Disclaimer (and this goes for all future chapters too): Fullmetal Alchemist and all related characters do not belong to me, nor are they being used for profit in the telling of this story.

Chapter One: Sacrifice


"If you don't hurry, Brother, the colonel will be angry. You were suppose to be in his office half an hour ago."

"The bastard can wait for all I care," came a defiant snarl. "It's not like it's anything important; he just wants us to report what happened in Lior. If he wasn't so lazy and actually read the reports we sent him, we wouldn't have to hike all the way back to Central every time something happens so he can condescend us face to face with that smug little smile of his." A string of murmured expletives then followed accompanied by several colorful adjectives describing said colonel and all his perceived faults.

The hulking suit of armor gave the breathless equivalent of an exasperated sigh. "Brother, you really shouldn't say that. The colonel just wants to know what we're doing right now."

The armor's companion - a lithe, slight-built teenage boy with braided gold hair - snorted and kicked the ground contemptuously. "Like hell he does! He just wants an excuse to get me in front of him so he can berate me and call me short!"

The suit gave another sigh and shook it's head. Sometimes it was just no use trying to talk to Ed when he was in such a pugnacious mood. Pity every time they came to Central and had to see Ed's commanding officer it made him like that. Not to mention the fact that Ed was still upset over their latest false lead.

"What are you going to tell him?" Al asked. "He's not going to be happy to hear the Philosopher's Stone in Lior was a fake."

"He can just go stuff it," Ed murmured, angrily glaring at the ground and anyone else unfortunate enough to make eye contact with him as he and his brother made their way through Central Headquarters. "I'll tell him what happened with that megalomaniac priest, but I swear if he says one thing about my height I'm going to put that smug smile of his in a cast…" As if to emphasis his promise, the young alchemist raised his metal hand and balled it into a fist.

Al just shook his head and silently followed his brother down the hall. Sometimes it just wasn't worth trying to talk to Ed…

The two finally came to an unmarked glass plate door. Ed paused a moment as he came up to the door and took a deep breath as if readying himself for a fight. Then with a confident flip of his braid off his shoulder, he shoved the door open and marched in with an aplomb that seemed to suggest he owned the place. Al demurely followed his brother inside.

The middle of the office was filled with half a dozen separate desks pushed together to form a large central workspace while an executive size desk sat at the head of the room between two large windows. Papers and files lay scattered across the desks in a haphazard parody of order. File cabinets lined the walls, while maps and statistical charts covered the walls. Several soldiers in dark blue military uniforms were there; working at their stations or busying themselves at filing cabinets. One - a blonde woman with a holster and pistol at her side - glanced up at their entrance.

"Edward," she greeted, not looking at all surprised by the older brother's entrance. "The colonel's waiting to see you in his office."

Ed's face twisted into a scowl. "I'll be sure to make him wait longer then."

"Good morning, Lieutenant Hawkeye," Al greeted with a polite bow.

Riza returned the gesture with a smile, quite used to Ed's temper by now to have learned to ignore him. "Good morning, Alphonse." She casually glanced back at Ed. "You'd better get going."

Ed scowled and muttered something unintelligible under his breath, but obediently stalked towards the door on the other side of the room. Al thought he heard the words 'egotistical, lazy, bastard colonel' muttered somewhere in his brother's rant but couldn't say for sure.

With only the barest hint of a knock to announce his entrance, Ed strode into the office in a sweeping flash of red and gold.

Colonel Mustang glanced up from the document he was reading and watched in mild disinterest as the teenager strode forward, plopped himself down in one of the chairs in front of his desk, crossed his arms, and glared at him in an arrogant display of challenge, as if daring him to demand to know why he was late. Al quietly took the chair beside his brother after a small bow and murmured, "Good morning, Colonel."

Roy turned back to his paper and continued reading. For several minutes, silence reigned in the Spartan office. As his eyes continued to sweep back and forth across the page, Roy felt Ed's eyes boring into him, and inwardly smirked. If he wasn't sure it was physically impossible, he would have almost said Ed was trying to alchemize him into flames with just his eyes. If only the boy would learn to direct all that spunk and energy of his onto more important things…

"Are you just going to make us sit here all day?" Ed finally demanded, his voice dripping indignation.

"No," Mustang replied as he flipped the report over in his hand to read the other side. "Just until I finish reading this report."

