Ed sighed, wrapping his coat around him, and pressed himself a little further into the shadows of the small alleyway.
He was no closer to finding out the identity of 'Sir' than he had been when he started. He had varying descriptions—that the man was big, broad-shouldered, and nobody had ever seen his face though his hands were the colour of a southerner who hadn't seen enough sun; lily-white, but also weathered.
He huffed, stamping his boots, and chafed his flesh arm with his clothed automail. It was approaching midnight by now, and he wondered how Al was getting on. He'd practically had a heart attack when one of his victims had told him the hospital had been bombed, but had been reassured to discover that it had been before he even left the restaurant; if Winry died he'd have to kill her, because he would never trust his automail to anyone else.
Outside the alleyway he heard footsteps, too many to be one person, too slow to be refugees, and too disorganised to be military. He poked his head around the corner, carefully, and watched the two men go by. Both were in their mid thirties, he estimated, and both had guns over their shoulders. Hmm. First weapon seemed to be an average rifle, dropped from military use back when he was thirteen for a newer model, but he couldn't recognise the second.
He ducked back into the alcove as they passed the mouth of the alley, his breathing cool and steady. He'd tailed several people over time, and knew he was good at it; knew there was more to shadowing someone than diving behind obstacles whenever they turned around.
He'd been trailing this particular pair mostly via rooftops for at least half an hour, after he'd first caught sight of them along the main street. They'd been sharing a ragged dog-end, hanging around under the eaves of a building while the city exploded around them, conversing lightly about Sir's plans for the North, and Edward had been leaning on the guttering above them, not looking over but instead listening carefully. When they didn't give away Sir's location, he'd decided to stalk them back to their hideout, a risky and foolish plan to carry out by himself, admittedly, but the best he could think of. And Alphonse would throw a fit if he knew, but Edward didn't exactly plan to tell him.
He frowned as his quarry slipped around a corner, slipping through the darkness to hesitate just at the junction, listening intently for their footfalls. He peeked, quickly, saw their backs vanishing down this new road, and quietly scaled the wall to follow them from the roofs of the surrounding buildings.
They passed three more junctions, getting further and further into the city slums. These hadn't been touched by bomb or fire yet, just the grinding poverty to which Edward had become accustomed, and he ghosted his way past silent citizens bedecked in rags, who spared him no more interest than they would a neighbour's child. Ed rounded the fourth corner, still alert and wary, and wondered if they were close. He suspected Sir would be underground, his 'safe' exit from his hideout in this un-ruined segment of the city, but had learned long ago never to trust suspicions.
There was no sign of the two men he'd been following all evening. His hackles raised, Ed spun in time to see one of them—the one with the rifle and the bearskin hat, he noticed distantly, and wondered where the man's comrade was—casually tear the pin out of a grenade with his teeth, then with a practised flick of his wrist, toss it at him.
He froze for a split-second, mind racing and eyes fixed on the small projectile. Al would butcher him if he did alchemy to save himself, but then Al wouldn't be too happy if he were killed here, or if he turned up missing more limbs. It was the thought of what his brother might feel upon learning of Edward's death that made his hands jerk together, made the alchemical charge skitter through his veins, bought his palms down to the ground and created the wall between him and the grenade.
It bounced, spinning to a halt a couple of yards away, where it exploded. Ed cursed, trying to stand and managing it after three attempts. Damnit, alchemy never used to take it out of him like this, but then again he hadn't used it for anything more than repairing broken crockery for two years. He pressed his back against his barrier to steady himself while the world reeled around him, waiting for his legs to stop trembling, the nausea in his belly to go away and his sense of balance to return, keenly aware he was in enemy territory here. He gritted his teeth, trying to will away this reaction, and closed his eyes tightly.
It took him a few minutes to realize it wasn't fading, that instead his vision was blurring and his legs weren't responding. It seemed like forever until he could get the automail working to sweep a hand over his right thigh, pulling the dart from his leg, and sluggishly turn his head to see the missing comrade approaching, the unfamiliar gun in hand.
The first joined him, scowling. "Damnit, Peter, how much did you give him?"
"An entire dart, Joseph," the second replied, and Ed blinked and tried to concentrate on him even as he slid down the wall to the floor. "He's a stubborn one."
