Setting: Fullmetal Alchemist, mangaverse, post-series, yet plotted out way last year: this 'verse is AU on a few plot points from 104-108. Details here!
Characters: Roy/Ed (UST), Havoc/Rebecca, Riza/Miles, Al, Winry, ensemble.
Warnings: This chapter: a mere PG-13 for mention of gore. Will be NC-17 overall.
Word count: 4479
Summary: two years on from the Promised Day. Amestris is without a Fuhrer. In the military, Mustang's faction of reformers are locked in struggle with General Hakuro's old guard, who are are developing an alchemical weapon that makes the Immortal Army look harmless. Civil war seems inevitable. As the battle lines are drawn up, Team Mustang search urgently for Hakuro's secret weapon and meanwhile, struggle to get from day to day knowing that tomorrow could be the day that everything comes crashing down …
Notes: Direct sequel to No Small Injury. A heads-up: the plotty plot continues, but the Roy/Ed in this one is going to be mostly explicit rather than subtexty. Illustrated fic is illustrated (by me). Betaed and edited by enemytosleep, and additional thanks to cornerofmadness for surgical and wound care know-how, and to enemytosleep again for Al's State Alchemist name. You guys should probably know that her other suggestion was Reacharound. XD
Chapter One: Blue Monday
Al liked mornings: they were a good time to think. The July sky outside was a clean, bright blue. He had the windows open, blowing a breeze all the way through the little apartment he shared with Ed and wiping the last traces of sleepiness from his mind. There was a kettle steaming on the stove, and Ed was fetching breakfast from the deli. It was a shame that this morning Al's research project was to research the various nasty uses that an infant Homunculus might be put to.
It was also a shame that there was another damn mouse in front of the sofa.
Al looked at it from the corner of his eye. It was chewing on a corner of toast. It looked pretty happy. They always did. The mice in their building were generally fat, shiny and contented-looking, some of them big enough that he and Ed had debated whether they might actually be baby rats. The mouse apparently decided it had had enough breakfast, and started washing its ears. Al stayed where he was, pretending to read and running a quick distance calculation in his head. He slowly lowered his right hand to lie by his left on top of the book. Then, keeping his eyes on the mouse, he tapped his fingertips together, and applied them to the table. The little array sank into the woodgrain, and he felt its force run down into the floor.
From the corner of Al's eye, he saw a little fence of wood shoot up from the floor to circle the mouse. There was silence, then a harsh scratching sound. Al walked over and took a look. There was the mouse, fur on end, scrabbling at one wall and attempting already to find an edge to chew on. There was also a terrible smell of ozone. He really had to work on that.
Now the question was, could he put the floorboards back without leaving a big, obvious ring in the wood grain? They had sworn up and down to their landlord that they weren't going to do alchemy in the apartment. Of course, this was a tissue of lies, but they didn't want to be actually caught out. Al opened one of the windows wider and wafted the air around him with a newspaper. Then he went to get a coffee mug and a bit of cardboard.
Mouse carefully in place, he stuffed his keys in his pocket, then popped downstairs and out to the garbage dumpster around the corner. Once released, the mouse looked around itself for a moment, as if to say, what the hell was that, man? Then it skittered off and vanished into the shadows.
"You know when you do that the mice just come straight back, right?"
"Brother, it's not like they just climb the stairs back up." Al straightened and turned.
"What, you don't think mice can climb? You think stairs defeat them?" Ed shook his head derisively. "How do they get to the apartment in the first place, then?"
"You're missing the point," Al said as they climbed the stairs to their apartment. "I really doubt the same mice are coming back - it's just that this building has an awful lot of them."
Inside their flat, the kettle was whistling. Ed jogged into the kitchen to take it off the heat.
"I'm right about this, you know," he yelled from the kitchen. "Next time you catch one we should tag it, like colour a bit of fur red or something."
"It's different mice every time! Our problem," said Al, flopping onto the sofa and rummaging in Ed's bag of pastries, "is that our mousecatching solution can't adequately contain the hungry mice of 88b Palmer Street."
"We are not getting a cat," said Ed from the kitchen.
"What's the issue? We're not travelling, we have a permanent address. C'mon."
"The landlord says no pets."
"Yeah, well, the landlord says no alchemy. Funny seeing you on the side of the law. I guess the uniformed life is getting to you."
"But - " Ed waved his arms, needled. Croissant flakes dropped. "What if we're both away?"
"Then we'll just get someone from the office to look after the cat. And why are you feeding the mice?"
