[identity profile] tierfal.livejournal.com posting in [community profile] tierfallen
Title: Difficult to Argue
Fandom: Fullmetal Alchemist
Pairing: Roy/Ed
Rating: PG-13
Word Count: 14,300
Warnings: intermittent language; post-BH AU; some dark content/gore (though nothing significantly worse than canon)
Summary: It's a well-deserved shame and a cordially-invited tragedy that anything Roy tries to treasure goes down in flames.
Author's Note: Inspired by Jujubee's amazing art – the feeling that it gave me ran away with this fic, which is why I did such a poor job of highlighting the art itself, oops. >__>' All the same: thank you, Jujubee, and ALL of the artists in this fandom, for sharing your beautiful work with us. Even if we forget to say it sometimes, we love and appreciate everything you do. ♥


Roy’s waiting by the phone and listening to the rain.  Is that pathetic?

He knows the answer to that.  He knows a lot of things now that he wishes he didn’t.

He knows that this could never have been easy, but that he hasn’t made it any easier.  He knows that he’s lost so many, so much, that when the shadow of heartbreak starts to spread, he clings too tight.  He knows that this is precisely why fraternization is illegal; he knows that even for the decent and the decorous and the well-intentioned, impartiality is a myth.

He knows that this will come down to a choice—not his; not both of theirs; he knows he doesn’t have the right.  He knows that Ed and Ed alone will have to decide: between the position that has sustained him all this time, that has afforded him his purpose and his power and a home… and the fledgling beating fragile wings in rhythm with the synchronized stuttering of their respective hearts.

Roy knows that he’s a fool—knows he’s failed; knows he’s hopeless.  If it was up to him, he’d choose the feathers every time, because the way that bird sings when their skin meets makes him so damn weak

He draws a breath, and eyes the whiskey bottle on the mantelpiece, and considers putting a fire behind the grate underneath it.  But it’s five minutes to eight, and he doesn’t want to turn his back on the phone, and somehow the sound of the rain is more soothing than the fire would be.

It started with a coincidence.  He supposes, when you get down to it, all things technically do.

He’d been planning to take Vanessa to the theater to catch up on her quadrant of the network—and, of course, her life, since she could spin a story like no one else he’d ever met.  They’d both learned that particular art at Madame Christmas’s unrivaled knee, and he had to confess that he favored meetings with Vanessa with just a touch more frequency and just a smudge more eagerness than any of his other liaisons.  He was only human, after all; and business as usual with Vanessa was simply much more fun.

But on that evening, she called ten minutes before five to cancel—which left him with two tickets to what was purportedly a spectacular performance at the city’s most celebrated venue, and the prospect of a rather barren night at home.  It wouldn’t do to go alone—his reputation couldn’t harbor much more tarnish; and if left unattended, he’d probably drink too much at intermission to be capable of driving home.

He’d stepped out into the rest of the office with the tickets fanned out between his fingers before anyone could edge out the door and escape for the weekend.  Falman and Breda looked up guiltily from a report that bore a suspicious resemblance to the newspaper crossword; Fuery squinted trying to read the lettering on the little slips in Roy’s hand; Riza raised an eyebrow; Havoc made a noise of faint alarm.

Ed’s head turned, and his eyes flicked up and down, as though the entirety of Roy’s being—not a pair of theater tickets—was the item on display.  He’d tilted his chair back on two legs, just far enough to tempt intervention while gravity kept him suspended.  His feet were up on the table, legs crossed at the ankle, which left his cavalry skirt draped far enough from them where it trailed down the chair that you could almost make out the contours of his ass.  The adoption of the uniform was a blight in exactly as many ways as it was a blessing, when it came to Ed.

“One of you has to take these,” Roy said.  “That’s an order.”

“Why?” Havoc asked, pushing his chair back from the table slowly, as if no one would notice him making a break for it as long as he kept the sudden movements to a minimum.  “Is it a bad play?”

“I don’t go to bad plays,” Roy said.  “But I don’t go to good plays alone, and my plus-one just subtracted herself.”

And he’d always been driven, hadn’t he, by the compulsion to put his hand into the center of every fire within reach?

He held them out to Ed.  “You could do with some culture, Fullmetal.  Take Alphonse with you.”

The less-argumentative but equally illustrious Elric brother was, Roy knew, still recuperating in their new apartment on the far side of Central City Park.  Alphonse spent much of his time luxuriating in the sunlight in front of their broad bay window, and the rest of it writing out lightly-edited, transparently ‘fictional’ accounts of their escapades, which were in higher demand than any other newspaper serial in the history of the Central Times.

