Alphonse sat nervously in the dimly lit room chosen for his hypnosis sessions with Alex Armstrong, mentally preparing himself for another visit with Alfons. Jean Havoc had popped in to let him know that the big man was on his way, then stuck around. Alphonse guessed the Lieutenant was trying to distract him from his worries, and while the young alchemist appreciated the company, his anxiety remained.
The previous evening had seen the completion of the Gate array. With great anticipation, and admittedly a great deal of trepidation as well, everyone on the team, with the exception of those on sentry duty, had assembled to witness its successful activation. The transmutation had formed the desired portal, and with little fanfare Hohenheim had shouldered his backpack, shot a confident smile over his shoulder, and stepped through the glittering interface to disappear from the world. All that was left to do on this side was wait. And hope. Unless it was your job to hop aboard someone else's brain to keep track of things, and hopefully save the day.
Alex Armstrong's skills as a hypnotist were proving to be invaluable, ensuring that it wasn't necessary to rely on a hit or miss dream connection with Alphonse' counterpart on the other side of the Gate. He had been Alphonse' unobtrusive facilitator numerous times without a problem, and Alphonse knew that it would have been impossible to do this without the gentle giant's aid.
The young alchemist had made many voluntary trips to the other side once the first hypnotic transfer had been so successful. The first was to alert Alfons that Hohenheim would likely be putting in an appearance in the near future, then often to see if the old man had shown up yet, and then numerous times to check on the progress of the pair's journey to London. Alphonse had crossed over so often at this point that the process was becoming routine despite the outlandish nature of the task.
When Hohenheim and Alfons finally reached their destination in England, Alphonse had been frankly amazed to discover that it was in fact the Armstrong estate. Not for the first time since this whole mess started he wondered if perhaps there was some conscious mechanism at work. The odds seemed much too high, in a world populated by millions of people, that the Amestrians should run across so many familiar faces. It couldn't be simple coincidence. But as amazed as Alphonse had been to meet this estate's master, the master of the house had been even more astounded to see Hohenheim, considering the news he had received the night before.
Finding out that they had missed Edward and General Mustang by a scant two hour margin had been disheartening, but at least the rescue team had confirmation that the fugitive pair were in the vicinity. Their new challenge became tracking them down before the Thules did, or before they disappeared across the Atlantic as it appeared they intended, and Phillip Armstrong had jumped at the chance to help, calling in his many contacts to assist in the search.
In the mean time, Hohenheim had begun creation of the complimentary Gate array, with Armstrong`s family retainers assisting. The last time Alphonse had crossed over, a few hours ago, his father had just left the estate to follow a hunch that might lead him to Edward and the General, and Alphonse was eager to find out if his father's inspiration had borne fruit. He fidgeted in the comfortable armchair, impatient for Alex Armstrong's arrival, checking the steadily ticking wall clock continually.
"Take it easy, Al." Havoc's easy drawl pulled the younger blond from his edginess. "Alex said he was on his way, and that you could probably start the relaxation exercises before he got here, since you've done this so often."
"I guess so," Alphonse returned, taking a deep breath, trying to exhale his anxiety with it.
"Will I be distracting you if I stick around?" the Lieutenant asked with a frown, leaning on the door frame.
"Not at all, but you don't have to stay if you have other duties," Alphonse told him.
"Yeah, I guess I should get going," Havoc said, grin sliding into place. "I'm due to relieve Sergeant Fuery on the perimeter pretty soon, and I don't want to be late. Hawkeye's been extra strict with me lately. I think she's pissed off at me for some reason."
"You've been paying too much attention to Miss Catherine," Alphonse said. "Lieutenant Hawkeye likes you. That's why she's pissed off."
Havoc's jaw hung slack for a few moments, staring at the young alchemist as if he'd grown a second head, finally managing a weak, "Huh?"
"Miss Riza likes you," Alphonse said again, slowly, as if patiently explaining a difficult concept to a child.
Havoc digested this for a few moments, clearly unsure of this new information. "Okay, sorry kid, but you gotta be wrong about this. She's a comrade. We've always got each other's backs, yeah. But it's a friendship thing. There's no way someone like her is going to be interested in someone like me, you know, that way."
Alphonse sighed. He considered giving this up, but his Elric stubbornness kicked in, and he plunged on, determined. "I'm not wrong. Even back when I was in the armour, I noticed. There are all kinds of little things that give her away, but I guess you just never noticed." Havoc look of extreme scepticism remained and Alphonse sighed before continuing. "Okay, did you ever notice how every time you started talking to the other guys about your latest romantic fiasco, she always ignored you for a while, then made some excuse to leave the room. If you were still talking about it when she came back, she got mad and made everyone get back to work."
"She always gets mad when the office is off task."
"No she doesn't. She makes you guys get to work when you're slacking, but she only gets mad about it when it's because you're lamenting your latest failed romance."
Havoc gave this some more thought, chewing on his lower lip. "Naw, it can't be," he finally said. "Maybe she just gets pissed because she can't take the whining, or maybe she thinks I'm a total loser and just wants me to shut up about it because it's annoying. Or maybe she thinks I don't value her friendship because of all the bad luck I have with other women. Or something," he finished lamely.
"Or she doesn't want to hear about your latest failed romance because she wishes you were romancing her instead," Al said.
The youngster watched as Havoc ground his mental gears around the notion for a few moments, clearly half convinced.
