Warning: For violence and blood in the latter half.

Part XXXV – Chapter 86 – Atrophy of Mankind

An excited knock came from the front door of the house – the kind where the knuckles bounce off the wood childishly. Winry slipped her way down the stairs, dropping her clipboard to the bottom stair without any clatter, and drifted to the front door. With the quick unlatch of the lock she poked her head into the January afternoon.

"Albrecht!" Winry blinked in surprise, looking around the porch, eyeballing the beaming young Haushofer and Rudolf Hess who accompanied him, "What brings you by?"

"Rudolf told me Edward was sick and not to work today, we have come to see how you and he are doing!" Albrecht glowed happily like a delighted puppy.

"Oh, uh, no he wasn't feeling good this morning," Winry glanced over her shoulder, wondering if Ed was paying attention to the noise at the front of the house, "well, don't stand outside, it's cold," with the wave of her hand, she ushered the two men into the house.

"Have you been doing your best to help him feel better in his time of need, Winry?" Hess asked, slipping in ahead of the younger Haushofer as Albrecht pushed his knuckles into Hess's lower back.

"He's usually pretty good at taking care of himself," Winry smiled at Hess's heavily accented English – at least his method of speaking was more like Hitler's and less like Albrecht's – she preferred hard to understand English as opposed to stupid English.

Shaking his head, Hess stomped a dusting of snow from his boots before smiling up at Winry, "Well, that's quite a shame, I'm sure you give excellent care."

Winry watched Albrecht stagger while pulling off a boot, stumbling into Hess's side carelessly. Winry pinched her face and turned her head down the hall, "Ed, there's company here."

An indistinct string of curses flew out, and a flurry of papers exploded from beyond the end of the hallway.

The eldest of the two guests grinned. Hess removed his hat form his head and tucked it under his arm, all the while eyeballing the excitement at the opposite end of the house. He watched long enough to see a disheveled Elric lumber into the light. An unimpressed curl came into Hess' face as he looked Ed over: dressed in heavy black sweats, worn out old sleep shirt, and unbound, uncombed, and untamed hair. Rudolf's words became German, "Aren't you ever presentable when you're home? I swear the last few times I've been by this house you've looked nothing short of street urchin. A lady lives under this roof too, you know."

Ed gave his best rendition of a grumbling boar, scowling his way further into the hall.

Albrecht shook his other foot free of his winter boot, smiling down the hall at the approaching Elric, "Good afternoon, Ed." Albrecht quickly turned the smile onto Winry, put a hand on her hip, drawing up her hand, leaning in close, and put a kiss to the back of Winry's right hand, before sweeping himself deeper into the house, leaving his "Good afternoon, Winry," echoing in the hall.

"What the hell do you think you're doing, Albrecht?" Edward squawked madly at Albrecht, the younger man grinning like a cat guilty of eating a canary.

"You're such a schmooze," Hess' laugh echoed through the house as he followed Albrecht.

"He's a womanizing son of a bitch," Ed's eye twitched as neither man paid any attention to his remark. Ed peeked over to Winry's sheepish-looking expression. She quickly huffed and decided that the task of organizing the winter boots on the entry mat was an excellent use of her time. Ed sputtered out of the hall, and fizzled his way into the main room, astoundingly annoyed at the late afternoon interruption.

Hess' laugh died as he eyeballed the paperwork chaos spread out over the floor, on the tables, and on all the seat cushions, "Seems you're doing better now than when you called in," he shot a doubtful gaze to Ed as Albrecht began poking at paperwork thrown about.

"I had a stomach bug," Ed snarled, stomping over to Albrecht to remove his paper pickings and return them to where they belonged, "and I still do. So if you don't leave, I might begin suffering from projectile vomit. Maybe you two should find some other house to invade."

Like a fascinated child, Hess' brow rose as he began collecting sheets of Edward's work, "I'm quite intrigued with our invasion of Elricland thus far. What on earth is all this?" he turned the sheet from the relative right side up to upside down.

"Stress relief," Ed's eye again twitched, snaking his way from Albrecht over to Hess, once again reclaiming sheets of paper.

"No, Rudolf, its alchemy. Have a look at some of this," like a giddy child, Albrecht began flipping through a pile of sheets on the end table, "I knew you dabbled in alchemy, but this is crazy. I've always thought you were hiding something…"

"Oh for the love of… PUT THAT DOWN!" Ed barked, under-arming a cork coaster across the room at Albrecht. All Edward's words did was encourage the two men further, both eagerly flipping their way through papers while Ed mentally ripped the stuffing out of the couch with his teeth.

"Are you trying to turn lead into gold?" Albrecht grinned, sifting his way deeper into Fort Alchemy, "let me know how to do it when you figure it out."

"That's not what I'm doing," Ed grumbled, storming over to Albrecht and hauling him out of the alchemy world by the collar of his shirt.

Hess snapped his fingers, "I know, you're trying to reach Shamballa!"

"What? No," Ed rolled his eyes, booting Albrecht closer to the hallway, debating if he wanted to tie the annoying Haushofer up with the lamp cord, "this has nothing to do with that. Look, do you two buffoons want the formula for turning lead into gold? Cause I know that one. If I give it to you, will you leave?"

Hess took his collection of gathered paperwork and wandered over to Ed, "That sounds fascinating Edward, but since the formula for turning lead into gold came out of your mouth like it had no value to you, this must be far more intriguing," he shook the papers in his hand, "what, praytell, are you actually doing?"

Ed snatched the papers from Hess and tossed them carelessly over the back of the couch, glaring at the man from beneath his brow as white sheets fluttered into silence. With a sudden smirk, an annoyed sarcasm drawled out in Edward's voice, "I'm trying to make a magical door appear in the sky that has bright sunshine, clear blue skies, lush green grass, and rainbows leaking from it…"

The two invasive men rolled their eyes in unison before Albrecht's eyes slipped to Hess, "Is this considered mockery, or is he just being an ass?"

"It seems our well-wishing appearance is not appreciated," with an animated shrug at the emphatic enunciation of his words, Hess turned away from the room and took himself down the hall to the front door, Albrecht following behind.

