Happy Families

chapter 6.

Hohenheim spent the afternoon in his study, and, when he did appear at dinner, his distraction was clear. He agreed absently to contradictory opinions put forward by Dante, and picked at his meal. This behavior passed without comment, although not without notice: Roy felt the change in his dinner companions. Dante was not so brash in her opinions as she normally was, and Shezckha and Envy rarely spoke. Tucker fidgeted nervously, glancing towards Marcoh often as if he'd divined that their visitor was the source of Hohenheim's melancholy.

A not unreasonable assumption, Roy thought, and it would not take him, or indeed, the other members of the household long to make the next logical inference; that since Marcoh handled the London end of the project, whatever had put Hohenheim into such a bad mood was connected to his research.

Indeed it would appear that such a conclusion had already been made.

Roy watched as Edward talked aimably with Marcoh, occasionally glancing towards his father as if to judge what was permissable. It may have been Roy's imagination, but it appeared that anytime the conversation neared science or experiments of any sort, the boy changed the subject. He was talking earnestly with Marcoh and his brother now, making an effort to be personable—or maybe he just liked Marcoh. It was damned hard to tell with that boy.

Roy had the feeling that Hohenheim would have preferred to retire to his study rather than join the group in the drawing room after dinner, but as it was Marcoh's first night among them such an action would have been a clear signal something was wrong. Instead he took a solitary armchair and a collection of modern poetry and refused to be drawn into conversation, watching instead as Edward and Alphonse set up an elaborate system of railway tracks, the better to test the two model train engines that were their presents from their godfather.

Marcoh himself was acting as the overseer of this project. "I think you're getting a bit too close to the china cabinet Alphonse—a tunnel there, Edward? Well, if you must—"

"It's hard to tell which of them is deriving the greater amusement from the engines," Hughes remarked. "The children or Marcoh."

Roy smiled at the statement. "How does the saying go? There's no child like a grown child ."

Envy smiled faintly. "Rather makes one wish to be a child, does it not? To be able to take amusement in such simple past-times—it must be nice."

He spoke wistfully, and Roy was startled enough to glance at him and see that the tone was mirrored in his expression—softly sad and pensive. It had not occurred to him to think that Envy was capable of emotion beyond disdain and smug superiority—

"I did not raise my son to share such weak sentiments," Dante said imperiously from her sofa near the fire. "I'm ashamed of you, Envy."

Dante could not have been an easy mother to live with; she certainly was not an easy mother now. Roy could envisage a long, lonely childhood as Envy nodded his head to her. "I spoke without reflection. I assure you, it is not my opinion that we should desire to be as easily satisfied as children."

"Ah, let the boys have their fun," Marcoh said, catching the end of the conversation as he stood, preparing to help the boys launch their engines. "There's no harm in it. Right, let's see if these engines are worth their metal."

Judging from the amount of excitement that followed this announcement, the trains were no disappointment. Roy smiled, standing to fill his glass from the bottle of liquor on the table beside Dante's sofa. A german spirit of some sort—Apfelkorn? It was smooth and sweet without being too sweet, and had the taste of apple. Not Roy's choice of poison, but an acceptable substitute.

"I say, Colonel," Dante leaned in as he refilled his glass. "Would you happen to know what has dear Hohenheim so distracted this evening?"

Roy glanced towards the Professor, apparently considering this query. "He does seem a little off-colour this evening , now that you mention it . . . But, you would be in a far better position to know his mood than I."

Pleased at the compliment, the Lady was diverted."Poor Hohenheim has had much on his mind of late. It's not easy to raise two sons without a mother, especially when one of them is as delicate as Edward," Dante nodded, satisfied that her understanding of the situation was correct. "I rather fancy I have hit on a scheme to set his mind at rest in that respect."

"Oh?" Roy said, making himself comfortable on the other end of the sofa. "And what might this be?"

"I may as well make the announcement now," Dante raised her voice, addressing the entire room. "A specialist of nervous disorders with whom I have been in correspondence with—a specialist of international reknown, mark you—will be in London tomorrow."

That created a stir of interest. Marcoh looked up from the trains, while Edward studiously examined a piece of coupling, only the tensing of his shoulders indicating his attention. Envy looked at his Mother, startled, and Hohenheim set aside his book. "Is that so? A man like that is likely to be fully booked—"

"Ah, but that's the thing. I have through the course of our correspondence managed to interest him in dear Edward's condition and he's agreed to give him an appointment."Dante smiled, evidently well pleased with herself. "This is such an opportunity for Edward. I'd be perfectly happy to accompany him to London myself—it would be an honor to finally meet M. Gran at last."

