Water, first hot and then scalding, crashed down on him as arrays in thick black lines swam in front of his closed eyes. As the water burned a path along his flesh, the fluid and graceful lines of alchemy burned themselves into his brain. Steam clogged the room, fogging the mirror and burrowing deep into his lungs with every breath. Water permeated him as the alchemy spun patterns in his thoughts. In these moments, Ed had never felt closer to knowing everything.
"Ed?" There was a short rap on the door before it swung open, the warm steam escaping the room at high velocity as a high, timid voice broke his concentration with all the power of a sledgehammer to a mirror. "There's a General on the phone for you."
"Tell him I'm busy." He leaned forward, letting the water pound his face and shoulders, wishing she would just close the door and let him be.
"I would, but well, this is the third call in the last half hour and—"
Ed gave a frustrated growl, trying hard not to be angry with her. "So tell him I'm in the shower and will call him when I'm done."
"I did. He said he'd wait. It sounds important."
"Fine." He blew out a sharp breath and wrenched the knobs to the off position, already missing the heat. "Just, just park him and I'll pick it up in a minute."
Donna ducked her head and backed out of the room and Ed longed for the days when Al had been his secretary. Now that his little brother had a steady job running his own clinic, it didn't seem fair to ask him to answer phones and keep people from pissing him off. That didn't mean he liked it, or that he hadn't gone through six different secretaries in the last six months. He didn't think he was hard to work for; he just liked things the way he liked them.
Take, for example, the shower. How many offices had a working shower in them? Not many. Ed could attest to that after the number of contractors he'd consulted about having one installed.—-That's highly unusual, sir.'—-Never had anyone ask about that.'—-Why can't you shower at home?' It was almost as if he'd asked them to install some kind of kinky dungeon in the basement. That probably would have raised fewer eyebrows. Perverts.
The truth of the matter was that Ed liked to think in the shower. It was a habit he'd picked up on the other side of the Gate. He'd done some of his best thinking about how to get home standing under a hot spray until the heat ran out. And now, as winter bit down hard on Central, coating the streets in snow and ice, Ed thought the ache in his shoulder and leg would never go away. Even in the brutal heat of his alchemically enhanced shower, he couldn't quite shake the pain.
At fifteen, he couldn't have imagined himself at twenty-five. At twenty-five, he was already moving like an old man and he didn't want to see fifty. There were more days than there used to be when he felt beyond his age, when the tiredness in his soul matched that of his body. When he really, really wished Al could just figure out how to do the damn array to get him back his arm and leg.
He quickly wrapped a towel around his waist and another over his shoulders before stepping into his office. When he was dry enough to keep his clothes from sticking to him, he pulled them back on and stomped over to the phone. He took a second to breathe in a deep breath and slowly let it out, along with some of his anger. His days of screaming tirades were long behind him, even though he really, really wanted to throw things sometimes.
"Thank you for holding. How can I help you?" His tone was pleasant and anyone who said he hadn't learned an ounce of charm in his life could suck it.
"Mr. Elric," a ridiculously familiar voice began. "I'd like to call you in to discuss a matter of the utmost importance."
Ed's grip on the phone tightened to the point where he had to switch it to his left hand so the automail wouldn't crush another phone. "I told you, specifically, I won't take commissions from your office."
"I understand your position on this matter—"
"Clearly you don't or you wouldn't be calling." He couldn't believe he'd let himself be pulled out his shower for this.
A quiet sigh echoed down the line that was supposed, he thought, to make him feel bad. "Ed—"
"Think again, General. If you want to call my official line, my official title is Mr. Elric to you, you bastard. I don't take commissions from your office for two very good reasons. Reasons we've been over before. Why you think—"
"They're human chimeras, Mr. Elric. Children, primarily, and they're violent. I can't send anyone else. You can process the paperwork through another General if you want the credit to go to someone else; we'll double your normal fee and you'll have whoever you want to back you up. I don't trust anyone else to get this done."
Ed hooked his chair with his foot and sat down heavily. "Where?"
"It was the Crystalline Alchemist. Just outside the city on his farm. My men took him this afternoon and that's when we found them."
Ed remembered meeting the older man once; he'd seemed sane enough at the time. "I thought his research was with rock structures, I thought you were watching your people."
"He had the whole thing hidden in a secret room. It looks like," the General sighed. "He's been working on his theories for years and has just recently gone to work. It only took the locals a couple days to notice the missing children, but by then he'd already made a pack of them."
"How many?" He pulled out some paper and a pencil and began sketching arrays as he listened.
"Six that we know of, though there could be more. They've been contained in the basement, but everyone who's tried to get close to them has ended up in the hospital. Who do you need for this?"
His brother would be perfect, of course, but there were things he didn't want Al to be involved in ever again. Armstrong would be nice for backup, but he was a General now and off in the East somewhere. Mustang would be fine if he wanted to burn the place to the ground; he wasn't really good for anything else. "I'll take care of it."