Ed's voice carried on through the house after the two men, "Hey, I don't barge into your house and make a mess of your homework."

"You don't go to anyone's house, Edward. You're perpetually anti-social," Hess twisted his nose, slipping his hands into his pockets, casting an eye into the kitchen as he passed it, watching for a moment as Winry made herself look busy within, "Anti-social with an asterisk."

"What the hell is that supposed to mean?" the Elric pulled himself down the hall, like the crushing force of a collapsing landslide forcing everything away.

Both men looked at Ed with a profoundly unimpressed gaze, before Albrecht turned to Hess, "Remind me why we gave the idea of checking up on Edward any value?"

"I think we gave Winry all the value," Hess's brow rose.

"OUT," Edward bellowed, finger pointed.

With the loud and abrupt instruction, both men ushered on their boots, gave a few dismissive comments to Ed's abhorred behaviour, and let themselves out of the house – ending their impromptu interruption with a rush of cold air as the front door shut behind them.

Ed's eye twitched at their departure and a narrowed gaze snapped to the kitchen, eyeballing Winry's movement throughout, "What are you doing?"

"Alphabetically arranging all the spices on the rack," Winry's voice pitched sharply, "for some reason your dad didn't keep all the spices in the spice rack!"

Edward's shoulders fell, sliding his attention from the kitchen back into the living room. His eyes rolled with his swinging head, and the Elric pulled himself away, stomping back into the centre of the alchemy universe in the main room, detesting the thought of having to reorganize all the papers that had been moved around.

A hole was being paced into the floor. People had tried, but no one could stop it. Again and again dark brown shoes repeated their path – it was the only impatient solution that could tide Russell Tlingum over until…

"Your telegram is here, Mr. Tlingum!" a voice called as a hand slapped down on the hotel's check-in countertop with the sheet of paper.

"Thank you!" Russell called, freeing himself from the path of his pacing, and rushing to the counter to claim his prize. He snatched up a typewritten sheet of paper in both hands, and the young man's excited eyes scanned it over. A smug, hot grin bubbled through Russell's face as his pleasure rose, "Gotcha." He spun on a dime and began bounding up the stairs, leaping to every third step, "These people are going to owe me a freakin' pay cheque!"

At the second floor, the eldest Tlingum shot down the hall, skidding to a stop at a sealed door. Russell took a moment to breathe, straighten himself, shake out his shoulders, hold his chin high, and casually knock on the door.

"Yes?" Mustang's voice bellowed from inside.

Russell's hand fell over the doorknob, and he let himself into the 'war room' – Mustang's interim solution to command central until 'Central' was commandeered. The fluttering white sheet of telegram paper preceded the eldest Tlingum brother as he sauntered in.

"Hey!" Russell sounded off happily, eyeballing two former State Alchemists – Mustang and Armstrong, "How's the siege going? Sunk any battleships yet?"

Mustang shot a look across the room with his one eye that could have set the boy ablaze for his distasteful question, "What do you want?"

Russell laughed nervously, and shook out his telegram, "Gillian Atropos."

"Who?" Mustang raised a brow at Russell amidst an impossible amount of papers that haunted him wherever he went.

"Gillian Atropos, 32 years old," Russell snapped the sheet of paper back to eye level, "worked for Mugear as a research assistant for six years in the Xenotime upper core, where Fletcher and I were. She was part of the Red Water project. Can't say I talked to her much, but I recognize her," his eyes quickly skimmed the sheet again, "um, her parents died of Red Water poisoning. And Gillian Atropos herself died two months ago in child birth," the young man shook a shiver through the sheet he held, "You know Ms. Atropos as the Prime Minister's nurse, 'Aisa'."

Mustang's hands gripped the table edge, and he disengaged himself from his work.

Armstrong's eyes puzzled over the statements made, moving over and towering above the suddenly miniature Tlingum who most willingly handed over possession of his prized telegram to the officer, "Does she have a husband?"

"Doesn't list one. Says she's single," Russell shrugged, "one night stand?"

A deep, noxious intake of air was drawn in through Mustang's nostrils as he inhaled the room. It felt dirty to breathe with so much filthy information in it; the thoughts carrying in the wind were so corrosive sometimes, "How old is Diana?" he asked anyone who would answer.

Armstrong took up a bundle of papers in his other hand, flipping through to make sure he had his answer, "Now? Approximately two months."

"Hm…" Mustang exhaled the filth from his lungs, "What's the baby's name in that report?"

The eldest Tlingum's eyes shifted, "It doesn't list one. It just indicates that mom and a female baby died in childbirth."

Snatching up a rolled sheet and dumping it onto a clear table, Mustang swept open the sheet and pinned the corners down. He folded his arms, and curiously dabbed his interest in the woman at Dante's side, "If we add in Gillian to our time line, I suspect we'll see Aisa hired on sometime within the last two months. So, why would Dante go all the way to Xenotime for a woman and child?"

"That's an obvious answer," Russell pointed out, "largest documented location of Red Water production ever recorded was in Xenotime."

"Yes, and obviously Dante had a hand in that," Mustang retorted, "but, why waste time and effort if you're in Central to pick up a pregnant woman in Xenotime and make her disappear? Dante already has the Philosopher's Stone, why would she waste her time on the substitute? Red Water production has been declared illegal by law, and Xenotime is heavily monitored because of that. I don't understand the connection," Mustang shook his head, stepping away from the table and out into room. He glanced up to the towering Armstrong and took the telegram from the officer's possession. Mustang's own eye scoured the typed document of basic recorded details from the Xenotime Municipal Records, catching the wilting Tlingum stepping back to lean against the wall, "what are we missing, Mister Tlingum?"

The young man's eyes shifted. Russell slipped himself to the door, and quietly latched it shut. He paused everything about himself for a moment, thinking his words through, before stepping away from the sealed frame, "Do you know the best way to crystallize red water and create an imitation Philosopher's Stone?"

Mustang's eye shifted curiously, "I have some vague information on the crystallization process."

