Al breathed out slowly, hands tightening on the receiver. He wasn't stupid enough to claim that they were lying, but instead asked through a throat tightening helplessly, "How did you find out?"
The person on the other end laughed. "That is not important at this moment in time, Alphonse. As I was saying, we have your brother hostage."
"You want the Fuhrer," Al hissed, cautiously peeking around the corner to see whether his guests had heard. Roy was sipping his coffee casually, still seated on the couch, and had a newspaper open on his lap; of Lieutenant Hawkeye, however, there was no sign.
"Naturally," the voice purred. "We are willing to exchange your brother's life for his, though."
"You're asking me to choose between them?" Ah, there she was—just visible inside the main entrance hall, studying the painting. Al cursed internally and shuffled back from sight, leaning against the wall next to the telephone receiver.
"But of course," the unknown man said, tone rippling with buried mirth. "Do consider, Alphonse; your brother is a young man, in the prime of his youth, while the Fuhrer, on the other hand, is ... not so young. And, of course, you are not as close—"
"Shut up," Al snapped, frantically closing his eyes and grinding the heel of his palm into his forehead. He didn't need to think about that right now. He really didn't need to start comparing Roy to his brother, to Ed.
"As you wish," the voice said mildly. "We are given to understand through our contacts that the military will arrive to collect the Fuhrer, and his pretty young aide, tomorrow at seven hundred hours, am I correct?"
"Yeah," Al said with a scowl, leaning out of the little cubby again in time to see Mustang flip a page of the newspaper. The man raised his coffee to his lips and took another gulp, then paused and glanced up at Al, who forced a smile before moving back out of sight.
"At five hundred hours, if you wish to see your brother again, you will be outside the civil services main office—in Angel Street—with the Fuhrer. The deal shall be made there. Please do not try to double cross us, nor try to defeat us by force to reclaim your brother. It will not work; I can tell you that now. We shall look forward to seeing you."
"Wait—damn," Al spat, holding the dead receiver out in front of him and glaring at it. He slammed it back on the hook, shoulders tense, and then the despair caught up with him as the anger leaked out. "What am I supposed to do?" he whispered.
"Alexander?" Hawkeye called from the living room, and Al bit his lip. "Is something wrong?"
He opened his mouth to reassure her that no, nothing was, and felt the lie die in his throat. He couldn't do this. He couldn't arrange Roy's death, and considering Hawkeye's loyalty to the man, her own by extension.
But he couldn't let them kill Ed, either.
He pushed himself away from the wall and headed back into the living room, where he found Roy folding up the paper and Riza perched on the arm of the sofa beside him. He threw himself into the armchair opposite them, and propped his chin up on his fist as Roy threw the paper onto the coffee table and picked up his half-empty mug. "What happened?" he asked softly, taking a sip, and Al blinked at him. "Who were you talking to?"
Riza was watching him, face utterly deadpan. Al squirmed a little under their gazes, dropping his hands to his lap and not meeting their eyes. "Alexander," she said, in that faint way that said, I didn't expect this from you.
"They know you're here," he blurted at Roy, and inwardly cursed. He was susceptible to pressure; always had been, which was one of the reasons Ed blamed himself, and himself alone, for the failed attempt to bring back their mother.
"'They'? You mean the terrorist group?"
Al nodded, still keeping his eyes on his hands.
"Why? Why tell you that they know, rather than kidnap us themselves? Why tell you at all?" Riza demanded, her good arm trembling, fingers flexing near the holster at her hip.
Alphonse took a moment to answer, his fingers writhing in his lap. Against his will, they crossed; he remembered the sign from his mother, crossing her fingers to scare off the things a five-year-old Alphonse had been sure had been lurking underneath his bed, waiting to tear him to bits when the lights were turned out.
"They won't bother you anymore, Alphonse," she'd said gently, ruffling his hair. "I'm going back to bed now. Will you be all right?"
