It was three o' clock in the god-damn morning, and really, Roy thought, if he was going to be burgled, couldn't they have tried at some other time? He raised a gloved hand; fingers poised to snap, flicked on the kitchen light, and froze. Slowly, as the intruders stared back at him, he allowed himself to smirk. Hmmm. There were two of them, both fairly young—mid-teens, certainly—and with that lean, alert, wary and slightly grubby nature most of the (unfortunately common) street kids had. The foremost boy had interposed himself between Roy and his—comrade? Brother, perhaps, they were similar enough in appearance—and had narrowed his eyes. If he was a dog, Roy thought, his hackles would be raised and he'd be growling warning. Roy recognized those eyes, though; recognized them from the posters all over the town. He'd never expected to encounter them in his own home, instead imagining a long search of the criminal underground to find them, but that wasn't to say he couldn't put the situation to his advantage.
"Edward Elric," he said, and both boys winced. "Do you know how big the bounty that military has on you and your brother is right now?"
"Unless it's reached the million-cenz mark, not interested," the boy snarled, and Roy had to admire the pure impudence in those words. "Look, we don't want any trouble. We were just borrowing some food, that's all. We even paid for it." Roy followed the boy's gesture to the kitchen counter, where indeed a sizeable collection of notes and coins had been heaped up right next to the scattered crumbs of what had been, last night, an entire loaf of bread.
"I heard you tried to kill General Halcrow today," he said, not wanting an answer. He'd been there, after all, seen the fantastic leap the boy had taken through the window and the injuries of soldiers who had tried to wound him as he fled. And yes, now Edward stood in front of him he could see the cuts over his face from where the shards of glass must have cut the boy.
"We weren't trying to kill him-!" Alphonse began to interrupt, but Edward elbowed him in the middle.
"What are you, a military man?" Ed asked, suspiciously, and both he and Alphonse shifted slightly, ready to run at the first sign of danger.
"I am a State Alchemist, yes," Roy replied, and Ed nudged Al again, some sort of silent gesture probably along the lines of 'when I tell you to run, run'. "I am not interested in claiming the bounty on your heads, however."
"Yeah?" Ed gave him a look of grudging appraisal, and then sneered. "So what do you want from us, then?"
"What makes you think I want anything at all?" Roy asked, keeping his tone light. His chance was right here, and if the Elric brothers bolted he'd have lost it permanently.
Ed snorted. "Everybody wants something, so don't bother trying to pretend you don't. What is it? You got someone you want us to get rid of? Something else?" Ed tilted his chin up and let just a trace of dislike slide into his tone as he added, "Or maybe you just want me. Whatever you want, leave Al out of it, okay?"
It took a couple of seconds for the meaning behind the last statement to sink in, but when it did Roy had to ask, "How old are you?" The answer was on the wanted posters, of course, but he wanted to check.
"Fifteen," Ed replied, his confidence not quite able to cover the nervous waver in his voice. "Why? Am I too young for you? I'm nearly sixteen."
Roy lowered his glove; his arm ached a little, and he rubbed at his shoulder. "Despite what the law may say, Mr Elric, I do not intend to start a bad habit now. I do have a matter with which your aid would be most appreciated, yes, but you are free to refuse. In which case I shall deal with you like I would with any other interloper into my house; that is, I will burn you both to a cinder."
Ed blinked at him, then dragged his eyes down the gloves and gave a bitter 'heh'. "You must be Mustang. I've heard about you."
"Something good, I hope," Roy said mildly, and Ed smirked.
"Mostly I've been told that you're a stubborn, ambitious bastard. So what do you want? You want your superiors bumped off or something?"
"Not exactly," Roy replied, picking his way through his next sentence carefully. "I understand the reason the military has such a bounty on you—and only for you to be bought in alive—is because you have performed human transmutation?"
Al looked away, but Ed tilted his chin up and nodded, grim defiance in his eyes.
"And surely, the fact that you are both still standing here today indicates a great skill in alchemy, doesn't it?"
