bob fish

No Small Injury

chapter 5. The Buddy System

Smoky, human grease clung to Roy's face. Sandy grit clung to the grease. His lungs burned. It was twenty hundred hours, and as was usual at the end of a shift, Roy was suffering from a mess of minor bodily discomforts; he was overheated, exhausted, irritated, filthy, sticky and sweaty, among other things.

And, as usual, he noted to himself that this probably wasn't the most healthy reaction for a man who'd just spent his working day slaughtering people. How would a normal person react? Nausea, rage, horror, even depression? Whatever he ought to feel, the fact was that he felt nothing at all. His chest was hollow with it.

In a few minutes, he could be done with all this for the day. Then he'd be back at the tents for a few slugs of vodka or a quick fuck to relax his muscles, and then he could flop into his bunk exhausted. With any luck, he'd manage to briefly block out the knowledge that in a few hours time, it'd be tomorrow morning and he'd be doing this all over again.

There was just one more task before he could clock off: he had to make his weekly visit to Knox in Research Camp 1K. It was messy, it was unpleasant, and he couldn't delegate it.

He'd turn up with two of his men, who would unload a cart full of charred corpses pulled from the rubble, and Knox would wander round them, chewing on the end of his cigarette and evaluating. Roy would stand about with his hood up to keep the early evening sun off his head, and wait for Knox to call him over to ask for something specific: deeper burns or a flash of something at a higher temperature. Whatever his research needed that week. Corpses start to stink fast in the desert heat. Knox didn't ever seem to notice. Maybe all those dead bodies and guts and formaldehyde had destroyed his sense of smell? Or maybe it was the cigarettes? Hughes always swore by them for blocking out your sense of smell and taste. Roy tried occasionally, but he could never manage to smoke one all the way through. Hughes ribbed him about it, but it was hardly fair; he spent all day inhaling smoke anyway, why would he want more?

As usual, Knox stood waiting outside his tent. Today, though, he was not alone. Next to him stood a man who looked to be in his fifties, dressed like some retiree tourist: long shorts, sandals with socks, a linen shirt, a shapeless fishing hat. He was holding a metal object in one hand, and for one surreal moment, Roy thought it was a camera. A visitor? Another doctor?

Roy stepped forward, and nodded a greeting to Knox. Knox grunted in response, and indicated the man with a jerk of his head. Apparently for him, this passed for a polite introduction. The man stepped forward, smiled and held his hand out for Roy to shake.

"Flame, right? Henry Katzenklavier — Chrysalis. I'm afraid either's a bit of a mouthful." His voice was soft, his manner rather academic, and his face quirky and immediately likeable: big ears, a mobile mouth, bright, clever eyes with deep smile creases round them.

The offered hand was a surprise, but a welcome one; these days, most people kept a certain distance from Roy until he'd pulled his gloves off, as if he'd fry one of his own company for looking at him funny. He couldn't exactly blame them, though. Lately, he was finding it increasingly difficult to be certain what he was capable of. Grouchy, Roy decided to test him. He didn't remove his glove. The man didn't show any sign of wariness or nerves. He shook Roy's hand with a firm grip and smiled at him warmly.

"What are you after?" Roy asked. He hoped it wasn't anything that would entail one of those long trawls through the bodies. It was the height of summer, and the heat was bad today, even this late. He really didn't need this.

Katzenklavier said, "I'm looking for testing material for this." He held out the metal object he was holding to Roy. Roy took it from him. Up close, it was a bizarre, beautifully made thing. It looked like a curled fist with too many fingers, or perhaps a silver spider lying dead in his hand. Roy pulled one of his gloves off with his teeth, and carefully manipulated one of the object's legs. It extended with smooth articulation, joint by joint. When he let it go, it sprang back silently. He was reminded, suddenly, of pinning down the legs of frogs for dissection. "What is it?" he asked.

Katzenklavier laughed, warm and self-deprecating. "Well. It's a weapon, of course. We're not in the business of dollmaking."

Roy looked again. Each of the thing's legs ended in a point that was slightly curved, like a fang, and very sharp.

It was pretty small, for a weapon. He tried to imagine what its use might be — or perhaps it was meant to be used in great numbers, like a hail of arrows? He remembered a nest of baby spiders he'd once seen in Master Hawkeye's garden shed, hundreds of them, swarming like a living blanket over their mother. He felt suddenly disinclined to talk more. He handed back the little automaton, then put his hood up and folded his arms, while his men unloaded the wagon and Knox began to make his rounds.

Katzenklavier didn't join Knox. Instead, he stayed over by the wagon, watching the men unload the bodies. Occasionally, he would stretch a hand out to stop them, inspect a corpse more closely, then wave them on.

The heat weighed on Roy; the dust and grease on his face itched. Knox called him over, to ask him to make a second degree burn to an unattached, nearly intact arm that lay in the dust. The fingers were loosely curled, like those of a person asleep. As Roy measured and snapped, he had the sensation of being watched. Sure enough, when he turned, Katzenklavier was looking at him.

Knox continued his inspection. Minutes went by. Roy sweated. A few flies gathered and buzzed. Then Roy became aware of Katzenklavier moving quickly, heard him shout to Knox, "Get a gurney!" Knox plodded off to the tent with an air of bad grace. Roy watched, mildly curious. Then he heard a noise from the wagon: thin, high and human.

Roy marched over. Katzenklavier was questioning the men, "Are there any more like this?"

"No," said the sergeant. "We pulled this one out of a collapsed wind tower. Guess he was a sniper."

"She," said Roy. He looked at the almost-corpse. Her clothes had been been charred to a few scraps; second- and third-degree burns covered most of her body. Her skin wasn't really skin any longer. She'd evidently protected her face enough to save her eyes. They were cracked open, but she didn't seem to be seeing much.

"Ah yes," said Katzenklavier. He pulled at a wrist. Bone showed. "Small hands. Very observant, Flame."

