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Fire Scars

Chapter Text

On any other occasion Mustang wouldn't have taken notice of the conversation. He and his subordinates had a tacit agreement of the common sort: they avoided mentioning anything he would have to reprimand them for, and he studiously ignored anything he might happen to overhear if he came into the room suddenly.

"I wouldn't--" Ross was saying warningly as Mustang nudged the door open.

Everyone suddenly became very interested in their paperwork. Which was never a good sign, even though Mustang had some reason to believe that Fuery was reading a romance novel in unbound pages interleaved with actual work.

"Where's Hawkeye?" Mustang asked. It came out more peevishly than he would have liked.

"She said she thought everyone could use some coffee, sir," Fuery said without meeting his eyes.

Mustang's eyebrows went up. While Hawkeye had a mothering streak, it seldom manifested in out-and-out domesticity while she was on duty.

He strode over to his desk, sat, and swung his feet up. "Have they changed the paper they use for official forms, I wonder?"

Breda took the bait, poor man. "I haven't heard of any such--"

Mustang tapped the side of his chair. "Then that pile at the corner of my desk needs to be at least an inch higher. Who's been shirking?"

Commendable esprit de corps, at least, even if it was over a bunch of forms. Everyone snapped to.

There was a depressing number of things in Central that wanted prompt attention. But half the things that passed his desk were not among them. He'd risen three hours before sunrise, restless after a dream of shadows and cinders, of Hughes' glasses broken in an empty phone booth. No blood, no dangling phone, just the glasses. He had bent to pick them up and stopped when he saw his eyes reflected in them. They were the same eyes he faced in the mirror day after day, but he had been gripped with the conviction that they were about to change.

I am not a stranger to myself, he thought. If he was the man he was now, it was because he was the sum of his own choices. But the dream argued otherwise.

In the course of that walk, he had passed several lines. Bread was dear. Even with the rising prices, people queued up hours before the bakeries opened, quiet and grim in the gray half-light. Mustang himself ate as well as he ever had; the military's cafeterias had not yet felt the pinch. Grumman had suggested that there was no need to worry, as grain was being diverted from the South Area, which had been less badly affected by the disruption in rainfall patterns caused by Father clawing toward the sun.

As he listened to the scratching of pens, Mustang contemplated the fragments he had overheard before opening the door:

"It's an outrage, that's what it is. Something ought to be done." Fuery, aggrieved.

"Like what?" That had been Ross. "If you threw everyone in jail just for having an opinion, nothing would ever get done around here."

"It's not just an opinion. People are taking it seriously. Down at the cafe last night, Mr. Gelden was saying a petition would be going around. I've been taking my tailoring to him for the past five years. I'd never have believed he'd take this movement seriously. There has to be something someone can do."

Mustang was about to breach the silence and ask about the petition, just to confirm his suspicions, when Hawkeye rapped smartly on the door. Breda let her in with rather more haste than was necessary.

Mustang said mildly, "Since when do you run around fetching coffee?"

"I don't run, sir," she said. "The coffee would spill." She set about distributing the mugs on the tray without looking at him.

He wasn't going to get a useful word out of her while everyone else was around, he could already tell that. And the perfection of her calm meant that she knew something. So he contented himself with filling out that report on the feasibility of commandeering more vehicles as grain transports in triplicate. Technically, he had higher-priority documents to deal with, like the one proposing a new cannery. But he couldn't help remembering the pinched faces of some of the children standing in line this morning.

Infuriatingly, Hawkeye was her usual efficient self. All the more so because she was putting her talents to avoiding his bids for her attention.

"I think I need to go look at some records," Mustang announced to the room at large. "Lieutenant--"

"Which ones are you looking for?" she returned. "I'll have them brought to you."

He knew she was more than capable of picking up on the hint, so the parry was deliberate. "Ah--I wasn't thinking of specific titles, but rather a search of the literature--"

"What are your search criteria?"

Mustang had the distinct feeling that Ross had lowered her head to conceal a smile. Very well, then, he would have to corner Hawkeye some other way. Since she insisted on being elusive, he might as well reward her appropriately. "I need more information on recent advancements in canning," he said. "Say the last two years. But not the monograph by Miletas; his spelling is so terrible that it's hard to understand what he's going on about. Or the one by--I can't remember the author, but you'll know it when you open it up and find yourself wading through three whole chapters on ways to prepare beets."

He was pretty sure that even Hawkeye would be hard-pressed to find anything useful. She merely saluted and whisked out of the room. He suspected that the next time she had him over to dinner she was going to reward him with five meticulous courses of beets.

To Mustang's chagrin, two and a half hours later, she sailed back into the room with an armful of books. He had not the slightest doubt that every single one of the damn things was useful, acceptably free of spelling errors, and lacking any recipes involving beets. Which meant that now he was committed to reading the damn things.

"Thank you, Lieutenant," Mustang said, and just because he hated being thwarted, said, "Coffee."

She cocked an eyebrow at him, her first real expression all day, and went without a word.

At the end of the day, Mustang was still in the middle of the first chapter of the first book. It was possible that the historical overview of the canning industry would someday prove beneficial to him, but today was not that day. If he had been ten years younger, he would have doodled in the margins out of spite.

"Out, all of you," he growled when the clock showed six o'clock. He set the book down and was unable to suppress a yawn.