Al muttered something about not standing here on their own two legs, but Roy let that pass. He'd heard about the missing limbs, after all.
"I believe your skills may be useful to my own ends. I am offering you both a long-term partnership."
Ed snorted in disbelief. "Sure. Let me know when Hell unfreezes."
Alphonse tugged on his sleeve, shaking his head. "Brother, I think he's for real," he said quietly when Ed turned to look back at him.
"I don't care whether he is or not, we've been through this, Al! Don't you remember Magwar? Cornello? How about Tucker or Yoki?"
Al flinched, but shook his head slowly. "I think he's different, brother. And I think it'd be nice to have somewhere to stay for once."
Roy cleared his throat, because both brothers seemed to have forgotten he existed. Ed turned a suspicious glare on him, but Al's expression was hopeful. "I feel I can tell you this, because nobody will believe you if you repeated it and in any case, you won't be leaving this house regardless of which decision you make; but my 'goal' is to become the Fuhrer."
Al frowned, and cautiously asked, "Why?"
Roy took a deep breath. "I feel the man currently occupying the position to be... unsuitable. I will change the way the military is run, removing corrupt or inept officers and replacing them with men more appropriate to the men. I also intend to reduce the petty warfare we have seen under Bradley's command."
Ed's frown was almost an exact mirror of his brother's. "You want us to kill Bradley for you, is that it?"
Roy shook his head. "That might, eventually, become my goal, but even if you killed Bradley that would not automatically guarantee me the position of Fuhrer. I ask you both to work under me until I attain the status I need before we attempt a coup. And in return... In return, I will do my best to help you in your search."
"Do you even know what our 'search' is for?" Ed asked lightly, and Roy let his gaze drift to the boy's right arm. Ed shifted, putting his other shoulder closer to the man, and rubbed at the elbow joint with his left hand almost without thinking about it.
"I've done my research," Roy offered with a somewhat scathing expression. Ed tilted his head to one side, eyes narrowing thoughtfully, and Al gazed down at his feet.
"We made a mistake five years ago, and we're still paying for it," he said softly. "We'll do anything to try to fix what we did, even if that proves impossible and kills us in the process. I don't know about brother, but I'll try to help you."
"Al! Damnit, you idiot, you're too trusting-!" Ed snapped, turning and grabbing hold of his brother's sleeve as Al took a step forward.
"I know," Al said quietly, stepping out of Ed's shadow. "And I've already suffered for it." He took a few steps closer to Roy, and then turned back to his brother, who looked like someone had just kicked him in the stomach. His mouth opened and closed a couple of times, then he dropped Al's sleeve and helplessly curled his hands into fists by his sides, shoulders heaving a few times.
"Is that how...?" Ed finally asked, bangs shielding his face, and Al turned back to him. "Is that what you believe?" His voice was hoarse, and Al was shaking his head before he'd even finished speaking.
"No, brother, I'm sorry, I didn't mean it. I know it wasn't your fault! We both decided on it, not just you. I'm sorry! Please don't blame yourself, it was my fault for saying that, you know I didn't mean it, brother! I'm sorry-!"
Roy watched them carefully, unsure what to think. Al was supposedly the quiet one, no less dangerous than Ed but usually preferring to flee rather than fight, yet was obviously in complete control of his elder brother. "Edward. What are you going to do?"
"What, you mean it isn't obvious, Colonel?" Ed's grin was bitter and mocking, and he tossed his bangs out of his eyes with a shake of his head, in order to let it be seen. "I go where my brother goes. Period. So just tell me what you want me to do."
"First?" He considered them thoughtfully; Ed with his almost sulky defiance, Al with his calm patience, then wrinkled his nose. "The bathroom is at the top of the stairs, the first left. It has a shower. Use it. The washing machine is in that room there, attached to the kitchen; I'll set it up so all you need to do is put your clothes in and turn it on. I'll prepare my guest room while you shower, and I only have the one, so you'll have to share the bed. You can borrow some of my old pyjamas to wear. Breakfast is at six-thirty; you miss it, you starve. I'll discuss tomorrow's plans with you then. Is this acceptable?"
