The sleet had stopped, but the wind had picked up, catching the edges of Edward's coat and whipping them around him like a cloak. He shoved his hands deep in his pockets and slouched comfortably, his eyes on the city streets as they headed for the military station. The operator had given him the address before transferring him to Mustang's office, and Edward was reasonably sure they were heading in the right direction. He canted a sideways look at the boy next to him, who was regarding everything with a somewhat amused expression. Duo caught him looking, and one eyebrow quirked.
"Nothing," Edward said. "I just figured you'd be more..." He shrugged. "Y'know, excited, or think it's bizarre."
"Bizarre." Duo repeated the word, and shook his head. "No. We have houses, buildings, cars, too. But ours..." He leaned back, looking up at the cloudless sky, a gunmetal gray of late winter. "Different," he finally said, and smiled, a bit secretively. "Why do you do alchemy?"
"Why?" Edward was startled, then set his shoulders, grinning broadly. "Because I'm damn good at it, that's why."
Duo laughed. Obviously he got the meaning, if not the words. "You don't draw a circle," he said, in an undertone as they passed several heavily wrapped people on the street.
"Brother doesn't need to," Alphonse interjected. "I do, though. Most alchemists need an array, to focus."
"Not me," Edward said, only mildly smug. "I always used to, then...I got to a point where I don't. Just a knack."
"Ah." Duo muttered something under his breath, in his own language, and tucked his chin into the collar of his coat, hiding a smile. "You're...not lots, to be doing this. Looking at not-are people, knowing things in the basement." His eyes were bright, and Edward noticed for the first time just how darkly blue they were.
"Not lots?" Edward scowled. "Like you're one to—"
"I think he means your age, brother," Alphonse said quickly. "Duo, how old are you? How many years?"
"More old than him," Duo said, pointing a thumb at Edward. "Five and ten."
"I'm fifteen," Edward retorted. "You can't be fifteen. You don't look like it."
"So? You don't act like it," Duo shot back. The two boys turned on the sidewalk to face each other. Edward was glaring, while Duo smirked.
In the silence, Alphonse made a worried sound.
Duo backed down first, his smirk turning lazy as he shrugged and walked off. It seemed to take Edward a second to realize his target was gone, and he sputtered before yelling at Duo's back.
"Hey! Hey, wait up!" Edward scowled and jogged to catch up. Alphonse clanked along behind him, radiating worry, but Duo was grinning as Edward caught up with him. Edward stared, confused. "You're young, yourself, to..." He was thinking of the scars crisscrossing the other boy's chest, and he could feel his face flushing. That seemed too intensely private to mention it on the street. He settled for muttering, "to have a gun."
"I fight," Duo said, unperturbed. He glanced down at Edward's right hand, the metal covered by the white glove again. "You walk, you talk, like you fight, too."
"I do," Edward said. He looked up, then, and noticed the street sign. "That's the military office for this town. Duo, you want to get something to eat?" Duo's grin was brilliantly huge, and he rolled his eyes, as though surprised Edward had to ask. Edward dug out his wallet, and handed it to Alphonse. "Shouldn't be more than fifteen minutes," he said. "Too much paperwork, shipping damn chimeras."
"Write, write," Duo said, waving him off. The boy grabbed Alphonse's arm, and the suit of armor could only squeak something and wave to his older brother before following the black-garbed figure into the nearest sweet shop.
Forty-five minutes later, Edward was still hunched over a desk, filling out paperwork. Alphonse and Duo had made an appearance, and determined quickly that Edward was in a foul mood, and nowhere near finishing. Duo dropped a bag of sweet pastries on the desk and was gone in a swirl of black wool with Alphonse clanking behind him. Edward rubbed his forehead and bent over the paperwork, carefully filling out the third form the officer had apparently forgotten would be needed.
Destination. Central City, 3rd Laboratory, Floor Five.
Edward carefully wrote out, "Lieutenant Colonel Roy Mustang." He chewed the end of the pen, wondering if he should put down Second Lieutenant Hawkeye, instead. He couldn't remember what he'd written on the other form, before the nameless military official had suddenly remembered all forms needed to be in triplicate. Edward bent over the paper again, sighing, and continued with the next line.
