Author: Kristen Sharpe
Final Checking: July 25, 2011
Warnings: Violence, blood, named character death - everything you expect from Scar and Kimblee sharing the same scene.
Genre/Continuity: AU (alternate/divergent universe) set in the first animeverse.
Disclaimer: "Fullmetal Alchemist" belongs to Hiromu Arakawa, Square ENIX, Studio BONES and various other parties.
Author's Note: Many thanks to SageSK, who got this thing in little pieces and endured countless re-writes and dithering. Also, thanks to Kayca, who read this twice to be sure she didn't miss any details. And, as always, thanks to everyone who has been following this story.
Book 2: The Deconstruction of the Fullmetal Alchemist
Chapter 17: You Better Watch Out
Following Rose and her baby through the streets of Liore at midday with only a hastily transmuted cloak to hide his identity was nerve-wracking. Rose was eerily silent, responding only in small head gestures. Her child was the opposite, determined to voice his displeasure at the world. Despite the danger, it brought a half-smile to Ed's lips. Lyra… Dante was wrong. There was at least one Lioran with real spirit left.
And, Rose as well. Despite the horror behind her eyes, she was here, taking the lead since she knew the city best.
He just hoped that she understood that they had to get out of Liore. Unfortunately, he didn't have much of a plan beyond that point. He couldn't leave; he had to destroy Dante's array. It wasn't safe for Rose to stay. But, someone in her state crossing the desert alone with a baby was tantamount to suicide. And, the nearest settlement – Ishval – was crawling with Amestrian soldiers.
Ed debated the merits of alchemically bleaching Rose and the baby's hair. The soldiers would then only see two more white-haired, dark-skinned Ishvalans. They probably wouldn't look close enough to see dark eyes in place of Ishvalan red. It might work.
Ed was so lost in thought he nearly walked into Rose when she stopped. Stumbling, he looked up at her silent back and then peered past her, around the corner to the street they were about to enter. The road was blocked by two burly men with rifles. More of the rebels.
The alchemist swore under his breath. This was the third street they had found blocked. It would be easy enough to slip out a side street. But, with nothing but empty sands beyond and men scanning the horizon for soldiers at every major thoroughfare, they would be easy targets. He couldn't trust that Liore's desperate rebels wouldn't shoot Rose. Especially if they thought she had turned traitor.
Ed looked down. Maybe he could create a tunnel. Harden the sand to stone. Just to the nearest dune.
Rose suddenly turned.
Ed looked at her in surprise. "Rose?"
There was a tightness around her mouth, a sudden brightness in her eyes.
Wordlessly, she reached out to press her now hiccupping child against his chest. Startled, Ed reflexively stuck his arms out.
The baby's warm weight settled against him, an awkward, squirming bundle he struggled to balance. One hand behind the head, right? There had been a baby in Rush Valley once. Miss Satera had said something about minding his head.
Finally getting the baby stabilized, Ed looked to Rose.
Rose was gone, running down the street toward the two men. What was she doing?
The men looked up as Rose approached.
"Rose?" said one. "What're you doing out here?"
Rose only grabbed the front of his shirt and pointed frantically up the street, past Ed's hiding place. Her mouth moved soundlessly.
"Whoa! Calm down!" said the man. "You're staying with Miss Lyra, right?"
"Is she okay?" asked the second man.
Rose shook her head and pointed again. Then, she stepped back and opened her mouth. A thin, shrill sound escaped her. It was the first thin crack in a crumbling dam. A true scream followed it, high and desperate with the weight of fear and frustration.
The men became frantic.
"Something must have happened!"
"Hey!" Another pair of armed men spilled into the street from a side road. "What's wrong?"
"It's Rose," answered the first man. "There must be something wrong with Miss Lyra!"
Rose tugged on the man's shirt again before running a few feet back toward Ed. They needed no further encouragement.
Ed ducked his head and stepped back into the alley as they hurried past. When he dared risk a glance, they were already far up the street, Rose in the lead. Ed swore before clutching the baby closer and running out and down the empty street into the desert.
Edward stared at Mustang, trying to process the absurdity of the man's words. How did Psiren kiss? Apparently, by ambush. With a growl, he jerked his hand away from his cheek and struggled up into a proper sitting position.
"What do you want?" he asked. "I didn't receive any orders about this."
"No," said Mustang, stopping beside the car, "I'm sure you didn't. This is something of a side project." He studied Edward carefully. "Besides, it seems you don't always follow orders anyway."
Edward watched him warily. "What do you mean? It's not like I kidnapped myself."
"I was there when Brigadier General Grand ordered you to stay inside the barracks," Mustang continued. "But, you left the barracks to check on Lieutenant Colonel Hughes."
Edward started. "I just called for—" he began quickly.
"You went out the window according to your guards," said Mustang. "And, the barracks seem to have grown a new set of stairs just below your window." He shook his head. "You really need to learn to put things back the way you found them."
"That was an emergency!" Edward flailed for an explanation. "He could have been dying!" Was dying. "I have a duty to… to protect fellow soldiers! It's—"
Edward's stammered words halted. "What?"
"You went against your orders to save Maes Hughes," said Mustang. His face softened. "For that, you have my thanks."
Edward was quiet a minute. "He's a good man," he said at last. "With a family. I didn't want to think about Miss Gracia crying."
Mustang smiled slightly. "Me either."
Edward studied the man then. Mustang was an enigma. Grand had ordered and demanded. Archer had used subtle intimidation and lies wrapped in thin truths. Mustang seemed to be going for another angle. And, yet…
"Why did you bring me out here?" the gray-haired alchemist asked.
"I've been doing some research of my own ever since General Grand assigned us to that project of his," said Mustang. "You remember the one?" At Edward's nod, he continued. "Research on Ulrich Parker, the Philosopher's Stone and you. Parker's a dead end, but you…" He waved a hand. "The general made it hard for me, and the records of anything beyond your first years of service have been 'edited' until they're nearly useless… But, there are dates that match nicely here and there." Mustang's dark eyes pinned Edward with a sudden, searching gaze. "I know the notes we've been decoding are yours."
Edward kept his face neutral.
Unconcerned, Mustang kept going. "I also know you were searching for the Philosopher's Stone. Then, there's this." A hand dipped into his pocket, and he tossed something toward Edward. It caught the moonlight as it arced through the air.
