These words are part of 18K total requested by Ravensilver, Tripoverhercats, and Mikkeneko, who together donated $180 to MSF and UNICEF. Thank you--and all others who donated--for your compassion and generosity. word count towards pledge:6,000

sol 1056

The Restraint of Desire

chapter 7. steadfast
part 2 of The Contraries Arc

When thou seest an Eagle, thou seest a portion of Genius. Lift up thy head!—William Blake, Proverbs of Hell

"Watch your head," Mustang warned. He bent forward, and Alphonse bent with him. A branch passed above them, and Mustang sat up again. "Forest is getting thicker."

"Mm." Alphonse sighed, and tried to see the cold in his feet and ankles as a good thing; at least his ankle had stopped aching so badly, but his thighs and ass were more than making up for the quiet ankle. He hated to think it, but sometimes having a body again was more trouble than it was worth. He'd forgotten what it was like to be impervious.

"You okay back there?" Mustang's voice was soft, and for a moment it sounded like he asked without really caring for an answer. As if he were asking because it was the right thing to murmur in the early dawn, in a frozen wood, on a dark brown horse clomping along a less-traveled footpath.

"Yeah," Alphonse said, and flexed his fingers, to get some feeling back in them.

"You don't need to hold on so tight," Mustang replied. He chuckled, and let the reins drop to catch Alphonse's hands and guide them into the pockets of his coat. "That should help."

"But won't I—"

"You're not going to fall off."

Alphonse glanced over Roy's shoulder. "You're not holding the ropes!"

"Reins. And now I am," he said, picking them back up. "Better?" When Alphonse didn't answer, Mustang chuckled again, and patted Alphonse's arm. "Creek coming up."

In the silence—broken only by the horse's hooves crunching against old snow—Alphonse could hear the rushing of fast water. Around a bend, and the path curved down past a bluff and led straight into fast-moving water. Heavy branches hung low over the water, leaves trapped in glittering icicles. Alphonse shivered, and wished they could move faster.

The horse struggled through the foot-deep water, and up onto the opposite bank, where the forest cleared out. When Mustang made an odd clicking sound, the horse picked up its pace.

Alphonse's teeth clattered in his head, and he had a momentary pang that he'd ever wished they could go faster. Somehow, over the rushing sound in his ears and the throbbing in his thighs and seat, he realized Mustang was saying something.


"You've got the watch."

"Oh." Mustang shook his head, and clenched his fingers. "Get it from my pocket. I think my fingers are frozen around the reins."

"That's not good, sir," he replied, finding the chain attached to Mustang's belt loop and pulling the watch free. "Quarter to six." He put the watch back in Mustang's pocket. "You keep it, sir."

"Half-hour," Mustang grumbled. "Damn it."


"Mustang is fine. Or Flame," Mustang replied, then said something softer, almost too soft for Alphonse to hear. "I think your brother is rubbing off on me." He didn't sound displeased, just surprised.

"Is it hard to steer a horse?"

"Depends, but it's not a car. Why?"

Alphonse rolled his eyes at Mustang's obtuseness; he suspected it was on purpose. "My hands are fine. I'll hold the reins and you warm up your hands. You'll need them."

Mustang was quiet for a minute or two, then nodded, letting Alphonse reach around him to take the reins. "Hold them steady, but not, like this. Right. Got it?"

"Do I have to pull on them or something?"

"No." Mustang tucked his hands into his pockets, pulling the coat closer around him; he relaxed minutely. "I'm actually steering with my legs."

"Legs?" Alphonse blinked. "What's the point of the reins?"

"Habit." Mustang shrugged. "Besides, it's an unfamiliar horse, so it needs to have some kind of reassurance. Other than that, it's just a matter of giving it enough room to run, but not so much it forgets who's really boss."

"You let it do what it wants, as long as what it wants is what you want," Alphonse murmured, half to himself.

"Pretty much."

Just like you did with my brother for so many years, Alphonse thought, and grinned. Mustang couldn't see him, but he figured that was just as well.

"Time?" It was Alphonse's turn to flex his hands, and wonder why he'd not brought gloves, or bothered to create some. Doing it now would be easily heard across a long distance, he was sure. The mountains would catch the sound and roll it back at them.

Mustang dug around in his pockets, checking the watch. "Quarter past six," he reported, closing the watch with a snap. "I'll take those back," he added, and Alphonse gratefully put his hands in the warm pockets of Roy's coat.