"To me, it looks like they want you here for long time," someone whispered in his ear.
Edward jumped, turning to see Duo staring at the paperwork. The boy pointed at the form's identifying letter and number, stamped in large print on the top-right of the page.
"That," Duo said, very quietly. "That page was complete, when we came by, before." He glanced around, noting the crumpled paper bag on the corner of the desk. "You ate?"
"Yeah," Edward replied. He twirled the pen in his left hand and slouched down in the chair, giving the paperwork an annoyed glance. "I have to do three copies. The Sergeant-Major forgot."
"Forgot," Duo repeated, in a knowing tone. He leaned over Edward, and pushed at the paper with a finger, then shook his head. "Person who work, who do work like this...they don't forget."
"What's your point?" Edward nearly growled. He turned his back on Duo, carefully beginning the next line.
Shipping requirements. Four large crates, covered; nine medium...
"Ed," Duo whispered. "Ask yourself. Why do the military person want you here?"
"Hunh?" Edward looked over his shoulder, startled by Duo's intent expression. He stared, then his eyes went wide, and he looked down at the paper, then back at Duo. "You mean they're stalling me."
Duo nodded, his face completely serious.
"Why would they..." Edward glanced around at the empty main office. "Where's Alphonse?"
"I told him to go to the house while I get you," Duo said. "Come on."
"Damn." Edward threw the pen down on the desk He shoved the papers into the receptionist's inbox and ran for the door, yanking it open. Duo slipped out the door right behind him. Edward took off down the street, cursing under his breath. "Why would someone want me to hang out there for an hour? We didn't find anything in the house that's of any importance to anyone else," he muttered under his breath. He realized Duo was easily keeping pace with his quick run. "Well? What do you think?"
"I think," Duo paused as they skidded around a corner, "you forget that the things in the basement—"
"—Chimera," Edward correctly absently.
"Chimera," Duo repeated. "I think you forget that they're guns."
"Guns?" Edward tripped on a curb and nearly went flying forward, stunned by Duo's words. Duo caught Ed's coat at the last second, and Edward scrambled to get his feet under him and keep running. His mind was reeling, trying to decipher Duo's meaning. "Weapons," he said suddenly. "You mean they're weapons."
"Guns, weapons, those...chimera," Duo said. "They made the man not-be—"
"The chimera killed the doctor, yeah." Edward looked up to see the doctor's imposing gray-stone house at the end of the block. "Where's Alphonse?"
"Inside?" Duo shook his head, then suddenly broke away. "You go in the front, I go in back."
He angled away from Edward and headed for the fence blocking the alleyway. Duo leaped, his hands grabbing the top of the fence, easily two feet over his head. He flew upwards, twisting his body agilely over the fence. Edward heard the soft thud as Duo hit the other side, then running footsteps, and Edward took off for the doctor's house. Hitting the steps of the house at a full run, he registered the door was ajar even as he burst through, clapping his hands together.
A burst of light around his arm, and his right glove was shredded. His auto-mail arm now had a six-inch blade proud of his wrist, shielding his right fist. Cautiously Edward checked the living room, to find everything where it had been left, undisturbed. Creeping through the dining room, he was about to head into the kitchen when a creak from above had him flying into the entryway, his hand raised in defense. Duo was at the head of the stairs, his gun out. Duo made a slashing motion with his left hand, followed by several quick signs. Edward gave him a baffled look, and Duo rolled his eyes. In a flash, Duo hopped on the banister, sliding down it to land on cat-soft feet next to Edward.
"Basement," Duo hissed. "You, go down. I, go there," he whispered, pointing.
"How the hell are you going to get into the basement if you're not taking the stairs?" Edward gave him an irritated look, noticing for the first time that the door under the stairs was wide open. Duo just grinned, his back to the wall before he spun, his gun out. Edward watched, fascinated, as Duo covered the kitchen, his eyes darting around the room before he was gone again.
I guess that makes me the frontal assault, Edward thought, and grinned malevolently. Nothing wrong with that scenario, he decided.