To his disappointment, Hawkeye didn't linger. In fact, she was one of the first out the door. He was starting to think that she thought he owed her candied rose petals and chocolates. Or a new brace of pistols.

Instead of heading home, Mustang walked the long way around to a bar. He was keenly aware of the beggars, especially the blind ones, although he passed them without pausing. If Grumman meant to start bread distribution, he had better do it soon.

The bar's sign displayed an animal made unidentifiable by peeling paint, a quadruped of some sort. People commonly called it the Headless Pony. The beer was lamentable. The place's sole attraction was its pianist, a dark-haired woman with terrible posture and wonderfully dextrous hands. Mustang always worried that one of these days she would slump over the piano and crash out a chord with her forehead.

"Haven't seen you here in a while, boy," the pianist said.

Mustang was pretty sure that she wasn't more than five years older than he was, but he supposed musicians were allowed their eccentricities. "My evenings are empty without your music," he said, kissing her hand.

Trite as the sentiment was, it pleased her. "Any requests?" she said, playing lively arpeggios in swing time.

What the hell, he might as well enjoy something today. "That song with the woman," he said, trying to describe the opening chords with his hands.

She laughed, not unkindly. "I'll find something to suit you. Go drink."

Mustang laid the customary quantity of bills on the piano bench, weighed down with two mints wrapped in foil. He had discovered that she had a weakness for mints. Then he took at seat next to an older man.

The bartender saw him and shoved a bottle of beer and a glass at him. Mustang occupied himself through the first verse examining the label, which gave a long-winded and not entirely grammatical explanation of the brand's origins. He was half-convinced it was a counterfeit. Who would want to lay claim to beer this bad?

Still, ever optimistic, he drank. Sadly, the beer did not improve the more he drank, and he wasn't sure he wanted to get drunk to the point where it did.

Fuery had mentioned a movement. The problem was it could be anything. Not everyone believed the cover story that had been given out about the revolt in Central and King Bradley's death. Grumman had moved to consolidate the government, true, but there were too many people in too many places who had seen too many things that should never have been allowed to happen.

And where was I when these things happened? he asked himself scathingly.

He did not take off his gloves. But he was tempted to, as if he could shed culpability so easily.

Just two weeks ago, there had been a demonstration just outside headquarters, about a hundred men and women clamoring to replace Amestris's lion-fish with some badge they had dredged out of history, a falcon clasping a sword. "New emblems for new eras," they had chanted as they waved their signs. Grumman had made no official response, saying it was harmless as demonstrations went. But Mustang remembered how some of the generals had muttered among themselves.

Conventionally the lion-fish represented strength and adaptability. He'd learned as much in school. Having found out more about Amestris's origins, however, he had done a little digging into Xerxes' symbology. In Xerxes, the lion-fish had been the guardian of the red waters, which could bestow life unending. It didn't take any genius to see the significance.

Others grumbled, not always quietly, about the distribution of food. Mustang hadn't seen the queues turn violent yet, but it was only a matter of time. One woman had been demanding that state alchemists create gold to distribute to the people, as if that restriction weren't there for sound economic reasons.

Of course, people tended to clam up when they saw him. There were disadvantages to being a walking flamethrower.

Mustang had lost track of what the pianist was playing, but he caught her eye and smiled as he got up to leave. He fancied that that extra appoggiatura on the high note was for him.

He kept an eye out for the two stray cats that lived in his neighborhood. To his relief, one of them, a smoke-gray tom, paced him to his apartment, purring outrageously. It wouldn't surprise him if people were starting to get desperate enough to eat cats. He remembered days in Ishbal when the big-eared desert rats had looked tantalizing.

A slight, straight-backed figure unfolded from the shadows. Mustang tensed, but he could no more have mistaken her than he could have forgotten the shape of his hands. It was Hawkeye.

"Don't tell me you've been waiting all this time, Lieutenant," he said, not entirely in jest.

"We should talk," she said simply.

"Come in, then."

Once inside, he offered her dinner, which she refused. She sat at the table with her hands folded before her. "I'm sorry, sir," she said. "There was no better time to explain."

"There's no one listening now," Mustang said.

"People have been talking," Hawkeye said, "about war crimes trials."

He froze in the middle of pouring himself a glass of wine, unfroze just in time. "The Ishbalans?"

She was looking at him consideringly, the way he had seen her look at targets on the firing range. "A few of them, yes. But it's not just the Ishbalans. People are badly shaken up about alchemists, sir, and they're remembering the stories that came out of Ishbal along with more recent events. Never mind that alchemists weren't the only ones."

"You can't be taking this seriously," Mustang said, setting the glass down. He wasn't sure he wanted it anymore. "People talk--"

"People don't talk around you," she returned. "But even those who know I was there don't always make the connection. I took my share of lives, sir."

The pallor of her face worried him. "You would think there'd be some statute of limitations--" He regretted the words the moment he said them.

Her eyes were terribly steady. "Is there any statute of limitations to grief, sir? Or loss?"

"Surely these people realize that anything they could possibly impose at this late date would only cause more problems than it'd solve." Mustang was proud of himself for keeping his tone level until he realized that his hands were tightly clenched, and shaking. "You'd have to dismantle the government from top to bottom. There would be false accusations along with the true ones. It would be--" He broke off and stared at her. "You agree with them."