Ed's eyes flashed. "We have better things to do than to sit around here all day waiting for you to find it in your busy schedule to acknowledge us!"

"Calm down, Fullmetal," Roy said, still not looking up from his report.

If anything, that just made Ed angrier.

"Brother…" Al whispered, noticing the dangerous look in his brother's eyes. But Ed was oblivious to his brother's attempt to calm him.

"Now listen here, colonel-"

"No, you listen," Roy cut him off, finally setting aside his report and spearing him with a fiery look. "Despite the trouble you caused in Lior with that fraudulent priest, there are bigger issues right now that need my attention."

"Like what?" Ed demanded, still looking for a fight.

Roy gave him a narrowed look. "If you must know, Fullmetal, there has been a series of attacks recently around the city by a group of rebels calling themselves the Red Brigade. They have made numerous threats on the Furer's life and have already managed to assassinate two top-ranking military leaders within the last week. They are trying to overthrow the government by assassinating the Furer and anyone else close to him."

This seemed to calm Ed down a bit, and he carefully sat back in his seat. "Have there been any leads?"

"Not yet," Roy sighed, leaning back in his chair. "There is no way to anticipate who or what their next target is, and they leave quickly after each attack so there's been no way for the military to respond in time to capture them.

"Also," he said, reaching for another report on his desk as if to check for facts, "Intelligence has reported the possibility of the rebels making a direct strike on Central Headquarters soon, but we have no confirmed intelligence as to when or even if that will actually happen."

"That doesn't sound good, colonel," Al murmured.

"It's not," Roy agreed and tossed the paper back down onto his desk. "Many in the military are becoming anxious and trying to find reasons to leave Central. The Furer himself has mentioned making a possible "inspection trip" to Eastern Headquarters soon."

"It doesn't look like you're getting ready to go anywhere though," Ed noted. "Looking for your next promotion?"

The Flame Alchemist gave Ed a calculated sideways look. "Possibly. But I have to stop this band of rebels first. They are dangerous and getting bolder with each new attack. No one knows who their next target will be…"

It was then that Ed recognized the uncharacteristic hint of worry shadowing his commanding officer's voice. An unsettling thought suddenly occurred to him: could Mustang be worried about his own safety instead of just looking for his latest promotion? He was, after all, high in rank and had many top-level connections to not only generals and such but also the Furer himself.

"What do you plan to do?" Ed asked, pushing that thought from his head. He didn't like to think of his arch nemesis and ranking officer as anything else but the arrogant, self-assured, manipulative womanizer he always had to deal with when reporting to Central. It just made his life easier that way.

"Without any leads or intelligence to go on there's nothing much I can do right now but wait," the colonel replied, his eyes troubled. "That's another reasons I wanted you to report back to Central. It is not safe for military personal to roam around freely right now, especially since you are a known subordinate of mine. Until this matter is resolved, I want you and Al to remain in Central."

"That's not fair!" Ed shouted. "Al and I have our own agenda. We can't sit around here forever waiting for you and the military to get your thumbs out of your asses to go do something about these rebels. Who knows how long that's going to take! We have to find the Philosopher's Stone."

"It's been four years since you've started searching for the Philosopher's Stone and you still haven't found any reliable leads on it," Roy said, his voice level and stern. "What will a few more weeks matter. After all, wasn't this latest mission of yours to Lior just another dead end?"

Ed's eyes narrowed, anger coloring his cheeks. "Al and I can take care of ourselves," he hissed, refusing to acknowledge the colonel's question.

"I'm sure you can," Roy nodded in a condescending tone. "But for now I want you here where I can keep an eye on you. It shouldn't be too hard for you to keep a low profile, after all…"

Al barely managed to grab his brother in time before the young alchemist lunged across the table at his commanding officer.

"Who are you calling a midget so short he doesn't even need to hide because the enemy can't see him over their boot straps!"

"He didn't go that far, Brother!" Al cried, wrestling Ed away from Mustang's desk.

The Flame Alchemist meanwhile looked on in smug satisfaction. It never failed to amuse him how easily the older of the two could be antagonized into one of his height-related tirades. Standing up from behind his desk, Roy gave Ed a superior smirk. "You're dismissed, Fullmetal. But I want you to report back here tomorrow morning for your next assignment. I promise it'll be something easy to keep you occupied while you grace us with your hopefully short presence here in Central."

