the seriousness of his tone. “Mustang's mad right now, yeah. But he doesn't think this whole thing is your fault. At least, as far as I can gather. He doesn't say what he's thinking very much, and it's not like he confides in any of us underlings as far as personal stuff goes.” Havoc took a box of cigarettes out of his pocket, slid one to his lips, and lit it, closing his eyes in satisfaction as the smoke filled his lungs. He blew it out in a hazy cloud.

“It is sorta my fault though,” Ed mumbled. The world was a little bit wobbly. Another drink would fix it. “If not for me, none of this would ever have happened.”

“Not true. These guys had it out for him.” Havoc paused, and pulled his cigarette from his lips just long enough to have a drink. “They would have pulled up just about anything on him to make this kind of scandal, or made it up if there wasn't anything to find. By the way, is it true that you and the General get up to some seriously kinky stuff in bed?”

Ed flushed, and downed the last of his drink.

“'S none of your business,” he said, because he couldn't really think of anything better to say.

“I'm gonna take that as a yes,” said Havoc, grinning like it was his birthday. “I have to know, though: was he into this stuff before you came along, or did you just inspire him that much? Or was it your idea?”

“Oh my god, I just told you it's none of your goddamn business.” Ed paused, stared at his empty drink. “I think he's been into it for forever, though. I was – well, before Mustang, I'd never been with –” He scowled and shrunk down in his chair, because why couldn't he get the words out and why was he even trying to get those words out, anyway?

“Mustang was your first, huh?” Havoc looked entirely too pleased with himself. “I should get you drunk more often. You get really talkative.”

“Shut up,” he said, crossing his forearms on the table, letting his elbows support him as he scowled down at the table. “Seriously shut up. I hate you.”

“Aww, you're so cute when you're embarrassed,” Havoc said. Ed rolled his head to the side, so he could see the other man. “But I don't know why you're embarrassed at that.” Another long puff of smoke, then a grin. “That's way less embarrassing than any of the shit I've been seeing in the papers over the past couple of days. It's not like I haven't actually seen photos of you two gettin' it on. Way more info than I needed. Though the collar was a nice touch,” he added with a laugh. “But we know what half of Central's gonna be jerking off to tonight, don't we?”

Edward let his head fall face-first to the table and covered it as best as he could with his hands.

“You have no mercy, do you? You kick a guy while he's down, and then do it over and over again,” he said, words muffled by the wood.

“Nope, none at all. Seriously, though, boss.” He paused. “You said it yourself, Mustang's been into this shit way longer than he's been into it with you. That place you guys got caught going to – had he been there before?”

Ed made a noise of assent.

“See, there you go. He would have been caught doing that sort of shit anyway. You had nothing to do with it. You were just a convenient target. But stop blaming yourself for this mess. Mustang got himself into it, and he can get himself out of it, too. If I had any advice, it would be to just continue on as normal, to stop freaking out about it, and let the team take care of it. Politics aren't your strong suit, Boss.”

Ed tapped his glass with a gloved finger, the sound soft but resonant, and pillowed his head in the crook of his elbow. Everything around him was rocking back and forth a bit, and he felt pleasantly warm, almost like his body was humming. Havoc's advice was so reasonable. When had the man gotten so smart?

“I thought you said you were gonna stop calling me 'Boss.'”

“Sorry, old habits, you know.”

“Yeah... I do.” Ed paused. “So... so you don't think that Mustang's given up on me?”

“'Course not. That's not the kind of guy the General is. He doesn't give up on people, or leave them behind just because things got a little tough.” Havoc finished off his drink and stood up, fishing around in his pocket, probably for his wallet. “Anyway, we should probably go home now. That drink that Sarah made you may have been a little strong for you.”

“Who're you callin' so small he can't hold his alcohol?” Edward said, without any particular venom. “I thought you were here to 'scout the ladies,' anyway. Haven't done much scoutin'.”

“Nah, I lied,” said Havoc, cheerfully. “I'm here 'cause I thought I'd find Mustang here. This is the bar he usually goes to when he's upset about something. I thought he could probably use some company. Drinking alone's no good. I found you instead, though.”

“So you came over here t' tease me mercilessly and pry into my sex life?” Just his luck, Roy had a bunch of fucking busybodies and gossips for underlings.

“'Course. You looked like you needed to take your mind off things. I just wanted to let you know that it's not a big deal. Nobody who matters cares about any of this stuff. We're all working hard to make sure everything turns out okay for everybody.”

Havoc really was a good guy. Annoying, but good.

“Nah, thanks for the offer. I'm gonna stick around here for a bit. Not quite ready to go back yet.” He looked around at Havoc. “Thanks for caring, anyway. And for the drink. And for talking to me.” He paused. “Walkin' home will probably help sober me up, anyway. Don' want Al to see me like this,” he said with a laugh. “He'd prob'ly kill me.” A pause. He pulled out a notebook and a pencil and, after a moment of thought, started to doodle a needlessly elaborate transmutation circle on the corner of one page.

The lieutenant gave a laugh and sat back down again.

“Probably so, yeah. Well, I guess if you're gonna stay, I can stick around for a little bit, too.”

“Nah, 'sokay. Don't need to do that.” He paused to look over at the other man. “You know, I hear that people in relationships get each other presents when they fuck up. Do you think this fuckup's too big for a present? You have more experience than me with this shit, I figure you'd know better'n me.”

“What, with messing up in relationships? You sure do know how to compliment a guy.”

Ed frowned. Why did everybody always misunderstand him? It was like they were doing it on purpose.

“No, I meant with relationships in general. You've had girlfriends, right?”

Havoc laughed.

“Yeah, I guess I have. And I did get them presents when I messed up. Sometimes it even helped,” he said, with a rueful look. He took out a new cigarette and bit down on it, though he didn't light it. “And I dunno, it might be too big of a deal for gifts, but it probably wouldn't hurt anything anyway.”

“Yeah?” Edward considered, started another transmutation circle on his paper. “What kind of shit did you get them?”

“Flowers, usually. Girls like flowers. I dunno that Mustang would appreciate roses, though.”

Edward thought of Winry and Major Hawkeye and his teacher, and wondered how they'd react to getting flowers. He would make a strong bet that Major Hawkeye didn't even own a vase.

Then without warning, in his brain, science happened.

“You know, I bet the reason it only worked sometimes was because you were working under false assumptions that you didn't even know you had. If you keep trying something and getting inconsistent results, then maybe you should look at those base assumptions. If you assume every metal you try to transmute is steel, then sure, sometimes the transmutation will work, but you'll be fucked every time you come up on something that's silver or bronze or gold or whatever.”

When Edward finally finished his thought, he looked over to find Havoc staring at him blankly.

“You sound a lot more sober, all of a sudden. Can I have that again, only without the alchemy?”

Ed scowled and scribbled angrily in his notebook. Fuck Havoc, it had been an awesome analogy.

“What I'm tryin' to say is, you're assuming a couple of things here. The way I see it, either presents aren't good for fixing all relationship fuckups, or not all girls like flowers. Maybe both.”

This time, when the man stared at him, his mouth was hanging open and his eyes were unfocused, like a bombshell had just gone off in his brain. Ed kept talking.

“I mean, take Major Hawkeye. I don't think she'd like flowers very much, yeah? What would she do if you didn't do your paperwork one day and you brought her a bouquet to apologize? Prob'ly shoot you in the foot. If you get roses for every girl you ever date without considering her personality or tastes, you're gonna come off as unoriginal and boring, not to mention a little bit stupid.”

Havoc's cigarette dropped straight out of his mouth onto his immobile lap. There was a long silence between them, though the bar still boomed with the sounds of laughter and billiards.

“Oh my god,” he said, after probably thirty seconds of deep contemplation. “Am I getting girl advice from Alchemy Boy? The guy who spent his entire adolescence buried in weird science books and probably hasn't looked twice at a set of tits in his life? Where the hell did you learn about women? Has the General been teaching you?”

It wasn't strictly true that Ed had never looked twice at any breasts ever, he thought hazily. Some of them were really pretty nice. The waitress's, for instance, were really not bad at all.

“It helps,” said Edward, amused, “when you treat 'em as people, instead of just treatin 'em as women. Maybe if you stopped having conversations with boobs and started having conversations with the people who owned 'em, you'd've figured it out too.”

After a moment, Havoc said:

“...Do you really think I'm unoriginal and boring?”

“What? No, of course not,” Edward said with some surprise. “I said you're unoriginal and boring with women.

Havoc collapsed face-first onto the table, emitting a loud noise that sounded more like the cry of a wounded animal than anything humans should be able to produce.

“Destroyed twice in one evening by the Fullmetal Alchemist,” he said, against the wood. “Why, God? I try to be a good person. Am I doomed forever?”

“Was that a rhetorical question, or did you actually want me to answer?”

“Oh god, no, don't tell me anything else. I'm not sure I can handle any more honesty from you this evening.”

Ed shrugged, the doodle in his notebook growing to cover the whole page in elaborate patterns.

“Sorry. Didn't mean to freak you out or anything. It's all true, though.”

“Right, thanks for the encouragement,” Havoc said, not sounding thankful at all. He sat up. “So anyway, let's get back on topic. You were trying to figure out whether to get a gift for General Mustang or not. My vote is yes. I don't think any problem is so colossal that a gift can't at least help.”

“Y'know, I'm not sure if I should trust your dating advice anymore,” Ed replied, only half-serious. “You don't have the best track record.”

“Oh, shut the hell up, kid. You asked for my advice, and there it is.”

“Thanks,” said Edward, looking up from his doodle to really look at Havoc. “No, really. Thanks for listenin' and everything. Shit with Roy is seriously fucked up right now, and I don't want this thing we've got to disappear. I dunno what I'd do.” A pause: maybe that had been too honest. He wasn't really sure why he had been saying all of these things tonight. Over-sharing hadn't historically been one of his issues. “But whatever. What do you think I should get him? I'm not very used to getting people presents.”

“Well,” said Havoc, thoughtfully, “they say that if you're giving a present, it should reflect both giver and receiver. So I dunno. If someone were going to get you a present, what would you want?”

“Alchemy books,” said Edward, without hesitation. “Hard-to-find ones. Maybe ones from Xing or Creta.” Then, he paused, thinking. “You think a book would be too generic for Mustang?”

“Well, what does he do in his spare time?”

“Um, read. Listen to the radio. Go to plays. Have lots of sex.” He felt the heat rising to his cheeks as Havoc gave him an incredulous look. “What? You asked.”

“Well, sex toys probably aren't good gifts in this sort of situation,” he said, eyes lit up with sheer amusement. “Getting him tickets to a play or something sounds like a good idea, except that forcing you guys to be in a formal social space together right now, with all the shit that's happening, might not be the best idea. We don't want to get in the way of Mustang's plan or anything.”

“Yeah.” And besides, Edward hated the theatre. He put up with it occasionally, for Mustang's sake, but he wouldn't volunteer for it if there were any other options. He scrubbed a hand through his hair, and rubbed the corners of his eyes, because they got itchy when he got too tired. “I'll think about it. What kind of stores are gonna be open now, anyway?”

What time was it? Late or not?

He glanced over to the clock, but he seemed to be having trouble focusing on it: it kept swimming in and out of clarity, and he couldn't quite pin it down. A bit more effort and he could see it: nine thirty-two.

Havoc shrugged.

“I dunno, boss. You could wait until tomorrow morning.”

“Could, but don't wanna. I wanna get all of this shit with Mustang out of the way as soon as I possibly fucking can.” He paused: his entire body felt like it was floating in water, or maybe lying on the deck of a really big boat. That was probably a sign that it was time to head out.

“I actually know of this bookstore that's open late, so I guess that makes my decision for me,” he said, reaching out to swipe his notebook off of the table and missing by a few inches to the left: he frowned when his hand met wood. He tried again: this time, he succeeded in closing his fingers around the object, but maneuvering it into his pocket was another challenge entirely.

“I think I should get outta here,” he said, because the only thing being in that bar was gonna do was make him have another drink, and he really, really shouldn't.

He motioned the waitress over to ask how much his tab was, only to find that Havoc had already paid it all at some point, without Ed noticing.

“I can handle myself,” he snapped at Havoc, as soon as the waitress had left. “You don't needa go paying for my drinks.”

“Hey, sometimes when friends are in a bad mood or in a shitty situation, you pay for their drinks. It's a tradition,” the other man replied, standing. “I'm not trying to be patronizing or anything. Don't go getting too worked up about it.”

“'Mnot worked up,” he said, and tried to stand: he slammed a steadying hand out onto the table because as he got to his feet, the world lurched to the side. He managed to stay upright, but only just barely, catching his swaying body halfway. His frown deepened.

Goddammit, he was drunk. Really drunk. Drunker than he had ever been, probably. Maybe. Had he ever been drunk before? He couldn't remember.

“You doin' okay there, kid?” the lieutenant asked, looking genuinely concerned, but Edward planted his feet firmly on the floor and glared at them until they stuck where he put them.

“Yeah, I'm fine,” he said, taking his first step forward. That went alright, so he tried another one. “Doin just peachy.”

“Need some help?” Havoc asked, sounding entirely too amused. Edward pulled away from the other man's outstretched hand. What, was he gonna try to carry Ed home? Like hell he would ever let that happen.

“No, fuck you. I got this,” he said, because he did. Walking became easier as he did it for longer.

“You sure?” Havoc asked, as they reached the door.

“Yeah,” said Edward, and stepped, through. Havoc followed, shutting the door behind him. “I'm fine. Don't need your help or anybody's.”

The night air was cool and quiet after the aggressive stuffiness of the bar, the inside din barely a memory in the face of the evening's peace. Edward immediately felt a weight off of him: he hadn't realized how irritating all that noise had been until it all fell away into silence, leaving him with a clarity of thought he hadn't felt since his first drink that evening.

Unfortunately, his clarity of thought didn't come with a coordination of motion. His next step was a bit more of a stagger, but the lieutenant didn't reach out to help him, this time, for which the younger man was grateful. This was embarrassing enough without having to accept help from someone – and Havoc, of all people.

“Don't need help from anyone, huh. That's been your motto for your whole life, I guess. But you weren't complaining when I was helping you figure out what to do with Mustang earlier.”

Edward flushed.

“That's different,” he muttered, crossing his arms. “Relationships are confusing as fuck. I dunno how people manage.”

“Honestly, me either,” said Havoc, with a laugh. “Anyway, you got this?”

“Yeah, I'm gonna head over to that bookstore I was talkin about. Get him a big box full of random books or something.”

Havoc grinned and ruffled his hair, which sent Edward's already unbalanced world further off-kilter, but he wasn't going to say anything.

“You're cute. I didn't know you cared so much about him.”

Edward scowled at the ground. The alcohol had to have been responsible for his strange behavior that evening. He usually didn't share this much about his life with anybody but Al – and maybe Roy, on a good day.

“Ruffle my hair one more time and you'll lose the hand you tried it with,” he snapped and stepped away from the offending limb, then took a deep breath. “Anyway, g'night. See ya later,” he said, then turned and began to walk in the direction he was pretty sure the bookstore was in, his hands shoved deep in his pockets.

“See ya,” said Havoc, and Ed gave him a wave over his shoulder.

He really wished that he could just go over to Roy's place and apologize properly. He really wished that none of this shit had happened, or that it would just go away, that they could go back to being just them, Roy and Ed, without all of the extraneous baggage that kept piling up wherever he looked. This kind of social problem was the only thing in the world Ed really didn't know how to deal with.

Within the first five minutes of his walk, he realized he had lost any sense of where he was, and had no where he was supposed to be going. Fuck. He had taken a right turn back at that intersection: maybe he should have taken a left? He just kept walking: turning around seemed like a lot of effort. The quiet seemed suddenly oppressive to him, a weight rather than a relief: few cars were taking this road so late at night, and he had fumbled into what seemed to be a rather sleepy area of town, filled with shops that had long since closed for the evening and no residential areas, so there were no people to fill the emptiness.

It was probably only because of the intense quiet that he heard the footsteps behind him: if he had been fully functional, he probably would have heard them long before, but the buzzing in his ears made it difficult to hear anything at all beyond his own head. Even so, even with the dulling of every sense and of his analytical mind, he knew that something was wrong. Those footsteps were too quick to be casual, and they were coming up on him fast.

He glanced over his shoulder to see the source of the sounds: less than ten paces behind him, with scowls on their faces and various dangerous objects in their hands, walked four men. The shortest of them was still probably half a foot taller than Ed, and all four of them were built like boulders. After a moment of processing, Edward realized that he recognized them from the bar: they had been playing pool and drinking since before he had gotten there at six thirty.

He spun around, planted his feet on the ground. His heartbeat quickened, the spike of adrenaline speeding up everything in his body. One man had a crowbar; two more had knives; and the last, most damaging of all, had a newspaper.

“Hey,” he said, tensing up, and suddenly painfully aware of his lack of coordination. “Can I help you guys with somethin?”

They came to a stop about five feet away. Despite the dark, Ed could see clearly that they were wearing the blue uniform pants of the military below an assortment of different civilian shirts, like they had just gotten off duty and hadn't yet bothered to change out of their uniforms entirely.

“You're the one from the newspapers, ain'tcha?” the one with the paper in hand asked. His words were slurred: clearly, he was drunk. He didn't seem to be having any trouble standing, though, so possibly he was less drunk than Edward himself was. “I recognized ya, moment you walked in. You're that little cocksucker everybody's been talkin' about – General Mustang's whore.”

Edward took his hands out of his pockets, widened his stance. The cold that washed over him then was deep, unfamiliar: after a moment, he remembered it as fear. He glanced around: there was nobody else to be seen on this street, anywhere.

“I'm nobody's whore,” Edward said, as casually as he could manage. “But you know what I am? Dangerous. So you guys'd better walk away now, while you still can.”

The one with the crowbar let out a huge guffaw, deep and so loud it echoed through the empty street.

“The little faggot thinks he can fight us. In't that cute.”

Fuck, he would really rather not – he'd get in trouble with Roy again, and besides, he wasn't really sure he'd win. Not right now, not when the earth felt like a magnet, pulling him down.

“Tell me,” said the first one again, taking another step forward. “How many military officers did you seduce with your pretty little face and your girly hair? How many of them did you let fuck you to get your rank?”

“Uh, none. But it's nice to know you think I'm pretty.”

The first blow caught him off-guard: it shouldn't have, he had been watching for it, but somehow the fist that connected with his cheek slammed him to the ground.

“Don't you go hitting on me, cocksucker,” he said, and when Edward looked up from the concrete he saw real malice in the man's face, a cruelty of nature and intent. “You're not gonna get me with your little whore's tricks.”

Edward lurched back to his feet, then clapped his hands to pull his familiar blade out of his automail wrist.

What he got instead of a knife was a twisted, blackened mess, extending slightly above his hand.

Shit, that's not right. What the hell is wrong with me? Did I do the calculations wrong? Think of the wrong array? This is so basic I should be able to do it in my sleep.

Fuck, I'm in trouble.

“Why're you so worried about my sex life, anyway? Does thinkin' about it turn you on? You been jerkin' off to those pictures in the paper? You like 'em?”

The man's face turned a livid red, and he laid out another blow. Edward managed to spin away from that one. Shit, why was he antagonizing the guy? Words just kept coming out of his mouth, unexpected, like he had lost all restraint.

“I don't like anything except the idea of seeing you hurting – and ain't this convenient? The papers say you like that sort of shit. What do you say we do some of it for him, boys?”

Edward managed to get his metal arm up quickly enough to block the sideways swipe of a knife to his face, but didn't manage to avoid the dull blow of a knee to his ribs. It sent him reeling, staggering to the side. He threw a punch out at the man's face as he fell to the side, and felt it connect: immediately, he slammed out a foot to stop his fall, and was on the verge of righting himself when the second knife man came at him. A dodge below, and the blade met only Edward's shoulder, slicing a red line through the cloth. Edward cursed and delivered an uppercut to his opponent's stomach: the man coughed and stumbled, even as the crowbar met the back of Edward's head.

Falling forward happened slowly, softly, like a dream: everything around him seemed covered in clouds, and they cushioned his fall. He barely noticed hitting the ground, or being grabbed by the jacket and dragged forward into an alleyway, his cheek grinding across rough concrete. The world beyond his head was inaccessible, spinning , beyond the veil of dark fog: he fought the attendant nausea as best as he could, struggled in his mind even as his body lay limp and unresponsive. Distantly, muffled by the haze and by the alcohol in his blood, he heard:

“Do you get down on your knees for Mustang? You suck his dick good? Is that why he keeps you around? Maybe I'll find out.”

His vision had begun to return as they got him into an alleyway: the first part of his body he could move was his eyes, and he opened them, only to see that first man's face, leering down at him.

Then, he knew fear again: he hadn't felt it like this since so long ago – he remembered pigs hung by hooks in a butcher shop – the room cold, his breath freezing in puffs, and he a crippled kid with nothing left to him but half his wits and his instinct to survive as a wild-eyed madman licked his lips and came for him, cleaver in hand –

He remembered the expression he saw in front of him, in that alleyway. He had seen it before, painted in raw light across a serial killer's face.

“You like being fucked, faggot?” he asked, grin huge, crazed. “Do you like coming with a cock up your ass?” It took Ed a second to see one of the man's hands fumbling at his belt, pulling his hard dick out to stroke it in a tight fist: the bastard was turned on by this, by seeing Ed beaten and helpless and afraid.

Afraid, maybe, but Edward Elric was never helpless.

He tried to get up, realized he was being held down from behind, by arms crossed across his chest, holding his elbows to his body. He writhed, managing to knock his automail hand against his captor's knee, which earned him a curse but didn't free him.

“How about we see how much you like it now. Boys, spread his legs for me.”

Before he could react, one man had grabbed each leg and pulled them apart, leaving him completely exposed but for the thin barrier of cloth between them: the leader picked up one of his cronies' knives and sliced a line right up the seam of Ed's pants, splitting them down the middle.

One hand moved into the new opening, and hard fingers found Ed's entrance, slid up to cup his balls. He tried to give a furious kick, but to no avail: the men holding his legs were strong, and Edward was still not in full control of his body.

The man leaned in closer, taking his other hand off of his dick to slide it up Edward's neck, to cup his cheek. Ed could feel, in impossible detail, the wetness of the man's pre-come transferring from his hand to the blonde's neck. His skin set on fire behind the line of his touch, hyper-aware of the filth: bile rose in his throat, but he couldn't give in to it. Not now, not yet. The man's hard member was only a couple of feet away from his face, bobbing silently in front of him. He never stopped his struggle, kicking and flailing at his captors as best as he could, but to no effect.

“I bet a little whore like you loves cock so much that you'd come for anything. I bet you can hardly wait for it,” he said, running a thumb across Ed's nipple, which actually hardened under the touch – an automatic reaction, not one he could control, but still – he was going to be sick, really sick, if his heart didn't beat its way out through his ribs first –

The man felt it harden, and leered, then shifted his whole body even closer, getting down on his knees –

He was rank with a stench of beer and cigarettes, thick enough to choke on. Ed held his breath, waited for him to get closer, waited for the right moment – then, he mustered all of his strength to slam his head forward, into the other man's nose. He felt soft bone break against his forehead, blood dripping down into his eyes, and the man pulled back with a sharp yell.

“You little bitch,” said one, raising a hand to punch Ed again – but that was a miscalculation, because in order to do that the man had to let go of his captive's leg, and Ed kicked up a fury, smashing the man in the chin and sending him sprawling back. The blonde slid down and bit as hard as he could at the arms wrapped around his chest: he tasted blood in his mouth and heard a scream. His heart pounded, his world swimming as his body fought the terror, as he tried to keep control over himself.

Alright, this was it. He had to do it this time.

He clapped and touched the ground: immediately a pillar shot up from it, large enough to hold Edward but not large enough for the man who held his leg: his grip slid off as Ed rode his creation into the air.

That still left the man behind him, whose blood he could feel on his teeth and whose arms were still wrapped around him, one hand sliding up to his neck to choke him –

Ed clapped and touched his metal forearm: this time, the blackened mess he had made of his arm transformed into a passable knife, jagged on the edges but still sharp. He held it to the man's arm and jerked it down across the skin, pulling the ragged edges of the blade like a saw through flesh. Blood erupted from the gash, and the man let go, only to fall back off of Edward's column to the ground below.

Ed didn't wait to see what had happened to them. He clapped again, touched the concrete, and his tower bent to the side, depositing him on the roof of the nearest building, which – thank god – was flat, because he didn't know how he could have handled a sloped roof right then. He took off at a loping sort of run, and a stabbing pain made him aware that the slice of the knife through the crotch of his pants had not only cut cloth, but also cleaved his flesh at the join of his hip and thigh, deep and dangerous. His struggles had only made the gash worse, torn it at the edges. He was dirty, exposed, with a ragged hole at his crotch through which blood dripped like rain, the memory of that hand there between his legs almost as painful as the cut itself.

Five buildings away, he allowed himself to slow down. After that beating, they probably weren't chasing him anymore, and in any case, probably couldn't manage the roofs with Edward's agility. He had mastered rooftops long ago.

Though his body had slowed, he didn't let thought take over. Nothing had happened. He couldn't let himself think about it. It was still too soon.

What now? Do I go home? No... Al would flip out, seeing me like this. Roy's place? Same deal. Besides, he doesn't want to talk to me right now. And he'd be mad that I got in another fight. Nope, that's out.

The only option was to keep moving forward. It didn't take long to reach the nearest main thoroughfare. He hopped down to the ground level, discreetly, in an alleyway, and transmuted the hole in his pants closed again. Then, suppressing the nausea that still threatened, he walked – casually, no need to look desperate – to the sidewalk, and waved down the first taxi he saw. The car pulled over to the side of the road, and Ed opened the door to stumble in.

“Take me to the nearest hotel,” he said, pulling a bill out of his wallet and waving it at the taxi driver.

The man driving looked at him incredulously.

“You look pretty messed up, kid. You sure you don't need the nearest hospital?”

“Fuck hospitals. No, I'm fine. I've had way worse,” he said, which was true. The man said something that Ed didn't quite catch, but after a moment, he pulled onto the road again, driving somewhere – he didn't even care where. Ed leaned against the window, too exhausted even to sit up properly. The ride went by in something of a haze, and it seemed like less than a minute before Edward was standing on the curb, mumbling his thanks to the driver. The check-in process was similarly indistinct, and Edward expertly avoided the stares he was getting. He knew he had blood on his face – in his eyelashes, in his mouth – and his clothes were scuffed where they weren't ripped all to hell, and he knew he looked a fucking mess, but it was none of their business.

Once in his hotel room, Ed kicked off his shoes, then headed straight to the bathroom to rinse his mouth out, to rid himself of the sick copper taste in his mouth – then, he wiped the blood off of himself, watching in distant fascination as he rinsed it out of the cloth and it swirled in patterns down the sink. Not knowing what else to do, he wadded up toilet paper and shoved it between the pants and the gash in his leg, to hopefully stem the flow of blood, although he couldn't suppress the violent shivers that overtook him.

The very next thing he did was head to the phone and call Alphonse, his shaking hands barely managing to spin Al's number. A glance at the clock on the wall told him that it was past midnight.

“Hello?” came the voice from the other end of the line.

“Hey, Al,” Edward said, trying not to sound anything near the way he felt. “'s me.”

“Brother?! Where are you? Are you okay? You sound awful.”

Well, apparently he was as much a failure at hiding his emotions as he had been at everything else that day.

“I'm fine. Stuff's just weird. Just wanted to let you know I wouldn't be coming home tonight. I'll see you in the morning, kay?”

“Brother –” Ed heard, but he put the phone back on its cradle before he could hear the rest of the sentence. The lies he wanted to tell had stopped short on his tongue, and Al would ask too many questions, and the last thing Ed wanted was for his traitorous mouth to tell his little brother the truth. That would hurt him too much, and he would do anything to keep his little brother from that kind of pain.

Besides, it wouldn't serve any point: there was nothing Al or anybody else could do for him. All Ed could do for himself was lie down on the crisp hotel linen, the world rocking back and forth around him, and try to sleep.

***

Chapter Text

Chapter 7

*

The harsh cry of the telephone woke Roy from strange dreams. He opened his eyes, and for a moment he wondered if he had: the room remained just as dark after. He muttered a curse and scrubbed the back of a hand over his face to wake himself a bit, though it did little to help. After a moment, his eyes had adjusted enough to make basic movements possible; he rolled over to put his hand out onto his bedside stand, scrabbling around in the dark for a moment before yanking the phone off of its base.

“H'llo?” he asked, his throat not entirely capable of producing vowels yet. The dark gray suggestion of the clock on his wall read – he thought – twelve fifteen, to his hardly-focused eyes, much to his drowsy dismay. He lay back down and draped his forearm over his eyes to block out the world around him.

“Hello, General? It's Alphonse.”

Alphonse? His brain took longer than it should have to process that information. A call after midnight was unusual enough: a call from Alphonse after midnight was absolutely unheard of.

“What the hell are you doing calling me at twelve thirty?” he asked, rough. “I was dead asleep.”

“Yes, I'm sorry. I was just calling to ask if I could speak to Ed.”

Roy frowned, brow wrinkling below the skin of his arm.

“Edward isn't here right now. Is he not with you?”

“Not there? But I was sure...” Al paused, and the phone speaker crackled. “I just got a call from him. I was certain that he was at your place. He just told me he wasn't coming home tonight, then hung up without explaining himself at all. It wasn't like him. I just wanted to call and make sure he was okay. He sounded – well, he sounded weird. Bad, even. He sounded pretty bad. But if he's not there...” Alphonse's voice drifted off there, the tremors only slight.

Roy groaned and sat up in bed, the sudden spike of worry tempered by annoyance. How many scrapes did Edward have to get himself into in the course of one day? He was a trouble magnet, that was for sure. After their fight earlier, Roy felt reasonably sure that Ed wouldn't have gone and attacked someone else, but he couldn't be certain. Besides, fistfights with journalists weren't the only kind of trouble that Edward could get himself into.

“No, he isn't here. He hasn't been at my house since this morning.” He paused: in the haze of his recent sleep, he couldn't sort through the mix of emotions washing over him. “The last time I saw him was about six o'clock this evening.”

“When I got home at six thirty, he wasn't here,” Alphonse said, sounding more worried by the second. “Did you... did the two of you fight?”

“I may have... lost my temper, I admit,” he said, unsure whether the regret or the righteous anger was stronger. “You must have guessed that it was over Edward's actions this morning.”

“Yeah. I'm sorry, General. I told him not to go. He said he was just going to talk, and maybe that was what he told himself he wanted to do, but all of us know that he was just itching for a fight.”

“I understand the instinct,” said Roy, pressing two fingers to the bridge of his nose in hopes that this small motion could stave off his oncoming headache. “Unfortunately, that is quite illegal – for a civilian, at least. I had hoped –” At that, Roy paused, working his lips. “He showed such restraint when dealing with the last reporter he came face-to-face with that I dared to hope this trend would continue. I do understand why he went. He has been under a lot of stress of a kind unfamiliar to him, and perhaps I should have been gentler in my treatment of him.”

“Nobody's perfect,” said Alphonse, his voice still wavering – he had hardly forgotten his concern for his brother, and yet he still took a moment to talk to Roy, to reassure him. The young man had only grown more extraordinary with age. “Not you, and certainly not Brother. He really did do something stupid, and I'm a little bit mad at him for it, too. But if you reacted a little strongly – well, it's understandable. You've been under a lot of stress, too. More than he has, even. I heard that you lost your command today.”

His heart clenched, the sudden impotent rage filling him again.

“You have good ears,” he said, keeping his voice calm.

“Mm,” Alphonse replied, as if he hadn't even noticed the compliment. “But whatever the reasons, and whoever is to blame, neither of us have seen him since your fight. There was no note or anything,” he said, sounding worried enough that Roy refocused, immediately. This was about Edward, not him. “I hope he didn't go do anything stupid,” the younger man murmured, then paused. “We talked, so I know he feels terrible about what he did –” oh god, that was guilt curling up in him – why? Edward had been so undeniably in the wrong “– so I know he didn't go and do something that might be dangerous to you again, but he might have gone and done something that would be dangerous to himself. And I hope he's still in Central. I thought he learned his lesson about running away from last time, with the whole thing with Winry, but... I don't know. Maybe he was upset enough.” Another pause, and when he spoke again he sounded truly agitated. “Oh god, I hope he's not hurt.”

“I'm sure he's fine,” said Roy, putting on his voice of reassuring authority, despite the pinch of his own worry. “I'm sure he can handle himself until morning. At the very least, we know he's somewhere with a telephone.”

Part of him – the bitter, angry part – wished that Ed would even try to stay out of trouble, just this once. All the general wanted was for the man to keep his head down.

“That doesn't necessarily mean anything. It could have been a pay phone. He could be on the streets, still. He could be sleeping at a train station. He could be anywhere.” Al paused, and when he started again his voice was shaking. “He really did sound awful. And he knows that I worry when I don't know what's happening, so the fact that he didn't tell me what was going on tells me that whatever mess he got into was probably bad – worse than whatever I would be imagining. I know that my brother can take care of himself, but still,” he said, sounding absolutely wrecked.

The queasiness he had felt before had begun to return: something certainly wasn't right.

“You're right. That is worrisome.” Roy paused, thinking. “But I don't think there's anything we can do about it tonight, short of sending out a police search, and I don't think the situation warrants that just yet – especially given the fact that the police are likely to arrest him if they find him. If we still haven't heard from him by tomorrow at noon, then we'll make other plans. But I'm sure he'll be back by then, and he'll be fine. Alright, Alphonse?”

“Yeah, that sounds good,” Al replied, sounding steadier than before. He was probably at least moderately reassured. “I'll call you whenever I talk to him. I'm sorry for waking you up, General.”

“Not a problem. I'm glad you're letting me know what's happening. Sorry I wasn't more helpful to you.”

“It's alright. There's nothing much that can be done.”

“I hope he comes back soon.”

“Me too.”

*

Approximately fifteen minutes before noon, Alphonse's worried hovering next to the kitchen telephone was interrupted by the quiet squeak of the front door. The telephone beside him forgotten, Al jumped to his feet and tried to smooth the worry from his face.

“Brother?” he asked, peering through the living room into the entry hallway and hoping: there stood Edward, slouched and staring at the ground, kicking off his boots by the coat hooks and leaving them where they lay. “Brother, where have you been? I've been so worried about you!”

“Gyah, Al,” Edward said, turning slowly towards his younger brother and putting a hand to his head. His hair was down and damp, like he had taken a shower not too long ago. Thick, damp strands hung over his face, shadowing it. “Can't you be a bit quieter? My head is fucking killing me. You got, like, aspirin or somethin?”

“Yes, I have all kinds of aspirin, but why do you need it and where were you last night?”

Ed tensed up, visibly, and looked to the side. Alphonse felt his gut clench.

“Ah, nowhere special. Got a little drunk, spent the night in a hotel. Nothin' to worry about,” he said, taking his jacket off and hanging it on the rack. “Just have the hangover to end all hangovers. Remind me never to drink again.” As he turned back, he wouldn't look Al in the eye, but Alphonse wouldn't have believed his brother's words even if he had. Something told him that, this wasn't the time for hard interrogation or for accusations, though. The set of his brother's body was notably subdued, his shoulders sagging with exhaustion.

“I see,” said Alphonse, in his best I'll-let-it-go-for-now tone. “Well, come on. I have aspirin in the kitchen. I'll put the kettle on. Come on, sit down,” he said, gesturing to the kitchen table. “I'll get you some lunch, too.”

“Nah, I'm fine. Just gonna go upstairs an' get back in bed. That hotel mattress might has well have been a rock for all the sleep I got on it.” Ed turned as he said it, and Al realized that he hadn't seen the right side of Edward's face since he had come in.

“No,” said Al, in a voice that didn't leave any room for argument. “You aren't. Not until we've talked. Come here, Ed.”

Ed flinched, but remained where he stood.

“Brother,” he said, warning. “Seriously, I already don't believe you about everything being fine. There's no need to keep playing at it. You had better just come here before I get really mad at you, and you don't want that.”

The face Ed made then could have been pained or disgusted – Al wasn't sure. The elder brother took a tentative step forward, then another, his automail clacking faintly against the wood. He came to a stop a few feet in front of the other, still looking away, to the side.

“Look at me, Brother,” Al said, searching his brother's face. “I mean, straight on,” he added, because Ed, being a contrary human being, responded by turning his eyes up without moving.

When he finally did, with a look as sullen as any Al had ever seen, the younger saw a strange scab on his right cheek: it was long and wide, but not at all deep, and at the end trailed into a dozen smaller abrasions. It looked like the scrapes they used to get on their knees as kids, from falling down or sliding down trees or just rough kids' play. How would Ed have gotten a scrape like that, on his cheek of all places? Something about it seemed very odd.

“That doesn't look good.” He stepped forward and extended a hand to touch the other man's face, see the extent of it more closely, but Edward flinched and pulled back. Al frowned. “Ed, what were you doing that got you that?” A pause. “Do you have any more injuries I should know about?”

“I wasn't doing anythin' special. I just fell down. And no, no more injuries. Can I go now?”

There wasn't a bit of Al that believed that his brother had “just fallen down.” Ed might not have been precisely what one would call “graceful,” but he was extremely physically competent. He didn't fall over unless he was made to fall over, somehow.

“You were getting into fights again, weren't you,” Al said, the words more cutting than he had intended. Then, quietly, a bit sadly: “You know, the General isn't going to like that.”

“The General can go fuck himself if he has anything to say about it,” Edward snapped, his vehemence taking Al by surprise. There was something very wrong here, and Al wasn't putting the pieces together fast enough. “I didn't do anything wrong. Not this time.”

“Okay, then tell me what happened. I'm sure if you explain yourself, I'll understand. In the meantime, why don't we go upstairs and get that scrape cleaned up for you?”

“I know you're just trying to help, but can you let it go?”

“You know I'm not going to, brother. Would you let it go if it were me in your situation?”

“I guess not,” the older man said with half a laugh. “Fine, let's go upstairs.”

Once in the bathroom, Ed sat down on the toilet lid as Alphonse collected cotton balls and antiseptic from the medicine cabinet. When he leaned in towards his brother to better access his cheek, the strangest thing happened – Ed jerked back, away from Al's hand, from his body, like the physical contact burned. Al couldn't do much but sit back in shock.

“Edward?” he asked, slowly. “What's wrong?”

“Here, gimme the cotton ball. I'll clean it myself.”

“No!” said Al, so loudly that he could feel the echo through the tiled room, clenching the cotton ball in his hand. “I'm not going to let you go hide, I'm not gonna let you take care of this yourself and shut me out, I'm not going to let you do anything else until you tell me what happened.” He set his mouth and eyes into hard lines. “Besides, you're only digging your own hole deeper by not talking to me. Right now all the evidence points to you having gotten into a bar-room brawl last night, and that's not going to sit well with the general. If that's not what happened, tell me.” He only felt a little bit bad for the emotional manipulation – what he had said, although it might have been kind of mean, was hardly a lie. He had this feeling that Ed wasn't going to talk if Al didn't take some extreme measures.

There was a silence. Al began to wonder if his brother was going to answer at all. Then, looking down at his knees, Edward said:

“Couple of motherfuckers attacked me, last night. I was leaving the bar and a bunch of 'em followed me out with weapons and shit. I was pretty drunk, then – way too drunk, not really walking straight. I never shoulda had so much. These guys wouldn't even have given me a problem on a normal day, I just woulda left their asses in a pile to get picked up by the cops. But it was –” His voice caught, then, in a way that Al wasn't used to hearing from his brother. “It didn't go so well.” Ed paused. Alphonse wanted to reach out and touch his brother, but Ed looked so defensive – arms crossed and shoulders hunched, drawn in on himself – that he stopped halfway. “I got away eventually, and gave 'em some hurt to remember me by. One of 'em has a broken nose, at least.”

If that had been all that it was, then why did Ed still look so small? There was no anger there, none of his usual pride at having delivered justice by his own hand. Surely, he had fought worse than those few thugs, in his many years facing down men and monsters.

“Good,” said Al, softly, trying to keep his confusion at bay. “I'm glad you hurt them. They deserved it.”

“Yeah.” A pause. “They were military. It had something to do with all that shit that's going down with Roy.” he said, tonelessly. “They were calling me shit out of the newspaper article. I'm sure they would have gone after him, too, except that nobody's stupid enough to attack the Flame Alchemist. They know they'll get roasted. I guess I just looked like an easy target. Well, they learned their fucking lesson.”

Automatically, Al put a hand out on his brother's knee, only to find that once again, his brother flinched and jerked away. The sight stabbed him, froze him there with his hand out and his brow creased in surprise and hurt.

“Sorry,” said Ed, upon recognizing the look on his brother's face. “Guess I'm still a bit jumpy. My head hurts like hell and everything's way too loud. Where was that aspirin you were talking about? Sounds really good right about now. Man, hangovers are the worst,” he said, lightly.

After a moment, the younger brother shook off his brief paralysis.

“Oh, um, it's right here,” said Al, standing up to retrieve a small white bottle from the medicine cabinet. He took one of the two glasses from next to the sink and filled it with water from the sink, using the brief reprieve to think. Ed looks really shaken. He handed the glass and a few pills over to his brother, who tossed them back and downed all the water in one go. What would freak him out like this? Clearly he doesn't want to talk about it. Should I press more, or just respect that? Would it be beyond the pale to call Roy and tell him about it without Brother's permission?

“Thanks,” he said, standing up. He smiled at the other, then reached out a hand to ruffle Al's hair. “Anyway, the scrape really isn't as bad as all that. Go ahead and clean it off, if you want. I'm gonna go to bed after that, though.”

Al wasn't sure if Ed was feeling better, shaking off that abject blankness and getting a hold of himself, or if he was just putting his mask back on for his little brother's sake.

The truth was that whatever had happened last night, Ed had definitely seen worse. On the one hand, Al knew that this fact meant that Ed could handle whatever got thrown his way, and that things that would bother or devastate another person would hardly register on the scale of his brother's life.

On the other, it meant that Ed was prone to just trying to shake off everything as “not a big deal,” no matter how disturbing. He compartmentalized it, locked it in the part of his head where the bad things go, but that certainly did not mean that he didn't take the memories out at night, to examine them, obsess over them –

Al took up the cotton ball and poured antiseptic onto it, then reached up – slowly, Ed had been so skittish the last time – and dabbed it on his cheek. This time, Ed didn't pull back.

“I'm glad you're okay, Brother. I thought something really bad might have happened to you,” he said, softly wiping.

“Me too,” he said, then: “And who the hell d'you take me for? I don't go down without a fight. You oughta know that by now,” he said, and Al returned his faint grin. When the younger brother had finished cleaning the injury, he stepped back.

“Yeah, I do,” he said, then put his hands on his hips. “Okay, go to bed, if you must. I'm going to go do some tidying. Come find me when you wake up? I'll make you lunch. Or dinner, if you're lazy enough to stay in bed all day,” he said with a laugh. Ed smiled back, but that wasn't enough to shake the queasy feeling in the younger man's gut.

“Thanks, Al. You're the best,” he said, brushing past his brother and towards his room.

“Of course,” Al replied, tossing the cotton ball into the trash and putting the other things away as well. “Feel better, okay?”

“Yeah,” he said, behind Al, before shutting his door.

Al sighed and looked down at the sink. Maybe Roy would be able to get something out of him. He turned, and went downstairs to make a phone call.

*

“Major Hawkeye's office, speaking,” she said, as she picked up her desk telephone.

“Hello, Major,” she heard from the other line – General Mustang. She leaned back in her chair, the emptiness and quiet of her office room welcome.

“Hello, sir. What can I do for you?” she asked, scanning the room absently. She tapped her pen on the report she had been reading.

“I have something of a strange request. Can you have somebody look at who's been admitted into the medical clinic late last night or today? There should be at least one man there now, possibly more than one, who got their injuries under mysterious circumstances. One of the injuries is a broken nose. I need you to find out those men's names, and who they were with last night.” For a moment, he sounded like he was going to stop there, but she waited in silence for clarification, and he obliged. “The men in question attacked Edward last night on his way back from a bar and injured him somehow,” he said, harsh. Hawkeye's brow wrinkled: she sensed immediately that something wasn't right. Then, more normally, she continued, “I need them all found and investigated. Find eyewitnesses, find evidence of what they've done. Find out if they have any political affiliations – find out the motivations for the attack. We need to have enough proof to have them arrested and jailed.”

“Yes sir,” she said. “Right away.”

“And Major?” He paused. “If you have an opportunity to put some bleach or something in their antiseptic, do it.”

She frowned.

“Sir?”

“It was a joke, major,” he returned, lightly. Another pause. “But seriously, if you get a chance...”

Her lips quirked up.

“Noted, sir.”

*

Late that afternoon, after Edward had woken up and picked at the lunch Alphonse had made him, he finally got the call he had been dreading all day.

“Hello?” he said, answering the telephone with a sharp sense of foreboding.

“Hello, Edward.” came Roy's voice over the phone, and Ed flinched.

“Uh, hey,” he said again, and felt like a dumbass immediately for repeating himself. “What's up?”

“Alphonse tells me you got into another fight last night.”

“Al just tells you everything, doesn't he. Well I didn't start this one, I swear to god.”

He really hadn't started it, of course. He had brought it down on himself, though: the natural punishment for his sins couldn't be avoided for long. Of course. He remembered. It had happened before.

“So I hear,” said Roy, and Ed couldn't identify the tone in his voice. “But are you okay? He says you were injured.”

“Just a scrape. He's really makin' a big deal over nothing.” The scrape on his cheek that Al had seen had scabbed over properly, and would heal quickly. Swallowing his fear of needles out of necessity, once alone in his bedroom Ed had stitched up the cut on his shoulder himself, but he hadn't wanted to touch the one at the juncture of his thigh. He didn't want to think about it. The best he had managed was a makeshift bandage out of his old sheets: he had wrapped it up as best as he could, but every time tried to walk the damn thing opened up again, and he knew it was still bleeding sluggishly. Maybe tomorrow he could try to stitch it up. Tomorrow, he would.

“You wouldn't be hiding anything from him, would you? You know we just want to make sure you're okay.”

“What, are you worried? Aren't you still mad as hell at me?”

“With you especially, the two are not mutually exclusive,” Roy said, this time sounding amused, fond. “But I've calmed down. When I hear that you've been in real danger because of your relationship with me, it puts things in perspective.”

Ed hurt to hear that.

“Don't be stupid, it had nothing to do with you. I was being a dumbfuck and brought it on myself.”

He was glad he hadn't told Al very much about what had happened when they had talked earlier. His little brother was always kind and well-meaning, but also kind of a busybody. It wasn't anybody's business what had happened last night. He wished everybody would just stop asking these goddamn questions.

“Really,” said Roy, sounding unconvinced. “What were you doing?”

“Oh, you know. Mouthing off. The usual.” Asking for it. Being drunk. Being sick in the head.

“I see,” he said, and for a second Ed was really afraid that his lover was going to actually get mad again – maybe he deserved it, but still, the thought frightened him. “I don't believe you,” he said at last, and laughed. “Why don't you come over?”

Ed swallowed, and when he did he found his mouth was completely dry. In their relationship, “Why don't you come over” almost always translated to “Why don't you come over and have sex?”

He couldn't do that, not right now. Not with the feeling of that hand being shoved up through the gash in his pants still so fresh on his skin, not with You like coming with a cock up your ass? still ringing in his ears. So many times, Roy had called him slut with a hand on his naked body, and then this stranger with a killer's face had called him the same thing, to remind him of what he was being punished for, and this time he wouldn't forget.

Get a fucking grip. Stop whining about it and just move on. Why was this still bothering him? This was nothing compared to what he had been through, to what Al had been through because of him.

But even if Ed had wanted to have sex – right then, he didn't, but he wanted to again someday (dirty whore, can't even learn your lesson, can you) – Roy couldn't see him naked right then. The clothes would come off and the man would see (me) the cut between Edward's legs, and then there would be questions that Ed didn't want to answer. If he played his cards right, Roy would never have to know.

“Ah, I've actually got – stuff, to do,” he said, mind spinning to find an excuse. “I – I gotta go in to the lab, you know. Haven't been going during for the past couple of days, so I gotta take care of shit tonight. I've got data from about six monster plants that need analysis. If we don't get it all down by Monday, then we'll be in trouble. We're already behind schedule. Sorry.”

“I see,” said Roy, voice neutral, showing no reaction to Edward's babbling. “Perhaps after?”

“It's gonna be pretty late. You'll probably be asleep.”

“I see,” he said again, quietly, thoughtfully. “Well, I'll leave you to that, then. Enjoy yourself.”

“Yeah, you have a good evening too. I'll see you later?”

“As soon as possible.”

“Yeah,” said Edward, and hung up the phone.

*

Although General Batir was perhaps not the most stimulating of conversation partners, he was at least a receptive one. They sat together in Weimar's sitting room, sipping black coffee from porcelain mugs as Meredith brought in a matching silver set of a creamer cup and sugar bowl. She left it on the coffee table in front of them without a word, though he thanked her as she left.

“Do you really think we can do this? The Fuhrer said that we should be focusing our attentions outward, not inward,” he said, resting his mug on his knee. “What about Aerugo?”

“My agents are sowing dissent behind enemy lines. Very shortly, if all goes well, there will be no unity in the Aerugan army, and they will be unable to focus their attentions on us. Dissent is the downfall of nations, after all,” he said, giving the other man a pointed smile. Batir nodded, brow wrinkling.

“But if we expressly disobeyed the Fuhrer's orders, wouldn't we be the dissenters?”

Weimar put on a look of shock and horror.

“I never had a thought of disobeying the Fuhrer, sir. You do not give me enough credit,” he declared, with fervor. “But Fuhrer Hakuro's orders were given when Mustang had his ear, and now that Mustang is out of the picture and his bitch dog has taken his place, his faction is much less of a threat. No amount of coaching can make up for that woman's lack of charisma. We'll have the Fuhrer on our side in no time at all – and we'll do it without any of them knowing.”

Batir raised an eyebrow.

“You make it sound so very easy. We don't know if he's out of the picture permanently, you know.”

Another hot, long swallow, and he put his mug down on the coffee table.

“Do I? I don't mean to make it seem like I think this will be simple. I just mean that I am determined to push through, for the safety and unity of our nation.”

The look Batir gave him then was sharp and searching.

“And I as well.” A pause. “You know, this was really a very convenient time for Mustang to be found out,” he said, slowly, like he was thinking hard.

Heart beating a bit faster, Weimar replied:

Any time would be a good time for that man to take a fall,” he said, dismissively, and neither man spoke another word about it.

*

The next morning was bright, lovely, and also a Sunday: this was excellent for a number of reasons, but chiefly because none of the Central newspapers printed on the weekends. So, for the second day in a row, Roy walked out onto his porch to find no newspaper there. What he found instead of his daily dose of misery was a giant wooden milk crate full of books.

The sight took him by surprise for a moment, then drew a smile from him. He was a clever man, but it wouldn't have taken a clever man to divine the sender of such a gift.

A weight he hadn't known he had been carrying lifted. Their conversation yesterday had left him unsettled: he couldn't remember many times in their relationship when Edward had sounded so strange. But, he realized upon ardent consideration, the younger man had probably just been nervous about the prospect of seeing him: their previous meeting had gone so poorly that he really couldn't blame the man for it. However, that knowledge didn't seem to have soothed him much. The general hadn't realized how worried he had been about them and their relationship until he found that worry so quickly assuaged.

Whatever the man's thoughts or fears, this gift was proof that Edward hadn't retreated entirely. He wanted to make things better between them. The smile on Roy's face felt strange, unfamiliar, but welcome. Of course an apology gift from Edward Elric would be books. He bent over to take the first one from the top: A Short History of Nearly Nothing. The second: By Snow and by Ice: A Collection of Northern Ghost Tales.

Then, he noticed the note attached by alchemy to the back of the crate. There, scrawled in handwriting that never became any easier to read for all its familiarity, was written:

Hey;

So, I got you a present, cause I know I messed up bad. I didn't know what sort of thing you'd want, but you're always reading stuff when I come over so I thought books might be a good idea. These kinds of books aren't really my thing, but I thought they might be yours. I tried to pick ones that at least looked a bit interesting.

Sorry for everything. Hope you like the books.
Ed

Roy carefully removed the letter, then folded it up and put it in the breast pocket of his dress shirt. He didn't think he would ever take it out again.

Unable to stop the grin that was spreading across his face, he picked up the crate and took it inside, then began to go through the books one by one.

*

At least, despite all the things that had been going horribly, Ed's plants were growing well.

The worst thing about this plant modification shit was that first he had to modify the seeds, then wait till they were grown to figure out exactly what his modifications had done. This batch of bean plants seemed promising, though: they seemed larger and more verdant than they had been previously, which Ed hoped was a good sign. A second, younger batch of bean plants seemed to be sprouting, but the stalks were black – Ed couldn't tell if that was an incidental color change or a sign that something had gone horribly wrong and turned the plants into horrible flesh-eating monsters or something. He would have to wait for more evidence on that one. A third batch contained the first try at a second generation, plants grown from the seeds of the first plants that had showed a significant response to the genetic transmutation. Only time would tell if they would keep the characteristics of their forebears or if the effects of the transmutation were limited to one generation.

He tapped his pen on his bottom lip as he stared down at the transmutation circle he had been planning, grateful that the lab was empty that day. Al had promised to pop in and check on him later, with worry in his eyes and a smile on his lips. For the moment, though, he was still at piano lessons, an art to which he had taken quite well.

Ed turned his attention sharply back to the work in front of him. Despite his best efforts, it was proving quite difficult. Why did I choose the wave symbol here? Wouldn't the inverlocus be better? What would Roy think if he found out about –

He'd be mad at me for going out and getting drunk. What the hell was I thinking? Maybe, if he heard about this, it would make him see exactly how sick I really am, would make him regret all of those things we had done together... I wanted it, after all, that night when Roy and all of those strangers spread my legs and held me down, then fucked me one by one. I liked it. I loved it. So this is just equivalent exchange: I got what I wanted, and I got punished for it in kind.

He started another circle on a fresh corner of his paper, trying a new arrangement.

Triple concentric circles, to focus the transmutation on the smallest part of the seed. The inverted triangle, for water. The inverlocus, for the source, the gene, but inverted to change the source. I chose the wave for its infinite mutability, but –

– I'm so sick, I brought this on myself

(whore)

The worst part was that he didn't seem to have learned his lesson. Still, part of him wanted to go to Roy, to be with him, to talk to him about it and let the man soothe him with soft touch and pretty words. But it wasn't Roy's burden to bear – it was Edward's, and he should bear it.

Ed slumped down on his desk. This was going to be useless. How did he ever think he'd be able to get work done today? The wound at the juncture of his thigh still hurt like a bitch, and because he hadn't stitched it up, he knew it was still bleeding, and probably only tearing longer and wider without stitches to hold it shut. There would absolutely be a scar there, to remind him forever of what he was.

He was going to have to go and get it sewn together professionally. The angle was too weird for him to do it himself without fucking something up. Besides, although he had managed to get some control over his fear of needles, he wasn't sure how well he was going to be able to deal with this particular injury, for a number of reasons.

He nearly jumped out of his seat when his thoughts were interrupted by a voice:

“Edward.” It was Roy. Ed spun around in his chair to face the doorway, and there, of course, was the man himself, wearing slacks and a well-pressed button-up shirt. Even on his days off, he always looked so put-together and presentable. Ed almost felt out of place in his old, stained lab coat, even though this was the best place for his stained lab coat.

“Oh, uh, hey,” he said, as articulate as ever, never getting up from his chair. “Didn't expect to see you here. You don't come over often.”

Roy looked around, a faint smile on his face as he examined the lab: it wasn't anything particularly special, just a normal lab with microscopes lining long tables and plants in rows of little identical planters. The walls were covered in shelves that were stuffed with books everywhere that they weren't full of beakers and other such measuring devices, and sections of the floor were cordoned off because they were covered in enormous chalk transmutation circles. Even though they were working with seeds, the circles had to be large: each one, following Edward and Alphonse's design, was intensely detailed, and even Edward's artistic skill couldn't create lines small enough to fit that much detail into a smaller circle.

A number of beakers and flasks with varying levels of colored liquids sat about on the furniture, and not all of it on tables. An enormous bowl full of chalk pieces took up one full half of a table.

“I always want to know how it's going, Ed. I just never want to interrupt your work,” he said, which was probably true: the project had been Roy's idea, after all, based, at least in the beginning, on Roy's research. The man paused, smiled in earnest. “The place looks like you,” he said.

Ed scowled.

