Warnings: Angst and mentions of men kissing.
A/N: OMG so late. Sorry, guys. I have excuses, but you're here to read. So I'll let you get on with it. Crazy life is still crazy. And will be for the forseeable future. Updates when they happen is as good as I can do right now (blah.)
Thank you for all your support :)
Counterpoint: Chapter Five
Roy stared around the room, the bed beneath him a vast solid expanse as his mind scrambled to sort dream from reality. Every muscle in his body trembled, shaking themselves apart at the collision of pain and hope. He wanted to believe that it was more than just a fantasy – that Ed was really still here somehow, but the logical part of his mind struggled to believe it.
A tight sound caught in his chest, and he moved his hand from his tingling lips, scrubbing his fingers across his eyes instead. Exhaustion burned along his eyelids, and a glance at the clock told him he had not been asleep for more than half an hour. Yet he could not possibly lie down again, not now. Not with his mind full of Ed's face, his warmth, his presence.
A shiver rippled across his skin, and he swung his legs over the edge of the bed, staring blankly at the floor as he dragged all his senses to focus on the room around him. There was nothing there out of place – nothing to suggest he was anything but alone – yet he could not push the dream aside so easily. Ed's voice, so painfully familiar, kept going around his mind, speaking about Mason, counterpoint arrays, his body in the morgue... Why would he dream that? Why would he dream of Ed needing help?
Staggering to his feet, Roy stumbled into the bathroom, flicking the taps on the sink until the water gurgled down the drain. Quickly, he splashed his face, wishing he could wash away all the confusion and hurt. Yet all the icy touch did was shove aside the deadened blanket of weariness that dragged at his eyes, leaving him free to raise his head and meet his own gaze in the mirror.
And see the figure standing behind him.
Roy froze, his heart in his throat and an aborted sound of surprise caught beneath his ribs. He stared, drinking in the sight of a man he thought he would never set eyes on again. Ed was leaning against the bathroom wall, his head tipped back in something like surrender. His arms were crossed, his left fist clenched tight as if he were angry, but there was something else in his expression – something much more like fear. His eyes were closed, squeezed tight, but the second he opened them Roy felt the connection like an electric shock, darting over his skin in wild abandon.
Ed's lips parted in surprise, and Roy fought against the urge to blink, not wanting to give the vision a chance to vanish. He said something – something which Roy could not hear – and he shook his head sadly at his lack of comprehension. Ed did not have a voice, at least not here, and Roy missed that more than he thought possible. There were no rough curses or growled challenges, just Ed shrugging helpless shoulders and pointing to the door.
Roy blinked. He could not help it. His eyes burned with the urge, and when the fleeting veil of darkness had passed, Ed was gone again.
Yet it was not a hallucination or a figment of his imagination. He refused to believe that! Part of his mind yammered away about grief and unexpected effects, but Roy silenced it ruthlessly. He knew what he had seen, he knew what had been in his dream, and there was no way he could pretend it had been anything but real.
Snatching a towel off the rail, he dried his hands and face, pitching it back over his shoulder without a care as he began to move. The leaden weight of grief was shifting and sliding as a bright seedling of hope began to grow. It carried him along on the crest of a wave as he tore open the door to his suite, almost jogging down the corridor as his thoughts spun: a whirlwind in his mind.
Something had happened: something none of them had seen. They had been left with a body and assumed the worst, but shouldn't they know better by now? When had Ed ever conformed to the expected?
His heart felt like it was trying to bash its way out of his ribs, too full and fast, drowning out all the worried whispers of his mind. It could still be insanity, his logical brain scattering itself apart beneath the burden of loss, but he did not care. He would rather be mad and hopeful than sane and bereaved.
The morgue doors parted before the shove of his hands, and he blinked around the semi-darkness before flicking the lights on. The place was mercifully empty, and he picked up a bundle of keys from their hook, picking through them as he levelled a glare at the locked cabinets set into one wall. At least they had been labelled, and Ed's name taunted him, written on the paper in unfamiliar handwriting.
Roy's fingers shook, making the keys jangle as he slipped one in and gave it a twist, hearing the tumblers click free. For a moment, he paused, feeling the moment spread before him. It could make or break him, what he saw in there, and he clenched his jaw, forcing himself to peer inside.
The aquamarine glow of alchemy caught his attention almost instantly. Ed had told him to check his body, and the evidence was there for anyone to see. It was almost impossible to imagine how they could have missed it, but then the light was subtle. Out in the main room it would probably disperse, but in an enclosed space it was like a moonrise underwater, rippling and beautiful.