Ed eyed the tickets for a long moment, then—with an abruptness that made Roy’s stomach simultaneously seize and drop—kicked his feet off of the table so that his chair rocked forward, and the front two legs of it slammed back down on the floor.  Roy did not need to pry his gaze away from this somewhat overstated display of insubordinate nonchalance to know that Riza was gritting her teeth.

Ed raised his left hand and plucked the tickets out of Roy’s without letting their fingers touch, and then he scrutinized them with the same forehead-furrowed intensity that he applied to everything of any interest.

“Starts at eight,” he said, sounding detectably disappointed.  “Al’s usually passed out by nine.”

Roy folded his arms across his chest so that it was impossible to hand them back.  “Take your girlfriend.”

Ed’s eyes narrowed, but he’d gained enough control of his temper over the years not to crumple the tickets in his fist.  “I don’t have a girlfriend.”

“That’s easy to fix,” Roy said, keeping his voice light, as he started back towards his desk to pack up the dismayingly sizable stack of reports he still needed to read.  “Stop by the switchboard on your way out and ask for a volunteer.  Problem solved.”

Ed’s chair scraped on the floor, and then his boots scuffed on it, and Roy did not turn around.  The footfalls stopped just inside the doorway.

“I don’t want one,” Ed said.  “A girlfriend.  And if you think I’m stupid enough not to know you missed your calling in theater and love every damn minute of that stuff, think again.”

Roy lifted a few piles of papers in succession; he’d buried his favorite pen again.  He was not going to think too much about the first thing Ed had said.  “Are you calling me melodramatic, or a liar?”

“Both,” Ed said.  A pause—a careful little silence.  “So why don’t you cut the crap, and we can go see the stupid play together.”

Roy waited two heartbeats before he turned with one eyebrow neatly arched.

Ed’s mouth was in a thin line, and his jaw was set, and there was a faint pink stain riding each cheekbone and rising towards his ears.

Roy kept his voice completely neutral.  “Are you asking me out on a date?”

“I’m asking you not to waste your stupid tickets,” Ed said.  “Isn’t that what you want?”

Roy had drawn careful little boundaries about what he wanted—so many that they had started to look like an array.  And then he’d built them into fences, and cages, and walls, because what he wanted was irrelevant to what the world needed from him, and he could not afford to let what he wanted wriggle out into the open and run free.

It wouldn’t have been the first time that Ed had put his fist straight through a barricade.  It wouldn’t be the first time he’d curled five steel fingers around Roy’s heart and heedlessly squeezed.

And it wouldn’t be the last.

“Shall I pick you up a quarter after seven?” Roy asked.  “Or would you like to have dinner first?”

“Al cooks on Fridays,” Ed said.  “Gotta be there for that.  A little after seven’s fine.”

The less like a date it was, the more hope Roy had of getting through it with his psyche more or less intact.

“Excellent,” he said.

Fortunately, unfortunately—both of those words were meaningless, based in subjectivity and perspective.  The bottom line was that ‘excellent’ was an understatement, and there were pearlescent bubbles swirling through Roy’s chest well before they went from the theater to a pub half a mile from his house; well before he let the second and the third and the fourth glass of wine drown his better judgment and buoy all the things that shouldn’t have been said.  Ed was drinking, too—a print of his lower lip on the rim of a pint glass; he kept wrinkling his nose up right before he laughed—

Roy caught his sleeve—a white shirt, with a line of tiny buttons that didn’t run high enough to hide his collarbones from Roy’s hungry eyes and starving imagination; he’d worn a waistcoat and tight slacks, and how could he not know—?

Roy leaned in too close, and the alcohol had silenced all of the alarms; he breathed thoughts he never should have harbored, let alone given voice.

You’re so beautiful in this light; you’re so beautiful in every light; you’re so beautiful all the time that some days I can’t bear to look at you, but I never want to stop

And Ed whispered You’re a fucking liar and fisted the steel hand in his hair to kiss him.

It’s been delicate but undeniable since then—just a scattering of weeks; it feels like forever and like yesterday.  He’s realized, in the interim, after significant amounts of staring at the wall in various and sundry locations, that he hadn’t been taking advantage that night: Ed, who had had more of his mental faculties at his command than Roy by that point, had known exactly what he wanted and been hell-bent on getting it all along.  It’s gone on that way.  Ed is driving this—Ed is in the lead.  Roy offers, yes; sometimes he nudges at the wheel to help to steer, but mostly…

Mostly he has sensed from the beginning that if he tries to curl his fingers in around it, Ed will break and run.  And securing something stabler isn’t worth the possibility of losing what he has.

What he has is good—is wonderful.  It doesn’t have a name, or a definition; it doesn’t have a schedule, or a procedure, or a face in public where it could drag him directly into pits of mud he’d never shake.  It doesn’t have much of anything concrete.

