Chapter 3

The heat of the tent is stifling. Occasionally a breeze will move the flap that cuts them off from the rest of the camp but it's like an oven. No cots for them, blankets spread out over the sand instead, despite Edward's protests about grit in his automail.

That's the furthest thing from his mind right now, palms on strong thighs, legs spread wide, back arched to the ground. They have to be quiet, no matter how noisy he wants to be they're in the middle of base camp. Roy had been smart, stuffed a rolled-up sleeve in his mouth for him to bite down on to stifle his groans.

Roy looked tired, fresh lines around his eyes, shadowed with lack of sleep and fatigue. Still, worn and dirty like this, Edward is smitten, feels like he could be burned alive by those smoldering dark eyes watching his every move like he would never see him again.

Bent over him, sweat dripping off his nose, a groan in his voice as he cupped Edward's face and turned it up to him. "I love you so much-"

Edward was woken unceremoniously by Alphonse kicking him sharply. "If you're going to make noises like that, brother, you can go sleep on the couch," Alphonse said groggily from the other side of the bed.

Fletcher woke the second time at the blue flicker of transmutation. He hadn't been able to free his hands, or find anything workable for drawing a transmutation circle in order to get himself free, so after several hours of rifling through things by touch alone he had given up, exhaustion overwhelming him. He had fallen asleep leaning against the wall, legs crossed in front of him.

The blue light of an alchemist's transmutation against the darkness was enough to rouse him from a light doze. The sudden muted burst of light confused him - why would someone use alchemy to work the lock, instead of using a key like everyone else? There were a lot of things here that didn't make sense, though, and Fletcher was starting to just go with it.

The door clicked open and bright light spilled in. He winced, eyes far too accustomed to the dim light of the storage closet, and the door clicked shut behind the figure before he could focus on them. Fletcher blinked away stars and waited, but the quick shot to the head that he figured would end this never came.

"I am sorry you got dragged into this," Ioana voice was soft in the darkness. "I did not expect you to overhear so much."

Her accent was lighter now, not so pronounced. Fletcher scoffed verbally. "Didn't expect me to get involved, huh?" he said. "I can't believe you're a terrorist, Ioana. I thought you came to this country to get away from this sort of shit!"

"You have no idea," she murmured quietly. "We need to get you out of here."

That was not the response he was expecting. "What?"

"Before they come back, Jakob and that accursed general," she said, stooping in front of him. Now that his eyes were adjusting back to the dim light, Fletcher could see that Ioana was dressed to move quickly and unobtrusively. She put a hand on his shoulder tentatively, but Fletcher didn't flinch, and allowed her to push him a bit aside so she could work at his bonds. A small knife slid from her sleeve and she used that to saw through the rope.

"Which general?" Fletcher thought to ask while she worked.

Ioana's eyes seemed to reflect the wan light like a cat's. She gave him an interested look. "It doesn't matter," she murmured. "You just need to get out of here, my dear Fletcher. Go back to your girlfriend and keep your head down."

"They know who I am," Fletcher said. "It won't be hard to find me. I have to know who is behind this, Ioana." The rope fell from his wrists and Fletcher brought them forward, rubbed them tenderly. "I have to be able to protect myself."

She smiled at him, a sad smile but a knowing one. "Men," she said. "Always wanting to be the big strong protectors. Did you ever stop to think that maybe we're trying to protect you?"

Fletcher gave her an odd look and she shook her head quickly. "Never mind. I promise I'll take care of this, this won't follow you back to Aquaroya."

"I can't just run away from this, whatever it is," Fletcher argued right back. "There are other people in danger here, what are they planning to do?"

Still crouched in front of him, she pulled a hand gun from the waistband of her pants and pressed it into his hands. "I promise," she murmured quietly. "I'll protect you, you just need to get out of here."

There was the sharp click of boots on tile outside the room and they both froze, but the foot steps did not slow and passed the door with no hesitation. they were still undiscovered. Ioana's attention was on the door and Fletcher captured her wrist. "Tell me what is going on," he hissed. "Why are you helping me?"

"Because you weren't supposed to get involved, why is that so hard for you stupid men to understand?" Ioana shoved his shoulder angrily, eyes flashing. "This was all supposed to go off with no hitch and you show up and throw everything all to hell, you understand how much you and your godforsaken brother have screwed things up for me?" Fletcher blinked and stared at her in surprise, but Ioana got to her feet. "I will get you out of here," she said. "We have to go now, though."

"Come on," she looked back at him, still seated on the floor against the wall, gun in one hand. Fletcher stood reluctantly, warily ... then presented the gun back to her. "I don't use guns," Fletcher said slowly. "I don't trust them. You have any chalk?"

She looked at him a long moment, then smiled, tucking the gun back into the waistband of her pants and fishing in a pocket, before handing Fletcher a broken piece of chalk. "A true alchemist," she said appreciatively. "Let's go."

It was somewhere in that hazy time where late transitioned into early, before the sun started to rise, but after the birds had started to sing that the phone rang. Edward had his face buried in the space between pillow and mattress, and he snarled ineffectively at the ringing of the phone from the bed.

Then, to his not-awake surprise, the mattress shifted and Alphonse rolled over, reaching blearily over Edward to fish the phone off the nightstand and answer it. "Elric."

Edward glowered up at Alphonse as his younger brother looked down at him in surprise, then held the phone out. "It's for you."

"I would hope so," Edward said blearily, taking the phone from Alphonse, who had a strange expression on his face. "'lo?"

"I don't even want to know why your brother is answering your bedroom phone at four in the morning," Russell said, sounding far too awake on the other end of the line.

"How do you know my phone's- wait, I don't even want to know," Edward said. "This better be damn fucking good, or I'm going to wring your tiny neck."

Alphonse, who was sitting up on the edge of the bed, gave Edward a look with one eyebrow raised, Edward made a face at Alphonse and rolled over so he couldn't see him.

"Well, I hope it's good enough for you, boss," Russell said. "The Drachmians are planning on taking the interviews hostage today."

Edward sat up. "And you're planning on stopping this, how?"

"I've got it under control," Russell said calmly. "I'm more worried about what will actually go down on the personnel front. There's only seven Drachmian candidates, and only four of them interview today. They've got to be planning something else, there's no way that they could think four passable alchemists and some firearms would be enough to take the entire building hostage. Especially knowing YOU would be there-"

Edward actually puffed up a little at that, it was rare that Russell would acknowledge Edward's superior skills even if the proof was right in front of them. He heard Russell snort on the other end of the line. "Don't get a big head, I'm mocking their Intelligence more than anything else."

"Yeah, yeah." Edward threw a pillow at Alphonse because Alphonse was staring at them intently. "As much as I hate to defer to you, this is your ballgame, Tringham. How do you want to proceed?"

He raised a finger at Alphonse and said, "if you even think it I'm going to transmute you into the bathtub and YOU can explain to your wife why you won't make it back in time for the birth of your child."

"We want them alive, brother," Alphonse said. "Make sure Russell knows that."

Edward held the receiver out toward his brother. "Do you want to talk to him?"

Alphonse shook his head. "I don't have clearance in this mission, this is all Central Command's doing."

"No, it's not," Edward said. "This is me an' Russell and about three other people. Central Intel has no idea what we're up to."

"We hope," Russell said on the other end of the line.

"Oh, I should have thought to ask, you did secure this line, right?" Edward asked Russell.

"I swept it for bugs when I got here," Alphonse said.

"You should be fine," Russell murmured.

"Wait, what do you mean, we "hope" Central Intel has no idea what we're up to?" Edward said sharply. "Sedition is a big word for "spending the rest of your natural life in a hole somewhere."

Alphonse snorted and Russell sighed. "Now you're just being paranoid."

"I'm being careful. I worked hard to get this far, I don't want to get my ass handed to me by YOUR faulty intel."

"I'll let you know if I find out that there's more to it," Russell promised. "As much as I want you to take a long walk off a short pier, you're useful to me in the position you're in."

