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Balance of Power
Arc Two - Chapter Two


"This Was Not an Encouraging Opening for a Conversation"



"Then Ishballa spoke through his prophets, and told them, 'My people, my foolish children, Ishbal is not lost. Where you pitch your tents, there is Ishbal.'" From the Books of the Three Prophets: the Ishbalan Histories, University of Cashel translation.


Rush Valley, Amestris
September 5, 1919 -- 4:42 pm


The truck bounced and squeaked as it hit another bump, making the girl in the middle of the seat moan and clutch her belly. Winry wiped at the dark, sweaty brow with her bandanna and an automail hand batted her away. "Don't!"

"You've got to stay calm!" Winry forced her voice down from a high staccato and tried to infuse her words with soothing reassurance. "Just breathe, Paninya."

"I am breathing, dammit!"

Winry lurched back at the vehement growl in the girl's voice and the almost feral heat in her dark eyes, and would have laughed had they been home already. But they weren't home yet, and Paninya's contractions were coming fast.

Without a word, Dominic pressed harder on the accelerator, and the battered truck rattled faster down the incline toward town. Winry grit her teeth and bit down on a complaint. Dominic had driven this road a million times, she didn't need to tell him to be cautious. She couldn't ask him to speed it up, either -- not unless she wanted him to go from reckless driving to plunging right off the cliffside. Still, she was sure it hadn't taken this long to get up to the old fortress just a few hours ago.

The contraction finally passed and Paninya relaxed, panting. Winry huffed out a gust of air that blew her bangs out of her eyes, and let her shoulders slump in relief. Up ahead was the arched sign that welcomed everyone to Rush Valley. Just a few more blocks and--

The gears on the truck ground as Dominic downshifted, then came to a rolling stop just before the turn down their street. He jerked a thumb over his shoulder and said, "Get goin', Princess."

"What?" Winry stammered. "I can't! Paninya--"

"I'll get the midwife when we get home," Dominic interrupted. "She'll be fine."

Winry glanced back in the direction where General Mustang and his men might have already brought the Elrics home, then at the friend who had become like a sister to her; sweaty, panting and trying to hide fear. "But--"

Paninya tensed and whined and clutched her abdomen, then pinned Winry with a determined glare. She ground out, "Don't be stupid. Just--" she whimpered and panted, "--go!"

Winry opened the door and slid out of the seat. Before she closed it, however, she leaned in and gave Paninya a quick hug. "I'll be back soon, I promise."

Paninya slapped at Winry's shoulder, shoving her away, and snorted, "Go already! Damn, you're stubborn!"

Winry slammed the truck door closed and slapped at the side. Without looking back, she ran toward the center of town.

Toward Ed and Al.

__________


The tar-covered mass, hanging precariously overhead between two stone Armstrongs, teetered a couple of times as an enormous raven landed on it, then became still. The bird danced in agitation, ruffled its feathers, then shook its wings and squawked at the bedraggled party below before flying off to land on the roof of one of the buildings surrounding the alley.

"Major Armstrong," Roy Mustang rasped as he attempted to get to his feet. The world grayed and faded toward black, and he felt two pairs of strong hands help him up and practically carry him away from the array. He felt a solid presence at his back and gratefully slid down the wall until his rear found the ground.

"Sir," Armstrong said, once Roy was safely out of the way. Without further encouragement, Strong Arm flexed, clenched his fist, and slammed spike-covered knuckles into the ground near the two statues. Lightning snaked and crackled up the stone monoliths and gradually disintegrated them, bringing the object gently down to solid ground.

A few slow, deep breaths later, and Roy's fog began to clear. Hawkeye's concerned gaze swam into view. "Stay put, sir," she said as she rose and turned toward the activity within the array.

"No problem."

Hawkeye halted in mid-rise and shot a startled glance back at Roy, but before she could say anything he waved her away. "Your priority is over there, Captain. I'll be fine."

It's not necessarily them, the soldier in Roy said firmly as he sucked in gusts of the dust-laden air and felt his body starting to tremble as the adrenaline of the transmutation wore off. There's no guarantee. His last encounter with the Elrics flashed through his mind and for a moment the airship, as Fullmetal vanished inside, blazed clearer to Roy's eye than the crumpled metal thing in the center of the dead array. His body moved of its own accord, finding renewed balance on shaky feet, and Roy bit back the urge to call the memory-Edward back.

Struggling to stay on his feet and in the present, Roy turned his attention to the unassuming mass in front of him. It was a transport of some sort -- covered in the same black, tarry patches he remembered on the airship, filming the windows to hide any detail of who or what was moving inside. Roy flexed his fingers and waited for any sign of a shimmering purple array, but none came. Not that he wanted to risk any more alchemy right now. Not with his vision fuzzing and exhaustion threatening to drop him in his tracks. At least Riza and Jean had the presence of mind to pull their weapons without waiting for him to recover and take command.

Roy wondered how long he should give it before checking out the vehicle himself, but then a muffled bang echoed off the walls around them. Fingers tightened on triggers, gun barrels lined up more true to the target, and Roy dizzily set the tip of his thumb against the striking pad along the inside of his second finger. Three more bangs followed the first in quick succession, then the object groaned and settled closer to the ground. Roy's unease ebbed as he realized that the tires had blown. A moment later a muted pop-hiss sounded from within and the cracked and crazed window on the passenger side became white with the expanding of an aggressive balloon that immediately deflated at the sound of a startled squawk. The situation only grew more bizarre when an insane cackle erupted from inside, interrupted by a second pop.

