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Better Living Through Alchemy

chapter 4.

Two months after the holidays and Alphonse felt like he'd
never really gotten off the train in East City. He had been less than three
days back before being dispatched again and then another two days after getting
back that time. It had made phone conversation scarce but letter writing while
train riding flourish. Here he was again, on another train heading for another
mission—at least the Colonel had looked a bit sympathetic this time when she
had Pharr handed over the orders.

"I know you must be getting tired of the constant traveling,"
she said, "I promise to let you have a break soon."

Alphonse gave her a half smile and then patted his hip.

"It's not me you should be apologizing to, but my poor
numb backside, the true hero of these journeys," he'd grinned and she'd given
that lovely slight smile and Pharr had snorted a half laugh and proffered the
file.

"Come back in one piece, Lieutenant Colonel," Pharr said,
just like he always did.


The train shuddered and slowed and came to a halt by a
water tower just shy of the depot house in Hayden, two stops north on the outbound
tracks from East City. Alphonse looked out the window idly, having seen the
sight many times before: Hayden was tiny with an equally tiny depot house and
trees and dirt just like everywhere else. Movement on the platform caught his
attention; a young boy, shorts-clad and barefoot, came bounding down the steps,
hopped the tracks and ran for the engine; he fell out of sight then, so Alphonse
let his gaze wander back to his book and tapped his thumb against it.

He wasn't sure what had happened on the night of the party,
but something had, because she was treating him different—subtly, nothing
overt or anything the untrained eye could tell, but he could, in ways. It wasn't
as if it were a bad thing, but she seem to be extra cautious about things, about
controlling herself when she spoke words of praise to him; casual conversation
was also politely restricted and it seemed she was building an extra invisible
barrier behind the one she already defended like a lioness, and he just couldn't
figure it out. Plus it seemed to only apply to him, and it just made him more
confused. He had questioned Edward at length about the incident, (when he
could get near a phone)
, and his brother seemed to sincerely want to help...but
his own recollections were muzzy and half formed and not even the Pirate provided
any clues. He was a bit fearful he'd done something brash and unforgivable,
but it wasn't that... No, he would have known, and he just sighed and chalked
it up to another one of those things that fell under the heading 'female', because
as autonomous as she might like to be, there was no escaping for her in some
areas, and being a mystery to men was one of them.

The door at the end of the passenger car suddenly slid
open and the conductor came rushing in, followed by the boy Alphonse had seen
earlier, and he peered down the length of the car, and the conductor said: "Is
there a Lieutenant Colonel Alphonse Elric in this car?" And Alphonse blinked
then laid his book aside and stood.

"That would me sir," he said, wondering why the conductor
would be looking for him, let alone know his name.

The conductor looked at him askance for a moment and Alphonse
knew the look all too well—his rank was sometimes more a curse than a blessing,
because no ever quite believed he was a Lieutenant Colonel, so he quickly
fished his silver watch out of his trouser pocket and held it aloft, lifting
his eyebrow. The conductor's own eyes widened and he hurried down the isle holding
an envelope before him like a shield that could magically clear the way, when
he got to Alphonse's seat he thrust the letter at the boy and half lifted him
arm like he might salute but caught himself doing it.

"There's an urgent telegram for you," the conductor said,
"Elwood ran all the way in from town to deliver it," he gave a brief nod to
the dirty boy behind him.

"Thank you very much," Alphonse said to the boy, taking
the envelope and fishing in his pocket for some cens—surely he had some on
him—and then he flipped the letter over and saw the return as East City Military
HQ...and yanked his hand back out of his pocket to open it immediately, earning
a grunt from his delivery boy. Well he could wait just a minute.

The telegram was short and too the point, just like the
Colonel herself when business was serious.

Lt. Colonel Elric,

Urgent recall, you are to report back to East City
HQ via quickest route possible.

Stop.

Report immediately to Colonel Hawkeye's office on return.

Stop.

Lt. C. Pharr

Alphonse immediately shoved the letter in his shirt pocket,
grabbed up his book and jacket and reached up to pull his suitcase from the
overhead rack.

"I need to get back to East City immediately," he told
the conductor, "when is the next train southbound due in?"

The conductor puffed his cheeks and said: "That would
be our return run tomorrow, sometime in the late afternoon."

Alphonse grimaced; not good enough! He began moving toward
the conductor, causing the older man and the boy to retreat back up the isle
before him.

"Where can I hire a car, then?" he asked. "This is very
urgent military business."

"There isn't any place to get a car in Hayden," the conductor
said as he hurried before Alphonse, then pushed the boy through the side door
and down the steps to the gravel and tracks outside, "but I know what you can
do. Elwood, take the Lieutenant Colonel to see your dad, tell him to rent him
a horse and he can ride back to Grayson; he can hire old man Pate to drive him
into East City from there."

The boy contemplated this, after all he had gotten nothing
for his mad head-long dash to deliver the telegram in the first place, he narrowed
his eyes at Alphonse, trying to figure out if he actually had any cens or not.

"I'll make it worth your while," Alphonse promptly promised,
and then looked back to the conductor. "This Mr. Pate has a car?"

"He's got a farm truck—he delivers to the outskirts
of East City about once a week, but for enough cens he'll drive you just about
anywhere."

"Good enough," Alphonse had jammed his hands back in his
trouser pocket and produced a couple of loose paper cens, which he immediately
offered to the boy. The boy lit up, leapt forward, and snatched them and then
yelled: "Come on!" and took off like a barefooted bolt of lighting back down
the road; Alphonse snatched up his suitcase and gave chase as fast as he could,
he kept telling himself seventeen was not too old to be doing this.


The students finished up the chapter thirty minutes early.
Edward knew they would degenerate into a mob of gossip whispering, paper-wad
throwing, bad-for-his-teaching-image slackers if he let them. So he decided
to hold open house on transmutation questions, (to distract them and to keep
their voices down)
, because if he gave them five minutes
of time without something to occupy them they would get too loud. If Dr. Thaxton
came to complain he could hear them over his band practicing again, Ed might
have to shove the man's trombone in a place that would make it awkward for the
man to stand, let alone sit down.

"OK," he said loudly, and what chatter had started stopped
abruptly and twenty-three pairs of eyes turned toward him. He shrugged off his
jacket and laid it on his desk and leaned back on it, folding his arms. This
was open invitation to riddle Professor Elric with questions and they all knew
it.

Immediately about half of the forty-six hands in the room
shot into the air and Edward lifted a finger and waved it about slowly, deciding
who would get to ask first and be envied by the rest of the class. He should
be ashamed of thinking of himself in popularity terms, he really should, but
he decided to let it be his guilty little secret. Henry Duffy had his hand in
the air and that was a bit of a surprise so the Professor graciously settled
his waving digit in Henry's direction, and said: "What's on your mind...Duffy?"
deferring to the boy by his nickname as all his friends did and was rewarded
with a huge grin for the acknowledgement.

