bob fish

No Small Injury

chapter 9. Interesting Times
In the order of nature we cannot render benefits to those from whom we receive them, or only seldom. But the benefit we receive must be rendered again, line for line, deed for deed, cent for cent, to somebody.—Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Compensation"

They walked out of headquarters shoulder to shoulder, but they didn't look at each other.

They crossed the street and turned onto a boulevard, still without talking. They passed the hotel where they used to stay when they came to Central, back in the days when Ed was shorter and Al was taller.

Ed cleared his throat. "You owe me an explanation. Don't try to get out of it."

He put out his right fist to knock Al lightly on the shoulder.

Al leaned backwards, so that Ed's hand flailed stupidly through the empty air in front of Al's chest. He said, "If I explain, are you actually going to listen, or just rant?"

That was aggravating, and a challenge, so Ed hooked his boot around Al's left ankle from behind and pulled his foot out from under him. Al put his hands back to catch himself as he went down, twisted in the air, and flipped himself back up on his feet.

"Depends," said Ed. "What have you got to say for yourself?"

"About signing onto the State Alchemist programme, or about why I didn't tell you?"

"Either. Both." They were still walking, but now Ed's upper body was turned up towards Al, hands in a fighting stance.

"Well —" Al grinned and tensed, ready to move — then he relaxed and sighed. "I think we should have this conversation in the park."

Ed looked around and noticed a few people around them in the street were staring. Ah. "Whatever. You care far too much about what people think."

"I'll see you there," said Al. Then he leapt a railing and started running along the top of a wall.

Ed followed, and was immediately irritated by how the leap took him more effort because his reach was shorter, which was of course why Al had done it. How did Al get to tease him when Al was totally in the wrong here?

"You lied to me!" Ed yelled after him. "For months! How the hell does that even work?"

"How —" Al waved his hands in the air manically as he ran. "That's not how it was! I kept trying to tell you, and every time I'd lead up to it you'd lose your temper. Do you have any idea how difficult you've been to live with since you and Winry broke up?"

"What do you mean — you'd lead up to it? When did that ever happen?"

Al stopped where he was and threw his hands up in apparent exasperation. "I tried to tell you a week ago, when we got noodles right before you left for Yarvil! I started talking about my work, and before I could get there you just lost it and ranted the same crap you always rant about Xerxes and what a bunch of bastards they all were and Dad and what a dick he was for leaving, and you don't see the point of researching Xerxean alchemy, blah blah blah." Al shook his head and jumped off the wall, landing in a forward roll on a small patch of grass opposite the park fence. He pushed himself up at the end of the roll and carried on moving without losing momentum.

But he still looked both ways before crossing the street.

Ed followed him down, swerving past a horse-drawn ice wagon. As he caught up, he yelled, "What the hell's your point? They were a bunch of bastards, and —"

Al turned and squared himself in front of Ed. "It's like — I don't even know! You're always so bad tempered right now. And it's like the breakup brought up all this stuff for you about losing Dad, or you're scared you're going to turn into Dad, or something like that?"

Ed spluttered. "Turn into-?"

But Al was off again. He ran along the street a few steps to get momentum, then ran up one of the railings of the tall fence, stood on top for a moment and jumped. Ed, hoping to one-up him, just started where he was, from a standstill, and used the superior strength of the automail to just vault straight over the top of the fence. He landed in a crouch, pushed himself upright with his hands and was barring Al's way by the time he landed. Al just swerved and carried on running further into the park, presumably to get to a big patch of open space where they could spar properly.

"I didn't lose Hohenheim," yelled Ed. He was jogging alongside Al now, favouring the automail to keep up with Al's long strides. "He walked out on us! Where's all this crap coming from anyway? I don't even —"

Al was in front of him and blocking his way before he'd even noticed. He just stood there for a moment, not even in a proper fighting stance, legs apart and fists balled by his side. His eyes were huge and his eyebrows creased up. He looked miserable and angry. Ed stopped for a moment, taken aback.

Then Al really raised his voice. "You never call him Dad! I get that he wasn't perfect. I know he screwed up — but he was trying to do the right thing! Dad saved me and he saved you too! What were you planning on giving up to get me back? I know you don't like it, I know you hate that he did it without your permission and you hate owing him, but you do, so suck it up. He gave his life up for us, for me, brother, at least — can't you give him some respect —"

"I didn't ask him to! I didn't want him to! I could have got you out! I was going to get you out! Nobody asked him to do that — the idiot — shitty, stupid fucking loser of a father —"

Al kicked him square in the chest.

For a few moments, Ed just sat where he'd landed, ass on the dirt, swiping the back of his arm across his face and trying to get himself under control. It took a while for him to be ready to look up. By the time he was absolutely certain that he wasn't crying, he'd realised that most of his anger towards his brother just wasn't there anymore. Al had fucked up, sure. And — well, Ed himself had fucked up too.

