Author's note: Okay, am I driving anyone crazy yet? The chapters are getting harder and harder to churn out (and getting longer too ), and unfortunately, time has to be sacrificed for quality.

Orenji Yoh-chan: thanks! never expected to be praised so highly, but that really motivated me when i was struggling with certain parts in this chapter. accepts orenjis and glomps orenji yoh-chan domo arigato gozaimas!

Yellowdancer: haha actually i'm not really very sure if this fits into AU or not...i meant it as post-series, post-movie, whatever happens in it, but i realised that i actually got the time frame mixed up (if you didn't notice, then ignore that). and as for the riza-roy business, easy does it, but i promise it will come! sorry for taking bloody long, anyway

Aiaru: just as you requested, Ed's no longer the Fullmetal, but the Fullmetal Alchemist! i was taking shortcuts, the lazy bum that i am

Charlottes-pen/Betsy: yeah, T.S Eliot. i found the waste-land fascinating, and his way of evoking all those emotions is really something i aspire to... swoons

All right, enough! To the story... At least my contract ends soon, and hopefully I'll have more time then to write As always, thanks for reading and please drop me a review if you can! (tell me if it's getting too angsty for you; i really wonder if i'm overdoing it)

Edit: Sorry, I realised that I had gotten the terms Valkyrie and Einherjar mixed up! Gomen!


Chapter 4

The world around Roy shuddered and dipped, the ground shifting and sliding beneath his feet like sand sucked from the shore. He swayed giddily, falling towards a pair of feet in combat boots that stood before him.

Roy looked up, and saw Maes Hughes, hands shoved deep into his pants pockets.

"Get a wife, Roy! Marry, settle down, have kids…it's great!"

Roy shuddered involuntarily at those painfully familiar words, and Hughes bent over backwards and fell away as a puddle of shimmering opalescent liquid that splashed into the velvety darkness.

"Maes," he whispered, reaching out, but his instinct was already forcing his body to turn around in response to the presence he now felt behind him. His eyes swirled through the deep darkness, and latched themselves onto the distinct figure of Riza Hawkeye, her smooth skin and pale hair glowing as though she were a delicate paper lantern. An unfelt gust of wind lifted her hair in gleaming filaments about her face, and the hurt in her coppery eyes arrowed his heart through the misty darkness.

She simply said, "I love you," and promptly dispersed in a sweep of luminous maple leaves that traced circles in the air before dissolving.

"No," he whispered again, "Don't leave me. I'm alone."

His hands reached up, as if he would weep into them, but he stopped them a distance from his face, for they were dressed in his ignition gloves, so drenched with blood that the arrays on them melded seamlessly with the red. The dead of Ishvar, they were all there, permeating the very instruments that had taken their lives. He could hear them, shrieking in pain, tearing into him like sandpaper against raw flesh, sloughing away the shaky defenses he had erected over the years against their accusations, their raw brutality driving him mad with condemnation.

Again, he echoed denial, attempting to drown out the screaming wind with his own reality, but he knew that ever since the Ishvar massacre, these had become part of his psyche, lodged themselves deep into his brain, to fester and spread. He cried out again, and suddenly there was a gun in his hand, the grip rough and familiar in his hand, and he knew exactly what to do with it; he was releasing the safety and holding the barrel up against his chin, pushing the gunmetal into his flesh, to dig into his head and hopefully create a hole large enough to leach away everything inside, seeking, crying, praying for the oblivion offered in those several inches of eternal black steel, infinity a cold sensation that tingled his skin.

Resolve shot through him, and he pulled the trigger, but something was wrong, it was not he who had been shot, for he felt no hot pain ripping into his skull, and the gun was somehow no longer pointing up into his chin, but was held out in front of him and -dear God oh Christ our Savior- he had shot the married doctors again, but it didn't matter now because even though he had only done it once he had done it for all eternity and they could never come back to life to die again, the moment only an instant, temporary, yet timeless for it touched forever.

He turned away, turned away from the tangle of blood and hair and limbs, even as it merged with the atmosphere, only to be met with an image of the Fullmetal Alchemist. No, not the Fullmetal Alchemist, but just Edward Elric, as he was when Roy had first seen him, a boy with short gold hair fanning out on a clean white pillowcase, one bandaged shoulder missing its arm, his young, sleeping face already wearing that determined frown, as though he were looking into the future, witnessing the horrors and heartaches that had lain before him then. Roy blinked, and suddenly Ed was the corpse of the murdered alchemist, dead red flesh and dull organs in a now-empty shell, a gruesome rictus of pain that blurred his vision.