Roy rubbed a hand over his jaw, his mind stumbling into a blazing twist of thoughts and ideas. He dithered there, uncertain of what to do, but at last he reached a decision. Quickly, he spun around, his hand shaking as he snatched the telephone's receiver from its cradle and began to dial. The ring in his ears seemed almost otherworldly as he waited, knowing that Hughes would probably still be in Intelligence, and he heaved a sigh of relief as his friend's voice answered.
'Maes, I need you to get Al and come to the morgue.'
'What? Roy, I thought you were getting some sleep?' Hughes' voice sounded tight and worried, but Roy could not bring himself to care.
'Look, just do as I ask. Please? There's something Al needs to see.'
There was a pause from the other end of the line, and he could practically hear Hughes thinking about it, no doubt planning for a hundred different contingencies. 'Fine, fine. We'll be there in a minute. Don't go anywhere.'
Roy did not even bother saying goodbye as he hung up, licking his dry lips as he fidgeted back and forth, unsure what to do next. He wanted to get a good look at those arrays, but he needed Al to see the glow. He and Hughes needed to realise that there was more here than any of them could have believed, and Roy did not want to waste precious moments convincing them all he had not snapped straight through with misery.
Something soft brushed against his cheek, a mere phantom of sensation made of cold air more than anything else, but every muscle in Roy's body locked in place, tense and keening. He had felt that before, since leaving Mason's house the first time. It was just a suggestion, so easy to ignore, but now his mind skipped back, remembering every event. Had that been Ed trying to get his attention? Trying to touch him and make him realise that, despite everything, he was not as lost as he appeared?
'You're here, aren't you?' Roy murmured, a crooked smile twitching his lips as the restraining dam of doubt finally crumbled and hope washed through him, bright and joyful. It was a second chance, and he had every intention of grabbing it with both hands. 'I imagine if there was a way of communicating with us properly, you would have worked it out by now. Though I suppose it was you who threw the book at Al?'
He almost heard a snort, half-laughter, half-annoyance. Perhaps it was only his imagination, but it was better than nothing, and Roy found himself pacing back and forth in a tight, anxious line, glancing repeatedly at the door. What was taking Al and Hughes so long? Didn't they understand that they had got everything wrong? That the grief they had been living under these past couple of days was nothing but a passing cloud, rather than a permanent fixture?
At last, Hughes and Al appeared, both of them looking wrecked and broken. Al's face was stained with tears again – no doubt he had not been sleeping – and Hughes looked like a man who was trying to hold everything together at the seams while he shattered himself apart.
'Why are you in here, Roy?' Maes' voice was so soft, gentle and hurting, as if Roy were standing on a high ledge somewhere rather than the flat stone floor of the morgue. 'The coroners promised...'
'Forget the coroners,' Roy retorted, thrilling at the strength in his own voice. 'Look.' He pointed to the open door that hid Ed's body and the obvious blue glow, switching through to shades of sea green and ice white as they watched. 'There's something that we've missed.'
Al blinked, moving closer to the chilled cabinets with an expression that spoke of both dread and intelligence. He might be grieving, but he was also thinking, and Roy smiled at the sight. He and Alphonse might both be desperate for a way to undo reality, but with any luck they would be able to convince Hughes that this was more than just their own dire denial.
Metal clanked as Al grabbed the tray, pulling the drawer with his brother's body on it out into the room. The strong struts kept it supported, and Roy trembled again at the sight. Living bodies knew dead ones, at least that was what he had always thought, and every sign pointed to Ed being a corpse. His skin was lifeless, and nothing like breath fluttered his chest. In the dazzling light, the arrays had dimmed from sight, and he found himself stalking closer, looking down at the waist-high slab for some kind of clue.
Something blew across the back of his neck, quiveringly intimate, and Roy gasped, raising his hand to the sensitive skin for a moment before he realised it was a message. Something telling him where to look.
As carefully as he could, he nudged his fingers against Ed's jaw, his eyes going wide as he realised there was more to this than just the arrays. Ed's skin was chilly against his knuckles, but not nearly as cold as it should have been. He had been in a refrigerated unit for too long to retain any semblance of life's heat, yet there it was, a whisper of a promise.
'He's still warm.'
'What?' Hughes' eyebrows shot up, his weight rocking back on his heels where he stood with his arms crossed. 'Roy...'
