"You look like shit."
Wrath stood leaning against the brick facade of the public library, his hands thrust into the pockets of his black pea-coat, his head resting against the wall as he stared at the sky. In silence he watched the mist of his breaths waft upward in the frigid air. He half turned his head, glancing at Paninya out of the corner of his eye as she greeted him with the honest but less than flattering salutation.
"You have such a way with words..." he said dryly, casting his eyes skyward again.
"I mean it, Wrath! You can't run yourself ragged like this! You do have limits, you know!"
His eyes slipped closed as he let out a quiet sigh, "Save it, Paninya. I'm not about to stop...not until that son of a bitch is dead and buried...permanently." He was irritated; she had no clue what had transpired that morning, and here she was lecturing him about taking care of himself.
She stepped in front of him, planting her feet and staring hard into his face, though he continued to avoid her gaze, "I get it, okay! I do! You're doing this for Winry, but you've been hunting him twenty four hours a day for two months! Even you need to rest sometimes, get away from all this...you'll drive yourself mad with this obsession..."
Wrath scowled and shot a hard, withering glance at her, "Obsession? We've already lost two men to that bastard, not to mention the dozen or so vagrants we killed in a gun fight today because Envy tricked them into thinking we were out to murder them...how many more people are going to die because of my mistakes? Because I unleashed that...that demon on this city?"
"It wasn't your fault, Wrath! They were experienced soldiers...they knew what they were getting into. They wouldn't want you blaming yourself."
He lurched forward suddenly, striding away from the wall, "I've got a rendezvous in ten minutes. Come if you want to."
Paninya growled in frustration, stomping off after Wrath as he strode down the snow blanketed street. She dashed up behind him and grabbed his wrist just as he was about to descend a staircase into a lower street. She yanked hard and he spun on his heel, "I care about you, idiot! I don't want to see Winry lose you because you were too damn pig headed to listen to reason and give yourself a break!"
He glared at her, "Is that really it, or is there something else?"
She drew back, eying him suspiciously, "What's that supposed to mean?"
"Are you sure your concern is really about Winry?"
She scowled, though it seemed he could see a blush colour her swarthy cheeks for a moment before it vanished. She glared up at him, "You can be a real jerk, you know that?"
She pushed past him angrily and stomped down the steps behind him, striding away rapidly down the alley, ironically walking in exactly the same direction he had to go. He paused for a moment, considering what to do; he had come close to calling her out regarding the feelings he suspected she harbored for him. His frustration about the situation with Winry, the necessity of constant vigilance against Envy preventing him from exploring the tender connection they had forged the morning he gave her the nightingale was making him irritable about Paninya's affections. It wasn't fair, he decided, and he started off after her.
He caught up to her in a large public square not far from his planned rendezvous point. He dashed past her and blocked her path, turning to face her, "Paninya, I'm sorry!"
He was surprised at what he saw; her eyes, normally so steadfast, were wet with tears. A look of surprise washed over her features before she averted her gaze and wiped her eyes with her sleeve. A tinge of red seemed to flush her cheeks for a moment before vanishing again.
"Listen, I'm sorry. I know you're just concerned for me...it's good to have a friend who cares enough to read me the riot act now and then."
She crossed one arm across her stomach, grasping the other arm as she glanced away, "Yeah, I guess..."
He frowned, unsure of how to soothe her hurt feelings; sometimes he wondered if getting in gun fights and chasing a shape-shifting homunculus might be easier than dealing with the emotions of women. He ran his fingers through his wild black hair in exasperation, at a loss for words but knowing he had to say something to mend the damage.
"Hi Wrath..." Skylark's voice suddenly cut through his confused mind as he saw the tall, slender Sergeant approaching in his peripheral vision. He cast a glance in the direction of the voice. Skylark, Sergeant Kane Jackson, was strolling toward him through the sparse crowd mulling about the square. He bore an easy smile on his youthful features, his close-cropped brush of dirty blonde hair tussled by the breeze. He wore a black overcoat and a white scarf wrapped around his neck and draped over one shoulder. He gave a quick wave as he drew closer.