He was at the bottom of the stairs when he heard a crashing sound, followed by a gunshot. Edward launched himself across the array and kicked the wooden door open. Immediately he leaped sideways, blocking as a chimera came through the door. Its canine body twisted and it jumped at him, fangs bared. Edward slashed at its chest with his right hand, the blade cutting deep. A second chimera was behind the first, and Edward dodged as he pulled his fist from the first chimera's chest. Edward kicked the second chimera in the chest, throwing it backwards into the small room. A second gunshot blasted the air. The chimera yelped and fell sideways into the doorjamb.
Edward stared at the blood seeping onto the stone floor for a second, feeling ill. Stepping around the corner, he saw Alphonse against the wall, three dog-bird creatures at his feet. Duo was on the top cage, halfway through a small ventilation window, his gun trained on the door. When Duo saw it was Edward, he wriggled the rest of the way through the tiny window, balancing carefully on the cage. Edward clapped his hands, and the blade melded back into his auto-mail. He prodded the dead chimera with a foot.
"What the hell happened," he muttered, and looked over to see Alphonse kneeling by one of the chimera. "Al? What is it?"
"All gone," Duo said from the top cage. He was peering down into the cage, then flipped his coat back, tucking the gun away. He jumped to the floor, and looked around, bewildered. "Not all gone."
"They didn't take all of them," Alphonse said. "They left seven, I think, and when I came down to the basement, and opened the door..." He stood up, one hand behind his head, abashed. "I think two got out."
"I didn't see any sign of them coming down the stairs," Edward said, frowning.
"None on top floor," Duo replied.
"But the front door was open," Edward added. Alphonse looked stricken, the armor hunching a little. "It was only open an inch," Edward assured him.
"Back door was...bad alchemy," Duo said, thoughtfully. "Step one."
Edward blinked. "Hunh?"
"Broken," Alphonse translated. Duo nodded absently, and looked around with a sigh. Alphonse hunched his broad metal shoulders. "The Lieutenant Colonel isn't going to be happy about this."
"Oh, no," Edward groaned, suddenly, realizing. "Eighteen chimera, trained to attack, and we've only got five. We need to let the military—" He noticed Duo standing by a small table at the end of the row of cages. "Hey," Edward said, interrupting himself. "What are you doing?"
"Looking," Duo replied. He knelt down, poking at the desk, feeling along it with his fingertips. "When I woke, the man was writing. Did you find pages here?"
"Not much," Alphonse said. "Just notes about the feeding schedule."
Duo nodded, then put a hand behind his head, and pulled his braid out. He pulled it around, and the braid pooled on the floor next to him as he pushed his fingers into the woven strands. There was a metallic flash in Duo's hands, shining in the light through the window. He leaned closer to the underside of the desk, and something clicked, then popped. A drawer slid out, and Duo sat back on his haunches with a wide grin.
"See," he said, pointing.
"Shit," Edward breathed. He was at the desk in a flash, digging through the papers. "Letters, Al." He sorted through them quickly, handing several to Alphonse as Duo stood up, brushing the dirt off his knees. Edward scanned the first letter quickly, his jaw dropping. "You were right, Duo," he said, very quietly. "These are weapons. They're trying to start another war."
"Brother," Alphonse said, his tone uncertain. "Are you sure? There's no return addresses on these, and no signatures. Nothing to say who sent them. They're all just lists of the kind of chimera, and what they should be able to do."
"War," Duo whispered, questioning. "Lots of fights...war?"
"Right," Alphonse replied. "There was a war here, about fourteen years ago, and it was horrible. But it's been peaceful since then. Duiren's on the border, but I guess peace doesn't always last. I heard the fighting was really bad up here, for a long time."
Edward nodded absently, stepping blindly over the chimera's bodies as he led the way out of the storage room, still reading. In the darkened antechamber, Edward sighed and shoved the letters into the inside pocket of his coat. "Either Doctor Kaufkorn was going to use the chimeras on Drachma, or someone in Drachma hired him to let the animals loose, here. Either way, it doesn't make a lot of sense to me."