As of yet, there had been no overt threat, but Roy's back and arms were starting to cramp with the tension. There was still no sign or sound of Fullmetal... or Alphonse. Not willing to wait any longer, Roy took one wobbly step forward, then froze when he heard the scream of twisted hinges giving up as the passenger door fell to the ground with a resounding clatter. A woman fought with the deflated white balloon and the straps securing her to the seat. Once free, she swung sturdy legs out through the opening... and fell drunkenly onto the door. She lost her balance as it see-sawed and pitched her over onto the cobblestone, then staggered to her feet as a commotion started inside the vehicle. Tilting her head and furrowing her brow, she stared around her like a tourist who'd made a wrong turn and found herself on the wrong end of town. Her dazed expression barely twitched as her gaze landed on Armstrong and traveled up, then dropped to look at Havoc and Hawkeye -- still pointing their guns at her -- and there was a measurable moment before she comprehended that she was the target. She gasped, lurched back, and locked onto Roy's gaze, taking in his gloved hand stretched toward her -- and hesitantly offered her empty hands.

A faint clap cut through the ruckus, and the light of a transmutation filtered through the grimy windows. A section of the transport's side flowed away, replaced by two metal and glass columns adorned with tiny skulls and gargoyles.

"Dammit, Ed!" a voice erupted from inside. "Don't go desecrating my van like that!"

"It was wrecked already," an impatient, slightly irritated and blessedly familiar voice answered. An equally recognizable profile emerged from the shadowed interior as the voice continued to address his companion, "We need to make sure we weren't se--" the Fullmetal Alchemist himself turned his attention outward and noticed the armed people for the first time. He grabbed the woman's arm and all but threw her back in between the columns, then he clapped and formed the outer arm plate of his automail into a short blade, crouching into a defensive stance in front of the van. His eyes flicked from one threat to the next... then recognition dawned and he relaxed, straightening up and restoring his automail to normal.

"What is it, brother? Are we home?" Another head peeked out from behind the woman, and Alphonse broke into an impossibly huge grin. "General Mustang!"

Al scrambled to get out of the van, climbing over whoever else was still inside, and tripped, nearly tumbling face-first into the cobblestones as he stepped out. The woman snagged his shirt before he could fall and Ed got his arm around his brother an instant later.

"Idiot," Ed chided gently, "you just woke up. Take it easy, will ya?"

"But we're here! It worked, didn't it?"

Ed stood up fully, steadying Al with an arm around his shoulders. The brothers glanced over Roy's direction. "I don't know," Ed said, "Did it work?"

Roy lowered his hand as he exhaled one interminable breath. Finding his voice he countered, "You're the one who treats the Gate like a revolving door, Fullmetal. Why don't you tell me?"

~*~*~*~*~


"No point in waiting," Tom murmured, resting a hand briefly on Maes' shoulder before following Ed and Al out of the van.

Maes pulled himself up into the boys' abandoned seat with a wince and stared blankly ahead. After running so hard and for so long, the abrupt end to their journey had him reeling. Yet despite the overwhelming disorientation, there was something else grounding him to the seat, guiding his next breath. He could feel it in every aching joint. He was home.

Ducky punched down his blown airbag and turned around in his seat, a troubled expression wrinkling his forehead. In a moment of dazed recognition Maes noticed their eyes were the same shade of green.

"I know everything kinda came out the wrong way back there..." Ducky began. "I promise I'll explain the whole story to you later," his attention flashed briefly to what was unfolding outside. "We'll tell you everything."

"I'm look forward to hearing it," Maes replied hoarsely.

Ducky nodded and shoved open his door, muttering one last expletive under his breath as he exited, "Assuming we don't get attacked by some rogue Cylon in about five seconds."

Maes could hear Al stalling, "Umm, we didn't quite work out an 'after' plan, did we?"

"Yeah, this might be a problem," Ed answered.

"After crash landing in the middle of downtown Rush Valley during a freak earthquake, I don't know what else could constitute a problem." Maes nearly stopped breathing at the sound of the baritone voice laced with achingly familiar wit and condescension that had been just one more fading memory. "Is this everyone?" Roy continued. Maes leaned over just enough to catch his best friend take a step closer. Ed and Al visibly flinched and moved ever so subtly as if to guard the van. To guard him.

Behind Roy, Armstrong also stepped forward and spoke up with a solemn, "Sir."

"Wait," Ed added.

"What?" Roy asked, his annoyance rising to the surface.

Maes took a deep breath, steeled himself, then stepped from the van and stood silently behind the group that had inadvertently made him the center of attention. He scanned the faces briefly. Alex, face wet with tears, his enormous body nearly vibrating as he restrained himself from crushing Maes in what he was certain would be a back-breaking hug. Shock and disbelief on Riza and Jean, as their guns hung loosely down at their sides. Then he met Roy's eyes. Eye. Alphonse had told him about the catastrophic injury, and he'd thought he was prepared to see it in the flesh. He wasn't. Nor was he ready to see how much Roy had aged. It wasn't immediately obvious -- there were no gray hairs or deep crow's feet -- but the confident Mustang charisma, the cocky humor that had won over his troops and his women alike was gone, peeled away, perhaps, by Maes' "death", and the turmoil that followed. Turmoil that had cost Roy Mustang more than his left eye.

Roy's remaining eye widened ever so briefly, the color drained from his face, and he blinked once, twice, then...

"Well, shit," Ed summarized beside him.

"Language, Fullmetal," Roy barked a split second before everyone else tried to weigh in on the situation.

"General--"

"Mustang--"

"Sir--"

"Roy--"

Roy held up a gloved hand and they fell silent. Maes felt his heart drop to his toes as the light faded from Roy's eye and his expression turned completely sterile. Squaring his shoulders with a wince, Roy crossed the remaining space between them, each step adding a new layer of unreadable stillness, distancing himself so by the time he stood arm's length away, Maes might as well have been back in Oklahoma.

"On behalf of the military," Roy began with a deep bow, "I'd like to welcome you to Amestris. As I'm sure you're aware, your arrival here is going to cause quite a stir, and considering this one is involved," he nodded at Ed, "there's bound to be one hell of a story." Though Roy had been addressing their entire group, he'd been focused on Maes -- his face impassive and body strictly controlled.

The faces turned toward Mustang shaded through various levels of disbelief, confusion, and uncertainty. Whatever they'd been expecting from Roy, Maes concluded, he hadn't delivered.

"Idiot!" Ed exclaimed, unable to hold his bewilderment any longer. "Mustang, don't you know who this is?"

