Warnings: Language - thanks, Ed.
Spoilers: All of it. Manga, Anime, The Lot (Just To Be Safe)

Quick Note On The Universe: This follows neither the anime nor the manga, really, but is set in an alternate timeline where Al has been returned, Ed has retained both Automail and his alchemy, Roy does not have that thing on his lip, and Hughes survived. Once more, I'm just playing with the characters as I please with little or no thought to the canon bits I didn't like ;)

Quick Note on Reviews: I adore getting feedback and constructive criticism, but I do have one request to make. When commenting, please bear in mind that your comments and suggestions, both good and bad, are your opinion only, rather than (in general) a statement of fact. It is easy to accidentally insult or offend an author by sounding demanding and entitled in a written review, and I know that is never anyone's intention. By all means tell me if you think something seems a bit off, but give a moment's thought to how the tone of your review might be received. Thanks!

That said, I hope you enjoy this new long fic! I hope to update on Fridays from now on =D
B xxx

The Saffron Soul: Chapter One

Ed frowned as the spring breeze rustled the newspapers on the vendor's cart, making the panic-filled headlines flicker. People were crowded around, buying copies to feed their morbid addiction, but Ed was not going to bother wasting his money. He could find out all he needed to know from the front pages.

"Fifth victim claimed by the Cut-Throat Killer!"

It was getting worse. What had started off as nothing but a back-page murder was suddenly being splashed over every tabloid. Central was no stranger to serial killers, but this one was causing more than an average stir. Details were scarce as the police kept their lips shut, being led on one wild-goose chase after another, but the rumours flew thick and fast, growing more gory and lurid with each passing day. All anyone knew was that the victims had their throats cut, but in the darkest recesses of his mind, Ed doubted that the killings would be so quick and clean. He knew humanity too well to believe that.

'Another murder?'

Ed turned to see his seventeen-year-old brother at his side, breakfast from the bakery across the street in his hands. The scent of bacon and hot bread hit Ed like a battering ram, and he snagged one of the foil-shrouded packages from Al's grip. Peeling back the wrapping and taking a huge bite, he began to walk, leaving the papers and their readers behind. 'Don't worry about it,' he said around a mouthful. 'Fucker'll slip up eventually. They'll get him.'

'He's already killed five people, Brother,' Al replied. He took the first mouthful of his breakfast with a bit more finesse, but Ed did not miss the brief, worshipful way that Al shut his eyes, relishing the taste. He had been back in his body for nearly a year, but Al still took nothing for granted. He appreciated the little things in life, and not even murder could stop him enjoying his breakfast. When he had chewed and swallowed that first bite, Al added, 'How many more people have to die before the police get him behind bars?'

It was a good question, and Ed had no answer. For eight weeks the sporadic murders had continued, and there was no real sign of them coming to a halt. 'It's the cops' jobs, not ours. There's nothing we can do about it, Al.' Ed shrugged, wrinkling his nose as he heard a couple of women whispering nearby, talking in the high, frightened hush of panic. 'The police won't hand over any details, and the military's got no jurisdiction so we're pretty powerless. As for you, you're well out of it. Concentrate on school.'

Al gave him a brief, sarcastic look, and Ed grinned, knowing it was a needless instruction. Almost as soon as he'd had the strength, Al had begun looking into what he could do with his life. At first, he had wanted to hold back and wait for Ed to finish in the military, but eighteen months was a long time to sit around doing nothing. In the end, it had not taken longer than ten minutes for Ed to convince his brother to sign up for classes in medicine and biology at the university. As far as Ed could tell, Al had not looked back since. He was having a great time, and Ed would not change that for the world.

'I just wish they'd catch whoever's doing this so things can go back to normal,' Al said, devouring the last of his hot sandwich and pitching the wrapper into a nearby bin. 'This is worse than when Barry the Chopper was on the loose. Everyone's on edge.'

'It'd help if the papers would shut up about it,' Ed muttered, glaring at another vendor who was yelling out the sensational headlines at the top of his lungs. 'It's not like they're telling us anything new. People are turning up dead with their throats cut. Everything else is just guess-work, and it's freaking people out. They're not even naming the victims.'