Then he was the victim, dead but still trapped within that mortal body, cringing inwardly as he felt maggots sprout and burrow into his flesh, feeling the wind whistle within the hollow cavity of his chest, feeling every part of him gradually rotting away like refuse. He could see nothing but darkness above him, and felt as if he were staring into blindness, the utter emptiness of a black hole stretched out far above him, a vacuum that sucked up and silenced his eternal scream.

Roy jolted awake, the visions in his head leaving behind the irrational fear that the dream was real, that he would still be immobile, gazing up into nothing, breathing nothing, feeding death. However, his eyes opened to the fabric ceiling of the elegant coach, the fleur de lis embroidered on it vaguely perceivable in the growing dawn. The coach rattled, jostling Roy so that the ceiling jumped before his eyes, breaking the trance he had slid into so deeply.

Thank God.

With a gentle sigh, he leaned back against the rich plum upholstery, waiting for the profusion of images that flooded him to dissipate. Cautiously, he glanced around.

Riza, Breda, Fury and Edward were all still asleep (Havoc and Farman were traveling with the men), filling the coach with a stillness that mere silence could never achieve, especially since Breda wasn't snoring for once, despite the hum of the engine. Edward's quiet repose reminded Roy too keenly of the dream, and he had to work to swallow a lump I his throat.

Slipping his hand into his pocket, Roy withdrew his new silver State Alchemist watch and took a peek at the time. It was still around eight o'clock, about two hours prior to the time that they were scheduled to arrive in Circe. Roy was glad that Aerugo was only a small republic; the mode of transportation had been chosen for its privacy and in-conspicuity, so as to ensure as much safety as possible. However, traveling for more than ten hours in such a small, cramped space, and with only periodic rest stops along the way, would certainly send at least one person tottering over the edge of sanity. Especially if Edward Elric was one of the passengers.

Smiling slightly, Roy leaned over to part the drapes, opening the coach up to the world outside to take his first glance at Aerugo's human life. Despite the fact that they were only passing through a small town, Roy could already see precious hints of the Aerugans' prized architecture in even the simplest of buildings, with elegant iron-wrought balconies that curved into graceful vines, kicking off into fluid flowers and leaves, and intricate designs worked into woods and stone in the finest details ever. Aerugo, Roy knew, was a republic that, despite its size, was a highly advanced country in terms of both knowledge and culture, famed for exceptional artistry as well as for epitomizing scientific advancement. It was within their very religion and philosophy of life to pursue both the arts and the sciences, and to maintain peace through a stand of neutrality. A Utopia, a haven, a Paradise, but one now on the verge of chaos.

Several of the townsfolk were already up, curiously squinting through the glass of the coach windows as it passed, but giving the simply-dressed occupants no further attention. They moved about their daily chores with a comforting, roiling familiarity, but the Flame Alchemist sensed rather than saw faint, spidery threads of underlying tension, when a woman greeted her neighbor, when a man brushed against another. Of course. With its proximity to the capital, such spillover effects were inevitable.

This is what peace is to protect, Roy told himself, I must protect this kind of lifestyle.

Fond memories of his childhood, within Central's quiet little suburbs, tugged the corners of his mouth into a faint smile, and Roy relaxed, his spine slackening against the backrest.

At the inflow of morning light, Riza shifted, and slowly slid open her eyes, something that Roy had always found fascinating to watch. She never stirred, but came awake slowly, peeling back her eyelids to reveal a sort of glazed gaze, which brightened and sharpened after a few blinks. In this moment of weakness, he made the unforgivable mistake of voyeurism, instead of feigning sleep as he ought to have done. Now, the two of them alone in their consciousness, she could catch him off-guard.

She was the one to smile first.

"Good morning sir," she said respectfully, dipping her head in the faintest of gestures.

He returned her greeting with a clipped nod, and a curt "Morning."

They smiled at each other, vaguely, blandly, and looked away, each to close to memories for comfort. At work, they blocked up, barricading themselves against such awkward encounters with the smooth marble of business, but here, they had been caught with the walls down, vulnerable and cold, susceptible to the wind.

Knowing the rest of the men who accompanied them, Roy was certain that they would not wake for some time; he could not rely on them to fill in the gaps with swift, aimless chatter, not now at any rate.

He had not expected that Riza and his relationship would ever end up this way, no matter what happened, their familiarity and utter knowledge of each other luring him into complacency and assurance. And yet…

Damn. Give me Farman, anytime. Constant nagging is always better than this

He was wrong about all his men sleeping on, though.