Ed's question brought a haunted pain to Roy's gaze, one Maes had seen before, when Roy had returned from Ishbal. "From what you told me at our last meeting," Roy replied, even that slice of emotion vanishing in the space of a breath, "my guess is that he," Roy gestured to Maes without emotion, "is 'the other' Hughes."

"Other... Hughes?" Maes shot a surprised look at the Elrics. They stared back at him, thunderstruck. His next questioning glance was at Armstrong. "You didn't tell him?"

"No," Armstrong replied.

Roy turned slightly so he could see Armstrong as well. "'Tell him' what?"

Ed groaned and put his face in his automail hand.

"General," Al offered uncertainly as new realization dawned on both boys, "he's our Hughes."

"Here we go," Havoc muttered, holstering his gun and taking a step towards his boss.

"What?"

"Edward!" Everyone stiffened at the sound of a new voice. There was a certain authority to the exclamation, though it sounded too far from their circle to possibly see the group.

"Ed! Al!" the voice called again in blind greeting, moments before a figure squeezed through the ring of stone Armstrongs and charged the brothers in a rush of dusty overalls and flying blond hair.

Winry Rockbell slowed to a stop just before breaking into the small group by the van, her eyes darting quickly from one face to the next. Her gaze landed on Maes and remained, eyes growing wider until her face crumpled, and Maes soon found his arms full as she launched herself at him.

"Mr. Hughes," she cried into his chest, "you're supposed to be dead!"

Stunned at the unexpectedly warm welcome, Maes could do little more than embrace the girl in return and pat her on the back. Al enthusiastically wrapped his arms as far as he could around both Hughes and Winry, then two hands reached back simultaneously -- one bare and dusty and finely muscled, the other fair and smaller -- and snagged Edward by the front of his shirt, startling a squeak out of him and yanking him into the group embrace.

~*~*~*~*~


Riza flinched as Roy stiffened at Winry's reaction. She hesitated when he whirled and stalked away from the group, knowing he needed a moment to collect himself. She felt like she could use a solid month. She settled for holstering her gun. Behind her, Riza heard Jean mutter softly, "Armstrong, you are in deep shit."

Unfortunately Jean wasn't quiet enough and Roy heard it, too. He rounded on them, eye blazing with a fire every bit as dangerous as the alchemical flames he could summon at will. Roy's left hand trembled at his side, twitching fingers alternating between fist and snap. His jaw worked at a tense grind after each of several false attempts at speech, a rarely displayed show of unguarded fury that made Riza's hair stand on end. Roy Mustang hadn't been this upset in years.

He finally settled for biting down on the tips of two fingers and yanking the glove off with his teeth. He thrust the freed glove roughly into Riza's unsuspecting hands, and she fumbled to keep from dropping it. Without missing a beat, Roy dug into his pocket for the matching glove, tossing it her direction.

"Easy, Must--"

"Why the hell are you so calm?" Roy's eye narrowed as he cut Jean off. "How long have you known?" He turned away before Jean could answer, his eye sliding over Armstrong like he wasn't even there, until his gaze rested, injured and pleading, on Riza. "Tell me you had nothing to do with this."

Stunned into silence by the accusation, Riza found herself blinking back unexpected tears. Her lips parted slightly in a loose 'o'.

"Of course she didn't know," Jean interjected. "I only put it together from your half-crazed ramblings back at the Rockbells' place." He took a step forward when it looked like Roy was going to press Riza further. "Dammit, Mustang, you're supposed to be smart. Figure it out." He squared his shoulders and all but dared Mustang to start a fight.

Roy closed his eye and clenched his fists, then moved resolutely towards the edge of the circle once more. Jean went to follow but Mustang cut him off with a slash of his hand.

"Help get them to Miss Rockbell's," he ordered coldly. His gaze fell to Armstrong long enough to make it plain that he expected the other alchemist to obey the command. "Make sure they're not seen."

Then he was weaving through the stone statues, his brisk pace propelling him swiftly towards the main road. Riza hardly had time to process the fact that, as she stayed just a step behind, he didn't make her leave him, too.

Not that she would have left him alone in this state. Nor would it have been a good idea. Mustang made it all of two blocks before shock and alchemical exhaustion caught up with him, and he crumpled in the street.

__________


September 5, 1919 -- 10:12 pm

Jean Havoc had seen a lot of strange shit. Working for alchemists taught a guy to forget the word “impossible” and just work with the situation that presented itself. Trusting his senses and his gut had kept him not only alive but pretty close to sane despite serial killers, homunculi, interdimensional invasions, and the deranged logic of State Alchemists. The scene in front of him at the moment, however, made him consider pinching himself to see whether or not he was dreaming. He had to be dreaming.

Riza Hawkeye, who could intimidate a tank division with a glance, dress down her State Alchemist commanding officer without raising her voice, and was rumored to threaten her hair with a gun before pinning it up for the day, half-lay, half-sprawled in a chair beside Roy Mustang's bed. Her head was propped on her right arm, and the left hung loosely. Some of her hair had escaped its plain clip and tumbled down into her exhausted face... Whaddya know, she really is a woman. Jean grinned to himself, then contained the humor, and crossed the room to set his coffee on the nightstand, then put a hand on Hawkeye's shoulder and shake a little. “Hey. Wake up and go find a place--” he jerked away and raised both hands as the Captain's automatic lined up with a spot right between his eyes “--to stretch out?”

Dark-circled eyes blinked, and Hawkeye lowered her gun and holstered it. “Sorry, Jean.”

“I'd hate to be your alarm clock.” Jean relaxed. “Go get some sleep, I'll keep an eye on him for a few hours.”

“You haven't had any more rest than I have.”

“No, but I've had more coffee. He probably won't wake up until sometime after breakfast anyway.”

Hawkeye visibly wavered, then gently pressed her hand on top of Mustang's for a moment and got to her feet. “Thank you. Wake me up when you need a break.”

“Will do.” Jean mentally crossed his fingers, then moved the chair a few inches away from the wall and rocked back in it to wait.