Holding out his hands to catch the object, Edward stared down at the face of a battered silver watch. "A State Alchemist's watch?"
"Open it," said Mustang.
Suddenly realizing, Edward stiffened. It couldn't be. He had left it in the desert. But, his flesh fingers could feel the familiar deformations along the clasp. Slowly, he opened the watch and turned it into the light. "Don't forget 3 Oct. 79," stared back at him, carved deep into the metal.
"Psiren claims to have found that in the remains of Liore," said Mustang. "The date is six months before you became a State Alchemist, correct?"
Keeping his head down, Edward hoped the other man hadn't seen his expression. "Yeah, I suppose it is."
"So, that was in Liore," said Mustang. "And, just a few weeks later, reports at Fort Briggs indicate a 'rogue alchemist' was captured trying to escape across the Drachman border. Around the same time, you were reportedly taken prisoner by the Drachmans."
Edward felt a cold that he couldn't attribute to the midwinter air. Mustang knew.
"Do you know anything about Ishval?" Mustang suddenly asked. "Your file doesn't indicate that you were involved in the war effort."
Ishval… No, he had never served in Ishval. They had tried to send him. There had been orders for him to serve behind the lines in a support capacity. He only vaguely remembered reading the orders before his head had exploded with the second worst attack he had ever experienced.
Silently, he thanked the voices. The agony they had caused, the weeks-long hospital stay, the morphine-induced nausea – those were nothing compared to what could have happened on the battlefield.
Edward looked up from the memories to find that the dark-haired man had moved closer.
"I served in Ishval when I was just a few years out of the academy," said Mustang. With a sigh, he turned and slumped back against the car, looking up at the sky. "It was a terrible war. The State Alchemists were called in during the last days to end it. Our orders were to eradicate every last Ishvalan, man or woman, adult or child." Mustang's voice dropped. "And, any collaborators."
Edward stared at him uncomprehendingly.
"There were two Amestrian doctors," said Mustang. "A husband and wife. They weren't collaborators." His eyes were distant. "They were just doctors who treated everyone who came to their clinic, Amestrian or Ishvalan. Many soldiers owed them their lives." One hand tightened into a fist. "Because they treated Ishvalans as well, the military ordered that they be executed. There was no trial. Just two bullets from my service revolver. Because it was orders."
The words were flat, devoid of emotion. There were no excuses, just a statement of fact.
"They had a photograph in their clinic," Mustang said after a moment. "It showed them with their daughter. She had the bluest eyes I've ever seen."
For a minute, neither man said anything. Then, Mustang turned slightly to look at Edward.
"I don't want to see another Ishval," he said. "Anymore, I think, than you want to see another Liore."
Edward looked up, studying the other man's face. It had been so long. So very long.
"Edward," the voice of his father whispered.
Distantly, he remembered the dark-haired man bending over him as he writhed in agony on a cold, stone floor. The same sincerity had been in those eyes then.
"The Philosopher's Stone," said Edward quietly, "isn't something anyone should ever create or use again. I want to erase all records of it."
"Fair enough," said Mustang. "Did Psiren retrieve that notebook of yours from Major Archer?"
"Yeah. I destroyed it." Edward thumbed over his shoulder into the car. "It's dirtying the floorboards. Now," he rubbed at his arms, "I'm freezing out here." He looked to Mustang expectantly.
The colonel smiled faintly. "My car's this way."
Edward slid out of the stolen car and followed the taller man around the front of the warehouse. As they stepped out of the building's shadow, his eyes fell on the blonde lieutenant he remembered from the night at the Hughes' home. She had a gun at the ready in one hand, and her eyes never stopped searching the shadows as she addressed Mustang.
"All clear, Sir," she said.
Mustang nodded as she fell into step with them. "Archer will be suspecting me, so it would be best if we put Elric up with someone else," he said. "Havoc has an apartment in the north district, I believe." He turned to Edward as they reached a nondescript vehicle hidden in an alleyway. "Is that acceptable?"
It was nice to be asked. He just hoped it wasn't another ruse.
"Fine, I guess."
Mustang nodded and opened the car's nearest door.
Edward stepped up beside him and, rather than getting into the car, peered into its small side mirror on a sudden whim. There hadn't been a mirror in his cell, and Psiren had acted like he was nearly unrecognizable until he started speaking. Just what did he look like these days? Nothing like his father, he hoped. He ignored Hohenheim's wry chuckle at the back of his mind.
Unfortunately, the mirror wasn't any help as Edward found himself squinting hopelessly in the poor light. There was a snap to his right, and orange light washed over him.
Edward jerked and found Mustang extending a gloved hand that cupped a small ball of flame. Fed by transmuted oxygen from the look of it.
"Need a light?" Mustang asked.
Edward huffed at him before turning again to look at himself in the round mirror. He immediately jumped back a step.
"Crap, I'm old!"
"It does tend to happen after a few decades," said Mustang. He arched a brow. "You hadn't noticed?"
"Not exactly, no," said Ed, moving back to the mirror again.
He didn't recognize himself. It wasn't just the "sudden" age; his features were warped beyond recognition. Sagging skin, twisted nose, jaw line sharp and jagged. This wasn't him. Well... At least it wasn't his father either.
Mustang cleared his throat as the light slowly died away. "As entertaining as it is watching you paw at your face like that, we really should get moving."
Realizing that his hands were, in fact, clasped against his cheeks, Edward dropped them to his sides with a scowl. He turned to snap a retort and found a soft bundle thrust into his arms.
"Here," said Mustang, "We'll find you something more appropriate later, but this should keep you from freezing."
Surprised, Edward looked down at the bundle. It consisted of a sturdy coat and a pair of worn but serviceable boots. Quickly, he unfolded the coat to slip it over his thin sleep things. But, something stopped him. Even in the darkness, the coat caught the weak light and glowed back a brilliant red.
"This—" He held it out in surprise.
"You left it nearly a month ago when you had your seizure," said Mustang. "I'd been meaning to return it for a while."
For a minute, Edward stared at the coat. He barely remembered transmuting it from a pair of far more mundane jackets. Then, it had been only a wisp of memory in Fullmetal's fogged mind. Now, it was like an old friend. Smiling faintly, Edward drew the coat around himself and moved to tug on the boots. He knew he looked foolish dressed in boots and pajamas with a garishly crimson coat, but he didn't care. Finally, he felt just a little like himself again.