"Yes," he'd replied, relieved; she'd laughed and left, switching the lights out and closing the door behind her. In the dark, however, Alphonse could've sworn he could see pairs of hungry red eyes studying him from all over the room; he'd bolted, frantically scrabbling the door open, and pushing into the room across the hall. His brother hadn't been quite asleep, he remembered, and had just drowsily made room for him in his own bed. "Don' w'ry, Al," Ed had said around a jaw cracking yawn, "won' let n'thin' h'pp'n t' you..."
You didn't, brother, he thought, looking down at his crossed fingers. And maybe it's time I started doing the same. He hadn't been able to protect Ed through their journey. Ed was stubborn, difficult; too mature to be a child, too naive to be an adult. Trapped somewhere constantly in between as people he knew and cared for died around him, as he tried to be brother and father, friend and companion and guardian all for Alphonse.
Give him back... He's my little brother. Whether it's my legs or both my arms—I can even give you my heart... so please! Give him back to me! He's the only little brother I have!
Sometimes those words haunted him, in the early hours of the morning. He didn't know how he knew them—and the image that went with them, of his brother spattered head-to-toe with his own blood, drawing circles on his skin to keep Al with him. "Was I being selfish, Al?"
Never, he thought, and raised his head to look the Fuhrer in the eye. "They have my only older brother hostage," he said quietly. "I'm an alchemist. They probably thought I'd be able to subdue you and make the trade for my brother's safety."
"I'm sorry," Hawkeye whispered, taking him by surprise.
"For what?" Mustang, too, seemed caught off guard.
"That you've been put in this situation because of us, Alexander." She slid her pistol out of the holster, but didn't take the safety off. "What are you going to choose?"
"I don't know," he told her, honestly. "My brother is my brother. He's very important to me. But then..."
He stilled his hands on his lap, and whispered, more to himself than to Roy, "Since you became Fuhrer, this country has been more peaceful than it has been for a hundred years."
"Yes," Riza said slowly. "It has. I do not want to be callous, Alexander, but that is why... that is why..."
"That is why you're going to encourage me not to do anything," Al replied shakily, raising his face as if hoping that she would prove him wrong. He felt something inside him give, however, when she refused to meet his eyes; it broke entirely when she nodded, a brisk, sharp motion.
"Isn't there something you could do?" he asked, through the sudden obstruction in his throat. "Couldn't you save him, or something? Please?"
"We could try," Roy told him, flat-out, expression drawn and sharp. "But that would mean unnecessary risks, Alexander. We could order every house in the city to be raided, but they would kill him before they let us recover him. We do not know where he is being held, either—I assume they gave you a meeting point, rather than an address?" He paused and sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. "I'm sorry," he said, almost gently. "I didn't want it to come to this."
Al couldn't answer, instead drawing his legs up onto the armchair; and, wrapping his arms around them tightly, he buried his face in his knees. Roy climbed awkwardly to his feet, hesitating a little before crossing over to the armchair and dropping a hand on his head. "I'm sorry," he repeated, quietly, before retreating back to the sofa.
Al felt tears pricking, hot and painful, at the corners of his eyes, It wasn't fair, but it was right. Besides, who was Ed? He was just—
It's the day of mother's funeral, and Ed is crying even though he denies it. Al can't stop, tears pouring down his cheeks as they wait for the Rockbells to finish getting ready; they're sitting on the bottom step, dressed in black suits that itch and don't fit. Ed is warm against his side, and his face is blank even though the corners of his eyes shimmer softly. And he doesn't say anything as Al reaches out to him, wraps his arms around Ed's chest and buries his face in Ed's shoulder; only lifts his hands and settles them around the back of Al's neck, rubbing at the fine hairs there. "Al," he says, fiercely, "We don't need anyone but—
"- each other," Ed tells him, face determined and pale. And Al just clasps his brother's one remaining hand and wishes he could smile for him, because his brother is the most important thing in his life, in his life, and he doesn't like seeing him like this, doesn't like seeing him pretend he doesn't hurt so that Al won't worry. "Winry will put my arm on tomorrow," Ed whispers, and his voice is fading; he's exhausted, and the dull glitter of the metal leg and the half-installed port over his shoulder should be enough to tell anybody why. "Al. Could you tell me...?"
