This is something that I felt I needed to write. Exactly why, I cannot say, although I have my suspicions. At any rate, the writing bug bit me quite hard yesterday, and – though I should have been doing my homework – it wouldn't leave me alone. This is not meant for any specific cannon, and I know that I have partially broken the cannon of the manga by saying Hughes wasn't in Ishval. Honestly, I had never thought of this until yesterday. This was in no way planned, nor did it end up the way I had expected it to. I hope you will enjoy it for what it is, a mix of grief and hope.

I am incapable of being an artist, and I cannot draw even simple shapes well. If you really think I am Arakawa-sensei in disguise, think again… or maybe just take a look at my other stories. That should convince you. If I owned them, would I be posting this here? I think not.

I Promise

It was pouring down rain when Maes showed up at the door, pastry basket in hand, ready to welcome his friend home, newly returned from Ishval. A silly grin was plastered on the man's face as he bounded up the steps, closing his umbrella under the safety of the porch before knocking on the door.

He hadn't seen Roy in ages, and was dying to go out for a night on the town in celebration. He'd heard through his network that Roy had made Lieutenant-Colonel during the war, and it was long past time for a congratulatory party. Or maybe just some drinks… either way, Maes was prepared to drag Roy out the door if he had to.

Actually, he was here more to check up on his friend than anything else – the party was just an excuse. Roy hadn't shown up at any of his regular haunts, and it was really starting to scare his friend. No one had seen him, no one had heard from him… it was really like he'd just dropped off the planet. Maes had tried stopping to see the alchemist before, but the man had never been home.

Or perhaps he had just never opened the door, because Roy's neighbors had all sworn to not seeing him leave the place since he'd arrived, three days ago. To be honest, Maes was half afraid of what state he'd find Roy in. It had been quite a while since the two friends had seen each other, and Maes really wasn't sure what the war had done to Roy.

The stories he'd heard, far away from the front, had been bad enough. The newspapers all proclaimed that Amestris was soundly defeating their enemies, even more so once the State Alchemists joined the fight. The tales of woe from the border had hardly reached Central, but the returning soldiers – those too badly wounded to continue fighting – had deeply worried Maes. This was the first real war the young soldier had experienced, and to listen to some of the returning veterans…

Maes shuddered, and not from his wet clothes. Horror stories had abounded among the vets, tales of foreign cities, deceptive horizons, civilian fighters. Children with guns.

After the alchemists had been sent, it was over in less than six months. The tales only got worse as the war dragged on, until the alchemists featured in the stories became villains as much as heroes. Crimson, it was said, had gone insane, drunk with the power of a red stone; he had begun using his own men as living bombs toward the end. Crystal had deserted, unable to handle the atrocities being committed, the incredible loss of life. Strong-Arm had been sent back to Central for psychiatric assessment after refusing his orders to eliminate Ishvalans.

And Flame? As far as Maes could discern from his contacts, Flame was one of the few to survive intact.

But that hadn't satisfied the investigator. He needed to see with his own eyes that Flame was alright. It was this uncertainty that had weighed on his heart all the long months Roy had been gone. He had never known if Roy would come back alive, if any of his friends and fellow soldiers would come back. He had been saddened but unsurprised to attend a number of military burials for his former classmates, and had somehow managed to continue to hope that Roy would be spared such formalities for quite some time.

Maes shook his head, sending a few stray water droplets flying. He shouldn't be worrying anymore. Roy was home, and safe, and about to open the door for him.

It took a few moments to realize that there had been absolutely no response to his knock.

Now, if this had been just a year prior, he would have attributed it to a hangover, or some other harmless mishap, and come back a few hours later.

But it wasn't a year ago, and he couldn't wait a few hours. He had to know if Roy was alright, and he wasn't going to leave without satisfying himself that he was.

"Roy?"

Still no response. The lights were on, he could see them through the cracks in the doorway. So it wasn't that he wasn't home. He just wouldn't answer the door.

Damn it, Roy. Open the door! "Roy?" Maes knocked again, harder. "Hey, buddy, let me in, would you?"

Nothing.

"Roy, if you don't open the door, I'm going to open it myself." The happy-go-lucky tone of voice was gone, now, replaced with something almost threatening.

Still no response. Maes frowned at the blank door in front of him, then tried the handle.

Locked. And deadbolted, too – there was a bar blocking the light from the crack between the door and the beginning of the wall.

"Damn," he swore under his breath. "You are in so much trouble when I get in there, Roy." Maes abandoned the basket of food on the porch, not bothering to open his umbrella again as he headed around the back of the tiny house, too mad and worried to care that he was getting drenched. "I suppose I should be glad you have a basement," he muttered under his breath as he picked the lock to let himself in. He wrenched the door open at last, hinges squealing in protest, practically jumped down the steps and let the door slam shut behind him.

If Roy hadn't heard him by now, there was really something wrong.

"Well, Roy?" he called as he avoided tripping over an extremely dusty footstool in the dark, "Are you planning to continue the hermit act, or are you actually going to be sociable and come talk to me?" Nothing but silence answered him.

