"So..." Alphonse shifted a little, his armor creaking as he studied his brother. "What do we do now, then?"
Edward looked up to see Duo giving him an appraising look, and Edward set his shoulders. "We investigate, of course," he proclaimed, and grabbed his jeans.
Dressing quickly, he looked up to see Duo was ready at the door, his boots on and his long black coat buttoned up. Edward left his red coat on the bed, and opened the door, checking the hallway. No one was in sight. Duo was muttering something under his breath, and Edward nudged him.
"I don't know the words," Duo said. "I need..." He made a waving motion with his hands, and shoved them into his pockets, looking irritated. "Things," he said.
"What kind of things?"
"The kind..." Duo hesitated, then shook his head. "There are places..." He brightened, then. "We need to buy things."
"Everything's closed, Duo," Alphonse said softly.
"Not to me!" Duo grinned over his shoulder at the suit of armor, and took off down the hallway. Edward stifled a growl, and took off after the small figure in black, Alphonse right behind him.
"I wish he'd stop doing that," Edward muttered.
"Brother," Alphonse said, noticing Duo hanging a right, away from the front doors. "Where's he going?"
Edward glanced at the signs, and shrugged, jogging along behind Duo. "Officer's Mess, looks like." They pushed through the door after Duo, waiting as Duo skidded under the counter, popping up on the other side. The boy rummaged through several containers, before pulling one out with a look of glee. He set it on the counter, and disappeared into the kitchen's storage, returning a few minutes later with his arms full of little bottles. Grabbing a potato bag from under the counter, Duo shoveled everything in, and then crawled under the counter.
"That's some, but we need lots more," he announced, heading for the door. He turned, waving them forward. "Come on!"
Edward gave Alphonse a confused look, and shook his head, following Duo again. Not more than ten minutes later, he found himself on the street, in front of a hardware store. Duo left the bag with Alphonse, and skittered down the alleyway, his footsteps silent as his black coat blended in with the darkness. Ed slouched against the wall of the alleyway, feeling grumpy.
"Brother," Alphonse whispered. "I think he's breaking into the store." The suit of armor fidgeted. "I'm not sure—"
"It's okay, Al," Edward said, even if he didn't feel it. "I don't know what he's doing, but I get the feeling he's done this before."
"That's what I'm worried about, brother."
Alphonse was quiet after that, and the two waited. Edward shifted several times, only stopping once Alphonse gave him a look, and Edward grumbled as he leaned against the wall, his arms crossed. He nearly leapt straight into the air at a touch on his shoulder.
"Warn me, wouldya?" Edward spat, trying to regain some dignity.
"Right," Duo replied, unperturbed. He held up a bag and a jug of water. "Got everything."
"What are you going to do with all that?" Edward picked up the potato sack, listening to the bottles clink.
"Come on," Duo told them. "Need to move away from here." He led the way again, and Edward realized they were heading back towards the house. A block from the house, though, he smelled something, and Edward stopped, sniffing.
"What is it, brother?"
Edward shook his head and took off, a foreboding feeling in his gut. Coming around the corner, he was shocked to see the doctor's house. It was lit up from the inside on the first floor, but the glow was orange, not the dull yellow of lamplight. Edward stared; barely registering Duo and Alphonse had joined him.
"It's burning," he whispered, and turned to see Duo's eyes wide, his mouth open. Duo shook his head, looking like he was trying to say something, and took a step forward. Edward realized immediately what Duo was intending, and grabbed a hole of the other boy's arm. "No," he said, urgently. "If it's burning, there's no reason to go in. We can do the same array, somewhere else. We have all the notes and books...you made sure of that. It's okay." He paused, trying to remember the unfamiliar word, and grinned sharply. "It's cool," he said.
The word seemed to snap Duo out of his trance, and he turned, giving Edward a haunted look. "Cool," he repeated, uncertain.
"Yeah, cool." Edward glanced at the bags in their hands. "Come on down this alley, and do whatever you need to. We don't have all night."
