yuuo: (Pandora's Box)
[personal profile] yuuo posting in [community profile] pandorasuniverse
Character/Series: Edward Elric, Cast; AU to the original series
Rating: MA
Notes: Written based on the 'what if' idea that Ed had never been able to bind Al's soul to the armor. Please heed all warnings. All chapters can be found here.
Title: Pandora's Box: Chapter 9: The Bitter One
Author: [personal profile] yuuo
Word Count: 6620
Summary: Over the years, I had a number of what I can only assume are hallucinations.




she's taking her time making up the reasons
to justify all the hurt inside
guess she knows from the smiles, and the look in their eyes
everyone's got a theory about the bitter one
-Savage Garden

Over the years, I had a number of what I can only assume are hallucinations. They always happened when I was sleep deprived, and I can't explain how else I was hearing my brother's voice so clearly but that my tired mind was conjuring it up to torment me.

It was my third night at the Hugheses'. The clock striking the half hour jarred me from the half-asleep daze I'd fallen into, and I jumped, sitting bolt upright in my seat. My vision abruptly settled into focus, colors defining themselves into shapes and then into objects with a startling clarity as adrenaline poured into my system. My heart pounded furiously, muscles trembling from the effort to not move as my mind struggled to catch up.

No gunshots.

No men screaming as they died.

No desperate cries.

No transmutation going horribly wrong.

Finally, I relaxed, rubbing my eyes as I peered at the clock. Eleven-thirty.

"Fuck," I swore, voice breaking as it tried to force volume when there was none to give. "Dummy. 'S the fourth time," I berated myself, giving my cheek a light slap. It was late, and my body was aching for sleep, but there was still so much work to be done, and time pressed heavily on me, marching on without a second thought to my attempts to fix things. Seconds ticked by and those were just that many more seconds I had to figure out how to make up for.

Stolen seconds from a stolen life.

I shoved back from the desk, beginning to stalk around the small bedroom the Hugheses fixed up for me. The room felt too small though, right then, too confining, my coat too heavy on my shoulders, my footsteps too muted against the carpet.

Sleep-deprivation was warring with my guilt, with that restless, never ending drive to-

I tightened my fist, stopping in my tracks and shoving the thoughts aside forcibly. They only made me less inclined to get the sleep I needed.

The importance of work was starting to fade under the need to stay awake, to avoid the thoughts that hounded me when I let myself stop running from them long enough to rest.

I sighed, shrugging out of my coat and tossing it on the bed. Trying to work would only make me fall asleep again, at this point, and I wasn't ready yet for that. A moment later, the holster strapped over my shoulders and my gun joined the coat, then I pushed the sleeves of my turtleneck up on my arms a bit, easing myself down into a battle-ready stance.

To exercise the mind, one must exercise the body. To control the mind, one must control the body. One must never lose control of either.

I started slowly, letting muscles that were stiff from sitting all day warm up as I moved through exercises I remembered from my days learning under Teacher in Dublith with my brother, movements my body knew better than my mind. My thoughts faded in behind my focus on following the pattern, my body taking control away from the frantic desperation that had begun to take hold of my mind. Left step, left punch. Right step, right punch. Switch. Step, kick, down block.

My shadow on the wall next to me moved along with me, mimicking my movements like a partner. I stopped, my left fist still extended, just beginning to repeat the pattern, glancing over at the shadow.

"Why'd you stop, Brother?"

"Did we ever figure out the point of those things before we went back to Rizenbul?" I whispered, letting my arms drop as I straightened. I swore I heard laughter.

"You didn't? Jeez, Brother, I thought you were supposed to be the smart one."

A wry little smile tugged at my lips. "Better at alchemy. Doesn't mean smarter." I shook my head, stepped over to the bed, and sat down cross-legged, flipping on the bright bedside lamp and reaching for my gun. "You know you'd been right? Shoulda listened to you."

Some part of my mind realized I must be really sleep-deprived, or possibly just dreaming at this point. There was no one there, no voice answering back, no body that made the bed shift a little as a weight that wasn't actually there settled onto it across from me.

"Mm, maybe. But you're my big brother."

As if that made any of it okay. I snorted, popping the clip from the gun and beginning to disassemble it, inspecting each piece for obstructions and malfunctions before laying them carefully on the bed in front of me. "Some big brother. Supposed to protect you."

"You're trying to now, aren't you?"