Knox showed up with the gurney and almost shoved it at them. Katzenklavier caught it neatly and started hauling the little sniper onto it with his hands under her shoulders. Knox didn't make a move to help him. Roy's sergeant took the sniper's legs and lifted her on to the gurney. She groaned, and seemed to come to life a little.

Roy followed them into the tent, wishing he'd hit the wind tower and finished her off properly earlier, and a little irritated with himself over the wish. Today he had made dozens of people die in agony and terror; it seemed a little hypocritical of him to balk at torture afterwards. Yet still, he found that he did.

On the floor of the tent was a cloth, and on it was written a formula. Roy had seen something like that formula written in a book once. Katzenklavier nodded his head at the array, jiggled his eyebrows and grinned at Roy, puffed up with honest pride. "What do you make of that, eh?"

How old was she? He couldn't tell much about what she'd looked like before he'd burnt her, but she was small-boned, her lashless eyes were large and round, and her coughs sounded high and childish. The bile still wouldn't rise from his stomach. His intellect reacted; his gut couldn't. He wanted to feel the horror and disgust through his whole body, but it only registered, quietly and numbly, in his brain.

Roy said, "You're going to put ... her into the automaton?"

"I'm going to give it a go," said Katzenklavier jauntily. "We're aiming low at the moment. These things"- he waved the metal spider —"are designed for one use only, like little bombs. Of course, her body couldn't last long anyway" — he stopped himself. "So sorry, Flame. I shouldn't lecture the expert." Then he continued, warming to his subject. "Ideally we'd want a comatose subject — healthy body, damaged brain. That sort of thing. Not very easy to come by in wartime, more's the pity. If you could manage to find us a prisoner or two, that would be good. We use some oxygen deprivation when we get them. Sadly, since they've sent you boys out here, it's easier to find roasted bodies and much harder to get live ones." He shrugged apologetically. "Unpatriotic to complain, but I'm afraid it's slowing the research down."

Katzenklavier stood before him, gentle-voiced, affable, professorial, dressed in his ridiculous day-tripper clothes. Did he have the authority to do this? Did the brass know what his transmutations must involve? But of course he did, of course they knew. Roy opened his mouth, but couldn't think of anything to say. His head rang. He could see from the man's smile how badly he was giving himself away. He felt so exposed, felt a desperate urge to hide within himself. Someone like this shouldn't be able to see what he was thinking and feeling.

"Thank you, Major." Katzenklavier held his eyes, still friendly, unsurprised and mild, but something had shifted in his manner. It was a dismissal. Roy looked over to Knox, willing him, say something, please, come on. Knox had much more decency than he pretended. Roy had seen him do merciful things and had kept his mouth shut. Knox owed him, surely he was going to say something ...

Knox didn't say anything. The look on his face was sour and indifferent.

Katzenklavier stepped forward, in between Roy and the sniper.

Somehow, that was it.

The next moment, Roy found he'd already stepped to one side and snapped a small, intense burst of flame at the girl's head and torso. Katzenklavier jerked and backed away rapidly. The sheets on the gurney caught. Roy fed the fire for a second, holding it where it was without letting it grow, encouraging it to generate some dark, poisonous smoke. The little sniper jerked and choked for a few seconds, and then stopped moving altogether. Roy held the fire where it was. Knox and Katzenklavier were rigid and unmoving at the periphery of Roy's vision. He heard Knox say quietly, "Careful." Roy wasn't sure whom he was addressing.

After a few more seconds, Roy stopped the oxygen abruptly. The fire guttered out. The sniper's face was a blackened mess now. Her hands, charred to ruin, were raised in front of her. The air stank of meat and grease.

Knox was suddenly by his side, handing him a bowl of water. Of course, the sheets were still smouldering. Roy spilled the water over them, and the embers died. Then he dropped the empty bowl on the floor and turned on his heel to give Katzenklavier a narrow, challenging, vicious stare. You wouldn't dare write me up for this.

Katzenklavier was backed up against the tent wall, twitching like a trapped rabbit, but he was still smiling. "You can do that all day long and hardly get tired, can't you?" he said, gently. "That's why they work you so hard, keep you out in the sun, so you're too tired to think, too tired to be a little idiot about it. Your control is splendid; I'm glad I got the opportunity to see. Imagine what you could achieve if you stopped struggling and sulking like a brat. If you accepted this task with good grace, took all that research and skill as far as you could. What a scientist you could be ... " He shook his head and sighed.

The rage welled in Roy with breathtaking suddenness and force. It filled him right up, and it felt so, so good after all that nothing. He needed to leave, and now. The pressure was building up, and he knew if he could fight or fuck or get drunk enough to open the valve and let it hiss out of him, the release would get him a decent night's sleep. He needed it. He was a selfish bastard. He had to go.

Roy was out of the tent and a dozen yards away before he registered the final, fascinated look he'd seen on Katzenklavier's face. He heard Knox's mutter, echoing out into the red evening light as he walked away. "Stupid fucking kid."

There was a tap running. The building's old pipes groaned mournfully through the wall. For a few moments, Ed drifted in and out of sleep, feeling the edges of that dream tug at him: the faceless smile, white light, black tendrils, crumbling skin. He pulled away, and then found himself awake. He could still feel the freezing air of the Gate on his skin. Fuck, he hated these dreams.

Yellow light was seeping into the room through the half-open curtains as he leaned against the back cushion of the sofa. He must have fallen asleep in his living room again. No, wait a minute, he hadn't: the sofa he was lying on was made of worn leather, rather than sagging cotton — oh hell. He'd gone and fallen asleep in Mustang's library, hadn't he? That was what he got for accepting those painkillers; he knew the good kind always got him stoned. Mustang was going to give him so much shit about this. The situation called for him to go straight back to sleep until Mustang had left the apartment, but there was no way he was going anywhere near that dream again. Ed peeled his cheek off the sticky leather of the sofa cushion, buried his face in the wool blanket, and half-listened to the sounds coming from the bathroom next door.