"The sun was brilliant this morning, wasn't it?" Wrath said, throwing out the challenge phrase in an offhand manner, his attention divided by the emotionally turbulent female police officer standing in front of him.
Mustang had decided to use an old military trick to prevent Envy from infiltrating their group; whenever they met after having been apart for any amount of time, the soldiers would exchange a challenge and response. The challenge was meant to be something innocuous that anyone might say when meeting a friend in the street, but the reply, 'While the shadows are cold and deep' was deliberately strange and obscure, to prevent Envy from saying it by chance.
"Yeah, it was pretty spectacular from where I was standing..."
Wrath's eyes widened as the sickly horror of realization flooded over him; he saw a flash of metal and dove forward, thrusting out his automail arm to protect Paninya. There was a shredding sound as his coat sleeve was torn, accompanied by the strident clash of steel on steel as the vicious slash of Envy's dagger was deflected in a burst of sparks.
He crashed into Paninya, knocking her to the ground and out of the way as Envy dove on him like a maniacal demon, plunging the dagger's gleaming point toward his heart. He grabbed Envy's wrists and thrust his foot into the shape-shifter's stomach, rolling back and throwing him off.
Envy cartwheeled in the air and landed nimbly on his feet, brandishing the dagger with a devilish grin as his body metamorphosed back to his typical androgynous form, "Pretty quick there, boy...what gave me away?"
Wrath sprang to his feet, facing off with Envy, his fists raised and ready for a fight, "Bastard! You killed Skylark while we were assaulting the building, didn't you?!"
Envy's maniacal grin broadened, curling the corners of his twisted lips, "Nice little piece of work, wasn't it? I knew you fools would try something like that...don't worry, he died quick, but you two...you're gonna die slow a-"
The bullets slammed into Envy's torso like blows from a sledgehammer, blasting massive cavities in his flesh and staggering him back with each hit. Bursts of crimson splashed from his back as the rounds ripped through him, leaving gaping holes that slowly began to close as he stared in wide eyed astonishment at the smoking revolver in Paninya's hand, "D...damn you!"
Wrath glanced at Paninya in surprise; she was aiming a large revolver with a thick frame and a set of ebony grips, not her usual break-action sidearm. A sinuous billow of smoke was wafting from the barrel as she aimed the gun at Envy's head. She sneered at him, cocking the hammer, "I see I have your attention. This is a .44 Magnum with cast lead bullets - I cut an X into the head of each round so that they mushroom out when they hit for maximum damage...now get on your face before I turn your head into a fine pink mist, asshole!"
Envy coughed and sputtered, droplets of blood staining his lips as the holes in his torso regenerated. He grinned devilishly at her, "Why of course officer...please, go ahead and arrest me..."
He began to lower his stance, but suddenly fired the dagger at her with a snap of his arm. The blade zipped past her at incredible speed, nicking her arm and slashing it open as she narrowly avoided taking it full in the chest. Envy was off like a shot as Wrath dashed to Paninya's aid. She shoved him aside with a snarl and took aim at Envy's retreating back; when she had fired the first three shots, the crowd in the square panicked and now people were running in every direction, making another shot impossible.
"It's just a flesh wound, damn it! Get after him!" she growled at Wrath "I'll get to the rooftops to try and cut him off!"
Wrath blinked in astonishment for a moment, then nodded, turning and dashing off through the crowd after Envy with Paninya close at his heels.
Envy leapt over a car that screetched to a halt to avoid running him over, followed moments later by Wrath who jumped up and slid across the hood. The driver leaned out of the window to shake a fist and yell obscenities at the two homunculi as they disappeared down a cross street on the far side of the road.