Clearing his throat, Russell folded his arms, "The one easy, sure fire way of crystallizing Red Water is perverse."

Without moving, Mustang began to tower over the young man, "I think I need to know."

The Tlingum swallowed heavily, "If a pregnant woman drinks the water throughout her trimesters, the water leeches into the placenta and crystallizes during the fetus' growth. It slowly poisons the mother, and the baby usually ends up dying shortly after birth, if it's born at all," he ran his hand harshly through the hair at the back of his neck, "If you start at week three, the placenta crystallizes perfectly. If the red water treatment starts before that, the baby will choke to death on the crystallized placenta before it's ever born. You'd have to castrate the mother if you want to use the Red Stones, because they will have crystallized into the wall of the uterus," Russell shifted his balance between his feet, "all kinds of Red Water pregnancy treatment boils down to: dead mom, dead baby, some degree of Red Stone."

"Sweet mercy…" Armstrong stuttered, seating himself, "that's abhorred."

"I agree," Mustang shook the unsettled look from his expression.

"Some sick pervert in Central conducted that experiment years ago," Russell tossed his head aside, a sour look invading his face, "as far as I ever knew, no one managed to convince anyone in Xenotime to conduct the experiment properly. Non compliance cost people their lives."

Mustang took a step away from his stance, shaking the heavy weight from his shoulders. He moved his feet along the wood flooring of the room as he reexamined the telegram, "Aisa couldn't have been party to that experiment though; both she and the baby are alive."

"Well," Russell's hand's flew out, his tone sarcastic, "what better explanation for a crazed alchemist to make the trek out to Xenotime than to fetch a blooming experiment coming to term," Russell clapped his hands together heavily, shrugging his shoulders at a pair of aghast looks that befell him within the room, "yeah, I know. I'm a ray of sunshine in your day. You're welcome."

With the abrupt shake of his head to throw Russell's chirps from his ears, Mustang sighed and brought a hand to his forehead, "Somebody needs to find out 'why'," he looked back into the room, "why would Dante want something like that if she has a Philosopher's Stone?"

All the Brigadier General's question would receive for an answer would be silence.

"Alright, so we're going to need to confirm if Diana is Aisa's baby, and if the woman was used at all for any Red Water experiments," the senior officer grumbled at his side challenges, "Russell, take your brother back to Xenotime and research this woman for us further. Find her doctors, her medical records, her grave, 'exhume her'; do everything you can."

Slitting his eyes and pinching his cheeks, Russell gave a pointed glare at Mustang, "Is this your way of ordering me out of Central?"

"Yes," Mustang answered abruptly, "your place isn't here during our mission. You're more useful elsewhere, and in less danger. Take Roze with you, she doesn't belong in this mess either," the officer's gaze slipped down to the table, and allowed the timetable he'd comprised on Dante to roll back up, "our march through the southern quadrants of Central begins tonight. Get your ass out of here before the sun sets."

From the depths of a little family shop opposite a hardware store, the AutoMail mechanic had requested a handful of Marks for a non-mechanical purpose. Ed's eyes mingling in the people traffic as he waited outside, finally able to refocus his attention when Winry merrily came out of the shop, a glass bottle filled with a thick brown liquid dangling in her hand. She stuck it under Ed's nose.

A malicious sneer drew across Winry's face, "You should try some. It's good."

"Are you kidding!" Ed sputtered, backing up, "it looks like liquid shit. I'm not drinking that." What an absurd idea. What a preposterous notion. "Who the hell thought they could put chocolate in milk and make an improvement?" Ed looked genuinely distraught over the expense of perfectly good chocolate.

Winry popped the cap off, turning her nose up at Ed and sticking a straw down the bottle's neck. She pinched the bridge of her nose and slowly slipped her lips over the end of the straw. Ed's eye twitched. A deliberate glint sparked in her eyes and she began making a long, loud, dramatic, and drawn out example on how to swallow more than half a bottle of chocolate milk through a straw in only one breath. Ed recoiled, his eyes rolling in disgust, and he shivered himself away from the vile act. Winry came up for air with the loud smack of her lips.

"AH!" she breathed loudly.

"I'm going to be sick," Ed twitched.

"Come on you big baby," Winry grinned, leading their march across the street, "We have more to accomplish," she shook the rattling bag of improvised AutoMail supplies hanging off her shoulder as she crossed. Stepping up onto the other street side, Winry looked up at the door chime that rang overhead as she entered an exhausted looking hardware store.

Today was the day Winry was picking up the beginnings of the materials needed to construct Edward's new arm, and this trip was specifically for his hand. When Ed asked earlier why she'd decided to start at the hand, and seemingly develop her construction from the outer most extremity inwards, Winry stated that she was saving the best part for last – the shoulder port and socket. Ed reminded Winry that the 'best part' was the most painful part of all, and got back from her a glowing, passionate description of why she took great pleasure in the blood-rushing, religious process of wiring together the focal point joining man to machine, and how important it was to do it right. After a few more words and a number of blank stares, the conversation degraded to a point where Ed informed her she was, in fact, a masochistic machine freak.

He spent the next hour icing down the lump on his forehead.

Winry drifted through the store to collect what she could from her list. Edward remained near the door, perched at the storefront window like a mannequin, holding surveillance over the society outside as the world walked by. Ed never did bother keeping track of how long it would take Winry to pillage any particular hardware shop, but she seemed to be mastering the talent, since it felt like she was getting through each location quicker and quicker. His eyes flickered back to the store when Winry shuffled up to his side.

She looked up at him sweetly.

"What…?" Ed asked suspiciously.

Winry's blue eyes shifted before whipping up a pair of needle nosed pliers, "Told you I'd find ones better than what you and your dad have," she beamed, "can I have them?"

Ed rolled his eyes, muttering a string of inaudible words before reaching into a pocket for his wallet, "You done?"

"Yes," she grinned, taking the non answer as a yes, and snatched up the money Ed handed to her.

