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kalliel

Faces in Ice

chapter 4. Andante

Edward Elric committed alchemy's greatest taboo at age eleven and managed to retain a fair degree of sanity.

Edward Elric became the youngest State Alchemist in Amestris after passing the notoriously difficult alchemy exam with little to no detriment to his mental health.

Edward Elrid, dubbed hero of the people. ...Somewhere. Certainly not here.

But Edward Elric is still going to die at a very young age because he has no shock recovery whatsoever, Ed reflected bitterly. He just hoped Al would have the grace to leave that last bit off his tombstone.

In actuality, it was Winry's fault. He had stopped dead in his tracks when 'the man' pulled off his visor and hood, giving the machines Ed had left behind the perfect opportunity to pounce. She was the last person he had expected to find.

At least Winry managed to call them off before the contraptions did to him what they had done to the north patrol. He struggled to his feet, touching his bleeding lip where he had slammed face first into the hard icy ground. "Did you decide Rush Valley was too hot for you or something? Because there are plenty of nice, temperate areas between here and there. Central's job opportunities can't be so bleak you'd rather try your luck in North City."

Winry made a face that flickered from surprise to annoyance, as if she was not sure which feeling predominated. At last, she murmured a stiff 'hullo' and turned around, motioning him to follow. "You're lucky the robots aren't proficient with their blades yet. It seems like it just sliced through the top skin of your knee and glanced of the patella. That's pretty lucky." Thanks for sounding so happy for me. If there was one thing Ed could count on, it was that Winry was a professional. A damned impersonal professional when it came to her areas of expertise.

Steeling himself against the pain in his leg, the bite of the cold through the slashed fabric and quite possibly another sort of pain that he didn't care to admit, he fell into line behind her.

"There's probably going to be some bruising and swelling, but it won't be too bad," she continued. Ed remained silent. His tongue seemed to be lashing out vehemently of its own accord, so perhaps silence was the best answer. "Oh, and after you left Rush Valley, I told Mustang where you guys were headed; just thought you might like to know."

"What!" Ed burst out indignantly, vow of silence broken. Why the hell are Mustang and Winry so chummy all of the sudden? He had killed her parents; she knew that. Why did she hold him in such high regards?

"I thought he might force you to stay in Central..."

"Oh, really? And what did he say? "Sorry, no, I'm a conniving bastard so I think I'll find a use for them up north?'"

"He said he'd try."

"Yeah?" Ed kicked at a tuft of powdery snow. "Don't trust him on that, 'cause I talked to him too, and he didn't seem too intent on dragging my ass back to Central."

"If I still trusted you I wouldn't need to trust him." Ed couldn't understand what he had done to break her trust in the first place. He could imagine some others telling him this, but not Winry. Never Winry. "Just thought I'd tell you that before you realize why, to save myself some time."

Hadn't he said something like that in Rush Valley? Is that what this is about? Ed cast a quizzical glance at her back, but she didn't turn around, nor did they speak any more. The hundred yards to the three shelters across the yard felt like one of the longest journeys Ed had ever made, a hauntingly familiar oppressive silence weighing down between them and making every step feel colder and less steady.

To Ed's mild relief the building was cozy, if a bit small, lit by cheery yellow lanterns. A little heater was stuck in between a fortress of crates that divided the house into two pseudo-rooms. The ceiling was so low, Winry had to duck slightly in order to keep from bumping her head, Ed noted, though it did not particularly affect him. The air was thick and warm and pushed against him, like a tangible being trying to force him back outside.

"I'll...get some bandages," Winry managed, before slipping away. Why did he get the feeling that she was trying to release herself from his presence, rather than assist him out of genuine worry? "Mr. Malcolm," Winry called back over her shoulder, imbuing her words with false cheer. "We have a guest today!"

On the other side of the crate fortress, a man—this 'Mr. Malcolm,' presumably—sat huddled in a chair at a worktable, fiddling with the components of a machine similar to the ones Ed had become so closely acquainted with.

When the little man saw Ed, he literally jumped from his seat, clutching one of the metal parts he had been working on. Ed took a precautionary step back, before realizing that the man was shaking in... fear?

So this is the master puppeteer, eh?

Mustang had told him of a Drachman weaponry engineer, but based on appearance alone, Ed was having a hard time perceiving this shriveled little ball of clothes and furs as a threat to society. Corrupt clergymen and half-crazed alchemists, yes, but an engineer living in the middle of nowhere, and—it was just beginning to dawn on Ed—Winry's employer?

"I noticed you have quite the security system. Care to enlighten a curious onlooker as to what purpose these machines serve?"

"We're trying to create a new form of manpower." A safe, simple answer.

Ed kept his eyes trained on little Mr. Malcolm; the man acted like Ed was holding him at gunpoint instead. In fact, the more Ed saw of the man, the more unlikely his capacity for murder seemed. Thus, the more suspicion he aroused.

Winry reappeared, a roll of bandages tucked under one arm. She gave him a look that felt like an accusatory 'I shouldn't have left him alone with you' glare before handing the bandages off to Ed and telling him that he could sit down on one of the crates.

"You'll notice that I was thinking of you this morning. I made sure your machines got to slice apart my real leg instead of scrape up your precious automail," Ed commented, all too aware of the unnecessary tetchiness to his words. He didn't need to start more than one stupid argument in a day.

But Winry said nothing, instead choosing to pick up the work Mr. Malcolm had deserted and continue.

The man seemed to relax immensely once he was sure Winry was staying with them. "Hm, yes. A more precise term for these machines, as you call them, is 'robots'. Hm... When I was developing the prototypes on my own, I used them to merely to explore this wasteland. But when Miss Winry came into my service, we began to add to the intricacies of the design. Hm... our latest models were patrolling the outside perimeter." The man's gaze shifted to Ed's leg, transfixed by the blood and the tatters of his pants leg as Ed wrapped the strips messily about his knee. By now it had swollen almost to the size of a coconut and fuck that hurts, Ed cursed as he pulled the bandages tighter. Couldn't it have just bled a lot? Sure, that hurt too, but it was a different classification of pain. Great. Next I'll be thinking that pain is some sort of acquired taste.

"I trust you didn't do too much damage? We haven't finished correlating the data from that batch, and it would be a pain to hm... rebuild creatures of such intricacy."