"I'm sorry," said Ed, shaking his head. "I guess I'm a stupid fucking loser too."

Al smiled at him wryly, and for some reason it was one of those smiles that made Ed suddenly and ridiculously grateful that he could smile. He flopped to the ground to sit a couple of yards from Ed. "No, you're not," Al said. "You just get angry when you're hurting about something. Den does the exact same thing when she's got something in her paw."

"I'll give you something in your paw," said Ed. He picked up a little clod of dirt and threw it at Al's torso. As Al blocked it with one arm, Ed threw another clod with his other hand, this one straight over Al's guard. It hit him on the nose.

Al tutted — but instead of retaliating, he just laughed. Then he took a deep breath and said, "I'm really sorry I didn't tell you. I just should have said it. The longer I left it, the harder it got to bring it up, and I was worried you'd just explode and get mad at everyone, and because Winry knew, I didn't want to make things worse with you and her " He trailed off and shook his head. "I still should have told you."

"So, apart from Winry, who have you told already? Granny? Mustang? Your crazy professor? I'm guessing not Teacher, seeing you don't have thirty-two different fractures —"

"Mustang's sponsoring me. He's been telling me to tell you from the start; he even said he wouldn't sign me in for the written until I talked to you. And Winry's been saying the same. It's not their fault, okay? If you want to be mad with someone, be mad with me."

Ed sighed and picked at the grass with his left hand. "I'm not mad with you, Al. Well, okay, a bit. But —" Everyone fucked up once in a while. They just had to sort this out now. "So," Ed said. "So now you get to tell me what you're actually researching."

"Just the stuff I told you, mostly," said Al. He looked better already. Ed could see his mind turning to the research. "Amestrian alchemy and Xingese alchemy both originate in Xerxes, right? But they branched in totally different directions. They're not fundamentally different. The Xerxeans were able to do things that have never been rediscovered, but what Amestris and Xing were able to take from their knowledge forms the basis of modern science. The more I study the fragments of Xerxean alchemy that are left, the more I can see that they come from a common source. The thing is, decoding The Perfection of Matter turned out to be the exact thing I needed. It's a key. With what I've learned from it, I'm starting to understand the deeper principles of Xerxean alchemy. And it's amazing. It has a much more holistic view of the world than Amestrian alchemy, but much broader in its application than Xingese alchemy."

"You're talking about revolutionising the whole science of alchemy."

"Well, yeah."

"From the ground up."


"That's big talk."

"Well, yeah! It's even bigger than that. Look, I owe my life to the people in the Stone and to Dad. And I can't pay them back. But if I do this, maybe I could recover some of the best things about Xerxes and build on them. And — if we changed our fundamental attitude to alchemy, the way we do it, then — what happened there, what nearly happened here, we could make sure it never happens again-"

"I think some of those guys would have an issue with the idea that Xerxean alchemists had a great attitude to scientific ethics —"

"Dammit, brother! Every time. You're doing it again."

Ed muttered, "Okay, okay." He took a breath. "So why do you need to be a State Alchemist to do that? It's not like it's the only way to get the money for research. Why not just stay at the university?"

"Because this is huge! This is about rewriting alchemy from the ground up, doing things no one has been able to do for centuries, maybe ever! Can you imagine how badly this could be misused? You could use remote transmutation to level a whole town, kill thousands of people at once, and that's just off the top of my head."

"So. Just keep it secret."

"That's ridiculous. What's the point of knowledge you can't share? If I can't share this because it could be used as a weapon, you might as well say the whole of alchemy shouldn't be passed on to anyone."

"Stop twisting my words! I'm saying — that's why people are careful with alchemical knowledge, why we write in code, why you learn from a master."

"Safeguards, right? Making sure the people who get the knowledge are responsible enough to be trusted with it?"

"Yes —"

"That's why I'm signing up. Well, one reason. If I'm a State Alchemist under Mustang, my research is in the hands of someone I trust."

"But you do know that means fighting? You're in the army —"

"And that's the other reason. You know what's going to happen if Hakuro wins out. It'll be the same wars all over again. The same crimes being committed with alchemy. Look what they're doing! Look what they're trying to make!"

"That's not a fair argument. You planned this before you knew Chrysalis was making that thing."

"Well, he proved me right!"

"You'll have to fight — you're going to get dragged into a war, did you even think about that —"

"I'm prepared to fight. It sucks, but if it's the only way we can get there, to make this country a place where we use science for helping people, not destroying them — well. You remember the day we first met Mustang? You remember what he said to us about crossing rivers of mud?"

