--I like to call this story a 'parallel.' It isn't the anime, but it follows at several very important points, hanging more closely to canon at some points and more loosely at others. I hope that helps make it more comprehensible. Comments and criticism are always appreciated.
And Roy Mustang is a man of many regrets, but he can't say that this is one of them, watching Edward's expression shift from shock to horror to fury, and somewhere in between is revulsion, stowed hastily away, still lingering but hidden, thrown into shadows by the glare of the boy's temper.
And the thought that takes center stage in his mind is that Fullmetal was never very good at veiling his feelings; he was always far too transparent, which made Roy's job both easier and harder. Easier because Edward has the troublesome tendency of huddling inside his secrets, and it would be near-impossible to keep any sort of reign on the boy if Roy couldn't read them off his face; And harder because it wasn't just Roy who could read those secrets.
A good poker face is one of many traits that Roy had tried to drill into the teenager, and one of few that simply never took. Fullmetal would probably never be anything more than a decent liar, if that. Unfortunately, that is the way things work with children, and Roy thinks of Edward as a child even though perhaps he isn't anymore.
And at least Fullmetal has the sense to not burst into a tirade right there and then, in front of a room full of people watching him carefully, waiting for the boy to step out of line. Instead the teenager fumes silently, his frame taut with rage and his metal hand forging dents in his chair. And golden eyes flash beneath his lashes, directed at the one person who should have been on his side, could have been on his side for all the authority he has, and isn't. Betrayal flits behind the screen of fury, and Roy simply looks away.
And he supposes he should regret this, but he doesn't. Regrets are too valuable a classification to pin on just anything.
"How long have you known?" Fullmetal asks, and although his voice is calm, his eyes certainly aren't, and Roy keeps walking, not because this was unexpected in any way, but because Fullmetal's rants have a way of wreaking havoc with his schedule. "How many times have I walked into your office and told you all about the homunculi and the Philosopher's Stone, while you hid the fact that one of the only good things I've ever done in my life backfired, and now Lior is on the edge of rebellion?" The boy smiles almost-wryly, and for an instant the revulsion is back, and he is disgusted with himself in a way that Roy associates with the soldiers in Ishval.
"It was too big for you," Roy says, because Fullmetal deserves that much, and for once the boy condones the slur on his height and just looks at the colonel, just looks, and Roy says, "There was nothing you could do."
And the golden eyes darken, and there is a dangerous flash of determination, anger, and disappointment, and Roy can almost see the inevitable there before it is gone and Edward says, "Don't tell me what I can and can't do."
And he leaves and Roy thinks that maybe for once it would have been nice if he was wrong.
And Ed's developed a sort of emotion-radar over the years out of necessity (especially because of one certain somebody who was so hard to read that he was famous for it), and although granted it was a skill born of paranoia rather than perception, it serves just as well paired with common sense.
And it was unsurprisingly easy to use that "skill" to track Colonel Archer down, as he needed an officer who simply wouldn't exist if Archer wasn't stationed in South Headquarters; because Colonel Archer is one of the few in his line of command who doesn't seem to automatically look down his nose at Ed, one of the few who doesn't look down his nose at Ed period (and that isn't because he's short, because he isn't, darn it), he just doesn't shoot those sideways glances that the others do, that say quite clearly, even if the officers all think that Ed is a brat and couldn't possibly be able to tell, that just because the Fullmetal Alchemist got in on skill that surpassed the rest by far didn't mean he deserved to be treated as such. A brat is a brat is a brat, and Ed is so sick of it, and now even Mustang is treating him like a child in over his head, and Archer just…doesn't.
He feels slightly nauseous as he knocks on Colonel Archer's office door, fidgeting with his fingers and adjusting his collar because he must be nervous, right? And a voice calls "come in," and Ed feels like a hypocrite as he steps in and closes the door quietly behind him and salutes like a good little soldier, but he shouldn't because Mustang has never acted like a commanding officer should, more like a nuisance, so it's just equivalent exchange to be a nuisance back.
The office is empty except for Colonel Archer himself, who surveys Ed with raised eyebrows and says, after a moment, "Mr. Elric?"
And Ed realizes belatedly that he has no idea how to address a commanding officer respectfully, because he sure as heck never did it before, so he just says, "If I may have a word….sir?" The 'sir' feels weird in his mouth, he's only ever called Hughes 'sir', but it would be weirder if he was saying it to Mustang, so it's bearable in comparison.
And Archer shifts in his chair, fixing Ed with a gaze that holds all of the Colonel's attention, unlike a certain somebody who barely let Ed get a sentence out without contradicting or correcting him in some way. "Go ahead."
And Ed fumbles for words, grappling with the art of talking-while-not-saying-anything for a moment before he can manage, "I think I can be an…asset regarding the Lior rebellion. I have…visited….the area several times in recent years, and I know the land well…. My…age would also be advantageous in the event that the military investigation would want to remain unnoticed. General Hakuro said he was looking for a scout?" he blurts finally, because he isn't used to talking fancy, and the colonel seems to be fully aware of that, smiling slightly at Ed's floundering.
"I had been under the impression that Colonel Mustang was in your direct line of command?" Archer says, but it isn't an accusation, because if it was Ed would be halfway out the door already.
"Yes, sir," Ed says quickly, and flounders some more. "The Colonel and I are currently…um…in difference of opinion on the subject of Lior. He, um, considers my role….questionable."
Colonel Archer smiles wider and folds his hands thoughtfully. "Ah, yes, the infamous Fullmetal Alchemist versus Flame Alchemist squabbles. They're practically legend. You are a brave man, Mr. Elric." Ed blinks, and Colonel Archer continues, "But as for your question, I had been taking your part in all this into account as well—" He cuts himself off suddenly and tilts his head in Ed's direction. "Can I invite you to a more pleasant setting for this kind of discussion? Lunch tomorrow perhaps?" And Ed nods, taken by surprise, because Mustang had certainly never cared about where they talked, if the Colonel decided to tell him something, he would darn well tell him something, regardless of where and when. Ed's sleep, privacy, and general state of mind had no weight whatsoever in the wake of a Colonel trying to drill something into his head.