"Only as much damage as they did to me," Ed replied pointedly as he crossed his arms, growing bored of the man's drivel. "In my experience, these robots of yours aren't too friendly. There a reason they have knives, or is it just for show?"

"It's for protection," Mr. Malcolm said. "From people like you."

Does he think I'm a violent psychopath or something?

"You are the one intruding, good sir, the one destroying my children and threatening me. And I'm guessing you're military as well, hm? That means that you can't be trusted. I hold no association with Drachman troops, as I'm sure it is assumed back in Central City. It is your military that wants to use my research for weaponry. Hm... It is your military, am I right, sir? Myself, I came north in search of a quiet expanse of land. And I found it, for a time." He nodded towards Ed meaningfully. "My children will one day revolutionize mining and correspondence techniques; they can move of their own volition and be programmed to carry out specific commands. Hm... you seem an operative sort, if you don't mind my saying, sir. Winry, sweetling, give this man a demonstration of the radio model."

'Sweetling'? The more he talked, the more uncomfortable Ed became. There was something amiss here, he could feel it. And why did that sound so much like a form speech?

Winry stopped her tinkering with the robot on the table and wound a tiny lever on the machine's side. She let go, and slowly, slowly... a crackling wave of static enveloped the room. The roar of an engine echoed from the recording. Shouts. Get out of the way or I'll run you down, too! Rustling. Then, another voice. Edward? A thud as something was knocked to the ground. More shouting, then silence.

Ed knew what came after that, though. Had the recording continued, it would have replayed the sounds of him heaving himself off the ground, and him saying something that had to do with Winry choosing a damned strange place to work. "That was just before..." he murmured.

"This robot's twin," Mr. Malcolm explained as he caressed the machine's metal body, "Hm... I assume it got stomped on or sliced in two or whatever it was you did to it. But I'm sure you see the advantages of my research?"

Ed saw, all right. He saw very clearly an entirely new way of espionage in the making. Winry, I can't believe you see something in this freak's work. The guy was really starting to piss him off—all of his 'good sirs' and 'hms' and his stupid cowardly need to hide behind his precious hired help and his stupid 'I want to make the world a better place!' crap. "I came across a patrol of dead northmen on my way here. Imagine that! What. A. Coincidence," he said with an air of nonchalance.

"Did the deaths of those soldiers help to improve 'mining and correspondence' techniques?"

He watched the man for a flicker of guilt, regret, anything. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Winry shift slightly. Mr. Malcolm, however, said nothing.

"And don't tell me you didn't have a part in it. They were hacked apart by the same type of knife that you have at the top of your castle wall out there. And—get this—the same type that you fix to your robots. Oh, and I found this," Ed pulled a piece of scrap metal from his pocket and flung it across the table. "By the bodies."

Now Winry had come over to see what Ed had found. Mr. Malcolm edged closer to the girl, flinching away from the metal; more specifically, the transmutation circle written on the metal.

Ed got up off his crate slowly and began pacing about what little space the room allowed him. "And alchemist as well as an engineer, working simply for the betterment of society, regardless of whether that work involves killing innocent people." His voice rising, he continued. "How many? The north guards, and who? You know what the seal on that piece of metal is.

"Spirit encasement. You took someone's soul and bound it to your robots. Is that why they move of their 'own volition'? Now why would the innocent engineer that you claim to be do that? You CANNOT tell me that it was a FUCKING ACCIDENT," he roared.

He had all the pieces, all the moves to make. All he had to do now was line them up in the correct order for maximum effect. He was tearing the little engineer down, stripping his morals and his intents to their bare skeletons. There was a crushing, humiliating boulder pressed against 'Mr. Malcolm,' inexorably pressing the air out of his lungs and his excuses. He was destroying him. And he was enjoying every minute of it.

Ed watched as the smooth assuredness fled from the little man's posture, and he began to shake as he had when he first saw Ed. "I didn't bind human souls to my robots! They're just chimeras... normal, semi-intelligent chimeras that escaped from Central. Animals. Please, I didn't plan for those men to die; I only want to ensure my safety!"

"If you want anything to be ensured, then don't go fucking around with things that are too big for you to handle!" Believe me, I know.

"This is something I can handle," the man whispered. "So long as everyone else turns the blind eye. So long as the military stays out of it. So long as people like you don't bend my research to suit your needs. I gave knives to my children, yes. But it has only ever been in defense of my study and defense of my person. Hm... right now, you're a threat to both. I didn't mean for those men to die. And I don't mean for you to die, good sir. However, if you can't, hm, manage to stay out—"

Aaaand here came the death threats. "Even if no one bothers you in your pretty Elysium, you're never going to be able to accomplish what you've set out to do! Working for the 'betterment of society' isn't good enough! It's not a reason that has enough personal value—with that as your driving force, you can't possibly care enough about the result!"

"You are a selfish little bastard, hm?" Malcolm retorted.

That threw Ed off guard. Before, he had thought of drive growing in power the more personal your goals became. Is that really selfishness? "Saying you want to change the world is too broad; it's never going to happen. One person can't —" Can't achieve the impossible? "Some things just can't be done. And if you think that I'm going to turn around and let you delude yourself into thinking otherwise, you —"

"Stop it!" Winry shouted with a sudden rush of fervor, plainly distressed. "Mr. Malcolm, I'll take him back to his campsite at the outpost. He won't do anything to unveil you so long as I'm here, I promise." And yet, there was something about the way she wouldn't meet his eyes that made Ed realize she wasn't sure.

She wasn't sure. She honestly thinks that I might be cold enough to turn my back on her? That I'd let her be convicted of treason along with this guy? Ed found himself wondering not for the first time what the hell he'd done to be suspected of such ruthlessness.

"Winry, darling," Mr. Malcolm floundered. Clearly, he didn't want Ed leaving his sight. Given his half-formed threat just now, he probably wants me dead. But that would upset his 'darling' Winry, and he can't have that. Ed felt very, very antagonistic then, because he saw—and reveled in the fact that—the man was fighting with himself; his love or his life? Do you want to lose the person you care most about, or risk your life? If you don't choose now, you're going to lose both.

"I know what you're trying to decide," Ed said gravely. He looked to Winry. "Kill me, and lose her, or let me go and die? It's a tough question, isn't it? Let's see how long it takes."