The Fullmetal Alchemist gave a lazy yawn, and stretched, catlike, beside Roy, his lithe body unfurling with enviable ease and even a certain measure of grace. His eyes slit open, betraying a dull, bleary gleam of gold, and Edward relaxed again, slumping haphazardly in his seat. His mouth worked sluggishly, but for once, no sound issued from it, other than a faint smacking as he repeatedly unstuck his tongue from the roof of his mouth. Evidently, the Fullmetal Alchemist was not one to call on in the morning. Roy vaguely wondered how one who was so frustratingly hyper during the day, could be so hopelessly befuddled and incoherent in the morning.

Riza greeted Edward with her customary "Good morning" and a soft smile, before turning away again, but Roy, grateful for another conscious soul, lapsed into teasing.

"Rising and shining, Fullmetal? You could put the sun out of a job, if you don't take care," he intoned with a smirk.

In the face of the General's typical sarcasm, Ed could only manage an incoherent grunt that Roy though he recognized from alcohol-drenched creatures with their heads laid on bar-tops or lying in road-side ditches late at night. Definitely not a morning person.

Chuckling, Roy murmured, "I'd like to see you try transmuting something, right now. Looks like we'll actually get some peace this morning." With that, he returned to gazing out the window, not noticing the watchful flash of gold that peeked through the lashes at the corner of the Fullmetal Alchemist's eye. His so-called reconciliation with Edward had set him more at ease with the youth, even if Roy had spent half the trip niggling him, and consequently the other half preventing himself from having his brains bashed out the back of his head. Ed was like a piece of elastic, made to be stretched to its limit repeatedly. Roy took some form of rather perverse pleasure in pushing Edward as far as he dared, whether in terms of assigning him orders or in his friendly teasing.

Strange, Roy mused. Before, I never imagined that our interaction would ever go beyond me assigning him missions in my personal office. Funny, that I could think so far into the future regarding every aspect of him except this.

Such shortsightedness was a little worrying, for the Flame Alchemist had won part of his fame simply by being so annoyingly accurate in his analyses and conclusions, with regards to both people and to situations, not to mention currently being the youngest to have attained the rank of Brigadier General. The military counted on him to be sharp; he would be nothing without the military, now. He did not pause to consider how sad and pathetic that sounded. It was daytime now, and it was work; he was the Brigadier General and the Flame Alchemist.

Roy Mustang would have to wait till the night to emerge.

-

"-so yeah, I got pretty damn peeved at that. I mean, come on, first he pukes all over my shoes, too damn drunk to even stand properly, and then he starts trying to knock me senseless, accusing me of bein' an alien who wants to destroy the earth by sending shockwaves into its core! And I got two fucking weeks of confinement!" Breda complained loudly, crossing his arms as he sank into his seat.

Riza's reply was sharp and immediate. "Since you actually put his head through the back of a chair, I doubt that many would really consider that punishment overly harsh. Besides, I'm willing to bet that you weren't fully sober either at the time."

Breda reddened visibly, and tossed back defensively, "I was young and carefree back then-"

"-but no less substantial, if I recall correctly," Fury interjected mischievously, his eyes reduced to the merest, knavish little slits that flashed cheekily in the heavy-set man's direction.

Before Breda exploded, Ed just had to throw in his two cents' worth, delivered in the sweetest, most dulcet tones. "You know, it's hard to actually blame the guy. I mean, jeez, shockwaves? That's probably cos you make the ground wobble every time you take a step," Ed grinned, crossing his eyes comically.

"You piece o' shit alchemist! I'm gonna sit on ya! Squish yer brains out your ears and nose."

"Violent, degenerate primate!"

"Barbaric, oversized chicken!"

Breda took a deep breath. "Beeeeeaaaan boy!"

"NOW WHO DID YOU JUST SAY WAS SMALL ENOUGH TO LIVE IN A GRAIN OF SAND!"

"Ed! Ed! Cut that out! The coach is gonna tip over!" Fury cried desperately, clinging to the miniature alchemist amidst Ed's flailing limbs.

"Victory." Breda smirked, triumphantly sticking his tongue out at the enraged youth.

"That's cos you played dirty, asshole!"

"All's fair in love and war, m' dear."

"Ah get outta here," yawned Edward languidly.

"Oh Ed, I'm so sorry! Let's kiss and make up."

"Argh, get off me, you freak."

"Cut it out you two, please. You're making me a little ill," groaned Fury, turning away from the spectacle before him. Breda shrugged in mock innocence.

"Aww, we weren't even doing anything. Pruuude."