Nearby, one of the clock towers struck eight, joined within moments by its other, distant neighbours. Ed huffed a sigh, licking crumbs from his left fingers before slipping on his gloves. 'I've got to go, Al, I'm meant to be in the office in ten minutes. Get to class, and stop worrying!'

'Be careful at work,' Al called, 'and leave me a note if the brigadier-general gives you an out-of-town assignment!'

'He'd better not,' Ed replied darkly, waving a quick farewell to Al before heading away into the morning bustle. He looked back over his shoulder once to watch his little brother wander out of sight, stamping down hard on the protective instinct that grumbled in his stomach. Sibilant, panicked thoughts whispered in Ed's mind, but Al was in no more danger than anyone else in the city. Besides, he was far from defenceless; he sparred with Ed, just like old times, and Ed still had to fight for every little victory.

A grin crossed Ed's lips unbidden as he strode through the morning crowd. When they were searching for the stone, he had never really dared to hope for a life this good. His brother was healthy and normal, and maybe the memories of their past would haunt them both, but now they were beginning to find that there was a life after the wreck of their childhood and twisted adolescence. For Al, the future was about learning. He turned his hand to everything and anything, soaking up knowledge like a sponge. For Ed...

For Ed, it had always been about Al, but with each day that passed, he began to realise that Al did not need him so much anymore. They would always be brothers, tied close by the nightmares through which they had lived, but they were no longer each other's shadows. Clanking footsteps did not follow Ed wherever he went; he walked alone, these days, and sometimes he was not sure whether the tightness in his chest was joy or some screwed up kind of grief.

Shaking his head to himself, Ed forced the thoughts from his mind. He could work out what to do with his life the day he handed in his watch. In the meantime, he just had to make sure he did not die on some stupid mission or, more likely, smash in Mustang's smug, perfect face and end up in jail. That would be easier said than done. He and Mustang might have managed a very vague respect, but the bastard was painfully good at pushing Ed's buttons. He would have thought that years of practice would make the git more tolerable, but Ed still rose to the bait every time, much to Mustang's delight.

Ed scuffed his boots along the pavement as he approached the perimeter, flashing the watch to the bored sentries and ambling across the parade ground. The dusty, packed surface had turned muddy from daily rain-showers, and puddles reflected back the overcast sky. The air smelled of storms and car-exhaust while the wind nipped at his cheeks, no longer winter's harsh bite, but still a far cry from summer.

Huddling a little in his coat, Ed trotted up up the steps and pushed his way into Central Command, glancing around the familiar hallways without really seeing them. The place thronged with soldiers, some hurrying about, the picture of efficiency, while others loitered around, sharing whispered rumours or reading the latest journalistic offerings. Al was right about one thing, the entire city was on edge, and that included the military. Soldiers gossiped like fish-wives given half-the-chance, but they had better connections than the average citizen. Ed knew that diamonds of truth could be found amidst the dross of speculation, if someone were to look hard enough.

Ed's gaze alighted on a brown-haired figure leaning comfortably against the wall, watching him with green, inquisitive eyes and a faint smile. Hughes gave him a nonchalant wave, beckoning him closer, and Ed tried to hide a grimace. It was too early in the morning for him to tolerate a whirlwind of adoration for Elysia, but a quick look at Hughes' expression told him this was all about business. His right hand was clamped hard around a file in his hand, white-knuckled with tension, and a prickle of unease went down Ed's spine as he propped himself against the wall next to Hughes. 'What, Mustang too busy to give me my assignment today?' he asked casually, frowning as something like guilt fluttered over Hughes' expression.

'Actually, Ed, this is a favour for me. Roy doesn't know the details, just that I'm borrowing you for the day. Is that okay?' He scratched at his stubble and shifted his weight stiffly. Ed knew the gunshot wound that had almost robbed Hughes of his life and left him out of action for more than a year still caused the older man pain sometimes. It looked like today was one of the bad days. Hughes' normally smiling lips were bracketed with lines, and shadows rested under his eyes, half-hidden by his spectacles. Ed resisted the urge to ask if he was all right. Hughes had grown weary of that question a long time ago. Besides, it would be better to help the man with whatever problem he had than offer vague concern and platitudes.

'Sure. I got nothing better to do.' He held out his hand for the file, lifting an eyebrow when it was not immediately relinquished. 'What's going on? You want me to work on whatever that is, or not?'