That night, I thought the exact same thing as you. I thought that so long as we ignored the rules and kept the law out of it, we'd be able to handle a human transmutation. I had a split second to decide whether I wanted my life or my brother. Without hesitation, I chose Al—I couldn't live with myself knowing that I'd killed him when I had the chance to save him. Then again, he couldn't live with himself even now, could he? Not when he was actively digging himself into a bigger and bigger hole.

"If I were you, I'd let the 'dog of the military' be on his merry way. If I get killed, you can be sure Winry's not going to hang around here for long. And you can bet that I'm not planning on sitting down while your robots try to poke holes in me." Act for love - that's the choice I made. But maybe he was just afraid for his own life; maybe it wasn't about making the 'right' choice, or about love, just as Malcolm's research wasn't for the betterment of society. If I bound Al to a suit of armor just because I was afraid that I would be left alone, and not because I loved him so much I was willing to give my life for him, then everything we've done since then hasn't been worth shit.

If everything I've done with my life has been fueled by some stupid. Fucking. Selfish. Desires, then there's no way out.

"Take him back," Mr. Malcolm said stiffly. "Get him out of my home."

They did leave, but not until Winry had unwrapped all of Ed's painstaking handiwork and saw to his wound the 'proper way'. Mr. Malcolm flitted around the house impatiently as Winry found something edible for Ed and herself, treated with Ed, and made light conversation with Ed. What had caused such a sudden turn around, he hadn't a clue. Instead of dwelling at her outpouring of unexpected kindness, he wrote it off as Winry being irrationally extreme as usual. In between bites of crusty scones, Ed asked Winry all about her robots. He wasn't all that interested in her responses, but he could tell that it was pissing Malcolm off.

He reveled in that as much as he had in everything else he had done to annoy the engineer. The guy just can't say no to little 'Miss Winry,' can he?

"We keep the robots that can record sound as far back in the warehouse as we can. They're a lot more expensive to build, so there's no sense in risking their...demise. The blade models—you probably saw a lot of these—will attack pretty much anything that moves, as long as it's not me or Mr. Malcolm."

Ed 'hm'ed in all the right places, trying not to let his eyes glaze over too obviously.

"We actually had to start programming them to 'sleep' when it gets dark. If you don't keep an eye on them, they act just like your standard chimera. Once I caught two robots trying to mate, for God's sake."

The skies had already grown dark with the evening cloudcover when she finally got up and announced that she was ready to make their departure. Fourteen scones and three cups of tea later, Ed was only so happy to oblige her.

Stepping outside made Ed feel like he was drowning all over again. The sleepy, thoughtful warmth of the building fell away the second they he and Winry stepped out the door, replaced by the chafing winds and sickeningly sudden drop of temperature. He turned a surprised yelp into a sharp intake of breath. "Why the hell are you mixing yourself up with him?" Ed said, managing to make it sound more like an accusation than a question.

"You're the only person I know who can continue interrogating someone even after you've helped yourself to hours worth of question-and-answer already!" Winry shot back, exasperated.

"Hey! I thought you liked my asking questions. You seemed pretty happy inside; is it the cold that's making you so irritable?"

"I wanted," Winry began harshly, "to give you all the information you needed. Whatever you're after, can't you just report back to your military what I've told you? It's the research they want, right? Since I gave it to you, can't you just leave us alone?"

"Is that what you had in mind. Thanks," Ed retorted. He was trying to think of a way to be less sincere than he already sounded. "But this isn't about weaning information."

"Don't tell me you still think the Philosopher's Stone is involved in Mr. Malcolm's project!"

The Stone had completely left the scope of his thoughts the moment they laid eyes on the faceless men. "This is about not letting him delude himself into —"

"Okay, fine," Winry snapped as they neared her vehicle. "Do whatever you want! I won't try to care anymore!" Throwing some blankets into the front seat of the jeep, she kicked at the door repeatedly until a lock of ice shattered open. She gestured for Ed to climb in the passenger seat and started around the other side.

Once both were firmly secured in their seats and the little ranging vehicle was puttering along obediently, she said slowly, "He's a nice man, Ed. You saw him—he couldn't hurt a mayfly. He'd probably find a way to hurt himself in the process."

"It's not him I'm worried about. But I've seen enough of his little 'project' to know that, yeah, there is a reason the damned things have sharp edges. I have the cuts to prove it!" Ed grimaced, touching a hand to his leg gingerly.

Winry gave a snort of disbelief. "That's because you were an intruder! That's what they were programmed to do."

"And your friend programmed them, so it is his fault!" Ed declared triumphantly.

"I programmed them," Winry said, expression tight. "All of the new models that were patrolling the gates—I made them. And you know it wasn't so I could help some shady criminal get away with his scheming. I think it's something useful to pursue; if you weren't so hung up on relating everything to war, you might realize that."

Ed didn't have anything to say to that, so he merely listened sullenly, eyes glued to the wide-open snow spread ahead of them.

"It's something worthwhile, okay? This is what I want to do. And it's not as if Mr. Malcolm has ever given you a reason to suspect him!"

Never given a reason to suspect...? He could hardly contain his opinions on the irony of that statement. After all, Mr. Malcolm was only throwing around death threats like they're nothing special, spying on private matters, attaching souls to 'robots', conducting research through the use of highly illegal experiments, murdering State patrol squads, and developing scientific procedures that could (and would, Ed was certain) be altered for use in warfare.

Nothing suspicious, to be sure.

Winry sighed. "Do you remember what Granny said about State Alchemists, how they just cut down people the military says are bad? Well... Mr. Mustang didn't abandon you. And he didn't arrest you, even knowing you tried to transmute a human being and deliberately break the law."

Edward felt the hairs on the back of his neck bristle at the mention of Mustang. He didn't kill us, but he killed your mom and dad. He cut them down and didn't have a problem with it. "That's because he knew we had power," Ed argued. "He knew that we could be of use to him in his goals. We're the basis for his next promotion, and that's it." And what did Mustang have to do with anything?

"Then why does he help you? He lets you run around doing whatever you please, so long as you tell him what you've found. He prompted you to become a State Alchemist in the first place—he gave you that power," Winry continued, unrelenting. "Because he saw you and Al as people, not jobs. It wasn't his job to give you a second chance. He didn't have to loosen all the rules for the two of you, just so you stood a better chance of getting what you wanted. He did it because he, as a person, thought it was right, not because he wanted to improve his own future." When their vehicle rumbled to a gasping stop at the edge of camp, she released her iron grip on the steering wheel long enough to wave him out.