With one last glance at the world from the window view, Ed slipped his good hand back into his pocket and walked over to Winry at the clerk's desk as she stuffed her purchase into the burlap bag. The hardware store's door rang with chimes when they left.

In the nippy winter air, Ed drew up his hand and narrowed an eye as his index finger canvassed the streets, his attention falling to a four-way corner at the opposite block, "Next store is on the other side, half a block up."

Winry adjusted the bag on her shoulder as they began the walk, "You know, when I get finished with this AutoMail arm of yours, I'll deserve an award!" her hand suddenly flashed through the sky, "Winry Rockbell: AutoMail Miracle Worker Extraordinaire. Improvisation Queen of the Year! One of those better come with a shiny plaque."

When Edward neither quipped nor acknowledged the audacious statement, Winry looked to him. Ed's narrowed eyes were still locked ahead through the streets, his presence darkening, unable to disengage from their intended direction.

"… Shit," He stopped.

"Ed?" Winry tried to look ahead and see what had his attention.

"Sturmabteilung," Ed's heavy voice growled through his breath. With a strong push with his next step, Ed turned himself and Winry around before she'd had a chance to visually analyze what lay ahead, "Move your feet, we're going this way."

"What's wrong?" Winry sputtered, unnerved by the sudden change, "you just said we need to go that way."

Edward's breath could be seen in the cold winter air as much as it could be heard, "I'll explain in a minute."

Edward grabbed Winry by the hand and suddenly vanished between two rows of buildings, disappearing into the stone shadows. He pulled Winry through the ice and sludge of the alley, stumbling to the back service road behind the business streets. Trudging across the unkept service road, they once again vanished into the shadows of buildings, emerging onto a street-side two blocks down. Ed didn't stop; he wove their path across a street of stopped traffic. At the corner of a block, Ed turned their advance sharply, and vanished behind a heavy set of building doors. Edward and Winry stood a moment in the main floor of a white office building, no one paying any mind to the pair who'd burst in. Again in motion, Ed led swiftly through the centre of the building, following as much of a straight line path as he could make, before exiting through the building's rear door, and stepping down into the snow and sediment of the building's private service alley. The building's door slammed heavily behind them. Ed and Winry finally stopped.

"What the hell was that all about?" Winry sputtered.

"Sturmabteilung," Ed looked around at the loading and delivery doors of the street side shops, "they were down the street; one was watching us. We should go home."

Winry baulked, "… Stermawhat?"

"Nazi goon squad," Ed's eyes flickered to the exit they'd walked through, "we don't want to be out while they're trolling."

Winry looked back at him silently for a few moments. Ed was wound tight by the presence of people she knew nothing about and couldn't pronounce. Winry couldn't say it felt very comforting to have him reacting out of sorts and the fact they were Nazis meant that they worked for Hitler. Winry's eyes lowered to the hand still in Edward's possession, "Does that mean Envy's after us now?"

Edward shifted at the question – he hadn't discussed his encounter with Adolf Hitler and the state of Envy with Winry yet. He'd meant to, he'd wanted to, but Ed never got so far as opening his mouth to the conversation. Ed cleared his throat, "It's something like that."

"Okay, then let's go home," Winry adjusted the strap of the bag over her shoulder – if it was this concerning him, she didn't want to be out, "I have enough to get the ball rolling on your arm."

Ed nodded and led Winry down the path from the stout alley of loading doors to the service road behind the strip of businesses. His feet stopped, straddling the wheel grooves dug into the unpaved back road. Winry stopped at his shoulder when Edward's advancing motion ceased, his body stiffening as their pairs of eyes looked up and down the road.

Edward's brow tumbled, "You asshole… you don't waste any time, do you?" he grumbled to himself.

Each end of the road had a man standing squarely in the way, arms folded and feet shoulder-width apart. Imposing men's chests expanded with their deep breaths, stretching the fabric of brown, button-down coats. Each man stood large in their lifeless browns, almost identically trimmed, and more than firmly built – the perfect representation of a Sturmabteilung officer from head to black-toed boot. They were an adopted force made up of thugs, bar brawlers, and storm troopers. They were flesh projections of immovable walls.

"Winry, get back in the building," Ed ordered, his hand drawing up and pushing against her shoulder.

"What are you doing?" she stepped back at his urging, looking towards the metal door of the building.

"I'm going to deal with this," Ed hissed, his teeth clenching as the two men slowly drew to life, "I just need you to get inside. GO!" He watched Winry turn and move towards the door, her mitten-worn hands clamping down on the handle. His eyes drifted to the men who approached slowly, teasing him, daring Ed to make a hasty move – it would be easier for him to chose a path and deal quickly with one man than wait until they drew together as two.

From behind Ed's shoulder Winry screamed; a sound that exploded the entire world around them into action. He looked to witness the thundering crash of the metal door swinging wide. Ed bolted towards the building's exit as Winry fought the hands on her coat and in her hair. The two flanking men in the back road moved to follow Edward, chasing as he disregarded their presence. The flying Elric wrapped his arm around Winry's waist and put his strength into her fight.

When a fourth man appeared beyond the open building door, one of the four unidentifiable voices boomed through the alley. Winry was released, and both she and Edward tumbled to the ground in a heap.

The Prime Minister's office looked like it had become something of a debacle. Paper and people had been distributed everywhere. The last time Hakuro had been on the offensive, Fuhrer Bradley had been fantastically organized and skillfully knowledgeable about his pending engagement.

Although he'd chosen to support it, democracy… this democracy… looked astoundingly weak. It certainly had to be why Drachma continued to attack their north – those people were like ravenous desert birds, they could sense frailty. If it weren't for the Briggs mountains, this country would have collapsed months ago.

But, those countries that existed in democracy had encouraged Amestris, and they'd encouraged Hakuro to support it. They warned this nation that 'this transition is hard', but if you endure, you will get through it. As things stood now, with Brigadier General Mustang lurking and waiting, with the military broken into factions, with the general public tangled in fear… democracy was in danger.

This 'fake' democracy was in danger.