The floor squeaked what felt like only a few minutes later, and Havoc's eyes popped back open. He let the chair drop back to the floor with a thump as someone pushed the door open.

Maes Hughes held up a hand and all but fell into the chair just inside the door. “Only me, no need to sound the alarm.”

“Can't sleep, huh?” Jean eyed the man, feeling a weird prickling along his spine. He'd seen Hughes' blood pooled in a cordoned-off phone booth. He'd been one of the riflemen who fired the salute at his funeral. Then he'd spent months covering for his commanding officer's mistakes and absences while he grieved. Now Maes Hughes, a little older but definitely not a ghost, sat no more than ten feet away. It buried the needle even on Jean Havoc's high-capacity strange-shit meter.

“Crazy as it might sound, no.” Hughes rubbed the back of his neck and stretched. “I'll probably fall asleep in my food in the morning.”

“You won't be the only one.” Jean arched his back and yawned, deliberately casual, then tipped his chair back again, keeping his eyes on Hughes. “It was one of those days.”

“I hear you've been having a lot of 'those days' lately.”

“You could say that.” Jean started to add a comment about chasing down his own commanding officer, then cut it off and looked at the man sitting in the chair across from him. The intelligence officer, who had literally just returned from another world...

Hughes' face fell, just a little, and he turned his eyes toward the general. “Alex tells me the government's changed, but the military hasn't.”

“Not so you can tell,” Jean shrugged.

“Barely at all,” another voice rasped. General Mustang sat up and turned an eye hard as obsidian on his long-lost friend. “For instance, new recruits still swear an oath of loyalty the day they start training.”

Jean grimaced and let his chair drop to all fours again, wordlessly reminding Mustang of his presence.

Hughes flinched. “Roy.” He dropped his gaze to the floor, then folded his hands between his knees. “Will you at least hear me out?”

“Armstrong explained your reasoning to me.” The words sliced the air like frozen daggers, and Jean tried to shift back toward the wall and away from his CO.

“Then you know why I didn't dare risk contacting you, or even my wife. The stakes were too high.”

“'Too high?'” Mustang's tightly-controlled voice crackled in disbelief and disgust. “It's when the stakes are highest that a man goes to his friends and asks their help. He doesn't fake his death and abandon his wife and child to play cat-and-mouse games with a madman.”

That hit so hard even Jean's heart stung, and he shot Mustang a hard look -- but he was on the general's blind side and the man didn't notice. Mustang wasn't playing fair... but then again, Hughes wasn't making a whole lot of sense, either.

“Dammit Roy, you think I wanted Elysia to grow up without a father?” Hughes' voice rose to a near-shout. “Do you honestly believe I wouldn't have sent my wife enough letters to wallpaper the house, if there'd been a way to do it without risking a civil war? They were planning wars to turn lives into Philosopher's Stones!”

“Fortunately for the people of Amestris, you weren't the only one who figured that out.” Mustang's tone all but vibrated with tightly-leashed fury.

“OK, so I made a mistake! I was wrong and I've been living in hell for four years! What else do you want?

"He's right, boss. Arguing about the past won't--" Jean started. Mustang cut him off with a sharp slash of his left hand, and Jean's eyes narrowed as he bit back the rest of the sentence.

Mustang's face might have been carved of stone for all the softness in it. “I buried and avenged Maes Hughes years ago.”

Hughes got to his feet, opened his mouth, then shut it and left.

Jean waited until Mustang's jaw relaxed a fraction, then said, "My dad's brother ran off, sometime before I was born. He couldn't stand my grandfather treating him like an idiot. The family hasn't heard from him in forty years."

"Make your point, Havoc."

Jean Havoc met Mustang's glare with one of his own. "The point, Sir, is that I wouldn't treat a dog that ran off and came back the way you just treated your best friend." He got up, letting the chair rattle on the floor. "If my uncle shows up tomorrow, my dad'll punch him once in the face and then get the whole family together to welcome him home." He picked up his long-cold coffee mug and headed for the door. "Get some sleep, General." He shut the door behind himself and went to find an unoccupied piece of floor to stretch out on.

__________


September 6, 1919 -- 3:27am

Most of the people in Dominick's house and shop were asleep, recovering from a day that had started strange and ended off the far end of plausibility. There were, however, a few people awake and moving.

Roy Mustang, for one, was wide awake. He leaned his left hip against the counter in the darkened kitchen, staring through the window over the sink at the clear night and nearly full moon, and sipped at a glass of water. He wasn't really thirsty; it was an excuse to remain in the kitchen instead of going back upstairs to bed. He could still hear the girl, Paninya's, pained cries and shouts as her labor intensified. Hints of the evening's meal tickled his nose and reminded him that he hadn't eaten since early the previous morning, but his stomach turned at the thought of food.

From the dining room, Roy could hear faint chirps and beeps and muttered cursing from one of the strangers who'd arrived with Edward and Alphonse today. He'd have to meet them and examine the chirping things later, but he was in no mood to try and acquaint himself with strange technology and even stranger people. What little he knew of their world struck him as bizarre and repellent at best. Hawkeye had come in some time after Havoc left, and tried to give him a brief report, but much of what she'd learned from the strangers and the Elrics sounded... worse than insane.

The chirping things were computers. Machines that were supposed to do calculations at dizzying speeds, store information in inexplicable ways and display it on colorful screens on command. Hawkeye had assured him they weren't weapons; although what they did, besides make noise and create frustration among the people who'd brought them, wasn't clear. She had wisely chosen to keep strictly to business, but he could see it in her eyes -- the promise of an eventual dressing-down that would be worse than the backlash of one of his own fireballs.

Later.

A floorboard creaked under someone's weight, and Mustang snapped around. The figure silhouetted in the kitchen doorway stopped and held his palms open at his side. "Didn't mean to startle you, General," the man said.