"Basque Grand?"Marcoh asked. "I'd heard he was coming to London, but I didn't expect it to be so soon."

"You've heard of him, Marcoh?"

"Only briefly. He's supposed to be very effective in what he does. Although I rather fancy that I heard his name connected with research into a new type of therapy—"

"Electric shock treatment?" Dante was pleased that her doctor was recognised. "As I said, he is known internationally."

"I'm not going," Edward said abruptly. "I don't need treatment."

It was the most emotional statement Edward had made in Roy's hearing. It was rather a surprise to see him drop the tight politeness and speak feelingly, although one could hardly blame the boy.

"Edward, really. You know nothing about the circumstances," Dante told him. "M. Gran has graciously made time in his schedule to see you—it's not everyone who gets that chance. And it is a great chance! Just think—this could be the chance that leads to a cure—"

"I don't need a cure."

Dante smiled a rather helpless, 'we all know better' smile, and shrugged her shoulders in a way Roy would have found insufferable directed at him.

Hohenheim set his book aside. "Edward, come here." As his son reluctantly obeyed, standing in front of Hohenheim's chair, he let his hands rest on Edward's shoulders. "A consultation couldn't hurt," he pointed out sensibly. "As Dante has said, this isn't a chance that comes along every day. She's done a lot of work on your behalf to make this happen, you should be thankful."

Edward's expression showed how plainly he disagreed. "I don't see why I have to take her advice. She doesn't know me. She doesn't even care—"

"Don't be rude. You're fifteen, you should act like a grown-up. What kind of example are you setting for Alphonse?" Hohenheim paused to look severely at his son. "I'm really disappointed by your attitude, Edward. I can imagine that this is hard for you, but you don't seem to understand your position. All the doctors we've spoken to have described you as being surly and uncooperative. Surely you must see that if you want to be cured, you must put aside your stubbornness. The first step to a cure is admitting that you have a problem. There is no shame—"

Roy had been studiously examining the finish of the armchair, trying to give the pair of them some privacy—It felt very awkward to be the inadvertent witness to such a scene. However, Edward's next statement made him look up sharply.

"I don't need a cure!"the boy wasn't quite yelling, but with the anger in his voice he didn't need to be. "There is nothing wrong with me—nothing! Unless, of course, being related to you and your resident freak collection counts in which case cure me immediately!"

"Edward!" Hohenheim roared, jumping to his own feet. "Apologise at once!"

"Why should I?"Edward yelled back. "As far as I'm concerned the entire lot of you can go to hell!" He glared defiantly at everyone watching, with expressions that ranged from shocked to angry to furious. "Al excluded, of course," he added hastily.

"That is it! Go to your room now young man!"

"With pleasure!" Edward slammed the door after him so hard the pictures on the walls rattled.

Hohenheim opened the door to yell after him, "Ask Izumi to pack you an overnight bag! You're going to London, young man, and you will behave!"

"Shocking," Dante said, blocking out whatever Edward's reply had been—judging from Hohenheim's countenance as he returned to his seat, it was neither contrite nor respectful. "I knew that letting the boys stay up late would lead to this sort of rude behavior."

"Steady on—" Roy protested, but Hohenheim was shaking his head.

"I really don't understand what's got into him these days. He was never this difficult when Trisha was alive."

"If you'll pardon me saying so, I've long been of the opinion that Trisha was too soft with them. An indulged and complacent child seldom complains—until the source of the spoiling and attention is removed. And then—"

"We're not spoilt!" Alphonse protested hotly. "Our mother was a kind woman—not like—"

"Alphonse," Envy cut in hastily, kneeling beside the railway track. "Shouldn't you go see to your brother?"

It was almost comical, watching the abrupt transition from angry to conflicted on the boy's face. "Yes, but the trains—"

"They'll still be here in the morning," Envy said. "Look, I'll help Doctor Marcoh pack up the tracks. Go on."

Alphonse still looked uncertain, eying his new engine with misgivings. Roy remembered the incident with the plane the previous night and took pity on the child. "I'll help as well," he said, kneeling beside the toy track and lifting Alphonse's engine into its box. "This takes me back a few years—it's been a long time since I played with an engine."