"Damn right. Well, well, an alchemist. State alchemist too, I reckon. Nobody else would be following us like that. Sir will be pleased, won't he?" Rifle-man asked, crouching over him. Ed raised his chin and swung, slowly, liquid muscles refusing to respond quickly to mental instructions. The rifle-man—Joseph?—snorted, catching his wrist mid-arc, and pried the dart out of his grip. "Stubborn little bastard. Get him again, Peter."
He saw the trigger going off, felt himself being picked up—"Awww, man, he weighs a fucking tonne—" and though he struggled against the blackness, it took him in the end.
Al waited for the men to approach, cautiously, none wanting to be first. He stood, brushing dust off his jeans and stepping carefully between Riza, Roy and the newcomers, and offered a charming smile. "Hello, there," he said. "Could you help us out? There's been a bit of an accident—"
"We're looking for someone," interrupted the leader, encouraged by the complacency in Al's tone. "A man in the Amestris military regalia. Wearing these distinctive white gloves, got a circle on the back of some sort or other. He has black hair, might've been with a blonde woman. Seen him?"
"Is this him?" Al asked, gesturing to the corpse of the driver. The leader started, inching a little closer, and Al picked up the charcoal stick and began absently doodling. He was a little rusty with arrays and alchemy in general, but it was like riding a bicycle; once learned, never forgotten.
The leader crouched over the corpse, making no move to remove the makeshift shroud, and most of his men flocked around him to peer over his shoulder. Al winced at the hopeless enthusiasm of the youths, carefully etching the last line of the triangle that went inside the array, between the first circle and the second. Only one man remained behind, gripping his gun with a sort of easy confidence, and he was the one inching slowly away. Anticipating an ambush, Al thought. "What's your name?"
He blinked, realizing the question had been directed at him, and tilted a knowing smile at the leader. The man had hesitated, fingers on the edge of the coat, about to draw it back; behind him he heard faint movement from either Roy or Riza. "Alexander," he said mildly, dropping onto his knees as though he were exhausted, hands resting in his lap. "My name is Alexander Edwards. I work at the university. Why? Is it important?" The first gasp of realization when they removed the coat from the corpse, and they'd find the ground doing some very strange things indeed under their feet, Alphonse thought when he received no immediate reply. The cautious man remained cautious, shifting his weight and backing off another step, and the leader drew the coat back with a sharp yank.
Alphonse thought he would never forget the events that followed that action. He dimly saw the slow comprehension on the leader's face, saw him turn, reaching for his gun. He didn't remember placing his hands on the array, but he must've done, for the light that crackled was blue and bright. The wary man hanging around at the back turned and fled, and he wondered why until he heard the almost gentle 'snap', the sudden absence of sound as the fire spawning from Mustang's gloves consumed the oxygen in the air to spread, to rush over the patrol. It wasn't close enough to his face to be anything more than pleasantly warm, but he thought that that might be the worst thing. The soundlessness didn't extend to the screams of the burning men, and he turned, horrified, to see the cold predatory expression on Mustang's face and Riza's detached, almost sad eyes.
And then there was nothing but the stench of melted flesh and blackened skeletons strewn across a road surface which bubbled slightly. Al didn't think he could be blamed for leaping back with his hands over his mouth, eyes wide and disgusted. "They were just doing their job," he whispered, turning back to Mustang. "You didn't have to... they were..."
Mustang rose, awkwardly, to his feet, flinging an arm around Riza's shoulder for support. "I did," he said, gritting his teeth against the pain in his ankle. The boy—Alexander—turned back to the bodies, face troubled. "If you're going to be sick, be sick."
"I'm not," Al said, quietly. "I've seen worse." Before Mustang could ask what he meant, he'd turned back to the bodies. "We should probably do something for them," he said, pressing his hands down on the array he'd drawn earlier, though not for this purpose. Roy watched quietly as the ground gaped open to swallow the burned skeletons. Alphonse tilted his head back when he was done, frowning up at Mustang. "So that's what being a soldier really means," he muttered, rising back to his feet.
"I didn't call for you to make judgements about my profession," Mustang said somewhat wearily. "Thank you for your help, Alexander, but I need to get back to base."
"In that condition?" Al asked, not bothering to hide the condescending tone. "Maybe where you come from, it's considered a good idea for a man with only one working ankle and a woman with a broken arm to limp all the way across town, facing natural hazards and a whole score of people hunting for them, but here? That's what we call 'stupid'."
"What are you trying to say?" Riza demanded, narrowing her eyes.
Alphonse slipped his hands in his pocket and sighed. "Let me escort you. Won't improve your chances much, but it'll help my conscience."
