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kaltia

Enjambement

chapter 7.

The building was large, and nondescript. Its grey bricks were coated in a fine layer of dust and dirt; and in the early dawn light, the bottom few inches of its walls were marked with the mess melting snow left behind. The guttering looked as though it hadn't been tended in years, and some snow still clung to the grey slate-tiled roof. It was in a good part of the city, which made it—surrounded by what passed for affluence in these regions—all the more conspicuous; and it was unusual in that in spite of its state of disrepair, wire rose from its roof, connecting to the telephone network of the regions.

It was also unusual in that a couple of armed guards lurked just inside the doorway, passing a ragged cigarette between each other and surveying the street around it with narrowed, searching eyes. They wore large coats and scarves, and had powerful assault rifles slung over their shoulders. They also failed to spot the six figures perched on the roof of the building opposite them, lurking behind the parapet.

"Drachnian Valentskys, sir," Hawkeye said firmly with a nod at the guns, drawing her arm a little closer to her chest. Alphonse had been able to transmute her a cast of steel out of his kitchen cutlery, and while it held firm and protected her from jogging her broken limb, it was also extremely heavy. "We replaced them six months ago with our own MGX-40s."

"Old military weapons?" Roy replied, surprised. "Where'd they get them from?"

Hawkeye shook her head. "I couldn't say, sir," she said, "We destroyed all the old guns when we switched—on your orders, if you remember correctly."

Roy glanced at her, and smiled. "Yes," he said, "I do."

Alphonse ignored them, and wriggled a little closer to the edge. He'd worn his red coat on this mission, despite Hawkeye's orders to 'dress discreetly'—because with the distraction Roy was going to create, there was surely no need for discretion. "Are we ready?" he asked, without taking his eyes off his target. Hawkeye hissed between her teeth, and shifted to pull her handgun out from its holster; Jean, and the two soldiers he'd brought with him on Roy's orders, nodded. Al took a moment to gather himself, and then pushed himself back, further out of sight. "Let's go," he whispered.

The trap was a neat one, simple, but efficient. It had been Hawkeye who'd hit upon the idea of contacting the regional telephone operators at North HQ and, using the personal access number of the Fuhrer, broke a few privacy laws. The end justified the means, after all, and in this case the end was a telephone number and then, with further pressuring, an address. The switchboard girl had even given them directions.

"It may be a dead end," she'd cautioned Al and Roy both; "it might be just a front, or it may not even be that—there's a good chance that it's actually a restaurant or something along those lines, a business that allows anybody who wants to to use its telephone."

"What sort of restaurant would be open in these circumstances?" Al had asked, refusing to let go of this last spark of hope, and Hawkeye had shrugged.

"You can never be too pessimistic, Alphonse," she'd replied, before Jean and his two elites, having broken off from the main returning Yikatrinburg division, had arrived. It had taken a few minutes to fill the newcomers in on the situation—and they'd had to tell Jean about his identity, too; the man hadn't seemed surprised, but he had seemed rather hurt by it. Alphonse had felt terrible all over again; had wanted to slink away now before he had to face another moment of Jean's grey eyes studying him, his face carefully blank.

"I'm sorry," he'd whispered, head bowed; and Jean had snorted.

"Eh, oh well," he'd said glibly; and then frowned. "Wait, Fuhrer—if his brother's still alive, does that mean we've gotta give up our public holiday?" The words had been said lightly, but Alphonse had understood what they meant—had not commented on the statement—the unspoken affirmation of friendship—then and probably never would. He didn't need to.

Jean hadn't said a word to him on the way here, not even when he and Alphonse had taken it upon themselves to get Roy, and then Hawkeye, up to the rooftop. But the man crouched next to him seemed calm and professional, had an empty sniper rifle case at his feet and was in the process of screwing the scope on, his back to the parapet. "Hey, Alphonse," he said, rolling his cigarette from side to side. "Transmute me something to spy on 'em with, won't you? We'll need to take those two down quick."

"Sure," Al said, clapping his hands together—and paused, his palms inches from the stone. "Um, Mr Havoc?"

"Yeah?"

"Are you going to kill them?" Alphonse nervously wetted his lips, and Havoc stopped what he was doing, giving the younger boy a blank stare. "I mean—because killing them when they don't even suspect you seems—not right, surely you could go for a disabling shot—-"

"Alphonse," Jean said, very slowly, "They've blown up the majority of this city. How many homes do you think received 'disabling' blasts? Don't forget, they've got your brother hostage and are threatening to shoot him."

Al cringed, but slowly pressed his palms against the stone. "Brother wouldn't want you to kill," he said, softly. "Brother never likes it when people die. Even—people like Majihal, or Greed..." The transmutation glow was gentle, threads of blue energy slithering through the stone and over his hands, up the sleeves of his coat. When it ended, a serviceable periscope had been formed out of the cement, rising above the stone ridge; Jean tossed him his thanks and settled to surveying the guards.