I laughed outright at that, bitterly, my voice cracking painfully as I did. "Wouldn't call this protecting," I answered, digging into my suitcase by the bed and pulling out a small box with a cleaning kit in it. Remove the slide, clean it and the rails. Then the brass brush, clean the bore. I knew this routine almost as well as I knew my exercises; I could about clean a gun in my sleep for as often as I'd done it.

"Then what are you doing?"

I froze, heart seizing up painfully in my chest, then I dropped the brush and grabbed a dry patch, focusing in on my work again.

"What I have to," I finally answered, smoothing a coat of gun oil down the bore. "Fixing what I broke." My expression didn't waver, brow knotted slightly in concentration as I worked, despite the icy lump that had settled in my chest and made every breath, every damn heartbeat hurt. "'m sorry. Don't expect you to be proud of me."

Hughes found me an hour later, sitting up asleep on the bed, my gun almost reassembled. He shook me awake, taking the parts of my gun away from me and setting them on the desk next to the journal I had been reading earlier. "Come on, Ed, get some sleep."

I blearily opened my eyes. "Al? What time is it?"

"It's half past midnight," Hughes told me. "Come on, into bed with you."

"My sidearm. I need to finish cleaning it," I protested lamely, trying to pretend I didn't just think I was talking to Al.

"You can do that in the morning. Sleep now." Hughes had no problem pushing me back onto the bed, and little trouble pulling the blankets out from under me. "You don't want to sleep in and miss Gracia's famous pancakes, do you?"

I grumbled a bit, kicking off my boots and grabbing the blankets from him. "They're only famous because you brag too much."

He grinned at me as I settled into bed. "I can't help that I have the perfect wife. Now sleep. There'll be time in the morning to work more."

I was asleep before my head hit the pillow. Of course, I dreamed, the very thing I'd fought off sleep so valiantly for. Nightmares about that horrible night, reaching and almost touching Al's hand, only to have my throat burn as I was pulled back. I dreamed about O'Riley and Farrand and McLaughlin, and the lash and the gunfire and the artillery.

I woke up at about six in the morning in a cold sweat, feeling ready to lose my dinner from the night before. I sat and swallowed back the desire to puke, which wouldn't have done me any good anyway, as all the food was out of my system, so all I'd get would be dry heaves. After a minute, my stomach calmed down; at least until it decided it was hungry. And it was always hungry, between being a teenage male and my automail. Fortunately, I could smell Gracia's 'famous' pancakes cooking, so I got up and ran a comb through my hair, pulled it back up into a ponytail, and pulled my boots on.

I noticed my sidearm sitting disassembled on the desk. Compulsion led me to reassembling it as quickly as possible, and re-arm myself, pulling on my shoulder holster. I didn't feel safe without it on, even in Hughes's home.

I tromped downstairs, feeling a little bleary still from sleep, my eyes half-lidded as I navigated as much by smell as by sight into the dining room.

Where Mustang was waiting for me.

I stared in horror for a moment before snapping to attention with a salute. "Sir."

He looked at me blandly. "Unclench, Fullmetal."

I moved smoothly into an at ease position, ignoring the fact that I needed my hands to talk. I could use my voice, it was quiet enough in there. I kept staring straight ahead, not wanting to look at the disapproving expression on his face.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Elysia looking between us in confusion, and Hughes pinch the bridge of his nose. Mustang stayed stoic, staring me down, before sighing. "Drop the military act, Edward. We're in a friend's home." I hesitated, then straightened, letting my arms hang stiffly at my side. Mustang watched me, that unamused look on his face. "You're not in trouble, Edward," he finally said.

I wanted to collapse with relief, but I locked my knees and kept my back stiff. "Yes, sir."

"Edward, sign. I didn't have you learn sign just so you could ruin your voice like that." If anything, Mustang seemed to be getting angrier, and despite his assurance that I wasn't in trouble, I grew more afraid.

"Sorry, sir."

"Sit. Gracia's worked hard on this breakfast, it'd be a shame to let it go to waste."

I swallowed tightly, looking between him and Hughes, who just kinda shrugged and motioned to an empty seat across from Mustang. I awkwardly took the seat, carefully watching straight ahead without actually looking at Mustang.

Breakfast was painful to get through. Mustang stewed in annoyance, I was almost paralyzed with fear, moving through the motions of breakfast through some base function that overrode my fear. Elysia was silent for once, and so was Gracia. Even Hughes didn't try to lighten the mood.