"I don't need—"
"Don't lie; you know it's an idiotic idea. Look, I'll just take you to the base or the university—"
"If they're still standing," Mustang said with the dark humour readily available to the young or the doomed. "Look, just help me find the nearest telephone and I'll contact my men—"
Alphonse raised an eyebrow and began to laugh, shaking his head with amusement. "There are perhaps thirty phones in this entire city, you know," he said conversationally, eyes glinting with good-natured wickedness. "They're expensive, and most people don't really need one in their day-to-day lives. Here. I'll take you back home. There's a phone there, which is the nearest you're going to find for a mile, and I don't think you can hobble a mile."
Roy frowned deeply, but Riza interrupted whatever he was about to say with a fierce, "Why should we trust you?"
"You shouldn't," Al replied, wrinkling his nose as he glanced down at the smooth patch in the street where the cobblestones had been swallowed along with the bodies. "But I think you can fend for yourselves against one person, and to be honest, I'm not interested in living in a society where people like some of that group rules, you know?" He paused a beat, then turned a somewhat sweet smile on them. "You don't need to worry, but you probably will. Come on. I saved you from suffocating in that car, if I wanted you dead I could've done it while you were both still out of it. And you'll only be staying until one of your allies picks you up," he added with an innocent shrug and a sweet smile. Riza frowned, but Roy nodded.
"Fine. But I warn you—"
"You don't need to do that. I'm well aware of what those gloves can do, remember?" Al slid his hands in his pockets and set off, pausing only to look over his shoulder. "Coming?"
They were, of course.
The phone rang three times before Sir picked it up, and Nicholas scowled up at the sky while he waited. Finally it got through, and the voice of his leader came through the receiver. "Yes?"
"It's me, Sir. Nicholas. Patrol B was wiped out."
"What? By whom?"
He hesitated before answering, but eventually found his courage. "By the Flame Alchemist, Sir."
"When?" Sir sounded terse and annoyed, and Nicholas bit his lip and winced.
"About five minutes ago. He's with his aide, and a man I don't recognise."
"Describe him, then."
"About twenty years old, sir. He said his name was Alexander Edwards. And that he worked at the university. Dark blond hair, an alchemist. I didn't see any more than that before I left."
"Really?" Sir sounded amused, and Nicholas drummed his fingers on the telephone in anticipation. "Very well. Thank you for the information, Nicholas. Now go to the university and find information on this man."
"I already did, Sir."
Nicholas flinched. "His file was taken, Sir. By one of the Fuhrer's direct subordinates, by the name of Major Jean Havoc. Nobody knows where he is right now."
There was a thunderous silence on the other end of the line, and Nicholas hastily added, "The receptionist gave me his home phone number instead, Sir."
"No, Sir, Alexander's. 07456, she said."
Sir sighed. "I suppose that's the best we can do. Let us hope he chooses to go home. I want you, Nicholas, to find me the house with that number. Contact me when you do," and with those words he hung up. Nicholas blinked at the receiver, then breathed a sigh of relief and placed it back on the hook. He glanced lengthways up the street, and fumbled with the little carton of cigarettes, lighting one despite the wind and snow. Folding his hands back in his pocket, he grinned. This should be easy.
Ed awoke in a patch of artificial light, sitting cross-legged on a hard concrete floor. He blinked the last remnants of his drugged sleep out of his eyes, and then began to take in the surroundings as well as his own condition. Whoever it was who had bound him had done so thoroughly and skilfully, and must have known something about his alchemy, because his right arm had been neatly detached and was lying on a small table about five feet to his left, piled high with cards, cigarette butts, beer bottle tops and papers. The air had a greasy, somewhat smoky feel to it, and Ed couldn't help but think that as rebel hideouts went, this one was the worst.
At least they hadn't taken away his leg, though a brief check discovered a slim steel shackle around his remaining wrist and ankles, securing him to the wall. He frowned at the steel and looked up, gritting his teeth. It was pitch-black beyond the pool of light he sat in, though he could see the faint glow of cigarettes and hear the low murmur of multiple whispered conversations; he rattled the chains loudly to get some attention, mentally cursing himself for allowing himself to get into this situation. The conversations died, and someone stepped forward, stopping just short of the light. Ed scowled, noticing the silhouette; a big man, broad-shouldered.
