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bob fish

No Small Injury

chapter 6. Spare the Excuses

Breda and Havoc sat in a dark car, parked in a dark side street, watching a dimly lit townhouse window. From the distance, they watched two figures moving about the room. There wasn't any spicy stuff happening, mind you. No, that would be way too interesting.

The plan for the evening had involved them parking outside a nice hotel inside of which a contact of theirs was apparently busy extracting information from a drunken member of parliament. Ross and Sullivan were also inside the bar in case of trouble. Breda had been in a sulky mood all night. Havoc suspected it had something to do with the fact that a mere twenty yards away was a bar full of expensive booze, a pretty spy, and two attractive colleagues who might possibly kiss in front of him. Havoc, while in the same boat, was going home to a bed containing a pretty brunette wearing absolutely nothing. That kind of took the edge off things. It was probably better if he didn't point this out to Breda, though, especially because he'd recently taken to stuffing an envelope in his jacket and claiming it was a 'TMI jar outpost.' Havoc had instead alternated between putting up with him and goading him. Then the evening had gotten a little more eventful.

Their contact, Vanessa, had been briefed thoroughly: Patrick Dunleavy is almost undoubtedly a marked man. We can only guarantee your safety here; do not leave the hotel with Patrick Dunleavy. So then Vanessa had, of course, left the hotel with Patrick Dunleavy.

By the time Ross and Sullivan had gotten outside, Vanessa and Dunleavy were already hopping into a taxicab. Ross jerked her arm at the departing cab and tried to turn it into an innocuous looking wave. Havoc picked up the hint and they pulled away to trail the cab discreetly to Dunleavy's townhouse. Breda had even remembered to say, "Follow that car!", an essential part of any tailing operation.

And now, the evening was once again becoming less eventful. It seemed the previous bit of excitement, like the feminine silhouette that occasionally appeared in the townhouse window, was a tease that was going nowhere.

Breda tutted. "For the love of god, stop fidgeting!"

Havoc bristled. "I'm not fidgeting. It's a medical thing, you know I have to raise my butt off the seat every so often-"

"Uh, no, you keep flicking the lid of your lighter. How is that medically necessary?"

"I just really want a smoke, and I can't have one without the light giving us away! Damn. You know, I totally forgot how much stake-outs suck."

There was a short pause. Then Breda said, mournfully, "I'm starving."

Havoc spread his hands. "Dude, if you'd remembered to get us food-"

"You said you were going to pick something up on the way! You forgot and now you're putting it on me!"

"I did not forget! You said you were going to pick up cheese fries with bacon from Kenickie's on the way to our rendezvous point —"

"Do not say cheese fries with bacon, you're making it worse." Breda paused for a beat, and then sniped, "Can't believe we're on a stake-out in a red car-"

"On a moonless night, in a dark street, and this isn't exactly the only red car in the city. This is a great car for the job: it's fast, it's manoeuvrable, and it looks like it's from a spy movie. What we have here, my friend, is your continued sour grapes that I won't let you drive it."

"You know you're just using the hand control thing as an excuse to stop me getting my hands on your pristine baby. How hard can it be? The accelerator's like a motorbike throttle, right? I can ride a motorbike."

As if that was that.

"Okay, for like the fiftieth time, motorbikes have foot brakes and gear shifts. What you used to ride was a scooter. No gears, teeny tiny engine, not a motorbike. And this"- he waved expansively — "is in no way a scooter. It's my beautiful, insanely expensive souped-up sports car —"

"I could show her a real good time, you're just worried that I can give her what she needs better than you."

"Pfft. You drive like my grandpa. Who's dead. And who drove a donkey cart."

Breda gave the explosive little sigh that he always used to signify whatever and also I am losing this argument so I will now change tack and get you back later, once you've let your guard down. "Hey, we should let the Chief know what's up."

"Yeah." In fact, they really ought to have done that by now. "Ross and Sullivan must have called in and told him this chick left the hotel-"

"Or maybe they're too busy making out in a dark corner —"

"You are so, so bored. This is what happens to your imagination when you survive on a bunch of one-night stands — not all of them, by the way, peak quality goods."

"How quickly he forgets," said Breda acidly.

"Geez, and here I'm trying to be a considerate friend! You need to let go of the fantasies and get out there, man. I could get Becky to fix you up with —"

"I'm going to call in from that phone box over there, okay?" Breda really had it in for him now, Havoc could see it in his eyes. If they went for a post-stakeout beer, it was definitely going to be one of those times that Havoc would have to assess whether vodka shots had been snuck into his pint mug.

Breda pulled out his gun, checked that the street was deserted, then hopped out of the passenger seat and walked off briskly. Havoc fingered the sidearm lying in his lap. This was either going to be extremely dull, or one of those missions where things go a little bit off-plan, and then a lot. It would hardly be a surprise if someone tried to get the jump on them right now —

From somewhere ahead, there was an explosive popping sound. Gunfire, or just a car backfiring? Havoc looked in the direction of the townhouse: a small figure was running down the fire escape steps that led down the back of Dunleavy's building. Havoc squinted at it. That had to be the girl. His second guess looked to be right, then.

The side-street was barely lit, and she would have had no idea that he and Breda had followed her there in the car. He watched her sprint closer, barefoot with her high heels in one hand and a bag slung across her shoulder. He scanned the empty street. No visible pursuers, and no Breda either. He brought his gun up, ready to open the door and fire if he had to. Should he whistle? Wave at her? Fuck it. When she was a few metres away, he flashed the lights once. She slowed down and her saw her eyes flick down to the numberplate. Sensible girl. Then she was belting over to the passenger side and throwing herself into the car.

She doubled over and wheezed, clutching the bag, and without even asking her he started the car and went to pull out.

The girl's head popped up and he half-saw her turn big, curious eyes on him. "Hey," she said, grinning, "It is my lucky night after all."

The glass of the passenger window shattered.

She screamed like a B-movie heroine. Havoc lost a precious second to his useless instinct to slam his foot down and floor the gas. Then he turned the throttle quickly and smoothly and let up the clutch lever, spun the wheel and was out of the side street in a screeching fast trail-braked turn that made the air smell of rubber. He turned onto the main boulevard with no time to look or stop. A big car and two motorcycles swerved to avoid him. As Havoc climbed up the gears and cut rapidly through the lanes of evening traffic, he was followed by a trail of colourful blasphemies and obscene hand gestures. He registered that Breda had been back on the corner, and had started at them in utter shock. Good. He'd know something was up and have time to get his gun out and be ready for trouble.