Over the running water and whining pipes, he could hear the distinctly human sound of violent retching.

Ed sat right up. Mustang was throwing up? Was he sick? He listened again, and heard spitting, followed by the sound of the taps. No, Ed had been wrong, he was just brushing his teeth, for godsakes. Why had he even thought that? Gah. Ed threw himself back down onto the sofa and rolled onto his stomach, trying to get comfortable again. It was too late, though: his body had already decided that it was time to wake up. His back ached, his stumps throbbed, and his belt buckle was digging into his navel. And — yeah, this was great — he had morning wood too. Which, face down in his belt and pants, was seriously freaking uncomfortable. Ow. He rolled on to his side and undid the buckle and the top couple buttons of his pants. That was better, kind of. He really needed to piss. Fuck, Mustang must get paid a fortune, why did he have to have a little one-bedroom apartment instead of some huge townhouse thing with a million bathrooms? Ed listened again. The taps had stopped running. Awesome. No wait, there they went again. Crap. Ed listened for another moment. Oh hell, Mustang must be shaving, and he was probably going to take ages over it too, the fussy bastard.

There was a large potted plant by the window ... some kind of little tree. Ed was desperate enough to consider it. He could open the window after, maybe even do a quick transmutation so the room smelled like ozone instead of pee. But, in his current condition, it was going to be seriously challenging to aim into the plant pot without spraying everywhere. And there were notes and books all around the plant...could he clean it up afterwards with a transmutation? What if he hit a book? What if Mustang walked in on him? Fuck, he didn't even want to think about that.

Ed shifted uncomfortably around the couch. This was definitely not good. He tried to think of unpleasant and unattractive things. Requisitions forms, canteen food, Armstrong getting naked ... He seriously needed to piss. Stop freaking primping and get out of the bathroom, you vain son of a bitch. Ed's back and shoulder still hurt. At least that was a distraction. He reached his left arm around to poke hard at the knot just under his right shoulder blade. He moved on, hooked the fingers of his left hand into his automail port, wincing as he brushed a connection, and pressed at the metal brace, massaging it into his empty shoulder. It kind of hurt, but in a good way.

From the other room, he heard a voice call, "Fullmetal?" Shit, shit, shit. Mustang must have heard him moving around. Oh hell, what if he came in to check on him?

Ed froze in place. He didn't answer.

After a moment, the taps started up again. Ed repressed a groan. How long could it possibly take the guy to shave? Ed was sure he took about half this amount of time from start to finish. It wasn't even like Mustang could grow a proper beard anyway: he was all baby-faced. Ed bet he only had to shave like once every five days. Why the hell did it have to be today? Ed seriously, seriously needed to piss.

Okay, he could handle this. It wasn't like he'd never dealt with this problem before. At least this time he wasn't on a half-full overnight train, and Al wasn't sitting opposite snickering unhelpfully while trying to block him from view. He figured he could hold it a couple of minutes at least. He stood, slightly awkwardly, and tried a few stretches to get the blood flowing. Then he closed his eyes and observed his own breathing for a few moments: the pull of air down his throat, the slight ache of the exhale, the smell of coffee drifting in from under the door. Then he started breathing in through his nose and out through his mouth, slowing it down more with each breath, concentrating on the sensation of his lungs filling steadily and completely from the bottom up. Damn, that coffee smelled good, he could go for some of that right now.

He thought of his teacher as she knelt in her front garden, teaching them this exercise: to calm the body, to lower the heartrate and to focus the mind. Remember, with enough mental focus, the mind can control the body. Boys, this is going to come in very useful for you in a couple of years' time. Now, can either of you tell me the causes of penile erection? Absolutely fucking mortifying. Geez, at least this wasn't happening at her place.

Ed checked himself out again, and found his problem now substantially reduced. Whether it the breathing exercise that had worked, or just the traumatic memory, it didn't really matter; it was one less thing to worry about, thank fuck. Now he just had to wait until he could hit the bathroom. He quickly rearranged himself so that he was tucked away enough to pass, then did up his pants and looked over at the grandfather clock in the corner: ten past seven in the morning, AKA way too early. Mustang was still in the bathroom, but in the meantime, perhaps he could investigate that fresh coffee he could smell. He might not be able to force much down until his bladder was empty, but coffee was good for the soul. Or, he could just grab his notes and run for the hills.

He weighed it up: caffeine, or get the hell out of here? Caffeine won by a hair.

Ed shuffled into the kitchen. Sure enough, the vacuum coffeepot was standing on a trivet, and the bottom chamber was full of fresh, dark coffee. Ed grabbed a heavy white mug and helped himself. It smelled amazing. Even the aroma seemed to get his brain working. He settled his butt against the corner of the counter, and took a small, appreciative sip. Coffee: it made so many things better. He was totally going to have to get one of these vacuum pot things, they made way better coffee than the percolator in his apartment. Plus there was the whole ceremony of preparing it — the double chamber, the beautifully simple distillation process. Boil the water in the bottom chamber on the stove, heat makes the water rise up into the top chamber just when it's the right temperature to extract the soluble components that give it the aroma, the taste, the all-important caffeine hit. Then, as the water cools, it trickles back down into the bottom chamber before the less soluble components can leech into the coffee and make it bitter. Elegant science, awesome results. He blew on the mug and took another sip. Now, if you were going to insist, the way the Xerxeans had done, that you needed to perform a ritual to put you in the right headspace before you did alchemy, preparing coffee in this way beat the hell out of bowing and scraping to some crazy fictional god with a lion's head. How cool would it be to invent something like this?

Through the half-open door, he saw Mustang walk past with a towel knotted around his waist. By the time he had registered the nakedness and the sardonic look, Mustang was already gone, and the door to the bedroom was clicking shut. Ed somehow managed to spill a bit of coffee down the front of his shirt in the process. Great.