"I wanted you to have some time to yourself to think about it," Hawkeye said. After a slight pause, she added, "I'm not completely convinced the Jurists--that's what they're calling themselves--are wrong."

Mustang uncurled his fingers one by one and counted to ten. "Surely you're not thinking of handing yourself over to them."

He didn't ask what she thought he deserved.

"I didn't say they were entirely right, either," Hawkeye said with more spirit. "But is it truly so bad to have a reminder that other people paid for our advancement?" She did not say died, but he heard it clearly. "You can't undo what's done. All that remains is to make amends. The Jurists have a different idea of what constitutes amends, that's all."

"I will take your warning under consideration," Mustang said, which was as near thank you as he could manage at the moment. "There haven't been any, ah, incidents yet?" He had thought that he would have heard--

"Not that I know of," Hawkeye said. "Maybe people will back away from the extremists' positions if things improve." She didn't have to be more specific about "things."

"Maybe." Mustang decided that he wanted that wine after all. "I imagine you have matters of your own to attend to--"

"My neighbor's looking in on Black Hayate. There's nothing that won't keep," she said, and he relaxed a little.

He tapped the bottle again, looking at her inquiringly, and this time she assented. They sat in companionable silence for an hour, hardly drinking at all.

Chapter Text

Winry paced back and forth on the platform, listening for the train's whistle. She had brought two umbrellas, one blue and one red. The clouds were thick and dark, and she knew Ed never deigned to remember mundane things like umbrellas. He was still in the habit of thinking he could conjure up whatever he needed from the surroundings. She supposed the adjustment would take more time, that was all.

After several more minutes she gave up and sat on a bench, kicking her legs back and forth. Amestris's trains were no longer as punctual as they once had been. But Ed had written and said that he would be on the 2 o'clock train, and she had been determined to show up on time, no matter how unlikely it was that the train would, too.

She had finally pulled out a book on machining tolerances for prosthetic automail when she heard the whistle at last. It was hard not to smile as she put the book away and got up again.

The train screeched to a halt. She bounced on her toes. Ah, there he was! She had once proposed making him a leg with red chrome highlights to go with his coat so he would stand out in a crowd even more. He had thrown a pillow at her.

He spotted her at the same time. "Winry!" he said, striding toward her. He set down his valise when he reached her and crushed her in a hug. Then he set his hands on her shoulders and looked earnestly into her eyes. "You doing all right?"

She pulled a face. "You always ask that! Do you think that someone's going to drop a wrench on my head or something?"

"I just get worried, that's all."

Winry laughed. "It's Central, silly. If I'm not safe here--"

"I wish you'd asked me before you moved out here."

So that was what he was bothered about. Her lips pressed together.

"How did Pinako take it?" he asked.

"She's got Den to take care of her, and I write her every week. She sends me fruitcakes and replacement tools."

Ed cocked an eyebrow at her. "What, Central's smiths aren't good enough for you?"

"Why settle for second-best?" she said. "Come on, Ed. I thought you'd be--"

"Happy?" He let go. "A lot of bad things happened here."

"Bad things happen everywhere, Ed."

He picked up his valise, and they began walking side by side. Ed said very little, although she tried to coax him into a better mood by stopping at a patisserie. The appeal to his appetite didn't work. He nibbled abstractedly at a plain croissant, not even one of the chocolate-raspberry ones she nudged him toward, and seemed much more interested in peering into the mouths of alleys, or counting stray dogs. And then it started to rain, and they hurried through the gray streets with their coats clutched tightly against the fitful wind.

Winry had a small apartment on the second floor. She took Ed's coat and hung it up to dry, and took a certain pleasure in hanging hers up right next to it. "Coffee?" she asked. "Tea?"

Ed waved a hand. "Whatever you've got so long as it's warm." As she set about filling a kettle, he added, "I remember that patisserie. I'm pretty sure the croissants used to be half again as large for the same price."

"Bread's dear lately," she said. "I usually get mine from the commissary."

She thought that would provoke another lecture, but Ed merely grunted and leaned back in his armchair. When the tea was steeped, she poured them each a cup, smiling a little as Ed added milk with a generous hand.

"If nothing else," Ed said abruptly, halfway through his second cup, "it must be interesting work. What do they have you doing?"

"I've been working with a prosthetics design team," Winry said, "looking for more less painful ways to handle automail's interface with the nervous system."

"I thought that was well-studied already," Ed said.

"The problem is that most of our knowledge is empirical," she said. "The history of automail research isn't pretty. If we can improve our theory, we might have a chance of designing better interfaces with less experimentation."

"Hmm," he said. "You're always going to have to test it on real people."

"But it betters the odds that something will work," Winry said. "That's the idea, anyway. I've been working with automail mechanics recruited from Rush Valley, medical researchers, even a mathematician who specializes in topology." She set her cup down and looked at Ed sidelong. "You think something's fishy."

"It was an excuse to visit you--" He wilted under her glare. "Okay, that too, but I have a bad feeling about this."

"I couldn't refuse," Winry said quietly. "Dr. Raigan--she coordinates the volunteer test subjects--says there's some hope that our research may lead to breakthroughs in the treatment of paralysis and nerve damage."

She didn't have to mention that there were plenty of people in Amestris who could benefit from such treatment.

Ed's face was pensive. He swirled the tea in its cup, then downed the rest of it in a single gulp. "It sounds like important work."