The girl — Vanessa — was still ducking down, head on her knees. Oh hell, was she shot?

"You all right there?" She made a little squeaking noise. "Uh, if you're not doing anything, could you check to see if either of us got hit?" Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Vanessa pop her head up in surprise. Good idea, keep her busy. She was supposed to be trained, but she seemed pretty panicky, he really didn't want her to do something dumb like jump out of the car.

The girl checked herself over shakily, picking bits of broken glass off her skirt and out of her hair. Then she leaned over and checked Havoc out. Kind of literally checked him out, looking him up and down with big eyes and a sneaky little smile. She smelled like perfume and sweat. It was a measure of how doomed he was that the combination made him instantly think of Rebecca.

Further down the boulevard, the traffic thinned out as they headed further out of town. Havoc took a good look in the mirrors, then let himself relax a little. He flicked his eyes over to Vanessa. "So ... I take it someone got into the house?"

She nodded. "Dunleavy's shot. He out was in the hallway, I just hopped straight out the window. I think the guy must have already been in the house, actually. It seemed like he was waiting for us."

Through the rearview mirror, he saw a metallic flash from the side of a car, an arm extending from the passenger window ...

This time, he went straight for the gas the right way, opening up the throttle and shifting over into the fast lane. Behind them, shots cracked. The girl screamed and ducked again. Havoc pushed up the speed and shifted briefly into the slow lane to overtake a car which was failing to exceed the speed limit. The little sports car was roaring so hard it rattled the fixtures. He'd never taken her quite this fast before. Air whined through the tiny gaps between the convertible roof and the frame. And there was that feeling of calmly buzzing energy in his chest, the runner's high. They were in serious danger of dying here, but he was grinning like a madman.

He'd got a quick look at that gun under the streetlights. 9mm or .45, the old question. If he was right, and this was a little 9mm instead of a big pistol, then right now they wouldn't be able to get an accurate shot. Although there could be more than one gun, and more than one gunman. He could gamble it and rely on getting far enough ahead of them, but then this was a straight road, heading out now through the villages that had been absorbed into the city's edges and into the open countryside. It would be difficult to shake them.

Okay, then. It'd have to be the other option. Breda was going to be so pissed. He glanced at Vanessa. She had a death-grip on the edges of her seat. She really didn't look up to what he was about to ask her. "Hey," he said, trying for reassuring. "There's something I want to try. Hopefully get us out of this mess. I need your help." She nodded vigorously. "Okay, in a minute I'm gonna ask you to hold the throttle here and the wheel. When I tell you, put your hands next to mine and I'll let go once you've got it. You're going to have to hold on pretty hard, but it won't be for long. Just stay calm for me."

She nodded one more time. Right. "Trial run," he said. "Take the wheel." She reached out with her right arm and held it steady. He let go and quickly wound his window down with a few turns. Her hand was shaking already, and the car was starting to weave a little. It'd just have to be good enough.

Havoc throttled off and dropped back gradually. The road was nearly deserted now, which was going to make this simpler. With any luck these guys wouldn't be checking their speed, and just think they were just outpacing him. As they started to shoot again, he wove in and out of the lanes. Two guys in the car. Crap. But only one of them, a stocky bald guy on the passenger side to the left, was shooting right now, leaning awkwardly out of the window and shooting right-handed. He had an advantage there, but it was going to disappear as soon as he put his plan into action. There'd be no time to reload either. This had to be done fast.

He wove into the slow lane and throttled off again. As he dropped back rapidly towards the pursuing car, he shouted, "Now!" Vanessa leant over and he felt her little hands come around his just before they drew level with the bad guys — then, leap of faith time. He let go and grabbed the gun from his lap. He turned and braced his elbows on the window, left palm cupping his right hand, and popped off a couple of shots. The passenger returned fire. No time to duck, so he just had to tune it right out. He got off two more shots. Then another.

Then, abruptly, the other car ploughed straight across to the other side of the road. He must have hit the driver. As the car receded rapidly in the rear-view mirror, he saw its headlights spin as it hit the ditch and flipped right over.

Havoc reclaimed the throttle and wheel from Vanessa's shaking arms, then sucked in a long, deep breath. "Thanks," he said. "You were great."

Vanessa looked up from rummaging in her handbag, gave him a hysterical little smile. "Wow" she said, "thank you." She inhaled deeply. "Some evening, huh?" She yanked out a long, silver case and flipped it open. "Smoke?"


Roy really should have had breakfast before this breakfast meeting; he didn't have nearly enough caffeine or blood sugar in his system for this.

He was sitting at a large, round table laden with food, documents (and documents with food on them) in a private room of his foster mother's half-decorated new bar. At the table were Madam Christmas himself, Vanessa, Riza, Major Miles, and Havoc. They were debriefing after Vanessa's information-gathering session the previous evening. He'd been running the meeting — for the first thirty seconds, at least. Then his mother had told him he had crumbs on the corner of his mouth, handed him a napkin, and while he dabbed and felt like he'd instantly shrunk a foot or two, she'd blithely taken over. It had all gone downhill from there.

"In my house," said Madam Christmas emphatically, "we do not have this kind of — what was the word, sonny?"

"Clusterfuck, Mrs. Mustang," said Havoc helpfully.

"Clusterfuck!" she said, rolling the word in her mouth. "Kind of figures the army would have to have a word for that. Vanessa, honey, you want to explain what the hell got into you last night?" Just like her to save the really humiliating questions to ask in public. Roy didn't feel too sorry for Vanessa, though. It was probably going to be his turn in a minute.

Vanessa fiddled with her necklace and looked vaguely as though she was considering bolting. "Calculated risk?" she said hopefully. "Look, we needed someone to turn over his townhouse at some point, I still think you should have just broken in while I had him at the hotel."

"Because I said no, that's why," said Roy. God, he sounded about sixteen. He really should have got the family stuff out of the way first. Riza had seen it all before, but he could already see Miles weighing his technique for handling family against Olivia Armstrong's doubtless more authoritative stance. As for Havoc, he was enjoying this far too much. Roy tried again. "I already offered Dunleavy protection and had him curse me out down the phone. If his house got burgled for compromising documents, who do you think he'd blame? I could start a civil war right now by stealing Hakuro's spot in the elevator — do you think I really want to do something that'd turn the whole of Parliament — by the way our allies, we're trying to build a democracy if you feel like keeping up — against me?"

"Roy's right and you're wrong," said Madam Christmas to Vanessa. There we go, that was that then. She gestured with a cigarette. Whenever he went home, Roy found it difficult to get used again to the whole smoking at mealtimes thing. Then she turned to Roy and jabbed the cigarette at him. "Kid, your sister just risked her life for you. Show some manners."