Ed said nothing as he shook Al's arms off of him and stood, still fuming at the ears. He angrily adjusted his coat collar - and without even a parting glare at Roy - stormed out of the office. Behind him, Roy smiled to himself. With Fullmetal now stationed in Central for the unforeseeable future, things were definitely going to be more interesting around the office…

"Brother! Brother, wait up!" Al cried as he hurried to keep up with his brother's shorter but angrier stride.

"Oo… Bad report?" Havoc asked as Ed stormed out of the colonel's office and slammed the door behind him, just barely missing Al. The walls vibrated ominously from the force.

"That smug, self-righteous bastard," Ed hissed, barely aware of Havoc through his anger.

"What happened?" Feury hesitantly asked. Although he liked the Elric brothers, he'd learned long ago to be wary of the elder when he was in such a volatile mood. Havoc, Breda, and Falman seemed to share his sentiments as all four men stealthfully moved to the other side of the table away from the fuming State Alchemist. Hawkeye seemed the only one unfazed by Ed's temper.

"That bastard's ordered us to stay in Central until those damn rebels are captured or stopped!" Ed yelled, both hands clenched by his sides.

"That doesn't sound too bad," Havoc said, his cigarette hanging precariously from his lips. "It just means you have to stick around here for awhile. What's the big deal?"

"It's taking time away from Al and me finding the Philosopher's Stone," Ed replied, still looking dangerously close to punching something. "Who knows how long its going to take for them to stop these rebels. If I knew where they were I'd go and take care of them myself right now so Al and I could leave…"

"The colonel's doing everything in his power to stop them," Riza calmly said. "He's not taking this threat idly."

Ed however did not seem to share her confidence in the colonel's ability. "Whatever. Al and I are leaving. We'll see you tomorrow."

The teenage alchemist began to stalk towards the door, but just as he was about open it, the concussive wave of a large explosion shook the office. Stacks of papers toppled over onto the floor, the glass in the windowpanes shook.

"What was that?" Breda yelled as everyone ducked and covered their heads from falling plaster.

The door to the colonel's office flew open and the Flame Alchemist appeared. "What's going on?" he demanded.

"I don't know," Hawkeye replied, her hand subconsciously resting on the butt of her gun. "It sounded like a bomb of some kind."

"Fuery! Dispatch a distress signal to other posts. Tell them Central Headquarters is under attack and needs backup. The rest of you, follow me," Mustang said, heading for the door. "You too, Fullmetal."

"I wasn't about to let you leave me behind anyway," Ed replied as everyone jumped into action and followed the Colonel out the door. Ed immediately fell into step beside the colonel, not about to let anyone think he was actually following the man.

The hallways were filled with other soldiers, all of them hurrying to see what had caused the explosion. As Mustang and his group made their way towards the commotion, other soldiers noticeably moved out of the Flame and Fullmetal Alchemists' way. Both had earned themselves a notable reputation after their State Alchemist review battle several years ago. No one in their right mind was about to go up against either one of them, let alone both at the same time. Plus, if anyone could be trusted to find out what was going on and take care of it, it was one of them…

A familiar face suddenly appeared down the hall, pushing his way through the crowd towards them. "Mustang!" he shouted over the din of voices.

"Hughes!" Roy yelled and hurried towards his friend. "What happened?"

The Intelligence officer looked slightly out of breath, his face a mixture of apprehension and dread. "Rebels. The Red Brigade. They detonated a bomb on the front wall of Headquarters and are trying to storm the building. We don't know how many there are but it looks like there are at least several dozen."

As if to punctuate the severity of the situation, the sudden crack of gunfire sounded somewhere in the distance.

Roy swore under his breath. "We have to hold them off. I sent one of my officers to relay other posts for backup."

"Will they get here in time?" Maes asked. "I don't know what they're after, but the Red Brigade's not known for staying around long after an attack."

"Can we hold them off long enough for reinforcements to get here?" Ed asked.

Mustang and Hughes exchanged looks.

"Maybe if we divided the troops and send half of them around the sides to box the rebels in from the front," Roy said. "It would be a hammer and anvil maneuver. Major Armstrong could lead them. I will stay here and divert their attention until Armstrong is in place."

"I just saw him," Hughes replied. "I'll go tell him about your plan. But what about a third squad? The rebels might slip past us during the fight and escape through the sides."

"I'll go," Al said, stepping forward. "I can watch one side to make sure no one gets past."

"Al…" Ed said, uncertainty tainting his voice.