"Very," Alphonse answered, elbowing Edward in the midriff when his brother began to complain. "Don't worry about the bed; we're used to sleeping together. Will we get more clothes of our own eventually?"
Roy nodded. "Of course. If you leave me your measurements, I'll stop off at a tailor's on the way home from work tomorrow."
"That sounds fine," Al said evenly, tilting his chin upwards with a small light of amusement in his eyes.
Roy held his hand out and Al blinked at it, looking a little lost, before taking it. His grip was steady, but even through their gloves, Roy could feel the firm inflexibility of Al's metal hand. They both lost limbs, he remembered vaguely, but couldn't remember which ones, exactly. He'd have to ask them tomorrow, and if necessary he'd have Hawkeye search for a civilian automail mechanic within the city.
He set the washing machine up, like he promised, and retreated to his own bedroom. He didn't usually shut the door, but he did now; switched the lights off and just sat on his bed listening carefully to the sounds of the shower running in the bathroom next door. Their voices were muffled, but he could tell it was Al in the shower, his voice breaking off occasionally as he spluttered and spat out mouthfuls of water. He couldn't hear their words, but Ed sounded unhappy, though Al remained merely calm. He'd need to find something for them to do tomorrow, he thought, even if it was just keeping them busy with a book. He had a collection of rare and banned tomes in the wall behind his bookcase, remnants of his own failed beginnings of human transmutation, and hoped they would appreciate them.
He only went to sleep when he heard the door of the guest bedroom closing, though Ed grumbled about something the entire time. He had a valuable weapon in the Elric brothers, and needed to use them wisely or else they might—would, if the rumours about that cardinal from Lior and that Magwar from Xenotime were to be believed—have them turn on him.
Breakfast may have been six-thirty, but by the time his alarm went off the Elric brothers were already downstairs. Al sat quietly at the table, sewing a rent in his coat shut, while Ed fidgeted nervously next to him. He nodded good morning to them and made his way straight for the kettle; both accepted when he offered them something to drink.
He drank his coffee at the table, opposite Alphonse. Watching the boy sew, he felt compelled to ask, "Why not use alchemy?"
"We fuck up with fabric," Ed replied bluntly, and Al nodded, severing the red thread and neatly knotting it. His stitches were small and even, but that didn't attract Roy's attention so much as the fact that Alphonse wasn't wearing his gloves this morning. The automail hand—his left, which was actually the opposite to what the posters claimed—gripped the needle with a surprisingly delicate hold, as he licked the end of the newly-severed strand and threaded it through the needle's eye.
"What I plan for you doesn't involve a career as alchemical tailors, don't worry," he said with a chuckle. Al grinned, but Ed rolled his eyes and rubbed at his left arm. Something in his right elbow screeched, and Al winced.
"There should be some oil left over in the suitcase, brother," he said mildly, and Ed, after giving Roy a suspicious glance, rose to fetch it.
"How many of those things do you have?" Roy asked mildly.
"The automail?" Al glanced up, and then shrugged. "The same as the posters say. Six limbs between us."
"You lost that many?" Roy asked, raising an eyebrow, and Al frowned and nodded slowly.
"It was—I don't think brother would have lost more than one, if he hadn't tried to save me. The reaction—from the transmutation, of course—was eating me alive. It wasn't a rebound, I don't know what it was, but brother's leg was dissolving and my arm and legs and skin were just being sucked away. Last thing I did was reach out to him, and he caught my hand and that—I think that's why he lost so much. Like the contact between us balanced out what was taken. He lost both arms and his left leg; I lost both legs and my left arm, as well as most of the skin from my midriff. It's not a pretty sight, believe me."
He bit the thread off again, tying it, and Roy frowned. "If you lost so much, how did you manage to get to safety?"