"It's just disturbing! Ed's right, you're a freak!"

"Really? Then let me change your mind," purred Breda, reaching for the smaller man with ridiculously puckered lips.

Ed chuckled as it came to his turn to sit back and enjoy the verbal jousting match between Breda and Fury, the two trading playful little jabs back and forth. Or at least he did, until he remembered the General who sat in silence, neither participating nor watching, merely staring out beyond the glass pane of the window. It was odd, Ed thought, for he had always been under the impression that Hawkeye and Mustang were rather close, but that morning as he had stirred, the Fullmetal Alchemist had noted the awkward silence lying between the two. It could not have been that the General had not been in a talking mood, since he had made a few feeble attempts at striking up another round of friendly banter with Ed, except that the latter had been too utterly incoherent to manage any measure of repartee. Besides, there had been something in the air…

Edward made up his mind and scooted quickly over to Mustang, parking his rear right next to Roy's. The General glanced over, but it was distracted and distant, and the only indication that he really saw Ed was a slight elevation of his right eyebrow before he turned back to considering the scenery. The Fullmetal Alchemist snorted inwardly; it seemed that Mustang needed to be provoked into responding.

He sat there for a moment, considering. Usually, with his brother, Ed would have blown gently, insistently on the back of his neck, a habit that had developed after he discovered that the relatively recently regained body of Al's was very sensitive to even the slightest rush of air against the skin. It was, Ed had realized, because Al's body was newly formed, like a young baby's, and not the one that had been lost in the Gate. Whenever Ed did that, Al would respond by squirming and giggling madly, often accompanying this with a little high-pitched yelp, something that made Ed love his brother all over again. It affirmed that Al was 100 himself again, not half dissolved between existence and extinction. However, that was Al, and this was the Brigadier General Bastard; it was definitely too familiar, too intimate a gesture for Mustang. For heaven's sake, this was Roy Mustang. Inappropriate hardly began to describe how such an action would be considered.

Edward instead opted for using his mere presence as a source of annoyance to elicit a reaction from the Flame Alchemist, and concentrated on staring intently at the back of Mustang's neck, right where the delicately tapered tips of dark hair ended, the rich strands lightly teasing the stiff collar of Roy's white civilian shirt. Behind this extenuating curtain, there stood the slim pillar of pale, cool flesh that disappeared into the crisp cotton.

Jeez. Figures that even the back of his neck would be coolly impeccable yet casual all at once. Just like the bastard himself. A regular natural Casanova.

The General had a phenomenal amount of patience when he cared to exercise it, but Edward was thoroughly insistent, imagining his eyes as little pins repeatedly pricking the smooth oval of Mustang's neck, until the Flame Alchemist turned back to face Ed.

"Is there some reason why you have decided to display your ability to subtly annoy, Fullmetal?"

"Oh, no," Ed replied, casually examining his fingernails in a slick imitation of the General's own habit of doing so, "just trying to guess if you actually powder the back of your neck."

For a split second, the General looked slightly irritated, but it passed quickly to be replaced by an expression of faint amusement.

"Hardly, Fullmetal. It only looks like that because it has been graced by the kisses of countless beautiful women," he replied. Somehow, however, his voice seemed to lack its usual edge, even if his response was typically smooth and lofty, as if he parodied himself. Ed decided against commenting on it.

"So…" he murmured, turning to the window, "what thing of beauty has kept you so captivated all this time?"

Roy's answer was short, simple, but concise. "The architecture."

Ed had been so caught up in the conversation between himself, Fury, Hawkeye and Breda that he had not noticed their transition from the periphery of the city into the city itself, had not noticed the sights beyond the glass panes of the windows. Now, glancing out, he was enchanted. From cobbled streets, there rose simple, elegant buildings touched with similarly graceful but even more intricate details than those in the town he had woken up in. Beyond them, however, were the true crowning glories: magnificent domes and spires reached towards the sky, amidst beautifully carved figures that grew out of the cool stone to sweep upwards majestically. Amestris was a strictly pragmatic society, with little in the way of such ostentatious ornamentation, and the minimalist, blocky designs that dominated the streets of Central were a stark contrast to these elaborate works of utter grandeur. Edward had never seen anything like it.

"This," Mustang breathed, "is Circe. Amazing, isn't it?"

Ed had never heard Mustang express such a sense of wonder before, and before he could help himself, he had turned to shoot him a look of undisguised surprise. Roy gave no indication that it had even registered.

