Chapter 1

The sky was the color of reflected fires; heavy oranges and dark blue mixed together against a low ceiling of clouds. The heat was completely unbearable. It filled his lungs and he couldn't breathe, the toxic smoke eating away at his sinuses and his nose running uncontrollably.

Edward Elric sat back against the wooden crates stacked haphazardly outside the medic's tent. He'd crawled out earlier, ducking under the noses of the medical personnel while dragging his nearly useless right leg behind him. He'd left a very obvious set of tracks in the sand but he had to get out of the oppressive atmosphere of the medical unit. The stench of death was everywhere; the metallic tang of blood was only noticeable in its absence.

Alphonse was not here for this. Edward rested his head back against the crate and stared at the dark sky, thankful for his brother's absence. He'd hallucinated Alphonse's presence earlier, before the pain medication had set in. His little brother as a big, shuffling suit of armor, blocking Edward from the foul nurses intent on sticking him with their needles. He knew it was only a hallucination, though, as Alphonse was safe in Resembool – the only remnant of that armor a helmet preserved on a bookshelf in the study.

There was yelling in the distance, the language his own, and then the sharp staccato burst of gunfire. Edward felt like he should be numb by now but he still felt his gorge rising. There was nothing left at this point to throw up but bile.

What a fool he was, to be here.

It was slightly cooler though, outside the tent. A small wind stirred the bangs that were not plastered to his forehead with sweat. The wind was acrid, tinged with the smell of roasting flesh. There was a respite there, a hint that the heavy clouds may be laden with rain to cool the fires of war.

The crates shifted a little as someone dropped into a seated position next to him. Edward looked over at Roy Mustang, as weary as Edward had ever seen him. Mustang looked like he hadn't slept in days – and he probably hadn't. The Ishbalan extremists were getting desperate. They were surrounded on one side by the Amestrian army, and on the other by a harsh desert stretching for kilometers. The military had to win this fight, this small battalion was the only thing that stood between the marauding extremists and several rural towns that thrived on the edge of the desert. Small village towns, too much like Resembool. They couldn't be let into the country.

"You look like shit," Edward croaked, his voice unfamiliar in his own ears.

Mustang rested his elbows on his knees and tilted his head back, looking at the sky overhead as Edward had been doing. "So do you," he said, and there was a smile in his voice. "Someone's going to flip out when they see you dragged yourself out of your cot, Ed."

His name. No title, no formalities. No recrimination for the fact that once again Edward did something stupid, almost got himself and others killed. Edward looked down at the sand, his right leg stick-straight out in front of him, splint tied to keep the bone in place.

"Let them," Edward said. "It smells like piss in there."

The small smile on Mustang's face faded. "This has to end, you know."

Edward was confused. He looked at Mustang's face, but he was still looking at the sky above them, at a small gap in the clouds that a star somehow peeked through. This wasn't how the conversation went. "What?"

Mustang finally looked over at Edward, his expression mournful. It was a strange emotion for Edward to see on Mustang, his face was usually settled into such a careful, blank slate. "You can't hold on forever."

There was a sharp whistle over them, and hey both looked to the sky as a mortar shell exploded in the distance. "What," Edward tried to ask again as the ringing got louder in his ears. "That doesn't make any sen-"

The alarm clock buzzed itself off the shelf above the bed and very narrowly missed Edward's head, bouncing off the pillow and sliding into the depression between the two pillows. Edward stared at the alarm clock like he'd never seen one before – it was still buzzing, clock face pointed down at the mattress - and after a moment Edward smacked the alarm clock silent.

It was mostly dark in his bedroom. There was a very faint hint of light under the curtains, but nowhere near enough to see by. Disgruntled, Edward rolled over and reached for the lamp, yanking the chain sharply and wincing blearily at the warm light that spilled from the bedside table.

He set the clock back on its precarious perch. It had been a long time since he had that dream. Edward rested his elbows on his knees and rubbed his eyes with his real hand. He lifted his hand and stared across the empty bedroom, the hair on the back of his neck prickling with the feeling of being watched.

Occasionally Edward felt if he glanced over his shoulder fast enough, he'd still see him, buried face-down in the pillow and grumbling about mornings coming too soon.

Sometimes, five years felt like a day had passed; and others it felt like a lifetime.

No matter how many times he thought about it, regardless of where he had been on that day the outcome would have been the same. They were a split-off rebel group from the Ishbalan extremists, intent on carving out their own nation. Edward barely knew the politics behind the entire fiasco. He really didn't care to know it. It didn't matter.

The awards ceremony had been the worst of it. He had still been on crutches, promoted for his 'acting heroism in the line of duty' or some other such bullshit – but it wasn't for himself that he was present. He had to be there for the others, the friends who didn't come back.

He had to be there for Roy.

Edward stared at his hands, mismatched on the cold white porcelain sink. They were shooting at him, and that never slowed him down before. It was a sinkhole in the sand, catching him off guard and wrenching his leg violently, the bone snapping easier than he could imagine. If he hadn't gotten caught in that, if he'd managed to keep his feet, if he had been on the front lines where he belonged and not recovering in a medic's tent … would it have made a difference?

Five years later and still he could only think of the ifs.

He hated the shower head in his flat as much as it hated him, spitting lukewarm water at him in various pressures. Edward shaved in the shower, not that he was ever able to achieve much more than uneven stubble, but "scruffy" was not the proper look for a military officer.

If he had been there...

The realist in him knew that regardless of where he had been that day, the outcome would have been the same. The Ishbalans were too well entrenched. The conflict had already turned into a war of attrition. Someone had to do something before it led to a war with the fledgling Ishbalan nation.

After all, what was two people's happiness compared to the overwhelming loss of life that future would have held?

By the time he stepped out of the shower, the sun had crept over the horizon. A towel on his shoulders and wearing only his military trousers Edward ate a simple breakfast, toast and coffee left in the pot from the night before. His kitchen table was covered in papers, a stack of haphazard folders he had taken home the night before with the promise he would look through them. A worthy distraction. Edward picked up the top one and sat it on the kitchen counter, flipping through the papers inside as he crunched his dry toast, eyes flickering over the lines of text with practiced speed.

The flat was small and ill-kept. Books of all shapes and sizes were piled against, and on, any available surface. The living area was cramped; with the desk pushed close to the sole window to take advantage of the natural light, overstuffed sofa and chairs that didn't match practically sitting atop each other, and half-empty bookshelves because their contents were pulled down and all over the floor. A fine layer of dust sat over most everything – Edward did not even notice.

He had shoved a grate in front of the fireplace, and piled even more books in front of it. Too many happy memories there, never to be replicated. He didn't like fire now.

