Edward limped toward the daylight slanting in through the gaping hole in the airship's side, unused to the weight of automail after having to make do with Hohenheim's lightweight though inferior prosthetics for so long. Not that he wasn't grateful for the old man's efforts; they had been a vast improvement over the artificial limbs available in this world, but were no match for Winry's exceptional masterpieces. Two years suffering limited dexterity gave him a new appreciation for his best friend's high quality designs, and intensifying his training regimen in order to get his balance and coordination back on track was a small price to pay for the nearly natural range of mobility he had so sorely missed.
A shot fired outside the plane brought him up short. He'd made it back to the Thule Society's villa, and he knew he was bound to run afoul of its members as soon as he stepped out of the wreckage of their aircraft, but this was an unexpected development. Who the hell was shooting at who? This wasn't Amestris, where there was always the possibility, however slim, that some of the combatants could be on Ed's side. On this world, he was the only one on his side. He couldn't afford to get caught in the crossfire between rival political factions. He had to close the damn Gate, or who knew how many more xenophobic, power hungry nut jobs might get through? The blond edged forward, so intent on remaining unseen by whoever was outside that when the hand landed on his metal shoulder it took him completely by surprise.
The automail arm came up in a gleaming arc as Edward dodged cat quick under his assailant's hand, pinning the hand's owner to the bulkhead by the throat. The young alchemist leaned in, fist pulled back for the finishing blow, teeth bared, and found himself pinned in turn by a sardonic onyx eye. How the Flame Alchemist could muster a mocking smirk under the circumstances the younger man had no clue.
"What the hell, Mustang? Is that really you? " Ed sputtered incredulously. "You came through with me?"
The older man appeared to be quite amused. "Very good, Fullmetal. Your powers of observation never cease to amaze me. Now, if you'd be so kind as to brief me on our current situation . . .?"
Edward cut his former commander off in mid taunt. "Later. The first thing you have to do is get out of that uniform."
"Why Edward, how forward of you. I see the two years you've spent away have done nothing to deflate your enormous ego, though you do seem to be slightly taller."
"Can it, you insufferable ass!" the younger man snarled. "There are armed men out there, and your uniform doesn't match theirs. Get rid of the jacket, and that god awful butt skirt too while you're at it."
Mustang shrugged out of the short jacket and balled it up, chucking it into a corner, the waist cape quickly following suit. Raising his hand, he snapped. Ed folded his arms across his chest and rocked back on his heels, head cocked to one side, watching. Mustang snapped again, sparks from the ignition cloth of his gloves clearly visible in the darkness of the aircraft, but that was all. No sudden crackle of an alchemic reaction broke the gloomy silence. No flame leaped to the offending blue cloth waiting to be incinerated. The dark haired man looked at his hand as if it had just given him the finger of its own accord, then looked at the young blond, eyebrow raised, awaiting an explanation.
"Alchemy doesn't work here Colonel," Ed explained. "Just shove the uniform into one of those suits of armour. I need to see what's going on outside."
The older man quietly complied, and it gave Edward a small measure of satisfaction to note that the smirk had been wiped from his face, but at the same time he wondered what the hell the bastard was doing here. Had something forced him to jump aboard the plane at the last moment? And if so . . . "Is Al here too?" Edward asked, peering past the dark haired man into the gloom.
"Alphonse is still in Central," Roy told him. "I suggested that he join you, but though he desperately wanted to do so, he considered his responsibility to remain behind and close the Gate from our side outweighed his personal wishes."
"And you are here because . . .?" Edward prompted, frowning in confusion.
"Do we really have time for a Q and A right now Fullmetal?"
"Have you ever, in your entire life, responded to a simple, straightforward question with a simple straightforward answer?"
The smirk was back. "That depends on what you mean by simple and straight forward."
"That sounds like a 'no', smart ass. Fine. Stay behind me. I heard shooting outside, and that means something has changed since I left. We need to find out what's going on out there."
The pair crept closer to the tear in the metal fuselage, staying in the shadows, straining to catch a glimpse of what was occurring on the factory floor. Edward could see what appeared to be some mangled pieces of armour strewn about, and a fair amount of wrecked masonry tumbled around, but that was all. Motioning for Mustang to stay back, he stepped out through the opening.