"It's work I'm good at," she said. It was past time to change the subject. "Where have you been traveling? Your last letter was awfully vague."

Ed reached inside his coat and drew out a parcel wrapped in plain brown paper. "I was going to transmute the paper into something fancier," he said, more cheerfully, "and left the shop before remembering that I can't do that anymore. By the time it occurred to me, they were closed for the night, and I was planning on catching the morning train down here." He set the parcel down with a flourish.

"Let me guess," she said, willing to accept the peace offering, "a set of chocolate-covered wrenches?"

Ed pulled a face. "You have the strangest ideas sometimes."

Further prodding was futile, so she used a penknife to cut the string and carefully unwrapped the gift. It was in a wooden box decorated with découpage roses, their stems and leaves twining down the sides. She flicked the latch open--a brass affair in filigree, more ornamental than functional--and caught her breath.

"You like it?" Ed said, leaning forward.

Winry beamed at him, then looked down at the figurine of Den, cast in bronze, even down to the rivets in his leg. "It's beautiful. But you didn't--"

"Naw, I had to pay someone to make it special," he said. "Worth it, right? Although if you're out here you ought to look into getting a dog of your own."

"I've thought about it," she said. "But dogs aren't faring too well in this city. I'd be afraid to leave one at home during the day."

Ed leaned back and sighed. "That bad, huh."

"Is it better elsewhere?"

He scowled. "Not so you'd notice, no. I mean, it varies from place to place. I passed through this one village where the harvest seems to be going pretty well. But you couldn't turn around without rubbing elbows with the Fuhrer's guards, who were there to protect the crop."

"So that's the cause of your wanderlust," Winry said. Edward Elric, inspector at large. It boggled the mind. "Ed, you're hardly inconspicuous. People are going to notice."

"Yeah, but Central is already used to me showing up in random places. So long as I don't push my luck--"

She snorted. "Since when have you ever been known for restraint and moderation?"

"You wound me." But he was smiling. "So what's to eat around here?"

"You and your stomach," she said tolerantly. "There's an apple pie for you, but I had a minor disaster with the crust earlier today so the only other thing I have ready is sandwiches."

"Sounds good to me," Ed said. He knew better than to complain about the apple pie: the last time he had made a joke, she had gotten her revenge by making him tea with salt. Petty, yes, but it was important to have someone to be petty with.

Being Ed, he ate a slice of apple pie first, as an appetizer, and only then started in on the sandwich, and then it was another slice of apple pie to serve as dessert.

"Hey," he said, looking up from the demolished remnants of the second slice. "You've hardly touched your sandwich."

"I had a late lunch," she said.

Ed was kind enough not to call her out on the lie directly. He stabbed the largest morsel of apple with his fork and frowned. "You should keep doing what you're doing," he said at last.

"Why?" she demanded. "I swear, Ed--"

"Listen," he said. "I hope I'm wrong about this, but if I'm not, we're talking about a program of human experimentation that's probably got branches in other places. They're not going to want to give that up."

"Automail research has always been built on human experimentation," she protested. "Animal experiments are simply too unreliable."

"There's human experimentation, and then there are--" Ed's smile had no humor in it. "There are people walking around affixing souls to armor, or making philosophers' stones. And if they think you suspect anything, they'll turn on you. Speaking strictly of the worst case."

Winry thought of the workshop where she signed in every morning, the cardamom pastries that Jameela brought in on Thursdays, ball bearings and calipers and Gareth's cheerfully tuneless humming as he bent over the workbench. But there were also the inspections, a different officer each time. The sterile language of experiment: the subject has made no progress, the subject has been withdrawn from group A testing. And the guards: just because she knew their names and they tipped their hats when they passed her in the street didn't make them any less deadly.

"So the safest thing to do, if I'm right," Ed said when she raised her eyes to him, "is go on as if nothing's changed."

She swallowed. "That's going to be difficult. I--they'll notice if I get jumpy."

"Just do your best," Ed said. "You can say you've been reading the newspapers and they're getting to you."

"The state paper is pretty uncommunicative," Winry said. "But everyone knows. And sometimes I do read one broadsheet or another. None of them seem to last for long. They're not really illegal, just--frowned upon. It's hard to know who to believe."

"I'm going to have to get my hands on some of them," he said.

"I can--"

"Don't. It'll make you look suspicious."

Winry wished she didn't believe him, that she could laugh away his earnest talk of conspiracies. But this was Ed. As excitable and hot-tempered as he was, he wasn't stupid. "If I stay where I am," she said, "I can try to find out more." He opened his mouth, brow furrowing. "Don't say it. I'm very good at what I do, Ed. They'll give me some latitude. I'll keep my eyes open; that's all."

"I wish--" Ed broke off and looked down at his clenched hands.

"If it's as you say, nowhere's safe anyway."

"There are degrees of safety."

"I'm not stupid enough to start a fistfight with the Fuhrer's soldiers, Ed. But I can fight in my own way, if it comes to that."

Ed said feelingly, "I have this vision of you setting booby traps all over Central. If you do that, give me some advance warning? I still remember the time I almost lost my leg..."

"It wasn't that bad! You always exaggerate."

"Hmph." After a moment, he said, "You going to finish that sandwich?"

Winry bit her lip and handed the sandwich over. He made short work of it.

For the rest of the evening, they spoke no more of experiments and automail, but instead went through advertisements to see if anyone needed a home for a dog.