"I dread the day you no longer find me useful," Edward said sardonically. "Oh wait. That'll be the day I let Hawkeye use you for target practice."

Russell hung up the phone on him, and Edward blew out a breath. He glanced over at Alphonse, who was giving him a considering look. "What?"

"You two fight like an old-"

"Fuck off and die, Al."

They got dressed quickly - there was no going back to sleep now, especially when Edward realized the origin of Alphonse's strange looks. "You thought I was Winry," Edward yelled from the bathroom as Alphonse shuffled around the kitchen looking for various food items that didn't look like an experiment in higher life forms.

"You have a science experiment for an icebox," Alphonse yelled back. "Do you have anything in here its natural color?"

"Fuck off," Edward said for the third time in fifteen minutes as he walked into the kitchen. "If the phone didn't wake you was I going to get groped as a good morning? Because, Al, you're my baby brother and all but I would have had to kill you."

Alphonse held up a plate with cheese on it. "Brother, this has FUR."

They glared at each other for a long moment. Edward waved a hand at the fridge. "Just, dunno, transmute off the ick."

Alphonse looked completely horrified. "I know you have a stomach of cast iron, brother-"

Edward crossed his arms and glared defiantly at Alphonse. Alphonse sighed and dumped the cheese into the waste bin, plate and all. "It's no wonder you're having a hard time finding someone to date you," Alphonse muttered darkly. Edward ignored him and started some coffee.

"I don't eat here much," he said simply, rinsing out some old stained coffee mugs in the sink. "I usually eat at the office, or there's some kind of officer's dinner or the like. No real need to keep food in the icebox when it just goes bad."

Alphonse looked over at Edward a touch guilty. They both knew that for the most part Alphonse came home to a cooked meal, unless Winry was too busy with her own work or caring for Thomas. Edward ignored Alphonse's guilty look. "Okay, so you're here," he said, leaning back against the counter as the coffee thought about brewing. "What am I going to do with you? Everything's so complicated to begin with."

"I don't like this idea of you going into a situation that's going to include hostages," Alphonse said.

"Someone has to act as bait," Edward pointed out.

"And what about all the innocent State Alchemist candidates? What about Sheska, and the generals, and the other military personnel who are involved in this against their will?" Alphonse shut the door to the icebox. "I don't know if I like the person you're becoming, brother."

"If there's another way, I'd be glad to hear it," Edward said sharply.

"Move the interview."

"Can't," Edward said. "Not this late, no one would ever approve it."

"Not even if there's terrorists plotting to blow it UP? I thought acting-Fuhrer Dalton was supposed to be present. That's assassination, conspiracy, treason-"

"Okay, so I go raise the alarm. The Drachmians drop off the face of the earth, everyone freaks out about the security breach, it disrupts everything for weeks and I look like a fucking idiot. Yeah, that totally sounds like the plan I'd like to go with." Edward looked to the side, watched the coffee drip. "You think I WANT to put innocent people in danger over all of this?"

"You're going to."

"I've done worse." Edward said softly. "So have you."

Alphonse grew quiet. "Brother, that's not-"

Edward sighed and Alphonse trailed off. The silence in the kitchen grew awkward as the coffee pot hissed and burbled cheerfully. "If we don't nip this in the bud soon, I'll be doing worse than putting innocent people in danger," Edward said. "I'll be sending them off to die in the north when Drachma attacks us for real." Alphonse met Edward's eyes, and nodded his head once.

"We'll stop this," he said. "We will, brother."

"I know," Edward said. "I plan on it."

It was still slightly chilly out as the sky lightened along its edges. Rian sat on the roof of the military dorm and watched the sun come up, hands tucked into his jacket and nose buried into his scarf. He had run back to the dorm to sleep, but after staring at the ceiling for way, way too long he finally wandered upstairs and out to the roof, surprising two soldiers who were smoking.

They left soon after, and Rian sat himself on the cold concrete and just thought. That was all he was doing lately, so much so he felt like he would drown in these thoughts. What was he DOING?

Thoughts of his parents, dimmed by the passage of time. His father's bushy brown hair and kind eyes, his mother's quiet demeanor and firm but loving hand. His older sister sitting in front of a mirror and brushing her long straight hair, counting each stroke in two languages.

Then there was choking fire and hatred stirring in his belly. He'd never forgotten that mocking laugh, those pinched eyes, the click of that gun. But over top of that-

The shouting at the large dinner table in the small kitchen of the Hargrove's home. People shoving for spots on the bench because there were always children over. The six kids that belonged to the Hargroves - seven, if you counted Rian - fighting over the chores, filing off to school. The open laughter of his adopted mother, the stern tones of Mr. Hargrove - Rian could never think of the man as anything but that - as he discussed the news and the military with other members of the town.

Rian rested his forehead on his hands, knees hugged to his chest. He had been so SURE, he thought - but clearly that wasn't the case, maybe, just maybe this wasn't the right path for him.

But if that was the case, what was he doing here? About to enter the military that he hated, that he loathed beyond all reasoning for some misguided sense of revenge. How could he live with himself wearing the Amestrian military blue?

It was tearing him apart. Maybe he should just skip out of the examinations, hit the next train and ride it until he was far away from all of this, Howard nothing but a nightmarish memory put behind him. It was an option, Rian had put away some cenz just in case - but that was running away. He had to face Howard, he had to face this murdering monster on his own terms or else he'd never escape him.

And that meant the interview, today. That meant not throwing up on his shoes like he wanted to, standing in front of those officers and professing that he was in fact smart enough, fast enough, clever enough to be deserving of a State Alchemist's title. And if Howard was there, like he was supposed to be -

Rian would face him. And if he had to, to get out from under this, to finally gain his peace, he would kill him. And run. It would be harder than the suicide mission, surely, but...

There was this backup plan he had half-formulated and sat on, mostly because he never thought he'd lose his nerve like this. The backup plan that had him acing the State Alchemist examinations and making it into the military, and working his way straight to Howard's side, so he could slide a well-timed knife between his ribs.

That was still a possibility. A much harder, much riskier possibility, but it was still there.

And he could do it.

The wind was starting to pick up, when Rian actually looked up, the sky was rosy along the horizon, edges of clouds painted red like spilled blood. Rian hoped it wasn't an ill omen.

Fletcher didn't recognize this place. He recognized the type of place, certainly - it was definitely a military facility of some kind, there was no mistaking the uniformly painted walls and the plain tile floors - but he had no clue where they were, or even if they were still in Central City. He had been unconscious for a very long time, that was plenty of opportunity to throw him in a car or on a train and shuffle him off somewhere a few hours away.

They didn't encounter anyone in the halls, despite Ioana yanking him back several times, and once through a door, hesitating in silence, waiting for news of his escape to echo down the halls. No alarm was raised, and it was mostly silent.

Ioana stole down the hallway expertly, gliding in almost silence. By comparison Fletcher felt large and ungainly, certain that every footfall could be heard throughout the entire establishment. As he watched Ioana move, he had to wonder whose side she was actually on. Sure, she was helping him escape ... but why?

He was paying close attention to their route, cataloging the way they came, memorizing the turns and corridors in case they had to beat a hasty retreat. Whatever building they were in, it was quite large and they were definitely underground. No windows, no natural light, all washed-out fluorescence.

Ioana halted suddenly. "We're close," she said softly, nodding to a single door at the end of the hallway. "I apologize, I have not been entirely honest with you, but we must disarm the explosives before we can leave."

He heard the words, but they only made a bit of sense. "Disarm the - there are EXPLOSIVES here!"

She shot him a dirty look over her shoulder. "Are you trying to get us caught?" she snarled, grabbing him by the sleeve and yanking him back against the wall. Fletcher stared at her as she flattened next to him and they waited in odd, tense silence to see if any attention was attracted by Fletcher's shout. After nearly a full minute, Fletcher remembered to breathe again and Ioana stepped away from the wall.

"You didn't say anything about explosives," Fletcher accused. "What is going ON?"