"It's just — I thought you were going to university. I thought you were going to have a life now! You do this, if Hakuro wins, you're going to have to go on the lam, or you'll be drafted, or in jail, or worse-"

"So? What do you think he's going to do to you? And what about Mustang? What about Major Hawkeye? What about Captain Havoc and the rest of the team? Even apart from the Chrysalis stuff — after everything everyone's sacrificed, the country could go back to being how it was. That's worth staking my life on." When Ed didn't respond, Al sighed. "This is where I need to be right now."

Ed squeezed his eyes shut. He said, quietly, "I keep thinking about staying on."

Al said, "You were making such a big racket about how great it was you were going to quit, and what an ass you were going to be about it. I wondered if something was up."

"I kept trying to talk myself out of it because it wasn't fair on everybody. To keep you and Winry and Granny worrying, after all that support. And everyone else who's helped us. Staying in the army — I'd be okay with risking my life, but it's just the idea of throwing away everything people have helped us gain."

Al said, "I've thought that. But — you know what, I know other people gave me my life, but it's mine to choose what to do with. It's pointless to try to live without risk anyway, no one can — but if I want to pay all those people back, I should do something good with my life. That doesn't mean living safely while the whole country's in danger, it means using my life for something worthwhile."

"That last thing — I've kind of been thinking that too. Takwin, Chrysalis, the research — I think deep down I knew it was going to be homunculus stuff. And all this politics shit — Mustang, Hakuro and the old guard. Win told me on the phone today she thinks there's gonna be a civil war, she says everyone's talking about it."

Al nodded. "All my university friends are saying the same stuff. Clara said that — hey, wait, you phoned Winry?"

Jeez, did Al really think Ed was such an asshole that this was a huge surprise? Ed huffed. "Yeah. I didn't tell her yet that I was signing up again. I mean, I know I'll have to. She totally called this six months ago: she told me I'd never go through with resigning, and now I feel like a total asshole for all the shit I gave her about it."

"How did it go?"

"Good. I mean — don't get the wrong idea, it's not like we're getting back together. But — we're talking now. Which is really good. I missed her."

Al smiled. "So. What are you going to do now? Still going to quit at the end of the month?"

Ed laughed shortly, then looked Al right in the eye. "Course I'm not. I'm staying. I decided back in the palace. That thing in the jar. All this shit with Hakuro and Chrysalis. And what you said too, about what happens if Hakuro wins? I'm staying."

"And by the way, this whole rebuilding the whole science of alchemy thing? I want in on it."

"I thought you would."

"I still think Xerxean ethics sucked balls."

"I know."

"But if there's good stuff in their science, stuff that can be used for peoples' benefit, we should get to that. And you're right. I hate owing stuff I can't pay back. Maybe you've got a point. Everything that was done for us — we should pay this shit on to someone else. Do some good with it."

"Yeah. Like a chain." Al was looking into the middle distance now, towards the new, doubtless alchemically sculpted statue of Olivia Armstrong leaning on her sword that dominated this part of the park. Ed wasn't quite sure if Al was thinking of her sacrifice, or if he was just distracted by her marble boobs.

"So, we stay with the team, we do this research. And then when we've kicked Chrysalis' ass, and Mustang's running things, we can just take it as far as we can, see what we can do with it. Sounds like a plan to me."

"Yeah." Al leaned over in Ed's direction, and put his right fist out. Ed leaned forward and stretched out to meet it with his own right fist. They looked at each other. And then they both grinned.

"We've got roadblocks set up at all the tollbooths out of Central," said Miles. "We've circulated descriptions of Katzenklavier, we've contacted his children, we've had his house searched again. And nothing, Sir."

It had only been two hours. Roy raised an eyebrow. Despite his rage and frustration that the bastard had gotten away, he was impressed.

"My guess," continued Miles, "is that he planned for this very well. Once you get off the main road, there are river routes, villages, dirt roads. He could have safe houses anywhere. We know from the alchemical marks in Duke Humphrey's Walk that he tunnelled out from there, and from the tyre tracks in the clearing above that he had a car stashed there. But it was three minutes from the West Road. Once he was on it —" Miles shrugged. "We can block all the toll booths we like, there are enough places he could have turned off before."

Roy said, "If we put the entire army onto it, we could comb the country. But we don't have the entire army."

"Would that kind of alchemy need specialised equipment?" asked Riza.

Roy nodded.

"Then we might be able to track him through his suppliers. We work out the rarer resources he'll need, then Captain Havoc can make some calls to the right people."

"And he wasn't working alone," said Roy, tapping a pencil against his lips. "The other alchemists he used were all State-certified. We can keep tabs on what every State Alchemist is up to. Maybe even uncertified alchemists at State level. We can talk to the universities." He wondered how well Professor Mackintosh would take being asked to spy on her own colleagues.