'No, he's right.' Al's head shot up, his eyes alight with something other than unshed tears. 'Brother shouldn't be much hotter than the air in there,' He gestured to the refrigerated units in the wall, 'but he's not much colder than us.'
'Look at this,' Roy urged, gently pushing Ed to the side and shielding the skin on the back of his neck with one hand, granting enough shadow so that the array was picked out in cerulean once more. 'Any ideas?'
Al blinked, his fingers hovering just above the design before he jerked his hand back, spinning around to the nearby desk and scrabbling for paper and a pencil. It was the most animated Roy had seen him since he had broken the news of Ed's death, and his heart clenched as he prayed he was not giving Alphonse hope only to have it ripped away once more.
'It's a complicated design, but I've seen something like it before.' He sketched it out in quick, decisive lines, and Roy could almost see the meteoric blaze of his mind. 'The elements are a little different, but – ' He licked his lips, looking first at Ed and then up into Roy's gaze. 'It's similar to the ones doctors use – emergency life support.'
The rush of Hughes' breath in through his lips was the only sound in the morgue, and Roy looked over to see that green gaze flicker from Al to Roy, and then down to Ed on the table. 'You mean he's not dead?'
Al dropped the paper on the floor, the pencil clattering by his foot as he peeled back the sheet, revealing Ed's chest and grabbing at his left hand. 'If I'm right then there need to be more. One on his neck's not going to be enough.' A grin broke across his face as another array revealed itself at the pulse point in Ed's wrist, followed by another at his shoulder.
Something larger was faintly visible in the centre of Ed's chest, and Roy thought Al might actually collapse from the sheer relief. 'There's one at every major circulation point.'
'What does that mean?'
'He's blood's still being pumped around his body.' The grin lit up Al's face, manic and desperate at its edge. 'The arrays produce a mild electrical current and are removing oxygen from the air. So everything's getting a supply of oxygenated blood.'
Hughes shook his head, clearly still not getting it even as Roy sagged, grabbing onto the slab to hold himself up.
'It means he's still alive, Maes. No heartbeat and not breathing, but not dead either.' A tremulous, helpless smile crossed Roy's lips, and he shook his head in disbelief as he braced his palms on the edge of the table, trying to think around the overwhelming rush of emotion that flowed through him. 'There's got to be some way we can undo this. He said something about counterpoint arrays, getting back to Mason's house...'
'Who said – ' Hughes began, only to be cut off as Al's ears pricked up.
'Counterpoint arrays? The book that hit me at the mansion... Is that what these are? They're all connected to something else?' Al scrabbled for the sketch again, drinking in the design as if it held the answers to the universe.
'Woah, wait. Who said what, Roy? How did you know to look for these arrays?' Hughes' pale face looked tense and severe, practically begging Roy for a reasonable answer. Yet there was none to be had. Any way he could think of to word the truth sounded beyond insane, and in the end Roy simply brushed the question away with a flick of his hand.
'You wouldn't believe me if I told you. You're just going to have to trust me. Ed said that the array at the mansion removed... something. His life energy, or whatever. There's another place, somewhere that Mason's daughter is trapped. He's meant to be food for her, but he thinks we should be able to get him back.'
'You've been talking to him?' Al asked, head cocked aside in honest curiosity as, behind him, Hughes tunnelled his fingers in his hair and began to pace in a tight, stressed line. 'How – how –?'
'It was a dream,' Roy muttered at last, trying not to let his shoulders hunch defensively. 'Look, it doesn't matter how I know. The point is, an hour ago, we all knew Ed was dead. Now it looks like we were wrong. Can you really turn and walk away from this, Al?'
He saw the steel enter those golden eyes and flow through Al's form, straightening his shoulders as he shook his head. 'Of course not, it's just.. Why didn't he talk to me?'
'You can ask him yourself when we get him back.' Roy jabbed a finger at the page clutched in Al's hand. 'What else can you see from this? Anything, anything at all that can give us the answer?'
Al drew in a deep breath, bending his head as he focused on the image in his hand. It was a quieter way than Ed worked, more self-contained, but the growing frown on Al's face was enough to make a new fist of worry clench around Roy's heart.
'This is just about keeping the body alive,' Al said at last. 'That's it's only job, but there's nothing to help get water through the skin.' He reached out, tenting the flesh on the back of his brother's hand and watching it settle. 'He's already gone without water for nearly forty-eight hours. These arrays couldn't keep him going for more than three days.'