"It's a beautiful city, Fullmetal. Drink it in, as deeply as you can. It may not be so for long," the Flame Alchemist said quietly, "I know when I came here so many years ago, I could not stop looking." It was almost like a prayer, the way Mustang was speaking, a note of reverence in his unusually gentle voice.

Neither spoke for a moment, watching the buildings roll slowly past, along with the slender roadside trees heavily laden with leaves in brilliant shades of orange, yellow and brown, and it was some time before Ed recalled the actual reason that he'd hauled butt over here, but somehow, for once, he couldn't find the words to verbalize what he wanted to say.

The minutes passed in silence, flowing past them in a way that made their loss felt acutely. Then the coach rounded a corner, pulling up at an exquisite wrought-iron gate, manned by a pair smartly-uniformed guards, faces perfectly stiff and expressionless. Through the curving iron bars, Edward could see a magnificent courtyard, complete with elaborate fountain and mandatory pigeons, sprawling grandly before an even more impressive domed building than those he had seen earlier.

The palace.

The coach driver conferred with the guards for a short while, in the lyrical, rhythmic tongue of Aerugo, and the Amestris military officers found themselves being given a quick but piercing once-over by each guard. Finally, the gates were cautiously eased open, and the coach allowed to pass through.

A few middle-aged men stood waiting at the smooth marble staircase at the entrance, and they hurried over in a nervous group, bobbing their smooth, balding heads like sparrows in greeting to the Amestris officials. Ed almost wanted to laugh at their apparent timidity, until a tall, rather imposing figure emerged into the daylight, revealing a slightly younger male, his jet black hair slicked back smartly. He emanated an undeniably intense aura, that made Ed's left arm twitch involuntarily, an indication that he was dangerous. The Fullmetal Alchemist stiffened.

"Good day, gentlemen. I trust you have had a rather tiring ride?" the man greeted them smoothly, sweeping forward to sketch them a fluid bow, "Allow us to show you to your quarters, where you may have a short rest."

Ed turned his full attention to the man, studying him closely. His face was characterized by very sharp, high cheekbones and dangerously angular planes, steep cliffs that promised death from carelessness, and cold eyes that glittered like a snake's. That, however, was totally immaterial. What arrested Edward was the color of his irises: they were a deep, crystalline violet.

Homunculus.

-

"Fullmetal! Why the hell did you do that!" Roy whispered fiercely as they passed through the long corridors of the palace. Edward flushed.

"Hell, I really don't know, sir! I mean…" he stammered, feeling the heat shooting into his ears.

Mustang sniffed loudly. "God, we could've gotten turned away there! Can you imagine the Generalissimo's face if we had failed even before the assignment had really begun?"

Embarrassment spread in a fresh spurt, and the Fullmetal Alchemist hunched his shoulders sulkily and tried to block out his superior's words. To no avail.

"I don't believe you never knew that Aerugans often have purple eyes. Accusing Governor Biretti of being a goddamn homunculus of all things, and then trying to-"

"God, Mustang, I just…you know…reacted," Ed protested, silently swearing that he would perform a private amputation of his remaining limbs if he ever did such a thing again. The General glared at Ed, and then turned to face forward again. However, it was not fast enough for Mustang to hide the little grin that quirked up the corners of his mouth. Ed scowled amidst his blushing; the fact that the Brigadier General Bastard was having a laugh at his expense was more than he could take.

The only thing worse than adding insult to injury is adding insult to an already sufficiently mortified butt.

Ed couldn't remember when he had last been so devastatingly humiliated, and began to lapse into sweet fantasies of burying himself in the silken bed sheets he was certain the provisional government had provided for them when he got to his room, and refusing to ever emerge in his next three lives. He could only hope that word of his behavior wouldn't reach Central, or he'd never live it down; having the loud-mouthed, irreverent Breda and the mischievous Fury in the know was already enough to kill him, and chances were, they wouldn't be keeping it to themselves. Unless something far more exciting happened to eclipse it.

Fully caught up in his chagrined thoughts, Edward did not realize that the group had stopped, and he collided painfully with Roy's back, just managing to stifle a yelp of surprise. Muffled against the back of Roy's coat, Ed heard the officer who had been leading them announce, "Your shared suite is here; your belongings have already been unpacked for you."

Keys jingled and Ed peeked around Mustang just in time to see the grand doors being flung open. Opulence was definitely the word of the day here, as Ed could tell as he caught a glimpse of the rich burgundy velvets and gleaming gold leaf that decorated the entire room, and Edward suddenly began wondering what it would be like to live in such luxury, for once. Even as a State Alchemist, he was still a military dog, and as a military dog, he lived rather frugally, according to his own standards anyway. But it was fine with him, since it kept him grounded. Otherwise, he would become so detached from who he had started out as; deep down, he was just Edward Elric, not the famous (or infamous) Fullmetal Alchemist.

