It's time for Ed, Al and Beregond to separate. But that's not the end.
Dr. Marcoh came out of the only other room that was in the house, and nodded when he saw who came in.
"You arrived in time," he said. "I've just finished."
"How's the sergeant, Dr. Marcoh?" asked Armstrong.
"I've managed to stop the bleeding, so you can now take him to the hospital whenever you want. I advise you to be careful on how you handle him, though. He's already lost too much blood and he's quite weakened."
"Will he be okay?" Ed asked then.
"Yes," Marcoh said. "It will take some time, but he will be."
"Can I see him?"
Dr. Marcoh thought about it for a few moments. "I've left him sleeping, since he needs all the rest he can get; but I think one small glimpse will be fine."
"Thank you," said Ed. He turned to Armstrong. "Will you come, too, Major?"
"I'll stay here," said the major. "I'll arrange for Beregond's transportation to the hospital."
Ed nodded his acknowledgement, and then followed Dr. Marcoh to the room. He winced to see Beregond's pale face and the bandages on him and, before realising it, he let his only hand push back a strand of dark hair that was clinging on the Gondorian's face.
"You just had to disobey, didn't you?" he murmured. "If you weren't in this mess, I'd slap you senseless after what you did." He turned to Dr. Marcoh. "What I don't understand is why you followed him."
Dr. Marcoh smiled grimly. "I'm afraid, Edward, that it wasn't a matter of who followed whom. We both agreed we should turn back."
Ed's eyes widened. "Why?"
"Because, like someone told me not too long ago, there's always a choice. And, as he chose to see to your protection above all else, I chose not to judge those that need my help." He handed Ed a piece of paper. "This is the place where the research files are hidden. Look at this if you won't regret knowing the truth. And if you are what they say, you'll uncover the truth behind the truth."
Ed took the paper, nodding slightly. "Thank you."
"Just make sure no one knows about it, not even Colonel Mustang. He can't protect me forever and I don’t want him involved in this."
"You know him?" asked Ed, unable to help himself.
"I knew him long ago, when he had the same innocent soul that the sergeant has. That is, until he was deployed as a human weapon; then ordered to kill two doctors because they treated Ishbalans."
Ed stared at Marcoh, dumbstruck. Two doctors?! No, it couldn't be!
Marcoh just shook his head. "No, I've said too much." He walked to the window and opened it. "I had better not be found here when they come for the sergeant. I pray that you'll restore your bodies one day."
And with that he left, leaving Ed alone with his thoughts and Beregond. He didn't say a word when Armstrong came with a stretcher and a couple of men to carry Beregond, or during the entire way to the hospital. In fact, he was lost in thought for the most part, and he was only cut off of his musings when he finally arrived at Colonel Mustang's office, still accompanied by Armstrong.
The place was crowded, that was for certain. Besides the colonel himself, there was also Hughes, Hawkeye, Havoc, Breda, Falman and Fuery, and they were all working on a strange bundle in the centre of the room. Ed turned and saw Al on the couch, his side bandaged to hide the gaping hole in it.
"Well, glad you could join us, Fullmetal," said Mustang. "Please, have a seat." He motioned his hand and showed the place next to Al. Ed sat there obediently.
"Are you okay, Al?" he whispered.
"I've been better," Al said. "How's Beregond?"
"He's at the hospital now and the doctors are already taking good care of him," answered Ed. "He's still unconscious though."
"Oh..." There was a sad tone in Al's voice.
Ed nudged his brother. "Don't worry. Beregond's tough. He's even fought against trolls, remember?" He looked at the bundle, where two pieces of armour resembling an arm and a leg were notably sticking out. "Do you have every piece?" he asked the other people present in the room.
Fuery nodded. "It took us a couple of hours, but we have them."
"That Scar guy sure did a nasty job," said Havoc, lighting a cigarette.
"Actually, I hate to think what he did to the less fortunate ones," Breda said, dismayed. "Look at all the alchemists he managed to kill."
"And almost killed," said Falman. "Sergeant Beregond is a braver man than I thought."
"And, to top everything else, Scar is also an alchemist," pointed out Havoc. "So isn't he the one defying god, just like he said before?"
"The sort of people who don't care how things are done are the most dangerous... and the scariest ones," Hughes said then.
"That's why we can't worry about how things are done," announced Roy, finally speaking also. "We can't die yet. So the next time we meet him, we take him out."
Everyone nodded their heads, acknowledging what Roy had just ordered them.
Just then, Hughes stretched in a bored manner. "Anyhow, here ends this boring topic." He looked at Ed and Al. "Now we need to patch you guys up."