One of the strangers -- the older man. Roy didn't recall the name, though Hawkeye had probably supplied it in her briefing. He relaxed and nodded, inviting the man into the kitchen. He could hear the soft, careful steps across the tile, but the man melted into the shadows. A moment later he reappeared in the weak light of the moon streaming through the window. Silver hair pulled back into a ponytail, craggy face, and sharp light eyes that assessed Roy in an instant. Combined with his caution and quiet steps, the general knew what he was dealing with. "You were a soldier," he murmured.

The older man showed no surprise, but then, Roy didn't expect him to. Soldiers who'd seen actual battle knew what that particular alert calm meant. Instead, the man held out a hand. "There wasn't much time for formalities earlier, General. I'm Tom Mears. Sergeant, Special Forces Airborne out of Laos. Retired, though."

Roy took the offered hand and shook it briefly. "Brigadier General Roy Mustang... and as far as I know I'm still active status." He quirked a slight smile, and added, "Hopefully."

Tom's brows shot up. "AWOL?"

Roy shook his head. "Not exactly."

A long, guttural growl that grew to a roar, rattled through the building, and both men turned toward the sound. Then Tom huffed softly and knelt down, opening a low cabinet door. "Sounds like she's about finished, there." Roy could hear him shuffling items around, feeling for something. Then a triumphant, "Ah!" and Tom rose. A silver flask glittered in the moonlight like a hard-won treasure in the older man's hand. "Dominic gave me a tip on where he kept his stash." He opened the flask and took a quick swig, then wiped the mouth off and offered it to Roy. "I get the feeling that the girls don't approve."

Roy took a drink, then said, "I suppose not."

The younger man in the dining room greeted someone, and Roy stiffened when a familiar voice responded. He started to return the flask, ready to make a strategic retreat, but the older man held up a hand to stop him. Observant eyes read Roy's body, and a sharp mind guessed more than Mustang was comfortable with, but there was no scolding in his face or his tone. "Keep it. You need it more than I do." He nodded toward the back door, and said, "There's a pretty nice garden on the roof. It's a lot quieter up there, General."

With a nod, Roy left Tom to cover for him, and he made his escape.

~*~*~*~*~


The night was crisp and clear. The city was asleep and blessedly quiet. The gravel path glowed a faint silver in the moonlight and crunched softly as Roy strolled past the raised vegetable beds, low hedges, and flowering bushes that were shedding their final blooms of the season. He ignored the round, concrete table and scattered chairs that surrounded the burbling fountain dominating the center of the rooftop garden, and leaned on the one wall that wasn't covered in greenery. It offered an unencumbered view of the cliffs that surrounded Rush Valley. Dominic's place sat at a higher elevation than most of the city, and from here, Roy could pick out the densely packed buildings that surrounded the wide market pavilion.

During the day, the market would be alive with vendors hawking their wares -- whether it be jewelry, tools, food, or automail -- and in the evening, the lights surrounding each of the booths would give the place a carnival-like atmosphere. But at this time of night, the pavilions were empty; the booths abandoned and the canvases tied down and closed. The only illumination came from the moon and the streetlamps that cast puddles of wan light into the quiet streets.

One corner of the plaza looked even more desolate; roped off and littered with rubble. The very spot where Ed and Al had emerged from the Gate. Given Fullmetal's reputation, mysterious disappearance, and long absence, the place would probably become a tourist attraction -- complete with souvenir postcards and snowglobes -- if word leaked out and someone made the right connections. Part of Hawkeye's report mentioned that Lieutenant Armstrong had smoothed things over with the local authorities, and planned to clean up the mess in the morning. But even the Strong Arm Alchemist was wiped out from the day's events... and the high emotion that came with it.

Roy unscrewed the cap from the flask, took a swallow, then turned his back to the wall, leaning against it with a sigh.

He tensed as one of the shadows in the center of the garden shifted -- peeling itself from the top of the table to sit up in a move disturbingly reminiscent of a nearly-dead man rising from among the bodies of the fallen.

"Shit. Even in the middle of the night a guy can't get a minute to think." The words sounded more tired and rueful than angry.

Roy blew out a relieved breath. "Edward. I didn't know you were up here."

"That was sort of the idea." The form shifted and Roy heard gravel crunch as Ed hopped off the table and strode toward him.

Free of the darkness cast by the surrounding hedges, Roy was again struck at how different the boy seemed. No-- not a boy. Roy kept thinking of Edward Elric as a child, when he was anything but. He'd seen the maturity in Fullmetal when he'd made the decision to return to the other side of the Gate after the invasion, but Roy's mind hadn't really acknowledged it. He hadn't had time to get to know the man the foul-mouthed, temperamental brat -- the brilliant, maimed child so desperate to correct his mistakes -- had become. Edward Elric had given Roy Mustang a lot of headaches over the years, but when he vanished, leaving behind an amnesiac little brother who had no answers for Roy's questions, that was heartache. Logically, he'd known that the odds of his ever seeing Edward or Alphonse after that last battle were vanishingly small. His final glimpse -- of Ed walking into that airship, and out of Roy's world -- hadn't faded. He had kept Falman on the case, chasing down even the slightest of hints for almost five years. His last ember of stubborn denial of facts had begun to flicker, and then... well. Here he was. A grin pulled and tightened Roy's cheeks almost painfully, but he didn't try to temper it. "Welcome home."

Ed hesitated, then ducked his head, hiding behind blond bangs -- but not before Roy saw the embarrassed smile twitch at the corners of his lips. "Yeah." He recovered in an instant; a familiar spark in his gold eyes as he closed the gap between them and snatched the flask from Roy's hand. "If you'd said that when we first got here," he said, as he twisted open the flask, "I would've known we were in the wrong place." Ed took a quick swig, grimaced and made a disgusted noise as he shoved the bottle back at Roy. "For some reason, I figured you to be a good whiskey kinda guy. Not this... crap."

Roy chuckled and wiped off the mouth of the flask. "Courtesy of Dominic," he said as he held it up, then took a swallow and winced. "I generally don't carry my own stash when I'm running around the country chasing down wayward alchemists."

A comfortable silence fell between them, as they shared the flask and stared up at the night sky. Finally, Ed broke the quiet with a soft, "They're the same, you know." He waved a hand at the sky. "The stars."