"You think too...forward," Duo whispered. His hand went out, catching Edward by the elbow. "Shh," he said, and pointed upwards.
"What..." Edward cocked his head, listening, and realized there were footsteps moving around in the front part of the house. There was a shout, and the light from the top of the basement stairs was suddenly gone as someone stepped in the doorway.
"Fullmetal," the man's voice shouted. "Sergeant Major Nichols up here, sir. Fullmetal, are you down there?"
"Yeah, yeah," Edward replied, stomping up the stairs. "Five dead chimera down there," he told the man. He blinked, and peered past Edward, but Ed didn't bother to explain further, stepping into the hallway. He was surprised to see six more officers lurking in the front foyer, none going into the living room or upstairs. He turned as Alphonse and Duo stepped through the doorway, and noted the Sergeant Major gave Duo an appraising look that the boy didn't seem to notice. "The rest are gone," Edward said, curtly.
"Gone?" Nichols frowned. "We came to arrange for their shipment, and heard gunshots."
"Ah," Edward replied, trying to come up with a reasonable explanation, but Alphonse beat him to it.
"Those were alchemical reactions, Sergeant Major Nichols," Alphonse said, politely. "When we opened the basement door, the chimeras were loose inside, but my brother dealt with them. That was the sound you heard."
"Really," Nichols said, looking impressed. "I had no idea alchemy could be so noisy."
"If you do it right," Edward replied, smirking a little. He straightened his shoulders, and dropped into a serious mode. "However, by my count, this means there are thirteen more chimera unaccounted for. The cages are empty, and the back door is smashed, probably where the other two chimera got out." And how did the people who took the chimera get in, he wondered. How did they know there were chimeras in the basement in the first place? The rest of the town had no idea that Doctor Kaufkorn did anything but simple alchemy repair work.
"We'll alert the town police," Nichols said, nodding to one of the other men. The man saluted, and left with two others, while Nichols tucked his gun away. "I'd suggest you stay at the officer barracks tonight. I can set up a room for you...three?"
"Three, yes." Edward tensed. "Right," he replied, preoccupied. "We'll just collect the rest of what we need from here."
"I'll leave someone with a car," Nichols offered. "Samuels," he called, and one of the men stepped forward.
"No, no," Edward told him, waving one hand. "We don't have that much. We'll just walk. It's across from the military offices, right?"
"Yes, sir," Nichols said, then hesitated. "But I'd prefer to insist the Lance Corporal stays here with you. You're in my jurisdiction, and having someone take the chimeras and leave several to attack you...I'd prefer there not be a repeat."
Edward considered that for a second, then shrugged. "Fine," he said, then glared at the Lance Corporal. "But stay out of our way while we work."
"Yes, sir!" Samuels snapped a salute, his white-blond hair waving a little from the overeager motion.
"Whatever," Edward said, turning his back on the man.
There were a few quiet whispers behind him, and then the front door closed behind Nichols, most likely, but Edward's attention was already focused on the books. Idly he began stacking the ones he wanted to investigate further, setting others aside. Edward hadn't even started tackling the question of how to get Duo back, or how Duo had even gotten here. Mustang's sources had assumed the Doctor was attempting some type of alchemy revolving around creating or transforming a human. Edward, in turn, had been assuming that somehow it had occurred at the right exact moment when Duo was mirroring the action in his own world.
The thought made Edward nearly drop the book in his hand, and he took a deep breath to steady himself. Was this just a one-time thing, or was it possible that all such major arrays crossed into other worlds? Was there a world, somewhere, that held Alphonse's body, without the soul? The idea made Edward sway a bit, and he blinked, shaking his head. No, no. The array they'd created, on that fateful night they'd attempted to revive their mother...no, that array wasn't like this one. The Doctor's array had elements and curves that weren't normally used for human alchemy, but for transformation of existing material, not life-binding or life-manipulating. The doctor's array wouldn't even work properly for chimera.
So why was the doctor using it? If his work was in chimera, there had to be a reason he'd deviate from his normal mode. Edward sat down cross-legged, barely noticing that Alphonse was building up the fire again. Duo had settled into the sofa, and his eyes seemed to be closed. Edward glanced over, and saw the gleam of Duo's eyes in the late afternoon light, and realized Duo was watching the Lance Corporal intently.