General Hakuro let the door to the Prime Minister's office shut silently behind him. He watched from afar as the head of the Central City Municipal Planning Department marked out a series of pivotal city points in a red pen on a map.

This wasn't like Ishibal, or Lior, or any other historical conflict. This city, this pivotal central point in this nation, was devouring itself. This wasn't Central overrunning another group of people – Ishbalans versus Amestrians – this was Amestrians versus Amestrians. The conflict was internal. The conflict split the people. It weakened the nation.

A conflict brought on by this 'fake' democracy, supposedly orchestrated by the same person who'd orchestrated all the others.

Hakuro's hand clenched around the documents he held and marched into the room.

A map that looked more like a blue print of Central had been unwound and held down over a large fold-out table. The room was full of people Hakuro didn't particularly care to have social contact with. He couldn't say he knew the municipal planner, but he knew he didn't care for the upper echelon of the police department, or head of national security, or the head of national defence – which was, annoyingly, a division the military now answered to. Hakuro had tried to convince himself that if these men were put in a pinch, 'national defence' would find a way to effectively assert everyone – he had a hard time trusting that blind faith.

The officer eyed the municipal planner as he rolled up the sheet of city prints and hand it to a representative for national security. Every other department was already in possession of a map. Hakuro made a fairly safe assumption that the final rolled up paper tube on the opposing desk was going to be his. The city planner continued to talk to the department heads, waggling his red pen, while the officer moved deeper into the room. Every department head and their accompanying subordinates were enthralled in the discussions being held, Prime Minister Mitchell included.

"Hakuro!" Mitchell finally noticed him, and everyone rose from their zone.

The officer cleared his throat and spoke gruffly, "You asked to see me?"

"Yes!" Mitchell moved and began an explanation about why he'd summoned Hakuro, but Hakuro stopped listening. Nothing the prime minister could say would explain why Nina Mitchell, or Tucker, or whomever this child was, was in the room – her presence coming into the light as Mitchell stepped away from her.

"Sir?" Hakuro stopped the chattering man with a bark, "why is your daughter here? This is no place for a child."

"Ah, Nina," Mitchell looked over to her and smiled, but the little girl was not looking back – her eyes were focused in the discussion of men; wide and enthralled, "she was supposed to leave with Diana, but she fell ill. Poor thing has developed some rashes on her body. We wanted to make sure she's fine before she travels."

Frowning, Hakuro flipped his attention between the man he spoke with and the little girl, "Shouldn't she be at a clinic then? Or a hospital? If she's contagious at all, she should be quarantined."

"She was at the hospital earlier," Mitchell nodded, "but she's been released. She's no danger to anyone."

"So, why is she here now?" the General again questioned the presence of the child in the room.

Folding his arms, Mitchell took a moment to think over the answer, like there wasn't one readily available, "Because I feel more confident in her safety if she's with me. This city isn't in the best of conditions."

Hakuro wouldn't argue the state of the city, that was for certain, but… to have no one, not even an advisor, send the child away? Give her toys to play with on the floor. Let her sit with the secretary and hit keys on the typewriter. Children should be protected from war, not standing alongside it. Hakuro shook his head, "What did you need me for?"

Leading the general back to the table, Mitchell picked up the final bound tube of city planners work, "Deployment and strategic defence outlines are being issued to key departments in the event Mustang acts before we can eradicate his influence."

What the hell? Hakuro had been in the military since he was 17, he was a General, he was obviously more than capable of laying out his own strategies, "I'm sorry, Sir, why was this drafted without me?" How insulting – he should have been the one to draft the bloody thing.

"Because the military does not run this country anymore, General," one of the men surrounding the table trumpeted.

"We're involving you now, Hakuro," Mitchell nodded, ushering the officer into the circle of things as the final roll of city planning was laid out on the table.

Voices rose again; ignorant voices telling Hakuro how best his 'division' would protect the city of Central. How degrading. The officer struggled to hide the displeasure in his face. Who the hell were these people compared to him anyways? Hakuro wasn't one to be shy of pompous arrogance, but really if you're going to be facing an upheaval lead by a military man, wouldn't they have sought his military input first and foremost?

Without warning, a smiling pair of eyes lit up at Hakuro's side, the officer looked down in surprise, "General Hakuro is making faces, Daddy," Nina piped up.

The general's eyes narrowed.

"Please focus, General, your input at this point is important," Mitchell instructed harshly.

Why wasn't it important before? Hakuro tried to wipe all expression from his face. Do these people truly have no experience? Shouldn't someone be addressing what the hell happened in the mountains? The sudden Drachma surge had retreated, the rage from their nation's government screamed of incredible alchemy, and a former State Alchemist and his troupe had fallen off the radar. Hakuro looked down at the little girl at his side, "This isn't a place for you right now, Nina, please let us do our work."

"You don't seem very happy about your work," Nina blinked a round set of eyes to the man sadly.

Hakuro's attention fluttered between the girl and the room. He had two children and never in his wildest dreams would he bring them into a setting like this. This little one existed like a ghost, no one paid any mind to her, where she stood, or the things she said. And everyone continued to talk around her like her presence didn't matter, "Conflict isn't a happy thing, Nina."

A bright smile flashed into the girl's face, and she clapped her hands with excitement, "I know what'll help!"

With snap reaction faster than Nina could have avoided, Hakuro had seized the child, grabbing the little girl's forearms. The sealed brown envelope in his hands fell to the ground and Nina gawked up at him in surprise.

"HAKURO!" Mitchell yelled, his hands slamming down, "what are you doing!"

Well, now the little thing matters. The general's brow creased and the prime minister of his country was ignored. Hakuro crouched down in front of Nina, "I don't have time for your games, Nina, this is an adult's world with adult things, and I need to focus without your assistance."

Nina gave a tug to her arms, "I just wanted to help. DADDY!" the child cried.

"General Hakuro!" Mitchell stormed around the table, throwing a hand to one of the officer's arms, and ripping him away from Nina with a vicious amount of force, "you do not handle my child that way!"