Armstrong instantly flexed his arms, tearing his shirt off in the process, and turned to Al. "Shall I fix you?"
"No, thank you!" exclaimed Al, trying to hide his panic and failing miserably.
Roy shook his head. "Bonding a soul to steel is no walk in the park. Fullmetal is the only one who can fix Al now. Go ahead; ask him."
Everyone turned to Ed, something that made the young alchemist quite uncomfortable.
"That's right. It's my burden," he finally said. "But before I do anything, I need to get my other arm back."
Riza rubbed her chin thoughtfully. "Well, that is an interesting fix, isn't it? I mean, if Edward can't use his alchemy..."
"He's just a useless teen with a grumpy ass attitude," Havoc completed grimly, smoke from his cigarette coming out of his lips.
Ed didn't speak for many long moments. He wanted to be angry at the taunting, but he was aware that Riza and Havoc were right. "Anyway, I have to take some leave now. I'm going back to my mechanic." He turned a cool gaze at Roy. "You know the one, don't you?" After all, you killed her parents.
Roy smirked, quite unaware of Ed's thoughts. "Sure, Ed, how could I forget? I saw you in her house, unconscious, with that same stump of an arm you have now, bawling in your sleep: 'It hurts! I'm gonna pee my pants!'" He instantly stopped his overly dramatic gestures and looked hard at his subordinate. "So tough..."
Hughes gave a slight glare at Roy; his friend had really gone too far this time. "So where are you gonna go once you're fixed?" he asked then.
"Central. I've got something to look up in the library there," said Ed at once.
Maes frowned. "That's a heck of a trip. You'll need some protection."
Ed smiled in a sour manner. "Beregond can't exactly come with me and Al in his condition."
"I know, I know," said Maes, sighing. "I would volunteer but... well, since the Fuhrer is going straight to Central and I'm part of his escort, I can't go." He looked at Roy.
Roy shook his head. "I can't leave Headquarters."
"And I've got to look after the Colonel," said Hawkeye at once. Though left unsaid, it was clear that she wanted to make sure Roy didn't ditch work.
Havoc shrugged his shoulders. "You could send me, but I don't know how much help I'd be up against a fanatical alchemist serial killer."
"Same goes for me! What he said!" were the unanimous answers from Breda, Falman and Fuery.
"That settles it!" boomed Armstrong, seeming to shine more than ever. "Send me! I'll protect the boys on their quest for repairs and investigation!"
Ed felt like revolting. Accepting Beregond as an escort was one thing; the Gondorian had practically been living with him and Al ever since he got in Amestris and an understanding had formed between them - especially ever since Beregond told them the truth about his identity. On the other hand, he didn't know Armstrong. That made the Major unpredictable and so he couldn't handle him!
"We don't need another escort!" he declared indignantly.
"Really, Ed? And what are you planning to do if Scar shows up while you're missing that arm?" reasoned Riza.
"Can't fight... Can't exactly carry your hobbled brother to safety either..." said Havoc.
Ed turned to Al, hoping that his brother would say something. But Alphonse just chuckled sheepishly.
"Children should listen to adults!" said Armstrong, patting Ed's head.
Okay, that was too much! "You can't call us children!" cried Ed. "Al, won't you stick up for us here?"
"That's the first time anyone has treated me like a kid ever since I've been in this armour!" Al cried out happily at Armstrong. "Thank you!"
"The train leaves soon, Edward Elric. We'd better go pack our bags."
Ed hanged his head in defeat. It was hopeless to fight back the inevitable. "Can I at least go see Beregond first?" he asked.
Roy nodded. "All right, but you'll have to be quick about it, if you're to catch that train."
"We'll be waiting here, young Elric. Don't take too long," said Armstrong, still carrying a crate with Al inside on his shoulder.
"Yeah, okay," was all that Ed said as he went up the stairs to the hospital. He saluted the two soldiers and then went inside.
It seemed Beregond was still sleeping; his eyes were closed.
Ed couldn't help but feel a bit disappointed at this and, since there was nothing he could do about it, he started walking out again.
Ed winced at how weak and hoarse Beregond sounded. But he tried not to pay attention to that when he faced the Gondorian.
"I, uh... thought you were sleeping. I didn't want to disturb you," he offered as an explanation, and sat once again on the chair close to Beregond's bed. "How are you feeling?"
Beregond sighed. "Like I was trampled on by a pack of stampeding oliphaunts."
Oliphaunts? "You mean elephants," corrected Ed.
A chuckle escaped the man's lips, only to be instantly replaced by a wince. He was hurting, that was for certain. "No, I mean 'oliphaunts'. Trust me, there's a huge difference... and several tons heavier." He looked at his surroundings. "How did I get here?"