Damn, Edward thought. What was Duo telling me? I think too forward, he repeated silently. Edward scratched the end of his nose, forgetting the books for a few minutes as he pondered the information whirling in his head. Think too forward...think too straightforwardly? Edward scowled, hunching his shoulders as he absently stacked a few more books on his 'keep' pile. It was the sight of a spoon, left by the pile of blankets, which gave Edward the idea. Standing, he stretched lazily and rotated his right arm, feeling the metal joints slide against each other. Glancing over his shoulder, he grinned at Duo.
Duo chuckled and stood up. "I think we ate everything in the house."
"Really," Edward replied, as if this was news to him. The Lance Corporal stepped into the room, his mouth open to speak, but Edward waved him away. "No, we'll just go grab something. I think I saw a deli a block or two from here. Alphonse, we'll pick you up something?"
"Mm," Alphonse said, looking up from the book in his lap. Edward winked, and Alphonse nodded, turning his attention back to the book.
A minute later Duo and Edward were out on the sidewalk. Duo shoved his hands in his pockets, mirroring Edward's slouching gait, and the two were silent until they reached the corner.
"If I wanted to start up war again," Edward mused, in a low voice, "I would blame it on someone else."
Duo nodded. "You think too short, though."
"Too short?" Edward glared, tensing. "You're not exactly ten feet tall, y'know, you're in no position to be making cracks—"
"Shut up, Ed, and listen." Duo shook his head. "People do not fight for the sake of fighting, no matter what nonsense others might say." His lip curled at the edge, a sardonic expression. "There are reasons. And going into a fight, people want something. Get something."
"The Law of Conservation," Edward said.
"Conservation." Edward was silent, his footsteps slowing as they neared the deli. The wind caught at his coat, tearing it open, and he shivered a little. "To get something, you give something. Equal value. Give one, get one."
"I understand," Duo said. "Yes, that's war. Give lives, to get something."
Edward flinched, but turned his head away, avoiding Duo's puzzled glance. "Yeah, well, it shouldn't be."
"It is." Duo rubbed his nose, and looked up at the deli's sign. "Food, then we talk more."
Back on the street, Edward shifted the bag in his arms, and stopped to face Duo.
"What do you know about losing lives? Death?"
"Lots." Duo's eyes slid away from Edward's. "Too much."
"Have you...ever killed anyone?"
Duo laughed, a barking sound. His grin was lazy, but his eyes were cold. "Why do you need to know?"
Edward considered that, and nodded. "I guess it's not important."
"Not here, it isn't," Duo agreed. "There is no reason to start war if there's nothing to get. These things...chimera...are weapons. The person who wants them, who has them now, is trying to get something. It's not enough to say war will start if people die. I don't know what someone would get from people dying, though. But there must be something."
Edward wondered if Duo, in his own language, was a quick and rapid speaker. He seemed too frustrated, sometimes, at the lack of speed for communicating, although his words came faster and more fluent than Edward could ever imagine speaking, were their positions reversed. It annoyed Edward, a little, to think this kid was better than him, in anything. He wasn't sure why, so he set his attention back on Duo's words, turning them over in his mind.
"Who runs this place?" Duo's glance was sharp, and he rattled off several words under his breath. Some were in his own language, some in Edward's, as though Duo were sorting through the combined vocabulary to find something that would fit. "Place. All people, I mean. Military?"
"The country? Yeah, military." Edward shrugged. "The Generalissimo's in charge."
"Do you pick him?"
"Pick... No, he was promoted."
"Ah." Duo nodded. "So this small place, here now, is also military in charge."
"Yeah, it's like that everywhere. What about it?" Edward gritted his teeth. So what if this kid didn't know how much people hated the military. What did that have to do with this Doctor, and his chimera? One of the only people Edward had met, who didn't hate him immediately for being a dog of the military, and it was someone not even from this world. Edward was surprised to find he didn't want to lose that. He was even more surprised to find how much he'd gotten used to assuming that was what people were thinking, and just ignoring the assumption.