"An hour," Roy grumbled. "Far too long, and..." His words trailed off, and Alphonse peered over his shoulder.

They stood on a small cliff, and the trail wound down to the road below. The snow was almost a foot deep here, and a small halfway house for travelers sat back from the road, nestled in the snowdrifts. The house was dark; no smoke came from its chimney.

"Damn it," Mustang swore. He leaned forward, silent for a moment, and Alphonse waited, feeling the disappointment just as strongly. After a moment, Mustang sat back, shoulders slumped. He made that clicking sound again, and tugged on the reins. "I suppose we might as well just take the—"

"Hold!" Alphonse tightened his grip, listening. From far off, he'd heard something...faint, but there. "Back in the woods," he hissed, tugging at Mustang as though through his own will the horse would turn around and hide.

To his shock, the horse backed up, and Mustang glanced over his shoulder at Alphonse, smirking.

"Well-trained horse," Mustang murmured, and the next thing Alphonse knew, they were hidden behind a tall thicket. The horse shook its head, and Mustang patted it on the neck, leaning forward, listening intently.

The sound resolved, becoming men's voices. From around the curve in the road, a group of men appeared—and there, among them, in a flash of red, had to be Edward.

Alphonse tensed, then stared down. " do we get off the horse?"

"Fall." Mustang shrugged, his gaze fixed on the people in the road. He threw a leg over the horse's neck and slid to the ground. He made it seem easy, graceful, but when he leaned against the horse's neck for a moment, breathing heavily, Alphonse knew the ride—and the movement—had to have taken a toll on him.

"Come on," Mustang said, holding out a hand. "Throw your leg over, and slide down."

"If you say so," Alphonse whispered, watching the men getting closer.

He lay forward like Mustang directed, then threw his leg up, across the horse's tail, and suddenly he was five feet lower and staring at the horse's withers. Alphonse held onto Mustang, cringing at the pain in his ankle, while Mustang held onto the horse. After a minute, he looked at Mustang, who nodded and tied the horse's reins to a low-hanging branch.

The two crept forward again, moving in a low crouch the last few feet. The men were closer now, close enough for Al to see that Edward had been knocked unconscious, and was draped over one of the men's shoulders. His golden braid was half undone, beating listlessly against the man's back with every step. Another man was carrying Becky the same way.

Creighton let out a laugh at the sight of the little house, and pointed to it, turning to the men.

"Chervaise, you and Rogers get them into the house, and make sure that alchemist is tied up tight. I'll heat up a fire. The rest of you, there should be tools in the shed. When you've got the truck out of the drifts, bring it up here. A little time for you to warm up, and we'll be moving along."

"Sure thing," Chervaise said, and suddenly dropped Edward. He grinned, picking Edward up by the scruff of his neck, then backhanded him sharply. The force of the blow threw Ed several feet; he landed face-first in the snow. "Now he'll stay quiet while we work," the man announced, satisfied. He picked Ed up again, slugging him in the stomach—

Lightning fire arced down from above. It raced across Chervaise's skin, enveloping his body except for the arm holding Edward. Chervaise screamed, dropping Ed as he began beating at his face and body. None of the other men moved, staggered at the apparition of a burning man surrounded by snow.

Chervaise howled, one last time, and plunged away from the group to dive head first into a snow bank. His legs kicked twice, then stopped moving. From where Alphonse crouched, partially hidden by the lip of the bluff, the men seemed confused and uncertain, staring around them with uneasy gazes. Then Creighton looked up at where Mustang stood above them.

"You again," Creighton said. "You really want him dead that bad?" He brought out his gun, but as quickly as Mustang snapped his fingers, Creighton pulled the trigger.

Snow exploded upwards from a spot only two inches from Edward's still form. The gunshot's fire echoed across the silent woods, and up to the mountain peaks, rolling back across them like distant thunder. Mustang's fireball became smoke, and faded.

"That's right," Creighton said, grinning widely. "I still know your weakness, even if you're a damned hard man to kill, General."

"Can't kill what's already dead," Mustang replied, evenly.

Down on the ground, Edward hadn't reacted to the shot. Alphonse blinked, staying hidden, but tempted to rub his eyes. Had one of Edward's hands moved, just a fraction? Yes. And then another slight twitch, and his eyes opened, just enough for a glint, then closed. The red coat shifted, as though Ed had just taken a steadying breath.