"Are you sure that's wise?"
Wise, hah, what a jackass. "And I want everything run through General Hughes' office. Unless there's a big fuck up. Then it's all yours."
There was a slow breath on the other line and he could just imagine the other man trying to calm himself. "Payment?"
"Double it. Triple if I end up bleeding."
"And if you end up in the hospital or dead because you didn't bring anyone with you?"
"Then you can feel justified as you weep over my grave. I don't really think you get to feel any kind of righteousness over this when you brought it to me, Mustang."
"Will you leave right away?"
Translation: Will you stop home long enough for me to get in a quick grope before you traipse off to your potentially horribly disfiguring death? "It'd be better if I left right away."
"All right. You'll call when things are settled?"
"If you don't hear from the hospital first."
"Ed." He sounded so pained, Ed didn't bother to correct him on his form of address. "You'll be careful."
It wasn't a question, but Ed felt compelled to answer anyway. "I'll be careful. You won't even know I'm gone." He wished then that Mustang had taken the time to come down to his office in person instead of doing this over the phone. He would have liked to have seen Roy's face, let him touch him for a while before going out to do this. "You know my success rate on chimeras. You know that even after I've gotten a feel for what he's done and how he's done it, it'll be a banner fucking day if one of those kids comes back out of this. You know that."
"I know. I'm sorry. I'll be waiting when you get done. I love you."
Ed closed his eyes a moment. "I love you, too." You bastard. He hung up the phone before either of them could say anything else.
For a moment, he just stood with a hand on the phone and his eyes closed. Taking commissions from General Mustang's office was a tricky thing. The two of them garnered enough press just walking together in public or attending an official function. Whispers about the abuse of power or the corruption of minors had ended in more than a few bloody noses, and it had been years since anyone had made comments to his or Roy's face. That didn't mean they weren't said, or that people didn't think them.
Since Roy still had a burning desire to be Fuhrer one day, Ed kept a low profile and didn't take jobs from Roy's office. No matter how things turned out, there was no winning. If the commission went well, Mustang was handing out easy assignments to his gender-inappropriate lover to help cushion his already cushy lifestyle. If it ended badly, then clearly Mustang couldn't even keep his boy toy in line and what did that say for his ability to run the country?
Never mind that Ed had been part of the military for almost ten years before they'd let him out of his contract. Ignore the fact that they kept coming back to him, begging at his doorstep to fix problems that they should have been watching out for. Disregard his own alchemic prowess that had nothing to do with his involvement in the military.
Obviously, Mustang was trying to write him a free ride and as much as he didn't give a good damn what the military thought of him, Roy did care. So Ed sucked it up, kept a low profile and tried not to punch any more Generals in the face. No matter how much he wanted to.
And the absolute bitch of it all, the thing that killed him and made him really face up to how much he really loved the bastard, was that Roy hadn't asked him to do any of it. He'd even protested Ed's first attempts to set their professional and personal lives as far apart as possible. Roy liked working with him. It's what drew them together in the first place. Outside of the military and alchemy, there was hardly any chance they would have ever met. He said he enjoyed watching the way Ed's mind worked, the way he could be with people who honestly needed help. He liked being able to see what it was about Ed that made him so beloved by the people and so carefully watched by the military.
But it was necessary and it was right. And in the end, Ed had worn Roy down and won, though the first lonely weeks in his office with little contact with his old friends had been harder than he ever let on.
Ed heaved one last sigh and dialed Al's number, hoping to catch his brother out of class. When Al stopped working for him, he'd made Ed promise to call before he went off on any potentially dangerous assignment. Ed still wanted to duck these calls as Al constantly tried to lend his assistance, but it was better for everyone if Al followed his own path now. They were grown and didn't need to live in each other's pockets anymore.
"Doctor Elric's office." It still gave him a quiet thrill to hear that in reference to his little brother.
"Is Al in? This is Ed."
"I'm sorry, Sir. Doctor Elric's been called away to consult on a case. Would you like to leave a message?" Al must have a new secretary as well.
"Tell him his brother called and that I'm off on business, but I'll call when I get back."
"He'll know which brother?"
Ed laughed. "Yeah, he'll know." He hung up, grabbed his coat and gloves and headed to the outer office. "Donna, I've got to go do a thing. I'll call if I'm going to be more than a day."
It was a short drive to the edge of the city and the Crystalline Alchemist's farm. Long gone were the days of having Havoc drive him around. The other side of the Gate had been good for his education in many ways, but driving was one of the few things he actually appreciated learning.
As he stepped out of the car, Ed was immediately aware of the eerie stillness of the place. Something was here or some things, more appropriately, but they were being very quiet. With a clap of his hands, Ed transmuted his automail to his customary short blade. His adrenaline was pumping so high he no longer felt the cold, and every sense was on edge as he waited for some sign of the chimeras.