"There's other stuff too," Alphonse pressed on. "When you're in the field you work together like the cogs in an Aerugan clock. You're the perfect complement to the other, and it goes farther than just being colleagues. The two of you hardly even have to say anything out loud. A look, and you both know exactly what the other needs. She even knows how you like your coffee." Alphonse crossed his arms and waited for Havoc's response, one eyebrow raised.
"So she's efficient," Havoc said weakly. "We've been working together for years. And getting a friend a coffee isn't some kind of confession. It's a friendship thing, that's all," Havoc told the youngster, but now he didn't sound quite as confident about this conclusion.
"She ever get coffee for Lieutenant Breda? Sergeant Fuery? Warrant Officer Falman? General Mustang even?"
"No," Havoc said, drawing the word out slowly as he thought this over. "But . . . if this is true, why wouldn't she say something? She's not shy. She could have asked me out."
Alphonse sighed. "Pride maybe? I think she might be hoping you'll finally notice she's a woman, instead of just another soldier. Then again, she's also your superior officer. It wouldn't be proper for her to approach you, and propriety is practically her middle name." The alchemist look in the older blond's considering expression. "Do you know how she takes her coffee?"
"Black, no sugar," Havoc said immediately, then looked surprised.
Alphonse grinned. "I think friendship is an excellent foundation for a relationship, don't you?" he asked sweetly.
The lieutenant's eyes narrowed. "Alright, you've made your point. I'm willing to test your theory. And if she shoots me down, literally, I'll come back to haunt you. Brat."
"She won't. You could start by inviting her out for a coffee, and approaching her like the friend that she is. Leave the cheesy pickup lines in that garbage can over there."
"I can't believe I'm taking romantic advice from a thirteen year old," Havoc muttered, scowling.
"I'm seventeen. And a genius. And it's good advice. And you know it," Alphonse retorted.
Whatever response Havoc may have offered was cut off by the sound of gunfire, followed by shouting and the clatter of running feet. Havoc rushed out, Alphonse hot on his heels, to see what new problem had arisen. They were met in the hall by Alex Armstrong, face scowling darkly.
"It appears General Hakuro suspects that we may be harbouring a fugitive," he said. "Von Hohenheim, to be specific. He insists on searching the premises, and is backing up his insistence with a tactical squad."
"He'll find the Gate, wide open!" Alphonse exclaimed.
"Precisely why we have denied him access," Alex said, glowering. "At any rate, he has no right to force his way into our private domain without evidence of wrong doing, and Amue is in the process of lodging a formal complaint with the Furher's office. In the mean time, we are resisting the General's offensive." The big man turned to Havoc. "Second Lieutenant. Lieutenant Hawkeye requests your presence at the main gate."
Havoc hurried away, and Alphonse started to follow, but a large hand gently gripped his shoulder, stopping him.
"Come, Alphonse Elric," Alex said, uncharacteristically quiet as he guided the reluctant youngster back into the sitting room, then over to the comfortable armchair awaiting him. "We all have our assigned duties. This close to the endgame, it would not do to be distracted from them."
"I might be able to help, to reinforce the outer wall or . . ."
"We must trust our friends to protect us, just as they trust us to complete our task. Have faith in them, Alphonse," Alex' gaze was intense, and Alphonse knew he was right.
So he closed his eyes, made a sledgehammer of all his hopes, and used it to beat his fears into submission. "Alright, let's do this," he said, determined.
Armstrong's sparkling grin lit the dimness, and he gently patted Alphonse knee before starting the boy on the relaxation phase of the hypnotic process. Alphonse had lost count of the times they had done this over the last twenty—four hours, and despite the distraction of the military's attack, the younger alchemist found himself slipping naturally into the routine. The silver thread appeared with almost magical speed in his mind's eye, and he was quick to take it in hand.
He opened his eyes to a room very similar to the one his body still occupied, in the wheelchair provided by Phillip Armstrong for Alfons' convenience, Izumi Curtis bending over him. "I'm back," he whispered.
"I know," the woman smiled. "I can tell just by looking into your eyes, that there are two of you looking out. Strange."
The first time Alphonse had caught sight of Izumi and Sig Curtis, and their son Tristan — yes, Wrath — his surprise had knocked him straight out his hypnotic trance. It was one thing to see a person who somewhat resembled Rose, but another to discover exact doubles of his teacher, her husband, and their homunculus son. Tristan Curtis was an older version of the Wrath Alphonse had known, the young man he would have become had the homunculus been a natural human. This youth resembled his mother in visage, but his father in build. In fact, he was well on his way to rivalling both Sig and Alex Armstrong in musculature, an imposing, intimidating presence, until he spoke. That was when his sweet nature became apparent. He was so soft spoken, calm and gentle in demeanour, he was nothing but a gigantic kitten, and Alphonse felt comfortable with him immediately.
And the feeling was obviously mutual. When unoccupied with his duties as Sir Phillip's manservant, the dark haired young man spent all of his time arranging for Alfons' comfort and well being. It was Tristan who saw to it that the young German man took his medication as directed, and made sure he suffered no adverse reaction to it. He'd made it his job to keep Alfons entertained and Alphonse distracted from his worries, and took great pleasure in touring his charge through the estate's grounds, blankets tucked around him against the mid autumn chill. Alphonse glanced behind and sure enough, the strapping young lad was indeed steering his host's chair, the grumble in Alfons' stomach signalling that the breakfast table was their likely destination.
A commotion in the main hall interrupted their exchange, and Tristan was quick to wheel the Als in that direction to see what was the matter, Izumi hurrying ahead. Alphonse felt a surge of relief to see Hohenheim rushing through the door, General Mustang close behind, but it was short lived when Sig followed, Edward cradled unmoving in the big man's arms.