Eventually, though, Elysia had her fill and started getting fidgety, so Gracia finished her breakfast and took the little girl upstairs to get her ready for school. Across from me, Mustang took a deep breath, then sipped his coffee before releasing the breath slowly. "Edward, I'm going to repeat myself. You're not in trouble. So kindly relax."

My shoulders slumped a bit, as I looked down at my empty plate. My stomach was too tied up in knots for seconds, but I knew I'd be hungry relatively soon again, as I hadn't had nearly enough to accommodate my automail.

Instead of reaching for more food, I apologized again. Which turned out to be the wrong thing to do. "Stop apologizing, goddamnit!" Mustang sighed, ran his hand over his face, and sat forward, resting his elbows on the table and his head on his hands. "Edward, I'm going to ask you a question you've refused to answer in the past, and I'm going to ask you to not dodge it this time. Who did this to you? Who made you so afraid of being in trouble that you act like this?"

I remained silent, staring down at my empty plate, refusing to say anything. It wasn't out of a sense of duty to Archer- Archer could hang for all I cared. Bradley would be very embarrassed if it came out that the military abused their child State Alchemist, and I'd threaten that before I let Archer come near me again. But even if I were not above threatening going to the press, I was not actually willing to talk about it, so it was more of a bluff than a threat.

I didn't think I could ever face Mustang or Hughes again if I told them who and what. Or even just one of those. It was my dirty secret, locked away where I didn't want anyone to see, even if the scars were visible.

Finally, I formulated an answer that might stop the line of questioning. "It was classified, sir," I whispered. "I can't tell you. Who or what."

Mustang's fist hit the table. "Damnit, Edward, you're civilian, not military. Quit- " Then he sucked in a sharp breath, closing his eyes and holding that breath before releasing it. "Edward? Abuse is not in the military handbook. I'm not blind, this wasn' t caused by the time at the firebase, was it? War does all sorts of things to people, but abuse has a fairly recognizable set of symptoms. Stop protecting him, Edward, and give me a name."

I cringed. I supposed, in retrospect, I was acting like a classic case, so it wasn't much mystery how they figured it out. But I wasn't talking. So I diverted the subject. "I'm sorry I disobeyed orders, sir, but there was something important in the library I had to get."

"Doctor Marcoh's work?" Mustang asked, sitting back and at least temporarily letting me get away with drawing the attention off my past.

I nodded. "He gave it to me. I needed the full formula."

Mustang was silent for a long moment. "Maes, I don't think it has to be said-"

"Nothing leaves this table, Roy," Hughes assured him. "You know that."

Mustang nodded, then looked back at me. "Marcoh contacted my office on a secured line, Edward. Said he saved you from a gunshot wound."

I closed my eyes. "A slip, sir. Nothing more."

"Mm, comforting. You nearly died, Edward. I'm taking you out of field work until you've worked through that formula. Marcoh said something else to me. That the reason you got shot was because you were bothering a civilian. Who was trying to abuse his little sister. He said that you mentioned you've never gone after anyone but criminals like that. Is that true?"

I shrugged. "There's never any evidence. So I don't bother with the police."

Hughes and Mustang exchanged a look. Hughes pushed his glasses up on his nose a bit. "Well, that explains those deaths, Roy. If we can get evidence, we can start turning his reputation around."

"I'll let you work on that, Maes." Mustang looked back at me. "I'm going to ask you again for a name, Edward. Whatever was done to you, it was wrong, and I doubt even Bradley would've approved."

I gave him a stony stare in response. He waited for what seemed like forever as my resistance waned. I was not used to openly defying my commanding officer like that. Finally, Mustang shoved away from the table with a disgusted noise. "Pack your things, Fullmetal. We're going back east."

"Yes, sir," I whispered, then got up and went upstairs to pack. Again, not that I had really unpacked in the first place, but I had to stow the research journal and the notes I was making in my suitcase, hidden from sight. I wasn't sure yet if I'd tell Mustang about the main ingredient in those or not. On one hand, if I wasn't ordered to, don't volunteer the information. That's one thing about the military. Unless you're ordered to it, don't volunteer to it.