After he dismissed Miles, he sagged back in his chair for a moment. Riza stayed standing for a moment, then sat herself and heaved a very small sigh. "Avenues and options," said Roy. "That's comforting, isn't it?" He practically spat the last words. As if it hadn't been enough that they hadn't been able to bring Chrysalis to book after the Promised Day, now there was this. The fact that Katzenklavier evidently had some Philosopher's Stone on his hands was worrying, that his tortured golems actually functioned now was horrifying, and as for that embryonic thing in the jar — it was beyond words. Then there was the whole business of who had hired Chrysalis and commissioned his idiotic, insanely dangerous research — and who had also probably hired the gang who'd served as the project's guard dogs, who'd murdered Katie Flowers and Patrick Dunleavy, who'd tried to take out members of his own team.

Riza said quietly, "I set up that meeting. It was rather easy, actually. I was surprised." As ever, their thoughts ran on the same track.

Roy sat up a bit and pushed a hand through his hair. "When?"

"Tomorrow at twelve."

Roy laughed. "High noon. How appropriate. Ready?"

A look passed between them. They were very much ready.

When Roy arrived in the office the next morning, he found Fullmetal and Alphonse already on the sofa. As he hung up his coat, Fullmetal grinned at him and waved his pocket watch. Alphonse smiled politely, and covertly nudged Edward. They seemed more at ease with each other than they had been the previous afternoon. So, it seemed that they'd settled their differences and made their decision, one way or the other.

Roy asked, "Shall we go through to the meeting room?" He thought briefly about requesting some coffee, but then decided, no, let's just get this done right away.

Roy sat at the meeting room's table, laced his hands, and waited. Ed and Al took seats on the other side. Edward was still silent, still grinning as if he'd scored a decisive point. Alphonse looked nervous.

Roy said, "You can speak freely in here. I had this room thoroughly checked out for security after it turned out certain members of my team were abusing the 'away from headquarters' rule to hold confidential meetings at the pub."

Ed snorted, but then his smile faltered a little. He seemed to be having trouble getting started. Then he set his face, pulled out his pocket watch, and put it on the table. He looked Roy in the eye and said firmly, as if he was handing down an order, "Give me a new contract." His eyes looked the same as when he'd turned up on the steps outside East City HQ, twelve years old and still shaky on his new leg, demanding to take the test.

So there it was, then. The schemer in Roy was euphoric; the man in him was saddened. He was going to remember this moment. Ed and Al had been merely children when Roy had begun this plan, which was supposed to let their generation live peacefully. Now they were grown up, their quest complete, free with their whole lives ahead of them — just in time to get sucked into the whole mess of this country once again. It wasn't just them, either. Recruitment was up: young men and women of their age around the country were joining the army, volunteering despite the uncertainty and the divisions. They wanted to rebuild. They wanted to help their country, to fix things. And their lives were theirs to give away. How many of them were going to die or suffer before Roy got to the top?

Roy fixed a serious, hard expression on his face, eyeballed Ed, and said, "Why?"

Ed frowned. "You know why. I want to carry on investigating this Homunculus business. My time's up, so I need a new contract." He looked away for a moment and sighed through his nose. Then he muttered, "Well, of course you're gonna make me say it."

Roy just carried on looking and waiting.

"How am I supposed to just retire when the whole country's still in danger? That thing in the jar. This fight — there's probably going to be a war, right? And if that happens, you need to win it so we get to see what this country looks like with you in charge. I still owe you money, remember?"

Roy remembered. And he remembered how he'd felt at Ed's age, standing in front of his foster mother and afterwards his old teacher, passionate and silly as he explained what it was that drove him to want to protect. There was nothing silly about Ed right now. He had a hundred times the bitter experience of Roy at nineteen — and sad as it was to admit it, a hundred times the common sense. There was something almost shocking about hearing him accept the possibility of war. The old Edward would have railed that there was no way they could let a war happen, as though all things were possible through sheer force of will.

Roy sat back, as if he was considering the offer. "Well. You'd lose your independence. You'd be under my orders — and I mean for real this time. You're an adult now, and you'll be treated like one. Don't expect me to cut you any slack. It'll be hard work. Boring. Dangerous. You can say goodbye to your social life. And" — he leaned forward and looked right into Edward's eyes now, because this was the real question — "you'd be risking everything for me, everything. Do you really want all those years you two spent searching, all those sacrifices that other people have made for you, to be wasted?"

Edward looked at him, steadily. His chin was up, the line of his jaw standing out and his neck muscles tensed. He said, "I know all that stuff. I've thought all this through. We've decided. It's my life, I can use it how I want." The legs of his chair squeaked back across the polished wood floor, and Edward stood up, still holding Roy's gaze. Then he snapped a perfect, neat salute.