"Start thinking like Edward Elric, not the Fullmetal Alchemist."

The words were an acute, burning slap to the face.

In that instant, he felt wholly and truly alone; a feeling he had experienced only once before, right after That Time. It was like falling without gravity (which made it more like swimming in air, didn't it?) and landing without knowing which direction was up. As he stepped out of the incriminating intensity of the headlights and towards the tent, he could see Al's silhouette dark against the canvas, blotting out the sweet campfire light within.

He wanted to—needed to—talk to Al; about the faceless men they'd seen in the snow, the robots, Winry, everything. But most of all, he needed to talk about them. Him. Al. Their relationship, he knew, was worth more to him than anything he could ever imagine. If he let that slip away, then there would truly be nothing left to aspire towards. Everything he had formed his very existence around was grounded in their closeness, their deep-rooted sense of family. Is that selfishness?

But even knowing this, he couldn't bring himself to speak. He strode past Al and lay down on his array of mismatches clothes and heavy jackets. He pretended to be asleep. After what seemed an eternity, he broke his first chunk off the wall between them.

"I've been thinking, Al." The words seemed strained even to him, like there was a weight on his throat that was keeping them in. "About what you said... you're right."

Silence. It pervaded the tent and the camp, and suddenly it felt as if the whole world had gone dead, the life that was hiding in every nook and cranny stolen by a mute, dark harbinger of disquiet.

"I don't really remember Mom's face," Edward continued, realization stinging as if he had made his fears come alive by speaking them aloud. "I mean—I remember that she looks like, obviously. I remember her from all the pictures the Rockbells kept, and I remember her face and her hands and just... everything. But it's all frozen still. I can remember her face and the sound of her voice, but her mouth never moves and—and it's all broken up into pieces that don't fit together anymore.

"I know it sounds crazy and stupid, but I can't think of any other way to explain it. It feels like I'm always trying to fill in the gaps and push movement and warmth into the memories." It feels like I'm always trying to bring her back to life.

He exhaled deeply, trying to collect himself once more. "Because... our memories are my falling ground. I always go back and try to visit everything all over again. But I keep filling in the gaps on my own. I keep thinking, 'what if she wasn't as warm as I remember'?"

Silence greeted his outpouring of words once more. A sudden bolt of nonsensical fear shot through him; what if the soul attachment had suddenly broken (incredibly unlikely, but it wasn't impossible), what if Al was gone what if what if what if—

What if Al never forgave him?

This was stupid, everything was stupid—Al was sitting right there, that was a fact. He needed to calm his jittery nerves and stay his racing heart before apprehension got the better of him. Al was just across the fire, just as he always was. Alive. And he had heard every word, because there was no way he could block out sounds and voices (and this is all my fault) and—

What if he still never forgives me?

Everything was his fault, his stupid fucking fault, and all he ever did was make things worse. Every time he'd tried to make things better, his efforts always came back and slapped him in the face. Every time he'd wallowed in memories and scandalizing amounts of self-pity, he was told to keep going forward, that he couldn't get hung up on the past when it was the present that was going to 'fix' (it can't be fixed; we're just fooling ourselves into thinking that we can) the past. And every time he shut out the past, and tried not to look back, people said he forgot why they were going to such lengths.

('Stand up and move forward' my ass.) What if giving 'everything' isn't good enough? What does Equivalent Exchange do then? Or, even more painful, what if he really had forgotten: what if this isn't everything? What if there's something I'm holding back, because I don't want this after all, what if I'm—

Too self-centered.

Too much the Fullmetal Alchemist and not enough Edward Elric.

"You're wrong."

The smallest (but it was dear, so very dear) voice Edward had ever heard his brother use wavered, but even though it was soft and weak, it quelled the tumultuous storm of panic Edward had brought upon himself in an instant. "It's not stupid or crazy. I... feel like that too, sometimes. I feel... exactly like that." It sounded as though he were about to cry, though physical tears were impossible. "You're right, though, about one thing. She's not as warm as you remember."

...What?

"She was even warmer."

Warmer. She was warmer. A blessed spell of mellifluous hush wrapped around the two brothers. Slowly, slowly... Ed began hear the lilting chatter of the men and their mercantile circles, the crackle of the fire between them, the crick and the swoop of North City. Colours came flooding back to the world and everything started living again. He mustered the courage to look across the flames, and saw that Al was no longer curled into a protective ball. Instead, he was getting up, kicking snow onto their fire and drowning it, making everything—

—Dark.

As if the darkness heralded warfare, the Elric brother's tent exploded in a cacophony of hurried explanations and jumbled plan-making.

"We have to get to the warehouses as soon as possible! It'll be our only chance if—"

"Hang on, what warehouses are you talking about? I called the Colonel and told him finding the patrolmen whose faces were torn—"

"Winry is making these 'robot' things for a Drachman engineer, but he uses alchemy to bind souls to—"

"If we can figure out why the guards' faces were so important, then maybe—wait, Winry? She's here?"

Ed finally threw up his hands. "Hold on; rambling on like this isn't going to do us any good. First things first: we need to reach common ground. Actually, no. Al, first we need light. Why the hell did you drown our fire?"

"I thought we were leaving!"

Ed sighed. In the darkness, he shuffled toward where he thought their suitcase was and plunged his hands through a plethora of vials. He had gotten it all set up the night before; what he needed should be near the top. "Okay, so phosphorous... potassium chlorate... does this smell like sulfur to you? Wait, never mind; forget I asked."

Considering the amount of time it took last night, Ed was beginning to feel a little silly preparing his transmutation a second time. Before it had been pursued as a project to keep his mind off everything else; he had fiddled unnecessarily with the proportions and in the choosing of his base materials. He did not miss the irony in that now he was to perform the same transmutation in order to continue with everything else. Clearing the snow right in front of him, he began to replicate Mustang's flame array, cursing whoever thought to incorporate a salamander into the circle. Most circles were just circles and polygons—no matter how intricate those became, it all came down to simple shapes. "But salamanders have legs and a torso and all kinds of irregular little lines," he said aloud.

It was then he realized that, in the dark, Al had no way of knowing what he was trying to do. No wonder people think I'm a maniac! "Last night I couldn't find the matches right? Eventually I figured that if I took some of the broken glass and phosphorous and slammed it against a heterogeneous mixture of potassium chlorate, gum, starch and this mineral, stibnite, I could spark a flame."