Then Edward waited and Henry screwed up the courage to
speak, both to him and in front of the class.

"Well," the boy finally stuttered, "last night we had
this dessert that my mom made with strawberries," he said, not quite meeting
Ed's eyes.

"We can tell you never miss a dessert already, Duffy,"
someone said across the classroom and the boy visibly reddened; the Professor
whipped his head in that direction, his ponytail lashing, and his eyes glittered
and that quickly put an end to that nonsense.

"Please go on, Duffy," the Professor said, letting a little
bit of fang show.

Henry fidgeted around, but then Daniel poked him with
his foot and he started off again.

"So anyways, I was wondering...because I'm not to fond
of strawberries, that maybe if there was a way," he had his hands fisted up
in front of him on his desk and he was studying them hard, "to make the strawberries
turn into chocolate with alchemy, because...I like chocolate better," he finished
out in a mumble.

Edward disliked ribbing of any kind, (he thought he'd
made it more than evident on the very first day)
, and while not playing
favorites he was feeling a little protective of one of his 'gang of four' as
he'd taken to calling them in his mind. So he made a big display of Henry's
question, and why it was an excellent question, because why hadn't he thought
of that before? All those years of forcing greens down his throat to satisfy
Al, wasted.

"A man after my own heart," he proclaimed loudly, "I would
prefer chocolate too, and it's a very interesting question besides," and Edward
got to thinking, he had never transmuted tastes before, and was it in
any sense possible? The more he though about it, the more his mind began to
knead on it, and the more it kneaded on it, the more the theory began to rise,
and he suddenly found himself a the blackboard and his stick of chalk out of
is vest pocket and in his hand. Behind him he heard the expectant murmur, he
didn't see many of them grip the edges of their desks or quickly flip open their
array journals, because suddenly he was focused on the end of a piece of chalk
hovering within a mere centimeter of an surface...one that he must now cover
in equations.


He was off! He was writing so fast it was impossible to
follow, the clicking of chalk was a rapid fire assault on the eardrums, the
spray of chalk dust rained down over his hair and the shoulders of his vest
because he always started writing as high up as he could reach on the chalk
board, (there was always plenty of blank space he couldn't reach at the top,
every now and again he'd have Boyd come to the front of the class and write
notes up in that space)
, and he would theorize aloud and alternately cackle
in mad glee like some insane mad scientist and they were all on the ride and
couldn't get off and they loved it!

"IF you KNOW the construction of a COCOA BEAN," he frothed,
"then it would probably make the process a lot simpler...but since you're trapped
at the dinner table with no hope of making a break for the kitchen you just
have to make DO with the RESOURCES at hand." He flailed for a moment and the
clicking hovered there in the air waiting to strike again, but then he threw
up his hand, waved the chalk around and started off again, "I think the symbol
for air would apply in any case as it would be needed to be called on to fuel
the fire symbol, which would be implemented to heat the reaction..." More frantic
quotation slathering on the board and some unintelligible gibbering over that
followed.

"IF you DON'T burn up the table cloth with this bit,"
he half-shrieked, "then I suggest you go onto the next step of taking the matter
of the strawberries and liquefying them because I'm sure you'd want a chocolate
SAUCE," he continued, "Especially if you're having cake and it's dry," he sneered,
and he kept on writing, now having to bend over further and further to do so.

They all trembled in anticipation, pencils at the ready,
waiting...waiting...and then, pay dirt! He started to draw an array! He made
it look like child's play, the sheer speed at which he could create one, out
of thin air. For the few students who were motivated enough, (and this was
all of them really, the professor wouldn't accept less)
, who'd done some
research on their own, they were astonished that he seemed to be able to pluck
the intricate, energy absorbing alchemic circles from the air. If they had read
with any real interest and delved deep enough they would learn of men who'd
spent their entire lifetimes developing just a single array to perfection, but
the Professor could just offer them up, like a mother stringing beans for dinner,
with no real thought in it at all, and they always worked.

And now he was offering up to them the means to never
have to eat a vegetable in its natural form again! The man was a miracle! A
true innovator of their time, worthy of the title the state had given him, champion
of the down trodden! They were well and truly, twenty-three hero worshiping
minions, that though they had been strangers before, one fateful morning, when
they'd all gathered for class, (but the Professor was late because the Dean
came to get him...again)
, they swore a pact. Their Professor was cooler
than any other teacher in the whole of the Academy, and it was their mission
to let everyone else know what they were missing out on. Sure he was hard, and
scary, and strict, but he was really fair too; and yes, he gave mountains of
homework, and made you feel like a complete simpleton with that mocking laugh
of his if you did or said anything stupid...but most of the time you completely
deserved it, (that didn't apply to the homework, that was just not right,
and he couldn't be talked out of it, when they'd tried he doubled it)
; and
so that's when the Society of the Alchemic Brotherhood was formed, (and Professor
Elric has pointed at them and laughed at the name, but what did he know, he
was an adult and was clinging to the edge of cool with his metal fingers, but
just barely)
, and their motto was to promote Alchemy for the good of mankind.
After all, wasn't the state alchemist motto: "Be thou for the People", and wasn't
their Professor, the famous FullMetal Alchemist, also known as The Alchemist
for the People?

The Professor had kind of sobered up at that and granted
them access to the room on Thursday afternoons and said he would stay late so
they could have meetings. Really, he was just the best.

The Professor jumped back then, put his hands on his hips
and his head whipped back and forth as he double checked his own equations.
He tapped his foot and nodded his head a couple of times, then half turned and
seemed to be startled there was a class sitting behind him. He noticed after
a moment they all had their array journals open and were writing in them, several
sets of eyes in perfect sync, looking up at him, (no, not at him, at the
board)
and then back down to their books. Ed was rather proud how he was
molding them into to note takers, something very important in the practice of
alchemic science. It occurred to him at the very moment they were noting down
the array on the black board. Edward then remembered the last time an array
had clawed its way out of his head in front of them. He suddenly leapt to the
board and swiped his sleeved arm down the array, obscuring it, and then turned
on the cries of denial behind him.

"Oh no, you little fiends!" the Professor hissed. "Not
this time! The last time I did that, one of you, and I will find out WHO, went
home and transmuted their sister's playhouse into a snap trap! I got all kinds
of blessed out for that in the Dean's office! If one of you little hooligans
turns the pot roast for dinner into a pot full of chocolate sauce I'll never
hear the end of it!" The Professor was pointing at them now.

"Seth, I know you probably got it finished! I want you
to tear it out of your book right now!" The Professor commanded, and Seth hung
his head and then there was the tearing of paper and the Professor held out
his gloved metal hand and Seth plodded glumly up front and handed over the sheet.

"I want to see everyone's journal before you leave class!"
The Professor exclaimed and went and sat himself behind his desk. "Starting
right to left, first row, then the second row and so on, come on and form a
line right here!"