What it does have is a lot of nights that Ed turns up on his doorstep—sometimes just for food, sometimes just to fight, sometimes just to raid his library and drop onto his couch with a selection of his books and remain insensible to distraction for several hours at a stretch.

Sometimes Ed comes to talk.  Sometimes he talks for hours—haltingly at first, and then the words pour out of him like a fountain overflowing.  Sometimes he talks about the things he’s most afraid of, and the things he’s never done—the things he’s never dared to ask for no matter how ferociously he wanted them, because the instant that the universe hears that he’s invested, it’ll all get dashed to bits.  Sometimes he talks about how terrified he is that Al won’t need him anymore as soon as all the atrophied muscles are set to rights—that in fulfilling his own lifelong goal, he’s made himself obsolete to the most important person in his life.  Sometimes he talks about how the charitable things that people say to him don’t register anymore—how the compliments roll off; how moments that should inflate with pride just sort of whisk on by, and sometimes there’s a bitterness on the back of his tongue.  Sometimes he talks about the bone-deep, deadening certainty that he doesn’t really matter anymore.

On those nights, Roy opens his arms and says I know, I know, I know, believe me and I think you matter more than anyone I’ve ever met.  I’d be delighted to keep saying it until you hear it someday.

Other nights, Ed prowls in with a grin like the most sublime damnation, eyes aflame, and starts shedding clothing in the entryway.

Roy rather likes those nights.  The others are important, but those are simpler.  That’s a language he’s fluent in and a battle neither of them has to lose.

But even the complicated nights aren’t the problem.

The problem is the days.

The problem is the things that happen in between, and the narrow silver chains that they’re beholden to.

He couldn’t avoid sending Ed to Riedd—not without drawing attention; not without raising suspicion; not without having to wonder who he was protecting, and what was at stake.  Not without putting Amestrian citizens at risk for his personal benefit, to help himself sleep a little better for a couple nights.  They needed Ed—more than he did, very likely; certainly more than he needed Ed right now.  More than he needed Ed to be safe just so that he didn’t have to field a week of nightmares.

But he could avoid sending Ed to Riedd dressed like he was begging to be shot.

“I thought you’d retired that,” he said when Ed sauntered in for the train tickets wearing that same old blood-red coat.

“Mostly,” Ed said, completely unconcerned.  He came to the desk; held his left hand out— “Dug it out of the closet for old times’ sake.”  He clenched and unclenched his fingers, realized no tickets were forthcoming, and tugged on his lapels instead.  “Figured it’d remind me how this gig works.  Muscle memory.  You know.”

“What I know,” Roy said, “is that you’d be going out there with a target on your back.”

Ed bared his teeth, and Roy missed the days when that reaction only fired up his adrenaline in anticipation of a shouting match.  It was much more difficult to walk this tightrope when righteous fury lay on one side, and a startlingly intense desire to bend Ed over his desk and fuck him lovingly awaited on the other.

“You think the blues are any better?” Ed asked, gesturing sharply, as if Roy had forgotten the persona that he’d fastened on this morning.  “Shit like this—when you have to ask questions, you have to get to the root of it—people don’t trust the military.  They’ve already talked to the cops.  This way, they know that even though I’m carrying a watch, I’m different.  And they know I’m not about to turn them in if I find out that maybe they stretched the truth a little bit before.”

Roy took slow, measured breaths and let them out levelly.  “You don’t need allies,” he said.  “You need authority.  You can’t afford to be this memorable—or this damn obvious in someone’s crosshairs.  You can’t—”

“Mustang,” Ed said, with the snarl unfurling underneath it, and Roy’s spine tightened; “you can tell me where to go, and you can tell me what to do, and you can tell me when to roll over and when to play dead.  I’ll follow your goddamn orders.  I’ll pretend I like to be your stupid dog to get things done.”  His lip curled; his eyes had narrowed down to gleaming gold-sparked slits— “But you can’t fucking tell me what to wear.  You don’t fucking own me.”  The right hand clenched into a fist; the left shoved out towards Roy’s desk, palm held open.  “Are you gonna put me on that train, or are you gonna fire my ass right now?”

There were a lot of other things that Roy would rather do with it instead.

He picked up the tickets and extended them over the desk.

The instant Ed reached for them, however, he snatched them back.

“Things are different now,” he said.  “I know you know that, but I want you to be thinking about it.  I want you to remember.  We no longer have your brother, who made a spectacularly useful free employee, acting as your bodyguard.  And you no longer have the element of surprise, because more people within this organization as well as out there are aware that you are a threat.  There is more at stake.  There is more to lose, and there is more to fear.”

“Anything that takes damage doesn’t scare me,” Ed said, wriggling his fingers for the tickets.  “If you can stop it with a bullet, I can handle it.”