Hughes paused in his pacing, looking briefly down at Ed's still face as he drew in a deep breath. 'He's already been gone for almost two. Do you honestly think that you can undo Mason's work in the time we have left?'
'What choice do we have?' Al demanded, waving a frantic hand at his brother. 'No doctor will treat an apparent corpse for dehydration, and it's not like we can hide him until we figure it out.' He clamped his lips shut, his fingers leaving obvious creases on the paper in his hand as Roy watched him shake. 'He said we should take him back to the mansion?'
Roy nodded, swallowing tightly as he tried to remember Ed's exact words. It was all hazy, lost in a fog of sleep and confusion, but he was sure that's what Ed had said. 'I don't know if he thinks maybe he can undo it from his end, wherever he goes, but being back at the house is probably essential.' He glanced over at Hughes, wishing there was something he could say to wipe the sad, aching doubt from that familiar face.
'Look, I can see the arrays aren't normal, but think about what you're doing,' Hughes pleaded. 'Taking a corpse from the morgue... If any of the brass saw what you were doing, think what it would do for your career.'
'Damn my career!' Roy's voice bounced off the close walls, loud enough to make both Al and Hughes jump as Roy shook his head fiercely. 'I know this sounds insane. You think I don't? But remember all the times Ed has come to us saying things that we could barely bring ourselves to believe. Things about homunculi, and stones, and prisoners being used as sacrifices...' Roy scratched at his chin as he looked down at Ed's still body. 'All those times he was dead right. You really think I'm going to stop listening now?'
'You're the only one he seems to be speaking to,' Hughes pointed out, leaning back on the coroner's desk and staring at his own feet before he met Roy's gaze. 'You know how that looks. All we've got is your word.'
A scalpel shot through the air, a hard, fast line of silver that came to a shuddering halt in the plastic door of the morgue. It was too far away from any of them to have caused an injury, but the juddering sound it made as it hit seemed to echo through the room, followed by a low, purring snarl that made Roy's blood run cold.
'Stop it,' he snapped, a thrill of terror running down his spine as he remembered the strange, shifting shadows from his dream and the pinched expression of defensive fear that had flickered over Ed's face. 'You're too weak for that.' He was not sure where the thought came from, but it was enough to harden his resolve. Ed's communications were few and fleeting, and the last thing he wanted was for Ed to end up in the clutches of... what was it? Mason's daughter?
'Even if you don't believe me about Ed, Hughes, there's still the case of whatever's in that house.' Another growl grated through the room as if to punctuate his statement. 'And I don't think it's exactly staying put any more. We need to face this.'
Hughes glanced at the scalpel, his eyes trailing along the shining, mercurial length of it before he straightened up, squaring his shoulders and nodding his head. 'I'll get a car. Wrap Ed in some blankets, because if he really is still alive, then he can't possibly be warm enough. You're going to have to carry him.'
'I'll get some things and meet you back here. I at least need Mason's notes.' Al hesitated, almost swaying at Ed's side as if loathe to leave him, but at last he bolted away, leaving Roy to rummage through drawers and storage chests for anything that might shield Ed from the chill of the room and the world beyond.
The clatter of a latch made him look over, and he saw the metal of a clasp holding a cupboard shut twitching by itself. Walking over, he focused his senses, feeling the air take on a truly icy edge. It crept in through his skin, filling his veins and making him shiver. Yet at the same time, now he knew what it was, it brought him comfort.
'Still here then?'
He could almost hear Ed's huff, a little weary around its edges like it so often was when he came back from assignment. There was no reply, at least not in words, but Roy got a vague sense of something: excitement and dread mixed together. It seemed maybe Ed was not as sure of what he was doing as he appeared in the dream, but then there really was no time for certainty. Grief had robbed them of most of their chances to act. What they had seen as permanent death had turned into a deep hibernation, but Ed was running out of time in which to awake.
'I hope Al can work out how to change the arrays.' Roy cleared his throat, pulling free several thick, woollen blankets and bundling them in his arms before turning back to the slab. 'And I hope you know what you're doing. We're acting blind here, Ed, and if this doesn't work...' He left the sentence hanging, because he could not think about that. The wound of grief was still there, raw and weeping, and if this did not work the hope that stitched it back together would vanish, leaving it to gush anew.