"Then I'll arrange a car to take you to the restaurant at eleven….." says Archer. "You are staying at the dorms, correct?"
"Yes, sir," Ed says, "but, uh, can I just ask one thing…?"
And there is a knock at the door and whoever it is enters without waiting for a reply, and Ed cringes because with his luck it can't be anyone but—
And he can see the surprise on Mustang's face as his eyes sweep from Ed to Colonel Archer, and then his mouth compresses into a thin, angry line. "Fullmetal, what are you doing here?" Mustang says, his voice hard and clipped, the sort of voice that means that Ed is in trouble, but the question is directed at Archer this time, and Archer smiles back.
"Dismissed, Mr. Elric," Colonel Archer says calmly, if a bit amused, and Ed jumps even though the comment was intended more for Mustang than for him.
"Yes, sir," says Ed, and ducks his head as he leaves because he knows Mustang is looking at him, and he knows he shouldn't feel bad about this but he does.
He doesn't start running until he is out of the office and halfway down the hall.
And Al sits just outside the door while Ed mutters to himself, throwing clothes over his shoulder and into a growing pile on the floor, snarling at the amount of pajamas he has, and Al sighs but doesn't move to help because the truth was Ed didn't need anything but his day clothes and pajamas, so why would he own anything else? But Ed is bent on the idea that he had somehow acquired fancier clothes, some sort of suit-like thing, and Al could maybe vaguely remember going clothes shopping with Winry in Central once, but even if Ed hadn't burned the clothes at the first chance he got, Al still thinks Ed is being entirely too obsessive about the whole situation.
"It's just a meeting," Al remarks offhandedly. "You never got so uptight about meetings with Colonel Mustang."
And the sounds of Ed making a mess of his suitcase pause for a moment and Al can just see the look Ed is giving him even though they are facing opposite directions. "Why in the world would I prepare for a meeting with that?" he says, as if Al has gone truly and irreparably insane. Al sighs. Ed goes back to his search.
Before long Al hears a triumphant "Ah-ha!" from the room, and Al perks up a bit. "You found it?"
"Yup," Ed replies happily, his voice muffled.
"Is it a suit?" Al asks, still slightly doubtful.
"I think so," says Ed, sounding doubtful as well.
Al sighs again and leans back against the wall, hoping he can trust Winry's fashion sense because if the suit (or whatever it is) doesn't look good, Ed will go into a fit and insist on changing his clothes again, and then he'll be late for sure.
Maybe he should tell Ed it doesn't look good just to make him late.
He immediately feels bad about that idea, crumpling it up and tossing it into his mental trash can before he can really consider it, but really he isn't comfortable with this whole going-behind-the-Colonel's-back thing, after all Roy must have a good reason for keeping them away from Lior….
"All right, Al, do I look grown up or what?"
So Al looks up at him and Ed waits expectantly, his hair pulled back in a long tail and his jacket and coat traded for a red, collared shirt, and he's still holding the suit jacket (because that is indeed what it is), as if he doesn't want to put the whole outfit on in case he has to take it off again.
And the first thought that comes into Al's mind is that "You look like Dad."
And Ed's expression freezes in place and Al is about to apologize and swear that he was lying, really, you don't look anything like him, when Ed smiles slightly and says, "Yeah, I've been noticing that too." He clears his throat and when he speaks his voice is normal again. "So, I look like a mature, responsible adult, right?"
"Yeah, but you know what they say: you can't judge a book by its cover," says Al, and Ed laughs. "I can't believe it's been five years," Al says, in a softer voice. Ed looks down at him.
"Sixty months," he says, thoughtfully.
"Two hundred and sixty weeks," says Al.
"One thousand, eight-hundred, twenty-one and a quarter days," says Ed, showing off now.
"Forty-three thousand and six-hundred—"
"—eighty six hours," interrupts Ed, smugly. He jumps away laughing as Al reaches to hit him.
"Five years since we tried to bring Mom back," Al says, and Ed's face goes serious again.
"Five years since we lost our bodies," says Ed, and there is just a shadow there of the self-hate that he has been trying to hide ever since the deaths of Greed and Dante, that he still hasn't fulfilled his promises.
"Five years since Colonel Mustang picked up what was left of our lives," says Al, his voice soft to the point of inaudibility, but he knows his brother hears because his eyes go dark, and he looks sideways at Al for a very long time; until at last Ed ducks his head and rubs the back of his neck and sighs like a man much older than any teenager should be.
"It's…you wouldn't understand, Al."
"Don't tell me what I can and can't understand, Brother," Al says, because he is sick of hearing that he can't understand, he couldn't possibly understand the darker side of people because Al is adorable and pure and perfect, and Al is fifteen years old, three years older than Ed was when he became a State Alchemist, and he is sick of being put on this imaginary pedestal of perfection and total innocence.
And Ed looks up, the surprise pasted on his face, as if he had been slapped. Then his hand drops back to his side and he looks older and more tired than ever, but he smiles and says, "You're right. I'll explain everything when I get back, okay?"
"Okay," says Al, relieved and triumphant and ashamed at once, but Ed makes a career of shouldering too much blame, so if anybody was wrong in any way it had to be him, and Al was deposited unwillingly back onto the Pedestal of Absolute Excellence.
"Then I'll see you in a few hours," Ed says, cuffing Al lightly on the head, and Al says faintly, "Yeah, see you soon."
And he watches his older brother leave the dorm, shrugging the suit jacket on as he goes, too young and too old and Al tries not to think because that's what always gets him in trouble in the end, isn't it?
But Al thinks anyway, that maybe he really doesn't understand.