So it was that Edward found himself crouched next to Duo, alongside Alphonse, watching as Duo mixed the powder from the Officers' Mess with the powder from the hardware store, then poured it all out onto the ground. Duo pointed to the pile, a metal scoop in one hand.
"Can you...make warm," Duo said. "Fire. Not fire...make warm."
"I think I know what you mean," Edward said. "Wait, if I don't do it right, is this going to explode?"
"No." Duo shrugged, a lazy smirk flashing across his features. "Well...don't think so."
"Great," Edward mumbled, and clapped his hands together. Focusing on the pile, he placed his hands forward, watching as the pile melted into itself. He continued to hold his hands out until Duo bumped his arm.
"Good, stop, enough," Duo whispered, and began scooping the material into several jars. He stuck wooden matches in the top of each, and set the eight jars aside. Taking the rest of the jars, he poured water into each, followed by something that looked like gravel. Capping those tightly, he checked the first eight jars, humming low in his throat as he squatted over the rows of jars. "Good, good," he said, and grinned over his shoulder at Edward. Collecting the various jars, Duo shoved several into one pocket, and several into the other, then handed the rest to Alphonse. "You take," he instructed. "If anything goes bad, these will hurt you less than him."
"If anything goes bad?" Edward scowled. "What are these?"
Duo made a strange sound, and waved his arms, but it was enough to get the idea. Before Edward could respond, Duo had busied himself hiding the rest of the materials along the alley, behind various boxes of trash. When he was done, he stood up, giving Edward an expectant look.
"All right, then." Edward shivered as the winter wind came sweeping down the alley. "Let's start with the Lieutenant Colonel's offices."
Edward noted the two guards in front of the military headquarters. The three of them were tucked around the corner, while Edward tried to peek, but kept finding Duo was in his way. The shorter boy was crouched on the ground, studying the front of the building intently, and glanced up at Edward with a wide grin. Edward looked down to see Duo slipping two of the bottles from his pocket and setting them in the corner where the brickwork stood out a little. The gravel in the bottom of the jars rattled a little, and Duo flinched as he set them down carefully. Edward started to ask, but thought better of it. He wasn't sure he really wanted to know.
"Let's check the back," Edward whispered. Making their way between the fence and the bushes lining the perimeter of the building, the three regrouped in the back, where there was one soldier sitting on a stool by the back gate. Duo saw the man, and stood up, brushing the leaves off his coat.
"We go in that way," he announced. "Wait here, and I'll open."
"You'll what?" Edward managed to grab Duo's arm at the last second and tug him back. "What are you doing?"
"Just watch," Duo said, disengaging his arm from Ed's hand. He smoothed himself down again, and took off at a trot.
"Brother," Alphonse said, but Edward raised a hand, intent on Duo's progress.
The two watched as Duo strolled right up to the gate, motioning and speaking in a soft undertone. He pointed down the back driveway, and then in another direction, and Edward frowned as the soldier yawned, got up from the stool and went to stand in front of the iron gate. A second later Duo's hand shot out, between the gate, and slammed the soldier into the gate. The man hung there for a second, then slid down, and Duo turned, waving quickly to them.
Edward and Alphonse came running up from their hiding place by the corner. Alphonse was making worried sounds, and Edward stared at the soldier, then at Duo, who had already unlocked the gate and was through, into the yard.
"Sleeping," Duo said, and started to drag the man out of sight. "Keys, in pocket," he added, tossing the keys to Edward. Alphonse helped Duo move the man back to his original position, lifting him up onto the stool. The man's head lolled back, his mouth open. Duo patted the man's shoulder almost affectionately. "Sleeping," he whispered again. "Two bottles," he said to Alphonse, and picked the ones he wanted, dashing off to the side of the building before returning a few seconds later.
Edward, meanwhile, had figured out which key unlocked the building, and pushed the heavy wooden door open. The three tiptoed in, and Edward looked around for the back stairs. "Office is on the top floor," he whispered, pointing. The two others nodded.