Hughes clenched his jaw, looking Ed up and down as if trying to judge if he was about to make a huge mistake. Whatever he saw, it seemed to appease his doubts as he said, 'This is top-secret. Not even the Fuhrer knows about it. I'm helping out a friend in the civilian police – well, you are, actually.' Hughes gave him the dossier, and Ed could feel those eyes watching him, gleaning information from every minuscule shift of his expression.

'The murders?' Ed asked without opening the file. 'Wouldn't it be better to give me this in your office? It's kind of easy for someone to overhear us.' He gestured to the corridor, still bustling with soldiers and staff. 'Not exactly private, is it?'

'The people who work for me have made a career out of knowing how to listen. As odd as it seems, it's more secure out here.' Hughes turned to face Ed, one shoulder still leaning against the wall as one hand briefly touched at the old scar on his chest and a wince pinched his eyes. 'Damn thing,' he muttered, giving a crooked smile. 'No need to look like that. Your automail probably twinges worse.'

Ed grunted, opening the file and rolling his eyes as he found several pages of text. Most of it had been blacked out, and the few details Ed could glean were nothing he did not already know. 'What can I do about this?' he asked.

'Camilla, that's Deputy Inspector Anders to you, has unofficially requested the help of an alchemist – someone who would not blab to the press and, above all, might have some clue about this.' He pulled out a glossy photograph, passing it to Ed as nonchalantly as if he were handing over a picture of Elysia. 'Remind you of anything?'

Ed glanced at it, and the blood in his veins went dead and cold.

A soul seal.

Except that this was far more complex than the simple mark that Ed had daubed on Al's armour. There were more facets to it, not just jagged lines but loops and coils, whirling inside a solid circle circumference. The intricacy was incredible, and if Ed had not recognised the darker elements that made its foundation he would have admired it. As it was, it felt like he was staring at an echo of the worst moment of his life.

'Are you all right?'

Hughes' question broke into the clanging silence of shock, and Ed sucked in a breath, dragging the scattered parts of his mind together again so that he could focus. 'Yeah, is this carved on human skin?'

His question came out more harsh than he had intended, but Hughes did not so much as blink at his tone. Instead, he met Ed's gaze with empathy and a faint edge of disgust at the subject matter. 'Yes,' he murmured. 'Other than the slit throat, it's about the only thing the victims have in common. A mark like that on the inside of their wrist.' Hughes looked down at the floor, keeping his voice low. 'Alchemy's not my thing, but I saw Al's soul seal once. As soon as I saw this photo, I thought of it.' He looked up, and there was a gleam of certainty in his gaze. 'If anyone can help the police work out what the killer's trying to do, it's you, Ed.'

The picture slithered between Ed's gloves as he spun it idly around, staring at the reflections in its shiny surface rather than looking at the gruesome thing depicted in its frame. 'You got any more pictures of it, or more information?' He gestured with the hand holding the file, and the two pages trapped inside gave a desultory rustle at the movement.

'Everything you'll need is at the police station,' Hughes replied, taking the dossier out of Ed's hand and tucking it under his arm. 'I don't have anything else and, as far as the police and the military are concerned, this is off the books.' Hughes sighed, rubbing a hand across his forehead. 'The police can't officially ask for our help without handing over jurisdiction to us, and after all the dealings under Bradley...' He trailed off, and Ed nodded, knowing exactly what he meant.

'They think the army will do what's best for itself and screw justice in the process.' Slipping the photo in his pocket, Ed straightened up, turning to face the door he had walked through only a few minutes before. 'Just one question: why aren't you telling Mustang about this? It's not like he's going to care.'

Hughes gave a crooked grin and waved his hand. 'The fewer people who know the details, the better. I will inform Roy, of course, but it can wait until after his morning coffee. I'd rather he was in a half-decent mood when I explain what it is you're looking at. If nothing else, he'd want to send someone with you, and I'd rather not have anyone in a soldier's uniform breathing down the necks of the police.' He jerked his head towards the exit. 'You know where you're going, right?'

'Big brick building about a block away with "police" written across the front?' Ed asked sarcastically, rolling his eyes when Hughes just laughed in response. 'I'll see you later, and if Mustang gets in a shitty mood about this, it's your fault.'