"Well, there's good news and there's bad news," says Archer, putting down his fork and using that hand instead to cup his chin. Ed looks up from his own plate quickly, trying not to look as uneasy as he felt; he thought that they had just been talking over lunch, but now that he thought back he could very well kick himself for not expecting some sort of test. It sounded as if he hadn't faired too well, in any case.
"The good news is that you're a genius," says Archer, and Ed flushes involuntarily, dropping his eyes back down to the tablecloth. "That's nice to know. I was afraid that all the rumors about you were nothing but blown-up lies. But you're the real thing. Fascinating," he murmurs, and the gaze that settles on the teenager is uncomfortably akin to the way scientists study a particularly intriguing sample.
"And the bad news?" Ed asks warily, hardly daring to ask. He barely keeps from letting out an audible sigh of relief when the colonel's gaze shifts to his coffee.
"You're a genius," Archer replies, as if that much would be obvious to anyone. He continues stirring his coffee while Ed frowns at him, wondering what exactly he's supposed to do about being too smart.
"What do you think of Mustang?" Colonel Archer asks, and Ed just stares at him because his brilliant mind has suddenly evaporated into thin air and that is just about the only thing he can do at this point. "Surely you've worked with him long enough to form an opinion of him?" the older man says, one eyebrow raised.
"He's…." And Ed really has to learn to let a brain get a head-start before he runs his mouth, but as of now his brain has no choice but to trail behind, huffing and puffing, and so Ed stammers, "He's a very….careful man."
Archer laughs softly. "And so are his subordinates."
But Ed has never been one of the Colonel's "subordinates", not the way that Hawkeye, Havoc, Falman, Fuery, and Breda are. It feels….wrong, being called his subordinate, even though that is exactly what he is; it's like stepping onto holy territory, and although he's never had much respect for the forbidden, he's learned to avoid it wherever possible. "No, sir, it isn't anything like that, I—"
"No, I understand," Archer says. "You don't like Mustang. But you respect him." Archer smiles. "It happens to the best of us."
And Ed would like nothing more at that moment than to melt into the ground out of embarrassment, but it seems like he's passed the test, or whatever it was, because the colonel continues, "I believe I can get you into Lior."
And Ed immediately perks up, forgetting his mortification in favor of better things. "Really?"
"You really are the best officer for the job, there's no question. The only problem is that the higher-ups are….concerned about your behavior," Archer sighs.
Ed slumps back down. "Really," he mutters. "In what way?" He could name a few himself, but maybe it was best to act the clueless victim.
"Mostly they are worried that once they let you in Lior, you won't ever come back."
The teenager stares. "They think I'm going to desert? If I wanted to leave the military I'd just quit."
"The military has its reasons," Archer replies, sharply, and Ed is reminded once again that he isn't talking to Mustang.
"Of course. I'm sorry, sir."
The colonel seems to relax. "I suggested a solution, but it's hardly convention, and I have no doubt that you would need to consider the option very carefully….." He trails off and Ed would be fidgeting if he wasn't fighting so hard to come off as mature, nerves twisted up inside him and making it hard to concentrate on anything else.
Finally Archer says, "That is, to leave Alphonse under the military's care until you return."
"Al?" Ed repeats, dumbfounded. "Like…like collateral?"
"Yes. I told you, you will want time to think over your alternatives."
"Yeah," says Ed, feeling like the world has gone and vanished under his feet without warning him again. Al is his little brother, his best friend, his partner in crime, his…. well, his.
"And there's one more condition…."
"There's more?" Ed cries. What else could they possibly take from him? His automail, his pocket-watch, his soul? What does he have left?
A single, perfectly uncreased slip of paperwork is slid across the table and Ed picks it up, the dread settling in the pit of his stomach, and he scans the page quickly, his mouth growing drier the more he reads. "Th…this is a tr—"
"A transfer request, correct," Archer cuts in smoothly. "The only problem remaining is the line of authority—as your commanding officer, Colonel Mustang obviously holds more power over you than I do. Even if I were to get General Hakuro to agree to your accepting this position, Mustang could veto the decision. If I was your commanding officer on the other hand, the issue would be eliminated entirely."
"But…I pr—I can't—"
"The transfer would only last a week, Edward," Colonel Archer says calmly. "Take another look at the paper." And Ed does just that, reading more carefully this time, and the knot lodged inside his stomach begins to loosen as he realizes that Archer is right. "Just long enough to get you to Lior and back."
"I… Thank you. This is perfect," Ed says, and he is just starting to think that maybe this whole mess will work out after all when his eyes catch a title beneath one of the lines kept for required signatures.
Former Commanding Officer.
And Ed knows that no, it probably won't work out after all, in fact, he'd bet his other arm that this whole situation will end up in Ed being burnt to a crisp.
"Well, I'm sure you'll get that signature one way or another. Contact me when you do. I look forward to…having you," Archer tells him, and something in the colonel's smile tells him that he knows exactly what Ed's idea of "one way or another" is.
And Roy sends for the brat just after lunch break but Ed manages to avoid coming in until late afternoon, by which time the Colonel is sorely tempted to go after the teenager himself but doesn't because it seems the kid has finally deigned to make an appearance, as ordered, judging from the noise in the outer office.
And sure enough, the door opens and one Edward Elric shuffles in, kicking the door shut behind him. And because Roy is not Ed but someone who has spent years perfecting his mask, he does not glare at Fullmetal as he sprawls out on the couch as usual, simply watches, perfectly calm, and after a moment Fullmetal looks at the carpet instead of Roy, and the colonel watches for a moment longer, then stands, turns to face the window, hands folded behind his back, because they aren't going to be making eye contact anyway.
"How was your meeting with Archer?"
There is a short pause before Fullmetal mutters, "Good."
And this time Roy allows himself a glare out the window, the room settling into intense silence.
He lets the brat fidget for a while before he murmurs, "Will you go to Lior?"
"Depends," says Edward.
And Roy is starting to regret putting his gloves away. "Depends on what?" he says, through gritted teeth.