“This is a different game,” Roy said.  “Don’t forget that.  Don’t ever turn your back.”  He stretched the tickets out again, and he let Ed yank them from his grip this time.  “I expect a report at twenty hundred hours every night.”

Ed had zeroed in on the times marked on the tickets, but he glanced up long enough to make a face.  “Jeez, R—”

Roy’s expression caught him.  He swallowed, scowled, and huffed out a breath.

“Yes, sir,” he said.

“Thank you, Major,” Roy said.  “Dismissed.”

Ed’s jaw worked, but apparently none of the smartass remarks he was considering were quite good enough to spit back at this point in the conversation.  He went to the trouble of saluting—though not especially cleanly—before he spun on his heel and started for the door.

“Ed,” Roy said as the steel hand wrapped around the doorknob.

Ed turned, and the golden ponytail whipped, and an amber eye fixed on Roy.

He allowed himself one little smile.  “Be careful.”

Ed’s whole face changed as he smiled back—somehow the grin was sharper than ever, but the rest of his features softened around it.

“C’mon,” he said.  “‘Careful’ is my middle name.”

“And I was born yesterday,” Roy said.  “Call at eight.”

“You gonna be home by then?” Ed asked.

“I will if I know you’ll be calling,” Roy said.

“Damn,” Ed said, and the grin slanted into smirk territory, and Roy wished this boy had never conquered that place.  “You boxed me in.  Now I have to make reports so that you’ll leave your stupid paperwork long enough to sleep.”

Roy arced an eyebrow right back.  “They don’t pay me to strategize for nothing.”

Ed rolled his eyes, and then he stepped out and shut the door—gently, by his standards.

And that was that.

The first few nights, the telephone in the front hall rang two, three, four and a half minutes after eight.  The first night, Ed told him in great detail about how the trains were shit, then parted with a cheerful salutation right at eight thirty because he had to “call Al pretty much right now, ’bye!”  The second night, Ed told him in great detail about how all of the locals extremely irritable, which was definitely because of the weather, since it had nothing whatsoever to do with his winning personality.  The third night, Ed told him in great detail about how the hotel was falling apart more by the minute, but he’d done some repairs, and they’d tried to pay him, but of course that was ridiculous, and he was going to do some more tomorrow, and funnily enough they seemed to like him better now.

Last night, he called ten minutes early, and Roy had barely made it halfway through a greeting before he said “Look, I’m—I got in pretty deep today, but… people know people in this part of town.  I don’t wanna say too much.  I’ll just… Just trust me, okay?”

Tonight, Roy leans his head back until he’s gazing at the ceiling so that he can’t watch the clock.

He can still hear it over the rain.

He revisits an extremely pleasant memory from just two weeks past—Ed appeared from the night, as he so often insists on doing even though people have these perfectly useful things called cars and doorbells both; they were both too tired for any sort of energetic extracurriculars, but they made up the difference with some very languid, very lovely foreplay for its own sake; and somehow it ended with them tangled up together underneath the comforter, and Ed rambled about lesser-known alchemic symbols and traced two dozen of them on Roy’s bare chest with a cool steel fingertip, and…

Roy glances at the clock face.

Eight fifteen.

He presses his knuckles into his eyes.  He won’t stare over at the phone; that’s ridiculous.  And despite the fact that there is clearly more confirmation bias than actual correlation implicated in the idiom about the watched pot, it could still be posited that a watched telephone will not ring on the grounds that it’s ornery and derives immense mechanical schadenfreude from the way you startle when it trills in the silence.

He can remember exactly sixteen of the glyphs Ed’s finger outlined on his skin.  For ten of those, he retained the specific meaning, and their implications within the context of a few different types of arrays.  If all of his education had consisted of beautiful blond lovers spelling the lessons across him, he might be the single most brilliant man alive.

Eight thirty.

He gets up, pointedly ignores the whiskey, and directs his numb-footed stagger towards the kitchen.  There must be something in this house that is not the phone and its tragic gravity; surely he can find some object in this unnecessarily enormous building to distract him from the question of what Ed’s doing, where Ed’s been, what happened, whether he’s all right—

Making coffee on top of this is a truly terrible idea—which one would think would guarantee he’d do it, but he narrowly manages to refrain.  Riza bought him white tea for some long-since-forgotten occasion several years ago; the tin still lurks under a shroud of dust on a shelf in the cabinet.  He brings it down and puts the kettle on and sits down to watch that boil.

Eight forty-five.

He owns nine mugs and five very odd, ornately decorated little teacups.  He counts them twice just to be sure he has the inventory right.

There are cobwebs draped along the top edge of the curtains, but the spiders aren’t doing any harm, and he doesn’t feel inclined to drag a chair over in order to wage war against them.

The water boils.

He brushes dust into the sink, regrets it, brushes more into the trash, and then selects a teabag from the tin.