Occasionally the man muttered something through his teeth, once or twice breaking off to mouth things at Hawkeye that Al couldn't quite catch. He reasoned that it was military code, and felt slightly offended before reminding himself that he didn't want to have any part in a plan to kill people, anyway.

"Okay," Jean whispered after a few more non-verbal commands. "We're about ready. Al, Lawson—get the Fuhrer off this rooftop. You'll know when to move. McGyver, help Lieutenant Colonel Hawkeye."

"Jean," Riza hissed, "Are you sure—?"

"I'm sure," said Jean, and gave her a grin. "They've got no back-up coming, Lieutenant-Colonel. Now is the perfect opportunity. The first one'll be dead before the second realises what's going on, but if I don't nail him in time, get him for me. Okay?"

Hawkeye frowned, but nodded. "Alright," she said, and then: "Alphonse, can you transmute us a ladder, or a chute, or something? Silently?"

"Uh—yeah, I guess," Al said, startled; tried not to shoot Roy any bewildered glances as he snuck over to the other side of the rooftop, feeling unnervingly exposed. Another silent transmutation, creating an impressively sturdy ramp leading down the side of the building and he waited on top as the other four went down. Havoc didn't look back, instead wriggling onto his belly in front of a gap in the ridge, his rifle ready; he was almost lost in the pre-dawn light, his black clothing disguising him amidst the dark grey stone. Alphonse watched him for a long while, his heart in his mouth; and then stepped off the roof.

They were waiting for him at the bottom—Roy with his arm thrown around McGyver's shoulders, Riza dusting her uniform coat off. "Alphonse," Hawkeye said softly; and then two shots cracked through the air like whips across Al's senses, and he flinched while she remained impassive. A second later, with a shriek of fabric against concrete, Jean came tumbling down the ramp; he was grinning, and had the sniper rifle case in one hand and the gun in other. "Like a charm," he said, in response to Hawkeye's mildly inquisitive expression.

"Major Havoc," Roy said, and frowned. "Are you sure that won't draw attention?" When Havoc nodded, he sighed. "All right. I trust your judgement. Leave the rifle here; we won't need it, and it's deadweight."

Havoc hesitated, but only for a moment. Eventually he shrugged, going on one knee and stashing both gun and case behind a trash can, overflowing with waste; standing up again, he touched one hand to the tip of his handgun, and nodded. "Ready," he said, and then cast Alphonse a sidelong glance. "How about you, kid?"

"My brother needs me," Al replied, voice low and slightly hoarse. "Of course I'm ready."

Roy gave him a long and searching look, but didn't comment. "All right," he said, turning back to the mouth of the alleyway, "Let's go."


This section seemed to be relatively quiet, at least, Ed thought with no small amount of relief. There was no sound of any pursuit—although he was still being cautious; it wouldn't do to be caught again because he'd let his guard down.

He'd been lucky to avoid capture thus far—had been lucky to avoid the guards swarming around the room he'd been held in, after he'd made a break for it. He'd fled, mostly, transmuting doors where there had been none before; but this place was a fucking maze, and his pursuers had the advantage of knowing their territory.

He'd already been involved in three fights—one he'd been able to wriggle out of, another he'd fled, and a third he'd won, if only barely. He tried not to think about that kid, only a little older than he was, who had managed to grab his sleeve as Ed streaked past, who had received a metal fist in the jaw from a panicking Edward. The horrid feeling of the boy's chin breaking, under the power of the blow, had still been discernable through the automail. It made him feel more than slightly nauseous.

There was a sudden cry, a fair distance away, and then the sound of gunfire started, loud and repetitive. Ed froze, heart in his mouth; what was going on? Trouble? Or something else?

Don't think about it, he told himself. Whatever it is, it's still a distraction. You need to get out of here.

But—how? He'd been stumbling through twisted corridors for—ages; they were unlit, lengthy things, dark and clearly designed by an idiot of an architect, perhaps who had drawn the plans for the building while wearing a blindfold and after polishing off a bottle of Drachnian vodka on an empty stomach.

It doesn't matter, he thought, stopping in the middle of an intersection with a few more passageways. Keep going in any direction, and you'll find your way out. He bit his lip and held his hands out—one flesh, the other metal—brought them together, and pressed them to the wall.

Why hadn't he thought of this before? It made everything so much simpler.

He emerged on the thin, equally dimly-lit corridor on the other side of the wall and frowned, tilting his head as he listened to the gunfire, allowing himself to pay attention to it for the first time since it had started. It stayed in the distance, for which he was most thankful.

Clap. Touch the wall. Feel the atoms that made up brick and stone and plaster and suggest that they become something else, something different. Feel them leaping under his hands to obey, feel them rearranging themselves—and then he closed his hand around a heavy iron ring, and the newly-made door opened under its tug.

The room he emerged in was empty save for a radio transmitter against the far wall, the headset lying on the floor. Edward paused—his gut told him he should be getting out of here—but he'd always been an 'inquisitive little sod,' as his teacher had put it, and some things just never changed.