On the ground directly in front of the young alchemist lay Dietlinde Eckart, or what was left of her at least, blood like a gruesome halo spreading round her head. She still wore the armour that she'd hoped would protect her from whatever guarded passage through the Gate, though the resinous black membrane resulting from that passage had magically receded from her body. Horribly contorted, her face was a grim testament to the pain the trip had inflicted, and Edward wondered how it was that he, and apparently Mustang as well, had managed to avoid a similar fate. Just beyond the prone woman, Maes Hughes stood looking confused and sickened, legs braced wide, pistol in hand, staring at the young alchemist. Edward half expected the German officer to shift his pistol's aim from Eckart to him, but instead, the older man's arms dropped to his sides as the tension seemed to flow out of him.
"Edward! Why did you come back?" Noa sat on the cold concrete floor, her voice high with stress, and Edward gasped to see Alfons Heidrich's head cradled in her lap. Two of the young rocket scientist's colleagues were crouched beside him, offering what aide they could, and Edward was relieved to know that his friend was at least alive. What the hell had happened after he left here?
Conscious of Mustang hidden behind him inside the crumpled aircraft, Edward resisted the urge to hurry to Alfons' side. The young rocket scientist was being looked after, and Edward had other matters to attend to. So instead, he looked overhead, into the shimmering golden chaos of the Gate. "I had to," the young man said bitterly. "I have to close that." He gestured upward with his chin.
"You can't be serious!" Karl Haushofer pushed his way to the front of the small group of onlookers, clutching his wounded shoulder. "Do you have any idea how long I've been trying to establish a stable link to the other world? I won't allow it!"
'You're not going to get a vote Professor," Edward snapped. "The opening on the other side is being closed as we speak, and once that happens, your precious stability will be a thing of the past. Anyone going in there would hit a dead end. They'd be stuck inside until the pressure crushed them to a bloody pulp and spit them back out the way they came in."
"You don't know what you're talking about!" the older man shouted, and his eyes widened as Edward scanned the room, then made for the nearest ladder on the surrounding scaffold. Haushofer gestured wildly to Hughes. "You there, officer! Stop him! This is a military operation! He is trespassing!"
Hughes looked from the wildly gesturing Haushofer, to Edward's retreating form, to the disturbing spectacle of the yawning Gate overhead, weighing his options before casting his lot. Edward saw the decision to side with Haushofer clearly in the German policeman's narrowed eyes, and the blond was tensed to race up the ladder, when Roy stepped out of the crumpled airship. Mustang's jet black eye was fixed in amazement on Hughes, and Hughes eyes went as wide as saucers at the sight of Mustang. The two men simply stared at one another, stunned. All other eyes were also on this new development, and Edward used that to his advantage, scrambling up the ladder. Taking the rungs two and three at a time, he finally came level with the Gate's edge and the creature that encircled it.
The body of the huge serpent, Envy, his half brother, hung from its restraints, head dangling bonelessly, blood smeared jaws slack, and Edward tried not to think about where Hohenheim's mortal remains must now reside. This close to the Gate's threshold, the young man could feel the energy playing about its border, his skin tingling with it, and he breathed a sigh of relief. He had hoped there would be some residual power at hand that he could use to seal the thing shut. The hermetic emblems blazing on the homunculus' hide were propping the portal open, and they and their canvas had to go. If he did this just right, he could use the serpent like a drawstring, constricting its body to clinch the opening closed, finally tucking the massive carcass through at the end like a gigantic scaly button. Clapping his hands together, he placed them on the massive head of the serpent, but didn't feel the familiar surge of awareness that preceded the deconstruction phase of a transmutation. There was without doubt enough energy, but something was preventing the alchemist from using it.
Edward gritted his teeth in frustration. He was missing something big here. Pushing all other concerns from his mind, he thought it through. Hohenheim had said that the energy for transmutations in their world came from this one, through an internal link alchemists had with the Gate. The energy Edward had sensed before, when he'd initiated the only successful transmutation he'd ever done on this world, and right now standing under the threshold Hohenheim had created, wasn't being channelled that way. It's origin was the Gate right in front of him, an external source. Tendrils of its energy caressed his skin, power enough to vaporize the dragon and more. How had he managed to harness it that last time? The array was fixed in his mind, ready to direct the available energy to its assigned purpose. He knew he could cycle that energy with his body, because he'd done it here before, on the floor of this very room. What was different now?
