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Chapter 14

Dreaming

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They gunned it through the darkened streets. At this time of night, the outskirts of the city were quiet, but grew busier as they drew closer to the city center with its bars and restaurants. Riza slowed the car as they approached the park, pedestrians blocking her way. "We'll have to get out and walk, Sir."

"Fine."

She parked, and they exited the vehicle, strong-arming their way through the crowd. On this side of the park there was a large paved plaza crowned with an ornate fountain at one end and a statue of Fuhrer Bradley at the other. As they broke through the front of the crowd, they saw what had drawn so much attention; in the open center of the plaza someone had drawn a large circular diagram in white paint. Around the diagram sections of cobblestones had been pried up, and torches planted in the soil beneath. Their flickering orange light competed with the glaring white of the park's electric arc lamps, casting wild shadows. In the center of the circle stood a young man, head down, dripping paintbrush still in his hand. He was rocking slightly, muttering to himself.

"Edward." Mustang's voice was quiet, cautious.

The figure in front of him stilled, swung around to face the General. His hair was loose around his shoulders, silky and glowing in the torchlight. He wore only linen trousers, barefoot and with his chest stripped bare; a thick, opaque paint marked blue sigils across his skin. The markings were not the most striking thing, for his eyes were a flat brassy gold that stared unblinkingly, unseeingly, at his former commander. Mustang took an involuntary step back, his eyes searching Ed's face for some hint of recognition.

Behind him, he could hear the creak of leather as Hawkeye slowly drew her sidearm from its holster. The people crowded around them drew farther away, sensing danger. The blue-coated police officers scattered throughout the plaza were obviously tense, but mercifully they did not interfere. From the corner of his eye he saw an older man, sergeant's bars across his sleeves, working his way towards them through the crowd.

Once the man reached them Mustang spoke, his eyes never leaving Edward's face. "Bergstrom, right?" The policeman nodded. "I'll deal with this, but I need a favor. First, get this crowd back. I don't want them getting caught up in whatever the hell's going on here. Second, there's a young man who lives a few blocks away from here; I need you to bring him. My Lieutenant can give you his address." Hawkeye holstered her gun and gave the Sergeant the information. He melted away into the crowd, and Riza resumed her vigilant position.

Mustang tried again. "Edward, do you recognize me?" No response. The Flame Alchemist slowly edged forward, keeping his voice calm and soothing. "Ed, I don't know what you're doing here, but let me help. We can talk about thi-." The moment his foot edged over the painted edge of the circle, there was a flare of light and he was thrown back, landing heavily on the cobblestones.

"Sir!" Riza rushed to his side.

He waved her off and got to his feet, discreetly rubbing his bruised rear end. "I'm fine, but what the hell was that?"

Hawkeye eyed the diagram warily. "I have no idea, sir. Is it a transmutation array?"

He squinted at the crudely drawn symbols splashed across the ground, keeping a cautious eye on Edward. The young man hadn't moved throughout Mustang's ordeal. "I assume so, but it's not like anything I've ever seen." He patted his pockets and fished out a coin. He tossed it into the circle, but as soon as it crossed the border blue electricity fizzled and the coin forcefully shot back towards Roy, skittering away across the cobbles when he dodged it.

"It's like it hit a wall." Riza's voice was flat, the tone she used when she was trying to hide her reactions.

"More than that; it's like it was actively repelled. I can see why the police said they couldn't get near him."

"I've never heard of anything like this. How is he doing it?"

"Damned if I know." Their voices were hushed, despite the fact that Edward seemed completely unaware of their presence. "I think you're going to have to go get Hohenheim."

The Lieutenant stiffened. "You need me to watch your back, sir. You of all people shouldn't underestimate Edward."

Mustang grimaced. "I know, but there's not much choice. His guards are under orders not to let him go with anyone who hasn't been pre-approved, and I think we're going to need him."

"Yes, sir. Just don't do anything stupid while I'm gone." She fixed him with a severe look.

"Yeah, yeah." She jogged away towards the car, and he turned his attention back to Fullmetal. The young man was still standing, still rocking and muttering. As long as Edward made no move, Roy was willing to follow his promise to Riza.

In a shorter time than he would've thought possible, he spotted Sergeant Bergstrom wending his way through the crowd, Alphonse Elric in tow. The boy was dressed similarly to Ed, but he'd at least managed to snag shoes and an undershirt before leaving home.