He pours.

He waits.

Eight fifty-two.

He twirls the teabag’s little string around the tip of his finger and dips it once, twice, three times under the water; he dunks it deep like it’s a living creature that he has to drown.  He swirls it around.  He lets it bob up to the surface.  He drags it around the circumference of the mug.  He tries to coax some of the air bubbles out of the fine mesh without actually touching it, simply by batting it against the walls at varying speeds.  Then he lifts it out, lets it spin, lets it drip, waits while one droplet coalesces agonizingly slowly—and quavers—and falls—and then tosses it into the trash.

Eight fifty-four.

He takes his tea over to the kitchen table and sits down alone, letting the steam billow softly up around his face.

This is not sustainable.  This is an unstable system.  This is a danger to them both; this is a disaster waiting to happen; this is a lit match flirting with the edges of a short fuse, and if something doesn’t change, no one is going to make it out unscathed.

Roy won’t anyway—that, too, he knows by now.  He’s the match.  He started this, whether or not Ed took it up almost as eagerly; it’s his doing.  He’ll burn out either way.

He picks up his mug, blows on the tea, and takes a tiny test-sip, too quickly to scald anything.  It’s still too hot.  He sets it down.

Eight fifty-five.

Ed could be dead.

Ed could be facedown in a ditch, with two inches of muddy standing water clogging up his unused airways.

Ed could be torn full of bullet holes.  He could be lying on a cold table in a silent morgue, wreathed in the cloying-acrid perfume of the formaldehyde, staring at the ceiling.  He could have had his skull split open; he could have had his ribcage punctured and everything inside it shredded into bleeding pulp; he could have had his spine snapped or his eyes gouged out or his throat cut—one long, curved line; one spilling, speechless smile—

It’s eight fifty-nine, and Roy is getting up and crossing to the phone and dialing Ed’s apartment.

The line rings twice.

“Hello?” Alphonse says.  He’s trying to sound calm, but Roy can hear the hopefulness beneath it.

“Sorry,” he says.  “It’s me.”

“Ah,” Al says.  “He hasn’t called you either, I take it?”

“Not yet,” Roy says.

Perhaps that’s overstepping the bounds of what the universe will permit.  The instant you start expecting good things, as though something is owed to you—

That thought sounds remarkably like Ed.

“For what it’s worth,” Alphonse says, “I usually give him a full day before I let myself worry.”

Roy looks at the wallpaper.  It’s green.  There are little designs on it that appear to be deliberate, rather than just the result of several years’ accumulated dust.  They might be tiny flowers.  “I see.”

“Well,” Alphonse says, “that’s a bit dishonest.  I don’t let myself worry; the worrying just happens.  I give him a day before I do anything about it.”

“I may not be able to emulate your patience,” Roy says.

“Most people can’t,” Al says.  “Waiting out every night of your life for a few years running will do that for you.  He’ll probably secretly appreciate it, though you won’t ever hear that from him.  Just so long as you keep it relatively subtle.  If he thinks you’re meddling because you don’t trust him to get the job done, he’ll be hurt.”

“This is terrible,” Roy says.

“I know,” Al says.  “But I know you can’t just hold him back from doing a mission ever again—he’d feel useless and restless, and that always makes him extra-destructive; and he’d wonder if he’d just gotten worse at his job, or if it was a favoritism thing, and not know which was worse—”

“No,” Roy says.  “I mean… yes, that, too; the situation, but—what you were saying before.  Am I to understand that if I’d just asked you what was going on in his head at any given time, you would have set it out in simple terms and saved me hours of beating my head against the wall?”

“Only if I thought it was in his best interests at any given time,” Alphonse says.

Roy would swear off Elrics forever if they weren’t so damn wonderful underneath the dizzying combination of insight and spite.

“Right,” he says.  “I’ll see what I can find out tomorrow, then.”

“Thank you,” Al says.  “My resources are pretty limited, but I’ve got a couple friends I can call in favors with.  Keep me posted?  And I’ll do the same.”

Equivalent exchange.  Maybe if they all just keep repeating it, someday the balance will seem fair.

“Perfect,” Roy says.

He doesn’t sleep—or at least not in any meaningful sense of the word.  Not enough to matter; not enough to clear his brain and wipe it clean and restore any of his vital processes.  Not enough to count.  Not enough to help.

Intermittently, he dozes, sinking into the sticky mire of the shadows creeping up the folds in the sheets and on the pillowcase; he phases through the flimsy barrier between idle, abstract thoughts and something like unconsciousness.

And then a hundred-thousand permutations of gore and murder haul him out.

The scenes are hazy, and all of his limbs turn to lead—they’re almost more like hallucinations than dreams.  They’re almost more like visions of some sort of present-future, seeping through because he’s more receptive on the borderline of waking; because the weight of the blood soaking through them has finally dragged them right back to their cause.