It was a moment before Roy could summon up an appropriate expression. Edward didn't grin or stick his tongue out or shout "gotcha!", or even comment on the fact that he'd rendered Roy speechless. Roy took him in for a moment. Then he stood and returned the salute. "I'll have the paperwork drawn up this afternoon. At ease, Major."

Fullmetal relaxed, flopped back into his chair, puffed out a breath, suddenly back to his familiar, casual insolence once more. The world continued to turn.

Roy looked over to Al, who'd been sitting patiently through the whole exchange, his hands clasped loosely on the table. Alphonse picked up his cue, and nodded seriously, a little stubbornness twitching at the corners of his mouth.

"Sir," he said. "I'm ready now."

"Would an appointment for the written examination on the 21st give you enough time to prepare?"

Al nodded cheerfully. "I've already prepared."

Edward narrowed his eyes and said, "Fast work, Brigadier General."

Roy acknowledged the point with a little smirk. "I made the arrangements last week."

Ed rolled his eyes and turned to his brother. "You see? You see what you've let yourself in for here?"

Alphonse said mildly, "I was kind of expecting him to fix it up in advance, brother. We both know how the brigadier general's usually kind of underhanded and sneaky about this stuff."

Roy sighed theatrically. "I see I've been saddled with another couple of insubordinate smart-asses. Ah well. You're going to fit right in with the rest of that lot." He stood. "Dismissed, Major. Alphonse. Come back to the office at fifteen hundred. I'll have the papers prepared, and you can both sign your lives away."

As Edward and Alphonse left the main office, Edward with a backwards wave and Alphonse with a nod and a smile, Roy dropped into the chair behind his desk. He called out across the room. "Falman? You're going to need to find another couple of desk spaces somewhere in this cattle pen."

Another two lives in his hands, and another two powerful pieces out on the board. Roy looked at his watch. Not long until noon, until his next move. For their sake and for everyone else's, he hoped he could make it a good one.

The Fuhrer's empty office was always kept locked these days. Since its previous occupant had left it for the last time, nothing had changed about it except for the slow increase of dust. Bradley's sabres still hung in a neat column on the wall, his books lined the bookcase. On the large, plain desk, a couple of sheets of notepaper still lay unused by the inkwell, spattered with old blood. On the rug, the smears of other faded bloodstains here and there showed bare footprints: the immortal army must have made it here. Roy had brushed the seat of his chair down thoroughly before he sat. The last thing he needed in this meeting was dust bunnies stuck to his ass. Hakuro had just plonked himself down on a chair on the other side of the table, letting a little cloud of dust rise. He'd then given Roy a withering look obviously meant to imply that he considered Roy too much of a fop to be worthy of power.

A few days after the Promised Day, Roy had confronted Hakuro and struck this bargain they had, for the sake of Amestris. Grumman, Fuhrer for only a few hours, had left quite the power vacuum behind him. Roy suspected he would have been amused by the distinction of being Amestris' shortest serving Fuhrer. He'd died in office sixteen hours after taking power, before he'd even set foot in Central Headquarters. Grumman had had the support of many of the old guard and most of the reformers. In the chaos after his death, the military was sharply divided between reformers and old guard. The country had been facing a civil war. Both Roy and Hakuro believed they could gain enough popular and military support to make a solid move for the top. Until then, they had agreed to a gentlemanly conflict. In the meantime, Amestris would be governed by committee. The real reasons behind Grumman's death, unfortunately, changed nothing about this.

Roy was reminded of the last time he'd sat at this table, three years ago. Once again, there were monsters lurking in the shadows, and once again, the lives of his people were threatened for shining a light in dark corners. And just like last time, no one was touching the tea.

Riza stood behind them, her back against the door. Next to her stood an officer of Hakuro's whom Roy recognised. He hadn't brought along his aide or his second-in-command. He'd brought a sharpshooter.

Roy folded his arms, let the pressure of his rage build behind his eyes, and gave Hakuro a damn good stare. The man didn't flinch, but Roy flattered himself that some of the sheen of sweat on his brow was due to nerves rather than the unaccustomed exercise of the long schlep down the corridor. "So," said Roy, without breaking the stare. "Time we put our cards on the table. Were you behind this thing?"

Hakuro didn't even bother to ask what thing. "Katzenklavier was retired. He had nothing to do with the military."

"He had an entire gang in his pay. Who was funding that?"

"I imagine he was. He was wealthy — and I don't appreciate this. We can speak honestly, but I'm not going to be threatened by-"

"You want a threat? All right. You were involved with this, and I know it in my gut." Roy's words were controlled, but his head throbbed with the impulse to punch or to snap. He was glad Riza was in the room with him, trusting him to stay in control. "You are not being honest with me, and I am not fooled. I will pin this on you — and if I win — and I will win — then you'll be brought to book for it. I'm tempted to let the people of Amestris dish out whatever punishment they like."