"Huh?" Al pointed at the croissant crumbs on the floorboards. Ed tutted. "There's no way you expect me to sweep up every time I drop a speck of something! That's crazy."
"I do it!"
Ed made a dismissive noise. "You're weird like that."
"I'm not cleaning your crap up! Why do you even have a problem with getting a cat? Bet you can't even give me a reason."
"But - c'mon. Is this the best time? I mean, what with everything that's happening in the country right now?"
"Major Hawkeye has a dog. She had a puppy and plotted revolution and it all worked out fine! And cats are way more independent! They can catch their own food." Al eyeballed him. "Is this about that one time I wouldn't let you take the armchair because the hotel cat was sleeping in it?"
"You picked me up and put me under your arm!"
"Brother, it was five years ago!" Al was starting to feel aggravated enough himself to justify aiming a little below the belt. "So now I can tell you it was hilarious 'cause you were so tiny. I just had to pick you up by the scruff of the neck, like a little kitten -"
"Because I was supporting the growth of your body and mine! It's all down to me you're a freaking beanpole now, Bridgewire. I donated you at least two inches of that height." On that, Ed turned on his heel and went to the kitchen to retrieve the coffee.
"Brother, Mom's family were all really short," Al called after him.
Ed re-entered with a coffee pot and two mugs, and sat down next to Al. His face was set in a way that told Al it was time to call a halt to the teasing before he got really pissed. Ah well, it was time to get down to work anyway. Al filled the cups while Ed picked up Al's notes and leafed through them. He picked up one of the other notebooks on the coffee table, a much older one, and gently turned the pages.
"Old man had terrible handwriting," Ed muttered. "Is that an 'n' or a 'w'?"
"It's an 'n'," said Al. "See, I was right to save these before we burnt the house. You were all, there's no way we'll ever need those."
"What do you want? I was twelve, I thought I knew everything." Ed traced his finger over a diagram. "Did you see this proof here?"
"Yeah. That does seem kind of definitive." Al blew a breath up into his bangs. Dad's notes on homunculi weren't exactly bearing good news.
"Drives me crazy how long it took us to crack the code on these things. We could have had these answers months ago." Ed leaned forward, notes in his lap, and cupped his coffee mug in both hands. "Although I guess I can see why Dad would want such a badass code for this stuff."
Al noticed the word, and the marginal shift in his brother's voice: both were recent developments in Ed's attitude to their father. Al schooled his face and took a sip of coffee. "Well, the handwriting definitely didn't make it easier. Even yours is neater than -"
"Son of a bitch!" Another mouse - definitely not the same one! - had been nibbling on one of Ed's croissant crumbs. When Ed yelled, it bolted.
"Here's the deal," said the chirpy young doctor with the clipboard. "We need to wait four days to check there's no bacteria still present in your thigh - that we got all the gangrene. After that, we'll need to go in again, but what we do is up to you. Either we flap the stump, or we do automail port surgery."
She looked at Brosch expectantly, but for the life of him, he couldn't figure why. She was pretty, he noticed absently. She didn't seem much older than him. Could you be his age and a doctor? He guessed you could.
The silence extended. What had she said again? Two options? Brosch blinked. "Two?" he said. He felt like an idiot. Was it the drugs? He looked up at the IV. He had no idea what was in that bottle draining into his arm. He was getting really sick of being connected to tubes at both ends. He scrubbed a hand through his hair and looked back at the doctor.
"Flapping the stump," the doctor continued, " means we'd let the skin heal over. You'd be transferred to a regular rehab centre, and then home, and we'd fit you with a prosthetic leg. Port surgery means creating a dock in your thigh stump for an automail port. It's far easier to do that right now, with a new wound, than it would be later on. We can book you in for next Monday morning, and given the condition of the wound, it's likely we could fit the port in one operation." It was obvious from her tone that she thought of this as fantastic news.
Brosch blinked. He'd had this conversation already, he realised, several times. It was weird how despite how out of it he was, this was the first time it seemed real. He looked down at the empty space where, this time yesterday, his right leg had been.
His buddy Mike's sister had gotten an automail foot after a car accident. According to Mike, she'd said it had hurt more than childbirth. Good to know.
It was all about the science, now.
Theoretical alchemy was full of tough calls to make; Ed was walking proof that a formula that balanced perfectly on paper didn't always trade properly in practice. So far, though, everything he and Al were getting was bad news.
He slung his legs down from the library sofa, got up, and stretched. It was 1815, near enough. Mustang was running late.