"If the people are hurt," Duo said, softly, "the military will need more soldiers, to defend."
Edward's head came up sharply, and he narrowed his gaze at the boy in front of him. "That's ridiculous," Edward retorted. "That would require unleashing the chimera on the people who are supposed to be protected by the military."
"But it's also a way to get power, to prove there's a threat." Duo shrugged, and began walking again. "I see it...I was seeing it. Force the unhappiness, and claim the people's unhappiness is reason to bring in the military. Then the person in charge is more important."
"Martial law?" Edward frowned. "This place is peaceful, though. They've been this way since the war ended."
"What does a soldier do, when he has nothing left to fight?" Duo's voice was pensive, and his gaze was distant.
"Something else, I guess."
Edward stopped, and turned to face Duo again. "What do you mean?"
"Don't put on a face for me," Duo said, with a cold smile. "You can't fool someone who plays the same game. You did something, that made that your brother, and that..." He jerked his head towards Edward's right arm. "And this," Duo added, prodding Edward's left foot with his own. "And now you are trying to get something, for what you gave."
"How did you know?" Edward backed up a step.
"I've lost, lots, and now I'm also trying to get something." Duo's gaze was steady, with no trace of humor. "When there is peace, I will be happy. I will walk away from the fight. The fight is not me. But you..." His eyes narrowed. "You are the fight."
"I may answer to the military," Edward replied, a bit stiffly, "but that doesn't mean I want to fight their wars. If they order me, I'll have to go, but in the meantime, it's the only—"
"Stop confusing yourself," Duo said. He stared at Edward for a long moment, and smiled, a worn, tired look in his eyes. Then he sighed, and turned, striding off down the street, his braid swaying behind him, whipping out as he turned and headed up the steps to the house.
Edward scowled, feeling like he was constantly running to keep up. For once, he decided, he wasn't going to. "Hey!" Edward stayed where he was, and yelled again when the boy didn't turn around. "HEY!"
There was silence on the early evening street. Duo reappeared between the gates, his expression wry. "What?"
"Why can't you just get to the point? You're as bad as Mustang," Edward griped. "Saying one thing, meaning something else."
"I don't..." Duo concentrated, then shook his head. "I don't tell you what isn't. I say what is. But..." He brightened, a quicksilver grin flashing across his face. "I see you, I think of someone." He shrugged. "Your fight is here. My fight is somewhere else. I want to get back. Just get me back, and you can fight as long as you want."
"Yeah," Edward replied, uncertain if it was a truce, or just a statement of fact. Duo nodded, turning to head for the house, and Edward watched him go, uneasy. "And you make me think of a really short Mustang," he muttered under his breath.
Shaking his head, he headed up to the house. The Lance Corporal opened the door, and Edward dug into the bag, shoving a sandwich at the man without a word. Duo was seated next to the fireplace, with one sandwich out, balanced on his knee, and a second one halfway into his mouth. Edward frowned, and sat down next to Alphonse. Ed toed off his boots, tucking one leg under him, and pulled the nearest book close enough to flip it open and read while he ate. The room was quiet for several minutes but for the turning of pages, the sounds of three people eating, and the crackling of the fireplace. Then Edward heard a soft chuckle, and looked up to see Duo's eyes dancing merrily over the top of the second sandwich.
Edward raised an eyebrow, ready to transmute the sandwich into a gag.
Duo said something soft, and quick, in his own language. Alphonse looked up, and Duo said it again, but this time he pointed at himself, and patted his stomach. Then he pointed at Edward and grinned broadly before taking another huge bite of the second sandwich. Edward gave Duo a baffled look, and turned to Alphonse.
"Did that make any sense to you?"
"Ah," Alphonse said, a little embarrassed. "I think he was saying if he and someone else had a baby, it'd be you, brother." The suit of armor clanked as it shifted in place, and Alphonse made a calming motion with his hands, forestalling Edward's annoyed response. Alphonse laughed nervously. "I guess this Heero must be his girlfriend."
"And somewhere, in another universe, Heero Yuy sneezed."—Maldoror