"I'll be fine," Al assured him. "I can fight and keep the rebels from slipping past Major Armstrong and the colonel. Plus it's not like I'll have to worry about bullets. I'll be fine."

Ed still looked uncertain. In the distance, the sound of gunfire was getting louder.

"I can do this," Al assured him. "I'll be fine."

A distance screamed sliced the air, the gunfire suddenly increasing.

"Fine, go!" Ed yelled, pushing his brother towards Hughes. "But be careful!"

"I will!" Al shouted.

Roy gave Hughes one last nod before the Intelligence officer turned and ran with Al back in the direction he'd come. Roy and Ed both stared after the two with troubled expressions.

"Can we really hold them off long enough for reinforcements to arrive?" Hawkeye said, stepping towards Roy. "It will take at least twenty minutes for other units to respond, and I hate to say it, but you might be one of the ones the rebels are after, colonel."

Mustang nodded stoically. "I know. But we have to do what we can until others get here." Tugging the hem of his glove one last time as if to make sure it was properly in place, he took off towards the sound of battle.

Ed paused only long enough to toss his red jacket aside before clapping his hands together and transforming his automail arm into a two foot long metal blade. "The colonel better leave me some rebel asses to kick," he murmured as he took off after the other alchemist. "It's their fault I'm here in the first place…"

As Ed neared the entrance hall of Central Headquarters he finally saw for himself the devastation the rebel bomb had wrought. A gapping hole was all there was now where a towering stone wall once stood. Rubble lay everywhere along with bodies of dead or injured soldiers. Fire burned in patches amongst the rubble, creating billowing sheets of smoke. The sound of battle was coming from outside, just beyond the ruined front stairs of the building.

Ed stumbled over the smoking debris and hurried towards the sound of gunfire and screams. Outside, the front parade ground was a total war zone. Smoking debris littered the ground. Soldiers and men in civilian clothes with red armbands were engaged in deadly combat - both hand-to-hand and with guns.

As Ed emerged from the crippled Headquarters, a brilliant streak of flames suddenly sliced the air, incinerating everything in it's path. Men in rebel armbands fell writhing to the ground, covered in flames.

Roy Mustang stood like a spool of calm in the midst of battle, almost casually snapping his fingers together to send another plume of flames racing towards the enemy. Soldiers began to rally around him and concentrate their defensive line.

Ed hurried forward to join the fight. He could now count perhaps fifty rebels, at least by what he could see. It was hard to tell with all the smoke and gunpowder choking the air.

Lunching himself into the midst of battle, Ed parried the knife of a rebel fighter away from him with his metal arm. Clapping his hands together, Ed ducked beneath a second swing aimed at his head and pressed his hands to the ground. Bright blue light exploded into the air. When the light disappeared several seconds later, the rebel fighter was encased in a transmuted stone cage that seemed to grow right up out of the ground.

Ed gave the captured man a cocky wink before throwing himself back into the din of battle. Despite the military having more men at its disposal, the rebels seemed to have anticipated the military's inability to organize them in time to mount an effective defense. Ed didn't know how long or how many people he fought. He just kept moving from rebel to rebel; knocking out one, capturing another. The enemy men began to blur into one another until they were nothing but a stream of faceless people. Ed felt like his mind had somehow shut off and he was merely fighting on autopilot. Parry, dodge, jump, block, dodge, transmute. Block, block, parry, thrust, kick, dodge, transmute. Slice, kick, parry, dodge, block, jump. It became a dance.

With a blinding flash of alchemy, Ed removed another rebel from the fight by fusing him to the ground in a shell of transmuted concrete. The man yelled and struggled, but Ed barely heard him over the sound of battle.

He was breathing hard. Strands of sweaty blonde hair hung down around his face. His hand had begun to hurt from all the times he'd clapped it together with his metal one to perform a transmutation. His body ached, every muscles screaming with pain and fatigue. Even his clothes were torn and dirty.

Another plume of fire singed the air, leaving a track of scorched concrete in its wake. Glancing in the direction of its origin, Ed saw Mustang turn and shoot off another blast of fire, falling another rebel that had been trying to sneak up on him. The colonel's face was strained and covered with sweat, his hair beginning to stick to his temples in matted clumps. He was breathing hard too, each new blast of flames draining a little bit more of his strength.

Where's Al? Ed wondered, looking around the body-strewn battlefield. Or the reinforcements? Shouldn't they have been able to sneak around by now?