If Ed is dead, it’s his fault.

If they bury Ed alive and stack some slabs of granite on the top—

If they cut diagonal across his abdomen and let him watch his own intestines bulging out—

If they beat him to the brink of human endurance and hang him up and leave the elements to do the rest—

If it’s just two shots to the back of his skull—

If they chain him down and slice him open and wait there for the animals to smell the meat—

If they tear the automail off of him and leave him bleeding out until it all just stops

Roy might as well have done it all himself.  He signed the order.  He did this; he started this; the responsibility sits squarely in his two scarred hands.

He rolls over, and lies still, and listens to his own breathing.  He rolls back, folds an arm under the pillow, stares up into the dark, and forces himself to close his eyes.  He tries to breathe slowly.  He tries to think of nothing but a deep, rich, even velvet black.  His shoulder tenses in a way that’s uncomfortable.  He shifts.  He rolls back to where he started, smoothes a hand across the pillow, tugs it over to open a cool space for his cheek—

If Ed is dead—

Well, he’s got a head start on paying for it.

“Whoa,” Havoc says on seeing him shortly after eight.  “Rough night, Chief?”

That has always seemed like something of a stupid phrase to Roy; the day that follows is invariably so much rougher as a result.  “You could say that.”

“You want to talk about it?” Havoc asks.  Presumably that sounds more fun than whatever work has been set in front of him, which means he doesn’t have the slightest idea what Roy’s demons look like when they’re at home.

Havoc might be downright flattered to know how many times his impalement and intended execution has featured in the grotesque pageantries that pass through Roy’s head most nights.  Then again, he might be scandalized.  He might feel guilty.  By some contortion of emotion-logic, he might try to shoulder some part of the blame—for the incident itself, for Roy’s miserable brain’s endless rehashing of it—

Better to move on.

Better no one knows.

“Not especially,” Roy says.  His skull is full of cloying fog, but at least the sharp click of his boot heels on the flooring doesn’t miss a beat.  “But it’s kind of you to offer.”

“I have that report on the communications grid in Ishval that you asked for, sir,” Fuery says, pushing his chair back and scrambling out of it.  “There were a few things I wanted to explain—”

It’s past ten before he gets a chance to call his contact at the Riedd town hall.

“I don’t know,” Marena says, sounding scared—sounding helpless.  “There was—there was all this noise last night; someone said a hotel got blown up.  I don’t know exactly—there was a lot of ash; I smelled that… like something had been burning.  You know?”

“I know,” Roy says.

“I can probably get over there if it’s important,” Marena says.  “They just—there were policemen going around to houses this morning telling everyone to stay inside.  I only got here a couple minutes ago, and that was partly just… just to see what was happening, but nobody else who’s here seems to have a clue.”  She hesitates.  “I’ll see what I can find out.  I’ll let you know.”

“Not at the cost of your own safety,” Roy says.  “Don’t take risks.  Understand?”

“You sound like Mom,” Marena says.

“Good,” Roy says.  “You listen to her.”

Marena half-laughs.  “That’s news to me.  But I hear you.  Okay?  Don’t freak out.”

“Decorated officers in the Amestrian military don’t ‘freak out’,” Roy says.  “We demonstrate appropriate amounts of rational concern.”

“Right,” Marena says.  “Talk to you later.”

“I’m counting on it,” Roy says.

He’s just stepped in the door from a meeting that more or less melted every quadrant of his brain—the intricacies of the political machinations cinching in around him would make anyone claustrophobic; having to look these scheming bastards in the eye and fake a smile makes him so sick sometimes he can’t even bring himself to speak—when he hears the cheerful trill of his desk phone.

“Fuck,” he says, just this side of under his breath.

Fuery gasps aloud.

Riza barely stifles her snort.

What a goddamn day.  Roy takes a deep breath.

“Sorry,” he says; and then he says, “Excuse me” and darts around the backs of the chairs, managing a full-tilt run for two strides before he has to skid to a stop lest he crash into his own desk.  He snatches the phone up out of the cradle and, most likely over-energized by the leftover momentum, brings it to his ear too quickly—he manages to clap the speaker against his head hard enough that a scattering of little yellow stars flutter across his vision as he chokes out the requisite: “Mustang.”

“Hi,” Marena says.  “I poked around a little bit.  It was a building right next to the hotel that got flattened—must’ve been some fire, by the looks of it, but they cordoned it off, so it’s hard to tell what happened.  I chatted up a police officer, and he was telling me there was an alchemist involved.  I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that that’s why you asked.”

“No comment,” Roy says.