Hakuro didn't reply for a moment. His mouth was a compressed line. Roy wondered what he was looking at: the revolutionary, the cocky young officer, or the human weapon?

After a few moments, he leaned forward and eyeballed Roy aggressively. The gesture seemed puffed-up, threatened. "Is that all you've got?"

"Yes," said Roy. "Katzenklavier hired the gang who murdered Katie Flowers and Patrick Dunleavy, we have proof of that. Flowers heard Katzenklavier discussing his research with one of his bosses in the brass."

"So, all you've got to pin this on me is hearsay from a dead woman? Which doesn't even mention me?"

"I've got enough evidence to take this public. You're breaking the terms of our agreement, Hakuro. Now stop wasting my time and give me some honest answers."

"Fine," Hakuro spat, "let's be honest. You are not going to win. You will never get enough of the brass behind you, because your plans would destroy the military and get its leaders lynched by extremists. Everyone in the brass knows it." Hakuro was starting to raise his voice in a booming rhythm. He was sweating, and spraying stray flecks of spit as he talked. He looked a little like an angry bull. "You might be enough of a silly schoolboy to put your own head in a noose, but don't expect anyone else to join you."

"You've got your head in the sand. This country isn't going to survive without change, fundamental change, it'll tear itself apart. Only a tyrant could hold it together without reforms — and everyone in the brass with any sense knows it. You're not Bradley, Hakuro. He was a monster. You're a spineless yes-man with delusions of grandeur."

"Here's some more honesty for you." Hakuro jabbed a finger, rage in his eyes. "If you lose — and you will lose — I'm going to see you dead. You're a traitor, Mustang. You tried to overthrow the government, you betrayed your own country, and we may have covered it up for the sake of the people, but don't fool yourself that anyone's forgotten. When I win — and I will win — I'm going to personally make sure you swing for it, Riza Hawkeye swings for it, and every one of your cronies too."

Well. Roy had assumed as much. It was a painfully obvious attempt to push his buttons, confronting him with what he already knew about the stakes of the game. From the corner of his eye, Roy saw Riza stiffen slightly.

Hakuro ranted on. "Those deserters who held up Central Radio like bandits, the war buddies you charmed into turning assassin, that fixer you've got buttering up every industrialist in the country — yes, that's right, I know his real job — those thugs you've adopted from Briggs, your pet prodigies and their taboo hobbies. You hypocrite, you're threatening me with the people's wrath for taboo alchemy while for years you've been harbouring two devious little shits who've committed capital crimes with it. You and that idiot pal of yours thought you had it covered up, didn't you? You're soft, Mustang. You're overconfident and you're soft, and you don't have as many secrets as you think. Win or lose, you're a dead man, Mustang. And you're going to lose. And then you're going to watch the lot of them die before you do. But isn't that what they signed up for?"

Roy drew a breath. What really worried him was Hakuro's aggression. Was he really ready to go to war? Or could Roy manipulate him towards continuing to play the longer game? If he'd risked so much in hiring Katzenklavier and protecting his research, he must think it was crucial to his chances of victory. This meant two things: that he thought that otherwise, Roy was likely to win out over him in gaining the brass's support; and that he would think his chances were better when the research came to fruition, when the creature was truly made. Hakuro needed time for this; Roy needed time to stop him. So how could Roy get Hakuro to do what he wanted?

By telling the truth.

Roy folded his arms tightly. "If this is how things are, don't expect me to hold back."

"Don't expect me to be intimidated by you. You've let the human weapon thing go to your head." Hakuro grinned. "Just remember I've got a few weapons of my own."

"When do you want to start this war, Hakuro? Today? Tomorrow morning at nine, give you time to get your escape route prepared?"

Hakuro shrugged. "Your move, Mustang. I think we know who's holding more cards."

"My move? All right. We will not go to war tomorrow, and we will not go to war the next day. You're trying to build a Homunculus. I'd warn you if it wasn't utterly pointless. You know now what Bradley was, you know what the last Homunculus did to the people it was created to serve and what it tried to do to this country."

Hakuro looked at him for a long moment, and then snorted and tossed his head a little, more like a bull than ever. He was conceding.

There was going to be blood — but not today.

As Riza and he walked back to his own office, he took a moment to offer her a wry smirk, and she took a moment to smile back and blow out a breath that ruffled her long bangs. None of it was a surprise, really, to either of them. He'd gotten the result they needed from the meeting, and now they could apply themselves to tracking down Katzenklavier as soon as possible. But still —

Still, when Roy opened the door to the office a few minutes later, it felt like a punch to the chest. Falman was stacking up his in-tray with a towering pile of papers, coded with little bits of coloured paper. Havoc was wielding the field telephone and talking to Catalina with his eyebrows as he did it. Charlie and Dino were trying to smoke out the window because they thought no-one was watching. Miles was working quietly in a corner, ignoring the bustle and chaos.