"Thank you, Vanessa," said Roy. Fuck the coffee, he just wanted to go back to bed. "I really appreciate it. And thank you, Captain Havoc, for bailing my sister out of her own idiocy." Vanessa narrowed her eyes. Roy resisted the urge to stick his tongue out. Instead, he retrieved a cardboard folder from where it lay dangerously close to a pat of butter. "Speaking of idiots, I'm still rather impressed that Dunleavy was stupid enough to keep all his correspondence about this in his house. He even had carbon copies of his own letters to Flowers."

Riza said, "Well, it's good practice in general. If you did that, you might remember what you've said more often."

"Yes, but my point is —" Oh great. She was winding him up. Wasn't she supposed to have his back or something?

Vanessa said, "What gets me is that he had them all stashed in the hidden drawer at the back of his writing bureau. I can never believe how many people do that, it's kinda like having 1234 as your safe combination."

"God bless dumbasses," said Christmas, "for they let us get the job done in half the time."

"Anyway," said Roy — oh hell, was Miles ever going to obey an order from him ever again after this? — "he's documented it all so well that we pretty much know everything now. It turns out Flowers found out about The Perfection of Matter and Katzenklavier's research when she overheard a conversation in a private room of the Marchmain Club."

"The Sellers Room?" said Christmas. "Did she sneak into that little cupboard in the next room where you can hear every damn thing through the panelling? Takes me back."

"Apparently listening into conversations there was a habit of hers and some of her allies in the Progressive Party," said Riza, furrowing her brow. "A lot of politicians and brass are members, Flowers and her friends used to keep tabs on who was meeting there in the hope of picking up something useful."

"Katie used to do that?" said Havoc, shaking his head. "Man, I still can't believe she was screwing us over. I thought I knew that girl."

"Really?" said Riza. "She always struck me as rather cunning."

Right, that really was enough. Roy threw a very sharp look around the table. He got silence, and a chastened look from everyone except his mother. She raised an eyebrow approvingly.

Feeling a little more like himself, Roy began again. "The conversation Flowers heard was between Henry Katzenklavier and a middle-aged soldier she didn't know, about the progress of his research. She heard enough to guess that it was a member of the old guard, though. The Perfection of Matter was mentioned. She looked it up and discovered the book was banned, and at that point she went to Dunleavy. Dunleavy had missed his chance at the big time, and it seems he thought of himself as her mentor, and he was helping her climb the greasy pole. She was aiming to be party leader. Anyway, it seems Flowers then visited most of the city's alchemical booksellers trying to find her own copy. She only managed to buy a copy two weeks before she was murdered."

Miles glanced over. "Sir?" Funny how he always asked before speaking. You could tell the Briggs bunch apart in the office by their strange lack of insubordination. "Did Dunleavy's letters tell us what they planned to do with the book?"

"Funnily enough, yes," said Roy dryly. This part really wasn't funny. "Flowers was convinced that the soldier she heard speaking with Katzenklavier was old guard. She and Dunleavy were planning to threaten Hakuro to expose publically that his faction were sponsoring illegal alchemy. They were going to blackmail him in return for political concessions. This book is very, very illegal. She may not have known what Katzenklavier was doing, but just the fact that it's taboo would be enough in the current climate to turn the tide against Hakuro. So: the short version is that the concessions they were hoping for would mean that if I managed to edge out Hakuro for the Fuhrership and start instituting democratic reforms, they'd have enough clout to push for fusion of powers."

Madam Christmas snorted explosively. Riza's lips thinned; she knew this already. Everyone else around the table just looked blank. These people had all plotted revolution with him, weren't they supposed to be a bit better informed about political theory? He was sure he'd had this conversation with Havoc at least twice over the years.

Riza came to the rescue. "We're aiming towards a presidential democracy — that's separation of powers. The president is in charge of the economy, the military and state bureaucracy. Parliament makes the laws. The Progressive Party is with us on this, but apparently not all of them agree on it. Flowers and Dunleavy were aiming for a parliamentary democracy instead — that means that Parliament would make the laws, run the economy — and they'd be in charge of the military."

"It's bad because it looks like Flowers and Dunleavy thought they had a lot of Party support. Our allies aren't exactly our allies anymore. We're trying to reform a whole state, to stabilise the country. We can't do that without a solid power base, that's half the reason I didn't just take the Fuhrership straight away as soon as I had the chance. If the reformers are divided between a lot of little factions jockeying for power and backstabbing each other, the whole of Amestris is going to suffer for it. We could lose everything."

Vanessa spoke up. "And it's bad because Dunleavy wanted you dead. He said so in the bar, he was drunk off his ass. He said he was going to see you strung up, and —" Oh. That. Vanessa had trailed off. Roy gave her a wry smile. She was still an idiot — but yes, his mother was right. She'd risked a lot for him.

Havoc said, "Whoa, now. I'm not denying the other stuff, but Katie definitely didn't hate the military that much. She lived with Rebecca, they'd been friends all their lives, and I know we both had arguments with her about political stuff but — there' s no way."

Roy shrugged. "We don't know how far Flowers agreed with Dunleavy there. Unfortunately, we also don't know whether Flowers had actually got to the stage of blackmailing Hakuro's people. If we knew she had, that's be enough evidence to get them in trouble. But it's just as likely that Katzenklavier caught wind of her sniffing around after the book, had her political background checked out, and guessed the rest."

Havoc checked his watch, then raised a hand. "Chief, guys, I gotta go in a minute. I'm meeting Vikus Weaver —"

"The guy who runs Weaver Freight?" cut in Christmas. "Now there's a man with fingers in too many pies."

"That's the one. He's called in a couple of favours" — Havoc pulled a face — "and I think he's found out which gang Katzenklavier's hired for all these hit jobs. But I just want to tell you now, I pretty much know what he's going to say. Falman called me on the field telephone at home just before I came here. They identified one of the guys from the car, and he's one of the big hitters in the Luttenberger gang."

Madam Christmas took a pull on her cigarette. Vanessa's eyes got very round. The Luttenbergers were one of the big names in organised crime right now. Damn. Well, they had known these people were professionals, it was bound to be something like this.

Roy turned to Havoc. "Right, get anything else you can from Weaver, and let's discuss this further in the office." Havoc nodded. He pulled out from the table, gave Roy an informal salute, pivoted and left.