The dregs of his coffee now finished, Edward contemplated another pot. The coffee was Havoc's influence. Alphonse had tried, profoundly tried to make him into a tea drinker but it was just not to be. Edward liked his coffee black and strong enough to peel his eyelids off. No one with any regards to their sense of taste would drink from the pots of sludge he brewed.

Edward flipped the folder closed instead. These were the files of all the people who had passed the first round of qualifying examinations for State Alchemist certification this year. As usual, a couple hundred people – ranging in age from way too young to way too old – sat for the initial written examination. Out of the several hundred people, nearly a hundred had passed with high enough marks to sit for the interview and practical examinations.

Prior to the practical examinations, all applicants had to pass a full military physical. Without even looking closely Edward knew that would halve the pool of wannabe State Alchemists. One had to be physically fit, able to serve in the military corps if the country went to war during their tenure as a State Alchemist. So all those men and women who were looking for funding for their for their research and had no qualms about selling out to the military also had to be competent enough to be equally used by the military.

Equivalent exchange.

Edward had made the mistake of opening his smart-ass mouth during his re-certification two years ago; about how asinine and simplistic the test requirements were and how the military could save so much time on the interview process if they restructured the entire examination. General Mauer – who particularly disliked him after Edward had 'accidentally' let slip about the fact that Mauer didn't usually escort his wife to military functions – had overheard, and word was passed through the top military brass until acting-Fuhrer Dalton decreed that, because Edward Elric was FAR more knowledgeable about the ins and outs of the State Alchemist exams, he would be the one to restructure and run the event from here on out.

Alphonse had laughed himself sick when he heard about it, the news traveled way too fast to his nosy little brother's ears. Edward had called him to sulk about it and got laughed at for his troubles instead.

It all worked out in the end – Edward's talents lay with keeping the alchemists in the army in line anyway. When it wasn't the State Alchemist examinations, Edward and his small unit policed and dealt with the many, many alchemists in the Amestrian army. It usually ran toward the cleaning-up-after-them end of the spectrum, and Edward had gotten a taste for what Roy probably had to deal with on a daily basis where he was concerned.

The interviews for the qualifying candidates were coming up as the approved applicants were filtered through the physicals, and this was the worst part of it. Even if Edward was technically "in charge" of the interviews, he had to conduct them with General Mauer and acting-Fuhrer Dalton himself breathing down his neck. Not that Edward was particularly nervous, as this was the third year he'd dealt with that, he just really hated both of their guts, and the fact that they enjoyed making his life miserable was just the icing on the damn cake.

At least the military had gotten a bit more strict in their requirements, in no way thanks to that little loophole that allowed a loud-mouthed twelve-year-old with automail into the military. Edward Elric was still the youngest State Alchemist ever to pass the qualifications and the way things were now, it was going to stay that way.

Edward threw on a tee shirt – a little too tight, not that anyone ever really saw it under the stiff military jacket – and he fastened the clasps by feel. A quick tug on the bottom hem of the jacket to make sure it was sitting on his shoulders properly, and then of course the boots. Edward had a hair tie in his teeth when, right on schedule, the stiff rap came at the front door of his flat. "Boss," Jean Havoc's voice was muffled through the thick wooden door. "You better put a move on, you're gonna be late!"

He lived on the first floor of a two-story building. When Edward had first moved into the small apartment blocks from the base, he had HAD upstairs neighbors. But somewhere between the one kidnapping attempt, that raucous birthday party that Havoc and Alphonse threw and that one incident with the chimera; his upstairs neighbors vacated the property.

Edward almost tripped himself off the cracked cement stoop in his hurry. Havoc hadn't bothered to wait at the door, especially with the way Edward slammed it open. He was leaning against the idling car, hand cupped over his lighter as he tried desperately to get his nicotine fix in before the day started. He glanced up in time to watch Edward shut the skirt of his uniform in the door behind him and snarl loudly at it.

This was a morning ritual that he was accustomed to. Havoc finally got his cigarette lit, ignoring Edward as he ripped the uniform skirt free from the door frame and stormed toward the waiting, idling military vehicle.

"Mornin', boss," Havoc said, his salute loose and easy as he opened the door for Edward. As usual, Edward clapped his hands and smoothed out the new tear in his military uniform with a quick burst of alchemy.

"I'm going to need a new uniform soon," Edward grunted, getting into the car. Havoc made sure that Edward didn't leave any trailing bits of uniform behind before getting into the driver's seat himself. "I don't understand why we even have this ass-cape in the first damn place."

Havoc didn't respond, starting the car and staring straight ahead, his face twitching with the effort of not snickering. Edward leaned forward, over the front seat and rested his chin in his gloved hand as he glared right at Havoc and enunciated his words clearly. "Is there something wrong, lieutenant?"

The cigarette barely wiggled in the corner of his mouth. "Nope," Havoc said, no longer stifling the amused grin on his face. "Nothing at all, colonel."

"Good," Edward said, sitting back in the seat. He crossed his arms over his chest and tried very hard not to sulk, instead staring out the window thoughtfully as Havoc began the familiar drive to base.

Daylight was washed out, the skies full of heavy gray clouds, threatening to unload their contents on the military base below. It was a Thursday, and it felt like one. The base was buzzing with the unspoken excitement of the weekend nearly upon them. The military car was waved into the base by inattentive guards, who did a cursory check of the vehicle, and Edward watched silently as the men chattered away about their weekend plans.

It seemed, sometimes, that Edward didn't have much respect around the base. There were a lot of whispers about him. Soldiers already on duty often gave Edward wide berth. He knew, logically, the wide berth was a result of his legendary displays of temper before his first cup of morning coffee, but he liked to think that he grew out of those a few years ago.

Despite his rank and years with the military, Edward never managed to beat nature into submission and gain much more in the way of height. He was the youngest ever to be promoted to the rank of colonel – beating the record held, ironically enough, by Roy Mustang before him. Everyone on base in Central City knew Edward on sight, even once he'd traded in his brilliant red for the much subtler, military-issue blue.

Some of the soldiers stationed at the main base in Central City still remembered Edward being a thousand times more volatile, clad in fiery red and trailed after by a much larger, sheepish suit of armor who cleaned up his tantrums. Those days were long past now, and Edward had since learned how to deal with his own messes (or who to bribe to clean them up for him). He had gone from being the one regularly bailed out of the military brig to the one posting bail – and disciplinary action – for the men in his command.

It had been such a gradual transition that he hardly noticed it.

Captain Riza Hawkeye was already at the office. She looked up at Edward's entrance, and he winced, expecting to be chastised for his tardiness. Instead she went back to sorting the paperwork on her desk, and Edward looked around the empty office, a bit off his guard. Havoc was still parking the car, but the other desks were yet unoccupied. "Okay," Edward said. "What's going on?"

Hawkeye straightened the folders she had, before tucking them under her arm and walking over to the filing cabinet. "Good morning, colonel."