It would be undignified to run. His cup of coffee was still mostly full; the manly thing to do would be to finish it up and leave at his own pace. Besides, he had something else to take care of. Ed put his coffee down and walked briskly to the bathroom.

Having gained blessed relief, he returned to the kitchen and relaxed with the steaming mug of coffee in his hand. Ed felt a hell of a lot calmer. He was only a few more delicious sips in when Mustang walked into the kitchen dressed in his uniform pants and shirtsleeves. Apparently, he was a quick dresser. Kind of surprising, especially given the amount of freaking time he had spent shaving. Ed would have figured him for the type to spend about about an hour messing with his hair until it was carelessly tousled just right.

"Help yourself to coffee, Fullmetal." Mustang's voice was soaked with sarcasm. So, he was grouchy first thing in the morning. That was less of a surprise. The openness of last night, whatever it had been, seemed to have vanished without trace.

Mustang leant back against the counter across from Ed, with the coffeepot behind him. He didn't look like he'd had a good night's sleep. His face was worn and bloodless, and there were bluish hollows under his eyes. Was he sick after all?

Ed decided to be generous with his concern. "You look like shit."

"And you look like you've got a cat on your head." Ed reached up and touched the inevitable, tangled puff of blond hair on the crown of his head, and felt momentarily stupid — why hadn't he done something about that? Mustang registered the direct hit with the flash of a smile, then continued. "I was up late. Havoc's identified our mystery alchemist. Henry Katzenklavier, the Chrysalis Alchemist. Heard of him?"

"Nope. No, hey, wait. He does biological stuff, doesn't he? Al and I nearly called on him this one time, like six years ago, but he and his wife were on some big trip to Xing." Which was a good thing, apparently. He and Al had run into enough creeps on their travels as it was. "What's his deal?"


"As in he actually makes them, or as in he's one of those delusional idiots who think you can do it without human transmutation?"

"I don't know. He was trying in Ishbal, but I never managed to find out if he succeeded. It might well have been human transmutation in the end; I remember his methods seemed similar to yours — but — without the humanity."

Ed leant forward, gripping his coffee mug. "You mean he made armour? Like Al?"

"Not so much like Al." Mustang sighed, as if to say that it was too early in the morning for this conversation. If that's what he thought, Ed kind of agreed. "I'll leave a copy of his file in the library this evening. You and Alphonse should both read it. I'll trust you not to make assumptions about The Perfection of Matter based on Chrysalis and his doings, but it's best you have the full story."

As the caffeine hit, Ed's brain was beginning to spark to life. He said, slowly, "The Immortal Army. Those were flesh golems. Was he part of all that shit? With, you know ..."- he put down his coffee, pantomimed spectacles with thumb and forefinger circled over each eye, and pulled his lips back in a toothy grimace. "That guy?"

Mustang snorted a laugh, but it was a bitter little noise. He rubbed a hand over his eyes tiredly. He evidently hadn't appreciated the reminder. "We couldn't pin anything on Chrysalis after the Promised Day. And believe me, I did my best. From what I know of the man, he would have been in his element — but it's possible they just never invited him to the party." Then he did that thing with his face that Ed had never quite worked out how he did: the shutters rolled down, and the conversation was over. Mustang looked over his shoulder at the coffeepot, then turned to the row of mugs stacked on the counter just behind Ed.

Ed realised a moment too late that he was blocking the way to the cups. Before he could step away, Mustang reached right past him and took one. The cloth of his right sleeve brushed Ed's left forearm. Ed was mortified to feel the hairs on the top of his arm prickle. He felt suddenly very aware of how much he needed to shower.

Ed buried his nose in his coffee mug. Next to him, Mustang turned away to fill his own cup.

On the street outside, a car rumbled by. A bicycle horn sounded. Ed heard Mustang take a sip of coffee. Out of the corner of his eye, Ed looked over and saw Mustang wasn't throwing the coffee down his throat the way he did in the office, but sipping it slowly, like it was some kind of unpleasant medicine.

Mustang turned, giving Edward a grumpy look through his bangs. "Another thing, Fullmetal. By the time I'm back this evening, I expect to see my library in a reasonable state. I let you use it as a favour, and because it's the safest and fastest way for you to get this book decoded for me — not so you could turn it into a chaotic, garbage-strewn extension of your student digs."

Ed felt some of his energy returning to him. "A favour? Like I'd want to hang around your creepy museum of a place if I had a choice about it. You've got me putting my back out working sixteen-hour days on this thing, and now you want me to do your freaking housework too! Sorry that right now it looks like someone actually lives here —"

"Right now, it looks like drunken tramps live here." Mustang's scowl dialled itself up a notch, and he turned his body to face Edward fully. "Most of those books are heirlooms. If they end up being chewed upon by the clan of rats you're currently advertising to with your sandwich crust and banana peel collection — then not only will you be answering to me, but the Major will doubtless be very interested to hear what's become of her father's books."

So his teacher had been Hawkeye's dad — and hey, look, they'd already reached the portion of the argument where they started threatening each other with her supposed wrath. That was much faster than usual. Ed shrugged, and rolled his eyes. "Yeah, yeah."

"Clean it up, Fullmetal."

"Sure, mom."

Mustang sank down the rest of his coffee and stalked out. Edward sighed happily. Back to normal. Well, that was cool. The past few days of meaningful conversation had just been too damn weird.

Al was in the middle of his fourth slice of toast of the morning and was revising his third annoying entry from Powell's Foundational Concepts, when the telephone rang.

He yelled to the next room, "Ed! I'll get it!" just to make the point that he was always the one who answered the phone first. Ed really ought to be up by now anyway. Then he jogged out to the hall and picked up the receiver.