Roy continued. "They've attacked two of my subordinates now. We can justify moving on them openly without connecting them to Hakuro's faction. We'll cook something up for now, but I'm not letting this go on any longer. Major Miles, I want you to start drawing up names for a mission team. We're moving on them in the next twenty-four hours." He turned to Riza meaningfully. "Major Hawkeye, you're injured, I'm keeping you on the bench."

Riza locked eyes with him for a second, then blew a breath out quietly and said, "Yes, sir."

Well, there went one piece of the puzzle. Of course, once they managed to take down the immediate threat to Roy's team, they'd have to turn to the far more disturbing problem of the root cause of said threat. Katzenklavier was almost undoubtedly working for Hakuro's old guard — but what the hell was he trying to do? Something taboo, according to the Elrics, and clearly something so important that it justified the risks of using hired assassins to target Roy's people. It never damn well stopped, did it?


Ed woke up swearing. He felt the rage and the horror and the sickness, he yelled, threw a desperate punch at nothing — and then he was in his own bed, in his pigsty of a bedroom in the little flat in the university quarter. Light was seeping through the thready curtains. Already, he could barely remember what he'd been dreaming about, but it wasn't difficult to guess. He cycled his shoulder a couple of times to loosen the tension.

Al's voice called sleepily from the next room, "Brother? What is it?" The connecting wall was so thin that they often had entire conversations through it. This was great those times when Ed couldn't be bothered to get up, and substantially less great those times when Al brought a girl home.

"I'm fine, Al. Go back to sleep."

There was a muffled response from the other room. Ed rubbed a hand over his face and then caught sight of the culprit of his nightmare: his notebook, still open on the coverlet. He must have fallen asleep while he was reading. This takwin thing — human transmutation or not, spending all day with it, immersed in Xerxes, was starting to fuck with his head. He was trying to understand a civilization that had invented the building blocks of modern science, but thought nothing of treating people like cattle; treatises on morality that casually talked of experiments on slaves, bribes for angry gods and alchemy that killed a whole people. Shit, at least his father had given a crap when you came down to it, more than you could say for any of the assholes that had written these books ... fuck it. He needed coffee.

A few minutes later, Ed sat at the little fold-out table in the living room, a chipped mug of coffee cooling in his hands, and freezing air and blinding white light filling up his mind.

His father had stood between him and the Gate. Voices poured from his skin. Ed looked through the whiteout all around him, but he couldn't see Al. His father said, "I'm so proud of you both." The voices shouted to Ed in a language he didn't know. His father said, "Can you understand them? They're your people, your family. You two are what's left of them." He was talking to Al, too. Where the fuck was Al? Ed looked around again anxiously, and when he looked back — oh fuck — those long, thin shadows were pouring out of the Gate, too fast, inexorable, reaching for him.

A clatter sounded from Al's room. Ed looked around the living room, dazed. Shit. These memories, these flashbacks, they weren't normally this bad, were they? This vivid? Not since the first time, not since Mom ...

He took a step back instinctively, uselessly putting his arms up in a fighting stance. He went to shout a challenge, to bargain or to protest — but the whips of black light weren't reaching for him at all. Instead, they were wrapping themselves around his father's limbs and face and body, thready and questing like the roots of a plant. In a hundred places, the tendrils of shadow were pushing into his father's skin. They were worrying him into fragments. And — oh God — his father was smiling. Smiling and saying something Ed couldn't hear, and the voices inside him were sighing and disappearing, popping like bubbles one by one.

There were noises from the tiny kitchen: Al clanking dishes, a kettle filling with water —

- and Ed was holding his little brother, impossibly tiny, skinny and cold in his arms. A painful, heart-hammering chemical high was slamming through him. Al pointed a shaking, twiggy arm at Ed's own Gate. Ed looked across to it. In front of it, the Truth was standing, the creature made of light wearing Ed's own arm and leg, grinning at him horribly through the last of the dust that had been his father, through the last of the whispering voices.

The Gate, the Truth, said, "Come and get it, alchemist." It stretched its arm — Ed's own arm — out to him, tauntingly.

Ed looked at the Truth, looked towards the moment that their quest would be finally complete, held out before him. His whole body buzzed and crackled with anticipation. Part of him wanted to howl with grief, another part to scream with triumph. Carefully, he let go of his brother and stood. Hohenheim's dust streamed silently through the Gate in helix spirals. Ed watched it go, and the horrible mixture of feelings and sensations in his chest intensified. But he was only one move from checkmate: in this final moment, his first thought was practical. Had his father paid the whole of the passage fee? Was it enough? Ed took a step forward. The grin widened, split the Truth's blank face. Ed took another step forward — and then something inside him recoiled hard.

He stopped.

He said, "I know you, you son of a bitch. What's the catch?"

The Truth said nothing. Ed's stomach rolled. He whipped his head around, and saw Al standing shakily behind him on thin legs, smiling hugely, alight with hope and love, wishing him onward. And behind him, Al's own Gate was swinging slowly open.

Gently, it stretched out the first, slim tendrils of undoing to Alphonse's neck.

NO.

"No! You can't have him!"

There was a warm hand on his shoulder.

"I said, do you want some oatm — hey. What's wrong?"

Ed looked up at Al's freckled, square-jawed, worried face, so different now from the starved boy he'd shielded in his arms as they fell away from the Gate into nothing. Ed just shook his head. "I'm — fine." He felt oddly distant from his own voice. He pinched the skin between his left thumb and forefinger, hard. The pain woke him up a little.

"Do you feel sick? Did you have a nightmare?"

Ed took a gulp of cold coffee. His stomach recoiled. "The second one."

Al said, "Mom, or the Promised Day?"

"Second one."

Al sighed and flopped down in the other chair. "Yeah. Me too. You know, you've actually got a point about this book. I mean, I still think it's fascinating, but — it's really creeping me out now. I keep wondering if ..."

Ed nodded, and made an affirmative noise in his throat. He said, "No oatmeal. Thanks. I'm gonna go take a shower, then I'm going to head to Mustang's and get to work. Coming?"

"Yeah. We can pick up some pastries on the way, raise our blood sugar levels."

"Cool." Ed nodded again. "Let's crack this fucker open."


A movement made Al look up from his work at the library desk, and he realised three things: that Ed had stood up, that it was three o'clock already, and that his eyes were aching from staring at the book's tiny print for so long. Al glanced from the clock to Ed. He was stretching, his right arm locked straight across his chest and his left curled around it, pulling it in towards him. His nose was scrunched, his mouth pulled down into a painful line. Al watched him for a moment, then said, "Your shoulder's bugging you again."

Ed pushed his bottom lip out, shrugged briefly, then winced.