Alphonse smiled to himself. He was still hidden, and if Ed was awake, that meant Mustang had two aces in the hole—and Alphonse knew that no one played poker with Mustang for a very good reason.

"You'll be dead soon enough, once we've had some fun," Creighton replied. "My men could use the target practice." He jerked his head towards two of the men. "Looks like we have additional safe passage. Get him."

The men laughed, elbowing each other; a few whistled and murmured quietly, but loud enough for Alphonse to hear. No man, they were saying, would come after another unless there was more to being the General's go-to boy than they'd realized. If it were meant to ruffle Mustang into making a mistake, it failed; the General didn't even react. Under their low taunts, Alphonse could hear another sound: Mustang was scuffing his foot against the snow, as if pointing in a specific direction.

Alphonse glanced that way: snow sheeted the mountainside behind the little house. He licked his lips, estimated the best method, and clapped his hands together. At the same instant, Mustang snapped his fingers, fire shooting up...and dying instantly. It looked like a grand, defeated gesture.

But then Alphonse pressed his hands to the ground, took mental aim a hundred yards away...and when he was done pushing, the several feet of snow had been sliced and shattered from its pristine state.

The snow rumbled, cascading over itself, its balance destroyed, and the group of men turned, shocked, to see the mountainside falling forward. The snow billowed up like smoke, blinding them all, crashing down onto the house. The house crumpled, smashed as easily as a giant would stomp on a dollhouse.

Alphonse clapped his hands again, and this time, he shot the wind shear straight through the cluster of men standing below Mustang. It sliced their clothes and scored their skin; they screamed, waving their arms as helplessly as Chervaise had.

Mustang attacked, and the air exploded into flames.

One strike, two men on fire. Another strike, aiming for Creighton, but the man carrying Becky jumped in the way. Mustang swore, diverting the flame at the last second. It streaked sideways, catching a man fleeing from Alphonse's third assault. Creighton looked stunned, but he gathered his wits about him, gun pointing at Edward. He cocked the gun, and turned to smile up at Mustang.

"You made the wrong choice," he called. Something flashed brilliantly, and for a moment Alphonse thought Creighton had fired.

"No, you did," Edward said, his wrist-blade buried deep in Creighton's chest.

Edward jerked his hand free, and the blade came away crimson. Creighton swayed, and sank to the ground to Edward's feet, blood staining the snow a lurid red. Ed turned to the men around him. He grinned savagely, blade up and by his face; his other hand was open, beckoning the men towards him.

"All right, who's next..."

A snap of fire made the men leap back. Mustang limped down the towpath to the road. "Enough, Fullmetal," he ordered.

Alphonse followed. He stared at the man carrying Becky, and stepped forward to catch her when the man released her. The man backed away to join the other four still standing; they eyed the wounded around them with fearful looks.

"We'll need something to bind them," Mustang said. "Halmos, Fullmetal, do the honors. I'll take the girl," he added, holding out his arms to Alphonse.

Ed was already kneeling, his expression grim as he clapped, concentrated, and pulled iron ore from the rich soil beneath the snow. A moment later, all the men in the clear were shackled wrist to ankle. He did it a second time, and the shackles grew, connecting the men to each other with a long lead-chain as well.

"No, more length between them. They'll need to also carry gurneys for the injured men who can't walk," Mustang said.

Alphonse knelt, creating the gurneys under Creighton and Chervaise while Edward's alchemical reaction lengthened the chains. Standing, Ed jerked on the chain, while Alphonse directed the shackled men to pick up the gurneys and string themselves into a line. With Alphonse and Ed standing shoulder to shoulder, the men seemed to realize they were out-ranked, and were quick to obey.

"Good enough. I'll be right back with our transportation." Mustang turned and carried Becky back into the woods.

"Transportation?" Edward's voice was hoarse, and Alphonse was finally close enough to see his pupils were dilated. A thin trickle of blood ran down the side of his face, and Alphonse frowned. Ed glowered. "What? What's that look for? You're as bad as—"

He swayed, and Alphonse was at his side immediately. "I think you got hit on the head, brother."

"Maybe," Ed grumbled, blinking. He straightened, but didn't shake off Alphonse's supporting arm. "So what's this transportation?"

"A horse."

"A what? You rode a..." Ed's gaze moved past Alphonse, and his eyes went almost impossibly wide; his mouth was as round as his eyes. "That's not a horse," he hissed furiously, never taking his gaze off Mustang—with Becky across his lap—guiding the horse down the footpath to the road. Ed swallowed, hard. "That's...that's a fucking house! On legs!"