Chapter Text

They had gotten up early to catch the train to Central City. The day had dawned pale and cold with a red sun like a wound in the sky. Mustang had been glad of his uniform, his coat, his gloves: armor against his misgivings.

"One of these days I'd like to go on a train ride just for the hell of it," Mustang said. "Sitting back to watch the orchards and the beautiful green countryside go by while I do something relaxing, like reading a magazine about the latest trends in ballroom dancing."

Hawkeye, who was sitting across from him with a mystery novel balanced in her lap, eyed Mustang's briefcase. "You could review that directive, sir."

He snorted. "I could also take up embroidery."

"I'm sure the meeting will go fine, sir."

Over the train's rhythmic rattling, Mustang could hear the chirruping voices of two children--it sounded like they were playing Nim--and a group of men recounting sly jokes about ladies they had known. He could have had a life like that. But he had chosen to pursue alchemy, and that was that.

"Fine for who?" Mustang asked in a low voice. "The Ishbalans' requests have been remarkably temperate, considering everything that's happened. And still we give them the merest portion of what they ask for."

"The directive, sir." Nevertheless, Hawkeye's eyes were troubled.

Mustang opened his briefcase and pulled out the relevant folder, stamped PRIORITY in red. It had arrived last night, delivered directly to his apartment. He was perfectly aware that he was only involved at the Ishbalans' insistence, but a promise was a promise.

He read the directive, which was typed in crisp black letters. Frowned at the paper. Read it again, counting the typos (two).

"Sir?" Hawkeye asked some time later.

"Well," he said. "I don't see why they want me there at all."

"The Ishbalans?"

"Central Command." Mustang put the paper back in its folder. "It seems that we're to stall the Ishbalans. Satisfy them with platitudes and fine dining. I've already told Grumman that I have an obligation--"

Hawkeye frowned. "Why, does the Fuhrer know what the Ishbalans will be asking for this time?"

"If he does, he's not telling me. I imagine my sympathies are suspect."

"Someone has to be willing to do the work of reconciliation," she said steadily. "But it isn't necessarily easy."

"I think I already figured that out."

Mustang insisted on walking up and down the aisle to stretch his legs. He had taken his gloves off, but his palms itched. Hawkeye was somehow able to lean back and engross herself in the adventures of Private Eye Janice Chao and her faithful hound, Brick. No doubt the dog was the main attraction.

The next two days passed in a haze of equal parts agony and boredom. Hawkeye shut him down with one of her deadliest glares when he attempted to flirt with her to pass the time. The beautiful countryside, with its sienna and ochre grasses, only reminded him of the drought conditions in much of Amestris.

In a bid to get him to shut up about the latest fashions in women's raincoats, Hawkeye finally pulled out another novel and shoved it at him. "Reading is good for your vocabulary," she said blandly.

He eyed the cover illustration, which depicted two sheepdogs and a smiling little girl, with fluffy white dots in the near distance that were presumably meant to represent sheep. You would think that someone with Hawkeye's particular skills would be more interested in thrillers. "I'll pass, thanks."

"Suit yourself." Was that a sigh? She put the offending novel away and looked at him, brow furrowed. "Do you truly have no allies, sir?"

"In the upper echelons?" Mustang snorted. "I've always known the old man can't be trusted. And everyone else knows me as a troublemaker. The only person I'd be able to turn to is the Wall of Briggs"--he gritted his teeth a little, thinking of Olivier Armstrong's cold, superior smile--"and she's occupied with the Drachma problem."

Hawkeye's regard was unbearable. He canted his head away and stared out the window: haystacks, a herd of cows, a farmer eating a lonely lunch out of a satchel. His stomach rumbled in sympathy.

"I suppose I was under the illusion that everything would be better after we--did what we did," Mustang said after a moment. "You would think that a man my age wouldn't be susceptible to fairytale thinking."

Mercifully, Hawkeye didn't ask if he saw himself as some kind of knight-errant. "We all like to believe in happy endings, sir. That's a human trait. But in real life, there's always a story after the last page. Besides, things could be worse."

He thought of the dangling phone, of Lust transfixed by fire, of nightfall and blindness. "Perhaps." He would have liked to ask the source of her own calm, but he knew well enough that it was a mask; that she had the same doubts and questions he did.

They didn't speak again until the train's last rest stop before Central City. They filed out, listening to the other passengers' chatter about great-aunts and frogs (frogs?) and crochet patterns. A stooped man in a ragged blue shirt was selling cold sandwiches and newspapers. Mustang cocked an eyebrow at Hawkeye, and she nodded assent.

The sandwiches were surprisingly good: roast beef, thin apple slices, and pickled green tomatoes. He wouldn't have thought of the combination himself, but then he had never bothered exerting himself on the behalf of picnic food.

"When's the last time you were on a picnic?" he asked Hawkeye, who had finished before he did and was neatly folding up the wrapper with its detritus of crumbs.

She blinked. "It's been a few years, unless you count the time we held the annual potluck outside."

"I could be out there flying a kite and eating apples."

"There's not enough wind for a kite, sir."

Mustang rolled his eyes. "Of course. How could I fail to notice?"

She was smiling. "Let's get back on the train, sir. We'll reach Central City by nightfall, barring accident.--Which paper did you pick up?"

He unrolled it once they had returned to their seats. "Haven't seen this one before." He passed it over. It had an unprepossessing name: The Banner.