"But where did you get all that? I didn't know we were carrying that many random materials around..." Alchemy. Just like their memories of the time before, it was a falling ground. A universal passion; understanding.

"Well, uh," Ed twitched. "The nice merchant men we passed earlier will sell you pretty much anything for the right amount of gold."

"Brother!" Came the predicted reproach. Al however, went no further; whether it was acceptance or resignation, Ed couldn't be sure.

Ed clapped his hands, more out of habit than anything else, and touched his hands to the edge of the array. He felt the welcoming warmth of alchemic energy wash over him, lingering a moment in its embrace before he brought his base materials together, sliding particle against particle in rapid succession, like the nubs of two gears grinding together. He was rewarded with a spark of white light that mellowed into a thin flame as it caught the kindling alight.

"Brother, that's not how the Colonel does it. All you did just now was make a match." Al didn't seem as impressed as Ed had hoped. "Couldn't you just have gone and bought some matches?"

Without having explained that his work last night was largely a product of interest and not of necessity, Ed agreed that it did seem superfluous. However, he didn't understand one thing. "And how the hell do you know how Mustang 'does it'?"

"I asked him," Al replied simply. How was it that everyone seemed to talk to the bastard Colonel on a daily basis? Aside from Hawkeye, Ed hadn't stopped to think that other people actuallytalked with Mustang; why would they? "After you left, I came back here and called the Colonel, told him what we had found. He said something about torching you if you didn't come back with the information he requested, but he hung up before he told me anything."

Why didn't you just ask me? But Ed knew the answer. In fact, Al probably had asked him. "You told him about the faceless men?"

Al nodded slowly. "He seemed...surprised."

Ed figured it was his turn to do the talking now. "Mustang told me about the missing patrols—that part I did tell you, right? But he also said there was someone in the north the military suspected of engineering Drachman weaponry.

"After we split up, I found a place where a guy—his name was Martin or Malcolm or something—was engineering robots. I'll tell you more about those later. Winry, apparently, did find work—just not in Rush Valley."

"But why is Winry helping the enemy?" Al asked, perplexed.

"I don't know! He's obviously a—" Start thinking less like the Fullmetal Alchemist and more like Edward Elric. "She supports his actions," Ed finished lamely. "There's something not right about him, though. And his experiments are even more questionable. That's why we have to go back and figure out what's really up."

"Is Martin—or Malcolm—Drachman?"

"I don't think so," Ed said; he failed to see why that was relevant. "He seemed pretty well versed in Amestrian military, to tell the truth. I think he might know who I am, actually." Al had a point. The north guard at the train station hadn't given a damn who Ed was, but if Winry's friend knew, then...

Edward Elric, hero of the people. Somewhere. And that 'somewhere' stretched around Central and East City—no further.

"Well, is he creating Drachman weaponry, then? Because I don't think Winry would —"

"Oh, he's creating something, all right," Ed cut in. "That's where the robots come in. I fought a few of them, and they're pretty sharp, so to speak. The north guards met up with a few as well. I think the guy's a nutcase, but for some reason Winry seems to really like making the robots. Not that she wants to make weapons," Ed added hurriedly as Al's head shot up. "I think it's more because... Because they're almost like you, Al." Ed drew out the same piece of metal he had shown Winry's employer. With the flames dancing across the metal, the seal that graced the surface looked more like a ring of red-hot metal than it did blood.

"He's using the souls of chimeras, though. Not human. I wondered why he would go through so much trouble, but it's probably because if they're 'robots' like he says, they won't freeze to death or need to eat. And he can control them, to an extent—tell them when to be automated, and when to turn off. Obviously, you're not as malleable as that. You're not a robot, so stop looking at me like that; you're creeping me out!

"I think Winry, being Winry, just wants to play with the latest mechanical findings." And she wants to help put you back in the flesh again, Al. I guess this is her way of trying, even though she knows it will do nothing to help us. I know you see that, too.

"Does Winry...like the engineer? Is she going to get hurt because she's with him?" Al seemed shaken by Ed's words, though Ed couldn't pinpoint exactly which—there was too much information too fast, and even Ed was having trouble keeping up with himself. But his brother's voice was so small and so fragile Ed could hardly believe that it was Al—strong, solid, determined Al—who was speaking. And when Al started asking questions he knew Ed didn't know the answer to, Ed knew he was afraid. There was something...

...That hadn't been said. Something that would pull together what Ed had seen and what Al had puzzled out. What what was it? "No, I don't think she gives two beans about the guy. She doesn't want him hurt, obviously, but I think she cares more about Mustang than she does this guy." That was almost a disturbing thought. Then again, the sentiment was mutual. "And I don't think she's going to get hurt at all; the guy fawns over her. He'd probably burst into tears if she broke a nail."

"Then why are all the faces gone?"

Al's question brought a million images to the surface, contorting and pixelating in his mind. He saw the cold scrape of ice at the edges of a man's coat, eating into the raw flesh left behind. He saw displaced strings of muscle, stretched and snapped, giving way to the robot as it plucked skin and identity and erased the soldier's existence. And he thought inexplicably of Mother—her memories were warmer, lacking the cold, severe definition of the faceless men. If the engineer Winry is with worked for Amestris, then are the soldiers a memory of what he used to be? Something he doesn't want to remember? Something he'd rather pretend never happened. But no one was that insane, right? He didn't need to tear off their faces—he didn't even need to see them at all.

"You know, a lot of people keep pictures of the people they don't want to forget. They keep the memories locked in photographs so all they have to do is fish out some paper and they remember everything," Al said quietly.

"That's not remembering. That's pretending to remember. Pictures can only capture so much; it's up to you to remember; nothing else will do it for you. They're just like a transmutation circle—tools or guides. But if you can't perform alchemy, then what's an array to you?" Ed returned, drawing his knees to his chest in an effort to keep warm. Remaining immobile for so long made him hunger for a lazy blanket of heat that one little campfire could never hope to emulate.

Mother.

"In the absence of a camera, how else could one capture a face?" Al whispered shakily. With a grotesque stab or horror lancing through his gut, Ed realized what Al was getting at. Winry's employer would have to have spiraled down into a truly bizarre mindset to have even thought of that—and insane to be able to go through with it.