"Something is going on," Edward insisted, watching her warily from the doorway. "No one came to my door in the middle of the night – at least that I heard – and people are missing and Havoc's acting jumpy. Did someone finally assassinate acting-Fuhrer Dalton?" It was a well-known fact that Edward Elric kept his phone off the hook over night, so in an emergency Havoc was usually the one dispatched to bang on his door until Edward emerged. Of course, that was barring the fact that easily half of their emergencies were caused by Edward in the first place.

"Don't be seditious with the door open," Hawkeye said calmly, flipping through the folders in the open drawer briskly.

"I wasn't talking about assassinating him myself," Edward muttered, but came into the outer office anyway. "Why's everyone on edge?"

Hawkeye paused a fraction of a moment – barely noticeable but a hesitation nevertheless. "There's nothing going on," she said. "You're imagining things again, Edward."

"You're plotting against me," Edward muttered. "You, and Fuery, and Alphonse. You three are up to something and I'm on to you." Hawkeye raised an eyebrow at Edward, who gestured to the empty desks. "And Heckle and Jeckle, where are they?"

'Heckle' and 'Jeckle' were a pair of soldiers that had been moved to Edward's command fresh out of the military academy a year and a half ago. They had never been deployed, and were closer in age to Edward than they were to the senior officers in the garrison. Edward did know their names – Cushler was an aspiring alchemist, although he had no head for transmutation circles and had a better chance of setting his hair on fire than actually utilizing alchemy successfully in a fight. Bailey, on the other hand, was a quiet man. He was a researcher, not of just alchemy but all sorts of occult lore. Given a minute to expound on any of his subjects and he was likely to drone your ear off. Both of the young soldiers were whip-smart and very useful, and just odd enough that they fit into the unit perfectly.

"They're at the canteen," Hawkeye said. "The coffee machine is broken again." She gave him a look out of the corner of her eye that told him he needed to get with it this morning. "You have a meeting at oh-nine-hundred, sir, perhaps you should take a look at your notes first?"

Edward sighed and shuffled into the office proper. He was often reminded that he really wasn't the one in charge here, appearances to the contrary. Although, without Havoc and Hawkeye at his back, he would be dead – or worse, in jail – by now.

Hawkeye almost didn't come back to the military. She had been injured in the conflict, and he didn't see her again until the funeral. Her left arm was in a sling, her face blank, and her eyes as empty as Edward had ever seen them. He knew the look all too well, it was the same one he had been staring at in the mirror every day until that point. He had promised her then that he would do what he could to keep Roy's dream alive, but he would need help. He couldn't do it alone.

When he reported for duty, his new rank sending him to a different part of the base, he was greeted not only by a handful of new, strange faces saluting him, but Hawkeye beside her desk, her face tired but her eyes just the way that Edward remembered.

Edward edged the door to his office closed with his boot and sighed. His office, like his home, was tiny. Edward liked it that way, he didn't see the point in wasting the empty space. Alphonse had sat in this office with him and speculated over whiskey one night how Edward should decorate the new workspace that came with this promotion. Bookshelves wouldn't work, because Edward would get distracted and start reading the books on the shelves as an excuse to get out of work. An Elric and an unread book was a dangerous mix, he could lose hours. That didn't leave much else that would be acceptable, although Alphonse did have to talk Edward out of getting a generic mannequin in a military uniform for target practice. Such a thing just wouldn't be appropriate in the office of a colonel.

There was already a pile of paperwork waiting for him. Edward slid out his desk chair and sat, surveying his domain. Paperwork, paperwork, and more paperwork. There were arrest reports for alchemists throughout the country. A few mortuary reports – alchemists who died strange, abnormal deaths got reported to the military per an old law, even if they weren't State Alchemists. Edward wasn't foolish enough to believe that even a quarter of those got reported, but it helped nip trouble in the bud if someone had died creating a monster. Edward didn't really have anyone to send out on missions currently – both Hawkeye and Havoc, while extraordinarily talented, didn't know much more about the ins and outs of alchemy than the average civilian. Cushler and Bailey had a bit of a leg up on them in that regard, but had absolutely zero experience in running solo missions. Their garrison needed a State Alchemist assigned to it - Edward was having to work a lot of cases by himself, and that was hard when people were beginning to recognize him.

He stared at the shifting pile of paperwork. Maybe he needed two or three.

Once upon a time when Edward was not bound to a desk by unending stacks of paperwork, he wondered what, precisely, Mustang DID all day when he wasn't planning a coup de'tat. Somehow, Edward figured the man took more naps. He worked much harder than Edward ever suspected. Havoc had told him one night at the bar after they got out of the office, the paperwork used to be that much worse, because Hawkeye used to have everything done in triplicate. Apparently when Mustang was really trying to skirt his work he'd burn the paperwork of the people he didn't like in some kind of strange hoodoo ceremony.

It was impressive that Hawkeye let him live as long as she did, when he thought about it.

There was a small stack of paperwork set aside with a note pinned to the top sheet. It was a note from Hawkeye, a list of the names and ranks of the various other officers who would be attending this meeting. It was some kind of budget meeting, he hated those the most because he could never stay awake for them. Hawkeye had made small notations next to the name of each officer, marking off enemies and allies. These days Edward knew full well who everyone was, but there were several incidents early on in his career that Hawkeye wanted to make sure were never repeated.

Edward took the note off the top of the stack and penciled a small transmutation circle over the words, before he put it in the ancient ash tray that sat on the edge of his desk. He tapped his fingers on the circle and the letters and circle lit blue a brief moment before the note itself went up in a self-contained fireball. Within seconds it was a pile of ash on his desktop. The last thing Edward needed was his enemies getting their hands on a list of his allies, after all.

That taken care of, Edward glanced at the paperwork that pertained to the budget meeting, and then grabbed the top folder from another pile. He also had the first set of interviews this afternoon in a small building near the library. It was going to be a busy day.

Fletcher Tringham stared at the pile of books in front of him and scowled. He had to fight and scrape for this unoccupied table in the public library - the State Alchemist candidates had all but overrun the library by the time Fletcher had gotten there - and now he really didn't feel like staring at the pages of tiny handwriting in tight, archaic script. He might have had a better head for languages than his older brother, but that didn't mean he wanted to spend all his time in a musty old library squinting in bad light. It was no wonder that Russell already had reading glasses - the idiot was bound and determined to ruin his vision before the age of thirty.

He really didn't know what he was doing here. He'd gotten the phone call from Russell out of the blue - they'd had an awesome, world-ending fight almost two years ago when Fletcher told Russel he needed to grow the hell up and stop chasing after Edward Elric's shadow. Russell was an amazing alchemist in his own right, a genius, probably - but he was so insanely competitive, and he'd fixated on the man he spent so long trying to be that it had gone beyond the pale.