The brat doesn't bother to grace that question with a response, and Roy, his temper sliding downhill out of control even as he stands there, watches Ed's reflection in the window shrug. His jaw clenches, but before Roy can order the truth out of him, the boy says, quietly, "I'll have to leave Al here."
And Roy doesn't reply, so he continues, "As…collateral. So that I don't desert."
"What's the point of that? If you wanted to leave the military, you'd just quit," Roy mutters, and hears a sort of muffled laugh behind him. "Something funny, Fullmetal?"
"Uh—" And the laughter chokes off, followed by quiet snickering and "No, uh—heh, just… something Archer said…."
"I see," says Roy, his eyes narrowed. "You seem pretty calm about leaving Alphonse alone."
Ed sobers immediately, and silence falls between them once again, until at last the teenager speaks up again, and this time his voice is barely over a whisper. "That isn't the only thing. I…uh…well…. He wants me to transfer to his command."
And Roy turns around. "What?"
Fullmetal pulls a sheet of paper out of his pocket. The transfer request form. "All I need is your signature and I'm out of your hair. It's a win-win situation."
Ed looks up, angry but not surprised. "Why not?" he demands. "It's not like you have any big plans for me that can't be postponed a week."
And Roy grits his teeth, resisting the urge to shake some sense into the brat. "I don't trust him."
"So trust me!" Edward cries. "What do you think I'm going to do, spread rumors about you in Lior?"
"Fullmetal," Colonel Mustang says, because for all of the boy's genius, his naïveté was going to get him killed one day. Maybe sooner than later. "You are being manipulated. I don't know how, but I can recognize exploitation when I see it."
"Especially since you've done it so many times," Fullmetal shoots back.
Roy ignores the jibe, opting instead for a different angle. "And what does Alphonse think of all this?"
And the Colonel isn't certain if he's won this round or lost it, because Edward backs down, the shields come up, and he replies coldly, "Al understands."
"Al is willing to go through with it because it means so much to you," Roy replies, and Ed stiffens. "You have to learn to think sometimes—what exactly do you hope to accomplish in Lior? What good can one child do in a country on the brink of a rebellion?"
"I don't know!" Ed snaps. "But I have to do something! It's my fault that their government fell apart!"
And there is a reason why Edward Elric is called the Hero of the People, but sometimes Roy can't help but wonder at the lengths that the boy goes for random passersby and everyday citizens. Perhaps impassivity is another trait never really passed on to the kid, and Roy still doesn't know whether he has failed or succeeded in that respect; and he asks, honestly bewildered, "Why do you care so much?"
He looks at him, opens his mouth but only speaks a few moments later, when he says slowly, "I…didn't at first. Do you know how I got that title, Hero of the People? I rebuilt a bar for some guys in the Youswell Mines." He smiled, remembering his very first mission. "It was nothing heroic at all, it was burnt down and the guys had been nice to me, so I just repaid the favor." He shrugged. "Equivalent exchange. But the rumors got so out of hand, and I met people who invited me in and gave me food, just because of that, I guess I started wanting to be the person that they thought I was. I went all over Amestris, and sure, I met a lot of idiots, but I also met some pretty amazing people, people worth protecting. So…I want to protect them. I feel like this is one of the only truly good things I've ever done in my life….no hidden agendas, no ulterior motives…. Just… let me do this one thing, then I'll come back and do whatever you want, but…. Just…. Please?"
And Roy wants to agree, wants to because it seems like one of the only truly good things he would have done in his whole life too, but he knows he can't because Fullmetal should not go to Lior, that much he knows he must remember, above all else. He knows and yet….
And finally, he sighs. "I can't agree to this."
And the silence stretches between them, and Fullmetal's hands clench into fists, and the betrayal is back in his eyes, and at last he stands, and he tries to act unaffected and fails as he mutters, "Fine. Then if you'll excuse me, sir, I have someone waiting."
And Roy turns to look out the window, his stomach sinking, almost expecting Archer to be waiting there, or even Kimbley, but it's only Al, waiting patiently outside the military for his brother as he always has.
And when he looks back to Ed he is already at the door, and before he can think better of it, he has opened his mouth and called, "Ful—Ed!"
And Ed stops, his hand on the doorknob, and when the boy looks over his shoulder his eyes are weighed down with doubt anger hurt resolve …guilt?
And Roy can read the boy perfectly but knowing the inevitable doesn't stop it, and the colonel sinks back into his chair, too tired to do anything else, and says quietly, lamely, "Be careful."
And for a moment Ed doesn't move and then he does and he's out of the office and the door slams behind him and Roy can hear his footsteps disappear all the way through the outer office and down the hall.
And Ed is much too far to hear when Roy sighs, "…dismissed," but he says it anyway because it would be a shame if he didn't.
And Ed stalks through the outer office, trying to ignore the staff's questioning looks, trying not to look as guilty, torn, ashamed as he knows he is; and the slip of paperwork he stole from the Colonel's desk when Mustang was looking out the window is burning in his hand and he can feel it even though his hand is metal because it shouldn't be there and it is.
"Have you decided what you want to do yet?" asks Al, and Ed glances at him over his shoulder.
He turns back to the desk, tucking some uncooperative hair behind his ear, and mutters, "Yeah, I… I'm going to go to Lior."
"Okay," says Al, quietly, and Ed bows his head over the papers in front of him and attempts to concentrate on those instead of the guilt.
He smiles wryly, because, really, his life has always been steeped in the illegal, and he carefully pours the ink from the dorm room pen onto the transfer request, right where Mustang's signature should have been.
"I—I know we've had this conversation before…." says Al. Ed looks up again. "But are you….completely sure…?"
"Al," says Ed.
"I'm sorry, I just," Al finishes the sentence with an exasperated sort of huff. "I just don't like Archer. Have you seen how he treats his subordinates?"