'If you say so, and Ed?' Maes ducked his head when Ed glanced back at him. 'Thanks for helping me out with this. I'll sleep better once someone's put this guy away.'

With a quick nod, Ed strolled back the way he had come, leaving the hustle of the compound behind him as he ambled out into the street again. The morning rush had died down, and the streets were less crowded as he walked towards the police station. All this cloak and dagger stuff had never been his thing. A punch, an array, a purpose – Ed could respect all of that, but Hughes dealt in lies, masks and information. It left Ed feeling out of his depth, edgy and tense. His skin prickled as if all the eyes of the world were upon him, and he tightened his grip on the photograph in his pocket.

At least he had not had to deal with Mustang this morning. Ed hated standing in that office; it was no better than back when he was a kid, scared and trying to hide it behind false bravado. Now he just felt like a dog on a short leash, snapping and snarling while Mustang smirked. It was not just that the bastard was so intolerably smug about everything, it was the air of superiority that surrounded him, as if he really was the god of everything and Ed was so very insignificant in comparison. He always felt low, small, and dirty in Mustang's presence, and his own disdain was reflected so clearly back at him from that mirror-calm face.

Ed knew Mustang could manipulate anyone: the right word in the right place and, just like that, he got his way. It was a skill Mustang had honed into a weapon, and Ed could not help but respect that, even when it was used against him. However, it was hard to remember that spark of admiration when standing in front of that desk while the bastard smirked and teased, poking subtly at Ed's insecurities and making him so unbelievably angry with nothing more than words.

Even now, the thought of Mustang's smirking face made Ed's jaw clench tight and his nerves spark with familiar anger. He had tried not to let the git get to him, but it never worked. Mustang knew him too well and took a sick amount of pleasure in jerking Ed around for his own amusement.

With a shake of his head, Ed pushed his thoughts of Mustang away. For today, at least, he had been given a reprieve. All he had to do was focus on unravelling the gruesome arrays. That, he could do. Alchemy made sense to him, full of black and white logic. It was people who remained a baffling mystery.

In a matter of minutes, the police station came into view: a squat, utilitarian building, ugly in its blandness. The street lamps flanking its door were shielded with blue glass, dull now in the daylight. He spared them little more than a glance as he climbed the concrete steps, pushed aside the heavy wooden door and glanced around.

Thick, metal bars, packed close, covered the windows, and buzzing fluorescent lights lit the toxic-green linoleum floor. The walls were grimy and stained, splattered with brown stains that could have been coffee but looked a bit more like blood. There were scuffs of rubber here and there where someone had lashed out resisting arrest, but despite all the signs of violence and chaos, the place was almost deserted. Crime was a nocturnal kind of job, and Ed tried not to feel out-of-place and guilty as he approached the battered reception desk.

It was a mess of lost property and paperwork, with one sad looking house plant and several cups of coffee that looked like they had grown cold days ago. The man in the seat was on the phone, his bland face pinched with annoyance as he spoke in curt, snappy words to whoever was on the other end.

'I don't care what he says. Bring him in.' The phone clattered back onto the receiver, and Ed was met with cold glare the colour of rain-clouds. 'What do you want?'

'I need to speak to Deputy-Inspector Anders,' Ed replied, dragging his watch free and shoving it under the cop's nose. He did not look impressed, and his expression only soured further when Ed added, 'I've been told I might be able to help with your serial-killer problem.'

'You? You're barely old enough to shave.' He flicked his fingers dismissively at the pocket-watch. 'Put that away. I know who you are. I hope you don't expect me to be impressed.' The cop hissed that last word like a snake, eyes narrowed spitefully. 'I'll inform Anders you're here. Max, watch him!'

Ed glanced around, expecting to see a slobbering police dog, and raised an eyebrow in surprise when he saw a man roughly Armstrong's size standing passively in the corner. It should not be possible for anyone that size to blend in with the scenery, but he was so still that Ed had overlooked him completely. His hair was shaved close to his head, and the stubble on his scalp was so pale it looked white. Arms were folded over a barrel chest, the black uniform straining to contain him, and brown eyes stared at Ed patiently.