Hakuro straightened himself and barely grumbled an apology. He snatched up his envelope, took a step back, watching the little girl brush her hands off on her dress with a formidable scowl to keep her company, "May I have a moment of your time, Mister Prime Minister? Alone?" Hakuro asked.

"You want a moment of my time?" Mitchell snipped with ruffled feathers, "I want a moment of your time, now!"

Mitchell led Hakuro away, leaving behind the government chatter and angered little girl. Hakuro's attention veered to the envelope of papers in his hand as the two men moved, "I have a few questions I'd like to run by you sir, before we get down to business."

Mitchell's gaze snapped over his shoulder to the officer, "Questions about what?"

The general held up his envelope, unwinding the sealing string as the men walked, "Lieutenant Havoc's police case file regarding Winry Rockbell for starters… I've found a number of discrepancies."

Edward and Winry scrambled off of the slushy surface of gravel and snow, coming up to their feet, both backing away from the gathering of four indistinct men. Once again, the building door thundered shut.

"We have a message to pass along to you," someone announced.

"It takes four of you to pass along one message?" Ed breathed heavily, tucking Winry behind himself, "How many of you are needed to change a light bulb?"

There was an indignant pause in the wake of Edward's remark, and some sideways glances, before a chorus of laughter flew up loudly between the cement walls of buildings.

"Ed?" Winry's voice quietly rose from behind his shoulder.

Elric eyes shifted through the unfolding scenario; thinking, planning, and trying not to be as concerned as he knew he should be, "Stay behind me and don't let them near you. The moment you see an opening to run, take it, and get as far away from here as you can."

"What are you going to do?" the concern in her voice pitched.

"I'm going to talk with these assholes," Ed returned to addressing the crowd of men, "Yeah, so what's this about a 'message' for me?"

One body lumbered forwards, followed shortly by a second drawing to action. Ed stepped forwards with the dip of his absent right shoulder, and spun away from the first charge. Like every step he'd take was choreographed, Edward moved fluidly – reaching back, grabbing the man by his shirt collar, and pulling around the brown-shirted terror into the path of the second assailant.

Edward was spun around from his open right side by a surprise hand of a third man. Ed's left hand snatched the wrist of an oncoming fist out of the air, and with a heaving motion through his shoulder, Ed drew the man towards him, cocked his arm back, and put his own vile fist squarely into the centre of the assailant's face. Ed reared his arm for a second shot, but was stopped when a heavy hand grabbed his elbow from behind and the captor's arm jarred up under his chin. One of the four men saw the opening on Edward and swooped in with two punches to his face, and the bottom of a boot to Ed's stomach. Before any further punishment could be dealt, Ed was released with a loud 'clang'. He staggered away, looking back to see Winry throw her arms over her head, and again strike down on Ed's momentary captor with the rim of a garbage can lid.

Winry looked sharply to Ed at the end of her follow-through, gave an underhanded toss of the lid, and Ed caught it cleanly. He turned and charged towards the first brown-coat assailant standing in his sights. Rather than using his metallic aide as expected, Ed dipped down and ploughed through the man's legs with his shoulder, then hip, spraying up the alley's winter slush as he moved. Edward rose sharply, flipping the assailant head over heels, and dumping him to the ground. With his movements once again fluid, Ed spun on his heels, firmly gripped the handle of the trash lid, and smacked the flat underside into the face of a reappearing combatant. The assailant staggered back and the lid was flung aside. With a thundering step forwards, Ed's left arm roared back, his feet gripped the ground, toes curling in his right boot, and Edward again slammed his fist into an assailant's face.

Without warning, a hand grabbed the flying golden ponytail and hauled Ed backwards. A foot roared in and pushed out the knee on his faux left leg. Ed's good left arm was seized and twisted behind his back. The cascading capture finalized when a foot came down heavily on Ed's flesh ankle, pinning him on his knees. Edward was forcefully straightened upright with a fierce yank on his hair, and before he'd had any chance to react, someone's angered fist began crashing through Ed's face, multiple times, before the solid toe of a boot swung in and buried itself deep below his ribcage. Ed's body heaved from the impact, his hair was released, and as he collapsed forwards from the strike, a heavy fist crashed down over the back of Edward's head, bouncing his forehead off the packed gravel road. A white light burst through his eyes, before everything went to black.

For a length of time Edward could not define, there was neither sight nor sound.

Sound was the first thing to appear in the dark void, garbled like a poor gramophone record. Edward's ears picked up a few indistinct voices, unable to decipher what had been said.

With his left fist shakily sliding through the mess of snow, ice, gravel, and sediment, Ed tried to lift himself, fighting the angry disorientation depriving the world of balance. His ears heard the surroundings better than he saw them as his eyelids lifted. When Winry's screaming suddenly broke through his ears clear as day, the static cleansed, and he caught the crisp sound of the bag of shopping supplies being thrown, and the contents crashing into the winter alley sludge at everyone's feet with a clatter. Edward took two heavy breaths before pushing his shoulders clean off the ground. His forehead remained connected to the pavement through a dark stream of blood that poured to the earth. Ed pulled his knees under himself, put his forearm against the running leak on his head, and tried to spot Winry by her cry. She was found in the corner furthest from him; the four brown, burly men had devoted their interest to Winry, her coat off her shoulders and beneath someone else's feet. One man stood behind Winry, his arms wrapped under hers, hoisting the girl up off her feet as she struggled, legs kicking and flailing to fight back the second man in front of her.

It was a bizarre sight of mounting danger that did not register as being real, and was terrifying enough that Ed did not realize it would have the ability to stop time as abruptly as it did.

And Edward Elric moved faster than the grinding, squealing metal gears that struggled to push time forwards. He scrambled on hand and knees, through the mess of hardware supplies scattered about. Nearly on his feet again, Edward snatched up the discarded trashcan lid and hurled it at the collection of thugs, watching it bounce off one man's side. The action took focus off of Winry and brought it back to him.

With a sudden thrust of her legs amidst the distraction, Winry popped free of her captor's grasp, landing on her hip on the alley floor amongst the scattered collection of AutoMail equipment and parts.