"What does it sound like?" Ioana returned. "A terrorist cell that is planning to assassinate your acting-Fuhrer to open the floodgates of civil unrest in your country, so as to start what appears to be a very profitable war."

"Who would profit over a war between our countries?"

"You really are very naive, aren't you?" Ioana said, giving him a measuring look. "The military isn't for you, I don't know why your brother involved you in all this."

"That's the second time you've mentioned Russell," Fletcher said, for the first time regretting surrendering the gun back to her. "How is he involved in all of this?"

"I would think that's readily apparent," Ioana said. "And now is not the time to discuss this." She withdrew the gun from the holster at her side and kept in in her hands as she looked up and down the corridor. "You're an alchemist, same as I am. Help me do this and your country will regard you as a hero-"

"Idiot," Fletcher said quietly. "I don't need to be a hero to want to save people's lives. Let's get this done and get out of here - I have answers I need to beat out of my brother if you're not going to give them to me."

They both were startled when the door at the end of the corridor swung outward, the door frame filled with the towering profile of the man who had clobbered Fletcher earlier. "Maks!" Ioana said.

And then Maks stepped aside as a man in military blues stepped out into the hallway. "Good of you to join us, Ioana," he said smoothly. Then he looked to Fletcher. "And you, you're Tringham's brother. So he's the last piece of this puzzle."

"Who the hell are you?" Fletcher said, grip tight on his piece of chalk, wondering if he could get the transmutation circle sketched quickly enough to be of use.

The man - a general, Fletcher recognized the rank insignia he wore - had half-turned, ignoring them and the fact that Ioana had a gun trained on him. "Find Major Tringham," he was shouting back at someone they couldn't see. "Bring him here." He glanced back at Fletcher and Ioana. "Put the gun down, Ioana."

"Like hell," she said, getting a good bead on him. "Sorry Fletcher."

The doors on either side of Fletcher and Ioana slammed open, and Fletcher turned, but not fast enough, tackled to the ground. He heard Ioana's gun go off and then she hit the ground too. Fletcher struggled, twisting under the tight grip but whoever got him kept his face pressed to the floor.

Then the click of the safety coming off a hand gun. "No," he heard the general say. "Not yet. They might be useful leverage if things don't go as planned."

"They're trouble, boss," Maks said. "We can't afford to keep a guard on them."

"That's fine," the person in charge of all this - a general, now Fletcher understood what Ioana meant about him being naive - "I thought of that."

Base was deserted, but that was no surprise. It was a Saturday, most of the officers didn't work the weekends. Just the PFCs on guard duty and the random soldier getting some last-minute work done before deadlines on Monday. Edward was in uniform, after all he had work to do today, but Alphonse was in his civvies, strolling along beside him. No one ever gave Alphonse a second glance, even those who didn't know him - he just had that effect on people. He was outgoing, personable ... and always looked like he was supposed to be there. It was one of the reasons he was such an asset in Intelligence, no one ever seemed to doubt him.

To Edward's surprise, though, there was someone hard at work in the office when he opened the door. Sheska looked up in surprise, seated at Hawkeye's desk, a mountain of papers accumulated around her. "Good morning," Edward said, as Sheska, startled, managed to knock over a precarious pile with her elbow.

Alphonse moved fast, trying to catch some of the avalanche but it was in vain. Papers spilled everywhere, although he saved a decent amount from the floor. "Oh my gosh, oh my-" Sheska started flailing, trying to rescue papers before another tower started sluicing toward the floor.

Edward reinforced one stack as Alphonse crouched on the floor, straightening the pile as he gathered the loose pages quickly. Sheska sat with her hands on her lap, staring down at the desk, as scarlet as Edward had ever seen her.

The paper avalanche was dealt with quickly. "What on earth," Edward asked as Alphonse dropped a much-neater pile of papers on the desk, "are you doing here ALREADY, Sheska?"

Sheska, still bright red, didn't seem to want to meet Edward's gaze. "Since Captain Hawkeye is visiting family she left me in charge of the rest of the paperwork for the interviews," she said, still staring at the desk in front of her. "I was trying to get everyone's folders ready for you before they started today."

Edward glanced at the pile of papers in disbelief. "All - all of THIS?"

"No!" Sheska said. "I mean, no sir. I mean, some of it is, but some is other- that is, other projects because I was streamlining the processes and time got away from me and I-"

Alphonse started chuckling and Edward gave his brother a nasty look. "Uh, don't worry about the other processes right now, okay Sheska? I just need the basic files for the interviews-" one of the stacks of papers rustled ominously. "Or, forget that. I just want a list of their names, okay?"

"I think I can handle that," Sheska said, the flush fading from her cheeks as she smiled brightly.

"Good. I'll be in my office," Edward said.

Alphonse was still chuckling as he clicked the door closed behind them. Edward gave his brother a particularly evil look as he hiked up and sat on the edge of his desk, arms crossed over his chest. "Told you," Alphonse said, dropping onto one of the couches and hooking his arms over the back. He leaned back and sighed. "Must be nice, having your own office."

Edward snorted, and almost immediately a knock came at the door. "That was fast," Edward said, as the door opened without him giving the go-ahead. Russell Tringham shut the door behind him, looking tired, and older than Edward expected.

Alphonse sat up. Russell looked between them, and Edward raised an eyebrow. With an exaggerated sigh, Russell saluted and let it drop. "One of these days," Edward said, "You're going to be insubordinate in front of the wrong people, and not only will you get YOUR ass kicked for it, but I'll get my ass handed to me on a platter for not being able to keep my own soldiers in line."

"I'm not one of your soldiers," Russell said, and the weariness was in his voice.

"Point still stands."

"Are you all right, Russell?" Alphonse stood up, obviously concerned. "Have you even slept?"

Russell waved him off, rubbed his face down with one hand. "I can sleep when this is over," he said. "More important things right now."

Edward slid off the desk and stood, leaning back against it instead. "Have you found Fletcher?"

"Yeah," Russell said. "The Drachmians have him. I don't know why." He looked to Alphonse. "Why are you even here? This wasn't your op."

"I'm part of it now," Alphonse said. "Under the table, of course." He glanced to Edward, and back to Russell. "This is your rodeo?"

"More or less." Russell was still giving Alphonse an uncertain look. "You're going to try to take this one from me, give it to East Intel?"

"Nope," Alphonse said. "Central Command seems to frown on my brother and I working together on anything." The brothers exchanged a sharp grin, when they put their heads together on something the higher echelon of the military shuddered. "Where do you need me?"

Russell exhaled, and actually smiled. "Good, I was running short of trustworthy people on this one. Given we have, what, three?"

Alphonse indicated the door. "Sheska in on it?"

"Not yet," Edward said.

Alphonse sat back down, and Russell collapsed across from him. Russell seemed to just sink back into the cushions of the couch - not one of the most comfortable pieces of furniture in the office, both Edward and Alphonse had slept on those couches before, but it seemed enough to make Russell look even more exhausted than he clearly was.

The three men looked at each other for a long moment, then a knock came at the door. Edward sighed. "Come in, Sheska."

Sheska opened the door, a clipboard in hand. "I've got you the list of names," she said. "I can - I mean, it will take me a little while longer but I can still put together their folders."

"This'll have to do, thanks," Edward said with a smile. "I don't have much time to go over the folders anyway." Sheska stood next to him, unsure of what to do with her hands now that she had given him the clipboard. "Uh, Sheska?"


"You're dismissed."

"Oh. Oh! Right, sorry." She grinned at him and exited the room, latching the door behind her. Alphonse and Russell both watched her go, then turned to look at Edward, who was looking at the clipboard and rubbing his forehead with the other hand.

"If either of you say it, I'll have you shot," he said without looking up. "I'll have you both shot. I'll let them use you as target practice for the practical examinations." He finally looked up from the clipboard to matching, ear to ear, slightly demonic grins. "Seriously, stop it."