So they'd fought, and Fletcher had stormed off and Russell told him never to come back so - he hadn't. Russell probably didn't mean the things he'd said, but they stung nonetheless.

The phone call had come out of the blue. Russell had, first, apologized, and second - asked for a favor. Fletcher had been so completely stunned by the first act that he agreed readily to help his older brother out without really asking what, precisely, the favor entailed. But they were brothers, and Russell had actually been the one to extend an olive branch - granted, he needed something, but...

Fletcher sighed and scratched the side of his head with his pencil. He hadn't seen his brother in close to two years, so he had been completely shocked when Russell greeted him wearing the familiar dress blues of the Amestrian military. "Worth it all for the look on your face," Russell had said with smug satisfaction.

Apparently, Russell had enlisted as a State Alchemist and was finally making a legitimate name for himself instead of mucking about using someone else's name and title as a shield. Color Fletcher completely surprised by THAT development, it seemed that his brother might have actually taken the advice that Fletcher had forced down his throat.

At the same time, the thought of Russell unleashed in the military didn't set well on his gut.

Russell's favor was an odd one to ask. He wanted Fletcher to sit for the State Alchemist exams. Fletcher initially refused him - he had no interest in enlisting in the military, he was helping run a flower stand in Aquaroya and was quite happy there. But Russell assured him that he didn't have to take the certification if he passed, he just needed someone to sit for the exams.

And, most infuriatingly, he would not tell Fletcher why.

So here he was, a rusty alchemist that was trying to bone up on some archaic lore before the face-to-face formal interviews in the next few days.

When he saw Russell for lunch yesterday, his brother had hinted he wouldn't have any difficulty with the formal interviews - but again, he wouldn't tell him why. This whole exercise was making Fletcher's head hurt - his brother wasn't just going to owe him one, he was going to owe him TWELVE. All this espionage bullshit, it was going to drive him bonkers. He wasn't a spy, he really wasn't much of an alchemist any more; not an actively studying one. Sure, he used bits of alchemy to help the plants flourish and flowers grow in Aquaroya, but he wasn't doing groundbreaking research or trying to synthesize the Philosopher's Stone or anything of any great merit.

The public library was a popular place to be - he had seen lots of people he presumed were candidates as well. There were, strangely enough, a high concentration of foreign nationals taking the examinations this year. Or maybe they were the only ones interested in studying, because they were the ones who hung around the public library the most. It was the most eclectic grouping of alchemists Fletcher had ever seen in his career - Drachmians and Xingians and even a couple of people from Aeurga and one lapsed Ishbalan, with his light hair cut short and red eyes shaded by dark glasses.

The Ishbalan in particular caught Fletcher's eye. Russell had told him to be observant to the other candidates, although he hadn't singled anyone out in particular the man made Fletcher nervous. He had never had a run-in with members of that religious order that ended particularly well. Tensions were still heightened; after all it wasn't that long ago that the previous Fuhrer had tried to wipe them off the map.

He watched everyone, though, he watched the interactions of the alchemists; who they conversed with, what language they were using, and so on. He was an alchemist no matter how long out of practice, observation skills came with package.

Fletcher flipped up the cover of the book sitting in front of him, thought about Ari and winced - while she knew that he had a brother, she'd never met Russell and had been really upset about how he was willing to drop everything and head out to Central to help. He had left his job tending to the flower shop to do this, and that pleased her even less (although he knew good and well that Mr. Hopkins would take him back on in a heartbeat).

But, she would get over it.

... he hoped.

Russell was damn lucky that Fletcher liked him, because he really liked Arianne. He sighed again, flipping the cover of the book a few more times as he contemplated just leaving the library. His head was too full of espionage and counter-intelligence to even begin contemplating advanced theoretical alchemy.

Never mind complex, advanced theoretical alchemy that involved the unstable, unreliable factor of living organisms like the plant alchemy both he and Russell specialized in. Fletcher sighed and put down his pencil. He really needed a drink.

To Fletcher's surprise, someone sat down at the other end of the table. He looked up, to see someone he kind of recognized from the first examination. A very pretty, raven-haired woman with a Drachmian accent.

She smiled coyly at him, and Fletcher bit his lip and glanced down at the book again, then thought about Ari for a second. Fletcher glanced up at her and smiled back.

It was almost lunchtime, and food was the farthest thing from Edward's mind. He was staring at the pile of papers on his desk with a blank expression. It was entirely possible that he couldn't even see the paper – at this point, Havoc had laid money down that Edward had all-but-perfected Mustang's signature move: sleeping with your eyes open.

In reality Edward was very much awake, just lost in thought. There was so much going on currently. His involvement in the first stage of the state qualifying examinations was pretty minimal - he wrote the initial examination but he didn't play hall monitor - he was a colonel after all. Edward did have OTHER duties; the opinion of the military brass be damned.

There was so much to do at this point that he was overloaded. Edward stared at the piles of paper and tried to will them into self-immolation. He swore he had finally started a spark when the phone on his desk rang loudly and startled him.

The internal phone system on base was set up through a switchboard operator, so stray calls did not make it through to the higher level military officers. Edward looked at the phone with distaste, then sighed and picked up the receiver. "Colonel Elric."


Edward's face broke out into a wide grin despite himself. "Al!"

Alphonse Elric, newly restored to flesh, had followed in his brother's footsteps and joined up in the Amestrian military. Due to their prior service, Mustang was able to finagle it so that neither Elric brother had to attend the military academy, and got Alphonse into the door at the rank of Major on the merits of his initial State Alchemist examination all those many years ago.

In the ensuing years however, Alphonse had chosen not to become a licensed State Alchemist, pursuing instead a career in Intelligence. He had since been promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and was stationed in East City with Winry, who he had married several years ago.

"Hey, Al," Edward said. "What's up, I haven't heard from you in forever."

"Just calling to check in," Alphonse said cheerfully. "Winry is asking after you, wanting to know when you'll next be in East City for your regular automail maintenance."

"Oh, uh," Edward stalled, sitting back in his chair. "I'm not entirely sure. We're in the middle of the State Alchemist exams, and I'm completely up to my ears in fucking paperwork."

"I know," Alphonse said sagely. "You got a lot of applicants this year, again."

"Not as many as last year," Edward murmured. It was true, there were some tensions with Drachma earlier that year that Major-General Armstrong somehow managed to defuse by sheer force of will. All the same, Amestris's relations with Drachma were strained at best, currently, and those smart enough to watch the news out of the acting-Fuhrer's office knew that now was NOT the time to be trading a research stipend and a title for military service. "Not as many passed the initial exam this year, either."

"That's because you rewrote the test again, brother."