Ed turned over his left shoulder to reposition himself as one of the four men approached with haste, only to lose his balance at the sudden movement. He tumbled to his knees again, falling below an arm that swung out for him. Ed's hand swept through the winter sludge on the unpaved ground as someone's grasp returned to his hair. The first thing the Elric's fingers touched was what he picked up for defence. As Edward was hauled backwards by his hair, his hand clenched and arm locked. Before anyone or anything could strike again, Ed turned his shoulders and buried Winry's new needle-nosed pliers into the hip of the man dragging him. The unbridled animal cry of a screaming man raged out as Ed wrenched around the tool buried in the man's flesh and then ripped it out, breaking away from his assailant. With the leather-wrapped handles in his fingers, Ed adjusted his grip on his weapon, once again finding footing on the cement ground.

Golden Elric eyes scanned the depths of the alley as best he could, but all he needed to know was that Winry was no longer in the scene. With his head down, Ed thundered forwards to the next person in his sights, his shoulders connecting with the muscle-bound torso of a man; the Elric crashed into the assailant and hurried him backwards. They staggered along together, grappling at one another, until Ed had controlled the tango long enough that he drove the man into the cement wall of a looming building– making sure he'd run up enough force that this terror of a man felt the impact of the wall from head to toe. Ed didn't have to look to know there would be two more men available. He spun away from the wall, drew out his left arm, and slammed the nose of the pliers into the shoulder of the next arriving combatant. The impaled object became a handle to the man's stunned body, and Ed took a firm grip of the pliers embedded in the flesh, placed his balance on the strength of the left leg Winry had made for him, and put the bottom of his right boot into the shocked man's stomach, ripping the pliers out as he shoved the assailant away.

There wasn't enough time to brace himself for the fourth man. Edward's hand clenched around the handle of his defence, and turned to witness the final assailant drop to the ground like he'd been shot in the head. Ed froze, golden eyes flying wide – there'd been no gunshots. Startled, his gaze moved off of the man clutching his skull to a wrench that fell to the ground, landing in a pile of winter slush.

Ed staggered back from the event. The sleeve of his coat swept up to wipe away the blood draining from his forehead through the curves of his face, spitting out what had gathered in the seam of his lips. Heavy, exhausted breaths rolled through his movements as Ed backed away in a haze. Winry appeared in his line of sight suddenly, materializing between one of the blinks of his eyes. He was certain she had something she wanted to say, maybe Winry was even saying it, but it was lost in the mess his failing vision made out of her missing coat, soiled clothing, scratched cheek, split lower lip, and cold hands that tried to push him away faster.

Edward suddenly planted his feet on the ground defiantly. His shoulders stiffened, his hand clenched tight around the pliers he gripped, and a deep breath was drawn in. Winry gripped the front of his coat tightly; as if she could stop Ed if he showed signs of re-engaging the melee.

With two sharp snaps of his left arm, Ed drew up the bloody pliers and hurled them backhanded into the alley wall, listening to them clatter loudly off the cement and rattle around on the ground before coming to rest, "Didn't I tell your boss…" a pointed finger drew around high at head level as the Elric's brow became riddled with seams, the bloodied whites of his teeth clenched, and his raging voice exploded, "HE DOESN'T KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT ME!"

Winry pushed against Ed, backing him up, "ED! Shut up and leave!"

"Did he send you out here thinking I'd just bend over and let you kick my ass for free?" Edward roared, his voice scorching mankind's ears with wildfire. Ed's sleeve again wiped through his face before the only arm he had wrapped around Winry's right shoulder as she pushed him back, "NOW I'M TELLING HIM TO FUCK OFF! GOT IT?"

The looks in a handful of angry, dark eyes flickered onto him.


"GET GOING," Winry screamed, her movements panicked, a trembling hand coming over Ed's mouth frantically to silence him as his grip on her shoulder tightened. She pushed and fought against his verbal rage until Ed's retreating motion accelerated to a hurried pace, and they left the confrontation behind.

Really, Alphonse thought that by this point he'd be dying of starvation or sleep deprivation. Yet, he wasn't hungry, tired, thirsty, or delirious. Al didn't know how long he'd been at the Gate. There was no sunrise or sunset. Al had no clock or watch to tell the time. There was just the never-ending light encompassing the void of the Gate. Al wasn't even sure if this was 'light' – it was some kind of illumination. Light at least carried an air of warmth to it and cast shadows, this illumination was as void of anything as the Gate was.

The young Elric was expecting to fall into some kind of delirium; he hadn't slept since he'd gotten there. Surprisingly, his mind seemed to remain intact, never falling into sleep deprived madness or feeling exhaustion weigh on him like an anvil. What Al was suffering from was frustration. He'd been awake and aware for every moment he'd been at the Gate, knowing every dull or terrifying second that passed, unable to find a way to release himself from this prison. Time was endless and unstoppable, he'd never been so aware of its progression until he'd lost the ability to track it. He had no idea how much time had passed unless he counted. He was assuming days had passed, but he certainly couldn't count for days to have confirmed that.

Alphonse likened the experience to what he'd heard life had been like as a suit of armour – no need for anything to sustain his existence.

His jacket, shirt, socks and shoes were thrown around the base of the Gate from time to time. There was very little to do, so dressing and undressing himself was something to do. Screaming at the Gate, screaming into the white void, and screaming to know he was alive was also something to do. It was like he was someone trapped in the debris of a disaster, desperate to be saved, but buried so far away he'd never be heard by anyone. After a while, Al gave up on the screaming and turned to talking to himself.

He told himself stories. He told himself lies. Alphonse created worlds, destroyed worlds, and rebuilt worlds, until he got bored of the process.

The youngest Elric got up, walk to the black pitch of the Gate, and ask it to tell him a story. He didn't even get the courtesy of being looked at by one of the frightening purple eyes Izumi once told him about. The only conclusion Al could come to that would explain why they didn't appear, was that Diana frightened them away somehow.