"Is there any form of security here?" Mustang asked briskly, and was answered with a sharp nod from the officer.

"Certainly. You have been assigned one of the most effective bodyguards currently in our service," he bowed as he spoke, and then called into the room in his native tongue.

One? Are they really so confident of this one man's abilities, wondered Ed, peering into the room.

"At your service," came a soft voice from behind Hawkeye, who was last in line, and a tall, slender boy of about twelve years of age appeared, curving his narrow body in a graceful bow. The Fullmetal Alchemist had to bite back a gasp of astonishment.

A young child? Bloody hell, is this some kind of joke?

The boy stepped forward, arms held relaxed at his sides, face carefully blank and utterly serious. He was very tan, compared to most of the fair-skinned Aerugans, and had soft, sun-bleached brown hair, cropped short on the sides, sticking up in tufted spikes on the top, and trailing a sharply tapered tail from the base of his neck. A single white stone glinted in his left ear. His dark eyes, turned to the floor, were beautiful and determined, and his slender lips gave him an unusually refined air, yet the simple white robe and flowing trousers he wore could not conceal the fact that he was very young. Ed thought that he would probably break like a stick if anyone landed a single blow on him. Yet…he had posted himself outside the room, so still and quiet that no one had noticed him.

Still, Ed thought, stealth only means anything if he were an assassin, or a thief.

Politely, the Amestris military personnel bowed back, in acknowledgement of the boy, but Ed had his doubts. He would talk to Mustang about it later, he decided. Accepting a child as a bodyguard and putting him in danger was certainly not acceptable, not anywhere within the civilized world.

The boy knelt quietly by the door as the officer ushered them into their suite, pointing out each room and highlighting little details with regard to certain antiques and different elements of the architecture. Before leaving, he reminded them about the evening's arrangements, and assured them that Governor Biretti would be all right, small injuries like that were nothing to the seasoned fighter that he was.

As soon as the doors had closed behind the man, a soft chortle began issuing from Breda's mouth.

"Fabulous impression you've made, little Ed! Keep it up and you may just be Biretti's favorite alchemist!" guffawed Breda, whacking Ed hard on the back.

The youth reddened again, and pretended not to hear, figuring that at this point, ignoring Breda was the best thing to do. Instead, he strode over to Mustang, who had settled down into one of the plush crimson chairs to rest.

"Sir," he said softly, lowering himself to the carpeted floor beside the General, "don't you think that child is a bit young to be a bodyguard?"

"You evidently didn't do your homework, Elric. The Tsars always had their loyal bodyguards, the Einherjar, children who were trained in combat from the time that they could stand. They were bred solely as fighters, and their art is a high one, evolved over the entire course of their culture's progression. I believe that our little bodyguard may know more combat than you do," Roy replied evenly.

"But it's a little child we're talking about here, too young to take on a burden like this. I mean, hell, he probably doesn't even understand very much of what's going on around here," Ed protested a little angrily, staring hard at Mustang's impassioned face. Mustang just gave him a significant glance.

"How old were you when you tried to revive your mother?"

That was all that the Fullmetal Alchemist needed in order to be shut up. Trying to hide his sulk while brushing back strands of hair that had escaped from his braid, he rose from his cross-legged position and made his way over to the kneeling boy, intending to get off on a better footing with this boy than he had with Biretti. Grinning, he bent down and asked, "Hey kid, you got a name?"

The boy raised his head, expression unnaturally sober, and Ed suddenly felt a hint of how Mustang must have felt when he had first laid eyes on Edward himself. He had been an intense adolescent himself, and at this recognition, a twinge of sadness tugged at his chest. Was I this sad as well?

The Einherjar blinked, not answering for a second, then said, "Vittell."

"I'm Ed, nice meeting you," Edward replied, glad for a rather less formal greeting than the elaborate protocol that had had to be followed when meeting the provisional government that afternoon. Or rather, would have been followed if it hadn't been for Ed's little interruption.

Vittell simply looked at Ed, and then dipped his head in a dignified manner, with a soft, "Honored, Ed sir," and returned to watching the on-goings in the room with a keen eye. Edward immediately felt silly, acting like such an idiot before this focused creature, whose dark eyes missed little, and whose small hands were striped with paler scars that spoke of past battles. Ed shivered to imagine this delicate-looking child involved in any sort of tussle.

Damn, why do they all have to be so formal?