“What, messy and disorganized? The mess wasn't mine, for your information. It was everybody else's,” he said, which might even have been partly true.

“No, not messy, that's not the word I would use. Complicated,” Roy said with a laugh. “Interesting.”

Ed feigned indifference to the flattery.

“Yeah, whatever,” he said, crossing his arms over the back of the chair. He didn't straddle it, like he might otherwise have done, but twisted his torso, so his knees pointed off to the sides as his front faced Roy. “Anyway, you never told me why you're here.”

“I saw your gift.” A pause: Ed waited. “I loved it. I thought it was incredibly considerate of you to get me one.”

Ed pinked at the cheeks in pleasure, but his embarrassment prevented him from looking up from the floor. At least this was what the man was here about, not to ask awkward questions or yell at him or anything.

“I didn't know what to get you. I've never really – done gifts before, you know? Havoc suggested roses, but I didn't think that would really work for you.”

Roy gave a short laugh.

“Yes, quite true. Although flowers are beautiful, I much prefer your gifts. They're very personal.”

“Oh. Good. I wasn't sure.”

“No need to have worried, you made an excellent choice.” After a moment, his face fell, growing a bit more serious. He took a few steps inside, towards Ed, though he still remained a comfortable distance away. “I can't tell you how happy I am that you're okay after everything, and how sorry I am that you had to experience something like that because of me. I'm sure it must have been frightening.”

Ed felt the blood start to drain into his feet. He really didn't want to talk about this. At the same time, he found himself surprised to hear Roy say it was his fault. What the hell about it could possibly be Roy's fault?

“Wasn't because of you. You don't have to go taking responsibility for everything. I can handle it myself.”

The laugh that escaped the older man then was warm.

“Hypocrite. But we can talk about it later.”

Roy was looking at him too fondly, and beginning to advance on him. Son of a bitch. He was going to want to fuck, probably here, quick and dirty between his lab equipment. They always made up for fights with really mind-blowing sex. A significant part of their connection had always been their deep lust for each other. He wasn't feeling very lustful right then. He didn't know when he would be again.

A thought occurred to him: what if, without the sex, their precarious relationship collapsed under the stress of everything that had been happening?

“Right now,” Roy began, in that voice that could make Edward come undone, “I just want to fuck you hard over your desk. How does that sound?”

The skin from Ed's hands to his neck prickled, and he started to sweat.

(Do you like coming with a cock up your ass?)

He found himself clenching the back of the chair, his head whirling with a million thoughts. Fuck. He tried to keep his voice steady, even as the breaths he took came fast and shallow.

“Um, not right now,” he said, mouth dry as sandpaper. “Maybe later. I've got a couple of cell cultures that're going to be ready in about ten minutes, and I've got to do stuff with them before the hour's out.”

Roy frowned, looking confused, and Ed was the biggest asshole in the world.

“Oh. Alright,” he said, searching Edward carefully, brow furrowed into crevices. “I see that you're busy. That's fine. Major Hawkeye is probably waiting for me anyway. We have strategies to plan and work to get done.” He paused again. “Thank you for taking the time to go pick out those books for me.” Ed couldn't tell if that strangeness in his voice meant that he was trying to make a point, or if it meant something completely different.

He wanted to apologize, to let Roy fuck him there – mentally, he could handle it, he could (sick bastard for still wanting it anyway, you never learn your lessons, do you?) – but even if Ed could manage to breathe properly, could calm the frenzied racing of his heart, when he spread his legs his lover would still see a bloodstained bandage there. He would know what had happened. He couldn't know – he'd look at Ed and feel sick, disgusted, feel pity, and Ed didn't want him to say anything else again like I'm sorry, it was my fault.

But goddammit, Roy looked so hurt behind that mask of his. All Ed ever could do was hurt people, even when all he wanted to do was protect them. He consoled himself with the knowledge that, whatever the man was feeling now, it was a hundred times better than how he would be feeling if he saw that gash.

“It wasn't a problem. I'm just glad – you're not mad at me anymore, are you?”

“Not mad, no,” said Roy, in such a strange way that Edward wanted to ask him what he meant. He didn't. “I hope to see you later. Perhaps I could join you and Alphonse at your house for dinner tonight?”

Yes, that would be perfect. They would have someone else there to ease the tension between them, and Ed would have at least some insurance that Roy wouldn't ask him for sex again. He had refused his lover twice already: one more would make three, and then no one could fail to notice a pattern. To be honest, the man had probably noticed already. Ed had tried to be natural, calm about it, but Roy was clever, and knew him well by now.

“Yeah, that would be great,” the blonde said, flashing the other man a grin that was mostly genuine. “I'd like that. Can we plan on seven?”

“Sounds good,” Roy replied, with a faint smile to mirror Ed's. He took a few long steps forward, until he was standing right in front of Ed's chair. Then, he bent over, tucked a hand under Edward's chin, and tilted it up before kissing him on the forehead, then the tip of his nose, then his lips. “I look forward to it,” he said, after he pulled away.

“You're a friggin' sap,” said Edward, wrinkling his face, then giving the tip of his nose a vigorous scrub to get the lingering sensation off, because he was Edward Elric and nobody kissed him on the nose because that was weird, and because – because that touch – sickness conquered his throat, memory welled up in him – Roy was laughing at the way he scrubbed the kiss off –

He could keep himself together. He could stay normal. Roy would never have to know.

“But I guess I like you anyway,” Edward continue, with a wan smile. Then, “See you at seven,” he said, cocking his head to the side. “And have a good day in the meantime.”

“Yourself as well,” Roy said, before turning for the door.

*

On that same crisp Sunday morning, Major Hawkeye found herself in her office at eight o'clock, a hazy fall sunlight just beginning to peer over the crests of the buildings. Ever since joining General Mustang's command, she had made it her business to keep up with all of the man's plots and plans, and to keep herself well-educated on the topics at hand, so as best to advise him. However, with her sudden unexpected promotion to politician, she realized just how untutored she was in all of the subjects most crucial to his work. As she had busied herself with the details of the man's operation – with the meeting times and the arranging of schedules, with keeping her eyes open and her mind clear of inconvenient biases – the general had been reading books on politics, on history and strategy, on foreign cultures and diplomacy.

More importantly still, he had been practicing the art of likeability. His aptitude for charming and sweet-talking his political opponents and allies both had long been a subject which she had regarded with an amused tolerance, though she had known its devastating effectiveness. Now, looking over this eight-page typed summary of the major Amestrian political figures' interests, histories, biases, personalities, and political goals, she appreciated it in a different way: now, she realized just how much work his seemingly effortless charm actually took.

With that came the realization that, for the first time in many years, she was really and truly out of her depth. Not only would she have to remember all of these people, remember where to press them to make them see things her way, and how to speak to them to encourage them to do as she wanted, but she would actually have to put that knowledge into effect on the spot, on a battleground that was more foreign to her as any she had ever seen.

Even in the military academy, she had skillfully managed to avoid most classes that might have involved public speaking: she had been such an excellent shot from the very beginning that no one seemed to mind if she took an extra weapons class or two instead of The Art of Rhetoric. On the rare occasion that she had been required to speak in front of a group of people, she had always had a script that she could memorize and reproduce perfectly, down to the last detail. She would have no such luck here.

She had always known that the skills that Roy Mustang brought to the table were rare and worthy of admiration, but never before had she realized how large were the shoes that she would now have to try to fill.

A number of hours later, when the sun had risen enough that it drenched the whole city in its light, a knock at the door broke her concentration. The clock told her that it was nearly two, a scant hour before General Mustang was due to arrive. She had hoped to have a better grasp on the material before then, but it was not looking promising.

“Come in,” she said to whoever stood outside, letting none of her thoughts play out in her voice or on her face. At least she would never give any of them the satisfaction of seeing her discomfort. The door opened shortly to reveal Second Lieutenant Lilian Astor, who took a few steps forward and presented herself to Riza with a sharp salute.

“Sir,” she said. “I have the report you requested.”

Astor had been a good find: she had taken only a few years to jump up through the ranks in the Intelligence department, and Roy, seeing her skills, had recruited her to his cause as soon as she made Warrant Officer. The woman seemed to have a talent both for finding information others might not, and for becoming quite invisible. When she chose to be, she could be completely unremarkable: consequently, she could find her way into places she should not have been able to and heard many things that she should not have heard. Her sharp ears caught as much as Hawkeye's eyes, and together they were a dangerous pair.

Although they did not know each other well, Hawkeye had entrusted her with a particularly delicate assignment: she had a reputation for discretion that would not go unappreciated in this case.

“Thank you, Lieutenant,” Hawkeye replied, secretly glad of the brief reprieve from analyzing the intricate dance her general performed so well. “Anything of note to report?” The woman did not stand down from her salute, so Hawkeye added, “At ease.”

The woman moved to the at-ease position, clasping her hands behind her but keeping her shoulders as rigid as Hawkeye had seen since Falman had first joined their team. Astor kept her face completely unmoving as she responded.

“Yes, sir.”

Hawkeye waited for the other woman to continue: she did not, so Riza tried another approach.

“You can speak to me, you know,” she said, with some amusement. “I don't bite.”

Her attempt at levity prompted a wavering attempt at a smile from the investigations officer.

“Normally, I would, but I think that you should just read it yourself.”

Riza frowned: she nodded and extended a hand. Astor stepped forward and passed the thin folder to the other woman, who opened it and smoothed it out flat on the table. On it, she saw four small black-and-white prints of ID photo mugshots, next to names and ranks. She glanced over it all, noting that each name was followed by a paragraph detailing the injuries that had been treated at the clinic, then by another describing the men's personal histories, criminal histories, and political affiliations. In these, she found nothing particularly startling: two of the four had received treatment for injuries, one for a broken nose and the other for a jagged cut on his arm that looked like it might have been made with a saw. Their criminal histories read more or less as she would have expected: over the course of their time in the military, both had spent a few nights in jail for drunken and disorderly conduct, and one had been accused of sexual assault on a civilian woman, though he had been acquitted due to lack of evidence. They had no notable affiliations politically.

Below the two individual reports, Astor had collected eyewitness testimony stating that those four men had been together at the military bar at which Edward – and Havoc, apparently – had been drinking two nights previous, and that they had left together merely minutes after Edward and Havoc had.

“I haven't read this too closely, but nothing seems to be too out of the ordinary, Lieutenant.”

“The next page, sir,” she said, shifting her weight uncomfortably from one foot to the other.

She turned the next page to find, what looked like a transcript: she glanced up at Lieutenant Astor but was given no response, and so continued. A deep sense of foreboding came over her, and she began to read in earnest.

Outside Dormitory Entrance

Saturday, 9.24.17

T. Jeffreys: Hey, Asel. How's the nose?

G. Asel: The doctors say it'll be crooked forever. That faggot's got a lot to answer for.

Jeffreys: Yeah, the stupid fucker. Cromwell had to get nine stitches on that gash on his arm, did you hear? I'm surprised that he could still pack such a punch even when he was so drunk. You saw him, he was having trouble walking straight.

Asel: I don't fucking get it. He just suddenly started acting like he didn't want it, too – to keep his dignity I guess. What a joke! How can he pretend to be all virginal after it's all over the papers how he takes it up the ass for favors? I guess we're just not fucking good enough for him, huh. I guess he only fucks people who'll give him things.

Jeffreys: I woulda given him what he wanted. I woulda made him hurt, just like he likes it, if Cromwell had been holding him down better. I hope he learned his lesson, anyway: we don't want no fags here.

Asel: The whole thing's fucking sick. He deserves worse than what we gave him. I hate him, and guys like him – he goes and seduces the Hero of Ishbal with his girly hair and his big eyes and his whore's tricks, then gets all shy when we come around for the same thing, starts squealing about how he doesn't want it just 'cause our dicks don't have enough stars. He can't get away with that shit forever. He should have expected a lesson like ours sooner or later.

Jeffreys: Yeah. If we see him back on military grounds again, we're gonna finish what we started. If the slut likes being beaten up and fucked by a lot of men at once, then he deserves to get what he asks for.

The air had gone perfectly still around the two women: even Hawkeye's breath had nearly stopped by the time she finished the page. Immediately, her eyes shot back to the top again, and she re-read it, just to be sure she hadn't lost her mind.

With a force of will, she managed to get her slow-building, gut horror under control, to approach the issue with her rational mind. Dispassionately. She was good at that. The disgust and shock and rage that clamored for her attention would not help Edward at all.

“Did you take down this conversation personally?” Riza asked, her voice only wavering a bit.

“I did.”

“I see,” she replied, leaning back in her chair. Her mind whirled through thoughts: the general couldn't have known about this. When he had requested that she find intelligence on this men, he hadn't mentioned anything about it – and while in other situations she would have assumed that he had just chosen not to say anything, she knew that these men would not be so alive and undamaged if General Mustang knew about this.

There was a silence as she thought. Then, after a moment, she said:

“Can I count on your absolute discretion, Lieutenant?”

“Yes, sir, absolutely,” she said, with fervor.

“Good. Don't mention this to anyone. If you find any more information on this topic, don't go through your superior in investigations – come straight to me.”

Astor nodded.

“Look for more information on their criminal histories. Let's see if we can get any more detail – if there's anything we can collect that would help us those people away for good, perhaps without dragging Edward's name into it.” That was probably the very last thing in the world Edward would want: for something like this to be made public in a trial. “Thank you for your hard work. You are dismissed,” Riza said, and the other woman gave a hard salute.

“Yes sir,” she said, before turning on her heel and walking out. As soon as she was out of sight, Hawkeye let her shoulders sink and turned her eyes back to the paper. Reading, again, through their faint justifications and blatant lies, the sickness in her stomach grew. Exactly what they had managed to do to him before he had escaped was unclear, although they had made it evident that they had not done all that they had intended to do.

But undirected emotion did no one any good, she reminded herself, and her pity would probably only infuriate Edward. In the end, she had to analyze the situation and make a decision. She had to do something, but she didn't want to overstep any boundaries, or pry into Edward's secrets. It was none of her business.

But it was General Mustang's business. Whatever had happened, he should know – and based on what she had learned about the young man over the long years of their acquaintance, Edward was unlikely to tell. She would make a strong bet that he hadn't even told his brother.

She sighed and leaned back in her chair, letting her eyes fall closed, glad for the quiet of the office on that bright Sunday afternoon.

She had a choice to make: she could wait for General Mustang's arrival and give him the folder, then deal with the fallout; or, she could tear off the last page and leave Edward's business to him, let him tell who he chose and not force him into anything he wasn't ready for. It was his private business.

The report loomed in front of her. She watched the clock.

*

General Mustang swept in through the quiet of the office as a lord through his domain, tall and proud and utterly confident. His hands were gloved, though not with the symbols of his office, and he smiled at Riza as he saw her.

“Ah, Major Hawkeye. Just the woman I wanted to see. How are you, this fine Sunday afternoon?”

His unrepentant cheer hit her like a blow, guilt settling in below her breast.

“I'm well, thank you,” she said, automatically. “And yourself?”

“Excellent, thank you. Really quite well.”

Riza gave him a questioning look: the general caught it automatically.

“I spent the better part of the morning going through a gift that Edward left on my doorstep as an apology for his behavior. He gave me quite a large box full of novels and things like that, books that he picked out because he thought I might like them. I had no idea he was capable of being so thoughtful,” he said, fondly.

She forced herself to give him a small smile in return.

“That does sound nice.”

Roy pulled up a chair to the other side of her desk and sat down there, resting his forearms and folded hands on the table, the look in his eyes distant but warm. Being in love was really a good look for him.

“Yes. Now, enough of my personal life, I believe we have some lessons to get started with,” he said, keeping his tone light, like nothing could disturb his good mood.

“Yes, sir,” she replied, knowing that she would receive no lessons that day. “But a few things first. We've received a response from Rebecca Daniels. She would only be too pleased to run an interview with you. She says that Monday evening – tomorrow – would be fine for her, which is the next time her show runs. She'll push back her other interviews so she can report on this in the most timely manner.”

The general's smile broadened at the good news: Rebecca Daniels was a good ally to have on one's side. A very popular young radio host, she had a deceptively sweet demeanor and a sharp mind, and had also gotten something of a reputation in the city's social networks due to her tendency to throw a really excellent party. Beyond that, Rebecca was an old girlfriend of Havoc's who he hadn't scared away entirely, and she had his vote of confidence. To all appearances, she could be counted on to report on current events fairly and intelligently. When this scandal was the talk of the town, she certainly wouldn't turn down and interview with the top newsmaker.

“Excellent. I'm happy to hear it.”

“Yes. We have reached agreements with a number of other potential political or social allies as well. Also, how is Edward?” she asked, trying not to let her voice betray anything. “After the attack, I mean.”

Roy's expression clouded, his cheer wavering, though he didn't yet let it fall.

“I don't really know. I don't know exactly what happened, as he is unwilling to talk to me about it. Or about anything, really. He's refused to see me alone, although he seems happy enough to see me with Alphonse.” He paused, looking as if he was about to say something, then thought better of it. After a moment, he continued. “All I know is that the attack was politically motivated, and that Edward was almost unable to defend himself, which must have been a strange and disturbing occurrence for him. I can't help but wonder if he blames me for it, and if that's the reason for his reluctance.”

She put a hand on the folder that sat to her left, almost ready to slide it in front of him, but not quite.

“I doubt that very much,” she said, softly. “And I may be able to provide some insight into that. Second Lieutenant Astor has collected information for you on the attackers. There were four of them.”

The light in Roy's eyes grew sharp.

“Excellent. What were their names?”

“I could tell you, sir, but I think you had better read the report for yourself.”

She finally slid the folder over to him, and wished that she had another cup of coffee. Her last one had grown quite cold, but as he opened the folder and began to glance over its contents, she took a sip of it anyway. She heard the page turn. She waited.

After a long moment, he looked up at her.

“Major Hawkeye,” he said, looking blank, too stunned to get his emotions in order. His voice, though, had frozen, grown cutting and deep. “Is this report accurate?”

“To the best of my knowledge, sir. Lieutenant Astor has proven herself a reliable source in the past. I would put faith in her abilities.”

With every word she spoke, the look on his face grew darker, his eyes harder.

“And,” he began, the iciness of his voice a thin veneer over the rage that she could see on every line of his face, “have you read this report?”

“I have, sir.” She wouldn't let his anger affect her. She had to be the calm one. She had to make the logical decisions: at that moment, he was entirely incapable of doing so. Will he even listen to me?

“And are you seeing the same thing here as I am?”

“Yes,” she said.

The Flame Alchemist stood, looming over her, and in that moment she remembered the fires of Ishbal, and his eyes, hardened against the scorching heat and the desecration and the smell of burning bodies.

“I am going to kill them,” he said. He didn't change his tone. The voice of cold rationality coated his fury. “I am going to burn them and listen to them scream. It will not be a quick death.”

Riza took a deep breath and got to her feet: she couldn't stay cold and dispassionate, couldn't pretend that this was about somebody else, that this had nothing to do with her – not with this man in front of her, an instrument of righteous fury, his heart filled with a burning need for vengeance. She couldn't let him do this.

He turned to the door.

“No, wait,” she called to him, pleading. “Don't go. Please, listen to me. Roy,” she said, like she hadn't in so many years.

He turned back, and when he did, his brow was furrowed, his surprise briefly greater than his fury.

“What?” he asked, in his confusion. His name on her tongue – such a strange taste, unfamiliar. She steadied her resolve and pushed on.

“Roy,” she said again, hoping it would have an effect, “if you attack those men, if you hurt them, then you will undo everything you have worked for.” Emotion laced her every word, tightening her throat.

“I don't care.”

“Yes, you do. You will care tomorrow. The world will judge you for it. There are other ways.”

“Who are you to tell me what to do?” he snapped, like the ice had finally broken under the force of his rage. “You're always so collected. I don't understand how you can be calm about this. You must not feel things, like us ordinary humans do. Does this not bother you? Do you not care about it? About Edward?

She wouldn't take that personally. He was furious, angrier than she had seen him in a long time. Maybe angrier than she had ever seen him. That knowledge didn't stop his words from hurting.

“I know you don't mean that. Of course I care.” She took a breath: what could she possibly say? “But I'm not as close to it as you are. I can still see the big picture. We can't let everything you've ever done go to waste because you got angry. You still have things to do.”

“If I can't protect the people closest to me, how the hell do you think I'm going to be able to protect a country?” That was the first crack: she could see the pain and horror beneath his rage.

“The people close to you can protect themselves. I don't need to tell you that Edward is a very capable young man.”

“He shouldn't have to protect himself. If it weren't for me, he wouldn't be in this situation – and if it weren't for bastards like those pathetic excuses for human beings, he would never need to. I'll show them what happens when they fuck with me and mine.” And the crack closed again: he hardly even looked at her like he saw her. His eyes were focused far into the distance.

The man had grown immune to reason. She would use what weapons she had left to her.

“Don't you think that Edward would be upset if he knew you had given up all of your political ambitions on his account?” she said, her voice rising in volume with every word. “Don't you think he'd tell you that you're a damned idiot? This is probably why he didn't feel like he could tell you about his experience: he knew that you would go out and do something stupid.” She knew from the sudden clench of his eyes that her words had hurt him. “You can not do that, sir.” He turned his cutting look on her: it burned, but still, she kept talking. “And if you try, I will stop you.”

She pulled her gun out of its holster and held it by her shoulder, pointed toward the ceiling. There was a deep, crackling silence.

“If you shot me, you would be arrested for attacking a superior officer.” His tone was even, but cold.

“If it stopped you from leaving this room right now, it would be worth it. I would go down, but in the service of my cause. You can't forget – you are so much more than just yourself,” she said, her passion and her pain choking her voice. “Your life isn't yours to do with as you please. And neither is mine.”

He stood frozen, speechless in his shock, eyes wide and locked on her. The surface cracked away, piece by piece.

“If you were just Roy Mustang, then maybe I wouldn't stop you. But you're not. You are hope for this country. It doesn't know it yet, but you are. You represent the rule of just law. Those men have done a horrible thing, but you have always been about justice, not vengeance. And it would be vengeance you would be delivering today. If the law only applies to you when you want it to, what makes you better than the men you're trying to fight? Better than General Weimar? Fuhrer Hakuro? Fuhrer Bradley?” That one rung painfully in his ears. “But you are better than them. I know that. So please, General.” Another breath, cool and sharp on her lips. “Sit down.”

He watched her, and the last cracked shard of his fury fell away, and she saw then how much it had been supporting him as much as armoring him. His face wrinkled, like he was in pain: of course he was. He turned back to her, took the few staggering steps forward, and fell back into his chair, letting his head pitch forward to catch it in his palms, his elbows supporting them both on his knees.

“You're right,” he said. “You're always right. I can't do anything.” She moved in front of him, leaned back on the front of her desk. “I feel so... impotent. So helpless.” He gave a laugh that was nothing like happy. “And if I feel helpless, then what must Ed have felt like?” He raised his face to look at her, as if he thought she might have answers. “Why didn't he tell me?”

“I think you know the answer to that. When has Edward ever told anyone about the things that really bother him, unprovoked? Especially if he thought you would worry. Or be angry at him.”

That seemed to surprise Roy.

“Angry? Why would I be angry at him about this?”

“You know that Edward isn't always very rational when it comes to himself. You had been angry at him very shortly before. Maybe he didn't want to risk it again. But even more than that,” she began, carefully: she did not want to presume. She never could. “I think that victims of these sorts of crimes often react with shame.”

Roy let his head fall forward again, resting his face in his hands, covering his eyes.

“I guess this would explain why he hasn't wanted me to touch him.”

“I expect so,” she said, wanting to reach out to touch him on the shoulder – but she didn't. She never did.

“Do you think – that he's alright?”

“I think that no one can answer that better than Edward himself.”

Roy straightened up in his chair. He looked tousled and tired, like the thirty minutes since he had entered had been an age, but he stood.

“You're right again, of course. Thank you, Major,” he said, his voice quavering, but only barely. “I have to go see him now. For a minute there, I was so worried about dealing with those men that I almost forgot about the one who actually needs me.” He got to his feet, then put out a hand to touch her arm, to squeeze it gently. He favored her with a small smile, though it was just as tired as his eyes. “Really. Thank you. You're a better person than I am.”

“I'm certain that's not true,” she said, his hand on her arm strange, foreign, but not unwelcome. “But you're welcome regardless.”

“Alright. I'm going to go see to him.”

She nodded wordlessly.

“For now, wait for my orders. But rest assured, I haven't forgotten,” he said, words turning to a growl in his throat. “We'll get those fuckers, one way or another.”

“Yes, sir,” she replied, clicking her heels together and shooting her hand up into a salute.

As Roy swung around and strode towards the door, a pang hit her, of the kind that came every so often when she watched him: jealousy, faint but real, rare and unpredictable. General Mustang slammed the door between them as he left, and she swept the feeling away.

***

Chapter Text

Chapter 8

*

It was Alphonse who finally made the first real progress in the investigation, through a combination of clever determination and a network he had never quite realized that he had. Sometimes, you could do all the hard work in the world and it wouldn't matter if you didn't know the right person – but luckily, he knew a lot of people. Some digging around had revealed that one of the teenagers he had met in Youswell all of those years ago was now working in the Central Bank, and it only took a little bit more effort to track the man down, ascertain his work schedule, and burst into his office. As he did, the force of the door slamming open sent a number of papers shooting off of their resting places on shelves or desks and into the air to flutter down noisily onto the floor.

“Oh, I'm sorry,” said Al, surprised: the office's occupant looked over at him from his position behind his loaded desk with a wide-eyed look, thick brows raised in surprise. The younger Elric crouched down immediately to start picking up the errant papers. “I didn't mean to mess up your work. I mean – um, do these go anywhere special?” he asked, when he looked at them to find that they seemed to have no relation to each other whatsoever – but then, they could have come from different piles.

The man stood up and was over to him in a second, taking the bunch of papers from Al's hands as the alchemist got to his feet.

“I'll take care of it,” the banker said with a tired smile. “Don't worry about it. It happens all the time.”

“...Does it?” He picked up one last paper and handed it to the other. “Not, I suppose, that it's any of my business, but maybe if you actually filed them instead of just letting them sit around on your tables, things like that would happen less often?” Al suggested, watching the man turn and carefully begin putting the papers back in their appropriate piles.

“Maybe,” the man said, as if he didn't even really hear Alphonse's suggestion. Once done, he turned back to his visitor. “In any case, what brings you here today? I don't remember having an appointment, and it is a Sunday,” he noted, tone perhaps a bit accusatory.

There was a moment before Al responded, in which he examined the man for a moment: he wore a suit and the immaculately groomed mustache of a well-to-do city slicker that did little to hide the boyishness of the face underneath.

“Your accent has changed,” said Al, with a bit of a smile, searching out the boy he had known under all of the new layers. “I guess that happens when you leave your small town to go to school and get a job in the big city, huh?”

“Uh, I didn't come from a small town,” the banker said, pinking at the tip of his nose. “I'm a Central City man, born and bred. What would make you say something like that?”

That reply made Al give a “Hm” of amusement.

“You know, there's no need to pretend anything for me. I hardly mind – I'm from a small town too. Smaller than yours, actually. In fact, “town” might even be stretching it a little,” he added, with a laugh. “Besides, I know you. You and I met a few times when you were still living in Youswell.”

That earned a confused frown, brow wrinkling as it pulled low over his eyes.

“I'm sorry, sir. This may be inexcusably rude of me, but I don't remember you at all.”

“You're Graham Haskell, right?” he asked, just to make sure, though he was fairly certain he recognized the face. He had a great memory for faces. “I'm Alphonse Elric,” he said, clasping his hands to his front and giving the other man a small bow. “It's nice to see you again.”

There was a second of silence, where Graham studied him, his confusion turning to bewilderment.

“Alphonse Elric?” he asked, slowly. “You're Alphonse Elric? You mean, Fullmetal's brother?”

“That's right,” said Al, smiling, waiting for the inevitable questions.

“But you're so much... smaller than I remember,” he said, and for a second Al felt an acute sympathy for Edward and his rage at the the constant short jokes. His eyebrow twitched, but he kept his smile pasted on.

“Ah, yes, well – I was wearing an enormous suit of armor at the time. I look pretty different now.”

“I'll say!” Graham replied. “Oh, um – sorry, I'm a terrible host. Sit down,” he said, gesturing to the nearest chair. He realized after a moment that it was covered in papers, so he scrambled over to take them off and set them on the floor. Alphonse took the offered seat moments afterward and folded his hands in his lap as the other man sat down in his own chair. “I just – I'm surprised. You look like you would drown in that thing even now – and the last time I saw you was three years ago! I have to know – how did you move that thing? It was, what, eight feet tall?”

“Something like that. It was sort of like a puppet that I worked from the inside,” Al said, which was actually kind of true.

“But... why?

“I was doing a lot of dangerous stuff back then. It kept me safe. Plus, it was really strong, actually,” Al said. This conversation was well-worn and familiar for him: he had worked out all of his answers shortly after his return to his body, and had parroted off his script a number of times since his return, although not really as often as he would have expected. Most of the people who had been his friends while he had been in armor had ended up finding out about his unusual state, so they needed no explanation when he showed up in Central one day in the flesh. As for the people who hadn't known, Al guessed that by the time that most of them realized that the wide-eyed brunette boy attached to Edward Elric's hip and the enormous armor that had also been attached to Edward at the hip were one and the same, it was probably too late for them to politely ask about it.

“I guess that makes sense,” he said, almost reluctantly. “But that still doesn't explain why you never took it off!”

Al laughed. The amusing thing about all of his answers to these questions is that they all had quite a bit of truth to them.

“Brother was paranoid that I might get hurt. He wouldn't let me come with him on his adventures if I wasn't wearing something that would protect me all the time. He's that sort of guy, you know. Always putting other people before himself.”

Graham sobered as he nodded in response to that.

“And a little bit paranoid, apparently.”

“Maybe a little,” Al replied with a smile.

“Hm. But yeah, I getcha,” he said, going back in a moment to his old Youswell accent. To tell the truth, Al liked it better than the man's forced Central accent – it was more honest. “So, uh, how's that brother of yours holding up? With everything, I mean,” he asked, words finding their ways out awkwardly. As embarrassing and annoying as it was, it was also nice to not have to explain everything.

“Um, better some days than others,” said Al, because there was definitely such a thing as too much honesty, and it was a line that his brother crossed often. “It's been pretty tough.”

Graham nodded, twirling a pen around on his table, the nib prodding delicately into his fingertip.

“So, is any of the stuff they've been saying true?” he asked. Al was prepared for this question, too. He gave his standard reply, in as little detail as he could possibly manage.

“I see. That makes more sense than the newspaper version,” the banker replied, after Al had finished. “I have trouble believing that the guy I met in Youswell would let himself be manipulated like that. He was a tough kid.” There was a brief pause: the man watched Al closely. “So the papers are making up stories – I guess to get General Mustang in trouble? And they're pulling Ed into it.”

“Exactly,” Al replied. “And on that note, I'm here for a favor,” he said, soft brown eyes locking on Graham's with an earnestness that was half genuine and at least half for show. “There's this man who we really think is behind all of this: another one of the generals who really has it in for General Mustang. His name is General Weimar, and we think – I mean, General Mustang's investigations team and I think – that he paid the reporter to write these stories, but we have no way to prove it. I'm doing my own investigation, but I need access to the bank records to see if there's anything out-of-the-ordinary in either man's account. It could be just the thing we need to get Weimar held accountable for what he's done.”

Graham leaned back and crossed his arms, rocking a bit as he lifted the front two legs of his chair off of the ground and set them down again. He wrinkled his nose a bit, thinking. After a moment, he replied:

“You know, if there really is something shady going on, it'll be pretty hard to find. The general could just have withdrawn cash from his account for a nonspecific purpose, then deposited it into the reporter's account at another bank branch, and there wouldn't be any connection visible in the accounts. And if he's as much of an asshole as you seem to think he is, he easily could have bribed a banker into messing with the records to show the money delivered from another source or sources, in various amounts. Or, he could just have handed the guy the cash and let him keep it under his mattress or something.”

Al nodded.

“Of course. I wasn't expect you to hand me a record showing a direct transfer of five hundred thousand cenz from Weimar's account into Guy Harriet's or anything. I don't think Weimar's stupid enough to do something like that. I don't think he's stupid enough to let himself be seen with Harriet, either, to hand him the cash; normally I'd say that he could have let a subordinate handle the cash transfer, except that I somehow doubt that he's let any subordinates in on this. It would be too dangerous if anybody blabbed, and anybody he trusted enough to know about his activities would probably be recognizable, and he wouldn't want his name anywhere near this.” He hoped he wasn't giving Weimar too much credit: if he was, then he could be running full-tilt down a dead-end street. The only thing he could do at this point, however, was trust his instincts. He continued on. “So I think it was probably a bank transfer, not cash – or that's what I'm working off of, anyway. But if you provide me with information on any suspicious additions into Harriet's account, I'm willing to do the legwork to see if the inflow is genuine or not.”

The other man kicked his feet up on his desk and raised his eyebrows.

“You know that what you're asking me to do is really very illegal, right?”

The smile Al returned was beatific, serene.

“So is transmuting coal into gold,” he replied, pointedly, his angelic expression never fading. The other man's expression grew wry – he hadn't missed Al's point. Many years ago, now, Edward's willingness to break laws in service of the greater good had saved Graham's town and the people in it.

“Touché,” he said, sounding more amused than anything, to Al's relief. The man sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “Alright, I'll see what I can do for you.” He stood up, then, and crossed the room: Al took that as his cue and stood as well. Graham extended his hand, and then said:

“It was nice to finally get to meet you properly, Alphonse Elric.” Al took the other man's hand in his own and shook it.

“You too,” he said, happily. “Thanks for doing this for us.”

“Well, I kind of owe you and that brother of yours both. It's the least I could do.”

“Well, after this, we'll call it even.”

Graham got a little twist to his mouth when he heard that.

“Alphonse, when I save your whole town, we can call it even, and not before.”

“Well then, how about we say that the business in Youswell was a free service, and we'll call your favor an 'unrelated gift,'” Al replied, grinning: that phrase was the very one that had allowed Edward – fifteen years old, completely full of himself, and too snarky for his own good most of the time – to save the town and give them the push they needed to get up on their feet again and get going.

That reply took a moment to process – then, the banker gave a booming laugh and clapped Alphonse on the shoulder.

“You're a clever one, Alphonse Elric. You know that?”

“I like to think so,” Al said, lightly. “But I guess time will tell, won't it?”

*

The bright beauty of that Sunday afternoon that had buoyed Roy's spirits on his walk to Hawkeye's office felt oppressive, nearly painful, as he returned the way he had come. The sunlight was too bright in his eyes, the sound of the wind too loud, and all of the life being lived busily around him only made the space at Roy's side feel emptier than it had in a long time. Over the years since his best friend's death, he had become accustomed to the burning absence in his life in the shape of Maes Hughes: on the good days, he almost didn't notice it anymore. On the bad, he missed the man to the point of aching.

Today was of the latter: there were some things a man couldn't be expected to deal with alone, and this was one of them. He would have given anything to hear the man's voice, to listen to his friendly advice. That had been Hughes's position, his purpose: he was confidante and adviser, comforter and reality check. No one else in his life could do that for him, now. Hawkeye kept herself too distant, too professional, to ever be that person for him, and none of Roy's other subordinates could even come close. When he had a problem, oftentimes the best thing he could do was muddle through himself.

Sometimes, now, Edward played that role for him – but when the problem in question was Edward –

Edward, and Roy's colossal mistake. Edward, and a situation gone far out of hand. Edward, and four men in an alleyway – four men that Roy couldn't burn to fucking cinders, no matter how much he wanted to.

Edward, and all those things that Roy had said to him that night, that had distressed him so much that he had gone out drinking – and why drinking, anyway? he wondered: that was strange, for Edward. He tried to go through the younger man's thought process, trying to remain detached, composed, as he examined it. Alcohol had never been Ed's preferred method for dealing with his problems. But – gears moved, then clicked into place as his feet carried him forward, eyes cast down and a gentle wind fluttering across his face.

When he thought about it, it actually made sense, in a twisted sort of way. Edward's own methods of stress relief and problem-solving had backfired, repeatedly: he had probably been looking for something else. A friendly bottle of whiskey or scotch might not have been Ed's coping mechanism, but it was Roy's. If Ed had been out drinking, it was probably only because he had learned his bad habits from the best.

Roy groaned and pressed a gloved hand up over his eyes, digging fingers into his skin like it could relieve some of the – the tension, the awful feeling inside of him. Headquarters crawled past him in a blur of colors and half-heard sounds as he left his second-in-command behind him, at her desk, as he left all of his responsibilities on her shoulders and went to try to bandage up all of the wounds he had caused.

God, I wish you were here, Maes. You'd know what to do. You'd give me the best goddamn advice a man could get and then you'd give me that smile –

His throat clenched, his thoughts almost too much to repress. It had been his fault that Edward had thought to go out drinking, his fault that Edward had been upset enough to go out drinking in the first place, his fault that Ed had left the bar alone and intoxicated –

All of those things he had said to Edward that night... They were all true, but maybe if he had been thinking straight, he would have been more careful with his choice of words. Sometimes he forgot just how much of an effect such things could have on his young lover.

Some bitter part of Roy thought that it wasn't fair that he always had to keep his temper, that it was him who always had to be careful with his words and actions – Edward was never careful with what he said, Edward was loud and crass and sometimes vicious, intentionally or not. Why wasn't he, like Edward, allowed to get angry and say what he meant? Why were his mistakes so unforgivable?

Because you have power, General, he reminded himself, sharp. You have power in the world, and you have power over him: he freely gave you that power, and you have to use it wisely. You don't get power without a responsibility to the people you have power over. You know that better than anyone.

But the real bitterness of it was that it was Edward who had been punished for the things that Roy had done, and the real irony was that it was because of his power and responsibility that he couldn't do anything at all about the whole situation.

Harsh thoughts cut cleanly through the mess of his emotions as he took to the street, walking in a well-remembered path, motion automatic:

You're a smart man. You know that the only people who can take blame for this are the men who attacked him. If you're at fault for this because you were the reason he went to that place, then Edward is at fault for going, and Havoc is at fault for giving him those drinks... But all of those things are ridiculous, and you know they're not true.

But why didn't he tell me? The hurt was automatic, almost quiet, and yet overwhelming. After everything we've been through together, after everything I've done for him, does he still not trust me?

God, does he blame me?

Don't be stupid. When has Ed ever blamed anyone else for anything that was really important? Of course he doesn't.

Don't you dare make this about you, you vain, self-centered bastard. This is about Edward, about helping him, not about indulging in your delusion that everything in the world centers around you.

The rush of a car past him reminded him of the world outside his head: glancing to the side, he saw a taxi slowing down at a yellow light, then stopping. He waved at the driver, who motioned for Roy to get in: he did, and gave the man the Elrics' address. It wouldn't be long, now. A glance at his pocketwatch: four-thirteen. Hopefully Edward would be back from the lab by now. He didn't want this conversation to happen in a laboratory setting. They needed privacy, needed a room where they could talk without distractions, without an audience, without escape route. Edward, who never ran from anything he could see, was so good at escaping conversations, avoiding topics...

He knew that he had to be calm, had to be a rock for Edward in this storm. But – he was still so angry, bursting with that same impotent rage that had consumed him when Hawkeye had first given him the news. He swallowed it, practicing the control he so prided himself on.

God, Maes: if you're listening, if you're out there, please help me do this right.

The paper, folded crisply, burned a hole in his pocket.

*

The afternoon had been the loveliest that Al could remember since spring: temperate, with a cool breeze, it was still warm enough to go out in short sleeves and yet cool enough that one could enjoy the sunshine without ever feeling hot. It was one of those days when one would almost have to be convinced not to go outdoors. Al himself had made a compromise between inside and outside: he had thrown every door and window in the house open to let in the crisp smell of fall, which somehow made his cleaning activities much more pleasant. Not that he ever minded cleaning, but listening to lilting birdsong strain in from outdoors as he scrubbed the floors made everything much more pleasant.

Getting down on his hands and knees with a bucket of water and some gloves was hardly brain work, but it was somehow satisfying in a way that few other things could be: repetitive, rhythmic, it calmed the part of his brain given to over-thinking, to worrying. With everything that had been happening, that part of him had been working overtime recently. The worst part of it was that sometimes it seemed like the only thing he could do was worry.

He picked the sponge up from the floor and put it in the bucket, swishing it around in the bubbly liquid to get the worst of the dirt off before wringing it out gently and taking the scrubbing side of the sponge to a mysterious black mark in the grout.

Cleaning was also a great time to think, to mull over what he had learned. Although Graham hadn't gotten back to him with information about those bank accounts yet, it had only been a few hours, and he could wait. In the meantime, he had made a few trips, and tried, at least, to learn some things.

His brief research on General Weimar had taught him very little, though : the man was clever, if a bit vicious, and had a few loyal men of his own. If others' descriptions of him were anything to go by, he seemed to enjoy politics in much the same way that Roy did, treating people as chess pieces in a great social game. The difference was that Roy could see his chess pieces as human beings as well, and Al didn't know if this was true of General Weimar, as well.

At the very least, he had a wife who seemed to be quite devoted to him, and he had no shortage of friends among the major and brigadier generals. Whether or not he cared for his subordinates was a different question, though. He seemed to have a strong sense of his own moral rectitude, and seemed to be religious, although whether he was a true believer or if it was just lip-service was up in the air.

In any case, the man seemed to be out to be a dictator in the classic sense, and one became a dictator by discrediting your enemies through any means possible, or sometimes killing them. Weimar seemed to have chosen the former – at least for the moment.

However, the means he had chosen had just hurt two people that Al held very dear to him, in ways that he understood and probably also in ways that he didn't even know, and no amount of sparkling on his military record would make Al any less angry. He could see that, because of that man, Ed's and Roy's relationship was struggling under all of the weights that kept being piled on them. And more than that, Edward himself...

Taking a deep breath, he picked up his sponge again, washed it, wrung it out. He was calm: he was happy. The weather was beautiful, and the birds were singing. He focused on this for a moment, then, once he had calmed, began the long task of scrubbing the edge of the tile, under the cabinets. Dirt had collected, as dirt does, in the crack between the wall and the floor, and Al made a face: the fact that he had let it get so bad was really a testament to how distracted he had been recently.

Distracted, in part, by his brother's strange behavior. Not knowing what was wrong with Ed bothered him enough under normal circumstances. Not, he thought ruefully, that our circumstances are ever what one might call “normal.” But in any case, Ed was acting strange even by Ed standards.

What could have disturbed his brother so much?

The sharp ring of the telephone roused him from his thoughts. He sprang to his feet on instinct, and moved to get it.

“Hello?” he said. Over the past week or two, he had gradually stopped saying “Elric residence” when answering the phone: there could always be a reporter on the other end, and if there was, he didn't want them to be sure of who they had called. But that possibility was ruled out as soon as he heard the voice that blasted through the speaker.

“Alphonse Elric, I have a word or two to have with you!” she said, and oh god, it was Winry, and she sounded mad.

“Uh, Winry! Hi! I – I was just getting ready to call you, actually,” he said, voice coming out all stammery and embarrassing. “How have you been?”

“Don't you lie to me, Alphonse Elric. You weren't about to call me. You haven't called me in a week and a half.”

Crap. No, he hadn't – between how busy he had been trying to keep the lab running while doing investigative stuff and the fact that he wanted Winry to stay out of this, he had managed to not speak to her for quite a while. He knew that he couldn't lie to her, so the best option was just to avoid the problem.

“R-really? I thought for sure it had only been –”

“You know exactly what you've been doing! You've been trying to keep me from knowing about any of the things that have been happening recently. You've been trying to protect me for my own good, haven't you?” Her voice had reached a volume at which he could no longer hold the telephone up to his ear without a serious risk of hearing damage.

He should have known that even Winry's indifference to national politics and to the content of the newspapers wouldn't keep her out of this forever. She had probably seen the photo on the front page of the paper as somebody read it, stolen their newspaper, and then clocked them upside the head with her wrench for ever even reading something so ridiculous. Her fuming was almost visible even through the telephone.

“Yes ma'am! I mean, no, of course not!” he said, cringing at the way she made him babble, and of course she wasn't going to believe him if he sounded so stupid. “I just – you know how worried you get over things like this!”

“And you think that's a good enough reason to keep me in the dark? You should be ashamed of yourself. You tell me you always want to know what's going on in my life, and then you won't tell me what's happening in yours? You, Alphonse Elric, are a hypocrite.”

“I'm sorry! I just – I know you don't like hearing about Ed and the General, and you don't like it when Ed's hurting, and I didn't want you to have to hurt any more.”

“So you would rather me find out from seeing that photograph? If you had told me, I might not have had to see it.”

“If I had told you, you would have immediately gone and hunted down a copy of that paper just to see if it was as bad as I say,” Al pointed out. “And don't try to tell me you wouldn't.”

Also, though he wouldn't say it out loud, he secretly didn't want Ed to be their primary topic of conversation. Sometimes he still wondered... but that was a dangerous train of thought to follow, and he would find nothing good at the end of it. She was with him, not Ed, and he had to trust that she didn't regret that. He cut the thought off before it could go any further.

“Why would I do that?”

He gave a little smile, the wind fluttering through his open windows and across his face.

“Because you're too curious to not want answers about something like that. Wouldn't it just drive you crazy, knowing there was something out there you didn't know, and that you could find out so easily?”

She paused for a moment, thinking.

“I guess you're probably right,” she said, sounding resigned. “But that doesn't make it any better that you didn't tell me about any of this. You did it the whole time you and your brother were off trying to get your bodies back, and it hurt that you wanted to keep me out then, and it hurts a little now, too.”

Al deflated.

“I'm sorry, Winry. I just wanted you to not hurt, you know?” he said, softly. “I just like it when you're happy. You're prettiest when you smile.”

There was a beat of quiet, during which Winry was probably blushing to hear him say something like that, he guessed, because Al was blushing at having said it.

“Oh. I, uh,” she said, stumbling for her train of thought. “Thank you?” Another beat. When she spoke again, she had lost all of that flustered cuteness and sounded stern again. “But, don't ever let me catch you doing it again.”

“Uh, yes ma'am!” he said, snapping to attention out of instinct and wondering for a moment if it was normal to call your girlfriend “ma'am.” Well, Brother probably thinks so, he thought, then immediately recoiled from the image that brought up. Oh, ew, ew – why am I always in situations where I have to spend any time at all thinking about my brother's sex life? But then, without warning, he was thinking about “Winry” and “sex life” in the same sentence, and then he was flushing up to his ears. He was very suddenly glad that she wasn't there at that moment, because he had started thinking about her well-muscled stomach and arms and other parts too and it was eliciting uncomfortable reactions in him that he just didn't know how to deal with. If he could have spoken, he would have stammered, and that would have been embarrassing, so he stayed quiet for the moment.

“Good,” she said, with an air of finality. “And don't forget it.” She paused, as Alphonse dragged his thoughts away from the inconvenient course they were taking. “But I also missed talking to you, Al,” she said, much more genuinely.

“I-I missed talking to you, too,” he said, his blush unabated.

“How is Ed?” she asked. He took a breath, then gathered up what remained of his thoughts and managed to speak like a normal person.

“He's having a hard time of it, I think. Of course, he would never say so. But I think he's really worried, and he's been acting kinda weird lately.”

“I see,” she said. “And how are you holding up?”

“I'm worried about him, of course. The general, too. This whole card house his team has been building up for years could collapse if this stuff keeps going the way it has. If the top card falls, it'll destroy everything else they've done, too. That's worrisome. Ed doesn't want to be the person who destroys the general's political ambitions.”

“He's such an idiot. Even if that did happen, it wouldn't be his fault,” she said, with such harshness that Al wished he could put a hand out to comfort her – but the barrier of distance was a powerful one. “In any case, I'm coming up to Central today,” she continued, in a way that left no real room for argument. Then, more playfully: “You two obviously can't manage without me. I thought you might need some moral support.”

Al smiled at the thought, then sighed as reality checked in: as much as he would love it, a visit from her wasn't really practical at that moment. He was going to have to argue with her no-arguing voice. He hated having to do that.

“I always need moral support from you, and it wouldn't hurt Ed either. But what about your apprenticeship? Won't Mr. Garfiel be mad at you?”

“No, not at all. We have some regular customers who live in Central, and a lot of times they're willing to pay a little bit more money to get their regular maintenance taken to them rather than having to come to us. Mr. Garfiel usually does it, but I asked if I could do it from now on. I mean, if that's okay,” she said, suddenly sounding nervous and embarrassed.

Al paused, thinking. On the one hand, yes he would love for her to come up to Central – they would have fun, and he would have somebody to hug when he was feeling scared or unhappy. He couldn't talk to Brother about any of those weird feelings, because then Ed would just worry more, and he had enough on his place to begin with. Winry could be that person, for him to talk things over with, a comforting breast to rest his head on – no, nope, not going there, he reprimanded himself.

On the other hand –

“As appealing as that sounds, I think it might actually be best for you to stay out of Central for the moment, actually,” he said, deciding that the direct, honest approach was probably best. “It's been – kind of awful here, you know? I don't want you to have to get into the middle of this.”

“Well, tough. I'm going to anyway.”

The laugh Al gave in response was fond.

“That's such a you thing to say, Winry. And I really appreciate your offer – I do! I just – you'd probably get badgered by reporters too, and somebody would find a way to shoehorn you into a story, and then you'd just feel bad, and it would be bad all around. But, uh,” he continued, biting his lower lip in the space between his words. His mind worked around an earlier idea, stirring it, waiting for it to form properly. “I actually do have an idea of what you could do to help, and unfortunately, it would involve you staying out of Central for at least the next week and a half, or so.”

“Really?” she asked, sounding startled, as if that was the last thing she expected. “You're letting me help? ...You're not trying to protect me, are you?”

“Really really, I always let you help when there's something I think you can do, and of course not, in that order,” he said. “But let me explain.”

He went over his plan in as much detail as he could muster, making some things up as he went along, accompanied by the occasional noise of consideration and interrupted by an occasional question. It didn't take long to get her fully on board.

“Right,” she said once he had finished, all of her uncertainty gone, replaced with all of that confident determination that he loved so much about her. “Then that's what I'll do. I'll see you in a week and a half or so. Then she paused, but right before Al opened his mouth to continue, she said. “So... those two are really in trouble, aren't they?”

“Yeah. They really are.”

“Stupid boys. If they were just more normal and less... stupid, then none of this would be a problem.”

“If they were more normal, they wouldn't be half so interesting,” Al replied, twisting the phone cord around his finger.

“They could probably do with a little less 'interesting' right now. The whole country is interested in them,” she said, with maybe a twist of bitterness in her emphasis on that word.

“Probably, yeah. But I think we've got it under control.”

“If you say so,” she said, thoughtful. Then, after a moment: “I really do miss you, you know.” Al's chest warmed at the words, and so did his face.

“I miss you too, Winry,” he said, in a tiny voice – he used to say it all the time when he saw her in between their travels when they were younger, but it was different now, somehow. It wasn't that what he meant now was any different than what he had meant back then, but she heard it, now, and that was somehow both embarrassing and thrilling. Then, to break the sudden openness of the moment, said, in a bit of a rush: “The, uh – the weather's been so beautiful here. I can't wait for you to come up. There are all kinds of things I want us to do. I found a great kebab stand in a square on the north side of the city. I'm really excited to take you there.”

“Aw, that's sweet. You know I'm not a big kebab fan.”

“I know, I know – but their kebabs are different. They kebab strawberries and steak together! How could that not be amazing?”

Winry laughed.

“You get excited about the funniest things,” she said, fondly. “It does sound pretty delicious though.”

Of course he got excited about food and smells and things that might seem normal to everybody else. He had gone so long without getting to taste apples or smell rain that such small delights were no longer things he had the privilege of taking for granted.

“Me, excited about funny things? This from the girl who nearly fainted when she saw the new wrench design from Elliot's Automail,” he countered, gently teasing.

“Hey, I'll have you know that that was called a ratchet, and it was the most important development in automail creation in the past year at least! You don't have to take the wrench off of the bolt anymore to keep screwing it in! It's really streamlined my process. And it's extendable, so it's long enough to get into those hard-to-reach places and also collapses into a conveniently tiny package for easy storage or transport!” she said, speeding up and pitching higher as she went under the sheer force of her enthusiasm.

“That does sound amazing,” Al replied, smiling, as if she hadn't told him before. He didn't mind. She was cute when she got excited.

“Are you making fun of me?” she asked, though really, it was more like a growled declaration of intent than a question.

“No, no! Of course not! I really honestly like hearing you get excited about things. I wasn't making fun at all. I think it's cute.”

“Oh,” she said, like she was honestly surprised by this. “You're, um, complimenting me a lot today.”

“Am I? I guess I have a week of not talking to you to make up for.”

She giggled a little at that, and Al felt his heart warming.

“You're sweet, do you know that?” she said.

“I'm glad you think so,” he replied, happily.

“Yeah. I do.” A pause. “Okay, if I'm not going to Central, I should really get back to work here. I should probably deliver this leg casing I'm making by tomorrow morning, and I'm only about a quarter of the way into it.”

“Okay. That sounds good. I have some things I need to finish here, too. Enjoy yourself!”

“Will do. I'll talk to you soon?” Then, pointedly: “Sooner than it was this past time?”

“Of course,” he replied, smiling. They said their goodbyes, then hung up, leaving Al high on nothing but endorphins and affection. The thought of her visit, and what they might do on her visit, left him with a fluttery, nice feeling in his stomach. He wished it could be under different circumstances, but they might even get to kiss again, and they could celebrate together when all of this stupid stuff blew over.

He leaned over the counter, propped up on his elbows and staring into space, drifting in and out of unusually detailed and specific daydreams which may or may not have included getting to brush Winry's hair, until the sound of his front door slamming open cracked through his reverie.

Unsurprisingly, the source of the slam was one Edward Elric, returned from the lab. The man stalked into the living room and tossed his jacket over the back of the couch.

“Oh, hello, Brother,” he said, briefly irritated at himself for not noticing whether his brother had used the key or alchemy to get in. He had been working on training Ed to use the key, but it was a long and slow process. Ed had none of a dog's natural urge to please, so unlike with a dog, praise did little, though treats did sometimes help. “You're home early. I thought you would be at the lab longer.”

“Nah. I was done with the stuff I needed to do,” his brother said, not even bothering to kick off his shoes before stomping into the kitchen. He looked sort of irritated, or bothered by something, but Al didn't even ask. He knew that his brother probably wouldn't answer. “How has your day been?”

“It's been excellent, actually. My piano lessons went beautifully, and then I got to clean!” he said, entirely leaving out the part of his day dedicated to sleuthing. He didn't want Ed to have to think about that stuff any more than he already did.

Ed gave him a look full of fond disbelief and shook his head.

“I can see that,” he said, with some amusement, and Al realized suddenly that he still had his dirty cleaning gloves on, and had been touching everything with them. “You know, you're the only person I've ever met who's crazy enough to actually enjoy cleaning stuff. I really don't understand freaks like you,” he said, swinging cabinet doors open and rustling around between the bags and boxes of food for something to eat. He seemed to decide on a box of hard tack biscuits, and opened it up to grab as many as he could in each hand before turning back around to face Al.

“You don't get to call me a freak when you're the one who will eat anything that fits in your mouth,” he said, eying the hard tack in disgust. “I don't understand how you eat those things. They're awful. They're beyond the scope of awfulness. They're literally just flour and water, mixed together, then left out to dry! That's it!”

Ed shoved a whole one into his mouth and started chewing.

“Yeah, but they're easy as fuck to eat, they last forever, and I don't have to cook 'em,” Ed replied, around his food, even though he knew how much Al hated people chewing with their mouths full. He swallowed his biscuit, then grinned at his little brother's obvious discomfort. “That's all I really want out of a food.”

“I bet you just have no taste buds left. You probably burned them off drinking all of that scalding hot coffee. God help you if I have to put burn medicine on your tongue ever again.” Al said, taking off his gloves and setting them on the counter.

“Hey, even if I have burned some off, I have enough taste buds left for an army of normal people. But even the best coffee is godawful, so you gotta drink it all at once, like a shot: no point in waiting. It's not ever going to taste any better.” Ed hopped up to sit on the countertop.

“It seems to me that there's a point to waiting. I have never had to apply burn ointment to my tongue.”

“Well, no, but you also don't have to wait to drink your hot leaf water. You cool it down with milk, but yech,” he said, making a face that was really quite descriptive. “That just makes coffee even more disgusting than it was before. And you know I hate waiting for shit.”

“One of these days, I'll teach you patience,” Al said, though he really had little hope of that. “And to not sit on the kitchen countertops, it's not sanitary. And to use the key in the front door.”