Normal people blinked, and Ed's eyes stung in sympathy as he looked away from Max's unbroken stare. He was like a statue, but breathing, and Ed was too well-trained not to sense that he was the centre of the big man's intelligent attention. This was no thug – there was a brain at work under there – and Ed shifted uncomfortably as he waited in silence, picking absently at the scuffed surface of his watch as he tried not to feel like an insect under a microscope.

'You are the Fullmetal Alchemist?' Max rumbled, and Ed glanced sharply back at him, not missing the accent that tinted his words. No way was this guy born in Amestris.

'Yeah,' Ed muttered, trying not to feel off-balance when Max nodded as if the only question that mattered had been answered. Normally people began asking him the most ridiculous things, like how old he was and how he got into the military in the first place, but it seemed the policeman did not care. At least he had bothered to ask, unlike his colleague, who walked back in, muttering under his breath before he snatched some files from the desk and glared at Ed once more.

'Follow me,' he ordered, turning his impervious gaze on the big man in the corner. 'Max, stay.'

Ed gritted his teeth at the command, so like one you would throw at a dog that he was amazed anyone would obey it, but Max simply inclined his head as if he were accustomed to such treatment. Ed was tempted to protest, to say he required Max for something just for the sake of making the pompous git in front of him twitch, but he could not think of a lie quick enough.

The grey-eyed man strode away, muttering something about lazy foreigners, and Ed had to hurry to keep up. Their boots squeaked on the tattered, grimy floor as Ed was led down a narrow corridor and to a thin, cheap looking door with a brass name-plate on it.

He could see the expression on the cop's face in the polished metal: intense displeasure rapidly being schooled into something insipid, and anger clenched in Ed's gut. He knew the type: the military was full of them. They were traitors waiting to turn, two-faced and bitter, and it seemed this guy did not like Anders any better than Max. No doubt he thought if someone wasn't pasty, middle-aged and male, they weren't worth knowing.

Abruptly, the man pushed the door open, thrusting it wide and marching in with his head held high, no doubt hoping to impress as he announced, 'The Fullmetal Alchemist to see you, Deputy Inspector Anders.'

The woman at the desk did not look up, although Ed saw her shoulders rise and fall in a minuscule sigh. She finished what she was doing, signing something with a few broad strokes of her pen before she finally lifted her brown eyes and looked at them both. Anders was older than Mustang, Ed decided, but probably only by a decade or so. She looked like someone who had put up with shit all her life and had finally decided to take no more of it.

'Thank you, Warner,' she said, sounding anything but grateful as she reached for some files on her desk. 'Major Elric, I appreciate you coming to see us. I hope you were told that this is completely unofficial?'

'Yeah, someone might've said something like that,' he replied, holding out a hand for the files and frowning when Warner made an indignant noise.

'Ma'am, those files are confidential,' he said in a slick voice. 'How do we know he won't go straight to the press?'

'Because he is a young man of integrity, and you'll be with him, Warner, making sure he doesn't leave with anything important. That way, if he goes to the papers, he'll have no proof.' It was said smoothly, and only a quick glance in Ed's direction showed anything like an apology, as if she regretted the implied accusation. 'Anything you can tell us about these designs would be helpful, Major. Warner will show you a place where you can work in peace and bring you anything you need. I'll be with you shortly.'

Ed wanted to sigh, but he held it inside, knowing that arguing was a futile exercise. He hated working with an audience, but it seemed like he did not have any choice, this time. Not only would Warner be looking over his shoulder the entire time, but Anders wanted in on it, as if she planned to leap into action the moment he found even a glimmer of a clue.

'I'll do my best,' he replied at last, giving a faint shrug. It was all he could promise. Just because he had recognised some elements of the design did not mean he would be able to give them anything but a guess: the killer was playing some kind of sick game, but Ed doubted that a few photos would be able to tell him the rules.

'That's better than nothing,' Anders said, and Ed noticed the tight lines that pinched her brow. 'Thank you. Warner, put him in the office down the hall.'

A quick nod was all the acknowledgement Warner could manage, and Ed met the man's glare with equal disdain for a second before letting him lead the way. He did not know what the fucker's problem was, but Ed could guess. It would not be personal, not yet, anyway; Warner was the kind of idiot that Ed despised, one who carved out narrow pigeon-holes in his mind and then categorized people according to his internal prejudices. It made Ed's fists itch, but he shook it off. As long as the slimy git did not get in the way of his work, then Ed would have to let it slide. Punching a police officer would not be considered subtle behaviour, no matter how tempting it was.