A few boys had to have the Professor scribble out late
to class apology notes at the end, because the Professor had scrutinized and
dutifully eradicated every 'chocolate sauce array' he laid his eyes on.


It was just dusk when Alphonse checked into headquarters.
He was mussed and dirty and dusty and smelled vaguely of rotting vegetables,
but no one made comment as he came into the Colonel's office, stopped before
her desk and saluted.

"Lieutenant Colonel Elric reporting as ordered, sir,"
he said to her, his eyes searching her face for some clue as to what the urgent
recall might be about. His relief was untold when he was able to confirm with
his own eyes it wasn't about his brother or his Pirate, he was sure even she
would have been unable to hide that from him.

"You made impressive time," she said, right to business.
"Lieutenant Pharr, bring the Lieutenant Colonel a chair, and yourself as well,"
she began opening folders on her desk. "This matter has become far more than
a passing annoyance."

Alphonse took the chair from Pharr and thanked him, sitting
down, folding his hands on his knees, trying to pick up from either of them
what was going on. Pharr just kept giving him concerned looks and the Colonel
has rendered herself unreadable, (and that aggravated Alphonse to no end),
and waited for the two men to get settled.

"We have had many reports," the Colonel started after
Pharr has seated himself, "about thefts and minor damage all over the countryside
with in a ten mile radius of Glowstock. Lieutenant Colonel, you have even been
on investigative missions to many of these places yourself." He nodded to Alphonse
and he returned the nod. "Unfortunately," she tapped a sheet in front of her
now, "it's become rather serious. Since your own investigations were inconclusive
and filled with local gossip and rumors, and you had yourself given report you
thought it might be something minor," she looked again at Alphonse, "such as
an animal or perhaps chimera of low intelligence, I decided to assign a lower
ranking agent to the case. So I could move you onto other things." She dropped
her eyes to the report on her desk.

Alphonse shifted then, because something did get through
in her expression and he knew that was why she dropped her eyes; his stomach
tightened and he felt a cold knot forming in his throat, risking a sidelong
look at Pharr, but that only confirmed his fears. Something had gone wrong,
terribly wrong.

"We received a report this morning, Second Lieutenant
Lester was found dead in Lower Braden, that's about five miles out of Glowstock
proper," she said quietly, "I'm going to assign you and First Lieutenant Pharr
to the case as well as a couple of agents from the information department. I'll
have more on who we select later. Lieutenant Colonel, you will go home and get
some rest and report back first thing in the morning... The same for you Lieutenant
Pharr."

The both swiftly rose to their feet and saluted. Alphonse
forcing his hand not to tremble as he did so, keeping has back ramrod straight.

"You're dismissed," she said, closing the folder on her
desk.

Alphonse turned and strode for the door, holding himself
in check as he went, he didn't even spare a glance for Pharr.

His blood is on my hands, that man's blood is on my
hands. Because I didn't catch it, because I didn't follow through, it's as if
I strangled him myself.

Alphonse kept up his pace down the hallway; it was late
enough that the main building was mostly deserted but for the guards, and he
didn't lift his head to acknowledge them.

But it never gave any indication of violence, it always
just fled before, my conclusions should have been sound. All that nonsense about
it being metal, a metal-limbed child of all things, making the circuit of the
lower counties, over and over as if in a big circle. It's ridiculous.

He rushed down the steps and argued with his breathing
and his tightening chest.

Then what do you call your own brother? A voice
not quite his own suddenly asked, Your brother has metal limbs and he traveled,
he was well traveled, so were you...

Alphonse rubbed his face, willing this damn inconvenient
voice to silence; why did it always show up to throw redundant counsel at him
when he was stressed, and what did it mean? It was the before, wasn't
it? The damnable before he would never shake no matter how hard he tried,
no matter how hard Ed apparently wanted him too. He could see it in every gesture
his brother made when even the slightest mention of the before surfaced.
Had it truly been that horrible?

But that had no precedent here—what mattered now was
finding out what happened before anyone else paid the price of Alphonse's foolishness.
Before anymore blood spilled onto white gloves embroidered with arrays in the
palms. A man was dead because Alphonse had filed a misleading report. Oh, it
might be said he did his job with the information available, but that was not
so, because his information would never leave a man dead, his family grieving.

He burst into the cool night air, took several deep breaths
and headed for the entrance gate. He would walk home and think just about his
failure every step of the way.

Because what hurt more? This man's death or the disappointment
he saw as she dropped her eyes to her desktop. How fucking petty are you, Alphonse
Elric, to even compare the two?


"He hasn't been home in two fucking months and now he
has another assignment," Ed flung out as he came into the bedroom after his
usual evening check-in call with Alphonse, "I haven't seen him since the holidays
and he's been so busy he hardly calls or writes." He sat down on the
side of the bed, toeing off his house slippers and pulling his house sweater
up over his head, fingers going to work at the tie of his arm 'sock' at his
automail shoulder. "What is Riza doing with him? He's not her only field agent.
He wouldn't tell me a damn thing about the new mission either, he said it was
'military business', like he can't discuss that with me! I make my bed with
the military every damn day!" Edward looked at Roy pointedly, "Sleep with it,
too! What is so secretive he can't discuss it? Do you know?" Edward narrowed
his eyes at his lover, who was sitting up against the headboard, book resting
in his lap.

"I know nothing," Roy said. "That's between him and Colonel
Hawkeye, where it should be," Roy closed his book, knowing it would be a hopeless
cause now, when Ed came to bed on the verge of rant, just getting to sleep would
be a miracle. "Just because you are a professor at the military academy doesn't
make you an insider to the military's business. You're a civilian, Edward, you
need to get used to it; there will sometimes be things I'm not at liberty to
discuss as well," Roy said then frowned at the glare Edward leveled on him.
"And you well know it! So don't look at me like that. You're being unfair.
It's for your own safety mostly; I find I prefer you as a teacher than as a
field agent. It's easier to keep tabs on you and I'm not likely to find you
in the hospital on any given day."

Edward got up and yanked open his dresser drawer, snatched
out his flannel pajamas and jerked them on, then put a sock on his automail
foot—he did this for Roy, so cold toes didn't wake him in the middle of the
night. Roy sighed behind him, and when he turned around to look at him, Roy
pulled the bed covers down on Edward's side of the bed.

"You haven't got much longer until his decommission,"
Roy said. "That's probably the reason Riza is getting as much as she can out
of him right now. He'll be eighteen in a few months, his contract will come
due around that time, and his time in the military will be over. Then the two
of you can duke it out at will and I'll be the happy middleman. He takes pride
in his work, Edward, and so should you."

"What a thing to say," Ed said, crawling up into the bed
and letting Roy throw the coverlet and blanket up over him. "Of course I'm proud
of his work; who in their right mind wouldn't be? I just think he is my brother
after all, and I have a right to be selfish about him every now and again."
Edward flopped down and wiggled around getting comfortable in his pillows, he
had three and Roy only had one, but he growled like a wounded wolverine whenever
Roy rolled over onto one.