"When do the interviews start for today?" Alphonse asked as Edward flipped the paper on the clipboard up, skimming the second page.

"Eleven a.m.," Russell said. He had produced a small map of the area, mostly of the building and the streets around it. "It's definitely working to their advantage that we move the actual interviews out of the main command building."

"It was a safety measure," Edward said, still going over his papers but listening in. "Didn't have to worry about granting clearance to potential spies and having them get loose in the base proper."

"Yes, but it makes it even more an excellent target for terrorists," Russell said. "Being in the same building as the labs that the State Alchemists use is nearly as bad."

"While it could be pretty bad, it's not nearly the same level as someone getting loose where they could set off a bomb or blow stuff up near the senior officers' main offices," Alphonse said. "Brother's got a point, it is far safer there than here."

"Anyway," Russell said. "I've got your lady sniper positioned here," he pointed to a building two streets away. "She's got a clear view of the entrance and some of the foyer. If they manage to take the building she's got several windows to the area where the interviews are happening."

"And Havoc?"

"Havoc, you and me," Russell said, "Will be covering the other entrances." He tapped the map. "Not a single one of those terrorists are going to get away."

Alphonse nodded. "I want the terrorists alive."

"I know." Russell sat back, arms crossed. "All orders are shoot to wound unless it cannot be avoided."

"Good." Alphonse looked to Edward. "That leaves the brunt of the work on you, brother."

Edward shrugged, setting the clipboard aside. "Shouldn't be much of a problem."

"They'll have hostages, and we only have a small window before news of this gets out and the army turns out in full force," Russell said.

"So someone should act as a go-between and divert the army," Edward said. "We can handle this."

"I'd rather not divert any of our very limited resources," Russell said. Edward tapped his metal fingers on the desk beside him, and Russell raised an eyebrow.

"Something's been bothering me," Edward said. "Why, of all the years this circus is run, did Fletcher opt to sit for the State Alchemist exams THIS year?"

Russell shrugged. "I needed someone on the inside to feed me information," he said. "I didn't realize he'd stumble into the hornet's nest right off the bat."

Alphonse looked at Russell coldly. "You set your brother up," he said.

"Think what you'd like of me," Russell retorted back. "But I get the job done."

"I'm beginning to understand my brother's dislike of working with you," Alphonse said, sitting back on the couch.

Edward shook his head. "I'd say I can't believe you'd pull that, but I've known you for too long."

"So are we going to clue in Sheska?" Alphonse asked Edward, and this time Edward snorted. "No, huh?"

"Not unless you want to give the game away to the candidates as they walk through the door," he said. "Not that she doesn't try, but she's been really - off, these last few days."

"It would help if she wasn't overly infatuated with you all of a sudden," Russell said. "What dumbass sent her here when she's like this?"

"This dumbass," Alphonse growled.

"Oh," Russell said.

"He sent her here to keep an eye on me," Edward said. "Because he's my idiot little brother and he does stuff like that."

"I wouldn't have to if you weren't such a stubborn jackass," Alphonse retorted.

Russell sat back in the couch. "You two keep arguing," he said, propping his feet up on the coffee table between them. "I'm just going to catch a few winks while you do that."

Edward rolled his eyes as he and Alphonse exchanged looks. "Hawkeye and Havoc are in position?"

"Yup, boss," Russell said, eyes already closed, and then yawned. "Seriously, need this cat-nap."

"In my office, nevertheless," Edward said, but Russell was already out. He stood up, clipboard tucked under his arm. "I've got a meeting with Colonel Neuhaus and General Knowles to go over the requests so far for the practical examinations next week. I trust you can keep yourself occupied for an hour or so?"

Alphonse laughed. "You sound so responsible when you say things like that, brother."

Edward stuck his tongue out at Alphonse as he left. "Responsibility is overrated."

Alphonse sat at Edward's desk thoughtfully. He had used the phone first, ignoring Russell's snores to check in on his family. Winry was with a customer - of course she was, she would not stop seeing her customers until physically unable to, she was just that dedicated to her work - but was doing fine. He hung up with her, feeling that ache of loneliness at the unexpected separation, however brief. Especially with their next child on the way.

They still hadn't considered a name yet. Alphonse sat back in the chair and swiveled a little, looking out the windows behind the desk thoughtfully. Edward had a nice office - small but cozy, the afternoon sunlight hit it right on and he had a decent view of the parade grounds. It felt comfortable, familiar, a little like home.

Edward was doing a whole lot better than Alphonse had expected. It had been a few months since he'd last seen his brother, on an inspection tour with several generals, escorting the acting-Fuhrer as he traveled to East City and some of the outlying commands. It was a world of difference from before. After Roy had first died it seemed like Edward was determined to waste away into nothing, aimless, not emerging from the bedroom made up for him in the Rockbell house for days at a time. It was not uncommon for Alphonse to retrieve Edward's dishes only to find he hadn't touched his food.

That had to have been the worst time. Winry would cry herself sick over Edward with worry, beating sheet metal paper-thin with a mallet just to keep herself occupied. With Alphonse restored to flesh and Roy gone, there seemed to be nothing in this world that interested Edward in the slightest.

And then, the day before the funeral, Jean Havoc had shown up at their door in Resembool. He was exhausted, and he looked older than Alphonse remembered. All Havoc wanted was to speak to Edward.

Alphonse still wasn't sure what was in the exchange they had shared behind closed doors. He had sat in the dining room with Winry, silent, as they heard Edward's shouting voice through the floor, and Havoc's tone raised in anger. Then Havoc had emerged and left with a cursory farewell and no indication of the purpose of his visit.

An hour later, Edward had emerged from his room, dry-eyed and tired. Winry fed him with an almost manic glee, berating him between servings, although Alphonse wasn't sure that Edward heard any of it. His eyes were dark, almost dull. He was considering something.

Still on crutches, in his military uniform he stood as straight as he could beside Alphonse at the funeral. Dry-eyed, but his face was alive for the first time since he came back from the front in a wheelchair, he told Hawkeye and Alphonse of his plans as he stood between them. He asked for their support. When Alphonse had half-turned, he could see Havoc behind them, a grim smile on his face, then Alphonse knew.

Edward was single-minded in his goal. Those first few years he worked tirelessly, relentlessly. He slept at the office. He didn't mingle. He rarely talked to anyone. He came first to Resembool, and then when Alphonse and Winry moved to East City, there as well only for automail maintenance. Alphonse only heard from Edward when he initiated contact.

But as time passed, and Edward grew: grew used to his role in the military, used to the people, and glimmers of his old self started to show through. It was a relief. For almost a year Alphonse heard more from Havoc than his own brother, but now ... things weren't normal. There was no such thing as "normal" in the Elric's world. But they were better. Edward had visited of his own volition when Thomas was born. He'd sat for them - with protests, of course - when they went on a week's vacation to the west. (Alphonse would never forget Edward's indignant diatribe at the train station as he thrust his infant nephew back into Winry's arm. "He bit me! AND PEED ON ME!")

Edward would be the one to fix this military, Alphonse knew that. And he would stand by his brother and support him in any way that he could.

Although there didn't seem to really be any way to fix that damn idiot's suicidal nature. Alphonse sighed, amused. Maybe, if he could find someone to help heal that wound on his heart Edward wouldn't rush head-first into trouble like always.

He swiveled the chair back to facing the desk and knew why the cozy office seemed so familiar. Some things Edward would just never be able to let go.

There was no chance that anything he'd try to eat would stay down, so Rian only had a shaky cup of tea before reporting to the building where the State Alchemist interviews were being held. The lobby was buzzing, full of wannabe alchemists of all measures. Today was the last day for interviews, and there were a lot of them. Rian signed himself in with a bubbly woman with brown hair and glasses, then found a seat.

He sat, hands curled on his knees, staring at the tile floor. He still had no idea what he was going to do. This morning, he had drawn on the palms of his hands the transmutation circles he needed. He hadn't trembled, he knew the lines by heart. The most simple and basic transmutation circles for combustion. He had made himself a living bomb. Simple white gloves covered the ink traced on his hands - no one would suspect a thing.