“Uh huh,” she says.  “Anyway, the cop said there weren’t any casualties that he knew of, but I’m not sure how much he’d be told in a situation like that.  I tried to get into the police station and see if they had anybody locked up, but they weren’t having it.  I think I need you to get me a new Negotiation Dress or something.”

“Only the best for you,” Roy says.  “Is your birthday coming up?”

“No,” she says.  “Red, please.  Something just a little bit shiny—you know the type.”

“Intimately,” he says.

She snickers.  “Sometimes I forget how fun you are.  I’ll see if I can get some solid information on the alchemist you may or may not be interested in.  What’re they wearing?”

“Also red,” Roy says.  “But not shiny at all.  He’s blond, short, and brilliant right up until the point where unscheduled demolitions become a remote possibility, at which point he’s an idiot of an unprecedented caliber.”

“Ooh,” Marena says.  “Loose cannon.  Just my type.”  She pauses just long enough for him to start formulating a riposte—not long enough for him to deliver it.  “Or is he already yours?”

“No comment there either,” Roy says.

“Uh huh,” she says.

“Let me know what you find out,” he says.

He can almost see her tossing her hair over her shoulder.  She doesn’t need a new dress; she could seduce a police officer in a burlap sack with a hole cut through it for her head.  “Sure thing.  Talk to you soon.”

He’ll have Vanessa help him pick out something stunning.

He learned how to compartmentalize in Ishval.  It goes further than just narrowing his focus until he can’t hear the hurricane of what-ifs drawing closer; it’s a large-scale shutdown of all of his ancillary thought processes until he becomes just enough of a hollow human-shell to do the work that is required.

He forces himself into a rhythm of reading and cross-referencing and signing off and setting aside.  Everything feels numb—numb and clumsy and gummy; there’s a reason all those words sound the same.  Sounds cluster.  Biologists say that form follows function; language’s answer is onomatopoeia and the cross-culture unity of verbalizations that mimic the thing they mean.

This is an endless pile of forms.

His brain is a swamp of terrors; inside his ribcage, there’s a void.

He makes himself push through paperwork until four o’clock, and then he digs up the contact sheet he hoped he wouldn’t have to use and dials the second number on the list.

“Riedd City Police Station,” a low voice on the other end of the line says, less than cheerily.  “How may I direct your call?”

“This is Brigadier General Roy Mustang,” Roy says, unable to resist the urge to twirl the phone cord around his index finger.  “I understand you may have some information concerning a state alchemist I sent out your way several days ago.”

He was expecting a minor pause, but this one is a behemoth.

“Oh,” the voice on the other end says after an eon or so has passed.  “Oh… hell.”

Roy pulls out all the sharpest consonants he’s capable of and clips every word off just a little too soon.  “Is there a problem?”

“Um,” the voice says, “a… bit.  A bit.  Sir.  A bit, sir.”

He introduces a filed edge of steel.  “Would you care to elaborate?”

“We… uh.  There was a—situation, real early this morning.  A… hostage situation.  And there was this guy who came out of nowhere and got involved, and actually kind of… well, the way it looked to me, he saved a lot of people, but the way he did it involved a historical building no longer being… built… so… we took him in for questioning after it was over, and he kept saying he was a state alchemist, only he didn’t have the watch—or anything else, no ID at all; he said he’d left everything in the hotel, but…”

Roy adds a thin but extremely potent layer of ice.  “But what?”

The voice very faintly says something like Augh before it goes on: “But—when we checked—we didn’t find anything in the room the hotel owners said was his.  So…”

“Put him on,” Roy says.


Put him on,” Roy says.

“Yes, sir,” the voice gasps out, and then there’s a clatter, and then there are a few more voices, faintly muffled.  One “What?” reaches a volume he can hear and a register that would startle canines; then there is some more commotion, and then there is a substantial wait.

Roy drums his fingertips on the desktop and takes a cursory glance at the cover page of the next report.  It is not nearly as interesting as imagining the entire staffing body of the Riedd police station running up and down the halls and flailing their arms at the prospect of what he might do to them if Ed returns with a single honey-colored hair out of place.

He grants himself a moment to close his eyes and bask in the relief—when he faces the flood head-on, it’s almost overwhelming.  Ed must be alive.  None of this could have played out in any of the ways he’d dreamt up and imagined in so much agonizing depth.  It feels like his whole skeleton is expanding; like his joints are going weak—like sinking into a bath that’s almost too hot, remembering just in time that water’s still water no matter how warm, and people drown much faster than you’d think.  It’s like a clawed fist that had curled around his whole torso is slowly, slowly, tentatively opening its grip.

The feeling subsumes him, and he isn’t Roy Mustang anymore—he is tingling limbs and tremulous elation alone, unmitigated; he’s tortured bliss all the way through.