Warner led him deeper into the police station, and Ed could practically smell the tense desperation that hung in the quiet air. There were not many other officers about, and Ed assumed they were out on the beat or trying to solve crimes or something. There were more than half-a-dozen of these stations dotted all over the city, but Ed had still thought it would be busier than this.

'In here,' Warner said, shoving a door open unceremoniously and flicking on a light switch. The room revealed was stark and lifeless. A pair of desks were pushed against the walls, and a couple of chairs stood in front of them, covered in threadbare fabric and sagging with age: clearly it did not pay to be in public service.

'Is there anything you require?'

It was not a friendly question, and while Ed's parched throat cried out for coffee, he did not trust Warner not to spit in the cup or put milk in it out of spite. 'Just let me work,' he replied dismissively, putting the files down on the table and sitting in the chair. It would have been more comfortable sitting on a spike, and Ed realised the sooner he could get this over with, the better. He would rather be on a clanky, rattling train for some assignment to the middle of nowhere than in this dank place.

His surroundings faded easily as he opened up the paperwork, frowning at the censored material. These were probably copies; the cops were being cagey. There was no way to tell the names of the victims, and descriptions were non-specific: height, weight, hair colour – they could match anyone. At first glance they seemed to have nothing in common.

Except the array.

Ed's eyes gravitated towards the pictures, feeling anew the moment of skin-prickling horror at the canvas the alchemist had used. Yet Ed doubted it was coincidence or satisfying some twisted kink on the murderer's part. The design was full of human purpose; being carved into flesh was probably a necessity. Every image showed blood-smeared skin, so the victims had still been alive when inscribed and transmuted, but what was the point of it?

No obvious rhyme or reason emerged from the narrow frame photographs. Ed could see the curve of a hand and fingers, but mostly the array filled his mind's eye. Absently, he realised that sometimes it was the left wrist sliced up while others it was the right, but no real pattern shone through, and Ed found himself focussing on the one thing he could begin to comprehend.

Al's soul seal was simple but effective, designed to tie the soul to the armour through the iron in both. This alchemist had been dealing with more complex materials: the chemical mess that composed the human body was unstable at best, and the last design showed that clear enough. Yet the earlier ones were simpler, more idealistic, and Ed blinked in surprise as he realised what he was seeing. The array was evolving – the people upon which it had been placed were probably nothing but failed experiments, but at least they could tell Ed the story of the alchemy that had cost them their lives.

Working quickly, he snagged the photos from each file, ignoring the dates on the back and constructing his own time-line, his eyes skimming over the familiar aspects of the original design, soon lost within a twisting knot of intricate amendments. In moments, he had the five pictures lined up in the order of array development, and Ed bit his lip, glancing up briefly to grab a pencil and paper before he started to sketch down what he could see.

By the time the door opened to admit Deputy-Inspector Anders, more than an hour had passed. The desk was littered in scraps of paper and Ed's teeth had left marks in the pencil where he had chewed it in thought. He barely noticed the interruption, and if the woman had not cleared her throat he would not have looked up at all. As it was, he lifted his gaze to find Anders, Warner and Max all watching him with varying degrees of emotion.

'Have you had any luck?' Anders asked, her voice rich with hope. It was clear the police were at a complete dead-end with this case, and no one wanted to have to wait for another victim on the off-chance they might find more clues.

'I can tell you more about the array, but I don't know if it'll help.' Ed flicked metal fingers at the photographs, indicated the line-up. 'Whoever did this is familiar with alchemy, but they're not great at it. This array is basic.' He pushed forward the first photo. 'Like it was copied from a book or something – an old book. Modern alchemy doesn't use these symbols anymore.' He tapped the glyphs gouged near the outer circumference, and Ed could not help the grimace on his face. He had seen them before often enough in his hunt for the stone, but never charted out in anything but ink and paper.