The alchemists around him were buzzing with conversation. Theories about their compatriots, rumors about those who had passed and failed the interviews already, speculation about what they'd do for their practical examinations in the next week when - and if - they made it that far. Rian by far was the quietest in the lobby, withdrawn into himself. He felt like he was going to be sick.

What a fool he was.

The door at the end of the lobby opened but conversation didn't still like it had earlier when the Major-General had come through. She was an intimidating woman, ice-blue eyes that swept over the lot of them. Her eyes had lingered the barest moment on Rian's, but then she was gone, past the woman who had scrambled to her feet and into the room beyond.

Few had recognized her, but Rian overheard the discussion. That was Major-General Armstrong, one of the most feared tacticians in the military. Her appearance fueled conversations for a while, Rian listening in and not taking part. He had never bothered to really get to know any of the other candidates and now they just ignored him, never bothering to engage him in their conversations.

But then the door opened again, and another blond stalked through the room, still flipping through pages on his clipboard and only glancing up to avoid running into someone else walking through the lobby. This time amber eyes accidentally passed over his, and he stopped dead in the middle of the room and stared at Rian - and this time Rian had nowhere to hide.

"You," the colonel rumbled.

This time conversation did still, as the military officer had paused in his stride and not continued on. People looked around at Rian, who was trying so very hard to make himself smaller in his seat, as if that would make him less the target of the man's ire.

"Uh," Rian said, as all the eyes in the room turned to him. "Hi?"

At that moment the door from the outside slammed open, and Rian was rescued by the person he least wanted to see in the world. General Howard stalked down the now-silent lobby, glowering openly at everyone who would meet his eye. "Colonel Elric!" he snapped.

The man who was glaring at Rian actually rolled his eyes before turning and saluting. Rian gripped the sides of his chair, stomach having long since abandoned his body and stared, white-faced, at the man who had tormented him from afar for so many years. General Howard never once looked his way, and whatever he said to the Colonel flew right over Rian's head completely. The man swept past the colonel regally and stormed right into the room that the Major-General had already entered.

Colonel Elric, as Rian now knew him, dropped his hand from the salute and said audibly "Fucking HATE his guts," apparently forgetting he was surrounded by prospective alchemists. He gave Rian one last, icy glare, before going to the woman who had been checking in alchemists. Rian exhaled, finally, and pried his hands from the seat edges. Even if he didn't put his plan into action, he had the feeling he would be quite lucky to live through the day.

The colonel had disappeared into the interview room and the woman in charge read a name from the clipboard, her voice lost in the mill of conversation that had started up the moment the officers had vanished. She tried twice, and the third time Rian heard his own name clearly.

He was first.

Rian swallowed, stood up, and forced himself calm. He could do this, no matter the outcome. He was an alchemist, after all.

This time, Edward took the seat to the right of Major-General Armstrong with no quarrel whatsoever. She sat between him and Howard and that was perfectly fine with him - it kept the temptation of transmuting the man's head into a watermelon to a bare minimum. He was still juggling the fact that that kid - the kid that strangely kept turning up in his thoughts, from the library - was HERE, and one of the prospective State Alchemists. If he had had the time before Howard's abrupt appearance Edward would have yanked the kid into a side room and lectured him about signing up for the military underage, no matter WHAT his talents as an alchemist might be.

But now Howard was here, and as far as he could tell he was still bitching at Edward, but Edward was ignoring him, skimming once again over the list of alchemists. He had stopped by Sheska, told her to pick out the name on the list that was the young alchemist's - he wanted to get the kid out of here before shit hit the fan. He had already primed his rejection of the young man - he really didn't care if the kid could transmute circles around him, he was not going to be responsible for someone young and malleable like that ending up in the hands of some idiot asshole like Howard. There were no more Mustangs in this military to protect stubborn kids like that.

He sensed two sets of eyes on him, and he looked up. Major-General Armstrong was looking at him, her gaze as neutral as it ever was. Her mask was harder to crack than Roy's, and as much as he was afraid of her the Major-General was one of the few of the upper echelon that Edward actually respected. General Howard, on the other hand, was glowering at him. "You've been ignoring every word I've said," the man said, clearly insulted.

Edward glanced down at his clipboard, then back up to Howard. If Major-General Armstrong wasn't present he might have lit into the man - if his insubordination was reported it would be his word against Howard's - but instead he gritted his teeth. "General," Edward said after a long pause. "I apologize. I've been distracted lately, there is a lot going on right now."

"I'd say so," Howard said huffily. "I should have questioned your promotion more thoroughly, you're clearly not capable of handling the increase in your duties."

The wooden clipboard made an audible crack as Edward's automail hand - disguised as ever by his white gloves - tightened on it. Howard blanched at the sound, but Edward's voice was calm and level. "Forgive me, sir, but my office is short-staffed currently. I believe it was your vote that denied my request for more resources, with it I would not have as much to do."

"You are performing quite capably," Major-General Armstrong said. "With such limited resources, Colonel Elric." Her one visible eye was trained on Howard, who shrunk slightly in his seat. "I would do well to have someone of your caliber working for me at Fort Briggs. Perhaps you would consider a transfer?"

Edward shook his head. "You flatter me, Major-General, but the cold doesn't suit me." He picked up a pencil and checked off something on his list. "General Howard, did you have a question for me, or should we begin?"

Howard's eyes were dark. "No, Colonel. Please send for the first alchemist."

Two things happened as Rian stood up to cross the room. The first was that the man who was sitting next to him, a Drachmian whose name Rian had never bothered to learn, stood up and grabbed his arm tightly. Rian swung about immediately, fist curled tight to punch the man in the face but his punch faltered as he realized that the man had a gun pointed directly at his face with the other hand.

The second was that the other three Drachmians in the lobby all stood up brandishing guns at the same time, grabbing the alchemists nearest to them and pointing their weapons directly at them. "Nobody panic," one of the men opposite Rian shouted. "The first person to go for transmutation circle, this one here," he yanked the woman he had by the arm tightly, "Dies."

Rian twisted in the man's grip, but he had him tight. Adrenaline had kicked in and Rian wasn't going to go down without a fight. However, the Drachmian who had Rian by his arm was so much taller that there was no way he'd get any leverage to fight back.

"Your name is Rian, yes?" The one holding him shoved him forwards. Rian stumbled over his feet, got them back under himself and turned to glare at his captor. "Come, Rian. Let's go explain to our military officers the situation that they are in now."

The woman sitting at the desk was still there, sitting ramrod-straight and staring at the men with guns with a terrifying intensity. She turned her glare on Rian, first, skin tight around her eyes and then she stared at the man holding him. "They're through there, yes?" the man indicated with the gun.

"Yes," she said sharply. "I don't know what you hope to accomplish, but you won't get away with it."

"We'll see," he said, shoving Rian forward. He released Rian, there was no place for him to go. The transmutation circles in his palms seemed to burn, all it would take was both of his hands on the man and he could set his blood to boiling, set up an internal combustion - "What the fuck are you staring at?" The man's Amestrian was clipped and accented but it was a snarl that was followed by something probably even more obscene in Drachmian. "Open the damn door."

"No," Rian said.

"What in the hell-" The barrel of the man's gun was only a few inches away from Rian's face, pressed almost to his eye. "Are you trying to be a fucking hero, kid? Do you know what we do to people who want to play hero?"

It was strange how calm he felt. The agitation in his stomach had calmed, the fear was all gone. It was like he was completely disconnected from the world. Rian stared at the man, one hand on the door behind him, the other at his side. "I'm not trying to be a hero," Rian said, his voice level. "I don't want to die."

"Well, you're gonna," the man said, his gun trembling.

"No," Rian said. "I'm not."