Alphonse brightened, obviously relieved, and bowed goodnight to everyone, hurrying upstairs after his brother.

Hohenheim made a desultory attempt to read his book, then announced he would retire early as well. "I trust you will excuse me, Marcoh," he said. "It's been a long afternoon."

"Think nothing of it," Marcoh assured him. "It's been a while since I have caught up with Roy, I'm sure we'll keep each other occupied."

Hohenheim nodded, and bowed goodnight; gloating, Dante did the same thing a quarter of an hour later.

"I don't like this at all," Marcoh said, helping Roy and Envy pack up the train tracks. "Edward was always prone to be impetuous, but I've never seen him lose his temper quite so badly before. This is most unlike him."

"He's growing up," Envy explained simply. "He and Hohenheim are both beginning to realise that he isn't the little boy who used to play under Hohenheim's desk as he worked. Edward wants to be treated like an adult and Hohenheim doesn't have any idea of what to make of him—I think he still regards us all as children."

It wasn't the sort of statement Roy expected from Envy, and he regarded the young man with some surprise. In the absence of his redoutable Mother, he was more relaxed certainly—but even now Roy didn't trust this sudden display of concern. An act to win over their sympathies?

"Your concern for your half-brothers is remarkable," he said, pointedly. "Especially in light of your behaviour earlier."He met Envy's eyes challengingly—he was not going to be misled.

Envy smiled, the wide urbane smile that always put Roy's hackles up. "What else are brothers for?"

"You're not so brotherly in your regard for Alphonse."

"Alphonse hardly needs another older brother. Edward is always taking care of him."

There was something in his tone—"And you take care of Edward?"

Envy smiled again, a flat smile of hidden amusement. "I say, Colonel, whatever has become of Brigadier Hughes? He seems to have disappeared—I don't recall seeing him beyond our conversation earlier."

"That is true," Marcoh said. "What is he up to, Roy?"

"Beats me," Roy set the train tracks he'd gathered in their box and stood. "I'll go and make sure he's not getting into too much mischeif."

The search for his missing friend took him to the kitchen where Lila and the huge giant of a butler were finishing the washing up. Curtis grunted in greeting, busy with his task. Roy winced as he caught sight of the delicate china, slippery with soap, between the man's rough hands, but Curtis was careful in his task, and nothing was broken.

Lila paused in drying the dishes to greet Roy. "If you want to use the telephone, I'm afraid you're out of luck."

One mystery solved. "Hughes?"

"He's been using it for an hour now and shows no sign of finishing any time soon. Is there some sort of emergency?"

"No, this is normal for him. I'm only surprised he held out this long before finding the telephone. I say, could you point me to where he is? I should at least look in on him and say goodnight."

"Of course," Lila set down her dish cloth. "This way."

Roy admired her ample figure as she led the way through the back corridors. Not half bad."I'm surprised—I didn't think washing up was usually part of a butler's duty."

"Mr. Curtis doesn't strike you as the domestic type then? You'd be surprised. I'm almost always free in the evenings, as he helps Izumi with the dishes and they bond or whatever they call it." She shuddered delicately. "I'm just as glad Edward came down tonight and Izumi went to see to him."

"Edward came to the kitchen?"

"He stormed in and announced that he'd had enough of this house, and could Izumi please pack a bag for him? He was running away to South America."Lila paused to look back at Roy. "Izumi managed to get some of what happened out of him but he wasn't very clear . . . ?"

In common with most of the fairer sex, it would appear that Lila had a weakness for gossip. Roy thought there was no harm in indulging her. "Lady Dante has hit upon a new scheme for 'curing' him, and wishes to take him to London tomorrow to meet a specialist in electric shock treatment. Edward was unimpressed. When Hohenheim tried to reason with him, Edward told the entire lot of us we could go to hell for all he cared."

"Edward told Hohenheim and Dante to go to hell?" Lila sounded impressed. "I wish I'd seen that. I can't imagine she took it well."

"Hohenheim wasn't very happy either."

"I can imagine. Poor Edward."

They'd reached a small back room in what seemed to have once been the servants' quarters. Roy could recognise Hughes's voice within. "The telephone?"

"Yes. I'll leave you to it . . . although, I might be free tonight. If you're interested, the linen closet, after the family has gone to bed."She swayed down the corridor, returning to the kitchen before Roy could respond.