'Whatever they were trying to do with this one, it didn't work, so they started getting inventive. All of these were failed attempts. Each time the design gets more complex, but it's still not enough.' Picking up the last photograph, Ed stared at the picture, wishing he could get it to give up its secrets just by glaring at it. He knew dark, twisted alchemy when he saw it – had brushed up against the sinister, bloody side of transmutations too often to remain oblivious – and something about the last design was teasing the edges of his mind: whispering.

'So after all that, you can't tell us anything new,' Warner sneered. 'I thought you were meant to be a genius.'

Ed did not even spare him a glance. It was a weak jibe, and he was too absorbed in the puzzle to be bothered with putting the little man in his place. 'The basic foundation of this is a form of human transmutation: a soul seal.' Ed scowled, hating that word. "Soul" was too riddled with religious connotations, too laden with false beliefs and myths, and everyone always jumped to the wrong conclusion. 'They were trying to use the part of these people that made them human – their core existence, and use it for something. I just don't know what.'

Silence settled on the room, and Ed could feel the cocktail of uncertainty stirring the air. Anders looked distressed, her brow pinched and firm lines bracketing her mouth. Her hands were clenched into white-knuckled fists at her side, and Ed could see her jaw working as she processed what he had said. Warner was the opposite, derisive and disbelieving. Only Max seemed impassive, watching Ed with that same unwavering gaze, arms folded and his face relaxed.

'Can you tell if they succeeded?'

Slowly, he shook his head, picking up the final picture and turning it idly around in his fingers. One edge of the array had been cut off, as if the photographer had been trying to leave something out of the frame. 'If this one's complete, then maybe, but it's impossible to tell. The fact the person ended up dead makes it unlikely, but I don't know. Is there a better photo of this?'

He held it up for Anders to see, watching her as she turned and walked over to a filing cabinet. It was heavily locked, not just some flimsy two barrel thing, but bolted and padlocked. Metal clanked and keys rattled as she fought her way inside, pulling out five separate files. She kept them tucked close to her chest, rifling through the documents until, at last, she found what she was looking for.

Ed took the offered square of glossy paper, but as soon as his eyes fell upon the image, existence stuttered to a halt. Now he could see what the photographer was trying to hide: a tattoo – a distinguishing mark that might identify the victim. Of course, people got the same body art all the time, but not this one. This was custom-made, and Ed's stomach turned to cold, cracking ice as he stared at the familiar pattern.

He had traced the lines of that tattoo with his fingertips and kissed it softly in the morning. He could remember the taste of the skin that made its canvas, and now the memory was like a twisting dagger, digging and gouging at his mind. His breathing seemed to be coming from somewhere distant, as if he were using someone else's lungs, and a strange buzzing swarmed in his ears.

People died, Ed knew that; he had seen it happen, for fuck's sake, but this was different. Last time he had felt anything like this was with Nina Tucker – different but the same. Now it was as if someone had shattered apart the jigsaw of reality, and none of it made sense any more. Nameless, faceless victims were one thing, but this was no stranger.

'Major Elric, are you all right?'

'Greg – Greg Saunders, right?' His voice sounded almost normal, nearly calm, but it was too fragile to his ears. 'The fifth victim was called Greg Saunders.'

Anders leaned forward, her eyes intent, and her grip slackened on the files, sending two more spilling onto the desk. They were nothing but a jumble of paperwork, but Ed sought out the faces captured by the camera's uncaring eye, and shock turned to a tight, hard fist of nausea. Mortuary pictures were nothing like real life: pale and dead, with gory stitching like a tailor's mistake around their necks, but Ed still recognised the pair. Their names would have meant nothing to him, but he had seen their faces almost every day.

Weakly, he pulled one towards him, staring at it in disbelief. Part of him screamed that he needed to keep his feelings hidden. The police were as suspicious as hell already, and Ed needed time to get away and get his thoughts in order, but his numb mind was having none of it.

'You know them?' There was nothing friendly in Anders' voice anymore. It was cold and hard. Her tone would have been enough of a warning to Ed, but he was not really listening to anything but the words themselves. He had withdrawn into himself, pulled back and away as he was deafened by the scream of inner questions.

'Yes,' he managed, shaking his head a little as he tried to get his tongue to work. 'I don't know their names, but they work near me. She's a barista.' He pointed to the pretty blonde girl who always smiled at Al and made him blush. 'The other one is a florist in the shop at the end of my street.'

