Shadow Conversations

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Soul and Fire  

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Crawford paused at the entrance of the small park and handed a few coppers to the elderly man in exchange for a small bag of heated, sugar-coated almonds.  Not that he was particularly hungry, not after lunch at the Koneko, but the nuts would help keep his hands warm while he waited.  Today was a wet, cool spring day with the promise of summer that was just another couple of weeks away nowhere to be seen.  Not that he minded the dreary weather as the light rain kept people away from this rendezvous point – which was exactly what he’d foreseen before he’d sent his message.  

A few minutes were spent wandering the fine gravel paths of the small city park, and a few of the almonds were devoured.  He nodded in satisfaction at their taste and spared a thought on how he’d have to mention them to his partner.  Jei couldn’t protest too much about being sent on yet even more errands if he knew there would be delicious snacks along the way.  Too be so easily led by one’s appetite….  Crawford spared yet another pray of thanks that he’d been born a soul-gaki bound and not a flesh-gaki – although blind luck had little to do with that fact.  No, there had been nothing ‘blind’ about his existence….  

“Are you going to share those?”  

He wasn’t surprised by the amused voice nor the sound of boots on wet gravel.  After all, he’d foreseen this moment over a week ago, and in a smooth motion he held out the bag of sweetened nuts.  “Of course.  What type of host would I be if I didn’t?” he asked, his voice just as sardonic as his companion’s.  

Roy grunted softly as he accepted the treat.  “I’m not sure, but I’m certain you’d be a much better host if you had picked a warm, dry tavern that served good beer rather than a park on a rainy afternoon.”  

He turned to face his companion and felt a spark of amusement at how Roy had to tilt his head upward to look him in the eye.  They shared many of the same traits so it was a bit gratifying to have this advantage – however slight – over his younger brother.  He’d learned over the years to use whatever leverage he could against his sibling.  They shared too many traits, really, determination and stubbornness chief among them.  “We stand less of a chance of being overheard here than at some tavern crammed with people eager to escape the lousy weather,” he bothered to explain, his brows drawn together in a slight scowl.  

“You had an entire city to choose locations from, you know.”  But before he could answer, Roy waved his hand and sighed.  “Don’t bother, all right?  I’m in a lousy mood and this little family get-together isn’t helping.”  Roy did some scowling of his own as he chewed on an almond.  “I had to come up with some silly excuse to be able to meet you at this time, and there will be a very large pile of paperwork awaiting my return, I’m certain,” he said, as if in excuse for his grumpiness.  

“And I’ve a long list of people I need to talk to and things that I must get done in a relatively short amount of time, which is another reason why I picked this location.  While you’ll soon head back to your nice, dry office, I’ll be busy with that list until late tonight.”  He felt a little uneasy about the admission as here weren’t many people who could pull forth any sort of explanation from him – in fact, there was just one other besides his brother.  “Also, I figured you’d be the last person to complain about being ‘cold’.”  

Roy waved his hand again, and this time sparks flew from his fingertips. “I don’t so much mind the cold as the wet, as the latter requires more effort on my part should something go wrong and use of my talent be required.”  Neither of them needed to elaborate on what could go wrong, not after what they’d been up to these last fifteen years.  There would be a long line of people after them for treason.  “And don’t try to change the topic when I still haven’t singed you hairless for what you’ve done to me!”  

“Oh, and what would that be?” Crawford asked, unable to resist needling his brother.  “I’ve done nothing but shield you from harm and send you information to advance your career these last few years.”  

There was a furious hissing sound as Roy stopped as the path curved around a grove of dogwood trees that would hide them from view.  “Don’t even try to tell me you didn’t know what would happen when you sent the brat to me!”  His voice was mostly smooth and his expression unruffled, save for his slightly narrowed eyes, but sparks flew around his gloved fingertips.  Dressed in a large, black rain slicker that hid his dark green uniform, the bangs of his black hair plastered to his forehead by the rain, he appeared as if a drawing of a kage from some silly book of fables meant to scare children.   

Crawford realized that smiling just then wasn’t the brightest of ideas, not when he had precious little to counter a flame attack with at the moment, but that last thought and his brother’s complaint were just so… well, not exactly amusing but possibly ironic.  “I appear to have become a matchmaker of sorts and you’re not as impressive as you think you are,” he said as he walked over to one of the dogwood trees and took shelter between its green branches.  “If you burn me to a crisp, you’ll never find out why I sent Elric’s sons to you, now will you?” he pointed out, just to be on the safe side.  Roy had inherited their father’s pragmatism, just as he did, and would know that it would do no one any good to kill him just yet.  He didn’t need his talent to know that he would remain unharmed.  