"—why?! Why Nina? What did she do to anyone?" Ed's fury won't let him sleep; he paces the tiny dorm room, shaking with anger and something else. Something deeper. "What did she ever do, to die like that?" He's still crying, a little; tears drip off his cheeks, and are absorbed without a sound by the leather of Al's gauntlets as he reaches out, drags his brother into his lap and wraps a blanket around him. He doesn't say anything—he doesn't need to. His body is cold metal, but it seems to soothe Ed, who closes his eyes and leans, bonelessly, against his breastplate. "I wonder," Ed says quietly, when the room has settled into silence. Al runs his fingers through his brother's hair, undoes the braid and massages the scalp as best he can, his touch a question. Ed tips his head back; he looks so young, so helpless, and Al—
- shoves him out of the way and catches the tiny homunculus' attack with his hands, pushing back and sending Wrath flying. Winry and Izumi are watching, horrified, but he is grim and determined. He will tear this little thing apart, no matter what; rip his brother's limbs off this thief and restore them to Ed, because there is no way this creature deserves them. He will do it, for Ed, for the one he—
- loves him all the more, watching him sleep, and being able to feel the warmth of him now. Ed mumbles in his sleep and rolls over, and Al lets himself down beside his brother, cautiously rests a hand over his chest to feel it rise and fall, to feel the steady beat of Ed's heart, warm and strong. He leans over despite himself, kisses Ed's mouth as lightly as he can, and doesn't feel guilty for doing it. This is something that he's always wanted, somehow, and it just feels right, and natural, and good. Ed's eyes are opening slowly, and when he realises what Al is doing he stiffens helplessly beneath his little brother—and then he is relaxing, his mouth opening of its own will, his tongue shyly brushing Al's in return; and it feels so good and so right that Al feels his fears fade. This is his brother, his best friend, his shield; and more. This is his lover, too, and Al knows he will do anything to keep Ed alive and with him. He'll give up his arms, his legs; his heart, his mind, his soul to keep Ed safe.
He'd give up his secrecy, his lies, his camouflage. He would give it up, because this was Ed—this was his brother, whose life hung in the balance, and for whom, and without whom, he would die. He would tell the truth, come clean; because otherwise his world would be ripped asunder, and he knew he wasn't strong enough to survive that. He raised his face and rubbed at the last remnants of tears with the heel of his hands; Roy wasn't looking at him, nor was Riza, both obviously not wanting to witness his grief.
"I'm sorry," he said softly, and when they both looked at him, pushed himself up out of his chair. He paced over to the window, looking out over the road, and crossed his arms over his chest. "I'm sorry. I've been lying to you."
"What do you mean?" Roy asked, at the same time as Hawkeye demanded, "How?"
Al turned his back on the window, leaning against the sill. He kept his posture non-threatening and asked, quietly, "Lieutenant Hawkeye, ma'am? Could you go through the door to the left? There should be a wardrobe in there—could you bring back one of the coats? You'll know it when you see it."
"Lieutenant Hawkeye?" Roy asked, catching the deliberate slip, and Riza frowned. Riza had been introduced to Al as Lieutenant Colonel Hawkeye and that alone, and Roy"s suspicion was well-founded. The two exchanged long looks when Al shrugged in lieu of an answer, but Riza climbed off the sofa's arm, and with a lasting, suspicious look, went into his bedroom to do what he had asked. Roy was watching him, torn between suspicion and bewilderment; Al smiled and looked over his shoulder, out the window.
He heard Riza give a startled gasp, and a second later she headed back into the room, tossing him a bundle of red fabric. He caught it and shook it out, revealing the stark black lines of the flamel. "The Philosopher's Stone," he said, and Roy pushed himself half-way to his feet, eyes wide.
"Where did you—what are you talking about—what's happening?"
"He who obtains it is exempt from the principle of Equivalent Trade," Al continued, over the top of his disjointed protests, "and does not have to sacrifice anything to obtain something."