He had found the handle of the door behind him. Rian's free hand whipped forward and shoved the gun aside as the Drachmian pulled the trigger with a jerk. The gun recoiled in his hand and Rian couldn't hear out of one ear, the concussive sound of the gunshot reverberating in his ears. After a second's shock - he didn't expect that to WORK, he wasn't hit - Rian slammed the door open and scrambled backwards, the wood splintering near his head where the bullet did hit.

"Come back here!" the man shouted, getting a fist full of Rian's scarf as he fled into the interview room. He was jerked backwards by his scarf, and he gasped as his feet flew out from under him. He saw Howard on his feet, a gun in hand, and the other two officers still seated before he hit the ground hard enough to knock the wind out of him.

The Drachmian put a boot on his chest, gun pointed down at him. "You're far too much trouble," he said. Rian wrapped both of his hands around the man's boot as he tried to drag oxygen into his bruised lungs.

"No," Howard said from afar. "Don't kill him yet."

Saved. A second time. The Drachmian snarled something in his native language, but his shoulders relax as he took his bead off of Rian. Rian swallowed dryly, panting painfully under the man's boot as he fought the blackness closing in on him.

It had happened faster that Edward was anticipating. The muted noise from the lobby, always a constant, had gone strangely silent. He had exchanged a look with Armstrong, was in the process of getting to his feet when the gunshot splintered the heavy wooden door.

Howard was faster, for a man of his age. He was on his feet, his service revolver pointed at Armstrong, who was still seated, and Edward, who was half out of his seat. "I'd keep my seat if I were you," Howard growled. Edward dropped back down into his seat, bristling.

"So you're the one behind it all," Edward said.

Armstrong hadn't moved, her expression the same as always, eyes closed. Howard glanced at her, then back to Edward, gun pointed at him. "You don't seem surprised."

"I'm not," Edward said, hands resting on the desk. "I figured this would lead back to you one way or another. At least now that you've shown your true colors, it'll be easier to prosecute your ass." Edward's grin was sharkish. "Well. If I leave anything left TO prosecute-"

As Edward spoke, the door swung inward as one of the prospective State Alchemists scrambled inside, trying to get away from a Drachmian who yanked him back by his scarf. It was the kid. Edward's hands curled into fists on the desk. There were two of them, both with guns, there was no way he'd be able to get to both of them at the same time, so he had to risk either Major-General Armstrong or risk the life of a civilian.

"No," Howard said, gesturing with his gun. "Don't kill him yet." He glanced back to Edward with a smug grin. "It's only a pity that acting-Fuhrer Dalton wasn't here to be assassinated, but a Major-General and a Colonel are good collateral. It'll be a successful enough terrorist attack, and I'll just barely escape to tell my tale. We'll be marching on the North before the end of the month."

"I don't get it," Edward said. "What's in this for you?"

"Money." Major-General Armstrong spoke for the first time. "War profiteering. Someone is paying him to get this war started."

Howard shrugged. "Maybe I just prefer the battlefield. It's not for either of you to know, anyway." He cocked his gun and grinned at Edward. "I have been waiting for this day to come."

"Funny," Edward said. "Me too."

Abruptly, the Drachmian in the room let off an undignified shriek as his boot caught on fire. The young alchemist who he had been pinning rolled out from under him, coughing. Howard's attention had been caught by the commotion and Edward moved, throwing himself back, chair and all and clapping at the same time. His path was clear, Armstrong had already vacated her seat and Edward was on Howard in a heartbeat, automail blade shearing through the revolver and coming close to taking off Howard's fingertips. Edward's left hand followed his right as Howard jerked backwards, catching the man's jaw and slamming him toward the table.

Armstrong had moved just as quickly, spearing the Drachmian scrambling for the door with one quickly drawn sword to the wall, through his shoulder. The man screamed in pain as she twisted the blade. "How many of you?"

"Seven!" the man shrieked.

"Seven Drachmians, are you kidding me?" Edward asked Howard, his head still pressed to the desk. "Do you have any idea who you're trying to fuck over, here?"

"I'm sure if he had, he would have been better prepared," Armstrong said. She whipped her sword out of the man's flesh and the Drachmian screamed in pain and blood flicked across the wall and floor.

"Don't kill him," Edward said, echoing Howard's words a few moments prior. "Intel wants these idiots alive."

"You're working for Intelligence now, hm?" Armstrong had pulled a handkerchief and was sliding it along the length of her blade, removing the blood with a practiced motion. "You're full of surprises, Colonel Elric."

Howard struggled under Edward's firm hand. "I'll have you court-martialed for this!" he yelled.

"Seriously?" Edward said. "You are going to have ME court-martialed? What planet are YOU fucking from?" He glanced over to the young alchemist, who was sitting on the ground, one hand on his chest where the man's foot had been firmly planted. "You all right over there, kid?"

"My name's not kid," he snapped back. "It's Rian."

"Whatever. That was a nice piece of alchemy there, where'd you pull that from?"

"My secret," Rian retorted. He was staring at Howard and Edward recognized that look in someone's eyes. He frowned, but then there was a scuffle from outside the half-open door. "What else is going on out there?" Edward asked as Armstrong moved toward the door.

Then the screaming started.

At least this time, his hands weren't tied behind his back, Fletcher thought positively. His hands were in cuffs this time, on the other side of the pillar behind him. He tilted his head back and looked straight up. They were in one of the basement rooms wired with explosives, support pillars ran across the room and along the top part of each pillar was enough dynamite to bring the ceiling down on them.

Ioana was bound similarly across from him. She hadn't lifted her head once since they snapped the cuffs on them - and when Fletcher had tried to get her attention, one of the two men who were still wiring the explosives under the supervision of Maks came over and kicked him in the side.

He didn't break any ribs, fortunately, but Fletcher knew for a fact that they had to be bruised since it hurt to breathe now. The men snapped back and forth at each other in Drachmian, but they might as well been speaking gibberish for all the Drachmian that Fletcher knew.

Whoever the general had dispatched to find Russell hadn't returned. Fletcher couldn't decide if that was good or bad news. Conceivably, his brother knew what sort of shit that Fletcher was in. He felt distinctly manipulated into all of this, and he hadn't decided if he was going to break Russell's fingers or nose first. He wasn't THAT much taller than his older brother, but he did have muscle on him.

Then there was gunfire upstairs, and screaming.

All three of the men jerked physically. The two underlings looked to Maks uncertainly, and he snapped something at them in Drachmian. Fletcher watched them argue curiously, and then the men abandoned the remainder of the explosives in the floor and made for the door.

"Huh," Fletcher said out loud. Ioana raised her head and looked at the door. "What was that all about?"

"They heard gunfire," Ioana said. "And decided that it wasn't worth it to stay and get killed. They wired a remote detonator in one of the pillars, and they plan on detonating it once they're out of the building."

Fletcher looked up again. "Well shit, then no use hanging around here."

Ioana shot him a withering look. "Well, unless you've got a lock-pick on you..."

Fletcher twisted against the pillar. "Not a lock-pick, no." He shifted forward, strained against them and grunted. After about thirty seconds of this he raised both hands to Ioana, grinning. She stared at him, suspiciously, as Fletcher got to his feet and moved around behind her pillar.

"How did you do that?"

"You wouldn't believe how many sets of handcuffs I've had to slip out of," Fletcher said. "At least it wasn't those board-handcuffs that the military likes to use, we'd be screwed if they had that."

Ioana rubbed her wrists as Fletcher released her from the cuffs. "Thank you," she said, getting to her feet quickly. "We've got to stop them before they get out of here."

"I agree," Fletcher said, and they both made for the door.

Major-General Armstrong did not hesitate a second when the screaming started and was out the door in an instant. Edward groaned aloud, and Howard struggled under his grip. "Let me GO," the man snarled. "You have no right-"

"First you shoot at me, then you're upset when I restrain you," Edward said. "There's an easy solution to this." He slammed Howard's head against the desk hard enough that he shut up, his eyes rolling up in his head as he passed out. Edward poked him to make sure he wasn't faking it, then he released Howard's head.