Once free of the mass of onlookers, Al jogged over to Mustang, eyes widening at the spectacle before them. "I'm sorry, sir, I never even heard him get up. I had no idea he'd left."

"Don't feel too bad, apparently neither did the guard I posted." He grimly wondered whether they'd find that particular guard dead in an alley, or if the man had merely been negligent.

Alphonse squinted at the diagram painted on the ground, frowning at the strangeness of it. "What is that?"

"Good question. I suspect it's a transmutation array, but it's unlike any I've ever come across."

The boy shook his head. "Me neither. Does it do anything?"

"Watch." Mustang took his coin and threw it towards the barrier, nimbly catching it when it rebounded.

Al's eyebrows climbed in shock. "That's amazing! I've never heard of something that could do that. What happens if you touch it?" He leaned forward and stuck his finger across the border of the array.

"I wouldn't do-" Mustang stopped. Al's hand was gently glowing, but nothing more. "Huh. That's not what happened when I tried that."

"What happened?" The boy pulled his hand back out of the glowing barrier, staring at it in wonder.

"I got knocked back on my ass." Mustang grumpily rubbed the offending area.

"Do you think…" Alphonse trailed off, brow furrowed in thought.

"What?"

"You remember how Brother thought that that array he activated was triggered by his blood? What if this is the same, and only Xerxians can enter?"

Roy nodded. "That would make sense, especially in light of what's been happening to him." Al turned back towards the diagram, looking suddenly determined. Mustang grabbed his arm before he could move towards his brother. "Wait! We don't know what it might do to you."

Al shrugged him off. "Whatever it might do to me, it's doing something worse to Brother. I'm not going to just leave him in there." He smiled. "Don't worry, I've never lost a fight to him."

Al's reassurance did nothing to mask the anxiety in his eyes. He took a step towards the strange array, stretching out a careful hand ahead of him. Again, the moment he crossed the edge of the barrier, it began to bathe his skin in a pale blue light. He took a deep breath, and stepped fully into the circle.

As soon as he was across the light faded, and Mustang was able to see Edward's reaction. The boy froze, not even breathing, then swung around to face his brother, a strange smile stretched across his pale face.

"You've finally joined me." Fullmetal's voice was cracked and rusty.

Alphonse frowned in response. "Brother, you need to stop this. You're frightening people." The older boy said nothing, his wide eyes and stiff grin giving him an air of the insane.

Al tried again. "I need you to come with me. We have to go to the hospital." He reached out his hand, intending to grab his brother's arm.

Edward frowned and stepped back, growing suddenly suspicious. "No."

"Please, Brother, I'm worried about you. Dad and Winry are, too. So's General Mustang." Ed's eyes flicked in Roy's direction, and there was some kind of internal struggle evident in his gaze. It was brief, though, and almost instantly gave way to madness.

"Can't you see it, Al? The golden pillars?" His eyes swept around the plaza, obviously looking at something other than the frightened crowd and windswept trees.

Al's voice was pained. "No, Brother, there aren't any pillars. Don't you remember? You've been sick, and it's getting worse. I need to take you to the doctor."

Ed shook his head, backing away. "No, I can't. We have to stay; just a few more hours and it'll be perfect. We can fix it." He stared once more at invisible forms, ghosts that only he could see.

"I'm sorry, Brother." Al swung, quick as lightning. Edwards nimbly dodged it, eyes once more flat and hard. He struck like a snake, and it began. The boys were evenly matched; Alphonse's muscles lacked the hard definition wrought by Edward's automail, but he was lean and swift, and his cleverness more than made up for any difference in strength. While Ed tended to go in full-force, Al used his opponent's skills and momentum against him. His golden hair flashing in the torchlight, a grim frown on his face, Al could've been his brother's twin.

Mustang grit his teeth, frustrated that he could do nothing more than stand by and watch. The young Elrics circled around each other in battle, swift shadows and golden forms flickering in the dancing light. Roy prowled the edge of the array, looking for some weakness, an opening, something to let him take control of the situation. The diagram was rough, completely unlike Fullmetal's usual elegant complexity. Though the boy favored clapping his alchemical circles, on the rare occasions he drew out his arrays, they were precise and clever, the work of a master. This… this was simple, almost crude. It reminded him of how a small child might try to copy out writing, not understanding what the shapes meant.