"What was it like, there?"

Ed chuckled. "Everyone is fucking insane."

"Coming from you that's a frightening statement." Roy relaxed against the low wall with an amused huff at the irony. "What about your friends?"

"They're all right," Ed said, as he lifted himself up to sit on the wall. "Really. A little hard to understand, sometimes." His face tilted up and softened in the moonlight, and he actually smiled. "But they helped me find Al and get us all back here."

Roy didn't miss the slight emphasis on 'all' and tensed, waiting for the barb and the inevitable confrontation. Instead, something dark narrowed Ed's eyes and tightened his face for a moment -- then it disappeared in a blink. The rules of the game changed in that flick of Ed's eyelashes. This was no longer a debriefing under the guise of catching up; there was a layer hidden beneath the easy banter. Mustang adjusted his tactics and asked casually, "The two of you were separated? How?"

Ed shook his head. "We were thrown through the Gate about a year after we left. Somehow, we came out over a hundred miles away from each other. Reilly... the woman?" At Roy's nod, Ed continued, "I landed on her property during a thunderstorm. She and Tom -- that's the old guy -- kept me from drowning..." Ed hesitated and shot a sideways, warning glare at Roy. "Yes, in a puddle. I was unconscious, before you make any smart-assed remarks... and it was a deep puddle."

Roy feigned innocence. "What makes you think I was going to say anything?"

"Because you never missed a chance to piss me off."

"You were too easy, Edward."

Ed scowled at Roy, but there was no heat in the look. Then Ed lowered his eyes and relaxed. He conceded the first battle before it began. Gazing down at the gravel below his dangling feet, Ed said, "You're an arrogant jerk, you know that? But... " He snorted softly. "Even on the other side of the Gate, I could hear your pompous voice giving me orders." Then, so quietly, Roy had to strain to hear him, Ed added, "I'd sometimes wish that I could actually talk to you."

Roy said nothing for a long time. Several sarcastic remarks flitted through his mind, but this wasn't a moment for teasing. Ed had just willingly made a confession Roy would have wagered good money on never hearing. Still, there had been that flicker of pain in his face, and Roy doubted direct questions would get him the answers he wanted. Getting inside Edward Elric's guard required finesse -- because no one could force it through strength or alchemy. Gently, Roy asked, "Was it that bad?"

Ed's swinging feet stilled, and he studied Roy's face for a long moment. Then his face relaxed into a melancholy smile and he stared up at the night sky once more. "Sometimes. Technology advanced there, instead of alchemy, and they often used it to find better ways to kill people." Ed's smile brightened only minimally as he faced Roy again. "But they found a lot of good ways to use it, too. Medicine, communication, even entertainment." He smirked, "Although there was a pretty convincing argument that TeeVee was at least as destructive as any of their weapons."

"TeeVee?"

"It's like a mutated cross between going to the cinema and radio. A box with a screen that you could watch shows on all the time, or play games. Everyone seemed to have one." Ed snorted derisively. "Most of it was stupid shit."

"'Most of it'? Then not all of it?"

"Some of it was informative, yeah." The darkness returned to Ed's eyes, and stayed. "There was a channel that was dedicated to history..." he trailed off and stared into the shadows on the roof. Hands tightened on the lip of the wall he sat on, and his back tensed. A frown pulled Ed's lips down, and he barely breathed as he fought with whatever painful memories roiled within him.

Roy let the silence stretch between them, while he watched Ed decide how much to tell him.

"TeeVee helped me get caught up," Ed finally said, distantly. "After Al and I were thrown over eighty years into the future."

"Were you able to find out anything about the people you'd known?"

Ed's tightening back and shoulders told Roy he'd come very close to that hidden pain, and he was taken aback at the tremor in the younger man's lips and the rapid blinking of suddenly moist eyes. Ed dropped his head, hiding behind his long bangs. Roy laid his hand gently on Ed's shoulder and felt tightly controlled grief vibrate under his palm. "Who was it, Edward?" he asked softly.

Ed snorted softly and shook his shoulder, wriggling out from under Roy's hand. That, at least, hadn't changed. Edward Elric almost never accepted touch from anyone but Al. "There was a war a few years after Al and I left," he said in a near monotone. "People who worshiped the wrong god, or couldn't walk -- they don't have automail there -- or even just people who said the wrong thing to the wrong people... were rounded up and put in camps. Worse than the refugee camps after Ishbal." He whispered through gritted teeth, "The Nazis performed medical experiments on some of them. They enslaved them, tortured them, starved them and used carbon monoxide to kill them. Six m-- million people." He gazed up into Roy's face with an expression of open despair. "They had the technology and they used it to make killing an industry. They looked for the most efficient ways to slaughter whoever they didn't want living in their world." Ed huddled into his jacket, though it wasn't particularly cold. "Then after they were dead their bodies were shoved into ovens and burned. Sometimes the bastards didn't even wait for them to die before burning them." He shuddered. "Six million. That's the official count, and that's just the camps. There were a lot more dead. That world kills by the millions. It's like-- like they're machines themselves, and they don't care."

Roy's blood ran cold. War, in his own experience, was a hideous reminder of the cruelties that humans could inflict upon one another, so the torture, the 'ovens' -- even the medical experiments -- didn't horrify him as much as they did Edward. It was the numbers. The wholesale slaughter of the Ishballans hadn't come anywhere close to what Ed described.

Ed's body tightened more and the trembling increased as he struggled in silence a moment. "Th-- the other Hughes and Gracia were arrested because they'd sheltered Noa, a... gypsy. And her son." Ed choked on a sob. "M-- my s-- son."

"Your..." Roy's eye stung and he gripped Ed's shoulder again as he blinked back sudden tears. His own voice was thick, as he whispered, "I'm sorry, Edward." The words felt inadequate, but anything else would be trite.

Ed didn't shake off Roy's hand, this time. He wiped at his face with the back of his left hand, then clamped that hand over his eyes and sobbed openly. "I-- I didn't know she was pregnant. H-- he should hate me. I abandoned them... left them to suffer that... that hell alone, but he doesn't hate me."