Covering his growing grin, Edward moved to slide into the back of the car. He was surprised when Mustang followed him.
"Both of us may need to lay low," the man explained as his lieutenant started the car and began to maneuver them out onto the street. "Although, at your height, it may not be a concern."
Edward rounded on him with blazing eyes. "Who are you calling so small he needs a stack of books to see out of the car?" he roared.
Mustang drew back in surprise. Then, shock transformed to mirth.
"So, that's the Fullmetal Alchemist I've been reading about," he said, smirking. He held out a hand. "Pleased to meet you… Mr. Elric?"
"Ed," the older man corrected, taking the hand with his automail right and making sure to squeeze more than was strictly necessary. "Pleased to meet you… Colonel Mustard?"
Mustang's smirk never faded. "Mustang."
Releasing his hand, Edward sat back and considered the task before them. For the first time in decades, however tentatively, he had an ally. At least, an ally with a physical presence.
"I want to find the copies of the notes," he said, coming to a decision. "Archer said his 'sources' thought they were at the library. I think I know where."
Mustang looked at him sharply.
"If Grand kept them there, I'm betting they're hidden in plain sight," said Edward. "With the other travelogues. They're printed; they wouldn't stand out. And, he was always prowling around the place. If he got there first every morning to collect them…"
Mustang only considered it for a moment. "Lieutenant, take us to the National Library."
In that endless instant, he had been back in Ishval as his people died around him, screaming for mercy.
He was cursed. He had known it since he chose this path. Since he rejected his morality, his name and his God. There could be no redemption. He accepted that. So long as he could drag Ishval's murderers to Hell with him, it was enough.
And, his elder brother had left him the means to achieve that goal. This right arm, his brother's arm, with the marks of forbidden alchemy etched across its skin, had served him well.
Why, in that instant, had it felt like all Ishval was inside him, screaming for release?
It was a question that gray-haired alchemist, the one they called Fullmetal, would answer. He only needed to wait.
The alchemist might be hidden away at any of the military's many facilities, but there was no need to search him out. Eventually, Fullmetal would return, as they all did, here to the library. He only needed to be patient.
Mustang's lieutenant – Hawkeye, Edward learned – was several leagues above Psiren. Her driving was unhurried, obeyed traffic laws and brought them to a block away from the library in just twenty minutes. As a bonus, no one was in danger of heart failure.
"We'll have to go in the front," said Mustang as they exited the car. "Unless one of your talents is transmuting un-transmutable buildings," he added with a glance at Edward.
It was a rhetorical question, but Edward shook his head anyway. It wasn't even a lie. Yes, with the power he possessed, he should be able to transmute even the library's unique composition, a hodgepodge of rare elements that made that most crucial step of the alchemical process – analysis – all but impossible. But, after his earlier transmutation, he wasn't sure he trusted himself to try again. Even deconstructing the notebook had required fine control not to pull from the souls inside him.
Fortunately, Mustang accepted the answer. He paused to collect a lantern from the back of the car and led them around toward the front of the building.
"I should be able to convince the night watch to let us in," he said. "Lieutenant, keep an eye o—"
"I have a spare watch," Edward offered suddenly.
Several minutes later, Mustang's rank and the combined presence of three supposed State Alchemists had awed the guards sufficiently to admit the three of them into the library. Mustang paused in the atrium to get his bearings. A snap of his gloved fingers brought the lantern to life, and he raised it to survey the darkened library.
"Travel would be…"
"Second floor, third stack to the right of the stairs," said Edward. "Runs halfway through the sixth stack, but most of them are junk. Though some jerk fought me for Livingstone's "Wild Western Amestris" until I kicked him in the—"
"Let's just head up to the second floor," Mustang cut in.
Edward blinked. "Oh. Right."
They made their way through the open lobby's orderly rows of reference tables and up the wide stairway to the second floor. True to Edward's memory, books on travel were filed just where he had said they would be. Edward snatched the lantern from Mustang and took the lead as they moved into the stacks. He swung it toward the shelves, eyes skipping over the books' spines as he hurried along. When he suddenly stopped, Mustang nearly fell over him.
"It's not here." Edward stared in confusion at the place where his name should have been.
"Wait." Mustang stepped back the way they had come. "It wouldn't be under your name. It would be under Parker."
"Parker?" Edward frowned as Mustang moved away from him and ran a finger along the P's.
"Ulrich Parker," said Mustang. He waved a hand. "Turn the light this way. Grand gave us your research under his name, remember?"
"Oh, right." Edward smacked his forehead lightly with his free hand. "That Reaction Alchemist guy."
"Here," said Mustang, pulling two slim binders off a lower shelf.
Edward accepted them and, passing the lantern to Mustang, quickly flipped through the pages of first one and then the other. East City, Youswell, Liore. So many years of searching. So many failures. And, a success that was the substance of nightmares.
The alchemist shook off the dark musings. It would be over soon.
"These are the right notes," he said.
"Good." Mustang turned to make his way back to the end of the aisle where Hawkeye was waiting. "Now, let's get you out of sight."
Edward stared at the notes in his hands for a minute. Then, he laid both copies on the edge of the shelf and took a deep breath.
"Elric?" asked Mustang, turning.
"This ends here." Edward focused his thoughts and reached for the wild energy inside. Reining it in, he raised his hands.
A sharp clap echoed through the empty library.
Edward had an instant to stare blankly at his palms, still a foot apart, before all havoc broke loose. The floor under his feet heaved and shattered, throwing him back into the opposite bookcase. The force of it knocked the air from his lungs and set the world spinning with a roar.
Endless minutes later, the sound finally died away. In the silence that followed, Edward fought to understand what had happened. His back was throbbing, and moving caused a curious shifting beneath him. His eyes opened, and he wondered when he had closed them. A great, flat expanse swam into view, faintly gray in the darkness. The ceiling? A darker shape abruptly filled his vision.
"Looking for these?" a voice purred.
He became aware of something pale swinging before his eyes. Pale and square.
Edward grabbed for them reflexively, but they moved away.
"Ah-ah. I think not. Now," something slammed him down onto the uneven floor, "what shall I do with you?" A face entered his vision, featureless in the darkness. "Maybe I should start by—"
A woman's voice. Ed dared a glance to the right to see toppled shelves, a busted lantern and two dark figures faintly illuminated by a distant window. Colonel Smug and his lieutenant.
