Only Edward Elric could sit in a sickbay cot, eating replicated jello, and call Roy Mustang an idiot to his face.
Standing at the end of Ed's cot, with Hawkeye close at his elbow, Mustang tried to remind himself that Ed had only just recovered enough to be able to hold a conversation. Still, it irked him that somehow, within the span of a five-minute conversation, the two of them had already managed to wind themselves into tight knots of aggravation. His second-in-command set a placating hand on his elbow, and he could nearly hear her telling him to count, slowly, to ten, and back down again. One…two…
"Sir, he didn't actually say you were an idiot," she pointed out, ignoring the implications of Ed's terminology. There were only so many translations of the Romulan insult, and although none of them translated directly to "idiot," they were also far from complimentary.
Ed blinked. "I didn't? I meant to."
Hawkeye's narrowed gaze shifted back to Ed, and he subsided. At last reaching ten, Mustang trusted himself to speak.
"Edward, just because you believe Arcanum doesn't exist—that it is, to quote your eloquent phrasing, 'the mutant spawn of fairy tails, religion, and a room full of washed-up chemists high off their own fumes'—doesn't negate the fact that Kimblee is in possession of something very important. Something that we don't understand. And whatever it is nearly tore us into pieces above that planet."
Ed glared at Mustang, then down into his cup of jello. When he spoke again, it was into the cup.
"…All right. Aside from that, why are we still hanging in space, barely a lightyear from where Kimblee is? Staying anywhere near this system makes it almost too easy for him to finish the job."
Hawkeye had her answer ready, making Mustang's job of standing silently and looking impassive much, much easier.
"We've decided that right now, he isn't an imminent threat. For the moment…Ed, we need you."
Ed stopped poking his jello, and stared back at her uncomprehendingly.
"Ling has been continuing your study of the Arca—" Ed's eyes narrowed, and she rephrased, "—the…sample, ever since the away team came back. He hasn't been able to get anything more out of it than you were."
Shooting Mustang a glare, Ed said gratingly:
"Well that's certainly interesting. Last I heard, the sample was about to be destroyed. I guess knowing Kimblee has a big, scary gun changed a few minds, didn't it?"
"Edward, that's not—"
Mustang tapped Hawkeye's elbow, and she cut off her reprimand. The negative space beneath the sterile sheet where Ed's leg should be testified to where his bitterness came from. Mustang reasoned that if anyone were going to have to bear the brunt of Ed's resentment, it might as well be him.
"It's not just whatever Kimblee's weapon is. There was also that other thing on the planet. Your brother and Ensign Catalina described something calling itself, 'Envy'."
Ed's eyes flickered down to his knee, then back up again. It was nearly imperceptible, but Mustang caught it, and thought suddenly of Hughes. When Ed spoke again, it was after too long of a hesitation.
"Yeah, I really can't help you with that one. Sorry."
"Could it be some different humanoid species the Federation hasn't made contact with yet?" Hawkeye mused, and Ed and Mustang shook their heads in unison.
"There would be some record of it, especially if it's native to the Alpha Quadrant," Mustang pointed out. "We may not have every system memorized, but a planet of creatures like that would certainly have become warp-capable by now. Evidence of their existence would be strewn across the sector."
"A non-native species then? Some nearby wormhole—" Hawkeye broke off suddenly when Ed started shaking his head more fervently, wrinkles of concentration gathering between his eyebrows.
"It wasn't right. It didn't seem…alive. Not in the same way we're alive." He gestured at the three of them. "The way it looked, and spoke, and even how it moved—there was just some fundamental wrongness about it. I can't describe it," he ended lamely, discouragement trickling out of his words like sand.
"We'll come back to it later," Hawkeye said. "You must focus on recovering."
Mustang noticed that she had moved away from him, around to the right side of Ed's hospital bed. Somehow, in the time it had taken her to migrate from the captain's side to her current position next to Edward, the sheets had been smoothed, the already clean shelf next to the cot had been organized, and the glaring white light had been dimmed to a more comfortable setting.
Ed did seem drained, even just from the short conversation that had taken place. But when Mustang gestured to Hawkeye for them to leave sickbay, he spoke again:
Both officers turned back. Ed was tapping a distracted rhythm on the top of the sheet with one hand. Now that he had already spoken up, it looked like he wanted more than anything to just stay silent. Finally, he managed to choke out:
"Thanks…for sending me that engineer. With the leg she's making me, I'll be walking again in one month."
Hawkeye's eyebrows climbed so far toward her hairline they practically vanished. Mustang repeated numbly, "A month?"