Pursing his lips, Roy shook the thought aside and set to work, murmuring an apology as he slid an arm under Ed's shoulders and lifted him into a clumsy sitting position. The metal of the automail was brumal where it bit into Roy's arm, and he found himself shivering from its touch. Ed's body was like that of a doll, as unresponsive as it had been the day they brought him here, but there was no stiffness to his frame.
Roy was not sure how long rigour mortis lasted, but even if he was not convinced that Ed was not as dead as he looked, the faint warmth whispering from Ed's flesh would have been enough to reassure him. How could they not have felt this sooner? Would the coroners have noticed before the autopsy, or would they have sliced him open and only expressed alarm when fresh, red blood flowed from the incision?
The thought turned Roy's stomach, and he licked his lips as he wrapped the blankets around Ed's frame. He seemed much smaller like this. All the vitality and vibrant personality that made Ed fill a room from one edge to the other was absent, and the actual physical shell of him was almost petite. Roy smothered a smile, hoping that Ed could not read his thoughts. Bad enough he was probably watching Roy doing this - moving Ed's body and trying not to think about warm kisses as he cocooned the wool around Ed's skin. The last thing he wanted was Ed's irate ghost, energy or whatever venting its fury on him.
He did not dare remove the sheet that had been covering Ed's body, instead choosing to preserve the young man's modesty and fold the blankets around him. By the time that Al stumbled back into the morgue with a bag over his shoulder, Ed looked like he could just be curled up asleep, rather than completely beyond their reach.
'I thought you were just getting notes,' Roy murmured as Al began to scrabble through medical supplies, grabbing anything he thought might be of use.
'People don't come back from the dead,' Al replied. 'They just don't. Bodies don't do this kind of thing.' He gestured to Ed's prone form. 'They're not designed for it. If we get him back, he's going to need hospital, and if I can give him anything to make things easier until he gets there, then I will.'
Al did not look well. In fact, now that the first flash of euphoria had passed, he looked grim and frightened, as if he was now seeing more of a curse than a blessing.
'Can you tell me what we should expect?' Roy asked quietly, hovering at Ed's shoulder and absently reaching out to tuck a strand of gold hair back behind the shell of Ed's ear.
'Anything. Everything.' Al shook his head. 'No one's done it before, so no one knows what will happen. There could be blood clots. His heart could be congested. His lungs the same. The last thing he ate has been sitting in his stomach for two days, rotting and filling him with who knows what.'
'Can he –' Roy hesitated, trying to control the faint tremors that Al's words inspired. 'If we can bring him back, is his body even going to be able to accept him?'
Al shrugged, chewing his bottom lip hard enough to draw blood. 'I don't know. I just don't know. But we need to try. We can't let this go.'
Roy nodded his head in agreement. Al was right. He just hoped they were not retrieving Ed only to have him face a painful second death, burning all their hopes high only to have him succumb to the ills of a body that had suffered too much in the past two days. 'Is there anything else you need that's not here?'
Al shook his head, waving a couple of small vials and a syringe. 'I already took this from the hospital. Antibiotics and a painkiller that's also a blood-thinner. Both should help.'
'I've made sure there's a radio in the car. We'll be able to call for help the moment we need it.' Hughes' voice echoed in the morgue, and Roy looked over his shoulder, seeing his friend standing at a different door. 'This way out is quicker. We've got less chance of being seen, or worse, stopped.' He nodded at the bundled form of Ed's body. 'The sentries aren't going to be too bothered with who is leaving base, but if we're doing this, then we need to get moving.'
With a quick nod, Roy reached out, scooping Ed's body up into his arms. He was no lighter than he had been when he carried him in, and his back creaked under the strain as he shifted his burden. 'Let's get out of here, then.' He smiled as he felt a flash of cold against his cheek: a touch of acknowledgement, maybe. It was easy to imagine Ed's uneven footsteps matching his stride as he slipped through the door that Hughes held open, traversing a short, dim corridor to reach the standard military car that lay idling at the exit.
He raised an eyebrow, glancing back at Hughes when he saw Havoc sitting in the driving seat, looking equally puzzled and concerned. 'Couldn't you drive?'
'I didn't fancy being the only backup you and Al had while you worked,' Maes explained, his lips curving into a mocking smile – the first sign of anything like happiness Roy had seen all evening. 'Havoc's a better choice than Hawkeye for this. He's less likely to stop us for our own good. You all right?'