Edward felt the man above him stiffen.
"Kimblee, is it?" said Mustang. "Here for some research? Or acting on Major Archer's orders?"
"Just finishing what I started," said the man, Kimblee.
Edward became aware of pressure on his left arm. Kimblee was gripping his wrist. That was bad. Why it was bad was lost in the clouds of fogged memory. But, it didn't matter. All that mattered was that Kimblee had the notes.
Thinking no further, Edward jerked his automail knee up squarely between Kimblee's legs. The resulting expletive might have been threatening if it wasn't three octaves too high. Edward didn't waste time smirking. He lunged up, twisting out of Kimblee's grip and grabbing for the notebook.
Stumbling over a mountain of books and the overturned shelf, the pair went down in a tangle of limbs. But, even as he tumbled onto Kimblee, Edward's hands were locked on the notes.
"You little—!" Kimblee's voice was strangled.
Edward relentlessly drove his steel kneecap into the man's stomach.
"Who's a teeny-tiny little man who can't defend himself? Huh?"
Kimblee's fingers loosened, and Edward tore the binder away. Then, he clambered up and over the fallen man, scrambling over the scattered books and broken tile. He broke free of the stacks and hurried to join the colonel and lieutenant in the open landing area at the top of the stairs.
"My, you fight dirty, Elric," said Mustang as Edward came to a stop beside him.
"Yeah, well," Edward floundered, panting, "anything's fair in a fight." He straightened, brandishing the binders. "Besides, I got the notes."
The shelf just behind him abruptly exploded in a spray of fiery confetti. Edward flinched back as burning debris spattered his right cheek.
"What—?" He took another step away, staring at the damage. The shelf was mostly intact, but the books were so much ash.
A wheeze echoed through the library, and Hawkeye released a hiss of disgust. Kimblee was gone. In the instants she had turned toward the explosion, he had taken cover. Slowly, the hoarse wheeze rose into uncontrollable laughter.
Mustang's mouth thinned into a harsh line. "What did you do, Kimblee?" he shouted.
"You took too long, Mustang," Kimblee's voice rang from the stacks. "So, I kept busy while I waited." Several sharp pops sounded from below. "You recognize it, don't you, Flame Alchemist? Trace amounts of hydrogen and oxygen deconstructed from the glue of one book are nothing." A dull boom shook the floor. "But, you know, there are so many books here! And, with a little help from the janitor's supplies…" Kimblee cackled. "Well, my options become nearly limitless."
Another explosion roared through the darkened library from somewhere below.
"And, it's all a chemical reaction," said Kimblee. "No need for sparks." A sneer filled his voice. "But, feel free to use your alchemy anyway. You might trigger some of my little surprises early."
Mustang grit his teeth. "We need to get out of here." He turned to the stairs and jerked to a halt midstep.
A hulking figure stood at the top of the stairs, backlit by the orange glow of fire below. The flickering light turned pale hair yellow, glinted off dark glasses.
"Him," Edward breathed.
"Scar," said Mustang.
Scar's hidden gaze swept over them all. "I followed Flame and Fullmetal… To find the Crimson Alchemist here as well… What a fortuitous gathering." His right hand clenched at his side.
"The infamous Scar." Kimblee appeared behind them, hands raised. "And, aren't you three in a bad spot?" Tattooed hands moved together.
Hawkeye was faster. Somehow, a second gun had appeared in her left hand. She snapped both arms out, targeting Scar and Kimblee, and fired.
Edward yelped as a bullet streaked over his head. Kimblee froze as the same bullet clipped his right ear and embedded itself in the bookshelf just behind him. Scar dodged away into the stacks on the far side of the landing
"Sir, the stairs!" said Hawkeye.
"Understood, Lieutenant!" Mustang grabbed the back of the still staggering Edward's coat and propelled him toward the staircase. "Move, Elric!"
The three raced for the stairway as the floor shuddered with a fresh blast from one of Kimblee's chemical time bombs. With another series of shots from Hawkeye, they hit the steps and started down.
"Not so fast!"
Scar had come out of hiding behind them, an angry red light wrapped around his right arm. He slammed his open palm down to the floor at the top of the stairs. There was a pulse, and the stairs began to crumble under their feet.
Edward spun around. "He's deconstructing—!" Without finishing the sentence, he dropped the binders and brought his hands together. "Colonel, Lieutenant! Don't move!" Edward slapped his own hands down against the crumbling stone, willing the energy arcing around him to gather the fragmenting base elements, meld them back into solidity and reach down, down.
The crumbling stairs were consumed by his transmutation, becoming a sloppy pillar under their feet. A falling pillar that slammed into the floor instants later with a teeth-rattling thud.
Mustang and Hawkeye barely maintained their footing. Edward pitched forward against the rough stone, just catching himself on his hands. His breath was coming in gasps. His ears were ringing. And, he felt like the power inside him was going to explode.
"You won't get away that easily."
The deep voice sent a shiver through Edward.
No, no. The man couldn't be here. He was on the second floor.
But, as Hawkeye hopped down from the pillar in front of him, gun at the ready, Ed could make out Scar's dark form advancing. Had the man jumped? There were shelves. Maybe he had jumped to the top of one and…
Edward shook his head. It wasn't important. He reached to grab the notes, and his hand swept over bare stone. Edward looked down. The notes were gone.
Forcing his eyes to focus, Edward searched the marble tiled floor of the main lobby. The once orderly rows of reference tables were strewn with debris and lit only by the fluttering light of small fires. Dimly, he was aware of the Lieutenant firing again, of Scar retreating. But, it wasn't important because… There! Something square and regular near a set of shelves to his left.
A hand fell on his shoulder.
"Come on, Elric." The colonel. "We need to get out of here."
"I've got to get the notes!" Edward lunged toward the shelves.
Before Mustang could follow Edward, there was a dull boom overhead. He jumped back reflexively as, in a shower of fiery debris, a chandelier crashed to the floor. Brass bent, and glass sprayed against his legs.
"Colonel!" Hawkeye half-turned, checking to see that her commanding officer was okay.
Mustang started to reassure her and caught a flash of movement over her shoulder. Scar.
"Lieutenant!" Without thinking, he flung out a hand and snapped.