And then he hears the dulcet tones of the distant strains of an elegant serenade:

“Take your fucking hands off me, or I’ll take ’em off of you,” Ed is saying as he approaches.  A soft thunk, and static on the line, and— “Took you long enough.”

“Good things come to those who wait,” Roy says despite the swelling of his heart in his throat.

“That’s something slow people say,” Ed says.

Roy’s heart beats in his ears—which is a shame, because he wants to isolate the sound of Ed’s voice as much as the phone will allow.  “Are you all right?”

“Yeah,” Ed says, and another shudder of the could-have-beens racks Roy’s whole frame.  “More or less.  Got a little banged up doing the police’s job and then getting pitched in a cell for it.”

Roy can imagine, with immense precision, the looks Ed just received for that.  He can see Ed’s I-dare-you grin even more clearly.

“We’ll have a talk with them about that,” Roy says.

“Upshot is, I guess they were dumb enough to think I couldn’t be dangerous with a notebook and a pencil,” Ed says, “so I got a head start on my report.”

“You are a gift to the universe itself,” Roy says—he cloaks it in the dry sarcasm that Ed has come to expect, of course, but damn if it isn’t true.  “I was told that they looked in your hotel room for your watch, and it had gone missing.”

“Couple things could’ve happened there,” Ed says.  “Which I explained in excruciating detail, but it’s not like it’s their institutional duty and moral obligation to protect all citizens, including the ones they’ve accused of ridiculous shit like deliberately destroying local landmarks.  I got no problem with landmarks.  Which is beside the point, because either the hotel took my request not to let on who I was a little too seriously and sent them to the wrong room; or they realized that those damn things are worth something if you melt the silver down.”

If one of the factions less enamored of Roy than his immediate associates is listening in on this line, they’re going to get exactly what they deserve.  “If it is the second,” he says, “that strands you there without any way to buy your ticket back, doesn’t it?”

“Bingo,” Ed says.  “You’re getting quick, Mustang.”

It’s probably true: the more times he tracks backwards along Ed’s chain-reaction lines of thought, the easier it becomes.  “I try.  I’ll wire enough to the local branch of the bank to cover the train—I’ll tell them to give it to you once you tell them your ID number.  I don’t suppose you paid the hotel in advance?”

“Couldn’t,” Ed says cheerfully.  “Didn’t know how long I’d be stuck in this shithole.”

Roy can’t even blame him for provoking his audience at this point.  Idly he wonders if the station chief will have the guts to submit a letter of complaint.  If he does, Roy intends to let Ed fold it into a hat.

“I’ll wire more than you could possibly need,” Roy says, “and trust you not to go on a shopping spree.”

“You kidding?” Ed asks.  “Expenses reports are bad enough when I do have a reason for them.  All right, bet you have important shit to do, or something—the bank’ll probably close in an hour; is that enough time for you?”

“I have people for that,” Roy says.  “Specifically, Sergeant Fuery.”

“Sir?” Fuery asks from the other room.  Someone bothers to shush him, which is a bit unnecessary given that Roy was counting on them all listening in so that he wouldn’t have to waste time telling them that Ed’s alive.

“Okay,” Ed says.  “Sounds like a plan.  Not quite as exciting as some of your other plans, but I’ll take it.  You get your ass back to work.”

“You get your ass back to Central,” Roy says.  “As soon as possible.  Understood?”

“Sir, yes, sir,” Ed says.  “Tell Fuery to throw in a little extra so I can have a nice di—”

“Dismissed, Fullmetal,” Roy says.

“Does that even work on the ph—”

Roy hangs up—partly just so that Ed can bestow several unprintable titles upon him in front of the Riedd police.

Ed reads Roy orders of magnitude better now than he did once, but he still doesn’t hear the undertow most of the time.  Very likely it’s just because Ed says what he means, when he means it, in as few words as possible, which makes it difficult for him to grasp the fact that Roy usually says twice as much with silence as he ever does out loud.

But Ed’s instincts for the feelings of those around him have also improved by leaps and bounds—maybe he’ll intuit it.  Maybe he’ll hear some part of it in a subconscious register, and he’ll know.

It wasn’t just Come back.  It was Come back to me.

Roy stifles the sigh, flips a page of an irrelevant report to the blank backside of the sheet, and jots down Ed’s ID and a rather generous estimate for the costs.  He stands and takes it to the outer office, where everyone pretends not to have been listening for his steps, and holds it out to Fuery.

“This shouldn’t take long,” he says.

Fuery’s eyes are unsettlingly huge—although the glasses don’t exactly deemphasize them, either.  “So—Ed’s okay?”

“Safe, sound, and sassy as ever,” Roy says.

A collective sigh of relief ripples through the room, and it takes most of his considerable willpower to hold back a contribution.

[Part II]


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September 2017

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