Al pressed on. "How long has it been like that?" Ed didn't respond. "You're due for an upgrade. Wasn't Winry going to remodel the shoulder brace to distribute the weight better?"

Ed shrugged again. The corners of his mouth turned further down.

Al sighed pointedly. "Brother — you need to call your mechanic. Yeah, even though she dumped you." Silence. "Brother — it's Winry. Our Winry. You think she'd want you suffering like this?"

Ed snorted. "Probably."

Seriously, Al could kick him in the shin.

He settled for pointing his pencil accusingly. "Brother — you really are an ass, you know that? Of course Winry wouldn't want you in pain! Sure, I wouldn't blame her for kind of wanting to hurt you right now, but seriously, what's got into you? Her and Granny are our family. It's not some girl you met, it's Winry. Do you really think you're never going to speak to her again? Are you going to trade mechanics? 'Cause, I know you're dumb, but that would really be ..."

"Shut up!" Ed dropped to the floor and sat cross-legged among the papers, his hands pushed into his hair. "Of course I'm not cutting her off! Of course she's family! What kind of douchebag do you think I am? But what — you think she wants to speak to me right now? Geez, you think I don't know I'm a dick? Look, everything I say right now just fucks things up worse. Can't I just leave it? Just for a while?"

"'Leave it'?" repeated Al derisively. "You 'left it' for months on end with the Rush Valley thing and look how great that turned out. The lesson, brother, is that if the conversation sucks now, it's still going to suck if you put it off for six months. Look, I know how crazy you were about each other, and how serious you were, and I know how awful you both feel that it didn't work — because guess what, I get to listen to both of you telling me you feel like crap. Just man up and speak to her now, okay?"

Ed said sourly, "I just — want — to leave it. Stop nagging me to do it 'cause it'll make you feel better."

Al rubbed the back of his neck with two fingers — then realised he was fiddling with his scar there, tracing the old lines of the blood seal.

Ed watched him. A little silence settled between them. Then Ed said, quietly, "I'm okay with this. We made a promise, remember?" Oh. He meant about the automail.

It was true, they had made a promise. Ed had forced him to it a week after Al had woken up in his own skin. No more quest, no attempts to get back Ed's arm and leg. They were done. Al had been desperately angry at first, but even with the amount of sleeping he'd been doing those few weeks, it hadn't taken him long to think it through. He'd seen — reluctantly and unhappily — the sheer relief coursing through Ed right then, how much he needed Al to let him close the book on their quest. And so Al had let him. What else could he do? But it felt so unfair. And worse, it felt like giving up. Al still got angry about it sometimes — angry with Ed for quitting, angry with himself for letting him, angry with the universe that Al had to owe so many people his life, but Ed especially, to owe what he could never pay back.

Ed said, "Look, I've said this before. I can live with it. I don't have anything to be ashamed of now, and that's — a lot for me, you know that. Gambling you wasn't worth my arm and leg. You're alive because I knew when to quit for once."

Al twisted his crossed legs. "We don't know that! That it was going to kill me. Why would take my whole body just for your arm and leg? You're allowed to sacrifice things for other people, but you don't want anyone to risk anything for you."

"Bullshit. You know that thing as well as I do, you know how the Truth works. It would have been all hey, I'm gonna hang onto your lungs, you cool with that? It was going to leave you in pieces, you know this. You just don't like that I did this for you, but you know what, it was my choice, and if I can live with it, you can just fucking deal."

"Brother — I got my body back, you didn't. I'm fine and you're not. How do you expect me to feel about it? I promised to leave it, but you can't make me promise to feel good about it."

"Oh, for — just stop with the guilt, Al —"

"You're telling me to stop with the guilt? Geez, how do you think I felt, when I was in the armour you were giving me the miserable puppy face five times a day. You think that was fun for me?" And now Al was being an ass himself, and he knew it. But he was so angry. "And don't lie to me about whether the automail bothers you, don't try to pass it off as if it's nothing. It's not gonna work on me. I sat next to you while you were sleeping every night for years, remember?"

"Okay, fine. It's a pain in the ass. The stumps hurt, the ports itch, it gets freezing in winter and I have to wear long sleeves in the summer so it doesn't fucking roast me. Half my limbs can't feel a thing, my back's always full of knots, and I'm fucking sick of people who try to shake my left hand because the automail creeps them out. And you know what? It's worth it, it's fucking worth it, Al, because if this arm was human you'd be dead twice over. It sucks, and I can deal with it. And that's all."

Al stared, and then sighed. Then — what else could he do? — he changed the subject. "Did you get to the part here where they describe the goal of takwin? I had it as "the creation of new life, that it might whisper the secrets of the gods to us."'

Ed said, "Yeah. There's just no way that's not going to be bad. A new creature, that's going to whisper secret knowledge into their ears? You know what that sounds like?"

It was a rhetorical question, of course. Al knew.


So, Mustang wanted to speak with her privately in the meeting room. Weird. Rebecca mentally filed through her recent indiscretions. She'd been arriving at work pretty much on time, despite feeling like crud on a daily basis. She hadn't cheeked anyone that she could remember. She hadn't snuck off with Jean for an alleged coffee break in a while. Admittedly she had been a bit distracted as of late, what with everything that had happened. God, had he noticed that she was spacing out all the time? She really didn't need this on top of everything else.

Mustang pulled out a chair and sat cross-legged in it. He motioned her to sit with a gesture that managed to be both brusque and pompous at the same time. Geez, she felt like she was being kept behind after class in school.

"Captain Catalina. You probably know by now that Captain Havoc's identified the Luttenberger gang as Katzenklavier's heavies. They're behind the assassination attempts. They're based out of a strip club down near the East Canal, and they conduct business overnight, so we're raiding it at 5am tomorrow. It's an official matter, no need to hide our actions. They tried to assassinate Major Hawkeye, that's reason enough to justify taking them down."

Rebecca took it in. She knew Jean's news already, of course, and all morning she'd been been wondering if she'd be assigned to the mission, and feeling weird about the prospect of getting justice for the friend who'd fucked her — and Mustang, and the whole team — over so badly. She was definitely on the team if Mustang had taken her aside to brief her on it, unless she'd totally lost her lid lately, and he was specifically briefing her to keep her out of it? She didn't know what to think anymore.

"Major Hawkeye isn't fit for combat at the moment with her shoulder. Major Miles is leading the operation, and he's suggested two teams. I want you leading the second." Rebecca felt herself react — but had no idea what her reaction actually was. Was she supposed to be happy? Pissed? She tried to keep an unreadable expression. Her unreadable expressions, however, typically sucked ass. Why was he briefing her on her own? Was something — oh, just look at him with his eyes all squinty. Something was up, all right.