He wouldn't be long, he told himself; shut the room's legitimate door and transmuted it into the door frame, before doing the same with the door he'd just made. It was only then that he padded across the smooth stone floor, and picked the headphones up.

At first when he pressed his ear against the back of one of the earphones he thought there was nothing but static—was about to discard them, and continue his attempt to escape. But then he realised he could hear voices, very faintly through the crackle; realised that he must be underground, which was why the transmitter had only limited reception. With a frown, he reached out—tracked a metal finger down the surface of the transmitter's various knobs and dials, until it bumped over the ridges of the word 'volume'. Taking a deep breath, he put the headphones on.

It took him a while to realise that static formed only half of the background noise—whoever had the transmitter hooked to this one must be at the centre of that distant gunfight, and he flinched as he heard the screams. Someone was shouting something in Drachnian—he vaguely recognised some of it, from the lessons Alphonse had inflicted upon him before his younger brother had given up—but the rest was a mystery.

But the implication behind those few words that he did understand—intruders, invaders—was overwhelming enough that for a moment he could only freeze, his heart in his mouth. Was—was it the military? He wasn't sure whether to be thankful or scared; wasn't sure whether to go greet them, offer them a helping hand, or flee from them, too.

And then a new voice was cutting over the screams—a voice he recognised. "Point one," Halcrow snapped, his voice somehow managing to drown the screams out. "Point one! What the fuck is going on? What's this I hear about the Fullmetal kid escaping?"

Ed's eyes slowly meandered to the top of the transmitter, where a brass plate displaying the number '1' had been screwed above the speaker.

"And what the fuck is this I hear about fire alchemy going on in the western part of the complex? Shoot him, already! The man is not invincible, his flames don't work so well in enclosed quarters! Kill him! And the Fullmetal boy, too! The trade is void—shoot them both!"

Ed swallowed, hoarsely, and closed his eyes. Mustang, here? Shit. But—and he sat bolt upright, eyes widening—they'd told him that Mustang had been with Al, why was he here? Had Al forced him to come? But—Mustang wouldn't, not for some random—

And he could only curse, under his breath, as realisation sank in. As the pieces of the puzzle fell into place. He yanked the headphones off as if they burned him—he could still hear the screams, and Halcrow's vocal demands, as they bounced off the desk and hit the floor, stopping only when they reached the end of their cord.

Alphonse must be here.

Alphonse, his brave, brilliant, stupid little brother. Al was the more rational of the two brothers, but there were still times when he fucked up, Ed thought bitterly, when he allowed passion to overrule reason. It was unfortunate that nearly all of those times were centred on Edward.

But still; fact remained that his younger brother was somewhere around here, probably with Mustang. And very soon, once Halcrow contacted the other transmitter points, he'd be chased by people with instructions to kill him.

The western part of the complex, Halcrow said, Ed thought, through a cloud of concern and slight fear. ... Which way's west?

He knew how to make a rough compass, but doubted very much that he had time. And so he simply had to hope—hope that the gunfight in the distance was a distraction, and that his brother and Mustang had entered the complex through the other direction, back the way he'd come. Hope that he could find them and get them out of here before anything happened to Alphonse.


They had encountered quite a lot of resistance, upon breaking in. Havoc had taken McGyver and Lawson through the front, to create a distraction, while the rest of them broke in through the side; and as soon as they rounded the corner, they'd run across some of the enemy. A group of four, sitting on benches in a deserted room; they'd leapt to their feet when they'd spotted the intruders, all four lunging for their eapons.

And—beside Al, before he could open his mouth to warn them, Mustang had merely raised a hand and—snapped his fingers, just like that. And it was like that street scene again; bodies, burning before his eyes while he could only watch, helplessly.

"What did you do that for?" he demanded, voice muffled by the sleeve of his red coat, pressed over his nose in an attempt to ward off the smell. "I could've talked to them—we could have found out where my brother was! You didn't have to kill them!"

Roy just gave him a slightly condescending look, an expression that said I-know-what-I'm-doing, and-you're-just-being-a-silly-little-boy. "Alphonse," he said, softly, "Not everything can be worked out with words."

"B—b—fine," Al whispered, looking down at his feet. "You're right. Can we hurry up and find my brother, sir?"

Roy passed him without a word, limping determinedly down the corridor at the far end of the room. As she followed her commanding officer, Hawkeye hesitated, in front of Alphonse—reached out, cautiously, with her good hand, and ruffled his hair. "The Fuhrer knows what he's doing, Alphonse," she told him. "We'll get your brother back, all right?"

"Yeah," Al muttered, "Everything's fine." He ducked away from her hand, and gave her a wan grin. "I'm not a little boy anymore, Hawkeye ma'am. Please don't treat me like I am."

"Of—of course," Hawkeye said, graciously, if a little awkwardly. She drew her hand close to her chest. "W—Well, Alphonse, we'd better catch up with the Fuhrer, hadn't we?"