Out of the corner of his eye, Ed saw a rebel fighter suddenly emerge from a cloud of smoke and aim a pistol at his head. Ducking, Ed tucked and rolled away across the ground, dodging a series of bullets that tore up the ground right where he'd been standing only a few seconds ago. Clapping his hands together, the teen pressed his hands to the ground and summoned a concrete hand up out of the ground to crush the man in its embrace. The man struggled and yelled, but his gun uselessly clattered to the ground by his feet.

Ed felt himself starting to get tired. He didn't know how much longer he could keep this up. Even the colonel looked like the battle was starting to wear on him.

Just then a cry went up from across the battlefield. Looking up, Ed saw a tall man with a mustache and blonde curl in the middle of his forehead emerge from behind a screen of thick black smoke billowing from the bombed in entrance hall. Ed couldn't be sure because of all the smoke, but he swore he could see the twinkle of tiny pink sparkles shining around the man like confetti.

"Major!" Ed yelled, never happier to see the man in his entire life.

"Edward Elric," Major Armstrong replied in his usual dramatic way. "Have no fear. Reinforcements have finally arrived."

And it was true. Because behind the towering man stood several squads of men armed and ready to go to their comrades' aide.

"Move out, men!" Armstrong yelled, motioning them forward with a dramatic sweep of his arm. A stream of reinforcements rushed onto the battlefield, opening fire on the invading band of rebels.

The battle began again, this time even more intense than the first.

Ed looked around for the tall figure of his metal brother but couldn't see him anywhere. Unable to find him, Ed was once again pulled into the fight.

Cut, slash, block, kick. Duck, spin, turn, transmute. The dance continued.

At some point Ed resurfaced from the haze of battle and once again found himself near the Flame Alchemist. The colonel looked worse than when Ed had last seen him. His face was now smeared with soot and ash, his hair windswept. The tide of battle was slowly turning in the military's favor, but the fighting was still intense.

"Fullmetal, fall back to Headquarters," Roy yelled over the screams and gunfire as he sent another jet of flames flying towards the enemy. "Regroup with Lieutenant Hawkeye and prepare for a group assault on the enemy to push them back towards Major Armstrong."

"No offense, colonel, but screw you," Ed said as he dodged a spray of bullets from another rebel and dropped to transmute a shield for himself from the ground. Another transmutation later and the rebel was efficiently removed from battle by being sealed in a concrete cage. "I'm not going anywhere."

Roy looked annoyed at his subordinate's disobedience but said nothing as he snapped his fingers and summoned another fiery blast of transmuted air.

"Where are your reinforcements?" Ed shouted as he disposed yet another rebel fighter. "You told Feury to call other posts for backup!"

"They won't be coming," an unexpected voice said behind Ed and Mustang. Both alchemists spun around in surprise.

A man stood there several paces away, a blood red band of cloth circling his upper left arm. He had long black hair, his rugged chin covered with three day old stubble. A jagged scar ran down the length of his cheek from his right eye to his jaw. He was tall and thick in build. His clothes were ragged and torn as was the tattered brown cloak he wore. His nose was long and crooked as if it'd been broken many times and left to heal unset. His lips were twisted into a cocky smile, exposing two rows of yellow-stained teeth.

"You shouldn't expect any reinforcements anytime soon," he said, smiling smugly. "I had my men cut communication wires to Headquarters right before we attacked."

"Who are you?" Roy demanded, stepping towards the man with his fist held out in front of him, thumb and forefinger posed to make use of the flammable material of his gloves.

"My name is Warren Slater," the man replied, apparently unfazed by the colonel's threatening stance, "leader of the Red Brigade."

Roy's face darkened. "What do you want?" he hissed, his hand never faltering from the other man.

"Tsk tsk, colonel. Such bad manners," Slater said. Before Roy or Ed even knew what was happening, a huge concussion wave of power suddenly radiated out from Slater and pulsed the air, brutally knocking both alchemists to the ground.

Ed lay there for several minutes on the cold, rubble strewn ground, unable to move. He felt like he'd just been hit head on by a speeding truck. Every bone in his body felt like it'd just been turned to dust. "What was that?" he choked, weakly pushing himself back to his feet, dazed and battered.