Plus, I was pretty sure he'd used one of those things in the war. I could only imagine how he'd feel knowing he used something so ghastly. Only people like me should ever know that and still be willing and okay to use it. Mustang was a good man, he'd done nothing but try to help me, I couldn't do that to him, anymore than I could let my corruption affect Winry, who I still loved dearly.

Which pretty much decided it for me. Unless I was asked, I'd keep that a secret from Mustang. Like so many other secrets I kept. I was sure he kept secrets from me, too; the military ran on secrets and information that was 'need to know' only.

I returned to the dining room, carrying my suitcase that held everything I had in the world. Mustang glanced at me, then whispered something to Hughes, before walking towards the door, waving to Hughes as he went.

Despite that, Hughes walked us to the door. He stopped me with a hand on my shoulder. I looked at him. "Edward, give Roy a chance. He only asks these things because he cares. More than you probably know."

I gave him that same stonewalled look I'd give them earlier. "I'll take that under consideration, sir." Then I walked after Mustang, following him to the train station.

***


The train ride straight east from Central lasts about three days, give or take delays. I spent the entire time buried in the research journal, just letting it filter into my brain to try to analyze it without my notes, since there wasn't a place to spread out and work.

Mustang remained quiet, letting me work for the most part, occasionally asking questions of the noninvasive variety, but mostly, he was just quiet. I was okay with that, continuing my reading, interrupted only by sleep and food. (Which was awful- avoid train food if you can.)

In the final leg of our trip, Mustang started questioning me again. This time about my research. "I assume, Edward, that you'll let me see your analysis of the text once you are done?"

I didn't look up as I signed. "Of course, sir. That was the condition of my research as I recall."

"Yes, so it was." Mustang glanced out the window, then back to me. "Tell me, what do you know about the text now?"

"That it was very well encrypted." Smartass, I know.

"Anything else?"

I glanced up at him. "Sir, I've had the text for six days, with no research material to correspond with it. I'm still looking for ingredients, much less an array."

"What did Marcoh tell you about the text?" Mustang folded his hands on one knee that was resting up on top of his other.

I froze. "It's the devil's work, he said."

"Why?"

I sighed and sat back. "He told me the main ingredient." Damn. It was like Mustang had read my mind and knew I wouldn't be telling him this unless asked.

"And that is?" Mustang's look was one of strained patience, like he was tired of playing my games, but tolerant enough to keep doing it.

"You won't like it, sir," I pointed out. "I don't even like it."

"I don't expect to like it, Fullmetal. I assume that anything that powerful would require a dreadful sacrifice. I just don't know what. And you do. I'd like you to tell me."

I stared at him for several heartbeats, before swallowing and looking away. "Live human beings, sir. Quite a large number of them."

Mustang stared in horror at me, then slowly turned away, looking pointedly ill. "I see. And you intended to make one of these prototypes?" He turned back to me.

I stared down at the journal. "I was going to see if he had any material left where he worked when he was in Central, but I never got a chance to investigate there. I don't know what I was going to do if there was nothing to be found there."

He looked to say more, but the train lurched, pulling into the station at East City. He looked up, looked at me, then shook his head. "You can stay at East while you decipher that text. Maybe you'll find something you can use."

"I intend to, sir."

We exited the train, making our way back to East HQ. Orders were waiting for us. Mustang took them, motioned for me to be seated outside his office, then disappeared into his inner office, reading over the orders. He came bursting out a few minutes later, staring at me hard.

I stared back, wondering what I did this time, when he motioned to Hawkeye, who immediately went into his office with him. Several terse minutes passed while I mentally squirmed in my seat, stomach doing somersaults. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, Hawkeye left the office with forms in hand, and Mustang called me into his office.

I stepped in and snapped a salute. "Yes, sir?"

"Drop the act, Edward. I'm not interested," he said irritably. "We've received orders from Central. The situation in Liore has escalated and they're looking for a State Alchemist to put the fire out, as it were."

I dropped my arm, blinking at him. "Sir?"

"Specifically, they're requesting you, Edward. With promise of a clearance rank of lieutenant colonel if you succeed." He didn't look happy.

Me, I wasn't sure what to think. My commanding officer was clearly livid about this order, and I couldn't tell if it was because of me, or because he wasn't getting a promotion like he usually went for. After that argument in Central, and what Hughes said, I suspected it was out of some kind of concern for me, but I had trouble wrapping my head around that idea.

"Yes, sir. I'll do my best." Something occurred to me, and I felt the blood drain from my face. "Do I have to wear the uniform?"