Al shoved his hands in his pockets and nodded; with a final, piercing look, Hawkeye moved past him and headed down the narrow corridor after Roy. Alphonse waited a moment before running to catch up with her, and she said nothing when he drew level.

They found Roy at the end of the passage, waiting for them, and when they caught up with him the three proceeded, cautiously, onwards. They encountered several more guards, most of which Roy burned as Al just looked away, tried not to notice; a few managed to escape, and with his injured ankle Roy did not have any urge to hunt them down. Eventually they came to the end of a corridor which merged with three others in a tiny crossroad. Roy frowned; had one hand pressed to the wall, for support, and his head cocked to one side as he listened intently. "Alphonse," he said without looking as they approached, "Hawkeye. Can you hear that?"

"Footsteps," Hawkeye breathed, after a moment; grabbed her gun, automatically crouching. "Alphonse! Transmute us something to hide behind, there's more than one person headed this way—which direction, Fuhrer?"

"Straight ahead," said Roy, softly, and flexed his fingers in their gloves. "And from the right."

"Wonderful," said Riza, flatly. "This is the worst sort of place to be caught in. ALPHONSE! Move it!"

"I—I—I—-" Alphonse stammered, eyes wide and body stiff with fear, and gulped.

He'd never imagined he'd be involved in a proper, full-blown guerrilla combat situation. Had never expected to encounter—any real resistance, not really; nothing that would be a serious threat to him and Roy and Hawkeye. And now that the situation had risen, he felt like a coward for just standing there, shaking, as the enemy closed in; but despite his feelings, he couldn't seem to make his legs move.

This was what brother wanted to protect me from, he realised, with sudden clarity. This is the first time I've been in—in danger like this since I got my body back, why is my brother not here? Why?

"Alphonse!" Riza barked, and Al gulped again, screwed his eyes shut and forced them open.

"I—I—I'm on it," he whispered, and his hands were shaking so much as he brought them together, dropped to the floor. As the walls mutated into a ridge, about two and a half feet tall, which Riza hastily ducked behind; Roy dropped to his knee, hissing between his teeth at the sensation, and veered to the side.

And then the corridor in front of him was filled with light.

At first he'd thought it was flashlights, carried by the enemy. And he realised that after he'd performed the transmutation, his body had simply stood up again in order to see better without him willing it to; and he knew with a sudden lurch in his gut just how exposed he was.

Then his mind processed the additional information—the wavering of the light, the way tendrils of it seemed to break away like bolts of thin blue lightning; the noise of an alchemical reaction. And his ears informed him smugly that though there was the sound of gunfire, as the wall spread and grew to cover the entrance, the bullets were hitting stone and not him; only one made it through the thin gap, before the wall closed, and it whistled through the air a foot away from the side of his face.

But that was suddenly the least of his worries, as his mind pointed out that he hadn't made that wall, Roy couldn't have, and he doubted the Drachnian terrorists would be attempting to save them. That left one person who it could be, and as soon as his mind settled on an image, rather than a name, he was moving—vaulted over the top of the barrier and stumbled around the corner, to the corridor to the right. Roy had been right, there had been someone coming down it—someone with golden hair, in a braid; his metal hand still pressed out flat against the wall, wearing his trademark black leather pants and tank top. He pounced that someone as soon as he could, a flying hug that secured his arms around his brother's neck and had him desperately kissing Ed's cheek, mind frantically repressing the desire to give Ed a kiss on the mouth, or at least not where Mustang could see.

Of course, the happy reunion was somewhat ruined by the fact that as soon as his brother recovered from the unexpected onslaught, he fisted his good hand in the front of Al's shirt and slammed him back against the wall, expression truly terrible to behold. "You fucking moron!" Ed roared, giving him a hard shake for good measure. "You complete idiot! You—you—ARGH!" He gave Al another shake, teeth bared, and snapped, "If I had enough curse words to describe how I feel right now, you brainless cretin, I'd be fucking using them—do you even know how much danger you're in?"

"Nice to see you too, brother," said Al, with a petulant scowl. He jabbed at the pressure point in his brother's throat; as anticipated, Ed dropped him and backed off a few steps, gasping desperately for air.

"Alphonse," Hawkeye said quietly, helping Roy over the ridge, before Ed could respond to the temporary strangulation with a metal fist to the head, "Edward."

His brother straightened, slowly, still massaging his throat; gave Hawkeye a look that Al couldn't place. "How much has he told you?" he asked, voice still a little hoarse.

"Enough," said Roy, quietly, his voice firm and sharp. "I know that you lied to me, to us. To everyone. I know that you felt you would rather live a life of hiding, in constant fear of being discovered, rather than talk to me, Edward."

Edward snorted, and shrugged. "It was necessary, I guess," he said, flippantly; Al and Riza both opened their mouths to protest, but Roy got there first.