"You can't mean that... the engineer—his friends from when he was military, at least we assume... He wanted to remember them? The north guards? Then Winry, if he—if she..." If she leaves, then she's in trouble. If she's staying by his side, then he won't hurt her, right? But if she leaves—

"Brother, I think we should go now," Al voiced quickly, one word running into the next and moulding together like an indecipherable blot of ink on a broken typewriter.

"She's not going to leave the guy yet," Ed assured his brother, even though his own mind was teetering precariously between alarm and calm; by the time evening came around, an entire day of panic began to wear on one's nerves. "She has no reason to." But she didn't have a real reason to come to the north, either.

His words seemed to calm Al down, and within the minute the fire was reduced to smoking ashes and the two brothers were dark figures against a field of ice. Two shambling figures. The landscape swam and twisted in front of him, rearing up and shooting downward, an ocean of pale, silent waves frozen in a singular moment of time. He hadn't remembered it being quite so mountainous earlier that day, and regretted having started running there—he couldn't demand that they stop and walk now.

Ed limped with stiffness and sudden webs of pain that sprang up with every step, and Al kept pace with him easily. His brother did not inquire, but Ed knew Al was looking at him, trying to shape an answer out of what he had, not what he didn't. Al had always been good at that.

"Robots, huh?" Al mused aloud, caught up in some grand scheme he had concocted while Ed concentrated on staying upright. "And nothing plentiful enough to fight with but the ice under our feet..."

"What," Ed panted, "are you getting at?" This was the beginnings of a conversation he had not been expecting.

Al's eyes glimmered with secretive pride; the kind of look he got when he was just about to beat Ed at something. I told him Winry wasn't going to get hurt, and he believed me. And how he's so confident, it's like we'd already performed our daring rescue. He really, truly believes me.

That's when Ed decided that he wasn't going to let anything go wrong.

"You see, Brother..." Al said, "After I finished talking with the Colonel, I couldn't think of what to do. I was completely lost—and that upset me. It was like I couldn't do anything if you weren't there to guide me. I couldn't let myself be that small and useless. And while I was thinking of you, I remembered what the Colonel said about torching you." Ed could tell this wasn't going in a direction favourable to his person.

"It just so happens that I tried emulating the Colonel, too."

Pulling out a shining scarf from the buckles of his gauntlets, shining more white even than the ice, Al draped it across his hand and snapped. A curling streamer-like flame rippled in front of them before dissipating as he turned back to Ed. "If you have enough gold, the merchants we passed last night will give you just about anything. I didn't plan on transmuting gold, but spark cloth is more expensive than one would think."

"Al!" Now he knew Al's morals had gotten warped somewhere along the line. He was about to say more, but as they crossed the next knoll the motley semi-circle wall rose into view.

As Ed retraced his infiltration of the junk castle, Al did not comment on the ruined barrier, nor did he make so much as an exasperated sigh as they passed the second, third, fourth, or fifth. He squeaked a little when Ed led the way around a streak of blood—pink now, and diluted with snow, but given the sheer pace at which he was being forced to absorb an day's worth of his bother's antics, Ed thought Al was taking it surprisingly well.

"Okay," Ed started, leaning against the last wall as he tried to formulate a last-minute plan. "Where does your 'flame alchemy' figure into this?"

Al told him.

Taking cover in the shadows of the wall, the two skirted the yard and made for the warehouse. Al's boots scraped across the ice like nails on metal; this only added to the morose chagrin texturing Ed's features.

"It won't be that bad, Brother," Al tried to assure him. Ed shook his head with resignation. Two robots stood sentry, completely blocking the miniscule cave entrance. However, they lumbered methodically forward when they caught sight of the Elric brothers charging toward them. Spears poised, the two launched forward, long, almost slithering gait quickly closing the distance between the pairs.

The robots never so much as thrust their spears before Al, spark cloth in hand, send a wavering ribbon of flame towards them. They halted their charge and recoiled, flame striking the ice directly in front of them. The ice melted immediately, a belt of water splashing in its place.

Then it was Ed's turn. Clapping his hands, he commanded the flow of the water, snaking it around the legs and torsos of the robots before he sealed the creatures in place, water reforming into hard, immovable ice.

It probably wasn't necessary utilize the ice, as there were plenty of hydrogen and oxygen atoms in the atmosphere, but changing states of matter was far less complicated than creating all-new molecules; elementary, even. Instantaneous. Effortless. Ed admitted he was slightly disappointed that it was not he who had thought of it. Ah, whatever.

The sentries immobilized, Ed and Al strode past them and entered the warehouse cave unceremoniously. Al nearly had to crawl because the entrance was cut so low, just as the cramped living quarters' door had been. As Winry had promised, the robots inside were all dormant.

Al gave his equivalent of a gasp, eying the rows of metal creatures—the model Ed had taken to calling 'spiders'.

"Winry said they keep the communications models closer to the back," Ed said, picking a path through the nest of robots.

"What?" Al replied, banging his helmet against the roof of the cave. He crouched lower. "Communications robots? Aren't we just getting Winry?"

"Sure, we can try to drag Winry away from her wonderland. But she actually likes it here; I think it'll work better if we have proof." And I still have a job to do. If Mustang wants some damn information on these robots, then he's going to get it. It won't be my fault if he can't make heads or tails of it.

Metal spiders that lacked the trademark blades of the 'defensive' model lined the far wall. Ed dropped to his knees and cranked a lever on the side of the robot clockwise as Winry had done. When he let the lever turn slowly in a counterclockwise direction, the two were rewarded with a flush of static. The next minutes, hours—days, for all Ed knew—passed indeterminably; the brothers were lost amidst a sea of static and the words of days long past.

In that time, Ed felt, they had heard the clandestine truths of their country, the world. His stomach clenched as they replayed tapes that had been made as the north soldiers fought for their last breaths; Al shrunk away every time the robot played back a last agonized gurgle, putting his hands over his helmet as if to block out the sound. They heard the tempestuous clamour of the Drachman tongue, harsh and loud. To Ed, Drachman always sounded vile, in lullaby or in threat, but he had a feeling that these messages were threats. He wondered how many Drachman envoys had been intercepted at this point, how many had lived to return to their homeland (and how many had met the same fate as the north guards).