Roy became very still. Whether due to the overwhelming events of the day, the exhaustion, or the alcohol, it took him a moment longer to comprehend what he'd just heard. "He doesn't? Ed... your son is still alive?"

Ed's head snapped up, and for a brief moment, he looked trapped, but something shifted and it was gone in a blink. Somber trust and a shockingly mature respect weighed Roy, not as a commanding officer or an alchemist, but as a man and a friend. Ed made his decision and nodded. "Maes... my son, escaped the camps... with the help of that world's Hughes. He falsified the records and faked his death." A tearful smile twitched at the corner of his lips, as he added, "I did get to see him. Just before we jumped. But it was only for a few hours."

"And these friends of yours, the ones who came through the Gate with you," Roy asked, "They took you and Al to see him?"

Ed jumped off the wall and took a few steps away from Roy, turning away from him and wrapping his arms around himself. "Al didn't get to meet him," he said quietly. "It was just me... me and Ducky."

Intuition flashed, and Roy understood. 'Back here', not 'home', Ed had said. He stared at the young man's back, silent. What could he say? It was hard to believe; Edward Elric, the Fullmetal Alchemist, legendary for his genius, his short temper, and his compassion... had a son who'd survived hell. Probably through sheer luck and stubbornness, if he was anything like his father. What would it be like, to meet a son older than he was? How far did the Elric legacy spread? How many generations, born and raised in that insane world?

The reasons Ed had chosen to cross the Gate, instead of remaining on that side... with his son -- his family -- Roy's blood chilled some more. What could drive Fullmetal to face the Gate again... Roy caught a startled gasp as another flash of intuition struck. Then he turned on his heel, crossed the roof and padded down the stairs. He felt more than heard Ed on his heels as he slipped through the kitchen, down a short hall, and ended at the doorway to the dining room. A young man was slumped over the table, his head resting on folded arms in front of the computer. His long, dark hair was pulled into a ponytail that fanned out over his face and fluttered with each soft breath. The glow of the computer's shifting light traced Ducky's features in sharp, pale relief -- and it was there. Roy just stared, eye following the shape of the nose, the breadth of the jaw. Edward. The Elric blood was there -- one just had to think to look for it. Edward, only a shadow beyond the glow of the computer, glided up behind him, and Roy whispered, "He's yours, isn't he?"

Ed slipped silently by and came up behind Ducky, the light reaching up to stroke his sharper-edged face. He reached over the young man's shoulder, and moved his finger over the wide part of the computer's base, near what looked like typewriter keys, then tapped. A moment later, the light coming from the alien technology went dark, and Ed softly closed the lid.

Roy only noticed the actions peripherally. What dominated his attention was Edward's left hand, resting gently on Ducky's back, between his shoulder blades -- protectively and comfortingly. When Ducky stirred and woke up with a sharp intake of breath, Ed murmured in a soft comforting thrum, "It's just me. You should go lay down, dumb-ass."

Ducky rubbed his eyes, and when he grinned at Ed, Roy saw the Elric legacy bright and clear. "Right. You need to get to bed too... Gramps." Ed didn't react, but when Ducky stood stiffly and started to stretch, he turned to see Roy at the door and froze, turning bright red. "Uh..."

Ed came up beside the young man and clapped a hand on his shoulder. "It's okay."

Ducky blinked, fully awake now, and snapped around to stare gape-jawed at Ed, while he pointed at Roy. "You... you told him?"

Ed rubbed the back of his neck and grinned, ruefully. "Not... exactly."

Ducky faced Roy, staring in awe. "Whoa. You are good. What do you do? Like... read minds or something?"

Ed's scowl was hardly serious, as he smacked Ducky hard enough against the back of his head to make him stumble a step, and said, "Get to bed. Idiot."

Ducky chuckled as he shuffled past Roy, leaving the two of them alone once again.

Roy didn't move. He just watched Ed, watching him warily. Finally, Roy cracked a grin, and said, "Gramps?"

Ed breathed and sagged in relief and the expression he suddenly graced Roy with was a mixture of nonplussed pride. "Yeah. We both only found out yesterday." Then he shot a warning glare, and added, "And if you give me any shit about it, I'm gonna kick your ass so high up around your smug face that you'll be wearing your balls as jewelry."

Roy chuckled. "I'd wondered whether there was anything left of the Edward Elric I remembered." He flashed a knowing, casual smirk, a return to an old game. "You might not even have to jump to hit the right spot."

"Go to bed, Mustang," Ed said as he squeezed by with a face-splitting yawn, leaving a rather disappointed Roy behind in the dining room doorway.

After a moment, he laughed softly, shook his head, and started down the hall toward his room. As he neared the open door of the parlor, he could hear soft snoring and the rustle of blankets. The wan light reflected off the mirror above the mantel, just at eye level, and as he passed by, the light flared and he caught a hint of movement in the silvered glass. Roy froze, and turned to watch a shadowed form spread ragged black wings, darkening the mirror, then blow away like smoke on a nonexistent breeze. He blinked. The mirror shone softly in the darkness above the sleeping bodies on the sofas and floor. Roy Mustang shook his head and rubbed his eye. It was only a trick of the light, compounded by exhaustion. He gazed at the mirror a moment longer, then yawned and turned back toward the stairs and bed.

__________




Chapter Three: July 1

Come join us at the Crackbunny Syndrome forums!
 
 
 
 
 
 
>:O New chapter! *readreadread*

"The tar-covered mass, hanging precariously overhead between two stone Armstrongs," - that's all I needed to read to grin. Armstrong's alchemical decoration never fails to amuse. He's just so proud of his family and his physique.

It took me a moment to realise what this meant: "A woman fought with the deflated white balloon". Good work, though - there wouldn't have been airbags in Amestris at that time. Must looks like a completely unnecessary attachment to the car - why, it'd get in the way of seeing through the front!

Ed's style of exit . . . The columns with gargoyles . . . I'm not surprised. He likes his style, even if no-one else does.