"Edward," he said, raising his voice just slightly—combined with his expression, he might as well have shouted. "Remember when I told you not to die within my jurisdiction, as the paperwork would be troublesome? It was, you selfish little bastard."

There was silence following this statement, silence in which Roy scowled down at his former subordinate. Riza hid her smile in her hand, while Alphonse had to turn away in an attempt to muffle his laughter. Through it all, Ed stood there, stunned, without taking his eyes off the Fuhrer's.

"Edward," Roy said, after Al's awkward giggles had ceased, and in a gentler tone. "Did you honestly think that we didn't care what happened to you?"

Ed's mouth tightened; he looked away and said, "Is this really the time to be talking about this?"

"... No," Roy agreed, after a pause. "Rest assured that I will be having a word with you when we get out of here, though."

Ed bristled immediately, like a cat near water. Alphonse made a grab for his sleeve; but his brother did not seem to be inclined to throw himself at Mustang today, and deflated after a few seconds. "Fine," he muttered, and looked down at the floor. "It's dangerous, Mustang. These guys aren't all amateurs—that old bastard Halcrow is in charge, and there's a lot of ex-military who've obviously gone with him. We need to get out and order a full invasion or something more useful, you shit Fuhrer, than charging in on the whims of a moron who may not live to reach his nineteenth birthday if he ever fucking scares me like that again." He shot Al a foul glance as he finished off, and his younger brother smiled, somewhat nervously, and inched away, towards Riza.

"Halcrow?" Roy asked, startled, and then scowled. "Of course. Damn that bastard, I should've made sure he was dead."

Ed paused, evidently expecting more of a reaction. With a frown, he said, "You don't seem surprised."

Roy shot him a smirk. "After you and your brother returned from the grave, Edward, Halcrow's state of undeath comes as a very small surprise."

"Yeah, well," Edward muttered, and Roy sighed.

"We'll get out of here," he said, "And then we'll arrange for this place to be searched and its occupants arrested. And then, Edward Elric, I am going to have a word with you concerning your amazing vanishing act."

"... Can I stay back here?" Ed asked, with a nervous expression; Alphonse elbowed him gently in the side, and shook his head.

"Brother," he said, so softly that only Ed could hear him, "Don't you think we owe it to them?"

Ed paused before answering, face still and body tense; but then he turned, and flashed Alphonse a warm, bright grin. "Maybe," he replied quietly, and lifted his eyebrows. "Can we get a move on?" he added, louder, and grabbed Alphonse's elbow, half-tugging him, half-dragging him back, over the ridge of stone and in the direction he'd come from. After exchanging a long look, Roy took a deep breath and said, "We'd better follow them."

Edward didn't talk for a little while, nor did he release his grip on Al's arm. It was only when Al realised that Riza and Roy were having some difficulty getting over the barrier that he dug his heels in, resisting his brother's pull; smiled apologetically when Ed rounded on him, and said, "We should wait for them, brother."

Ed glanced up the corridor where, approximately twenty yards away, Roy had just managed the barrier; Riza was standing beside him, waiting for him to recover, and he was frowning as he bent down to rub at his injured ankle. "Fine," he said, with a longing look at the end of the passage, where the corner wasn't far away at all. "Hurry up!" he called. "Don't keep us waiting, jeez."

Roy made an indistinct, but from the sound of it highly uncomplimentary, reply; Riza frowned at them, but said nothing. Edward sighed, stuffing his hands into his pockets, and turned to Alphonse.

"Wish they'd hurry up," he grumbled; but then his expression softened, and he frowned. "Are you all right, Al?"

"Mmm? Yes, of course I am... Why wouldn't I be, brother?" Al replied, puzzled, and Ed gave him a long look before sighing and shrugging.

"I saw you freeze up back there," he said, out of the corner of his mouth; and suddenly Al felt his cheeks burning, and it became surprisingly hard to look his brother in the face. "Al..."

"I'm okay," Al said softly, "Just embarrassed. You would be, too."

"It's okay to be scared," Ed murmured, and smiled. He raised a hand to cup Al's jaw; his metal hand, the steel cold against Al's face, and rubbed his thumb over his little brother's lips. "I know I didn't get you this body back so you could get it filled with lead, so I'm glad your instincts are working."

Al flushed, and looked away again. "Yeah," he said, "Well."

Ed grinned at him—a flash of teeth, very white in his face. "When we get back," he said, "I'll get rid of Mustang however I can and then I'm gonna kiss you breathless. I'm not gonna let you out of our bedroom for some time—you owe it to me for the stunt you pulled."

Alphonse bit his lip. "I'm sorry I made you worry," he whispered, and Ed rolled his eyes.

"'Worry' is an understatement, moron," he corrected, releasing Al's chin. "I fucking panicked."

Alphonse couldn't keep himself from smiling, touched; but he did look down at his boots. "I'm sorry," he repeated, and cast a wary eye back up the corridor. When he saw that Roy and Riza were still at the far end, heads bent together in silent discussion, he turned back and said, voice soft and earnest, "I love you."