Hughes' grip on Roy's elbow steadied him as he grunted beneath Ed's weight, manoeuvring himself into the same position in the back seat that he had done on that fateful first journey back from the house. In the end, he and Al sat at either end of the seat with Ed's body laid across their laps. Roy's grip on Ed's shoulders kept him secure as the doors slammed shut and Havoc released the handbrake, letting the car ease away.
'I hope we're right about this,' the Lieutenant muttered, his blue eyes flickering up to meet Roy's gaze in the rear-view mirror.
'We all do,' Roy replied, sucking in a breath at the sudden collision of something bitingly cold at his shoulder. Al clearly felt it too, because he flinched, glancing at the empty space and then down at the body lying across them. Roy watched as his fingers clenched into a brief fist before he reached out, tentatively feeling at the empty air as if he hoped, somehow, that the sense of touch would tell him more than his eyes could.
'I saw his reflection, briefly. Back at my suite,' Roy murmured. 'Other than that all I've felt is the cold, just like this.'
'You said you dreamt about him,' Al replied, opening his eyes again and dragging his hand back to his side, disappointment written large across his face. 'Was he still nothing but a reflection then?'
Roy shook his head, his mind twirling back to the memory with ease. Sleep had hazed its edges, but he could still recall enough to know it had been completely different. 'He was solid. It was like he was standing right in front of me, trying to explain why another assignment had gone wrong. I – I didn't believe it.'
'What changed your mind?'
Roy's tongue darted out to brush across his lips as he remembered the heat of Ed's mouth against them: the blunt edge of teeth and the taste of utter, hopeless desperation – a drowning man taking his last breath. He had sensed defeat in that kiss and, more than anything, that was what had yanked Roy from sleep and set him on the path that led to his certainty.
It had felt as if Ed was saying goodbye, and Roy could not bear the thought of losing him twice.
'It was too coherent,' he managed at last, clearing his throat as he voiced the lie. 'My dreams are normally a tangle of images, but that, it was just Ed. Just a conversation about arrays and Mason's daughter.'
'Did he tell you about her?' Hughes asked, turning to look over his shoulder as Havoc guided the car down Central's sleeping streets. 'Anything we could use?'
Roy shrugged and shook his head. 'Just that she was stuck and that Mason had been keeping her alive. Ed was meant to be her food, but he's able to get away from her somehow.' He rubbed at his eyes, feeling their sting and burn. Adrenaline was keeping the dull cloud of exhaustion away, but he was agonisingly aware that the brief, dream-laden sleep he had managed to achieve was utterly inadequate. 'I got the impression he knew more, but I don't think he can communicate with us very well. We're going to have to work it out for ourselves.'
Al nodded, his expression flickering as the car passed between the pools of light cast by intermittent street lamps. 'If the array cascade works the way I think it does, we need to force energy through in the opposite direction. The way Mason's arrays are drawn that – that technique he used –'
'Maltouche.' Roy pulled a face. 'We can't alter that design. It will be impossible.'
'Maybe not, but counterpoint cascades tend to be flexible. You can put another array into the sequence and alter all the other designs connected to it through a secondary relay.' Al lifted his shoulders, looking faintly embarrassed. 'Brother worked it out years ago. It's like putting an extra tumbler in a lock that, when turned, forces all the others to fail.'
'I've never heard of a lock like that,' Hughes murmured, but there was a smile on his lips. 'I thought alchemists just blew them up.'
'This would be a bit more graceful than complete destruction,' Al's lips curved into a tight, weak smile, 'but I think I can make it work. I just need a bit of time to get the design together, and your help integrating it, General. You know more about Maltouche than me. I just need to be sure I'm not drawing on top of Mason's original components.'
'What about powering it?' Roy asked as Havoc accelerated out of the city, heading towards the Mason estate. 'The whole thing was running off a Philosopher's stone. Are we going to be able to activate it?'
'If we work together, I hope so. It will be like swimming against the current, but if we both activate it at the same time...'
Roy winced at the thought, his jaw clenching as the full scale of Al's plan became clear. Two alchemists activating the same array was not unheard of. He had seen Al and Ed do it before, working in perfect, dangerous tandem to fill a design with enough power to blow up a city block, but there was so much opportunity for it to go wrong. If there was any restriction, any bottleneck in the cascade, then the energy would short out, and the entire thing would self-destruct.
'Is there a less dangerous way?' he asked, knowing the answer before Al even shook his head.