"Then he met Roy's eyes. Eye." Best climactic disruptor ever. Deflates the seriousness of it all at once. Well, briefly anyway.

He thinks it's the other Hughes! Wah! He's trying not to get his hopes up!

I'm surprised that none of the world people made the connection between Roy and Llew. I forget - did Ed mention it to them, and so did they expect it, or does the eyepatch throw them off that much, or are they all just really unobservant? "We were looking at the weapons pointed at us, not at the guy in the middle who didn't have anything but a pretty pair of gloves." ?

"Mustang cut him off with a sharp slash of his left hand." (during the conversation with Hughes.) That makes it two times that I've read that in this chapter. I think the other was when Mustang was walking away. It's a very expressive phrase, and I can understand the visual implied, but it's also uncommon. Using it twice . . . It just makes it stick out like a sore thumb. Different wording could be handy. Even just saying "Mustang cut him off with a sharp wave of his left hand." That way you've still got "sharp" to give you an idea of the fluidity, but you've gotten rid of the repetitive "slash".

I like your consistancy in calling television "TeeVee". It reminds me how not-our-world they are. Yay!

"Intuition flashed, and Roy understood. 'Back here', not 'home',". Eek, that's a little worrying. Is Ed going to try to go back now that Amestris isn't home? @_@ Roy was right in saying he uses the Gate as a revolving door.

Ooer, a form with wings? Sounds eerie. Don't give me nightmares >:(


Chapter = yay. I love that Ed and Roy were able to talk about things, and Roy's observation skillz win. I'm wondering how Maes is taking this rather poor treatment from his best friend. And now that he's actually here in Amestris, what's going on in his head? His friends, his family - they're all here somewhere, and now he's able to see them. Where would he want to go first? How would he approach Gracia and Elycia? Or . . . (although I don't like it one little bit) would it be better for them if he didn't approach them? No, he has to!

Thank you and see you soon :3
I'm surprised that none of the world people made the connection between Roy and Llew.

Llyn? Oh that'll come up real soon! XD

"Intuition flashed, and Roy understood. 'Back here', not 'home',". Eek, that's a little worrying. Is Ed going to try to go back now that Amestris isn't home? @_@ Roy was right in saying he uses the Gate as a revolving door.

Ahhh.... well? Can't tell you. **hides from ballistic objects**

"Mustang cut him off with a sharp slash of his left hand."

Oooh! We did, didn't we? We try to keep certain gestures to a minimum (ie; not repeat them... at least not twice in the same chapter!), but sometimes we miss! Thanks for pointing it out though.

And we love!love!love! nice long comments with critique! Thank you so much for that! We all hope we can keep the quality up through this entire story, too. Glad you're enjoying it so far.
Bwah, my brain ran away with me. Of course I meant Llyn. I have a terrible short-term memory, so I was pretty much clutching at straws. "It's something Welsh! Quick! Think of something! Makes you think of Llewellyn!" But I'm glad it'll come up soon :D Llyn (despite my lack of name-memory) is a great character. Mustang as a doctor - who'da thunk it?

Evasive answers, ey? I'll just have to remove that from my memory (not hard - see above paragraph) so that anything "home" related will come as a surprise. Bah. Ed's brain is in such a conundrum because he learnt he has family there. He to carry some of the responsibility. Jerk-face never thinks of who he's leaving behind until he's left them.

Aww, I love giving long comments when I have the time. I know I've subjected more than one author to them before, because I know I like them in return. See? Even just long replies to my comments. If I had to I could carry a conversation with a brick wall, but feedback is definitely preferable. Especially when the "conversation" is something you've worked hard at.
Roy only noticed the actions peripherally. What dominated his attention was Edward's left hand, resting gently on Ducky's back, between his shoulder blades -- protectively and comfortingly.

DX Gaah, I want to draw that! Too cute...

I love the description of the airbag going off on Reilly(?) and Ducky laughing at her, only to get a faceful of it himself. XD

Roy didn't move. He just watched Ed, watching him warily.

...The product of a late night proofreading, I'm guessing? It took me a second go-round to catch this one. :)
Roy didn't move. He just watched Ed, watching him warily

They were watching each other for a moment -- Ed Wary, since he thoroughly expected something rude from Mustang. ;)

DX Gaah, I want to draw that! Too cute...

You're more than welcome to! In fact we'd love it ***grrrriiiinnnnnssss***
Oh, I didn't quite catch that. >.< I didn't realize Ed was watching Roy back... *slaps forehead* ( I had a feeling that was the case right after I posted the comment XD )

*grins back* *fires up photoshop* :D
**wibbles** :D:D:D:D:D:D:D
This chapter was everything I hoped it would be. I wanted to kick Roy and hug him at the same time, poor guy. You did a good job of conveying all the layers of tension in the beginning. I liked this sentence: She gasped, lurched back, and locked onto Roy's gaze, taking in his gloved hand stretched toward her -- and hesitantly offered her empty hands. That's a cool detail, because of course Reilly would have no idea what Roy's gesture really means, but not everyone would think of that.

I loved all of Havoc's attempts to protect Roy from himself, whether it was physically in the beginning, or verbally about how he was treating Maes. The conversation between Ed and Roy (and eventually, Ducky) was beautiful. I'm looking forward to the conversation that eventually has to happen between Roy and Maes. I'm not sure I want to know what the black shadow Roy saw is. See you in July!
Thanks! Just wait! It's going to get more complex and weird! ;)

But then, what can you expect, when Ed (and Ducky, for that matter) are in the mix?
Update~~~

*Claws at you weakly, keeping vigil since June 30*

(I'm waiting to see how Hughes will reunite with Gracia. Oh dear, Elysia!)

We were hoping no one would notice. Chapter 3 is in the works but a bit delayed--RL has reared its ugly head. Good Lord willin' and the crick don' rise, we'll be posting this weekend. Chapter 4 is also under way.

As for Hughes and Gracia--the opening moves of that plot thread will be showing up shortly. Elysia...there will be tears. From multiple parties. Probably several chapters down the road yet for that, though.