Hawkeye pored over the first page, then said, in a neutral voice, "I've seen better typesetting."

"I imagine they'll get better with practice. Goodness knows there's plenty of news to practice on."

She raised the paper again.

Mustang harrumphed. "If you're trying to avoid upsetting me, I'd like to point out that it isn't going to be hard to scare up another copy of that paper."

She handed it back. "A state alchemist in Dublith was run out of town. Depending on who you believe, either her medical alchemy was being used for something sinister, or someone in the town saw an ordinary experiment and got spooked."

Mustang found the article, which had the enlightening headline of DOG OF THE MILITARY FLEES MOB IN DUBLITH. In the old days, he and Hughes would have vied to come up with better headlines. Preferably with a rhyme or a pun. "At least the woman survived," he said.

"That's if this article is to be believed," Hawkeye said drily. "I'm sure someone at Central will be able to verify the incident."

"Assuming we're not just told to keep our noses to ourselves," he said. Jurisdiction squabbles hadn't died with Fuhrer Bradley.

The moon was rising in the sky, a shallow crescent like a murderer's smile. They couldn't hear the crickets or cicadas over the train's rumbling. Even the wind that stirred the trees and skittered through the fields couldn't touch them. If only he could keep himself shielded from the world's troubles so easily.

They arrived at Central Station 22 minutes after 10 o'clock. A car was waiting for them. The driver was a young woman, sober of mien. Mustang's attempts to draw her into conversation were met with the barest of responses.

"I think you're losing your touch, sir," Hawkeye said after the car dropped them off before guest quarters.

"Hmph."

The guards gave them no trouble, although they still had to sign in for their keys. "So who do you have watching Black Hayate?" Mustang asked as they headed up the stairs to their rooms.

"He's staying with Lieutenant Ross," she said. "I expect he'll be spoiled rotten by the time I get home."

"I doubt any dog of yours stays spoiled long."

Hawkeye looked him full in the eye. "Of course not."

Touché.

"I'll wake you up for the briefing tomorrow morning," Hawkeye said. "I hear the scones have gotten better since I was last here."

Mustang still had nightmares sometimes of Hawkeye in Central, sitting at a desk dotting i's and crossing t's on some banal form as Pride slowly whittled off her shadow, then her feet, then--he always woke up before it went further. Not that he'd ever tell her about the dreams. She probably had plenty of her own.

"Goodnight, then," he said, searching her face for some sign of the unease she must be feeling. As usual, she was too good at hiding her misgivings.

"Goodnight, sir," her voice drifted after him, and a moment after that he heard the door shut behind him.

The room's furnishings had more personality than he had expected: a beige wallpaper with a pattern of autumn leaves in lazy swirls, a lamp whose lampshade was sewn with topaz beads, a darkly elegant dresser, an escritoire that echoed the autumn motif. Even the bed was covered with a quilt hand-stitched with sheaves of wheat in gold thread.

Mustang looked around and all he could think of were supply statistics from the commissaries, the granaries standing empty. But there was nothing he could do about it right now.

The alarm woke him up before dawn the next day, and even so he was barely done dressing before he heard Hawkeye's knock. "You're in the blue room, sir," she said. "I'll take care of some paperwork while you're at the briefing."

He looked at her meaningfully: Be careful. She lifted her chin slightly, saluted, and turned on her heel, leaving him to proceed alone.

Mustang had never figured out why the blue room had the name it did. It certainly hadn't had blue furnishings or wallpaper for as long as anyone could remember. He was among the first to enter, and he looked around at the familiar green flag with its white emblem, the lush white roses that someone had placed in a glass vase in the center of the breakfast buffet in a meager attempt to add--what? Grace, cheer, elegance? Whatever it was, it wasn't working.

"Ah, Mustang!" said a cheerful voice.

Mustang winced inwardly. "General Rudin," he said with as much friendliness as he could muster up. Lieutenant General Jan Rudin was a reedy, brown-haired man who looked like a breeze would blow him over, but he was a consummate swordsman. Mustang had once seen him sparring with Bradley himself, and giving a good accounting of himself. Rudin had a knack of befriending the right people. It wasn't a criminal offense to be good at toadying your way up the food chain, but Rudin's palpable lack of enemies made Mustang suspicious on principle.

"How's the weather been in the East?" Rudin asked.

"Too little rain to suit anyone but the vacationers, sir," Mustang said drily, "but I hear it's the same almost everywhere."

"Plenty of precipitation in the North," Rudin said with a shake of his head, "but I suppose they're too cold to notice. At least it means more snowmelt come the spring. Ah, but I shouldn't be keeping you from breakfast. Eat, eat. Doesn't that lieutenant of yours ever tell you to eat more?"

Mustang bit back a She's my lieutenant, not my mother, and made a show of considering the options. He passed over the slices of gateaux, each festooned with candied peel in curlicues, in favor of simple toast and butter. He'd never understood the appeal of cake for breakfast, although some of his fellows seemed to feel differently. There was a bewildering selection of preserves: boysenberry, sour cherry, lime marmalade from Aerugo, strawberry rhubarb...he shook his head and decided butter was enough. After a moment, he grabbed an apple, wondering cynically whether its luster came from wax.

"Simple pleasures, Mustang?"