"I watch," Duo said. "You go."
"Are you sure?" Alphonse shook his head, his armor clanging softly with the motion. "I can guard."
"I can't read," Duo pointed out. "You can. Go help."
Edward shrugged, and nodded to Alphonse. Together they left Duo at the bottom of the stairs, with the rest of the little bottles. At the top of the second flight, Edward paused, trying to get his bearings on the commandant's office before taking off down the hallway. Their footsteps were silent on the carpet, and there were no guards in sight.
"This is it," Edward said, stopping in front of a door that said Lieutenant Colonel Wasser.
Ready to create a new door, he started to clap his hands together when Alphonse tried the doorknob. It wasn't locked. Edward smirked, and pushed the door open the rest of the way. The layout looked remarkably similar to Mustang's office, with a main desk by the window and two desks on either side for his support staff. Filing cabinets lined one wall, with bookshelves on the other wall.
"I'll start on this side," Alphonse said.
Edward nodded, making his way to the left-hand desk, sorting through the papers. He wasn't sure what he was looking for, but if the military was involved in the chimeras, there would have to be something.
"Brother," Alphonse whispered loudly. He held up several letters. "These are drafts of letters demanding reinforcements, to protect the townsfolk against chimeras sent by Drachma." Alphonse glanced at the paper in his hand. "They're dated a week ago!"
"Before the chimeras were even let loose," Edward murmured. He moved to the Lieutenant Colonel's desk, trying every drawer. The bottom one was locked, but he wrenched it open easily with his metal arm. At least the bastard's organized, he thought, seeing a file with a neatly hand-lettered label of Doctor Kaufkorn. Flipping it open, Edward couldn't help but whistle. "Jackpot," he said, and pulled out all the papers, folding them and shoving them into his back pocket. It was a tight squeeze, but fortunately the file hadn't been too thick.
A soft whistle at the door alerted them both. Duo was standing there, looking worried. He knelt down, placing a little bottle on either side of the door, and grinned up at Edward through his bangs. "Found chimeras in the basement. Couldn't stay around, because the military people found the sleeping man," he whispered. "Have to go!"
"Right," Edward said. "I think we've got enough." Alphonse nodded, and Duo waved them into the hallway. Edward could hear footsteps pounding up the main stairs, and he glanced around. "Back stairs," he said, pointing, even as his mind was spinning rapidly. Chimeras were being kept in the basement. Perfect. Now if he could just get them, then that would be the last bit of proof he'd need to shut the operation down.
Two soldiers came around the corner, and Duo stepped forward, waving Edward and Alphonse back into the office. Edward hissed, caught off-guard as Duo shoved at his chest. There was a quick flame of a match, and then Duo tossed another bottle down the hallway. A whoosh echoed back to them, and Duo reached into the office, grabbing Edward.
"Now we run," Duo said.
Edward glanced over his shoulder to see billowing smoke. He could just make out the figures of the two guards, coughing and waving their arms. Duo turned, almost running backwards, and lit the fuse on another bottle, tossing it expertly. It hit the wall and exploded, smoke instantly filling the hallway. Alphonse was already through the doors, and Edward pounded down the stairs after him. They were trailed by Duo, who set off two more smoke bombs. At the bottom of the stairs, Edward halted, hearing footsteps pounding down the main hallway of the military headquarters. He frowned, and prepared to clap his hands.
Then an explosion rocked the building, followed by a second one, and then a third one. Edward stared at his hands, then realized it wasn't him, and gave Duo a confused look.
"Boom," Duo said, and grinned. He cocked his head to the side, and chuckled, a wicked sound. "All military people go look," he said.
Edward pushed the stairwell door open, and checked the hallway. It was empty, but he could hear sirens coming from the front doors. Making a quick decision, Edward shook his head as Duo headed for the back doors.
"This way," Edward said. "We're going out the front."
"The front?" Alphonse shook his head. "Brother, what about—"
"No," Edward said, grinning as he straightened his jacket, never breaking his stride.