"What happened? Is brother alright?" Alphonse cried out, and the General looked over in surprise to hear the younger Elric's voice from his older double's mouth.
"It's alright Alphonse," Hohenheim assured his youngest son. "He's just been drugged. He'll be fine."
Izumi moved to meet Sig. Giving his arm a pat, she directed him to carry his burden to a nearby guestroom, leading the way. Alphonse couldn't tell if it was his actions or Alfons' when his hands grabbed at the wheels of his chair in an attempt to chase after the two elder Curtises, but a big hand on his shoulder stopped him.
"Give them a few moments to get him settled," Tristan said quietly. "My mother was a doctor at the Abbaye de Royaumont during the Great War. Not a nurse, mind you, but a doctor. She handled many battlefield casualties on the front lines. She knows what she is doing. Your brother is in good hands." Tristan was so full of pride for his mother that he almost glowed with it.
"I'm sure he is," Alphonse said agitatedly. "I just want to see him."
"And you will," Alfons assured him, patting his own knee. "Let's just give Mrs. Curtis a few moments to make him comfortable and examine him."
Tristan raised an amused eyebrow. "I don't think I'll ever get used to the conversations you two have," he mused aloud.
He was sitting in Granny Pinako's kitchen. A big pot of stew simmering on the stove filled the air with the mouth watering aroma of savoury meat and vegetables. Of course Winry's grandmother's stew never quite measured up to Trisha Elric's, but it was close. The old woman knew it was Ed's favourite, and always made sure she made some for him anytime he visited, her way of saying 'I love you' Ed knew.
"And how do you say it, runt?" Pinako took up a ladle almost as long as she was tall, and dipped into the steaming pot, stirring it slowly.
"I say it by not kicking your shriveled old ass when you suggest that I'm SMALL ENOUGH TO FALL INTO A BOWL OF STEW AND DROWN!"
"Like you could take me down, midget!"
"Oh yeah? Well bring it, pocket battleaxe!"
"With pleasure, micro moron!"
"Alright, that's enough you two!" Winry walked into the kitchen, rolling up the sleeves of her coveralls, then slapping her biggest wrench into her palm threateningly, and the room fell silent except for the sounds bubbling up from the stewpot. "Granny asked you a question, Ed, and I'd like to hear your answer, too."
"What, there was a question in all that?" Edward said, stalling for time. These girly conversations about feelings and stuff were just torture for him, and Winry knew that. She was his best friend, and aside from Al, she knew him better than anyone. Why was she bringing this up? Ed felt there was something else he should be worrying about right now, but he couldn't quite remember what the hell it was. Something was wrong. Very wrong. As in major disaster, losing something really important, people getting killed wrong. Wrong with a capital W.
"I know you've got other things on your mind Ed, and you hate to talk about people stuff, but I think it's important," Winry said, and Ed wondered when she had mastered the art of reading his mind. "Now tell me," the girl insisted. "How do you say 'I love you'?"
"Why do I even have to?" Ed said petulantly. "You know I do."
Pinako made a humphing sound as she continued to stir the stew. "When I think of all the four letter words that fly so easily out of that mouth, the only one he has trouble with is the 'L' word."
"Why do I have to say it?" Ed whined again. "You know I do! Winry, you know too! And so does Al!"
"What about Roy? Does he know that you love him?" Winry asked, blue eyes wide, staring frankly into Ed's gold.
Ed's jaw dropped. He loved Roy? Did he really? How could he? They barely knew each other!
Pinako snorted. "Kid doesn't even know it himself, Win," she said, doing that mindreading thing again.
Winry shook her head. "You know him well enough, Ed. Think about it." The blonde girl started ticking off points on her fingers. "He helped you and Al right from the start, didn't he? He kept your secrets for years, even though it was dangerous for him. And when the military were hunting you, he stayed on your side, protected you, right? Then, when you told him the Furher was a homunculus, he never doubted you, did he. He trusted your word. Just like that. Then, when you traded yourself for Al, he felt so bad he hid himself away from the world. And when you went back to that other world again to close the Gate, he went with you. He left his whole world behind, just to be with you. He loves you. He even told you that. He wasn't afraid to say it. Why are you?"
The more he thought about it, the more Edward realized Winry could be right, but it wasn't being reminded of the things that Roy had done that made him become conscious of how he felt about Roy. Those things demonstrated what Roy felt for him. It was the time he'd spent with Roy, here in this strange mirror world that was playing through Edward's mind now. Sure, he'd had a crush on the dark haired man almost from the beginning of their association, but this wasn't just a crush anymore, and things had changed. Back in the day, there was no way Ed could find comfort in the Colonel's presence. Mustang was infuriating, constantly baiting his young subordinate, and hiding his attraction to the man had increased the raw tension Ed felt exponentially anytime he had to deal with him.
But it was different now. Ed found that he thoroughly enjoyed the man's company. He liked being with him, talking to him. Liked working together with him. He felt comfortable around his former commander as he never had before, no longer the untested, loudmouthed kid, but an equal partner, a friend. And he trusted Roy. But was it love?
"It's got to start somewhere, Ed." Winry moved over to the cupboard and took out two bowls, passing them to Pinako. "And from where I'm standing, it looks like you've got a very good start. You should tell him, so he knows."
"And the fact that the guy is sexy as hell doesn't hurt either," Pinako said with a wink. "I just wish you could stick around and help us eat this stew, but like you said, you have things to do."