"Alexander..." Riza said, cautiously, and Al smiled, tracing the lines of the snake curled around the cross with his forefinger. "What are you saying?"
"We sought after it," Al told them both, deadpan, "and we found it." He screwed his brother's coat up and tossed it to Roy, who looked like someone had just slugged him in the stomach with a sledgehammer. "After we found it, we used it, Colonel Mustang. Brother restored my body, though there wasn't enough of it to restore his own limbs—much to my disappointment."
Hawkeye started. "A—A—Al—Alphonse?" she managed, pale, and raised her hand to her mouth.
"Yes," he replied. "It's me. After my restoration, we decided between us that the best thing to do—given the coup taking place in the military at the time—would be to simply leave, faking our own deaths. We couldn't trust that Bradley's successor would be someone sympathetic to us. We've spent two years running around Amestris, trying to avoid being caught out, and now—now my brother is in danger, and so I have to tell you the truth."
Roy sank back onto the couch, seeming incapable of speech. Al ran his hands through his hair, and summoned up his most apologetic expression. "I'm sorry," he said, softly. "I wanted to write you, and let you know—that we were okay, but brother said we probably shouldn't. I'm not going to claim that this is all his fault, either—if I try, I can make him do almost anything. But I think I should tell you that I'm sorry, at least."
"Are you really?" Roy asked. "Are you really sorry, or are you saying that in an attempt to get us to help you find your brother?"
Al looked down at his hands. "I'd be lying if I said this all came from the depths of my heart," he admitted, slowly, "but I would also be lying if I claimed I was making it all up on the spot. I spoke to Jean Havoc in the market a few days ago—I think he suspects something, but obviously he hasn't told anyone. Hearing... the way he spoke about my brother... I guess that thawed me, a little. You really did mourn him, didn't you?"
"Did you know," Roy told him, face stony and cold. "That in Central every May the twenty-second—the day you and your brother were supposed to have died—is a public holiday? It was one of the first things I established when I became Fuhrer."
Al blinked at him for several long moments, and then looked down at his feet. "No," he said, "I didn't know that."
"Alphonse," Hawkeye added, from the other side of the room. "Why didn't your brother contact us? Why did he say that you 'probably shouldn't'?"
"I think," Al told her, "That brother didn't trust the Colonel."
"Why?" Roy asked, and winced at the little stab of hurt in his voice. Well, he told himself, he had reason to feel wounded, and bitter, and even a little angry after all. Damn Fullmetal; after all he'd done for the boy, he'd been repaid with lies and silence, blank mistrust.
Al took his time in answering, picking his way carefully through the words. "I think," he said slowly, truthfully, "I think he didn't trust you because of your ambition. I think he was worried that you might press-gang me into a State Certification, and force him back to work while you were at it. And I know that feels stupid, but that's how brother thinks. I guess we'll never know for certain, though."
Roy frowned, and Al wondered what he was thinking. "You want us to help you recover your brother."
"Of course," Al replied softly. "But I know you don't owe us anything, so—-"
"Maybe I don't want any help I do give to be seen as a debt repaid, or a favour. Perhaps I want to do it for my own reasons."
"You want to talk to my brother, don't you?" Al asked. "You want him to answer your questions himself, because you don't want my answers to be right."
By the way Roy's eyes narrowed, Al guessed he'd been right. "So," he said, when silence dragged out between them, "What are you going to do?"
Roy's eyebrows lifted, and he smirked, an expression familiar to Al from his years of following his brother around Headquarters. "I suppose," he mused, leaning back on the sofa, "that if I don't offer the help you need, your brother will die?"
"Of course," Al snapped, through gritted teeth. Did the man not understand? Ed was in danger!
Roy lifted his eyes to the ceiling and gave a deep sigh. Hawkeye was watching him with a thoroughly displeased expression, and he gave her a casual smile before letting his head loll back to face Al. "It would be very disappointing," he said, "if Fullmetal were to be killed by anyone other than myself, Alphonse."