Mustang also looked stunned, staring at the strange man with something akin to horrified dread. A trail of blood ran down his chin from the corner of his mouth. "You're an alchemist," he hissed, pointing at the rebel leader almost accusingly. "You condensed the air around you into a small area then rapidly expanded it to create a powerful concussion wave."

"My, my, you are perceptive," the rebel leader laughed. "But, yes, you are right. I am an alchemist…" He slowly stepped towards the two alchemists. "I believe you asked me earlier what I wanted, Colonel Mustang, and that would be to see you dead. A pity though. Both of you seem like you would be such interesting adversaries. I would have enjoyed fighting with you more, but I fear our time here is drawing to a close."

"Killing me won't do anything to further your cause to overthrow the government," Mustang spat, standing to face the man.

"Perhaps not directly," Slater agreed. "But at least it's a start. If anything, killing you would merely be nipping a future Furer in the bud."

Roy began to raise his hand to throw a deadly burst of flames, but Slater was quicker. Before Roy could dodge, Slater sent another concussion wave at him, knocking him to the ground. As Mustang struggled to his feet again, Slater reached into his cloak and removed something from it's billowing folds. "I wouldn't usually use this," he said as he showed a deadly looking handgun to the battered colonel, "but somehow the force of a concussion wave shattering every bone in the body and turning all internal organs to mush just doesn't possess the same calculated elegance of a single bullet to the heart."

Roy stared at the gun, a thrill of horror going through him. "Fullmetal, run!" he yelled, standing to face Slater. "Run and regroup with the others!"

He knew he could try to use alchemy again, but he doubted it would be any more successful than the last time. His continued flame attacks during battle had significantly tired him, making him slow. He couldn't hope to defeat this man right now in a test of alchemy.

"Are you crazy?" Ed yelled, transmuting his arm into a blade and lowering into a battle stance.

"Fullmetal, for once would you just follow my orders and run!" He couldn't let Slater hurt the boy. The hot-headed teen might be annoying at times and all together frustrating the rest, but he was his subordinate, and thus his responsibility to protect. If sacrificing himself meant earning Ed the time he needed to get away, then it was worth it.

"How touching," Slater remarked. Then with no more fanfare raised his pistol at the colonel's chest - and fired.

"Colonel!"

Everything suddenly seemed to move in slow motion. Roy was almost painfully aware of the bullet speeding towards him. For a brief moment of time he wondered if he would feel any pain before he died.

But the deadly hit never came.

Instead, Roy felt something large shoved into him just as the gun's report echoed through his ears. It took Roy a moment to realize he hadn't been hit. And then another for the horrible truth of the miracle to sink in.

Edward was leaning against him, holding his chest with his only flesh hand. His head was bowed almost to his chest, obscuring his face from view behind a thick curtain of hair.

"Fullmetal!"

Ed didn't answer as his knees suddenly gave out from under him and he slowly sagged to the ground. Roy deftly caught Ed and eased him down, cradling the injured alchemist to his chest. Blood was pouring out between Ed's fingers, staining his shirt a wet, shiny black.

"Pity," Slater sniffed as he aimed his gun at the colonel's head again. "I probably would have let him live if he'd run. Oh well…"

Just as he pulled the trigger, another bullet sliced the air, hitting Slater in the arm and misdirecting the rebel leader's shot harmlessly into the ground several yards to Roy's right. Slater grabbed his bleeding shoulder as a spray of bullets chewed up the ground several inches in front of him.

"We'll meet again," he said as he gave Mustang and the injured boy one last look, then turned and ran the other way. The gunshots continued to drum the air until Riza Hawkeye was suddenly standing in front of Roy, her pistols still aimed after the fleeing rebel even though her magazine clips were now completely empty. The battlefield was suddenly quiet, the rebels having retreated at the sight of their leader's departure.

"Colonel, are you alright?" Hawkeye cried, kneeling down beside her commander. But Roy was barely aware of her. His attention was wholly focused on the bleeding teenager in his arms. A part of him wanted to rant and rave and yell at the boy for being so stupid as to jump into the path of a speeding bullet, but he just couldn't seem to find the heart to.

"Fullmetal? Fullmetal, answer me!" His hand was tightly pressed to Ed's chest, desperately trying to staunch the horrible flood of blood draining the young alchemist of life. He already knew it was a futile attempt though. The shot that had torn a path through Edward Elric's chest was a mortal one.