"It's not that big," Alphonse replied nonchalantly, unable to resist.

Edward sputtered something incomprehensible, and picked up the lead of chain. He gave it a good jerk, and the men stumbled forward but didn't drop the gurneys.

"We'll lead them back into town," Mustang said. He leaned over, holding out a hand. "Come on, Fullmetal. You're riding, too."

Alphonse eyed the horse. "One of us should probably walk. That's four people..."

"Which is why I picked the biggest horse," Mustang replied. "He can handle it." He smirked at Edward. "I'd rather you ride. I don’t want the horse to accidentally step on you."

To Alphonse's surprise, Edward didn't go into a fit, but just met Mustang's smirk head-on with one of his own. "Sure there's enough room on there for us, you, and your ego?"

He clasped Mustang's hand, accepting the help, and vaulted easily onto the horse's back. Then Ed, with one hand anchoring him around Mustang's waist, leaned down to offer the same to Alphonse.

"Halmos, you're in charge of the chain," Mustang said, turning the horse back in the direction of Soswell. The line of men began moving forward, and Mustang was quiet for a moment, making sure that everyone had fallen into line. From what Alphonse could see, Mustang was also taking a moment to adjust his coat so Becky was tucked inside it, up against his chest; her bare feet and thin dress were hardly protection against the cold. Only then did he continue speaking: "I suspect that Fullmetal..."

He glanced over his shoulder and paused; Edward's forehead was against Mustang's shoulder blades. His mouth was open, his eyes closed, body slumped between Mustang and Alphonse. He'd passed out. Alphonse guessed it was a combination of some blood loss, the cold, and simple exhaustion. Al couldn't help but smile in response to Mustang's expression: not a smirk, but a playful, almost sweet, smile.

"Yes, well," Mustang said, and chuckled.

Alphonse wrapped an arm around his brother's waist and latched onto the back of Roy's coat for extra purchase. He clutched the chain in his other hand. The men shuffled along behind, their movements hampered by the ankle-to-wrist shackles and the three gurneys carried between them.

The injury on Ed's head was going to be a garish bruise, Alphonse knew, but he wasn't that worried. His brother was known for having a damn hard head—and all that really mattered was that it was relatively in one piece. He leaned up closer, enjoying the warmth.

When the road curved, he glanced over his shoulder to where the little halfway house had once stood. The building was gone, only shattered wood remaining, sticking up like toothpicks from the snow glistening under the early morning sun. Blood stains covered the road, but Al didn't have eyes for those. Instead, he was staring at the mountainside with a pleased feeling.

After all the years of being the rain in the wake of his brother's storms, he'd become thunder, too.

Fifteen minutes or so of riding, and they came upon the abandoned truck. Mustang passed it without comment, only halting the horse a scant half-mile down the road at the sound of approaching motors.

The motorcade, driving slowly in the ruts left by the truck, pulled up alongside and Farman stuck his head out of the driver's window. He saluted smartly, then hopped out of the car.

"Well, General," he said, grinning up at Mustang. "Want me to take these men off your hands?" His gaze traveled across the four figures on horseback, and Alphonse could read Farman's smirk as plain as day: you are all so in trouble with Captain Hawkeye.

The General's responding expression was quintessential Mustang: who, me?

Alphonse slid off the horse's back with assistance from Farman, and one clap separated the chained men into two groups. The men accompanying Farman hustled the prisoners into the two cars; the injured men were laid out across the cars' storage areas, behind the back seats. When everyone was settled, Farman turned to Mustang.

"Sir, I can have two of my men ride the horse back, and you four can join us. There should be room..." He didn't look convinced, but seemed determined to make it work, if Mustang chose that option.

"Do the car's heaters work?" Mustang didn't move, and he chuckled when Farman made an apologetic face. "I thought as much. Military issue. We'll be fine. Alphonse?"

"I'm staying with Edward," Alphonse replied. He turned to Farman, who nodded and gave him a boost back onto the horse.

"Good, then," Mustang said. "We'll see you down in Soswell."

He slapped the reins across the horse's neck, rocking with the movement as though he were born in the saddle. Alphonse did his best to mimick Mustang's posture, and found it relieved some of the strain on his back and legs; it was a slouched, lazy kind of position, though he doubted he could ever do it with half the unconscious ease Mustang showed.