Ed stuck his head out of the open window for a moment and smelled the summer air of the city: a ripe mixture of greenery, car fumes and cooking food. As he ducked back in, he noticed a mark on one of the bookcase locks. He touched a finger to it. It was grease pencil. Was it old? Or did Mustang still work the alchemical locks by scribbling the array, even when he was alone?
In all the time since the Promised Day, Ed hadn't seen Mustang clap once. He got how the fire alchemy would work quicker one-handed, but for everyday stuff like this - why bother to draw out the formula when you could just think it? One more part of the mystery of how Mustang's brain worked. Ed was puzzling him out, though, bit by bit.
Keys clattered in the door: it was the man himself. Ed ran an automatic hand over his bangs and the back of his hair, to check it wasn't coming out of the tie. Then he caught himself and felt like an idiot. He still pulled his shirt straight, just for the sake of it.
"In the study."
Footsteps: Mustang headed straight for the kitchen and coffeepot, as he always did when Ed was working at his place. A few moments later he appeared in the doorway. Ed had arranged himself on the couch with his notebook and coffee mug. Mustang nodded at him, and came to sit next to him. Ed only had a single page of notes to show him: the news was simple, and nasty.
Mustang set his coffee down, took the notebook. Ed scrubbed a hand across his face. This work was getting to him. He kept seeing it - a hundred eyes sliding across skin that was merely a void. He imagined his old man at his age, standing in a dusty laboratory, learning alchemy from a cloud in a jar. The future was pressing down upon him, and he could feel his own pulse through the small patch of skin where Mustang's knee touched his through cloth.
Mustang shifted in his seat and moved a couple of inches away from Ed on the couch. Ed stayed where he was. A moment later, Mustang tapped the notes and exhaled hard. "The absence of God?" he said.
"Here's the deal," said Ed. "We've been confirming this from my old man's notes in the last couple of days. The only guy we know who actually ever put takwin into practice and created life was Hohenheim's master. He didn't believe in the Xerxean gods - you know, all those guys with the lion heads and camel heads and whatever? He believed in a single force. He said you could call it God, but really, it was - lemme quote this to you." He leaned into Mustang's space and flipped to the right spot in the note book. "We call it God, but just so we might call it the world, or the universe, or the all, or the one, or -"
Mustang had gone rigid next to him.
"The Truth," Ed finished quietly. "This guy didn't believe in demons or devils, but he believed there was this thing, the absence of God, which was like a negative image of the Truth. And that's what a homunculus is made from."
Mustang silently handed the notebook to Ed, and took a slow sip of coffee. His movements were casual, but there was nothing relaxed about him. The tension coming off him almost hummed.
"But how is that possible? One is all, all is one - if the Truth is everything, how can it have a negative image?"
"Nothing. Pure absence, animated by human blood."
"Then how can a homunculus be full of wisdom?"
Ed frowned. "Al's better at this part. I freaking hate theology and metaphysics and all that."
Mustang laughed shortly. "I agree. More than ever, these days. But tell me."
"Okay, you've got to know about light theory, right? How black and white both contain every colour on the spectrum?"
"You're saying, same content, different perspective?"
"There's this school of Xingese meditation that believes enlightenment is an empty mind. Al studied it when he was over there learning rentanjutsu. To make yourself a conduit for alchemical energy, you clear your mind. So, the Xerxeans kind of thought that way too. But a homunculus isn't really equivalent to the Truth. That's a perfected homunculus. Well, in theory." Ed pulled a face.
"That's what the Homunculus - what Father was trying to do, yes? Perfect itself."
"If you make a homunculus, you're supposed to limit its growth. Once it could talk, you could keep it in its jar with no power at all. Then it would just be a kind of ultimate alchemical advisor - because it's kind of plugged into the Truth, right?"
"The No power at all version sounds quite dangerous enough. The Homunculus destroyed all of Xerxes in a night from its jar, didn't it?"
"Yeah. Here's the other part." Ed showed his notebook again. "Limiting its growth can also mean you give it some power, but only a little."
"Power?" Mustang looked at him, and Ed felt the challenge and met his eyes. Up this close, the stare was kind of intense. "Power as in Philosopher's Stone?"
"Yeah," said Ed. "They can use it as a weapon. But to do that, they've got to feed it on souls."
There wasn't much more to talk about. "Tomorrow afternoon," said Mustang, "I want you back researching this. Bridgewire too. We'll tell the State Alchemist admin that you're out of the office taking a survey of the current suitable examination grounds."
"Got it." Ed stood and stuffed his notes into his book bag. Mustang walked him to the door. Ed felt a sudden urge to say something else before he left. He had no idea why. "So what did I miss at the canteen today? Was it bad?"