A small crowd was forming around Mustang and his young subordinate, others drawn to the tragic scene taking place in the middle of the battlefield. A few familiar faces were present. Havoc, Hawkeye, Falman, and Breda - all looking slightly scuffed from battle - silently watched their commander call and shake the youngest member of their group, desperately trying to get some kind of response from him. Just like their commander, they already knew any response they got from the prodigal young alchemist would be short lived.

"Fullmetal! Fullmetal! Edward, answer me, dammit!"

This finally seemed to gain the boy's attention as two gold eyes slowly opened and swiveled up to stare at the colonel.

"Shut up, you bastard… Can't you see I'm hurt?"

At first Roy was almost willing to entertain the hope that the alchemist's usual back-talk was a sign that he would somehow pull through. But then he noticed the glazed look in Ed's eyes - the dying flicker of light that reminded him strangely of a flame sputtering in the breeze right before it blew out.

A familiar voice suddenly caught Roy's attention and made him look up.

"Make way! Make way! What's going on here! What happened?"

Pushing his way through several other soldiers Lieutenant Colonel Hughes stopped dead in his tracks at the sight he beheld.

"Dear Lord…" he breathed and rushed to his friend's side. "Roy…What…" he stammered, staring at the boy cradled in his friend's arms. "SOMEONE GO GET A MEDICAL TEAM! NOW!" he screamed over his shoulder at the group of onlookers. The crowd instantly broke up, hurrying to carry out his order. The only ones that refused to leave were those in Mustang's outfit and two other officers Hughes recognized as Lieutenant Maria Ross and Sergeant Denny Brosh.

"We have to get Ed to a hospital," Hughes said, urgently reaching out for the boy in Roy's arms. "Here, give him to me. I'll take him. Someone else go get a car. It'll be quicker if we take him to the hospital ourselves than waiting here for a medical team. We have to-"

"Maes."

Hughes abruptly stopped talking and stared at his friend.

"It's no use," Roy whispered.

The Intelligence officer opened his mouth to protest - to demand that they hurry and get the boy he'd come to see as something like an adopted son help - but then slowly closed it again, his eyes filling with helpless despair as realization set it.

A heavy silence fell, suffocating everyone there under its weight.

"W-where's Al?" Ed weakly murmured, blinking back the ring of darkness tunneling his vision. "Where's Al…? I want to see my brother…"

The boy's request made the soldiers all look up and search the battlefield for the hulking suit of armor that was almost always to be found by his brother's side.

"Someone hurry and find Alphonse," Roy said, struggling to keep his usually calm voice composed.

Breda and Falman jumped into action and hurried away.

"You stupid child," Mustang said as they disappeared from sight. "What were you thinking? I was trying to divert his attention so you could get away." Despite the anger in his voice, his eyes were suspiciously damp. "Why couldn't you just for once have followed my orders?"

A mirthless laugh came from Ed, making him wince despite the colonel's hand still pressing against the bleeding hole in his chest. "I guess I'm just not very good at following orders…" he murmured.

Roy clenched his eyes shut and turned his face away. "You stupid, foolish hot-head…"

"And you're a manipulative, smug bastard, so it really doesn't matter."

Roy looked back down at the boy. It was strange. Edward always acted so strong and self-assured - like nothing in the world could ever touch him - that Roy often forgot just how young Ed really was. Perhaps that was one of the reasons he secretly admired the foul-mouthed prodigy that had wormed his way into his life. But now the Fullmetal Alchemist lay here dying in his arm, so fragile and weak… And all because of him…

Roy began to open his mouth to say something. But anything else he might have said to Ed in his last few minutes of life were never known, as the sound of clanging metal suddenly captured everyone's attention and Ed's younger brother rushed towards them. Behind him, Breda and Falman followed, accompanied by a shirtless Major Armstrong, his tiny blonde curl hanging limply down his forehead.

"Brother! Brother, what happened!" Al cried as he shoved his way past the other soldiers to his brother's side. Despite the lifeless shell he inhabited, Roy could hear the invisible tears streaming down the armor's face in his voice. "Brother! Brother, answer me!"

"Al…" Ed murmured, weakly turning his head towards his brother. "It doesn't look like we're going to get to find the Philosopher's Stone… I'm sorry…"

"Don't say that!" Al wailed, kneeling beside his brother, heedless of the growing puddle of blood under Ed. "Of course we're going to find the Philosopher's Stone! You have to hold on! You can't die! Not now!" A heart-wrenching sob escaped the suit of armor. "You can't leave me!"