Another explosion rocked the building, from the basement, and Duo's chuckle was barely audible. Edward rolled his eyes, and took a deep breath before pushing the front doors open. He walked out onto the imposing front steps. The gates were open and at least six military vehicles were pulled up onto the circular driveway. One car was in flames, obviously parked a little too close to the bombs Duo had left at the corner. The fence was rubble, and Edward grinned just as another explosion went off, somewhere in the upper floors.
"You!" A short, round man waddled forward, his military jacket haphazardly buttoned. There were fuzzy slippers on his feet, and his hair stuck up on one side. "I'm Lieutenant Colonel Wasser, and I demand to know why you've broken into my headquarters and—" another bomb blew out the windows on the second floor, and the people gathered on the lawn simultaneously ducked "—and bombed it! Just who do you think you are?"
Edward could see townsfolk gathering in the street, on the other side of the impromptu barricade of military vehicles. He raised his voice to be heard, shoving his hands in his pockets as he planted his feet widely. It was a cocky stance, but he was feeling rather pleased with himself.
"I'm the Fullmetal Alchemist, and I have proof that the chimeras loose in this town were created on your orders," he yelled. The crowd was silent, then a quick whisper ran through, like a ripple. Edward grinned, letting his smile grow sharp with teeth. "You hired Doctor Kaufkorn to create them, so you could have reason to bring more military into the town, and blame it all on Drachma."
"That's ridiculous! I'm only here to keep the peace," Wasser shouted back.
"Oh, yeah?" Edward arched an eyebrow, and stepped down another step. He was still looking down on the man, and he liked that just fine. "I have papers in my possession which are correspondence between you and Doctor Kaufkorn, detailing what you want in fighting chimeras, and where you want them placed, and when, to best frighten the town." The last part wasn't entirely true, but Edward figured it was implied, based on the quick look he'd had at the file. Besides, it was making the townspeople shift nervously and eye the Lieutenant Colonel and his men with a growing fear and irritation, and that was just what Edward wanted.
"You have no grounds to accuse me," Wasser retaliated. "You just broke into a military building, and set it on fire! You're the criminal, here!"
"I wouldn't have had to break in if you didn't insist on trying to keep me out," Edward replied, shrugging. There was another explosion from behind him, and he felt more than heard Alphonse's cry of alarm. Edward spun, clapping his hands quickly. The crowd screamed as light flashed upwards, dimming to reveal Edward with his favorite blade, jutting out from his wrist in a line with his forearm. And then, the first chimera was on him.
He slashed at the chest, twisting to kick another chimera as it jumped. The second chimera fell backwards, yelping. Duo grabbed it, knifing it deftly even as he avoided another chimera's attack. Alphonse punched a fifth chimera, then grabbed the next and threw it against the wall. Two more chimeras came through the door, straight for Edward. He ducked, his right hand going into the first's stomach as he flipped it over his head. The second chimera hit him in the chest. He twisted, kicking it towards Duo, who caught it, slitting its throat. Alphonse slammed a fist into the last chimera's head. It slid across the stone steps to land in a heap against the other bodies. Edward looked around, noting Duo's arm was bloody but he was grinning as he wiped his knife. Alphonse was studying the chimeras' bodies, and nodded to Edward.
"All six, brother," Alphonse reported.
Edward scowled a little, and clapped his hands for the alchemical reaction to melt the blade back into his metal arm. He nudged the closest body with his boot, and glanced at Duo. The boy seemed much too pleased with himself. "You have anything to do with this?" Edward asked in an undertone.
Duo raised his eyebrows and shrugged nonchalantly, then jerked his head towards the street. Edward turned to see the crowd frozen. His movement seemed to ignite something, and the crowd began screaming furiously. Several of the soldiers nearest began ducking and dodging, scrambling to get behind the cars. Edward realized the people were throwing rocks and bricks: anything they could get their hands on.
"Are you going to stop them?" Duo's voice was soft as he came to stand beside Edward.