Paninya broke right, holstering her revolver and propelling herself into a massive leap that carried her up to a fire escape ladder ten feet from the sidewalk on the wall of a building. She clambered up the ladder to the first platform, then dashed up the stairs, her jackboots clanging on the wrought iron grating. She vaulted over the railing as she reached the top, dashing across the snow covered roof at incredible speed and kicking up puffs of powdery snow with every step. She reached the ledge just in time to see Envy shoving aside bystanders as he sprinted through the streets. As he was about to start rounding a corner, she leveled her gun, cocked the hammer and took aim.
There was a thunderous boom that echoed off the nearby buildings and another mushroom bullet smashed through Envy's right shoulder, spinning him head over heels and landing him in a heap of trash at the corner of the street. Wrath made up ground, but it wasn't enough and Envy was up and running again in moments with Wrath close behind. Paninya cursed under her breath and shoved her gun back into its holster, taking to her heels again to shadow the pursuit from the rooftops. She reached the end of the block and launched herself into a wild, reckless leap. She barely made the gap, her boots slamming onto the far ledge and forcing her to somersault forward to avoid falling backward and off the roof. Her forage cap flew off into the snow, but there wasn't a second to spare, so she plunged onward, leaping over skylights and turbine vents, periodically casting a sidelong glance to be sure she still had Envy's dark form in sight.
Wrath's limbs pumped furiously as he dashed after Envy, his long hair blowing wildly behind him as he weaved and ducked around shocked bystanders, leaping over one man whom Envy had shoved to the ground in his flight. Envy dashed recklessly across the next street just as a large delivery truck blasted its horn and slammed on its brakes; he vanished behind it as it stopped immediately in Wrath's way. Without missing a beat, Wrath launched himself into a feet-first slide and zipped under the middle of the truck, his boots striking the curb on the far side of the road and bouncing him right back onto his feet. He was off running again in an instant.
Ahead, another bullet struck the wall just behind Envy's head as he turned and sprinted down an alley; Wrath knew now where Envy was heading. The alley led into the boulevard that ran in front of Edge Park - he planned to make his escape into the canyon and vanish in the sewer outlets that protruded from the cliff. Wrath gritted his teeth and pushed harder; he had to stop Envy before he escaped again!
Above his head, Paninya reached the edge of the final roof and made a wild leap, catching a drainpipe with her automail hand and sliding down the wall of the building. Her boots slid down the icy bricks with ease until she landed on a ledge and leaped off again, turning in the air to land on all fours in the street near Wrath, "He's going for the park! We have to stop him!"
"I KNOW!" Wrath yelled back, watching as Envy disappeared through the open wrought iron gates of the park two hundred yards ahead.
The last two hundred yards to the gate might as well have been a mile; it felt like an eternity with Envy out of sight as Wrath and Paninya all but despaired of catching him. Breathless, they rounded the corner into the park, pausing to scan for Envy.
Envy was near the canyon railing, his form in profile as he stood facing a figure draped in what appeared to be white robes hunched in a wheelchair. They seemed to be conversing as Wrath and Paninya entered, though they were too far away to decipher what was being said. As they watched, Envy reached out a hand toward the figure in the wheelchair, taking a step forward. Was he planning to take a hostage?!
"ENVY!" Paninya roared, drawing her gun and taking careful aim before firing again. The muzzle belched fire and jumped violently in her hand, the ear splitting blast echoing back loudly from the canyon beyond.
Envy shot a glance at her as she screamed his name, only to have his lower jaw torn off by the massive bullet. His head snapped to the side and he stumbled a few steps, reeling from the thunderous impact of the powerful round. He stumbled to the railing, grabbing it to steady himself before turning back to them with fury burning in his dark eyes; the lower half of his face was reduced to a gruesome, dripping mass of shredded flesh and splintered bone. He glared at them and screamed hatefully from his gaping throat before turning and vaulting over the railing.
Wrath dashed to the barrier, grasping desperately in a vain attempt to catch Envy. His fist clamped shut, narrowly missing the flailing strands of Envy's hair. He leaned over, his automail arm dangling empty handed over the edge as he watched Envy plunge down the cliff face.