His brother appeared flummoxed for a moment, his eyes narrowed even more until glittering black was all that could be seen, and then his expression smoothed out and the sparks faded.  As expected, Roy’s common sense had won out.  “So you did know.  Please tell me you’ve had a vision of me reducing you to a lump of charcoal at some point in the future or I’m off to finish that paperwork.”  Roy’s voice took on a sardonic edge as he stood on the gravel path, arms folded over his chest and left eyebrow arched.  

“You’d have to fight your way past Jei first as he believes he has the right to be the one who kills me.”  There were identical snorts of derision from them both over that comment.  He waited a moment before asking one of the questions he needed answered.  “So how are they?” 

Roy’s left eyebrow inched up a little higher.  “Shouldn’t you already know?”  

“I’m a very busy man who doesn’t have time to have visions all day long,” he snapped, a little stung by the perceived snipe at his talent.  His temper wasn’t helped at all by Roy’s triumphant smirk and he spared a dark thought for their father.  While he understood the why the prick had sired two sons, he would much rather be an only child.  Sometimes he felt that their father had another reason besides the obvious to make them half-brothers who grew up far apart from each other – such as to ensure that they didn’t kill each other while growing up.  They really were too alike, and as Jei might say, manipulative bastards weren’t meant to travel together in packs.  Remembering that he had much to accomplish today, he took a deep breath and forced himself to regain his calm.  “How are they?  Have both of you adjusted to the bond?”  

He thought there might be another shower of sparks at the question but Roy obviously had very good control over both his temper and his talent.  There was a brief flash of annoyance, the only sign at how his remark had hit home.  He felt a little put out at that, as Roy was now a point up on him.  “Both Edward and Alphonse are fine, although Edward courts death on a daily basis and I fear we’ve scarred poor Alphonse for life.  Ever since Edward and I became mates, he’s taken to spending a lot of time hiding in his room so as not to ‘disturb’ us.”  Roy took a step toward a tree and plucked free one of its branches.  “Not that I expect an answer, but what were you thinking to send them to me?  Do you have any idea how much Edward and I suffered the last couple of years?  How difficult it’s been to raise two boys while pursuing a career in the military?  A career you asked me to take up, may I remind you.”  He twirled the branch between his fingers as he spoke, the only visible sign of his agitation.  

Crawford took a deep breath and nodded.  There were times when he felt so weary, so hollow and old that he just wanted to stretch out on the ground and not get up, and dealing with his brother usually brought on that feeling.  Hatred and disgust burned through him and helped to dispel the lethargy, the emotions directed at the Elders and his father.  No matter how many strings he pulled, how many people he treated as his personal puppets, he had no choice but to dance when his own were pulled and that *galled* him.  

“Trust me on this, Roy, you were the best choice for those boys.  I needed them as far away from Esset as possible, and the sooner Edward became your mate, the better.”  He did feel a bit of remorse for saddling his brother with a mate half his age, and he could very well imagine the frustration and pain they both suffered once Edward had reached puberty.  “You are the only one who can control them.”  

Roy chuckled and tilted his head back to look up at the grey sky.  “I think you seriously overestimate my abilities, Crawford.  At best I manage to steer them onto somewhat a sane path, but no one can really stop those two if they’re determined.”  He closed his eyes and let the rain fall onto his face, his expression sorrowful for a fleeting moment.  “While Edward is a little… peeved at being mated to, and I quote, ‘an arrogant, annoyingly smug pervert of an old man’, he has more or less accepted the situation and the limitations it places on us both.  He and his brother are still determined to learn everything they can about the Elders and bounds in general but their thirst for revenge has been somewhat tempered – for now.”  He turned to look at Crawford, an almost inhumanly cold expression on his face.  “They should be the perfect weapons, along with… well, I assume you’ve managed to enlist *his* help by now, haven’t you?  Why else would you bring him to the capital?  Things are going according to plan, aren’t they?”  

Crawford pushed away from the tree’s trunk and joined his brother out in the rain.  “He’s mated with the succubae-bound and I’ve his promise that he’ll obey whatever command I give him, as long as it doesn’t endanger his sister.  I’ve faith that in a few more weeks he’ll be free of his masters and devoted to our cause.”  More strings to be pulled, more ‘weapons’ enlisted in the war their father had bequeathed them.  He shared a bitter smile with his brother.  “I told you I’ve become a bit of a matchmaker.”  