"Hey," said Ed's voice, crackly and quiet through the old-fashioned handset. Wait, he wasn't home?

"Brother? I thought you were still asleep? You went out already?"

"Ah." Ed sounded like he'd been caught out at something. It was weird that Al hadn't noticed Ed sneaking out early: when Ed got up in the morning he usually clattered around enough to wake people in the next block. "Uh, no. I, uh, ending up staying over at Mustang's."

What? As in, on the couch, right? Why didn't he just come home? No — no way, right? Right?

Al tried to think of something to fill the ringing silence, and settled for the reassurance of cheap mockery. "You know, if you don't hold out until the third date, Brother, people are going to think you're easy." He could hear the hint of squeaky tension that had snuck into his own voice.

"I fell asleep on the couch. Gah, don't even joke."

Al exhaled. That was the thing about Ed's amazing protestations, they made you unreasonably paranoid. He'd thought Ed had kissed Winry at least three times before it had actually happened, due to the fervent denials alone.

This whole Mustang thing was so weird. Ed and he were so alike in so many ways, and it was so funny how they both always seemed to fight against it. For years, Al had always thought, put them in a room together for long enough and they'll end up getting along ... and Ed will have to admit he likes the guy ... Now, they'd put themselves together in a room, voluntarily. Technically, Al was supposed to be in the room too, but his own research kept drawing him away, and somehow it always seemed to be Ed who was relaying their findings to Mustang. It was also Ed who was coming home chipper and energised, talking up a storm about the research, and about the latest weird book he'd found in the Brigadier General's library, or the inner circle of the salamander array, and why vacuum coffeepots were awesome ... That was one of the things that made Ed such a great researcher, Al thought, attempting patience. When he got interested in something, he really knew how to obsess.

Before the security briefing, Roy managed to duck into the meeting room to get a quick update from Riza about their failed effort to find and question Katzenklavier that morning. It was hardly a surprise.

"Apparently," Riza noted, "he shut his house up and went travelling last year after his wife died. He has children, but they're claiming to have no idea where he is. Dino and Falman told me that the study at his place was half-empty. Wherever he went, he took several bookcases of research with him."

The implication hung in the air for a few moments. Katzenklavier was undoubtedly working, and he probably hadn't gone far. Riza hadn't met the man in Ishbal, and Roy had never felt particularly inclined to talk about him. She only knew him from their attempts after the Promised Day to collar the State Alchemists who'd conspired with Bradley and the creature who had controlled him. Now she stood by the window, self-contained and upright, if a little tired. She was still holding her left arm rather stiffly. She noticed him watching, and gave Roy a very small smile, acknowledging his concern and warning him off further attempts to fuss. Then for a moment, her eyes widened slightly, and a hint of sadness and affection crept into the smile. She was telling Roy she felt bad for him. He couldn't blame her. Edward had been graceless but right: he really was looking like shit today.

Roy moved on. "And I've just got off the phone with Patrick Dunleavy, who we can guess was conspiring with Flowers," he told her. "I warned him he was probably a target for the people who killed Flowers, and offered him our protection." Roy paused to observe her raised eyebrow. He answered her question bluntly, "And then he told me to fuck off."

"I suppose he thought you were just going to use it as a way to spy on him."

"I gather. Of course, that's going to make actually spying on him a lot more difficult. I've got Breda organising protection, and Madam Christmas handling the information-gathering. But it's going to be impossible to keep Dunleavy safe without proper bodyguards keeping him out of harm's way. I give him five days."

"Three," modified Riza.

It was a shame that they both had just enough remnants of good taste left not to make it a bet.

A couple of minutes later, every soldier from both Roy's office and Riza's was crowded into his. It was lucky for everyone that he kept an informal office, because there just wasn't enough space to stand at attention. Instead, officers and other ranks, according to their inclinations, slouched against desks or stood behind them. Riza stood to one side of Roy's desk. She didn't shout for order; she just slowly looked around the crowd, and, as if she was a conductor and they were her orchestra, they sank into silence one by one as she caught their eye.

"Until further notice, we're going to have a new security system in place. We're going to use the 'buddy system'. Most of you will know what that means. The combat zone here is Central itself, so the rules are slightly different. Each of you will be partnered with another member of the team. When you are outside Central Headquarters, you will need to take them with you at all times." She looked over the room again. "No exceptions. Dates and other liaisons do not count as exceptions."

There was a general, low groan from around the room which couldn't be traced to any particular person.

"Those of you who live in private accommodation can choose to either sleep in the dorms or sleep in the same apartment as your buddy." The murmuring groans rose again and then subsided. "Again, no exceptions," said Riza evenly.

She continued. "There are two points to this: the attacks so far have been opportunistic; they've taken place when personnel are alone and off-guard. Therefore, remaining in pairs will make you less attractive targets. It also means that if you are targetted, your chances of taking down your opponent will be greatly increased.

First Lieutenant Ross has a brief instruction sheet about how this system will work, and additional security measures you're to take at private places of residence. All doors and windows are to be closed and locked. Preferentially, you should be sleeping in a secure room with more than one means of exit. You and your buddy will also check in, as a pair, with 'base' before you leave Headquarters to inform them of your destination, and again after you arrive safely. From now until 1600 today, Lieutenant Ross will be 'base'. From 1600 to 2000, 'base' will be Captains Catalina and Havoc." There were a few good-natured groans from around the room. Falman rubbed a hand across his face, as though his eyes were tired. Roy looked across to Catalina and Havoc. As usual, you couldn't get a sheet of paper between them. He sat behind his desk in his wheelchair; she stood by his side, slouching slightly towards him. Her hip nearly brushed his jacket. They both grinned.

Riza's mouth twitched briefly; then she continued. "And from 2000 until 0900 tomorrow morning, 'base' will be Second Lieutenants Falman and Fuery. I'm leaving it up to you to assign yourselves partners. I'm trusting that we can all do this in a sensible and mature manner. I needn't remind you of how important it is that we avoid any fatalities. You will all need to tell First Lieutenant Ross who you've buddied up with by 1200. If by 1200 you do not have a buddy, you're to inform Lieutenant Ross, and she'll assign you one."