Al paused, looking up at him, and then downwards. "I don't know," he said eventually. "I passed out—shock and blood loss, I think—and brother says he doesn't remember. Next thing we knew we were at our neighbour's house, out stumps cauterized and me swathed in bandages. Neither of our neighbours saw who dropped us off." He jabbed the thread through the needle's eye again, still looking slightly distant. "I wish I did know who it was who saved us. Sometimes I'm not sure whether to thank him or punch him, though, so it's probably just as well that I don't."
Ed thumped back into the room and interrupted the conversation before it could go any further just then, a small canister clutched tightly in one of his hands. Al held his flesh one out, setting his needle and thread aside. "Sit down, brother, I'll do it for you," he said, popping the lid with an automail thumb. "Roy, do you have a cloth of some sort?"
Roy said that the rags he occasionally used as dishcloths were underneath the sink.
"Thanks," Al said politely. "Brother, take off your coat, please."
"Can't I just roll the sleeve-?"
"Brother," Al said in a voice that brooked no arguments. Grumbling, Ed dropped the coat to his waist, naked underneath it. Al turned the canister upside down to get the last traces of oil onto the cloth, and began working carefully at his brother's elbow joint, his face a mask of concentration.
"My clothes are still wet," Edward grumbled, and Roy nodded.
"There's a washing line out back, but it wouldn't be a good idea for you two to use it."
"I understand," Al said quietly, and Ed yelped and yanked his arm away. "Brother! Hold still, you've damaged a cog or two in here—" Al set the cloth down and reached into Edward's elbow, the fingertips of both his hands brushing lightly against something. Roy frowned as the alchemical charge crackled, but when Al sat back Edward flexed his arm and nodded approval.
"Can you feel anything through them?" Roy asked, and Al shook his head.
"No obvious sensations, at least. No touch, no wet or dry or cold. Not even pressure—the wires may move the joints, but they don't grant sensory reception to the metal casing. And you have to be careful—because you can't feel pressure, you may hold something too tightly and destroy it. I accidentally broke a door down by kicking it idly, because I wasn't used to having something that was basically a sledgehammer serving as my leg."
"I broke one hell of a lot of plates and cups," Ed said with a shrug. "I had to watch myself holding things. I have to visually remind myself when I might be holding too hard or when my fingers might be gripping too tight, because I can't tell from touch alone."
"I see," Roy said quietly. His automail seemed a safe subject to discuss with Edward, at least. Of all the scientific inventions of the last century, automail was by far the most mysterious, and it was interesting to see how it worked on someone who lived with and used it regularly.
"You get used to it after a while, or at least stop having so many accidents," Al offered, and Ed nodded distracted agreement, his gaze sliding around the room. "Is something wrong, brother?"
"Yeah. I'm hungry. Got anything to eat?"
While Roy got up and began rummaging in the cupboards, Al rolled his eyes and sighed an affectionate sigh, reaching over and brushing Ed's bangs out of his face. When Ed blinked at him, he smiled gently and said in a tone of light teasing, "Do you ever think about anything aside from food, sleep and alchemy, brother?"
"Of course I do," Ed replied, mustering his pride to beam at Al. "I think of you, too. And, um, other stuff."
Al raised an eyebrow and grinned at him fondly, reaching over to drive his automail knuckles into one of Ed's metal shoulders. Roy watched them quietly as he found his emergency loaf of bread, popping eight in his oven and fetching some butter from the fridge. They seemed to have forgotten the near-argument of last night, or maybe they were simply acting; it was hard to tell, and he wasn't about to outright inquire.
When he set the buttered toast in front of them—four slices for each, since he never had breakfast in the morning, and they were unreasonably thin—he headed over to his bookcase, frowning as he regarded it. There was a huge dictionary and thesaurus set Maes had bought him a few birthdays ago, and with nimble fingers he etched an array on an unremarkable spot on the wall behind the heavy books and activated it, melting a hole in the plaster. He pulled the dictionary out of the way to reach into the small gap, removing a thick chest, and returned to the kitchen to set it on the table. "For you, to read while I'm at work," he said, unlocking the chest casually and flicking it open to reveal more books. Al blinked at the contents, then, with a glance at Roy as if asking permission, dipped his hand into it and snatched up the first book that came to hand.