"It was too easy and you know it. All those stupid idiots out in our country with titles and they don't know their heads from their asses - don't you start fucking laughing, either, I have to clean up the shit they transmute themselves into!"

Alphonse tried to restrain his amusement at Edward's indignation and mostly succeeded. "Not everyone can be a child prodigy like you were."

"Shut up," Edward sulked. "Besides, you're far more clever with alchemy than I am, I just don't know when to quit."

"No argument there," Alphonse was silent on the line for a moment. "I did notice that there were a few teenagers who took the test again, and passed."

"What?" Edward sat up in his chair. "Fuck, not again, kids don't fucking need to be messing with the military at their age-" he swiveled toward his desk, phone cradled on his shoulder as he searched for the folder. "Wait. How do you even know already which applicants PASSED? I haven't even finished going through the files-" the thought occurred to him while he was talking. "Sheska."

"Sheska," Alphonse confirmed triumphantly.

"I am going to send your human wiretap back to you," Edward groused, knowing full well that Hawkeye would never allow it. Sheska was her assistant, not Edward's - although Alphonse clearly had coerced her into reporting back to him.

"Yeah, yeah," Alphonse smiled through the line. He didn't need to be present for Edward to hear the gloat in his voice. "So when ARE you coming to East City?"

Edward almost opened his mouth to retort that if Winry was THAT concerned with his automail, she could come to Central City to do the maintenance HERE - but he remembered in the nick of time that Winry couldn't ride the trains. Being pregnant apparently made her extremely motion sick.

Alphonse chuckled at the pause. "She's not as bad as last time, promise," he said cheerfully. "Plus, she's got Thomas to take her mind off of how miserable she feels."

Edward exhaled and smiled despite himself. "How is the brat, anyway?"

"Taking apart everything he can fit a screwdriver into," Alphonse said with a sigh. "Including my chair before dinner last night. He's not even two years old yet, our family is NEVER going to be normal, is it, brother?"

"Normal is relative," Edward said, strangely realistic. "Your kid's a genius and no, he is not allowed anywhere near my automail."

"I'll let you explain that one to Winry, I'm staying out of it," Alphonse said. "By the way," he said, and paused.

Edward frowned at the phone. "Al?"

"Winry's worried about you," Alphonse said softly. "It's been five years, maybe it's time-"

Five years.

"Well, she shouldn't worry," Edward said brusquely, cutting Alphonse off mid-sentence. "I'm completely fine, Al, you know that as well as anyone."

There was a pause, almost too long on the other end of the phone. "She worries," Alphonse said finally. "Dammit, brother, I worry. When was the last time you went out with someone - and no, the guys for beer doesn't count."

Edward - who had opened his mouth to retort just that - closed it. "I'm too busy to worry about that," he muttered sullenly. "More important things to do."

"Ed," Alphonse said, and Edward sighed audibly. He could always tell when Alphonse was being serious, out came his proper name instead of "brother."

"Al, I'm okay, all right? I promise. I've just got too much going on right now, really, Hawkeye can attest to all the work I've been trying to skip out of lately. You can stop badgering me about it, it's fucking creepy. I'll look around when I'm ready."

"Winry will take a wrench to you if she finds out you're lying to me."

"First, stop using your wife as a threat. Second, Winry will take a wrench to me if I sneeze funny, so I've built up a thick skull as a survival mechanism."

Alphonse busted out laughing at that. "Yeah," Edward muttered as Alphonse continued to guffaw. "I bet she's never hit YOU with a damned wrench."

"No," Alphonse said, still laughing. "Not with a WRENCH."

"You probably shouldn't continue that sentence on a military line," Edward murmured. "I mean, I don't care, but I'm sure that the people who listen in on this line would love the sordid details of your married life, lieutenant colonel."

Alphonse was silent for a moment, then he laughed again. "You really sound like him sometimes, you know."

Edward smiled, swiveling in his chair to face out the large window in his office. It gave him a wonderful view of the parade grounds from where he was at. "I'll take that as a compliment."

"And brother?"


"Visit SOON."

Edward gave the receiver a puzzled look as he heard Alphonse disconnect on the other end. It didn't sound as if there was anything to worry about where Winry was concerned, except for her being exceptionally cranky as the new baby's due date approached. Alphonse really didn't give any indication as to what was going on when there was something going on, he just tried to get Edward out of town.

Everyone had learned fairly early on that they didn't TELL Edward when something untoward was going on - mostly because Edward was still the Fullmetal Alchemist through and through and would jump into the middle of any bit of political intrigue or terrorist plot feet first and fists swinging.

If it was Alphonse trying to get him out of town and not Hawkeye, that meant physical trouble, not political. Edward drummed the fingers of his automail hand on the desk as he thought a moment, then lifted the receiver again and waited for the switchboard operator to come on the line.

"Operator," the melodic female voice said pleasantly. "Where shall I direct your call?"

"Colonel Neuhaus," Edward said. There was a pause on the line, then it clicked once while the call transferred through the base.

The telephone clicked again, as a gruff voice picked up the other end. "Colonel Neuhaus."

"Colonel," Edward said smoothly, a false smile in his voice. "How wonderful to catch you, sir..."

Rian Martin had been in the city itself for just under two weeks now, long enough enough to get his foot in the door to take the State Alchemist exams. At first he had lied about his age on the application, but when he realized that the military was letting a pair of fifteen-year old twins take the initial examination he let that particular crafty plan lapse. It wasn't like he was a child, he was almost seventeen, after all - just too young to flat-out enlist.

Central City was claustrophobic to him. In his whole life he'd only been to some of the smaller cities between the capital and his small home village of Plainhill, after all, he was a country boy at heart. He loathed this place, the smell of the city, the way the lights blanked out the entire canvas of the night sky, the bustle of people and the noise of traffic on the street. He hated it all. Of course, the largest chunk of his hatred was reserved for the fact that there were soldiers everywhere. That unique blue uniform was around every corner. It was really a good thing that he'd managed to break his habit of blanching and running every time he saw one.

Rian despised the military. It was the Amestrian military who had destroyed the small village he had been born in; it was the Amestrian military that had burned the crops and the fields and it was the Amestrian military that had killed his family. For a very long time he had carried that hatred of the military in his gut, burning like a low, wicked flame.

He had come to Central City with a very important, very detailed plan – and he was going to do everything possible to see this plan to fruition, no matter the cost.

It seemed kind of silly then, in the grand scheme of things, to be sitting in the main branch of the Central Library system studying … when if all went according to plan then this time next week whatever was left of him would be lying on a mortuary slab somewhere. He felt like he should be out there somewhere living it up, like all the other State Alchemist candidates … not studying the alchemy he already knew in somber silence in a dark library.

There was comfort in the library, though. The volumes of archaic alchemy lore that he knew better than fairy tales had always been there for him and would remain unchanged into the future. He was surrounded by those tomes now, and this library had far more for him to devour, to while the time away until his interview.