"I do?" Ed said, surprised. "What things?"
Pinako walked forward and leaned in close to Edward, her nose almost touching his. "Shh," she whispered. "Listen carefully."
It was the crackling sound of fire that called Edward from his slumber. Struggling up from the depths of his mind was like swimming against a strong current, made all the more difficult by the feeling that something was terribly wrong, but he finally broke to the surface.
His eyes opened to a brightly lit room, warmed by a fire burning low in the hearth. He was lying on a comfortable bed atop the comforter, jacket and vest missing, shoeless. And Alfons Heidrich was sitting by his side, a concerned frown stamped on his features.
"You just missed your brother," the German man said. "He had to end his visit, much as he wanted to stay until you woke up. He had some urgent business to see to on the other side, and apparently shuttling your soul back and forth between worlds takes a lot of energy as well."
It was hard to concentrate when all Edward really wanted to do was throw up. He was still in the middle of some weird ass dream. Had to be. The last thing he remembered was that bullet—headed Thule shitbag sitting on his chest. Alfons was in Munich, recovering from a gunshot wound. And Alphonse wasn't going to drop in for a visit no matter how much Edward might wish he could. But at the same time, he had never felt so physically ill in a dream before. His face felt very tender where the big German had punched him, his left shoulder was stiff and aching, his ribs throbbed, and his stomach wanted to violently eject what little it contained. Was he asleep or awake?
"Alfons? Where am I?" Edward's mouth didn't seem to be properly connected to his brain, the words slurring together.
"This is the Armstrong family manor," his German friend told him. "In Cambridge. England." Alfons' frown deepened. "Are you feeling ill? You look a little green." The young man reached up to tug on a brocaded bell pull.
A young man Edward recognized as Sir Phillip's manservant stepped into the room moments later, followed by Izumi Curtis. Yup, he was definitely still dreaming. In fact, this dream was even more surreal than the one he'd had on the train a few days ago.
"Teacher?" he said, hoping she wasn't going to start kicking his ass or something, because then he really was going to puke, dream or not.
Izumi leaned in, eyes curious, but much to Ed's relief, not hostile. "Still a bit disoriented, are you?" she said with a cultured British accent, brushing his hair back to rest a hand on his brow. "Feeling a bit sick as well I'll wager. You're experiencing a hangover from the ether. It will pass. I'll get you some bicarb to settle your stomach." The tall woman straightened up and turned to the burley manservant. "Stay with them, Tristan. And keep a bucket handy."
"Yes mother," the big youngster said as the woman left the room, and Edward realized then why the dark haired youth looked so familiar. It also confirmed for him that this was in fact not a dream. This particular happy ending was something that never would have occurred to him for the Curtis family's story on this side of the Gate.
"Tristan," the young alchemist murmured with a small smile. "I'm pleased to meet you."
The strapping young man smiled back brightly, dark brown eyes twinkling. "Thank you, though I'm sure you'd be pleased to meet anyone not related to the Thules right now."
"True," Edward conceded as he looked back to Alfons sitting patiently in his chair beside the bed. Damn this grogginess. He felt like he was missing something important. It suddenly hit him, and he bolted upright in the bed, the room spinning crazily around him. "Roy! Where's Roy?" he cried, and Tristan hurried to push Edward gently back down.
Alfons hands were up, patting the air in front of him. "He's here! He's fine! Don't worry!" the young German said, then addressed Tristan. "Maybe you should go and get Mr. Mustang. I'm sure he'd like to know that Edward is awake as well."
"I think you'd better get me that bucket first," Edward groaned, clapping a hand over his mouth. Tristan rushed to comply, thrusting a metal pail into the alchemist's lap and helping him to sit up again.
The door suddenly burst open, and a widely grinning Hohenheim strode into the room. "Edward! You're awake!" he said with great enthusiasm.
Edward eyes widened at the sight of the old man. Then he threw up.
"So much for my grand entrance," the old alchemist said, disappointed.
The Armstrong Manor on this side of the Gate boasted an even more extensive library than the one on the Amestrian side, and that was where Hohenheim's alchemic masterpiece was under construction. It was the only room with a high enough ceiling, and thus a wall of suitable height, to hold the huge Gate array. The paintings of venerable ancestors had been carefully removed to free the surface for use, and Roy had thrown himself into the completion of the transmutation circle, using the work to distract him from his worries for Edward, and his guilt at leaving the young man alone and unprotected in London.
He was still kicking himself for his stupidity. How could he have left Edward alone like that? He was the one who had told Ed that it would be foolish to go anywhere alone, just a few hours before when they were due to meet with Greed. Why hadn't he stayed in the room, and just opened up to the young man about what was bothering him? It was an old, and very bad habit he'd fallen back on, pulling away from the person he cared about when he felt the darkness settle around his soul.
Maes Hughes had never let him get away with it. His best friend had always had a sixth sense about Roy's moods, always knew when his friend needed him, no matter how hard Roy tried to hide his mood. Maes would turn up out of the blue and drag Roy out of his shell, then lecture him unmercifully, continually pounding in this one, simple truth: that true friends weren't just for the good times. Pushing the people who cared about you away when you were feeling down didn't do you any good, and it hurt your friends, too. That kind of behaviour made them feel frustrated and mistrusted.
