Too late, he cupped his hands over his cigarette as the first drop of rain fell. The little light at the end sputtered, glowed bright as if it were struggling to stay lit, then gave out with a last hiss as a raindrop fell on it. Cursing, he dropped the cigarette, ground it beneath his boot, pulled out another one and clamped it down between his teeth.
"Need a light?" asked someone beside him.
"Shit!" He nearly dropped the cigarette, then grinned and shook his head. "Man, kid. Don't go scaring people like that, okay?"
The blond next to him smiled, head tilting to reveal light-colored eyes and a calm, placid face. "I'm sorry," he said, holding up a match and raising an eyebrow at the cigarette. "I thought you would have heard me coming."
"Nah. Distracted," he said. "Hey, thanks for the light, though." He tilted his jaw and the kid struck the match, lit it, lifted it to his cigarette. It came to life with a brilliant glow, then subsided as he cupped his hands over it. "I sure as hell won't let this one out," he said, inhaling and breathing out, and dropping one hand to cover the hilt of his gun. "Man, do I ever need these lately."
"I'm sure." The boy lifted his face into the rain, blinking his eyes, then tilted it to look over at him. "With the war and all, I bet everyone is tense around here."
"Oh yeah," he said with a snort. "You wouldn't believe. Everyone's tense as hell and they'll go after your throat in a second if they think you're not doing your job."
"But guard duty must be so boring. Shouldn't an alchemist like you be in the main military? I'm sorry," said the kid when he looked over at him, sharply – what was a kid doing talking like that? "I just live around here and I talk to the military a lot, you know? I was just curious."
"It's all right," he said, frowning. He moved his hand from his gun to tuck his watch back into his coat, and tugged his hem more securely into his belt. Didn't really want that thing flashing everywhere. "I got demoted. There was some snafu when I was in Liore... doesn't really matter, now."
"Ahh," the kid breathed out. The corner of his mouth tilted. "What's your name, sir?"
Cute kid, he thought, really, with those eyes and that face. He looked familiar somehow – but then, all the kids in this part of the country looked the same, with their blond hair and their blue eyes and their pale skin. He was used to the east. "Ralph," he said, offering his hand. "Ralph Lightner. And what's your name?"
"That's a secret," said the kid, and added laughingly, "Well, seriously, my mother told me I shouldn't say my name around here. She hates me coming here at all, actually."
"I'll bet." Ralph breathed out a cloud of cigarette smoke, turning his head away from the kid. He looked out across the city, cold and gray, cloaked in mist. Central City hadn't always been this dark, he seemed to remember, but after some freak accidents the weather had grown colder and it seemed like winter never went away. "Shouldn't you be in school or something?"
"I'm home schooled." The kid shrugged, sheepish. "My mother finishes with me early."
"Kids these days." He hadn't had it so easy, that was for damn sure. "When I finished school, I went straight into university, and then to the military. To support my parents, see?"
The kid widened his light eyes at him, and nodded. "Oh, no," he said. "I'm too lazy for that. So, you were at Liore, I guess?"
Ralph touched his gun again. "Yeah," he said, suddenly uncomfortable – it was that tone. It was suddenly as cold as the rain. "I was. Just a cadet in the military, but I was there, all right."
"I see." The kid ran a hand through his hair, ruffling water out of it, splashing the ground around his feet. He was drenched, Ralph realized suddenly, didn't have an umbrella?
And then the kid was bending down, clapping his hands – like the kids on the playground Ralph had passed earlier, holding hands and building sand castles that grew muddy in the rain – and touching them to the ground. Ralph stepped back automatically, one hand going up to cover his eyes from the light that sprung up blue and bright.
Alchemy. The kid had done alchemy without a transmutation circle. "What the hell," he whispered, and froze when the light died down. The kid was standing before him, hands clutching a knife crossed over his chest; the steel was as hard as the tilt of his smile. He hadn't seen a face like that in a long, long time, and it kept him in place like the last time. And like the last time he thought, I shouldn't be this scared.
"State Alchemist," said the kid, "I know your kind." He lowered the knife, turned it and flicked it slightly, sending a spray of water into Ralph's face. "Murderers. But that's all right. I'm a murderer now, too, aren't I? Do you know my name, State Alchemist? No," he said when Ralph shook his head, "you wouldn't know, would you. Although I'm sure you've heard it. My name is Alphonse Elric."
That blond hair, those gold eyes, the build of the body – of course it was familiar. Ralph had seen that body before, same shape and form; it was only slightly changed now, only the spirit within it giving it a different look. He would have recognized him, otherwise, the younger brother of the Fullmetal Alchemist trapped in his brother's body.
The knife spun as Alphonse twirled it, dipped it, raised it up again to be level with Ralph's chest. "I never wanted it to be this way," he said, tapping his metal fingers on the hilt, "but it is. I'm sure you didn't want to be in the military, right? So you understand, right, Mr. Frank? You know I have to do this."
But why, Ralph thought as the blue light glowed again, why did it end this way, Alphonse Elric? He remembered the news, passed in whispers throughout the military: Edward Elric attempted human alchemy. Edward Elric faced charges before a military tribunal. Edward Elric is dead.
My mother is sick. Something was warm at his feet, warmer than the cold rain and brighter. I have to take care of my little brothers and sisters. They were coming here, soon, to see me. Alphonse Elric's face was in front of him, covered in red, the gold in his eyes glinting off the watch falling from his pocket.
"Goodbye," said Alphonse. He turned. Ralph reached out – brushed the edges of his coat – and Alphonse looked back. For an instance he thought he saw a flicker of a different face, a rounder one with gray eyes and paler skin; but he turned away again, and after that Ralph didn't see anything else except warm blood on the concrete, and a flash of gold.
Alphonse Elric tried not to look at his face anymore. But he saw it, sometimes, in alchemists' wide-open eyes, or reflected in their watches. He saw his bloody hands in that man's watch and it made his breath come hard and fast, but he clenched his fingers, grated metal against metal and went back to drawing shaky lines and circles in rain-washed red.
"Take it," he said, lifting his face to the rain as he stilled his hands on the alchemist's body, resting his fingers on the last transmutation circle. "Take him! Look, here's a body! Isn't that enough? Dammit!" He curled his fingers in the rough blue jacket and bent his head. "Take him," he whispered. "Why won't you take him, damn you?"
The blood on his fingers dripped onto the ground and the warmth washed away, until his fingers were cold and trembling on the circles. Alphonse ran his hands over them, trying to shield them from the rain, but they were beginning to run, circles smoothing into streams and lines fading away. "Stop, stop." He bit his lip, digging his teeth into the bottom until he tasted blood; let it drip onto the man's chest, five fat, solid drops, and ran a shaking finger through the blood, constructing another circle. "Take him, take him, please take him, why won't it work – "
But the rain washed that circle away, too, and there was only so much blood in his own body. Al lifted his face to the rain again; lifted his arms, holding out his red palms so the water washed over them. "Take him!" he screamed, and kept screaming until he had no voice left.
"I might do the same, after all," said Al, pausing to look down at his older brother. "If you died? I might do the same thing, brother. What else would I have?"