"Major Miles will be briefing you fully at 1500," Mustang continued. "That isn't why I called you here." Suddenly his eyes widened, and he'd turned the full-beam headlights on her. She resisted the urge to squirm. "I called you here," he said, "because one of these people murdered Katherine Flowers. You already know this."

What the hell was he getting at?

Mustang ploughed straight on. "I chose you to back up Miles because you're the best person available for the job. There's a good chance you'll be in combat with the person who murdered Ms Flowers, whoever he is. What are you going to do?"

Shoot his kneecaps out, shoot his balls off, make him bleed and panic and piss himself and scream - shit. Where had that come from?

"Uh, my job, sir. What are you getting at?"

There was a short pause, throughout which Mustang favoured her with a freezing cold stare. Rebecca half-expected him to chew her out for insubordination. It was bound to happen one of these days. The stare didn't let up. Fuck, didn't he need to blink or something? Somehow, the brigadier general didn't look like his smirking, jackass self any more. For once, he actually looked like someone who had taken down a government, someone who'd incinerated poor fuckers by the hundreds back in the day. Damn, it actually sort of looked good on him.

Well, Rebecca wasn't made of iron. She blinked first.

Then Mustang said, slowly and carefully, "Tell me that you know that, in front of Katherine Flowers' murderer, you will continue to do your job. Tell me that you'll stay in control of yourself."

Why the hell was it even Mustang, not Miles, who was asking her this?

"Can I ask a question first, Sir?"

Mustang shrugged a 'yes'.

"Sir, if you're so concerned about whether my personal connection to Katie Flowers is going to cause problems here, why have me leading Team B, why have me on the mission at all? I know I'm the best person for this job — but there are lots of others who could do it okay. If you reckon I might screw up, why not just pick one of them?"

Mustang gave her the wall-face. "Do you want to be taken off the mission, Captain?"

"No, Sir." How about that? Now she thought about it, she really didn't want that.

"Would you have volunteered for this mission?"

Would she? God, that was a question all right. Katie had died because she was betraying Rebecca, betraying Jean, trying to get one over on Mustang. If she hadn't died and Rebecca had found her out, their friendship would be pretty damn over, she knew that much. But did it erase everything from before?

Katie had died because she was too fucking curious and stubborn and ambitious, because if you dangled something like that in her nose, she'd have to take it. She could never leave anything alone, she just had to keep prodding at things, ever since they were kids.

Katie had died because some douchebag, alchemist freak ordered her death. She'd flipped through Katzenklavier's file: well, Bradley had been a monster himself, so she guessed it made sense that he'd be inclined to hire alchemists who thought it was fun to make monsters.

Katie had died because some fucking rat of a human being from the Luttenberger gang put two bullets in her chest. Jean had told her all about the Luttenberger gang before. They were asshats, the lot of them. Two of them had been shooting at her boyfriend's car last night, another of them had tried to murder Riza — stupid idea both times, fucktards. Were they running through a list of all her favourite people or something?

Katie had died alone in a bathtub filled with blood, scared and in pain, and Rebecca hadn't even been in the room to take her hand.

The silence in the room suddenly became very heavy.

Rebecca met Mustang's eyes. "Yes, Sir. I wouldn't have hesitated to volunteer."

He pinned her with the full beam headlights again. That look was full of intent, purpose, was supposed to say something, but what the hell it was, she really couldn't tell. She got that he'd put her on the mission deliberately. She got that he was onto her and that he suspected correctly she was out for revenge, but ... wow. It just really wasn't like him to indulge his subordinates like this.

"What are you going to do?" he asked again. That line was getting old fast.

"I'll do my job, Sir. I'll stay in control, and I'll do my job." She tried to school her face into something that conveyed coolness, restraint. "You can rely on me." She'd do her job, damn sure she would, but if her job was taking these guys in, and they happened to put up a fight? Well, if she managed to get her hands on the guy who'd shot Katie, her report was definitely going to state that he put up one hell of a fight. Guess she hadn't written off Katie after all.

Then the headlights were off, and he stood up and said, briskly, "Right. You're leading Team B. Miles will fill you in on the rest." Did he actually buy it? Was her poker face getting less sucky? "Don't let Havoc get you drunk tonight, you've got an early start tomorrow."

"Roger that, Sir." She thought about giving him a cheeky, grinning salute, the way Jean always did, then quickly thought again. Still, that was weird, she thought as she followed Mustang out into the main office. She almost felt like she owed him one now. He gave her the mission, he cracked a joke. Was he warming up to her charm? Was he getting sentimental?

She quickly stopped herself from wondering too much on that one. Who ever knew what the sneaky bastard was thinking?


The front door banged shut and Ed startled out of his daze. He'd been so engrossed in the translation that he hadn't heard the key turn in the door. Unless? Spending too much time around here was making him paranoid. "Al?" he called out.

"It's me," came Mustang's voice from the hall. Was it quitting time already? He glanced at the clock in the corner: just before eight. Huh. No wonder Al had been so insistent on going out to grab them some food. Now that he thought of it, he was starving. Ed rubbed a hand across his face, and then looked up to see Mustang leaning against the door frame.

"How's progress?"

"We got it," said Ed. He kept his voice casual for maximum impact.

"Already?" Mustang started forward, eyes wide, frowning. He was such an easy mark. "Why didn't you —"

"Ah-ah-ah." Ed raised a finger. "We cracked the code this morning, but we're only halfway through the translation. We were going to keep going this evening. We reckon we could have it done by midnight. Al's just out picking up dinner."

"What do you know so far?" Mustang was stalking forward, eyeballing him. Ed shouldn't take advantage so much. He had good reason to worry, after all: Hawkeye getting shot, that Katzenklavier dick, Hakuro's faction probably sponsoring a bunch of taboo alchemy ...

"Well, we still don't know what takwin is. The preamble's mostly mystical crap, just tells us that it's the most amazing, powerful, blah blah blah. Same junk everyone says about their special hobby horse. When we get through translating the ritual into actual science, we'll know what it's supposed to create."

"Couldn't you just skip to the end part?"

"We tried already. As far as we gather, it tells you how you're supposed to use whatever it is you've created. But it's too vague to make an accurate translation without already knowing the ritual. We're just going to have to slog through it in order until it's done. It's definitely to do with creating some kind of — thing that's alive, though." Mustang opened his mouth again, but Ed saw the question coming and just talked over him. "We don't know yet if that means human transmutation, but it's starting to look nasty. Give us the rest of the evening. We'll get it done for you."