It was unnatural for a child so young to be so terribly stiff and serious, and Ed was certainly far from being at ease with him. With an apparently nonchalant yawn, he walked back over to Mustang, who smirked loftily at him.

"I think you found that Einherjars are not so easily distracted from their work? They're highly disciplined, the best of the best," he murmured, an amused smile tingeing his lips.

"What about those who aren't the best, then?"

Mustang's expression darkened, and he remained silent for a short while, his gaze lingering over the slight figure by the door, as if trying to look beyond him into the past. "They don't survive the training," he finally murmured, pity evident in his dark eyes. Ed's eyes widened.

"The Aerugans may have a very high culture, but the fact that they are still under the rule of a royal family just goes to show that despite all that, they are still highly traditional," Roy explained softly, before the youth's sense of justice was inflamed, "and I'm certain that you have an inkling of the reason why the society is still such."

"It's religion, isn't it? The 'opiate of the masses'," Ed muttered, remembering the turmoil in Lior, where the worship of the sun-god kept people neatly under the thumb of a false prophet. Roy nodded slowly.

"That's why, Fullmetal, when we make a move like this, we are aware of the consequences. And thus, we have to weigh our options. I cannot deny that Amestris does have its own interests at heart here, yet it is also the people that we have to think of. Religion and politics have to be separated as much as possible, and we have to impress this upon these people. Why do you think the country is in such a state at this current time? Because the people have confused their gods with the lives of ordinary people, because they have assumed that their gods are real enough to take an interest in their lives. And you do know what the outcome of such thinking might be."

Ed sighed and scratched the back of his head, quietly absorbing the fact that Mustang had subtly rebuked him in now answering the question that he had posed during the meeting. "Yeah," he replied sardonically, "too well. Don't think I can forget."

"It's because of the fragility of Man's belief," Roy added in low voice, his eyes so distant that Ed couldn't figure out whether Roy had meant to say it aloud, or whether it was simply a thought that had slid out from between his lips, carelessly, overlooked because of distraction. He turned to Roy, but the man seemed to be in another world, a look of such poignancy on his handsome face, that even Ed felt his heart twitch at the sight.

-

Damn. How could I feed Edward with the very bullshit that I can't believe? I'm not doing this out of any noble intention; it's only a job, that's all it is now. The only things that I said that I actually believe in, are the comments tending to my lack of faith in religion and humanity.

Running a hand over his face, Roy mussed up the short, thick strands of his jet black hair, and squinted at his reflection in his room's mirror.

Hell. Don't get distracted, Roy, don't let these things sway you from what is at hand here. Focus. Okay, what have I learned so far today, besides the Fullmetal Alchemist's homunculi phobia?

Biretti is the key here; all the other governors are under his thumb. Not that none of them are weak, feeble old men, but he's the one with the most influence, with the army especially, since he was formerly the General. And none of the others have enough power to oppose him openly. What else…that they intend to keep a close watch on us, which is why that Einherjar is here. It seems as though they still regard us with some measure of suspicion.

With a sigh, Roy began swiftly buttoning up his stiff white shirt and threw his long, formal uniform over it, before slicking his hair back with a little bit of cream. They were to meet up with the two factions this evening and dine together, and it was more than necessary to be appropriately attired. He would have to be mentally prepared as well; there was bound to be tension at the table, and he would have to force the Fullmetal Alchemist to sit beside him, so as to ensure that he would not blurt out anything that would be considered offensive to either party. Or worse, try to jump Biretti again. At least everything else had been pretty smooth so far; Havoc and Farman had arrived slightly later, and were joining them for dinner. That relieved the pressure a little, but it was still a significant weight he carried.

Smoothing the finely-woven blue material that fell over his chest, he surveyed his impeccable reflection, and sighed. If only he was truly in as pristine condition as he looked; he was attired perfectly, but felt like an utter wreck inside. With the Fullmetal Alchemist here, the past had returned to haunt him, not an intention of the Elric himself, but merely a byproduct of his very presence. Just seeing the youth brought back memories of Roy's own energy and hope during those times, the very things that he had lost, simply because Roy now saw them in Ed. And Edward himself…

I guess I still can't reconcile the child-Ed in my mind, and the matured Ed I see now, can I? Mustang, you fool.

Maes, Maes, where are you? I need you now. You were the one who kept me grounded, the one who kept me going. Why the hell did you have to die? You are the one who managed to suppress the fool Mustang, and thus manifested the Flame Alchemist, the identity I bear today. You abandoned me.