'Not unless you're hiding a Philosopher's stone in your pocket.' Al's fingers drummed a hasty tattoo on the door of the car, his jaw tense and eyes pinched as he glared at the speeding dark beyond the window. 'One alchemist won't be enough to make it work. They're more likely to get pulled into the array themselves. We could end up in just as bad a state as Brother.'
'What will we do?' Havoc asked. 'Whatever's in that house isn't something we can exactly shoot. How are we meant to keep you safe while you're working?'
The thought cut across Roy's mind like a knife blade, sharp, uncomfortable and shaped by Ed's voice. The edges of his vision turned dark for a moment, but the cold did not shift from his side. In fact, it intensified, as if Ed was clinging on in case he shifted away.
'Just do your best. I think we're meant to let Ed deal with Mason's daughter.' Roy frowned, not liking the faint suggestion of fear and anger that had accompanied Ed's brief missive. This whole mess was far from a sure-thing, and his heart clenched tight at the thought that his hope might be torn away by failure. They all wanted it to work, for a miracle to unfold and for alchemy to delivery Ed back to them, but logically Roy knew nothing would be straightforward.
The strategist in him was looking at risks and outcomes, and concluding without a shadow of a doubt that this was simply too dangerous. They could lose far more than just Ed in the execution of their desperate efforts, but logic was an unacknowledged voice of warning. He could not play it safe, not now. For anyone else, he would think twice, but for Ed there was no such hesitation. Whatever it took, they would do this.
'Here we are,' Hughes said, looking at Roy as the car pulled to a halt, sending gravel skittering before the path of its tyres. 'You sure about this?'
'Yes. Come on. We need every light we can find in the ballroom. Candles, oil-lamps, whatever you can scrounge from the rest of the house. The last thing we need is a mistake in the array because it was too dark to see.' He opened the car door, slipping out from under Ed's weight before reaching in and lifting him back into his arms.
Ed's head lolled against Roy's shoulders as he waited impatiently for Hughes to pull a couple of torches from the car boot, handing one to Al before turning on the other and moving the beam to alight on the front door. Together, they climbed the steps, wary and tense in the grasp of the cold night air. Roy nudged the parted door aside with his shoulder, his boots echoing on the floor of the hall as he strode inside.
'You two go to the ballroom,' Hughes told them. 'Havoc and I will search for candles and things.'
'Be careful,' Roy called out. 'Mason's daughter hasn't been able to hurt us, but that could change.'
Hughes flicked off an idle salute as he and Havoc wandered away, crowded close around the single torch they shared. Roy listened to them go – steady, confident footsteps fading into the darkness – before he turned to trail Al's departing figure.
They moved quickly, walking through rooms without so much as a glance at their surroundings until they stood in the vast sprawl of the ballroom amidst the glower of paintings. The daughter's picture was still propped up at the far end of the room, and Roy narrowed his eyes at it before Al's torchlight danced down to the array on the floor.
'I can't make anything out in this light,' he murmured, casting Roy a worried look.
'Plan the design you're going to use,' Roy ordered, bending to gently lay Ed on the floor, safe amidst the blankets. 'You've got a pen and some paper?' He smiled as Al nodded. 'Then sketch it out, make sure you've got it right. I'll get some more light so I can tell you where to put it.'
He moved quickly, snatching up abandoned candlestick with half-spent tallows and lighting the wicks with a click of his fingers. Before long Hughes and Havoc came back carrying oil lamps, weighed down by the burden of them. Havoc helped get the flames going with matches, and within twenty minutes the ballroom glowed with a soft, warm light that chased off the oppressive veil of shadows.
'Any growls?' Hughes asked quietly, frowning as one of the flames burned ice blue for a minute before returning to its normal sunny colour. 'Or anything from Ed?'
'No,' Roy said quietly. 'It's been silent.' He was not even sure if Ed was still here. The brumal presence at his side had vanished once they entered the ballroom. The air remained quiet and his thoughts were his own. Had Ed been dragged back through to wherever Mason's daughter was? Could he be fighting her off while the rest of them were trying desperately to make this thing work?
A shiver from Al was enough to cast doubt on that idea, and Roy watched as a cloud of breath escaped Al's lips. His eyes were glazed and unfocussed, his lips moving minutely. It was disturbing to watch, not just distracted but almost entirely vacant. As if whatever made Al himself had been removed and left a moving body in its place..
At last, Al seemed to shudder awake again, his pupils dilating before he began to scribble frantically, his pencil flying over the design as a smile curved his lips.
