Duo stayed where he was, somewhat relieved the guard hadn't thought to hit him a second time to make sure. A quick rolling back of the eyes and an ungraceful fall straight down was often a good move - if running was out of the question, that is. He laid on his side, his eyes barely open, and stared at the array. The chalk lines were thick and white and meant nothing to him, but every now and then he could catch a glimpse of silver threading through the curves. He saw it only in his peripheral vision, and it was gone the second he moved his eyes to look. Heavy footsteps came closer, and he instinctively relaxed his body, letting his eyes close to slits.
"...I'm not convinced, and a second array would—"
"General, I would normally agree, but given that your references have come to the same conclusion as I, perhaps we should try it at least once," Mustang's voice answered.
A hand grabbed Duo by the scruff of his neck and hauled him upright, and an arm grabbed him around the chest. Duo made a point of groaning softly, as though he were coming around. Before he could get his feet under him, he was dragged backwards. One of the guards had him securely, pulling him back until he was by the wall, and dropping him there. Duo glanced up at the guard with a scowl, and then realized something he'd not thought to ask.
"Hey, mister," he whispered, ignoring Mustang and Tanaka speaking at the edge of the array. Two more people had joined the men—an older man and woman—also in dark blue. Duo noticed they had silver chains hanging from their belts, like Mustang and Edward. "Hey," Duo repeated. When the guard looked down, Duo raised his eyebrows and tried to look nonchalant. "How many days are in a year?"
"How many..." The guard blinked. "Uh...three hundred and sixty-five, not counting leap years," he said, baffled.
"Ah." Good, Duo thought. He wasn't sure what a leap year might be, but he suspected the rotational length for this world was likely identical to his own. He doubted there was much in it, but since he'd raised the issue, he figured he'd make sure. "Leap year...three-hundred sixty-six days?"
"Yeah." The guard frowned and crossed his arms. "Now, shut up, kid."
Duo grinned and made himself comfortable against the wall, figuring he had a prime spot to watch the goings-on. Mustang and Tanaka had pulled back slightly, and Alphonse was talking with Edward. Then Alphonse came to stand by Duo, but didn't say anything. Duo looked up, winking at the suit of armor, before returning his attention to Edward.
The young man was a slight figure against all the dark blue suits in the room, and was shedding his red jacket and tossing it to the side. His black under-coat was waist-length, flaring out slightly as he stood with his hands on his hips, his chin up as he turned in a circle, studying the secondary arrays on the wall. Duo glanced over his head at the one above him when Edward looked his way, and mentally inserted the diagrams he'd pasted on the wall in Hilde's garage. Everything was in place as far as he could tell, but he had no idea about the design in the center.
Mustang said something to one of the other alchemists, and the woman came to the door, picked up the wooden chair, and carried it back to Mustang. Edward took the chair, stepping carefully over the chalk lines to place the chair in the center. Duo caught only a few of Mustang's low-pitched words, but it seemed that the chair was to act as the first test subject. Duo smirked.
Better it than me, he thought.
Edward glanced over at Mustang, as though waiting for a cue, and knelt down when he received Mustang's irritated nod. There was a pause, then Edward sat back on his heels, clapping his hands sharply. Leaning forward, he slammed his hands down onto the edge of the circle.
Blue light exploded upwards from the main array. The secondaries lit up with a silvery light that shone into the room. Tanaka and his guards threw up their arms, shielding their eyes, but Duo only squinted, unwilling to take his eyes off Edward and the main circle. The blue light was streaking upwards, wavering as though weaving through smoke, and tinting gold at the peak. The gold began to slip downwards, absorbing more of the blue until all the arrays, including the secondaries, were beacons of gold and red.
Wind whipped through the room, catching the military coats and flaring them outwards. Mustang's hair was rippling around his face, and Duo's bangs blew into his eyes and out again. Edward still knelt by the array, his shoulders tensed. He looked like he was forcibly pushing the array to bend to his will. His golden braid snaked around behind him in the wind, snapping like a scorpion's tail as he leaned onto his hands. One foot was braced against the floor behind him, as though he were getting ready to pounce.
Something was forming in the center of the array, and Duo scrambled to his feet. The guard next to him barely noticed, too busy covering his face against the strong wind. Duo chuckled and rolled his eyes. The wind shear wasn't even half what he'd gotten from having a Gundam flyby in close quarters. He braced himself against the currents circling the room, his eyes fixed on the array.