"Right." Mustang folded his arms again, took a breath, and let it out. "I'm going to take a shower. Then I want to take a look at what you've got so far." He paused, looking directly at Ed. "Can I?" Politeness. From Mustang. It was kind of great how alchemy put them on an even footing like this.

Ed glanced through his notebook. His handwriting looked fairly legible, and there weren't any obscene or embarrassing doodles in the margins. "Yeah, go for it."

Mustang nodded and turned to go. Ed dove back into his translation so quickly that he didn't even hear him leave the room.

A few pages of translation later, Ed heard soft footsteps, and looked up to see that Mustang had returned from his shower. He was out of uniform now, his hair towelled off but still hanging in damp strands in front of his eyes, wearing dark slacks and, of all things, a t-shirt. So weird to see the guy in normal person clothes, instead of the uniform or some annoying fancy suit thing.

Ed said, "Yo," and held out the notebook.

Mustang took the book, perched on one arm of the sofa, and flipped it open. His eyes flicked rapidly over the first couple of pages. Then he suddenly grinned and huffed out a short, brusque laugh. Ed realised with a little burst of smug pride that he'd just reached their first real discovery about the book's coding.

Mustang sank down onto the sofa cushions and began to read through the notebook closely. He was soon deep in concentration, leaning his forehead on one hand and pushing his bangs out of his eyes. There was a little scatter of five o'clock shadow along his jawline. He hadn't bothered to shave. Seeing Mustang like that, easily reading his personal code out of his personal notebook, really ought to make him feel tense as fuck, but somehow his alchemist's secretiveness was edged out by the thrill of this new form of showing off. Ed watched Mustang's reactions, increasingly fascinated. He had never seen the man absorbed in theory like that before. His whole face seemed to gradually change as he got more into it, to grow more relaxed, even oddly guileless. After a while, Ed could even guess which passage Mustang was currently reading from the little expressions flitting across his face.

It was funny how people always seemed to look their best when they were absorbed in work they cared about.

Ed froze.

Oh, hell no.

An electric jolt of shock reverberated through his body. No, right? he asked himself desperately. No way?

But it wasn't a no. It was a yes.

The grandfather clock in the corner ticked; Mustang flipped over another page. Ed stood stock-still, and tried to suck some air into his chest. He had just caught his own delinquent brain in the act, and it had no excuses to make for itself.

Carefully, he stepped backwards. He picked up a very large reference volume from the floor, dropped to sit cross-legged, and hid his face in it. Behind this barricade, it was a little easier to think.

A substantial part of Ed's mind was squirming and desperate to bolt. Yes, he thought, trying to be tough with it. Only trouble could come of not being honest with yourself, he should have learnt that by now. If he'd been honest with himself ... well, for a start, he would have seen the Ling thing coming, and then later on, he would have got together with Winry like a year sooner. And then, later still, maybe they could have even talked properly about the differences in where their lives were going, instead of ... well, what was done was done. He knew that too. Man up, Elric, he thought to himself. Yes, you did. Go on, think it.

He'd just kind of — checked Mustang out. No — no excuses — he had, he definitely had. Gah. For sure. Definitely. Gah.

Had he definitely, though? Could he have just misjudged his own reactions? That was possible. Totally possible. A good scientist knows that you need to test a hypothesis more than once, and that you need to try to prove yourself wrong to know for sure that you're right. Cautiously, Ed raised his eyes above the top of the book. Mustang was still concentrating completely on the notebook, frowning as he scribbled a marginal note. Ed flicked his eyes over the man, giving him a quick, experimental once-over, then ducked back behind his book. As he stared blindly at the page, an after-image of Mustang's lean, slouching body floated briefly in front of his eyes.

Goddammit.

Ed repeated the experiment, this time looking Mustang up and down more slowly. He tried not to let previous results bias his interpretation of the data.

Out of uniform, Mustang looked different. You could see how he was built, the shape of his body. It was a pretty good shape. He was kind of smaller than he seemed in uniform. He had broad shoulders and big hands, and so that made him look bigger in the boxy uniform jacket — but in the thin t-shirt he was wearing now, you could see that he was mostly lean muscle, not bulk. He looked compact and strong, and his torso was kind of like an inverted triangle — broad shoulders tapering down to a narrow waist, muscles that cut beautifully. How the hell did he get like that working behind a desk? Bet he hit the gymnasium on the sly and then pretended it was all natural, the vain fucker.

Ed's cheeks felt hot. Worse still, there it was: an unmistakable pang of sensation in his belly and groin.

The results were in: Ed's brain hated him.

While Mustang read on, Ed attempted to regroup. It was just a look, he chanted to himself, just looking. He was making a big deal about something that didn't matter a damn. If Mustang was some random guy or girl on the street or in the corridors of Central HQ, he'd just check them out, enjoy the eye candy for a moment, then move on and never think about it again. So he looked at the guy once. What was that? Nothing.

Okay, maybe more than once.

An insidious voice spoke in his head: when did this start exactly? Awareness was crawling through his brain that this may not have been the first checking-out of Mustang that he had ever done. A slide-show of memories flashed behind his eyes ... Mustang halfway through a fight in uniform and greatcoat, doing his dumb, awesome, badass pose with one hand in his pocket and the other out and snapping, calm as you like, flash-frying an army of monsters like it was nothing. Behind his desk, swivelling around in his big office chair, chin propped on one hand, staring Ed out from under his bangs with sharp, slitted eyes and a maddening smile. At the wheel of his car, elegant and worn in his civvies, steering competently while he talked, turning to Ed and saying, "no, it was 520, don't cheat me."

When had it started? Ed didn't really know, and he wasn't sure he wanted to. Didn't matter, anyway. He just needed to pin this thing down and move on. One thing he knew for sure: this wasn't serious. The guy was good-looking, so what? It was just an observation, it didn't change anything about the way they were with each other. This wasn't a crush. Right?

Okay, Ed thought, time for observation again. What did he actually think of Mustang, really? Well, he was probably the most irritating man on the planet, that was a start. He was smug, he was sarcastic, he was patronising, and he thought he was hot shit. He was private and guarded and paranoid as fuck. He was self-controlled to the point of weirdness and it clearly took a lot to make him lose his shit, but when he did so he was fucking scary. He put on a big show about not giving a damn and treating his subordinates like slaves, but the minute someone tried to hurt one of them you could tell from his reaction that they were family to him. His alchemy seemed flashy and simple, but Ed had come to realise that there was a hell of a lot of control and precision behind the flash-bang, and when you actually talked theory with Mustang he was sharp as a tack. The more you got to know him, the more of a puzzle the man seemed to be. Ed liked working out puzzles.