Al opened his mouth to voice a protest, and then paused as the implications of Roy's statement rushed into his mind. "I understand," he replied, with a devilish grin Winry had once told him was unnervingly similar to Ed's own.
"Glad to hear it," Roy replied smoothly, and leaned forward, balancing his elbows on his knees, eyes intent and predatory. "So... where do we start?"
Damn Halcrow, the bastard! Putting his little brother in a situation like this! Al wasn't one of those people who could kill off those he saw as friends without batting an eye; no matter which he chose, he would regret it forever. He was no killer, Al, and Ed was grateful he'd never had to become one. There was something about seeing death up close, like Majihal, and even worse when you knew you'd done it, you'd struck the final blow... He still dreamed about Greed's stiff, hideously contorted body, melting into the array in a burst of red light. Not that he'd ever told Al; he didn't want his brother to worry.
He shifted his weight a little, stretching his legs out, and idly twitched his feet, glaring over at where his arm lay haphazardly on the table in the corner.
He knew he needed to get free. The longer he stayed here, the closer Al would come to doing something stupid, and he knew he needed to be there to prevent that. He needed to get free and find Al and, yes, Roy, if the bastard was still with his little brother, and then they could puzzle things along from there, right?
Unfortunately, Halcrow and four fully-armed minions were still in the room, his arm had been removed, and he had no means with which to draw an array on the wall.
He was well and truly screwed.
Halcrow was sitting in a chair next to the table on which his arm lay, and Ed gritted his teeth and glared at the bastard, who merely smirked back at him. He had his arms crossed over his chest, and a rifle lay across his lap; neither he nor his minions had answered Ed's demands that they tell him what they were planning.
He crossed one of his legs over the other, and pulled unenthusiastically at the chain around his one wrist. It didn't loosen, just as it hadn't the last few hundred times he'd tried.
One of the guards lit a cigarette, the flare of the match blinding-bright to Ed's dark-accustomed eyes. He blinked several times, and by the time his vision had adjusted, there was a man standing in the doorway, panting. "Sir!" he cried, and Halcrow looked up sharply.
"They're recalling half the forces from Yikatrinburg!" Nicholas took a few, frantic steps into the room, coming a few feet closer to Ed. From this new vantage point, Ed could see how he was sweating; he must have run all the way here.
"Where did the orders come from?" Halcrow demanded, eyes narrowing. One of his men cocked his rifle and pointed it at Ed, who felt mildly annoyed.
"According to our contacts, sir, clearance code priority one," Nicholas told him, panting. "The Fuhrer."
Halcrow looked caught off guard. "Why?" he asked, leaning back in his chair and fumbling in his pocket for a cigar. "What does he plan? He cannot know where our base is, and surely he knows we will kill the hostage before we surrender—Peter, put the gun away. We will not shoot Mr Elric here, not after he has done such a wonderful job of rising from the grave."
Ed gritted his teeth at the jibe, but refused to look away. It didn't matter; Nicholas took a few more steps towards Halcrow, and bowed. "Sir," he said, evidently troubled. "Our contact just told us they're deploying the soldiers around the city—and that the Fuhrer—-"
Halcrow held up a hand and shot Edward a pointed glare, then rose to his feet. "Come with me, Nicholas. I think we need to discuss this with our contact. Where is he?"
"He's in the communications department," the younger man said, and bit his lip. "They're operating from the university—one of the buildings which we haven"t destroyed yet."
"I see," Halcrow said, and drew a box of matches out of his other pocket. "Peter. Stay here with the Fullmetal brat, won't you? I shan't be more than two hours." He pitched his rifle over his shoulder and jerked his chin at the man who had lit the match just before Nicholas came in. "Sean, Jason. You too."
Ed's brows drew together; 'Sean' and 'Jason were not typical names in this region. Did that mean that Sean and Jason themselves were not natives? It was too dark to tell, and he cursed quietly. Well. They had weapons taken from the military, as well as several he suspected had been developed in Drachma; it made sense that Halcrow hadn't been alone in quitting the military and vowing vengeance on the new Fuhrer after Roy's coup. "You bastard Colonel," Ed whispered. "You should've made sure they were gone."