The serpent's eye snapped open and Edward was quick to back out of range of the creature's jaws as the enormous orb rotated to pin him with a cold glower. The massive head turned slightly, shuddering, but it seemed the creature lacked the strength to move any further. Ed stayed back regardless. He wasn't about to take chances around the homunculus. Envy wasn't above using trickery on the humans he held in such utter contempt.
"Still here, pipsqueak?" the dragon breathed in its almost feminine voice. "Too bad our father is no longer around to see how his sacrifice was so callously squandered, and how spectacularly he failed." The creature sighed with mock sympathy.
The scaffolding rattled, signalling other climbers on the way up, Haushofer's goons no doubt. Edward moved closer to the dragon's bound coils and once again laid hands on the rough hide. "Can we just skip the heckling for a change? I'm kind of on a schedule here, so shut the hell up and let me concentrate."
"Well, what are you waiting for? Finish this. I have to admit, I'm more than ready to be shed of this dreary little world. My only consolation is that you'll be stuck here for the rest of your hopefully short, miserable life."
"You have no idea how much I'd like to stuff your worthless ass through that wormhole and slam it shut behind you, but as much as I hate to admit this, I have no idea how to initiate the transmutation I want to use," Edward told the homunculus, resenting that admission.
The creature's rough chuckle rumbled in the stillness of the chamber. "Why am I not surprised?" it said, almost to its self. "Even after all this time, you're still oblivious to the inherent cruelty of the universe, otherwise you would have figured it out by now," the creature mocked with a condescending tone. "Well, if you're expecting help from me, you're even stupider than you look."
Edward ignored the creature's taunts, forcing himself to focus, playing the memory of the previous transmutation circle he'd activated here over in his mind. Maybe he had to actually draw it out, the physical reality of tangible runes the factor that would tip the scales and set off the reaction. The crucial detail he was missing suddenly flashed in his mind: how he'd brushed the cut on his cheek before touching the array. His blood had been the trigger. Of course. When Hohenheim had started his transmutation from between the dragon's jaws, Edward had thought Envy had clamped down on the old man to prevent it. Now he realized that Hohenheim had counted on the homunculus' reaction, that his blood had been a necessary requirement to opening the Gate, and Edward felt a deep sorrow all over again. It had all been for nothing.
"I don't need your help, and I know better than to trust any you might offer," Edward told the dragon quietly. "Blood is the answer. Ironic, since you've enjoyed spilling mine so much, that now it's going to be the death of you."
"Aww. Still squeamish about killing, little boy?" The reptile's hide quivered as the creature rumbled another laugh. "Save your pity. I came from the Gate, and to the Gate I will return. I don't see it as death, per say, but more as a sort of après life. Or is it the spilling of your own blood that gives you pause? Believe me, if I could manage it, I'd be only too happy help you carry out that little task, though you'd be in no condition to execute a transmutation afterward."
If the homunculus was hoping to get a rise out of his half brother, he was in for a disappointment. Edward was already searching his pockets for the small Swiss Army knife he usually carried to make the frequent field repairs to his prosthetics. Pulling it out, he snapped out the blade and wasted no time using it to slice shallowly into the flesh of his forearm. The blood trickled down towards his elbow, and over the blade to splatter lightly onto his automail fingers. Taking a deep breath and hoping for the best, Edward clapped his hands and laid them one last time on the serpent's scales.
The blue—white arc of the reaction webbed between Edward's fingers, flesh and steel alike, startling him though he'd expected it, as Envy's final scream split the air, shrill, deafening. The symbols on the serpent's skin blazed and then shifted from their throbbing red to blinding blue—white as Edward bent the energy to meet his needs. After its initial scream choked off, the dragon fell silent, out of its misery at long last as the transmutation took hold. Contracting, the serpent kept its bulk, until it resembled a huge, scaly donut, only a handspan of golden light shining from the center of the single constricted coil. Then the huge toroid began to curl inward towards its own centre, shrinking, the snapping of gigantic bones filling the chamber, until the creature was gone, the Gate at last closed. Edward sank slowly to his knees, relieved and despondent all at once.