Ed nodded, barely moving his chin.
The two left sickbay after that, leaving Ed staring fixedly into his jello cup as though its contents contained some very important discovery. The words "one month" droned fuzzily in Mustang's brain like a badly tuned radio. Rockbell was one of the most talented engineers on the ship, but…a month?
A side-glance told him that Hawkeye was—inexplicably, irritatingly—smiling.
"That engineer is either crazy, or…yeah. She's crazy," he stated, giving Hawkeye time to agree with him. Instead, she made a nondescript noise in the back of her throat. His glance to her said, "go ahead, tell me what I'm missing this time."
"Without Winry Rockbell's quick thinking, we would have lost the entire away team. Compared to that assignment, it's logical to assume she can handle Edward."
Mustang grunted, inelegantly acknowledging her point. Still…hijacking a comm frequency for a transporter lock was one thing. Designing and building a leg, then rehabilitating an officer who wasn't exactly known for his sugary sweet disposition—that was on another plane of difficulty entirely. Hawkeye seemed to read his mind.
"Worrying about Ed isn't going to help right now. He can take care of himself—we both know that. The most important thing for us to do is to come up with a course of action quickly, before Kimblee and whoever's assisting him can escape or cause any more damage."
"Right," said Mustang, shaking off his preoccupation. "And the Drachman?"
"On a course for Earth."
Mustang nodded, pleased that Armstrong still seemed to be on board with his plan on how to inform the Federation bigwigs about Kimblee. The Drachman had left the system several hours beforehand to apprise Starfleet Command on the outcome of the mission. The sudden appearance of "Envy"—whatever or whoever it was—had changed things, and both Armstrong and Mustang reasoned that the best way to deliver a proper briefing was in person, at Command.
"Someone has to give them the details and be able to answer all their questions. There's also a lot of paperwork, I'd imagine. Shouldn't you be the one to do the honors?" Armstrong had asked Mustang before leaving with her ship. "After all, I'm not the one chasing the top post."
"Is it really doing the honors if we all we did was fail miserably?"
"I assume I don't have to tell you why that view of things is short-sighted, Mustang."
She didn't. Whoever made it back first to Federation Headquarters got to deliver the news about Arcanum, as well as the indestructible creature known as Envy. That person would likely spend a lot of time with Starfleet's top-ranking admirals, and Commander-in-Chief Bradley himself.
But Mustang didn't see his path that way. Instead, he saw the Amestris bringing Kimblee back to a prison cell in chains, along with his mysterious power source and his even more mysterious ally.
"Consider it a generous gesture, Olivier."
Armstrong's expression said: "Addressing me by my first name is a fast way to get your nose broken." Her mouth said: "Don't expect a gift basket."
The Drachman departed less than an hour later, leaving the Amestris near enough to the planet to still keep tabs on the shuttle. Since the vessel hadn't moved an inch from the surface of the Class N planet, it was apparent Kimblee felt confident neither of the Starfleet ships would be sending any more offense down to the surface. Despite this fact, the Amestris' helmsman had a standing directive to take the ship to warp at the first sign of another energy surge from the surface.
So far, however, there had been no anomalous readings. Just silence. It was, Mustang thought, rather eerie that after the powerful display on the surface, everything had simply had shut down. It was as though the inhabitants of the shuttle were playing dead.
In the meantime, Lieutenant Miles had been left behind on the Amestris to examine the sample that could be the legendary Arcanum. Once Ling Yao had showed him the disappointing results of Ed's experimentation, Miles had settled himself down to perform more academic research.
"I don't think anyone wants me messing things up in your nice laboratory," Miles told Mustang on his way out the door. "So I'll stick to the computer files. It's been a while since I looked at the records of the Ishvala's disappearance, so maybe time and focus will reveal answers there."
"Whatever you need," Mustang had replied, and set him up at his own station with full access to the research database.
As Mustang and Hawkeye now made their way back to the bridge, he was about to let Alphonse know that Ed was awake, but very tired. Before he could do so, his comm chirped at him.
"Captain, I'm sorry to interrupt, but can you and Commander Hawkeye come up to the bridge?"
"Zhanshi. I'm on my way. What is it?"
"There's a ship approaching. According to its warp signature it seems to be a Bajoran scout ship. They haven't hailed us."
Mustang glanced at Hawkeye in surprise before answering:
"Thank you. We'll be there immediately."
He cut the line, commenting, "That's an extremely long trip for a scouting vessel to make."