"Oh..." he said, staring at the title page. "This is...?"
"Fucking hell," Ed breathed, tugging more out. "Hawke's 'Transmutation of the heart', Davis' 'Theories on human transmutation, Lewis' 'Ethics of soul transmutation'—half of these were supposed to have been destroyed centuries ago—!"
"Of course," Roy said nonchalantly. "I trust they will keep you occupied until I find something for you two to do."
"... Like what?" Al asked suspiciously, bronze eyes narrowed.
"Oh, just a test of your abilities. I don't have anything in mind just yet, but I will. I'll give you your assignment when I think of it." He was tugging on his gloves as he spoke, then his coat. "I will be back at around five-thirty. Do not leave the house, answer the telephone—-"
"What do you think we are, stupid?" Ed said, though he didn't look up from an anonymous work titled 'Artificial Life—a treatise on homunculi, the truth and the gate, from the perspective of a sinner'. Roy frowned at that; he'd never gotten half the terms that book included, but Ed was nudging Al and the two of them were deep in discussion. Roy seemed to be forgotten as they flipped through the pages, avid eyes tearing through the contents, hissing comments on this 'truth', and this 'gate', to each other. He eyed them suspiciously as he tugged at the hood of his coat, decided not to inquire, and grabbed his keys from the hook by the door.
He made his way into the office, receiving casual salutes from his men with his usual sullen lack of grace. Hawkeye, well aware that he wasn't at his best in the mornings, had already prepared a mug of coffee; he took it and the clipboard to which his schedule was attached and sighed, contemplating sealing himself inside his office all day. Ah, well, complaints wouldn't get him anywhere.
He hadn't actually gotten very far—cleared the paperwork off his desk, in fact, and was reading a report about the situation in Lior since the Elric brothers had murdered the Head Priest. That made him snort; whoever reported it was both evidently biased against the brothers, and hadn't even been there at the time—he recognised such gaping errors as mixing up Alphonse's real arm and fake arm, and announcing that Edward had lost only one arm and leg. He made a note to speak to the investigating alchemist at some point, and had just signed the report off when Hawkeye rapped on the door.
She opened it without waiting for an answer, which was unlike her, but only managed a very brief, "Colonel—" before a squadron of military men strode in, arranging themselves around the walls of his office. They included Armstrong and—damn, Maes, who smirked at him and shrugged. Roy made a mental note to burn him to crisp later on, then Gran came in; Roy was just schooling his features into a polite frown when the man stepped aside and the Fuhrer and that rather attractive secretary of his entered. Resisting the urge to curse between his teeth, Roy instead saluted sharply and waited for the reason for this odd trip. The Fuhrer rarely ever left Central; he knew that, so when the man began talking about trips to see how the 'frontier commanders are coping with their positions and responsibilities', he knew he'd have to corner Maes and get the real reason for the excursion. Military jargon was painfully transparent, sometimes.
Maes and Armstrong between them stayed to help he and his men pack. They were moving office to a room half the size of their current quarters, further down in the building, while the Fuhrer and his team requisitioned Roy's own office for 'the duration of the visit', as the secretary had said. She was attractive, but a bit slow in her speech; pretty, Roy decided, but dense.
"So," he said through gritted teeth as he hefted a cardboard box filled with paperwork down the staircase, Maes following, "Where've they put you?"
"Office below Halcrow's," Maes replied, sidling ahead of him and shouldering the door open, pinning it so with his boot so that Roy could get through. "Got a wonderful view, and a desk of my own, where I can store all my pictures of my beautiful Gracia and my wonderful Elysia—-"
"Hughes," Roy growled, setting the box down.
"—I miss them so much, and I hope they're safe back in Central! Of course, they're not State Alchemists; they should be fine from that serial killer. Don't you think so, Roy?" Maes inquired, his glasses flashing. Roy picked up on the hint, and nodded.