Maes finally found the staircase, charging right up to the door and neatly throwing pages of alchemical notes flying in his haste as he opened the door to Roy's kitchen. He cast a glance across the room, seeing little more than pages and pages of papers, everywhere. There on the kitchen table was a half-eaten piece of toast, partially covered by several sheets of paper. "Roy? Are you all right?"

He headed back toward where he remembered the living room should be, becoming more and more concerned with every step. Something was wrong, he knew. His subconscious was screaming at him, and he knew this was the right direction when he started seeing transmutation circles on the wood floor, etched in… was that blood?

Maes fought to keep his stomach from lurching at the realization. "Oh, God, Roy, what have you done?" The words choked him.

Though his only background in alchemy had come from his friend, even Maes knew that blood was the most alchemically volatile substance. The strongest bonds could be created with it, but blood also carried the most potential for destruction. "Keep it together, Hughes," he told himself quietly, the panic starting to take over his voice. Where was Roy? If he'd been using blood, then –

He could barely keep himself from shaking. Roy would never have been using blood as the basis for an alchemical circle, not if he could use any lesser material and still get the results he needed. Which meant that –

That he was doing something forbidden, most likely. That was the only type of alchemy Maes could think of that would require a blood bond. Taboos, things that could land an alchemist in prison – or kill him, if things went awry.

Maes forced himself to step over the smeared circle. He could do this, he would do this, if it meant he could pull Roy back from whatever Hell he'd landed himself in. And if the circles, becoming more complex as he progressed toward the living room, were any indication, then Roy would certainly need help.

The scent of blood was stronger now, and he still hadn't heard a word from Roy. Maes was more than simply concerned, now. The investigator was well and truly panicked, visibly shaking as he set foot in what he knew to be the living room.

The place looked utterly uninhabitable. There were alchemic circles on the floor, the walls, the ceiling, even the oil paintings had not escaped desecration by the bloody work of the Flame Alchemist. Every inch of usable surface had been covered in the strange circles, and not a single one was recognizable to Maes. Alchemy-inept he might be, but most Amestrians could identify the basic elements of circles, and none of these patterns had even basic material that he recognized.

It scared him, scared him badly, that Roy wasn't working with fire. The alchemic circles themselves weren't uncommon. Maes had seen too many examples of them over the years, especially when both men had been new recruits at the academy. Roy had always been obsessive about his research, and a few times Maes had woken with their room completely covered in alchemic notes about oxygen, nitrogen, and hydrogen. Those circles, he could have dealt with. They had never been in anything more permanent than pen or marker, and he could recognize the components of them, might even have been able to draw them himself, if he'd ever put himself to the task.

But these? Intricate to a point they were barely legible, written out in blood… no, these circles were not within Maes' realm of comfort.

As soon as I make sure you're alright, I'm going to attack these circles until I get rid of every damn one of them! "Roy?" Maes really hoped the hitch in his voice wasn't as audible to the alchemist as it was to his own ears.

Roy didn't look up from his position on the floor, penning out some intricate pattern onto yet another sheet of paper. Maes watched him check it against a book, propped open against his knee, before scribbling out more indecipherable notes.

"Roy." Maes made sure his voice had a note of command in it, this time.

Still no sign that the alchemist had even heard him.

"Major Mustang!"

Roy's head snapped up, and he swayed as he attempted to scramble to his feet in time to salute what he supposed was a commanding officer.

Maes watched as his friend attempted to keep his knees from buckling, seeing past the obvious fatigue into Roy's soul. Roy couldn't hold his gaze as he began to fall.

Maes didn't let him. He caught him just before he hit the floor, gently lowering Roy as he knelt beside him, purposely nudging the book shut and sliding the alchemical notes behind him as he did so. Now Roy would be forced to look at him, rather than hiding behind theories and rhetoric.

"Roy," he said, possibly more gently than he had ever done so, as if the exhausted young man in front of him would break should he speak more harshly, "what have you done?"

Roy wouldn't meet his eyes as he answered, keeping his face turned away. "You don't want to know, Maes," was all he said.

Maes wasn't about to let it go at that. "Roy. What is all this?"

The alchemist didn't even bother pretending not to know what he meant. "Research."

"About what?" Maes' voice began to get an edge to it, one that made Roy flinch away from him. He barely resisted the urge to shake the alchemist as he asked again. "What is the research on, Roy?"

Roy's voice was barely audible. "Human transmutation."

Visibly, Maes just nodded. Internally, he was screaming. "Human transmutation," he repeated, taking a deep breath to subvert his mental scream of horror. "Why are you researching human transmutation?"

Roy started to shake, and it was hard to tell exactly what he was saying, but it was still clear enough for Maes to make out the basics of it. "B-because of w-what I've d-done."

And no more words were needed. Maes had heard the stories of Ishval, the atrocities committed there by soldiers no older than himself. Hundreds of deaths a day. He didn't really want to imagine how bad it had been for the alchemists, who could kill hundreds in just one transmutation. He didn't even want to contemplate just how many transmutations Roy had performed a day, just to keep himself alive.

Don't think of it. Don't judge him for it. Don't put all those lives on the head of one man. Don't blame him for doing what it took to stay alive, damn it. Just be glad he's safe.