Roy sat the book on his bedside table, reached over and
switched off the lamp and settled down himself, Edward shifted then, to fit
against his side and Roy rolled toward him, hooking an arm over him, nosing
his ear.

"You know for an elder brother who doesn't have the stature
of one," and then Roy grinned and had to wrestled with Ed for a moment, "you
sure do throw a big shadow," he continued after he had him mostly pinned. "And
you think you're his mother," Roy snickered.

"Point?" Ed gritted out, panting and squirming from where
Roy was half lying on top of him.

"Let him spread his wings, Ed," Roy said. "It's not going
to hurt him, and there isn't any reason you can't be a mother hen from a distance,"
there was more squirming and grunting. "You'll find if you back off a little
he'll come back to the nest more often."

"Your analogies leave a lot to be desired," his lover
hissed. "Now get off of me; I have to sleep. I have to get up early in the morning
and so do you."

Roy sighed and eased off to his side of the bed again,
fingered a pillow until Edward snatched it away and re-tucked it to his advantage.

"I think I liked it better when you were shiftless and
lay around on the couch all day; you had no trouble having sex every night then,"
Roy sighed.

"It's your own fault for wanting me to be responsible,"
Ed snorted, "now sleep in the bed you made and let me do the same."

Roy could hardly argue with that.


He reported before the first pot of coffee had finished
brewing. He stood at attention in front of her desk as she handed over case
files and orders; he was the senior officer on this mission—Pharr and the
two agents from information, Morton and Haartje, were under him. He listened
with rapt attention as she described his objectives: seek and locate, capture
if possible, orders to kill if necessary. The body had come in sometime during
the night, he was to report to the mortuary and meet with Lieutenant Pharr there,
he would attend the autopsy to see if there were any clue as to what they were
dealing with, he was to leave from the autopsy to the train station to meet
with the rest of his team, and they were to take an early afternoon train.

He saluted, case files securely under his arm, shoulder
bag and suitcase by his feet.

"Most importantly," the Colonel finished, "be careful
and report back as soon as possible," she said.

"I won't let you down, sir," he said, because he'd already
let her down enough.


He had stood in grim silence, shrugging off Pharr's hand
on his shoulder. He had wrought this; he would face it. He did his best to keep
his eyes forward, listen to everything the coroner had to say, to suppress the
shaking in his fingers and the constant swallowing that made his throat move.
Finally the doctor pulled the sheet up over the man's head and nodded to the
two observers; it was over. Alphonse extracted the promise of a full written
report sent to their location, turned on his heel and told Pharr to follow him.
They met up with the two other agents assigned to the mission at the train station,
and they boarded the train together and sat together near the back of the first
passenger car. As the train shuddered and made its way out of the station Alphonse
began to speak of the autopsy, his conclusions and his theories on what might
have happened. Nothing concrete yet as he would have to visit the crime scene
and catalogue it in detail, and he steadfastly refused to meet Pharr's concerned
gaze even once.


Disembarking from the train in Lower Braden, they group
was met by a representative of the local authorities. A telegram from the Colonel
had told him to expect them at a certain time, and the man had a car with which
he drove them out to the farmhouse where the incident had occurred. In the trunk,
he had thought to bring all of Second Lieutenant Lester's personal effects and
he brought them out, all carefully boxed and labeled, to hand over to the team.
The family who lived in the farmhouse had agreed to give the investigators board
while they conducted the investigation. It was only to their advantage after
all, because if the killer was still about and it was no telling who could be
next.

They bunked up two to a room, and Alphonse naturally shared
with Pharr, but invited the other two in for a close examination of Second Lieutenant
Lester's things. The man's suitcase was typical, clothing, shaving equipment,
notebooks, (which Alphonse immediately took out, handing one to Haartje and
the other to Morton and told the men to read through them thoroughly)
, and
other odds and ends. Lester had not been on the assignment very long. Alphonse
found a copy of his own report from a few months prior at the very bottom of
the suitcase, it was well creased and marked up in passages that Lester seemed
to think important.

The second thing among Lester's things was a small camera
box. When Alphonse pried it open he discovered the camera was smashed and pieces
of it fell to the floor at his feet. He also noticed, with some disheartening,
the roll of film that must have been in the camera at the time was also crammed
into the box, but lengths of it lay exposed outside of its case, and it was,
in all likelihood, ruined. He and Pharr dug through the clothing, going to through
the pockets of each article, (this made Alphonse uncomfortable because it
seemed extremely personal)
, and laying anything they found out on one of
the beds for examination.

There was a matchbook advertisement from an Inn in a town
called Payton; its location would need to be checked. There was some hand written
receipts obviously being kept for reimbursement purposes. Coins and mints, small
scraps of paper wadded up, and a folded note that had an interesting pencil
sketch on it. The artist's attempt was questionable at best, the figure crude
and smudged, but it seemed to have large teeth, and an attempt to draw automail.
The right arm and the left leg; identical to his brother's own prosthetics.
It nagged at him, made him tingle and rub his temple. At the bottom in what
Alphonse recognized as Lester's handwriting from his notebooks were three sentences.

Purple eyes.

Black hair.

Red line markings.

Something crowded the corner of his mind. Something with
purple eyes and black hair and a cruel mocking laugh and a beauty that was frightening.
But she had no metal limbs, and the man with her had no metal limbs. But then
he thought he saw, on the beefy shoulders of her round companion, red circles
and red lines, running over his shoulders and down his arms.

"What is it, Lieutenant Colonel?" Pharr's thought drew
his head up and he looked at him a moment and then held out the paper.

"Look at this Pharr... Does the sentences at the bottom
mean anything to you?" Alphonse asked.

Pharr took the paper, studied it for a few moments, shook
his head no and passed it on to the other two men in the room. They both shook
their heads over it as well and Alphonse retrieved it, folded it and put it
in his pocket.

"What's our plan?" Pharr asked him.

It was a good question, and Alphonse already had a good
answer.

"First thing tomorrow, Lieutenant Pharr and I will go
over the barn out back with a fine tooth comb," Alphonse began, "Sergeant Major
Haartje, you and Sergeant Morton will start a door to door sweep of the area—
I know it's sparsely populated, but let's do a perimeter of at least three to
five miles, I have a map in my shoulder case. You'll interview locals who are
willing to cooperate."

Everyone one nodded in agreement then all looked up simultaneously
at a light rap on the open door.

"I don't mean to bother you gentlemen," the lady of the
house said, printed dress and apron in place, hair wound on top of her head,
"but I made some dinner if you care to have any."

They all rose from their sitting positions around the
room and followed her through her family's farm house, and Alphonse felt those
twinges again, scratching dully above his ears and above his brows, that such
a setting should be reminding him of something he'd never known.


"Where did you get this?" Eric said in hushed guilty tones,
glancing around again, not feeling their hiding place was secure enough.