He watched her go with mixed feelings. Yes, her figure was nice, and the way she walked very intriguing—still, she was damnably forward. It may have been old fashioned, but Roy liked to have a bit of a chase. It was the lady's role to demure, prettily, while the gentleman pursued—and he loathed to admit it, but the memory of Hughes's words that afternoon had dampened his ardour somewhat. Damned unsporting that. Roy knocked on the door and went in.

Hughes was wrapped around the phone and didn't pause in his coversation as Roy entered. "Does Alicia miss her Daddy? She does? Aww! Don't worry, Alicia, Daddy will be home soon! Daddy misses you sooooooooooooooo much! Eh? What's that?"Hughes put his hand over the receiver to turn to Roy. "My daughter has such intelligence! She wants me to bring her back a present! Did you ever hear of anything so adorable in your life?"

"Hughes—" Roy started but it was too late.

"Of course Daddy will bring Alicia any present she wants! What do you want sweetheart? Another teddy bear?"Hughes clutched the phone to his heart in what Roy guessed was an outpouring of fatherly pride. "Alicia is so creative! Other children would settle for a teddy bear, but no! My daughter is unique! She wants a panda!"

"Thrilling," Roy said. "Look Hughes—"

"Daddy will bring you the best toy panda he can find, sweetheart! Eh? A real panda? But Alicia, my love, real pandas are rather rare in Lincolnshire—-ah, excuse me, my precious, boring old Uncle Roy wants to talk to me. I'll phone you back."

Roy didn't let go of Hughes's neck until the phone receiver was safely on its rest. "One word from you about your daughter, even one, and I'm going back to London. Is that understood?"

"Perfectly, old chap," Hughes said, massaging his neck. "But you know, I do believe Gracia sounds even more beautiful over the phone. Of course, my wife is always beautiful, but when I hear her voice even after a few days absence—"

"Goodnight, Hughes."

When Roy climbed the stairs to his room, the house seemed very quiet—it would appear that the family had retired. He hesitated at the landing. The East Wing and bed, or the West Wing and the linen closet? Hughes was right about Lila, she was a designing minx but—Hughes could go to hell, Roy decided. It was his life.

At least the linen closet was comfortable. Roy lent back against the shelves, and wished it were possible to smoke there—he had no way of knowing how long Lila would be, if she came at all.

He may have dozed off in the confined space of the cupboard, all Roy knew was that when he suddenly heard voices, it gave him the shock of his life. He started, hitting his head against the shelf behind him. Immediately a deluge of sheets fell on him. He managed to stop most of them from falling, and listened anxiously to see if he'd been detected.

"—probably nothing. An old house like this makes a lot of noise, but that's not what I wanted to talk about Mother."

Roy's relief was quickly curtailed by the realisation that it was Dante and Envy talking outside—he could not imagine anyone he least wanted to be discovered hiding in a closet by. He carefully balanced the sheets, remaining as still as he could. It wasn't his habit to eavesdrop on private conversations, but in the confined space of the closet, he could hardly manage it.

"I see you're upset I didn't let you in on my plans? I thought it better if it were a surprise—more natural."

"You've thought of everything," Envy said, his tone appreciative. "But what is your grand design here? Edward has had consultations before. This seems like a lot of trouble to go to for just one more."

"Ah, but this is no ordinary consultation. M. Gran and I have been in correspondence a while now, and—Lila! Perfect timing. I need a suitcase packed—I will be travelling tomorrow and need clothes for three or four days. Now, goodnight sweetheart. Hold the fort in my absence—it won't be long now until Hohenheim sees your worth. You will be Master of this house—I promise you that."

"Thank you, Mother. Goodnight."

Roy waited until he heard Envy's bedroom door shut further down the corridor before he expressed his feelings. Damned interfering woman! Not only was she taking shameless advantage of her position in Hohenheim's household, but her scheming had wrecked Roy's chances of a romantic rendezvous that evening. Damn, curse and blast her.

The victim of a unintentionally early night, Roy found himself downstairs at a reasonable hour the next morning. Breakfast was glum; Alphonse pushing food around his plate, Edward making no pretense of eating. Roy recollected the fragment of conversation he'd heard the previous night and pitied the two boys. Whatever Dante was scheming, it was clear their best interests were not considered.

Envy, in direct comparison to his half brothers, was so smartly attired and sharp that his presence at breakfast had an almost jarring effect. Roy couldn't help giving him a baleful glare as he finished his first cup of tea—no one had the right to be that chipper at such an ungodly hour.