In trying to keep his haunted feelings to himself, he hadn't saved Edward from being infected by his dark mood. In fact, he'd achieved just the opposite. He's made Edward feel inadequate; made him think he couldn't help Roy, when in fact he was probably the only one who could. The boy was no stranger to the hard hand life could deal you. He was haunted by his past just as Roy was. Edward would understand what Roy was going through, because he'd been there himself.
But worst of all, because of Roy's foolishness, he'd almost lost Edward to the Germans. If Roy had not meet up with Hohenheim, if he had arrived just a few minutes later, if he had raced up to their room instead of checking around to the rear of the building, Edward would likely be on his way back to Germany right now. And so would Roy, because no matter how hopeless, he would have had to try to get Edward back, even if it meant his own capture. Even if it meant his own death. His thoughtlessness had resulted in a very close brush with disaster, and all Roy wanted to think about was anything else. So he worked on the array, and dared to believe that Hohenheim could get them all home.
The Flame had been carefully filling in and refining the details of Hohenheim's rough draft, and supervising Izumi Curtis as she assisted in that undertaking as well, speeding the process along. The woman was a natural, easily grasping the finer points of the task at hand, and Roy was not surprised. This world's incarnation of Edward and Alphonse' teacher was just as cleaver as the other's, but Phillip Armstrong's able housekeeper didn't appear to be as volatile as the Amestrian housewife had been. Of course this Curtis family had not suffered the crippling loss of their infant son, and Roy suspected that that made all the difference.
While Roy, Hohenheim and Izumi worked on the array, the rest of the household was on high alert for possible hostile company. It was only a matter of time before the Thule Society put Frank Archer's disappearance together with Von Hohenheim's reappearance, and came up with Sir Phillip Armstrong's estate as a likely refuge for the Amestrian fugitives. The Germans were certainly aware of Hohenheim's friendship with the British nobleman, and would be sure to attempt an invasion of the manor with as many of their British colleagues as they could assemble. Working as quickly as possible, Roy hoped that the Thules would arrive only to discover that their quarry had eluded them by returning to their home world, slamming the Gate closed behind them. It was a reasonable expectation. The Gate array was very close to completion.
Izumi Curtis strode purposefully into the library and picked up her chalk, grinning at Roy's raised eyebrow. The woman had gone to see why Alfons had signalled from the room where they had placed Edward, and Roy hoped it was because the young Amestrian had awoken. Hohenheim walked nonchalantly back into the library behind the lady, returning from his own trek to check on his son. Hands in his pockets, his smug grin scanned the room for Mustang, widening as it locked on its target.
"He's awake," the elder alchemist said. "And aside from the black eye, various other bruises, and an ether hangover, he appears to be fine."
Roy jumped down from his perch on the makeshift scaffold, wiping the chalk dust from his hands on the cloth tucked under his belt for that purpose. Izumi watched, amused, when Hohenheim gave the younger man's shoulder a pat as he hurried past. Roy strode quickly down the hall to Edward's room, thrusting open the door. He was greeted cordially by Alfons and Tristan, but the delighted smile Edward beamed at him as he entered the room was all Roy saw, and it made the older alchemist weak with relief.
"Alfons. Is Alphonse with you at the moment?" Roy asked, eyes still on Edward.
"No, I'm alone," Alfons answered, one eyebrow twitching upward.
"Then might I ask that you and Tristan give Edward and I a few moments in private?" the dark haired man requested, his tone brooking no argument.
"Certainly," Alfons said, amused, as he signalled the young manservant to wheel him from the room.
The moment the pair were through the door, Roy closed and locked it behind them. He wasn't going to take the chance of being interrupted. Edward just sat in the bed, pale and slightly groggy but still grinning widely, pillows propping him up against the headboard.
"Why'd you want to know if Al was here?" Edward asked.
"Because I wouldn't dream of interrupting your reunion with your brother," Roy told him as he came to sit on the bed's edge, Edward shifting over to make room.
"If you've got any pervy ideas, I should warn you that I threw up a few minutes ago," the younger man said apologetically.
Mustang shrugged. "I just came to make sure you're alright, not to harass you," he said, kicking off his shoes and laying down beside the blond, snaking an arm behind the young man's back and pulling him close.
The pair arranged themselves until they were settled comfortably, Roy now propped up on the pillows with Edward held tight against his side, the younger man's head cushioned on the older's shoulder, arms curled around each other.
"You're alright?" the Flame asked.
"Yeah, thanks to you," Edward reassured him.
"You scared the shit out of me," Roy said quietly.
"Don't apologize. It was my fault. I shouldn't have left you alone. I should have been there."
"Don't be ridiculous. I'm okay. You got to me in time. This isn't your fault. You just needed some space to sort out what was bothering you."
"No. I pulled away from you because I didn't want to burden you with my demons, when I should have trusted that you could help me to overcome them." Roy smoothed his palm along the curve of Edward's cheek. "You are the strongest person I know. I should have let you help me. I should have pulled you close. Wrapped you in my arms. Known that being close to you would make me stronger too. I should have rested my head against your chest, and let the sound of your beating heart soothe me. Instead I walked away and almost lost you."
The pair lay quietly together for more than a few moments, fire crackling from the hearth the only sound. When Roy spoke again, it was almost a whisper.
"You can't leave me again," the dark haired man said.
"I won't," Edward quietly reassured him.
"I'm serious Ed," Roy's voice was still a gentle murmur. "It was bad enough before, when you disappeared that first time. Back then my love for you was just a fantasy, an untested dream. Now that I've had a taste of the real thing, I think it would actually kill me to lose you."