They were contained. Ed let out a long breath, trying to calm himself. They were contained unless they'd figured out a way to release themselves. It didn't bear thinking about until he knew exactly what he was facing. There was nothing for it. He had to go in the house.
The interior of the Crystalline Alchemist's home was much as he remembered. The entryway and parlor were a testament to the man's wife and three children. His wife had died nearly fifteen years before and his children were all grown and living in different corners of Amestris. Ed remembered sitting in the man's kitchen, drinking tea and discussing arrays, thinking that he was far more brilliant than anyone was giving him credit for.
It made him sick to think what the man had focused his intelligence on, of what he'd been working on even as Ed sat in his home. Had there been something Ed had said in their long conversation that had helped him create a new theory, that had helped him refine his process and create and destroy these children? At times like this, he almost wished this side of the Gate was the one without alchemy because it could be so awful.
Relying on his memory of the house, Ed pushed away his dark thoughts and moved to the door of the basement. The stillness that had caught his attention when he arrived was even more pronounced here, if that was possible. His skin crawled and the hair on his arms stood out straight from his body. They were on the other side of that door and they were ready to kill. Ed had never been as sure of anything in his life.
It was only a moment's thought and then action to transmute the door and the wall leading to the basement to a sturdy, break-proof layer of glass. And even though he was expecting it, expecting them, Ed still jumped back in surprise, a cry caught in his throat at the mass of them pressed against the glass where the door had been. They'd been waiting in a huddled mass for the next idiot to open the door. It meant they were learning and the Crystalline Alchemist had done a better job with his transmutation than anyone had done in years.
The chimeras were as startled at his sudden appearance as he was, but instead of backing away in fright, they snapped their long teeth in his direction, clawing at the glass in a mindless attempt to reach him. The power in their movements and the coordination in their attack was striking. It meant they really were a pack, and Roy's word choice had been appropriate. Given the chance, they would hunt and kill him as a unit, which meant the only way he could get any work done with them was to deal with them one at a time.
Despite the fact that Ed hadn't had to use an array since he was ten years old, he'd found that drawing one out helped him focus. The clean lines, the graceful arches, the sweeping majesty of the symbol cleared his mind and settled his nerves. And with the chimeras pounding on the glass just inches from him, Ed needed all the help he could get.
When he had a basic array ready, he leaned back on his heels and studied the mass of bodies before him. Some of them looked to be children mixed with just one animal, but others were clearly the result of several. None of them had the strained or twisted look of a human transmutation gone wrong. Either the Crystalline Alchemist had been very lucky, or his accidents were buried somewhere in the backyard.
As much as he studied them, the children peered back. Intelligence and ferocity lit their eyes and Ed couldn't imagine what the man would have wanted with them. They couldn't be controlled; they couldn't be guided. He supposed they might make good attack or defense animals, though it seemed likely that on any given day it would be difficult to predict who they would consider an enemy.
With a sigh, Ed picked one of the chimeras at random, clapped his hands and extracted the child from its pack into a new holding cell directly over the center of the array. He didn't like to think too much about this part of the process, about how his choice would affect this child and the child's family. This was why he stopped working for the military and instead became a consultant, charging them outrageous fees for his help. They should know better. They should be keeping better tabs on their alchemists. They should be making sure this kind of thing didn't happen anymore. Bradley had been gone for years now and there was no need for this shit anymore.
Inside its new glass cage, the chimera was whining and turning itself in circles before throwing itself against the glass in the direction of its pack mates. The pack mentality was strange in its strength. They'd only known each other for a few days in this form; it shouldn't be as intense and Ed wondered if it was part of the transmutation or if it was an accident. If the Crystalline Alchemist had added a personality trait as part of the transmutation, it meant his alchemy was further along than anyone could have possibly suspected. To add characteristics in such a manner was unheard of.
Ed realized he was stalling. Understanding the original alchemy used to create the chimeras was important, but really, Ed wouldn't learn what he needed to know until he'd tried to break the chimera back to its original parts. The first ones were always the worst, the messiest and the most traumatic. He'd yet to have a successful first transmutation, and why the hell did the rogue alchemists always feel the need to make chimeras in groups?
He drew a steadying breath, clapped his hands, closed his eyes and hoped. /p>
Of the eight chimeras the Crystalline Alchemist created in his basement, two survived the transmutation to change them back. Neither of them were likely to survive the night. He'd already called the military police, an ambulance for the kids and the remains, and finally Roy to let him know it was done.
Roy sounded like he wanted to talk more, like he wanted details or to ask stupid questions like was Ed all right. Ed was as polite as he could be before hanging up. He couldn't take Roy's concern, his worried and hesitant tone. It was a tone he hadn't even used when Ed was a child and facing far greater horrors on a daily basis. Apparently seeing someone naked meant you got to act a lot more concerned about his emotional state than was necessary.