Hawkeye nodded, and her pace quickened as the two of them approached the bridge entrance and passed through. Lieutenant Zhanshi stood, and Mustang noticed that his hastily appointed security officer seemed to shoot up from the captain's chair as though it had burned her. She apparently didn't approve of being in command. He'd have to think about that—and how it would affect the possibility of her promotion—later.
While Hawkeye sent the relieved Lan Fan back to her post, Maria Ross showed Mustang the specs on the approaching scout ship at the ops station.
"The vessel popped out from behind a proto-nebula just a few lightyears away, which is why our long-range sensors didn't pick it up."
Mustang frowned. If the ship had been hiding, that suggested its pilot was already expecting to encounter ships near the planet. Although, if it was only a scouting vessel…
"They're—they're arming phaser banks!"
Ross' voice cracked upward in surprise as her displays started blinking red.
"Raise shields…?" Mustang said, although it seemed like a lot of effort for such a distant shot. The scout was too far out of range. By the time its phaser fire reached them, it made more sense for the Amestris to just lower shields again and not waste the energy. The scout ship's shot dissipated a hundred meters short of the Amestris' hull, fizzling out pathetically on the view screen. Mustang and Ross looked at each other, nonplussed.
"Hail them. I'd like to know why we just got spit on by an allied scout while we're in the middle of a mission."
Ross obliged, opening a frequency to the unknown ship.
"This is Captain Roy Mustang of the Amestris. Are we in your way?" Hawkeye shook her head at him, and Mustang ignored her.
There was a great deal of static over the line, and nothing more than a few wavering lines showed up on the viewscreen. The transmission cut to audio only. There was a sound resembling a child's shriek, and then, finally, a voice spoke.
"Captain Mustang. Solf Kimblee is no longer your concern. Leave orbit and let us bring him to justice."
The voice was deep, and had the same faint accent that belonged to Lieutenant Miles.
"Please identify yourself, scouting vessel."
"Our identities are not important."
"That may be true. However, the fact that you just fired on us is."
"A mistake. The one responsible for that shot is no longer in control of the weapons array."
This caught Mustang by surprise.
"There's more than one of you in a one-man scout vessel?"
"Again, not of your concern. Leave this system, forget Kimblee, and we will undertake his capture."
Mustang saw the readings on Ross' console from her tactical scans of the scout ship. They had limited phasers, and no room for torpedoes. In terms of defense, Mustang could see that their shields were almost completely drained—certainly not strong enough to withstand one of Kimblee's shockwaves.
"You may not fully understand what you're getting into. The shuttle on the surface is prepared to put up a fight."
"You will not persuade us to leave."
There was another noise—someone's squeak and a frantic whisper, and the unknown man growled something that sounded like: "Keep out of this, fool."
Mustang changed his approach.
"Your ship is in no condition to even orbit that planet, let alone stage an assault. Come aboard the Amestris and we'll talk. We can help you repair your shields and your malfunctioning communication system."
"We do not need your assistance."
More whispering. Another growl. Mustang rubbed his temples in exasperation.
"Listen. You can either come aboard and accept our help, or you can get shot to hell by Kimblee. Who, by the way, fought off two heavily armed Federation ships a few days ago with nothing more than dumb luck—oh, and enough firepower to collapse a planet."
Sorry Hawkeye. It's been a long day.
There was, at last, a pause of deliberation from the scout ship.
"We'll consider it."
"Good to hear."
The other ship ended the transmission abruptly, and at the other end of the bridge Hawkeye began to coordinate the process of bringing the Bajoran vessel into the largest shuttle bay alongside the Black Hayate. Mustang looked forward to seeing who their unexpected guests were, and what they could possibly want with Kimblee.
"Can we get to the part where you explain why I'm here?"
Alphonse was in the crossfire between the two siblings, and currently wishing he could be anywhere else. May stood with one foot inside the doorway to the science lab, obviously reluctant to completely enter the room, while Ling Yao kept fiddling with the repaired force field settings that kept the particulates sealed off from the rest of the laboratory space. Blithely ignoring May's question, Ling pressed a final button with a flourish. H turned to face both Alphonse and May with a wide grin on his face, and one finger poised over the console's control pad.
"Thanks for joining me, both of you."
Neither Al nor May could make a sound before Ling calmly pressed the button to deactivate the field, and the little rocks clattered gently to the lab table surface. Alphonse took a step forward in alarm.
"Ling! What in the—you can't just have those out in the open like that!"