"Quit being such a worry wart," Daniel informed him,
on his knees, stick scratching in the dirt, eyes straying back and forth to
a penciled drawing next to him.

"What's it suppose to do?" Duffy asked, squatted next
to Daniel and watching his crude attempt to copy the array from paper to earth
with only a stick to guide him.

"I was told it could make an object into a snap and pop,
you know like those things you throw at the ground?" Daniel grinned. "I got
a good joke," he snickered.

"Oh yeah, who you gonna do it to?" Duffy said, edging
closer, "Professor Wright?" Professor Wright was the ever-dreaded math teacher,
master of the surprise quiz.

"No, but that's a good one," Daniel said, "maybe next
time."

"We're going to get into trouble," Eric said above them,
arms folded, "and it won't be long until the bell rings and we have to go back
in."

"Hold your horses Mr. Uptight," Daniel snorted. "I'm almost
done."

"So who you gonna get?" Duffy pressed again, "and what
are you gonna transmute anyways?"

Daniel put the last finishing touches on the array and
then grinned feral like and pulled an eraser out of his pocket.

"You both know how Professor Taylor likes to make
all those stupid huge hand gestures and anything he's got in his hand usually
goes flying." He placed the eraser into the circle.

"What are you guys doing?" a voice said behind them, making
them all age a year prematurely and jerk and turn around with excuses clawing
their way to their lips. But it was only Seth, the snitch, whom they hadn't
invited in the first place, (because he was such a snitch). This would
call for some major leaning and bully-type huffing and threatening growls. Duffy
got up, went over and threw his arm over Seth's shoulder and more or less dragged
him over to the circle, that way if anyone saw them he was an accomplice. Seth
sputtered and tried to resist, but he was much slighter than the other boys
and he looked nervously at the scratched dirt before them.

"What are you doing? I don't recognize that array, is
that something Professor Elric gave you? You know we aren't supposed to do unauthorized
alchemy! Especially without a teacher present," Seth whined.

"Which is precisely why you're going to stand here with
us while we do it," Daniel said, "that way you can't run and tattle, because
we'll just say you're in on it too."

"That's so mean!" Seth wailed, "I don't to get in trouble,
I was just looking for you... I mean walking by and the bells gonna ring soon
anyways."

"I keep telling them time is of the essence, but as usual
they don't want to listen," Eric butted in.

"Now all of you shut up and watch," Daniel studied the
array, squared his jaw and laid his hands on the outer circle, "when this thing
goes off at Professor Taylor's feet he's gonna wet his pants...it will be great,"
Then Daniel gave the little instinctive push that he felt through his stomach
and chest, and the circle began to crackle and glow green.


"PROFESSOR ELRIC," Richard Timbers came charging into
the empty classroom and waving his arms frantically, "DanielandEricandDuffyandSeth,"
he panted, "blewthemselvesup!" He ran in place for a few moments.

"What?" Edward said, "Blew themselves up?" Ed raised an
eyebrow.

"Out behind the mess hall, there was a big flash of green
light," and Richard threw his hands in the air to demonstrate, "and everything
smelled like that smell when you make something transmute and there was this
BOOM," Richard gibbered.

Edward got to his feet and watched the boy run a small
frantic circle.

"Cappy Hoyt said that they had this array they got from
one of the seniors and they were going to try it out!" Richard pointed frantically
out the door. "And they did and blew up!"

"An ARRAY?!" Ed yelped. "Behind the mess hall?" Ed rushed
out, the boy shoving him at the door in front of him, "Green light?! Smell of
ozone?!" he screeched as they both ran hell bent down the front hallway. "You
know I'LL GET BLAMED," Professor Elric shrieked as they made the door and ran
outside.


Ed waded into the smoke and tripped over a body, and then
hit the ground as the body groaned. He got to his hands and knees and patted
around frantically, his hands finally encountering a leg which he pawed his
way up to its shoulders and pulled the figure into a sitting position. It was
Duffy.

"What the hell happened? Are you ok?" Edward restrained
himself from shaking the boys brains out, like he wanted too.

"Professor?" Duffy said groggily. "What happened?" he
asked Edward as if he knew and then he coughed, but he was sitting up by himself
and he only looked a little singed. Edward deemed him ok enough to look for
the others.

He stayed on his hands and knees, patting around, but
the smoke was finally starting to dissipate, and he found Eric and Daniel in
short order; both could sit up and both started coughing as well. He then found
Seth, the boy's glasses were askew on his face and he had black smudges on his
forehead and he seemed to be groggier than the others.

"Seth? Seth? Talk to me," Edward said. "Can you see my
hand, Seth?"

He wanted to kill them and they had terrified him out
of his mind; both emotions had rolled and clashed in his brain and stomach as
he had ran down the walk for the mess hall after Richard Timbers. Richard was
remarkable in that he could screech and run at the same time.

The boy blinked rapidly at him suddenly, and then he actually
smiled, lopsided and groggy.

"Professor Elric," he said cheerfully and then he fell
to coughing and Edward rubbed his back and wiped at his forehead.

They were ok; they were all ok. He found he'd been holding
his breath and he didn't know why. His chest suddenly loosened and he didn't
realize it had been tight. Whatever had a grip on him broke free and washed
over him now, other teachers were joining them, and the school nurse had been
summoned.

What was this feeling? It had been a cold dread and he
stood as another teacher knelt by Seth and asked him how he was feeling.

"Don't worry Al, it will work."

Edward ran a face over his hand. He could never let that
happen, never let that repeat. How could he have been so blind to think that
once he'd started feeding their curiosity, they wouldn't strive for more? Hell,
he practically rubbed their faces in it.

Maybe this is my fault.

The boys were being hauled to their feet, one by one.
Edward glanced over at the blackened circle in the dirt and saw something lying
in the middle of it. It looked like one of the erasers the school had for clearing
blackboards. (Ed had no use for them, he did his clearing with a small array
kept drawn in the lower left hand corner of the blackboard that a simple touch
and not much thought activated)
.

Suppose it was things like that, showing them all these
little nonsense things, things that meant nothing in alchemy. Maybe that was
the motivation. The array itself was too burnt out now for Edward to make out
it's path and determine it's usage. There was a burnt scrap of paper nearby,
and Edward picked it up. It's unburned portion showed a portion of the array
that must have been drawn on the ground.

Daniel was already complaining about the sting of a scratch
on his neck when it was pressed with a handkerchief, and Edward scowled, already
devising the hellish torture he was going to call punishment in his brain. He
stepped forward absently and bent down to pick up the eraser left in the circle.

"Professor Elric!" The Dean's tight tones sounded behind
him and Ed startled, straightening up and accidentally dropping the eraser.

The second explosion was a bit louder than the first.


"WHAT?" The General leapt up from his chair. "Which hospital?"
he shrieked into the phone.

He slammed down the phone, whirled and yanked his great
coat off the stand, making it topple to the floor, and he moved around his desk
as he yanked it on, Havoc hot on his heels.