But Maes didn't have to say anything. Roy already blamed himself, and it was killing him. Maes could see it, like an awful pull on his soul. Roy's eyes, normally glinting with some sort of humor, had haunted shadows within them. It spoke volumes that Roy was letting Maes touch him right now, was letting him see him so vulnerable. On any given day at the Academy, Roy would barely tolerate even such brief contact as a strategically timed clap on the shoulder from Maes.

Maes suspected that Roy would not live through this, if he went much deeper into the research. He was already completely consumed by it, and had obviously been neglecting himself in favor of perfecting the alchemical circle. A circle that was designed to bring back the dead.

Under normal circumstances, Roy would not have even thought of touching such a circle, let alone performing the research and transmutation himself. He was too thoroughly grounded for that type of dream. Life flows in one direction, and Maes and Roy both knew that far too well. Death could not be changed.

These were anything but normal circumstances, but Maes still couldn't quite understand why Roy had resorted to such desperate attempts at playing god. "Why, Roy? Why are you trying to bring them back? You know it's impossible."

Roy barely managed to shake his head. "Not… impossible. Just difficult."

Maes was sorely tempted to slap him. "Difficult? Just difficult? What are you planning to offer in Exchange for their lives, Roy? Your life?"

A miserable nod was his friend's response.

Maes pulled the alchemist to him, wrapping his arms around him in support and mutual misery. "One life isn't equal to another, Roy, no matter how much we wish it to be. Let alone all the people lost in this damn war. There's nothing equivalent to that."

"It's just… wrong, Maes. I can't abandon them. They deserve to live, just like anyone else!" The sudden strength in Roy's voice startled his friend for a moment.

"I know. But you can't save them. They're already gone."

A shared feeling of unimaginable grief filled the room, and neither wanted to break the moment.

Maes shifted uneasily on the floor after a time, the wood creaking slightly under his shifting weight. "Roy?" He waited until the alchemist looked up at him to continue. "You need to get some sleep."

But Roy shook his head, a desperate look in his eyes. "I… I can't sleep. All I can see is…" he couldn't finish the sentence, breaking off with a choked sound and turning his face away.

"Flames?"

Nothing but the subtle shaking of Roy's body, but then, that was sign enough.

"Just promise me you'll try, alright?"

"I don't know…"

Maes wrestled Roy into an upright position and started half-dragging him toward the bedroom. "Well, I do. You're going to fall asleep the moment your head hits the pillow, whether you think you can or not. After that… we'll see."

Maes managed to avoid most of the bloody circles on the floor on the trip, although his thoughts on them had no such limitations. Idiot of an alchemist. You know you can't bring the dead back to life, Roy. Of all the things in this world you had to try, it had to be that. Taboo, indeed. And with good reason. You do remember that no one who's ever attempted to activate that circle has succeeded, right?

Of course you do. You're the Flame Alchemist, one of the most destructive people in the country. You should know better. You do know better. Master Hawkeye taught you better than this, Roy. The dead stay dead.

Even if you hadn't thought of it that way, you still should've known better. You don't have anything equivalent to that many lives. "Alchemy is based on the principle of Equivalent Exchange" you've told me, so many times that I have that damn mantra memorized. Several others, too, come to think of it.

And what the hell were you going to give up in exchange for their souls? Or their bodies, come to think of it? Some of those people have been dead and buried for months, by now.

He dumped the exhausted young alchemist on the bed, then, watching as Roy sank into the mattress bonelessly. Roy never did anything halfway, as Maes had discovered. It didn't seem to matter if it was procrastinating, chasing women for the fun of it, learning alchemy, or simply annoying the heck out of his friends. He would do one thing until he had it perfected, no matter how many times it took him or how exhausted it made him.

Maes shuddered to think of what could have happened if he had not decided to see his friend tonight. The thought that he could have lost Roy, forever, because he still hadn't learned his limitations after all this time, after all he'd survived…

No. He was not going down that road, not tonight. And hopefully not ever again.

For now, he'd just have to take it one step at a time. Getting Roy to sleep would be a good first step, and then he could spend all night eliminating every damn trace of those circles in the house.

Now, if he could just get the alchemist to stop crushing his fingers, that would really help.

"Roy?"

The half-asleep man barely turned his head toward Maes, but the investigator figured that that was enough of a response. "Would you mind giving me my hand back? I do need to be able to hold a pen tomorrow, you know."

The painful grip loosened slightly, but not nearly enough to allow Maes to escape. The instant he tried, Roy clutched his hand all the tighter.

"Don't leave," he said quietly, remnants of pain visible in weary dark eyes.

No one with a heart could have left the man alone in such a state, let alone his best friend. "I'm not going anywhere, Roy."

"Promise?" His exhaustion was plain to hear, and it was clear that it was winning. Roy's eyelids were already half closed.

"I promise."

It looked like eliminating the alchemic circles would have to wait till morning, then. Maes pulled up a chair and prepared for a long night. Nightmares or no, he would remain with his friend, a reassuring presence should anything happen.

And nothing would ever change that.

I promise.