The trembling of the scaffold had the young alchemist jerking around to confront whoever was on the ladder. As much as he might hope for it, this wasn't over yet. Officer Hughes head had popped up over the edge of the platform, ever present frown in place. He locked eyes on the young alchemist with his usual air of disapproval.
"If you're finished here, come join us below," the officer said, and when Edward just watched him sullenly, making no move to comply, he added, "You're friend doesn't speak German, and he is probably feeling very lost right now." Hughes disappeared back down the ladder.
Oh shit. Mustang. All Edward really wanted to do was curl up into a tight little ball and let whatever was going to happen next just happen for a while, but he couldn't afford that luxury. He dragged himself to his feet and followed Hughes down to the ground. Mustang was waiting at the base of the ladder, Noa clinging to his arm with a strange expression on her face. Knowing her dubious talent, Edward wondered what she had gleaned from the Colonel's thoughts to make her look so uneasy.
"Colonel, this is Noa," Edward said tiredly, making a one sided introduction. "And just so you know, when she touches someone, she can read their thoughts."
His expression of calm curiosity never changing, Mustang moved naturally away from the gypsy girl and towards Edward, giving no indication that what Edward had said concerned him or directed his actions in any way. The younger alchemist almost smiled to see the master in action.
"Thank you, Edward," Mustang said, just as quietly. "And just so you know, it's 'General' now."
"Congratulations on your promotion. I hope you enjoyed it while it lasted," Edward said sadly.
"Actually, I've only had it for a few hours, and I didn't really want it anyway," the older man shrugged.
Mustang's cavalier attitude was starting to get on Edward's nerves. The man didn't appear to understand just what he'd gotten himself into. "You seem to be taking our permanent exile remarkably well, General. Or perhaps you didn't notice what I was doing up there by the ceiling."
"I did, and found your performance quite refreshing. It's nice to know that your methods no longer appear to exclusively consist of large scale destruction, Fullmetal," the Colonel said, and in the midst of exhaustion and grief and the aftermath of high drama, it was that goddamned title that finally tripped Edward's temper over the edge.
"Stop fucking calling me that! That's over!" Edward snapped, fists clenching convulsively. "Don't you get it Mustang? I just slammed the door on any hope we had of getting back home. Why ever the fuck you might have come through with me, I sure hope you were ready to stick around for the long haul, because there's no going back now."
Mustang's single eye suddenly blazed. He leaned in until his nose was a mere handbreadth from the younger alchemist's, and Edward felt a thrill of something like fear run up his spine, realizing that he was about to see something he had only ever seen once before: Roy Mustang losing his temper.
The dark haired man's voice slid icy calm between tightly clenched teeth. "Yes Edward. I was aware that I would have to stick around, as you say, for the long haul, but thought you'd appreciate some assistance for a change. Foolish of me, I know, to assume you might be grateful for the company at least, if nothing else."
"I never asked you to come along for the ride, Mustang!" Edward snarled back. Guilt over taking his frustration out on the Colonel sparked now, but it didn't stop him. "This was my mess to clean up, not yours! And I did just fine, as usual, all on my own!"
"This isn't about you, you selfish brat!" Mustang growled, fists clenched at his sides. "This is about protecting the people we love. You aren't the only one who cares about our world, and I don't need your permission to do whatever I see fit to protect it."
Edward fell silent, shame clamping his mouth shut at last. Mustang was right. This really wasn't just his battle. With a whole world at stake, he should be grateful that he didn't have to fight alone, that if he'd dropped the ball and hadn't managed to close the Gate, there was someone else standing by to pick it up and make a try of their own.
The older man's anger eased as quickly as it had flared, and for a moment Edward thought the other alchemist would reach out, perhaps clap a hand on his shoulder, but the moment passed. The fire went out of Mustang's eye, and he suddenly looked as tired as Ed felt.
"Edward. I know you likely feel a certain responsibility for my being here, and guilt is part of the reason for your anger," the Flame Alchemist said quietly. "But none of this is your fault. I'm here because I wanted to be here. Is it so hard for you to believe that I might just want to help? Have you been alone for so long that it's inconceivable to you that someone would want to share your burden?"