“Indeed you have.  Do you think you’ll survive the succubae-bound finding out what you intend to do with his mate?”  The question seemed rhetorical so he didn’t bother to answer it.  “So far you seem to have… *him*, and that means his mate as well, and the Elric brothers.  How many other potent weapons are there left to gather, hmmm?” Roy asked, a mocking smile on his lips and his eyes cold.  “Have you found your son yet?  Doesn’t he get a chance to carry on the family tradition?  That’s the reason for our existence, isn’t it?”  

His brother had every reason for his anger and derision, but Crawford felt annoyed that he was the brunt of those emotions.  As if he had much of a choice but to carry out the plans their father had set into motion – at least Roy, as a fire elemental, was spared from knowing just how little one could escape destiny.  Their father had been too powerful and too clever for either of them, or those tied to them by blood or love, to have any other choice.  “My son, Schuldig, is on our side, as expected.  Once we fully have the… *him* on our side, things will have gone too far to be stopped.”    And it would only be a matter of time before Aya was as entangled in this mess as they were.  “We’ve reached the foreshadowing of war – another year or two, three at the most and it will happen.  By that time I need you as highly ranked in Kritiker’s army as possible, and I need the Elric brothers ready.”  

Tossing the twig up in the air, Roy stared at it as it burst into flames, his expression carefully blank.  “A friend has informed me that I’m slated to be promoted to Colonel by the end of the year.  If you’re right and a coup against the king will occur at the wedding, then there will be many opportunities to advance beyond that in a short time.  Ed… Edward will be all that you could ask of him.  I almost feel sorry for those bastards when we unleash him upon them.”  Roy did indeed feel sorry, but Crawford didn’t think the emotion was directed at the Elders or Esset.  “As for Alphonse, I’m not quite sure what you expect from him.  He’s every bit as powerful as his brother, but his temperament lies more toward healing than destruction.”  Roy gave him a dangerous look as ash drifted on the wind between them.  “No matter what his potential, he’ll never be a good weapon.  He’ll break first, and that’s something that neither Edward nor I will allow to happen.”  

No, Crawford had already ‘seen’ that fact.  “I know.  He’s the opposite of his brother, and that’s what we need.”  He felt ancient as he reflected on dark visions of battle, aged by each familiar image of death and destruction.  “There will be lots of weapons, I’m afraid, but precious few to put things back together once we’re done fighting.”  There would be Aya, Nagi, Roy and Edward, but to name a few, and the destruction they left in their wake would be terrible.  They would provide the blood and death that would be their sacrifice to the gods.  But if they did things right, if he could just control things well enough, there would be something for those such as Alphonse, Quatre, Neely and Omi to rebuild.  The Elders would be dead and Crawford and his kind would finally be free.  The thought made him feel both scared and exhilarated, but he wouldn’t back down now.  More than anything, he’d be rid of the chains imposed on him by his father and the Elders, even if he had to destroy half a world in the process.  A little voice inside whispered that it was probably just what his father had expected.  

A shower of sparks and steam that surrounded his brother shook him from his reverie.  Roy, his hair and face now dry, pulled the hood of his slicker up over his head.  “Is there anything else to discuss at this point?  Your message said you just needed a few minutes.”  His right hand disappeared inside the slicker.  

Nodding, Crawford pushed his glasses up his nose and stepped closer to his brother.  “If you have the information I requested, you can leave.”  

“And an ‘it’s been wonderful to see you, brother-dear’ to you, too,” Roy said, his voice dripping with sarcasm as he handed over a thick envelope wrapped in oiled paper.  “You do realize that by using just the Guard in such a situation, it will create even more animosity between them and the Army.”  

“That’s what I’m counting on,” Crawford explained as he safely tucked the information into the pouch on his belt.  “The Guard is more open to change, which is what we need the most right now, not power.”  He gave his brother a cool look.  “When the time comes that we do need the Army, I expect you to be ready.”  

“Most brothers ask for presents such as new knives or a night out drinking, you know.”  Roy seemed amused by something, his lips curved in a sardonic smile.  “But far be it for me to let you down.  I’ll hand over the Army when the time is right, have no fear.”  A change quickly overcame him, his demon nature allowed to the fore as the air around Crawford grew almost too hot to breathe.  “Until then, I expect you to leave the Elrics in my care and not bother them with your schemes.  Go play with the shadow boy if you’re that bored.”  