"No, Edward, you're not being drafted to war, just given a mission as a State Alchemist." I had to lock my knees to keep them from giving way with relief as he continued on. "I'm sending Lieutenant Hawkeye with you to act as your bodyguard. She was my bodyguard during the Ishbal War, she's good. She's the best, in fact. I trust you'll treat her well."

"Of course, sir." What a lie that turned out to be.

"She's gone to requisition the appropriate weapons. Is there anything you'll need?"

I mentally took stock. I had my sidearm, with enough ammo to last me awhile, my combat knife, and my alchemy, something that couldn't be taken away like a weapon. Everything I needed. I shook my head. "No, sir. I have enough ammunition to last me."

He closed his eyes for a moment, then sat back. "You and the lieutenant will depart immediately."

"Yes, sir."

I met Lieutenant Hawkeye at the train platform. She was lugging a duffel bag and a rifle case and had an intent look as she looked at me. "Hello, Edward."

I stared hard at her. "The name's Fullmetal," I corrected her. "I outrank you and we're on military business."

She looked mildly shocked, a break in her perpetual poker face, then she nodded. "As you wish, Fullmetal, sir."

The train showed up late, as usual, and we made our way up to Liore, making the last leg of the journey by way of a military personnel truck, with a few other soldiers being dispatched to make up for losses.

I wondered if Rose ever did get out of that asylum, if Hughes was able to pull the right strings, or if she remained there, locked up and probably drugged out of her mind, what was left of it. I didn't focus on that thought too hard, focusing on the mission as we slunk into town, stopping at a building on the outer edge of the city.

We made our way upstairs, where the site commander was waiting for us. She was a red-headed woman named Kris Sorenson, a captain over a company when the situation probably called for less and better led. Well, that's what I was there for, to end it and let these people go back to normal stations rather than battlestations.

"The rebels in the church seem to have a neverending supply of ammo," Sorenson said, pointing to a map. "And they never respond to calls to enter peace talks."

"They're fanatics, that's why," I pointed out to her. "They'll defend that chapel to the death, believing they won't die, or if they do, they'll be brought back."

Sorenson looked horrified. "Why would they believe such a stupid thing?"

"Because that's what Father Cornello was teaching them. They'd 'witnessed' examples of the dead really coming back to life, but every time, those so-called resurrected people had to leave town for one reason or another, which is why nobody ever saw them, but believed anyway. They're nuts, stupid, and fanatical, which is the worst combination in the world."

"We'd like to take some for questioning, to ask about this rebellion your report mentioned, Fullmetal. They certainly have the firepower for it, and they're doing it now, but you know how the military is."

"Yeah, I know, and I know it's not going to happen." Boy, was she naive. She'd obviously never encountered nutballs before. Given that she was an officer in the Amestrian military, she should've realized she already was one. "So we'll focus on eliminating their threat to us and the rest of the town," I continued. "If they all happen to die in the process, so be it. They're not civilians anymore, they're soldiers and soldiers who are defying the governing body of the land. Are they all in the church?"

I noticed out of the corner of my eye that Hawkeye looked shocked at the way I was talking, like she was still remembering that little boy from Tucker's house. They all really needed to get that image out of their head. Even if I hadn't been abused, I'd been in a war zone, and that alone changed people. I imagined Mustang and Hawkeye were both different from how they'd been before the Ishbal War.

Sorenson nodded in response to my question. "They are. They have a helluva range with how tall that thing is."

"I need to get as close as possible. Then I'll simply seal them in. They'll run out of oxygen within a couple days, if they don't bake first. Think you and your men can keep me safe until I get close?"

Sorenson stared at me. "Sir, that's hundreds of people. And a very horrible way to go."

"They'll have a chance to get out," I said. "If they surrender. If not, oh well, one more enemy of the state gone. Don't tell me that the military didn't do a thousand times worse in Ishbal."

Sorenson clearly couldn't deny my final charge, and sighed. "Whatever you think best, sir. We're here to protect you while you do the job."

"I'll position myself as optimally as I can, sir," Hawkeye assured me. At least she had the good grace to stay focused on her mission while she was busy being horrified at my willingness to make a human-berry pie out of a bunch of idiots.

I nodded to her. "Thank you, Lieutenant.".