“Hey, my ass ain't any dirtier than the rest of me,” he said, swinging his legs so that the heels of his shoes hit the cabinet doors with loud thunks. “'Mnot hurting anything by being up here. And one of these days, I'll teach you to pick your battles.”

Al sighed dramatically.

“Brother, I do pick my battles. If I didn't, we would be fighting all the time. Also, if 'picking my battles' were a lesson I needed to learn, you would be absolutely the last person I'd go to to teach me. You are horrible at it.”

Ed grinned, then shoved another biscuit in his mouth.

“C'mon, you know you love me.”

“Only when you chew with your mouth closed and don't talk while you're doing it,” he said, sternly.

“I bet it's stressful, being you, and being worried about all of these little things all the time.”

“I don't have to worry about things like chewing with your mouth open with anybody but you! Everybody else does it naturally,” he said, in his most put-upon voice. A thought interrupted his little miniature tirade. “Oh, by the way, Winry's coming up.” Ed almost managed to hide his flinch at those words. “For the trial, I mean,” Al clarified.

“Oh yeah?” he asked, recovering almost instantly, and paying no heed whatsoever to Al's admonition about not talking with food in his mouth. “I guess she heard about all this bullshit, then.”

“Yeah. I think she'll be a good witness to have for your case. And besides... well, we want to see each other,” Al said, pinking at the cheeks.

Ed laughed.

“I'm glad you two are getting along so well. See, I told you it would work out.” He paused, chewing thoughtfully. “By the way, Roy's coming for dinner at seven. He said he wanted either pasta or steak or something. It's our turn to cook.”

“I'm glad, too. And you mean it's my turn to cook,” Al returned, amused. “You never help, and thank god for that. I wish you'd told me a bit earlier, though.” He glanced up to check the clock, which said half past four. “It's getting pretty late to make it to the butcher shop, though. It closes at five.”

“Well, we can do pasta then,” said Edward, ignoring Al's jibe at his cooking skills.

“But I want steak. So I'm cooking steak,” he declared. “The other day, I read about this new herb and olive oil rub that sounds amazing and I want to try it out. And you had better not stuff yourself so much on those god-awful biscuits that you can't eat my steak.”

“But I'll starve if I have to wait till seven to eat!” he said, in his most annoying play-whine. “And you know my stomach's a bottomless pit, so no worries about being too full. But I can run to the butcher's, if you want, so you can finish up here with – whatever you were doing. I'm not hopeless enough with food shit that I can't even manage to buy it.”

A sharp rap on the front door interrupted their conversation

“Oh, I'll get it,” said Al, as he was closer to the entryway, choosing to ignore Edward as he shoved another biscuit in his mouth. It was strange to be getting callers unannounced: they didn't usually have many visitors. A wash of nervousness hit him – was it another reporter? – but he checked out the little peep-hole in the walnut door, and saw someone much more familiar.

“Hello, General!” he said, as he swung the door open. Sometimes he felt like he should start calling the man by his given name, but it somehow just never happened. Maybe he could start referring to him by it when he wasn't present, and then gradually work his way up to using it in conversation with him. “You're here early.”

Roy gave him a smile, but Al could see immediately that it was tense, distracted.

“Yes, I am, a bit,” he said, stepping past Al inside. Technically, the general had had a key to their house for months, but Al appreciated the fact that he was polite enough to knock and request entrance rather than just barging in. “I was done with my work, and thought I would go ahead and come over.” His eyes scanned the living room in short bursts before settling on Edward, still chewing his biscuit on the kitchen counter.

“Hey, Roy,” he said. “I thought you had stuff to do with Major Hawkeye.”

Al shut the door and followed the other man into the living room, then kitchen.

“I have finished my business with her for the day. I'm glad to see you've left the lab. I had been hoping you had.” There was something very strange about the way he said that. “Edward, can I see you upstairs?”

Tension sprung between them, immediate and palpable. Al looked from one to the other: Roy, stiff and unwavering; Ed, suddenly hunched and defensive. He stared at the floor.

“I was actually about to go to the butcher shop to get steak so Al can cook.”

“I'm sure he can manage by himself for a bit. You can help when we're done.” Both of their voices were so neutral that Al knew there had to be something wrong.

Whatever it was, he probably shouldn't interfere. He knew he shouldn't intrude on lovers' quarrels. But still, something about this seemed... different. His instincts were on high alert.

“I'm fine by myself. I manage most nights,” he said with forced cheer, just so that he wouldn't get caught up in their mood. “You two go do your thing, and I'll go to the store.”

Ed hopped down off of the counter, with a look like this was the very last thing he wanted to do.

“Okay. If you're sure, Al,” he said, and walked around the long counter that was the only divider between the living room and kitchen to arrive at the stairs, which he took one at a time, and at a reasonable pace for a human being.

Roy gave the younger man a hard, appraising look, and started to follow him. Al watched them go, still wondering, considering.

It was probably nothing, he told himself, vehemently. If it was something important, they would tell him. Ed would tell him. Right?

*

Ed didn't turn around to face the other man until they were in his bedroom. Roy closed the door, which shrunk the room down to a quarter of its size: the small space trapped him, choked him, a wild thing in a hunter's snare. They stood as far apart as good courtesy would allow, frozen for a moment, before Roy broke the standstill by stepping forward to sit down on the edge of Edward's bed.

“Come on, sit down,” he said, patting the spot next to him in invitation. “It's okay – I promise I won't bite.”

Edward watched him warily, but sat down on the bed anyway, next to his pillow, as much distance between them as he could manage.

“Don't think I haven't noticed how you've been avoiding me. I've never known you to turn down make-up sex before, and you did it twice in a very short period. You've sounded or looked nervous for the past several days, like you might spook and run if I say the wrong thing. Do you want to tell me what that's about?” he asked, his voice calm.

He didn't sound hurt by the fact that Ed had been treating him that way, or angry about it. In fact, he sounded perfectly normal. This certainly was not a reassuring fact.

“I haven't been avoiding you,” he said, trying to keep his voice light. “I've just been busy, trying to catch up on stuff at the lab.”

“I see,” said Roy, and Ed was not even for a second under the impression that the other man had believed him. Instead of responding further, the general reached into his coat and pulled out a folded packet of papers, then unfolded it. He glanced over it briefly: Edward couldn't put a name to the look on his face, but whatever it was, it sparked in him a dark foreboding.

He handed it over the distance between them, and Edward took it in his hands, smoothed it out. He looked at Roy, questioning.

“What's this?” he asked, brow furrowing. Every instinct told him that something was very wrong. The papers stared at him, heavy in his hands, and he found that he very much didn't want to pull back the cover.

“Just read it.”

Tentatively, he opened it. A series of four pictures drew his eye first, four military ID photos set next to paragraphs of text. As he took them in, his eyes widened, and his vague unease exploded into full-blown nausea. He recognized the four faces in the photos: these were the men who had assaulted him. He read through the first several pages quickly, speeding through them with a growing sense of dread.

Then he turned to the last page. On this one, there seemed to be a script of some sort: he realized, in a shock as punishing as a stab to the gut, that it was a transcript of a conversation. His mouth went dry, his blood rushing through his head so fast it made him dizzy. He managed to make it to the end of the page as the world swam around him.

Roy read this. He knows.

Silent, he put the paper to his side, let it sit on the bed, unwilling to look at it anymore. Keeping his eyes to the floor protected him from having to look over, having to see the expression on the other man's face. He didn't make a move, didn't say a word, didn't know what to say to that. It was Roy's move.

There was a long, pregnant silence between them: the general broke it.

“Major Hawkeye gave that to me,” he said, and Ed could feel the brand of the man's dark eyes on him. “The conversation was written down yesterday, sometime after two o'clock. Not long after the time when, according to your brother, you straggled in to your house with a strange injury, jumpy as a colt.” He paused, waiting for the younger man to say anything. Ed didn't: his mouth had frozen up, locked in place.

“I suppose I can take it from your reaction,” Roy finally said, “that these men are not unfamiliar to you, and that the things they were talking about in their conversation are true.”

His own heartbeat almost rang louder in Ed's ears than his lover's voice. He stayed there, hunched, staring at the floor in sullen silence. Maybe if he didn't say anything, Roy would go away, he could burn those fucking papers, and they could all go on pretending that none of this had happened.

“Edward, are you alright?” the man asked, and thank god he didn't reach out to touch Ed at all, because the thought of a hand on him made his skin prickle and his tongue feel like a dry weight in his mouth. But at least he knew the answer to this question automatically.

“I'm fine. It's not a big deal,” he said, looking up to meet Roy's eyes and trying out a smile, doing his best to sound convincing. From the look on the older man's face, he guessed he was a failure at that, too. He barreled on anyway. “It was just a fight. I kicked their asses, we all went home. The rest of that shit is in their crazy fucking heads.”

Roy's eyes tightened, his brow furrowing as his lip curled into a frown. Edward knew that look – Roy was really worried, and why the fuck couldn't he keep the man out of this?

“Please, Edward, don't lie to me. We both know that your behavior hasn't been normal. You've taken down humans and monsters a hundred times more powerful than those men and not acted like this afterward. Give me some credit: I'm not a stupid man, and I know you better than that,” he said. I don't want to talk about this, not ever, please just leave me alone.

“Okay, so maybe some weird-ass shit happened, but I'm fine.

“Ah, yes, sorry, my mistake. You're just avoiding any kind of touch or extended human interaction and lying to both Alphonse and myself for fun, I take it,” Roy said, and somehow that pointed response hurt, probably more than the man had meant for it to – probably because he was hurting, and Ed could see that he was hurting, and the fact that he was hurting because of Ed just made it all worse.

No, he wasn't doing it for fun. He was lying because he hadn't wanted anyone to know. His shame could be private, for his eyes only. He didn't want to talk about this, didn't want to be reminded of the wet slide of that thumb down his neck, of watching that man's blood wash out of his mouth and down a hotel drain.

Then, most painfully of all, Roy said:

“Why didn't you tell me?”

Ed set his shoulders square, scowling, even as he slumped down onto his seat. Obviously Roy wasn't going to be convinced that nothing had happened (he knows, he can see it on you, he's seen strangers' hands between your legs –)

“What would the point have been?” he shot back. “Obviously I don't even have to. Your spy network tells you every fucking thing I do before I get a chance to.”

Ed...” Roy said, sounding even worse than he had moments ago, and Edward cringed – god, why did he keep lashing out like this? “I was just worried about you – and apparently, I was right to be.”

The sickness swelled in his stomach. He couldn't fucking take care of himself, so Roy was worrying: he didn't mean to put more on the man's plate than he already had, didn't mean to distract him from what he needed to be doing right then – which was getting his career back on track, not tending to scared little boy (sick little faggot).

“Well, fucking don't. I can handle myself. Stop treating me like a kid you need to take care of, I don't need that shit.”

The general's shock at Edward's words was almost as strong as the pity had been – but then, the shock grew hard with another emotion, immediately visible on the man's face.

“A child?” asked Roy, his voice sharpening on the edge of his frustration. When Edward sneaked a glance up, he saw Roy sitting impossibly straight, eyes fixed on him. “No, Edward. I'm trying to treat you like an adult – an adult I care about, and who needs somebody right now, even if you won't admit it. But you're so defensive that you won't even stop lying to me for thirty goddamn seconds.”

Fuck, goddammit, Ed was just the master at hurting people, especially when all he wanted to do was protect them.

All you wanted? a small voice asked, derisive. You didn't want him to know for your own, selfish reasons, too.

“What the hell do you want me to say?” Edward said, all of the force going out of his voice, leaving him feeling small, and tired.

“I don't know,” Roy said. “I just want you to let me be there for you. I just don't want you to pretend this didn't happen. I don't want to push this, but I also don't want you to go about your life with all of those mental injuries that you won't acknowledge or allow to heal.” A pause, then, quieter: “I really wish you had trusted me enough to tell me.”

The raw pain in those words cut Ed open – he hadn't wanted anyone to know because they would worry, yes, they would make a big deal out of it – but – you keep hurting everybody, now you're a liability, shouldn't have told Alphonse anything at all –

“But that's not –” he blurted, meeting Roy's gaze with wide eyes. “That's not it! Of course I trust you,” he said, straightening. Sometimes, the more emotional Roy got, the stonier and more unreadable his face became, and Ed hated it.

“You trust me with your body. You trust me with your life. But you don't trust me with your hurt, with your vulnerability. You don't trust me to accept you no matter what. Even after all this time, Edward, you have so many walls. And that would be something that we could work on slowly, together, except that you are hurting now, behind those walls, and I can't get in to help you.”

Those words rung so true that they stopped Edward there, still in the silence.

“But... I –” He took a deep breath, gathering his thoughts. “I'm really sorry.”

“Edward, please don't apologize to me,” Roy said, cracked, before Ed could even finish the word. “There's nothing to apologize for. You haven't done anything wrong. I shouldn't even be – I didn't mean to make this about me. I'm sorry. I just worry, because if the same thing happened again tomorrow, you wouldn't tell me about that either, would you?”

You'd either be mad at me for going and putting myself in such a stupid situation or mad at them for what they did – or maybe you'd pity me and coddle me, and fuck that.

“Well, no!” he snapped back. “And I had perfectly good reasons for not telling you this time, too.”

“Oh?” asked Roy, and Ed's mouth continued without his permission.

“You had already gotten mad at me once that day for getting into a fight and I wasn't on board for a repeat performance,” he said, and that was at least part of it. “Besides, I've already fucked up your plan more than enough for one lifetime. No need to fuck it up more by getting you emotionally involved in something that you can't do anything about. You don't need any more distractions in your life.”

Roy laughed, suddenly, tiredly.

“Emotionally involved?” he asked, bending forward to rest his elbows on his knees, letting his hands fall to the middle, head bowed forward. “You say that as if I'm not already emotionally involved – and as if getting emotionally involved was a bad thing.”

A sudden heat bloomed in Edward's face. Shit – this was turning into something an awful lot like a talk about their feelings.

“Not what I meant. I meant, you don't need to be dealing with my mistakes instead of getting on with the shit you need to do. You have a lot of shit that needs doing.”

Roy made a soft noise, and was looking at him like – what was that look? He still didn't know: even when the man was allowing himself an expression or two Ed still had no idea how to read the man.

Your mistakes?”

Ed looked at him, blank. That wasn't the part of the sentence he was supposed to be focusing on.

“No, see, that wasn't the important part. The important part was, 'getting on with the shit you need to do.'”

“Do you think this was your fault?”

(the papers say you like getting beaten up we can do that for you)

Fuck, talk about loaded questions. Ed didn't really know how to respond, didn't know which answer would be the right answer. It depended entirely on how mad at him Roy was. Would he get points for owning up to his mistake? (what were you expecting, acting like that, getting drunk like that) Or was the general trying to say that this wasn't Ed's fault? (general mustang's whore)

“It doesn't matter. It's over and done with. Can we be finished talking about this now?” He just wanted this goddamn conversation to be over. He stood up and started walking to the door, hoping Roy would let him go, please just let me go.

“Finished? We haven't even scratched the surface,” Roy said. “Edward, wait.” He shot out a hand to grab Edward's wrist, to stop him from leaving, and –

A familiar prickling sensation shot in waves across his skin, leaving sweat in its wake, cold and startling. And then the room was too small, the hand around his wrist too tight, he was suffocating, he had to get out, had to breathe – he jumped away, jerking his wrist out of the other man's hand, and backpedaled until he hit the desk behind him, his burning arm still held out in front of him, frozen in front of him, like it was guarding him. The rise and fall of his chest was a heavy noise in the silence that followed.

“Edward...” Roy said, and shit Ed should have been able to control himself better because the stone of Roy's expression had shattered again and Ed could see pain through the cracks, could hear it in the man's voice, and goddammit, Ed was the worst human being ever to have the misfortune to walk this planet.

“I'm sorry. I'm really sorry,” he said. “But – can you not do that right now? Tomorrow. Maybe tomorrow.” It wouldn't be tomorrow. It wouldn't be the next day, either.

“I thought I told you not to apologize – and this is about the last thing you would ever need to be sorry for. In fact, I'm sorry. I knew that you were avoiding physical contact, I guess I just didn't know how much it would affect you,” he said, his eyes soft and his brow furrowed. “But this just further proves that, clearly, you are distressed, and this does matter,” he finished, his expression turning grim.

Ed didn't have anything else to say to that, just stood there, body coiled and tensed to the breaking point.

“Ed, I'm not trying to talk to you about these things because I enjoy fighting with you. I'm not doing it so I can hurt you with them later. I'm doing it to see if there's anything I can do to help, and to lay my own fears to rest. It has also become quite clear that you have gotten tangled up in your own thoughts again, like you're so good at doing,” he said with a short, bitter laugh. “As you've done with every bad thing that's ever happened to you, you seem to have decided that this was your fault. And as long as you think that, I think you're not going to be able to heal. If you talk to me about what's wrong, then I can help you better. That's all I'm asking. Please, tell me: why do you think this was your fault?”

But you – you wouldn't understand, Ed thought, his dizziness giving the whole room a surreal quality. Of course, he didn't have to say anything, if he didn't want to. He could leave again. Roy wouldn't reach out to stop him, not a second time – but would the older man take that as rejection? Would he look at Ed with such hurt on his face again? Ed didn't think he could stand that.

“Why do you always ask me such difficult questions, you bastard?” he asked, glaring out the window at the city beyond, dusky-pink in the light of the sunset. “When does it get to be my turn to be the interrogator?”

“When something important happens to me that I refuse to talk about, and when that thing is clearly leaving mental wounds that are going to scar over without proper care.” He paused, dark eyes roving across the younger man like he was collecting evidence: across the scrape on his cheek, the line of his shoulders, down the rest of his body, looking for answers where Ed's mouth gave none. “That is, however, not my particular habit,” he said, and that was a goddamn fucking lie because Ed still didn't know shit about Ishbal, except that sometimes his lover's whimpers woke him in the middle of his night, and all Ed could do was wake him and pretend he couldn't see silver tear-tracks in the moonlight. “You're the one who has a tendency to leave your mental wounds unattended to,” Roy continued. “And your physical ones. You have as of yet given me no trustworthy indication that your encounter has left you physically uninjured.”

The gash between Edward's legs twinged, as if in answer. Could he lie about this? Roy was bound to see the wound someday, or at least see the scar, if he ever wanted to feel the slide of skin on skin again – and he did, he did, (you slut). Roy couldn't find out about it then, when they were naked and he could see every bit of it: if that was the way it happened, then things would go badly for him.

Besides, when he had gathered up his resolve, he was going to have to go to the hospital to get it sewn up, and Roy would find out about that because it was impossible to fucking hide anything from the man. Ed could try to sew it up himself, but the wound had gotten really pretty large and nasty-looking, and even thinking about sewing it together made his hands shake dangerously. The sluggish bleeding hadn't entirely stopped, and he had started to worry that if he didn't get it taken care of properly, it might permanently hurt the connecting tendons there. The puffy redness of it worried him, too: it had started to swell, and he was smart enough to know that infection of that kind could kill you.

But – how would Roy respond to it?

“Fuck, you just don't give up, do you?” He paused, feeling Roy's eyes on him. He hoped that the man would say something, relent a bit, save him from having to do this, but no such luck. “I guess I got a couple of injuries.”

“And have you had them properly attended to?”

“I sewed up one myself.” He had, with scalding needle and heavy sewing thread, and he had suppressed his urge to panic.

“And the others?” Roy asked, pointedly.

“Really just the one other, if you don't count the scrape on my cheek. Oh, and the concussion,” he added, though he had almost forgotten about it. He was pretty sure it was a concussion, anyway. He had had enough of them to know.

“A concussion?” Roy asked, prompting for more information.

“A crowbar,” Ed replied, glad to talk about anything except that last gash. “No big. I've had worse.”

“I'm sure. But you were less than specific about that last wound you mentioned. Has it been treated?”

Ed turned himself around, away from his lover's gaze, the tips of his ears burning. Roy had better fucking appreciate this.

“Goddammit, do you have any idea how hard this is for me to say?” he asked, scrubbing his palms up and down his face, as if he could wipe away the embarrassment, the exhaustion. “No, it hasn't. It's in kind of a – weird place. I don't want to go near it. I don't want anybody else to go near it either.” He took a deep breath, glad he couldn't see Roy's face. “It needs stitches though. I'm pretty sure. I dunno how deep it is. I haven't looked too closely.” God, that gash – how could he have let that happen? Him, the Fullmetal Alchemist, hero of the people, defeater of all things sick and evil (likes coming with a cock up his ass) let someone stick a hand up his pants, let them touch him (forcibly, like he likes to be touched).

The silence from Roy spoke volumes.

When Ed turned around, the general was on his feet, and there was a fire in the man's eyes.

“Edward, if by burning these men until they scream I can make you feel better, I will. If by roasting them where they stand I can help erase some of this hurt, I will. I swear it,” he said, his voice low thunder.

“Fucking hell, no,” Ed shot back, half-surprised at his lover's reaction. “The only reason I haven't hunted them down myself is because I don't wanna get you in trouble again, so you're not allowed to get yourself in trouble over me. That's the last thing I want.”

And, a voice added, silent, maybe you haven't hunted them down because you can still hear their voices in your head, because maybe some of the things they said are true. In the end those men aren't important. They were just the vehicle for the punishment you deserved.

“It's really not a big enough deal for you to go to jail on murder charges over it,” he said, to drown out the voices in his head.

The general seemed to deflate then, his Flame Alchemist aspect suddenly gone in a wash of exhaustion

“I hate to hear you say that it's not important. The only reason it wouldn't be important would be if you weren't important, and you are. But – dammit, Edward.” A hand came up to tug at Roy's collar, then to undo the first button of his white shirt, even as he sat back down on the bed. He sighed and closed his eyes, slumping forward once again to rest on the elbows propped on his knees. “I know that I can't do that. Major Hawkeye talked me down already.” A pause. “I was honestly ready to kill them.”

Edward nodded. Thank god for that woman. He didn't know what Roy would do without her. She did the same for Roy as Alphonse did for him, and Ed knew he couldn't live without his little brother.

“Good. Because if I'm not allowed to attack the man who's spreading filthy lies about you, you're not allowed to attack these men. It's only fair.”

The tired frown to Roy's lips twisted bitterly.

“To be fair, I think the situation is entirely different. Slander doesn't even hold a candle to attempted rape.”

The word hit Edward like a slap to the face, and he flinched back. He hadn't let himself put words to the whole thing, name it. Naming it made it too real, too concrete, made it not just something that he had made up but something that existed in the real world –

Roy frowned.

“I'm sorry, did I get it wrong? Did they actually manage to...” The general drifted off, waiting for Ed to fill in the blanks.

If he was honest, naming it didn't make a bit of goddamn difference. It was real, the end, it happened (you liked it).

“I didn't come with a cock up my ass, if that's what you're asking,” Ed snapped. It was Roy's turn to flinch back that time: and fuck, that had been bitter, Roy didn't deserve it. “Sorry. I – sorry,” he said, words tumbling over themselves. “I don't know why I said that.”

From the bed, Roy watched him, carefully, scrutinizing. Ed could practically see the thoughts whirling around in his head.

“I think I do,” Roy finally said. “I think it has to do with the question you never answered: why do you think this was your fault?”

(how many men did you seduce with your pretty face and your girly hair)

(he had been rank with the smell of fresh beer and stale cigarettes)

What, don't you like this sick shit? You've done it before.

Edward paused there, perched on the edge of a word, torn between his need to make up for what he had just said to Roy and his need to not talk about this ever.

“I – fuck,” he said, slumping down off of his feet and onto his desk chair. “I dunno. I let it happen. I must've...” He let that thought trail off, but Roy caught it just the same.

“Must have wanted it,” Roy finished, quietly. Edward slouched down further in his chair. “Is that what you think? You didn't manage to knock them all out right away, so you've decided that means you're either weak, or you wanted it. And you know you're not weak, so... you must have wanted it.”

A panicked urge to run rose in him, then: apparently he couldn't fucking handle this conversation like an adult. With some effort, he kept his ass in the chair and his feet on the ground, but the panic turned to nausea in his throat. He didn't say anything, didn't know what to say to that.

“And you're ashamed of yourself for what you perceive to be your own sickness, and consequently ashamed of yourself for all of the activities we have been engaging in since our first encounter.” When Roy said that, he sounded so very tired, and guilt mixed with anger and hurt in Ed's churning thoughts. Didn't anybody understand? This was why he didn't tell people about shit like this. They always sounded so tired, so sad, and then everybody was miserable, instead of just him. He figured there was no sense in spreading it around.

“Can't you just leave it alone?” Ed asked, in one last pathetic effort to head this off. “I'll be fine. You know I'll be fine.”

“I know that you will shrug this off like you've shrugged off everything else in your life. I also know that many of those things you shrugged off left wounds on you that took years to heal enough that they are no longer parts of your daily life. I don't want you to leave this incident unexamined and hurting for that long. Also,” he continued, “anything that makes you feel ashamed of me, or ashamed of having been with me, is very much my business.”

Ed's response was automatic and unplanned.

“What? I'm not ashamed of you.

“So you are ashamed of yourself, then.”

“Yes! Wait, what? I mean, no –

“If you're ashamed of yourself for doing what we have done together, then logic says that you should also be ashamed of me for doing it.”

That struck Ed back into silence. He stared out the window: the landscape had turned from dusky pink to a dark orange, shadows painted long across the city.

“It was something we did together, as much my decision as yours. Actually, rather more my decision than yours, if we want to be technical. If it's something shameful for you, then it's shameful for both of us.”

“That's stupid,” said Edward, having little else to say but needing to say something.

“Yes, it is. But it's even stupider to be ashamed of just yourself, because then you're ignoring logic entirely.” His deep breath was a pause, a respite. “Edward, let me tell you something,” he said, once sufficiently fortified, “there is a world of difference between asking to engage in play with multiple sex partners, and a group of men trying to rape you in a back alley.” God, oh god (the sticky wetness on his neck, the thumb on his nipple, it had gotten hard and they both had felt it) “And the defining factor is that you consented to one, and not to the other. One was undertaken with your pleasure in mind, and the other... as a punishment for liking men? Because they wanted you and were jealous that other men had been with you? I don't know. I don't know why people like them do what they do.” He paused and locked eyes with Ed. “But I know why I do what I do. I engage in play with you because I love being able to take the burdens of the world from you, to make you relax for once in your life. I love hearing you beg, because when I satisfy it I know I'm giving you something that no-one else can. I love being the benevolent ruler of your body, freely chosen by you to see to your needs.”

Ed's breathing shortened, and he tried to keep himself focused, because Roy was probably right. He needed to listen to this and really hear it if he ever wanted to please his lover again. And he did, really he did. Someday, when his blood wasn't pounding through his throat like a river after a storm; when his body didn't feel tight, hovering at the edge of some breaking point.

“And you: you want to feel thrilled, you want to feel that peculiar pleasure that comes with pain. You want to leave your troubles on someone else's shoulders, like you never do in real life. You want to let someone else make your decisions for you. But perhaps even more than any of those things, you want to be wanted, to be desired. That is why you loved what we did together, that day. Am I wrong?”

Ed sat, staring at the other man for a moment, then managed a choked:

“No.”

“I didn't think so. There's nothing to be ashamed of in wanting to be desired. There is nothing to be ashamed of in anything we do together. There is absolutely no reason for you to be ashamed of yourself.”

Ed stayed silent, slouched, and loosely crossed his arms across his chest.

“Now, Edward,” said Roy, gently. “Care to tell me what happened?”

You want me to tell you every sick, voyeuristic detail? You want me to tell you how his hand was sticky from his own juice when he slid a hand up my neck? How my nipple got hard when he touched it, and how he leered at me? How he accused me of being a whore and treated me like one?

(pretty face – cocksucker – spread his legs for me)

“I'm not gonna give you a fucking transcript, if that's what you're after. You know all the important parts. Four guys. A back alleyway. Some cuts. Nothing life-threatening.” (your heart beating a crescendo in your chest, your fear, thick enough to be tangible – you thought that maybe you were going to die there) “I got away before they could get their dicks in me. Isn't that good enough for you?”

Roy sighed, his shoulders deflating.

“Ed, I wish you could understand how hard it is to see you in pain and not be able to do anything about it – you won't let me do anything about it. I want to help. Your brother would want to help, too, if he knew. I haven't shown him the papers, by the way,” he said, gesturing to the packet, sitting, innocuous, on the rumpled blanket. “I had hoped that I could convince you to tell him yourself.”

What would he say? “Hey, Al, great dinner, and by the way did you know some guys tried to fuck me? I recognize that this isn't so different from the rest of my life, but Roy seems to think this time is specially important.” Why would he tell his little brother about any of this? Al would blow it way out of proportion. Roy already was.

“Don't you dare show him. This isn't anything Al needs to know.”

“Nobody would know about anything that ever happened in your life, if you had your way. And don't you think your little brother would be hurt to know that he was the only one left in the dark?”

That was a stab right where he didn't deserve it. He drew back, bristling.

“Fuck you, I'm protecting Al,” he snarled, because he wanted to get angry at something, goddammit: he knew how to get angry. He knew how to handle that.

“It sounds to me like you're trying to protect yourself, not Al. You think you're protecting yourself from shame, you're protecting your image, but you clearly don't understand that nobody else is judging you for this. You are the only one who thinks any less of you for it. Right now you're like an animal that gets beaten and then snaps at everyone and everything that gets close – but the only thing you're doing at this point is biting the people who are trying to help you.”

Roy really knew how to get a knife in through the cracks in Ed's armor to find the soft spots. He always had, for all the years they had known each other.

“No, that's not it. I just don't want Al to have to hear about this. It would hurt him. He shouldn't have to know.”

Al was still so innocent in some ways, still so utterly willing to see the best in people: it was one of the things that Ed loved so much about him. Every time he saw a bit of Al's faith in human nature get chipped away, it hurt Ed worse than any wound ever could.

Roy looked at him, long and hard, but didn't reply. After long moments, ten painful seconds, thirty, a minute, the silence wore Ed down.

“Fine. I'll tell him eventually. Happy?” he asked, feeling as tired as if he had just run a marathon rather than had a few words with his lover.

“I don't think that 'happy' is the right word, no,” said Roy. “I'm still upset – not upset at you, however, just to clarify – and I'm worried about you, but I'm glad you'll talk to him. You never did really tell me what happened.” The bedsprings creaked as Roy took to his feet. “But I suppose I can wait,” he said with a small smile. “I think I've gotten enough concessions out of you for one day. If I tried for any more, you might just disappear. We'll talk about it again when you're ready.”

Dammit, he hated when Roy was understanding and shit. It made these conversations way more confusing.

Ed took a few steps forward, muttering:

“Why're you being so nice all of a sudden? You're givin' me whiplash.”

Roy exhaled, shoulders falling.

“I am sorry. I was never intending not to be nice, Edward. But you like to turn every attempt to help you into a fight. I get – frustrated, sometimes, by how surly you act whenever I attempt to demonstrate that I care.”

Not for the first time, Edward found himself wishing that his lover wasn't so brilliant, so incisive, so good at dissecting Ed and labeling him for his convenience – and the worst part of it all was that he was always right when he said things that Ed didn't want to hear.

“'msorry too. I know I'm stupid and hard to deal with.”

“No, Edward. For the last time, don't apologize. Maybe if I say it enough times, it will sink in: you did nothing wrong.” He paused. “In fact, I'm the one who should apologize. I was the reason you were at the bar that night. I'm the reason you were in the newspaper in the first place. I'm the reason you were in danger, and everything that happened was my fault,” he said, voice cracking and shattering on those last two words, and Edward's head spun. Roy's fault? “So for what it's worth – though I realize that's not much – I'm sorry. I'm sorry for the way I spoke to you that night, before all of this happened. I was stupid, and I was angry, and I was thoughtless, and I am so sorry that my thoughtlessness hurt you so much. Can you forgive me?”

Ed frowned, surprised.

“What? How could any of this be your fault? Don't be stupid – there's nothing to forgive. You didn't do shit. It was all of my bad decisions that got both of us in trouble.”

Roy's smile at that was small, and wan, a thin veneer painted over the cracks in his mask.

“Edward Elric, some of the things I admire most about you are your sense of responsibility and your willingness to own up to mistakes when you have made them, but these characteristics lead to a tendency to blame yourself for things, even when it is unnecessary and unhealthy. In fact, I might go so far as to say, especially when it is unnecessary and unhealthy.”

Ed flushed, watching Roy regain his composure, slowly becoming again the man that Edward knew.

“I'm not sure whether I wanna thank you or argue with you.”

“Your usual default is arguing, but I think we may have had enough of that for one day, don't you?” Roy said. “Though you don't need to thank me for any of it, either.”

“Mm.” He shifted from one foot to another, once again examining the pattern on the floorboards. “Alright, well, lemme say this: thanks for putting up with me, even though I know I'm stupid and aggressive and hard to deal with.”

“Sometimes, you really are. And yet, I would much rather deal with your stupidity than anyone else's,” he said, smile wry. For a moment, he looked as if he were about to reach out to the younger man – but he thought better of it. He turned to sweep out the door, and Ed followed.

***

Chapter Text

Chapter 9

*

Dinner at the Elrics' house was an awkward affair for all involved, as the tension that blanketed the room couldn't help but affect Al, too. Something had happened upstairs, and neither his brother nor the General were talking. He had heard raised voices – Edward's raised voice, mostly, then silence, then a return downstairs.

Of course he had asked what had happened, but neither seemed willing to talk about it. The best response he had gotten to his question had consisted entirely of his brother giving him a halfhearted, “We'll talk about it later, okay?” to which he had agreed, because what else could he do? It hardly quelled his worry, though, and only stoked his curiosity. His brother lay on the couch, more or less in silence, staring at the ceiling with his feet up on the armrest as the general had helped Al cook. They had dinner ready by seven, and sat down at their kitchen table with only a murmur of occasional small-talk, and only between the general and himself.

He ladled mashed potatoes out onto his plate, and passed the bowl on to his brother, who actually thanked him: his lessons on table manners must have been finally having some effect. Or, it occurred to him, the thought unexpectedly gloomy, it was Roy who finally beat it into him.

His thoughts ate at him: the fact that he had no idea what they had talked about was going to drive him crazy. It had probably had something to do with the reason Ed had been acting so weird lately: whatever it had been, why hadn't brother talked to him about it first? Over the time that Roy and Ed had been together, he had slowly gotten used to the reality of having to share his brother. Recently, though, Al felt a bit less like he was sharing Ed and a bit more like he was giving pieces away, which was stupid because Ed didn't have pieces and Al had never owned him to share him or give him away to begin with. And yet...

“So,” Alphonse started, just to break the awkward silence as the other two men at the table filled their plates, “how have things been going at the office?” he asked Roy, smiling politely. There was a brief, awkward silence.

“As well as can be expected,” the general replied, after a moment, impaling a corner off of his steak with a fork and slicing off a tiny bit with his knife. He examined it carefully, presumably to confirm that it was the proper color. “We're working hard to make plans, trying to get as many public figures as possible on my side, seeing if they'll speak out on my behalf.” Roy's expression was completely neutral, as if he were talking about life as usual, and not about a scandal that could potentially ruin him. “I need to counter all of the unflattering biographies of me that have been playing on the radio recently, and interviews with people who might have known me once, or ex-girlfriends and the like.”

Al wondered, not for the first time, just how many ex-girlfriends the general had. Or ex-boyfriends, for that matter. Was Brother jealous of them? He had no idea.

Al made a noise of agreement. To be fair, not all of the material on the radio had been vilifying, although most of it had been. Roy and the whole affair had started to be the butt of jokes in media all across the board, and there had been one particular political cartoon in the newspaper depicting Amestris as Roy's love slave that Al was glad neither Ed nor Roy had seen.

“So what's your plan of attack, then? Or defense, really, I suppose,” Al said, drumming his fingers on the table, only half-focused on the conversation: the other half was off in the distance, wondering, considering other things. “Who are you going for?”

On his side of the table, Ed sat in an awkward silence, picking at his food more than eating it. The instinct to ask him what was wrong was hard to repress, but Al knew that it probably wouldn't help at all. Even in a one-on-one setting, Ed telling anyone about his problems was unlikely, and the idea of him talking about them in a group setting was laughably unlikely.

“Well, there's one radio personality in particular upon whom we're focusing right now. She has agreed to give me a sympathetic interview – or at least an honest one. The woman's name is Rebecca Daniels. She's an old girlfriend of Havoc's who he didn't manage to scare away entirely, and a very smart lady. She's become very popular both on and off the air – on the air for her smooth voice and clever reporting, and off of it for throwing a really excellent party. I was lucky enough to be invited to one or two of her soirees over the summer. You were at one as well, I believe, Edward,” Roy said. Ed looked up from his plate, frowning.

“I was what?” he said, as if he had only just noticed this conversation.

“You met miss Rebecca Daniels this summer. I believe she was actually quite charmed by you.”

Al's eyebrows shot up. He couldn't imagine his brother charming anybody at a party, much less a minor celebrity. It wasn't just his table manners that were less than ideal, though that was part of it. It was also – well, everything else. Roy laughed at the younger Elric's expression of disbelief.

“Don't look so incredulous, Alphonse. It may have taken a while for him to get over his sullen irritation at having to be at those sorts of social gatherings, but after it finally occurred to him that parties consist largely of free food, his attitude improved immensely. These days, your brother is actually quite good at parties, you may be surprised to hear. He can actually manage to be polite, if the reward is good enough,” the general said, half a smirk slanting across the table towards his lover.

“Wow, I never would have guessed!” said Al, his laugh genuine, but not untroubled. “Good for you, brother. You may have a chance of turning into a grown-up after all.”

“Ah, shut the hell up,” said Edward, without force. He thought for a moment. “Rebecca Daniels.” He tapped his fork on his plate. “Which one was she again?”

“If I recall correctly, you met her at the midsummer party, and she had all of the party staff dressed up as faeries from 'A Midsummer Night's Eve.' She herself was Queen Titania. In fact, I think that 'charmed' may not be a strong enough word. 'Smitten' may be more on the mark,” he said, teasing. Ed scowled, though it did little to cover up his blush.

Faerie queens and delicious free food and his brother getting hit on by pretty girls? Apparently Al was missing all the interesting things by not going to these parties.

“Oh, right, her,” he said, the red tinge to his cheeks hallway between embarrassment and indignation. “I remember her now. We talked about Xingese alkahestry an' stuff – I was surprised by how much she knew. She was cool.”

“I'm sure it didn't hurt that her breasts were right at your eye level,” Roy returned, the riposte delivered with a perfect smirk.

Who're you callin' so short he can't see past a chick's –” Ed stopped himself there, to his credit. Did Ed even like breasts? Did he like girls at all? Al realized with a jab that he really didn't know. He had never asked, never really thought about it, but evidently the general had. There was so much he didn't know about his brother, he was beginning to realize.

“I tease,” Roy conceded, then placed another slice of steak delicately into his mouth. The tension between the two had started to ease at least slightly, which Al appreciated. “I know that you're perfectly capable of speaking to a woman without staring at her breasts. But they were rather prominently on display. I must say that they were right at my eye level,” Roy said, suggestively, then turned back to Al as Ed began to steam at the ears. “In any case,” he said, face schooled back into an expression of calm neutrality, “I intend to begin my campaign to win back the hearts and minds of the Amestrian people tomorrow evening on Miss Daniels's 'Fresh Air.' Step one will be to show how likeable, charming, and above all, how sympathetic I am.” There was a snort from Edward's side of the table that Roy ignored primly. “Step two will be to present the story as it actually happened, free from titillating headlines or shock tactics.”

“And what about Ed?” Al asked. His brother wasn't very good at playing this sort of game, but that didn't mean that he would enjoy being left on the sidelines, either. “What's he going to do?”

The general sent a look over to Edward. Ed shoved his mashed potatoes over to one side of his plate, then the other, and didn't look at either of his dinner companions.

“I think,” the older man began, considering, “that for the moment, it might be best if Edward kept himself out of the whole situation. What do you think, Ed?”

Ed gave this his silent consideration, and when done, said:

“Yeah. 'Kay.” The toneless neutrality with which he spoke made Al feel like his brother wasn't being sincere, but he didn't say anything. He knew when gears were turning in his brother's head, and he saw it then. If he was lucky, he would get to talk to Ed about it before he went and did anything stupid.

The rest of the meal passed quickly enough, with smatterings of conversation between bites of steak, though Al couldn't help throwing worried glances over at Edward and the food he was prodding around on his plate more often than he was consuming it. The last time Edward had stopped eating had been when this whole thing between him and the General started: Ed had not been acting healthy, and one of the signs of his distress had been rapid and severe weight loss. It had actually frightened the younger brother.

The time before that had been...

When Brigadier General Hughes died, Al thought, impaling the last piece of his steak with his fork and placing it into his mouth.

When the dinner was finished, Roy helped to clean the dishes, then declined to stay any longer, claiming that there was some important work to be done back at his place. Al wasn't stupid: he could see the tension in the line of his brother's shoulders, in the way Roy's eyes had kept flicking back to his brother all evening, as if checking for any changes in the man's demeanor. Except for the moments when he briefly rose to Roy's baiting, there was no change: Ed remained as quiet and distant as ever. Something had happened between them, and Roy wanted to retreat, perhaps to regroup.

Roy shrugged on his coat and said goodbye to Alphonse, then stood in the doorway and looked at his lover, and Edward looked back.

They said their goodbyes miles apart, and didn't move to touch each other at all.

*

The news of the riots in Aerugo, near the border, was a welcome relief to Weimar: angry mobs had apparently taken to the streets in spontaneous violent retaliation against their own military, to which the troops had responded – as soldiers often do – with shock, then fear, then a mirror to the citizens' violence. A wash of satisfaction imbued with heady anticipation hit him with each new description as he held the telephone to his ear, listening to Major Sutton describe the results of their campaign in detail.

In the past day alone, there had been fifty-seven civilian casualties in the three towns he had targeted, and thirteen military. Seventy deaths was perhaps not that many in the grand scheme of things, and certainly not enough to seriously deplete the Aerugan fighting force, but that had never been his intention. Chaos, confusion, fear: these were his weapons, and he wielded them with expert grace.

He smiled, though the man couldn't see it, and thanked Sutton. At that, he returned his telephone to its cradle, then put his cigar back to his mouth: he drew in a lungful of smoke, held it, then let it plume out of his mouth in a cloud. He didn't smoke often: cigars were exclusively an indulgence of celebration. Even he had been surprised at how quickly his team had stirred up the problems in the south, but then, it hadn't been difficult.

The most delicious part was that the majority of what his agents had had to do was spread rumors about the Aerugan military's actual plans, plans to attack Amestris and take the whole southern quarter for themselves. The people in the border towns were, his agents had discovered, absolutely sick of military occupation, and didn't want their homes to be thrust into the middle of a war zone again. A few, carefully placed comments, a few leaked documents, and the discomfort of the populace began to turn to restlessness, then to those tiny, inconvenient revolts – and perhaps soon, if he played his cards right, to full-scale rebellion.

The Aerugans could be no threat to Amestris if they had to spend all of their energy quashing seditious bugs in their own lands. This was true of any country, including Weimar's own. This, he knew with a visceral certainty.

He couldn't sit by and stay quiet any longer, not while rats swarmed beneath his feet and around his city. They couldn't wait and kill them one by one, or the slow drain on their military would make them less powerful, less of a threat. No: those thrice-damned heretic Ishballans should be killed all at once, in one silent stroke of the axe that echoed through the history of his country. They should never be given the chance to duck back down into their holes and run away to lie and murder another day, to sow dissent within the fatherland.

If Mustang hadn't interfered in his plans with with that smug condescension, that effortless charm; if he had just kept his pretty mouth shut, Weimar could already have taken down every red-eyed rat in Central. The knowledge burned in his chest, fueling and infuriating him in equal measure.

He often wondered what they ate: proper jobs to make money were unavailable to them, so they certainly couldn't buy it. Their food consisted mostly of stolen goods, he guessed – but feeding ten thousand in the sewers and the slums would take more than what simple theft could provide. Did they scrabble through trash heaps, like the animals they were? Did they come up to the surface and work for those who were evil or stupid enough to aid and abet them? Perhaps if he put poison out over the trash in the city – but he knew that was an impractical and dangerous plan, even if a pleasant daydream. No: he would have to work the Fuhrer over. Perhaps now that Aerugo was taken care of, if Batir could only arrange things with the stubborn ambassador woman, they could finally manage that last task.

His automail leg creaked as he got to his feet, pushing flat-handed against his desk to help him rise. The night looked in at him through the window of his home office, watching, and he wondered what stirred in it. He shivered, the cold going down to his port and lodging there, between skin and steel. The muscles and bone there ached faintly: bad weather was on the move. With any luck, the rain would wait until tomorrow.

He stepped out of his office into his house at just past seven that evening, searching through the rooms of his house to find Meredith in the sitting room, pencil working carefully over her sketchpad as she sat, curled up on the couch in front of a merrily blazing fire. That she didn't hear him walking up behind her was testament to her utter absorption – with his leg the way it was, he would hardly call himself stealthy. He watched her for a long moment, creating imagined figures out of pencil dust, before informing her of his presence.

“Meredith, my dear,” he began. She jumped, spinning around to see him as best as she could while sitting. “It's beautiful.” It was: on her paper, he saw a woman reclining on a sofa with one leg tucked under her, her long, shining hair wrapped around her body to maintain her modesty. His wife really was quite the talent: it was really quite a shame that she hardly had time for such pursuits anymore.

“Oh, thank you,” she replied, a light flush making itself known on her sharp cheekbones. “I'm sorry, you startled me. I didn't notice you.”

“Quite alright,” he said with a smile. He came around to the front of the couch but didn't sit down – if he did, then he would just have to stand up again, and that would be as painful for his leg as it had been in his office. “I'm glad to see you practicing.” He paused, and stroked a loose strand of her brown hair back behind her ear.

“It's not much, really,” she said, closing her book as if shy: she had always been a bit protective of her work, a tendency which Mikhael found a bit silly. Her drawings were loose and beautiful, giving every appearance of effortlessness. “I just had an urge to pick it up a bit ago, is all. Are you done with your work for the evening?” she asked, setting her sketchpad down on the coffee table.

“Yes,” he said, full of good cheer. “For the rest of the evening, I hope. I was wondering, now, if perhaps you would be interested in joining me out at the theatre?” They had done little out together since he had begun this whole campaign, and he felt bad to see his little bird cooped up indoors.

“Perhaps,” she said, and there was something odd in her voice. “But first, come, sit down,” she said, nodding at the space beside her on the couch.

Weimar did, something unsettling in his stomach. Her expression had gone from faintly embarrassed to entirely too serious.

“If you insist,” he said with a smile, trying not to let her see the pain that the motion of sitting induced in his hip – but he knew from the tightening of her eyes and the tilt of her head that she saw it anyway. She saw everything. She stayed silent for a moment, watching him. “Did you... want to talk about something, my love?”

She bit one side of her bottom lip, like she only did when she was nervous, and the emotion began to spread to him, a contagion.

“Yes,” she began, slowly, carefully considering each word, “I did. I've been trying to decide how to bring it up to you.”

He had a feeling that he didn't like where this was going.

“Directly is usually best,” he said with a wan smile, hypocrite that he was.

“That is what I eventually decided,” she said. Her legs were folded together to the side, her hands on her lap, the curved stroke of her figure elegant despite the girlish position. “Mikhael, you know that I love you. I know you better than anyone living,” she said, and that was certainly true. “I have been with you, as your friend and then as your wife, through the whole of your political career, and have seen your rise through the ranks. I know that one of your main goals is and always has been to make the country safe by making it strong, and I respect that. But your insistence that the end justifies the means has finally gone beyond what I can quietly ignore.” She paused. Weimar made no noise to interrupt the silence: his breath hung suspended in his lungs. “I finally saw the Friday papers yesterday,” she murmured, her gaze falling down to focus on her knees.

“I see.” This was the only response Weimar managed for at least thirty seconds. “And I take it that you do not approve.”

No, of course I don't,” she said, eyes flickering all around the room in her distress before finally focusing back on his face. “Mikhael, this is vile. Every time that you've started one of these campaigns before, it's just been stories, rumors: you've never had anything like this published. I can't believe you'd go to such lengths just to get rid of General Mustang.”

Her disgust and disapproval cut him deeper than any knife ever could. And she doesn't know the half of it, he thought, throat parched like desert sand.

“The people have a right to know who General Mustang is, and what he's doing,” he replied, the response feeling somehow worn out, thin. “This abomination that he engages in daily is a disgrace to the name of the military and to our country.”

“Is it?” she asked, with a faint laugh. The mirthless sound echoed between them for too long. “So what does that make you, love?”

He froze, sweat running cold down his neck.

“...I'm sorry?” he asked, once he had recovered enough to use words. His heart beat out a frantic terror in his chest.

“If he's an 'abomination' and a 'disgrace,' then what are you?” she said, never raising her voice: her eyes locked with his, solid.

“I'm sure I don't know what you mean.”

“Oh, Mikhael, don't insult me,” she said, her head tilting to the side and the corners of her eyes creasing further, as if in pain. “Do you really think that, after all these years, I don't know that you love men? Please give me more credit than that.”

Nausea as thick as tar rolled up to his throat, and he had to fight to keep himself from being sick.

“What? I – I'm not –”

“There's no need to try to hide it from me,” she said, putting a hand out to brush against his automail knee. “We've been married for nearly eight years now, and we were friends before that: I know you, now. In all that time, you've never come happily to our marriage bed, and I have never seen you look twice at a woman – yes, even me,” she added, and surely she didn't mean it, surely this conversation wasn't going to go where he thought –

“Do you think I'm blind?” she asked, like she was hurting. “I know you loved Jonah –” Jonah jonah oh god jonah and a screaming death, not a pretty one or heroic, all blood loss and gangrene and lockjaw and if you had only been there when those desert rats shot him maybe you could have saved him. The chill of adrenaline in Weimar's veins kept him in place. “– and that some part of you broke when you lost him. Don't count me for a fool.” I never did. “I'm never sure whether you believe all of those horrible things you say about people like you, but in the end, I really think you're bitter –”

The harsh scream of the telephone cut off the last bit of that word, and she paused, startled. Slowly, with difficulty, Mikhael got to his feet, unsure if he felt more guilty or relieved by this sudden escape route.

“Mikhael, where are you going?” she asked, more a request than a question. The telephone cried again, harsh.

“I'm sorry, but I have to answer this, my love,” he said: he did love her, with her wide brown eyes and her skillful comfort and her gentle nature. “It could be important.”

“Important? More important than this conversation we've been putting off for ten years?”

Oh, he hurt to hear that – he extended an arm to brush fingertips across her cheek, but she flinched away, looking at him with accusation in her gaze. Another ring: he had to go before he lost the opportunity entirely.

“We have been doing no such thing,” he said, his voice coming out harsher than he had meant for it to. “There's nothing more to talk about,” he said, this time more reasonably. He turned for the door. The telephone cried again.

“Mikhael, wait,” she called out, from behind him. He paused for only a moment, then left without another word.

*

Grotesque reliefs of cold stone are bodies frozen in the twists of agonized screams, human arms extending from the morass – reaching, searching, grasping, stretching, and held there, forever. This is the Gate: Edward Elric has known it before and will see it again, has stood in front of it a thousand times as it swings open to reveal the Truth and Life and Everything – strings of black arms with greedy shadow-hands lick out from it to clasp him, to choke him, to strip him of the only things he has left to lose.

And at the same time, in another world, he is a small boy with blood streaming from where limbs used to be, staring at half-formed flesh and screaming and screaming because his mother's pulsing red heart beats arrythmic time in front of him and he sees it, nestled into her chest, between her ribs. Her mouth hangs open and glowing eyes fix on him, do not move, the smoke does little to hide it –

He is in a dark basement, alone, alone but for the thing in front of him that should have been his mother, and Al, Al, Alphonse is gone, this was never supposed to –

And he is before the gate, all his sins laid bare, all his life a cold tally of wins and losses and crimes: they are judging him, and he is found wanting. The black space inside the gate beckons, and the white of the world around blinds him, and the eyes within threaten their own delight.

The twisted mass of blood and entrails that is his mother-monster squelches up into a pile, dragging itself up on arms that are little more than bone and sinew, the flesh staying behind on the ground as it gets to its feet, pulling together, congealing into his mother's body, his mother's face, dark hair, a dark dress, a red snake eating its own tail (he has sinned as others have before him, his own deadly sin pride – or was it love? – and the snake will keep chewing itself to pieces and swallow and bleed until there is nothing left of it).

He watched her die, then killed her again, then dug up her grave, and did it again – and she is evanescing into air, dying in wisps of steam and smoke and things only half-real, untouchable.

Panting, drenched in his own sweat, Ed shot up in his bed, for a moment failing to recognize the solid room around him: but he recognized it in moments as his own, and soon, his breathing calmed, his heart slowed, and he remembered who he was and why he was there. The night curled around him, comforting, and no one could see the sheen of wet streaks on his face. He was alone.

Everything, for the first time, was in proportion, everything in its place.

The thought of a stranger's hand in a dark alleyway (and the smell of drink and cigarettes and his own fear) was laughable in the face of those memories. At least, this time, his naïve stupidity and his sin hadn't killed anyone – but still, Roy was worried, Roy was hurting, all because of him. The only thing he could ever do was hurt the people he loved.

He was sick of being a burden. Goddammit.

No way in hell he was going to wait around for someone else to help him. Fuck if he was going to let that happen. Fuck if he was going to sit and watch while Roy fought and struggled and Al did his thing and everybody had a place and a plan except for him.

The relentless course of his thoughts clicked the last piece into place, and he felt a wash of relief along with the idea, with the realization. He knew what he had to do.

*

Repressing his panic as the taxi pushed him closer and closer to the hospital was not an easy task, but he had done many harder things over the course of his life. If circumstances had been different, he would have walked there himself, but he knew it wouldn't be a good idea: the last thing he needed to do was stretch the wound any more than it had already been stretched or get his blood pumping any more than he had to. Needing somebody else to take him where he needed to go – even this small helplessness left him frustrated, angry.

He arrived at the hospital in a foul mood. He shoved a wad of cash in his driver's face, then stalked into the emergency unit and snapped at the receptionist that he needed a doctor right that minute, and of course he knew it was two in the morning, he wouldn't fucking be there then if he didn't need it, and maybe he looked fine to her but just get me a fucking doctor, okay?

Once summoned and arranged in the examination room, the doctor was considerably more sympathetic than the receptionist had been, although he had been ruder to her. The man's curly hair was ruffled on one side and flat on the other, as if he had been sleeping on it and hadn't managed to comb it before heading out to tend to Ed's wounds. Sitting there on the medical examination table in only a pair of briefs and a thin hospital gown, his legs held apart by the armature of the thing, in between pangs of the deep, visceral terror that he fought to ignore, he managed to feel guilty for pulling the man out of bed at such an hour.

“Mr. Elric, you really shouldn't have waited so long to come get this checked out,” the doctor reprimanded, gently. Cold metal prodded at the cut at the juncture of Edward's right thigh, and Edward hissed. He stared determinedly at the ceiling.

“Yeah, well, I did,” Ed snapped, his breath and pulse coming heavy as he did his best to ignore the heat of the doctor's hands between his legs. “Nothin we can do about it at this point. Just fix me up and I'll be outta your hair.”

He almost felt bad for having sneaked out of his house: he knew that both Roy and Al would have wanted to come, to support him, if they had known. Maybe this was just one more area in which he was building walls to keep the people closest to him out, maybe it wasn't – but he could do this alone, it wasn't like he needed to have his hand held while he cried or some shit like that. Besides, he was already uncomfortable enough with one man seeing what was going on down there: the briefs he wore hardly lessened that discomfort. He could imagine the feeling of more than one person's eyes focused there, between his legs, and even thinking about it sharpened his nausea. The whole thing was awful enough already: he didn't need to make it worse.

The doctor pressed a cloth to the wound, gently, and let it sit there, for a moment. When he pulled it away, he showed it to Edward, silently. The dry, dark red of old blood caked the gauze above the bright red of the new blood, bright red swirled with some kind of pale yellow – something. He swallowed hard.

“The wound has begun to become infected, I'm afraid. I'm very glad you didn't wait any later to come in, or else you could easily have gone into shock and died of the infection. You were very lucky that your artery was barely nicked, though: you could easily have bled to death. That was an enormous stroke of luck, and it would be silly of you to die afterwards of something that was so easily preventable.” The man paused, pressed a clean cloth to it again, then pulled it away. “We're going to need to drain the wound and irrigate the area with hydrogen peroxide and boric acid before we can close it up. It's probably going to be quite painful.”