Hawkeye was already spinning back toward Scar. She was just in time to see the Ishvalan bring his right hand down on the floor before Mustang's fireball caught him in the chest. Seconds too late.
In a burst of crimson light, the tiles beneath Mustang and Hawkeye's feet began to break apart. Then, with a roar, the floor gave way. Tile, shattered concrete, desks and the remains of the chandelier all began to collapse into the basement.
Scrambling for solid ground, Mustang watched in horror as the floor disintegrated under him.
But, a glance confirmed that Hawkeye was already well on her way to safety, throwing herself toward the edge of the growing hole. He needed to do the same.
Slipping and stumbling, Mustang fought desperately against gravity itself as the floor fell away beneath him. A step, a jump. He could see solid ground just feet away. Too many feet.
There was no time to think. No time for anything beyond a single instantaneous decision. The transmutation circle on his right glove already glowing, Mustang flung his hand out to the side and snapped. A small explosion rent the air feet from his right side. Heat washed over him even as the blast propelled him toward the jagged lip of the hole.
Eyes watering, Mustang reached out. His hands closed around something solid, and his falling body jerked to a halt. Good. Now to pull up.
Somewhere, someone was screaming at him.
Hawkeye. Forcing his eyes open, Mustang found the lieutenant gripping his arm, trying to pull him over the lip of the hole. Scrabbling with his feet for a purchase below, he tried to help her.
Against the flickering light of small fires, Edward had collected one binder and was pawing through a mountain of books dislodged by Kimblee's blasts to find the other. The search had led him deep into the stacks. Kimblee seemed to have planted only one bomb at this end of the library, but, while the lack of fire made it safer, it was also darker. And, his glasses had been another casualty of the stairway disaster. So, he went by touch. Hardcover books and anything overly thick were tossed aside without inspection.
Frustrated, Edward growled to himself. "Come on, where is it?"
His eyes were watering from the lingering smoke, the lobby behind him was echoing with shouts and gunfire and the building shuddered again and again as Kimblee's alchemic bombs detonated. There wasn't much time.
Searching fingers played over a slim volume with a paper cover. Edward quickly turned it to the weak, distant light.
"Yes!" he crowed, recognizing the familiar cover. Quickly, he tucked it with its twin in the waistband of his pants and turned to hurry back toward the lobby.
And, ran straight into a now-familiar, grinning figure waiting in the narrow intersection of two aisles.
"I think I owe you some pain, Fullmetal!" Kimblee snarled. He lunged forward.
Edward swung away and around to throw a punch at Kimblee's head. His automail fist sailed harmlessly past Kimblee's long ponytail.
Nearly over-balancing, the gray-haired alchemist staggered. Turn, turn. He had to find Kimblee. Feet tripped over one another as he stumbled upright and collided with a shelf. Finally turned. Barely in time to duck under a hand grabbing for his face. Not in time to miss the second hand that buried itself in his abdomen.
Edward doubled over with a choked gasp.
A hand closed around the back of his neck, digging into his short hair and pulling him up.
"I'm going to take my time with you," Kimblee hissed in his ear.
"Your mistake." Edward rammed his steel elbow back, aiming for Kimblee's stomach. Kimblee was prepared for that, of course. Hopefully, he wasn't as prepared for a roundhouse kick to the—
Edward's thoughts ground to a halt as his kick clumsily brushed Kimblee's chest and left him hopping to regain his balance. A sudden incredible boom shook windows in their frames and sent him reeling into one of the library's support columns.
Kimblee, who had taken a step back, laughed.
"Can't see well? Or just out of shape, old man?"
Edward seethed. "I'll show you old!"
His hands came together with a clap before he grabbed the column again. Gritting his teeth at the surge of energy, he directed a third of the stone mass under his hands into a fist that shot out to punch Kimblee. Hit, the other alchemist flew back into the far wall.
For a minute, Kimblee hung there, head down, trapped by alchemized stone. Then, a snort escaped him. A snort that grew into a full-throated laugh. Kimblee looked up, and his hazel eyes locked on Edward.
"I'm going to have so much fun with you, Fullmetal!" he cackled. He grabbed the stone fist planted in his stomach with both tattooed hands. Crackling energy played over the rough surface. "I'll blow you up piece by piece!" The fist exploded, and Kimblee dropped to the floor. "There was an Ishvalan I started on once." A hand wreathed in the blue glow of a fresh transmutation grabbed the nearest book and hurled it toward Edward.
The smaller alchemist ducked behind the column as the book hit a shelf to his left and exploded. A shower of fiery cinders fell around him like a stinging cloud.
Kimblee stepped toward Edward. "I started with the Ishvalan's face," he said. "Just a few layers of skin off the top. Excruciating, but not fatal." Kimblee slapped a hand against the shelves to his right, sending a pulse of energy down their length and past Edward.
Edward gritted his teeth, risking a glance at the advancing madman.
"Your face isn't much to look at. Maybe I'll start with your eyes," said Kimblee, reaching for another book. "You're already half-blind. And, worthless." Blue light deepened his sneer. "I heard about you, you know. Really, a nice explosion is all you're good for!" He flung the book into the shelves behind Edward.
As the book took flight, Edward abandoned his hiding place and lunged at Kimblee with a growl. Behind him, gases escaping the transmuted books ignited, consuming aged leather and dry paper in an instant. Hungry flames shot for the ceiling, and the gray-haired alchemist felt heat wash over him. But, he ignored it, focused only on Kimblee.
His charge caught the taller man at waist height and sent him to the floor. As they fell, Edward drew back his automail arm.
"I can see you fine at this range!" he roared.
His steel fist met Kimblee's nose with a satisfying crunch. The mad alchemist stared at him blankly for a moment before slumping bonelessly to the floor.
Edward disentangled himself and stood, looking down at Kimblee.
"And, get off my lawn," he said.
Checking the binders in his waistband, Edward hurried back to the main lobby. And, stopped short at the sight awaiting him. Half of the floor was gone, vanished into a gaping hole. Overhead, fire was consuming the second floor and licking at the ceiling. Across the lobby, Mustang was dangling half in the pit, one foot precariously balanced on a crumbling wall below. Lieutenant Hawkeye was just releasing one of his hands to grab for her sidearm as Scar advanced on them.
Edward's eyes widened. "Hey!" The word had left his mouth before he thought it through. Well, no taking it back now. He stepped forward as the Ishvalan looked up. "You! Scar or whatever your name is, we need to talk."