Warrant Officer Denny Brosch looked at Ross. Ross looked at Warrant Officer Julia Sullivan. Sullivan looked at the floor. Brosch looked at Sullivan, and then back at Ross. His ears went a tiny bit pink. Unfortunately for him, he worked in Roy's office, where this kind of embarrassing detail would be a well-worn joke to everyone present by lunchtime.

After a productive day's work of swapping notes with each other, annotating, debating and bringing their research together, Ed and Al had decided that it was time for a break to investigate life in the city beyond their living room and Mustang's library. Al wandered to his room and put on a clean shirt, a sweater vest and a blazer. He pulled a comb through his hair, and tried to get the messy bits on the crown of his head to lie down, and as usual, he failed. So he just ran his hand through his hair to try to do the cool tousled thing. He wasn't sure if it worked or not, so he just gave up and decided he was good like that. When he got back to the living room, Ed had dressed in what, to him, was appropriate clothing for going out on the town: boots, black suede pants, a faded dark t-shirt, a long black jacket, and a belt with a skull for a buckle. Al took a second look at the belt.

"Is that my belt?" asked Al. "Why couldn't you alchemise a dumb skull onto one of your belts?"

Ed shrugged guiltlessly. "None of my belts had enough metal for the skull. What? It's badass."

The bar they headed to had a gramophone playing in the corner. Ed looked at him as they walked in the door, silently checking with Al that he would be okay with the extra noise. Really, Ed didn't have to do that anymore, but Al didn't mind reassuring him. Al sat at the table flicking through Ed's notebook while Ed went and got their drinks. They understood about half of the book at the moment, and Al was convinced they were on the verge of a breakthrough. Maybe they would even crack it tonight. Al could feel little sparks of anticipation rising from his stomach to his chest. They still didn't know what takwin, the alchemical work that was the book's subject, actually was. Al was starting to come around to Ed's opinion that takwin was likely to be something nasty enough that it should never be revived — yet still he was desperate to know. Whatever it was, the book made it clear that it was an ideal goal which was central to Xerxean alchemy, the way the Philosopher's Stone was to Amestrian alchemy. Of course, this wasn't a reassuring thought either in some ways, but to truly understand the principles of Xerxean science, to see alchemy through their eyes, even if he didn't like what he saw ... well, that was pretty tempting.

Ed was back with the drinks, looking triumphant. "Lambic beer!" he announced. "Apparently they make it in this one valley out West with wild yeast. The bar guy was explaining it to me."

Al took his bottle, tilted his glass and slowly poured. Ed just took a swig straight out of the bottle. Al sniffed. "It doesn't have actual lamb in it? 'Cause it smells like a barnyard." He tasted it gingerly, finding it sweet with a biting edge of sourness, fruity, and a bit musty. He was going to have to reserve judgement.

"Hey," said Ed, "It's chalkboard time. Let's see who's on tonight."

The bar they were in had only been reopened recently, but it was already a University quarter favourite. They specialised in two things: a huge list of bottled beers from all over the country (even abroad), and music. Nearly every night they had live bands on. The bar had a little ritual of only announcing the acts for that evening at 6pm on the day, so new bands would get as good a crowd as established ones. A lot of the music was pretty experimental, which meant that some of it was great and some of it was pretty hilariously dire. How long Ed and Al stayed this evening would kind of depend on which performers' names the barman chalked up on the big board by the bar.

Ed stood up and craned his head around to see what the barman was writing. After a moment, he jumped briefly in place and then sat down with a smug grin. "The Vortex are doing the early session." The Vortex, a favourite band of Ed's. There were eight of them, and they were definitely on the experimental side. Their set consisted of two sets of drums, an airplane propellor, three guitars with magnetic pickups that plugged into the electricity mains, a singer and a theremin. Al hadn't even known what a theremin was until he'd first seen them play. It was a little box that translated vibrations into eerie electronic noise. You played it by waving your hands around near the antenna. Ed kept threatening to get one; Al didn't have the heart to tell him that Winry had started playing a month ago and now regularly serenaded him down the phone with spooky oscillating noises.

"Safely arrived home, still not dead," said Falman, trying to keep it as brief as he could.

The phone was fumbled for a second, and then Catalina's voice came on, a little out of breath. "Awesome, I mean — ooh — I mean, excellent work, Second Lieutenant. Carryonbye." Click.

"Where are you?" pleaded Vanessa. "Why'd you do this to me at a time like this? Aren't I nice enough to you, sweetie?" She leant over the dressing table to look down the back, crooked her finger and made a wheedling noise.

Madam Christmas sighed and folded her arms. "Honey. You're talking to an earring."

Madeline popped her head around the door. "What are you yelling about?"

Vanessa looked aggrieved and waved a sparkly crystal clip-on the size of a chocolate.

Madeline looked over the dressing table, flipped open the cigarette box and pulled out the second earring. Vanessa responded with a squeaky little shout of triumph. "There you are, you little sneak!" She turned to Madeline, impressed. "But how did you know?"

Madeline deadpanned, "Because this exact thing happened last week?"

Christmas pulled the cigarette from her mouth, exhaled two little jets of smoke from her nostrils, and gestured at Vanessa. "Now honey, you remember the drill. This guy's a target. As much verbal info as you can get on the case, on his movements, on Flowers, then straight out you go. Remember you've got four of Roy's guys watching you. Don't leave the hotel with him if he asks. When you're done and ready to go, or if you smell any kind of trouble, then you head straight out to the car — and check the numberplate before you get in."

Vanessa took a silver cigarette case from her handbag and filled it. She muttered, "Politicians. Bet I end up having to climb down the fire escape again."