And Ed can't help but think that Mustang must be brainwashing his little brother. "Not everybody treats their subordinates like Mustang does. Anyway, he was pretty nice to me." He puts his hands together and then presses them to the transfer request, manipulating the wet ink, to form an exact replica of the signature on the paperwork he stole, some sort of form permitting the import of more dye for the military uniforms, carelessly signed and immediately forgotten.
"You're absolutely sure, though?" Al asks.
"Yeah. I trust him. He's a good guy." And it's almost true except Ed doesn't know because Archer keeps him at arm's length, and even though Archer seemed to have a good idea about Ed's personality after their meeting, Ed knew nothing but the fact that being under Colonel Archer's full attention makes him nervous.
And he can almost hear Mustang telling him to be careful, and he forces his hands to stop shaking because it's messing up his transmutation.
And this time when he walks into Archer's office there is someone else there too, an alchemist with long black hair, and Colonel Archer smiles as Ed puts the transfer request on the desk, the signature forged flawlessly in true Elric style, both perfect and terrible at once.
And the alchemist stands up and offers Ed a hand to shake, and the teenager notices the transmutation circle tattooed on the palm. "Nice to meet you, Ed—can I call you Ed?—I'm Zolf Kimbley, Crimson Alchemist, hero of Ishval, all that."
Ed wonders at how casually this alchemist mentions the war; Mustang and Hawkeye and Hughes had always avoided that topic at all costs.
"Edward Elric," he says, raising his eyebrows at the hand offered to him. "Lefty."
Kimbley blinks, then switches hands (this one tattooed as well), and Ed almost regrets telling him which hand was his flesh one when it's nearly crushed under Kimbley's grip.
"No shame in that," says Kimbley, grinning. "Some of the best minds are wired backwards. I should know."
He has to remember not to automatically cradle his left hand in his right when Kimbley finally releases it. And what is this whole wired backwards deal? "Uh… thanks? Those are cool tattoos, I've never seen anything like that before."
And Kimbley's grin widens even further and he says, "Yeah, I'll show you how they work while we're in Lior."
"Zolf will be joining you, at least for the trip there," Archer says, and Ed would like to ask why Kimbley is coming too, but he doesn't because "The military has its reasons" will probably be the answer. "That is," Archer continues, "if you're ready to sign?"
And Ed nods and takes a seat next to Kimbley, in front of Archer's desk, and the colonel inclines his head toward Ed briefly before he drops his pen to the blank left for the new commanding officer's signature and signs his name.
And then the pen is handed to Ed, and Ed hesitates, and be careful echoes in his ears before Archer snaps him out of it with a "Edward? Fullmetal? Are you signing or not?" and his voice is impatient, almost angry, and it's the first time Ed has seen him anything other than detached and professional and it startles him a little and he looks back up and says quickly, "Yeah, sorry, I'm just…."
But Archer is back to normal, or back under control, or at least back to what Ed is used to, and he says calmly, "No, take your time."
And Ed signs his name on the line at the bottom of the page and he can't help but feel like he's done this once before, at the Gate and signing his soul away.
And they leave the next morning, no fanfare, just a quiet goodbye to Al and 'stay safe, be good's on both sides, and then they are off, and Ed watches Al disappear out of sight as the train picks up speed, and immediately wishes that Al was here and not there.
And Kimbley is talking about something but Ed's mind is elsewhere, floating somewhere in Rizembul, near the lake they used to play in, up the hill to the house that he and Al and their mother used to live in, to the Rockbells, and what are they doing right now, what is Winry doing right now?
And Kimbley keeps right on talking, and Ed thinks of home.
And by the time they get to Lior, Ed is stiff and the city is dark, and the train station is almost completely empty, which sends a chill down his spine, but Kimbley walks on, unaffected, and Ed has to run to catch up.
Both of them are wearing long robes and scarves, the everyday clothing in Lior, and Ed's hair is dyed dark brown, because, as Mustang reminds him at the most inopportune moments, Ed is far too distinctive for his own good. He is red, black, and bright, startling gold, the Hero of the People, and being sixteen years old with a habit of blowing up things he doesn't like (which can fill a list of alarming span) only serves to add to his reputation. And the military, let alone the Fullmetal Alchemist, the one to put the rebellion domino effect into action, is hardly now a welcomed visitor.
And the city of Lior is dead and dark, and dimly Ed can remember how these very streets looked in the light, filled with people going about their lives, bursting with activity and purpose and contentment, and now the streets are deserted except for the wind and the trash strewn around and the occasional figure walking quickly through the streets to get home, and Ed swallows.
He did this.
And only now does the reality strike, that he has ruined hundreds, thousands of lives, just by traipsing through the city, because of his idiotic obstinacy and naïve persistence that the city should know the truth; but he should know better than anyone that sometimes the truth can break you. And the adults who call him nothing but a kid tell him that he never learns and they're right, they're right.
And Ed has to blink and strain his eyes in the dark, because he knows he's seen that face somewhere before, and he can just make out an x-shaped scar all across the man's forehead.
And the man disappears around the alley corner and Ed follow quietly after him, more out of instinct than anything else, and he is too busy concentrating on Scar to notice Kimbley following just behind.
And the darkness is suffocating, and it isn't like Al isn't accustomed to emptiness, but this is different; This is consuming, unbearable, and he can't move, and all he think is, Am I going to die here? By myself?
And the road rumbles underneath him and Al wishes he had tears to hold back.
I'm so sorry, Brother.
And pain roars along his side, and Ed stumbles, staggers, clutches his wounded side as if it is the only thing keeping the blood in, not that it is keeping the blood in at all, because it isn't, and he is all too aware of that as that world tilts before him, and everything blurs at the edges, but he stumbles forward anyway because he has to, he has to get out—
And finally he hobbles onto the ocean of sand that marks where the desert begins, where Lior ends, and he falls, collapsing to his knees before those buckle as well.