"You were brought here after Dr. Marcoh treated you, using one of his red stones."
Beregond frowned. "Like the one he used against Scar?"
Beregond hummed his acknowledgement. "Now I understand why Marcoh was so important."
"That about sums it up," Ed said with a slight nod. Again his eyes drifted to the bandages that covered the man's torso. "Mind you, that power has its limits. Marcoh told me that, though he closed your wound, there was nothing he could do about the blood loss you suffered. You still have to stay here."
Beregond chuckled again. "I kind of noticed that," he stated in a matter-of-factly manner. At the next instant, he had locked his gaze on Ed worriedly.
"Was Marcoh arrested?"
Ed immediately shook his head. "No, he left before anyone could touch him. As for the others, they were ordered by Mustang to keep Dr. Marcoh's whereabouts classified. And as for the rest of the army is concerned, there was only one doctor in that village: Dr. Mauro." Ed glanced to the piece of paper he was still holding. "Before leaving, he gave me this." He held it up for Beregond to see. "It's the place where he hid his notes. He didn't want to show it to me at first but, apparently, something you told him made him change his mind."
Beregond smiled. "Well, it's nice to see that something good came out of this mess."
Edward couldn't help but smile, too. "Yeah." A small awkward silence followed as Ed caught himself unsure as to how to proceed next; until finally a sigh escaped his lips.
"You could have been killed," he said slowly.
Beregond nodded. "I know. But I am who I am. I've already told Scar so."
Ed blinked, not really understanding. "When?"
"When he asked who I am," Beregond explained.
"You didn't answer him. You just stuck to your name," Ed said, confused.
"A name is truly the only answer to such a question," the Gondorian answered, grinning. "In your tongue, my name means, literally, 'Protector of Stone' - or, more figuratively, 'Steadfast Protector.'"
Ed's eyes widened. "You're kidding!" he faltered incredulously.
Beregond's grin broadened. "No. It's not my fault if Scar doesn't know my language to understand what I said."
Ed still looked at Beregond for several moments, unable to speak; then shook his head, a small smile appearing on his lips. "You know, you really live up to your name."
"I try," Beregond said, chuckling a bit. Yet at the next moment, his expression became quite serious. "And I'll keep living up to it if it means sticking to my promise to you."
Ed felt like his jaw just dropped on the floor at that. Beregond was actually telling him that...?
Stupid Gondorian... Ed instantly crossed his arms in an indignant manner.
"Then you realise that you will get yourself killed with that kind of attitude."
"The way you've been protecting Alphonse, I see my chances are almost as good as yours. And we're both still here," Beregond said, adding an almost comical 'so there' look on his features.
That undid Ed. In fact, that made him laugh.
Damn it, it seemed Beregond had found a way to make him not stay angry with him.
It was then that Ed remembered himself. Looking at his watch, he realised that he couldn't postpone what he meant to say in the first place when he got here.
"Look, Beregond, I..." he started, sobering.
"You're leaving, aren't you?"
Ed nodded before he could help it. How did Beregond know?
Beregond grinned, clearly seeing through Edward's thoughts, and pointed at the suitcase by the door. "So how long will you be gone?"
Ed sighed ruefully. "I don't know."
A somewhat melancholic expression settled on the Gondorian's features. "And you can't afford to wait for me," he said. Ed tried to apologise and explain, but Beregond stopped him. "No, I understand. I just wish I could be with you. Who's escorting you this time?"
"He's a good man," Beregond said thoughtfully. "He'll guard you well."
"He put Al in a crate!" Ed exclaimed.
Beregond blinked. "Okay, not the best thing to do. But it could be worse."
"He's planning to have him placed as luggage!"
Beregond actually winced. "Fine, but it could still be worse." But it was clear that the Gondorian didn't really believe that. Ed kicked an invisible stone on the floor and put his only hand in his pocket.
"And he's old, too. What am I supposed to do with him?"
"If you managed to put up with this old man, you'll be just fine," answered Beregond, smiling in a teasing manner. "Really, Edward, you barely know Armstrong. Don't rush in judging people. Besides, if you think it's that terrible, just keep in mind that it's only temporary and regard it as a test on your mental strength, all right?" He winked as he said that. "Now go. You'd better not make him wait."
"Yeah," Edward said with a nod and arose. Picking up his suitcase, he got ready to walk out.
It was at that moment that he felt it.
His heart had just constricted.
He stopped on his tracks, half-surprised, half-expecting that something like this would happen. After all, he could only admit it now.
He would miss the Gondorian.
"Beregond?" He turned again to look at the injured man.