Crawford had to struggle with his demon nature in face of what appeared to be a threat, but he’d spent years perfecting his control over it and won in the end.  Just as he wouldn’t allow anyone to mess with those he considered ‘his’ – even Jei and Cassandra, Roy would be just as protective of his own ‘pack.’  That was what he’d counted on when he’d sent the boys to his brother.  So he merely nodded in acknowledgement.  “You want to see this through just as much as I do,” he reminded Roy as he stepped back.  “Can you arrange to meet with me in a week’s time?  There’s much we need to discuss and as the wedding draws near, I don’t want to risk sending messages.”  

“As long as we can vary the time and location, I should be able to manage it.  My staff will cover for me.”  

“Good.”  He quickly used his power to find a suitable date and location.  “Then I’ll see you in a week from tomorrow, eight o’clock in the morning at Ryujin’s temple.”  There was no need to wait for an answer as his vision showed them both there on that day.   

“Crawford.”  

He stopped and turned to face his brother, a questioning look on his face.  Roy stared back at him, surrounded by random sparks that the rain couldn’t quench.   

“Yes?”  

Roy stared back, cold and completely inhuman.  “Did you send him to me just as a weapon?  Did you hope to slip a leash on us both?”  

“No.”  That answer, said so quickly and with utter conviction, seemed to surprise his brother.  Hell, if Jei had heard it, he’d been shocked as well.  Crawford never claimed that he wasn’t a manipulative bastard, that he wasn’t above using his own flesh or blood, or the hearts of others, to get whatever he wished.  But while he wasn’t above using a bound’s mate as a means of leverage, such as with Aya or Roy, it would never be his sole means of control.  Bonds such as that were too unpredictable.   

“I knew that if the two of you were together, you’d become mates,” he explained as they both stood there beneath the falling rain.  “I knew that it would tie Edward to you, and Alphonse as well, I freely admit.”  As a cloud of steam slowly surrounded his brother, rain vaporized intense heat, he continued.  “But I only sent him to you after I was certain that you’d be the best choice to protect him and his brother, and that the bond would make you both stronger, not weaker.  I could have sent them elsewhere and been assured of almost exactly the same result, but it really was in the best interest of all three of you that I brought you together.”  

He had no doubt that Roy could sense the truth in his words.  Even though his younger sibling had taken after his elemental bound mother and not soul-gaki bound father, there had always been a link of sorts between them.  He felt Roy’s acceptance of the truth and an odd flash of annoyance and relief.  

“So it’s for the best that I’m driven insane by that harridan?  I always knew you hated me because I’m better looking,” Roy replied as he headed back to the park’s entrance.   

Crawford drew himself up to his full height and looked down his nose at his brother.  “I’m sure it was the gods’ way of compensating you for your lack of intelligence and power,” he sniffed.  

Roy flashed him an annoyingly smug smile and whistled briefly.  “So I’m stupid and weak?  Rather an odd choice of co-conspirator then, aren’t I?”  When he grunted in reply, Roy’s smile grew wider and he held up his gloved hand, fingers poised to snap.  “I think I’ve enough intelligence and power to fry to ash a certain arrogant person.”  

“I’ll concede to you your point about power, but what good does it do you if I can see the strike before it lands?” he asked as they strode along the gravel path.  

“You said it yourself, *brother*, you can’t see everything.  And now that you’ve found *him*, you’ll see even less.”  Roy’s smile just then, so confident yet cold, bore a frightening similarity to their father’s - which was rather disturbing as he’d never even met the man.  Crawford was reminded not to ever underestimate his sibling.

But all he did was smile a cold, confident smirk of his own.  “Very true, but harm me in any manner and you’ll have a furious Jei on your trail.  As I said, he seems to think he’s the only one who possesses the right to abuse me.”  

Roy’s hand fell back to his side as he chuckled softly.  “Touché.  I guess you’ll live, then.”  They walked in silence until they reached the park’s gate.  “I expect you to bring some pastries next week if you must insist on such an early meeting time,” Roy told him as he waved goodbye.  

“I’m sure I can manage something,” he replied before he turned and headed in the opposite direction.  Perhaps Jo could be persuaded to provide him with some rolls or muffins that morning. 

As he made his way on to his next appointment, he took a moment to reflect on his exchange with his brother.  Things had indeed picked up a momentum too powerful to be stopped, and he’d need all the help he could gather to him to keep things under control.  Roy would be indispensable in that respect.  As much as it galled him to admit it, his father had planned well.  That thought made him scowl so fiercely that everyone around him made sure to hurry out of his way.

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