He had planned to meet the red-eyed man again, but this wasn't the time for that encounter. The power inside him was already roiling, straining at the confines of its feeble, flesh container. But, there was no help for it.
Scar froze in place. After a long minute, his deep voice rumbled out over the low roar of the flames.
"Fullmetal Alchemist. You are correct." He began to move toward Edward, stalking along the edge of the pit. "We do need to talk."
"Elric, what are you doing?" shouted Mustang as he fought to pull himself up and onto solid ground.
An identical, unvoiced question echoed from Hawkeye's taut face as she kept her weapon trained on Scar.
"I can handle it," Edward called back, slipping among the remaining reference tables. His eyes never left the approaching Scar. "You and the lieutenant get out of here."
Edward tuned the colonel out. He had to do this. He was better equipped to deal with Scar's destructive alchemy than anyone alive. And, this was one more step in his plan. One step closer to his goal.
"Explain it to me," Scar demanded as he drew nearer. "What did you mean 'cursed'?" He held up his right arm. "Why, when I touched you, did I hear my people crying out?"
Edward's eyes narrowed. "You've never heard them before?"
"Never!" Scar's fist clenched. "What trick of your accursed alchemy is this?"
"It's that arm that's the curse," said Edward.
Scar's entire body jerked. "This was my brother's arm!" he snarled.
Edward felt something inside him twist. "Your brother's—?"
The sudden widening of Scar's eyes was Edward's only warning.
With a sound between a roar and a mad laugh, Kimblee launched himself from the top of the nearest table, hands crackling with energy. Edward only had time to twist and reflexively throw up his right arm.
Kimblee caught it in one glowing hand, and Edward realized his mistake too late.
"I told you, Fullmetal!" Kimblee cackled as a surge of energy ripped through the automail's steel frame. "I'll take you apart piece by piece!"
With a shriek, the automail tore itself apart. Metal shrapnel flew free.
Laughing, Kimblee caught the largest piece, the central support column, and spun. For once, Scar was too slow as Kimblee hurled the jagged metal into his abdomen.
Behind him, Edward slipped to his knees, biting down a scream. The force of the explosion had clawed its way up into his shoulder port and the nerves hidden there.
"That's one annoying arm out of the way," Kimblee cackled as Scar stumbled backward. "Shall I make it two?" Blood trailed from his crumpled nose, and he idly licked away a trickle of crimson at the corner of his mouth. "I never did finish with you after all."
Clutching his side, Scar looked up. "You," he hissed in a voice filled with all the ominous promise of distant thunder. "Crimson Alchemist."
Kimblee smiled. "I wondered where your brother's arm went," he said. "All that blood on the sand. I let him bleed for a while, you know. And, he still held out longer than I thought he would."
Scar's answer was an inhuman scream of rage as he threw himself at Kimblee.
Gripping his throbbing shoulder so tightly his knuckles shown white, Edward scooted himself back under the nearest table as the two combatants swept past. A curse hissed out through his teeth.
Flickering with destructive energy, Scar's right arm just missed Kimblee's face as the grinning alchemist dodged back.
"Temper, temper," Kimblee taunted. "Besides…" There was the whump of a small explosion, and blood spattered over the tables. "You have more important problems, don't you?"
Scar staggered and looked down at his stomach in shock. His heavy jacket was stained a thick crimson. The metal that had stabbed deep into his abdomen was gone. Instead, there was only a dark, gaping hole.
"Now, about that arm…" Kimblee moved toward him.
Scar lurched away. His left hand clutched futilely at the wound.
Kimblee followed him, face stretched in a horrible grin.
As they stepped back into the maze of tables, a foot shot out to tangle with Kimblee's and send him to the floor. The mad alchemist snarled in fury, tattooed hands flailing for a hold. He looked to his right and could just make out a pale face in the darkness under the table.
Edward pushed himself back with his feet as Kimblee made to lunge after him.
The crack of a gun split the air, and Kimblee froze half under the table.
"Elric, get out of there!"
The colonel. Finally.
Edward huffed out a sigh of relief and clambered out the other side of the table. Once free, he looked up to see Mustang and his lieutenant with their guns trained on Scar and Kimblee.
"Took you long enough," he muttered, struggling to push himself up with his one remaining arm.
"Sorry, Elric, I was trying not to fall to my death." Mustang's eyes never left Kimblee.
"You're such a spoilsport, Mustang," said Kimblee. His eyes were focused on the floor in front of him. "You were like that in Ishval too."
"Normal people don't revel in death." Mustang's eyes were hard.
"Death is just the inevitable. What I enjoy is the thrill," said Kimblee. "The excitement." His hands splayed across the floor as the library shuddered with a blast that rained plaster around them. "It's no fun in prison. So, maybe it's time for a gamble." He smiled.
Edward was the first to realize it.
Scrambling back, he shouted, "Mustang, the floor!"
The floor under Kimblee was dark, discolored.
Mustang swore at the sight. "Lieutenant, get away!" He started to move himself.
"Colonel!" Hawkeye's aim swung away from Scar.
Mustang half-turned and saw reaching hands and maddened eyes. Bringing up a hand, he snapped.
The small, contained fireball caught Kimblee in the face. With a screech of pain, he grabbed for his eyes. Howling, he stumbled backward and crashed into the tangle of tables. Just above the transmuted floor. A floor that was starting to glow.
A flash, and white fire consumed Kimblee.
There were still spots in Edward's eyes long after the ringing in his ears stopped. Coughing, he struggled to sit up. It had been so much easier with two arms. As his vision cleared, he found himself precariously close to the gaping hole at the center of the lobby. In front of him there was a new hole clogged with a jumble of broken tables. The edges of the hole still burned a hot white. Magnesium? The floor must be dolomite marble or something similar.
But, even an alchemist's scholarly detachment couldn't stop his eyes from finding the twisted, smoking form of Kimblee sprawled over the wreckage at an impossible angle.
Edward gritted his teeth and looked away. He could see the blue clad shapes of the colonel and his lieutenant lying in the floor to his right. Levering himself up, he started to move toward them.
A wet cough from the fresh crater stopped him. Impossible. There was no way Kimblee could be alive.
No, not Kimblee. A pile of wood heaved up, and Scar pulled himself from the wreckage. He took a step. And, immediately crumpled, left arm cradling his ruined stomach.