The shape flickered, the chair seeming to melt, then disappear, to be replaced with a taller shape that dropped down to a small shape. The golden light echoing the chalk lines suddenly shifted to silver, starting at the center and spreading outwards from yellow to white like the ripples in a pond. The lamp on the wall shattered. The double doors blew open, then slammed shut. One of the guards yelled something. Duo stepped forward, unable to take his eyes away from the shape in the circle. The silver light grew brighter, blinding, and then died. Duo blinked. The shape was gone - or was it?
No, it was huddled in the middle of the array, but slowly it unbent, coming to its knees.
"Another homunculus," Tanaka said, his deep voice filled with satisfaction. "Guards—"
Duo blinked again, rubbed his eyes, and shot forward. "Hilde! Hilde!"
The figure crumpled again, her hands over her ears, but she dropped them at Duo's shout. "Duo? What the hell! Where have you—"
"I'm fine, just stay—"
One of the guards caught Duo's braid. Duo snarled, twisting as he kicked out at the man's kneecaps. The guard punched, catching Duo in the jaw. He hit the ground, immediately rolling over on his stomach as he tried to get to his feet. The room was spinning from the punch, and he fell to his elbows with a groan. The guard lunged forward again. There was a flash of light, and Duo blinked. He turned, looking up to see Edward standing over him, legs on either side of Duo's waist.
"Don't touch him," Edward spat, the knife blade glittering in the room's single remaining wall lamp.
"Hey," Duo said, scrambling out from under Edward's legs. "Thanks, but you've got to send her back now, send her back—"
"I will," Edward replied, not moving, his body braced. "But if they interrupt me—"
He cut off his words, twisting and leaning to fling his right arm outwards. The blade came to rest, dangerously close to Selwyn's throat. The man had tried to approach the array from behind Edward. Selwyn's gun was trained on Hilde. At the back of the room, another guard had a gun on Alphonse, preventing him from moving closer to the array. The two alchemists were almost incoherent, and Duo couldn't pick out their words and didn't bother. He was too focused on Hilde's terrified face as she huddled in the center of the circle.
"Duo!" Hilde's expression was somewhere between terror and extreme annoyance. "What the hell is this? Howard and I—"
"Howie?" Duo felt like laughing. "Just stay there, Hilde, Edward's going to send you home again." He came to his feet at Edward's side, and it took him a second to remember he was speaking his own language. He moved to stand almost back-to-back with Edward, and spoke over his shoulder as he pointed at Hilde. Shifting quickly into Edward's language, he told Edward, "She's my friend. You've got to get her out of here."
"I will," Edward promised. Selwyn stepped slowly away from the array, and Edward brought his hands together, shoulder-width apart. "I just—"
"Don't make a move," another guard said. His gun was pointed at Edward. "General Tanaka wants the homunculus."
"She's not a homunculus!" Duo launched himself forward the single step distance, cold-cocking the guard under the chin in one blow. The man fell backwards, unconscious. "Bastard," Duo spat, and pulled a leg back to kick the man.
"Wait!" The General's shout was impressive, and the room came to a complete silence. Even Mustang looked startled. Edward turned to look at the General with barely-masked irritation. The General ignored him, and strode forward to stand over Duo. "You, boy. Do you know this girl?"
"Yeah," Duo said. "She's Hilde. She's a friend of mine."
"I wasn't aware that homunculi had friends," the General said, almost to himself. He glared at Duo. "What language are you speaking?"
"I don't know the word for it in your language," Duo told him, puzzled. "We call it standard."
"Standard." The General hummed to himself, and clasped his hands behind his back, turning to one of the other Alchemists. "Mathrey. Your report said homunculi must be educated completely by the creating Alchemist—"
"Duo," Hilde hissed in an undertone, her eyes darting back and forth between the men. "What are they saying?"
"Be quiet a minute," Duo whispered back, as loudly as he dared. "We're trying to convince him you're not...you're not..." He frowned, and waved one hand at her for silence. "Just hold on."
One of the guards stepped closer to the array, his foot nudging the chalk line. Edward frowned and stood up, his hands on his hips. "Get away from the array," he spat.
"Fullmetal," Mustang warned.
"—But homunculi are supposed to—" One of the Alchemists was explaining.
"Colonel," Edward protested. The guard took another step, and Edward didn't hesitate. He clapped his hands, pressing them against the floor. Blue light from the reaction shot upwards then streaked towards the guard to spread out in a circle around the man.
"What the hell?" Tanaka burst out. Duo turned his back to the array and Edward, ready to defend.