Edward risked a glance down at the injury: it was deeper than he remembered, and more ragged. A harsh, swollen redness had crept up around the edges, and he thought – maybe – that some of the edges were a little bit... black. He didn't know much about medical stuff, but he knew that that couldn't be good. He really had gotten here just in time. The raw sight of it made him sick, or maybe it was the fact that there was a man sitting between his spread legs, his hands moving, probing, touching...

He tried not to think about it. He wasn't going to be ruled by this.

“Painful? I dunno if you noticed, but I'm half automail,” he said, dryly. “I had that surgery at ten. You can't do nothin to me that's worse than that.”

The doctor nodded. He turned around to a cabinet and retrieved a plastic box, then turned back.

“Do you mind if I ask you how you got this injury? It's rather an odd one.”

That had been the question Ed had been waiting for, and had blessedly avoided until that moment.

“Yes, I fuckin mind,” Ed snapped, glaring at the doctor. The man just went on preparing some system of rubber tubes calmly, and didn't look up at Ed. “Is it important?”

“It could be. Especially if there are... other injuries, left untreated,” the man said, the space between his words as telling as a monologue. Ed flinched back, stopped from moving away only by the doctor's hand on his knee. He watched the other man with wild eyes.

Fuck, the man knew what had happened: of course he did, what the fuck else could an injury like that be from? It wasn't from falling out a window, that was for fucking sure.

“It's none of your goddamn business.”

“As your doctor, I would have to say that it is my business. I don't want to spend all of this time and energy on you now, only for you to die of a different infection later, from some other wound. Then I'd just feel like I'd wasted my night,” the doctor said, lightly, as if he were talking about the weather, and chuckled to break the awkward quiet. At least the man had a sense of humor. There was no pity in his voice, for which Edward was silently grateful. “You can't come in to the hospital at two in the morning when I would have really liked to have been sleeping, and then expect for me to just let you waltz off and die. No, sir. It's not going to happen.”

“Yeah, well, I won't. I'm fine,” he said, as if the doctor knowing about how he had gotten this made no difference, as if he wasn't at all ashamed of himself. “Listen, as much as you don't want me to die, I wanna die even less. I've got this shit handled – ah, goddammit, warn me next time,” Ed snapped, because the feeling of a scalpel cutting into the infected lump at the side of the gash had interrupted his train of thought. He watched in horrible fascination as the man removed the implement and brought up the same small pan he had used earlier to catch what came out.

The doctor paused, watching him: after a moment, he nodded.

“I see,” he said, then placed a tube right above the wound: he uncapped a vial of liquid and began to pour it into the tube through the attached funnel. As it poured, the solution began to trickle out of a number of small holes down the length of the rubber to hit and burn like acid on the red of the wound. It coursed through the gash, flooding it, exorcising it with fire, until it had done its duty and dripped into the pan below it, the dark brown of the borine solution mixing with blood and worse fluids to form a deeply sickening mix. Ed gritted his teeth against the pain, but allowed himself only a hiss to communicate it, because he had felt so much worse. “I suppose I'll have to take your word for it,” the doctor continued, watching Ed's face. “I realize that you don't want to talk about it with me. I don't blame you: I am just a strange doctor, after all,” he said, with an amused hum and an expression that lightened, then went serious again. “But you know, I hear tell that talking to people close to you about this sort of thing can be really helpful.”

Ed flinched, and not just because the doctor had poured a fresh flush of liquid into the tube.

“I'll keep that in mind when there's anything to talk about,” he said, after the liquid had finished its course and the pain had receded. He saw the doctor turn to the table beside him and pick up a needle, with thread: Ed squeezed his eyes shut and laid down, because why the hell would a fucking needle be more terrifying than a knife or a sword? It wasn't, he told himself.

He had never been afraid of needles before he had lost his limbs. He hadn't really had any experience with them before that. Now, when he saw a syringe or a curved medical needle or suture thread, all he could think about was Granny Pinako with her hands covered in blood, trying desperately to close wounds too large for a ten-year-old mind to even comprehend, to stop the course of the red rivers that by all rights should have killed him. Years had dulled the memories but never cured them: he had given himself stitches before, and had mostly learned to suppress the panic of it. But this wasn't by his own hand – he wasn't sure if the fact that someone else was handling the needle now made the terror better or worse.

Apparently, the doctor noticed the sudden tremors of his body, and asked, with some surprise:

“Are you alright, Mr. Elric?”

Yes,” Edward shot back, opening his eyes and lifting his head just long enough to glare at the other man, then letting it fall back on the table. “Of course I am. Just fucking do it.”

The man did, and Edward held himself in place with all the force he possessed as the needle slid into his skin, then out of it, then in, then out...

*

It was Alphonse who got the job of handling the police, after the Monday morning newspaper. On the front page, it declared: FULLMETAL ALCHEMIST ATTACKS INVESTIGATING JOURNALIST! with as much import and excitement as if it were announcing the invasion of a country.

This development was hardly surprising, but still distressing. Although Al knew that the article didn't actually give the police a warrant to search their house, or a warrant for arrest or anything (it was notably lacking in proof or legal weight), but he still had a feeling that they might be poking around too much for comfort. Logic combined with gut instinct suggested that they would be at the lab shortly: the brothers' home address wasn't really registered anywhere, so probably the first thing the police would do would be to go to Ed's workplace.

Consequently, the first thing that morning, he went to the lab, leaving Edward asleep in his bed. Before going, he hung a note from his brother's doorknob suggesting that the elder not follow him into the lab that day, though he neglected to indicate exactly why.

When the police arrived at the lab at barely past nine o'clock in the morning, a bit earlier than Alphonse had expected but not inconveniently so, they found the younger Elric brother in a lab coat, accompanied by a small clipboard, protective goggles, and a mostly feigned look of confusion. The head officer, a thin, hard lady who had probably seen the far side of fifty, folded her hands behind her back as she entered and looked around the large lab room. She wore a crisp uniform and an expression you could cut yourself on, and she did not look impressed.

“Edward Elric?” she started, grey eyes flicking from one scientist to another.

As if just that one woman's presence hadn't been threatening enough, two other men loomed behind her – these two men looked leathery and hard, one taller than their commanding officer and the other shorter. Neither evidenced any thoughts at the situation.

Most of the other scientists at least pretended to continue their tasks, but Evelyn, one of the post-docs they employed as lab assistants, stopped her work to give the officers an appraising look. Looking at her, it occurred to Al that perhaps he should have asked how she was doing; if he hadn't been so busy with everything else since this storm had started, he would have. She was six years older than Ed, but that hadn't prevented her from crushing on him thoroughly and bullheadedly, and she probably could have used a bit of comfort after all of these things came to light, or at least might appreciate some concern.

“Not me, officer,” Al said, putting down his clipboard. “No, sir. Ma'am,” he corrected himself, fumbling a bit over the etiquette: he couldn't remember if you were supposed to call female police officers “sir” like you were for military women who outranked you. Had he just offended her? He hoped not, and continued on anyway. “I'm Alphonse Elric. Why are you looking for my brother?”

The officer gave Al a searching look, as if she was deciding what to tell him.

“Your brother has been accused of assault – specifically, of assaulting a reporter named Guy Harriet. We had been hearing rumors since Friday, but after seeing the article in the newspaper this morning, we decided that we couldn't ignore it any longer. Do you know anything about this incident?”

Alphonse immediately went into innocent mode. How much could he say or not say while still never lying about it? He never lied to police officers, if he could help it.

“Oh, no,” he said, eyes stinging with the tears he brought to them. “You're really here about that horrible article? I can't believe that man – he calls himself a journalist? That monster keeps telling such awful lies about my brother. I don't understand why he wants to hurt Ed so much. How does he live with himself?” he asked, letting his voice shake.

Evelyn crossed her arms, and Al wasn't sure if he hoped she'd join the conversation or hoped she wouldn't. The other lab techs stopped what they were doing, and though they didn't look over towards them as far as Al could see, it was quite clear that they were all listening intently.

“Are you saying that Harriet's accusations are false?”

“Well, I guess I don't know,” said Al, slowly. “I mean, I can't really be sure. But I know that while my brother is a fighter – he was the Fullmetal Alchemist, you know – he also would never hurt someone unless they attacked him first. I don't know why Mr. Harriet has it out for my brother. It doesn't make any sense. Brother's a good person,” he said, choked, letting a tear fall. This seemed to put Evelyn over the edge, and she glared at the trio of officers.

“Yeah,” she said, the word injected into the conversation forcefully, her eyebrows pulled down low over her eyes. “Edward is a good person and a great man. Do you have any proof of these accusations? I wanna see a warrant, or else you guys have no right to take him into custody.”

“We don't want to take him into custody. All we want to do is ask him some questions. He's not under arrest,” the officer said, her voice clipped. “If he's innocent, then why is he hiding?”

“Probably because he wants to be away from all of the people who are treating him horribly after reading what Guy Harriet's been writing! My brother has been physically injured by people who think he's horrible because of what they read in those articles. You should be arresting Mr. Harriet for invasion of privacy, slander, and inciting hatred. It seems to me,” Al said, letting his eyes harden with his voice, “that you guys are just blaming the victim. Is that how the Amestrian police force works? How do you live with yourselves every day?”

The officer's eyes were impasses as she looked around the lab again, sweeping it for details as if expecting to see some kind of proof or something. Although she appeared unaffected, her larger lackey actually looked like Al's strike had hit home. One out of three, at least.

“Come on, Chief LaForet,” said the big one, in a rough baritone. “Let's get outta here. I don't think we'll find Elric here, and maybe they're right anyway.”

“It's up to a court to decide that,” said the woman – LaForet, apparently – as she turned around to face her subordinate. “The police can't decide guilt or innocence.”

“But we can decide which claims are worth having a guy arrested for, and which ones aren't. And I'm gonna say that I think this one is probably not worth it. I mean, we know that Harriet has a grudge against Elric. That's a good reason to be suspicious of his accusation.”

“Yes, but as a result, we also know that Elric has a real motive for assaulting Harriet,” LaForet returned, her expression never changing.

“Well yeah,” Evelyn interrupted, scowling now. “Of course he does. Are you even listening to yourself? Even if he did do it – and I don't think he did! – then could you guys really blame him? With all the stuff that's been in the newspapers recently? It's bullshit,” she said, and Al looked over at her in surprise: apparently his brother's penchant for dirty language had rubbed off on her over the past few months. He was fairly certain that this was the first time he had ever heard her curse.

Laforet gave a sigh that was almost a huff, heaving her shoulders dramatically, and turned back to them.

“Alright, I'll consider what you have to say. Thank you both for your time. If we find anything else, we may come back to you for more information. In the meantime,” she said, waving a hand at the room, “carry on.”

As they left and shut the door, Al had to resist the urge to give Evelyn a high-five. Instead, he turned to her with a grin.

“Thanks for helping, Evelyn,” he said, picking up his clipboard again. “I couldn't have done it without you.”

She pulled her face out of the scowl and into an attempt at a smile with some difficulty.

“No need to thank me. I just want Ed clear of this whole thing as soon as possible. Sometimes, I guess, even he needs protecting, huh?”

Al laughed.

“In some very specific situations, I guess he does. But, uh, I wouldn't ever say that where he could hear you.”

“Of course not. What kind of idiot do you think I am?” she said, smiling in return.

*

No one had ever given Hawkeye permission to take her dog with her into headquarters, but she had never asked, and no-one had ever questioned it. He kept pace with her perfectly, tail held proudly in the air, less guardian than loyal companion. Right then, she needed someone who believed in her, unquestioningly; someone to whom the idea of her failing at anything was foreign to the point of incomprehensibility. To Black Hayate, she was infallible, perfect, the wholly deserving object of unwavering devotion.

A cold sweat broke over her like a tide as she approached the council chamber and came to a stop in front of its imposing doors. A thousand facts and plans lay organized in her mind, filed away perfectly in memory, and yet nervousness frayed her control. Three days had not been nearly long enough to learn everything she needed to know about the diplomatic situations or the workings of the council. She could only hope to hold her own, to keep the situation static until General Mustang could return and take charge. He had tried to share with her all of his strategies and methods, but she wondered what he had never thought to tell her because it was so obvious to him that he couldn't even see it. Even of the things that he had remembered to explain to her, would she prove able to implement them?

She turned to her dog and gave him a clipped, “Sit,” pointing to a spot right beside the council chamber door. Unhesitating, Black Hayate did as ordered. “Stay,” she added, and he cocked his head at her, as if to say, Of course I was going to stay, what else did you expect?

If only people were so easy.

Feet planted below her shoulders, back straight as a wire and tense as one, she grabbed the black-iron door handle and swung the door open.

To her surprise, when she opened the door, she found that the rest of the council was seated already around the large oval table that served as their forum – strange, because the meeting wasn't scheduled to start for an hour. She had purposefully set out to arrive here that long before the appointed time so she could have a chance to familiarize herself with the room, and to review her notes before being forced into this new situation.

“Gentlemen,” she said in greeting, never allowing anyone to see even an instant of distress on her face. “Sir,” she added to the Fuhrer, with a crisp salute. Not saluting everyone in the room grated at her, as all of the military officers there outranked her significantly, but General Mustang had insisted that she not do so. She was there as his representative, and while in that room she had all of his rights and privileges. It wouldn't do to present her as lesser than them: like wolves, they took the moment of meeting to establish a dominance hierarchy, and even a hint of hesitation or subservience could place her in the bottom ranks.

“Ah, Major Hawkeye,” said the Fuhrer, standing from his seat. “I'm glad you got the memo that we were beginning early. I was beginning to be afraid that you wouldn't make it.” The tone in which he said it was jovial, but she was not politically naïve enough to think that he meant it – there had been no memo about the time change that had been intended for her eyes. It was only through sheer luck and an almost pathological obsession with arriving early that she had managed to be there at all. “Please, have a seat,” Fuhrer Hakuro continued, gesturing to an empty spot at the table. There was no chair there.

“Thank you, sir,” she said. “I wouldn't have missed it. I find punctuality to be one of the most important traits an officer can display,” she replied, clipped. General Weimar's eyes hit like daggers on her: such things could do no damage to her. “Does anyone know where I might find a chair?” she asked, allowing a faint trace of pointed accusation into her voice as her gaze swept the room. She hid all other flickers of inconvenient emotion behind a well-practiced mask.

Apparently, that accusation had some effect, because one of the ministers scrambled to his feet, offering to procure one for her.

“No, no need,” Fuhrer Hakuro said, putting a hand up to stop the other man. “We'll have the butler bring her one.” He picked up a small silver bell from where it had been resting on the table to his left and rung it: immediately, said servant appeared from a doorway to the back left of the room. A few words of instruction, and he had swept off to collect her chair. Without waiting to be invited – she would receive no such courtesy here – Hawkeye walked over towards the small trolley at the side of the room to pick up a china teacup, then brought it back over to the table and set it at her empty place. She continued to stand, letting her coolness show that had been entirely unaffected by the neglect, and poured tea into her cup from the pot on the table.

Before the butler had even returned with her seat, one of the ministers – Alles Schumacher, the Minister of Finance, she recalled – opened up the meeting.

“Greetings, gentlemen,” he said, eyes sweeping across the opposite end of the table. “Ladies,” he added, with a nod in Riza's direction and a slight smile that did nothing to endear him to her. “Glad we could all be here. I motion that we begin the meeting with some words on our budget.”

The Fuhrer agreed to this without further ado. The words Schumacher proceeded to offer on that topic were painfully uninteresting, but Hawkeye received her chair sometime in the middle of his monologue, which made the whole thing more bearable. As General Mustang had instructed, she made little noise on the topic of budget reform: although she knew that the General's own preference would have been to increase funding for social programs such as poverty relief and education, he had also explained to her that part of the game was to not reveal too much of his future goals until he was already in power. He didn't want to give anyone any more evidence that he was a populist, at least until he had reached a point where no-one could do anything about it anymore.

Consequently, the budget amendments – increasing funding for military outposts in the border towns, decreasing funding for infrastructure in rural areas closer to the center of the country – passed without issue.

It was General Grumman who turned the topic to more crucial matters. Hawkeye's pulse sped up as she sipped her tea, trying to remember everything she had read, everything General Mustang had told her. Normally she had such a flawless memory: why was it deserting her now?

“Now that that's over and done with,” the man said, eyes glinting through spectacles perched above an oversized mustache, “I've really been itching to hear about how our various and sundry diplomatic affairs are going.” His eyes turned to her, and he smiled. “I would have liked to suggest that Major Hawkeye start us off, and inform us of how things are going with the Cretan ambassador” – the racing of her heart reached fever pitch – “except that her commanding officer seems to have been abruptly taken off of the case,” he said, his smile very nearly disguising the acid behind it. She released a breath she hadn't even known she had been keeping. “So I must unfortunately assume that any progress he had made has been lost. So, General Batir?” he prompted, still pleasant.

“Um, yes,” the man began, his response flustered enough to be satisfying. “Well. Ambassador Rosenthal has proved to be entirely uncooperative. She is completely unwilling to compromise. Privately, I might add that she is bullheaded, haughty, and self-important.”

So she hasn't taken well to the reassignment, Hawkeye thought, taking another sip of tea. Good. She struck me as an honorable woman.

Grumman raised an eyebrow.

“I didn't ask you for your personal opinion of her. I asked how the negotiations were going,” he said, pointedly.

Batir flushed again, perhaps in anger, perhaps in embarrassment. For that one moment, everything became clear to her: Riza understood, then, the delicate political game she had stumbled into. On this battlefield, a few poorly-chosen words could lose you the battle, or even more than that; words were both armor and weapon, and that weapon had to be at once invisible and deadly. If your intent was too obvious, you could lose respect, and honest openness about one's purpose would only allow others to work more effectively against you.

Her heart sank. This was a contest far beyond her skill.

Consequently,” Batir said, rebuilding his composure, “the negotiations are going quite poorly. She continues to present evidence that the mines belong to Creta, which I have no documentation of my own to challenge.”

Of course not. Riza had much of said documentation locked away in her own files, inaccessible to anyone but herself and her General. She knew that she needed to discredit Batir and paint General Mustang in a better light: but what to say?

“Perhaps if you had researched the topic as thoroughly as General Mustang, you wouldn't find yourself in this position,” she replied, setting her cup down.

Batir's eyes locked on her, flaring.

“Or perhaps if General Mustang had seen fit to give me the research he had collected, the negotiations would still be moving along smoothly,” he snapped back, and her stomach lurched: she knew immediately that she had misstepped. “Or maybe the esteemed General doesn't want the negotiations to move smoothly. Maybe he wants them to take as long as possible, so that it continues to distract the council from other matters – ones which are more important to him. Or perhaps he wants me to look a fool.”

Hawkeye gave him a cool stare that he could interpret any way he liked.

“Any man who can't be bothered to make himself familiar with a diplomatic situation before involving himself in it deserves to be thought a fool,” she said, her façade of calm a lie.

Weimar laughed from his end of the table, breaking the shocked silence that followed her remark, though the tension did not abate, and Batir looked at her with something close to hate.

“Well, it seems like we have a feisty one, here,” he said, and she couldn't tell if he was being patronizing or genuine. She remained wary. “She's not to be taken lightly, this one.”

Patronizing, she decided, with not a little bit of silent irritation.

“Let's not change the subject,” she replied, lacing her fingers together on the table in front of her. “We were discussing General Batir's lack of progress with the Ambassador.”

At the very least, General Grumman seemed amused by her comments. Looking around the room, she wondered if her frankness had won her enemies.

“It seems that this might not be the most fruitful avenue of discussion,” he said, still smiling, foxlike. Hawkeye knew that General Mustang counted Grumman among his allies, but she saw now what he meant when he commented that said alliance might not run terribly deep. For the moment, though, he seemed to be coming to her aid, and she had to take what little help she could find. “In fact, how about we have Major Hawkeye tell us about how negotiations were going before this sudden disruption.”

Sudden disruption: a convenient euphemism for a targeted disaster, one that left her trapped in this room and her commanding officer, a man who thrived in this environment, trapped outside, impotent. She couldn't help but wonder what he was doing now. Was he off being charming, making allies and implementing his plans? Was he sitting in his office with a thick political text and a notebook, worrying about her? Did he have faith in her ability to overcome this?

Her voice stayed clear and commanding: Mustang had prepared her for the directions that this meeting would likely take. For this part, at least, she had prepared a script.

“Prior to his removal from the case, General Mustang had successfully convinced Ambassador Rosenthal of the veracity of our claims to at least two of the mines in question, in part because the towns associated with them are culturally quite Amestrian, and would likely revolt if turned over to Creta. He was also in the process of discussing with the ambassador the possibility of her country renouncing its claims on the last three mines; in return, we would have to set lower prices for the silver and coal taken from the mines in question, when the buyer is the Cretan government or select businesses in her country. She also wants us to lower our tariffs, set an official trade agreement, and allow open borders between our countries, although the General was beginning to wear down those requirements.”

“The man's too soft,” Schumacher said, breaking his silence on the topic. “We had hoped that he would negotiate, not capitulate to their every frivolous demand.”

Confusion made finding the words for her response difficult: in no way had General Mustang been giving in to the Ambassador. It took her a few moments too long to gather herself enough to respond to his nonsensical claim.

“He wasn't capitulating,” she said, and realized after the words left her mouth how weak and defensive they sounded. She tried again. “Negotiating often necessitates compromise.”

“Compromise?” Batir asked, followed by a chopped laugh. “Why should we need to compromise? Are the Cretans entirely unaware of the troops we have stationed in the border towns?” he asked, his question razor-sharp and directed entirely at Riza.

“I'm sure they are quite aware,” General Grumman said, once again coming to her rescue. “But bullying is not diplomacy, General Batir. Perhaps an understanding of such subtleties is the reason that General Mustang had such success with Ms. Rosenthal while you yourself have had none.”

Batir looked like he had been slapped in the face. The mood at the table was growing restless, irritated. Some of the council members watched her with distaste: Bertrand Kline, the Minister of Transportation, seemed to have gained no love for her. Others, Weimar included, seemed more annoyed at Batir's general ineptitude than at her.

“I think that's quite enough,” the Fuhrer interrupted. “I've heard what I need to, I think. Major Hawkeye, provide General Batir with anything and everything he should need regarding the investigation. I am disappointed to hear that I actually had to order you to do that,” he said: she didn't allow her dismay to show.

“Yes sir,” she said, painfully aware that everyone in the room was watching her. To her annoyance, she discovered that she had no idea whatsoever whether she had won the engagement or lost it.

The men in the room seemed to understand immediately that they had concluded that particular topic: there was some murmur of quiet conversation as the men shuffled their papers and discussed the recent debate amongst themselves. Hawkeye poured herself another cup of tea, glad not to be the center of attention anymore.

Next, the Fuhrer had Weimar tell the room about the situation in Aerugo: he seemed to have been able to incite revolts in their border towns within a matter of a couple of weeks. The worst part was how the others in the room revered him for it, congratulated him for the bloodshed that had left nearly a hundred men and women dead, the destruction that he had begun.

Or perhaps, the worst part was that gleam of pride in his eye, the challenge when he looked at her: I dare you to do better, he seemed to say – or perhaps, I dare you to try and stop me.

Through the whole course of the conversation, she said nothing, just sipped her tea and listened hard, to better prepare herself for the next time. The Minister of Commerce had a few words to say about keeping trade routes to Aerugo open, and the Minister of Civilian Administration, Julius Dresner, reported some unrest in the border towns: the presence of such violence not a few miles away had made them uncomfortable. No-one but Dresner seemed to care much about that, and Hawkeye didn't know what to say to help, so she remained silent. Eventually, Dresner gave up on it, and they moved on.

Shortly thereafter, it was General Weimar who brought up the “Ishballan Problem.”

“Their shantytowns are beginning to surround the city, you know,” the man said, his disgust undisguised. Hawkeye was not surprised by his blatant hatred: General Mustang had kept her informed on that particular topic even prior to her unexpected promotion to politician. “There's hardly a road you can take out of Central that doesn't pass through some little warren of them.”

“That's because the camps are overcrowded and underfed,” Dresner responded, matter-of-factly. “If we could allocate extra funding to making more camps and providing more food for the people living there, if their children weren't starving, then perhaps they would be happier to stay there, where they belong,” he said, the addition of the last three words turning his admirable suggestion sour in Riza's mouth. General Mustang so often came back from these meetings looking strained, even haggard, and she understood why.

Weimar twisted his face as he replied.

“We have no more money to waste on thieves and murderers,” he said, fixing a glare on Dresner, then shifting it to Gottfried Berlitz, the Minister of Justice, and holding it there. Berlitz seemed to quail under the look. The silence was pointed as a lance. “Except,” he added, “for the tiny amount we could spend driving them out.”

By “driving them out,” everyone knew that he meant “kill,” but he kept his mantle of civility by declining to say so out loud.

“Thieves and murderers?” Hawkeye interjected, tone quiet but unyielding. “According to the reports run by the Ministry of Justice, the rates of violent crime in and around Central have actually decreased over the past several years.” Her heart pounded in the hollow of her throat: why? This was the easy part. She had all of her arguments laid out before her, diagrammed, plotted. But so much rested on her, and on her ability to convince others. “I believe that General Mustang has made a similar point to you, before, but I have another to add: the number of men and women in the police force has also remained more or less constant since then. So, it's not an increase in police numbers that is keeping crime in check.”

From the leather portfolio folder on her lap, she pulled a number of documents with official Ministry of Justice statistics on them, accompanied by helpful charts. Looking at them, she felt a surge of gratitude for Falman's fastidiousness. Although he could do little for them in their current situation, what tasks he could he performed with gusto: the charts were so accurate and clean that they could have been professionally done. Two of the pages slid to the left of the table and two to the right: the Fuhrer and Weimar picked up one each, on the left; on the other, Berlitz and Dresner received their own and read them before passing them on to the rest of the table.

“This is interesting,” said Weimar, and the pleasantness of his tone did little to assure her of his sincerity. “Very interesting. Very official looking,” he said, like it was an insult. “However, this seems to contradict other statistics taken by the Ministry of Justice.” Dread suffused her as he pulled a sheaf of his own documents from a briefcase and handed them around the table.

Immediately, as she scanned it, the discrepancies became quite apparent: the numbers representing violent crime had been significantly inflated, and the police numbers been inflated in some degree, too. This chart also contained an estimate of how many Ishballans had immigrated into the city for three years. The graphs showed an undeniable correlation.

These figures were fabricated: Hawkeye knew it without having to be told. They were lies, created to prove a political point, but that didn't matter, because the documents had the Minister of Justice's personal seal at the bottom.

Your move, Major, Weimar's eyes said, glinting at her from across the table, glass shards set in a smiling face.

“I question these figures,” she said, meeting Weimar's challenge, gaze rock-steady. “The numbers I provided for you are in the official crime report published by the Ministry of Justice in just August of this year, approximately a month ago. They are available to the public through various police stations and public libraries.”

“Are they?” Weimar asked, feigning surprise, and she disliked the man more by the minute. “That's very strange to hear, because that's where I found these figures. There must have been discrepancies in the versions printed. You're an honorable woman, Major Hawkeye: I'm certain that any problems that may have arisen are due to an honest mistake,” he said, but she knew that even the fact that he said those last words planted the seed of doubt in the minds of the men around her. Now that he had said that, she couldn't very well accuse him of lying, either: she would seem petty, vicious, and most of all, she would seem guilty of the very crime of which she was attempting to accuse him.

“I'm certain,” she said, instead. Then, she turned eyes to the Minister of Justice. “Mr. Berlitz, would you care to give us any insight?”

Gottfried Berlitz was not a strong man, she could see it in him. With every passing moment, she lost more respect for him.

When he replied, it was with the precise and steady inflections of a man forcing his words not to tremble.

“General Weimar collected these numbers from my personal copy of the Amestrian criminal report. I have endorsed them, as you can clearly see down at the bottom,” he said. The impassive declaration was like a stone; it struck what remained of her confidence, of her hope, and both sunk in her chest. She knew for a fact that her own figures were correct, or as correct as the Ministry of Justice was ever likely to be. At a guess, she would say that Weimar had finlly gotten to the man. She had thought that the Minister of Justice was undecided in his alliance: so much for that.

She didn't know what to say in reply: didn't know whether to call him out on his lie or accept it quietly, but she had to say something. Instinct took over, and she could only hope it was correct.

“I disagree,” she said, taking a pause to think, “with the conclusions provided in this paper. The next time we meet, I will provide you with more research on the topic.”

“More research than has been done by the Justice Ministry itself?” Weimar said, with mild derision. “You must have quite an admirable team, to be able to collect statistics so well.”

“Thank you, sir. I'm quite glad to hear that you think my team is extraordinary,” she returned, and her spirits lifted a bit to see him frown, surprised at her remark. Perhaps she was learning how to play this game.

“I can't imagine that they're extraordinary enough to be able to verify statistics that aren't true,” he said, and she lost what little ground she had gained.

For the rest of the meeting, she kept herself to the outskirts of the discussion, interjecting only when it was crucial. Thanks to General Grumman, it was not entirely a loss: the man managed to convince the group that the foreign affairs issues had yet to be resolved enough that the Ishballan refugees could be the military government's primary focus. The council adjourned without anything having been decided in the long-term.

When she exited the council chambers, Black Hayate was still exactly where she had left him. He watched her with adoring, faithful eyes, thrilled to see her return, and she tried to shake off the horrible feeling that she had failed.

*

Edward Elric was waiting for Hawkeye when she returned to her desk at five-after-ten in the morning. They spoke – he passionately, gesticulating wildly, she quietly, considering. When she looked carefully, she could see the evidence of his distress in the creases at the corners of his eyes, the tension in his shoulders, but she would not interfere in his life any further by asking, or offering, or making any comment at all. She would allow him his privacy.

He argued, and she noted: after perhaps ten minutes, she nodded in agreement. He smiled at her, honestly grateful, and watched her as she made the telephone call.

*

General Mustang was more difficult to convince than Riza herself had been. Upon hearing her statement, his expression turned dark: he loomed over her desk, hands folded behind his back. She continued to fill out her name and the date on a requisition form, barely even glancing up at him. Perhaps he could intimidate many people – even most – but he had no effect on her whatsoever.

“What do you mean, Edward took my spot on the radio show?” he asked, his voice rumbling.

Riza didn't bother to answer his question, as she had done so already, but glanced over her paper one last time and said:

“He recorded it at about eleven.” It was past noon now, and the general had been scheduled to go in to the studio at two. Edward had planned his schedule that way purposefully: he had guessed that his lover wouldn't find out about the change until noon at the earliest, and by then, it would be too late to stop it. “It will play at six. I think it will be an interesting interview.” Beside her, Black Hayate lay on his belly: he cocked his head to give her a questioning look.

The general flipped around and started pacing the distance from the front of Riza's desk to the door of her office. Her paperwork found its way to the top of the neat stack in her outbox, and she picked up her notes to set them once again in front of her.

“Major, I generally trust your judgement above all else, but what the hell? We had a plan, and that plan was not to put Edward on the radio, especially not instead of me! I don't want him to get into any more – god, why did you let him?”

She wasn't sure whether he was so angry because he didn't trust the younger man to be politically adept – a not unreasonable fear: Riza had proved to be less than excellent at that task, herself – or if it was more because he didn't want Edward in the public eye any more than he had to be, after everything. The spotlight was cousin to the cross-hairs, after all, and the young alchemist didn't need to take any more hits than he already had.

“Edward came in to the office this morning, before you were even here, and made an excellent case for himself. We spoke to Ms. Daniels, and she seemed delighted to get what Edward was clear would be an exclusive interview. She has offered to speak with you tomorrow at the same time, instead: Edward was quite insistent on going first.”

Roy fisted his hands by his sides tightly enough that Riza could see the knuckles turn white.

“He made a good case for it, and you didn't see fit to ask me what I thought?”

A bit of guilt raised its head at that, but she quelled it expertly.

“Edward also made it quite clear that he didn't want to ask you, because if you knew about it ahead of time, you wouldn't let him go on. Tell me, sir,” she said, putting her pen back in her desk drawer where it belonged, then folding her hands on her desk, “is your issue that you don't think he can handle it emotionally in his current state, or that you don't trust him to do the things he would need to do to advance your cause?”

The general put a hand up to his face and rubbed vigorously, as if to shake off his exhaustion. He thought for a moment, then looked over at her again.

“I really don't know. God, I guess partly I just don't understand why he would want to do this. Edward is sullen and bad-tempered when forced into situations that make him uncomfortable, and he has a bit of a hair-trigger,” he said, sounding tired. “I don't want anything to set him off, for a number of reasons.”

“To be fair, sir, you know the more volatile side of him quite well because you bring it out in him. I wouldn't worry that he won't handle the interview well: for one thing, he wasn't forced into this situation. It was his idea to go speak to Ms. Daniels in the first place.” The notes stared at her: she tapped a finger on them, as if by doing so she could help herself think. “And I don't think the interview will make him uncomfortable. You know Edward loves his celebrity. He likes it when people compliment him or otherwise fan his ego.” He certainly wasn't the only one; the pair was well matched in that way.

Roy stopped there, eyes going distant and thoughtful. After a moment, he replied:

“I suppose that's true, but this interview isn't about praising him for his exploits or his alchemical prowess. It's about sharing details of his personal life, which normally he avoids like it could kill him. And I do speak from personal experience in this.”

“Yes,” Riza replied, an automatic response to hide the pause where her thoughts went. She wondered, for a moment, if the general was jealous: Edward had so easily agreed to talk to this strange woman, but was so silent towards his own lover. “But it seemed to me, sir, that he thought that sharing about himself would be worth it, if he could help your cause by doing so. And he convinced me that he could.”

Ed had gone into significantly more detail in their brief meeting, but it wasn't her place to share any of it. And besides, the general would find out soon enough. Even though my own mission was a failure, if all goes to plan, at least some good will come of this day.

That made Roy fall silent again. He put a hand in his pants pocket and seemed to fiddle with something inside of it.

“I see,” he finally said, sitting down in the armchair across the desk from her. He propped his elbows on the armrests, and folded his hands so that he could rest his forehead on them. “Do you really think this is a good idea?” he asked her, after a long moment. “I mean, Edward being who he is, and with everything that's happened.”

“Yes. I really do,” said Riza, hiding the swirl of her emotions behind a faint smile. “I think you should trust him.”

“I do,” Roy replied, with a tired laugh. “I keep getting repaid for my trust in very strange ways. Not necessarily bad, mind you,” he said. “Just strange.”

“Yes, sir. But that's Edward for you,” she said, and reached down to scratch a pleased Black Hayate between the ears.

*

The hotel lobby was considerably emptier than it had been the last time Roy had been there – but then again, it was a Monday afternoon, just prior to one o'clock, and not exactly a prime time for travelers. The desk attendant, a lovely young woman with black hair that curled softly down her back, smiled at him as he approached.

“Hello, sir,” she said, genuinely pleasant. “Can I help you with anything today?”

Roy smiled back at her, though the expression was distracted. On another day, perhaps he would have taken a few moments to flirt with her, to enjoy the skillful exchange of flattery and wit that characterized such first, chance meetings. But with everything that had been happening, even the thought of doing so felt like a betrayal.

“Thank you, miss,” he said, coming to a stop in front of the desk, businesslike. “Actually, yes: there is a favor you could do for me. Could you perhaps deliver this to the occupant of room 308?” he asked, pulling a folded note from his pocket and holding it between his index and middle fingers as he presented it to her. “The woman's name is Elena Rosenthal. I would appreciate it if you saw it directly into her hands.” It wouldn't be precisely incriminating if a military officer read the note first, but it would be inconvenient.

“Absolutely. I would be happy to do that for you,” she said, taking it from him. She really was beautiful. “And who shall I say sent it?”

The question sparked an urge in him, and he let himself give in to his sudden romantic notion.

“A dark-haired gentleman,” he said, smiling enigmatically: he swept away without another words, feeling mightily pleased with himself.

*

Edward showed up at the radio station's office five minutes before eleven, dressed in a black button-up and nice slacks and clearly out of his element. He fidgeted madly in the lobby chair, too on edge even to take his notebook out and sketch transmutation circles or anything. Distantly, he wondered if his lab experiments were going to suffer from all of this political and emotional bullcrap he was dealing with. He hoped not, but there was always that chance.

He left the top three buttons of his button-up shirt undone, in hopes that it would help in the interview, or something. It sure helped him get what he wanted when he talked to Roy.

He glanced at the clock: ten fifty-eight. Every minute passed like an hour in this bland beige room, full of couches with red pillows and lit by a faintly yellow light. He picked up a magazine from the coffee table in front of him, but saw a picture of General Weimar on the front, and put it down before he could get angry. He couldn't afford to be mad. He needed to be smart about this. He needed to be calm. He could do this.

Then, the door into the rest of the building swept open, revealing a pretty young woman with auburn hair cropped to her chin in a stylish bob. She smiled at him, red lips curling up sweetly, and extended a hand in welcome.

“Edward, how lovely to see you again,” she said, her voice as sweet as her smile and somehow silky. It was no wonder she was a radio star. Ed got to his feet and smiled back at her, hesitantly. “You do remember me, don't you, love?”

Oh god, was she flirting with him? He was so bad at dealing with that. The little nervous flutter that met his realization stole his response from him for a moment, but he righted himself. Even if he didn't know how to flirt, he could at least be nice to her.

“Of course. You were Queen Titania, right?” he said, and she gave a pleased hum. “You, um, threw a really good party.”

“If I recall, you didn't dance,” she said, motioning for him to follow her through the door. He did. “I was worried that you hadn't enjoyed yourself.” Every word she spoke was flirtatious, teasing, somehow full of... suggestion. “Oh, and thank you so much for coming today. I'm sure the interview will be fascinating.”

This woman reminded him very much of Roy when the man went into political-charmer mode. No wonder the two of them got along well. Ed guessed that, as with Roy, this charming affect was only a veneer over a mind that was much deeper and more calculating than she let on.

“I don't dance,” he replied, leaving out the part where he had no idea how to do so. All summer, he had studiously avoided Mustang's attempts to teach him. Waltzing at parties was one of those weird things that nobody actually seemed to like, but everybody seemed to do anyway. “But I did have a good time. The food was great,” he added, with emphasis.

“And the food is the most important part of a party the Fullmetal Alchemist?” she asked, with some amusement.

“Well, yeah,” he replied. “If the food's no good, then how can you expect anything else to be any good either?”

“I see,” she said, eyes laughing. “Well, I'm glad to know mine passed muster.” The conversation paused as she turned to their left, down a long hallway with large windows all down the right side. “But onto other topics. If I recall, you attended my party with General Mustang. Am I correct?”

Edward nodded, butterflies taking off in his stomach. He'd take a good fight any day over something like this, but that was totally out for the moment. Maybe he had never learned to say the right things in the right way like Roy had, but he was going to do his goddamned best anyway.

“Yep,” he said, as she stopped and opened a door to what seemed to be the broadcasting area. A large panel full of dials and other mechanical things sat at one end of the room, in front of a glass window that looked into what seemed to be the recording room. Two chairs faced each other across a table, with a microphone set up on each space. “Thanks for having me today, by the way. I know it was a sudden change of plans.”

“No, thank you for offering. I'm very much looking forward to our conversation .” A brief pause. “So, I have to ask, my curiosity is killing me,” she asked, turning to him and fixing brown eyes on him. “How much of the story is true? Are you and General Mustang actually lovers?”

Ed fought his embarrassment, not at his relationship status, but at the fact that he had to talk about it, put words to it. But this was what he was here for.

“Yeah,” he said, even though he hated the word “lovers.” He hated all the words somebody could use to describe what he and Roy were to each other. None of them seemed to fit at all. “Or, I guess that's what you'd call it, anyway. We have a thing,” he said, sitting down at the nearby table. He wasn't going to go into the recording room just yet.

Rebecca raised an eyebrow.

“When you say 'a thing,' do you mean 'a passing fling,' 'friends with benefits,' 'officially in a relationship,' or 'I'm his love slave?'”

“A relationship,” Edward mumbled, tapping his fingers on the desk.

“Don't mumble when you're on the air,” Rebecca instructed, suddenly sharp and authoritative. “Listeners won't be able to hear you.” And then, she was back to being sweet again, smiling at him as she sat down across from him. “I'm not judging you. You two seemed... close, at the party. I couldn't help but wonder. Though I must say, I'm a bit... disappointed,” she added, raking her eyes down the length of Edward's chest, down the gap in his unbuttoned shirt. The flush that arose in Edward's cheeks at that was faint – he hoped – but from the way her smile turned somehow fond, Ed guessed that it hadn't been faint enough.

“Yeah, anybody could probably see it if they were looking. We weren't hiding it. We just weren't advertising it, either,” he said, choosing not to respond to her final statement.

“Hm,” she said, appraising him. She kept looking him up and down, but eventually her eyes settled back on his face. “Alright. Now, I'm going to give you a brief overview of the sort of questions I'm going to ask you. If you could give me some preliminary answers, I would appreciate it. Even though the interview won't be playing live, the team will only have a couple of hours to edit it after recording. It's going on the air at six. Best that we know more or less the trajectory the interview is going to take before we start, so we don't make my editors' job too difficult.”

They talked for perhaps half an hour. When she deemed them finished, Rebecca shut her notebook and stood, smiling in that razor-sharp way that only someone with their eye on the finish line could.

“Alright, that was good. Now, on to the real thing,” she said, happily. “This is going to be excellent, Edward. Should I call you Mr. Elric or Edward on air? Or maybe Ed?”

Mr. Elric? God, that would be weird.

“Uh, Ed or Edward is fine, whatever you want. God, don't call me Mr. Elric, though,” he said. He was used to being called “Ed” or “Elric” or “Fullmetal,” or even “kid,” which he hadn't yet managed to shake off even though he was eighteen, dammit. He was tired of people treating him like he was a kid, but “Mr. Elric” sounded old, and he he wasn't ready to be old yet, either.

“Edward it is, then,” she said with a smile, walking to the recording room and opening the door. He stood to follow her in, but she put a hand out. “But wait just a moment, I need to record the introduction. Then I'll invite you in, and we'll get started on the actual interview.”

“Oh, kay,” Edward said, and sat back down at his table. Almost as soon as he did, the hallway door opened, and two men walked through.

“Hello,” said one of them, a short, stocky man of probably forty with a well-groomed mustache; then, a spindly stork of a boy followed, ducking his head so as not to hit it on the doorway. He gave Edward a wave. They introduced themselves as the technical guys, then sat down in front of the complicated panels, put on headphones, and started their work.

“Alright, we're ready, Rebecca,” they said. She nodded back. “We're on in three... two... one...”

Immediately, she was serious, focused, a totally different person from the one she had been only seconds previously. Edward had to strain to hear her through the glass, but if he tried hard enough, he could just barely manage to make out what she was saying.

“He's been called a world-class prodigy, the Alchemist of the People, and the Fullmetal Alchemist. His exploits are famous across the country, and he has been involved in some of the most important events of our day. He's saved thousands of lives with his quick thinking and alchemical prowess, and many have called him a hero, despite his acerbic tongue and fabled temper.

“At the age of nine, his mother passed away of a sickness, and since his father had abandoned them years before, he was left alone in the world with the exception of his younger brother Alphonse. A farm accident only a year afterward led to the loss of both Edward's right arm and his left leg. At the age of ten, he underwent the automail installation surgery, and despite the fact that for even most adults, recovery from the installation takes around three years, within a year he showed up in Central City and demanded to be allowed to take the State Alchemist's exam. Because of his extraordinary skill, he was allowed to do so, and passed the test that many others spend years or decades studying for at the tender age of twelve.”

Oh, this was going to be a good interview. Edward grinned from ear to ear. He wasn't used to getting so many compliments in such a short period. He could listen to those compliments all day long.

“But now, he's a young man of eighteen, with long, blonde hair that he prefers to keep back in a braid or a ponytail, and a cocky look to him. The young women of Central City have been taking notice of his transformation into a heartthrob – and it seems they haven't been alone in this. The scandal he has become embroiled in has been front-page news ever since it broke less than a week ago, and the city has been clamoring to hear more.

“And now, you'll hear the story straight from the lips of the man himself. We have on the program here tonight the former Fullmetal Alchemist, Edward Elric himself. Thank you for being with us today,” she said, then gave the technical guys a wave. They flipped a switch, and she motioned towards Ed.

“Your turn,” she said. “Come on in!”

The tall sound tech opened the door for him, and he entered.

“I like you,” he said, grinning. “I like it when you say awesome things about me.”

She laughed.

“I like you too. You are quite a remarkable young man.”

Ed preened.

“Thanks,” he said, sitting down in the chair she motioned towards. “Okay, so how's this gonna start?”

“I'm going to wave at the technicians, and then, you say, 'Thank you for having me here,' or something along those lines. The interview will start up again exactly where I left off. Are we good?”

“We're good,” Edward replied, settling himself into his chair and preparing himself. He had seen Mustang charm people a million times over, and he was a fast learner. Besides, for his whole life he had usually been able to talk people into doing what he wanted when he needed to. He could do this. All he had to do was act like Roy would.

Rebecca waved at the sound guys, then turned and nodded to Edward.

“Thanks for having me,” he said, as cheerfully as he could. “Happy to be here.”

“Now, Edward,” she started, leafing quietly through her notebook, “Everybody listening probably knows that General Mustang has been accused of having indecent relations with you, starting at a very young age. Now, let's get this out of the way: is there any truth to these accusations?”

“None. I'd say our 'relations' are better than decent,” Ed replied, pleasantly. That stunned a laugh out of the woman, and it blossomed into a smile. She waved to the sound guys to pause the recording.

“Edward Elric, that was indecent. Try to remember that you're on the radio. That means other people can hear you.”

“'Course they can. I thought it was funny,” Edward returned, with the same amusement as before. “It's not like they don't already know as much about my sex life as I do, anyway. I might as well make a joke out of it.”

“Yes, but – alright, fair enough,” she said with another tinkling laugh. “Alright, we'll leave it in.” She paused, thinking. “Actually, that kind of candid talk about your sex life may shock some listeners, but it may also increase interest.” Hell, she thought that was candid? She should hear him when he wasn't censoring himself. “The public seems to be quite titillated by the news of you in the papers, so maybe we can give them more of the same. Try to stay tasteful though, if you can,” she added, with the corner of her mouth turned up and her eyebrow quirked to match. “Okay, boys,” she said, nodding at the sound guys, “start her back up again.” She turned back to Ed once they gave her a thumbs-up.

“And what kinds of relations would those be?” she asked, continuing immediately from where they had left off.

“Well, Roy and I are in a relationship, with all the bells and whistles that implies.”

He hoped to never describe sex as “bells” or “whistles” again. Being tasteful was hard. It was funny how everybody wanted him to talk around it, use imprecise language and euphemisms, when everybody already knew he actually meant “We're fucking.”

“And when did that start?”

“Coupla months ago. I dunno, six months? Sometime in – uh, February, or somethin'. Maybe March.” The pause was where he had censored his language. Curse words were his thinking words, the ones he used to cover up thinking-breaks in sentences. Not getting to use them left him a little off-balance.

“So what about the claims that he was molesting you at a much younger age than that?”

Edward made a face. That was the worst part of the whole thing.

“Listen, I woulda punched him in the face if he had tried anything for the first four or something years we knew each other – and I was hardly a helpless little kid during that time, whatever the newspapers may have you thinking. At fifteen I challenged him to a fight for my state alchemy assessment, both of us more or less giving it our all, and we tied. At twelve, only a couple weeks after getting my certification, I tracked down and beat a serial killer.” That was a simplified reading of events, but it was good enough for public consumption. “I had no respect to speak of for his authority, and I've never been the kind of guy to get pushed into things. And more importantly than any of that shit, Roy was not interested. I mean, I was a kid, for god's sake.”

He noticed his curse word just a second too late, and hoped they had some way to tape over it if it bothered them.

“Some would say you're still a kid now,” she said, arching an eyebrow at him.

“Well, they're wrong. I've been legally an adult for two years, and I was effectively an adult the minute the military inducted me into their ranks. They were happy enough to call me an adult when I was their lapdog. They don't get to take that back now that I'm off their leash and inconvenient. And, since I am legally an adult and able to make my own decisions, it really doesn't even matter what those people think about it,” he said, spending his extra willpower to keep his words calm and pleasant.

She rested her elbows on the table, crossing her forearms there and leaning in towards the small screen in front of her mic.

“So you're saying unequivocally that the adult nature of your relationship didn't begin until recently.”

Ed nodded, then remembered that the microphone couldn't record nods.

“Yeah,” he said. “I was eighteen when we got together – again, two years past the age of consent.”

“What about the questions of fraternization?”

“I also quit the military at sixteen. The newspapers all seem to forget that detail: they're all talking as if Roy's been caught with one of his subordinates, and that's just not true.”

“But you understand how some people might be uncomfortable with the age difference between you.”

And all of those people could go fuck themselves.

“Hey, if I were a girl, they wouldn't care. They'd probably be congratulating him. We all know that the real scandal isn't the age difference – it's the fact that Roy's with a guy. Besides, it's really none of their business. They have no idea what our relationship is like and have no right to judge us.”

“That brings up a number of interesting questions, actually. First, and I'm sure that all of your fans throughout the country are going to want to know this: are you interested only in men?”

This was a question that had occurred to Edward a number of times since he and Roy had started fucking, but which he had eventually brushed off as unimportant. He enjoyed sex with Roy, and had enjoyed his time with the strangers at the club, but had no data with regards to sex with men or women in Roy's absence. Maybe he just liked men; maybe the state of submission would get him aroused no matter which gender was dominating. Or, maybe, it was just Roy that he was attracted to, and he could get off on anything if Roy was there. He didn't know, had no plans to collect any of that data, either: he wouldn't sleep around just to satisfy other people's curiosity.

“I have no idea. All I know is that I'm interested in Roy, and that's plenty.”

“I see.” She paused, scribbling down a note and then flipping to an earlier page in her notebook. “Well, I suspect that quite a number of young ladies will be disappointed to hear that your tastes are so exclusive.”

Ed laughed, trying to sound amused rather than as disbelieving as he felt. It wasn't that he actually thought she was lying – his experiences that summer had proved her quite right, though he expected that most of those women were interested more in his title and fame than they were in him. Yeah, she was probably right, but that whole section of his life still felt more than a little bit surreal.

“I'm flattered by their interest, but don't return it. I'm happy where I am.”

“I see. You said a moment ago that none of your critics understood what your relationship was actually like. So you feel that you have been misrepresented in the newspapers so far?”

“Yeah, and I'm pretty mad about it, I'm not gonna lie.”

“Well, in just a moment I'm going to give you a chance to represent yourself as you feel you should have been represented. But before that, I have a few more burning questions: those photographs in the newspapers. Are they real?”

He shoved down every feeling that that question brought out in him, and managed to reply, quite calmly:

“Yes, they are.”

“All of them?”

“All of the ones I've seen. The ones that were in the Central Times on Friday were actually taken through Roy's windows. Apparently there was a gap of a few inches between his curtains, and some reporter was skulking around, looking to make a few bucks by taking photos that might ruin somebody else's career. That was meant to be a private moment. I hope the pervert enjoyed the show,” Edward said, not bothering to hide his bitterness.

She looked at him with pity, then. He swallowed down his instinct to react to that with anger: he reminded himself that garnering such sympathy was his purpose here.

“So what about the accusations of General Mustang being a sadist who tortures you sexually?”

(you like getting beaten up)

He flushed to the roots of his hair. He really, really did not want to be talking about this on a recording that was going to be heard by thousands of people at the very least. He really didn't want to be talking about this at all.

(he could still feel that breath on his cheek, wet and hot and suffocating)

(cocksucker)

(asking for it)

“Well, it's nobody's business but ours what Roy and I do in bed,” Ed replied, shaking himself from his thoughts. “But since it's already been out in the papers, I'll go ahead and say it. Yeah, that's something that Roy and I do, though I don't think you can call it 'torture' when you both enjoy it. And honestly, I think that a lot more people do that sort of stuff in bed than want to admit to it.”

“Perhaps. But you can see how some people would be disturbed by that,” she said, sounding more fascinated than disturbed. “Doesn't all of that sort of thing involve him dominating you? Ordering you around? Isn't that a bit abusive?”

(general mustang's whore)

The room felt very small, too small, too hot, but he opened his mouth to speak anyway.

“It's not abuse. We only do that stuff in bed, and I really wanna emphasize that. Out of bed he can be almost nauseatingly sweet,” Edward said with a roll of his eyes, though his voice came out fond. “And we're completely equals, day to day. I'm not a submissive person: I'm actually really stubborn, and can be a real pain,” he said with a short laugh. “But in any case, I'm with him of my own free will, and I enjoy everything we do together. It's really hot. Whether other people think I should find it hot or not doesn't particularly matter to me.” His words he kept nonchalant, as if they were uncomplicated and wholly true.

She pursed her lips and examined him, eyes flicking around his face from feature to feature. He leaned back in his chair, leaving only his back two legs on the floor. She gave him a stern look, and he let it fall back into place again with a loud clack.

“How does it make you feel when people accuse you or Roy of any kind of sexual misconduct?”

“Angry. Frustrated. Those reporters have no idea the sort of shi – the sort of stuff they've unleashed. There's been a lot of backlash that I didn't expect.”

His blood pulsed erratically, ignorant of any regular beat. Fingers twitched on his lap, ungloved hands fidgeting where Rebecca couldn't see them.

“What kind of backlash?” she asked, voice still full of that unwanted goddamn pity. But he had to do this: he needed their pity, for the first time in his life – for Roy's sake. Pity was the twin of sympathy, and sympathy often engendered support: he could swallow his pride briefly if it meant he could drum up support for Roy's cause. If he could only let himself play the victim for these five minutes, if he could just open his lips and speak through the desert of his mouth, he could help.

The skin of his forehead prickled, and he knew beads of sweat were forming there. He couldn't look at her, look at her pretty face, her soft expression: he kept his focus instead on the back corner of the room. When he began to speak, it was slow, measured.

“I've been attacked because of what was written in that newspaper. They woulda done worse to me than they did if I hadn't hit them back, and harder. A bunch of soldiers have reacted bad to the idea that some military men might like bein' with other men; it's like they were afraid that I'm contagious, that they could catch it from me, or something. People like Roy and me're less than human to them.”

“I'm very sorry to hear that.”

“It's fine, Roy and I are handling it okay.”

“That's good to hear.” A pause. “You know, some call a man having a relationship with a man a sin.”

Well, if they try to tell me where I can shove my dick I'll tell them where they can shove their god, and we'll be even.

“And they're gonna keep thinking that no matter what I say, so I'm not even gonna bother defending myself against it. Roy's and my relationship is good for us, so everybody who has a problem with it can mind their own business.” Can fuck off. God, this self-censoring stuff took a lot out of him.

Her painted lips curled up at that: this was the part she had been looking forward to. Ed wasn't sure if the adrenaline he felt was anticipation or terror: but weren't they the same thing, really, anyway?

“So,” she started, lacing her fingers together on the table, on top of her notebook, her painted nails red splashes against the white. “That brings us back to the question from earlier. What is your relationship with the General like?”

“Well,” Ed started, slowly, to delay the inevitable, “I just wanna say one more time that he never abused me, and I wasn't sleeping around to get my rank. None of this started until after I was out of the military. And besides,” he said, his throat clenching, but keeping his eyes on her, plastering a smile on his face. Without pause, he continued, the words forced from unwilling lips:

“Besides, I love the stupid bastard. He's smug and infuriating and self-righteous, but he's also selfless and kind and principled and the best man I've ever met. He's the only man in government who has both a working moral compass and a spine. He's a hopeless idealist, and the only thing he wants to do with his life is help people. For all the time we've known each other, he's always been there for me, even when I didn't appreciate it, and we've been through a lot together in that time. Other than my little brother, he's the most important person in the world to me.” His words strengthened as his confidence grew. The first hard part was over. A feeling akin to relief spread through him, mirrored in turn by dread.

Somewhere, perhaps in his armchair by a fire, Roy would be listening to every word he said, and that was okay, he told himself. He wanted his lover to hear, wanted everybody else in the world to hear: for this, of all things, he had no shame.

“Roy Mustang is the best thing that ever happened to this country. He's funny and smart and ridiculously considerate. We fight all the time, but for some reason he likes me anyway, and I can't take that for granted. I love him, and nothing anybody could say or do would make me give him up.”