Angrily, Roy tried to prevent the hemorrhage of childish emotions, stemming the flow with a silent chant of his own name over and over again, as if it were a ward against the darkness that threatened to break upon him. He'd not felt like this in a long time; it was only the Elric's presence that reminded him of his regrets. Damn that brat.

Unable to tell whether he was talking about himself or the Elric, Mustang brushed his thoughts aside with a casual flick of his head, and slid his fingers into the gentle fit of his snowy gloves, not his ignition ones, but his good military ones. It would hardly be very reassuring if he displayed any open signs of suspicion. For good measure, however, he retrieved the well-used, arrayed pair from his gilded dresser drawer and began tucking them securely in the folds of his long coat, safely out of sight. That would take care of any hostile action, he thought vaguely. Now, if only he could construct an array that could dispel the melancholy that was dropping its diaphanous veils over him, an array to adjust the composition of his mood such that his interest in living was ignited to burn again.

As he tried to smooth away the gentle telltale lumps now forming little hills and crevices in his outfit, a sharp rap sounded at the door. Absentmindedly, he called, "come in," and nearly kicked himself when the Fullmetal Alchemist himself sauntered in, already wrapped in his black leather coat, the condition of the white fur trim at the hood indicating that this, at least, was one that he had not fought in and thus wrecked, yet.

"Yes, Fullmetal?" Roy said, allowing a trickle of annoyance to lace his words. Edward appeared to not care.

"Oh, nothing sir," he replied, flopping onto Roy's bed in a flurry of brilliant scarlet and black, sending deep gorges shooting through the once perfectly straight duvet that bent the brocade roses into little distorted shapes. "Just wanted a little peek at your room. Mine's done up in burgundy, not exactly a very cheerful color, wouldn't you say? Hawkeye hasn't really complained, but her color scheme's some kind of rose color, which is definitely not her sort of thing. I thought Fury was lucky, he got all these rather soothing neutrals, but Farman's is downright awful, his kind of resembles a tree, all brown and green. And-"

"Is any of this relevant, Fullmetal?" Roy cut into Ed's rambling prattle rather curtly, even as he felt a bit of relief at having cream and gold furniture that was rather less outlandish as compared to Farman's agricultural woes. The youth hitched up and then dropped his shoulders in a gesture of casual indifference.

"Nope, not really. Just being rather less than hostile. Loosen up, Flame, dinner'll be tense enough already as it is. If it helps to relieve the stress on you, I might jump Biretti again, just for kicks."

Roy snatched up his cap which lay on his dressing table and set it atop his black hair carefully. "Do that," he retorted, "and you might find yourself devoid of a job, and possibly a country. Furthermore, I'll set Hawkeye and one of her famous taking-downs on you, let's see if you have enough skin to cover your back left after that."

"The former, I can handle. The latter…well sheesh there's a reason why no one's ever hit on her twice! I saw her hack to pieces that silly major some time back. It was bad enough without her shooting holes in his pants."

The corners of Roy's mouth lifted slightly as he recalled the spirit and spunk that had attracted him to the spitfire blonde in the first place, how he had first seen her beating the crap out of one of her fellow privates who had made the mistake of assuming that she was easy, and how that fire had never burned out in all the time that he had known her. Even if their relationship would never be the same again, he was glad that at least she wouldn't simply dissolve like so many others before her. Determinedly, he pushed the images of his dream out of his mind.

Edward, unnoticed by the preoccupied Mustang, took a deep breath, and began to twist his mouth around the words he wanted to say.

"So…er…sir. What's up with you and her, anyway?"

Roy jerked out of his memories, starting slightly, and almost couldn't recover in time, but managed to catch himself. "Wh- nothing, Fullmetal, nothing. I mean…" he stammered, "what are you insinuating?"

Lord, Ed thought, and I thought he was supposed to be sharper than that. Although, of course, that was a cheap shot, knocking him when he's off-guard like that. Ed decided he had to clarify with Farman whether the age beyond which one started to go downhill was thirty or twenty-five.

"Look sir," Ed said calmly, "if you do not want to tell me, I can't force anything out of you. I can't force you to look at me as an equal, if you choose not to." The youth's eyes snatched hold of Roy's and held them firmly, allowing Roy only the quickest flash of Ed's need to be acknowledged. Roy inwardly bit his lip, assaulted by guilt; he had been the same at that age, yearning for recognition, unconsciously and intrinsically aware that one's existence was defined by others. He could not look away.

The sound of the dinner bells broke the gaze they were sharing, and the next minute, Mustang was sweeping out of the room, leaving the Fullmetal Alchemist staring into thin air.