The blue light faded as the guard hollered. The floor had somehow melted upwards, wrapping around the guard and pinning him in place in with steel bonds. Edward shot Duo a smirk. The rest of the guards still had their guns trained on Hilde. The girl was curled up in a ball, trying to make herself the smallest possible target. Her blue eyes were glazed with fright, and she seemed to be shaking. Duo sighed, knowing he'd done the same thing when he'd first come through, and tried to focus on deciphering the four people talking at once. Mustang's voice was too low, and the Alchemists were speaking at the same time. The General's voice rode over all of them.
"Transposition," he announced. "I'm still not convinced—"
"There's no known records of making a homunculus from a chair," Edward interrupted. "If it were that easy, we'd be swarming with them."
Duo turned in time to see Hilde lower her hands, and start to straighten up. Two of the guards raised their guns again. Duo could hear the safeties clicking off. He tensed, and Edward noticed with a scowl.
"General Tanaka, sir!" Edward pointed to the guards. "Those men—"
"Tell them to lower their guns!" Duo interjected. "You're scaring my friend!"
"What the hell does a homunculus know about guns?" Mathrey scoffed.
Duo pulled out his gun and shoved it, one-handed, into the man's face. "I know enough to kill you," Duo snapped.
The room was silent for a minute, then Tanaka narrowed his eyes. "Fullmetal gave this boy a gun, Colonel Mustang," he said coldly. "I am not impressed with—"
"It's not my gun, and I didn't transmute it, damn it," Edward retorted. He pointed at the trapped guard. "I don't need one!"
"Hilde!" Duo shouted over his shoulder. He kept his own gun trained on the Alchemist. "Where's your sidearm?"
"Right here," she called back. "Who do I shoot first?"
"Not me!" Edward yelled at her, putting his hands up.
Hilde giggled, and Duo guessed she'd shifted her target to someone else. Duo wasn't surprised that Edward had gotten the gist of the conversation—tones carried more meaning than people realized. At least Hilde knew Duo well enough to figure out right away that Edward was a friend, based on the fact that he and Duo were almost back-to-back. Duo wondered distantly if Hilde's mischievous side had surfaced long enough to tease Edward. He smirked at the thought.
"Mathrey," Tanaka said, in a strangely calm voice that rumbled through the room, "I do not believe that a homunculus would be transmuted with a gun in hand."
Selwyn stepped forward, and Duo realized that Hilde had picked Selwyn as her target. The man's hands were up, and empty. "Sir," Selwyn said, "transposition is still a valuable tool. Far more valuable than homunculi."
"True," Tanaka replied, eyeing Duo's gun. "Put that down, boy." He shook his head, and looked around at the guards. "Everyone, holster your weapons." He snapped his fingers at Hilde, and Duo stifled a grin. "You, girl, you too."
"Duo?" Hilde's voice was thin with fear.
"Yeah, I think it's cool," Duo told her, shoving his own gun into the back of his jeans and dropping his shirt over it. "You can put it away."
"And you, Fullmetal," Tanaka added. "Drop your hands."
Duo realized Edward's hands had been ready to clap for the past several minutes, and he winked at Edward. He got a scowl back for his efforts, and shrugged in response. Edward nodded, and dropped his hands, waiting.
"Transposition, hunh," Tanaka said, thoughtfully. "Colonel Mustang."
"Sir," Mustang said. He stepped forward. His hair was a little tousled from the wind, but he seemed bored, as though the past so many minutes were no more fascinating than watching paint dry on a spare part. The Colonel's dark eyes flashed once, in Duo's direction, and Duo thought he caught a bit of amusement at the whole thing. Mustang certainly didn't seem too worried.
"I would appreciate you assigning Fullmetal to be interviewed by my staff, until the knowledge has been properly transferred and recorded," Tanaka announced.
"Of course, sir," Mustang replied, in that smooth voice.
"Do you, boy..." Tanaka turned to Duo. "Do you know how to do this array?"
Duo shook his head. "I still don't know how I got here, really."
"I see." Tanaka pondered that for a moment, then looked at Mustang.
"Sir!" Edward's voice was low, but urgent. "The array—"
Duo turned to see the silver light fading, and he frowned, puzzled. "What's going on?"
Hilde looked around, then at Edward's frown. She leaned towards Duo, and started to stand up. "Duo?"
"Stay there, Hil," Duo called.
"Fullmetal?" Tanaka's voice was almost hesitant, as if he'd just realized he was truly out of his depth. Behind him, Mustang's lips curled sardonically, but the expression was gone instantly and Duo could see Mustang tensing, his eyes on Edward.
"We've got to send her back, now," Edward said. "Duo, get out of the way." He clapped his hands and dropped to his knees, slapping the palms of his hands against the edge of the chalk circle. The blue light streamed upwards, then just as quickly flickered and died.