The kid - Rian, Edward's head self-corrected for him - was standing there with his mouth open. "You didn't see that," Edward said as he peeled his one intact glove off of his left hand. "Not that I care or anything, but someone important is probably gonna ask how he got a broken nose AND a concussion, so." There was gunfire from outside the room and Edward scowled, and pointed at Rian. "Stay here," and then pointed to Howard. "Watch him. If he wakes up, I give you permission to kick his face in or something."

Edward didn't wait to see how the kid reacted. He kicked the door open, Armstrong had let it bang shut behind her, and dove out into the fray.

It was pure madness, people running everywhere. There was a Drachmian candidate sitting on the floor in shock, still alive but missing both hands, his gun laying on the floor in front of him. The other three had been shooting at Armstrong, who had yet to be hit. Everyone who was not a hostage was bailing, which was the smart thing to do.

The terrorists had separated, each had a hostage, and had their guns trained on Armstrong. It was beyond him as to why they hadn't fired yet, but Edward was now running on instinct and not tactics. He clapped his hands, dropped them to the tile floor and moved the entire ground beneath them.

Sheska was being held by a Drachmian within Edward's direct line of sight. She wasn't going passively, either, he had her by her hair, glasses long since knocked off her face, and the gun pressed to her head. He turned his gun and bead on Edward when Edward transmuted the floor, and the tile underneath his feet shifted. Sheska kicked her captor then and he yelped and Armstrong was on him.

The other two were split in their decision, one shooting at Armstrong and the other training his hand gun on Edward. Edward, who had been shot at more times than he could count now, kept his automail in front of him and heard a bullet ping off the metal. He leaped up on the chairs and used that as a springboard to put both feet into the Drachmian's face.

Edward rolled and was on his feet in an instant. That hostage freed, and the terrorist wasn't going to be walking out of here unaided. That just left one.

One, who was smart enough not to waste his bullets on either Armstrong or Edward, and had his gun pressed to the side of a young candidate's head. "Take one more step closer and I will splatter his brains all over the wall," the man said.

Edward glanced at Armstrong, who had blood dripping off of her saber, and knew that she wouldn't hesitate, regardless of the outcome for the hostage. He was backing toward the exit, hostage in front of him, and Edward remembered. He held out a hand to Armstrong. "Let him go," Edward said.

Armstrong gave him a disdainful look, grip tightening on her saber. "You presume to give me an order, Colonel?"

"Just wait," Edward muttered.

The shot shattered the glass door. The hostage shrieked as the terrorist pitched forward onto the tile, blood splattering forward. The hostage scrambled backwards, tripping over his feet and landing on his ass.

"You all right?" Edward asked him, and the guy staggered to his feet and bolted out the broken door. "Guess he's not State Alchemist material then," Edward murmured.

Armstrong toed over the corpse. "Impressive," she said. "Captain Hawkeye's handiwork, I assume."

"She wasn't supposed to shoot to kill," Edward said, standing. "But, I think we have plenty alive to haul in over this fiasco." He clapped his hands to restore the automail, shaking out his ruined sleeve mournfully. "Plus, the asshole at the center of this steaming load."

"It seems to me," Armstrong said as she meticulously cleaned her sword on the clothing of the dead terrorist, "That you were quite prepared for this to happen."

"Just covering my bases," Edward said. "I learned from the best, after all. Though I think I lucked out, it would have been messier if you weren't here. Thank you for the assistance, Major-General, I'm going to go check on our prisoner."

Fletcher took the stairs two at a time. He had seen the Drachmian disappear around the corner at the top of the stairs. Ioana was somewhere behind him, but Fletcher didn't wait for her.

They didn't seem interested in waiting around for Fletcher to catch up with them. The door at the end of the corridor bounced off its frame as they made for the exit. Fletcher slammed through the door and ducked on pure instinct as Maks took a swing at his head.

Right outside the door, Russell had been waiting for them. Fletcher barely glanced at his brother as he put his shoulder into Maks' chest, trying to take the larger, burly man down.

That left the other two for Russell - one of which threw Russell against the wall. "One of them has a detonator," Fletcher yelled as Maks grabbed the front of his shirt and slammed him back against the wall as well. Fletcher's head hit brick and he saw stars. He heard Russell swear and somehow he thought to throw his forearms up to block the meaty left hook.

Maks let the dazed Fletcher go when Russell managed to break a sizable piece of a busted chair he must have gotten out of a dumpster over the Drachmian's head. Fletcher flailed back against the wall hard, touched the back of his head and felt blood, then glanced to the two Drachmians who were giving Russell trouble.

One was laid out, unconscious, the other was pinned by Alphonse Elric's forearm against the wall. Fletcher's attention flew back to Russell, who had apparently only infuriated the very large Drachmian with the direct hit to his cranium. He scrambled to his feet as Maks pulled something out of his jacket - and Fletcher's fist met the underside of his jaw. Maks took another step back and Russell hit him with the debris again. This took the man to his knees, and a kick to the head took him down and out. Fletcher doubled over, breathing hard, and touched his head again.

Russell pushed him up by his shoulder. "Fletcher!" he nearly shouted. "Are you all right!"

Fletcher stared at his brother - who was bloodied by his scrape with the other two men - then reared back and punched Russell in the mouth.

Russell took a step back and spat blood. "Fletcher-!"

"The next time you want to get me involved in your insanity, at least give me the details first," Fletcher said, leaning back against the wall and exhaling.

Alphonse dropped the third thug to the ground. "Bad news."

Fletcher's heart dropped. "No detonator."

"No detonator."

"Shit," Fletcher and Russell said at the same time, and looked at each other. "They must have handed it off in there somewhere," Fletcher said. "On the way out."

"Fuck, we'll never find it," Russell said. "We've got to get everyone out of there."

Fletcher looked around abruptly, realizing that Ioana never followed him out. "Ioana!"

"Who?" Alphonse asked. "Fletcher!"

Fletcher had turned and yanked the door open, running back into the building. "The place is wired to blow, now," Russell said. "We've got to get everyone out." Alphonse and Russell looked at each other, and charged into the building after Fletcher.

They left him alone with General Howard.

Rian turned around and stared at the unconscious form of his mortal enemy with a strange fascination. Never in his wildest dreams did he think he'd be left alone with him...unconscious, undefended...

Howard was making whistling noises as he breathed through a broken nose, delivered by the blond Colonel Elric.

Rian had pulled the piece of chalk he kept in his jacket pocket and, for lack of anything else, had drawn a transmutation circle on the wooden desk beside Howard. The man was completely at Rian's mercy.

It was his favorite transmutation circle, one he had devised but never had opportunity to use. It would be nothing at all to snap Howard's neck, to suffocate him and then disappear. In this mess there were only a handful of people who might even slightly suspect that General Howard's untimely death came from one of candidates...and even then that Colonel would be looked at more than Rian. Asphyxiation would be easiest, would leave no marks on the body until an autopsy. By then Rian could have easily lost himself in one of the many small remote villages that dotted the Amestrian countryside.

He touched the transmutation circle with two fingers, and it lit blue, a slight wind picking up around them both. It was a very specialized transmutation circle, designed to draw all the breathable oxygen out of a small, contained space - about five feet by five feet, usually. Suffocation was assured. Rian just had to take a few steps back and he could watch Howard struggle to breathe, he had plenty of time to recall how mercilessly his family had been slaughtered at his man's hands.

Then, abruptly, the winds stopped as Colonel Elric slammed the blade extending from his right arm through the desk and slicing the transmutation circle clean in two. Rian barely had time to state his dismay before the man whirled, grabbed Rian by the front of his jacket and shoved him back into the wall behind them.

Rian thudded back against the wall, stars exploding in his vision. Mercifully, the man kept the point of the automail blade out of his face for the moment. "What the FUCK do you think you're doing!" he yelled, slamming Rian against the wall a second time.