It was of no use. Beregond had fallen asleep.
The talk must have been more draining to you than I thought, thought Edward, smiling a bit at the sight. "Goodbye," he murmured, and he walked out.
He never saw Beregond opening one eye, seeing the young alchemist off.
"Goodbye," the man said back softly. "Till our next meeting."
When Edward, Armstrong and Al arrived at the station, they barely had five minutes to get the tickets and rush to the platform from where they would depart for Resembool. So, it was with dismay that Edward suddenly heard someone shouting his name in the crowd that surrounded them.
"Hughes?!" he exclaimed, surprised to see the lieutenant colonel. "What are you doing here?"
"The guys from Headquarters were too busy to drop by, so they've sent me instead," explained Maes, smiling. "Have a safe trip."
"Right. Thanks, Hughes. Bye," said Ed, ready to rush off again.
"Hey, I've got a message from Roy."
Ed raised an eyebrow. "You mean the Colonel?"
"He was... uh..." He immediately deepened his voice to imitate Roy's. "'Don't die under my command; you're enough of a pain without the paperwork'. That was it."
If Ed had been in a better mood, he wouldn't have said anything. But now, it seemed that Mustang was asking for it. "Tell him: 'Fine, there's no way I'm dying before you do, you morally bankrupt Colonel with a God complex!'" Hughes just chuckled, something that didn't help matters much. "Can you tell him to get this gorilla escort off my hands, too?"
"You didn't seem to mind Beregond," pointed out Hughes, smiling.
"That was different!" the young alchemist retorted indignantly. "I know Beregond isn't part of some military agenda!"
That finally sobered Maes. "All right, easy," he said, trying to show Ed that he wasn't an enemy. He sighed. "Look, Ed, I don't know what Marcoh said to have upset you, but I've got some info that might help you. Three years ago, we found the remains of a young girl which had been changed into a chimera. I'm sure you remember."
Ed gasped. Could he ever forget? "Nina..."
Maes nodded and leant confidentially. "The way she was torn apart... Turns out it's been identical to how Scar's been killing people."
Ed's eyes widened as he recalled the way Nina died; and then he nodded, a knowing smile appearing on his lips.
"Thanks, Hughes. That does help. Now I can take him on."
Just then, the train whistled for the passengers to board. Ed saluted, forced to use his left hand. Maes saluted back.
"When you get to Central, give a call, okay?" were the last words Ed heard before jumping on the train, the moment it was about to start its engines.
It was afternoon when Dr. Marcoh finally decided to return to his house. There were no more soldiers at his doorstep, something that relieved him to no end. Sighing as he felt really free for the first time in a long while, he opened the door and walked inside. It finally seemed that his past was left behind.
That is, until he heard a very familiar woman's voice close to him.
"It's been a while, Marcoh."
Dr. Marcoh quickly turned at the direction of the voice. A beautiful, pale-skinned woman was regarding him, sitting in a nonchalant manner on a chair at the centre of the room. A coat was on her shoulders, hardly hiding the black dress underneath - or the tattoo of the ouroboros on her chest. Gasping, he glued himself against the wall.
Lust smiled with the triumph of someone finding a prize. "What an unexpected result I got from watching over the Fullmetal boy." She waved her hand dismissively. "Oh, don't worry. I didn't come here to bring you back. Even without you, we have people doing a great job taking over where you left off."
Marcoh still stared at her, hardly believing his ears. "What... It can't be... You're still making those things?!"
Lust clicked her tongue several times in mock disappointment. "Oh my. How awful it's for you to forget that the ones who gave you the know-how to produce a Philosopher's Stone were /us/. Even without you, even without the files, the research hasn't stopped." She locked her violet eyes on him, her expression hard. "The matter of the research files you took with you, on the other hand... It wouldn't be so bad if an ordinary person were to find them, but it'd be very bad if a practitioner as good as that boy were to take a look at them. You ran away when you had an inkling of the truth, isn't that right?"
As Lust still talked, Marcoh caught sight of the gun. It was still on the table, forgotten. Looking at Lust in the hopes that she wouldn't notice what he was about to do, his hand reached for it slowly. "That's how it was," he said, now keeping his voice calm and collected. "I had prayed that I was wrong, that it was a nightmare, but..." His fingers touched the cold metal of the gun and got ready to grab it. "You filthy demons!"
He never managed to do anything. In the blink of an eye, Lust's index finger extended to an incredible length and pierced Marcoh's shoulder through and through. Marcoh screamed in agony, pinned on the wall.
"Don't try anything funny," Lust warned smugly, now walking up to him so that she was face to face with her victim. "Now, about the place where you hid the stolen files... You told that boy, didn't you?"