They weren't far down the road when the cars caught up with them, and Alphonse waved as they passed. When the cars passed, Mustang sighed, and slowed the horse a bit more.

"It's a beautiful morning, isn't it," he said.

"It is...Flame," Alphonse replied, feeling a bit daring.

Even though he'd spent years towering over Mustang, he'd always felt so young compared to the man. It was good, he decided, to see the man as his equal. Edward groaned between them, and Alphonse couldn't help but be amused at the way his brother rubbed his nose against Mustang's back, mumbled under his breath, and fell back into sleep. He chuckled and tightened his hold around Ed's waist, keeping Ed's slack body pinned between Mustang and himself.

"He's still out," Mustang said, more as a statement than a question. He hadn't reacted at all to Edward's actions, Alphonse noted.

"Yeah...he must be more injured than I realized," Al replied, worried. "Maybe I should've put him in the car."

"I didn't think any of you would want to be stuck in a small space with those men," Mustang replied. "And I, personally, have seen enough of them for some time. No, I suspect Edward's just exhausted. He's not slept but a few hours every night, and they were working him pretty hard."

Alphonse murmured a response, and they were silent for several moments. The high alpine forest gave way to smaller trees, wider apart, bare branches coated with snow glistening in the late morning sunshine. The road leveled out, and below them Alphonse could see the town of Soswell nestled against the mountainside.

"How are your injuries?" He felt guilty for not asking sooner.

"I'll live." Mustang laughed softly, a hint of a smirk in the chuckle. "Just long enough for Captain Hawkeye to put several holes in me, I suspect."

"She's not going to be happy we snuck away."

"Secretly I suspect she'll just be mad she didn't get to be there, too." Mustang's laugh became louder, and he glanced over his shoulder to grin at Alphonse. "Well, no use putting off the inevitable." He clicked his tongue at the horse, and they trotted down the road into Soswell.

Alphonse stared at the hotel room's ceiling, and very carefully did not change the patient expression on his face. His ankle throbbed badly; now that he was clean, warm, and wrapped in a comfortable robe loaned by the hotel's staff, naturally his body would take the chance to remind him how much he'd pushed himself. Edward was perhaps halfway through his tirade. Alphonse knew that the least sign of boredom would just make his brother extend the lecture for another two or three minutes.

For a moment, he wished he'd forced Ed to stay awake on the ride back; maybe then he would've slept while Al took a break with his foot up.

"Alphonse! You're not listening to me!" Ed shook his head, wet hair flying in all directions. He stomped over to stand above Al, his hands on his hips; his automail gleamed dully in the afternoon light through the windows.

Oops, Al thought. He schooled his expression into something more suitably chastised, while a small part of him imagined Mustang being dressed down by Hawkeye in the same way. Probably not, he grumbled; Hawkeye would just freeze the General out and use the guilt to get him to do paperwork later. She was too classy to yell, but then, she didn't need to. She just had a way of looking...a way, he realized with some astonishment and no little worry, that Edward was suddenly using, as well.

"What?" Alphonse wondered what he'd missed.

"Nothing," Edward groused, and threw himself into the chair opposite Alphonse. He crossed his arms and stared out the window, all lecture suddenly ceased.

The pause grew, and Alphonse fidgeted. This wasn't normal. He waited for Edward to explode again, but instead, the silence remained.

"I'm sorry!" Alphonse burst out, desperate for his brother to stop acting so...un-Edward-like. "But there was no way I was going to let Mustang go after you by himself. He was injured badly—"

"And you're not? Look at your foot! You could be crippled permanently!"

Alphonse arched an eyebrow at the exaggeration. Ed collapsed back in the chair, grumbling under his breath.

"It's just a sprain, brother. I'm perfectly capable of fighting."

"If anyone had gotten close—"

"Then it's a good thing my style's long-distance," Alphonse replied, equitably. He took a breath, and said what had been on his mind since he'd first seen Ed in the factory, a gun to his head. " did Creighton catch you off-guard?"

Edward was silent for another moment, then he shifted nervously. Alphonse had his suspicions, but he also knew the only way Ed would recognize anything was if Ed said it himself. His brother just wasn't one for being told what he'd learned; no, he had to make sure the fire was hot before he'd believe he could be burned.

"The knife." Ed sighed, and leaned his head against the back of the chair. His hair hung down across his chest, leaving wet trails across his borrowed shirt. "Someone threw it, and caught Mustang in the leg. I was.... Next thing I knew, I had a gun to my head." He grunted. "Stupid of me."