However, Ling's face had gone immediately tense. At the same time, Al heard May gasp from the doorway. He turned back to look at her.
"What did you do?" she whispered. Her fingers, so often steady as steel, shook slightly as she lifted her right hand up to her forehead. Her eyes squeezed shut, as though she were listening very intently for a distant voice, and still couldn't quite hear the words.
Al was perturbed at once. "May—?"
"Ah, so it's not just me." Ling zapped the force field up again, enclosing the particulates.
"It's coming from those?" May tilted her head toward where the innocent-looking sample lay inside the field's gently whirring invisible bubble. She still looked a little shaken, and Al was more than ready to find out what was going on.
"What are you two talking about? Nothing happened—except for the force field coming down, of course." He glared at Ling. "A little warning before you pull something like that again, please."
"So it seems that only telepaths can sense it, as far as I can tell," Ling spoke, as if to himself. "Which leads to the next couple puzzles: why it can be blocked off by a force field—"
"Why what can be blocked off?!"
"—and, of course, why these particulates seem to be its source."
Before his annoyance grew any more, Al noticed that May had walked farther into the lab and was staring over at the console. Her eyes, just like with all Betazoids, were the color of liquid onyx, but now they seemed to be so dark that they were almost non-reflective.
"It was a resonance."
Al squinted down at her.
"And that is…?"
"It's like the footprint of a living consciousness. Or—maybe more accurately, an echo of it. A resonance is quite common after a death. Family members and friends amplify the 'echo' through their feelings and memories toward the deceased, and then as more time passes, it fades gradually. I've felt resonances before. I was just…surprised this time."
Ling nodded along with May's explanation as he continued adjusting the settings on the console.
"A resonance is not something you typically feel unless you're surrounded by other telepaths," he said, facing away from the two of them. "Honestly, I don't know of any other places where they're felt apart from Betazed."
Al finally stopped feeling like he was so far out of the loop. Then, something occurred to him:
"Well—the ship did just experience a loss: Hughes. Whatever this 'resonance' thing is isn't connected to him, is it?"
Ling shook his head. "I really don't think so. Lan Fan, May, and myself are the only telepaths aboard the Amestris. The resonance we detected, though shallow, is more than could be generated by at least ten others like us. It's highly peculiar, and it seems to be connected strongly to these." He quirked his thumb toward the particulates.
May crossed her arms, forehead creasing. "If all you wanted was to determine whether another telepath could feel the resonance, you could have asked Lan Fan. I don't feel comfortable leaving Edward alone in sickbay for so long."
Al started. "Wait—Winry's already seen him? The captain and Hawkeye too?"
May nodded. "I was about to tell you before we were given an 'executive summons' to the science lab." She sighed, turning back toward the exit door.
"I'll let you figure out what's going on with your little rocks, Ling. Alphonse and I need to get back to sickbay and—"
"Hang on." Ling's voice cut her off. "I didn't ask Lan Fan because I needed you here specifically. You too, Elric."
May turned around, her face covered in consternation.
Ling grinned again, and his hand on the console dropped the force field a second time.
"Because you both have medical experience. I need you here in case I die."
Al watched, speechless, as Ling reached for one of the particulates and closed his fingers around it.
May gave a small shriek, and Al took a futile step forward, even though he knew there was no way he was close enough to stop Ling from touching the sample with his bare skin.
Promptly, a great deal of nothing happened.
"Huh." Ling spun the rock between his thumb and pointer finger, holding it up to his eye as if it were a monocle. "I thought that would be a bit more dramatic."
"You complete idiot!" Al cringed away from May as the small medic positively inflated with fury. "Put it down! NOW!"
"What? I'm not hurting it."
"That's not the—are you really that stupid?!"
"Hey! I'm not—"
"What could have happened if you triggered some sort of reaction? Did you even think about what might happen to Al, or me, or the ship?!"
Ling held the stone away from his face to glare daggers at his sister, but Al's eyes were riveted to the hand that held the stone. And then he saw it: a lick of ruby slid across Ling's palm, amplified by the bright laboratory lights. It stayed, shimmering, across the surface of the tiny rock.
"Ling, look." He pointed to where the stone was now pulsing, releasing a slow, living red light. A tiny heartbeat.
As soon as he saw where Al was looking, Ling immediately set the stone in his hand down next to the other particulates. Once it rested among its fellows again, the glow faded, leaving a normal, tiny gray rock. Taking out his tricorder, Al walked closer, running the device over the particulates from every angle as Ling kept staring down at his own hand.