"It was the suspicious hot dogs," said Mustang wrinkling his nose. "I was working through lunch, Fuery brought me one."
"How can they smell so good and taste so weird? It's like this amazing chemical trick."
"Frying onions? Old bar trick, if you waft the smell of fried onions out the door at dinner time, people follow their noses straight in the door."
"I thought that, but that doesn't explain how the onions can be so bad. It's like onions and oil, how can you even get that wrong?"
Mustang leaned in the doorway and looked at Ed through his bangs.
Ed wanted to say, we're doing it again, aren't we? This had happened before - last time they'd just stood chatting in the doorway like this, then Ed had looked at his watch and realised they'd been there for fifteen minutes.
He didn't say it. He grinned and ducked his head. "See you tomorrow, jackass," he said, and started down the stairs with a backwards wave.
He was two floors down before he heard Mustang shut the door.
"Tuesday is the new Friday," said Breda to the room at large, as he cracked open a fresh can of beer.
"Yay Tuesday," added Catalina. From her perch on the sofa arm next to Havoc, she waved her glass of girly pink wine.
"Refill over here," waved Havoc. Breda tossed him a can and he caught it one-handed; the other hand was occupied by a pizza slice.
"So, has your ma calmed down any?" asked Breda. Last Sunday, Havoc's mother had read a big article in the Eastern Telegraph speculating about the prospect of civil war. She had promptly flipped her gourd. It had taken her a long time to get used to the idea that her only son was not only living on his own in the big city again, but back in the army - and that was when Havoc's position could be passed off as a nice safe desk job. It was getting so that pretty much the whole country knew that working for Mustang was about as nice and safe as a ticket to the front.
"My cousin Gabrielle managed to talk her down a bit." Havoc exhaled, and absently leaned into Catalina's side. She put her free hand to the back of his neck. "It's tough. What do you say? Things aren't cool right now, and everyone knows it."
"My parents are trying to get me to retire again," said Ross. "I've told them about ten times that - besides anything else - I'm tied into my contract, but the message just doesn't seem to get through." She sighed. "I really do hate worrying them after everything they've been through. But you're right, what can you do?"
"Onwards and upwards," said Breda, in a well-honed impression of Mustang's clipped baritone. He got laughter and raised drinks from the room at large.
Catalina raised a finger and circled it around the room. "Enough depressing politics stuff! So, tell us about your love life … Fuery."
"Nothing new," muttered Fuery, looking a little bit cornered. He gripped his glass of rosé wine nervously, and scratched Hayate's ears with his other hand. The little dog leaned his head in for a moment, then got distracted and ran off in front of fresh victims. Breda was watching that mutt. It might look adorable, but he had its number. It had been lying at Hawkeye's side, unobtrusive enough to be just about bearable. Then Fuery had just had to coax it over to the centre of the room, thereby inviting it to the party to sneak everyone's pizza, jump in laps, and generally act like a dog.
"Come say hi," said Havoc, hypnotised as ever by the little bugger's charm. Hayate bounced over, and Havoc poured the foamy dregs of his previous beer out onto the floorboards. Hayate licked them up happily.
"Aw, lookit," said Catalina in a goofy voice. "You like that, huh?"
Breda shook his head. From her seat on the floor by the other couch, Hawkeye glanced over. "Hayate!" she called. "Stop that."
"What?" said Havoc. "I feed my cousin's dogs beer all the time, they love it."
"He might well love it, but it's not good for him." There was a bit of a smile around Hawkeye's eyes.
Havoc grinned. "Think I know how he feels. Come on up here, boy!" Hayate jumped up on the couch, and Havoc and Catalina started fussing with his ears.
"Watch out for sneak attacks," said Hawkeye. Major Miles chuckled. Hawkeye was sitting cross-legged on the floor, leaning against Miles' calf as he sat on the couch. Barring her incredibly rare reunion hugs, that was the most touchy-feely Breda had seen her, ever. Miles could be a real hardass in the office, so Breda's prediction had been that he'd make Hawkeye even more stiff and terrifying. It seemed he'd been dead wrong on all counts. Off-duty, Miles was sharp-tongued and deadpan funny; and Hawkeye right now was eating a pizza slice with her bare hands and looking downright mellow.
"Okay, so now tell me about your love life …" Rebecca circled her finger again. "… Maria. Where's the wife tonight?"
"Xingese classes," said Ross, "and don't say wife, we've only been dating two months."