Christmas snorted. "This guy's a big old schoolboy, he's not going to give you any grief."

Madeline chimed in, "Political types are easy. Remember that General with the beard from the year before last, when we were looking into all that Promised Day schtick? I was all ready for the big routine, and then he just had me handcuff him to the bed. I spent the whole afternoon sitting in an armchair in my heels and skivvies, drinking coffee and reading the papers, and every half hour I'd just wander over, whack his butt with a slotted spatula, and ask him some compromising questions about his job. He loved it so much he tipped like a movie star, and I got so much info on the brass that I ran out of notepad and had to write all over the crossword section."

Christmas said, "Onwards and upwards, honey. Any trouble, you just flip the lightswitch in the hotel room on and off a few times."

"And if he tries to pull anything himself, you've always got this guy," said Madeline. She held up a lipstick case full of black pepper and shook it percussively.

"No problem," said Vanessa brightly and a little nervously.

Christmas eyeballed her. "It's just like I told you, hon. We'll look after you, but it's not a hundred per cent. You know the house rules: I never want you going into danger if you're not sure. You want out, I can still nix it."

"Oh no," said Vanessa quickly. "I'll do it. It's an important one, isn't it?"

Christmas beamed around her cigarette. "Atta girl. Just go on and do what you do best, and you'll be golden. You do well with this one, and I'll let you have the assignment at the races this summer."

Vanessa leapt up and hugged Christmas, barely missing her cigarette on the way in. "Mom! Thank you so, so much! You're the greatest!"

She let go quickly, grabbed her handbag and headed out into the hall and down the stairs.

"Knock 'em dead, hon," called Christmas.

"Remember to aim for the fleshy part of the buttock!" called Madeline.

Rebecca put the field telephone receiver down, and cracked up giggling. She was lying face up in Havoc's lap on the sofa, her crazy curls spread out behind her head. "Okay," she said, "Next time, you take the call and I'll just make squeaky little sex noises in the background." She scrunched her face up and tried some experimentally. "Oh! Ooh! Yeah!" They were pretty good; they sounded a lot like her actual sex noises, which could have been a little worrying.

Havoc played with a curl. Becky was looking a lot better than she had earlier. He felt momentarily pleased at his good instincts: when he was feeling low, giving his friends shit usually put him in a much better mood. He felt warmed and happy to see that pranking was distracting her.

Rebecca frowned. "How many are we waiting for now?"

Havoc consulted his list. "Ross and Sullivan, and Miles and Hawkeye. Also Fullmetal and Al, but I'm not waiting up for those guys, they're never going to check in."

Rebecca put a finger to her chin. "Ross and Sullivan? Ross has been after her for like, months. This buddy thing is like a dating service." She stretched, then took Havoc's hand in both of hers and started playing with it, massaging the pad of his thumb. "Hey. When they've checked in, how long before you've gotta head out and hand over the field telephone to Fuery?"

"I'm supposed to be picking Breda up from his place at 2100."

"Cool." She stretched a little, then nudged his stomach with her nose. "'Cause all this fake sex is totally getting me in the mood."

Havoc stroked his other hand down her side to her hip. Becky wriggled unsubtly. Well, if that was what it took to cheer her up ...

Ed cracked open the bottle-top of his new beer on one of the ridges in his right forearm. He always did this with an air of satisfaction; Winry had hated it when he did that, and so it had been one of the many bad habits (flossing his teeth with loose threads from his jacket also came to mind) that he had made a point of resuming when they'd broken up. Of course, in this case it was a fool's logic: not only was Winry practically family, she was also Ed's mechanic. She was so going to let him have it when she had to file off all the little nicks he'd made in the alloy.

Ed hadn't asked Al if he was okay to stay for the band. Al was pleased; he wasn't always so great with crowds and noises, but he was getting better. Ed had picked up earlier that he was having a good day, and hadn't asked again. That was cool.

The band was good, Al had to admit it. You kind of had to be in the right mood for them, what with the harmonic electric howl of the guitars, the complicated rhythm of the two drummers, the guy spinning the airplane propellor so it whined and blew a breeze over the crowd, the mournful vocals and the girl playing the theremin with her hair ... it was a lot to take in at once. Ed, of course, adored them avidly and openly. He'd claimed several times recently that now he was a free man, he was going to romance the theremin girl. Al kind of hoped that it didn't happen. She looked cool, but a tiny bit insane.

They sat hopped up on the bar's windowsill; high enough up to get a good view of the little stage, but far enough back that they could talk normally, just about. Actually, with Ed relaxed and cheerful, maybe now was a good time to talk about that.

"So...have you thought any more about what you want to do after your contract's up?"

Ed took a swig of beer before responding. "Nah. I mean, before, I thought I was going to move to Rush Valley, and now that's not going to happen ... I dunno. I'm just ... thinking about this case right now. I thought it'd be good to do this one last thing right before I get out of the army." He turned to Al. "Can't I think about the rest after? I mean, we've got some money, I don't have to get another job right away."

Postponing difficult decisions, putting his head in the sand — it was great that after the Promised Day, Ed had finally had the opportunity to develop some vices, but this definitely had to be Al's least favourite of them. Hadn't he learnt yet? He'd refused to consider why it might be a bad idea to move to Rush Valley for Winry's sake even though he didn't want to, and look how ignoring that had worked out. Painful as it was, it was probably a good thing that Winry had called him on it before the move. But damn, it sucked that she'd had to. Or, more precisely, Ed sucked.

Ed had picked up on Al's silence, and apparently on the topic that lay behind it. He was peeling the edges of the label off his beer bottle with a fingernail, looking up with hints of guilt and sulkiness around the edges of his mouth.

Al settled for an indirect approach. Ed would know what he meant. "Okay, just ... do something you like, all right? Do something you want to, not because it's the right thing for once."