He grabbed the man's arm with both hands, twisting in his jacket, boots barely scraping the floor. "He ... he killed my- it's my right to-"

The man's eyes were narrowed, far too close, Rian couldn't get away. He kicked weakly but he hadn't realized how much this had taken out of him because he couldn't get up the energy to kick the man in the gut, enough to free himself. "He killed my family," Rian got out finally, tears burning in the corners of his eyes. "Killed them all, right in front of me, would have killed me too if he had the bullets, he killed them all-" He gasped, swallowed - "Should have killed me too-"

With an inarticulate sound of rage the man slammed his automail blade into the wall beside Rian's head, not close enough to do him damage but enough to make him flinch away. "Fucking SHITHEADS," the man yelled, let him go and wrenched the automail from the wall. Howard had started to wake up, woozy, and Edward kicked the man's chair out from under him so he fell back against the tile floor.

Released, Rian slid back against the wall, not quite into a seated position. He was gasping, breathing hard. "I don't have TIME for this," Colonel Elric snarled. He grabbed the seated, confused Howard by the front of his uniform. "I really don't like you," he said. "I could let this kid kill you here and walk out with a clean conscience. But," and he looked to Rian, gold eyes narrowed. "I'm not going to, because that's not how we do things."

"No," Howard said. "But it is how I do things."

Colonel Elric looked back at Howard, who had somehow managed to produce a small service revolver. There was blood streaming down his face from his nose and mouth, but he had the barrel of the gun pointed directly at the blond colonel's face.

Rian felt his stomach drop. He could see again plain as day Howard with his revolver pressed to his father's face - and that was it. He was on his feet and moving, bringing his hands together - those transmutation circles inscribed on his palms beneath the gloves burning his skin as he clapped them together and initiated the transmutation - and he was on Howard, one hand on the arm with the gun, yanking it away as Howard yelled in shock and the other on the gun. The reverberation from the transmutation shot straight through both his hands but Rian held on tight. It was concussive, supposed to ignite the correct material but something was wrong, maybe the lines got smeared when his hands started to sweat but whatever the issue Howard screamed in pain as the transmutation rebounded. The gun almost seemed to melt and his arm flopped.

Howard grabbed Rian by the hair, trying to pull him off but Colonel Elric's metal fist made short work of the General's teeth. Howard released Rian and Edward slammed the man bodily against the wall and dropped him.

Rian landed on his side. He rolled onto his back and yanked his gloves off with his teeth. The transmutation circles burned still and he scrubbed the ink, rubbing his hands against the tile. The ink seemed seared into his skin, the rebound hitting him too.

He blew on his hands, the pain white-hot - then suddenly the cool automail closed over his hand and the colonel turned his palm up to study it. "Did you come up with this transmutation circle?"

Rian couldn't talk for the pain, but he nodded his head, other hand curled into a fist. "Huh," the man said. "That's pretty complex. I think you turned the bones in his arm to dust with that transmutation."

"He deserved it," Rian choked out.

The colonel gave him a considering look. "Thank you."

The door banged open and a man who looked remarkably similar to the colonel stood in the door. "THERE you are," he said, breathing hard. "We have to get out of here, brother, this place is wired to explode and we don't know where the detonator is-"

"It's Howard's fault," Colonel Elric said, indicating the unconscious mess that was the General. "Grab him, would you?" As he spoke, the entire building rocked.

Rian started to scramble to his feet, but the colonel hoisted him up, slinging him over his shoulder. "Hey!" Rian gasped, tried to struggle but whenever his hands made contact the pain lit fresh.

"Stop struggling," the colonel ordered. "Al, grab Howa-" the floor rocked with another explosion and the other man grabbed the colonel by the shoulder and shoved him out the door.


The piercing screech of the train's whistle drove Fletcher to distraction without fail. He stood on the train platform and glowered at the steam engine.

Two long weeks had passed since "the incident" as it had grown to be called. Fletcher had spent the day after in the hospital for observation, despite his very firm insistence that he was quite okay, thank you very much, but apparently bruised ribs and a mild concussion was enough to keep him over night.

Alphonse Elric had stopped in to see him. He knew Alphonse on sight now - he had recognized him from his resemblance to Edward when he had appeared in the alley but it was hard to believe that the high-voiced, empty suit of armor had been this man as a child. Edward even swung by, completely unscathed from the encounter.

It blew his mind that it was Edward in charge of the State Alchemist exams, but it was completely fitting. Edward offered him a pass on the practical - he had that authority, especially given Fletcher's actions in the conflict, but Fletcher turned him down. It was never his intention to take the State Alchemist's title in the first place, he had just applied because his brother had asked him to.

His brother - who didn't turn up once during the few days Fletcher spent in town recuperating. He was stuck in Central until the mess got cleared up because he sure as hell wasn't ferrying back and forth for questioning.

He never located Ioana in the maze of hallways in the basement of the building. Fletcher had wracked his brain, trying to remember when he lost her. There was no way she could have not gotten out of there, she seemed far too well-trained to let that be the end of her. But he'd never found another trace of her.

It was disconcerting.

And so the questioning ended, and Fletcher was free to return to Aquaroya, and Arianne.

The train whistle screeched again, and steam poured out of the engine as it strained like a horse, ready to chase the open track. Fletcher was out of time.

He picked up his suitcase and trotted for the carriage, passing several pillars that reached far above their heads to the roof. Leaning against one was Russell.

Fletcher hesitated mid-stride. He met his brother's eyes - who grinned for him, touched two fingers to his hairline and said, "Thanks."

Then the train was pulling out of the station, and Fletcher couldn't stop. He slung his suitcase onto the train, and jumped aboard as the carriage picked up speed. He waved a hand at his brother, who returned the wave, and then picked up his suitcase and boarded the car properly.

Fletcher was smiling.

"I can't believe they didn't recover a body," Edward complained. "After all that, and no body."

"Mmhm," Captain Hawkeye said, following a step behind Edward as Edward stalked down the hallway.

"No body! You know what that means. That means he'll be back."

"Or it means that his body is still under a pile of rubble," Havoc suggested from Edward's other side.

"Oh come on, do you really believe that?" Edward argued.

"No more than you apparently believe that he was able to survive all the trauma you put him through," Havoc pointed out.

"I didn't kill him, though," Edward grunted.

"The total tally of new State Alchemists is eight," Hawkeye confirmed from her clipboard, trying to steer the conversation back in the correct direction.

Edward scoffed aloud. "And how many did our tiny little garrison get assigned? None! Again."

Hawkeye and Havoc glanced at each other behind Edward's back. "Actually sir, we did get assigned a State Alchemist," Hawkeye said.

"Really?" Edward stopped at the door to the office. "I missed the naming ceremony since I was stuck in East City on forced detainment."

"That was on the acting-Fuhrer's orders sir," Hawkeye reminded him.

"Mandatory vacation time," Edward muttered. "I'm fine, I wasn't even hurt."

"I don't think that was the point, boss." Havoc opened the door for them and they entered the office.

Sheska was sitting on the edge of Bailey's desk, cooing over an open book with him, while Cushler typed up a report. Cushler stood up so fast to salute his chair on wheels shot out behind him. Bailey looked up, but didn't stand, and did kind of a little hand salute thing before going back to the book he was reading with Sheska.

"Relax, Cushler," Edward said, clapping the man on the shoulder as he passed. "Which alchemist did we get assigned, Hawkeye?"

She flipped the paper over on her clipboard. "The Gale Alchemist, sir."

"Gale Alchemist? Huh," Edward mused. "Send him in when he reports for duty."

"Uh," Cushler said as Edward opened the door to his office. "He's already here, sir."

Rian Martin stood up as the door to the office opened. Colonel Edward Elric shut the door behind him and cast a glance over Rian. He crossed the room wordlessly and seated himself at his desk, raising his eyebrow at Rian.

He was in the military now, even if he didn't wear the uniform. Rian remembered then to salute and the colonel propped one elbow on the arm rest of his chair, chin in hand, and grinned sharply.

"Now this," Edward said. "Is going to be fun."