It was Rudin again. Well, better a known pest than an unknown quantity. Mustang knew all the generals' names, but some of them had been promoted after Bradley's fall, and he frankly didn't know much about, say, Major General Knecht's political inclinations, or whether all the rumors about Brigadier General Thorpe and his series of inflammatory mistresses had any grain of truth in them.

"If I sate myself on rich food, I'll be too drowsy to be any good for the rest of the day," Mustang said easily. "Did the kitchens somehow produce the gateaux?"

"Oh, no. There's a local patisserie that the old man has grown attached to. Truth to tell, I'm starting to long for some nice plain rolls myself."

Mustang eyed Rudin's plate, which displayed a neatly vivisected cinnamon roll--evidently someone had had too free a hand with the frosting--and chocolate crumbs. He took the empty seat to Rudin's left and bit into his toast.

Fuhrer Grumman strolled in exactly on time. His spectacles were flawlessly polished, and his movements looked casual until you saw how precisely he placed his hands. He had brought a chess set with him, which he proceeded to set up in front of him. The board was a beautiful piece of marquetry in dark teak and maple, and the pieces were of frosted glass.

Mustang smiled narrowly. So what was it going to be? Grandiose metaphors involving pincers and gambits? Or did the old man have something else in mind?

They said that chess had originally come from a land south of the desert, transmitted to Amestris through Xerxes. In Ishbal they played an older variant, with different names for the pieces and sometimes different moves as well. During the massacres, one alchemist had looted a set. It had been missing two of the foot soldiers (pawns). The alchemist died a few days later. Mustang remembered the blanket covering the corpse, the man's ruined face, the chess set standing unwanted for days afterward. He wasn't sure who had finally gotten rid of the thing.

"Greetings, gentlemen," Grumman said, unsmiling. He hadn't touched any of the breakfast items: perhaps he had eaten earlier. "I trust you've all reviewed the directives that were sent to you." He paused long enough to take in the nods around the table. "Here is the situation that confronts us. Several weeks ago, elections took place in Ishbal."

"Electing what?" asked Brigadier General Viola Ritter. She was the only woman besides Olivier Armstrong who had attained high rank in Amestris's government: dark complexion, plain of face, with an unexpectedly sweet voice. Rumor had it that Grumman had promoted her after she fought him to a stalemate three matches running.

"That's precisely the problem," Grumman said. "They selected people to represent every district in Ishbal, calling them the Circle of Elders."

"And this was permitted?" Viola demanded.

Mustang gave her a hard smile. "I thought we encouraged our citizens to take an interest in their neighborhoods' welfare."

"A neighborhood watch is one thing, aspirations to self-rule quite another!"

He counted to three while gritting his teeth, which probably made it look like he was smirking at her. "That's not what I heard from my agents in Ishbal." Best not to mention that one of those agents had been Edward Elric. A surprising number of people thought that losing his alchemy had robbed Edward of his usefulness. Mustang was content to let them cling to their delusion. "The Ishbalans knew that they had a chance to make their voices heard under the current regime, and they wanted to make sure that they did so in an equitable manner. I can't say that it sounds unreasonable, myself."

Grumman peered down his nose at Mustang. "You do realize that their current delegation was selected by the Circle of Elders."

"Fuhrer," Rudin said, tapping his breakfast plate and causing the crumbs to dance, "they had to send someone. Is it really that important how they chose who they chose?"

"We've had someone listening to the delegates' conversations," Grumman said. "It seems the Ishbalans have come to some kind of consensus that they're not going to survive the rest of the year without asking for aid."

Knecht, who had been studying the chessboard and its neat array of glass soldiers, looked up and drawled, "You'd think they'd be used to scarcity."

Not for the first time, Mustang contemplated learning to count to a hundred in other languages, just for variety's sake.

Thankfully, Ritter said, "It's no surprise that Ishbal needs help. Times are hard for everyone."

"The problem is," Grumman said, "there's little to give even to more strategically important areas."

One of the things that Mustang had learned as an officer was that if you shoved enough paper at a problem, you could turn it into a completely different problem, usually one designed to free you of responsibility and give your rivals a headache. A shortage of ammunition became an initiative to train better marksmen. (He had never followed the logic behind that one, because the training required yet more ammunition, but his superiors at the time had had other ideas.) Priority trains' failure to meet their schedules had been transformed by simulating breakdowns to see how quickly they could be made to run again. The discovery that a corrupt quartermaster had stocked several warehouses with rags instead of uniforms became an opportunity to donate clothing to orphanages.

And now, apparently, Ishbal's struggles were going to be shoved under the label "strategically unimportant": a neat, bloodless, and unarguable excuse. Even he couldn't argue that strategic reserves should be transferred east to feed Ishbal's restive people.

"Is this situation that bad on the North's border?" Mustang asked, because he didn't trust himself to say anything else.

Grumman said wryly, "With Olivier you always have to read between the lines. And her last dispatch was only one line long."

"It's not just the North," Ritter said somberly, frowning at her plate. She had only eaten half her toast. "Aerugo has been restless: troop movements near the border, new travel regulations, skirmishes and 'misunderstandings.' Little things, but it always starts with the little things. They're wondering how weak we've become."

Mustang leaned back, schooling his expression to nonchalance. Did so many people truly view Bradley's absence as a weakness, like a hole in the nation's heart? And if so, what did they mean to plug that hole with?