As he looked on, Envy grasped a protruding gas pipe at the last moment and landed gracefully on a sewer pipe outlet. The monster turned his newly regenerated face toward Wrath and flashed a devilish, mocking grin before vanishing into the sewers.
Wrath clung to the railing, looking past his steel fingers in despair at the icy floor of the canyon far below. He clenched his fist and slammed it against the wrought iron bars in frustration, "DAMN IT!"
He turned and sank down with his back against the bars, sitting with his fingers clenched in his hair in utter exasperation. He gritted his teeth to choke back tears of rage and dread as his fear for Winry's life gnawed at his psyche. As he sat trying to regain his composure, he heard Paninya's footsteps approach the person seated in the wheelchair nearby.
"Um...are you okay...?" Paninya's voice was uncharacteristically hesitant, as if she wasn't entirely sure what to make of the figure before her.
"Yes...yes, of course, but young man, you must tell me who built that arm of yours!"
Wrath's eyes widened as he heard the woman speak; though he knew it must be a woman by the pitch, the voice was gravelly and harsh, as if ravaged by sickness. He rose to his feet, steadying himself on the handrail, and looked over the unusual woman before him.
She was draped from head to foot in white, silken robes that wrapped around her head and draped over her shoulders and body. Her skeletal hands were wreathed in lace kid gloves, the forearms beyond wrapped tightly in yellow stained bandages. The most startling aspect of her appearance, however, was the gleaming porcelain mask that covered her face; it was stark white and perfectly smooth, cast in the image of a young woman with a serene, almost angelic expression. The immutable lips were parted just slightly, as in an eternal, soundless whisper, creating a slit in the mask to permit the wearer's voice to pass through more clearly. The eye holes were deep set and narrow, obscuring the wearer's eyes in shadow.
"Oh, please excuse me!" she continued in her raspy, halting voice, "Thank you so much for saving me from that...that strange person just now...but your arm, I must know, who made it?"
Wrath glanced down at his steel palm, clenching his fist before looking back to her irenic mask, "Winry Rockbell, of W and W automail. Why do you ask?"
"That arm...it is the work of a true master...it's exsquisite in every way! Absolutely incredible!"
Wrath couldn't help but smile faintly at that, "Yeah...it sure is; you obviously know your automail. What makes you so interested, I wonder? You don't seem to have any..."
She shook her head, her unblinking gaze fixed on Wrath's face, "Ah, please allow me to explain. My name is Elisei Portinari, and my interest in automail stems from my disease...I suffer from a rare and deadly form of severe leprosy that is causing my body to decompose, hence my unusual manner of dress."
Wrath knitted his brows pensively, "So...what does that have to do with automail?"
"Please, this is not the time and place for such a discussion. It seems I owe you my life; allow me to invite you and your friend Miss Rockbell to my mansion tomorrow night for dinner - it's the least I can do to thank you. Also, I have a proposal for your mechanic which I think she will find very much worth her while. I will send word to her at her shop tomorrow morning. Please let her know to expect a package from me."
"A package? What for?"
A couging fit suddenly overtook her frail body, wracking her until she rested her smooth porcelain forehead in a withered hand and looked as if she might faint. She half turned her frozen face toward them, "Please forgive me, I must go home to rest for now. I hope to see you tomorrow evening so I can thank you properly. Good day."
With that, she took hold of the rungs of her wheelchair and turned herself around, rolling slowly away from them and out of sight through the park gates. Paninya and Wrath glanced at each other with wondering gazes until Wrath shrugged and thrust his hands into his coat pockets with a sharp sigh. He glanced at Paninya's arm, nodding toward the still oozing wound and the crimson stain on her sleeve, "Are you okay?"
She covered the wound with her glove, seeming to have forgotten it in excitement of the chase and the strange encounter that followed, "It's nothing, don't worry about it."