***


"Citizens of Liore, please cease fire. Citizens of Liore, please cease fire." The words echoed down every street and alley in the town, making it hard for me to listen for signs of an attack, an ambush, of enemy fighters nearby.

They'd rigged speakers for the ham radio at the military's stronghold to send out the announcement of a ceasefire, giving the people of Liore a chance to listen, to stop the killing on both sides, to negotiate.

So far, they hadn't listened.

I ducked down behind some fallen stone from the house at my back, tucked in an alley. Hawkeye was on the roof of a nearby building, trying to cover me from above, but I knew she could only do so much when I was moving out of her sights more often than not, trying to work myself as close to the church as possible.

Cautiously, I started to glance around the corner towards the church, ducking back quickly as a gunshot went off somewhere nearby and a sharp piece of shrapnel- from what I couldn't be sure- nicked my ear. I hissed, jumping back and glaring in the general direction of the shooter as best I could from my position.

Damnit.

I needed to get a little bit closer, just a little bit. I didn't want to waste energy on transmuting a cover wall for myself, I needed to save that. I knew I wasn't gonna get to an ideal distance for what I was planning. But if I couldn't even safely see around the corner to defend myself-

Wait. A mirror. I glanced around as I dug into my inside coat pocket, fumbling around for my coin purse. Messing with money was technically illegal, but then, so was murder, and human transmutation, and a few other things I'd already done. I was long past the point of caring about the legality of my actions.

A small, short transmutation heated and rapid-cooled some sand that had gathered against the wall of the building- the streets were usually dusty, but sand at least had been absent for the most part the last time I had been there. But the residents of the town were far more occupied with staying alive than cleaning up the streets. Another low-energy transmutation fused some silver from one of my coins to the back of the makeshift glass.

The mirror wasn't terribly clear, but it would do.

Holding the mirror up with my right hand, I tilted it back, looking around for my attacker. I caught sight of a Liorean up on the rooftop, just barely visible over the ledge, rifle trained down at the corner I was hiding behind.

Before I had a chance to decide how to line up a shot, the man yelled and flailed a hand up to cover his eyes, his gun falling from his hand as the reflection of the brutal desert sun on the mirror flashed into his eyes.

Well. Not exactly what I was planning, but it'd do.

Pulling my gun from its holster, I leaned out around the corner, aiming and squeezing off two rounds. More yells, and the man fell from the roof to the street below with a distinctly wet-sounding thump. Not bothering to reholster my gun, I pocketed the mirror and slipped down the street, pausing only to make sure the man was actually dead.

Really, I shouldn't have wondered with the headfirst dive the guy had taken off the fourth story of a building. The mess on the ground would've made most men's stomachs turn. Fortunately for me, I'd seen enough bloodshed to not let myself be affected.

Not when there was still work to do.

I only got a few more blocks closer to the church before gunfire forced me under cover again, ducked down in an open doorway of what had once been someone's home. A glance in my mirror didn't reveal where more than one or two of my attackers were, and unless Cornello had actually managed to secure something better than standard fare semis for his would-be army, there were too many shots too close together to be just the two.

This would have to be close enough.

After taking the time to move some rubble from inside the building to close off the doorway, I moved through the house, looking for a way to a lower level, a basement perhaps. With the heat of the desert in the daytime, subterranean living space would almost be a requirement, I would've thought.

Ah, there, some stairs.

The basement was significantly cooler, and my heated skin welcomed the relief, sticky with sweat under the black turtleneck and dark violet coat I wore, my heart beating a mile a minute, blood hot with adrenaline.

I realized I'd have to allow myself a moment to cool down, to gather the energy I had left. The transmutation I was planning would drain me, large scale to an extent I didn't often do. I shucked my coat and settled down on the floor in the darkest corner of the room, leaning back against the cool stone of the wall. The heat didn't touch down here that much, giving me a moment to catch my breath.

Memories of another cool basement crept back on me, memories of things not human, not entirely animal anymore, and god, poor Nina-

I shut my eyes tightly, shoving away the images, the memories that crept in past my defenses. No. No time to think about that, if I didn't focus, I could be dead.

Struggling back to my feet, I took a deep breath, forcibly pulling back control over my nerves. Summoning all the strength and concentration I had, I clapped my hands and pressed them to the wall. Move.

The ground began to tremble and heave at the touch, responding to my will as alchemical energy crackled across the wall and through the ground, under the streets. I only barely noticed the sounds of the stone streets cracking as the ground beneath shifted, moving towards the church.