"Why stupid?"

"Letting my guard down like that."

"Because you got worried that the General was hurt badly?"

Ed shrugged and scratched his cheek with a finger. Ah, the old attempt at looking casual; if only Ed realized that gesture was a dead giveaway that he'd been caught and was hoping no one had noticed.

"If you're friends, it's no shame to not want someone hurt," Al continued, as though discussing the weather.

"Yeah, but...he's the General. I hate that bastard!" Ed exploded upwards, arms waving. "He constantly—still—picks on my height, and he's always got to one-up me. Did you see him, standing there—oooh!" Ed exhaled in a furious rush. "I'd love to wipe that smirk off his face—"

"Brother," Al chided. "Would you really?"

"Yeah." Edward stomped over to the window; his back was tense, shoulders stiff. He was definitely pouting, but after a moment, he relaxed, just a little. "Maybe..." He hunched his shoulders, tone dropping to a reluctant whisper, "maybe not. But he still drives me crazy."

"And you're just the epitome of an even temperament," Al muttered to himself. He raised his voice so Ed could hear him across the room. "He didn't want to see you get hurt, either." Or else he would've struck despite the gun barrel pressed to Edward's head. Alphonse would never have forgiven Mustang if he had, but he also felt strongly that Mustang never would have forgiven himself, either.

"It was a fight. He shouldn't have been worrying about me. I can hold my own!" Ed stomped over to the bed to collapse backwards, arms outstretched.

"I know you can," Al soothed. "But we can hold our own, too."

"No, you can't!"

Ah. Bull's eye, Alphonse thought.

Ed was sitting up on the bed, a stricken expression on his face. He opened his mouth, closed it, opened it again, and then flopped back on the bed again with a groan, eyes closed.


"I know you've won every fight between us..." Ed sighed. "For so long there was only one weakness, and few people knew about that. But can get a sprained ankle, or a gunshot wound, or a knife to the—"

"And I could get an infected hangnail and die from gangrene!"

"That's not the point!" Ed flailed his arms about on the bed, apparently too exhausted to get up and storm around the room while yelling. "He did the stupidest things. Like letting himself get beat up, and picking fights so they wouldn't think we were friends, and then that damn Colonel went and got in the way of a knife meant for—"


But there was no stopping Edward.

"—Me, and the idiot Colonel was supposed to be downstairs, not bursting in on a fight where it's twenty to one, and what if he'd—"

"Brother!" Alphonse slammed his fist down on the arm of the chair.

Edward abruptly shut up.

"You are being a complete idiot. Just because you love us doesn't mean you have to put us in little boxes so we don't get hurt."

There. It was out.

Edward didn't say anything for a long time, until he rolled over with his back to Alphonse. He sighed, and all the tension seemed to drain from his shoulders, his spine curving as he sank into the bed.

Alphonse leaned back in the chair, grunting as he shifted his propped-up ankle on the footstool. He dragged the blanket off the chair's back, and laid it over himself. He'd done what he could, and now it was time to just let the conversation rest. Edward would mull, probably sulk for a bit, and then he'd come to his senses...and go right on acting as though he'd never been clunked over the head. But at least it was out.

Alphonse woke up at the knock at the door, and immediately looked over to see the bed was empty. He sighed, and got to his feet just as the door swung open.

"Hey, you shouldn't be on that foot!" Havoc shook his head, and shut the door behind him. He had a bandage over his forehead, and one arm was in a sling, but he grinned widely and held out a bag. "Brought snacks. Hotel food is the worst."

"Thanks!" Alphonse accepted the bag, delighted to find several types of cookies. He offered them to Havoc, who politely took one, and the two were quiet for a moment, enjoying the chocolate-and-nut cookies. Alphonse brushed the crumbs off his shirt, and glanced at the bed, then at Havoc. "Have you seen my brother?"

"A half-hour ago. He met with Captain Hawkeye and the General," Havoc replied. He stretched out his legs, and shifted around in the chair until his arm wasn't in an awkward position. "Thought you'd like to hear the gossip...oh, and speaking of gossip, I suppose congratulations are in order on becoming a National Alchemist."

"Unless you're my brother," Alphonse replied, a bit sourly.

Havoc only laughed. "Yeah, the General gave me your watch to return to you, and the Boss got a bit irked." He dug in his jacket pocket, and handed over the silver watch.