Wrath remained taciturn, his lips drawn into a taut line, as though he didn't accept her assurances. She forced herself to smile and gave him a soft punch in the arm, "Hey, don't look so down in the mouth! We'll get him, okay? Just go home for now and take care of that sweet girl of yours."
She strolled off, casting a nonchalant wave over her shoulder as a chill wind rustled through her ponytail and ruffled her uniform. Wrath cast one more glance at the edge of the cliff before turning to head for home.
A few minutes walk found him at the front doors of the shop. Two young soldiers stood guard outside in civilian clothes, their lack of uniforms not quite enough to make them inconspicuous. The taller one had blonde hair buzzed into a short brush cut and steely gray eyes. He was strongly built, with wide shoulders and a thick chest. The shorter of the two, a dark haired youth with a slight build and a pair of steel rimmed glasses, smiled warmly at Wrath as he approached, "Hey Mr. Curtis...how did the mission go?"
Wrath stopped a few feet from them, his hands thrust in his pockets as he glanced from one to the other, his expression grim and humourless. Suddenly, he lunged at them with bewildering speed, grasping the shorter soldier's wrist and twisting his arm behind his back. With his free hand he snatched the concealed pistol from the soldier's belt holster and pressed the gun against his head. He glared over the gun at the taller soldier who drew his pistol and aimed it at Wrath's face in utter astonishment.
"What's the challenge, soldier?" Wrath demanded, his voice low and menacing.
The tall, muscular trooper blinked a few times, the gun shaking faintly in his grip. Suddenly, something seemed to dawn on him. "Th...the sun was b...brilliant this morning, wasn't it?" he stammered.
"While the shadows are cold and deep," Wrath growled back in reply. He released the young soldier's arm and smacked the gun against his chest. He fumbled it a few times before getting a grip on it, holding it sheepishly as Wrath paced in front of them a few times, rubbing his forehead in obvious annoyance.
"Skylark...Sergeant Jackson...was killed today," he said bluntly, stopping and turning to face them again, "I'd really prefer not to have to report to Mustang that he needs to bury two more soldiers."
They exchanged wide eyed glances as the colour drained from their faces.
"But more importantly, as long as you're standing guard on this building, HER life," Wrath continued, jabbing a finger at the door to emphasize his point, "Is in your hands, and I will NOT tolerate you two taking that responsibility lightly, do you understand me?"
"Sir, yes sir!" they replied in unison, snapping smartly to attention.
"Good," Wrath snarled, brushing past them and through the door without another word, leaving them blinking in shock behind him.
The door closed with a heavy thud and Wrath strode on through the inner door into the workshop. The shop floor was dark, illuminated only by the pallid moonlight streaming from the clerestory windows. He tossed his coat on the table in the kitchen and headed upstairs.
Flickering light was glowing from the window in his study door, so he quietly pushed it open. Inside, a mostly melted candle was burning in the candlestick on the round table, and beyond, the last flames of a slowly dying fire could be seen dancing in the fireplace. He stepped inside and quietly shut the door before walking across the room and around the end of the sofa. He found Winry curled up on the couch fast asleep, draped in his leather riding jacket. She had it snugged up under her chin, the delicate fingertips of her left hand peeking over the top and a peaceful smile on her lips. He knelt by her side, reaching out to tenderly brush a few strands of her golden hair from her face as he watched her.
The firelight danced its warm glow over her radiant skin as her shoulder rose and fell with the rhythm of her soft, steady breaths. He smiled as he watched her, letting the knowledge that she was safe and sound wash over him and drown all the fear, loathing and violence of the day. He bowed and softly kissed her forehead, "I love you, Winry Rockbell..."
The unheard confession would have to suffice for the moment; one day soon, when Envy was gone for good, he would tell her the truth of his feelings. For now it was enough that she was safe. He didn't have the heart to wake her, so he settled himself onto the floor, his back against the front of the sofa, and rested his head into the plush leather. He shut his eyes and listened to the crackling of the fire and Winry's steady breathing as sleep overcame him and darkness closed in on his senses once again.