And Ed has never felt so alone in his life, not since he woke up with his leg gone and Al gone and a mutated, hollowed out corpse where his mother should have been and—
And, no, don't think about that, he can't think about that, he's already had enough blood and death, and, and—
(and Kimbley is standing in the middle of it all, a beatific smile on his face as the blood spatters across his sleeves and bodies are lying like old garbage, forgotten in the street, and blood, and blood, and blood, and soldiers in blue and gunshots and pain and blood, and there is nothing but the sick, dirty feeling beneath his ribs and the need to get out)
And with a gasp Ed is brought back to reality as bright, hot light bursts into being just inches away, and he only has a split second to think—oh God—before the transmutation circle surrounding the entire city of Lior—why didn't he see it, why didn't he question, oh God, oh God—explodes into a blinding chasm of power and suddenly the world is not grays and browns but white, white and burning and raw power that nearly lifts him off the ground.
And his eyes adjust slowly as the light fades, but even then he thinks his eyes can't be working properly because there is no Lior, just sand, sand, sand, and silence, silence, silence.
(oh God, oh God, oh God)
And in the emptiness there is a tiny, muffled sob, and Edward Elric falls back onto the sand, won't do anything else, can't do anything else, because there's nobody left to save.
And the conversation goes something like this:
"I'm sorry, sir, but Colonel Archer isn't in today."
"Do you know where he is?"
"He's gone to a private meeting in Central, sir—he should be back this afternoon. Can I help you with anything until then?"
"Actually, yes…. I'd like to know Major Elric's position in Lior."
A pause, the unconcerned shuffling of paperwork. "I'm sorry, Brigadier-General, it seems that we've lost communications with Mr. Elric. But I can try Mr. Kimbley…."
"Yes, Mr. Kimbley accompanied Mr. Elric to Lior—"
"Kimbley is with him?"
"Uh, yes, sir, and I can try to reach Mr. Kimbley and get back to you as soon as possible, if—"
He is already at the door. "No, that's enough, thank you." And then in a mutter, "That stupid, impossible brat."
And the newly-minted Brigadier-General, infamous for his perfect poker face, storms through Headquarters, lieutenants flattening themselves against the walls as he passes, and even though he has the power as General to bring Ed back he can't, because by now, he knows, he always knew, Ed is gone.
And as he enters his office five heads turn to look at him, and it's like they knew all along that this moment would come because they don't even blink, just nod, mouths tight and eyes solemn, and Roy says, quiet and hard, "Tonight we visit the Fuhrer."
And eventually he manages to stem the blood with tattered, makeshift bandages torn from his coat and he forces himself to stand, and limps toward the nearest city, breath coming in ragged, and he wonders as he makes himself put one foot in front of the other, just what kind of place he is returning to.
"Colonel Archer?" And it is early evening but the office is already dark, the outer area deserted. Ed tries to calm his jangling, twisted nerves as he knocks on the door again, the story of Lior rising in his throat like bile, and he compulsively tightens a hand on his injured side. "Colonel?"
And finally there is quiet "come in," and Ed pauses, opens the door, and walks inside.
The inner office is just as dark as the outside, and if he squints he can just dimly see Archer's figure hunched over the desk. "…sir?" he asks, and something is very, very wrong but he can't tell what. "Sir?"
"Pathetic," says Archer, and it is so quiet and rough that it takes Ed a moment to realize that it really is Archer's voice. "Too focused on your precious Lior to see what's directly in front of you—" Archer looks up at him, not that Ed can see his face, and a rasping laugh cuts through the silence. "Tell me, have you seen your little brother yet?"
And finally Ed knows what's wrong, and his heart drops like iron in water and his voice comes out a low snarl, "What have you done with him? Where is he?!"
And Archer just laughs again, and Ed's voice shakes as he demands, "I swear, if you know where he is and you're just not telling me—"
"You want to know what I know about your little brother?" says Archer. "I'll tell you what I know, I know that he's an empty suit of armor, just a soul attached to an inanimate object. There is no body inside there. You tried to bring your mother back using human transmutation and that was your punishment, his body and your limbs."
And Ed is still, silent, his eyes wide, and Archer continues, "The homunculi offered me quite a lot in exchange for delivering Alphonse to them, true, but they weren't too pleased when they learned that I sent you to Lior to die. I suppose they were counting on using him as a hostage to get to you—but, it is too late for that plan. I have already been punished for my shortsightedness, so it is only fair that I commit the murder that I was punished for." And Archer's voice is deadly calm and he rises from his chair with a slow sort of grin and Ed's brain is screaming to run but he can't because all he can think is no, Al, no, no, no, not Al…. And Archer's shoulder gleams in the dark and one human eye and one metal eye fix on Ed and Ed can't breathe and half of Archer's body is metal, and instead of a right hand he has a gun and it is loaded and pointed at Ed. "As you alchemists say," Archer tells him lazily, and he smiles and it is the smile of a psychopath and why, why, why didn't he see it before it came to shoot him in the head? "It's all…equivalent exchange."
And Ed braces his hands under the edge of the desk and overturns it onto Archer, papers flying everywhere and then he turns and runs like he isn't hurt, like he has somewhere to run to, just runs.
And he ducks, screeches around another corner, claps, puts up another barrier between them only to have it blown down again, and his side is screaming and his heart is whimpering in his chest, Al, Al, Al, and then he turns a corner and there's only a dead end in front of him, a solid brick wall with a window, and gunshots crack over his head and oh what the heck, he keeps running, folding his arms in front of face, and crashes straight through the glass.
And he hates falling, maybe it's a side-effect of having two metal limbs, he drops like a stone, glass whipping around him, wind flying through his hair and the breath catches in his throat and then gets knocked out of him again when he lands, knees bent to hold his weight.
And a car screeches to a halt a foot away from running him over, and Ed whirls, stares, Lieutenant Hawkeye looks at him from the driver's seat, startled; and Ed hates himself for the rush of stunned relief as he sees the person in the passenger's seat.