"Yeah, well I have news for you Mustang. No matter what happens, no matter where we end up, I'm staying with you." Edward's soft words brushed against Roy's ear. "You're stuck with me."
Roy tilted the younger man's face up and peered searchingly into his golden eyes. "Are you saying what I think you're saying?" he asked hopefully.
"Yes," Edward whispered, meeting the Flame's dark gaze. "Do you want me to spell it out for you?"
The jet black of Roy's eyes burned as if lit from within as he nodded. Had he really won what he had hoped to for so long?
"I love you, Roy." Ed couldn't keep the smile off his face as he watched the older man's light up with joy. "I do."
Suddenly the doorknob was twisted roughly, rattling the locked door in its frame, and both alchemists turned towards it as someone then began trying to force it open, battering what sounded like a shoulder violently against it. The hardwood panel held, but the jamb began to splinter, and it wouldn't be long before it gave way. Roy rolled out of Edward's arms and off the bed, realizing that his jacket, with Archer's gun in its pocket, was downstairs in the library where he'd taken it off to work on the array. Shit!
"Oh for fuck sake!" Edward growled, staggering to his feet. "What's a guy got to do to get some fucking privacy around here?"
The situation at the Armstrong estate in Central was quickly coming to a head. Tension between the two parties of soldiers on opposite sides of the main gate was running high. It was only a matter of time before General Hakuro's well known lack of patience resulted in his breaking through the gate despite Furher Gruman's order to await his arrival, or the Furher ordered the Armstrongs to allow the General access. Gruman was on his way, due to arrive at any moment, and Second Lieutenant Breda was hard at work, seeing to it that his plan to camouflage the situation was in place before either eventuality. In the basement lab, assisted by Strongine and Catherine, both in coveralls, and for the moment Alphonse, back from his visit with Alfons, Breda directed his small detail quickly and efficiently to complete their task.
The Gate array was covered, thanks to Alphonse, by a thick sheet of pressed board standing three metres away from the original, now hidden wall, and covered by a floor to ceiling drop sheet, as were all the other walls in the large basement area. The portly redhead certainly hoped that he'd left enough space for anyone who happened to pop through the Gate to do so safely, but he hadn't wanted to make too large a difference in the room's original dimensions for fear of someone noticing and suspecting that one of the walls was just a front. He'd also had Catherine paint a large, red lettered warning on the array side of the false wall alerting the returning gate hoppers to stay quiet on arrival, just in case they had hostile company in the outer room at the time.
The Armstrong women were rearranging the scaffold previously used to draw the Gate array around the object taking up much of the large room's central area, also provided by Alphonse's alchemic skills. It was, of course, only partially complete, but Breda had to admit that the youngest Elric had quite a bit of artistic talent. The scenario wasn't quite right though. Ignoring important details could be their downfall. This ruse could easily be detected by the absence of little things that should be present, but were not. Like dust and debris for example.
"Can you kinda mess up the room a bit, kid?" Breda asked Alphonse, earning a pained expression from the young alchemist. "It's too clean. We need it to look like there's work being done here."
Alphonse nodded, and a quick clap produced the desired effect. A fine coating of dust fogged up, then settled on every surface in the room. Another clap, and chunks of debris of varying size sprouted up from the floor in a random jumble. That's what Breda liked about Alphonse. You didn't have to spell everything out for the kid before he got the picture.
The stout Lieutenant now turned to Strongine. "I need you to climb up to the top of the scaffold and scatter some of those tools around," he told the young woman, who smiled and vaulted onto the lower portion of the metal frame, scaling up to comply.
The Second Lieutenant stepped back and took in the entire scene. Something was still off. Ah, yes. "Okay ladies, I'm sorry to say this, but the only part of this scene that doesn't fit now is you. You both look too, well, fresh. For this to look legitimate, you have to appear to have been working on this thing, and the best way to get that effect is if you actually do work on this thing."
Neither Armstrong appeared to object to this suggestion. Catherine looked at her older sister, who nodded encouragingly from her perch at the top of the scaffold. Then both young ladies took up their tools and began toiling away, one at the top, and one at the bottom. In no time at all, both had worked up a sweat, to which the fine dust they were producing began to stick. Breda stood back, once again observing the overall picture, now satisfied.
He turned back to Alphonse, who was also surveying the room, a smile tilting his lips. "Okay kid, time to make ourselves scarce. Alex is waiting for you upstairs to send you out on your next field trip, and I need to get back to the main gate."
"Alright, Lieutenant," Alphonse said as he turned to leave the room. "I'll let Mr. Armstrong know that everything is ready down here." And with that, the young blond disappeared up the stairs.
Breda took one more look at his plan in action, and then hurried up the stairs himself, making his way out of the manor house toward the perimeter, where his comrades were holding General Hakuro's squad at bay. After the initial warning shots fired by Hakuro's forces, there had been no further gunfire, but the General's reputation as a loose cannon was legend. If it hadn't been for Amue's quick thinking to call Furher Gruman's office directly, Hakuro likely wouldn't have thought twice about opening fire on the officers resisting this unlawful invasion of private property. As it was, the man was still fuming, making threats, and demanding that he be allowed entrance despite word that the Furher himself was on the way to resolve the situation in person. The Armstrongs were an influential family after all, and Phillip Armstrong was a close personal friend of Thurman Gruman.
Heymans got to the gate just as a long black motorcar drove up, but it wasn't the Furher arriving to resolve the standoff, it was Phillip Armstrong and his petite wife returning home from their sojourn to the South. Exiting the car, the burley elder Armstrong took in the scene, then, with fists clenched, he stalked over to General Hakuro, face darkened with anger.