Ross was circling the desks with a large bag. She looked up and said to Roy, "Collection for Brosch, Sir. His surgery went well, but the bone's definitely fractured." Warrant Officer Denny Brosch had been shot in the thigh during the Luttenberger raid: one of those nasty, messy leg wounds, poor bastard. "Looks like he'll probably be in hospital for a while."

"And you know how dull that's gonna get," said Havoc, off the phone now. He picked up a packet of beef jerky and some magazines in a brown paper bag, and waved them at Ross. As she took them, she looked questioningly at the paper bag. He gave her a disarming smile that Roy suspected might be calculated, and said again, apologetically, "hospitals are really boring."

Roy and Riza fished in their pockets for change. Riza said, "Lieutenant, could you get him some fruit for me, and give him my regards? I'll try to pop by tomorrow."

As Riza turned to go through to her own office, Roy said to her, "Come over this evening. We need to do some planning."

Riza's career as an optimist had been brief, and it had ended badly. These days, she preferred to think of herself as a woman of faith.

By late that evening, they were both sitting cross-legged on the library floor, surrounded by papers, plans and notes. For now, though, being surrounded by papers was making them both feel a little calmer. They were both list-makers by nature; it was a comforting thing to have plans, back-up plans, failsafes.

"We're going to win," said Roy for the eighth time that evening. He was working on one of those arrow-strewn, scribbled flow-charts he liked so much.

Riza nodded. "We're going to win." She put the conviction into her voice and it struck straight from there down to her heart. She trusted Roy, trusted his will and his brilliance and his stubbornness, all the things she'd known of him down the years. She trusted herself, to know what her talents were and give of her best. She trusted her comrades, tough and sharp, clever and kind, a perfect unit. And she loved all of them. The thought of the stakes, the sacrifices that might be needed tore at her. And god — the Elrics, too, now.

Edward was one thing. She'd resigned herself to worrying over him years back. His nature was far too much like Roy's for his own good. She'd always quietly suspected he'd be staying with the team, but Alphonse — that was something different. He'd always had a strange significance to the team, to her, to Roy. His restoration had always been an impossible thing, and yet they had always all believed in it, absolutely. If anyone had ever had the doubts of a sensible adult, they'd hidden them well. She still remembered the high that had possessed the team for days after Edward and Alphonse had visited the office during the months of his recovery. How everyone had glowed, how even Rebecca, who'd never met him before in her life, was pumping his hand and beaming at him. And now here he was, grown handsome and tall and full of life, offering up the whole of himself to them and their goals. She should have expected nothing else from him, she supposed, but it still hurt like hell to see him do it.

It was just after midnight when they both finally set down their pens. Riza tidied the chaos of papers into a pile while Roy made a final cup of tea for her and a coffee for him. As she excavated the desktop, a scribbled sentence jumped out at her from an open notebook: Lucy, nine o' clock or just after, meet at front bar of the George Hotel. Doubtless, Roy must have thought his alchemy code very urbane and sophisticated when he had come up with it at sixteen.

Roy came in with the tea as Riza was shutting the notebook, marking the place with a ribbon.

"Theory notes?" she said. "I didn't know you were researching right now."

"Oh?" Roy handed over her mug of tea, and looked a little perturbed. "This is just — the fight got me thinking. Overlapping transmutations, refining their accuracy, things like that. I just wanted to write down my ideas while they were fresh in my mind. No idea when I'll get a chance to work on them, but — well, there are probably some battles ahead. If I get a chance to sharpen my skills or make them safer to use, I should. You don't mind?"

It was good of him to ask, but really, he should know by now that it was the wrong question. No need for all that defensive babble. His alchemy belonged to him. She'd given away her legacy for good, a long time ago. Their agreement was only that he'd have a piece of her mind if she disapproved. "If I minded, I'd let you know about it. I'm glad. It's good to keep thinking, isn't it?"

Roy inclined his head and took a sip of black coffee. "Can I give you a lift home?"

Riza paused, then just admitted it. "No, it's only three blocks." Roy wiggled his eyebrows irritatingly. "I'm going to Miles' place. As well you know." He grinned. Of course the whole question had been a set-up. "You're incorrigible." Another eyebrow wiggle. "That's not a compliment."

After Riza left, Roy divided the documents into two piles. The essential stuff went into the safe, to pass onto Madeline so she could add it to the rest of Roy's compromising document stash. Roy took the rest into the living room, piled it into the fireplace and incinerated it with a snap. He dropped into an armchair and watched the paper curl and turn to ash: his slanted scribbles next to Riza's neat cursive. He thought of the old days, receding further and further into the past, when it had been Hughes' handwriting next to his on the incriminating notes. He'd always joked that Hughes' writing was so illegible it wouldn't be so bad if one of those things fell into enemy hands. And Hughes had teased Roy in turn about his obsessive lists, and how drawing flowcharts made him feel more in control of the universe, and ...