Edward looked away, unable to meet the other man's eyes. "No, you're right. I'm sorry. Of course I'm glad you're here," he said softly. "It's just . . . been a long time since I've had anyone other than myself to rely on. Hell, up until today, the only person I trusted enough to share my secrets with thought I was delusional when I talked about being from another world." The blond looked over to where Hughes was supervising Alfons' colleagues as they transferred the young man's still form to a canvas stretcher, and Mustang's gaze followed, a strange set to his jaw.
"No apology necessary Full . . . Edward," Mustang said, and the corners of his mouth curved up slightly into a rueful smile. "I can't imagine what your life has been like these past two years, but I'm sure it hasn't been easy. And I'm about to get firsthand experience in that area myself. Can I count on you to be my guide?"
"Yeah, of course I'll help," Edward said, startled that the man would even think he had to ask. "You can stay with us, me and Alfons that is."
Mustang looked relieved, and it looked to Edward as if he was about to say something else, but Maes Hughes was rushing towards them, interrupting.
"We must leave here now," Hughes said quietly, taking both men by the arm and urging them towards the exit. "The Thules are upset about your interference, Edward, and they want to keep you and your friend here, but they're a little afraid of you right now. We must leave quickly before they find their nerve. I told them I was taking you both into my custody, but they are not happy about it."
"Where are they taking Alfons?" Ed asked, craning around to see what was happening to his friend.
"His friends are taking him home, and a doctor will meet us there," Hughes said, hands still gripping both men's upper arms, propelling them towards the way out. "Come, we have to hurry."
"What's going on?" Mustang asked, and Edward mentally kicked himself for forgetting again that the Colonel didn't speak German. He hurried to explain the situation as he allowed Hughes to usher them out.
As the trio made their way to the flat Edward shared with Alfons, the young alchemist considered the circumstances he now found himself in. That Mustang was unable to understand the local language would present some challenges, but it might be a moot point. It looked like staying in Munich was not such a good idea anymore. English was this warped mirror world's equivalent to Amestrian, so heading back to London might be a better option, for himself as well as Mustang. It galled Edward to think that they might be forced to leave an ill and injured Alfons to fend for himself, but it looked like they wouldn't be given a choice. The Thules would come after the Amestrian expatriates, likely sooner than later. As much as he hated to impose on the woman's boundless kindness, Ed wondered if he could ask Gracia to keep an eye on his wounded friend, because chances were he and Mustang were going to have to get out fast.
Right now though, they had to find out just how serious Alfons' injury was, and it would also be nice to know just how advanced his tubercular infection was as well. Edward also wanted to know which of these Thule sons of bitches had shot the gentle blond in the back, because that sick fuck was in for a rendezvous with his automail fist sometime in the near future. Then Mustang, wow. So many questions to be answered and needs to be addressed. A good first step would be finding him some clothes that didn't make him look so damn military. The bastard was still taller than Edward, damn it, and he was heavier than Alfons, so he wouldn't fit into anything of theirs. And they both needed food. And rest. And probably about half a hundred other things Edward was too overwhelmed to think of right now.
In the midst of his planning, Edward realized something with a small shock that effectively slammed on his mental brakes. Mustang was stuck here, just like he was, and was counting on Ed to help him adjust, but while Ed had more experience with the ways of this world, Roy Mustang, Mr. Charisma himself, had a well deserved reputation as an exceptionally versatile tactician, clever strategy on the fly his speciality. The older man might be an arrogant, aggravating bastard, but he had always been someone the Elrics could count on when the going got rough. Edward might have given up his chance to go home, but somehow in the process he'd managed to gain a valuable ally.
Up until now, the young blond had been pretty much alone. Alfons was his friend, and they'd looked out for each other, but the young German could never understand the challenges Edward faced trying to adjust to a world he was not born to, or how badly Edward longed to go home. Indeed, he'd never really understood just how out of reach Edward's home was until that very day. Edward had been uniquely alone here simply because he was from so completely elsewhere. But now, after two long years of loneliness, his solitude appeared to be at an end. Suddenly there was someone on his side.