Edward only thought about it a moment before he moved toward the Ishvalan. He picked his way around the debris until he was staring down at Scar.
The larger man looked up and raised his right hand. Knuckles cracked ominously.
"Don't think you've won, Alchemist," he said. His breath was coming in short pants. "I can still take one more of you with me."
"Won what?" said Edward, watching him intently.
"Would you help me?" he asked the audience in his mind.
A whisper of faintly bemused, disgruntled, surprised agreement answered him.
"Edward…" his father murmured.
Why was the old man feeling proud?
He wasn't doing anything noble. He just didn't want them to win. Kimblee. Grand. Dante.
People weren't raw materials. They were more than the sum of their parts. Immeasurably more. Not realizing that had been his first mistake.
"Stay still," he told Scar, reaching out with his left hand.
Scar did. Neither attacking nor lowering his hand. "What do you mean to do?"
"Keep you alive," said Edward.
He was so tired. But, he just had to knit the flesh together a little. Just enough to seal ruptured organs and prevent the man from bleeding to death. He could control the energy that long.
His fingers grazed the edges of the terrible wound, and a warm red light spread over it.
Scar sucked in a sudden breath and his entire body stiffened. But, he didn't move.
Good. This was hard enough. The incredible, impossible power that was forming tissue where there had been none was threatening to break free of his tenuous control. Edward set his jaw and focused on the equation in his mind. Just a little more.
New flesh sealed over the worst of the damage.
His hand was shaking, Edward realized. His entire body might have been shaking. He wasn't sure. It was time to stop. Exhausted, he fought to rein in the power, to pull away.
Scar moved. "How is this possible?" He reached and caught the alchemist's wrist in his right hand.
The world went red.
Mustang woke to screams and fire. For an instant, he expected to feel hot sand under his hands. But, there was only cool stone.
Stone? The library.
He looked up and around.
Hawkeye was beside him – safe, thank goodness – and already taking stock of their situation. The library was starting to burn in earnest now. But, the fire's orange glow was nothing compared to the coruscating light just feet in front of them.
The Fullmetal Alchemist was glowing like a star. A star that shone a bloody crimson.
His coat flapped around him in the backlash of released energy. His only remaining hand was locked with Scar's right.
Scar sat frozen, somehow not bleeding half as much as he should be. His right arm, locked against Elric's left, was wreathed in swirling designs that burned red.
Both men were loosing throat-tearing screams.
Mustang stumbled to his feet. He had to stop this.
It was almost as though they had been waiting for him to move.
The glow around Scar's arm abruptly flickered and died. A last tendril of red light swept across it and vanished. The big man immediately slumped back, his scream trailing off into silence.
Edward staggered away. The glow around him was brighter than ever. As he turned, Mustang realized that it was centered in his chest. Right where his heart should be there was a brilliant, pulsing light.
There was a muffled shout behind him. Mustang looked back quickly.
Hawkeye was pinned against a tall figure in blue. Even in the shuddering red light, Mustang quickly recognized the sharp, pale face. Major Archer.
Hawkeye's brown eyes burned with silent fury as Archer pressed the barrel of his sidearm under her chin. His other hand slithered around her waist to pull her own sidearm free of its holster and level it at Mustang's chest.
"Well, Mustang, it seems it was worth the effort of coming out here after all," said Archer. He inclined his head toward Edward, who had collapsed to his knees, still screaming. "I knew you would move to claim everything as soon as you could. But, I'm amazed you were so foolish as to bring Fullmetal along." He pressed the gun deeper into Hawkeye's soft tissue. "However, it seems to have all worked out."
"Worked out?" Mustang ground through his teeth.
Archer smiled thinly. "I rather think this is what Brigadier General Grand was searching for." Red light reflected in his pale eyes. "I did some research of my own. The Philosopher's Stone, also known as the Crimson Elixir or sometimes the Red Tincture. A source of near limitless power."
"It's a legend," said Mustang flatly. "What you're looking at is a very ugly rebound and, if you ever want to ask Elric anything again, you should let me stop it."
"Now, Mustang," said Archer, "surely you can think of something better than that? It's obvious even to a non-alchemist like myself." His smile deepened as he tracked the regular throbbing of the red light in Edward's chest. "Who would have imagined it could exist within a heart? I suppose that's one way to hide it for decades."
Mustang glowered at him, subtly shifting his gaze toward Hawkeye's taunt face. She flicked her eyes toward her left hand.
Ah. He had wondered about that.
"Major Archer—" he began. Distantly, he finally heard sirens.
"I'm afraid I don't have any more time for pleasantries, Colonel," Archer interrupted. "I will be taking the Fullmetal Alchemist back to Fuhrer Lockheed. Congratulations. Your precious State Alchemist program may yet have its uses." He smiled thinly. "Too late for you, I'm afraid. You will need to have a tragic accident here with Scar and the rogue Crimson Alchemist. I'm sure it can be painted suitably heroic."
"No one will believe Scar shot me," said Mustang acidly.
"No. But, perhaps it was your lieutenant here in the crossfire." Archer twitched Hawkeye's sidearm. "Her aim is quite famous, but… well, everyone makes—"
A shot cracked across his words, and Archer screamed in pain as hot fire shot through his left foot. At least for the second he had air to scream. Before Hawkeye's elbow rammed into his throat as she twisted away from his sidearm. Her own, small backup pistol was still smoking in her left hand. A pistol that came up and around to target the staggering major's chest.
Archer took a step back, another. And, he was suddenly on the lip of the pit Scar had created earlier. His arms swung out, pinwheeling uselessly in the air. For an instant, it seemed to work before gravity claimed its due, and he toppled backward into the waiting void.
The sound that escaped Hawkeye as Archer disappeared was less of a sigh and more of a huff.
"I suppose everyone does make mistakes," she said. She looked back to meet the twist of lips that was Mustang's smile. A similar expression tugged at her own lips before she sobered. "Sir."
"I know, Lieutenant." Mustang turned toward Edward.
Unfortunately, he had no idea how to calm an out of control reaction fueled by the Philosopher's Stone itself.
It hurt. Like Liore all over again. As the souls from Scar's arm poured into him, Edward felt their confusion, their fury, their terror. He had planned for it. But, you can't plan for the weight of souls. Not really. And, his plans had never included the power he already hid trying desperately to break free.