"Very peculiar," he muttered, and Alphonse was inclined to agree. The tricorder readings provided no insight as to why the sample's appearance had suddenly altered.
"The resonance hasn't changed," May noted, her anger at Ling set aside for the moment as she held both pointer fingers to her temples. "Whatever you did just now didn't have any more effect on that, at least. And I really do need to get back to sickbay now."
"Fine with me."
"And please leave me out of your next insane experiment."
The siblings' shallow bickering faded in Al's awareness as he kept scanning the strange sample. He began to wonder: why had the captain done such an about-face? He had at first insisted that the sample be vaporized, but shortly after the failed mission to capture Kimblee, Mustang had instead ordered Ling to resume the close study of it in Ed's place.
At once, more than ever, Al wished Ed were standing here instead of him, and that he were in a healthier state. He felt the strong impulse to check on his brother and make sure he was recovering properly. Rarely had the two of them gone a day without seeing each other, but Ed's condition had been so touch-and-go that, until May told him otherwise, only she, the doctor, and Winry had been allowed anywhere near him. And Al was, sadly, too familiar with this situation.
Though he and his brother were closely matched intellectually, Ed had always been the one to devise ingenious, sometimes foolhardy methods of finding out what he wanted to know. His tendency to rush to the most daring experiments made him a wild card in the Federation, but also one of their most unique and useful assets. It also meant he got hurt. A lot.
Only the Elric brothers themselves knew how much Ed's abilities had really cost them. Not even Mustang or Hawkeye were fully aware of what the two boys had experienced before they became part of the Amestris' crew. Alphonse was ready to leave that part of their lives behind, but he knew that as long as Edward breathed, he would be a magnet for disaster. This time, it was because he had tried to protect Al, and it had backfired horribly, irreversibly.
"Let's go check on him," said May's voice suddenly, close to his shoulder.
Al broke free from his thoughts, and managed to smile down at her.
After the captain and Hawkeye took their leave, Ed sat on the sickbay cot with nothing but the beeps of various machines and the room's pervasive, flooding brilliance for company. He was left to ponder why he hadn't told his commanding officers about what he'd seen inside his head.
Well, there was the fact that it was inside his head. The premonition, the drug-addled vision, might be something in which a philosopher or an artist might be able to find a shred of validity, but Ed, the scientist, simply could not. Even as he thought about it, the colors of the shuttle's interior, and the skeletal sharpness of the faces in the darkness, began to ripple into indistinction in his memory. And then there was:
"Arcanum," he scoffed out loud, before remembering that either Marcoh or May Chang—probably both—were hanging around somewhere nearby. Still, that stupid myth had caused more problems than it could ever fix. He and Alphonse knew that firsthand.
No sooner had Al's name occurred to him than Ed realized that his brother should be here. He hadn't seen him since regaining consciousness, and Ed needed someone trustworthy to keep tabs on Ling, who was probably busy trying to blow up the science lab by now.
"Hey," he said, his tone slightly raised. He couldn't see the doctor's cubicle from his cot, but someone had to be there.
The silence pounded back into his ears, and Ed slumped against the cot. The exhaustion from his short conversation with Mustang and Hawkeye sank even deeper, like it was some black creature trying to bury itself inside his bones. They wouldn't really just leave him alone, would they? Not for long, at least. Someone would come back any minute. He noticed suddenly that there was a very faint ringing in his ears, crawling upward in volume and pitch. He recognized it. It was the same ringing he heard after the first explosion. The first time he heard that cold, crazy laughter and the first time Hughes' voice sounded truly afraid. The ringing got so loud he brought his hands up to press on either side of his head, pushing inward on his temples until his knuckles ached, and that's when he noticed his comm badge, sitting, grimy and dust-colored on the clean silver table. It took him several long seconds to reach out a hand for it, and something clattered to the floor when he finally got the device between his shaking fingers. He must have pressed it, because there was a voice on the other end, blurry and faint through the ringing:
It wasn't Alphonse, and Ed was surprised, because he thought he'd said his brother's name before hailing. As it was, without a clear directive, the comm had connected him with the last person who had used it to reach him, back when he had been down on the unnamed planet.
The person he had just hailed was very confused, but continued to speak into the empty comm line.
"…Winry?" His mouth moved slowly; he was underwater.
"Who…? Wait—is this—"
The rest of her response got lost, bouncing around somewhere between his ears. Still gripping the comm badge, he was vaguely aware that there was still noise coming from it, but it didn't really matter. The ringing couldn't get any louder, and the boulder was being lowered back on to his lungs.