Still, Envy's effort was wasted—Hohenheim did not come down to breakfast to appreciate the contrast between his sons.

Mrs. Curtis poured Roy another cup of tea. "This is a marked improvement on yesterday. Will you come out to see Edward off?"

"Of course," Roy said, glancing towards the boy. He was pale, and the rims of his eyes faintly pink—he didn't look as though he'd had a restful night. "Must be tough, being shipped from doctor to doctor. Don't know that I'd stick it."

Edward smiled faintly. "Thank you, Colonel."

Alphonse pouted. "I don't see why I can't come to. I never get to go to London—"

"You don't want to go to London," Edward said flatly. "Believe me."

Marcoh patted his shoulder encouragingly. "Chin up, Edward. It's only a consultation, how bad can it be?"

"You're not the one getting your head picked apart." Edward stabbed his scrambled eggs balefully. "I'm not crazy."

Ross stuck her head in the door. "Either of you boys want to help me check the oil? Give me a hand and I'll let you ride with me in the front on the way to the station."

"Can we really?" Alphonse was delighted and Edward managed a wan smile—seemed he recognised Ross's attempt to cheer him up and appreciated it.

"Come on, Al. I'll race you."

"You haven't finished your breakfast," Mrs Curtis complained.

Edward grinned at her. "Don't you think I have enough to worry about without adding stomachache to the mix?"

"Little brat! Get out of here, you pair of hoodlums!" Mrs Curtis shoved the two boys out the door, the pair of them laughing all the while. She was smiling as she returned to the table. "Their humour has improved since your arrival, Doctor. It's good to have you here."

"Thank you, Mrs. Curtis. It feels good to see the boys again," Marcoh accepted another cup of tea. "I must say, it's very quiet this morning. Where is everyone?"

"The professor asked for a tray to be sent to his room. He said he's feeling poorly, and did not want to be disturbed. Lady Dante usually rings for a breakfast tray when she wakes. I'm not sure about Shezckha—"

"Oh, Shezchka won't make it out of bed before noon at least, I'd say," Ross said with a grin, helping herself to a crumpet. "Which leaves Tucker and the Brigadier."

"You called?" Hughes leaned over Ross's shoulder, snagging a crumpet. "Smashing grub, Mrs Curtis. Absolutely top hole."

"Thank you, Brigadier," the housekeeper answered wryly. "So glad you approve."

"How could I not? The warm taste of muffin, fresh from the oven; the sweet scent of wholesome food prepared lovingly—it's almost as if I were home and my dear Gracia were cooking—"

Breakfast had suddenly lost its appeal for Roy. "I'm done," he announced. "Think I'll have enough time to shave before Edward leaves?"

"I imagine so," Ross said. "I'm surprised there's been no sign of Dante, but we'll have to wait for her before we leave."

Roy nodded, leaving the drawing room.

There was a sharp click around the corner of the corridor to his right, as if a door had shut. Roy turned towards the sound, bracing himself for Dante's self congratulatory manner or a grim and hostile Hohenheim.

He wasn't expecting Tucker—and it appeared the tutor wasn't expecting him either.

"I say, good morning, Colonel—I didn't hear you."

Roy must have really startled the man; Tucker was clearly nervous, his skin pale and glassy looking and his movements sharp and rapid. "You gave me quite a surprise yourself," Roy joked, hoping to put him at ease. "These corridors aren't very well lit."

"True, true." Tucker twisted his hands in his tie nervously. He looked rather haggard up close, Roy realised. Like he'd hardly slept. "I say, is breakfast still on? I could do with a stout cup of tea."

"Go right ahead," Roy held the door for him. Turning around, he got the second surprise of the morning.

Curtis had loomed out of the shadows and was standing there, practically on top of Roy. His huge form towered over Roy and the metal of a sharp razor edge glittered in one immense fist. Time seemed to slow as it swung unerringly towards Roy.

Bloody hell, Roy'd mind informed him helpfully. He fills up the entire corridor! There's absolutely no way round him—and this close quarters you've got no chance of dodging. This looks like the end—

"Your razor."

Roy blinked.

The kinfe had come to a rest in front of his face and now that it wasn't travelling towards him at speed he could, indeed, recognise it as his razor. "So it is," he managed shakily.

"Izumi noticed it needed sharpening," The butler rumbled. "So I sharpened it." He brought the razor a little closer.