And Roy Mustang can't decide whether he is happy to see Fullmetal or not, so he just stares, and as he stares, the far west wing of South Headquarters begins to crumple and there are gunshots and just what has Fullmetal gotten himself into this time?
And Ed jumps, his eyes wide, and opens the car door (he wasn't invited, but then when has Fullmetal ever cared about manners?), and flings himself inside and yells, "Go! Go!"
And if Riza Hawkeye has any skill it is her instincts, and the engine growls and the car tears down the street before Ed can close his mouth, and Roy and Ed are nearly thrown face-first into the seats in front of him.
Roy wonders if this would be a bad time to kiss her, and then he wonders if he should do that before or after flaming Fullmetal into a puddle of goo—because God only knows that both actions are long overdue.
And the car has slowed down to a more normal pace and they actually have a direction now, rather than just trying to get away from Headquarters as fast as humanly possible, and Ed seems to know where they're going even if Roy doesn't, or at least, Ed hopefully knows where they're going because he's giving the directions.
And Roy leans back in his seat, eyes on the road ahead and says, "So how was your trip to Lior?"
And Ed looks at him, mouth twisted in an almost-smile. "Archer wasn't too happy with my work, apparently," he says, instead of an answer.
And Roy is sensible and generally mature, but it takes most of his self-control not to say "I told you so." Edward seems to know that he'd like to say it, anyway.
But then the smile on the boy's face fades, and the emptiness returns, and Ed says faintly, "You were right. I was being manipulated the whole time and I didn't have a clue. Archer, he—he gave Al to the homunculi, they're…using him as a hostage….because they need me….."
Ed trails off, staring at his hands, and Roy doesn't bother asking if Ed will go to them because he already knows the answer.
"I'm so—" Ed puts his head in his hands, a quiet groan replacing the rest of his sentence. "I never learn. Never. I'm a childish, stupid, arrogant brat, I, I—" His voice catches, and he says, very quietly, "I thought I could do something. I really thought that somehow I could save all of them." His voice is almost inaudible. "I'm such a kid."
And Roy doesn't speak for a while, and he is staring out the window and he can't see Fullmetal but he knows that voice, recognizes it from his own nights after Ishval, drunk out of his mind and ready to die. It meant one thing, that Fullmetal was broken, and Fullmetal should not be broken. It is.... is wrong. Wrong, and before Roy knows he is saying it he murmurs, "If childishness is to want to save whoever you can, to wish to make things better, then I suppose both of us will have to accept being…children."
And Ed looks up at him, surprised, and after a moment he smiles sadly. "…Trying to save people….it's like instinct…. Like alchemy…it's…. Fixing things, under your own power, using your own skill, it's…intoxicating." He lowers his eyes, almost hesitant. "It makes me feel like there's a point."
And, God, that sentence just feels like relief, so overwhelming that for a second Roy can't breathe.
And neither of them can speak for a while. The engine rumbles as Riza guides the car through the darkening streets, and if she has any skill it's her instincts, because just from Ed's directions before she knows where to go.
And Roy gazes at the boy he's looked out for, covered up countless mishaps for, pointed in the right direction and then kicked him in the right direction when he was being stubborn, watched over for five years. And the inevitable burns because he knows how this story ends, he's seen it too many times before.
And he murmurs, "Are you going to die?"
And it comes out too natural, as if there is nothing more to the question than the words that make it up: 'Will you go to Lior?'—'Are you going to die?'
"No," says Edward, and for a moment the determination is back, fierce and blazing behind his eyes, and the inevitable is all that more painful. "Not yet. I've got some stuff to do."
The car pulls over to the side of the road, and Ed opens the door. And he turns to Roy and he smiles, a shadow of his old, cheeky grin but there's real happiness behind it and that's all Roy can ask. "Get Fuhrer soon, Colonel Freakshow."
"I haven't been a Colonel for quite some time, Fullmetal."
And Ed sighs theatrically. "I know, but Brigadier-General Freakshow doesn't roll off the tongue quite as nicely." And Roy can't help but smile.
And when Ed climbs out of the car, Roy gets out too, and Ed stares.
And they just stand there for a moment, and both of them already know the end to this story but neither of them say anything because that's how the inevitable works, and finally he takes a breath.
"Be careful," Roy says, and his smile is tired.
Edward's mouth curls, and he half-smiles back.
And Ed's feet snap into a respectful salute, probably the only salute Ed has ever given him, but the teenager is still grinning. "Sir," he says, almost mockingly.
"I'm not your commanding officer anymore, remember?" Roy says, almost sighing, almost exasperated, almost teasing, but that isn't quite what it is anymore. And he holds out a hand instead, and Ed's salute falters under the surprise.
And Ed lifts his own hand, tentatively, as if expecting Roy to snatch his hand back and say, "Psych!" but Roy never does, and finally Ed puts his hand out too, half-convivial, half-sheepish.
And then he knocks Roy's hand away, and when Roy looks at up, surprised, the boy is grinning wickedly, and the Fullmetal Alchemist is back and as uncontainable as ever. "Sentimental old man," he says, rudely, and has the nerve to turn to walk away and laugh over his shoulder. He walks a few more paces, and then he breaks into a run, ready and eager to meet his fate, whatever it may be.
And Roy watches him go.
And Roy doesn't know when it started going so horribly, horribly wrong, and one moment he is battling with the Fuhrer—Pride—and the next moment the world is bright and burning and pain, pain, and he has no idea how he managed to drag himself out of the mansion, the unconscious boy, the Fuhrer's son, Salim, in his arms, and he gasps the fresh, cool air in; but in an instant he is plunged back into the nightmare and a half-metal, half-man…thing staggers up the mansion steps, an insane smile on its lips: Colonel Archer, Roy sees, a sick feeling pooling in his stomach; but the pity is fleeting, because Colonel Archer points a gun at him that seems to be his arm itself and Roy is exhausted and his new suit is ruined and his gloves are gone and the mansion is in flames behind him, and for a moment Roy forgets why that is.