However, this particular volume that he was perusing now was beginning to wear on his patience. It was talking about the infeasibility of using regular, constrained transmutation circles to control weather. Weather alchemy – alchemy that put all of its eggs into the basket of air – was all but hopeless to attempt to control it. There were few "air" specialty alchemists; not like there were fire and water and earth and metal specialties.

Air was a vitriolic, temperamental elemental – unattainable and impossible to master completely. It was formless and omnipresent, and most transmutation related to air alchemy was not even perceptible. It required a great attention to detail as the smallest mistake in calculation could result in an explosion.

Which, all things considered, was Rian's favorite part of the alchemy anyway.

Rian was walking the books he had been reading back to the front desk, stewing quietly about how he'd never actually obtain a "cool alchemist title" and wondering what sort of title he would have been awarded when he walked straight into someone else.

That someone else was reading a book and walking at the same time, despite a librarian running after him, trying to caution him to be careful, since the library was so much busier than usual thanks to all the State Alchemist candidates running around.

Rian ran smack into him - or maybe he ran into Rian; in the resulting confusion the fault of the matter had been lost to the ages.

All that was certain was the blunt edge of a book caught Rian in the forehead. Rian flailed back, dropped the very heavy books that he was carrying on the blackguard's foot, got a yelp AND a flail for his troubles; and then the person who had hit him in the forehead with a book had the unmitigated gall to hoist him up by the front of his shirt and yell, "Watch the hell where you're going!"

The first instinct Rian had was to kick; years of tussling with a sibling larger than he taught him to go for the kneecap or just below it. However, the toe of his boot struck metal hard enough to send a jolt up Rian's leg. Stunned, Rian hung limply for a moment.

"Colonel!" one of the librarians admonished.

The man glared at Rian, who had resumed struggling, then looked to the librarian. "Sorry, I-"

"Out," the librarian said. "Both of you, out of my library!"

"Hey now," the military officer said indignantly. "I was just-"

"I don't even want to hear it," the librarian said. "I want you both out of my library before you pick another fight, Colonel Elric."

And that was how Rian found himself shoved out of the public library and out into the bright daylight of early afternoon. He blinked in confusion, looked at the now-scowling military officer, and then at the large heavy wooden doors as they closed firmly behind them. "I didn't even DO anything yet," the man yelled at the doors in disgust, then turned his ire on Rian. "You."

Fight or flight kicked in, and Rian turned to dash up the street. The colonel was faster than he was and caught Rian by the back of his jacket, and Rian yelped. Dangerous amber eyes glinted at him when he glanced over his shoulder in trepidation.

Rian whimpered.

When Edward returned to the office, Havoc was the only one in residence. He was leaning out the open third-floor window, catching a quick smoke without having to run down to the canteen. Edward paused in the open door to the office. "Havoc, what the hell are you doing?"

Havoc was staring off into space, cigarette dangling from his fingers. He was a thousand miles away, and Edward's return startled him enough that he nearly dropped his cigarette. "Boss! You're back early." Havoc eyed Edward, clearly not expecting him. "I thought you went to the library."

"I did," Edward said stiffly.

"Ah. I think this is the first time you've come back without Captain Hawkeye dragging you," he observed.

"Har har," Edward said darkly. "There was an incident. I'm not allowed back today."

Havoc extinguished his cigarette on the metal sill, then brushed the ash out the window. "Was this an incident with a capital I, or just an incident?"

Edward's glares were pretty solid today, Havoc held up both of his hands. "Hey, just asking before Captain Hawkeye does."

"No," Edward said. "Just an incident. No paperwork need be filed, there's no one in the brig or the morgue." He unsnapped the front of his military jacket and turned to head into his office. "Yet."

Havoc raised an eyebrow, then walked to the open office door. "You okay, boss?"

Edward threw his military jacket onto the back of his desk chair and was standing at the window with a frown on his face. "What makes you think I'm not okay?"

"You mean aside from the fact that you're back early from lunch, back early from the library without having to be dragged like a child, and clearly upset without breaking things?"

Edward's shoulders stiffened, and his eyes narrowed at Havoc. "There is nothing wrong, first lieutenant," he said. "You're dismissed."

Havoc looked at Edward quietly for a moment. Like Hawkeye, he had known Edward from the first time he reported to the military command all those years ago. Then, without another word, he closed the office door and left Edward alone with whatever was bothering him.

He had turned back to the window already. Edward stared out at the parade grounds. They were bustling with activity; a garrison was practicing their drills. However, Edward wasn't seeing the grouped blue uniforms working on parade formation. His mind was locked on slate gray eyes, narrowed in anger.

Why did he look so much like him?

It had been like a physical punch to the gut. Edward had let the kid go outside the library - he hadn't expected to see those eyes ever again.

Lost in thought, Edward seated himself at the desk. The folders from this afternoon's State Alchemist interviews were sitting on his desk, waiting for him to peruse. That should take his mind off of things. He had five of the interviews today - a reasonable amount, for once. Edward opened the folder and sat back, reading over the information about the first applicant.

"You," Fletcher said as he stopped beside the sole occupant of the booth in the darkest corner of the dimly lit bar. "Are a son of a bitch, you know that?"

"Hey now," Russell said. "Don't talk about mom like that."

Fletcher scowled at his brother, but slid into the booth opposite him. Russell had clearly been there a while; although the signature blue uniform was nowhere in sight. He was wearing a dingy old off-white button-down shirt and even older looking trousers. "So what's with the distinct lack of grooming?" Fletcher asked, as Russell waved down a barmaid.

"What do you drink now?" Russell asked him, ignoring Fletcher's pointed question.

Fletcher stared levelly at his brother as the barmaid approached the booth. "Ale," he said after a long moment. Russell raised his tankard and tapped it. "And another one of these," he said with a grin, ignoring his brother's sour look.

Once the barmaid was out of earshot, Fletcher leaned forward. "You better have a damn good explanation for what the hell is going on," he hissed. "Or else I'm on the next train back to Aquaroya tomorrow, brother."

Russell waved his hand in the air. "Relax," he said languidly. "We're here to have a good time, y'know?" As he lifted his tankard into the air to take a drink, he said quickly, in a lower, more sober-sounding voice, "We're being watched."

Fletcher blinked at the abrupt shift in his brother's tone, and glanced around the dimly-lit bar. It was half-full of murmuring patrons, and too hard to see if anyone was paying them any special attention. Russell dropping the tankard to the table loudly brought his attention back to him, and Fletcher blinked owlishly at him. "Are you trying to get us caught?" Russell asked sharply.


"I say 'we're being watched' and you start gawking at the patrons like it's a zoo," Russell said with a snort. "Maybe this wasn't such a good idea after all."