One of the guards was eyeing him oddly, and Ed tipped his face forward to hide his embarrassed grin with his bangs. Goddamnit, talking to yourself was never a good idea.
From the cover of his bangs, he surveyed the room. Two guards remaining, both fully armed; Peter, and the brawny red-head who had just caught him muttering to himself. He was chained to the wall next to the door, the table on which his arm lay three metres in the opposite direction. The amount of guards had been reduced by half, and the remaining two were on the other side of the room. It was the perfect opportunity for a wild escape attempt.
If only he had a plan.
Briefly he entertained the notion of summoning the guards over, and then kicking their legs out from underneath them... and then the idea fizzled to a halt. He sighed, drumming his heels restlessly against the floor. This could take a while.
He wondered, vaguely, what his teacher would do if she were imprisoned like this. He couldn't really imagine it; Izumi would not let herself be restrained, preferring instead to just walk right over anyone who even so much as thought about it. This was, after all, the woman who had successfully stormed South HQ alone in order to rescue the creature which might or might not have been her son, and had turned out to be neither.
Wrath had been an odd creature. He'd stolen Ed's limbs, a loss which, Ed thought with a sigh when he glanced over at the open automail port, hadn't bothered him quite so much before now. He'd been furious when he discovered that the only reason Wrath could do alchemy had been because he possessed Ed's arm and leg; bought them in contact with each other to create a circle, like Ed did with his arms—
Ed sat bolt upright with a rustling of the chains. His guards gave him another odd look, but he barely noticed.
He had it.
Scar had told him once that the reason he could transmute without an array (as if he didn't know) was because when he bought his hands together, he formed a circle with his body. When Wrath did his own array-less alchemy, he also created a circle, but between an arm and a leg.
Ed looked down at his booted feet.
Slowly, he shifted further back against the wall, and closed his eyes. Let's see... a wall to separate him—and the exit—from his guards, yes, and simultaneously, a spike of stone to snap the chain and free him. It wouldn't have been enough to trouble him with his hands, so why should his feet be any different?
Carefully, imagining the array he would have used if he could the entire time, he brought them together.
For a long moment, there was silence, nothing, not even the spark of an alchemical reaction. Ed had opened his eyes and frowned, trying to work out what had gone wrong, when the sniggering started.
He looked up to see the two guards, one bent double with silent laughter, the other forced to lean against the wall for support. Offended, he drew himself up as best he could, given the limited circumstances. "What," he insisted, coldly, "is so funny?"
The red-head opened his mouth to answer, but gave up in the face of yet another series of spasms, and had to look away. Ed ground his teeth against each other, as Peter, the guard leaning against the wall, slid slowly downward, still giggling helplessly.
Ed smashed his boots against each other, suppressed a wince—the automail one was going to leave bruises—and slammed them down on the floor, and didn't stop glaring as the two—caught off guard—whirled to face the rapidly rising wall. Ed kept at the transmutation, thickening the wall as it grew so that the gunshots they fired wouldn't get through, and left an inch at the top for air to reach them with. Next step was to send another surge of energy through the stone, and a sharp spike of rock punched out of the wall behind him, easily slicing the chain in half. He pushed himself up, half running, half stumbling over to the table, gritting his teeth against his cramping legs, and grabbed his arm. He didn't stop, and instead rolled over it, tipping it behind him with a solid crash to serve as a rudimentary shield. If the sound of the transmutation hadn't attracted the attention of any more members of this terrorist cell in the vicinity, nor the shouts of the imprisoned guards, then the scream he wasn't quite able to hold back when he reconnected his arm probably had.
He flexed his metal hand, but before he had a chance to do any more than that, the sound of booted feet outside made him curse. "Al," he whispered, pressing his hands together and forcing himself to ignore the curling tendrils of pain in his shoulder, "I'm on my way."