Polished marble, sandstone, brick and mortar. Solid materials, all of them, and all at my disposal with the giant cathedral, along with the ground beneath the foundation. Slowly, the foundation shifted, slid up to cut off underground passages. Sweat dripped down into my eyes as I concentrated, visualized, and felt as stone snapped into place, closing off windows, exits, and doors. Stone slid up, melded with the archway of the front entrance, covered the front door and rendered it useless.

The transmutation faltered as the seal began to work over the open airways on the roof, material and energy running low, and I grit my teeth, called on reserves of strength my body was loathe to give after an afternoon of fighting and running. Slowly, surely, the last opening into the church closed off, sealing the building off completely.

Outside, the sounds of gunshots had died, leaving things deafeningly silent. I leaned back against the wall and slid down to the floor. "Let's see if you bastards will negotiate now," I whispered to myself.

I grabbed my coat and returned to the surface, getting smacked in the face with a dry, windy heat that made me want to pass out in my heavy clothes. Hawkeye met me on the ground. "Are you all right, sir?" she asked.

I nodded, rubbing my forehead. "Just a little tired, Lieutenant. Let's go back to base."

"Yes, sir." She shouldered her rifle and offered her shoulder to me. I shook my head, turning it down, dragging my tired, heat-exhausted ass along side her. We eventually made it back to base, and I immediately sought out water, guzzling down the better part of a canteen filled with warm water. I dumped the rest on my head- it was warm, but still cooler than I was.

"Sir, are you all right?" Hawkeye asked, putting a hand on my shoulder.

I shoved away from her, staring at her. "Don't touch me." I had a thing about being touched, especially by miliary. I let Winry and Grandma Pinako touch me out of necessity. Beyond that, I didn't want anyone to come into contact with me.

She withdrew her hand, watching me. "I apologize. I also repeat my question: are you all right?"

I nodded. "Just overheated."

"You're bleeding. Your ear, you got hit. Come here, sit down and let the medic look at that."

I lifted my hand to my ear, feeling where the shrapnel had ripped off part of the cartiledge. I winced at the pain before I could help myself. Hawkeye waved over the medic, trying to herd me away from the canteens and over to where the medic could fix my ear. I'd always have a gnarled mess of scar tissue there, but I didn't mind. If it weren't for the fact that I didn't want infection, I would've refused the help.

I sat patiently, if a bit grumpily, as the medic patched up my ear, cleaning it for infection, which burned like a motherfucker, like it usually does, and then bandaged it to prevent it from getting dirty.

After I was patched up, I retreated to a second story window to watch out on the street below. I stayed relatively unmolested until the sunset, when brilliant reds and purples painted the desert. Hawkeye joined me then, giving me a respectful distance, but staying present. I resented her presence, and did my best to ignore it, watching the sun set in the west.

Eventually, I began to notice the sounds of children playing. I looked down at the street, seeing maybe a half dozen children running around in the cooling sands. I turned and looked at Hawkeye. "What are those kids doing there?"

Hawkeye strode over to me, looking out past me to the ground below. "It appears they're playing, sir."

I grit my teeth and resisted the urge to smack her. "No shit, what are they doing in a fucking war zone, Lieutenant?"

"Those are the children of the refugees from Liore," she answered, stepping back. "There was a group that followed an insane woman against Cornello's forces. Those are the orphans that will be shipped to East City, processed, and hopefully adopted out."

I settled back down, watching the children, before an awful thought occurred to me. "Where are the children from Cornello's group?"

"In the church with their parents, sir."

A church I'd sealed off and left them to die in. I didn't kill children, they were innocents, up until a certain age of accountability. My stomach dropped into my feet. I swallowed tightly, curling up tighter in my seat on the windowsill.

And then I remembered another child handed a gun and made to fight. Those children were just as much combatants as their parents were. It didn't mean nothing. I steeled my gut against the nausea and reminded myself of that little mantra. It didn't mean nothing. Eventually, my stomach settled and my conscience stopped aching so much. Just another enemy combatant. It didn't mean nothing.

"How long do we have to stay here?" I asked her.

"We're shipping out tonight, sir. There's a base not far from Liore that we'll be staying at tonight, and then we'll be on our way back east."

Good. I was done with that hellish place.
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Pandora's Universe: Fullmetal Alchemist AU

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