"Why?" Edward shoved his hands in his pockets and rocked back on his heels, watching. "Not my problem. I dealt with the chimeras. Let them clean up the rest of the mess." He could feel Duo's eyes on him, and he shrugged. "Law of Conservation. What do I have to gain, from doing more?"
Duo opened his mouth, and then closed it, turning away with a distant look on his face. "Nothing, I guess," he whispered. "Nothing important to you."
"Yeah," Edward replied, but the smug feeling faded, a little. He shook it off, focusing on the satisfaction of watching Wasser running around in his bedroom slippers, trying to get the soldiers to follow his commands and get him safely away from the crowd. Unfortunately, a number of the soldiers looked close to mutiny. The ones that weren't refusing weren't doing much to alleviate the situation, either, too busy trying to dodge the crowd's projectiles. In the midst of the furor, Edward belatedly realized a man was walking up the steps, flanked by two more officers carrying guns. One of them was Second Lieutenant Holt.
"That's far enough," Edward told them, his senses suddenly on alert. Their guns were out, but not trained on him, and he relaxed slightly. "What do you want?"
"Peace and quiet," the man said. He was tall, with broad shoulders, but he carried himself in a relaxed manner. It reminded Edward of Lieutentant Colonel Mustang, and he tensed, noting that the insignias on the man's jacket indicated he was an officer. "I'm Major Selwyn."
Selwyn glanced at the crowd, which was slowly calming down as the soldiers continued to offer no resistance. Behind them, the building burned. A number of citizens were streaming into the yard, bringing hoses to put out the fire. The group on the steps ignored them all, despite the growing heat emanating from the imposing structure.
"I was aware of the Lieutenant Colonel's machinations," Selwyn said, calmly. "You have to understand, when you're stationed to an outpost like this, the chances of promotion are next to nothing, unless you're in command of a large force that's going to see regular action. It's been ten years since we've had any skirmishes on the border."
Edward crossed his arms and glowered. "So?"
"Just explaining," Selwyn replied. "I was never crazy about having chimeras loose on our streets. Wasser had his eyes on boosting his command, however, and couldn't see past his nose to the real prize."
The man smiled then, and it wasn't a pleasant expression. His eyes drifted past Edward, and Edward tensed, ready to leap into action to defend his brother. Could Selwyn possibly have found out that Alphonse was soul-bound to the suit of armor? Edward thought frantically. Had anyone seen them putting the books in Alphonse, or taking them out? All it would take was one glance, and a smart mind could figure out...His thoughts were interrupted by Selwyn's polite cough.
"You've effectively unseated Wasser, and I can guarantee that this town will return to its peaceful ways, with a new commandant relatively shortly," Selwyn was saying.
"How do you figure that?" Edward looked out across the crowd, and stepped down a few more steps. The three people on the steps backed up as well, giving them room to get away from the burning building. "I see mostly chaos right now."
"People have short memories. Once the chimeras are gone, they won't care about much else." Selwyn shrugged. "I'll offer you a deal. You can take the knowledge that you've probably saved a number of lives from dreadful chimera attacks, and head back to Central. In the meantime, I'll take the real prize."
Edward shifted on his feet, then realized the guns were now pointing to his left, not his right. It took only a heartbeat and he couldn't hold back the gasp. "Duo..."
"You gave it a name?" Selwyn nodded to one of the officers, who stepped forward, gun still ready as he dug in his pocket, bringing out handcuffs. Holt remained where she was, her gun swinging between Duo and Edward, her eyes narrow. Edward didn't move. Even with the speed of his alchemical reactions, he still couldn't move fast enough to stop a bullet.
"Got 'im, sir," the second officer said.
"Wait," Edward interrupted, unable to stop his voice from going up a notch, desperately. "He's not a homunculus."
"Really?" Selwyn looked bored. "Like you have any way to prove that. Your suitcase is waiting at the train station, and I suggest you be on the next train. All the materials in your room seem to have disappeared when the janitor cleaned. Pity. I understand National Alchemists are big on research, but you'll gain nothing from getting in my way. And if he's not a homunculus, what do you care, anyway?"