"Mustang, what the hell—" Tanaka barked.
"It's the other half of the equation," Edward yelled over his shoulder. Hilde was frozen in the middle of the circle. "Someone on the other side has to put energy into the matching array—" He sat back, clapping his hands together with an intent expression. He slapped them down on the array.
"Damn it, Howie," Duo muttered. "Don't give up. Don't call it quits for the night..."
"What? What's going on?" Hilde yelled.
"It works both ways," Duo told her, in the silence as everyone watched. "Howard's got to be powering it from the other side...or it doesn't work."
"And I'm trapped?" Hilde's voice went up in a shriek. "Duo Maxwell, if that's true, I'm going to—"
"Damn it, Hilde," Duo snapped. "Howard wouldn't just give up, would he?"
"He only just got to L2," Hilde replied. "He came as fast as he could. I didn't know who else in the Sweepers might help, and I know he's exhausted, and—"
"There!" Edward shouted, pointing to a thin silver beam slicing down one of the secondary arrays. He grinned at Hilde, a sharp look, and held out his hands. "Hold on!"
"He says hold on," Duo repeated.
"I think I got the damn meaning!" Hilde shot Duo an annoyed look and fell to her knees. She clasped her hands behind her neck and ducked her head.
"And don't forget, put something by the ECM or else the ECM will get transferred," Duo shouted. "You let that happen, and I'll—" Hilde raised one hand, waving it, and Duo shut up, grinning. Hilde made a disgusted sound and wrapped her hand over the back of her neck again.
Edward's palms meeting together made a resounding clap, and he slammed them down onto the floor with all the power in his body. The blue light shot upwards, and Duo stepped backwards. The wind whipped fiercest around the edge of the circle. Duo could see Selwyn dragging the unconscious guard out of harm's way. The light shifted to gold, then split through with silver. The light was overwhelming, but Edward was staring intently into the center of the array, his lips tight, his teeth bared.
Then the light faded, and Duo blinked.
The wooden chair was back in the center of the array. There was a half-eaten sandwich on it, sitting on a paper napkin.
Mustang chuckled, and after a second even Tanaka had to shake his head and laugh quietly.
"And I would suppose homunculi eat peanut-butter sandwiches in whatever realm they come from?" He turned to Mathrey with a raised eyebrow. The Alchemist could only shrug, and look puzzled. Tanaka smiled ruefully, then, and turned to Duo. "All right, boy, say your goodbyes and head home."
"Thanks," Duo said. He glanced past the group to see Alphonse still on the edges, and smiled. Moving around the group of guards and Alchemists, he trotted over to Alphonse, leaning back to look up at the suit of armor. "Hey," he said.
"Hey," Alphonse said, his voice echoing softly in the armor's depths.
"I owe you lots," Duo told him.
"No," Alphonse replied, and giggled. "You would have done the same for me."
"Yeah." Duo ducked his head, grinning up at Alphonse through his hair. He dropped his voice to a whisper. "So...I'll be seeing you, right?"
"That would be...cool," Alphonse said.
"Good," Duo told him, and placed his palm flat on Alphonse's chest. "I know you'll find what you're looking for."
"Thanks. I hope, so too—"
"No," Duo said, and grinned. "I know you will. Just...take care of Edward."
"I always do," Alphonse said, with a little bow.
Duo nodded, and headed for Mustang. The man looked down at him, his expression implacable, and Duo realized he was—for once—at a loss for words. The audience standing around didn't help, either, and Duo decided to do the only thing he could think of. Mimicking Edward as best he could, he bowed his head, leaning forward a bit and holding it for a second before straightening up. It felt strange, but when he looked back up at Mustang, he was surprised to see the man was returning the gesture, though not as deeply. Duo smiled, and moved to stand by Edward. The other boy was staring at the array, his eyes troubled.
"It's not lighting up," Edward whispered.
"It will," Duo assured him. "Hilde will make sure Howard keeps at it until you get me back."
"You're so certain about it," Edward said, and he sounded almost sad.
Duo punched Edward lightly in the shoulder, glad he was on Edward's right side, not his left side. He pretended to wince and shake his hand anyway, and was rewarded with a raised eyebrow and an eye-roll from Edward.
"Five years," Duo said, under his breath. He crossed his arms and stared down at his feet, vaguely aware Tanaka was waving the rest of the room back, leaving him alone with Edward. "You think you'll be around?"
"Will you?" Edward glanced sideways, through his eyelashes, at Duo. Those golden eyes caught Duo for a second, and he gave Edward a rueful smile. Edward frowned, and shook his head. "Don't die."