"What is the meaning of this Hakuro?" the retired General challenged the younger officer with a growl.
"Ask your son and daughters that question," Hakuro snarled back. "They are refusing to allow my men and I access."
"And just why should they allow you access?" Armstrong leaned into his adversary's space, glaring. "This estate is private property. We are not required to grant free passage simply because someone demands it."
"I have reason to believe that they are harbouring a wanted criminal. I demand that you allow me inside to apprehend him!" Hakuro leaned in as well, placing the two men nearly chest to chest.
"You had better have some very solid evidence to back up your accusations," Armstrong warned, eyes glittering dangerously.
"I'll have all the evidence I need when I get inside and find Von Hohenheim hiding there!" Hakuro snapped.
"Why you insolent puppy!" Armstrong roared. "How dare you violate our civil rights to satisfy an unfounded suspicion, and worse, misuse your authority and involve our fine Amestrian military to carry out this unlawful invasion of private property! I'll have you up on charges!"
"You'll be the one up on charges when my suspicions are confirmed!" Hakuro roared back.
The arrival of a second long black limousine interrupted the two officers before they could actually come to blows. Furher Gruman, along with a few of his aids, exited the vehicle and quickly strode over to the center of the action outside of the main gate, long handlebar moustache twitching in annoyance. In his late seventies, the current Furher of Amestris was still fit and agile. And definitely no pushover. The disapproving set to his features as he advanced, steely eyes locked on the two opponents, was enough to make Breda, still on the estate side of the locked main gate, take an involuntary step back, and Kain Furey looked as though he was thinking about making a run for it. Every right hand attached to every soldier present snapped into a sharp salute almost in unison.
"At ease, gentlemen," Gruman rumbled, returning the salute just as sharply and stepping up to Hakuro and Armstrong. "General Hakuro, report."
"Furher Gruman Sir!" Hakuro started, face still flushed with anger. "I have reason to believe that a wanted criminal is currently taking refuge within the Armstrong manor house, with the family's express permission. I assembled a small squad in order to search the estate and apprehend the wanted man, but have been refused entrance!"
Gruman gave Armstrong a grim look, the retired General meeting his gaze fearlessly. "Harbouring a fugitive is a grave, criminal offence," the Furher said. "Who is this wanted man, and what evidence do you have to support your accusations?" Gruman asked Hakuro.
"Von Hohenheim, the alchemist otherwise known as Hohenheim of Light, is the suspect in question. He turned up unexpectedly during the otherworldly invasion last week, and is likely responsible for opening that gateway in the first place," Hakuro told his leader. "His son, Alphonse Elric, is currently a guest of the Armstrong's, and the family recently requested a small retinue of officers for some unspecified, non military duties." The General cast a dark glower at his retired colleague, then continued. "The officers in question are all from General Roy Mustang's former command, and I found that highly suspicious, considering that Mustang disappeared through the gateway to the other world. Knowing the high degree of loyalty the man inspires in his subordinates, I believe that these people are attempting to reopen the gateway to that other world, and that Von Hohenheim and his son are assisting them. Such a dangerous undertaking should be conducted under direct military control, so we can be prepared in the event of another attack from the other world!" Hakuro finished, crossing his arms across his chest, glaring a challenge at Armstrong.
The Furher narrowed his eyes at his subordinate, and the smug look dropped from Hakuro's face. "In the first place, General, Von Hohenheim is indeed wanted for questioning. However, he is not a criminal until proven to be one, by a preponderance of concrete evidence and a fair trial by his peers. The days of Furher King Bradley's military strong arm tactics are over. You would do well to keep that in mind before you go off half cocked, attempting to violate the basic civil rights of our citizens based on rumour and speculation."
Gruman then turned to his old friend, face still grim. "But the General does make a very good point about the risks involved in reopening a pathway to that other world without taking necessary defensive precautions, Phillip," he said.
"I can assure you, Sir, that no self respecting Armstrong would risk action that might facilitate an invasion, from this or any other world, without considering the implications and taking precautions in the interest of national security," the retired officer stated confidently. "We Armstrongs have been Amestris' steadfast defenders for many generations, and I resent our loyalty being called into question!" The stout blond glared at Hakuro, teeth gritted.
"Then what do you say to allowing us to enter your grounds, to conduct a thorough inspection," the Furher said, clapping a hand on his old friend's shoulder. "And I assure you, it will be henceforth be conducted in a respectful manner." Gruman glared the order at Hakuro, who stiffened at the reproach and saluted, then stood at attention.
Phillip Armstrong once again saluted his Furher, sparkles seeming to appear in the air around him as his face lit up with a smile. "I say, Sir, that I would be only too happy to have you as our guest, and offer you and the men under your command unlimited access to our home to do as you see fit." The stout blond offered a short bow, and signalled Lieutenant Hawkeye to open the main gate. "My home is at your disposal, Sir."
Breda wasn't the only one who breathed a sigh of relief as the Furher strolled casually onto the grounds with his old comrade, Mrs. Armstrong walking demurely between the two older men. He did wonder, however, if Phillip Armstrong's timely arrival was planned, or just a coincidence, and whether or not the family patriarch knew what his children had been up to in his absence.