Ed shifted uncomfortably. "What about you? You work pretty hard, I mean, you were just supposed to be taking some university classes, but you're up all hours making notes and writing essays for that Mackintosh woman, and by the way, Teacher would kill you if she found out you'd done the dirty on her and picked up studying with someone else."

And with that redirection, Al's spot on the moral high ground was lost. Instantly, his stomach was churning with miserable guilt. Not because Teacher would disapprove — although doubtless she would, and violently — but because Mackintosh knew what he was really doing. Mustang knew. Half his university friends knew. But Ed didn't know. Al was so angry with himself over this. It might be a sin of omission, but the fact remained, he was lying to Ed. How could he? But every time Al tried to lead up to it, to talk about Xerxes, about their father, about the Promised Day, all the things that had set him on this path, Ed was ranting unstoppably within a minute. Al didn't doubt that he was really grieving their father, so he couldn't bear to push too much. Over the last couple of years, though, Ed had become stuck in his anger, like a scratched record. So the lie had grown around Al, and the longer he left it, the worse it got.

All this, and his poker face sucked — how did Ed not just look at him and know? He must be seriously distracted by his own troubles right now.

"Teacher cut us off. I can do what I like. And I like working hard, I like learning. I even like feeling tired. It's sort of a nice feeling, you know, that you've done a lot of good stuff and now your body's sleepy." Al smiled uncomfortably.

Ed seemed to pick up his discomfort, if not the source. He changed the subject. "So ... religious rituals as a means of describing transmutation formulae. For a bunch of people who thought there were only four elements, these guys were good at making things complicated."

"Don't you think it's kind of cool," Al asked, "that it means most alchemists must have just shared one code between all of them? I mean, they talk a lot at the university about modern alchemy really being a shared endeavour, but really most of it's garbage: everyone still keeps their secrets. In Xerxes science really was a shared endeavour, everyone worked together, they had the same goals, the same ideals. I mean, I know you get annoyed about how religious they were, but still ..."

"Uh, Al. They killed themselves with their big 'shared goal.' And they kept slaves. What kind of ideals can you have if you do that? You haven't forgotten Hohenheim" — Ed would never say Dad — "started out as a slave, right?"

Al frowned. "Don't you think they got enough time to regret all that? These people died for me — for us — in the end. You know, it wouldn't kill you to be a bit kinder to them." He was trying again, attempting to lead the conversation up to a confession. "Don't tell me you're spending all day with your head in Xerxes and you're not thinking about it at all. I mean, this language, no one even knows how to pronounce it now, and our dad spoke it, our dad's whole family." Ed was watching him now — Al could see he was getting somewhere. Should he back off and let Ed come to him, or press ahead? He pressed ahead. "I mean — our grandfather could have written one of these books we're reading."

Ed frowned. His voice rose. "Slaves weren't allowed to marry. Rich people bred them; they got their servants pregnant and then sold off the kids as soon as they were big enough to fetch and carry shit. It's in all that big religious text thing, you know, The Order of Daily Worship —"

"I know," cut in Al, "It's horrible, you don't have to go on to prove a point —"

"So our grandfather was a total dickwad. There's your answer." Ed's voice was getting louder with almost every word. "Apparently, it runs in the family." Ed hunched, and took a big swig of beer. Al realised he had probably miscalculated, yet again, and badly.

But he couldn't just leave it at that. "You know, it's more complicated than that. Dad didn't just leave for no reason, he —"

Ed's mood was darkening rapidly. "He made promises he couldn't keep. Dickwad." Al picked up on Ed's unspoken follow-up: And so did I.

Al was suddenly aware that the band wasn't playing any more. While they packed up their equipment, about ten people in the back row had turned around to stare. The brothers froze for a moment. Ed was waving his automail right up in Al's face.

Someone in the crowd said, "Cool arm, dude."

Ed glared. All ten students turned back round.

Roy got back to his apartment, late as usual, and alone. After a serious confrontation with Riza on the matter the previous morning, he'd managed to exempt himself from the buddy system. He'd argued that he was in no more or less danger than usual; these days anyone who picked up a newspaper knew who he was and what he stood for. He'd been taking the necessary precautions for ages, and anyone who tried to break into the Flame Alchemist's flat or find him in a dark alley would severely regret it. There was also the fact that he had a pair of human weapons spending most of their days camping out in his library: nobody was going to sneak a gas pipe under his door while he was away.

His trump card was that with her shoulder injury, she was in no condition to guard him properly. Of course, his real reason for the confrontation was that with her shoulder injury, he wanted her sleeping safely, not sitting up all night to guard him as he knew she would. He'd won the argument; she was safe in the company of General Armstrong's right hand man, and he himself could sleep better for it.

He called out a hello, because apparently he had a roommate now, but got no response. He tried the library door.

Inside, the room was empty, and — while not pristine — definitely tidy. The books were locked back in their bookcases, the scraps of paper which had carpeted the floor were gone. No banana peels, no food wrappers. No portable gramophone and messy stack of records. Even the floorboards looked clean. He crouched and sniffed the air: as he'd suspected, a lingering trace of ozone. Trust Fullmetal to take the scientific approach to dusting. Thank goodness the book cabinets were closed and locked when he did.

Even the desk was cleared, empty apart from a neatly squared-off pile of blank paper, placed dead centre with three freshly sharpened pencils placed next to it. On the top sheet of paper, placed precisely in the middle, was a single, browning apple core.

Because Edward wasn't in the apartment, Roy had the luxury of being able to laugh openly and loudly for a good few moments. Then he sat down at the desk, set aside the sheet of paper with the apple core, and picked up one of the pencils. This called for a really good comeback. Tired as he was, he was sure he could think of something.

Roy weighed the pencil in his hand, and put his head on one side.

The hall telephone rang. He sighed, and jogged out to get it.

It was his mother.

"Kid," she said. "Get the hell over here, now. We've got a problem."