A heartbeat later, the expression of delight fell away as the candles all began to dip, their flames dwindling as if the air was being pulled from the room. The darkness thickened, and Roy's knuckles tensed as he stared around, his ears popping with static as he strained his hearing.
The roar came fast and sudden, like the first break of a summer storm. The curtains swayed as if a gale whipped through the room, and the instruments hummed their resonant harmony to the air's vibrations, but nothing leapt out at them. Roy was not even sure what he was looking for: a human being or something worse? Either way, he still found himself seeking the cold wall of Ed's presence, trying to reassure himself that he was still with them as the snarling voice faded away with a smug, self-satisfied air and the room fell still.
'He's gone,' Al whispered. 'He was telling me about the array. Put an image of it in my head but I – I think I felt him slip away.'
'Then we need to move quickly.' Roy snapped his fingers, sending a white banner of flame up to hover near the old chandeliers and cast its glow across the floor. Now, in the almost surgical light, he could make out the hazy lines of Mason's Maltouche efforts. 'Where does your array need to go?'
'There.' Al held out one of the sketches from Mason's notes, pointing to a vortex near the periphery. 'It's the connection point for the cascade, it makes the circle of individual arrays close. It's the best place to insert something new.'
Roy grabbed the paper and began to pace, tipping his head this way and that to orientate the design on the floor with the one in his hand as his heart raced. ' Ed needs to go there,' he ordered, pointing to the centre of the array as he continued his search. Roy was barely aware of Havoc carefully moving Ed's motionless form to the middle of the design as he tried to read the whorls and tangles of Mason's creation, checking and double-checking until he could point to one area of the floor. 'It's here, Al. Draw it straight on the marble.'
'It needs to be touching the circumference.' Al's knees hit the floor with a thud, the coloured chalk in his grip turning his fingers dark as he traced a vein in the marble. 'That's here, isn't it?'
Roy nodded, folding his arms as he watched Al work. It was quick and competent, but every passing second felt like blood dripping from a wound. Ed had fought off Mason's daughter before, but how long could he keep that up? Was he weakening from his trips back and forth between one plane and the next? Was he injured? How long could he really wait?
At last, Al sat back, smudging chalk across his skin as he wiped sweat from his forehead and checked the array over. 'That's it. It should force the cascade to work in reverse and put Brother back in his body.'
'What about the arrays on his skin? If they start going backwards, what will happen?' Hughes asked, glancing down at Ed before meeting Al's eyes.
'A reverse energy flow will wipe them out. They'll stop working.' Al took a deep breath, speaking so quickly that his words tumbled over each other. 'If we get this right, it will only be a moment or two between those designs failing and Ed going back into his body. The jolt of it should be enough to start his heart again.'
'"Should?"' Roy parroted, seeing the tense lines cutting into the corners of Al's eyes and bracketing his mouth.
'This design deliberately re-routes some of the power for that purpose. As long as Brother's brain is still functioning, all autonomous processes like heartbeat and breathing will start by themselves.'
No one asked what would happen if Ed's brain was already destroyed. The answer was obvious. All this would be for nothing, and the single stray spirit that was all that remained of Ed's presence would be lost to them.
'Come on then. Tell me what to do.' Roy knelt at Al's side, his fingers hovering about the circumference of Al's array as he licked his lips. 'Just activate it?'
'Yeah. It's going to feel like pushing against a massive weight – like trying to move a tank – but it will get easier as the flow starts to reverse. Ready?'
Roy swallowed, squaring his shoulders as he nodded his head. 'Ready.'
He pressed his hands to the circle of the design, feeling the sudden, sharp bite of activation pull at him. It was voracious and hungry, making his skin ache and his head pound as the flow of power drained away from him, filling up lines and sigils until, suddenly, it hit a wall. It was like running full sprint into a building, bruising all the way down to his ribs, and he heard Al gasp in pain at his side.
Sweat beaded along Roy's hairline, trailing down his temple as his pulse hammered in his ears. It felt as if he were throwing all his force against a mountain, utterly useless, but slowly the sensation began to change. Like a massive wheel beginning to turn, he felt the flow of energy begin to move in the opposite direction to Mason's intention. He could sense the symbols reversing polarity, the circuit being usurped and corrupted to their own, better purpose, and a grin cracked across his lips.
It was working! As desperate and hopeless as it seemed, the array was working, and Ed would find his way back to them.
To be Continued