Ed snorted. "I know," he replied, and rubbed self-consciously at his cheeks. "I know that already. Idiot."

Al chuckled, softly to himself; but Roy was finally beginning to limp towards them, and he could not follow the statement up as he would have liked. Instead he shrugged, smiled, and turned towards the man, shoving his hands in his pockets. "Are you okay?" he asked, voice low and concerned. "You took forever."

"My ankle," Roy said through gritted teeth, coming to a stop a short while away, "Is twisted. You try walking with a sprained ankle, if you think you can."

Ed lifted an eyebrow, but thankfully withheld the inevitably sarcastic response. "It'll be good to get out of here," he said, "There's not much going on in terms of interior decor."

Al elbowed him in the side. "Brother," he scolded, "Stop trying to be such a smart-alec." Raising his voice, he addressed Roy—who looked annoyed—and Riza, "Please stick close behind us. We'll take you back to our apartment."

"Are you sure that's wise?" Riza said with a frown. "Wouldn't it make more sense to go directly to the temporary base at the university?" She raised an eyebrow, but Edward was shaking his head.

"Nope," he said, and his teeth flashed. "It's further from here to the University than it is from here to the apartment."

"Yes," Alphonse replied, without missing a beat. "I wouldn't want to walk through the streets now for any length of time. Hopefully it'll be a while before—before Mr Halcrow realises that we've left the complex, long enough to order a tactical strike."

"'Mr' Halcrow?" Ed and Roy both mouthed at his back as Alphonse headed towards the exit, with mutual bewildered expressions. Riza said nothing, just squeezed between them and set foot after the younger Elric; eventually, realising that he'd be left behind with Roy for company, Edward hastily caught up with his brother.

It was snowing when they emerged outside. Ed, wearing nothing but a tank top, began shivering almost instantly; Alphonse, who at least had the protection of his brother's black jacket underneath the coat, shed the heavy red garment and tucked it over his older brother's shoulders with a tender expression that had Riza frowning at the two of them, thoughtfully.

"What is it?" Roy asked softly, and she shook her head as if to dismiss the thoughts.

"Nothing," she said, and gave him a small smile that would convince no-one. "Edward, Alphonse—let's move a little faster, please."

Alphonse paused and blinked at her, still adjusting his coat around Ed's shoulders, hands still clenched in the lapels. There was snow on both Elrics' hair, a fine layer only just starting to melt. "Oh—of course," he said, and tilted his head to one side. A trickle of water ran down the side of his cheek, down his jaw and dripped off his chin. "Is there anything wrong?"

"No, nothing," Riza replied swiftly, and smiled.

Edward gave her a mistrustful look, and then nudged Al in the midriff with an elbow; when he had his younger brother's attention, added in a low murmur, "Let's get going, Al. I could do with some coffee after all this."

"What—wait, brother—" Al's protests didn't really last, once Ed began pulling him along in the right direction; he was tired, and wanted to go home too and curl up in bed with his brother and pretend this day had never existed. He made a token resistance, for a few yards, but stopped eventually, ignoring the noise behind them, the yells for them to return and then the muffled curses as Roy began to limp after them.

"Quit bitching, Al," his brother said, and Al yelped as he slipped in the snow. "When we get home, I'm gonna push you into our bedroom, and—"

"'And' what, brother?" Al prompted, dusting snow off his pants as he stood up again. But his brother was stiff and unresponsive beside him, the only movement that of his hair, fluttering in the wind as he stared straight ahead; Alphonse followed his gaze through the snow and saw—two figures, standing there, both wrapped up tightly against the cold. The smaller one, with broader shoulders, was the strangest—his face appeared to be swathed entirely in bandages, and Al felt a moment of pity for him—he must've been injured in the blast, or something?

But then his brother was moving, and with a hoarse cry of "Halcrow" that echoed through the street, that rose over the wailing of the wind, Edward elbowed him hard enough to knock him over again—was clapping his hands together, forming his automail blade, and charging, foolishly, at the man.

"Brother, no!" Alphonse screamed, scrabbling desperately to his feet and managing to trip himself up, "NO!"

Because he'd seen what was in the man—Halcrow's hand—when he removed it from his coat pocket. Could recognise the shape of the gun as Halcrow pointed it at his brother, still running forward over the snow but too slow, moving too slow on account of the dangerous surface—

"Edward!" Roy was shouting, "Get down!"

But his brother wouldn't, and didn't, and Alphonse watched, horrified, as a gloved finger drew back, squeezing the trigger.

The way his brother collapsed would always remind Al of how he'd imagine a horse might—one moment all fluid motion, the next an ungainly tumble-fall-sprawl that ended with his brother on his side at the end of a line of broken snow, a trail of blood spatters leading out behind him.

"Brother," Al whispered, managing to get his legs underneath him. There was no strength in them, however, no way he could use them to stand up. He just pressed his hands to his mouth, unaware of the hot liquid soaking through his gloves or the way the scene blurred, his attention focused solely on that figure ahead of him—the figure that was pushing itself back up, slowly, and spitting curses, and for a moment Al dared hope.