Marcoh stared, breathing heavily at the pain that coursed through him. "What are you...?"
Lust just twisted her finger, making Marcoh scream again. "Don't play dumb. I'm busy and I don't have time for useless chatter."
Marcoh swallowed hard. It was then that he felt his blood flowing down his arm, dripping on the floor. He clenched his hand into a fist, seeing another way out of his predicament.
"That boy's bright," he said, using his blood to draw an array on the wall behind him. "When he sees those files... One day he'll find out the truth; what you are trying to do."
Lust smirked. "And am I going to let that happen?"
"'And am I going to let that happen?'" echoed Marcoh, his lips tugging into a maniacal grin, as he completed the array and the transmutation began. "You aren't going to be able to do anything! You are going to die here!"
The words had barely escaped his lips when out of the array came a rocky spear. It went through Lust with such force that blood spurted out of her mouth.
"You let your guard down," said Marcoh triumphantly.
It was then that, to his utter horror, Lust's body stirred.
"What...?!" he started.
"That's so mean," Lust said in a hurt manner. She looked at herself. "I just died, didn't I?" In mere seconds, her elongated claws had cut the rocky spear in two, quickly disposing of it. Red light emanated from her body and, soon enough, her wound was closed.
"That's not... possible," breathed out Marcoh, stunned.
Lust just licked her lips, tasting her own blood. "Now... What are you going to do?"
"Doctor!" a girl's voice sounded suddenly.
The door was opened and the girl came in, happily unaware of what was going on to the very person she wanted to see. "I brought flowers!"
"KIRI! DON'T COME IN!"
It was then that Lust lunged her elongated claws again. Pinning the girl against the wall, she placed her middle and index finger just an inch away from the girl's neck. The girl froze, instinctively aware that moving either left or right it would mean decapitation.
"That's it. Now be a good girl," said Lust sweetly before turning once more to Marcoh. "Marcoh, you do know what will happen if I twist my hand a little bit?"
"Don't! That girl has nothing to do with this!"
"Wrong answer," Lust said, smiling. However, it was a hard look that she gave to the man when she made her request again. "Say it."
Seeing that there was no other option left in him, Marcoh relented.
"The place I told the boy... Where the files are hidden..."
Lust's gaze hardened even further. "The place is...?"
The State Central Library. 1st Branch. Tim Marcoh.
Ed looked again at the piece of paper, smiling a bit to himself. So he hid a tree in a forest. The amount within that library's books is staggering. He placed Marcoh's note in his pocket. There is a clue about the stone there. This road isn't a dead end anymore.
And for the first time in a long while, Ed had hope. He looked outside the window, thinking of himself and Al restored once again, and he couldn't help but feel happy.
It was then that the thought occurred to him. If they found a philosopher's stone and they got their bodies back, certainly the stone would be able to get Beregond back to his home?
He would have to call Beregond at the first chance. The Gondorian would be glad to hear of the news, Ed was sure of it. He smiled again at the warmth he felt in his heart at the prospect of helping the Gondorian as well.
We'll fix both wrongs, just as we promised each other.
Kiri didn't stop crying, not even when Marcoh was released and nestled her protectively.
Lust, however, only watched them with a cruel smile in her face. "Keeping it at the State Central Library. Not too shabby. And here I thought you ran off with it," she noted.
"What on earth are you people?" Marcoh said, shaken. "What do you want?"
Lust waved her hand dismissively. "Even if you don't worry about it, you'll find out soon enough." She pushed her hair back and started walking out the door. "I'll let you live till then, Marcoh. If you try to run away or interfere with our work or do anything else stupid like that; if you think about trying anything funny... I'll be back to finish the job."
And with no other word, she closed the door and went down the stairs.
"Well, did you learn what we wanted?" asked the lithe androgynous figure that was waiting for her, resting his body against the wall.
"Yes," answered Lust, quite pleased with herself. "Now, I wonder if the Fullmetal boy will let me go ahead of him and dispose of the files," she added, smiling.
Envy's features became almost demonic when he grinned. "He isn't going to like this."
"Not at all," Lust said, giggling. "Will you come with me?"
Envy shook his head. "Not yet. I will have to go check on something first... or, rather, someone."
Lust raised an eyebrow in curiosity. "You mean that sergeant, don't you?"
Envy nodded. "A man we've never seen or heard of before, accompanying the Fullmetal pipsqueak and even able to perform alchemy the same way he can? That makes him quite intriguing, don't you think?"
Lust smirked. "Indeed."
*End of Part One
To Be Continued in Shambala – Separate Ways*