Fletcher rubbed the side of his head with his fingers as the barmaid swung by, leaving two full tankards of ale on the table for them. "Don't think," Russell said in a bit of a sing-song voice, winking at the woman as she swept past. "We're supposed to be two quarreling brothers having a bit of a reunion, after all."

"We ARE two quarreling brothers," Fletcher said, drawing his tankard of ale in toward him and staring down at the liquid sloshing about in the stein. "You better have a good explanation for all this, you know I'm not joking about getting back on the train, right? Ari didn't even want me to come."

"Why did you, then?"

"You're still my brother, no matter how much we disagree," Fletcher said after a moment. "Besides, if you're going to do something stupid, well. Someone's got to watch your back."

Russell grinned and raised his tankard. "There's the Fletcher I know."

Fletcher sighed, and raised his tankard as well, so the metal steins clinked together. "Now you better start cluing me in as to what sort of stupid shit we're neck-deep in now."

"All in good time," Russell said. "I promise."

"I'm holding you to that," Fletcher murmured, taking a large swig of his drink. "Does this place serve food too, or just beer? I've been in the library all day, and I'm starving."

They shot the shit for several hours. At first it was a bit awkward, strange silences stretching between them for a moment between topics, but as the evening wore on and the drinks dwindled, things started to seem like they used to. Fletcher fished out his wallet to show his brother pictures of Arianne. "There is no way," Russell said, holding the picture at length and shutting one eye. "There is no way someone as smoking hot as her is interested in my dweeby little brother."

"Believe it," Fletcher said, plucking the picture out of his brother's hand. It had been taken by a friend's daughter at a summer picnic. He slid it back into his wallet after looking at it just a moment, a smile on his face.

"Heh," Russell said. "Never thought I'd see the day when my baby brother's in love."

"Shut up," Fletcher said. "What, you don't have a girlfriend?"

Russell shrugged. "I don't like being tied down," he said. "I've only been stationed out of Central City a few months. I was in East City before I got reassigned to the General's command." He leaned back in his seat and looked out into the bar. In the intervening hours, the bar had started to fill up as men and women got off of work. "Remember Alphonse Elric?"

Fletcher raised an eyebrow. "Yeah, of course I do," he said cautiously.

"Heh." Russell picked up his almost-empty tankard. "He's got a kid, you know."

"No way," Fletcher said. "Isn't he, like, your age?"

"Yeah." Russell was silent a moment, then smiled. "They left."

Fletcher glanced back out over the crowd. "You sure?"

"Mostly. Let's get out of here just in case."

The night air was cool, the sun having long since set. Fletcher stood out on the street while Russell settled their tab, hands in the pockets of his pants as he looked about. The city seemed so different ... and yet, oddly the same.

It had been long years since he had been in Central City. So much had happened since the last time he was here. Maybe it wasn't the city that changed as much as it was him.

Then, across the street, Fletcher saw ... her. She was walking with a few other Drachmians, one of which had his interview today. Their eyes met from across the street for just an instant, and then Fletcher nearly jumped as Russell touched his shoulder. "Hey," Russell said. "You all right?"

The spell broken, Fletcher glance back up the street, but they'd already rounded the corner. The message was clear, though. He looked over to his brother and gave Russell an uneven grin. "Yeah," he said. "Sorry, I was just ... thinking."

Russell gave him a considering look. His older brother was not nearly as oblivious to the world as he used to be, and that much was obvious. He could also clearly tell when he was being lied to.

"Yeah," Russell said. "You do that a lot, huh?"

"Yup," Fletcher said. He turned fully to face his brother, who he was a good few inches taller than now. "So, are you going to give me an idea as to what's going on, or do I just get to flounder around like an idiot?"

Russell inclined his head. "We'll walk and talk."

It was not entirely uncommon for Edward to pull late shifts, although the voluntary nature of that work could occasionally be called into question. The soldiers dismissed throughout the day - Cushler and Bailey, the most junior officers in the unit leaving first. Havoc would usually stay as late as Edward did to act as his chauffeur, but occasionally he had other things to do. Hawkeye too would stay late to supervise his work and, Edward often suspected, to keep an eye on him.

However, when Edward returned to the office he found it cold and dark. The interviews had run long, which he should have expected. Three of the candidates couldn't find their asses with both hands, and he was completely disgusted that they were able to coast as far as they could on sheer luck alone. He would have to see about revising that test yet again.

Of course, he couldn't just summarily dismiss them with General Howard sitting at his shoulder, breathing down his neck and looking for something entirely different than what Edward was fishing for. Edward was looking for competent alchemists that would serve as a boon to the country and possibly the military; not unbalanced idiots whose messes he would be serving as clean-up crew for.

Howard, on the other hand - a dark-eyed, calculating man who Edward wouldn't trust as far as he could throw him - he was looking for canon fodder. He didn't care how quickly the alchemist burned out as long as there was destructive power there. Out of the five candidates there was only one that the both of them had agreed was not State Alchemist material - Howard had challenged his decision by trying to pull rank on him over the other two.

If this decision went before the acting-Fuhrer, there was no telling which way he would skew. Dalton famously disliked Edward, but he didn't outright hate him. In fact, there might even be grudging respect there - Dalton was no enemy, but he certainly wasn't an ally, either. Letting this, the first round of State Alchemist interviews, end up on his desk wouldn't look good for Edward.

Although he really wanted to drag his feet about it, there were still days of this left. Howard was probably testing the waters and seeing how Edward would react to the challenge to his authority. As much as it galled him to do so, especially given the qualification level of the two alchemists in question, he passed them. Four passes, one person packing. There was still the practical examination, they weren't IN, yet - but the interview was the toughest hurdle to face.

Now Edward really needed to punch something, and he couldn't punch Howard. He was frustrated and had nothing to take it out on - he would prowl the streets looking for miscreants who deserved a good beating, but his M.O. was too well known at this point, plus Hawkeye would kill him. And it wouldn't do for a Colonel supervising the examinations to get hauled into the brig for drunken brawling again.

So that left him with little to do but paperwork. It was times like this he really missed having Alphonse around - he could always count on calling Alphonse up for some late-night sparring to work out his aggravations.

Edward returned to the office to get some work done and page through the applicants for the next day's interviews. And that was where he found himself as the clock on the wall chimed the late hour, single desk lamp on as he signed off on some of Bailey's meticulously typed reports.

There was a light rap on the open office door. Edward shuffled the paper into its appropriate folder before looking up, and then looked surprised at his visitor. "What are you doing here so late, Sheska?"

The mousy brown-haired woman held a pile of books in her arms. "I fell asleep behind my desk," she admitted, her hair in disarray and her glasses skewed. "I saw the light on as I was headed home. Why are YOU here so late, Ed?"