But then Halcrow stepped forward, curling his hand in his brother's beautiful golden hair, and forced his head back, setting his gun against Ed's temple. "Try it," he said, calmly, and at first Al was confused; try what? What did the man mean—but then he realised Halcrow was talking to Roy. Reluctantly he forced his gaze away from his brother, to where Roy stood, hand raised and thumb pressed to forefinger with Riza hovering protectively by his side.

Roy mouthed a curse, and then said, "Let Fullmetal go, Halcrow."

"Fullmetal?" the man said, a kind of cruel mock-surprise in his voice. "The Fullmetal Alchemist died before I did, Roy. And you know what they say?"

There was silence, the only noise that of the wind. The snow was thickening; Alphonse absently brushed some off his pants.

"What are you getting at, you bastard?" Roy asked, eventually, voice colder than the white around them, colder than the ice pooling around his legs that was currently making Alphonse shiver so.

"They say that you drove the Fullmetal Alchemist to his 'death'," Halcrow murmured, voice nearly lost to the weather.

"That's a fucking lie, you cock-sucking bastumph—-" Ed spat, before Halcrow interrupted him by jamming the gun into his open mouth. His brother's eyes widened, and he struggled against the grip on his hair; but Halcrow didn't let go or even look at him, just kept staring, over his head, at Roy.

And Roy's eyes widened, his teeth bared; but his hand remained steady as he ground out, "And who says that? Your fellow war-criminals and petty murderers, Halcrow? The poor souls you tricked into believing that your cause was 'just'?"

Halcrow merely shrugged, and smiled. "Nicholas," he said, "It's time."

"Sir!" The young man snapped off a salute and padded closer to Alphonse, who drew away from him; Hawkeye yanked her gun out of its holster and crouched in a ready position, her eyes the eyes of the markswoman Al had seen on the range.

Nicholas drew to a stop perhaps a yard, maybe a yard and a half, from Alphonse, and Al stared up at him. He was going to try to shoot the Fuhrer, he thought; from here, he could disable the man with his alchemy. Both he and Halcrow seemed to overlook him, to underestimate him; it would be easy to catch him off guard.

But if he did that, Halcrow would pull the trigger, and his brother would be killed.

Could I kill to protect this life, to protect us, he'd wondered, a long time ago after he'd helped a man buy a pair of boots for his boss.

The aide raised the gun, and Hawkeye stepped in front of Roy, snapping the safety off hers.

Would I kill to protect us?

"Get out of the way," the man said, his voice distorted by a heavy Drachnian accent. He glanced at Al, still sniffling; then snorted and looked back at his target.

Can I just let the people around me die, in order to save Ed? Even if they're... friends?

"No," replied Hawkeye, her expression cool and intent.

No.

Both of them fired at the same time as Al clapped his hands together.

He never actually pressed them to the ground, frozen in horror as the events played out. Because Hawkeye fired twice and twice alone, hitting the aide both times and then spun, fast, on her heel to push Roy out of the way. At first he couldn't work out why, until the aide's gun landed on the snow barely a foot away from him. He didn't know much about guns, but he could recognise a semi-automatic when he saw one, thanks to time spent watching Hawkeye on the range.

Most of this—Nicholas person's bullets missed, went zooming around Riza and Roy as they fell. Al swore time slowed, at least for him; their fall seemed to be so slow. But nevertheless, he missed the moment the bullet hit Riza, just saw her head snap sharply, to the side and the fine cloud of blood, startlingly red against the white snowflakes.

He wouldn't remember screaming, but he did it. Roy was moving—was touching a gloved hand to the back of her head as she lay sprawled across his chest, was staring at the red on that glove with thinly-veiled horror—but for now all Al could really register was that Hawkeye had been shot in the head, and that he could have done something to stop it.

"Now what, Roy?" Halcrow was saying, coolly; Al slammed his hands against the ground, although there was no alchemical reaction behind the motion—there didn't need to be, any more—and let the tears fall onto the snow as he sobbed.

It took him a while to realise they were falling on the aide's gun.

Edward was cursing, his voice muffled by the metal in his mouth; his eyes were narrowed and angry. Halcrow spared him a glance and removed the gun from his mouth; then, when his brother sucked in a deep breath to call him some more names, he smashed the barrel of the pistol into Ed's temple. "Shut up," he said, flatly, pressing the muzzle against Ed's forehead, and his brother bared his teeth, eyes full of hate, but stopped struggling.

Al curled his fingers around the semi-automatic's handle. It fit too easily into his grip.

"Riza," Roy was saying, voice desperate and bleak. "Riza."

Halcrow was smiling, the bandages around his mouth moving oddly. Edward's head dipped forward, tears spilling off his cheeks and over his wounded leg, and Al tucked his other hand around the gun, finger over the trigger.