***

Chapter Text

Chapter 10

*

The sounds of cars on pavement and the light tones of conversation from the people surrounding him on the sidewalk made for a soothing background to the steady whirl of Roy's thoughts. It had been weeks, maybe even months, since he had visited the place he was now going: at first, his attention had been so consumed by his new relationship with Edward and by his political gambits that he could rarely find a spare moment to come back. Then, more recently, he had been so distracted by his other activities that he had barely even thought about it. Madame Christmas was unlikely to be happy about his long absence. As the brick building towards which he was walking grew larger with each step, so did the warm comfort of retracing familiar steps. He felt no apprehension whatsoever: after all, he was an adult now, and he could definitely, absolutely handle a meeting with his mother, even when she was at her most cutting. His briefcase swung beside him, brushing against his leg with each step.

When he finally reached the sidewalk in front of the building, he noted that the sign had been significantly touched up since the last time he had visited, and thank god for that: it had needed the assistance in a serious way. It was no wonder that it needed some help, as the sign had been there, more or less unchanged, since Roy had been ten. The now-fresh whites and blues of elegant, handwritten script read “The Painted Lady.” Beside the words, the titular lady reclined, a luxuriously painted nude in the classical style, although the painter had draped some white cloth over her more private regions so as to afford her some token measure of modesty. Roy gave her a fond smile: she had been his idea when he was perhaps thirteen, and when the somewhat embarrassed artist they had hired had finished the commission, he had promptly named her Theresa, which sounded appropriately classy to him. Everybody there had always been very concerned with making sure the establishment stayed classy.

The four-paneled front door was of a red-stained wood, with two frosted-glass windows set into the top two panels. He took a deep breath and fortified himself: his mother was a force unto herself, and he had to be prepared for the meeting. He didn't knock before he entered, as it was a place of business, but the motion of the door pulled a string attached to a little copper bell, and it gave a high chime of welcome.

“Welcome to the Painted Lady,” said a familiar, raspy voice: he turned around to face its owner. Madame Christmas paused, and stared at him for a moment before giving a sardonic little smirk, a newly-lit cigarette clenched between her teeth.

The woman sat on a tall stool behind the counter near the door that supported the cash register, her fancy dress and accoutrements doing nothing at all to curtail the mannishness with which she sat. She used her considerable weight in a way that few people could manage, to fully and effortlessly dominate all of the space she occupied. He was grateful to have learned that particular talent from her.

“Well, well. If it isn't my debauched, criminal, deviant prodigal son, finally back to see his old mother,” she said, with a grated laugh.

“Madame Christmas,” he said, giving her a look of fond amusement. “A pleasure to see you again. I've been away for too long,” he said. Ever since he had left home to attend the military academy, he had taken to calling her “Madame Christmas” in public instead of “mother” – she had insisted that he should be discreet about the fact that his mother was a brothel madam, as it wouldn't exactly be a shining spot on the record of a young up-and-coming military star. Although he had been uncomfortable with it at first, later, he had found himself glad for her insight – she had been quite correct. He had become so used to the name that he had begun to use it even when they were alone, less out of fear of discovery than out of comfortable habit.

“Damn right you have,” she said, corner of her lips still twitched up, and arched one sculpted eyebrow. “Long enough that I get to guilt-trip you mercilessly for at least two months. I've learned not to hold my breath waiting for you to come visit, though – you've moved on with your life, and have no time to spare for the woman who raised you,” she said, at least half teasing.

“You really didn't waste any time getting to that guilt trip, did you,” Roy said, chuckling. He walked forward into the bar, heels of his boots clicking on the wooden floor, and she shifted her weight to lean mostly on the forearm she had braced on the countertop.

“No point in that,” she said. Without missing a beat, she continued. “Nice to see you again, and so on.” Then, the look in her eyes grew sharp, almost gleeful. “Now, what's this I hear about you and some boy toy?” Roy winced: he hadn't quite expected their conversation to begin that way. Although he had prepared himself as best as he could to talk to her about Edward, the suddenness and direct method of her inquiry still left him fumbling. He shouldn't have been surprised, though: she had never had much desire to beat around the bush, and age had only dulled what little patience she had for such things. On another note, and he had a very good idea of how Edward would react to being called a 'boy toy,' and he prayed to whatever god was listening that she never did it in his earshot. “Imagine how surprised I was to wake up one morning and find my son all over the papers because of a lover you never even told your poor old mother about. While we're on the topic – really?” she asked, eyebrow arched and derisive. “You let the newspapers find out? I thought politicians were s'posed to be discreet and shit.”

Roy huffed a laugh and walked over to the bar, then sat down on the bar stool, setting the briefcase he carried down on the floor next to him. This was exactly why he had spent six months not telling her about his lover: even if this newspaper debacle had never happened and everything had gone on perfectly normally, she would have found something in their relationship to tease him about. His stomach clenched as he thought of Edward – despite his best efforts to think of other things, he couldn't help but wonder how the interview had gone. He supposed that he would find out soon enough.

“That's the idea, yes,” the general replied, not letting it affect him. “But I suggest you not call him a 'boy toy' where he can hear you. He's very proud, and doesn't take well to disrespect, and he's not the sort of person you'd want on your bad side.”

“Well, he can't hear me now, can he?” she said with amusement, taking a long drag of her cigarette. “So don't you worry your head about that. But I'll keep it in mind if you ever get around to introducing us,” she said: another little jab, easy for her as breathing. “But I can see how you wouldn't wanna make him mad. I've heard he's dangerous – he's the Fullmetal Alchemist, isn't he? That little kid you took under your wing six years ago.”

Roy gritted his teeth, but kept smiling pleasantly.

Former Fullmetal Alchemist, yes – and I assure you, he's quite grown now.”

She snorted.

“I'm sure he is. You never were into the younger ones. If I remember right, you always did like 'em older, didn't you?” she said, then puffed out a stream of smoke.

Roy grimaced. This was not the trajectory he had imagined this conversation taking. Before he could say anything to defend himself, she had moved on.

“Anyway,” she continued, “why the hell did I find out about you being in a real relationship through the goddamn newspapers instead of a visit, or even a goddamn phone call? You know better than to keep me in the dark like that, Roy-boy.”

He had many years ago given up on fighting that particular nickname, and now looked on it with a kind of fond resignation. It was somewhat injurious to his dignity, but then again, it hardly mattered anymore. Did he really have any dignity left after his mother had seen photos of him having sex on the front page of the newspaper?

“Well,” he said, crisply, “we weren't exactly advertising it,” he said, which was very much true.

“I wasn't asking you to advertise it. I was just asking you to tell me. What, do you not think you can trust me to be discreet? I'm hurt,” she said, her grin sardonic. “And after everything I've done for you. For all these years, everybody here has kept their mouths shut about the espionage shit you ask us to do and about your kinky sexcapades, and you're still so mistrustful?”

His smile remained pleasant.

“I have absolute faith in you and your team,” he said, instead of all the other things he wanted to say: he was confident that however his enemies had learned about his sexual preferences, it hadn't been through his mother or her employees. If any informant had known about his mother's work, a large section of Harriet's article would almost certainly have been dedicated to revealing his exploits with prostitutes and to his somewhat checkered upbringing. Besides, his mother was very careful about the people she hired, and for all of her gruff distance she treated them like family, and they did the same in return. There wasn't one of them he wouldn't have trusted with his career – which was as it should be, because with the work they did for him, he had to, on a daily basis.

“Good, and you ought to,” she said, walking over to the bar next to him and tapping the end of her cigarette onto an ebony-stone ashtray. “After all, I'd be a pretty bad intelligencer if I couldn't even keep tabs on my own employees, wouldn't I?” She didn't pause at all before turning the conversation back to a topic she found more interesting “But your boy sure is a pretty one, isn't he? Never thought I'd see the day you dated someone prettier'n you.”

Her matter-of-fact tone with which she made this observation made Roy laugh.

“He's quite stunning, yes. But he's many other things besides,” he said, his gaze unfocusing as he stared at something imagined, a half-smile on his lips. “He's brilliant and stubborn and brave and impossibly loyal. Despite all of the horrible things that have happened to him – and there have been more than I could even begin to tell you – he always gets back up again, and when he does he's stronger than ever. He's actually and literally a genius, and he can beat me in a fight, too. And he's so obstinately idealistic – he managed to get through five years of active military service and saving all of Amestris without killing a single human being, even though it kept getting him into all kinds of trouble. I really admire him. He truly is a great man.”

Madame Christmas made herself comfortable on the stool next to him and gave him a slanted smile, cocking an eyebrow again. She put the cigarette to her lips, drew in a long breath, then blew a gray plume out over her shoulder.

“Well, damn,” she grunted, watching him out of the corner of her eye. “Sounds to me like Roy-boy's in love.”

These words struck Roy like a wall, leaving him near-paralyzed in the aftershock.

“I'm... I'm sorry?” he finally managed, for want of anything else to say, all of his mental faculties dedicated to processing what he had just heard.

“Don't play dumb, it's not a good look on you,” she said, taking in another drag from her cigarette and letting the cloud of smoke out, slowly.

His mind raced, putting thoughts together. It wasn't that he had never considered the possibility of... love, between them: it was more that he had cut off all previous thoughts on the topic with an admonition mostly consisting of don't even go there. His mother kept watching him with a deeply amused satisfaction as he struggled for words.

“Don't tell me you haven't even noticed,” she said after a moment of watching him suffer, her eyebrow arching further. “The way you talk about him – it's so obvious. You basically worship the ground he walks on. Surely not even my idiot son is so oblivious as to have missed that.

Finally, the general's mouth began responding to the commands of his brain.

“I guess I am that oblivious,” he said, carefully, the great pieces of his life rearranging themselves in his head. “Sorry. You caught me a bit off-guard.”

In love? he thought, the words coursing through him – then, he was swept up in the dawning euphoria of revelation. Of course I am. He's perfect. Even the things about him that drive me crazy are perfect. How could I not have noticed for all this time?

She kept watching him, a knowing look in her eye, as if she knew exactly what kind of tumult she was putting him through. After a long silence, he finally spoke.

“I suppose you're probably right,” he said, attempting to affect a casual tone and most likely failing. One beat. Two, and he couldn't sustain the fiction anymore. “Oh god,” he said, on a long breath, letting his head fall to be caught in the palm of his hand, elbow propped up on the wood of the bar. “Oh god. You're right.”

He could actually hear the smirk in her voice as she responded.

“Mothers usually are. We've got a sixth sense about these sort of things.” She blew half a lungful of cigarette smoke in his face, just to annoy him. “Now, let's get this straight. You're in a committed relationship for the first time in years – and it's about damn time, too,” she added, also to annoy him. “You've just realized you're in love with the man you're committed to. You think the sun shines out his ass, and obviously he likes you too, or he wouldn't put up with your bullshit. So why d'you look like somebody just died?”

Mustang coughed and waved the smoke out of his face, straightening again to look her in the eye.

“Those cancer sticks are going to kill you, you know that?” he muttered, contemplating the irony of being in a bar and needed a fortifying drink quite badly, and yet being completely unable to get one.

“Yeah, well, we're all gonna die: at least I'm choosing how I go,” she said, smile sardonic and maybe a little bit bitter. “But you didn't answer my question.”

He sighed, propping his second elbow on the table as well and lacing his fingers together.

“You have strange logic,” he said, tone both resigned and amused. He turned more serious as he continued. “And as for why I don't look happy – well, I'm confused and worried. I'm not entirely sure this revelation you've shared with me is good news.”

When she frowned, it carved crevices on her forehead and at the corners of her eyes.

“I'm not sure why it's news to you at all,” she said. “And why the hell isn't it good? Love seems like a pretty damn good thing to me.”

“Edward is...” he started, then paused, trying to collect all of the half-formed thoughts and emotions from the distant ends of his brain. “Well, the man's extremely volatile, and easily set off. I'm not confident that he wouldn't freak out at the idea of the kind of relationship commitment implied by a confession.” He took a deep breath. “That, and... He's really been going through a lot recently,” he said, unable to stop the tremor of exhaustion in his voice. “I really don't want to put anything else on his shoulders right now.”

The creases on her face became shallower, replaced by that shrewd look she so often got when she was thinking.

“Hm,” she said, in a way that invited further conversation, invited confidences. She had a knack for that: it was part of what made her so good at what she did.

Suddenly, in the face of the churning confusion in him and the weight of the whole situation pressing down on him, he was struck with the desire to ask for her help in this, to share it with her and so lighten his load. For all her roughness, Madame Christmas was kind, painfully incisive, and quite good at understanding people. Consequently, she was nearly as good at giving advice as Hughes, although she delivered it much less gently.

Slowly, thoughtfully, he began.

“He got assaulted,” he said, quietly, halting. “Some military fuckers saw the articles and decided that he deserved punishment for the crime of enjoying the company of men – or maybe for the crime of being with me specifically, I don't really know. Ed was out drinking on Friday night, because – well, I had gotten really angry at him earlier in the day, and he was quite upset.” The guilt and regret still clenched at his insides when he thought of it. “I think he got drunker than he's ever been before – he's not usually much of a drinker. They jumped him when he left the bar.” He took a deep breath. “I know they didn't actually manage to rape him” – she stiffened as she heard the word – “but I know that they tried to. He only barely got away, and he was injured in the process. Possibly badly, I don't know. He's closed-off by nature, at least about important things. I basically had to force even that much information out of him.”

Her frown deepened with every word.

“I see,” she said, when he had made it evident that he wasn't going to continue. “And how is he doing, d'you think?”

The answer to that question was so complex that any response he could give he said would be so simplified as to be almost meaningless. He did his best anyway.

“I don't know,” he said with a long sigh of exhaustion, looking longingly at the bottles of liquor that lined the wall. “It's hard to say. I suppose he's as well as can be expected, and not well at all both at once. He's a bit... god,” he said, the word pressed out of him by a world of weight. “I'm sure you can imagine. You remember what Mary was like after everything.”

Many years ago, when Roy had been no older than eight or nine, Mary had been one of his mother's girls – young, bright, promising in all aspects of their trade. One night, about a year into her employment, a bunch of thugs decided that the fact that she was a prostitute meant that she had given up her right to consent. Roy had been too young to help deal with the emotional fallout at the time, but he had watched from a distance and listened through doors, worry troubling his innocence. The memory of it had never faded.

Shortly after the incident, his mother had called on some of her less-than-honorable contacts to take care of the men in question. Now, sitting in front of her with all of these thoughts whirling in his head, Roy very much envied her that freedom. Still, even back then, that act of justice – or vengeance? – hadn't helped Mary, hadn't helped her nightmares or the sudden sobbing fits that would attack from nowhere. And for her, as for Edward, touch had been a problem. When, after a few months, she had left his mother's employ, the young woman still hadn't recovered from the incident. He wondered how long it had taken for her to trust another man's touch.

Of course, Edward didn't seem to have been affected to nearly the degree that Mary had: but then, his incident hadn't been quite as bad as hers, and Edward had always been an extraordinary person in any case. He regularly took blows, both emotional and physical that would cripple lesser humans, and still managed to get back on his feet every time – even when he had to have a new one made for him to be able to do it.

Madame Christmas nodded, taking a moment to consider everything.

“I see,” she said. “And for some reason, you think that confessing your undying love for him would make things worse for him,” she said, voice toneless in quite a pointed way.

Those words pulled him suddenly out of his morose thoughts. He actually flushed to hear the first half of that sentence, half in embarrassment and half in shock.

“Undying love? I never said anything like that,” he said.

The smile she fixed on him was both fond and patronizing. Motherly – that was the word. He almost expected her to reach over and ruffle his hair.

“Yes, you did,” she said, wielding a smirk made to lightly ridicule, one that left no room for argument. “Don't be stupid. But why the hell do you think that would scare him off? Don't you think he'd want to know that no matter what kind of hullabaloo those folks outside rustle up, to know that no matter what happens to you or to him or whatever, you're not going anywhere?”

“He knows that already,” Roy mumbled, feeling very much like a child being scolded.

“Does he?” she said, a statement of disbelief. “You sure?”

Roy remained silent. His mother leaned in closer, her raspy voice intense and narrowed eyes fixed on him.

“You'd better damn well make sure he does, Roy Mustang,” she said, low. “I'm not gonna let you mess this up for yourself.”

That drink was beginning to sound even more appealing. Christ, she could really take it out of him sometimes.

“I don't plan to,” he replied. “But – this is just so confusing, you know?” he said, slumping forward to shift more weight to his elbows. “Edward is allergic to discussions about our relationship” – although to be fair, Roy himself hadn't been much better about it – “and he consistently goes out of his way to make sure I am kept unaware of his problems. And to make things worse, he has an uncontrollable wanderlust: whenever there's a problem, he tends to leave the place where said problem is. With everything that's been happening, I keep half-expecting to wake up one morning and find a note on my bedside table saying that he's on a train to Xing or Creta or something. I'm just afraid that if I say anything, I'll scare him to the breaking point, and he'll do just that.”

The woman in front of him took the last drag of her cigarette and dropped its lipstick-stained filter into the ashtray.

“Listen, kid. Every relationship's confusing as all hell. Everybody in the world's either afraid of commitment or way too obsessed with it. Still, people make it work somehow. You just gotta do the best you can. He hasn't hopped a train yet, has he?”

Roy shook his head. No, not yet – Ed had avoided such flights of fear and impulse ever since that mess with Ms. Rockbell had been resolved, much to Roy's relief.

The opposing woman nodded, as if to say that it should have been obvious.

“Well, let's do the math, here. This shit's been pretty bad for him, it looks like – and you also told me that you two had a bad fight a couple days ago, but he's still around. What does that tell you?”

The familiar bar room was comforting in its quiet, the yellow light of old electric lamps giving the place a warm, faded glow. Roy laughed, softly, her straightforward logic beginning to unwrap a heavy weight from him. He began again to feel that euphoria through the cracks in his worry.

“It tells me that I'm being an idiot,” he finally said, giving a smile more with his eyes than with his lips.

“Damn straight,” she declared. “Now you have to go tell him how you feel.”

The thought set his head racing: once he dealt with his first problems, of course new ones would appear. Yes, he was going to have to say something, but now the specter of rejection loomed before him. A deep breath filled his lungs, slow and steady against the frantic beat of his heart. If he was rejected... well, it didn't matter, in a way. In either case, he wouldn't be the one to end the relationship. He would keep going for as long as Ed wanted to, whether his feeling was reciprocated or not. Roy Mustang could easily deal with rejection. He had felt much deeper wounds than that.

This was true, but it didn't make the actual prospect of rejection any less frightening. He knew, though, that it would be worth the risk.

“I will.” He paused, thinking: his mother let him. He still felt so painfully unprepared to handle Edward's problems: his pride could certainly survive asking for a bit more advice, so after a moment, he continued. “But what should I do to help him get through this mess? He won't let himself be touched, and one of the major foundations of our relationship has always been sex.” He could see her repressing her amusement at the last part of that sentence, but he pretended not to notice. “Now, all of a sudden, we can't behave the way we have been accustomed to behaving around each other, and we don't know what to do instead. I'm used to helping him get over his insecurities in a very particular way,” he said, trying to approach the topic delicately. “Now there's this awkward, horrible space in our conversations, where not so very long ago I might have just – well, you know,” he said, with a descriptive wave of his hand.

From her coat pocket, Madame Christmas procured another cigarette and placed it between her painted lips, looking at Roy expectantly. With the sigh of one whose trials are endless, he removed his glove from his pocket and slipped it on, then snapped. The tiniest spark and greatest exercise of his self-control allowed a crackle of fire across the space between them to light just the tip of her cigarette.

The look on her face as she drew in her next breath of cancer was both satisfied and, gratifyingly, impressed. He so rarely impressed her that he savored the feeling when he did.

“Well,” she began, slowly, the word over-enunciated for effect, “looks to me like this gives you a chance to base your relationship on something other than sex, doesn't it.” The woman had an irritating tendency to end her statements with a hybrid of a question and a statement that made the answer seem obvious and Roy feel quite stupid. “So if you're worried about that, don't be – it's an opportunity, not a curse. If you're just missin' the sex, jack off. You can handle a bit of deprivation. It's good for you. Builds character.”

A deep horror bloomed in him as his mother's words brushed past him: she had always been able to remain businesslike while talking about sex – of course she could: sex was, after all, her business – but as a son talking to his mother, he had never shared the ability, and actually found it quite mortifying when directed at him. He worked his mouth, trying to come up with some kind of response, some way to tactfully change the subject. After a moment, an idea came to him.

“But what if he doesn't trust me anymore?” he finally said. “It seems like he's been going to even greater lengths to cut me out of his life recently. For instance, I had a radio interview scheduled for today, but when I showed up at my office, I found that he had, entirely without asking me, changed up the plan and done the interview himself instead.. I'm still not sure what his plan was, exactly, he certainly didn't trust me to know about it.”

She looked at him with a flash of disbelief, the bright end of her cigarette flaring bright orange as she took in a breath, then drew the thing away.

“Or maybe he didn't tell you because he knows you're an overprotective worrywart and didn't want to bother you. Or maybe there are a million other possible reasons for him not telling you right away that you apparently haven't considered,” she said. “Besides, have you actually asked him about it?”

“...Well, not yet. But I plan to, as soon as he's home and answering his telephone.”

“You can't get on to him about not telling you things if you've never asked. So stop jumping to conclusions,” she said. She continued on without pause, as if considering that topic absolutely closed. “And about how to help him get better, I'm sure you're doing just fine on your own. You know the basics: don't push him. Make sure he knows you're there for him and not judging him. Listen to him when he talks.”

Then, her eyes turned sharp, diamondlike.

“As for the men who did this: you want me to take care of 'em? Is that why you came here?”

The thought struck him as an arrow, the offer so utterly tempting that he almost gave in and reached for it. Most likely, no-one would trace it back to him. She was very good, and so were her contacts. He could get out of it free of any blame if he wanted to – but a number of things stopped him. Most importantly, Major Hawkeye had reminded him that he was not above the law, and that in order to have any legitimacy as a democratic leader, he would have to hold himself to the rule of law he enforced. If he went about ignoring laws as soon as they became inconvenient, he would be no better than any of them, he reminded himself, eyes narrowed.

Also, he had yet to ask Edward what he wanted to be done about it. A trial would bring his assault screaming out into the open: did he want that? On the other hand, wouldn't he be upset at Roy if the general went for revenge rather than justice? Was the only option that preserved both Ed's dignity and Roy's morals to just do nothing? He didn't know.

An unmourned, ignominious death would suit those fuckers best, but...

“No. Thank you. Tempting,” he said, harshly, “but no. I'll deal with them.” Somehow, he added silently. He let out a long breath, allowing the tension to leave him as well, and saw the woman in front of him mirror the relaxation. “I very much appreciate your offer and all of your advice. However, there was another reason I came: I have a favor to ask of you.”

Madame Christmas snorted, grey smoke puffing out her nose.

“'Course you did. You never come for anything else anymore,” she said, with a long-suffering sigh that was more than half feigned. “Ungrateful brat.” The expression melted away in an instant to leave behind a sharp smile. “Now, what can I do for ya, Roy-boy?”

*

Although Alphonse's day had begun at the lab, he unfortunately couldn't finish it there: shortly after the departure of the police squad from the premises, he had made his excuses to Evelyn and made his way to Central Headquarters to begin his other work.

Al almost felt guilty about how much he had been enjoying this break from his normal routine: as much as he truly did love alchemy, this investigations work was challenging and thrilling and much more exciting than the daily routine of science. Walking down the city's main thoroughfare, feeling the wind across his face and listening to the calls and cries of stall vendors and tourists and shoppers and shopkeepers, he remembered how much he had loved being outside, how much he missed the spontaneity and freedom of adventure.

On the other hand, he knew that, when he was in his lab, he was doing a good deed for the whole human species. And he enjoyed it, really he did: laboratory alchemy was another kind of intellectual challenge, and one he was suited to quite well. Really, most of the time he liked the fact that he was a lab researcher. Alchemy was what he was good at, what he loved most of all, and it had always been there for him from the beginning – so now, going out and about and dabbling in all this investigative work felt a bit like cheating on a steady girlfriend.

There was an element of that, certainly, to his guilt – but also, sometimes, when he found himself enjoying a particular bit of investigative work, it occurred to him that he was in some way deriving pleasure from something that was causing his brother great pain. He tried not to let himself dwell on it, because he was doing his best and that was all he could do.

When he arrived at the public records house, he found that contrary to his expectations and much to his disappointment, it was in no way comforting like a library: the marble of its walls made it look an enormous, imposing monolith on the outside and feel uncomfortably cold on the inside. Creeping across polished floors that looked like they had never seen a shoe before, Alphonse couldn't help but wonder if people were even allowed in this building. He reminded himself that of course they were: this was a public records house, and public meant people, and besides, he had looked up library hours beforehand. Regardless of this fact, the librarian watched him as if by his very presence he were committing a crime, accusing Al of something he hadn't even done yet.

The man's expression only got haughtier as he answered Al's embarrassed questions, his judgmental stare silently asking what kind of imbecile wouldn't know where Section C was.

“'Right between Section B and Section D,'” Al muttered irritably once he decided that he had finally walked out of earshot of the desk, repeating the other man's supercilious declaration. “Well yeah, of course it is – but that information would help a lot more if you had bothered to tell me where Sections B and D were.”

Regardless of the sullen unhelpfulness of the library attendant, he found Section B – and consequently, C – without too much trouble, and to his great delight also found that the section had ladders on tracks, so you could just roll one over to the next set of bookcases in order to get at the book on the top. He spent at least five minutes sliding the ladder around to climb up it, then down again, then move the ladder to a new spot, as if just to prove to himself that it did what it was supposed to.

Someday, I want a library tall enough that I can put a rolling ladder in it, he thought distractedly as he finally set the ladder where he wanted it and pulled the first batch of likely records off of the shelf.

It took him slightly more than two hours to find the file he was looking for. Faint elation greeted the sight of it: he had considered the possibility that the file had been removed from the public record, if someone important had really wanted to cover their tracks. But it seemed that nobody had thought this particular record was enough of a liability to suppress it – all the better for us, Al thought with distinct satisfaction.

In his hand, he held the formal declaration of suit against Guy Harriet for the crime of having written and printed libel that did irreparable harm to Colonel Maxwell Grimmler. Al skimmed through the document: nothing particularly interesting there. What was wasn't there – the file folder was empty but for this one document. He might have thought someone had just had the other files suppressed, except that why would that person have left just this one if they wanted to do that?

Scanning the folder, he noticed a tiny black set of numbers printed in the bottom corner. Closer examination told him that it read “1 – 3”: a comparison with the other folders led him to deduce that the first number referred to the quantity of documents contained within, and the second to the quantity of pages. Another glance through the file confirmed that there was indeed one document of three pages: nothing seemed to be missing from the folder. He gave a sigh of relief.

Further scrutiny revealed another sign, and he set himself to deciphering the tiny, nearly illegible scrawl of what was probably intended to be writing near the bottom of the third page.

After several minutes worth of utilizing deciphering techniques worthy of a proper codebreaker, Al finally managed to read:

Acquitted.

He shot to his feet again, feeling unreasonably victorious: he knew that this wasn't exactly going to be the final nail in Harriet's coffin, but it was, at least, the beginning of a lid. In his hand, he held proof that Harriet had been accused of committing libel before, but had gotten out of it without ever being tried. Maybe the person who had written that one hurried word on the last page had been ashamed, had wanted to pretend that they weren't helping a man to escape justice.

Besides, if Harriet had been tried, there would have been way more documents, he thought, which was more logical but also less exciting.

Alphonse copied the document down into his notebook, memorizing the name of the judge who would have been presiding, had the trial proceeded – the Honorable Jane Myrdoch. He was beginning to think he might have to pay her a visit.

But first things first. He put all of the files back exactly where they belonged, arranged his notebook in his bag so it wouldn't get squished, and set off towards the front door, blithely ignoring the way the librarian's irritated stare followed him across the whole entry hall.

It took him less than two minutes from exiting the records house to find a pay phone booth. He rustled in his bag for change, came up fifty cenz short of the cost of the call, then scrounged around the sidewalk area until he found a hundred cenz piece lying in one of the sidewalk grooves. Delighted, he picked it up, paid the telephone fee, and dialed a number that he had written in the margin of the front page of his notebook.

This really had been his lucky day. He liked to think it wasn't over yet, though.

The receiver picked up on the other end.

“Hello?” the voice asked. “Graham Haskell speaking.”

“Hi Graham! This is Alphonse Elric.”

“Ah, Alphonse. Just the guy I wanted to hear from.”

*

“Now, what can I do for ya, Roy-boy?” Madame Christmas asked him.

Almost every time he came by for a favor, she grumbled and complained and made a big deal of it, but he knew that, despite her token resistance, she really enjoyed it: although being the proprietor of a bar and brothel was amusing and made her good money, they both knew that intelligence work was really her calling.

“Sorry for being such an ungrateful son,” he said, fondly, before pulling up his briefcase from where it sat at his feet to set it between them on the bar table. “But of course I come and ask you for favors: you're the best at what you do, and you know it.”

She gave a nasal laugh at the undisguised compliment, smile wide and thin.

“Flattery will get you everywhere, kiddo,” she said, amused. “But I don't actually mind doin' you favors. Just come see little old me sometimes.”

“Well, as always, thank you,” he said, giving her a slanted smile. “This is very important.”

“I know,” she said, resting her elbow on the table and letting her hand dangle off the side. “What d'you need?”

He started the story from the beginning, with Guy Harriet and their crusade to discredit the man sometime prior to the trial so that his testimony would count for nothing on the stand. As she listened, she curled up the painted corners of her lips and blew out a puff of smoke.

“Way ahead of you, kiddo. I've been looking into that bastard all week.”

Roy concealed his surprise at her response.

“Oh? And what have you found?” he asked, voice even.

He really shouldn't have been surprised: of course Madame Christmas, being a curious person and just a hair away from “busybody,” wouldn't be able to see that kind of thing in the papers and then just do nothing about it.

“Well, to start with, I've found that Harriet isn't really well-liked within his profession. One or two of his colleagues are under the impression that he's maybe a bit corrupt,” she said, with a hint of sarcasm subtle as a knife to the back. “They say that maybe he's more devoted to money than he is to journalistic integrity.”

“Imagine that,” Roy murmured. “It's funny, I find it difficult to believe that said colleagues are terribly outraged about this offense against their profession when they themselves have been busily publishing articles about Edward and me too, none of which are any more balanced or fact-based than Harriet's.” Madame Christmas snorted.

“True, but they're not being paid off-the-books by some mysterious figure to write those articles: they're doing it to increase the number of papers they sell, and that makes it okay. That's just free market. There's a huge difference between lying for a paycheck from a politician and doing the same thing for one from the general public.”

Roy smiled, grimly.

“Of course there is.” He laced his fingers together, leaning forward to put his weight on his elbows. “I'm happy to note that you've already come to the conclusion that Harriet is acting under direction from someone else.”

“'Course he is. I suspect I know who Harriet's patron is, too.” Roy found himself nearly holding his breath. She turned a sharp look on him. “I'm sure you're familiar with one General Mikhael Weimar.”

The words hit him in a flood of relief, threaded by a crackle of excitement.

“I am very familiar with that man,” he said, harshly. “And I'm glad that you've come to the same conclusion. My team has yet to find anything concrete linking Harriet and General Weimar, although he was my bet for puppeteer as well. He is my most stalwart political opponent, and he acted so strangely vicious towards me immediately after the publication of the paper that I began to suspect him immediately. Also, he is one of those who would gain the most if I fell: simply put, I'm a threat to him.”

“Well,” said Madame Christmas, “I wouldn't say that I've found something. It's more of a rumor than anything. Call it a damn good guess, based on years of finely-honed investigative skills.”

Well, at least there was no question as to where Roy's modest streak had come from. He gave half a smile and responded.

“That's better than nothing, by far.”

“Yeah,” she said, around the cigarette held between her teeth. The tip glowed bright, then faded again. “So, then: d'you want me to focus on investigating Weimar?”

Roy shrugged.

“Either of them. Both of them. Anything you can be find out will be helpful,” Roy told her. “General Weimar has already convinced the council to temporarily strip me of my powers as a general, which has interrupted me in the middle of very important work,” he said, his voice and eyes both taut. “Yes, I'm a bit bitter, but I also need this to be over as quickly as possible so I can continue doing what I need to do before something awful happens.” He unhitched the clasps on the briefcase that lay between them and opened it to reveal stacks of papers, all in order. After giving her a moment to glance over its contents, he kept on. “This case is full of everything we've managed to collect so far: detailed political profiles of the men in question, what history we've been able to gather, that sort of thing. The trial is in just under two weeks. I need to have something damning by a few days before then, if you can manage. Do you think you can do that?”

Madame Christmas smirked.

“Don't you worry yourself about that, Roy-boy,” she said, as if absolutely confident of her imminent success. “But don't you need proof exonerating you, too?”

Roy sighed – even thinking about this left him frustrated and tired, but he couldn't afford to lose hope.

“My team of military intelligence officers is handling that side of the case, but I'm afraid there's little proof to be had,” he said, grimly. “Mostly, I'm focusing on turning the tide of public opinion, which is the court in which this trial will really play out, which was what I had hoped to do on the radio interview I had scheduled for today.” He really hoped that Edward's contribution would help, not make things worse. “In any case, you focus on Harriet and Weimar. We'll take care of everything else.”

“Sounds good. You just leave it to me and the kids,” she replied, referring to her employees with the fond nickname. “We'll get it done.”

“Thank you,” he said, smiling. “I'm really very grateful for your assistance.”

“Maybe grateful to the tune of twice my normal fee?” she said rather than asked, with half a grin. Roy gave a deep laugh in return.

“Of course, if you insist. Now, I have another, smaller favor to ask: can I borrow your telephone?”

No objections were offered: she waved him over to the one on the wall in the corner of the room. Thanking her, he moved to it, spinning the dial in the pattern of Edward's familiar number before leaning up against the wall, receiver held up to his ear, and he listened to the jangling ring from the other end. He heard it five, six, seven times, before the faint clacking alerted him that the phone had been picked up.

“Hello?” said Edward, sounding more than a bit wary. Roy supposed he didn't really blame the other man for his hesitancy: he himself looked at his telephone with more than a bit of trepidation these days. You never could know who would be on the other line.

“Edward,” he said, warmly. “Nice to hear your voice again. How are you doing?”

“Oh, it's you, Mustang,” Edward said, sounding at least a bit relieved – or so the general liked to think. Upon reflection, Roy found himself amused by how, in their relationship, Ed calling him by his last name was curiously appropriate. “Not bad, can't complain.”

Couldn't, or wouldn't. Roy suspected the latter.

“That's good,” he said, deciding not to press the issue. “How did the interview go?”

The frozen pause on the other end of the line indicated the younger man's nervousness.

“I guess you would have heard about that by now, huh.”

“Yes. Major Hawkeye told me shortly after noon, when I first saw her. I must admit I was surprised.”

“Look, I'm sorry,” Edward replied, strained, like he was worried, scared of how Roy was going to react – had he really acted harshly enough towards his young lover recently that Edward was afraid of him now? The thought brought guilt to his stomach. “I –”

“There's no need to apologize,” Roy interrupted with a short laugh, hoping to lighten the mood. “None whatsoever.”

The pause on the other end of the line sounded startled. Normally, he would say that silences couldn't sound like anything, but Edward was rather a special case: he didn't know how not to be expressive.

“What? You're not mad at me?” came the returning question.

“Of course not,” Roy replied, keeping his voice calm and reasonable. “As I said, I was quite surprised when I heard, and a bit sad that you felt the need to go behind my back,” he said, lightly, trying to express what he felt without accusing. “But I'm not mad at all, I promise. I'm happy and honored that you would be willing to put yourself in the public eye for me,” he said, letting his eyes fall closed to block out the room around him.

“Uh, yeah, no prob,” Edward said, still sounding surprised. As if finally collecting himself, his tone became more gruff, dismissive, perhaps embarrassed. “Don't go makin' a big deal out of it or anything. It was nothin' major.”

Roy smiled, growing warm inside, and when he opened his eyes saw Madame Christmas smirking at him relentlessly from the bar.

“Of course,” he replied, curtailing his expression immediately, as if he had been caught doing something embarrassing. “Thank you, regardless. In any case, I was wondering if you were busy at the moment? I thought perhaps I could join you to listen to the program.”

There was a long pause. Finally, Ed replied.

“Um, prob'ly better not,” he said. “I guess what I mean is I'd rather you not.” Roy's brow pulled down, creasing as he frowned.

“I don't understand,” Roy said, something strange catching inside him.

“I dunno,” Edward said, trying to sound light and unaffected, and doing a damn good job of it – but Roy wasn't fooled. “I guess I'm just happy spending some time alone with this old Nicolaus book I got my hands on a couple weeks ago. With everything that's been goin' on, I haven't had a chance to read it yet. I just want a couple of hours. You can come over after the show, if you want,” he said, too casually to actually be casual.

“I suppose if you think it best,” the general said, his heart sinking. “I was really hoping to get to see you, though.” He really didn't understand: Edward didn't want to see him? Had something else happened that was making things even worse?

“Eh, it's only a couple of hours more. I'll see you then, 'kay?” he said: without another word between them, the immediate, harsh sound of the receiver clicking onto its cradle on the other end cut off their conversation – then, there was silence. Slowly, confused, Roy put down his own receiver. His mother gave him a look as he walked over, arching an eyebrow.

“What, you get dumped?” she asked, in that cutting way that served her as teasing. Roy's returning laugh was strained.

“No. Nothing like that. He's just – still acting odd, and I'm worried.” Being in love was a strange, frightening thing. He had almost forgotten.

Madame Christmas watched him, tapping two manicured fingernails on the bar.

“You shouldn't worry so much,” she finally said. “It's no good for you. You know you two'll be fine.”

Roy wished he could be as unyieldingly certain as she was. He walked over to the bar, and sat down on the stool next to her again.

“I hope so,” Roy said, the closest he could come to fervent agreement. “So, would you mind terribly if I stuck around here until seven or so?” He didn't want to go back home and just sit, alone, in his living room, to wait without company or distraction until he was allowed to go where he wanted to go.

“Planning to listen to the radio show here?” she asked. The answer to this question was too obvious for he to bother waiting for a response. “Sure. We've got a radio in the back lounge room, and nobody's rented the place out for today. It's a good thing you're staying, anyway, 'cause there are a few girls who'd be devastated if you dropped in without saying hello, and we all know how much you hate making girls sad,” she said, and he couldn't tell how much of the comment was genuine and how much of it was pointed barb. “Besides, I'm going to want to look over all of these files, and I'm sure I'll have a couple of questions once we're done,” she said, shutting the case, latching it, then standing. “More convenient if you just stick around.”

Roy smiled, tiredly, and rubbed a hand through his hair.

“You're a miracle, Madame Christmas. Thank you for everything.”

“'Course I am. Glad to see you've finally noticed.” She glanced at the clock. “Oh, good. It's finally four. Let me make you a drink,” she said, walking around to the other side of the bar, the fur around the neck of her coat swaying with each step.

Roy laughed.

“Isn't it a bit early for that?”

“Of course not. Like I said, it's four.” She dropped two ice cubes into a glass, then reached over to pick up a bottle of brandy. “I draw the line at making drinks before four in the afternoon,” she said with finality, as if that were the one a moral boundary she simply refused to cross.. She filled the cup until the liquid had very nearly reached the lip. “Wouldn't want my son to turn into an alcoholic, now would I?” she said with a curled smile, pushing the over-full brandy glass across the bar. To her credit, not a drop spilled.

“No,” the man murmured, amused, and took the glass from her. “We couldn't have that, could we?”

*

“I love him, and nothing anybody could say or do is gonna make me give 'im up.”

Clear words, unimpeded by radio static, echoed around the back room at the Painted Lady, a trick of Roy's hearing making them sound like they were spoken in Edward Elric's voice.

A sharp shot of adrenaline passed through him, making every sensation more acute, every sound crisp down to its last detail. His mother smirked at him relentlessly, knowingly, from the plush armchair she occupied.

God, it couldn't possibly actually be Ed speaking. Why would he say in front of an audience of thousands what he had never said in private? It didn't make any sense, why would he be so public about something like this when he was normally so painfully, aggressively defensive?

“You love him?” he heard, through the metal grate of the radio speakers. “So this isn't just a passing fling? Yet another politician's tryst?”

The half-laugh that Edward gave in response was barely audible, but important.

“We know each other way too well for that.” Then, more seriously: “At some point, after you've been through so many things together, you've got a bond, see. I really couldn't just walk off and leave him, and he couldn't just drop me, either. I've known this man for a third of my life, and in ways that are obvious and not so obvious, he helped make me who I am.” He paused, and Rebecca let him: she was clever enough to know that anything she could say would only serve to lessen the impact of his admission. “Everybody's got it all wrong. This isn't a power thing or just a sex thing. Nobody did anything wrong, unless bein' in love with someone's wrong. And it's not, because that would be stupid,” he said, with forceful conviction: Roy's stomach flipped.

They had kept their relationship private, unexamined, and when a newspaper article had brought the whole thing smashing out into the open it had hit them hard: but now, Ed was there on the radio, taking matters into his own hands. Of course he was: Edward Elric was the kind of man who insisted on being the master of his own destiny.

The warm feeling continued to grow in the general as he realized the extent of the younger man's brilliance. This was what they had needed: in one stroke, Edward had both injected hope into their difficult campaign and expertly garnered public sympathy in a way that would – hopefully – not come off as politically motivated. Politics was only part of it – though, to be fair, it was really quite a large part.

For strategic purposes, Roy and Edward they needed to portray themselves as victims. The longer their struggles continued, the more Roy began to realize just how much his need to appear as the victim, as the injured party, conflicted with his need to remain strong and confident to the public eye, so that the populace could regain its respect for and faith in him as a leader. He had yet to think of a way to reconcile the two – but apparently, without telling him, his younger lover had done exactly that. Consequently, Edward – selfless, beautiful, brilliant Edward – had decided to take a bullet for him, exposing his vulnerabilities for public display so that Roy wouldn't have to.

All of these considerations – the practical, the calculating – were pushed away, unimportant, when once again, his focus flickered back to an unrelenting thought.

Edward loves me.

For a bare moment, the shadow of doubt in him wondered if Edward was just saying it for the radio, for the sake of the audience, wondered if maybe he didn't really mean it. But the general knew better almost as soon as he thought it: Edward was honest to a fault, and even if he weren't, Roy knew that he would never, never lie about something like this.

God, he loves me. What did I do to deserve that?

The track of his thoughts kept coming back to it, unable to leave it alone.

I wonder what he's thinking right now.

In Roy's imagination, the younger man was sitting at home, tense, afraid of how the general was going to react – afraid that the other man didn't love him back, that he had just bared himself to rejection and humiliation. Sometimes, Edward's self esteem was absurdly, criminally low – this was one of those cases, because how could the answer to that unasked question be anything but obvious?

Did he love Edward, with his flash of bright hair and golden eyes, with his sharp-toothed smile and his sharper tongue? Did he love the man's fierce protectiveness, his single-minded determination, his unwavering loyalty and conviction? Did he love the sight of Edward sprawled out on his couch, book in hand, his nose wrinkling in concentration as he read?

Did he love Edward? Of course he did. He struggled to see why anyone would not.

The rest of the interview passed in an euphoric blur, as he listened to the weave and twist of two voices on the radio, Edward pulling out all stops to be intelligent and witty and altogether charming.

When the last question had been asked, and Rebecca's last narration finished – “a remarkable young man in an unusual situation, resilient even under intense pressure,” but of course Roy had known that already – he sat for a long moment, in stunned silence.

“Well,” Madame Christmas said, looking entirely too smug, “I saw that coming from a mile away.” That burst a short, disbelieving laugh from Mustang. “What, don't tell me you were surprised?”

“Stunned, actually. Flabbergasted, even,” he said, smiling as he stood, reaching into his pocket to finger Edward's folded apology note.

“'Zat so? I guess that's just because you're too stupid to see what's right in front of you,” she said, fondly. The sounds of laughter and conversation from the bar outside resonated through the closed door as she paused. Mustang went to the rack by the door and swept his trenchcoat back on again. “That's quite some boy you've got there, isn't he?”

“More than you even know,” he said, and made for the door.

*

The effect of the radio broadcast on Al was such that he completely forgot about the tea he had been drinking, his teacup resting in his hand and the liquid cooling, unmourned. Ed's coffee sat in front of him on the table, similarly neglected.

How had he not known this? He usually knew what Edward was thinking and feeling miles before Edward knew it himself, or at least figured it out at the same time. How had he missed something so crucial? Sometimes it felt like he didn't even know his brother anymore.

When the broadcast was over, Alphonse turned to his brother, brown eyes wide and brain working furiously. The older man's face was considerably paler than was his norm: he looked spooked, on edge. Is he scared of how I'm going to react to hearing this?

“Brother...” he said, trying not to sound hurt, because he wasn't. “You never told me any of these things. You're... in love with him?” He knew that by all rights should be happy, right then: if he had been a good brother, a good person, he would have been. Al had always considered himself to be a good person – so what was that emptiness in his chest that weighed on him so heavily?

“Um, yeah,” Ed replied, frowning, the tone of his brother's question seeming to take him by surprise. “You okay, Al? Is something wrong?”

“No, not at all! I'm happy for you, Brother.”

The lines on Ed's forehead deepened. Around him the orange-dark of sunset fought with the yellow of the electric light, casting purple shadows off of everything in a spread of twos and threes.

“I don't believe you. What's wrong?”

What's wrong? Nothing. Nothing, except that you're hiding from me, that I'm seeing you slip away and nothing I'm doing is helping to bring you back. Brother... After everything we've done, after everything we've been for each other, is this going to be the thing that tears us apart?

Back when his face had been made of steel, he had at least been able to hide his emotions if he so chose – that had been one of its sparse advantages. He had little such skill with his human face.

“Al?” Ed prompted, breaking through the stream of his thoughts. It occurred to Al that by not saying anything, he was indulging in exactly the kind of bad habit for which he was so constantly berating his brother. Some little sad part of him wanted to curl up to hide the tender wound where he had just been cut, and another part almost felt vindicated in coveting his secrecy: Ed kind of deserved to see how it felt to be kept in the dark.

But he didn't want to be a hypocrite, and he really didn't want to hurt his brother, either, and he was bad at lying anyway.

“Sorry, Brother. I just worry about you, you know?” A thick silence suffused the air. “I have no idea what's happening in your life anymore.”

The deepening of the frown on Ed's face was Al's fault.

“You're worried about me because I'm...” Ed's sentence drifted off into mumbling that Al couldn't understand, though he could make a good guess as to what the other man had meant. They would be hard for him to say, Al guessed. They had to be. But – apparently, they had been easier to say on a radio broadcast in front of thousands of people than they were in front of his little brother, who was devoted to him and adored him and wanted nothing more than for him to be happy. “I thought that bein' in love was supposed to be a good thing,” the older brother finished.

The tide of Al's pent-up frustration pressed against the dam of his willpower, but his determination was stronger, for the moment.

“Of course it is,” he replied, smiling. “Really. I'm happy for you. You two are good for each other, I think, and as much as you pretend that you don't, it's obvious that you care about each other. I'm glad you've finally gotten around to admitting it.” Saying something like that would have been a major challenge for Edward – he hoped Roy appreciated it.

A flush of pink colored the tips of Ed's ears.

“Yeah, whatever,” the elder said, sounding at once surly and pleased. “It's no big deal.”

“I think that the General might think it's a big deal,” said Al, teasing. “I bet he's on his way here right now for smoochies or –”

“Oh, shut the fuck up,” said Edward, scowling, but without malice. Then, his eyes fixed back on his little brother and the expression fell. For the second time in as many minutes, Al cursed his inability to hide his emotions: they were probably written all over his face. Edward continued. “But what the hell are you worried about me for?” he asked, softly. “This isn't nothin to get all worried about. I can handle myself.”

“Oh, brother,” said Al – then, as if the dam broke, he couldn't keep his thoughts in any more and didn't want to. “I'm not worried about you because of that. I'm worried about you because of the million other things in your life that you haven't told me about. I'm” – he pushed on through it, though the words hurt for him to say – “worried about us because of that.” His eyes were open wide, fixed on Ed, as he fought to keep back the rush of sudden emotion. “You spend so much time trying to keep me out. I feel like you don't trust me anymore.”

“Al...” said Edward, fisting his hands tightly around his coffee mug. “Don't be stupid,” he told his little brother, gentle, but nonetheless admonishing. “Nothing in this world or any other is gonna take me away from you. After everything we did to get you back, there's nothing stronger than us.” He flashed Al a familiar grin and sat up straighter. “We're the Elric Brothers. I'm nothin' without you, and you – well, actually you'd probably manage fine without me,” he said with a laugh. “But we're a set. A package deal. Whether I love you or not has never been a question.”

The swimming unsteadiness that overtook Al's vision was perfectly normal, and had nothing whatsoever to do with tears.

“But... Brother...” He tried to collect himself again, but when he continued, the words were choked. “Still. Did I... did I really have to find out about this from the radio? You couldn't have talked to me about it?” He paused to try to work the tightness from his throat: after a moment, he recovered enough to speak. “You never tell me what's happening with you, or what you're thinking. And you tell the General all that stuff, apparently.” He clenched his teacup harder, fought with his vision to keep it straight. “Or, I don't know. Maybe you don't tell him about it – I don't even know enough about you anymore to know for sure. But you have deep conversations with him while I'm not there, about things that I don't even know about. You say you'll tell me stuff later, but you never really do. I just feel like you're cutting me out.”

Ed actually flinched visibly when Al said that, as if he had attacked from behind, and Al felt bad immediately, although he couldn't find it in himself to regret his honesty. There was a silence that was too long to be comfortable.

“Are you talking about yesterday evening?” he finally asked, with a look on his face that the younger easily recognized as guilt.

“Yeah,” said Al: maybe that wasn't when this feeling, this worry, had started, but dinner the evening before had certainly been when it had consolidated into something recognizable.

“Ah,” he said, then paused. Haltingly, he began again. “The situation... isn't what you think it is,” Edward muttered, staring at his coffee mug, and at the gold-silver twist of his hands around it. “The radio program is the first Mustang's heard of this, either. That was the first time I ever told anybody,” he said, and Al's eyes widened – Really? Ed had confessed for the first time on a radio program? Oh god, no wonder his older brother had been acting so nervous about the whole thing – he wasn't worried about what Al would think. He was worried about General Mustang. Al wasn't sure whether this made him feel better or worse, but his brother went on before he had a chance to decide. “And as for the conversation last night... well, that whole thing was kind of us fighting about the fact that I wouldn't tell him anything. 'S not just you. I'm stupid with everybody else, too,” he said, bitterly.”

Alphonse had the immediate sense that he was treading on something dangerous, and that this was the wrong time to do that. Even he couldn't always be good at listening to those sorts of feelings, though.

He wanted to be happy for his brother. Really, he did. He wanted to see Ed smile, unencumbered: he hadn't, in what was growing to seem like forever but upon reflection had only been about a week, since he had made chocolate chip pancakes in their kitchen. Really? Only a week? Is that all?

“I know that you love me, Brother. I just wish that you would talk to me,” said Al, putting a hand out across the table to rest on top of Ed's.

Immediately upon contact, all of the muscles in his brother's body tensed up: his eyes went wide, stare locking on their hands – his body gave a jerk as if to pull away from his Al's touch, but stopped himself. They were left there, the air of the room indescribably awkward, the skin where they touched burning. On instinct, Al drew away, a shock of inexplicable guilt hitting him.

The noise and shake of a slamming front door startled them both out of that horrible moment: they looked over to see Roy striding through their living room towards them. Al couldn't decide if his irritation or his gratitude were greater: this was a hell of a time for the general to decide that he was going to start using his key instead of just knocking and waiting to be let in, like he had every time before.

“Oh, hello, General,” said Al, keeping his voice calm and pleasant, as if there weren't a line of discomfort strung between him and his brother, thick and near-tangible. He stood up from the table, knowing that Ed's eyes were following him, and said: “I suppose I should head upstairs and leave you two to it, then. Unless you'd like me to make you some tea?” Al said, almost hopefully. For the first time in a while, Al looked down and noticed the half-full teapot in front of him. “It looks like this pot has gotten cold.”

Roy laughed, the sound freer than it had been since the start of this whole mess – and that was good, really, Al reminded himself.

“Thank you, Alphonse. You're very kind,” he said, happily. Edward looked strung out, half-ready to bolt in the direction of the nearest door. This must be so frightening for him, Al thought, with a pang of hurt and sympathy, his own worries forgotten for the moment. This was the moment of potential rejection for him, the moment where he was most vulnerable – and Al's presence was only going to prolong the response. He had to get out of there, this wasn't his business, wasn't his place –

But then, without warning, Roy Mustang dramatically swept down on one knee in front of his younger lover, his smirk amused as he folded his hands together on his knee. Ed's eyes widened, and he pulled back, flat against the back of his chair, looking nothing less than dismayed – maybe even terrified – as Roy's expression switched from smug to serious.

“Edward Elric, thank you,” the general said, eyes focused intensely on Edward's, which only seemed to make the younger man's embarrassment more acute. “I know what doing this must have cost you, and you have no idea how much I appreciate what you have done for me. I am honored that you would think so highly of me. You are an incredible human being, the strongest person I have ever met, and I love you.”

This time, Ed fairly scrambled back and away, knocking his wooden kitchen chair over in his haste. Alphonse felt blood rise to his cheeks.

“What the hell, Mustang?!” Ed hissed, spilling his coffee all over himself and everything around him in his mad dash to get away from the general, but he didn't seem to notice or care.. “The fuck do you think you're doing?”

“Confessing my undying love to you, of course,” the general said, expression once again smug and thoroughly amused. “What does it look like I'm doing?”

Alphonse had thought he himself was flushed, but he imagined it was nothing compared to how Ed looked then. He was as red as his signature jacket from his hair all the way down to his chest, wide-eyed and mortified, his coffee cup dangling limply from his metal hand.

“Undying –” The word came out a croak, half-finished. “The fuck are you down on one knee for? You makin' fun of me?”

“Not even remotely,” Roy said with a warm laugh, getting to his feet again. “No, not a bit. I mean it, Edward,” he said in response to Ed's evident disbelief. The two stood a few feet apart, eyes locked on each other, neither even really noticing that Al was there at all anymore. “I'm honored and touched by your confession and I have no idea what I did to warrant such devotion from you, but I'm grateful for it. And I want to make sure you know that the sentiment is returned.”

Edward remained frozen where he had stopped, his flesh arm still in front of him in a defensive position, ready to spring away at the first sign of trouble. The flush hadn't left him.

I should probably clean up that coffee, Al thought, distantly.

“You're... you're a fuckin' sap, you know that?” Edward said, an embarrassed accusation.

“Maybe,” said Roy, his voice light. “I have been charged with such a crime before, and mostly by you. But it's my enlightened opinion that one of us ought to be at least a bit sappy, and it's certainly not going to be you, so really, I have no choice,” he continued, teasing. It dawned on Al then, with a mixture of surprise and confusion, that once again the two were standing about five feet apart, neither making a move towards the other. They hadn't kissed, or hugged, or touched in any way, although the general, at least, looked like he wanted to very much.

“I told you not to fuckin' make fun of me,” he snapped.

“And I told you that I'm not. Well, maybe I am a little bit,” the older man conceded with a chuckle. “But I'm not making fun of your admission – just of your general nature.”

Behind the surly defensiveness, Al could see his brother collecting himself: the fervent blush had begun to subside.

“...You're weird as shit,” Edward finally said, flashing his lover a quick, pale grin. “You don't get to make fun of me when your first instinct when talking about relationship shit is to get down on one knee. I guess I should be grateful there wasn't a fuckin' bouquet of roses.”

“And I don't believe you have any room to criticize my methods when your first instinct when confessing is to do so as far away from the actual object of your affection as possible,” he said, an eyebrow arched and a smirk painted on.

The color of Edward's face deepened once again, although he didn't seem displeased. If Alphonse could have disappeared straight out of the room without drawing attention to himself, he certainly would have. As it was, although they had said nothing particularly secret, he felt like he was intruding on something really private, intimate in their own – really weird – way.

Mustang continued, smoothly.

“But the radio show was perfect, Edward. You were brilliant.” This time, his brother's embarrassment had a distinct edge of pride. Al could see Ed puffing up before his very eyes. “At first, I was a bit stung that you went behind my back to do this, and I wondered whether you were making the right decision, but actually hearing your interview cured any lingering doubts I may have had. I would just like to tell you how very impressed I am with how you handled yourself on the air today.”

Ed's returned a half-cocked smile, the praise evidently having bolstered his confidence.

“Oh yeah? The hell were you expecting?”