"What happened?" the blond cried as he rushed after his
General down the hall.

"Something at the school blew up," the General yelled,
rounding the corner for the stairs.

"At the Academy?" Havoc said, rushing to keep up. "What
blew up? Did Ed have something to do with it?"

"I think so," the General said, hurrying down the stairs.
"Apparently Ed blew up!" He called over his shoulder, "Hold the fort here Havoc,
I'll call you with details!"

Havoc slowed to stop on the stairs and watched the Generals
coat tails disappear around the corner at the bottom. Havoc sighed, and here
they'd thought they'd given Ed a safe assignment.


He had spent the better part of the day, on his hands
and knees, on the floor of a barn. He had picked every small thing up in his
filthy hands; he'd practically pressed his nose to every scratch in the dirt.
And the dried dark stain he had carefully skirted with reverence and respect.
He left nothing unturned. Pharr had done similar things, in the stalls, in the
hayloft. He'd pulled his commanding officer outside when the deputy had come
bearing fuzzy black and white photographs of the aftermath of the attack. He
had run into the house, dug out his magnifying glass, not caring what he got
all over the clean clothes in his suitcase. He'd used the hood of a squad car
as a table for examination.

He owed it all to Second Lieutenant Lester. Second Lieutenant
Thomas Lester, whose wife Helen was left to raise their daughter alone. When
he'd learned of the man's family something inside him cringed, hit so hard he
almost had to double over physically. Something about the situation struck a
chord so deep within him that he felt it almost strum against his very soul.
Why was that? Why did certain things, half formed speculation, sometimes strike
with ferocity untold?

He found strange impressions in the dirt, some of them
destroyed by the footprints of the men who had retrieved the body. Pharr had
found remains of food, stashed under the hay in the loft. Hard bread, hard cheese,
half rotten vegetables, a horde abandoned when Lester's blood fell on the barn
floor, mingling in the dirt and hay.

So what was different this time? What was the trigger?
What had Lester seen that no one else had? What had he heard? In the time Alphonse
had spent on this case he'd never even caught a glimpse. He floundered on trails
so cold as to be non-existent. Why had he just let this go as he had, because
nothing had happened in his investigations? He read into his own press? If Alphonse
Elric says there is nothing to worry about then we believe him, unquestioningly,
he would never lead us wrong.

After a dinner he'd only stared at, he retreated to his
borrowed room, shuffling the black and white photographs over and over in his
hands. Lester never moved; he still lay like a broken doll on the barn floor.
His arms outspread, his legs splayed disjointedly. His blue jacket with a dark
stain spread across the chest, the skirt of his uniform crumbled under his back.
What was it different about Lester that had caused an attack?

His uniform.

Alphonse knew that other than himself, no one else had
been assigned to these strange robberies. He'd went about in his own clothes,
special dispensation to dress like a civilian. He'd received the honor at twelve,
the same as Edward had, and he hadn't really thought about it. He had a dress
uniform, when functions called for it, but he had no standard issue; he'd never
needed it.

Lester was in uniform; he was even equipped with a gun
belt. The gun had still been buckled into it, never drawn, never fired in defense.
Alphonse rubbed his face. Was that the link? What that the cause? This creature,
whatever it was, could discern between civilian clothes and a uniform? It was
not a chimera. It was capable of sentient thought; it could recognize conformities
of society, and it had a hatred for the military.

Pharr joined him after a while, sitting across form him
on the small cot, Alphonse looked up at him.

"I might be onto something. I want you and Morton and
Haartje to be extra careful, because you're all in uniform," Alphonse said.

Pharr raised his eyebrow. "I don't understand," he said.

"I think Lester was attacked because he was in uniform,"
Alphonse offered the photos over again, even though Pharr had stared at them
in length alongside him on the hood of the squad car.

"His gun was never drawn or fired; he was not expecting
an attack. From what we know this is the only attack to date, on a person,"
Alphonse said, "and it didn't add up. So we have to say, what as different about
Lester? It's obvious—he was wearing a uniform."

"That means," Pharr said slowly, "what we are up against
isn't a feral animal or a chimera."

Alphonse bowed his head, chaffed his hands together.

"Yes," he said, "it means I was wrong and I cost that
man his life."

"Lieutenant Colonel," Pharr said, "I don't think, with
the evidence you had available, that your theories were unsound."

Alphonse nodded solemnly. "That doesn't make Lester any
less dead," he said, he held up his hand to ward off Pharr's reply. "Let's get
some sleep; we need to start fresh in the morning, I'm going to have Haartje
and Morton widen their perimeter and I think we'll be joining them."

Pharr nodded, stood to take off his jacket and and shirt.
Alphonse just lay back on his bunk having kicked off his shoes; he wasn't fool
enough to think sleep would be visiting him.


The General stopped briefly at the nurse's station for
directions and trotted down the hall, glancing up at room numbers that were
in neat black type beside each door. He located the appropriate number and opened
the door slowly, then ducked in closing it softly behind him.

The man sitting upon the bed turned to face him and scowled.
Roy felt a wave a relief; a scowl was proof that Edward Elric was all right.
Roy sighed and put on a half smile and surveyed his lover as he approached the
bed. Edward had a bandage on his right cheek and his automail arm was in a bucket
sitting on a small table on the bedside. He was slightly pink on the right side
and watched Roy come, tight lipped and sullen. When Roy opened his mouth to
speak, Edward held up his flesh hand then raised a finger and made a circle
in the air.

"Come on over to the flesh side," he said, a little over-loud,
"I can't hear anything on this side, but I'm told the eardrum is still intact.
Small wonder I suppose... I guess my reflexes haven't quite deteriorated yet."

Roy moved around to the left side of the bed, caught the
flesh and kissed the fingers of it, eyes glancing up to meet Edward's.

"What happened?" the General said, releasing Ed's hand.

"I blew up," Ed said wryly, "in a nice loud green and
white flare, accompanied by the sound of thunder. It was a quite spectacular
thing. The Dean landed on his ass, and several people all hit the ground around
me. It was quite the spectacle."

"Why is your arm in the bucket?" the General said.

"Oh that," Edward said. "Well it heated up quite a bit,
and I had to hold it very far away from my body since I didn't want to cook
my own ribs. The hand is all black now and it will take forever to scrub it
off. I'll have to use steel wool most likely, then the buff will be ruined and
when I have my annual check up, Winry will give me a concussion," he said sourly.

Roy reached out and touched the non-bandaged cheek, moved
the pad of his thumb to down and stroked the pouting lower lip gently.

"Your cheek ok?" he asked softly.

"It's just a cut," Edward sighed, "I really didn't want
to come here; they made me," he sneered, "and then I told them not to
call you, but they ignored me," he growled. "I'm leaving here with you,"
he stated, "don't think I'm not, so you might as well go and tell them," he
declared.