Sheska was one of the few people who never addressed Edward with his rank. She was an old enough friend that he didn't bat an eye at it. He was just fortunate that this habit hadn't rubbed off on Cushler or Bailey - he had a hard enough time as it was getting respect around here with HIS history.

"Just getting some work done," Edward said with a sigh, dropping the pen back into the inkwell and rubbing his temple with the same hand. "It's a busy time of the year for me."

"Oh, I know," Sheska chirped, far too bright-eyed for the time of night. "That's why Al sent me to help you guys out, Captain Hawkeye is SO inundated with paperwork it's amazing! All your normal work and then these exams on top of it, I'm surprised they don't send you extra workers for this time of the year."

"With the military's budget? I'm shocked we have as many people as we do," Edward muttered. He looked up at the clock and winced, he would have to be back in the office in less than six hours. No point to going home now, at any rate.

As if she had read his mind, Sheska frowned at him. "Are you sleeping in your office?"

Edward affected an innocent look. "I don't know what you're talking about," he said. He leaned forward to pick up the phone's receiver. "Do you need me to call you a car to take you back to the dorms, Sheska?"

Sheska shifted the books in her arms to wave a hand in the air. "No, no," she said. "Don't make a fuss over me, I can get there on my own."

Edward looked down at the paperwork on his desk thoughtfully, then back up at Sheska. "I'll walk you, then."

"Ed," Sheska said. "You don't have to do that, I'm a grown woman, I can walk a couple of blocks to the military dorm all by myself."

"I insist," Edward said. "There are a lot of people in town right now." He stood up and stretched his arms over his head, then scratched the top of his head. "I could use the fresh air, anyway."

Sheska closed her eyes and sighed dramatically, then opened them in surprise as Edward took the books out of her arms. "These going home with you as well?"

"No," she said. "Well, yes. I was going to drop them off at the library, but I fell asleep, so that has to wait until the morning." She tried to take them back from Edward. "Give them, Ed!"

"I can drop them off," Edward said.

"The library is closed," Sheska retorted.

Edward just looked at her.

She sighed, aggravated. "I know for a fact that no librarian in her right mind would give you a key, but I'm going to pretend I don't know how you plan on returning the books to a closed library. You are planning to return them, right? They're checked out under my name-"

"Yes, yes," Edward laughed. "I promise, I'm not going to take home-" he looked down at the book on the top of the stack. " 'The Kingdom of Slender Swords' - what is this?"

Sheska grabbed the top book from the stack and her face flushed. "It's nothing," she said quickly. "It's just fiction, Ed, nothing that would interest you-"

"What makes you think I wouldn't be interested in fiction?" Edward queried, somewhat amused, as he locked his office door behind him.

"You," Sheska said. "You were talking about how stupid it was with Lieutenant Havoc one day."

Edward frowned as he tried to recall that particular conversation. "Oh," he said. "Yeah, I guess that sounds bad, huh? But I've read fiction that I liked, before, I swear."

"Oh yeah," Sheska said. "Name me one fiction book you've read."

"I used to read the Timothy Quick dime store novels on trains all the time," Edward said. "Al and I would swap'em."

"You and Al read Timothy Quick books?" Sheska laughed. "I shouldn't be surprised by that, those are the ones with the genius alchemist kid, right?"

"Yeah," Edward muttered. "Stopped readin' 'em after the adventures suddenly got too familiar. I wanted to go visit the author and have a few words about it, but Al told me to let it go."

Sheska blinked. "They were based on you?"

"Some of the later ones had to be. But they were being published way before I started turning up in newspapers, so I dunno." Edward shrugged. "It could have all been a big coincidence like Al was trying to convince me of. I read those silly books to pass the time, not remind myself of things I didn't want to remember."

They had reached the steps down to the parade ground by that point. Edward blinked at the cool night air and caught a bit of a chill as he realized he was just wearing the thin long-sleeved button-down, his military jacket was still on the back of the desk chair. Sheska had started chattering about some of the companion book series to those silly dime store novels, those about a brilliant girl detective that she apparently loved as a child.

The streets were mostly deserted at this hour. It didn't take them long to arrive at the military dorms, where Sheska laid the fantasy novel she had been carrying atop the stack of books Edward still had. "Thanks so much for walking me back, Ed," she said, looking more at the books in his arms than at him. "Guess I'll see you tomorrow?"

"Yeah," Edward said. "Have a good night, Sheska." She looked up at him, a peculiar expression on her face, then disappeared into the coed barracks. Edward watched her go a second, then shuffled the books in his arm. "And off to the library I go," he muttered to himself.

It was simple work to transmute the heavy wooden doors; instead of messing with the lock Edward just transmuted a smaller door inside the locked frame. He ducked his head as he stepped through, then walked the books over to the library desk, laying them on the check-in return.

The library was as silent as a tomb this time of night. Very little light filtered in through the dirty windows, the entire building smelled musty and old, and without the bustle of people, it was quietly terrifying. Edward stood a second at the desk and took in the atmosphere. There was nothing in the dark here to scare him, he did not believe in ghosts and ghouls - the things that he had fought in his life were far more terrifying.

Weird that he should run across Sheska like this. Edward transmuted the door back to solid - no one had yet been able to tell that he'd done this particular pony trick several times. The only time he was nearly caught was the one time he had taken a flashlight to find the book he needed.

Trotting down the steps and back to the street the confrontation from earlier flashed through his mind. The kid's instinctive flail, Edward catching his shoulder, then their eyes locked and that stone-cold feeling as his stomach dropped away. He had taken Edward's hesitation as a chance to escape up the street and away, and leaving Edward on the sidewalk with an empty feeling he thought he had completely buried.

The more he thought about it, the more that kid looked just like Roy, until the point he didn't see the teenager any longer, just a younger Roy, eyes narrowed in anger, hair mussed, jaw set - and the thought of it hurt more than any wound he'd lived through.

Edward stopped on the sidewalk and closed his eyes, trying to force the thought out of his head, shoving his hands in the pockets of his blue trousers as he thought. He was so focused on this task that he nearly missed the sound of feet on concrete until it was nearly upon him.

His eyes snapped open, and Edward glanced over his shoulder as three teenage hoodlums ran up to him. They were all wearing collared shirts and trousers, and two were wearing old waistcoats. All had scarves and hats to conceal their identity, and jack knives. Edward glanced over them in disbelief. "You have got to be kidding," he said. "You idiots are really going to try to mug me?" He gestured at the knives in their hands. "With those toys?"

The leader nodded, not coerced by Edward into speaking as his compatriots spread out a bit. Edward rolled his eyes heavenward, somewhere between thankful and put-out by the distraction. Then he grinned sharply at the hoodlums. "Well, it's your funeral," he said with a shrug, then clapped his hands.