In fact, Ed was — okay, he could admit this — despite Mustang's many, glaring flaws, he was kind of starting to like the guy. But that was all right, wasn't it? A lot of Ed's favourite people liked and respected Mustang: Al, for a start, Hawkeye, Havoc and the rest of the team, even Winry. So, it was officially okay to like Mustang, even if he was still an annoying bastard, which he was. Stamp of approval.

But — definitely not a crush. Ed knew what a crush felt like. The way, years ago, he used to get all idiot around Winry, to fixate goofily on dumb little details, like the way a few long strands of pale hair would always escape from the front of her headscarf and tickle his skin when she leant over him to work on his arm. Mustang wasn't making his stomach flip or turning him into a drooling idiot. He was just interesting and annoying, and, incidentally, unfortunately kind of hot. That was all.

Why did the fact that Ed had noticed he was good-looking have to make any difference at all? It didn't. He bet Mustang checked out everyone he worked with. He was a procrastinating pervert, it stood to reason.

More importantly, it was safe to look, because there was absolutely, totally no way this was ever going to go anywhere.

Right on that last phrase, go anywhere, Ed got a brief, vivid mental image. Stupid brain. The point was, it was all cool. Ed was really glad he'd had this little talk with himself. He could look if he liked, nothing was different now. Just as long as Mustang didn't figure it out. The man's ego totally didn't need feeding.

No problem.


Ed seemed like he was in a weird mood all evening. Al couldn't blame him. The more of The Perfection of Matter they got translated, the worse it looked. By ten o'clock, the translation was close enough to be nearly guessable. Unpleasant speculations swirled through Al's head. He didn't share them with Ed; he knew Ed was thinking the same things. Mustang kept hovering. Every few minutes he'd pop into the room, look over one of their shoulders or flip through one of the notebooks, then huff, or make a strained face, and stalk out of the room. Al still couldn't quite believe Ed had told him the code. It was a sensible move, it was just that Mustang wasn't ever previously known to bring out Ed's sensible side.

Ed looked up from his seat on the sofa. "Hey, Al, did you remember to bring that copy of the Companion to Late Xerxean Hermetics? I just want to check this part against it." He looked around for Al's book bag, and spotted it on the floor a few inches from his foot.

"I'll get it!" Al cut in. As he looked at Ed's reaction, he realised he'd spoken too quickly, or too nervously, and Ed was now looking at him with frank suspicion.

Before he could make a move, Ed pulled Al's bag over by the strap and dumped the contents out onto the rug. He brushed Al's keys and a couple of candy wrappers off the notebook with Al's revision notes in, picked it up — oh shit, oh shit — and then put it to one side. Al felt bad. Had he really thought Ed would just snoop through his notes? Ed picked up the reference volume he'd been looking for and laid it down in his lap. He started leafing through it. Al felt his chest expand rapidly with relief, and tried not to sigh audibly.

Then Ed stopped. He reached over to the other reference book that had been in Al's bag. It lay on the rug surrounded by old receipts, pencil stubs and metro tickets. He picked it up. Al felt himself freeze up again.

Ed said, slowly, "Powell's Foundational Concepts? Why have you been looking at that, you know it's crap."

Al said, "Oh — you know, some of my friends at university are using it." He could hear how squeaky his voice had gone.

"It's a crib sheet. Half the definitions are bullshit, the only reason anyone ever reads it is because it's the sort of stupid soundbite you have to write out for the State Alchemist Exam —"

Al interrupted, "I know, but this thing — hear me out," but it was way too late. His voice had cracked on the last word, and finally betrayed him.

Ed was staring at him, eyes huge and round. His mouth hung open. The hand with the book hovered in mid-air.

Then he frowned so aggressively that Al was sure he was about throw the book or maybe a punch, and he growled, "You asshole."

For a moment, Al reviewed a roster of the many miserable, panicked responses he could have made. I didn't mean to lie, let me explain, I've got really good reasons for doing this, you made it so hard to talk to you. But Ed was right: he hadn't told the truth. He was an asshole. So he just sat there, ready to take his licks.

Ed said, low, gravelly, and sour, "You're taking the State Alchemist exam."

"Yeah."

"You're going to join up?"

Al said, smaller, "Yeah."

Ed stood up, and for a moment Al thought the fight was starting. Then he just shook his head, said, quietly "Fuck", and was out the library door in a second. It slammed so hard a bit of plaster cracked.

Ed's footsteps sounded loudly and rapidly down the hall. Then the apartment's front door slammed too.

He stared down vaguely at the sentence he'd been translating. Al had lost his last chance to be honest. Ed had found him out.

Then, suddenly, the sentence came back into focus. Al read it through again. And again. Oh, shit.

He heard footsteps, and looked up to see Mustang leaning in the doorway, looking at him ironically. "So. I take it that Edward now knows you're planning to become a dog of the military. How did that go?"

"Uh. Never mind. This —" He motioned to the translation. Al couldn't get his mouth to move fast enough. His tongue felt thick, like it was getting in the way. "It — takwin — I —"

"Alphonse, take a breath and try again." There was a testy edge to Mustang's voice.

Embarrassment brought Al back to himself. He tried again, slower. "Takwin — it's the creation of true artificial life."

Mustang frowned. "True golems? Not — well, made with humans?"

"You mean, like I was in the armour? No. Not golems. Homunculi."

Mustang's chin jerked up. Suddenly the wall-face was gone completely and he was staring at Al with open, fierce horror. He said, slowly, "The homunculi — Envy, Lust, Bradley, the rest — they were made by that creature, right? From him, from parts of his Philosopher's Stone."

Al said, "Yeah. And where did he come from?"

Mustang sat down suddenly and heavily on the sofa. He ran a hand across his face. "From Xerxes, with your father. Some kind of alchemical experiment ... oh god. Is that what this is?"

Al just nodded. "Yes." The clock ticked on for a few seconds. Mustang hunched forward, his face shaded in one hand, apparently chewing it over. Al bobbed from one foot to the other. This was turning into one hell of a crappy evening.

Al said, "The method in The Perfection of Matter — I'm fairly sure it'd work. I think this is how they actually did it. The original homunculus. This is how Father was made."

"They're actually arrogant enough to do it ..." Mustang had looked up, but wasn't really looking at Al, just staring into the middle distance. "The idiots! They're trying to make their own, aren't they? They're trying — oh hell — they're trying to make their own Homunculus. For what?"