The tapes were arranged in no logical order that Ed could puzzle out. They had begun their listenings with static, a soft whisper repeating 'testing, testing'. Then the tapes had jumped to Winry's familiar voice, bubbling with excitement. Then the north guards. At least two tapes had Ed's own voice recorded, one Ed had heard before, and another that had been recorded sometime between then and now. Words and messages piled into Ed's brain, becoming lost and cluttered. There had not been one recording that incriminated Winry's employer. But plenty of evidence against Winry. The thought brought a sour taste to the back of his mouth. She's talking about attaching blades to the robots! I can't believe she thought of that! ...I hope I wasn't her inspiration.

And then, miraculously, he heard a trembling, tittering cough. "This is the oration for the ages. The ultimate words of the century, than only I will ever hear." It sounded as though he had written up his speech and was reading it straight off his notes. There was a long pause, as if the engineer had lost his place, before the recording continued. "I, Tether Malcolm, am an abomination." Can't disagree with you there, pal.

"An abomination in like company, for I have made children for myself—so very many children... However, these acts against natural law have twice damned me. I am the creation; I am the creator.

"And I CANNOT STAND this inhumanity—the knowledge that I have trespassed as my creators have trespassed, solely because I know I am no longer able to reap the consequences. I alone embody incongruence as a state of being; I alone walk the line between life and non-life as no man should.

"I am an ABOMINATION. And to think... I tried to be human. Everything I have ever done had a selfish reason. Everything I've done since then has been an effort to atone. So why—why—are there only repercussions? There is no paradise.

"My children and I have no place."

"What... is he talking about, Brother?" Al whispered. "Who are his children, what is—Brother? Brother!"

Everything stopped. His heart, his lungs, the world—everything ceased to function, ceased to exist at all. Malcolm hadn't lied—it was the oration of the century. It felt as though there were no one else in the world who would have been able to comprehend this message, put the pieces all in the right places. 'The ultimate words of the century, that only I will ever hear...' You... and me. The tape continued on. If the messages that had come before this was clandestine, this was taboo.

On its own, detached scale, this was—this is the Gate. This is like seeing the forbidden morsels of knowledge inside the Gate. This is like That Time. And Ed knew exactly what 'abomination' Malcolm was. The perpetual repercussions of the original sin are just as taboo as the hand that began the cycle, after all.

"How many things do you know of that might result in a spirit attachment?" Ed said slowly, almost drowned out by the powerful admissions being replayed on the tape.

"Human transmutation," came the immediate answer. Then, "Extreme curiosity. Desperation. Dealings with the forbidden..."

'Forbidden' made it sound like a make-believe fantasy, where marrying the beautiful princess is forbidden because her kingly father cannot bear to part with his comely daughter. But now we know better. Forbidden is simply forbidden

"Malcolm called these creatures—these robots—his children. He made them, bolts and springs and spirit attachments. He called them incongruence; said he made them only because he knew he could not be punished. He said he was the same as them," Ed said, throat tight, hardly daring to breathe.

"The same as me," Al finished, liberating Ed of the need to do so. "A piece of metal and a person bound inside by a seal of blood." He was silent after that, and Ed knew that Al was turning over Malcolm's speech, mentally replacing every 'I' with 'you'. Ed knew, because he had done that as well. And he had heard: 'Everything you've done has been worthless. Everything has been a clever, selfish ploy to redeem yourself, nothing more. Once you have fallen in with trespassers, there is no door leading back to the other side. Your fate has been decided since the moment you opened the wrong door. There is no conciliation.'

"Brother," Al started, voice wavering; the recording cut him off as it exploded with volume once more.

"In an effort to become human, I have stolen the identities of others. Names, occupations. But soon, I realized that even with their identity, I was not them. When their loved ones thought of them, it was not I who they saw. I wanted to become my victims, become their humanity.

"I STOLE their BODIES. Even then, I knew—I know—that I could not become them. But I could try." Malcolm broke off in wheezing chuckles, coated with black self-loathing. "Ripped their faces from their heads! It didn't matter who it was—anyone that came near—but I would take their human face and plaster it to myself. At least then, my face could be made of flesh.

"Is this insanity? Perhaps. Rationality is a human trait. An animal lacks the ability to reason; this is why they are branded animals.

"But I am a monster. All you need... to become a monster... is to look like one. This is the body of a sinner!" The voice subsided, and the static cut.

"Al, you're not—he's just... You're —"

"I know," Al asserted. "Can we go get Winry now?"

Al acted as if the speech had little effect on him, but Ed knew that was a lie. He can doubt me all he wants—hell, it's not like I don't deserve it—but he can't doubt that. He is my brother. This is why I didn't want him to come. But this was also why he knew Al had to come. Had he not, Ed know that he would not have been able to keep such a vast amount of information from his brother. Not if he wanted to keep Al by his side.

"Al, do you —" Ed never finished his question. A javelin punched through the layer of snow that had gathered atop the ledge right above the Elrics' heads and met the stone below with a shriek. "What the hell?"

From the back door—fuck, a back door? Of course there's a back door; why didn't I think of that earlier?—four sentries filed in. The first was being passed another javelin by the robots behind it. Without thinking about anything, Ed sprang from his position on the ground and leapt towards the closest sentry. He grabbed the spear with his automail hand, shoving it away from his chest. A brief tug-of-war ensued, ending when Ed heard his brother shout something similar to 'move, you idiot'.

He jumped back, falling into a jumble of metal spiders as Al's flame struck closer to him than it did the sentries. "Where the hell are you aiming?" He shouted, lacing the water around the nearest sentry as it came at him with its spear. It wasn't nearly enough ice to keep the robot in place, however, and it soon broke free of its bonds. Al saw, and began shooting flame anywhere he saw ice.

Why does this step never go according to plan? Ed thought as he twisted away from spear-point. Knocking over rows of spiders, he clambered over machines and uneven portions of rock, trying as hard as he could to make his way back to Al. He whirled around and dropped to the ground, sending a barrage of spikes across the cave straight at the sentries. Crouching low under an overhang of rock, he alchemized a half-wall, barricading himself in a pocket of rock. "Al! Over here!"

The second Al slid into the crawlspace and the other half of the barrier went up, he let out a sigh of relief.

"What are we going to do now?" Al asked.

In truth, Ed hadn't a clue. But he said, "We're going to start making water."

Al didn't move. Finally, he replied, "What?"