"Tell us about your love life, Catalina," called Breda. "We need more beer money."
"I have nothing to hide," declared Catalina. "Unlike some people. I know you're holding out on us, pal. Who's the chick?"
"What chick?" said Breda. Crappy, but he didn't have time for better.
"The chick who's clearly been keeping you from us. You're never around and you're all cagey about it, what's up with that?"
Havoc just shrugged at him and took a sip of beer. Whatever happened to the Guy Code?
Still, there was no way Breda was giving the peanut gallery any info on this one. "I'm just a busy man," said Breda. "Hey Ross, what's the news on Brosch?"
"I saw him today at lunch," said Ross. "He's got himself booked in for automail surgery now. He's going for it."
"Wow," said Fuery.
"Good for him," said Miles. He raised his mug of tea. "To absent friends! And to the road ahead."
Beer cans, glasses and tea mugs were raised around the room, and held for a moment of silence. Breda looked around the room and felt that expansive, sappy feeling in his chest that told him firstly that his comrades were the best, and secondly that he should start to go easy on the Stray Dog.
"Dude!" yelled Havoc suddenly. "Not cool!" It seemed that Hayate had just inhaled his entire pizza slice. The dog was now happily licking the grease off his fingers while Havo stared in shock.
Breda failed to catch himself before he snickered. He seriously hoped the little mutt wasn't growing on him.
Winry was scribbling fast, catching up on her case notes before the last patient of the day, when her boss popped his head around the door and made the phone sign with his thumb and pinky. She nodded and smiled automatically, finished her sentence and trotted out to the phone, thinking of PT regimens, stretching exercises and pain management techniques.
The voice on the end of the phone sounded tired, but pretty alert, considering. "Are you out of bed?" asked Winry, surprised. How had Warrant Officer Brosch gotten to the phone?
"I have a phone right here. Apparently, they transferred me to the Bradley Centre right after - they operated."
Winry repressed a snort. The Bradley Centre was the military's big automail clinic in Central. They were infamous in Rush Valley for turning up and trying to recruit their best mechanics by wooing them with free lunches, free gadgets and promises of filthy lucre. Winry and some of her friends made a point of turning up, ignoring all offers, and taking as many sandwiches and freebies as they could. The Bradley Centre was also notorious for subtly pressuring amputee soldiers straight into automail rehab. This kind of move was absolutely typical.
"How are you feeling?"
While Brosch talked, Winry pulled a rag out of her overall pockets and wiped off her hands. Mr Garfiel set a cup of jasmine tea down on the phone table and she smiled her thanks. Brosch was apparently recovering well from the amputation; he seemed lucid, if rather tired, he was coping well with the pain, and from what he said about the Bradley Centre having far better food, it seemed he was eating.
"So, I'm calling to take you up on the offer."
Winry blinked. She'd thought this was going to be one of those long, exploratory conversations with a potential client still wrapping their head around the idea of having a chunk of metal permanently attached. Part of her was delighted, and another part was trained enough to rein in her delight. "We didn't expect to hear from you so soon."
"Well, I decided. So what's the point in waiting longer?"
Winry drew a breath and started on her new patient spiel. She talked him through the first couple of stages again, the risks, benefits, hardships and commitments. She knew he had until Monday to change his mind, and she guessed that when she checked in with him before his port surgery, he wouldn't have. People surprised you all the time.
After she hung up, she took the appointment book over to Mr Garfiel's clinic room, and gestured to the slot she'd kept free for Brosch. Winry didn't have any doubts about sticking her neck out, but she certainly had a few about getting her mentor involved. "So," she said, "are you really okay with doing this? I could still take Warrant Officer Brosch on as a private client. The Atelier's name wouldn't have to be on anything at all."
Mr Garfiel deposited his cup of tea in its saucer with a delicate little clink, and shook his head. "This would have happened some time anyway. We get so many clients from the military. I'm glad it happened this way instead of with one of Hakuro's bunch of a-holes trying to get on our books. I told you before, sweetie. It's make your mind up time in this country. And I have no problem with everyone knowing whose side Atelier Garfiel is on."
Winry reached over and squeezed his hand. He squeezed back and winked at her.
Her next patient was due. Mr Pettifer, routine check-up on his left hand, fitted nine years ago at Valance's but redesigned last year by Winry. She bustled through to her clinic room, making a mental note to call Brosch's surgeon at the Bradley Centre tomorrow morning. She sighed as she went. Sure, they might see the irony, but when they found out what she was doing, Ed and Al were going to just flip.
Onwards to Chapter Three!