“Oh, I don't know,” Roy said, warm. “I'm well aware that you can do anything you set your mind to, but often, what you set your mind to is antagonizing and provoking the people around you. It's rare and nice to see you setting your mind to being as charming as I know you can be. If you keep this up, I might just have to start worrying about you taking over my side of this business.”

That seemed to amuse Ed: his shoulders relaxed and he crossed his arms comfortably.

“Nah, not a chance. Don't worry, you've still got plenty of job security. You're ten times smarmier than me, and I'm not half a good at flirting with people as you are. Besides, I'd hate it anyway.”

Roy's raised eyebrow drew up further, and the man let his gaze stroke slowly, meaningfully, up and down Edward's body. Alphonse blushed deeper, startled.

“Is that so? It seems to me that you have quite the natural talent at seduction, as well,” he said. The man's tone wasn't particularly suggestive, but those words in combination with the way he was clearly undressing Ed with his eyes finally motivated Al into getting the hell out of there.

“Oh, um, I'll just make that tea then, shall I?” Al squeaked, then cursed silently as their eyes turned to him, as if once again remembering he was there – he had never wanted to draw attention to himself, but what else was he supposed to do? Just disappear without saying anything? “Or – I could go upstairs. Yeah. That's what I'll do,” he declared, scooting around Roy and into the living room to head for the stairs “You two have fun!” he said, trying to keep his voice steady and cheerful.

Edward turned golden eyes on him, and for a moment, he looked sad again. Then, he looked away, and bent down to pick his chair up by the back and right it, setting all four feet on the floor again.

“Thanks, Al,” he said, softly, still not meeting his brother's eyes. “I'm really sorry. We'll talk later, okay?”

Part of him – the irrational part, the childish part – was really sick of being told that he would be let in on it “later,” was sick of being shown in a million ways that he came second in his brother's life now; his more rational, grown-up side reminded him to shut up because he was being stupid. This was a very special situation: it was the first day his brother ever admitted to being in love. Al was sure it was strange and confusing and wonderful, but probably mostly confusing. The only thing he should be doing right then was being supportive.

“Yeah,” Al replied. “Of course. Later. I'll see you then.” He gave his brother a smile as he turned to go, and hoped his brother understood that he was so, so happy for him.

*

Alphonse's departure up the stairs left Edward feeling at once relieved and exposed: without his brother to mediate the meeting, the empty space between Ed and Roy became almost deafeningly loud. At the same time, he watched his brother's retreating back with regret, knowing that he was probably sad and lonely and scared and trying so hard to be happy for Ed even through it all.

There had to be some way he could ease all of his little brother's fears, to make him see just how much he meant to Ed.

The realization came as a twist inside of him: god, there was no way he was going to be able to keep from telling Al about that night, and about what had happened after. Then, everything would come clear: he needed Al to know that none of it had anything to do with Ed liking Mustang more than Al (he didn't) or trusting him more (he didn't). It just had to do with –

He broke that thought off and turned his attention back to Mustang, standing in front of him like a monument: Mustang, who had met his offering with open arms and a smile; Mustang, who apparently, against all odds and despite the fact that he could have anybody he wanted, apparently loved him, Edward Elric. Him, with all of his scars and his stubborn-ass prickliness, with his stupidity and aggression and defensiveness and everything else that had ever driven Roy crazy; somehow, despite everything, Mustang thought he was worth it.

Goddammit, Roy was in love with him. Now he was going to have to start earning it.

“Perv,” Edward finally said, breathily, in response to his lover's compliment or come-on, to the man's appreciative gaze. The man's eyes traced his body so heavily that he could almost feel them on him: his insides grew hot and shivery. Without allowing himself to think twice, he continued. “Can't you even go ten minutes without eye-fucking me?” he said, finding himself mercifully flattered rather than threatened by the attention.

Roy caught the look in his eye, and his intention along with it.

“If you don't want to attract my attention, then don't wear clothes that make you so gloriously appealing,” Roy purred, dark eyes undressing Ed slowly, intense. “A man could hardly help himself.” He didn't make a physical move forward: this was Ed's game, now, and he set the pace. At the tone and the look in the man's eyes, Edward felt a faint stirring between his legs, pleasant and yet also unwelcome, but it was gone again as quickly. The general cocked his head, watching Ed knowingly, smile slanted. “Or was it not my attention you were trying to attract? Was it maybe – Ms. Daniels?”

The pink returned to Ed's cheeks, faintly.

“Well, I did kinda dress up for her, yeah. I thought –” No, don't be embarrassed. Own this. You did, not too long ago. “I thought that she'd like it. And social shit always seems to go over easier for me when I look hot,” he said, forcing on a grin.

Roy laughed, and Edward warmed to the sound.

“I struggle to imagine why,” he replied with a soft amusement, and if Ed were sane, if he were normal, he would go over there and kiss the man, and then they'd fuck and lie there in the afterglow, and forget about all of this.

“But, uh –” continued Edward, “I actually wore this for you.” He gestured down to the crisp button-up shirt in a deep red that Roy had bought him a few months back. The top of the shirt gaped to reveal his neck and upper chest, as he knew the general liked: the older man had often said that the fit and color looked particularly striking on him, and he always said as much with this sharp look in his eyes that curled warmth straight through Ed's stomach. “I know you like the way it looks on me,” the younger man finished.

But upon glancing down at his shirt, to his dismay, he noted for the first time the fact that he had spilled half of his cup of coffee on the bottom right side of the shirt. Goddammit, he thought, as he noticed that the other half of the dark liquid had struck a long, wet mark across the floor. He thought about transmuting it off of the tiles, and out of his shirt – but the memory of his teacher's voice interrupted the thought, declaring that “if you can fix it with your own hands, you should,” and decided against it.

“Aw, shit. Now it's stained,” he grumbled, instinctively moving to unbutton it so he could stick it in some water in the sink so that it wouldn't set in before Al could get to it. His little brother was way better at that kind of of domestic stuff than Ed was.

He stopped mid-motion: he felt Roy's eyes on him without even having to look up, as pointed and searing as a brand. Frozen, his eyes still held down, his own breathing grew heavier, challenged by the weight of the atmosphere.

“See?” Edward said after a moment, unable to hide the faint shaking of his voice. “You can't even go ten minutes without eye-fucking me.” Swallowing dryness, he looked up, meeting the other man's eyes despite his instinctive hesitance, and shivered at what he saw there.

“How could I not stare when you're standing in front of me, looking like that,” he said, rumbling, “and threatening to undress? I challenge you to find a person who would be unaffected by this,” he said, sounding at least as strained as Edward felt.

Was Mustang really that turned on by what he saw, even though Ed had done so very little? Was that tremor in the man's voice the sound of the man trying to restrain himself?

A rush of feeling hit Ed then – he felt powerful, dangerous, utterly in control of this situation. The tide of nervousness hit him again, churning with echoed memories of hateful words, but he pushed it aside with as much aggressive determination as he could summon. Slowly, forcing himself to stay calm, he began to undo the fourth button from the top, skipping the first three as he had never clasped them shut in the first place.

The room went still, the sound of breathing suddenly absent: Edward became aware that the general was holding his breath, eyes fixed on the younger man's deft fingers. The button slipped through crisp cotton, and Ed slowly, deliberately, pulled the two halves of the shirt apart to lengthen and widen the delta of revealed skin. Dark eyes raked past his chest to the very bottom of the gap, where the absence of protective clothing teased a glimpse of his stomach – Ed heard a hissed exhale.

“Edward,” Roy said, voice rough and gloriously unrestrained. Ed didn't respond: he moved his hands down to the next button and began to repeat the earlier action. “Edward, please,” he said, and Ed looked up, two creases appearing on his forehead, unsure what the other man was asking.

The struggle between will and want showed clearly on the general's face: the sight made the warm, shivery feeling in Ed's loins return, growing in needful intensity.

“I'm going to ask that you please stop,” Roy said, face and tone taut with effort, “because seeing you like this and not being able to touch you is an absolute torment.”

God, Ed hadn't known it was possible to so fervently want something and want anything but that thing at the same time.

No matter how much his body begged him to allow Roy free access, to let himself lose himself in the pleasure of skin on skin, he knew he couldn't – not yet. The prospect was appealing, but he knew that the physical reality of a warm hand on his body would scare him, sicken him, and he would have to stop, and then everybody would be miserable instead of just horny. More than that, if he let himself make that mistake then god only knew how long it would take him to get to this point again – to be able to stand in front of this other man with confidence, an unresolved desire crackling between them, to be able to want and be wanted despite the lingering fear.

Half-regretful, half-relieved, Ed removed his hands from the button upon which he had been hesitating, then flicked them back up to slide the next button back into place, then the next, leaving himself mostly covered. Roy let out a long breath.

“I'm not sure whether I'm more thankful or disappointed that you did as I asked,” Roy said, wryly, a bit of his frustrated arousal still tinging his voice. Ed's returning laugh was only a bit shaky.

“You and me both,” he said, finally moving to sit down in the chair he had so recently righted. “This is confusing as all hell.”

“I can imagine,” Roy replied, taking Ed's cue and sitting down across the table from the younger man. “But, at least, you seem to be doing better than you were. Correct me if I'm wrong, of course,” he said, sounding nearly normal again.

“Yeah,” Edward agreed, feigning confidence, pushing his mind away from his wants. “You can only let that shit bother you for so long,” he finished. He and Roy both knew that the last part was a lie, but it was a comforting, encouraging lie, so they let it be.

“I'm glad to hear it,” the general replied. “Very glad.” A pause. “What changed?”

“Coupla things, I guess,” Ed replied, working up the courage to actually maybe tell Mustang about some of said things. The man loved him, the younger man reminded himself: maybe he could start to trust that the general wasn't going to leave when he found out how fucked up Ed was – the man already knew how fucked up he was. There wasn't any more shit to find out, really: for some reason, that fact was immensely comforting. His chest heaved outward as he took a deep breath. “Well, I guess the first thing was that I had this really godawful dream last night” – he wouldn't go into any more detail than that unless specifically asked: it wasn't really necessary anyway – “and finally remembered how tiny and insignificant this is when compared to all the other shit I've been through in my life. If I can handle all of that, I can handle this too,” he said, with certainty.

A roil of his stomach undermined the determination in his words. Even though this one thing really was tiny and insignificant, somehow the memory of that night still bothered him. This fact irritated him more than he knew how to explain, made him angry without cause or focus. The one positive result of the ill feeling was that the arousal that had lingered after the lovers' brief, lightning brush with the intensity of their mutual need entirely deserted him in the face of his nausea. He continued on.

“On that topic, I finally went and got that – thing taken care of last night, too. The cut,” he added, in case Roy hadn't caught his meaning.

The older man nodded, the sadness in his eyes belying his faint smile.

“Good. Untreated wounds can be quite dangerous. I was worried.”

Edward made a face. Right – this was why he avoided talking about these things. He hated the expression the man was wearing, hated the worry and the pity – he just wanted to see Roy smiling, just wanted the man to be that smarmy bastard he had become so fond of somewhere along the line.

He just wanted everything back to normal – but he knew that making it happen wasn't going to be as simple as it sounded. Nothing ever was.

“Well, don't be worried, you know I hate that shit. I'm fine, it's fine, moving on,” he said, and before his lover could frown at the evasion, he continued. “But, uh, also – I'm glad you didn't, uh reject me an' stuff, after what I said on the radio,” he said, blood once again rising to his cheeks. Roy's eyebrows arched high on his face and his eyes went wide. “So, um, thanks for that,” he said, feeling stupid as soon as he said it.

A half-second of pause – then Roy met the words with a bright, long peal of genuine laughter. Ed bared his teeth, his hackles rising – I say something like that and the fucker laughs?

“Why the fuck are you laughing?” he snarled, ready to spring up from his seat at the table and stomp away at the slightest provocation. “Did I fuckin' say something funny?”

The laughter stopped immediately, although the smile didn't leave the other man's face.

“I'm sorry, Edward, I didn't mean to upset you. I wasn't laughing at you. I was laughing because it's funny how obtuse two human beings can be about each other's feelings – and about their own, if it comes to that. I was laughing because you seem to be under the impression that I could ever deny you anything.”

Roy leaned forward to shorten the distance between them.

“Well, let me set you straight,” he said, serious. “It's absolutely absurd that you feel the need to thank me for loving you. I am astonished that something like that would even occur to you. Every day, I thank any deity that might exist that you still choose to put up with me. The idea that you, as brilliant and amazing as you are, might actually love me seems surreal to the point of fantasy. If anybody gets to thank anybody, then I should be thanking you.”

The scowl Ed wore grew softer, pinked in embarrassment rather than fury.

“That's stupid,” he mumbled. “Why the hell would you thank me?”

“Why indeed,” Roy said, his brief affect of seriousness disappearing in a wave of amusement. “So let's agree to stop being stupid, as you put it, and dispense with the thanks, shall we? If you don't, then I may be forced to compliment you some more.”

“Asshole,” mumbled a properly blushing Edward. “Yeah, whatever,” he said, and Roy smiled.

***

Chapter Text

Chapter 11

*

Not all of the plans that General Weimar had been forging in secret were as provincial and petty as his grudge match against Mustang: no, that was only the first step in something much greater and further-reaching. Less than a month from the date upon which he had set his plan into motion, the list arrived, to his great anticipation. Although he understood that he hadn’t yet exhausted the spectrum of treachery in his country, he also reveled in the knowledge that he was no longer powerless against the forces that waited in the dark, slavering, to tear Amestris to the ground.

The first time he laid eyes on the list, still in its envelope and clenched in the hand of the sergeant who had brought it to him on that Monday afternoon, he found himself actually trembling with excitement – he barely even remembered to thank the man before dismissing him. He knew what it was before even sliding it out of its manila casing, before locking eyes on the first name he saw there, but the confirmation set his heart beating faster. As soon as the messenger departed, Weimar picked up the phone and dialed a familiar number: in minutes, he had arranged an appointment with the Fuhrer for 4:00.

The hours until the meeting passed with a torturous slowness: his work took on a curiously irritating and impermanent quality in the face of that fluttering anticipation. Every time he tried to get back to his other work, he stayed there for perhaps no more than five minutes before his eyes strayed back to the list. Normally, he didn’t mind his usual administrative nonsense – approving documents, suggesting new training techniques, modifying pay grades for his subordinates – but that day, his mind was elsewhere, on more important things. Today, he would change the world.

At the very click of the clock that announced half past three, Weimar gave up. He picked up his leather briefcase by its handle, worn dark and glossy from use, put the documents in it, locked it firmly, and strode out of his cramped office, down the hallways, his grip on the case white-knuckled as he followed the familiar path automatically.

In fewer than fifteen minutes, he arrived at the outer office and passed a greeting to the Fuhrer's secretary. She nodded at him in return, and stood to draw the inner door open. As he stepped inside, Weimar could see Fuhrer Hakuro sitting on his blue couch, one knee crossed over the other and a teacup to his lips, the saucer held carefully with his other hand below it. The general saluted – Hakuro returned a casual “At ease,” and Weimar settled himself on the couch opposite to his leader. He did not take the teacup set out in front of him.

“Hello, General Weimar,” the Fuhrer said, mildly. “I’m surprised to see you again today.” He took a long sip of his tea, then set both the cup and saucer back down again. “It's rare for you to request a meeting with me outside of our regular schedule, especially when the council just met this morning. What brings you to my office today? Has something changed in the Aerugan campaign?”

Weimar feigned a look of polite confusion.

“What Aerugan campaign?” he said, still smiling. “I'm sure I don't know what you could be referring to.” The tightness in the Fuhrer's shoulders relaxed as he gave a short chuckle in return. The man had explicitly asked not to be informed about Weimar's attempts to sow dissent along the Aerugan border – he would have been no kind of special forces general if he insisted on just waltzing in and spilling state secrets without permission.

“Ah, my apologies,” Hakuro said with his own smile, the softening in the line of his brows making his relief clear: he had no desire to know about Aerugo in any detail. The important thing with him would be maintaining plausible deniability. The man settled himself against the couch cushions and draping one arm over the back of the furniture. “I must be thinking of something else.” The man glanced down at the briefcase. “I suppose, then, that you must have something to else share with me,” he said, then took another sip of the red-gold liquid in his cup.

Weimar nodded: the latches on his briefcase came undone in half a second under his expert fingers, and he opened it to pull out the paper in question. He pushed it across the coffee table.

“The investigations department has finally finished collecting a report that I commissioned just under a month ago,” he said, as the other man took the papers in hand. “I wanted to bring it to your attention as quickly as possible.”

Both of Hakuro's thick grey eyebrows arched into the air as he glanced over the first page, then turned to the next one.

“A list of citizen criminals?” he asked, giving Weimar a searching look over the top of the report.

“Enemies of the state,” Weimar responded, unmoved and unmoving. “We have been allowing those Ishballan bastards to infiltrate our cities for too long. It was about a month ago that I realized that they had to be living somewhere – the sewers just aren’t big enough for an infestation of this size. And harboring terrorists is a capital crime,” he added, just to reinforce his point. The Fuhrer, of course, knew his own laws, but the reminder would nudge the conversation further in his favor.

Hakuro sat in silence for another few long moments, continuing to read the contents of the first page, then leafed through a few more, then set the packet down on the couch beside him and laced his fingers together in his lap.

“So, you ordered Investigations to collect information on the citizens who have been giving work or shelter to the Ishballan refugees.” His brow pulled down low at a harsh angle. “Without asking me first,” he added, with tones of accusation.

But Weimar prepared for his meetings impeccably every time, and this one was no different. He had known how the Fuhrer would react, and knew exactly how to reply.

“Not at that moment, no. I thought that your time could be better used elsewhere until I had something substantial to report,” he said, easily, affecting faint surprise, as if he had never really considered the question before.

The other man replied with a short laugh, amusement creeping in once again, and said:

“So basically, you wanted to be sure you had succeeded before you reported your new initiative to me.” General Weimar just smiled and shrugged, noncommittal. “I suppose that's understandable.” He opened his jacket pocket to pull out a cigar; then, after a moment's pause, he pulled out a second one and offered it to the other man.

Weimar waved it away. Cigars were exclusively indulgences of celebration, for him, and rare. The taste of that smoke on his tongue called back too many memories, traces of nights spent talking under the open sky of the desert as sweet-bitter tobacco fumes swirled around them. Even the scent carried with it echoes of a man who had loved fine cigars and all of life's little indulgences, right up until his very last breath.

The Fuhrer shrugged and pocketed the roll again for his own later use, then withdrew the cigar clipper. He trimmed the end in one expert motion, then opened his lighter and clicked it until it sputtered into sparks and flame. Once it had steadied, he brought it to the tip of his cigar and held it there, rotating the roll slowly until the paper began to glow bright orange at the edges. As he pulled the lighter away, he puffed in a long breath and held it, and didn't release the fumes until he spoke.

“So then, I take it you're here to ask me for permission to do something about this,” Hakuro said, grey smoke curling from his mouth with each syllable.

“Yes, sir,” Weimar replied, doing his best to keep his mind off of the old, familiar scent.

“And what, exactly, would you like to do?” Hakuro asked; Mikhael straightened his back and locked eyes with the other man, and hoped that his leader could see his fervor, his unwavering patriotism in the set of his face, his shoulders.

“I think, sir, that the time has come to make an example of the few, for the good of the many.”

*

“Al,” Edward called, standing at the bottom of the straight staircase and staring up to the second story, his flesh hand warm against the cool banister. “Hey, Al.” He was very good at not showing his nervousness: he had a lot of experience in the matter. A door creaked tiredly as it opened above him; then, he heard a quiet:

“Yes, brother?”

“You can come back down now,” he said. “Mustang's gone.” He was, indeed. The man had left without so much as laying a finger on Edward, and his gratitude for this consideration almost matched his regret.

“Oh,” said Al, and Ed heard the echo of a few steps on wooden floor before Al appeared at the top of the landing. “How did it go?” he asked, cocking his head to the side.

In answer, Edward allowed a grin to spread across his face, relieved and happy because he had done it: he had confessed and Roy hadn't rejected him and he had really helped the man's cause in the process. Regardless, nervousness hung, unassailable, at the edges of his pleasure. There was one great obstacle left to pass.

“It went good,” he said. “Better than I expected. Better than I’d hoped. C'mon downstairs,” he told the other, stepping away from the stair with one foot so the line of his body led to where he was trying to go. He jerked his head in the direction of the kitchen, and gave a sidelong glance back to his brother. “We got stuff to talk about an' shit, don't we?”

Al took the stairs slowly, as if he weren't overeager to hear what Ed had to say. Ed knew his little brother well enough that the act didn’t fool him any.

“We don't have to if you don’t want to, Brother,” the younger said, each word careful: Ed got the impression that Alphonse had rehearsed what he was going to say, which touched Ed immeasurably. “I know that things have been hard for you recently, and I don't mean to put more pressure on you.”

Edward fought down the squirm of his stomach, fought the part of him that said you should be able to keep this shit to yourself, you sure as fuck shouldn't have to go crying to your little brother to feel better about it (you whore)

“Nah, don't be stupid, Al,” he said with a laugh. “I said we'd talk, and we will. Or d'you wanna make a liar out of me?”

Al smiled a bit, though the crease of worry between his brows gave him away.

“Just trying to give you a chance to back out,” he said, following his older brother into the living room. Edward turned and sat down on the couch just in time to catch the moment that his little brother's expression flashed with disapproval.

“What?” Ed asked, frowning. “What'd I do?”

“Oh, Brother,” Al sighed, shaking his head. “You've got a coffee stain on your nice shirt,” he said, sounding both resigned and disappointed, like he knew he shouldn’t have expected anything better. Ed flinched: that was a surprise.

“Oh. Uh – yeah,” he said, glancing down at it. “I spilled earlier, when Mustang showed up and scared the shit out of me by bein' a dumbass.” He most certainly was not blushing at the memory, and he would have denied it under oath if asked.

“...You could have at least transmuted the coffee out before it set in,” Al said, reproachfully. “Here, take it off. I'll go stick it in the sink.”

“Hey, aren't you the one who's always telling me to do less shit with alchemy? The last time I tried to transmute my laundry, you got all mad at me,” Edward said, jokingly, fingers moving up to undo the top button. “Besides, Teacher always said –”

“Yes, but Teacher also said that if you wanted your things to be beautiful, you shouldn't break them,” Alphonse shot back, before Ed could finish his sentence. “But you do that all the time, so I don't see why you'd care about breaking her other rule.”

Edward laughed as he finished unbuttoning the shirt, then slid it off and lobbed it at his brother's head. The younger brother had apparently not seen this coming, because the shirt caught on his face, covering up his look of surprise.

“Ah, shut the hell up,” Ed replied, his nervousness evaporating in the face of the easy rapport that they still shared, despite everything that had happened and all of those awkward, silent moments. “Besides, I'm pretty sure you care more than I do.”

Giving a quick laugh, Al pulled the shirt off of his face and balled it up in his arms.

“I don't believe you. You go out of your way to make people stare at you – you know you like it. Well, let me tell you: nobody ogles a guy with coffee stains on his shirt,” Alphonse said, matter-of-factly, which made the heat rise to Ed's cheeks.

“Really?” Ed replied, arching an eyebrow suggestively over a slight grin. “Funny you say that, 'cause Mustang might beg to differ. He was doin’ just fine.”

Al made a face, nose wrinkling as his tongue shot out.

“Ew, brother. If I've asked you once, I've asked you a thousand times: please don't tell me about your sex life,” he said. But then, without warning, his look of exaggerated disgust changed – grew softer, sadder – as his eyes latched on to Edward's shoulder. More specifically, onto the stitched-up slash on Edward's shoulder. Edward himself shrank as that injury grew, overwhelming him, and he wondered if it was all his brother could see.

“Edward,” he began, slowly. “What's that?”

“What's what?” he responded, guiltily.

“That cut on your shoulder,” Al said, crossing his arms and holding the cloth to himself. “Where did you get it?”

“Uh,” said Edward, because he hadn't really prepared for this, exactly – he had hoped to be able to start this conversation on his own terms, to come into this dance at the beginning, at a place where he knew the steps. “Um – well,” he said, standing up from his seat on the couch. “How 'bout you do whatever it is you're gonna do with that shirt, and we'll talk?”

Al's eyes searched him, all of the energy of the moment hanging on his silence. After a moment that lasted far too long, he nodded.

“Alright,” he replied, and began to walk towards the kitchen: Edward followed close behind. The younger tossed the shirt into the kitchen sink and turned the tap on. As Al waited for the water to warm up, the blonde hopped up onto the counter, letting his legs dangle over the side. His little brother watched him expectantly, and Edward's heart beat arrhythmically in his chest.

“So, that cut,” the younger continued, tone neutral, picking up a bar of soap and letting it run under the water for a moment before beginning to rub it on the stain. “Spill.”

“Ah, well,” started Ed, just to give himself space to get his thoughts collected. “Well, see, this might've kinda been an injury I never told you about from the other day, when I got attacked.” He paused. “You remember, when I got this,” he said, gesturing to the scabbed-over scrape on his cheek.

“I remember,” said Alphonse. Then, clearly trying to lighten the mood by teasing, he continued, “And I can take it from the clumsy stitch job that you sewed it up yourself?”

“Hey, I think I did a pretty damn good job, considering the fact that I had to do it with my left hand and in the fucking mirror, too,” Ed replied. “I'd like to see you do better.”

“Well I'd like to see you go to the doctor,” Al shot back, taking both hands to the shirt and rubbing it against itself until it put up a violent lather.

“I did!” Edward replied, indignantly: sure, it might have taken a while for him to make it there, and the doctor might not have ever looked at this particular wound, but he definitely had gone. “I just – cleaned it up myself first, so nobody else was gonna have to threaten me with needles.”

Alphonse gave a long-suffering sigh and shook his head, then turned off the tap, evidently deciding that the sink was quite full enough

“Don't lie to me, brother. I know you better than that. You never go to the doctor unless somebody basically drags you there by your hair.” Edward winced: he couldn't exactly claim that this wasn't true.

“Uh, yeah, well – Roy kinda made me,” he said, which was almost right.

“...So the General knew about this, too?” Al said, the end of his sentence unspoken, but clear: he knew, and I didn't?

“Don't get the wrong idea,” Edward said: the moment of truth was approaching, and he could feel the flutter of his pulse in the hollow of his neck. “It's not what you think.”

“Then what is it? Believe me, I'm listening,” said Al – then, without warning, a knock to the door interrupted them. They both turned to look at the source of the noise.

“I guess I should get that, huh?” said Edward, more than a bit relieved by the moment's reprieve. Al turned his head a bit to give his brother a hint of a smile: he wasn't blind to what Ed was trying to do.

“Nah, I'll get it. You're not decent, after all,” he said, indicating Ed's shirtlessness with a brief wave of his hand. The blonde returned a smile with the same quality, kicking his feet forward so that his heels fell back to hit the cabinet door in turn – one with a dull thud, the other with the harsh clank of metal.

“Mkay,” agreed Edward. Al shook the water off of his hands and, finding nothing else to dry them with, wiped them on the sides of his pants, then slipped over to the living room door and set one eye up against the peephole.

No sooner had he laid his eye against the hole than there was a sudden, visible change in Alphonse's demeanor: his brother stiffened, clenched his body as he stood straighter. Then, he pulled away and put a hand to the knob, pulling it open to reveal exactly who Ed didn't expect.

Three figures in police uniform stood outside: the first was a woman with a square jaw and a long, thin scar that cut down the right side of her face. At half-paces behind her stood two men, one of whom had shoulders like an ox and the other of whom appeared to be fingering a set of handcuffs lovingly.

“Hello, officers,” Alphonse began as the door finished its opening swing. “Chief LaForet. How nice to see you again.” Only very rarely did Ed ever hear his brother being insincere, but when it happened, it was obvious as a signal flare – something was up, and he had a bad feeling about it.

“Alphonse Elric? May we come in?” said the woman in front, her voice like gravel and ice.

“You know, I think that if I said ‘no,’ it wouldn’t make a bit of difference, so I’m not going to bother.” Al's tone turned from sarcastic to sharp in a second. “Can I help you with something?” he asked, in a way that implied that “help” meant anything but.

“You’re right. It really wouldn't make any difference at all,” she snapped back, unimpressed by his sass. “We officially have a warrant for the arrest of one Edward Elric,” she said, pulling a piece of paper out of her uniform pocket and opening it with a flick of her wrist: the warrant in question. The woman's eyes scanned the room, through the living room and into the open kitchen, then fell on Ed. She took a step into their entry, brushing straight past Al as if he hadn't even been there.

Goddammit, Edward thought, mind rushing: they're here for me? With the attack and the subsequent confusion and everything else that had been going on in his brain and in his life recently, he had hardly even given any serious thought to the possibility of his arrest. He scowled, tensing, getting ready to fight if he had to. Why was it that the worst possible damn thing that could happen to him almost always did? It wasn't fair: if there was a god, he was an asshole, and he had a fucking vendetta.

But his bitter irritation didn't stop the gears in his mind from spinning, careening through a thousand possibilities and ideas and thoughts at once. Of course, an arrest only made sense: it was equivalent exchange for his attack on the reporter. But why, Ed thought, with perhaps a touch of bitterness, does equivalent exchange so often mean punishment? It struck him as odd, not to mention irritating: the whole point of alchemy was to exchange one thing for another thing that you wanted. In all the other parts of life, that didn't seem to hold so true.

“Are you Edward Elric?” the woman asked him – Chief LaForet, Ed guessed, based on his brother's greeting.

“Who wants to know?” Edward drawled in reply, settling himself further onto the countertop, affecting relaxation. The line of her shoulders seemed to grow tighter.

“I am Chief Inspector LaForet of the Central City Police, and you are under arrest for assault and battery. I'm going to need you to accompany me to the police station now.”

“Hey, hey, hey – hold up there, chief,” he said, putting up both hands as if to tell her to slow down. “I never did answer you. You gonna go making arrests before you know for sure that I'm this Edward Elric guy? What happens if I'm not?”

The woman didn't seem impressed by Ed's sass, either – which was a shame, because he was really quite good at it. She just frowned at him even more fiercely.

“You have blonde hair and an automail arm, and are in the home Edward Elric shares with his brother. It would be pretty reasonable to assume that you are he.”

The grin Edward flashed the woman struck her off-guard: he could tell by the brief wash of confusion on her face.

“Wow, you're just a logical mastermind, aint'cha? Well, good job. Yeah, I’m Ed Elric. You caught me,” he said, sliding off of his seat and to his feet fluidly. “Now, whatcha gonna do with me?”

“I have already asked you to accompany me to the police station, where you will await your trial in jail, unless you can post the bail that the judge orders for your case.”

Ed crossed the room to stand in front of her: she might have been taller than him, but by no means did she have more presence. Her eyes flickered down to his bare chest, then up again: the sight seemed to disturb or annoy her for some reason. Ed saw, noted, considered – he set his background mental processes to work on the problem.

“So, you’re arresting me,” he finally said when locked himself into place, body squared, less than a foot away from her. “Are all arrests in Central so wimpy, or just yours?” he asked, baring fangs in a grin. “If you're gonna arrest a guy, at least fuckin cuff the guy up: don’t roll out the red goddamn carpet.”

The expression on her face turned dark, and Ed's grin only widened. Al gave a long, put-upon sigh. He was really making Al sigh a lot recently.

“Really, Brother? Are you going to do this?” he asked, resignation in his tone.

“Yeah, I really am. But don't you worry about a thing. I got this,” he said, never unlocking his stare from the chief inspector's. Everyone seemed to shrink back the closer he got: he wondered if his state of undress had something to do with that. Suddenly, wonderfully, everything fell into place, and he had an idea.

“On account of your many services to the state, I was going to treat you well,” she snapped, scowl deepening, “but if you insist on being treated like a common criminal, I can do that for you, as well.” The woman really would have been pretty formidable, to a normal person, but Ed had faced down so much worse. They stared each other down for eight long seconds, after which the discomfort apparently became too much for her to bear. “Go put a goddamn shirt on,” she finally growled, and that made Edward feel deeply vindicated, because he fucking loved being right.

“What, really? You're here to pick up a suspected criminal, and you're just gonna let him hop off like that? Seems like a pretty stupid thing to do from my end,” Edward said, his voice and the slant of his head giving off an aura of mocking disapproval. “Do I really need to tell you guys how to do your jobs? What are they teaching kids in police academy these days, anyway?”

The muscles in the woman's jaw bulged beneath her scar as she clenched her teeth.

“Alphonse Elric,” said LaForet, without turning her unblinking stare away from Ed, “Please go upstairs and collect a shirt for your brother.”

“Yeah, Al,” Edward said, intercepting the request. “Help a guy out and go get me one of my black tank tops? Thanks a million.” Al gave him a suspicious look: he wasn't sure what, exactly, his older brother was trying to accomplish, and even though it clearly made him uneasy, he didn't ask. Instead, he just nodded some kind of agreement and turned to go upstairs and retrieve the article of clothing in question.

As soon as Al was gone, LaForet went for the handcuffs on her waist.

“Now, Mr. Elric, put your hands together in front of you,” she ordered him, a daggerlike glint in her eye – but rather than putting him off, it really just made him want to bait her more. The kind of discomfort he could elicit in her was thrilling, dizzying, because the very fact that she was afraid of him meant he was powerful. He had learned, with Roy, just what an effect his body could have, when used properly: now, he wielded it to different effect.

“Already? But how will I put my shirt on when I'm all cuffed up?” he asked, with an innocence so overplayed it was suggestive. “I’m pretty sure you want me to do that. What would everybody at headquarters think about you if they saw you dragging me into headquarters, half-naked and in handcuffs? Everybody in Central knows I’m into that shit – it’s been all over the papers. Maybe they’d think you like it, too.” A pause. “Or maybe you do. Maybe that’s what you’re doing, right now,” he said, equal parts sultry and sarcastic. This time, she took two abrupt steps back and away from him, as if she was afraid he could contaminate her with his lasciviousness just by physical proximity. He could have laughed at the sight if it wouldn't have ruined the game he was playing.

It was actually kind of a funny turnabout: for once, Edward Elric was a making woman uncomfortable with his sexual advances rather than the other way around.

“I would shut my mouth, if I were you,” she said, visibly unnerved – possibly even disgusted? – but trying her best to keep it schooled under a mask of calm. “Edward Elric, you are under arrest, by the authority of the Central City police. You can make this as easy or as hard for yourself as you want, and I won't hesitate to treat you appropriately either way. Are we clear?” she said, squaring her shoulders and trying to regain her earlier composure.

“Crystal,” Edward drawled, carelessly.

A voice from the stairs interrupted their conversation:

“I can't believe you're arresting him,” Alphonse said, and when Ed looked over, he saw his brother stalking across the room, the requested shirt clenched in his left hand. Upon arriving, the younger man shoved the garment at Edward, then rounded on Chief Inspector LaForet. “You're... you're a horrible human being,” he said, sounding both surprised and offended by this. “I thought we talked about this already. I thought you had decided to leave him alone.”

Edward's eyebrows shot up in the air – when had Al been talking to the police about him? Clearly his little brother had been up to more in the past several days than Ed had given him credit for – and Ed wasn't the only one who was keeping his hand close to his chest. He made a mental note to ask about it later.

“Did you? Well, she's clearly not a very good listener, is she, Al?” said Edward, sticking his arms up in the air to shimmy into his tank top, and not minding at all how all three of the police officers stared at him as he did it. Then, he stuck his hands out, wrists together, offering them to her along with a sharp grin of victory. “Alright then, Chief Inspector, ma'am. Clap me in irons. Haul me away.”

He almost had to laugh: she now looked so thoroughly uncomfortable with the idea of putting him in handcuffs that for a moment she seemed unsure if she even wanted to anymore. Clearly, though, she wasn't the kind of person who would allow herself to back down in front of her subordinates, so she wasn't about to change her mind, but that was alright by him. Without so much as another word, she stepped forward and clicked handcuffs around his wrists quickly, professionally. Edward suppressed a shiver at the contact of foreign skin on his own, at the feeling of metal around his wrists – though the sensation was familiar, everything else was foreign, discomfiting.

“Brother, do you want me to come to the police station with you?” Al asked, warily, never taking his eyes off of the woman. With his hunched shoulders and wide stance, he gave off the impression of an angry cat with its ears laid flat and its hair standing on end. The younger brother knew his brother was cooking something up as sure as he knew it was Tuesday: that didn’t mean he was terribly happy about it, though. His worry showed through every instant of aggression.

“Nah. I got this,” said Edward, exuding good cheer that was almost entirely genuine. “Just let Roy know what's up. And don't let the bastard pay my bail,” he added. The man would try, but though that was nice of him, it would be inconvenient for a number of reasons.

Alphonse kept frowning, but seemed resigned in the face of his brother's determination.

“Alright, if that's what you want,” he said, slowly, as if considering all angles. As LaForet stepped away, Al tossed away all reserve and threw himself forward to wrap his arms around his brother. “Be good, brother,” he said, quietly, into Ed's shoulder.

It just figured – one of the few times Al would think to hug his brother, Ed was all fucked up in the head, and in handcuffs to boot. He reciprocated as best as he could, by giving a fond smile.. Really, his little brother's protective streak made him feel warm and happy and all kinds of other nice things, too, almost enough to stop him from flinching away from the unexpected touch.

“Aren't I always?” Edward said, flashing Al a grin as the younger pulled back.

Al returned the expression in kind, matched in intensity.

“No,” he said, his pride fierce and laid bare in his eyes. “You're not.”

“Nope,” said Ed, happily. “I'll give 'em hell for you, Al.”

“You do that, brother. I'll be right here, supporting you from the outside,” he said, and tapped his brother's shoulder with a closed fist, in an echo of days gone by. Edward flashed a brilliant smile: with his brother by his side, there was absolutely nothing to be afraid of.

*

That evening, after pulling himself from his shower, Roy found himself – distressingly – without anything in particular to do. Absently rubbing at his hair with the towel draped around his shoulders, he wandered his library aimlessly, every so often letting his fingers drift across the cool leather spine of one particularly familiar book or another as he tried to divine his next step.

It wasn't that there were no things to be done, it was simply that he could not at that moment be the one to do them. He was entirely too recognizable and therefore an enormous liability when it came to investigative work: he didn't need Harriet or Weimar or anybody else wondering just what, exactly, he was doing looking up old newspaper articles or court records or anything like that.

He plucked a book off the shelf and flipped it open, frowning at the page he found within, eyes scanning over it without really registering any of its content.

Everybody was risking so much for him, and he couldn't even help at all. He snapped the book shut again and stalked over to stand in front of his window.

There had to be something he could do, a next step he could take prior to meetings and interviews he had planned for the next day. Anything at all would do. After all, Edward was putting everything on the line for him. The least he could do would be to match that effort.

He loves me, he thought, stunned once again by the realization. He really –

He cut that thought off at the root: he had to stop this, to get out of his own head and focus. Dwelling on the intricacies of his personal life wasn’t about to get him anywhere. He had to keep his eyes up, keep them ahead, keep himself moving forward: he had to, if he wanted be worthy of all this love and devotion.

The ring of the telephone sliced through his train of thought: he walked over to it and picked it up automatically, without even really thinking about it.

“Hello, Mustang here,” he said, moving over to the armchair next to the receiver and leaning back in it.

“Hello, General,” said a familiar voice from the other end of the line. “I'm glad I caught you. I didn’t know if you’d be here or not.”

Where else would I be? he thought, wryly. It's not as if I have anything else in particular to do.

“Hello, Alphonse,” Roy replied. “I'm rather surprised to hear from you, actually. So, to what do I owe the pleasure? Are you calling to threaten me with death or violent dismemberment if my relationship with your brother shouldn't go as planned?”

Al chuckled.

“No, no. I was actually calling with some news,” he said. “Couple of things I thought you might like to know. Is this line secure?”

“How secure?” Roy asked, frowning. “Normally I'd say yes, as I had the line checked out about four days ago, but given everything that's been going on...” He let his sentence drift off meaningfully. “Well, four days is a long time,” he said, neutrally.

From the other end of the line came a noise of acknowledgment.

“Understood.” He paused. “Well, then, I won't go into too much detail. I just wanted to let you know that I've found some financial evidence linking the people we've been looking into,” Al said, eliciting a rise of pride and gratitude in Roy. “There's still a lot of footwork to do to verify the source of the questionable income, but I should have more information soon.”

“Thank you, Alphonse,” Roy said, genuinely grateful. “You have no idea how much I appreciate what you do for me.”

“Oh, um, it's nothing,” said Al, as if he were embarrassed by the praise. “And anyway, I'll have more to report the next time we see each other in person. I haven't gotten this new stuff to your investigations team yet, either, but I will tomorrow.”

That's right, he was ostensibly working with military intelligence on this stuff. Another thought came to him: You know, he and my mother would really be a terrifying team.

He broke into a smile: he was going to have to introduce the two of them, and he had a Plan for how he was going to do it.

“But that's not all I called about,” Al said, interrupting the general’s daydream. “I also wanted to tell you that Brother's just been taken away to jail,” he said, and the smile on Roy’s face dropped immediately, icing over in the pit of his stomach. The general sat there with the phone to his ear for a moment, unmoving.

“What?” he finally said, to give his struggling brain more time to process this new information.

“He told me to tell you not to worry about it,” he said, moving right along to the next topic as if the news needed no further explanation. He sounded eminently unconcerned. Roy wasn’t sure if this was genuine, or if the younger man was trying to put him at ease. “And also that you're not allowed to pay his bail.”

Roy frowned. Not worry? How could he not worry? How was Alphonse not worried out of his head?

“You'll forgive me for not taking his instructions to heart,” Roy said, keeping his voice calm. “Might I ask what he's in for, specifically?”

If the general was very lucky, this would be about his assault on Guy Harriet, and not something new. He didn't know how he would handle anything new arising at this hour.

“Just assault and battery, nothing you don't know about already. I understand why you'd be concerned – really, I do. I was worried at first, too. But this is the thing: you should have seen him before the officers took him away. He seemed... better than he has been. He was acting like his old self again, or almost. I mean, he was acting weird, but only the kind of weird that he normally is. That's why I'm not down there banging on doors and making a fuss.”

“You're not?” he said, surprise evident in the tone of his voice.

“No,” Al replied, with a soft laugh. “I'm not. You know why? Because I think that Brother has a plan. Given his status and the situation, the officers were basically just going to walk him into the station without much of a fuss, but he started antagonizing them, and actually made them angry enough that they put him in handcuffs. It wasn’t just like he was just mouthing off and getting himself in trouble, like he usually does – it was really deliberate. He actually seemed kind of happy about the whole thing.”

The flicker of yellow street lights interrupted the darkness that coated the street outside of Mustang's window in imperfect rhythm, and he watched it distantly, mind working. The city nights had begun to cool: in the faint halo of the lamps, he could see wisps of fog beginning their slow creep across the pavement.

“Why on earth would he be happy about being arrested?”

“Well, I have a theory,” said Alphonse. “I've been thinking about it. I haven't had very long to consider it, so don't judge me if it's silly, but I think he's happy to be put in jail because he really doesn't deserve to be.”

Roy responded with a baffled silence.

“I'm sorry,” he said after a moment. “Clearly I’m not on top of my game politically speaking today, because I’m having a lot of trouble with understanding this one. Care to enlighten me?”

“I know it sounds weird, but if you think about it, it actually makes sense. Brother went on the radio show yesterday because he thought it would drum up some sympathy for him, and therefore for you, right? I think he went to jail for more or less the same reason a lot of people are probably going to be very upset that he's been locked up, especially after the interview yesterday. He could be a martyr for you, if you handle this right.”

A wave of gratitude followed that statement, along with a certain amount of jealousy. Goddammit, was there anything that Edward wasn’t a genius at? He was the most brilliant person at so many things, and now he was good at politics, too? But that thought evaporated swiftly under the other waves of emotion that caught him then. Roy sighed and leaned back in his chair, his relief manifesting itself in half a tired smile.

“I see. And I can't pay his bail, because if I did, then I'd be the corrupt government official using my power and influence to get my lover out of trouble.” Though really, Edward didn't need any help to get out of jail – what cell could hold the Fullmetal Alchemist if he really wanted to escape?

Al’s probably right, mostly, Roy mused, trying to put many disparate pieces together in his head, but I wonder if the arrest isn't even something of a relief for Edward. A cell could serve two functions – it could keep someone in, yes, but it could also keep the rest of the world out.

“Exactly,” replied Alphonse. The voice in which he spoke was light, unburdened: Roy’s heart sank as he realized that that probably wouldn’t be true for long. If he still sounded so cheerful, Edward probably hadn’t talked to him yet. “So the best thing you can do, I think, is to bring the arrest up on the radio show. Your interview's tomorrow, right?”

“Yes.”

“Okay, good. Good.” A pause. “Well, I guess that's all I had to say, really. I just wanted to tell you about this myself before you heard about it from somebody else and went to make some police officers into crispy kebabs.”

“I appreciate that very much.”

“It's not a problem. It’s the very least I could do, actually. So, good luck with your interview tomorrow!” he said, brightly. “Actually, one more thing: congratulations on yours and my brother's dumbass confessions. You deserve each other,” he said, and the general was entirely unsure whether this was a compliment or not.

“I'm not sure if I should be flattered or insulted,” Roy said: Alphonse answered with a laugh, which didn't help.

“Oh, good,” he replied. When he continued, his tone was utterly different, sharp and steel-coated and utterly terrifying.

“But seriously, if I ever find out you've hurt my brother, I will skin you for a jacket. 'Kay?” he added, brightly, and hung up the phone without another word, leaving Roy to shiver coldly in the safety of his own home.

*

It took until several hours after sunset for Weimar to collect everyone and everything that he needed. He didn't mind the lateness of the hour, at least not much: he had no desire to end his operation early and head home, because he knew who would be waiting for him in his bed.

He hadn't spoken to Meredith properly since their fight the night before. He couldn't decide if he was more irritated or distressed: she couldn't see how ridiculous she was being, and nothing he was saying to her was really making any difference. Had she any right to judge him when she didn't have the faintest idea what being in politics was like, of the kind of deeds such a vocation necessitated?

And how could she compare me to Mustang? he thought, listening to the screech and scrape of tires on pavement as the car struggled to a halt. What did I do to deserve her scorn? Such thoughts had been distracting him all day: but why did the memory of her expression that night, cast in the firelight, bother him so much? He knew that she would come around over time. She always did. He had only to wait.

The young military police officer who had been driving him parked the car and turned it off, then stepped out of the vehicle to circle around it and open Weimar's door for him. As the general stepped out, he gave a nod of thanks, and the MP saluted, rigid: all around him, other men and women filed out of their own cars to stand in the small square he had chosen as their rallying point. When they were done, there were fifteen of them, arranged five to a row with their eyes focused ahead, guns held flat across their chests and angled up, awaiting his orders.

All thoughts of Meredith and his own troubles disappeared as Weimar took on the affect of his office: he stopped at the front of the column, standing with his feet spread apart, his back to their target and his hands folded behind him. He looked imperious, commanding, every inch the leader – and his men would follow him anywhere.

“Soldiers,” he began, never increasing his volume, but rather the clipped intensity of his speech. “Search the house. There are five family members: two adults and an infant, plus two older children. In addition, there should be two – guests,” he said, sardonic. “Find them all, then detain them in the living room for questioning. I will decide what to do from there. If any of them resist, you have permission to shoot. Understood?”

His team echoed back a “Yes, sir!” and never took their eyes away from the front.

“Excellent. Then proceed,” he said, and stood his ground as the soldiers started forward in a single file line starting with the leftmost column. He turned to watch the leader as the man stopped in front of the door and knocked: there was a long, awkward quiet before the MP had to knock again. In a moment, though, they heard the faint click of an unlocking door, pulling open to reveal a man with a dark grey mustache on the other side.

Weimar was close enough to see the man's eyes widen as he took in the sight before him: he took a staggered step backwards.

“Military police,” the lieutenant at the front of the line said. “Open up.”

“I don't understand,” the man in front of them replied. “Why are you here?”

“We have reason to believe that you and your family have been engaging in criminal activity. We have a search warrant for your house and two more for your arrest and your wife's.”

Shock registered immediately on the man’s face: he began to sweat, his pulse pounding visibly in his throat.

“But– what did we do?” the man said, taking another step backward. As he did, the line of MPs streamed in around him: in his surprise, he reached out to catch one of the soldiers by her sleeve to stop her from going in. She took the butt of her rifle and gave his hand a ringing smack: he jerked it away and clutched it to himself. She continued on, jogging behind Benedict to the stairs, the rest of the soldiers following behind her.

Weimar took this opportunity to interject, striding forward and through the door. The man's eyes locked on him, a mixture of fear and barely suppressed anger evident in every line of his face.

“What are you accused of, you ask? Well, harboring terrorists, Mr. Benedict,” he said, pleasantly, his smile even less genuine. “And we really have quite compelling evidence, too. What do you have to say for yourself?” The lieutenant stayed in front of Weimar, gun pointed directly at Benedict's chest. The general did not lift a finger of his own.

“Harboring – what? I don't –” He swallowed and collected himself, his mustache quivering. “We haven't done anything wrong,” he said, watching the backs of the soldiers as they stomped up the stairs or streamed into the living room on their left and the kitchen on their right. The stomp of heavy military boots echoed through the house.

“John?” came a high, woman's voice from the back of the house. “John, what's all the fuss?”

“Mary,” he called back, twisting his body to turn his head over his shoulder. “Everything's fine. Go get the kids and stay with them, okay?” he said, in a transparent attempt to get the MPs to feel sorry for him and relent. A futile effort: Weimar had trained these soldiers himself, and they were better than that.

“Or perhaps it would be best to just stay here and cooperate,” Weimar said. “I don't want you escaping and managing to warn your little rats before we get to them.”

The general nodded to another MP who had come to stand behind him: the man took off immediately in the direction of Mary Benedict’s voice. He came back moments later with a woman in front of him, a gun pressed to the small of her back.

Weimar took a folded sheet of paper from inside his coat pocket and spread it out in front of him.

“We hereby accuse,” he read, silkily, “John and Mary Benedict of the crime of treason, for the harboring, sheltering, and illegal employment of two Ishballan terrorists.”

The faint sound of children's crying reached them from above, and the man began to quiver in earnest.

“But – you can’t,” Benedict said, as if he expected his dismay to have some effect. “Is this about our renters? Yes, we rented our spare room out to two of our Ishballan employees, but that's not illegal. No one ever made a law saying I couldn't rent to whoever I liked.”

“By law,” Weimar began, delicately, “Ishballans are supposed to stay in the camps.” He motioned to the lieutenant, who took the signal and ushered their captives into the living room at gunpoint. “So yes it is, in fact, illegal.”

“That's what they say,” the woman cut in, “but no-one actually –”

“The law is the law, Mrs. Benedict,” Weimar said. “And Ishballan terrorists are a danger to the state. By harboring them, you have been facilitating their evil plots.”

The woman's lips went thin and tight, and she rounded on him.

“You have it all wrong! Tashi and Aman aren't like that. They're good men.”

The way she looked at him, eyes tight at the corners and shoulders squared as if she couldn't decide whether to cry or to hit him, disgusted him. She had been completely taken in by their lies – they both had been. If he hadn’t been so angry that they had put others in danger by allowing themselves to be fooled, he might have felt sorry for them.

Then, there was more commotion from upstairs: this time, Mikhael heard the raised voice of what sounded like a grown man, then running footsteps. Weimar bared his teeth in a smile: that would be one of the rats. His own conversation stilled as the two civilians went rigid before him, straining to make out what was being said.

“No! Don't touch them, they didn't do anything –”

“Hands above your head, Ishballan!”

“Alright, I'll do it, just let the kids go –”

“Don't touch me, scum!”

And then, there was the loud crack of a gunshot – then, a brief, frozen silence of the kind that only comes as the aftershock of horror. A child’s soft wail followed, pitching moment by moment up into a genuine scream, followed in seconds by another – piercing, shocked, cutting, but quickly muffled, as if by soldiers’ hands.

Mary Benedict heaved a dry sob, and when Weimar turned back to the pair, he found her hands clenched by her sides, unspilled tears threatening in her eyes. Rage carved lines of rage in her husband’s face: he wrapped an arm around her.

Weimar was careful to keep the smile he wore pleasant, distant, professional.

“That was an interesting development,” he said, as if commenting on the weather. Then, more pointedly, he said: “Might we be more willing to cooperate, now?”

*

Alphonse did not call the police station: he knew that would do no good, or less than no good. Instead, he waited, a nervous flutter in his throat, to hear the ring of the telephone. The moment he did, he yanked it from its receiver, almost dropping it in his excitement.

“Hey, Al,” came Edward's voice, the moment Alphonse put the receiver to his ear: he sighed, sagging under the relief of hearing his brother alive and well. Logically, he knew that his brother was in safe hands with the Central City police – he was too important and too famous to be really treated awfully – but that knowledge hadn't alleviated his worry.

“Hey, Brother,” Al replied. “How are you? How's jail?”

“Eh, I've seen better,” Edward said. “Little cramped, I guess, but nothin' special.” Al laughed – his brother had been inside of enough jail cells that he could certainly make a good comparison. “They're only letting me have one call today, so I figured I'd ring you up, let you know I'm alright. You wanna do the same for Roy, for me?”

“Oh, way ahead of you,” said Alphonse. “I called him pretty much as soon as you got taken away – told him not to go paying your bail or burning down the police headquarters or anything. I told him you had a plan.” He paused to think, and in thinking became unsure. “...You do have a plan, right?” he asked, hesitant.

“'Course I do,” Ed declared, overly cheerful in a way that made Al nervous. Historically, that kind of good mood from Ed meant there was some kind of trouble on the horizon – well, either that or that he was hiding something. He hoped that it was the former. His brother knew what he was doing most of the time. Ed continued. “D'you really think I'd go and get myself tossed in here without one?”

“Well,” began Alphonse, meaningfully, teasingly. “It's definitely happened before, so it's not out of the realm of possibility.”

“Ah, shut up,” said Ed. “Nobody ever jails you ‘cause you’ve got the face of a baby panda, but that doesn’t mean you get to judge me for it,” he continued, and that made Al laugh. “Anyway, I'd tell you more about it, but there are three guards within earshot, got me?” he said, and despite the lack of detail his meaning was perfectly clear. He didn’t want to be caught out in whatever he was doing.

“Of course,” the younger replied.

When Ed continued again, his voice was quieter.

“But honestly, I'm kinda glad to be in here anyway,” he said, and Al's shoulders tensed, because the way the other said it made him nervous.

“Why?” Al asked, lines growing between his brows.

“Well,” Ed began, and Al imagined him shifting uncomfortably where he stood, head and shoulders slouched forward. “There's something I kinda need you to see.” In the silence that followed, Al waited for an explanation. “It has to do with what we were talking about earlier, before we got interrupted. With why I've been acting so weird.”

A spike of adrenaline, like fear or excitement or maybe both, ran through him, prickling in his stomach.

“What is it?”

“There's a packet of papers in my desk drawer, the one on the far right. It’s a report. I want you to go get it and read it,” he said, his voice sounding suddenly hesitant and uncomfortable.

“Why? What's in it?” Al asked, as the fear turned to foreboding.

“Um... You should probably just read it. part of the reason I'm glad I'm in here is so I don't actually have to tell you about it myself.” Half of Al felt a bit stung to hear that, but the other half really did understand.

“I see.” He thought for a moment. “So that's the first thing I'll do. But after that, can I come visit you in jail, or would that go against your plans and stuff?”

“Can't see why you couldn't,” Edward said, and Al knew what forced cheer sounded like in his brother's voice. “But definitely read the stuff I told you about first. You're gonna want to. Then you can come up and we'll talk about everything. How does that sound?”

“Sounds good,” Al said, trying to keep his tone confident enough to override the hint of his brother's fear. He didn't know what there was to be afraid of, exactly, but he fully intended to find out. “I guess I'll let you go, then, to go antagonize the guard or do whatever it is you do. And don't get yourself into so much trouble that you can't get out of it again,” he finished: his brother responded with a snort.

“Al, there ain't no trouble I could get myself into that I couldn't get out of again,” he said. “Don't worry 'bout me, I've got this handled.”

“I'm sure you do,” Al replied, amused. A few more meaningless words passed between them before they said their goodbyes and hung up. He stood there in silence for a moment, the crease between his eyebrows making itself carving itself in deeper with every passing moment.

What could possibly be in the report that would bother Ed so much? Al thought, turning from the kitchen counter towards the stairs. Maybe it was another news article that Al hadn't seen, or maybe one that hadn't even been published yet. It was probably full of information that Ed didn't want getting out to the public, in any case. Al frowned deeper – that didn't seem right, though. No, it couldn't be: his brother had acted angry about those news articles, not like – this. It had to be something else.