Izumi Curtis was on the hunt, her weapon of choice, a sturdy blackwood shillelagh, in hand. Her domain had been infiltrated, and that just wouldn't do. It was Von Hohenheim who'd sounded the alarm, discovering that the manor house's defences had been breached when two strangers had jumped him in the kitchen where he had gone in search of a snack. Izumi had heard the terrified shrieks of the men who'd attacked the elder alchemist, and rushed into the room to discover that the walls had sprouted arms. Hohenheim's two attackers were struggling wildly in the grip of white, kitchen tile fists, eyes mad with fear, while their intended victim looked on in sinister amusement.
At the moment Sig and Tristan were stalking prey as well, but their style was very different from Izumi's. The Curtis men were more about lying in wait and pouncing, and they had stationed themselves in and around the library as protection for Sir Phillip and young Alfons. Von Hohenheim had returned to the library as well, intent on finishing the means for the Amestrians to escape from the Thules once and for all.
Unlike the Sig and Tristan, Izumi's was a track and attack methodology. At the moment, she was tailing two German men as they crept quietly along the upstairs hallway. Although the hall was wide and straight, it also contained an elaborate collection of family heirlooms, ornate vases on pedestals and other such items of decor, which made for excellent cover. The pair of intruders were unaware of their malevolent shadow as they moved from door to door, listening at each one, then quietly opening them to peer inside. Not finding what, or who, they were searching for, they moved on to the next. Two doors further along the hall would finally get them to the room where the manor's other guests, Elric and Mustang, were resting, unaware of the Thule invasion. According to Tristan the invaders would find the door locked, and attempting to force their way in would be the distraction Izumi awaited to launch her attack.
The Germans moved to the room next to the Amestrian's. Listened. Opened the door. Peeked inside. Moved on. It was showtime.
The Thules listened at the Amestran's door, then stepped back for a whispered conference too quiet for Izumi to hear. Then one of the Germans gripped the doorknob as the other prepared to lunge into the room, but their plan was foiled by this door being unexpectedly locked. Casting stealth to the winds, the two invaders began trying to force the door open, battering their shoulders against it, and that was Izumi's signal to strike.
The dark haired woman covered the distance to her prey quickly and quietly, and was just about to bash in the head of her first victim when the door he was pushing against suddenly swung wide, sending both Germans sprawling to the floor. A small bed table swung in from the side of the doorway, smashing into one man's head, but the other rolled away and jumped to his feet, then lunged at the dark haired man wielding the table. He never made it. Hohenheim's son was on him from the other side of the door like a flash, and a single, right handed jab to the big Thule's temple laid him out cold. The man Mustang had clobbered was still semiconscious, but Izumi's swiftly swung cudgel put him out in short order.
"Well! You Amestrians certainly aren't pushovers," the feisty housekeeper observed, impressed.
"You British folk aren't too bad yourselves," young Elric returned with a lopsided grin as his dark eyed companion smirked his agreement.
"Let's get to a more defensible location," Izumi said, voice low, checking back down the hallway towards the stairway. "Everyone else is barricaded in the library. I think we should make our way down there as well."
"Has anyone called the police?" Mustang asked, also keeping his voice low as the trio crept down the hall toward the stairs.
"We tried, but the phone lines have been cut," Izumi explained. "We're on our own for the moment. But I'm sure we can hold the buggers off long enough for you to finish constructing your escape route, and when it's ready, you can use it and be out of their reach."
"We're not going to run off and leave you to deal with the Thules on your own," the younger alchemist growled. "It's our fault they're here in the first place."
"Don't be a fool, boy," The woman cast a sideward scowl at the young blond as they started down the steps, wondering if it was her imagination that he seemed to cringe slightly at the glower. "You Amestrians have a lot more to lose than we do. A fate worse than death as it were. Besides, these crazy Germans have no idea who they're dealing with. By the time this is over, they'll be running away with their tails between their legs, never to be seen here again." The housekeeper's barbed wire grin flashed in the dimness.
The trio had descended the stairs, and now scanned the large entry hall for enemies, finding it empty. The library was down a short hallway to their immediate right. Izumi swung around the banister at the bottom of the stairs, directly into the arms of the big German crouching there, his bullet head wrapped in a tight bandage. The clutter of the over—elaborate decor had worked against her this time, hiding the thug from view until it was too late. The large man gripped her right forearm, preventing her from swinging the weapon she held in that hand, and quickly twisted her around, slinging his other arm across her throat.
"One move, and I break her neck," he growled in English, glaring at Roy and Edward.
A giant shadow loomed up directly behind the thug. Then an enormous hand reached around to clamp down on the arm twisted around Izumi's throat, pulling it away from her, and snapping it like a twig. The German's eyes bulged out as his face went deathly pale, but the scream that waited just behind his gritted teeth never made it out of his mouth. A massive fist crashed down on top of the man's bullet shaped head, pounding him to the floor like a flimsy, ten penny nail, down for the count.
Izumi turned, beaming at her gigantic husband. "Honey!" she quietly gushed, grabbing Sig by his collar to pull him down for a peck on the cheek. "Don't tell me you were worried about me! You know I could have taken care of that rogue by myself."
"Of course I was worried," the big man rumbled. "Do you think I could sit still when that scoundrel grabbed you? No one puts their hands on my sweetheart!"
Izumi wrapped both her arms around one of Sig's, turning them toward the library with the two Amestrians trailing along behind. "Ah, my hero," she said, beaming as she leaned against her man.
"Oh darling," Sig rumbled, a small smile playing about his lips as he patted one of the arms wrapped around his.
"Oh dearest," the woman purred, smiling back happily.
"Oh brother," Edward said quietly, rolling his eyes, and Mustang, of course, just smirked.