Roy opened his eyes. The ashes of the papers smouldered in the fireplace. He turned his head over to look at the rooftops outside his window, and the clouds rolling across the sky. All those people out there in the city: eating late dinners, sleeping, nursing babies, studying, having sex, arguing over whose turn it was to take the garbage out. Riza was walking briskly through the streets to the house of a man he trusted. Havoc and Catalina were probably draped all over each other in their flat being ridiculous, or doing something creative that no doubt everyone would have to hear about in the office tomorrow. Falman was on the evening shift at headquarters, probably going over some document for the third time to unnecessarily triple-check he had it right. Fuery had said he was going to a show, one of those annoying modern bands with all the screeching electrical guitar. Breda was on a promise to Maria Ross to be each others' wingmen: if that was tonight, they'd be scoping out girls in one of the military pubs near headquarters. Perhaps Fullmetal and Alphonse would be in one of those cheap little cafes in the university quarter, drinking beer or coffee and mocking each other, or maybe scarfing down cheese noodles. Gracia would have put Elysia to bed hours ago by now, she would be sitting up with a last cup of tea and the radio. Roy really should pay them a visit. It had been far too long.

He looked over to the little bookcase by the couch, then back. "I'll get there," he said to the empty living room. "I promise you, I'm going to get there."

A week later, Al looked up from his revision as he heard Ed's keys jangle in the door.

Ed came into the living room, unbuttoned his jacket and threw it on the floor, and then flopped backwards onto the couch with his boots over the arm. He heaved a martyred sigh.

"Any news on Chrysalis?"

"Nope. Still waiting on Briggs to get back to us about that lead in North City. I still think it was bull, we should just hit the supply angle harder."

"So, just a paperwork day?"

"Shit, yeah. You know, Falman looks harmless, but actually he's secretly a demon slavedriver. He made me retype this entire fucking log instead of filling in all the typos by hand. And he wouldn't let me transmute the typos because he's got this ridiculous fixed idea that ozone makes paper decay."

"Swap you this for the paperwork." Al held up his copy of the annoying but unfortunately essential crammer he was currently revising from.

Ed laughed and tutted. "You're revising way too hard. You can take the written in your sleep."

"Hey, I'm a political football, remember? If Hakuro's guys are going to try and find a way to disqualify me, my performance better be perfect. Anyway, I'm going out in a bit. I'm meeting Emily and Michael from university, we were going to check out the Little Cat Cabaret. You should come."

Ed looked sheepish. "Maybe I'll join you guys later. I gotta — after I wash up and get changed, I'm actually heading over to Mustang's place for an hour or two."

This thing — where Ed and Mustang actually voluntarily spent time in the same room, had proper conversations, joked even — was a source of endless entertainment to Al. "So," he said, putting a little too much glee into his voice, "Hanging out? Chewing the fat? Sage advice on charming the girls and boys of Central out of their underthings?"

"Shut up," growled Ed. "No. To all of it. It's professional! It's just — I still think our theory is overcomplicating the blood decomposition process. Xerxean alchemy's usually more elegant than that. Thought I'd get his opinion on some of our workings."

Wait, Ed was taking advice from Mustang now? Wow, that was just a new level. Al waited for the excuse, the defence. He's still a useless one trick pony, it's not like I need his help, he fussed so much I said I would to shut him up.

The flailing didn't come. Instead, Ed rubbed his neck with the back of one hand and stared into space. He said, "We're not hanging out hanging out, it's just — sometimes he's kind of useful to bounce these things off. He picks up stuff." He pulled a face, and a nervous minor key crept into his voice. "Is that weird?"

Al said, slowly, "No-o. I don't think it's weird."

Ed ran a hand through his hair and sighed irritably. He sat up and swung his feet onto the floor.

Al said, "It's okay to change your mind about someone, brother. I like the brigadier general, anyway. I always did." He didn't add, he's a lot like you.

Ed said, "He's still a dick." He sounded reassured, like Mustang being a dick was some sort of navigational aid: as if, as long as he had that, he knew where he was.

"Brother," said Al. "I don't quite know how to break this to you, but sometimes, you can be kind of a dick too."

Ed launched himself off the sofa, got him in a headlock, and was noogying him before he could reach around to clap.

Thanks for reading! The story continues (and Roy and Ed's endless UST goes somewhere, I promise!) in The Phoney War, archived on my livejournal. And three cheers for my marvellous beta/editor, enemytosleep! She deserves them.