He hesitated briefly upon reaching Edward's door, his hand hovering above the doorknob for only a few seconds before he pushed past his discomfort and went in.

He found the report easily enough, although he was certainly glad that he had been given such specific instructions, because Edward's workspace was a disaster zone: the surface of his desk labored under the weight of a dozen books and perhaps fifty sheaves of paper, some covered in Edward's handwritten mess of notes, others with the uneven letters of a typewriter, lined up to make pamphlets or reports or research papers or any one of the million other things that Edward apparently felt the need to keep on hand at all times.

But just as advertised, in the right hand drawer, directly on top of everything else sat a packet, creased as if it had recently been folded into quarters and then flattened out again. It was not well cared for – it looked crinkled, as if it had been carried in a jacket pocket. On the front, plain, unadorned type read:

Investigative report: September 14, 1918. The next line read, Second Lieutenant Lilian Astor – that was interesting: he remembered that woman from the investigations department. He had never done any work with her, but she had seemed a nice sort. What was a report by her doing in Ed's desk drawer?

He reached for it, smoothing it out from force of habit before picking it up and sitting down on his brother's desk chair. Pulling back the cover page, he began to read.

Twenty seconds apiece was all the time Al spent on the first three pages: he got the gist, then moved on to the next, the crevice of his frown deepening as he tried to understand what was happening and why it mattered.

The final page didn't hit him like a immediately, but soaked over him like an icy tide: first the sinking feeling – realization – then the shock, the horror. Then, slowly, rage spread like a fire, consuming all it touched.

He was on his feet without knowing how he got there, hot blood pumping through his wrists, his neck, making his hands shake, his breathing quicken: but his vision cleared, sharpened, and he locked his mind forward.

Now, finally, he understood. It had taken him too long – and his brother had suffered in the meantime, and he was so, so sorry. But he could apologize later: for now, his purpose burned bright in his mind..

Maybe forgiveness was harder than vengeance. Maybe it was the mark of a great man – but maybe Alphonse wasn't a great man, because as he read the words on the page again, and looked inside of himself, he found that he had no mercy to spare.

*

The darkness that night is of the kind that could eat you alive, if you let it. Perhaps the cold blackness itself will swallow you, alive and screaming – or perhaps it is the shadow of the monster that one fears when one looks at the dark. Alphonse Elric walks through it as if he were born to it, forgetting fear, forgetting compassion. If there is a monster in the dark, then it is him.

Past midnight, wordless – for what words are there to speak? – Al slides the door to this stranger's room shut behind him. A small transmutation, easy as breathing, bolts the door again behind him, leaving him alone with his purpose: the world around him is silent but for the sound of blood pounding through his ears.

The man sleeps on his plain bed, his shape carved out by the faint glow of the moon through the drapes. The steady rise and fall of his chest is untroubled, and Alphonse swallows a hot burst of rage upon seeing him sleeping there, so peacefully.

He won't be for long.

Though the light has all the force of a candle, Al recognizes the face: the small eyes, the long, thin nose, the red-brown hair cropped to boot camp length. He will remember that face until the day he dies, he knows, because how could he forget a thing that is etched onto his brother's mind so deeply?

The fury that sears back through him is startling, unfamiliar: he wants to hurt the man, hear him scream, make him feel even half of what his brother felt –

You can't you can't you can't –

He bites his lip and tastes copper, the tang bright and grounding. It reminds him who he is, what he is. The man is defenseless, and Al is better than him.

He sets himself to his purpose and steadies his breathing: he pulls a chair over from the table across the room and sets it down beside the bed, then sits down on it, legs and arms crossed, the sharpness of his vision focused on the man's sleeping form.

Alphonse Elric is swathed in shadows, his eyes glittering bright through the dark.

“Gregory Asel,” he finally says, and his voice cuts like a sword into the man's peace: the stranger wakes, sweat beading on his brow as he shoots up in his bed, his face twisting into a labyrinth of anger and fear and confusion.

“Who the hell are you?” the man finally manages to get out. “What the fuck are you doing in my bedroom?” The fear streams down his temple, his cheek, dripping off to spatter on his shoulder.

“I'm here to pass judgment on you,” Alphonse says. On another day, in another situation, perhaps he wouldn't have had any right to judge another – he is hardly perfect, after all – but this day, he does. He swallows down the bile in his throat, keeps his muscles still.

“What? Who the fuck do you think you are?” the man says, angry and trembly and wide-eyed and Alphonse wonders what manner of sins the man has tucked away in some back corner of his mind. “What gives you the right?”

“My answer to both of your questions is the same. I'm Alphonse Elric.” Each syllable rings, clear, through the air. “The younger brother of one Edward Elric.” Those last words are heavy, final.

The man's eyes are blank: they stare at him, uncomprehending, as he tries to put the pieces together, and his very confusion makes Al erupt in a fury; he finds himself on his feet, his fists clenched to weapons, not nearly so dangerous as the steel in his voice.

“Edward Elric,” Al repeats, expression darkening further. “Doesn't the name ring any bells for you?”

“Get the fuck out of my room,” the man spits, and there is no look of recognition on his face. “Or I'm going to make you, and you aren't gonna like it.”

Alphonse Elric laughs, his own eyes wide and wild, hand clenched tight around his weapon.

“Oh, I think you have seriously misjudged the situation,” Al says, advancing on the other man. “Edward Elric. You had better remember that name, or this is not going to go well for you.”

The man's hands are creeping to the edge of the bed now – probably towards a gun, but that's fine – and maybe Al finally understands his brother's addiction to danger, because he finds to his surprise that he wants the man to draw his weapon, wants to have one single excuse to let go of himself. One is all he needs.

“Still nothing?”

A gun is in Asel's hands, aimed for Alphonse's head: Al loses no time in sweeping it away with an expert kick, leaving it to hit the wall and clatter to the ground as he surges forward and pins the man to his bed, knee pressed into the soft spot beneath the man's ribs and hand clenching his throat closed.

“Edward Elric, the former Fullmetal Alchemist. The man you and three of your friends tried to rape a few days ago.” The man's eyes widen and he begins to struggle, but Al shoves his weight through his knee into that soft spot, and the man coughs out what remains of his breath. “No, don’t try that. You're not going anywhere. I'm not done yet. He's the one who broke your nose,” he says, smiling sharp and bare-fanged. “Remember him now?”

Sweat slickens the skin under his fingers. The man reaches up to push Alphonse up off of him, eyes locked wide on his gun where it lies on the floor, as if to see a way to get to it easily. His struggles get him nowhere, because Alphonse simply lets Asel up and flips him around so that he hits his bed face-first, twisting his arm up behind him. The muffled moan from the mattress tells Al that he must have hit his broken nose on the way down.

“You are very lucky that my brother is such a good person,” he hisses, “or else he would have killed you for what you did to him. And that General Mustang believes so fervently in the rule of law, or else I know you would have burned – and I've heard that fire isn't a pleasant way to go,” he says, his vindictiveness surprising even him. The man writhes and eventually manages to get his head facing the side, where he can talk to his attacker properly.

“Look, I dunno what you've heard, but it wasn't like that,” Asel says, finally summoning the wherewithal to get out a proper response. “Fullmetal was drunk as hell and asking for it –”

Alphonse cannot suppress the fury that makes him strike a blow to the man's broken nose. His fist comes away smeared with blood.

“You fucking monster,” he growls, Asel’s pained moan serving as backdrop. “One more word out of your goddamn mouth and I swear you'll regret it. I wonder if you're just telling me that to save your pathetic cowardly life, or if you've really tricked yourself into believing your own lies so that you can go on about your existence pretending you're a human being? Pretending you have a soul?”

“Oh god,” the man says, both plea and prayer, rivulets of blood trickling down his cheek to stain the bedspread. He has realized his mistake. “Please. Please, have mercy.”

He almost goes to hit the man again, but holds himself back. This person in this room – full of this searing rage, this hate, this violence – isn't him.

Vengeance is a poison, and all the more dangerous because it's so sweet.

“Mercy is more than you deserve,” he says, and painful swimming of his eyes surprises him as much as anything has. “More than you deserve,” he repeats, quieter, voice shaking. One hot tear hits his hand; it cuts a pale, wet streak through the red of the drying blood.

*

Chapter Text

Chapter 12

*

The sun had risen crisp and clean over the angular shapes of the Central City skyline that morning: it stretched the shadows long and dark, then thinned them as it slowly began to drench the city in white light. The air smelled good, too – musky, like it did before a heavy rain, although the sky betrayed no hint of cloud.

Despite the way recent events made chaos of his thoughts, Roy was determined to appreciate the beauty of the day – the way the quality of the light played havoc with the colors of the city, the way the life surrounding him seemed ethereal in the early-morning quiet that everyone seemed reluctant to break, the way the sharp edges made it feel more real, more present than ever. Even this great display of urban beauty did little to quell the foreboding that churned in his gut, though. All of the beautiful mornings in the world couldn't make him forget that Edward was on the fast-track to spending years in prison, and that it was, in the end, his fault.

Yes, of course he knew that Edward had some kind of plan to get himself out: he always did. Still, that didn’t really assuage his worry as much as he wanted it to. All plans aside, this time, the young firecracker had quite honestly done something illegal. He couldn’t help but worry that Edward would have to actually be sentenced to a prison term before the public would sit up and take notice, and by then, it would be too late. Perhaps it would help Roy at his trial, but by no means did he want his freedom to come at the expense of Edward’s.

What was he going to have to do to keep the younger man out of prison? Something illegal? He sincerely hoped not. He didn’t want to be the kind of man who would bend laws for his own convenience... and yet --

He turned his thoughts over in his mind, his internal focus dulling his appreciation of the crisp morning. What would he do if Edward were convicted and imprisoned? Would he have to turn to less than upstanding methods to get him out? Would he have to compromise his integrity?

His arrival at military HQ took him by surprise: he thought he had at least another fifteen minutes left in his morning commute. Apparently, he had simply been so absorbed in his thoughts that he hadn’t noticed the passage of time around him. The minute he walked through those front doors, he had to be on his game: he took a deep breath and buried his troubled thoughts as best as he could manage.

Strictly speaking, he knew that he probably didn't have to be at work on time that day, or even at all – he had no power and no official duties at that juncture: his outbox was as empty as his inbox, and his official planner was as blank as the day it had been printed. He had nothing to get started on upon arrival -- and yet, he still didn’t want to be late. Late because he had slept in, yes; late because he had stopped to flirt with a pretty face, certainly. But being late just because he felt helpless, like he had no purpose, felt like defeat. So, when Mustang strode through the hallways up to the front doors of his office, deliberately curling the corner of his mouth into a little smirk, the clocks lining the hallway walls hadn't yet struck eight forty-five. He had to keep up appearances, both for the sake of those beneath him and for his own sake. He had no intention of letting anyone see that this had gotten to him.

“Good morning, loyal subordinates,” he declared, filled with a mad enthusiasm as he slammed the door open to announce his presence: it swung away to reveal Breda and Fuery at opposite sides of a desk, each with a fan of playing cards clenched in their fists. Breda was slouched out, cool and confident, leaning his chair back on two legs; Fuery hunched over his hand, holding it tightly to his chest as if he could improve his chances of winning by jealously guarding his secrets. Both heads whipped around to face the intruder; upon seeing him in the doorway, they scrambled to hid the evidence of their game.

“Oh, uh, good mornin', sir,” Breda managed, and even from this distance Roy's eyes were good enough to notice his hand of cards disappearing suspiciously up his sleeve. As a strategist, of course it made sense that Breda could make excellent use of his sleeve-space while playing poker – sometimes, in life, there was no point in playing the game if you didn't have a stacked deck, after all. Regardless, Roy made a mental note never to play cards with the man again.

“Yes, sir, good morning!” Fuery echoed, on his feet. “Sorry – we were just – uh – we didn't expect you to be in this early!”

“Of course I'm in early. So much to do, so little time,” he said, a manic glint in his eye. “And no need to look so guilty: the day doesn't officially begin for another fifteen minutes! Although if you're not hard at work by then, it will be an entirely different story. Also, Fuery, I think it's only fair to inform you that he's probably been cheating the whole time.”

“What?” said both men simultaneously. Breda added a vehement “Have not!” afterwards, with the pink face of a man who had been caught out in a lie. Fuery gave him a wide-eyed, accusatory look.

A chuckle from the side of the room startled the general; he snapped his head to the side to find that he hadn’t yet noted the last companion. Alphonse Elric watched the scene from atop one of the desks that lined the wall of the room at intervals, legs crossed atop it and elbows propped up on his knees. His fingers, laced together, supported his chin in turn.

“Actually, I'm pretty sure he hasn't been cheating by palming cards, at least, General,” Alphonse Elric said, sitting up straight and uncrossing his legs to stretch out to his full length, then hopping to the ground. “I've been watching for it. From this distance, I guess I wouldn't have been able to see if he had been marking cards or anything, but he’s clean on the first count.”

“Wow, Al. Really not sure if you're actually on my side or not,” Breda muttered, shaking his head.

“Hello, Alphonse. Quite a surprise to see you at this hour,” Roy replied, ignoring Breda's comment and turning properly around to the younger Elric brother. Despite the topic of their conversation, Al wore a serious look that concerned him. The general smiled at the other man, but wondered why he was here: he should have been in his lab, tending to the project that he and his brother had put so much thought and energy into over the past six months. A twinge of sadness caught him as he wondered if their work had been entirely forgotten amidst the chaos that had swallowed them both. “May I ask how you became an expert in identifying the gambler's cop?” he said, using the more lyrical name for that particular cheat technique. “No offense meant in the least, but I would have guessed that you would be the overly-trusting type in games of skill and chance.”

This seemed to amuse the younger man, at least faintly.

“Oh, I was once – but you can only be cheated so many times before your partners start to lose their rosy glow. My brother is a chronic cheater at cards,” Al said, giving Roy a smile: but a shadow flickered at its edges, and Roy's own expression faltered upon seeing it. “Now, take my advice: if you play stuff with him, make sure he doesn't have any sleeves he can hide things in.”

Roy frowned properly for just a brief moment – Edward cheats at cards? Cheats regularly at cards? This little bit of info explained so many evenings in Roy's living room. Prior to beginning his relationship with Edward Elric, he had considered himself quite good at poker, but the young man’s virtuosic play had forced the general to reevaluate both his own abilities and his opinion of Edward’s ability to read people. It actually made a lot more sense that he was cheating, now that he thought about it – Edward was painfully competitive and in certain ways quite unscrupulous. At least, his scruples didn’t necessarily always line up with everybody else’s. The only part of this that was really shocking was that he was good enough at it that Roy hadn't noticed.

This realization forced a laugh out of the older man.

“Is that so?” he asked, and he would have warmed to think of it if it hadn't been for that inexplicable look in Alphonse's eye, that seriousness that he had noticed earlier and had failed to either place or ignore. Foreboding crept up in him, and he decided not to put off talking about it any longer. “I'll have to keep that in mind next time I play him. So what brings you here so early in the morning?”

“I came to talk to you,” Al said, a serious look in his normally-soft brown eyes as he locked them straight onto Roy's. “Can we?” he asked, gesturing in the direction of Roy's personal office, his inner sanctum.

“Certainly,” Roy replied, serious, before turning back to his subordinates with a pleasant smile that did nothing whatsoever to conceal the pointed look in his eye. “And as for you two: when I come back out here again, I expect to see you hard at work, an inspiration to all of your coworkers. If I find your performance unsatisfactory, I may be forced to request that Colonel Armstrong come here give a motivational speech, to get you all back properly on track with his manly dedication and fervor. Am I being quite clear enough?”

“Yessir,” they both said, looking terrified. Roy felt a distinct satisfaction as beads of sweat broke out on Breda's forehead.

“Excellent, I thought so. Now get to it,” he said, and they sprang into action: the general's smile turned satisfied, but as he glanced back over to Alphonse, it fell once again. He walked to his door and stepped through, swinging it open and sweeping his hand inward in invitation. The younger man followed him in, and Roy shut the door behind them.

“That's quite the threat, General,” Alphonse said, with a nervous sort of laugh. “They were just playing cards. Are you sure they deserved that?”

“Sometimes, keeping order in unusual situations calls for extreme measures,” Mustang replied, his smile enigmatic, one eyebrow arched. He paused, gesturing to indicate that Al should sit down on one of the two couches that sat perpendicular to the general’s work desk. The younger man did, settling gingerly down on the cushions, his knees pressed together and his back straight. Almost as soon as he did, his hands laced together on his thighs, and his thumbs began to twiddle absently.

The boy looked nervous – painfully nervous. A thought occurred to the general: he took a few steps back and opened the door slightly again before popping his head out.

“Oh, Fuery,” he said: Fuery jumped to attention, like a dog caught digging up the garden, although as far as Roy noted the man didn't seem to be doing anything wrong. “Before you get down to work, bring us a teapot full of hot water, a strainer, and that canister of almond-rose tea from my cupboard. And two teacups,” he added. “The bluebird patterns, if you would.” Alphonse had in the past expressed a preference for those particular cups, and he always seemed to like making tea when someone was upset – his own reassuring ritual, it seemed to center him, give him something else to focus on. Perhaps it would help calm him now. Roy received a high-pitched “Yes, sir!” in reply to his order: he thanked the man, then shut the door again and crossed the room to sit on the couch opposite to Alphonse without further ado.

There was a brief paused, filled with the quiet rustle of cloth on cloth, as Alphonse fidgeted, the crease on his brow lengthening, and Roy made himself comfortable.

“So,” Roy began with half a smile, in hopes that a return to an innocent topic could break the tension, “does your brother really cheat at cards?”

This line of questioning seemed to surprise Alphonse, and he sounded terribly young as he replied:

“Oh, yes. All the time. Like you wouldn't believe.” A pause. “You mean you never noticed?”

Roy shook his head: he might have been more embarrassed about this fact if it didn't seem to be in some way pleasing to the younger man. A faint smile ghosted across Al's lips, faint enough that the general could easily have missed it, if he hadn't been looking closely.

“No, I never did notice,” Roy replied, “although the fact that I hardly ever win even a hand against him makes much more sense now. He must be quite good.”

Al nodded.

“Yeah. He'd have to be, by this point: he's gotten a lot of practice. I honestly think that the game was just too simple for him – too much chance, not enough skill. So he made it a game-within-a-game: he tries to cheat and get away with it, and incidentally we also play poker.”

Roy chuckled, crossing his legs and leaning into the cushions, one arm comfortably on the armrest and the other over the back of the couch.

“I'm fairly certain that in poker, the game-within-a-game usually tests one’s ability to bluff and stay cool under pressure, not to cheat.”

“That’s true. But for four years, just about his only partner for cards was me, and I was pretty much the worst bluffer ever,” Alphonse said, his obvious amusement dulling the self-deprecation of that sentence. “I made it too easy.”

“But you were a suit of armor,” Roy said, an eyebrow floating in silent question. “You didn't have proper facial expressions.” Al laughed.

“Yes, I know,” he said, a pink tint to his now very human face. Mustang laughed, noting that the tension in Alphonse’s shoulders seemed to have decreased some.

Before the younger man could say anything else, Mustang continued on.

“So, I believe you had something you wanted to discuss with me,” he said, as casually as he could. “What can I do for you?”

So much for all of the work he had done to relax the younger man: Al went immediately tense again, his knuckles whitening, bloodless, against his knees.

“Oh,” he said, as if trying to gather his thoughts. “Oh. Yes. That.” A pause, eyes flickering from side to side. The feeling of dread in Roy's gut returned. “I – um, well, I wanted to talk to you for a couple of reasons. But first things first, I guess.” A deep breath. “I read – I read the report,” he said, and the way he did so left no room whatsoever to mistake his meaning.

It was at that moment – at precisely the most awkward moment – that the door opened with a squeak, startling them both. Confused for a moment, he watched Fuery enter, and realized what he was doing when he saw the tea-tray balanced precariously on his forearm.

Fuery's eyes flicked back between them uncomfortably: he was quite clear on the fact that he had interrupted something important.

“Uh, sorry. I didn't mean to interrupt anything. You told me to bring you tea,” he said, by way of explanation.

Roy took his arm off of the back of his couch and uncrossed his legs, placing his left hand in his lap.

“I did. Just leave it here,” Roy said: the second lieutenant did so, almost tripping over the edge of the carpet in his fumbling enthusiasm to get the tray down and get out quickly. Mustang thanked the other man as he left, and was grateful when the door had shut behind him.

Al lost no time in opening the canister and beginning to scoop tea leaves into the strainer with a spoon. As he did so, Roy heard a faint metallic rattle: his hands are shaking, he thought, his chest clenching with a sudden pain.

“I see,” Roy murmured. “So you and Edward spoke?”

“Not really,” Al responded, voice quiet, as he finished filling the strainer and placed it inside the teapot, watching the leaves float and then sink down, slowly. “I mean, he told me where to find the report, but he didn't tell me what was in it, or anything else. He still hasn't actually talked to me about it at all.”

The general let out a long breath. Of course, that was more or less to be expected. Edward wasn't about to wake up one morning and suddenly be good at communicating: any progress he made would be slow and hard-earned. In truth, the general was proud of his younger lover for managing to put all of his reservations and issues aside to talk to Alphonse at all.

“How long have you known?” Al asked.

“Less than two days,” Roy said. “I found out Sunday afternoon.” They sat in the quiet for a moment, watching the liquid in the teapot begin to color faintly.

“It's horrible,” Al finally said, and when he did there was a quaver in his voice. “I guess I knew that things like that happened, but I never thought – I mean, he was the Fullmetal Alchemist, you know? He's the least vulnerable person I've ever met. He's my brother. How could that happen to him, of all people?” he asked, and when he finally looked up at Roy, he had a desperation in his eyes – like he wanted an answer to his question more than anything else in the world.

Roy wished he had one to give, for everyone’s sakes. But he was only human, after all, and the answers to some questions would forever elude him.

“I don't know,” he said, leaning forward to prop his elbows up on his knees, clasping his hands together between them. “I wish I did.”

There was another silence. Once he had determined, through some arcane procedure that Roy didn’t understand, that the tea had steeped for an appropriate length of time, Al took the strainer out of the teapot and placed it into a little cup designed for that purpose. He put the lid back on the teapot, then clasped his hands around it – one through the handle, one around the spout – and stayed there, as if frozen.

“I hurt the men who did it,” he said at last, his words little more than whispers, eyes locked down. “I couldn't stop myself. I wanted to do it.” His voice held a fierceness that seemed equal parts fury and distress, that dared Roy to tell him that he shouldn't have done so even as he asked for reassurance. His shoulders began to shake in earnest as he continued. “I had him helpless and begging, and I still hurt him.”

A pang struck Roy as he saw just how much this had affected the younger man: shadows cut across his face, and his small hands quivered on the soft porcelain. Moving slowly so as not to startle the younger man, Roy leaned over the coffee table and pried Al's hands gently from the teapot, taking it from him and pouring some of the warm liquid into each cup. Startled, for the moment, back to the waking world, he gave a murmur of thanks before taking the saucer in one hand and the teacup in the other. He lifted it, seemed to think better of it, then perched it on his knees.

“I understand. I wanted to do the same thing,” Roy said, clasping his own cup in hand. First things first: before they could deal with this further, Alphonse needed some kind of support, some show of solidarity. The general’s voice grew harsher as the truth of his words emerged. “I wanted to burn them until they screamed. Some part of me may always feel guilty about the fact that I didn't punish them myself,” he said, all needles and ice. Rage surged in him again, and he didn't much care to fight it. “What did you do to them?” he asked, darkly, all of his intentions and desires at cross-purposes with one another.

The lines at the corners of Al's eyes deepened.

“I didn't – uh, you know,” he said, and in the words and vague gesture of his hand Roy heard didn't kill them, heard didn't maim them, like I wanted to. “I stopped before it got too far.” A telling pause. “When I was done – talking to them, I tied them up and left them in their rooms, so they couldn't run away or go get help or anything.” A deep breath, steadying: the younger man took a long drink of his tea, then set his cup down again with a faint clink. “I was going to go drop the report off with the military police, so they could toss the bastards behind bars, but I haven't yet.”

Roy made a thoughtful noise, and spooned some sugar out of its crystal bowl into his cup, stirring it until it was gone.

“Why not?” he asked, although he could make a good guess.

“I just – don't know what to do,” he said, and when Roy looked up again from the sugar, Al's eyes were bright, like he was on the edge of tears. “If they got arrested, they’d be put on trial, and Ed would have to testify. Some lawyer would have to ask him questions about it in front of a jury and probably a courtroom full of newspaper and radio people. Everybody in the world would know.” A shuddering breath. “What if he doesn't want anybody to know? I mean, he couldn't even talk to me about it – having to dig up every little detail for total strangers would be horrible for him.” Another pause. “What if he just wants to forget about it, to pretend it never happened and move on? How can I keep it private without letting those awful men just get away with it?”

There was so much hurt in that voice, so much anger and pain and probably guilt, and Roy could do so little – but anything he could do, he would.

Unannounced, the realization struck him that he was the first person Al came to when he had a problem with Ed that he didn't know how to handle. The world was a strange, backwards place sometimes.

“I don't know,” he replied. “I'm sorry. I don't know what to tell you, except that you did the right thing by stopping when you did.” He took another sip of his tea: Al followed suit. His thoughts ran in the space between words. “You should go visit Ed at the police station and ask him what he wants you to do.”

Al nodded.

“I guess that’s what I was planning to do.” A long sigh. “I just -- dealing with Brother can be so confusing sometimes. I don’t even know if he'd tell me what he actually wants, or if he'd just tell me what he thinks I want to hear.” He hesitated before this next sentence, but he looked Roy in the eyes as he said: “Maybe you should do it.”

What? The general frowned in confusion. The request made no sense in his head.

“I don't understand. Why?”

The twist to Al's lips and the little shrug of his shoulders meant something, but Roy didn't yet know what.

“Well, Brother doesn't tell me things. Maybe he'd tell you. He just... seems to be better at talking to you,” he said, the edge in the last word faint but unmistakable.

“Better at talking... to me?” Roy asked, fighting down his urge to give a shocked laugh: he knew Alphonse wouldn't appreciate it. Still, the instinct was there -- to hear those worse coming out of Alphonse’s mouth was just so unbelievable. He raised both eyebrows instead. “I'm sorry, I'm still confused. You must be referring to some other brother, because the man I'm in a relationship with is good at talking to nobody about his problems.”

And once again, Al's eyes were wet with unshed tears, and Roy didn't know what he had said wrong.

“But – I used to know everything about him,” the younger burst out, the words coming loud and strained, pitching higher with every syllable. “I used to know everything that happened to him, what he wanted, what he thought – we used to be close. Really close,” he said, his voice finally softening again.

Roy blinked, absolutely taken aback: his mind ran over the words again and again, but he still couldn't make anything sensible out of them. What?

“And you're... not close, now?”

Al didn't answer, just watched him with his great wide eyes, shining and round as coins. He looked almost – accusatory.

Then, like a key turning in a lock, his thoughts clicked into place in his head, and he could see everything clearly.

Alphonse Elric is jealous of me for my relationship with his brother.

It was the most absurd thing Mustang had ever heard.

“You're jealous,” he said, slowly, as the revelation finished dawning on him. “Of me.”

Al flushed in an immediate wave, like he hadn't been expecting Roy to pick up on it so quickly, like he was ashamed of it.

“I'm sorry. I'm really sorry. I really don't mean to be,” he said, words tumbling out and over each other. “I know it's stupid. It's just – you do know everything that happens in his life. He keeps everything from me – to protect me, I'm sure, because he cares about me, but – it's like he doesn't trust me to be able to handle it.”

Or because he doesn't want you to have to.

Now that he thought about it, Al had been acting a bit off for the several days: he just hadn’t paid any particular attention to it because Edward’s behavior had been so much more disturbing. Alphonse’s change in behavior had barely even registered.

“Is that what's been bothering you lately?” the general asked. The younger man finished the sweet liquid in his teacup and poured himself some more.

“Partly, yes,” Al said, stirring more sugar into his tea. “Brother has just been acting so strange lately and I had no idea why, and he wouldn't tell me, and you knew why, and it seemed importantand it is.” He paused to take his cup up to his lips and blow on the hot liquid: steam trailed off in curls, disappearing into the air. “So I was worried about him, and I guess mad at him a little bit for letting me worry and not telling me what was happening, and mad a little bit at you for being the person Ed would go to about this. But I guess,” he said, stirring his tea again with the tiny sugar-spoon, “it makes sense, now, why he wouldn't want me to know about it.”

The person Ed would go to about this? God, don’t I wish.

It quickly became apparent that Al wasn't going to say anything else just yet. It was Roy's turn.

“Alphonse,” Roy said, delicately, leaning forward to impart further seriousness onto what he was about to say. “You seem to be laboring under some fundamental misunderstandings of the situation. Let me set you straight: Edward did not 'come to me' with anything – rather the opposite, if I'm to be honest. The only person who came to me with anything at all was you. You were the one who told me that Ed hadn't come home on Friday night, then told me that he seemed to have been in some sort of fight, and that something seemed to be wrong with him. I initiated an investigation from there. I found out about the details from the same report you did, not from Edward himself.”

Al frowned at that, confusion knit in the lines of his face.

“What?”

“Major Hawkeye gave me the report. She convinced me not to kill anyone, too,” he said, with perhaps a twinge of bitterness. Alphonse might think he was jealous of Roy – but how could he be? Al had been able to go after those men, and if he was discreet and played his cards right, the consequences wouldn't be dire. He had a kind of freedom that Roy never would again. “But your brother nearly had a panic attack when I brought it up to him. I honestly thought he was going to leave and never come back.”

A pause. Al watched him, mouth slightly parted, as if he had wanted to say something but had frozen there before he could manage. Roy took a breath: time for some uncomfortable truths.

“Look, Alphonse. The person your brother cares about most in the world is you. The person he trusts the most in the world is you. He would happily give up anything for you, up to and including his own life. If he had to pick one of us, it would be you, without question,” he said, because he knew it to be true. “There is no reason in the world for you to be jealous of me,” he finished, with a little laugh, then finished the tea in his cup.

Alphonse stared, his brown eyes betraying the cascade of thoughts beneath.

“I'm sorry,” he finally said, quiet, like he was apologizing or pitying or something: whatever it was, it had to stop. It would do neither of them any good. “I’m so sorry.”

“It's quite alright,” Roy said, with a smile. “I don’t mind. Really. Your brother's incredible dedication to the people that he cares about is one of the things I love about him.” The word came out casually; he gave no hint of how strange it was to let it pass his lips. “There's no reason to be sorry.”

Al spent a moment thinking about that, then nodded. Either he believed the General, or he had decided not to pursue it any further for the moment.

“I see,” he said. “Thank you.” Then, he hesitated, but eventually continued. “So… As best as you can tell, is Brother okay? Is he going to be okay?”

“You may be able to answer that better than I. The last time I spoke to him was yesterday evening, after the interview. But you saw him after that. You mentioned that he seemed to be acting more like his usual self during the arrest.”

Al nodded, but the look on his face remained miserable.

“I guess he did. But what if it was all just more lying to make me stop worrying?”

Roy shrugged.

“I suppose that’s a possibility, but I doubt it. For all that he tries, your brother's never actually been terribly good at hiding his emotions. Some bit of it always slips through,” he said, with a fond smile. “I trust that you are an excellent interpreter of your brother’s emotional state. You know him better than anyone. And I refuse to let you respond to that statement with anything but, 'Yes, of course I do,'” he said with a small laugh.

Al seemed to think about this for a moment, then took a deep breath and straightened, gaining several inches in the process.

“I guess… that’s the only thing I can do,” he said. “Talk to him, and trust him to tell me the truth.”

“I believe so,” Roy replied. “After all, a lot of the hard part for him is probably over. He’s told you about it. You know what happened. As long as you treat him with understanding – and I have no doubt whatsoever that you will – it can only get better from here.”

“Thank you,” the younger man finally said, ending the thickness of the long silence. “I appreciate your advice.” He paused, seeming to gather up his courage. “I – you don’t think it was wrong of me to attack those men?”

“I suppose I hesitate to say that it was right,” Roy said, keeping his voice casual, conversational. “But I also can’t say that it was wrong. Like most things in life, it falls somewhere into that moral grey area.” A pause: then, more quietly: “They deserved it. I promise you that.”

Al’s face twisted into blind rage upon thinking of them, but in mere moments it fell away, leaving that same ragged exhaustion behind.

“Yes,” he finally said. “They did.” There was no anger in his voice in that moment. He sat up straight again, then turned to look at Mustang. “Really, thank you.”

“Nothing to thank me for,” Roy replied. There was a quiet: he could hear the muffled strains of birdsong through his office window. “Now, how are you feeling? Better?”

Al nodded, and tried out a smile.

“I think so. It helped just to be able to talk about all of this.”

“Good,” Roy said. He rose from his couch and folded his hands behind his back as he walked towards his window. “I”m glad you don’t have to be miserable on such a beautiful day.”

“Me too,” Al agreed. Roy heard the other stand up, then walk forward: a rustle of cloth as he sat down on something else. A glance over Roy’s shoulder showed him that the man had perched on the edge of his desk. Apparently he had been picking up some bad habits from his brother. “But there was actually another reason I came to talk to you today. I have some information you might find useful,” he said, and Roy turned around to face the younger Elric properly. “I didn’t want to tell you over the phone last night in case the line was tapped, but you should probably know: I’ve finally found some stuff tying Harriet and Weimar together.”

Feeling expanded in his chest, like helium in a balloon.

“Really,” he said, doing his best to keep his voice calm and measured, altogether controlled. “That was fast. I’m impressed.”

“Oh, thank you,” Alphonse said, sounding a bit surprised by the compliment. “It was nothing. I just talked to a banker friend of mine and asked him to get some information on their finances, to look for any suspicious withdrawals or deposits. He found both, luckily – somewhere around a million cenz got withdrawn from Weimar’s bank account shortly prior to this whole mess starting, in several batches of about 300,000 apiece.”

Roy made a thoughtful noise, then said:

“That is a rather unusually large amount of money to withdraw all at once, yes, but certainly not beyond the pale. There are quite a few things he could be doing with a million cenz in cash that are perfectly legal.”

“Yes, of course,” Alphonse agreed. “So that wouldn’t be proof of anything, except for the fact that roughly the same amount has been slowly creeping into Harriet’s bank account. It’s been in small packages, and the official bank records state that the money came from various local businesses and newspapers. I plan to go visit the companies in question and ask them a little bit about their association with Harriet – if they even know about the money that Harriet’s allegedly been getting ‘from them.’ I bet you they don’t, and Weimar’s been using their names to cover up his… donations.” Most of Al’s earlier distress and uncertainty seemed to have evaporated, replaced by pride and the joy of his discoveries. “So I don’t know for sure, and I don’t have anything yet that I could use in court, but it’s definitely a step in the right direction.”

The general’s first thought was that even in the middle of his own, personal and family crisis, he still found the time and energy to give of himself for the sake of others. The Elric brothers were alike in that way. His second was that he needed to get this information to his mother: he really should just introduce Alphonse and Madame Christmas to each other as soon as possible. They would be a terrifying force when combined, he suspected.

“Agreed. I can’t thank you enough,” Roy said, giving the younger man a smile. “You’ve done some amazing work.”

“It’s not a problem at all,” Al said, flushing a little bit, pleased at the compliment. “I enjoy it. Well, sort of,” he added, but quietly, like he was embarrassed. Before Roy had a chance to comment on it, Al had hurried on. “Oh, and one more thing – I know I told Major Hawkeye that Harriet had been involved in a case several years ago, where he had been publishing lies about the supposed Drachman heritage of a military officer. I provided her with the files in question. Did you ever read up on it?”

Roy nodded: he knew the situations Al had been researching abundantly well. Much of the information in the briefcase he had provided to Madame Christmas had been from the reports the young man had been collecting. The general had certainly taken the time to familiarize himself with all relevant information thoroughly before passing it on.

“Yes. I’ve had something of an abundance of free time lately, shall we say,” Roy said, keeping it light despite the discomfiting implications. “I’ve been through all of the information you have provided and more.”

Alphonse nodded, his lips curled tightly downward.

“I see,” he said. “Well, in any case I had something else I wanted to add. Harriet was formally accused of libel in the court system over that case: I found the records in the court library. According to the documents, he was mysteriously acquitted shortly thereafter. No trial, no explanation, no nothing.” The smile that crossed his lips was small and bitter. “Whether he’s got definite connections to Weimar or not, he’s certainly got friends in high places, huh?”

God, that boy was a miracle. Without such a loyal and competent team, Roy would have been sunk in the mire of Amestrian politics long ago.

“It seems that way,” he said, smiling, although his expression was much more genuine and free than the other’s. “Alphonse, I can’t thank you enough for all you’ve done. I couldn’t do any of this alone”

Alphonse shrugged, his cheeks flushing and his smile tinged with bashfulness.

“I told you, it was nothing. Really.”

“You have the strangest definition of ‘nothing,’” Roy replied, amused.

“It’s the very least I could do,” responded the younger man. After a moment of pause, he slowly shifted his weight and stood. “Well, anyway, I should probably get going. We both have lots of things on our plates today.”

Roy nodded.

“Yes. Thank you for taking the time to bring me all of this information yourself,” he said. Then, with a brief return to his earlier seriousness, he continued, eyes locked on Alphonse’s own. “So. Are you going to go talk to your brother now?”

The younger man took his bottom lip between his teeth and chewed on it for just a moment before delivering a nod.

“It’s going to be alright, you know,” Roy said, quietly, sincere.

“I know,” Alphonse returned. He gave Roy a pale impression of a smile, and the general’s heart broke to see it.

*

The moment Al stepped out of General Mustang's office, an almost tangible relief washed over him. Yes, the improvement in his mood was still tenuous, at best – he still had to put those bastards who had hurt Edward in jail, and he still had yet to talk to his brother about the whole thing, but at least one of the hovering clouds that had troubled him had been cleared away. He was a cheerful person, and determined to stay that way no matter the situation.

The air of the large, open office was filled with familiar the clatter of typewriter keys and low voices chattering, a steady backdrop of noise that was somehow soothing, calming in its regularity. If it weren’t for the air of tension that hung about the place, he might have said that everything was normal: that, and the fact that Major Hawkeye was absent from her usual place at her spotless desk.

Or maybe that wasn’t the only strange thing he noted as he crossed the floor: there was also a strange woman there in a civilian skirt-suit, sitting on the edge of Havoc’s desk with her ankles crossed, chatting with the lieutenant. He grinned at her, and when he spoke, it was much more animated than Al was used to seeing from the man.

“Seriously, 'Becca. It's been forever,” Al heard as he drew closer. “What have you been up to all this time?”

“Oh, you know – this, that,” she said, airily waving a hand back and forth. “Taking over the world with my own little media empire.”

“You sure are,” Havoc said, chuckling. “I’m seriously impressed with what you’ve been able to pull off in just the past few years. And it came in handy, too! Sorry about using your work for our own purposes,” he added, looking a bit sheepish. “But thanks for helping us out. I mean it. You've been amazing.”

“Thanks, nothing,” she replied brightly. “That interview last night is probably the most popular piece we've ever done. Our phones are flying off the hooks: my staff can't answer them fast enough. Advertisers are going wild, too. They paid us double to replay the interview! It's gone on the air twice since its original air time.”

Rebecca Daniels, Alphonse guessed, silently taking in the scene in front of him, analyzing it. Even though he had known in his head that Havoc had girlfriends, and that Ms. Daniels had been one of them, it was still strange to see him sitting there in front of her with what was kind of a stupid grin on his face. She was so comfortable there with him, too, which was even weirder. Al had seen the Major with a pretty woman a few times: mostly he either rocked the painfully-awkward thing or hit on the girl so hard and so badly that she looked like she was halfway in between laughing and slapping him. But it was different with these two: they had an easy manner when together that almost made Havoc seem like normal people.

“What, really?” replied Havoc, audibly surprised.

“Oh, absolutely. You talk about me helping you out – and I'm sure I did,” she said with another pretty laugh, “but you helped me out at least as much. I believe that's what you call a mutually beneficial relationship.”

Al came to a stop a few feet away from Havoc's desk, and wormed himself in to the pause in the conversation.

“Um, hello,” he said, feeling a little bit stuttery and awkward himself, because she really was very pretty. “You must be Ms. Daniels. I'm Alphonse Elric,” he said, giving her a short bow. He was sure that he was blushing, but maybe if he pretended he wasn’t, everybody else would do him the favor of pretending the same thing. Now he knew exactly what the general had meant when he had said that her breasts were right at his eye level. They were kind of staring at him. He straightened up again and kept his eyes on hers, where they belonged, and did his best to act like a gentleman.

The woman's dark lashes widened around her eyes, and she said,

“Alphonse Elric? Edward's little brother?” she asked, and Al blushed further, knowing that her eyes were on him.

“Yes ma'am,” he said, in a small voice, eyes hovering down around the floor. “That's me. Very pleased to meet you. I just came over to say thank you for what you've done for us. We're all in your debt.”

When he looked back up again, she was smiling fit to burst.

“Aren't you just the cutest thing I've ever seen,” she said, happily, sliding off the desk and to her feet so she could walk over and throw her arms around him in a warm hug. She pulled back and put her hands on his shoulders, and examined his face. “Well, now. Good looks must just run in your family,” she said, eyes roving from his face down across the rest of his body. “I certainly wouldn't say no to this one, either.” Nothing Al's brain could do to that sentence could possibly make it sound any less suggestive. Blushing brighter, he scrambled back, out of her reach.

“Um, thank you?” he squeaked, really not sure what one was supposed to say to that; he defaulted to politeness, just to be safe. “I’m flattered -- I just -- I have a girlfriend already, see --”

She met that response with bright peals of laughter.

“Oh, you are the most adorable thing ever. Don't you worry your little head, I wasn't planning on stealing you away from her. She's a lucky girl, though,” she said, and Alphonse distinctly wished that he could melt into the floor. Havoc interrupted the barrage before Al could right himself enough to figure out what to say in response.

“Aw, leave the poor kid alone,” Havoc said, good-naturedly, taking a cigarette out of his pocket and letting it hang from his lips, unlit. “He's never been flirted with before by someone of your caliber. He doesn't know what to do with you.”

She laughed again, and put a hand on her hip.

“And that's a shame, because I know exactly what I'd do with him,” she said, eyes half-lidded and the corners of her painted mouth turned up as she watched Havoc through her lashes.

“Can we please talk about something else now?” Al said, voice coming out a bit higher-pitched than he had intended.

“Oh, if we have to,” she said. “On a more serious note, though, Al – may I call you Al? – like I just told Jean, there's no need to thank me. I enjoyed doing it, and the interview has been a huge hit. I'm very much looking forward to doing the follow-up.” She looked over at the door to Mustang's room, and Al could be forgiven for thinking the expression looked a bit hungry. “I suppose you were the one in there, taking up all of the general's time?”

“Um, yes?” Al replied, blinking, not sure which question he was responding to.

“Good – that should mean he's free now, then,” she said, cheerfully, expression every bit that of the cat that had finally caught the mouse. “Well, bye, then, Jean, Al,” she said with a little wave. “I'm off. Got interviews to do, a business to run, you know the deal,” she said. Then, like she was magic, she pulled a little business card out of thin air before handing it to Alphonse. “And if you should ever decide that you have a unique perspective on all the things that are going on that you'd like to share on my show, or change your mind about that girlfriend of yours, here's my number, gorgeous,” she said, with a flirty little wink.

“Oh,” said Alphonse, clutching at the flimsy card-stock. Luckily, she didn't actually seem to expect any kind of response from him – she just laughed and turned to walk towards the General's office, generous hips swaying back and forth as she went.

When she was sufficiently out of earshot, and Alphonse had collected himself to some degree, he shoved the business card in his pants pocket and turned back to Lieutenant Havoc, the pink not entirely gone from the apples of his cheeks.

“Well,” Al said, for lack of anything else to say. “She seems nice.”

“Yeah,” the major replied, watching her go with this distant, dreamy-eyed look, his stupid grin never faltering. “She's great, isn't she?”

Yes, they had definitely been together, and judging by the look on his face, he wasn’t entirely over her, either.

Ah – now this was the kind of playing ground Al was more comfortable on. He pushed all thoughts of worry and his brother to the side, and set his eyes on the problem directly in front of him.

“Oh,” Al asked, casually, with a little smile and a spark in his eyes. “So you're still into her, huh?”

Havoc spun around to stare at Al, looking all in a panic..

“What? No! Where the hell'd you get that impression? 'Becca 'n I are just friends,” the man sputtered, in classic form.

“Really? That's not what it looks like from over here,” Al said, thoroughly enjoying the expression on the major's face. “You're all pink and flustered. That’s not really a ‘just friends’ face.”

“Pink and –” he echoed, but cut himself off before finishing. “I am not! And don’t say something like that where she could hear you,” he said, his voice lowering to a hiss, though his eyes stayed just as wide and frantic as they flickered around the room, as if to make sure that she wasn’t about to magically transport herself from the general’s office and back into hearing range.

“So if you like her so much, why’d you break up?” the younger asked, ignoring of the other man’s request.

This seemed to stop Havoc in his tracks for a moment.

“I didn’t break up with her, okay?” he finally mumbled. “Goddamn, why would I? She’s smart and fun and funny and gorgeous,” he said, and for once he added the last word like it was an afterthought. “What’s not to like? She’s a freakin’ goddess,” he said, somehow both worshipful and self-deprecating. “I’m just lucky to ever have gotten to date her at all.”

Al sat, thoughtfully, for a long moment. A goddess? He wondered how Winry would react to being treated like a goddess all the time. She’d probably think it was cute and flattering – at least, she would at first, but it would probably get old pretty quick.

“You know, no matter how pretty she is, she’s not really a goddess,” Alphonse finally offered, tentative. “She’s just a person like any other person. She has bad days and stuff, when she’s grumpy or her hair sticks up in weird places or she trips over everything ever. I bet it would be annoying for someone to treat you like you’re perfect all the time. I bet that was your problem.”

Havoc stared at him, wide-eyed.

“Oh my god,” he finally said, and he said it like he had just had an epiphany. “Oh my god. You’re right. How the hell is it that you and your brother give the best advice on women?”

“Um,” said Alphonse, confused: Edward had definitely never had a girlfriend, and Al hadn’t had one for very long at all, so where on earth was that coming from?

“The other night, when your brother and I were at the bar,” Havoc said, blithely, unaware of the extra baggage that had become attached to that evening, “he basically told me that my game was off. That I was doing it wrong. That I kept assuming all women wanted roses and chocolates without really paying attention to what they would have preferred. And you know what?” he asked, sounding strangely excited, “He was right. You’re right. That’s it. That’s what I did wrong with Becca.” As soon as those words left his mouth, all the energy left him again, and he deflated, sinking into his chair like a popped balloon. “But I guess it’s too late to fix it now, huh.”

“Ah. Does she have a boyfriend?” Al asked, sympathetic.

“Well, no. I don’t think so,” Havoc said, his unlit cigarette hanging pathetically from his lips. Al raised an eyebrow.

“Then how is it too late?”

An unasked question passed in a cloud over Havoc’s face, replaced as quickly by surprise, then excitement: he fairly well sprang to his feet. Al was pretty sure he had never seen the other man move so quickly before.

“You’re right,” he said, bright and determined and all kinds of other good things too. “You’re right.” And then, he was off in the direction of the front door. As he went, he called back over his shoulder to Fuery: “I’m taking my lunch!”

“…But it’s only eight forty-five!” the man replied, with audible confusion.

“An early lunch! If the general comes out while I’m gone, cover for me!” he said, passing through the door and down the hall before Fuery could finish his long sigh.

Before anyone had a chance to say anything else, the door to the General’s office opened again, revealing General Mustang, with Ms. Daniels on his arm. He scanned the room briefly, his eyes eventually falling on the empty desk beside Al.

“Oh, Havoc’s late again?” Mustang said, casually, as he advanced towards the exit, Ms. Daniels by his side. “When he finally manages to show up, let him know that I’m docking a quarter of this week’s paycheck.”

“Yes, sir,” replied Fuery, mournfully, and Alphonse couldn’t help but laugh at that.

*

There were very few things in this world that had ever put Riza Hawkeye on edge: her glassy calm in practically any situation was, in fact, one of her defining features. These past few days, however, had begun to fray at even her iron nerves. She was crucially inept at political maneuvering, and yet now, she had to deal with some of the most underhanded, unscrupulous behavior she had ever had the displeasure of seeing from a government official.

Weimar’s gambit had surprised her far more than perhaps it should have -- it just went to show that in the ways of politics, at least, she was still quite naive. She had expected him to be well-prepared, but somehow the idea that he would actually go so far as to modify the crime reports had caught her by surprise.

It hadn’t even occurred to her that such a thing would be possible, if she was to be honest. Every year, the Justice Department published a book of crime reports and statistics that was then given to every police station and library in the country, and extra ones addressing crime reports specific cities that were freely available in the same locations throughout the city in question. Modifying or replacing all of the copies of those books would have been a massive undertaking, to say the least.

But whatever the logistic improbability, they seemed to have accomplished it: Hawkeye had spent the past day, ever since leaving the council chamber, out in the city. At first, she simply went to the Central library in the hopes that she could find support for her position there, but she had found to her silent dismay that the book she found there provided reports that matched Weimar’s exactly.

After that, she had gone to other libraries, then to the police stations: but leafing through book after book, she consistently found that the the page had been modified -- or perhaps, more likely, given suspiciously crisp newness of the paper, that the books had been replaced.

The most useful thing to her would have been to know who had checked the book out over the past several weeks, but she couldn’t seem to get that information, either. If she talked to every person who had checked the books out, she might have a chance of judging when the change had been made. However, attempts to ask one of the library workers for any of the patrons' names had been met with resistance, even a certain combativeness. Providing that information would be quite illegal, they explained to her, and no amount of showing them her military ID seemed to be able to convince them to overlook this. After this pattern had been repeated a number of times, she decided that wrangling illegal information out of irritable librarians was a tack better taken by the professional intelligencers, and let it be. She had none of the skills required to make a person part with their carefully guarded secrets.

Despite all of the discouraging setbacks, she had found out at least one interesting piece of information, so her day hadn’t been a total waste.

And thus, she found herself in the office of the Minister of Justice that Tuesday morning, waiting in silence for the man’s arrival. Perhaps, she hoped, she could address the issue right at its source.

She stood from her chair immediately when the man entered.

“Hello, Mr. Berlitz,” she said to him: the man's eyes widened upon seeing her, and he turned bright red under his mustache. She didn't bother with pleasantries beyond that: he knew why she was there, and there was no point at all in pretending otherwise.

“Oh, hello, Major,” he said, with a look like a man who had found rotten eggs in his refrigerator. “It's very nice to see you. Can I help you with something?”

“Yes,” she said, closing up the binder in which she kept all of her notes and tucking it by her side. “I'm here to discuss the crime statistics report with you,” she said, just to make herself extra clear.

“I see,” he said, fixing his glasses higher up on his face. “Well, I would absolutely love to be able to help you with that, but I actually have an early morning meeting today that I simply can't miss –”

“No you don't,” she interrupted him, coolly. “I checked your schedule. You're free until your meeting with your staff at ten o'clock.” She had spoken to his secretary prior to the minister's arrival, just so she could avoid that kind of evasion.

When he heard that, his secretary got yet another dirty look, which seemed to confuse the woman even more.

“Um, I may have – forgotten to write down an appointment,” Berlitz offered, clearly racking his mind for an excuse. “The Minister of Finance did call yesterday –”

“I won’t be long,” Hawkeye interrupted, harsh stare locked on the man.

Apparently, something in the tone of her voice was quite convincing, because he seemed to sag under the force of her determination.

“Well,” the man finally said, clearly not happy, “since you seem to want to see me so badly, I suppose I can spare you ten minutes.”

“Thank you,” she replied. He took off his hat and hung it on the rack by the door, then shut the door and moved to sit behind his desk. “I’m certain it will be worth your while.”

“I’m sure,” he said, folding his hands on top of the table. “Now, what brings you to my office today?”

“Let's agree not to pretend we don't know what's going on,” she replied. “It will save us both valuable time. I'm here because I know you or your men have switched this year's crime reports – under the direction of General Weimar, I'm guessing,” she said, back rigid. Even though this was not a battleground with which she was familiar, she knew beyond a doubt that she was stronger than this man, and that he was afraid of her.

“I'm not sure what you mean,” he said, nervousness evident in the slight tremble of his tone.

“I was surprised to see your... modifications to the report, yesterday at the meeting. From what I recall and what is shown on my own copies of the documents – which I know to be accurate – total crime rates have been decreasing steadily over the past several years. And yet, the versions of the reports that you presented yesterday show the opposite trend.” His nervousness in the face of her steely cool was intensely gratifying. “I spent the rest of the day going to each of the libraries across the city and checking all of the copies of this book, to find evidence supporting the copy I have. As you have no doubt guessed, all of the copies I managed to find support your new document,” she said, hands clasped around the binder in her lap. “But the interesting thing is, the librarians there all seem to remember their copies looking a bit more worn. They were published a number of months ago, after all, and being so important to so many professions, those crime reports are in near-constant use.”

“So the library patrons are taking extra care with my document. I don't see how this concerns me,” he said, though the corners of his eyes had begun to wrinkle.

“Well, then let me clarify. One particular librarian that I spoke to remembers that the copy at his library had a significant amount of writing in it, and it doesn't anymore.” She kept her voice low: she didn't even have to raise it at all to keep the man on the edge of his nerves. “He remembers because he fined the patron who did it ten thousand cenz for book vandalism. It's in their records,” she finished. Although that had been the only useful piece of information she had collected during her sojourn, she wielded it carefully and precisely, as if it were a game-ender. “So isn’t it strange that the writing would just disappear like that?”

Berlitz broke out in a sweat.

“Maybe the library ordered a new one to replace the one that had been written in, and just never told him,” the man said.

“He was in charge of library acquisitions and replacements for his branch, and he didn't remember ever ordering a new copy. Besides, there was no mention of such a thing in their records. So please, don't treat me as if I'm stupid,” she said, coolly.

There was silence between them for a long moment. The rise of the early morning sun slowly shortened the yellow stripes of light on the floor.

“What do you want from me?” the Minister of Justice finally asked, his shoulders sagging.

“I want you to admit what you have done, and I want a public apology,” she replied, crisp. “I want you to print the original copies of the crime reports again, and then, I want you to give them out at the next council meeting.”

Berlitz hunched over his desk, only the set of his arms keeping him from crumbling down onto it. His mustache shook as he talked.

“I'm sorry, but I'm afraid that's impossible – quite impossible,” he said, watching his fingers twiddle nervously around each other. “Even if what you were saying were true – and I'm not saying it is, mind,” he added, unconvincingly, “then I would be severely punished for being privy to such a thing. The Fuhrer might relieve me of my post.”

And you would deserve it , she added, silently, surprising herself with the viciousness of the thought.

Part of her very much wanted to reply out loud with that opinion, but something else – the part of her that was trying to be what General Mustang was, the part that was doing its best to adapt to this new world – stopped her. He would never admit what he had done if he thought he was going to lose his position for it.

Conscience warred with practicality inside of her: she was normally a down-to-earth person, not too concerned with the abstract, focusing more on day-to-day realities, but her conscience and principle didn't often get called into question. She was tasked only with helping General Mustang to get to the top: usually, the General himself was the only person who might have to compromise his morals, even the tiniest bit, in the service of that goal.

In most situations, she would not have done what she was about to do. And yet, for justice – in the name of the thousands or tens of thousands of lives that could perhaps be saved, she said:

“I am certain that you personally had nothing to do with the replacement,” she said, ignoring the sticky, uncomfortable feeling that stayed with her after she said it. “It was corrupt aides or other government officials. If you were to tell that to the Fuhrer, General Mustang and his team would support you in your assessment. In fact, we would praise you for being willing to examine your own staff critically.”

Berlitz's brow furrowed, and his frown carved deeper.

“Yes, I'm sure that's true,” he said. “But what if, theoretically, the man who hired those aides to print the new booklets and perform the change would want to punish me for the confession? Even though I had nothing to do with it, you understand. What if he could hurt me, somehow, for thwarting his goals?”

Riza might have been inexperienced, but she was intelligent enough to hear the unspoken words in that statement: the Minister of Justice had been blackmailed.

“If the aides might be willing to name names...”

The blood drained from Berlitz's face upon hearing that.

“No, no. I'm afraid that that couldn't be done,” he said, standing up from his chair and shaking his head, looking a tiny bit frantic. “It's far too dangerous.”