Crude or not, it was effective, and he couldn't figure out a way to slip inside. The boys were still fighting, neither one gaining much ground, but Roy could tell that Alphonse was being hampered by his desire not to hurt his brother. Ed was so far gone that he had no such compunction, and more than a few of his blows would've crushed bone, if Al hadn't been nimble enough to dodge.

Mustang stalked back the way he'd come, growling in frustration. Perhaps Hohenheim would have some clue- he stumbled and cursed, glancing down at the uneven cobblestone that had caught his foot. The ground had frozen and heaved up the stones of the plaza this past winter, and no one had taken the time to repair the damage… a cunning grin spread across the Flame Alchemist's face.

Edward's barrier stretched over the array like an impenetrable dome, but perhaps its reach didn't extend underground. Roy eyed the boys' fight, gauging his timing; Al dodged a punch, his momentum carrying a few steps beyond his deranged brother. Before Edward could swing around fully, Mustang's hands slapped the ground. The earth swelled, a jagged crack snaking across the painted stones, destroying the array. Along its border a towering pillar of blue light flared briefly towards the heavens, then was abruptly extinguished.

Ed stumbled, whether from the uneven footing or some other cause, Roy did not know. Al seized his chance and swept his leg out, knocking Fullmetal flat on his back. The younger boy swiftly pinned him in place, panting from exertion.

There was a sudden silence, broken by a groan. Ed grimaced in pain, blinking away the fog that clouded his eyes. "Ow, what the hell! Al? What are you…" His voice trailed off as he took in his surroundings. "Where are we?"

Al cautiously eased his hold. "We're in the City Park."

A dawning look of horror and embarrassment spread across Edward's face. "Oh, shit. What'd I do?"

"Made a damned mess, that's for sure." Mustang's sardonic voice rang out as he strolled over, pausing briefly to stick a cautious toe over the painted border, before continuing. "Mind telling me what's going on?" From the boy's look of baffled confusion, he didn't expect much.

"I don't know… last thing I remember is going to bed." He shivered in the chill wind, realizing suddenly that he was sitting in the middle of a public park wearing nothing but his pajama pants. Al helped him sit up and rubbed his back, partially for warmth, partially for comfort.

"Nothing else? No strange dreams?"

"No, I don't…. maybe? I don't know." Edward peered cross-eyed down at his own chest, inspecting the painted markings that marred his fair skin. He went to rub at them, but was stopped by Mustang's hand on his wrist.

"No, leave them. I want to have your father take a look, and maybe get some pictures too." The General turned for a moment and waved over one of the blue-coated officers patrolling the now-dwindling crowd. "I need a camera, and a perimeter put up to keep anyone from messing with this." A sweep of his hand indicated the damaged array; he glanced at Edward. "A blanket, too. Oh, and make sure my Lieutenant can get through when she gets back." The officer nodded and jogged off to follow his orders.

"How do you feel?" Al's anxious voice brought Roy's attention back to the siblings.

Edward shrugged listlessly. "Not any worse than normal." He rubbed his neck, wincing. "Okay, I take that back. Not any worse than I normally feel after you've kicked my butt in sparring practice."

Alphonse smiled, but it didn't quite reach his eyes. "You frightened me. It was like you were a different person."

Fullmetal looked at his brother, all humor replaced by seriousness. "I'm really sorry, Al. I don't even… I can't fucking remember." He gestured wildly at the plaza. "How could I do all this, and not remember any of it?" He scrubbed his hands over his face in frustration, shuddering with cold and fear.

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Overlooked in the shifting mass of the crowd, two dark-eyed men observed everything.

"There's something else going on here." The younger one murmured, unworried that his obscure dialect would be understood by any of the gawking Amestrians gathered around him.

"Besides just a simple snatch-and-grab? Yeah, obviously, but it's none of our business." His older companion gave him a quelling look.

"The bosses might want to know, though. Wouldn't hurt to get a bit more information for them. Might pay off." He let a bit of avarice creep into his tone; they were paid well enough to follow orders and keep their mouths shut, but there was no harm in keeping an eye out for the odd windfall.

"Look, you do what you're ordered and nothing else. You do not fuck with them, and you do not volunteer. Trust me, you'd be better off cutting your own throat. You'd save yourself a lot of time and misery."

The young man felt an icy finger creep down his spine, completely unrelated to the chill wind. Somewhere in the back of his mind, an echo of remembered screams and blood played on a loop; the cabal liked to provide new hires with an object lesson in what would happen to anyone who betrayed or disappointed them. He nodded silently, and went back to scanning the plaza.

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