Seconds felt like eternity. He was full, overflowing. Exploding in slow motion. There was nothing left inside him but a torrent of unimaginable energy. Of raging emotion and foreign memory.
The lines of self and other, past and present blurred, and he wasn't quite sure who he was.
Yes, the Amestrians had come with bright promises and magic they called alchemy. But, the elders said their alchemy was wrong, a sin.
Except alchemy was not magic, merely science. Until you crossed the threshold into the unforgivable. Then, there was sin.
"You won't take us!"
The Amestrians in blue who came to take the territory they had coveted from afar. But, there would be no surrender. Ever.
The men in blue who came to take the power they had coveted for generations. But, he would never surrender. Ever.
Release. They needed to... He needed to… There was a plan.
A faint, singular voice. No. The voice. The familiar voice. Hohenheim. Old man. Barely audible in the maelstrom.
"You planned for this. We planned for this. We are ready. Let us help you."
"Ed," a softer voice. "It's time."
An unimaginable roar swept through him. A rush of souls as the ten thousand lives stolen in Liore moved as one to wrap around the lost souls of Ishval. Shielding him. So he could remember. So he could think. So he could finish this.
Slowly, he returned to himself. To one soul, one life. He was Edward Elric. And, he had made a promise.
Edward opened his eyes to glowing, burning red. He was burning red.
Just feet in front of him the colonel was staring at him in something like horror. And, over the tumult within and the roar without, he could just make out words.
"Elric, can you hear me? Edward! Ed!"
Mustang's eyes widened at the sight and more words tumbled from his moving lips, but Edward was deaf to them now. He had heard what he needed to hear. And, there was no more time. This was not the place he would have chosen, but it would do. He was ready.
He stood and raised his hand. With a thought, a current of wild, crimson energy whipped across the floor, re-shaping stone to his will. An elaborate transmutation circle grew under his feet. The circle that was etched indelibly into his memory.
It was his worst nightmare. His mistake. His sin.
Now, it could be his only redemption.
Edward pulled the notes from his waistband.
"This ends here."
Paper disintegrated in his hand.
The gray-haired alchemist then looked to find Mustang's wide-eyed stare.
"If you really never want to see another Ishval," he said, voice a croak, "please forget what you've seen here. And, if I've earned any favors for saving Lieutenant Colonel Hughes, please… take care of my brother."
Mustang's mouth moved.
Edward only looked away, down at the dark outline of the human transmutation circle beneath his feet. He checked his adjustments quickly. Here the equation that would smooth altered stone. There the runes to force the reaction down in the event of a rebound.
"I'm sorry," he whispered to the souls of Liore and Ishval as the lines on the floor glowed blue. "This is the only thing I can do for you."
Blue turned to angry purple shot through with threads of black. And, in the space of a heartbeat, the world fell away around him and he was once again a little boy standing before a power he did not understand.
The Gate of Truth rose from a plain of endless white. Darker than black. A single absolute in the realm of the ephemeral.
A sound escaped it. Not quite a rumble, never a voice. It spoke to his soul, and Edward understood.
"I want Al," he said. "All of him this time. All of him for all of me."
"No!" Edward's hand slashed through the nothing. "I'm the toll. They're… I just want you to take them wherever they need to go now. To whatever is beyond, wherever they can be at peace."
And, the great doors began to creak open.
A hand fell on his shoulder, and Edward was suddenly aware that he wasn't alone. A tall man stood beside him, broad-shouldered and golden-haired.
Edward looked up in shock and then around, realizing he was surrounded by hundreds, thousands of people.
Rose caught his left hand between her two, warm hands and looked at him with eyes that were bright with more than tears.
And, there were so many more behind him. Some smiling, some crying, some hopeful, some frightened. Some in uniform, some not. Blond and brunette and snow white. Amestrian and Lioran and Ishvalan.
"Edward, you cannot do this," said the man he knew must be his father.
"It's done," Edward snapped. "There's no other way."
"Yes," Hohenheim answered, "There is."
"Ed," Rose's hands squeezed his warmly, "thank you."
Edward felt hot tears prick his eyes. "Don't thank me. I couldn't save you."
"But, you did!" Rose leaned in, fierce now. "You saved my son. You gave me hope." She looked down. "And, I want to thank you."
She released his hand and stepped forward.
Several men moved with her. Edward was surprised to recognize the faces of the Lioran rebels.
The surprise kept him from realizing what they were doing until Rose was before the Gate. She looked back once.
"Tell Al 'hi' for me, okay?"
Too late, the truth hit Edward.
But, tiny, night dark hands were already winding around Rose and the men with her, drawing them into the unfathomable darkness.
"Rose, what are you doing?" Edward screamed.
But, now everyone was moving forward. Soldiers clapped him on the back, smiled at him. A woman patted his hand. A grinning old man thumped his shoulder and told him to, "Find that gal in the black outfit; she was a looker." Even a stern Ishvalan priest gave him a solemn nod before stepping into the Gate.
"What are you doing?" Edward tried to run after them, to stop them, but a firm grip on his shoulder held him.
"Edward," said Hohenheim, "this is their choice."
"But—!" Edward turned wild eyes on his father. "I didn't ask them to— It's my fault most of them are here. I couldn't—"
"Edward," Hohenheim bent and drew him into a sudden hug, "you did everything you could."
"I didn't. I—" Hot tears were rolling down his cheeks, and he somehow couldn't find the will to push away the man who had never been a father to him.
He could almost feel Hohenheim's smile as the man's rough beard brushed his neck. "Be safe, Edward. You and Alphonse."
Then, the larger man released him and moved away.
"I wish the both of you every happiness," he said as the Gate's reaching hands caressed his shoulders.
"Old man," Edward choked. "Dad."
"This time, just live."
Hohenheim's smile was the last thing he saw.
Roy Mustang could only stare in open-mouthed shock. At his side, Hawkeye was in a similar state. Edward Elric and his transmutation circle had disappeared in a burst of blinding light. In their place, lying atop a blackened patch of marble, were two young boys.
One was stark naked, short blond hair framing a rounded face.
The other was wrapped in a tattered red coat, long blond hair tangling around his head. And, his right arm was gone. But, in the flickering light of the fire, there was a gleam of metal just visible through the ruins of his right sleeve.
End Book 2
Was it worth the wait?