Riza began to feel the beginnings of anger – actual anger, she realized, to her surprise – bubbling up in her then.

“And that little bit of danger to you is more important than the danger you have caused to the tens of thousands of human beings implicated in your – 'report'?” she said, the repressed fury giving her voice an edge. “I'm sorry, that your aides have caused,” she added, that one word even sharper. She got to her feet as well, her arms tight by her sides, her gun a comforting weight at her hip. Silence hung heavy in the air around them – slowly, he put his mask back on over his worry, smoothing out the lines in his face.

“I think it would be best for you to leave now,” he said, hands folded behind his back. “I will consider your proposition.”

“Please do. Thank you for your time,” she replied, then bowed and turned to leave, a blackness growing in her -- noting it, dispassionately, she wondered if it might be the beginnings of despair.

*

The room in which Edward had spent his first night in jail wasn’t exactly anything to write home about, just an open bar-front cell, probably eight foot by eight foot, with one of those shelf beds in one corner and a tiny, discreet toilet and sink in the other. The view through his bars ended at the closed wooden door that marked the entrance to this wing of the jail blocks at the police station, and nowhere else had a view that was much better: the grimy window up near the ceiling of his little room was barely even transparent enough to let light through, much less to let him see out. His attempts to improve it by scratching some dirt off with his thumbnail had resulted in more damage to his nail than to the grime, and he figured that the warden probably wouldn’t take too kindly to him transmuting the glass clean again, so he gave the thing up for lost and moved on to more fruitful pursuits.

Upon waking that morning, he actually felt pretty well rested -- strange, especially once you considered the fact that the mattress was little more than an inch of cotton stuffed into a burlap bag and pounded flat, then covered with a couple of sheets and a ratty blanket, but he wasn’t complaining. He counted himself lucky that the weather still wasn’t cold enough that he had needed to use the blanket: the faded, dirty thing might have been blue, once, but now the only distinguishing factor he could pin down was that the edges were ragged, in the way they might have been if they had been seriously chewed upon by someone or something. It still lay where he had flung it the day before, crumpled in the corner -- someplace far away from him where it was unlikely to infect him with whatever infectious diseases it was hiding in its depths.

Now, in the absence of anything else to do, any other activities with which to busy himself, Edward couldn’t help but lie on his bed with his hands folded behind his head and think. Sleep -- and he had slept, a lot -- had kept him from the cavern of his thoughts for perhaps sixteen hours, but even he couldn’t drop off again after all of that.

Now, worries that had before been nebulous had taken on crystalline form: what was Al doing? Had he found the report that Ed had wanted him to find? How had he responded? What did he think of Ed, now? ( He doesn’t think any less of you, don’t be stupid. Even after you trapped his soul in an enormous hunk of metal, he didn’t think any less of you.)

God, Mustang must be on a major trip. I confuse the shit out of even myself.

I wonder what Al did when he found out.

He remembered -- once, long ago, when they had both been so much younger -- hearing Al say that he might go on a crusade of revenge like Scar, if Ed had been killed. Edward certainly wasn’t dead, far from it, but still...

Is he going to feel sorry for me? Is he going to worry? What a fuck-up, Elric. All you ever are is trouble.

I wonder what I would do, if I had to see them again?

Ed rolled over onto his side violently, cradling his head between bent arms, hands still folded together back in his hair. He pulled his knees up close to his chest, restless from the lack of motion.

Fuck ‘if,’ you know it’s not a question. You’re going to have to someday, and that day is probably going to be soon.

Unless Al killed them for you, a bitter, somehow hopeful voice added. Then you’d never have to deal with those motherfucking bastards ever again. They’d get what’s coming to them.

The sound of the hall door being unlocked from the outside open broke him away from his thoughts. He twisted and sat up in his bed to see who had come to visit. The face he saw framed in the crack of the door as it swung open had become pleasantly familiar to him over the course of his imprisonment. Focused, now, on this new distraction, he shoved the tumult of his thoughts to the back of his mind. He had a game to play.

“Officer Wallace!” he exclaimed, as if he had never been happier to see anyone in his life. “You came to visit! I’m so flattered. I missed you too, handsome,” he said, getting to his feet, and any momentary repugnance he might have felt at saying those words was immediately overwhelmed by the sadistic delight that surged through him at seeing the way the man’s face flashed through his expressions: surprised, then revolted -- maybe even nauseated, if Ed was lucky -- then thin lips twisting down into a bona fide scowl.

God, he loved what he could do to these people -- playing them like an instrument, poking them in just the right spots over and over again until they got all bent out of shape. It was really incredibly validating. For the first time, he really understood why Mustang enjoyed getting reactions out of people so much.

As soon as that thought crossed his mind, a cold realization swept over him.

Oh god, you’re turning into that bastard.

He swallowed his instinct to give a startled laugh. Mustang really was rubbing off on him in a major way.

But is that such a bad thing, really?

“Shut the fuck up, faggot,” Officer Wallace growled, his bulbous nose turning red with his repressed anger. The word hit him like a slap across the face, but Edward didn’t allow the other man to see it. Ed was the one in control of this situation. He had known the risks of taking this approach, and had decided to do it anyway. “If another word comes out of your mouth, I’m putting you in solitary fucking lockdown.”

Edward laughed.

“Wow, you police bastards have even less of a sense of humor than the military ones. That’s an accomplishment. You should be proud of yourselves,” he said. The man’s scowl deepened, but apparently he found nothing in Ed’s words a good enough excuse to send him to solitary. He decided to press on. “So what brings you here at this time of day?”

“You have a visitor,” the man fairly well snarled before stalking through the door; as he moved out of the way, a tuft of honey-brown hair came into view, with the rest of Alphonse Elric following shortly thereafter.

Immediately, Edward was caught between two extremes: happiness, at seeing his little brother, and anxiety, because chances were very, very high that he knew what they were going to be talking about.

“Hey, Al,” he said, softly. “How’s it been?”

“It’s been okay,” the younger replied, though something was obviously eating him. “I’ve been busy.” He turned to the officer and gave him his best innocent face. “Hey, do you think you could give me and my brother some alone time for a couple of minutes? We have some things we need to talk about. By ourselves,” he added, the flash in his eyes revealing the steel beneath his sweet exterior. The officer didn’t seem moved.

“No can do,” he said, crossing his arms: his biceps bulged in meaty curves out from his arms. Ed wondered if maybe the man was trying to look threatening. Ha -- wasn’t that a joke. “Prisoners can’t be left unsupervised with visitors. You could slip him a weapon or a key or something.”

“The warden would be here,” Al pointed out, at just the moment when Edward burst into laughter.

“Do you guys not know what alchemy is? Is that the problem here? Or do you just have no idea who the fuck I am? ‘Cause lemme tell you, if I wanted out of here, I wouldn’t need any-fuckin-body to slip me shit: you can bet your ass that I’d have been on my way to Xing about five seconds after your boss locked that door for the first time. But I don’t want to get out and go anywhere: I’m a law-abidin’ citizen. So you should prob’ly just accept that if I wanted to get out, there’s no way in hell that you could stop me, and let me have some alone time with my little brother.”

The man snorted, clenching his arms even more tightly; Alphonse gave his brother a look of amusement and resignation. Of course, he would have preferred to do this in a way that involved less confrontation, but that had never been Edward’s style.

“Or what?” the officer spat, glaring at the elder brother. “What’re you gonna do about it?”

“Well,” Alphonse said, smoothly interjecting himself into the space where Edward might have said something stupid, “either of us could use our considerable influence with the movers and shakers in the government to see that your hold on your job became just a little bit weaker than before,” he said, his manner friendly. Edward almost laughed out of sheer surprise: his little brother was getting fucking devious. It was all that time with Mustang and his crew, Ed would swear to it.

The officer was not happy with this: he shifted from foot to foot, his attention returning to the shorter man in front of him. Alphonse watched him in return, hands clasped behind his back, the very picture of innocence. After a moment, the man replied:

“Fine. You can have your fucking pow-wow or whatever.” He sneered, just in case his distaste hadn’t yet quite come across. “But don’t think you’re getting rid of all of us.” He gave a nod to someone that Edward couldn’t see, at the far end of the hallway -- the warden, he presumed -- and gave Alphonse another glare.

“I wouldn’t expect so,” Al said. “Thank you for your consideration,” he added as the man turned to leave. “We really do appreciate it.” The man just snorted in return, but this didn’t phase Alphonse any.

That was his little brother -- polite to a fault, even in situations that really didn’t call for it.

As soon as the door shut behind him, Alphonse crossed the room in just a few long steps to sit down, crosslegged, on the floor in front of the bars of Edward’s cell. The nervousness that had begun to subside in him over the course of their conversation with the officer rose up in him again, because this was it: he couldn’t put it off any longer. He moved over to the bars of the cell and sat down himself: he began to mirror his brother’s crosslegged position, but the twinge of the stitches at the juncture of his hip reminded him that that might not be the best idea. He kept his uninjured leg in that position, and kept the knee of the other one up to his chest, letting the foot sit on the floor in front of his other shin. He left his forearm balancing on the point of his knee.

“Hey, Brother,” Al said.

“Hey,” Ed returned, awkwardly. He sat there in silence: he really didn’t know what to say. What were you supposed to say in this situation?

“So,” Al began, thankfully taking the initiative himself. “How are you doing?”

Edward responded automatically, without taking the time to think about it.

“Good,” he said. “Little bit bored in here, but I get to make all of the guards uncomfortable whenever they come in, so at least that’s something to do.” Alphonse gave a short laugh, although it seemed less than genuine -- distracted, even. Ed couldn’t exactly blame his brother for that, though.

“I suppose it is,” Al replied. “I’m glad you’re, ah, keeping busy.” A long, pregnant pause fell between them.

“So, I found the report,” he finally continued, and the words twisted in Ed’s stomach.

“Yeah. I figured as much,” Edward said, keeping his voice admirably under control. He didn’t say anything else: didn’t want to have to.

“I just wanted to say, Brother, that I am so, so sorry --”

Don’t, Al,” Edward said, full of conviction. “Listen, not one thing about this is your fault. Nothin’ to be sorry for.”

“But there is,” Al returned, and when he met Ed’s eyes they were maybe a little bit watery. Ed flinched and looked away: he hated seeing his little brother like that, hated knowing that it was his fault. “It took me until I read that report to understand why you were so upset. I knew something was wrong, but I couldn’t figure out what it was, and I didn’t want to push you, so I just let it be. But maybe I could have actually helped you, if I had been able to figure it out.” He paused: Edward collected himself to speak, but before he could, Al continued. “And even besides all of that, I’m so sorry this had to happen to you. It must’ve been horrible.”

“Don’t be stupid,” Edward said, without force or anger. “It wasn’t that you weren’t being observant enough, or whatever. It’s that I was trying to keep it a secret. I didn’t want anybody to know -- you or Mustang or fuckin’ whoever. Okay? So don’t get all down on yourself about it. Ain’t nothin’ to beat yourself up over.”

“I know,” Al said. “It’s just hard for me to be rational about it when you’re hurting.”

Ed shrugged.

“I’m feelin’ better. Way better. Don’t you worry about me.” It was true. He could get over this shit. He would get over this shit. It wasn’t a question of “if,” it was a question of how quickly he could make it happen.

Alphonse nodded, slowly, as if he was uncertain -- and why wouldn’t he be? He tightened his face, set his lips in a line, and started talking again.

“So. I didn’t just come here today to apologize,” he started, and thank god for that, because Edward had had just about all of the apologies he could handle. “I also came here to ask you what you wanted me to do about these men.” Awkward silence strung the room around them for a moment: Ed had no idea how to respond. “So last night, after I read the report, I found out where they lived. I confronted them in their dorm rooms.” There was something behind what Alphonse was saying, a hint of shakiness to his voice that Ed didn’t like, but he kept going before Edward could say anything. “They’re all tied up there, but... I didn’t know what you wanted me to do from there. I could turn them over to the military police -- then, there would be a trial, and they would probably go to jail. But everything would have to... come out into the open, for that to happen.” He paused: Ed hunched over, gritting his teeth. He had known it would come down to this. He just hadn’t wanted to think about it.

Before Edward could reply, Al’s eyes began to shimmer liquidly in the light, and he burst out, with all of the pained earnestness of a confession:

“Brother, I could have killed them,” he said, his voice cracking under the emotion and the strain of keeping himself together. “I could have killed them, and obviously I would have been horrified, but -- some part of me would have been satisfied, too. I would have been proud of myself.”

He took a deep, shuddering breath: Ed reached out through the bars to put a warm hand on his brother’s shoulder, comforting. Thank god, the voices in his head kept silent, the nausea in his stomach barely more than faint motion sickness. Heartened by this, he gave his brother’s shoulder a squeeze: Alphonse bowed his head, and Ed saw, to his surprise, a shining tear-track rolling down his brother’s cheek.

“Al...” he said, and in an instant all of his fear was gone, all of his trepidation and worry and self-recrimination, because Alphonse was hurting right then and he wasn’t about to let an opportunity to help slip away from him. “Hey. Listen to me. It’s okay. He’s fine. I’m fine.” He tried out a grin, big and bright, like he always did when Al was upset. “Everything’s okay. You did good.”

“But... I wanted to hurt those guys, Brother,” he said, face tightened and lined like that of a man much older. “I thought about how you must have felt that night and I got so mad I was sick and he was saying such awful things about you and I just hit him, even though he was helpless. He begged for mercy, but that just made me madder because he didn’t show any mercy to you and...” He had begun to cry in earnest now, silently, his face turned to the ground as he tried to keep his eyes out of view. After a moment spent collecting himself, he spoke again. “Do you think I’m a terrible person?” he asked, finally turning his huge, watery eyes up to his older brother.

There was no question as to how Ed was going to respond to this.

“‘Course I don’t, Al,” Edward replied, reaching up to ruffle Al’s hair fondly: he hoped that the gesture of affection would make some difference. “You’re hands-down the most amazing person I know. You didn’t do anything wrong, ‘kay? Nobody’s dead, nobody’s even maimed.” He paused and frowned. “Right?” he added, just in case. Al gave a sniffly sort of laugh and pushed the back of his sleeve up against his eyes to dry them.

“Right,” Al murmured, giving his eyes another great swipe. “Not majorly, anyway. I may have... re-broken a nose,” he added, uncomfortable, fierce, utterly unsure what he was and what he wanted to be. Ed moved his hand back to his brother’s shoulder and squeezed it harder.

“He probably coulda done with some more hurt,” Edward said, casually, as if he weren’t utterly emotionally invested in this. “But you didn’t do much, and he’s not dead. So go turn the bastards in to the military police and then go do your thing and don’t think about it again. It’s over. ‘Kay?”

Al watched him, eyes crinkling in concern as they pulled low at the corners, his own distress forgotten for the moment in favor of his brother’s.

“Are you sure? Is that really what you want?” Al asked, breaking the quiet.

“Yeah, ‘course,” said Edward. Am I sure? No, of fucking course I’m not sure. But making a decision is better than just sitting around and waiting for shit to fix itself. “It’s pretty simple. It’s the right thing to do. When assholes like them do something wrong and illegal, they go on trial, then they go to jail. That’s how this shit works in any sane country.”

But imagine the trial: sitting up there on that podium and watching those men watch you, sneering at you as you tell the room where the bad men touched you and everybody there knows exactly what they did, can see what a slut you are, what a weak, pathetic little --

Shut up shut up shut up --

“I guess,” said Alphonse, looking down, oblivious to Edward’s burst of self-abuse. “Yeah, it is the right thing to do, as long as you’re okay.”

Edward laughed, as if it were a question with an obvious answer.

“‘Course I am. Who the hell do you think I am? I’m Edward Elric, and I get up and move forward. That’s what I fucking do. This shit ain’t so bad, anyway.”

The smile with which Alphonse met that declaration was soft, unsure.

“If you say so.” He paused, thinking, searching Edward’s face. “You know, if you ever need to talk about any of this...” He drifted off, letting the rest of his sentence hang, unspoken, between them.

“Thanks, Al,” Edward said. “You’re the best little brother ever, you know that?”

“Of course I am,” replied Alphonse, with a cheer probably intended to lighten the mood. “And don’t you forget it, either.”

“Don’t worry,” Ed replied, seriously. “I’m not gonna.”

*

The lobby of the radio station was warm and inviting, filled with plush furniture in tans and creams and the occasional red accent. Rebecca Daniels and Roy Mustang walked into the room, arm in arm, as she smiled coyly at him. The woman had outfitted herself to stand out in this environment: she wore a smart lavender skirt suit that fell just to her knees, with a matching bell-shaped cloche hat pressed over chin-length auburn hair that curled in at the tips.

“Welcome to my humble studio,” she said as they entered, giving a grand gesture towards the room with her unoccupied hand. “I don’t believe I can emphasize enough how pleased I am to have you on the show, General Mustang. Edward’s show yesterday has been the talk of the town. I think it really hit a nerve with a lot of people,” she said, ushering him in through the small wooden door at the back of the lobby into the rest of the building.

“Please, call me Roy,” he said, his voice low and suggestive. She gave a light laugh, like birdsong, in response to his flirtatious smile. “We’re friends, aren’t we? No need to hold to such formalities. And at any rate, thank you for having me. The favor you’re doing me is enormous. I’m not likely to forget it anytime soon.”

“Alright, then. Roy it is,” she said, flashing him white teeth. “And it’s hardly a favor. I have colleagues who might actually kill to get you on their shows right now.”

“Really. That’s interesting, because there’s nothing that would be less likely to get me to come on their shows than a murder,” he replied, without a hint of seriousness, as she navigated them down the long hallways, passing occasional staff or crew, towards what Roy could only assume would be the recording room itself.

“You know, I guessed as much,” she said, laughing. “But if that had been what you wanted, let’s just say that I would have been every bit as willing.”

That earned a chuckle from Roy.

“You’re quite a determined young lady. Well, I’m thankful that we shall never have to test your mettle.”

They came to a stop in front of a wooden door, and Rebecca opened it, turning her head just slightly to watch him through the corner of her eye, the corners of her lips turned up.

“Agreed,” she responded, opening the door, then guiding him through into the outer studio. Through a large glass window on the far wall he could see the recording space itself, little more than two microphones hanging from the ceiling with a desk between them. “In any case, back to business,” she said, with a pleased edge to her voice that made Roy think that she had been restraining herself for a long time. “I had a bit of an idea where I wanted this thing to go,” she said, in a way that made it clear that her “bit of an idea” actually meant “I have this planned out from A to Z.” “Listening to all of the things that callers are saying, I’ve decided that. Most of what people seemed to be enjoying so much about Edward’s interview is the actual details about the romance between you two. Scandalous and sweet -- a deadly combination,” she said with a laugh.

“Yes, I imagined so,” Roy said. “He’s really quite charming when he wants to be, isn’t he?”

“And a different kind of charming when he doesn’t,” the woman added. “Oh, hello, Charles,” she said, as the little man in front of the sound panel turned around to wave at her. He had a bulbous nose, a crooked front tooth, and looked like he did his own haircuts, but when he smiled at her it was genuine.

“Hey, Rebecca,” he replied. When he looked over at Roy, the smile dropped off of his face almost immediately: he looked the general up and down with a critical eye, as if appraising him for auction. “I take it this is Mustang?” He seemed thoroughly unimpressed -- or maybe just jealous.

“Quite,” she said. “We’re going to take a minute or two to discuss our interview prior to going in there, so if you have everything ready on your end,” she gestured to the sound panel to indicate her meaning, “you can go get a coffee or something, if you like.”

“I will in a minute,” he said. “But I’ve actually been waiting for you. There’s a call for General Mustang on the studio phone.” He gestured to the telephone beside him: it was off the hook, on its side, as if anxious to be picked up.

Roy frowned. How many people knew that he was here? Not many. Just his team and Alphonse, and it would have to be something serious for any of them to call him at the studio. They wouldn’t interrupt him in the middle of something so important for anything less than sheer disaster. A chill ran through him: had something else happened with Edward?

“Who is it?”

“She said her name was Hawk-something,” Charles answered. “Hawkeye, maybe?”

Roy stalked across the floor, knees locked and shoulders hunched; upon reaching it, he grabbed the phone and shoved it up to his ear.

“Mustang here,” he said. “What’s the problem?”

“General, sir,” she said, never missing a beat, even though she might have been waiting on that line for twenty minutes. “I have some news.”

“I assumed as much. Bad news?”

“Yes, sir,” she replied, steady as ever. “It’s Weimar, sir. While we’ve been busy with other things, he has been plotting relentlessly.”

The general bared his teeth in a humorless approximation of a smile.

“I’m shocked,” he said. “Really. What could the good man be up to?”

There was a long pause, and when she spoke again, her steady voice was laced with emotion.

“There have finally been consequences. Our intelligence team has just informed me that last night, several teams of his loyal men went to the homes of citizens suspected of involvement with Ishballan refugees and begun a series of arrests. Ishballan individuals were found on the premises of more than one of those families.” Roy stiffened: the cold shiver from earlier came back full force, settled in the pit of his stomach as a formless, dangerous anxiety. “If the military police force felt that any of the Ishballans were less than one hundred percent cooperative, they were shot immediately. The rest of the Ishballans and their supporters are in jail.”

He absorbed that information like the shock of a crash.

“…How many dead?” he finally asked, valiantly keeping the tremor that threatened in his voice at bay.

“Six at last count, sir. But intelligence suggested, and I agree, that this may just be the beginning of something much more sinister – and far-reaching.”

Three years of fire and death and flames and burning bodies, the ash of corpses in your lungs, the wide-bright red eyes of a young boy turned back to their component elements, his life nothing more than a shadow on the wall –

ashes to ashes, dust to dust

Maybe, if the world has an ounce of fairness, someday I will burn for what I’ve done.

The memories choked him, thick and physical as the black smoke that had risen from his funeral pyres.

In some small way, however you can, you have to atone. You have to pay it back – pay back some small fraction of your debt by saving these people, here, now –

Is it too late? What more can you do than you’ve already done?

Slowly, he turned around, his gaze locked right on Rebecca. She had pulled half of her bottom lip in between her teeth, and had begun to chew on it, nervously.

“And no news outlets have reported on this yet.”

“We don’t even know if they know about it,” she responded. “But my guess is that many of them have, and that for some reason” -- she put a heavy emphasis on “some reason,” as if she had some very advanced theories about what that “some reason” might be -- “they are simply not reporting on it. Bu that shouldn’t be a surprise.”

No, of course it wasn’t. Even if they did know about the evils committed the night before, half the media outlets were directly in the military’s pocket, and the other half were in the business of selling papers and advertising slots, and were only incidentally news organizations. These kinds of papers subscribed to the lowest, stupidest possible idea of what would interest the general public: and much to Roy’s disappointment, their opinions were proved in some way true. Pictures of government officials in compromising positions did tend to sell better than articles about human rights abuses.

“It isn’t,” he said, his mind working steadily, certainly through the possibilities. “Thank you, Major. I appreciate the call. I’ll take it from here,” he said, keeping all of his emotions in the back of his mind, locked there in his very own Pandora’s box.

“Do you have a plan, sir?” she asked.

“Don’t I always?” He paused. “Inform intelligence that they’re to stop work on what they’re doing --” collecting evidence for that goddamn trial “-- and that they’re to turn their attention to this new matter, instead. I want to know what he’s doing and when he’s doing it. I want to know it before it happens. Are we perfectly clear?”

“But sir,” she said, sounding more surprised than he expected, “your trial is in less than two weeks. If you stop collecting evidence now --”

“I understand that, Major. But this matter has priority.” You becoming Fuhrer won’t make any difference at all if you let all of the rest of the Ishballans die before you can get there. “And besides, I have a team of skilled outside investigators working on my end of things.” That, at least, is true: Alphonse and Madame Christmas can handle whatever you throw their way. “So don’t worry yourself about that. You just do the work I’ve assigned to you, and everything will be fine,” he said, with a confidence he didn’t feel.

Even though he couldn’t see her face, he knew from the quality of Hawkeye’s silence that she sensed his discomfort. She knew better, however, than to shake the card house of his confidence any further by saying anything else to that effect.

“Sir,” she said, the word a vocal salute. “I’ll let them know right away.”

“Thank you, Major,” he said, and as soon as he heard the click of the telephone on the other end of the line, he hung up. Once his attention was back fully on Rebecca again, she spoke.

“That didn’t sound good,” she said with a nervous laugh, doing her best to inject some levity back into the situation through her manner. “So what happened?”

The gears running in Roy’s brain clicked to a stop: he made his final decision. He straightened himself up, refocused his thoughts, and strode over to her.

“Let’s sit down, Ms. Daniels,” he said, a flame in his eye. Maybe he couldn’t take down Weimar right at that moment, maybe he couldn’t burn those men who had attacked Edward until they screamed, but at least he could channel all of that emotion into something constructive – into something that would actually help, both now and in the long run.

“Uh-oh. Now that’s a serious look,” she said, moving to sit down at the small table there in the outer studio room. Roy followed her lead and sat down across from her. “You look like you mean business. You going to spill?”

The general watched her for a moment, considering: her eyes were bright, sharp, and she watched him with every bit as much interest as he had in her. He prided himself on being a good judge of character, and had seldom been proved wrong about his first impressions: and his first impressions of Ms. Daniels had been that she was a clever woman with a clever plan, and uncompromising in the pursuit of her goals.

She would be perfect.

“How would you like,” he began, carefully, “to be the first media outlet to report on some of the most major news to break in Central City since the death of Fuhrer Bradley?”

The smile that spread across her features split her pretty face in two; she laced her fingers together, crimson nails dark against her pale skin, and propped her chin up on her hands.

“I’m intrigued. Keep talking,” she said, and he did.

*

When Mustang arrived at the police station, heralded by two guards who scowled like their bad mood was genetic, the only other people in the main cell block were Ed and the warden. Suspicion rolled off of his escorts in cloying waves, and Roy noted upon entering that the warden wasn't any better – he watched the general through narrowed eyes, slouched in his chair with his arms crossed at the end of the hall. With some irritation, Roy wondered what the man thought he was going to do that would necessitate such an attitude – but he straightened his back and shook it off.

The block's one resident lay on his bed with his hands folded behind his head, apparently staring up at the ceiling, his shirt discarded in a crumpled pile on the floor, for no reason that Roy could discern.

“Hello, Edward,” said Roy, as his little entourage reached Edward's cell door. The room was more or less open to the hall, as the front wall was more or less made up of long bars in a grate pattern, with perhaps half a foot of distance between each of them. There was just enough room between the bars that he had an excellent view, but there was still very clearly a physical boundary between them. But then, he supposed, that was probably precisely the point.

Immediately upon seeing the general enter, Edward sat up and smiled, the sight of which was actually enough to distract Roy from the sight of the man's perfectly defined chest and stomach – but not quite enough to distract him from the long wound across his shoulder, inexpertly sewn together but beginning to go pink at the edges as it healed. He decided not to mention it, or think too much about it: the younger man seemed to be feeling quite well, and Roy didn't intend to dampen his spirits.

Abruptly, he made the decision not to tell Edward about the Ishballan arrests -- or not yet, at any rate. He was already going to have to tell the younger man about his unofficial demotion: there was no need to pile on the bad news, especially when he seemed to be feeling better, for the moment.

“You bastard, what took you so long,” Edward replied, cheerfully. “I've been here since last fuckin' night.”

“Well, isn't someone in a good mood,” said Roy, dryly, as if quite surprised to come to jail and find his lover so happy – though, in truth, he was glad to see Ed acting somewhat normal once again. “And I apologize for my absence, but perhaps some of us have actual work to do that prevents us from coming down to the police station and reading the riot act every single little time our lover gets thrown in jail,” the man drawled, and it had exactly the effect that he had hoped: Ed looked like he was about to start steaming at the ears. Before the man could say anything, however, Roy turned away from him to command the guards: “You two. Leave. I want a moment alone with my lover.”

The officers shared a look of surprise.

“Where the hell do you get off trying to order us around?” one of them asked, incredulity blooming through his voice.

Roy’s smile did not falter, but his eyes narrowed.

“Am I or am I not one of the only four generals of the Amestrian State Military? The military that, may I remind you, is directly in charge of police funding and personnel.” He paused to let this sink in for a moment. “I would like a moment alone with my lover, if you please.”

The men turned to each other: after a moment of silent communication, one of them twisted back to face the general.

“We can give you ten minutes.” Then, he added: “And the warden stays.”

Roy sighed – inconvenient, but not unworkable.

“I suppose that will do. Thank you kindly,” said Roy, as the men began to file out, throwing surreptitious glances back towards the two of them. The warden's look of mistrust only sharpened, though Roy couldn't really find it in him to care anymore.

Edward grinned at Roy, then got to his feet and walked over to stand a few feet in front of his lover, only the bars of his cage and a few feet separating the two.

“Hey. How've you been?” Ed asked, looking radiant and half-naked and really, Roy couldn't decide whether he wanted to look at that brilliant smile or that hard expanse of skin more. He settled for letting his gaze slide between the two, feeling rather blindsided by the simple seductiveness of his lover's presence.

“Edward,” Roy began, slowly, his voice a low rumble, “may I suggest that you put your shirt on again?”

He was going to respect his lover's boundaries. Physical relief was down near the bottom of his priority list: his baser instincts would never get the best of him, no matter how beautiful his younger lover looked then; no matter how much he wanted to press Edward up against a wall and fuck him there, in the sight of whoever wanted to watch; no matter how much he wanted rut against the man until they both shuddered and came in their clothes, Edward's moans on his neck and Roy's in his lover's hair.

“Why would I want to do that?” asked Ed, slowly, his seductive affect now clearly intentional. Roy closed his eyes on instinct, as if by so doing he could block out that purr in Edward's voice, the confident, predatory edge he heard there. This was such a deliberate, practiced torment: Roy knew it well, and long deprivation wasn’t making it any easier to handle.

“Because I had been under the impression,” the general said, keeping his tone even, “that you didn't want to be touched. I am going to respect that. But please, for the love of god, don't make that any more torturous for me than it already is.” He opened his eyes again, focusing them on the blonde's golden stare, and tried as hard as he could not to let his sheer animal want show in the openness of his face.

Briefly, the older man detected a twinge of uncertainty in the cast of Edward's eyes, but it was gone again in a swift second.

“Mm. But I like seein' you hot and bothered,” said the younger man, still smiling.

Watching the sudden twists of his lover's emotions, the pieces clicked into place in Roy's mind: suddenly, the meaning of that flash of discomfort became painfully apparent. The younger alchemist liked tempting the general because Roy's response flattered him, because it made Ed feel powerful and wanted, but at that moment, he liked doing so where the older man simply could not touch him. In some ways, the prison cell was a safe space for him: simple physical distance allowed Ed to take their relationship at his own pace, as he slowly reminded himself what it meant to trust another person with his body.

Also, judging from his amused glances at the guard watching them, Edward was thoroughly enjoying making the police uncomfortable with his unabashedly sexual comments. The man was only just now beginning to learn the kind of power he had over everyone around him, if he would only choose to take it.

“Well done,” said Roy, letting his gaze linger on exposed skin, on the way Ed's pants hung obscenely low off of his hips. “Mission accomplished. I am very bothered. Now you really should put your shirt back on, because I want to have a conversation with you that may be entirely impossible if you don't cover yourself up.”

“Damn. Too bad,” Edward replied, and gave him a cheeky grin before turning to pick up the article of clothing in question and beginning to shimmy into it – oh god, it's one of his black tank tops, he realized with a twinge of both despair and amusement. Even when Ed had it fully on, the thing was so tight that it rode up significantly at his stomach – combined with his low-rise pants, it left a swath of perhaps eight inches of hard, muscled abdomen bare to his eyes, and so it didn’t actually help the situation at all.

Roy, tracing eyes across the wide stripe of golden skin at his lover's navel, elected to leave it at that.

“Thank you,” he said instead, as if he were entirely unaffected by the sight, though he could see in the way Edward grinned that he saw right through the façade. “In any case, it's good to see you looking good again.”

“Good t'be feelin' good again,” Edward replied, stretching and folding his hands comfortably behind his head. “So, you did your own interview for Miss Daniels's radio show today, right?

“I did,” Roy said, with a short nod. “I just finished recording it perhaps an hour ago. It'll be on tonight at six o'clock. That was one of the reasons I didn't come to visit you as soon as the station opened this morning.”

“Yeah, I gotcha,” said Edward. “It's no big. So how'd it go? Was she another casualty of the legendary Mustang sex appeal?”

Roy laughed and shook his head. Rebecca Daniels was a compulsive flirt, which Roy appreciated, and she certainly made her interests known when she had them, but she was nobody's casualty. She knew how to handle men like Roy Mustang. Privately, he suspected that this was part of the reason why she had been so taken with Edward: in a world where human interactions were often treated as an elaborate game, Edward was an unusual specimen. Devoid of art and artifice, Ed's own brand of wit and charm was probably quite refreshing.

Or maybe, Roy thought, with a soft, private smile, you're just projecting.

“You say that as if you aren't such a casualty yourself,” the general said in reply, with just a hint of a purr and a lengthening of his smile. “And I believe that if she could have either of us, she would have her heart set on you.”

A faint blush overtook Edward’s cheeks, but he didn’t let that derail him.

“A girl who prefers me to you – well that’s a first. You jealous?” he asked with a grin, still dusted pink at his cheeks.

“A first? Hardly,” Roy said with a laugh, although he didn’t explain further. “But what on earth do I have to be jealous of?” he continued, lightly. “After all, she just wants you. I actually have you. I would say that I am in the far superior position, here.”

Edward made a face, halfway between embarrassed and disgusted.

“Not jealous of her, dumbass. Jealous of me, ‘cause I’ve apparently stolen your ability to make girls swoon,” he said, a healthy amount of pointed sarcasm inserted into the last part of that sentence.

This made Roy laugh – Edward’s obliviousness was part of his charm. The man had been making girls swoon for years, and he had no idea.

The general’s spirit began to genuinely lighten: if the younger man was able to make those kinds of jokes without a problem, clearly he was beginning to feel better. Perhaps now was the time to test the waters.

“Why on earth would I have an issue with you using your charms to make girls fall for you when you do the same to me, constantly?” he asked, his voice low and suggestive.

Edward snorted, as if he thought this were a joke.

“What, do I make the great General Mustang swoon?”

“Yes. Daily,” Roy replied, seriously. This response seemed to surprise Edward: his blush bloomed across the rest of his face, even as his eyes went round and startled.

“You’re making fun of me,” he said, looking more than a little bit horrified. “Don’t fuckin’ make fun of me.”

“I assure you, I’m not,” the elder replied, unable to help the way his mouth curled up into a genuine smile. “Really!” he said, in response to the other man’s disbelief. “I’m hurt that you doubt me.”

“Right,” mumbled Edward, the pink of his cheeks never subsiding. “I’ve got no reason to doubt you, because you never make fun of me about anything, ever.”

“Well, I wouldn’t go that far,” said Roy, and Edward’s fist flew out through the bars of his cell to connect with the general’s shoulder. “Ow,” the man said, rubbing the offended spot. “That hurt. That was your metal hand, you know.”

Ed smirked a bit.

“I know,” he drawled in reply.

Roy laughed, more than willing to sacrifice his shoulder to see his younger lover in good spirits again.

“Well, consider me chastised.” He let his hand fall to his side again as the imprint of the metal fist faded. “I apologize for my wrongdoing. I shall never tease you again,” he said, solemnly.

“Jackass,” Ed replied, good-naturedly, though his cheeks were still flushed. “Anyway, I’m pretty sure you had a reason for being here other than flirting with me and making fun of me, am I right?”

Roy nodded: he did indeed have some things he wanted to bring up with his younger lover.

“Yes. A number of them, actually,” he said, his tone becoming more serious as their topic did the same. “I wanted to let you know that I just got done recording Miss Daniels’s radio show.”

“Yeah? How did it go?”

“Probably not as well as yours did, but still well. I told her that you had been jailed, and why. I hope that’s alright.”

Edward moved so that he could lean on the concrete wall separating the cells from each other, right at the corner where it met with the cell bars. He crossed his arms loosely, more for comfort than out of defensiveness.

“'Course,” the blonde said. “I wanted you to. It all fits into my plan – I just had no way of tellin' you so at the time. But Al figured it out and let you know, yeah?”

“Within minutes.”

“I figured he would. He knows me better'n anybody.”

The tone of pride in the younger man’s voice warmed Roy through.

“He's a remarkable young man,” he said. “But, so are you. One of the other reasons I came here was to thank you for your noble sacrifice. Miss Daniels’ horror at hearing that you had been jailed like a common criminal really drove home why you allowed yourself to be jailed in this way.”

“No prob,” said Edward, keeping his voice forcibly casual. “Anything we can do to discredit him and to drum up sympathy for us will be great. The sooner we get some kind of mass support on our side, the sooner I'm out of here, and the sooner you get off the hook for this shit. Then everything can go the fuck back to normal.”

If he had been allowing his doubts to surface, Roy might have thought that Edward was putting too much faith in the police’s desire to do the right thing. They weren’t exactly a democratic institution, after all.

Then again, wasn’t the general doing the exact same thing? Putting faith in the establishment’s desire to do the right thing, trying to sway the people up top by appealing to the hearts and minds of the people below?

“Yes,” Roy said, “That is the hope. But becoming the people’s darling becomes much more difficult if you've been antagonizing the police, which I hear that you have been.”

“Only a little bit,” replied Edward, cheerfully. “And don’t worry, it’s all part of the plan. Mostly I’m just making 'em uncomfortable. 'Sfunny how weird they get when they see me without a shirt. It's like they think that I'm gonna make 'em gay just by bein' around ‘em.”

Roy raised an eyebrow at Edward's cheery delivery.

“They treat me like I've got a plague or somethin', and if they look at me for too long, or if I make a pass at them, they're gonna catch it too.” He didn't seem overly hurt by this. “They freak out. But I can use that to my advantage,” he continued, low enough that only Roy could hear, his golden eyes sparking with agenda.

In that moment, everything settled into place, and Roy recognized the last crucial factor of Edward's plan: if he antagonized them enough, if he flirted with them enough, then a police officer might actually respond to this provocation with violence. The public tended to take it badly when police assaulted prisoners, especially when those prisoners were famous heroes and well-loved by many. Maybe after everything else, the resulting scandal could get the public – and the media – to switch sides.

At least, he suspected that that was the idea. Whether it would work that way in practice or not was another question.

The general stepped forward, stopping when his shirt brushed the cell bars, and slowly – very slowly, he didn't want to startle the other man – reached a hand through the metal, towards Ed's face. The man watched it coming: he didn't flinch back as Roy's bare hand met his cheek and cupped it, palm cool against soft skin.

“I know this is probably a stupid thing to say to you,” he said, stroking his thumb across the blonde's cheekbone, “but try not to do anything too rash? Please don't endanger yourself for my sake.” They wanted to catch the public eye, but not for the wrong reasons. “Be careful.”

Then, Edward gave him an impossibly wide, shining smile: slowly, he moved his hand up to where the general's rested on his cheek and clasped it gently.

“I'm always careful,” said Edward; and then, with a long smirk that caught Roy entirely off-guard, drew the man's hand off of his cheek and over towards his mouth.

Roy's breath caught in his throat as his first finger slid past Ed's lips into the soft, wet heat inside. The man's golden eyes were half-lidded but intense, and he locked his gaze on the general's as he took that first finger in to the hilt, swirling his soft-rough tongue around it. The groan that forced its way through Roy's throat was instinctual, primal; the sudden pressured ache between his legs was even more so. The skin of his finger hummed with electric current as all of his consciousness focused onto that one point, onto the slick wet heat, the feeling of a tongue exploring the pads of his fingers, every joint and line of skin – the assault on his senses ignited a line of fire that burned straight to his core.

The smirk in the blonde man's eyes was evident, even though his mouth was too busy to comply.

The sound of Roy's shallow breathing began to fill his ears as everything past the two of them became distant, unnecessary; the little noises Edward made as he suckled made painfully arousing counterpoints to each quick breath. And then, just when Roy thought he had begun to remember how to breathe again, Ed withdrew the finger from his mouth for just long enough to allow him to take a second one in, and then the general was lost again. Ed explored that one as well, suckling, licking – he really worked them, lips sliding sensuously up and down the digits, like they had done on Roy's cock so many times.

He remembered suddenly that there was another man in the room: a quick glance over told him that the guard was still there, and that he was aggressively not watching the two of them, his glare focused straight at his own knees. The flush on his face could have been embarrassment, or disgust, or anger, but it didn't really matter.

Edward glanced in the same direction as the general, then gave the fingers one last suck and a lick for good measure before drawing them out so he could speak.

“Him watchin' is getting you pretty excited, huh?” His voice was low and breathy, and Roy stared at his lips. “Fuckin' exhibitionist.”

“You're one to talk,” said Roy, his voice hitching as Ed's hands passed through the metal bars and onto Roy's uniform jacket. “You wouldn't have said that if you didn't like it yourself. Or –” He lost his voice as buttons came undone, and the blue uniform top fell open, revealing his white button-up underneath. The buttons of that shirt fared no better than those of the last. It occurred to the general that he should probably stop Ed, that this was probably a bad idea, but his neglected erection voiced a dissonant opinion, and right at that moment its vote was the only one that mattered. He had a vague sense that he had been going to say something, but no part of him seemed to care enough to remember

The hand Mustang had left through the bars drifted down instinctively towards the tan and tempting line of Edward's neck, needing desperately to touch: but the other man flinched and pulled slightly away before Roy's hand could even get there. The blonde froze, as if he had caught himself doing something wrong: he stood very determinedly still. His body had gone rigid, as if he couldn't move, or was forcing himself not to. The general withdrew his hand.

“I'll get you back later,” said Roy, meaning every word. Ed smiled, and though he didn't voice it, Roy could sense his gratitude in the way his muscles relaxed, the way the tense line of his shoulders softened. His hands began their journey down Roy's chest again.

“You'd better,” said Edward, breathlessly, as he unbuttoned the last button on the general's shirt.

“Hey,” came a voice of protest from the back corner of the short hallway between the cells: the guard. He did not sound happy. “Stop that immediately! Step away from each other. I don't care who you are, I'll have you kicked out for public indecency.”

Even those words weren't enough to kill Roy's erection, but they did at least remind his rational mind to wake up and pay attention. He groaned his disappointment, then gave an apologetic smile to his young lover as he pulled slightly away.

“Ah, better not to get into any more trouble,” he said, ignoring the painful throb of his body and Edward's disappointed noise. As Roy's hands moved up to begin buttoning his shirt again, they brushed up against Edward's: the man shivered under the light touch and pulled them back into his cell. Whether this was a good shiver or a bad one, he couldn't tell.

In seconds, both the shirt and the uniform jacket were buttoned up again, and but for a slight flush on their cheeks, they looked entirely presentable, as if nothing untoward had happened between them.

“Guess you're right,” said Edward, and Roy wondered if the man was disappointed or secretly relieved. He wanted to touch, to run his hand through golden hair, but restrained himself.

“I always am,” Roy replied, with a crooked smile. He paused, watching the rise and fall of Ed's chest – then, after a moment, he said: “How are you? I mean, really.”

Ed's returning expression was a smile, at least in name, though Roy would have been hard-pressed to call it happy.

“I'm doin' okay. A lot better than I was,” he said, closing one hand around a metal bar. “A lot better,” he repeated.

The younger man was “okay” enough that he could touch Roy, but not enough that Roy could touch him back. It was better than nothing, he supposed.

“I'm glad to hear it,” Roy said. Then, softly, “I want you to know that I would do anything for you, Edward. Really, I would. I would hurt them if you asked me to, no matter the consequences.”

The smile the blonde gave him then was easier, more genuine.

“'Course you would. But I've got the best little brother in the world, you know.” The look in Edward's eyes changed again, simultaneously harsher and duller than it had been. “He's already taken care of it.”

“Hm. Has he?” Roy asked: when he had talked to Alphonse earlier, the path that the man was going to choose to take was still an open question.

“Yeah.” A pause. “He took it harder than I thought he would, in some ways,” Edward said, thick emotion hidden behind every consonant, every syllable, just barely visible in the way his brows pulled down over his eyes, leaving deep creases across the plane of his face.

“It’s not an easy thing to hear, that a person you love has been hurt like that,” Roy said, keeping his tone as neutral as he could manage. Edward’s face twisted up, bitter: he could imagine what was going on in the younger man’s head at the moment -- if I had been stronger, neither of you would ever would have had to feel that pain. His heart hurt to think it. “But he’s a strong kid. He did fine, in the end.”

“Yeah, I guess so.” He paused, golden eyes flicking up to catch on Roy’s own. “I hear he came to talk to you today?”

Roy nodded, but stopped short of providing any more information. It was quite possible that Alphonse didn’t want his brother to know some of the things that he had shared with the general that morning.

“Yes, he did. But when he left, he hadn’t yet told me what he planned to do,” Mustang said, seriously. After a moment, the other man replied.

“He set military police on ‘em,” he said, his tone and face a tumult of emotions. “He knows some of the MPs” -- of course he did: sometimes Al seemed to know everybody -- “and gave them the report.” The tumult did not subside, but he bared his teeth in a grin. “The MPs like me. They weren’t so thrilled to hear about this shit. They’re in the military jail now, and their bail is about 750,000 cenz apiece,” he said, with a humorless laugh. “Some lawyers are preparing a case against ‘em. So this’ll be fun.”

Thank god those men are being jailed in a different building from Edward: I have no idea what he would do if forced to see them, and I’m pretty sure I don’t want to find out that way.

Would the man attack them, take out his vengeance on them? Would he give them what they deserved like he hadn't been able to at their last meeting – or would he freeze up, paralyzed in the rushing current of guilt and memory that circled in a long-disused section of his head?

What kind of terror must he have felt, that night, alone and vulnerable and at the mercy of those who had none? Maybe he had really thought they were going to get him. Maybe he had thought he was going to die. The general hadn't asked, and Edward hadn’t volunteered the information.

Roy wondered if, maybe, hidden in the irrational part of Edward’s mind where the primal instincts lodged, the man was still a little bit afraid of them.

The general’s sheer impotence grated at him: he wished that he could have done something, that he could have burned them like they deserved, or failing that, that he could have spoken a quiet word or two to have the men in question transferred to the North to freeze to death under Major General Armstrong's unforgiving hand, but he couldn't. The day Edward had been attacked had also been the day that Mustang had lost all of his powers as a general. His hard-won title was a word only. For now, at least, he was little more than a paper tiger.

“I wish,” Mustang began, his voice hard with the effort of keeping all of his thoughts inside, “that I could have been the one to confront them. I wish I could have had that pleasure.”

“Yeah, but you couldn't. I'm glad you didn't. I'll say it a million times if I have to: you fuckin' have shit to do, Mustang, and that shit's more important than this.” He paused, cocked his head to the side, let the corners of his mouth crook upwards. “Listen, I know you've got my back. But when you can't get it, don't worry about it, 'cause Al's got me too.”

The feeling that clenched his chest then could have been warmth, or could have been guilt. He didn't examine it too closely.

“I know he does.” He paused: he knew he would have to tell Edward sometime. He couldn't avoid it, and he would be a hypocrite if he tried, after all of their conversation about trust and about communication and letting those you love into your head, into your life, no matter how ashamed you felt of yourself. “Listen, Edward. I have something to tell you.”

Ed tensed up again, and his eyes went wide and wary.

“What?” he asked, like he was afraid of the answer Roy was going to give. Roy lowered his voice, perfectly conscious of the guard in the corner: the man didn't appear to be listening in, but he couldn't afford to take any chances.

“I wanted to let you know that on Friday, Fuhrer Hakuro stripped me of all my powers and responsibilities as a general. I get to keep the title, until such time as the court rules on my case, at which point my status will depend on the nature of the ruling.”

The golden eyes in front of him widened further.

“But... that's ridiculous!” Edward said. “You haven't been convicted of anything! You haven't done anything wrong!”

“Please keep your voice down. I don't want the warden to hear.”

“But it's so stupid,” Edward said, more quietly this time, as his face crumpled into a mix of confusion and shock. “You had things you were doing. Important things! Not just things you were planning for someday, but things you were doing now. Weren't you keeping the military from tryin' to exterminate the Ishballan refugees?”

A surge of nausea hit Roy then as thoughts of the night before hit him, gruesome images of the deaths that he could have prevented and didn't. But he kept it under control, kept his face placid, his body immobile. He wasn't going to tell Edward -- not now. Not when he already had so many things to deal with, to think about. They would have this conversation eventually, but that time was not now.

“Yes. I imagine those things I was doing were the source of the problem,” Roy said, voice low. “I was a real threat to someone, or to something.”

Are a big threat to someone,” Ed corrected, without thinking. This one small sentence, a single word of blind faith, bolstered Roy more than Ed knew. The blonde paused, searching Roy's face and thinking. Finally, Edward said:

“Why didn't you tell me?” The words came out pained, like he was guilty, like he was blaming himself for it and probably everything else too, and if the man had been thinking properly, he would have known that every inflection of his own voice was answering his question. There were a number of reasons that Roy hadn't said anything up until that point, and one of them had been that he had known how Edward would react – had known what that expression on his lover's face would look like. Perhaps it was a bit hypocritical, but he did understand Edward's instinct to keep secrets.

“I did tell you, just now,” Roy pointed out, though he knew that it was a bit of an evasion. “But prior to that, there were other things we needed to deal with. This is the first time I've felt like you were mentally in a place where this was something you could hear.”

“Mm,” replied Edward, clearly chewing on the inside of his bottom lip.

“Edward, I didn't want to keep it from you. Things were just complicated,” he said, shifting his weight. “On Friday night, right after I received this news, I was too angry at you to want to share. And then Saturday you were avoiding me, and then Sunday we talked about all of this – and I had no desire to make you feel even worse than you did by placing my problems on your shoulders. Not until you were feeling better.”

“Hypocrite,” said Ed, softly. “You'd be mad at me if I had done the same thing.”

Roy flinched. It wasn't precisely true, but close enough.

“The difference between your situation in these past few days and mine, is that you had no intention of telling me about your problems, ever. I, however, entirely planned to do so, when the situation was right. I wanted to share this with you, very much. But you were hurting,” said Roy, voice little more than a murmur, hand up against the bars, “and when you're hurting, all I want to do is help. Would telling you three days earlier have made anything better?”

Ed sighed and said:

“I guess not.” He paused, collecting his words. “It just hurts to find out about this bullshit, you know? It makes me fuckin' angry,” he growled, eyes aflame, “but just like with everything else that's been happening recently, I can't even do anything about it. And that's frustrating as all hell. It makes me wanna break shit.”

He understood even more deeply than Ed knew.

“God, doesn't it?” Roy replied with a laugh. “And yet that's the way of politics. I stupidly chose a career in which I can rarely say what I mean, in which people are scrutinizing me constantly, waiting for the smallest misstep, and in which I will often have to wait years to see any progress at all.”

That, for some reason, made Ed's sober expression fall away, replaced by something warmer.

“In't that every job ever, though?” the man said, grinning. “When people get paid for work, I figure they aren't getting' paid to do the shit they're doing – usually that isn't so bad, even kinda fun. I figure they're gettin' paid to put up with all the shit they have to put up with.”

Even just those few sentences lightened Roy's mood considerably. Sometimes, he was reminded without warning of exactly how brilliant his lover was: Edward's blunt insight had been a catalyst for changes in probably many hundreds of people's lives, even thousands, and this piece of it was no less true for its lighthearted delivery.

“Well said,” Roy replied, laughing. “You always have a way of getting right to the heart of things, and a talent for making me feel better in the process.”

“When I'm not makin you want to kill me, that is.”

“Of course,” he said, with amusement, then paused, thinking. “I love you, you know,” he said, just to try it out.

That provoked a furious blush in the blonde, much to Roy's amusement and much as he had expected.

“You're such a fuckin sap,” Edward shot back, golden eyes wide above reddened cheeks, as if the general's declaration had startled him. “If you start writing me cute notes on the bathroom mirror or callin' me 'sweetheart' or some shit, we're breaking up.”

The laugh with which Roy met his lover's threat was long and loud, freeing him from an unseen weight with the sheer force of its delight.

“Edward Elric, you never fail to amaze me,” he said, remembering again what being in love felt like.

The way Edward's surprise morphed into absolute confusion was almost painfully adorable.

“Buh – what? I didn't do anything.”

“Mm,” agreed Roy with a smile, letting his hand drift through the bars to twist a finger, gently, around one loose strand of Edward's unbound hair.

*

Chapter Text

At eleven o'clock on Monday evening, Weimar heard the interview; it incited a bad mood in him that still had not dissipated by the time Weimar awoke that morning. It hung over him like a black fog the whole morning, as he ate his breakfast, attended his first meeting, stomped through he halls of headquarters on his way to his office.

How could this happen? he thought, the crease between his eyes deepening as he ignored a pair of soldiers who stopped to salute him. Even hours later, this still preoccupied him. No, how could we let this happen? I thought we had all of the news outlets in our pocket. How could we have missed this one particular station - and the fact that Mustang's team had a personal connection to their star reporter? He grunted, and clenched his thick fist around the handle of his briefcase hard enough to strangle it.

I love him, he heard, echoing through his memory - the boy had sounded so… no, surely that wasn't possible. Had Mustang truly indoctrinated Fullmetal so thoroughly? Weimar couldn't imagine choosing to stay with Mustang, after everything. Why? What if you're wrong?

He tore viciously through the thought. He wasn't wrong.

You've heard all of the witnesses, you know what that man does to him. No sane person would ever agree to be the victim of such things. If he has, in fact, agreed, that's just further sign that he is mentally unstable, and unfit to make his own decisions.

And yet, the listening public probably would not be canny enough to make the distinction between a man making a choice and a man appearing to make a choice. Besides, no matter what Fullmetal had done, the boy was still so young and impressionable - and if Mustang had been grooming him from a young age to think that was normal…

The thought set his blood on fire.

He scowled at the ground, at the toes of his perfectly polished shoes. His briefcase swung with a purpose beside him.

The arrival of his office door in front of him interrupted Weimar's cascading thoughts: keeping the rage inside, he slammed the door to his outer offices open. No fewer than three young officers and one secretary jumped at the noise, throwing terrified glances in his direction. His subordinates - all male, he noted, except for the secretary - were gathered around the woman's desk. They all flushed as Weimar approached.

"Did I interrupt something?" he asked, raising his thick eyebrows. His tone was not amused. "I am so sorry, do continue," he said, with as much venom as he could muster.

One of the officers swallowed nervously.

"I'm so sorry, sir," the man said, bowing. "We were just getting to know our new co-worker here -"

"I don't give a damn what you were doing," Weimar growled. "With this much work to do and the invasion of a country on our hands, I don't expect to come in to the office at ten o'clock to find you loitering around the secretary's desk. I expect to find you hard at work, nearly silently, or you can find someone else to authorize your paychecks. Get back to work," he snapped; looking like whipped dogs, they turned tail and fled back to their own workspaces.

Weimar turned back to his secretary, and was right on the verge of giving her the same kind of verbal admonition, when he realized that the woman who sat in front of him was not the person he expected. Normally, Eliza occupied that desk, all wide smiles and curly, blonde hair; this other woman had straight red hair, with pale blue eyes and a dainty nose.

"And who are you?" he asked, his tone just as clipped as it had been with the officers. He could have read the name-tag she wore, but that wouldn't have served the same purpose.

"Sir?" she asked, a quaver in her voice, smiling nervously as if she thought he might be joking. "I'm your temporary receptionist. Marielle, remember? We met yesterday. Eliza is taking her vacation days this week."

Now that she mentioned it, he did vaguely remember something of the sort; the thought irritated him further. What business did his secretary have taking her vacation days when everything they had been working for could collapse at the drop of a pin, to leave him with someone whose trustworthiness was uncertain? New girls were of no use to him at all, especially at such a late hour in so many of his plans.

"Mm," Weimar responded, narrowing his eyes at her. "I suppose that if you have to be here, then you have to be here. But don't get in my way, don't ask any questions, and don't get yourself in any trouble. In fact, I think it would be best if you kept talking to a minimum." She looked taken-aback by his bluntness; the sight was somehow satisfying. "But you know what you can do? Bring me a coffee," he said, just to give her something to do. She sat there in blank silence, and for a moment he wondered if she was stupid - but after two beats, then a third, he realized that this was not, in fact, his usual secretary, and she didn't know his coffee preferences off the top of her head. He was going to have to actually tell her what he wanted. "Black. One sugar. Hotter than the devil's pitchfork. The percolator is that way," he intoned, pointing in the direction in question. "You do know how to use a percolator, don't you?" he added, in a tone of utmost derision.

She was on her feet in a snap.

"Yes, sir! Of course,