Ed felt tears sting his eyes at his brother's tearful pleas. "I'm sorry, Al…"

"Brother, please!"

Ed saw his vision begin to waver. The darkness was slowly creeping in. He was running out of time. "Al…" he whispered. "Come here… While I still have something to Exchange…"

"Wha-?" Al stammered.

"Don't do anything stupid this time while I'm not here to bring you back… I'm just sorry you had to lose everything you did in the first place… Whatever happens, just know that I'll always love you…"

For a moment, no one knew what Ed was talking about or what he planned to do until the young alchemist suddenly clapped his hands together and pressed them to Al's chest plate. An explosion of blue alchemic light burst under the Fullmetal alchemist's touch.

"BROTHER!" Roy heard Al scream over the crackling charge of energy as bright blue light consumed the hollow suit of armor. He didn't know how long the transmutation lasted. It could have been second, minutes, or hours. But as the light finally began to recede, he felt the body in his arms suddenly go limp and Ed's arms lifelessly fall back to his sides.

The light disappeared, leaving an empty white void in its wake. Roy and his men furiously blinked their eyes, trying to rid their vision of spots. As sight slowly returned, the first thing Roy noticed was the disturbing stillness of Ed in his arms. The alchemist's eyes were closed, his light blonde lashes gently pressed to his dirt smeared cheeks. He looked strangely peaceful, as if Ed had drifted off to sleep with no reason for fear or regret.

The next thing Roy noticed was that the hulking suit of metal that housed Ed's brother's soul was no longer there by his brother's side. And this was what truly stunned him and everyone else there because in place of the hollow suit of armor now lay the naked body of an eleven or twelve years old boy.

For a moment Roy could only stare. The boy lay face down on the ground, his face turned away from the colonel. His hair was blonde - not the same shade of sun bleached straw as Ed's - but it was blonde. And there was something unsettling familiar about the boy's figure and shape...

As if waking from some troubling dream, the boy gave a tiny moan and shifted off the ground onto his knees. As he shakingly sat back on his heels, a sudden realization seemed to come over him. Slowly bringing his hands up in front of his face, the boy stared with pale gray eyes at his fingers and the soft fleshy pink of his skin. Gasping, the boy looked up at the ring of soldiers staring back at him with stunned looks of shock. A horrified panic filled the boy's eyes as he looked back down at his hands, and then up at the still figure cradled in Mustang's arms.

Tears welled up along the rims of the boy's eyes, and with no further warning he threw himself at Ed's still form. "Brothaaaaaaaar!" he wailed, clutching Ed's shirt and shaking him with all his might as if his very life and sanity depended on it. "Brother, answer me!"

As if breaking herself out of whatever spell had bewitched them at the sight of the young boy's appearance, Maria Ross slowly removed her military jacket and knelt behind him, gently draping it over his shoulders.

But the boy was oblivious to her efforts.

"Brother, answer me! Answer me! Answer me!"

Gathering the crying, hysterical boy to her, Ross pulled him away from Ed into her arms, bundling him in her overlarge jacket.

"Let me go!" the boy screamed, fighting against her. "Brother! Brother, answer me! Brother!"

"Al," Ross calmly whispered.

The reaction was instantaneous. Alphonse Elric - newly returned to his living, breathing human form - froze, tears pooling in his mercurial gray eyes.

"There's nothing more you can do, Al. Ed's gone," she whispered, hugging the boy as close to her as she could. "I'm sorry. But there's nothing else you can do. He's gone…"

For a moment the boy just sat there in the lieutenant's arms, as if trying to come to terms with what she'd just said. Then with a heart-wrenching sob of agony that seemed to come from the very depths of his soul, Al dissolved into tears and buried his face in Ross' chest, wailing his grief as loudly as his newly formed lungs would allow.

His pitiful cries echoed across the empty parade grounds of Central Headquarters, screaming for his brother to hear him and come back. But the blonde figure in Roy's arms refused to answer.

For Edward Elric, the famed Nationally Certified Fullmetal Alchemist, had long since passed beyond the Gates of Truth and into the cold beyond…


To Be Continued(?)
Should I keep going? Feedback is much appreciated. I apologize for the ridiculously long opening chapter, but it went a little bit longer than expected, and I couldn't think of any way to cut it down.

So let's recap: feedback! Feedback! FEEDBACK! I always judge the possible future success of a story on it's opening chapter.