Alphonse wondered how that worked, so he asked the Gate. No answer. He wrote his question into the Gate's thick pitch, and still received no answer. He asked the Gate verbally and non-verbally about a million different things. Al asked what it was about a trip to the Gate that permitted people like Dante, his teacher, and his brother to clap their hands to perform alchemy. He asked why he couldn't see to the other side. Al asked where the pitch came from and what the light around the Gate was. No answer ever came; not that Al had expected one to. If someone was invading his turf, he probably wouldn't be too cooperative either.

The more time that passed, the braver Alphonse got with the Gate. He was glad it didn't seem interested in harming him – it made the adventuring easier. Touching it was one of the first things Al had done, second thing he'd done was to write and draw on the black pitch. He'd written his questions and drawn transmutation circles. Nothing happened. Bravery increased in the young Elric: he sunk a hand in. He sunk his forearm in. Alphonse Elric sunk his entire arm into the Gate, and other than dealing with the viscosity, it was no trouble to enter or exit. It gave no sensation; if he were to ever describe what it was like to be 'voided' – this was it. It was remarkably similar to how it felt to be in the white room at the Gate, except stronger. The Elric folded his arms and frowned at the Gate. With a sudden, deep breath, Al leaned forwards and stuck his face into the pitch. He opened his eyes. Nothing. No, it was really nothing. Interesting! He wasn't looking at blackness, he was looking at nothingness.

Al took his face out.

The bored little Elric wandered over to the hinge of the heavy stone doors. With a thoughtful gleam in his eye, Al stuck his arm beyond the Gate, and reached around the frame, feeling through the substance to see if there was anything to touch. There was – he could literally reach around and touch opposing frame of the door. Why was it surprising to find that an open door had two sides? He felt it out as best he could, afraid to reach too far and lose his side. As best he could tell, with a few sprints around the open doors to see if he could compare, the reverse side of the Gate was a mirrored image of his side. 'Interesting' transformed into fascinating. He scampered to the opposite hinge and tested the concept again. Same result.


Centering himself at the middle of the Gate, Alphonse dropped to his knees. Down on all fours, he carefully slid a hand out along the surface he knelt on, sliding his hand beyond the Gate. The smooth surface continued; there wasn't even a perforation to mark the change – just a density change. Al bounced to his feet, scampered to the frame of the Gate yet again, put his hands against the open Gate doors for balance, and stuck his foot in. His toe tapped the surface. The Elric's bravery shifted weight to the exploratory foot, and he stepped down – making absolutely certain he had the majority of his weight and balance remained on the brighter side of the Gate.

Nevertheless, he stood for a moment at the Gate doors, with one foot standing on the surface of the place on the other side.

It was fascinating and exciting and tantalizing and astoundingly dangerous. Al took his foot out.

Sitting down, Al tried to figure out what his new information told him.

On the opposite side of the Gate was a dark 'heavy' space, with a mirrored facing Gate. He'd felt the Gate frame and not a secondary set of doors, which meant there was one set of doors that opened in his direction. From his point of view, if Al wanted to see the Gate, he had to be in this white space first. Maybe there was a space like that as well for the other side of the Gate? A black one? …That made sense! The worlds could be viewed as opposites, so this side was full of light and that side was full of darkness.

Something more suddenly made sense; complete and utter sense! The youngest Elric roared with ironic laughter as he flopped over on his side, "Diana's not linking to the other world itself, she's linking to the other world's 'Gate space'… or whatever this place is. That's why I can't see the world beyond the Gate!"

A young infant was needed, because an infant had no bonds between its mind, body, and soul. That infant needed to be a hermaphrodite – a child combined of both worlds.

"How would Dante get a baby from 'beyond' the Gate? She didn't, did she? That's why the Gate is black and so well behaved," Alphonse told the white space an answer it wouldn't share itself, "Dante must have fused Diana with one of the creatures within the Gate – that's why we're not seeing the world, only the Gate space… because that's where the Gate creatures exist, in the black Gate space."

How fantastic, two points up on Dante, and she didn't even know it. Now, what was he supposed to do with that knowledge?

Technically the opposite Gate was part of the other world, but it was physically detached. Could Al walk into the other room and return just fine as long as Diana was there? He wasn't about to try – Al was the only one who knew alchemy wasn't possible beyond the Gate, so he couldn't risk getting himself stuck. How was he supposed to bridge the gap between the place at the other world's side of the Gate, and the world itself? Where had the blood come from that flowed from the Gate? He hadn't seen anyone bleeding in the pitch, but then again, he wasn't sure if his eyes could see anything in that room – he'd only touched things. Did somebody die in that room? What was the energy? Where did that come from?

There were still more questions than answers, and Alphonse threw his arms over his face as he rolled onto his back, "This is stupid, I still don't know what I'm supposed to do." Again, frustrations mounted and the youngest Elric scowled. He didn't understand how the other world functioned or how to put together the scattered puzzle pieces of information he had, "All I set out to do was find my brother and bring him home where he belongs. Why is that so hard to do?"

Another question the Gate had no intention of answering.

To Be Continued...

Author's Note:

* Red water treatment in pregnancy (to crystallize the stone) was something Nash Tlingum was experimenting with. The experiments had been a success in Central, but Nash was unwilling to continue the experiments in Xenotime.

* Atrophy – The wasting away of the human body. A word derived from Atropos.
* Atropos – One of the three Fates (Birth, Life, & Death). Atropos is the cutter of the life line and delivers death.
* Aisa – Alternate name for Atropos. At one time, very early on when I chose Aisa (Aisa sounded better than Atropos for a woman's name) I'd thought ofintroducing all 3 fates as Dante's new tool. I opted out on that… I've made enough of a mess with the current characters.

* I have never given much for a description of Aisa. I give very little detail on what she's like visually – she's something the reader is free to imagine up. I'd suspect everyone has a different idea on what she looks and sounds like. I've always seen her as the kind of character whose face is never clearly seen on screen and whose voice is unremarkable. For the times where she is visible, she's very bland.

* Holy crap :D I have this chapter out well before I expected. Um... next chapter is pretty far behind... been causing chaos with art... so January sometime~!