Roy fought the urge to jump backwards and instead took the knife. "Thank you," he said. "That's very thoughtful of you."

Curtis merely shrugged, lumbering back down the corridor. As soon as he was out of sight, Roy lent back against the corridor wall with relief. His knees felt like they'd been replaced with jelly and he was in need of a stout cup of tea. A few deep breaths later and he felt ready to tackle the stairs.

"This house will be the death of me," he muttered to himself, reaching his room. He didn't feel completely safe until after he'd checked his closet for intruders.

After a much needed and completely uneventful shave, Roy made his way back downstairs, sharply attired and feeling much more lively. The adrenaline kick, such as it was, had been just what he needed. Roy was all set to assist in any mad scheme Hughes concocted, and was even prepared to be civil to Lady Dante.

Nina greeted him happily at the doorway. "Mr. Roy! You're coming to say goodbye to Edward too?"

"Of course I am." Roy let himself be climbed over. "Why wouldn't I?"

Nina tugged his trousers to get Roy to kneel and whispered carefully in his ear. "Mrs. Curtis went to tell Hohenheim that Ed was ready to go. He's not coming down."

"What—really?"That had been a spirited argument the previous night, but surely that was no reason not to see your son off.

Nina nodded solemnly. "Shezchka's not up yet either. She said she didn't even want to think about walking before noon—do you think she's sick?"

"I suppose she must be." Roy said absently. His mind was still on Hohenheim. Great scientist he might be, but as a father—it wasn't Roy's place to interfere, but if it had been—

"Seen any sign of Dante?" Mrs. Curtis asked Roy. As he shook his head, she frowned. "That's very odd. I'll go and see if she needs help. Edward, don't sit on the damp steps, it's bad for you."

Edward ignored her, watching glumly as his brother and Nina played chase with Alexander.

Envy lent against one of the marble pillars behind him, with Marcoh and Hughes to one side. "Chin up, Edward. It mightn't be so bad."

The boy didn't respond. Roy might have thought he hadn't heard, except for the slight tightening of the boy's mouth.

"What's the matter?" he asked quietly, sitting on the steps beside Edward. "You're very glum, even for someone who has to spend the next 24 hours or so in the company of Lady Dante."

Edward was startled by his action, but managed a wary smile at Roy's words. "I've got this odd feeling—like something very bad is growing."

"Something very bad?"

"I know it sounds daft. But I can't explain it more than that. Just a feeling that something is wrong or is about to go wrong—I've got this odd feeling that if I go to London today, I will never come back."

It was on the tip of Roy's tongue to make a flippant comment about travel nerves, but something in Edward's expression—skin still pale from lack of sleep, eyes serious and somehow very sad—made any words impossible.

Edward smiled faintly and scornfully. "You probably think I'm crazy now too."

"Not at all," Roy protested. "I think—"

Mrs. Curtis opened the front door. "Mr. Envy, would you mind checking your mother's rooms, please? She's not answering her door."

"Certainly," Envy said. "Though I must say, it's unlike Mother to still be abed at this hour. Have you checked the drawing room?"

"I'll look," Edward said. "I'm getting sick of sitting outside anyway."

"We'll all look for her," Marcoh decided. "Al, Nina and I will check upstairs. If this continues, you two will miss your train."

"And what a disaster that would be," Edward muttered under his breath, stomping inside.

Roy accompanied Edward to the drawing room and along that corridor. "Do they really think you're—-well, you know—"

"Insane?" Edward gave him an ironic look, as they checked the drawing room—the breakfast dishes were still on the table, but no Dante was in evidence. "They prefer to say 'weak-minded' or 'prone to nervous fits' but it amounts to the same thing."

"And what do you think?"

"What I think is the last thing anyone in this house cares about," Edward said, not turning around as he led the way back down the corridor.

"But I'm asking. What do you think, Edward?"

The boy stopped. "You really want to know?"

Roy nodded. "I wouldn't have asked otherwise."

Edward looked to one side. "I—it's so hard to be sure anymore. If there was nothing the matter there wouldn't be all this fuss, surely, but—I get so tired of explaining, and I'm not even sure now. I don't see what I did—"

He looked so lost, that Roy couldn't help patting his shoulder. "Hang in there," he said. "If it makes you feel any better, I have yet to see anything that makes me doubt your sanity." Feeling abruptly sentimental, he withdrew his hand and pressed onwards down the corridor. "Let's continue, shall we?"