Yeah, he was tired. He was exhausted. He could think of nothing better than to curl up and sleep for a week. Of course he was pissed. This kind of thing was ridiculous and he'd go to the new Fuhrer himself and tell him so if Ed thought for a second it would make a difference. The whole thing left him feeling ill and so fucking sad for those kids who didn't do anything other than come around to the nice alchemists house for tea like they always did. But instead of fixing their toys and making them new ones, he captured them and turned them into monsters.
And the sickest part of the whole thing was that Ed wouldn't be able to leave the house without going into the basement to see the man's workspace, to see where he'd first come up with his ideas and gone through with his plan. Ed hadn't yet found anything in any of the other workrooms that would show how the signs of madness in an alchemist could manifest in his workspace, but it didn't stop him looking.
Ed walked out of the house into the bitter cold of the late afternoon. Snow was beginning to fall again and from the look of the clouds, it looked like it might be settling in for the long haul. He walked around to the back of the house and used the rear entrance to the basement for access.
Inside the basement, in the thin light of the single overhead bulb, Ed could see where the pack had made their nest. Strings and other bits of trash littered the floor, and it took Ed a moment to realize they were toys. His breath left him in a sudden whoosh and he understood. Even as chimeras, they were still children. He'd like to see the man hanged for this.
As for his workspace, there wasn't much left. The children had turned anything they could into playthings for their amusement and fodder for their nest. Bits of paper covered with arrays were torn and crumpled into a hopeless mess. No one would ever be able to recreate his research, but Ed was considering asking Roy to come here and burn the place to the ground just to be safe when he heard a whisper of movement come from his left.
"Hello?" Ed transmuted his arm into a blade and dropped into a defensive stance without thought.
The sound came again, this time more clearly a whimper. He took a hesitant step toward the far corner of the room and saw, shadowed in the poor light, a final chimera. She was smaller than the others had been and she looked injured. Her eyes caught his and her mouth opened, and for a heart-stopping moment, he thought she might speak. Instead she let out another pathetic mewl and Ed could no more have stopped himself from going towards her than he could have stopped his own heart from beating.
She perked up a little as he approached, her mew changing to a tone of welcome. She leaned her head forward as though expecting a pet and a scratch behind the ears. The difference between her and the others was so marked, it seemed almost as though she must either have been the first or the next generation.
"If you just hang on a little longer, I think I can get you home." He smiled and was startled to see her smile back at him.
The smile stayed fixed firmly to her features as she moved faster than Ed was able to even see, her claws striking out and gutting him. Ed had enough time and strength to clap his hands and contain the chimera before she could fall upon him, but not much else. He fell back to the floor, his head swimming already from the pain and blood loss. All he could think was how stupid he'd been, how Al was going to be so mad at him for getting hurt again, and Roy. Roy was going to lose his mind with the guilt.
If he lived long enough for the ambulance to get there and if anyone found him in the basement. /p>
"You've got quite a bit of money coming to you for this little adventure."
Ed blinked, trying to make sense of Roy's words. His head felt packed with wool and he couldn't hold onto a single thought long enough to get the words to come out of his mouth. "What?"
"Don't worry. You're on a lot of drugs. You're not any more brain damaged than you were when you started the day." Roy's words were harsh and cold, though the hand stroking his own couldn't have been more tender.
"What?" He was so thirsty, and he hurt so much, and why was Roy being such a bastard? He looked around, trying to see if there was any water for him to drink, but he could see nothing but the sterile lines of the a hospital room and Roy.
"What do you need?" Some of the harshness left Roy's face.
Roy, magnificent Roy, somehow found the water and fed it to him in slow, glorious sips. "Home?"
Roy set the cup aside and slumped in the chair next to the bed. He looked tired. Tired and worried. He was still in his uniform, though it'd been loosened and his beard was starting to come back in. "Not for days, I'm afraid. Not until the doctors are sure you're not going to spill your insides out on the floor the second you stand up." His voice rose as he spoke, anger firing back into his face. "What were you thinking? That thing could have killed you."
"What happened to her?" He didn't think he'd remembered to make the glass cage air-permeable. They'd have to get her out if he'd have a chance to change her back.
Roy paused and resumed stroking Ed's hand. "When the medics found you, the military police were understandably startled. They shot first. I'm sorry."
The drugs running through his veins and clouding his thoughts were too strong for him to feel anything other than a strange emptiness. "She was just a little girl."
Roy looked like he wanted to argue, but he nodded and kept his hands soft on Ed's skin. "Why don't you try to get some sleep? I'll be here when you wake up."
"Won't they try to kick you out?"
Roy laughed as he relaxed back into his chair, looking for all the world like he was never going to leave. "I'd like to see them try."