"A bit?" Alphonse flipped it open, checked the time—still ten minutes fast—and shut it, slipping it into his pocket.

"No fireworks, amazingly. He took it almost gracefully, except for about five minutes of fuming."

Al chuckled, despite feeling a bit guilty at laughing at his brother's habits. "Yes, well, my brother's not happy about it. He wants me to quit."

"What do you want?"

"I think there's a lot of good I could do..." Al sighed. "But I don't want to kill on someone else's command, anymore than my brother ever has. I would rather decide for myself what's right and wrong."

"Which is exactly how your brother has always behaved."

"I suppose." Alphonse sighed. "Alchemy should be done for the people, not as a weapon. It's to help, not harm. And as much as I like...I do like feeling like I belong. Like I'm a real person...again. Having a place, and a title...but I don't want to do that at the cost of my brother's..." He trailed off, fingering the watch's outline in his pocket.

"It's your decision." Havoc took another cookie, holding it out. "Boss may raise a ruckus with the best of them, but there's nothing you can ever do to make him stop loving you. He just takes being your brother very seriously."

"As seriously as he takes everything," Al admitted, taking the cookie gratefully. "He can't do anything halfway."

"Makes up for the fact that height-wise, he'll always be halfway," Havoc replied. His deadpan expression was ruined when he winked; he took another cookie and leaned back, getting comfortable. "Farman had his turn at Creighton, and with the testimonies of the other workers, we think we've got a solid lead on the connections between Drachma, Soswell, and the weapons smuggling."


"Apparently there's someone high up in Central who thought he could make some money at weapons smuggling. It's a lucrative business, after all. It didn't make sense to me, but when I was at Captain Hawkeye's hotel, I heard the General say he suspects the reasoning is simple. Someone who wanted to undermine Drachma would undermine their economy, a great part of which is based on their weapons factories. And, if the weapons are going to be sold anyway, reroute the work to an Amestris location and make some money off it at the same time."

"Any idea who?"

"Nope, but I'd guess the General and the Boss have that well in hand." He pretended to shudder. "Don't know what happened in that cell of theirs, but they're finishing each other's sentences now. It's almost scary."

Alphonse chuckled. "They're too wise to woo peaceably," he recited, recalling General Cameron's observation.

"True," Havoc said, grinning. "Reinforcements arrive this afternoon from Yoswell and Hyle. They've already arrested First Lieutenant Gatreau's wife. She had been keeping Major Whitmere informed of traveling alchemists."

"Was she in on the smuggling operation, too?"

"No idea. Right now, everyone's locked up in the basement of the military headquarters, with men trading off on guard, until the squadron from Yoswell gets here." Havoc munched on the cookie.

Alphonse nodded, pondering the news. There were still questions in his mind about why someone would kidnap a National Alchemist; the only way he could see that happening was if someone very high up was willing to look the other way. It still didn't add up to send General Mustang; he was reputed for being a playboy and lazy, but not someone corrupt or willing to take bribes. Unless...

"What is it?" Havoc's grin was gone.

"Just thinking about the fact that the General was supposed to arrive without my brother," Alphonse replied. "And if arson was planned..."

"Yeah." Havoc nodded. "I've thought that, myself. I told Captain Hawkeye. She's aware of the possibility that the assignment was a plot to get the General out of the picture, and provide a cover for the location of the missing Alchemists, at the same time."

But my brother wasn't supposed to be along, Alphonse mulled—until a curious thought struck him. "I wonder who told my brother to come along with the General."

"The Generalissimo gave him the orders," Havoc said. "I saw the letter."

"Actual orders?" Something didn't seem right.

Havoc chuckled. "No...I think Generalissimo Thayer is well aware of the Boss' reputation. The letter was more of an agreement that if Edward chose to accompany the General, he had permission. He wasn't required to do anything."

"So there was still the chance that he'd not go," Alphonse replied.

It all pointed to the fact that someone in Central had been aware of the possibility, and had alerted someone in Soswell. They'd known his brother was traveling with Mustang, even though from what Mustang had said, Edward had kept a low profile about his connection to any official trip. He took another cookie, chewing thoughtfully while he contemplated it, until he noticed Havoc shaking his head.

"Don't worry about it, Halmos," Havoc told him. "I bet anything you and I figure out, the General and the Boss are already a few steps ahead of us, and our job won't change. Just tag along behind and clean up after them. You know how they are."

Alphonse laughed. "Yeah, I do."