"You must be the leader," he said. "I don't know why you've caught me and disarmed me, but—"
"My subordinates thought you were an undercover State Alchemist," Sir said, and his voice was low and even and... vaguely familiar, somehow. "They saw you doing alchemy. They are... not used to alchemy, and it doesn't take much to impress them. Tell me; what is your name?"
"Ivan," Ed muttered, flexing his fingers. The set-up wasn't too different from the Barry the Chopper case; if only he had something to draw on the shackle with... "Ivan Edwards."
"Edwards?" The voice sounded surprised, and then amused. "I see, I see. You have a brother, I understand? Name of Alexander?"
Ed's head jerked up, his eyes wide and furious. He lunged forward, his wrist protesting at the abrupt movement. "What have you done with him, you bastard? Al—Alex has no part in your little terror campaign, you understand? Let him go, he's innocent, you—"
"On the contrary," Sir said, and Ed could hear a smirk in his tone. "I am given to understand he has captured the Fuhrer himself. Quite an accomplishment for a mere artist and librarian, no?"
Ed bit his lip, then scowled again. "What do you think you know, you prick? You're probably—"
"Fullmetal," Sir said mildly. "The first time I saw you, you were eleven. Your brother was still wearing the suit of armour then, though I hear he's grown out of it."
Ed froze, and suddenly that voice came back to him. "Oh, fuck," he groaned. "Not you." 'Stand up straighter, boy. So. You're the new State Alchemist assigned to Colonel Mustang? Humph. I suppose I owe you my thanks. I hear you passed the test with honours. What's it coming to, Mustang, when an eleven year old boy can take such an exam and score higher than three dozen other candidates?'
"Thank you for your kind words of remembrance, Edward. You too seem rather healthy, for a dead man."
"Heeeeh? What happened, you old bastard, did Mustang kick you out of his new government?" Ed asked casually, keeping his tone light and filled with contempt.
"It was an armed coup, boy," Sir spat, moving into the light. Ed winced, seeing his entire face was covered in bandages. "This is what that treacherous scum Mustang left me. He thought I would die, but I didn't. I wouldn't die that easily. No, I recovered, and I will mutilate him in return, before I kill him. Do you understand?" As he spoke he was reaching up and unwinding the bandages, and Ed pulled a face of revulsion as they came fully off.
"You're welcome to your crackpot vengeance schemes, Halcrow, but you're not going to make me lose my lunch," he warned, and saw the man's eyes—what was left of them, anyway—narrow.
"Do you think you are immune, Fullmetal? That what I do and what Mustang does won't affect you? Your brother has Mustang. I have you. What is it alchemists say? Equivalent Trade? Let us hope your brother is not guided by his emotions, otherwise there could be quite the civil war. I will rule this area of the country, of course, under the control of Drachma."
Ed scowled, rattling the manacles. "You stupid bastard, Al wouldn't fall for that. He knows what is right and what isn't. He wouldn't let you kill Mustang."
"Really? Really? Do you care so little for each other that you would abandon the other in an instant?" Halcrow sighed, wrapping the bandages around his face again. "We shall see what Alphonse says, shall we not?"
"You bastard," Ed muttered as Halcrow stepped backwards, out of the light. There was the distant sound of a door opening, and multiple people trudging out, and Edward estimated he'd been left on his own.
It had been difficult to get Mustang back without being seen, but Alphonse had managed. As he and Riza between them helped the man through the door, Al couldn't help but wince at the watercolour Ed had left hanging there. So much for subtlety. He was somewhat consoled both by the fact that it really was very bad—he'd been learning the muscle control used in holding a paint brush at the time—and that Mustang didn't catch more than a glimpse of it before Al moved him through into the main area, helping him onto the couch. He pointed Riza to the telephone and went into the kitchen, filling the kettle and leaving it on the stove, and returned to watch his guests. Riza had finally got a hold of someone and was speaking with brusque efficiency, giving her current address and listing the status of both the Fuhrer and herself. She procured a promise to be there by dawn, and went to sit opposite Mustang, drawing her firearm out and leaving it pointedly on the table in front of her. Al nodded, and wandered back into the kitchen, preparing two mugs of coffee and a tea.
The phone rang while he put the mugs on the coffee table. and he picked it up. Irate, Al leapt to his feet to answer it, and Riza followed suit to explore the house. Al watched her warily as he raised the phone to his ear, but what he heard through it was far more terrifying for him than Riza or Roy examining the watercolour at the entrance.
"Alphonse Elric? We're just calling to tell you that we have your brother hostage."