Ed had no wish to try to explain his plan, because it really wasn't a plan at all; he was afraid Al would find something wrong with it, and he'd have to start from scratch again. Instead, he clapped his hands and drew hydrogen and oxygen together, creating water. Molecule by molecule by tiny, insignificant molecule.

This is pathetic.

An icy tear wiggled its way down the nape of Ed's neck and settled uncomfortably into the fabric of his shirt. "Al, making water that lands on me isn't going to be as useful as you think."

"I'm not making water at all," said Al. "Because I don't think any water is going to be as useful as you think. We're fighting in pretty close quarters, and uh... I guess the air is getting pretty hot, because all the ice on the walls has started melting. Even if you freeze all this water, it's just going to melt again."

Well, shit. Another drop squirmed against his skin, raising goose-prickles on his back. He shifted to the side to avoid the drips, and was rewarded with a giant, squelching plop. He stiffened. Something viscous slid under his collar, feeling all too similar to a water-bloated worm. Without thinking, he peeled the substance off his shirt and brought it to his mouth for an experimental taste.

"MotherFUCKING —" he exclaimed, spitting a glob of the substance onto the ice in front of him. "Shit, shit, why the hell did I —" Light—he needed light. Before Al had time to protest, he clapped his hands together and blew apart the walls of their safe-haven. Light flooded in, tendrils of chill wind and the scent of metal with it.

He reached up along his back, groping for whatever had plopped on him. Slowly, slowly... he felt something pussy—but hard in some places where the substance had been completely frozen. Pulling it away from himself, he drew it in front of his face. He saw a dead man's lopsided face smiling back at him. He dropped it immediately and took a deep breath, willing himself not to visualize what he had been holding, what he had just put in his fucking mouth...

"Al, I think we found the rest of the north patrol."

Interlude ii

For as long as he could remember, he had a fondness for tight spaces. Unfortunately, small spaces often invited death by asphyxiation. It was for this reason he had moved to the north; the houses—back when there were more houses than just his—were small and squat to that they kept the warm air in. Cozy—that was the word he was looking for.

'Once upon a time, there was a man who lived in a cozy little mushroom house with machines and rudimentary alchemy all around. He really loved machines. But then once day, there was a military draft, and he had to go help his country fight off the crazy Ishvalans. The military, of course, neglected to mention that the Ishvalans hadn't even a semblance of an idea of what kind of technology Amestris was going to unleash.

'People died. But the man didn't. And why? Because he was an engineer. He didn't need to kill anyone, he just had to make things that would kill people. It was the same thing, though. He wasn't about to escape on a technicality. He killed. He wanted to kill himself. He broke.

'Then the military turned him into one of the machines—mechanics and alchemy, melded to each other—he loved so much. They turned him into a monster. So the monster went back to his cozy little mushroom house and found himself a pretty princess. He tried to make himself human for her.'

"What are you writing?" Miss Winry asked, bringing a mug of hot tea to the table and placed it in front of him. She sat across from him, a soft blanket draped across her shoulders. Her hair caught and tangles in the tassels on the edge of the blanket, and the snow-blue colour of the fabric brought out her eyes like nothing else. She was beautiful.

"Someday, I hope to publish a journal of our research here. This is the start of a rough draft," he only half-lied. Every time she brought food or drink for him it made him sick, like he wanted to retch up everything in his stomach. Thoughts of stomachs and all the organs attached to it only made him more ill. The sensation of nothingness—nothingness where he should have arms, a chest—was ever-present, but was made all too apparent when she was around. When she started to reach for his notepad, he hurriedly pushed the dizzying feeling to the back of his mind and protested, "But I don't want you to see it yet. I only want you to see the finished copy. That way, you can pick up the book and read about your endeavours just like any other person might. That will be lovely, hm?"

"Hm," she agreed uncertainly. Did she not believe him?

Mr. Malcolm decided to change the subject. "So, that boy was your friend, hm?"

Miss Winry nodded, taking a small sip from her mug. Small, delicate petite. Everything about her was like that, in his eyes; like an elegant dancer, until you led her into a mechanics workshop. Then she embodied a radiant strength—but that too was unparalleled.

She was his princess.

"I've known him and his brother—but his brother wasn't here; I didn't ask why—since I was a little girl. We grew up together for the most part, until we were eleven or twelve. Then..."

"Hm?" He prompted politely. If he wasn't going to drink her tea, he might was well hear her story.

"Let's just say that things got really complicated. Ed's brother, Al, ended up kind of like the robots we're making, if that's any measure." Mr. Malcolm bristled; if it was that military alchemist who had given his brother that degree of punishment, his dislike for the short blond increased tenfold. "A lot of things started happening to them, and I guess I never really noticed how much they'd changed until—well, today, really.

"When I watched Ed interrogate you, I knew that I had gotten lost somewhere along the way. Everything he shouted, I knew he believed in it; that's the way Ed is and always has been. But the way he said it... And if you saw the smirk on his face—that wasn't him. At least, not before."

Mr. Malcolm was about to say something about people turning onto the wrong path and how he was very sorry, but it'd be best if she just forgot about him when Winry started talking again. "It's not a bad thing, really. We all have to grow up and stop living in a fantasy sooner or later. I just feel like he's living in a reality that's more real than mine." Then she laughed. "I'm not making any sense, am I?"

No, you're not, Mr. Malcolm thought blackly. How can you not see what a terrible twisted person he is? But he said, "Go on." He did so love the sound of her voice.

"I was so... scared... when I watched them leave our hometown.Even then I could tell they'd changed. But I didn't feel any different. I cried when I first saw Al—he was the same little boy I knew, but all of the sudden he wasn't hugging me with his little pudgy hands, he was towering over me—a giant made of steel, with nothing inside. Obviously, I don't cry over that anymore, but I think that's more because I'm used to it. I don't feel stronger now. Or different at all."

"Do they?" He couldn't believe he was acting as her conflict mediator, giving her insight on her relationship with that—that—imbecile! But she was Miss Winry. He would do anything for her.

Anything, that is, unless it meant giving up the dream that had brought them together, he amended as a horrific crash resounded through his quaint, cozy little valley.

Winry jumped, spilling a drop of her tea onto the table. (Even her mistakes are dainty. A single drop!)

"Please understand that although he is your friend, I cannot allow him to traipse into my haven and do as he pleases. He. Cannot. Be. Trusted." Mr. Malcolm said in his most deadly sincere timbre. "I promise you that."