"There's no point in looking down this way," Edward said, even as he followed. "The only rooms down this corridor are locked—Father's study and the laboratory."

"I was given to understand that the study door could be opened without a lock," Roy said, and Edward scowled.

"If you want to look, go ahead."

It had been a stupid thing to say, Roy reflected, as he tested the study door handle and knocked. Perfect way to alienate Edward, and just when the boy was beginning to be civil to him. "Hello?" he called, feeling like an idiot. He could think of no one less likely to snoop around Hohenheim's study than the venerable Lady, malevolent as she might be. Snooping simply wasn't her style. She demanded, she bullied, she exploited but sifting through private papers on the sly didn't seem somehow in keeping with Dante's character.

To Roy's immense shock, the study door was swung open roughly.

"Well? What is it?" Hohenheim demanded.

"Uh, good morning," Roy managed by pure reflex. Thank god his mother had insisted on drilling good manners into him. "I'm surprised to see you here, I understood you intended to rest this morning."

The professor glared at him murderously. "Then why the devil are you knocking on my study door?"

"I was looking for Lady Dante," Roy felt even more of a fool now. "She's nowhere to be found."

"Well, she wouldn't be here." Some of Hohenheim's glare was now directed at Edward, standing silently behind Roy. "I won't permit anyone in here to disturb my work."

"Quite so," Roy said hastily, hoping to forestall further disagreement. "It was foolish of me to even consider the possibility. We'll keep looking."

"See that you do." Hohenheim paused on the brink of shutting the door, looking at his son. It seemed he was about to say something, then obviously thought the better of it. "Behave yourself, Edward. I don't want to hear of you being unco-operative again."

"You won't, sir."

That was a most unlike-Edward answer, and Roy raised an eyebrow at the boy. Hohenheim too appeared surprised, but evidently decided not to question this sudden appearance of good manners.

"Glad to hear it. Have a good journey."

There was the faintest scent of apple as the Professor shut the door, apple and something else—after a moment's thought Roy recognised it as the German spirit from the previous night. It would appear that the Professor intended to address his problems the old-fashioned way.

"You want to check the laboratory?"

"Might as well," Roy said. "We've come this far."

Edward led the way down the corridor. "It's always locked as well. There's really no—"

He stopped so suddenly, Roy trod on the back of his heels. "What was that in aid of?" he asked and then he spotted it too—the laboratory door was ajar. "Always locked?"

"It's like the study," Edward said. "No one's allowed in here unless Father is here as well." He'd recovered himself, striding forward angrily. "No one interferes with Father's work."

Roy permitted himself a smirk even as he pitied whoever had been foolish enough to stray into the laboratory. It seemed Edward was prepared to give them what for.

But as the seconds passed and there was no explosion from Edward, Roy grew concerned. He stepped cautiously into the lab. "I say, Edward—everything all right in here?"

There was a strong smell of chemicals, and something underneath, something dark and rancid that took him back to the war—Roy quickened his step, searching between the long rows of shelves and equipment urgently. That was blood—"Edward! Where are you?"

The reply was faint and came from somewhere to the side. "Here. I've . . . I've found Dante."

There were two open doors. Roy stuck his head through the first. A table had been upended and the air was thick with some kind of chemical—notebooks were scattered every which way, but the room was empty of either Dante or Edward. "Are you all right?"

"Yes but she isn't. I think she's dead."

The last door. Roy almost tripped over Edward in the doorway. He'd sunk to the floor, skin ashen—shock, Roy decided, kneeling to his side. "Edward—"

"I mean, she can't be alive," the boy continued, voice shaking just slightly, eyes fixed straight ahead. "We did human anatomy last year, and it's pretty hard to be alive when your head is splattered across the floor like that—" His voice hitched hysterically.

Roy couldn't blame him. He'd had time to take in the second form sprawled across the floor and the unnatural angle that it lay it only confirmed what Edward said. He stepped forward cautiously.

He'd seen many things during the war, and he credited that as the only reason he didn't lose Mrs. Curtis's fine breakfast. Even so, he had to look away very quickly. There was a white labcoat hanging on a hook on the side of the room, he grabbed that and lay it across her—what was left of her—gently.

Edward watched the proceedings with wide eyes. "She's really—"

He looked like a child now. Frightened and small. "Yes," Roy said. "She's really dead."