And then the world explodes in front of him and it doesn't matter anymore. And Riza is crying his name (please don't, please don't, how do you expect me to die in peace if you're there making a racket, please….) and the breath isn't reaching his lungs and he isn't in pain anymore, so he knows he must be dead.
And the conversation goes something like this:
"Hello…." And the voice on the other end of the line is muffled, wavering slightly. "Um, is this Miss Hawkeye?"
She is suddenly completely alert, the soldier instincts buzzing insistently behind her ears. "Yes. What can I do for you?"
"Um," the young, female voice trembles, and Riza recognizes the voice. "I w-wanted to tell you personally, and Mr. Mustang," says Winry Rockbell, and Riza stiffens at the mention of Roy.
"The Brigadier-General is currently unavailable," Riza says, her voice softer than perhaps she'd like, and she pushes down her own emotions, again, again, again, because she is a soldier and she is darn well going to act like it. "But I will pass along the message as soon as possible."
"Yes…t-thank you…Um…I just…wanted to tell you personally that, um…. E-Ed…he…. He died that night…k-killed, actually…um…." A chill wraps itself down Riza's spine, and she knows suddenly that the stammering is an attempt to keep from crying. "He, um…A-Al…he has his body back, isn't that great?" Winry laughs, half-sobbed, and it is a moment before she speaks again. "A-and we've been helping him….recuperate…."
Riza clutches the phone to her ear, and she has no idea how she feels because the shock is super-imposed over all of it, drowning everything else out.
"Ed…actually, he left something in his w-will… f-for the General…I, um… If you want to come to the f—" Her voice breaks. When she speaks again, her voice is slightly stronger, and weaker at once, "the funeral, and I'll give it to you. Or…. Or I'll send it to you if you can't come….. I just…um…thought you should know…before you see it in the papers or something…. I'll…um…..T-thank you. Goodbye…." Winry hangs up, and after a moment Riza sinks into a chair, the telephone on dial tone and Riza Hawkeye stares straight ahead and doesn't see anything at all.
And he is fully aware that Riza is skirting the topic, but it isn't like he doesn't know the answer already. She has told him about the others, Havoc, Breda, Falman, Fuery, the aftermath of the attack, the consequent panic spreading across Amestris, the fall of the homunculi, the loss of his eye—which he had figured out for himself, actually, thank you very much.
It is only when she thinks that he is rested enough, healthy enough, entirely over the shock of the deletion of half his eyesight, that she warily tells him.
"Sir…" she says, and she seems to hesitate, before saying, quiet and sore and rushed, "Edward was killed."
And Roy looks at her, doesn't say anything, because he had known for longer than he liked to admit, even to himself. Riza takes another halting breath.
"Alphonse was returned to his body."
And Roy thinks about this for a moment, and then he says, quietly, "Yes," because he had known that, too.
"You missed…the funeral," she says, and Roy feels a stab of real regret. He hadn't intended that. "He…left you this…in his will."
And Roy blinks, stares, caught off guard, he certainly hadn't expected that either, and Riza drops a small silver pocketwatch into the blankets; a very familiar silver pocketwatch.
And he picks it up, turns it over slowly in his hands; the watch is dusty and scratched, and he opens it up and it is in even worse condition on the inside, streaked with dirt and what looks like dried blood, and the clock itself is cracked down the middle in a long, thin line, and the watch has stopped, forever at almost-but-not-quite two o'clock.
And on the inside of the lid, there is a message engraved, and Roy struggles to make it out, between his one eye and all the dust. And Roy stops, swallows.
"Sentimental brat," he says, almost laughs, but it hurts too much to laugh, so he can't call it that.
Don't look back. Whatever you do, don't look back, because if you do you start missing what you lost and you can't do that. If everything's gone up in flames behind you, it's pretty obvious where you've got to go from there—forward. It doesn't take a child prodigy to figure that much out, moron.
And Roy has to smile, because even dead and probably a figment of his imagination, Fullmetal is a brat, and Roy thinks, I know. And I don't need a sixteen-year-old giving me advice.
A snort. Well, technically, since I'm just part of your mind, you're giving yourself advice. Not really sure which I'd be more worried about, myself. But it sure seems like the real me thought you needed it.
Roy pauses. Then he smiles, thinks, He's never thought very well of me, no. But I appreciate the reminder anyway.
It's not just a reminder. Disgruntled, embarrassed, and Roy can just imagine the expression on Fullmetal's face. It's…well, it's a thank you, too. Not that you deserve it.
Then why, pray tell, did I receive it?
Because you like to blame yourself for everything. Because you needed it. And also to be polite, Ed replies loftily. As we all know, I'm full of the polite.
Roy almost snorts out loud.
You're definitely full of something.
Let me tell you a story, Colonel, about a kettle and a pot….
Says the one telling me that I blame myself for everything.
Hmph. But there's a smile in his voice. Just don't forget. Or is that too much to ask the great and powerful future Fuhrer?
I'll see what I can do, Roy thinks, magnanimously. …But, Fu—Ed. You are…happy, right?
…You do know that I'll just tell you what your mind wants to hear, right? Ed grumps. His voice is fading, but he says anyway, almost proudly, Al is okay. I always knew that it was either one or the other—If Al can have the heaven he's always deserves, I'll walk the rest of the way to Hell with no regrets.
And suddenly, Roy's throat is constricted, and very, very dry.
I thought you didn't believe in life after.
You know what I mean, Ed sighs. His voice is barely audible, and Roy has to strain to pick up the last sentences. Just take care of Al for me, all right? And don't forget. Would be pretty lame of you if you forgot after all this.
I won't forget, Roy promises. October third. I won't forget.
Good, says Ed, and, Get Fuhrer soon, Colonel Freakshow.
Of course. But I'm still not a Colonel.
And there is no response.
And Roy wakes up.
And the night plays only silence; but maybe that's all that it ever was.
Don't forget 3 Oct. 11