He remembered the firing range, a huge suit of armour hovering over Lieutenant Hawkeye's shoulder while his brother made his reports to the Colonel. He remembered the way she would talk about guns as she shot, offering him advice as if he were a recruit.

Halcrow was perhaps ten feet away, eyes only on Roy's distress.

"Accuracy in close shooting is actually more about your hand not shaking and less about experience," said Hawkeye in his mind as she reloaded her weapon. "From six feet, if you can point a finger, you can shoot a gun accurately."

Please, he thought, give me some luck.

"How does it feel to have the foundations of your power ripped away, Mustang?" said Halcrow, pleasantly.

I was wrong. I can kill, to protect what is mine.

He aimed the weapon, took a slow breath, and called, "Mr Halcrow?" And when the man turned, he pulled the trigger.

The gun jerked in his hands—much more than he'd expected, and he dropped it in surprise. It fell without sound, landed on the snow between his legs, and Al ignored it, lost to the sight of his target. Roy started when the shot rang out—started, and turned a surprised eye on him, one arm still wrapped tightly around Riza's torso as the gun slipped from Halcrow's hand, discharged as it hit the ground. The bullet struck his brother's metal leg. But that was okay, as Ed slowly opened an eye, removed the arm he'd thrown up to protect himself, and stared.

The wind howled. Snowflakes whirled a delicate ballet before his eyes, and Halcrow's body hit the ground with a thump.

"Al," his brother said, shocked, after several long seconds had passed. "Al, you—"

The trembling came from somewhere deep inside him; and he raised his hands to scrub at his face and found they would not hold still. "Bro—bro—brother," he whispered, the word ending on a rising high-pitched sob. "I—I—I ki——"

Ed cautiously resettled himself so that he wasn't putting any weight on his right leg, and shot Roy a glance. The man didn't notice; he'd arranged Riza on the ground and was checking her for a pulse; had shrugged his coat off and placed it over her. "Al," his brother said, and hesitantly held his arms open. "Come here."

Al scuttled over the ground like a wounded animal, allowing Ed to close his arms around him and hold him tight. He clutched at the red of his coat, too large on his brother, and cried, and cried; let his brother whisper soft, gentle things into his hair, and tried not to notice that Ed smelled of blood; both his own, and Halcrow's. That there was blood in his beautiful golden hair; a few droplets on his face, and that there was a bruise developing over his temple.

"I killed him," he whispered, tucking his face into the softness of Ed's throat. "I killed him because he was going to kill you, and he shot Riza, and—brother, what does that make me?"

"Brave," Ed murmured, and pressed a kiss against his cheek.

Alphonse stared at him for several seconds, lips parted and eyes wide; and then the corners of his mouth twitched into something that was not quite a smile, nor was it a frown. He buried one of his hands in Ed's long hair, another into the fabric of his coat, and shifted his whole body closer. Ed combed the fingers of his good hand through Al's hair, and cast Roy another glance; the man was sitting back from checking Riza's wrist for a pulse, was smiling, and Ed knew what that meant. "She's alive," he whispered. "Hawkeye, I mean."

Al shrugged it off, and nuzzled closer. "Let me stay like this," he whispered, "Forever."

As Roy snapped his fingers and sent up a flare, Edward bent forward—ignoring the pain of his leg—and pressed a kiss against his forehead. "I can't do that," he said; grinned his characteristic grin, teeth glittering in the fading red light. "But we can try."

They were still curled up like that when Armstrong and the others arrived, fifteen minutes later. Alphonse had little energy left to answer the questions Armstrong asked; it was a relief when Havoc turned up, and took over. Both Riza and Roy were loaded into an armoured car and sent off to the temporary hospital, on Roy's orders—he wouldn't leave her, Al knew, not after that display of devotion—and once they were gone he found the strength to help Havoc lift his brother onto a stretcher.

"I'm going with him," he said, and Havoc sighed.

"I figured you'd say that," he muttered gloomily. "Look. Alphonse." And when the boy glanced over at him, he held out the packet. "Cigarette?"

"No thanks, I don't smoke," Al said with a shaky grin.

"Good for you. Terrible habit." He lit one up himself, and studied Edward, eyes narrow slits of gold, his face startlingly pale. He'd been bleeding for a while. He reversed his gaze to take in the younger brother, who was stroking his hair, mouth a thin line. "Look, Al, are you gonna be okay?"

"Yeah," said Al, and squeezed his brother's hand. "I'm the next Fullmetal Alchemist, after all."

"Oh, jeez," Ed whispered, and grinned slightly, "You're embarrassing me."

There was so much in the look that passed between them; something so fond and tender that it almost made Jean feel like a voyeur. Rather than sticking around, he hopped off the back of the truck, slammed the doors, and waved for the driver to proceed.

"Take care of yourselves," he muttered, and turned back to help with the clean-up operation.

He had a feeling it was unnecessary. The Elrics had always looked after each other, after all, and probably always would.