"I'll see what I can do," the General said, feeing a bit
more at ease. He looked at Edward a moment more, eyes roaming back and forth
and then dropped his gaze and sucked on his lips.

"Go ahead," Ed snarled. "I know you want too, you're dying
to; it was all over your face the second you walked in."

"No, what are you talking about? I was worried the whole
trip over here, it's just the relief at seeing you're alright," he supplied,
looking to the side.

"No really, it's all right, I think I need a second opinion
anyways," Ed simpered, "who better than you to give it to me. Look at me," he
ordered.

Roy raised his eyes slowly, still sucking on his lip,
his eyes moved up and down again and he looked down at Edward's hand on the
side of the bed.

"Well?" Edward said exasperated.

"I'm going to go get a cup of coffee while we wait for
your discharge," Roy said suddenly, "shall I bring you one?"

"ROY," Edward growled.

"It's just that, I've never seen them so short," the General
said, "I mean they've always been down to here," and he made a swiping motion
at the bottom of his jaw, "and now they are about here," he raised his hand
to the level of his eyes. "It's not that it's bad, it's just different, and
will take some getting use to."

"This side got burned," Ed hissed, gesturing with his
flesh hand toward his missing bangs, "and when the nurse trimmed it off she
said she had to even me out," he snarled, "and it's weird! My face feels naked!"

"I'm going to get coffee," Roy rushed and started for
the door.

"Lying bastard!" Ed yelled after him, "You're going in
the hall to laugh! I've already been told I look like I'm a kid," he screeched.

The General let one snort of laughter escape him before
just making a break for it and rushing out the door.


Fate or luck or whatever you want to call it met them
at the end of the drive the next morning. The deputy brought news of a possible
sighting not more than six miles away.

Alphonse ordered Morton and Haartje to stay behind and
continue with their surveying in case this was another false lead. Pharr he
told to come with him, and after Pharr got his gun belt, they borrowed a spare
squad car and with hand written directions they headed out. It took them just
under a half hour to find the farmstead in question, and they made their way
to the front porch where the two of them were met by a man and his wife, who
described a brief encounter with a creature that seemed to be half machine.

They got the same descriptions they'd heard and read several
times before, and they got pointed in the direction of some woods to the far
back of the property.

"There is an old rotted out barn back there," the man
said, "when the family use to work those back acres, but we don't anymore. It's
got some old equipment still in it—it might be hiding back there."

They thanked him, told them to stay in the house and stay
alert, and together they went out back, through the gate and headed toward the
woods in the distance.

"What's the plan if we see it?" Pharr asked as they walked.
Alphonse looked over at him.

"We bring it down, by whatever means necessary," Alphonse
said, "I'd like to avoid killing if at all possible," He dug into his own pockets
and pulled out a pair of gloves and pulled them on as they drew closer to the
old barn at the edge of the trees.

"Yes, sir," Pharr said quietly, "I haven't seen you in
your gloves in a while," he offered.

"The situation seems to call for it," Alphonse said. "I
want you to keep your eyes peeled, and stay as close as possible." Alphonse
had never really had to use his alchemy defensively. He worked over in his mind
some quick variations should he need them, things to capture and imprison. Things
to protect. Pharr was with him—too many times people he'd associated with
came to harm, and some had even died. But no, that wasn't right? When was that?
He shook his head briefly, rubbed his temple again.

"Sir?" Pharr questioned and Alphonse eyes snapped to him.

"Ah sorry," Alphonse said, "going over defensive arrays
in my mind. It's ok now, just be alert." They came upon the old barn and stood
for a moment taking it and its surroundings in.

Silently, Alphonse stood back as Pharr drew his weapon
and approached the barn door; after a moment he nodded and Alphonse joined him,
and then Pharr reached up and jammed the rusted latch. With a creak and a spray
of rust it leveled upwards, and Alphonse grabbed the handle and pulled back
slowly, and the barn yawned, its breath musty and old. Alphonse pulled the door
all the way back to the outside wall, and Pharr grabbed the other one, struggling
with it a bit as it was warped on his hinges, but moved it to match Alphonse's
and the barn stood open wide.

In its sun-filtered interior sat the rotting corpse of
an old tractor. Its tilling attachments hung to one side on the wall, along
with a few other harvesting tools, and dust mites hung as thick as cobwebs in
the air.

Pharr put his hand up, and gun raised took the first few
tentative steps into the interior, scanning the floor then immediately looking
up toward the loft. Nothing but silence assaulted them and after a few more
cautious steps he nodded and Alphonse followed him in.

Alphonse moved forward past Pharr and the man hissed at
him, but he waved him off, bending to inspect the barn floor, looking for the
unbalanced prints he'd seen in the dirt at the murder site. Pharr hovered over
him, but Alphonse motioned for him to back off; he was obscuring the light,
so Pharr went a bit deeper into the barn, gun still out and up at the ready,
trying to peer into the denser shadows.

"Anything?" the First Lieutenant finally said, to break
the tension of the silence, looking over to Alphonse, squatted down and still
examining the floor.

"Perhaps, I think..." but he was cut short by a sharp
short cry and the sound of a body striking the floor, he looked up to late to
see Pharr fall, but not to late to see the figure hurtling at him—it seemed
to be nothing but swirls of engulfing blackness and long white pointed teeth.

His arm came up in a defense gesture, he met the attack
head-on and dropped, bringing up his knee, catching it in the gut and hurling
it over his head, and then he scrambled to his feet, forearm throbbing. It had
connected with something much harder than flesh and bone. The thing had an arm
made of metal; the reports had not lied.

He turned and sought it desperately with his eyes, seeing
it move toward the wall, seeming to effortlessly run up it so it could have
the advantage to attack again from above. It would be hard to block and defend
from that position, especially with it wielding steel and Alphonse backpedaled,
stealing quick sidelong glances at Pharr, sprawled unmoving in the dirt and
rotting hay. He got under the lip of the hayloft, making a direct above head
attack impossible for the thing now,...or at least he thought. The deafening
crash and shower of rotted wood and hay broke that delusion and Alphonse wheeled
desperately to the side, narrowly avoiding a kick that also glinted dull when
it slashed through a slice of sun.

"Why do you want me?! Leave me alone!" the thing screamed
in surprisingly coherent speech, "I'll kill all you military bastards that come
near me! Do you hear me?! All you filthy human scum!"

"Who are you; why are you doing this?" Alphonse yelled
back, hoping for diversion and then having to retreat as it advanced, when it
threw out its flesh arm or leg he dared to block, but he scrambled to evade
the metal limbs, knowing they could overcome him easily. If he fell to it, then
what about Pharr; he couldn't let it kill Pharr, (Pharr was not dead, he
was not, he was only stunned, ONLY STUNNED)
; and what was the guarantee
it wouldn't kill him as well, even without a uniform?

He backed into the tractor and it struck as he ducked,
its automail leg striking the old tractor, making it sob out in a low metallic
moan.