"I..." Edward couldn't think of anything to say, to that. Technically, he knew, he didn't really care. There was nothing he could learn from Duo's existence, nothing that would enlighten him on the alchemical processes that might get him one step closer to the Philosopher's Stone. And that was all that really counted, in the end. Nothing else mattered, of course, other than the fact that Duo had offered friendship with no expectation of a return. Edward opened his mouth again, and something caught his eye.
Duo was standing by the soldier, his head down, a small black shape on the stone steps. His hands were cuffed behind him, and the officer had him by the elbow, facing Selwyn and Holt. Only Edward and Alphonse could see Duo's hands, and they were moving in a quick series of gestures. Edward wasn't sure what they meant, or what Duo was trying to say, but those hand-flashes reminded him of Duo's gestures from the top of the stairs, when they'd first discovered the chimeras were gone. Edward struggled to remember, aware of the fire at his back, the shouting populace in the streets, and the two guns—one on him, one on Duo. What had he said?
You go in first, and I'll come around from behind. Edward wasn't sure if that was what the hand signals had meant, then, or now. He had no idea, really, of the exact message Duo was trying to say, but he decided to go with his gut instinct. Edward relaxed his shoulders, giving Selwyn a casual shrug.
"All right, then, we're square. You can have your fake homunculus." Edward grinned, a bit toothily, matching Selwyn's smile. "Al and I will find our own way to the station."
Alphonse murmured something behind Edward, but Edward shook his head, silencing him. The second officer tugged Duo forward, and Duo went, his head down, his braid swaying behind him as he was shoved towards a waiting car. Selwyn watched, and gave Edward a cursory nod, turning to follow. Holt followed as well, her gun still at the ready. She didn't bother to salute Edward, and he snorted at her back, unimpressed.
"Brother," Alphonse said, "we should move away from the building...and go get him back."
"Yes to the moving, no to the getting," Edward replied, trotting quickly down the steps and around into the side yard.
Keeping his head down, he wove through the crowd, ignoring their shouting as they threw water buckets at the lower windows and trained hoses on the upper windows. Edward was quiet, knowing Alphonse was next to him, until they were on the street behind the headquarters, putting more distance between them and the burning building. The wind pulled at the corners of his black jacket, colder now that he was no longer standing so close to an inferno. Edward sighed and shoved his hands deeper in his pockets, watching his feet. Alphonse was quiet, clanking along behind him, until they turned the corner to see the train station.
"Brother," Alphonse said, a little desperately. "We shouldn't leave him. They're going to do horrible things to him—"
"Maybe they will," Edward said, trying to sound cool and uncaring. "But once they find he's not what they think he is..."
"How? A homunculus isn't supposed to have a soul, but it is supposed to walk, and talk, and look like a human being. How can he prove he's got a soul? It's not like there's an array stamped on him somewhere..." Alphonse trailed off, and his silence stabbed at Edward even more than his words. Al's voice returned, a reproving whisper. "We shouldn't have let them take him."
"What was I supposed to do? I can't stop a bullet at five feet, Al." Edward hunched his shoulders. "And if they'd shot you instead, it would have been clear immediately that you're an even bigger prize," Edward retorted under his breath. He headed for the ticket window, unsurprised to find the ticket clerk was a military officer. Edward didn't even have to say anything, but was immediately handed his coat and his suitcase, two tickets, and waved towards the platform. "Come on," he said, leading the way to a bench on the southbound side as he pulled on his coat. "Next train is in thirty minutes."
"I don't want to be anyone's prize," Alphonse said. "But I don't want anyone else to be, either."
"I know, Al." Edward leaned back, putting his hands behind his head and stretching his legs out in front of him. "But you're what's really important to me. I won't risk you. If Duo's going to get out of there, it's up to him."
"Do you think he can?"
"I think he thinks he can, and that's going to have to be good enough."
Alphonse sighed. "I hope so."