"I'll do my best." Duo squared his shoulders. "So...I guess...now, you do it again, hunh."
The array began flickering, silver streaks lighting the lines and pooling in the intersections. Duo smiled.
"Guess that's the sign," he said.
"Yeah." Edward stepped back, and pointed to the center. "Go on. Don't step on the lines," he added.
"Whatever," Duo shot back. "Like I'd mess up your precious array."
"You would," Edward told him. "You'd find a way to blow it up."
"Explosions are good," Duo called over his shoulder, as he stepped carefully into the few bare spaces between the lines. He had to keep an eye on his feet, as though walking through a minefield. "Oh!" He turned, and started to shrug off the coat. "You want this back?"
"What do I need it for?" Edward pointed at his own coat. "I've got one. Besides, yours is too short for me to wear."
"In your dreams!" Duo taunted, hopping the last step into the center, and seating himself cross-legged in one graceful move. "All right, do your fancy light stuff."
"Fancy light stuff, he says," Edward muttered, but his lips were curling up at the edges. He knelt by the array, and paused as he held out his hands. When Duo nodded, Edward smiled then, a little shyly, and waved with his right hand, just a hint of movement. Then he took a deep breath, lowered his brows in concentration, and clapped his hands together.
When the wind and light died down, the room was silent. Edward sat back with a gasp, feeling the strain and wear of the past twenty-four hours finally crash down on him. He wiped his forehead with the back of his hand, and looked up at the array. Duo was gone, but a metal chair sat in its place, and Edward smiled to himself as he climbed to his feet. Apparently Duo's friend had paid attention, and put something in the circle for the exchange. He imagined Duo celebrating his return with his friends, and figured the boy was still talking, and would be for the next six hours. He sighed, and turned to see General Tanaka approaching with a stern expression. Instinctively Edward stiffened, then noticed Mustang was smirking. Edward couldn't hide the scowl.
Bastard's acting like he knew it would all work out perfectly, he thought. I didn't see Mustang on his knees running through that array three times in twenty minutes. Edward jerked himself back to the present when Tanaka began speaking.
"Fullmetal," Tanaka said, his voice gentler and more exhausted. "Get some sleep. Colonel Mustang will let you know when my staff is ready to meet with you—possibly in a day or two."
"Yes, sir," Edward said, and straightened his shoulders. He wasn't going to fall over in front of anyone, though the idea was tempting if it meant sleep sooner rather than later. Behind Tanaka, Mustang nodded. His gaze was distant, though, fixed on the single metal chair in the middle of the array.
"As for the Chimera Project," Tanaka continued, "you know nothing of it. And once you've educated my staff to the best of your ability, this project, too, will cease to exist. Have I made myself clear?"
"Yes, sir," Edward repeated.
"Good. Now do something about Warrant Officer Kurowski," Tanaka said, raising his eyebrows in the direction of the guard still ensnared at the edge of the array. Tanaka watched as Edward clapped his hands together and placed them on the floor. The bonds slipped down, melting back into the floor, and Tanaka nodded to his men. Selwyn and Mathrey lifted the still-unconscious guard, while the female Alchemist assisted the freed guard out of the room. The rest filed out, silently, and did not look at Alphonse, Edward, or Mustang.
"Clean up before you leave," Mustang said softly. Edward frowned and opened his mouth to retort, but Mustang was already striding from the room.
"Rude bastard," Edward muttered, and turned to scuff at the edge of the array with his foot.
"Brother," Alphonse said. "I think...I think that's not what he meant."
"Hunh?" Edward looked up, to see Alphonse hovering over the metal chair. Edward joined him, looking down at the seat of the chair, where Al was pointing. There was a single sheet of paper, with a series of squiggly lines going down the page in a single line. Alphonse picked it up, looking at it closely, then set it aside.
"Brother," Alphonse said, his tone reverent. "Look..."
Carefully he lifted up the small paper that had been hidden under the large one. Raising it up so they could see it in the single lamp still lit by the door, Al tilted it so they could both look. It was a picture of Duo, blurred a little, as though he were turning. Behind him, they could see something mechanical, which looked a bit like the drill press Winly sometimes used. Duo had a screwdriver behind one ear, and a wrench in his hand. There was a smudge of oil across one cheek, and he was smirking at someone off to the side. He looked quite pleased with himself.
"Equivalent trade," Alphonse whispered, and held out the picture to Edward.
"Yeah," Edward said. Carefully he tucked the picture into the back pocket of his jeans, and began helping Alphonse clean up the room.