"I'll kill you!" it shrieked as if the answer the question
in Alphonse's mind, "I'll kill you like I killed him and leave your out in the
sun to stink, that's all you are good for, food for maggots!" he screamed fury,
it's purple eyes wide and fevered, it's mouth of daggers wide.

"What are you?!" Alphonse cried, and for the first time
tried to take the offensive, lashing out with the ball of his hand faster than
he though capable of. He almost connected with its chin but it bent backwards
almost as if it had no spine. It seemed a bit startled at the near contact and
retreated a few feet way as if to reevaluated and resize up its opponent.

If it corners me it can beat me to death with the automail,
I need something to fight with,
his eyes scanned the barn walls, his back
against the old tractor, and for a moment his mind seemed to blank, and then
he raised his hands and slammed the palms together and then threw them back
to connect with the old tractor.

The tractor screamed its metal death throes at it began
to melt from its original shape. The axle tore free from the tires and the seat
fell through where the chaise had been, its metal bumper stood straight up
as if to struggle to escape before it was pulled into the green and blue oxidized
metal, flowing like a river around a figure that had been standing at its side.

The creature stood shielding its eyes and when it finally
dropped its arm, it bared its teeth and it grinned in a way that no mirth would
grace.

"So it's you," it grated and hissed. "It's you. The FullMetal
pipsqueak's brother; I'd know that armor anywhere."

Alphonse Elric raised his arms in a defensive position,
strangely comfortable to be cloaked in steel.


Homunculus!

Yes, that is what it was.

Wrath!

Yes, that is its name.

The armor moved on its own, the sound of steel against
steel, like the dull blade strikes of old warriors. Blow for blow, Alphonse
could drift almost and watch and see the myriad of memories played out before
him.

A woman who flowed like water and smiled like sunshine,
familiar to the point of pain, lethal to the point of death. Ed's pleading eyes,
Envy's mocking laugh, his own helplessness and denial.

Block and parry, pivot and spin, the clang again, vibrating
his bones but sparing his flesh, he was backing Wrath across the barn, herding
him away from Pharr's still form.

"So he did it. What did he give for it? He's still a cripple?"
Wrath sneered, "He didn't take his limbs back the mothergatewomb did he; is
he dead? Did he die for you? He's dead, isn't he, and you're here now as a bag
of meat. You smell like a human; you'll die like one—that armor won't save
you!" Wrath flew into a frenzy of rage, and the blows fell like rain, but he
was able to deflect the more damaging ones and withstand the lesser ones. He
then closed his arm down over the automail leg as it sought to make contact
his side. He brought his other hand down hard on the port at the knee and he
wrenched up and twisted violently to the side. The rending of metal almost as
loud as the hellish scream that accompanied it, and the automail port gave way
and Alphonse fell back, holding a leg and Wrath fell the opposite way, sparks
flying to mark his descent.

"Give up," he said, but it wasn't really him saying it,
"Stop this now Wrath."

The homunculus lifted his head and grinned, and then shoved
back with its hands and remaining heel, brought itself up against the barn wall
and reached up to touch a sickle, rusted and wicked, hanging from a hook on
the wall. It shuddered like a living thing, seemed to breathe, then ebbed into
the flesh, turning it the color of rusted steel. Then the port that was left
clinging to his thigh vibrated and an appendage shot out, not as intricate as
the automail, not as functional, but Wrath lurched to his feet with it, bled
his smile again and reached for the rotating blades that ran connected on an
axis that served as a tiller.

The armor blocked with the automail leg, a grisly sword,
its connector ports flailing from the broken end, wet with blood and nerves.
The scream of metal was different now, it wasn't a clang, it was a grind and
a rend. He deflected one jagged edged blade, but because it was round, it rolled
with the movement and hit his forearm, the armor shrieked in agony and bucked
under it as it glanced off.

He spun with the momentum, lifting his leg and bringing
it around, hearing the grunt, feeling the foot of his suit connect with flesh,
and something twist and snap under it.

Wrath has long given up coherency for unintelligible pitches,
piercing and inhuman, and the sound of sudden gunfire was so jarringly normal
that Alphonse didn't recognize it for a moment, but Wrath rolled and hit the
ground and lay gasping for long moments, strange dark puddles appearing on his
chest and exposed stomach.

Alphonse turned, saw Pharr on his feet, the side of his
head matted in blood and trickles lacing over his cheek in sticky patterns.

"Lieutenant Colonel," he gasped, "what is it?!" Pharr's
eyes were wide and unnerved; his gun shook a bit in his outstretched hand.

"Stay back!" Alphonse ordered, "Get to cover, I'll handle
it!"

Pharr opened his mouth to protest then riveted on the
spot past Alphonse again, "Sir, look out!" he cried.

Wrath shot his created leg out, it shaped itself into
a long spike and it caught Alphonse high in his side, piercing the armor there;
he threw himself to the side and only got sliced where he would have been impaled,
and he hit the ground and rolled. The gun rang out again, rapidly, and Wrath
thrashed and screeched on the ground, kicking his legs and clawing with his
arms.

Pharr released the empty cartridge and fumbled with the
spare one from his pocket, panting as he worked to lock it into place. Alphonse
struggled up to his feet; he couldn't touch is bleeding side through the armor,
but he could feel blood running, and pooling at the waistband of his pants.
They had to end this, and fast, there was too much danger.

"It's a homunculus," Alphonse yelled at Pharr. "We can't
kill it by normal means!"

"We'll sure the fuck try anyways," Pharr yelled back,
pulling the slide on his gun and began firing again, advancing as he did, intent
on unloading the entire clip into the writhing form on the ground. Alphonse
charged forward as well, coming up as Pharr emptied the clip, and grabbing at
the flailing automail arm.

He worked without thinking, because to think was to feel.
He gripped the wrist tightly in both hands, planted his foot into the blood-slicked
side and heaved up and back with all his might. Wrath screamed more in denial
than pain—it had become too far-gone for that—and the arm tore free from
the port and Alphonse stumbled back, holding it. Wrath tried to move again,
rolling onto his stomach, scrabbling with it's remaining arm and its only flesh
leg. Its powers seem to have weakened to the point it couldn't hold form with
the leg it had created, and Alphonse raised the steel arm and brought it down
with force on the creature's back. It bucked and shrieked curses.

"We have to stop it! Don't let it touch anything; it can
absorb things into its body to make weapons!" Alphonse yelled at Pharr, lifting
the arm to strike the creature again. Pharr threw the useless gun far to the
side and ran for the barn wall the creature was trying to reach, after a moment,
he turned back. His hands wrapped around the heavy handle of an old wood axe.

"We'll just have to make sure it can't touch anything,"
he snarled, heading for them. "Sir, stand back," he said as he came closer,
swinging the axe back and then up over his head. Alphonse jerked back and turned
his head to the side just as the axe began to fall. He tired not to flinch from
the dull sound, the gurgle or the splashes on his chest plate he tried to tell
himself was rain.