"Yes, that serial killer," he said casually, as though he knew what the hell Maes was talking about. "Still calling him—?"
"Scar. Though my charming Gracia thought 'X' might be a better name, given the shape of the scar on his forehead."
"Ah. How many State Alchemists has he gotten now? It wasn't that many, last I heard—-"
"Nine, now," Maes replied, with a yawn. "And other assorted military personnel around those State Alchemists. Not that that really matters to Bradley, of course."
No, thought Roy, but it does to Gran. His influence must be growing, if he can persuade Bradley to an excursion like this. "Of course," he said aloud, voice perfectly smooth. He leafed through the box just as Havoc and Breda came in, carrying a desk between them with Fury trailing them, another box in his arms. "So," he said lightly, turning back to Maes, and came face to face with an image of a three-year-old girl on a tricycle.
"She's three, and she follows me wherever I go! She's daddy's little angel!" Maes crooned, and Roy felt, simultaneously, an eyebrow twitch and an idea form.
"So you're in the office below Halcrow's? Nobody's been there for a while. Might need dusting."
"Hah, my staff are already taking care of that," Hughes snorted. "I can see why you liked your rank. Being a Lieutenant Colonel and getting your own staff—-"
"-I can set them pointless tasks and then go home early, to call my beautiful Gracia and hear about my darling Elysia's latest achievement—do you know, she's going to be an artist as well as an alchemist? She's so talented and—-"
"—I'll be going, I have to see how my staff are getting on with things. See you later! Oh, and have this photograph of Elysia—swimsuit edition. I have lots!"
"Byeeeee!" The door clicked behind him, and Roy scowled. Well. It opened again, this time revealing Hawkeye and another stack of files, which she gave him and told him to be getting on with while she and his other subordinates managed the transfer. With a sigh, he sat at the desk Havoc and Breda had bought, frowned at the pen she gave him, and took the first file out of the box.
He couldn't get away until lunchtime, three hours later, but as soon as the great clock in the city centre went off, he grabbed his coat and announced he was going home for lunch, today. Hawkeye caught up with him outside the door, her coat and gloves already on. "Lieutenant?" he asked, raising an eyebrow; she saluted sharply.
"It would be foolish to assume that Scar is incapable of reading a train timetable, sir," she said. "It would be inadvisable for you to leave unescorted."
He looked down at his gloves then up at the clear blue sky, frowning. "I hardly think I have anything to worry about, Lieu—-"
Riza's glare cut him off, and with a sigh, he tugged the collar of his coat up. "Please stay outside, then," he said; if she found his request unusual, she gave no sign.
True to her word she hovered on the doorstep, hand on the barrel of her gun, when he unlocked his door, and remained there when he shut it behind him. He found one Elric brother sprawled on the bed of the guest room, and no sign of the other. "Where's Alphonse?" he inquired; Ed shrugged and turned a page of his book. "Edward. Where is Alphonse?"
"Dunno," Ed replied, jotting something down on his notepad, then dropping his pen and snatching a pear from the fruit basket on the bedside table that Roy knew he'd not left there last night.
"Where's Alphonse, and where did that come from?" he demanded, and the door opposite the guest room clicked open; Al squeezed past him and flopped onto the bed next to his elder brother, picking up his own book.
"We kinda pinched it from downstairs," Ed said mildly. "Hey, Al, Harston thinks it's possible to bypass the process of equivalent trade with an incomplete Stone."
"Really?" Al poked his head over his brother's shoulder, eyes gleaming eagerly. "Did he try it out? Did he succeed?"
"No idea," Ed answered, flicking to the very back of the book. "His biography says he died attempting to bring his sister back to life. According to this, his heart simply vanished."
"Apparently not," Al sighed, leafing crossly though his own book. "Of course, it wouldn't have really mattered if he had, because we don't even know how to make an incomplete stone like the Head Priest had—-"
"We'll find out," Ed interrupted. "God knows we're looking hard enough."
Roy frowned at them, and might have said more if he hadn't been interrupted by the sound of boots on the stairs.