'One could be a coincidence, Major, easily tossed aside,' Anders said quietly. 'Three is not so simple to dismiss. What about these two?'

Ed did not want to look at the pictures she had in her hand, but he had never been a slave to fear, and he dragged his gaze upwards, unable to keep the flinch off his face as the greasy sickness tightened. Now his voice was strangled by the shock, little more than a croak as he stared at the young man's face. 'Matt. He tends bar in the pub two doors away from my apartment, and Jo – she's – she's a neighbour. I don't know her last name. Lives two floors up from us.'

Other than Greg, they were little people in his day, that was all, but tremors still scraped down his spine like claws over a blackboard as a voice in his skull whispered, Not anymore.

'Deputy Inspector.' Warner's voice was slick with cruel delight, and Ed looked up to see that his eyes were bright with victory. 'It seems the major has a connection to all the victims, as well as an intimate knowledge of the alchemy performed. Isn't that convenient?'

There was no way Ed did not know what the little shit was getting at, but his voice still tightened as he gritted his teeth and snarled, 'What the fuck are you trying to say?'

'For all we know, you did this.' Warner looked torn between vicious disgust and happiness. 'The way I see it, you could have practised your sick little witchcraft on all of them and cut your losses when it went wrong.'

'If I was going to commit illegal, painful alchemy I'd do it on fuckers like you, not people I knew and liked!' Ed's fists were clenched hard on the table. He knew threatening the cops was a bad idea, but he did not care what this looked like. Every nerve felt too close to the surface, slick and cold with horror. Ed could not ignore that all these killings, all these lives lost, had something to do with him. It was too much for the choice of victims to be a coincidence.

'Deputy Inspector, he threatened me!' Warner's voice was high with outrage. 'He actually –'

'Enough!' Anders' voice cut through the air, making Warner jerk in shock. Ed bowed his head as she repeated herself, more softly this time. 'Enough. Major, I appreciate that you're distressed, but clearly you are closer to this case than any of us, perhaps even yourself, realised. We'll need to ask you some questions in the interrogation room.'

'Am I a suspect?'

The question hovered in the air, thick and oily, and Ed could sense the tottering equilibrium of diplomacy that Anders was trying to keep in check. If she said yes, there was a whole mess of military shit about to land right on her head, but if she said no, then for all she knew she could be letting a serial killer walk out of her station and back into the world.

Innocent until proven guilty had a time and a place, and somehow Ed doubted it was within these four walls. Maybe Anders wasn't so quick to put him in the killer's shoes, but Warner had clearly already made up his sneering, stupid little mind, and he wondered how many other people would believe the same thing when shown the circumstantial evidence.

'Right now, you're just helping us with our investigation,' Anders replied smoothly, her voice clipped around the non-answer. 'I am sure once we have all the facts things will become clear to all of us.'

Ed's head spun, leaving him lost in the whirlwind of shock and nausea. He was incapable of subterfuge at the best of times, but now? He could barely think around the questions and barely breathe over the weight of guilt-cum-grief that had tightened its hand into a fist beneath his ribs. And what about Al? What about his brother? Someone was killing people he knew; how was he meant to believe his little brother was not on their list?

That was not the only panicked thought shrieking in his mind: the police knew how to chase down answers. They could follow a trail that would lead right back into the depths of Ed's past, and there were secrets there that could get plenty of other people in trouble.

'I get a phone call, right?' he asked, trying to sound calm and collected when all he wanted to do was roar in defensive anger, to yell until they could all see that they were being blind and stupid. Out there some killer was picking away at the people he knew, taking them and serving them up to alchemy like some sick kind of sacrifice, but it would be pointless to tell the police that. He knew they would not listen.

'You're not under arrest, Major. We can make as many phone calls on your behalf as you want.' Anders ignored Warner's little sound of disgust, gathering up the files she had dropped and shuffling them into a neat pile. 'Who do you need?'

Ed bit his lip, hating that he was having to ask for this, but for once in his life he could see the trouble heading his way. He knew he would not be able to deal with it by himself. It was time to ask for help.

'Get Mustang and Hughes,' he ordered, looking up to meet Anders' gaze with a fierce glare. 'I won't say another fuckin' word until they're here.'

End of Chapter One