He wasn't sure what terrified him more, a nation led by Wrath or a nation led by mannequins made in Wrath's image, glass soldiers with mirrors for eyes and ice for hearts.

"Would you say that war with Aerugo is imminent?" Rudin asked Ritter.

Her mouth quirked. "'Imminent' is such a strong word. My staff and I judge it more likely that they will attack opportunistically."

"So Drachma is still the greater threat."

"I imagine so."

"Still, the situation looks volatile," Grumman said. "The last thing we want to have to do is put down another uprising in Ishbal."

Mustang bit the inside of his cheek so hard he drew blood. Primitive trick, but it kept him from blurting something out before he had a chance to think things through. I am being reduced to a calculating machine, he thought sardonically. There were sound political reasons to keep the truth behind the Ishbal massacre a secret. Telling people that the whole damn war had been started by a shapeshifter would just prompt histrionics. Even Edward had agreed on that point.

So why did he feel like he was choking on cinders?

"Even worse," Knecht said, his thick eyebrows drawing together, "we daren't let the Ishbalan delegation think that they have leverage on account of this."

"Surely you're not suggesting--" Mustang began.

"I'm not implying they're all bad apples," Knecht said, "but in any group of people there are going to be schemers, and for all we know it's the bad element pulling the strings." He didn't make any sly comments on Mustang's administrative abilities, but then he didn't have to.

Reminding Grumman's staff that he had made a promise to Scar was not going to win him any points. So Mustang went for the next best thing. "When we conquered Ishbal"--he was able to say conquered without stumbling, although he could still taste the blood in his mouth--"we took on the obligation of caring for its people. Keeping the Ishbalans content is good policy. Well-fed, contented people are busy courting and raising their children and going for walks rather than plotting against the state. It's that simple."

It was an entirely predictable piece of sophistry. He wondered how long it would be before he started believing it.

"And here I'd thought you'd gotten soft after the war," Knecht said approvingly.

"It's practicality, nothing more," Mustang said with what he hoped was the right quantity of boredom. Still, Grumman was looking at him oddly; best not to overplay the act. "Do you think the Ishbalans are going to be unreasonable when we tell them there's no help to be had?"

"I've heard they're an unpredictable lot," Ritter said, raising an eyebrow. "But I suppose you'd know?"

Once upon a time, a red-eyed child went up to a soldier and the soldier shot her. The Ishbalans' outrage had been many things, but unpredictable was not one of them.

"Unpredictable or not," Mustang said, "there has to be some argument they'll find persuasive."

"Well," Grumman said, "that was where I was hoping you would be useful."

"Of course, sir," he said, all the while wondering where he had gone wrong. Had it been some single decision made, a path chosen, that led him here? Or had it been a sorites of moral decay, noticeable only in the accumulation?

At the moment he would rather have sat down to breakfast with Scar for an earnest discussion of drought and dust and dead ideals.

Grumman passed around a folder. Inside it were charts and figures showing resource allocations for all of Amestris. Some of the ink was barely dry. Mustang scrutinized the figures as long as he dared. People remembered that he was an alchemist. What they often forgot was that, as a consequence, he had a thorough grounding in chemistry. And chemistry expressed itself in equations and arrangements of particles; chemistry was not arbitrary.

Mustang could do sums in his head as easily as he could draw a transmutation circle. As the folder continued round the table, he added up the figures.

Everything added up.

Nothing added up.

It wasn't entirely that all the numbers slotted into place like jigsaw pieces. The official budget always looked like that, everything adding up to pretty factors of ten. Everyone understood that the real world did not parcel itself into pretty factors of ten. It was an approximation.

But there were approximations, and then there were outright fabrications. Most of the departmental figures looked roughly correct, based on Mustang's memory of past years. It wasn't unreasonable that Supply was getting knackered, given the circumstances. But Alchemy's budget had gotten slashed by a third, and Alchemy had always been one of the "safe" departments. Given that Amestris was facing possible war on multiple fronts, for all Viola Ritter's attempts to downplay the seriousness of the situation, it made no sense to cut back on alchemical research or the training of more human weapons.

Mustang was willing to bet that the paper figure for Alchemy's budget was a sham, and that the real figure was higher than ever. It seemed that Grumman didn't want the Ishbalans to think about what their government was spending money on in place of honest victuals.

And if that figure had been tampered with, how many of the others could be relied upon?

"--can't argue with plain facts," Thorpe said, all the lines in his face sagging downward as he handed the folder back to Grumman. "Still, we ought to offer them some sop so they have something to take back to their people."

Mustang briefly entertained himself with a fantasy of Hawkeye using some of his fellow generals for target practice. Unfortunately, as much as he wanted to pick a fight, he had no proof. If the others hadn't protested, they either believed the figures or had their own reasons for letting them pass unchallenged, neither of which boded well.

The other problem was that it would be political suicide. Mustang wasn't so vain as to think that he was irreplaceable, and in the meantime he had a great many subordinates who relied on his protection. He could hardly lead his own insurrection against the current Fuhrer, not so soon after they'd ripped out the roots of the old government. People would think that he wanted to make a habit of the practice, and he didn't like the thought of the destabilization it would bring.

"--Mustang?"

"Sir," he said, since no specific response seemed to be required of him.

Grumman smiled. "I'll see you again this afternoon, then." He gathered up his papers and left.

One by one, they filed out of the room. Mustang glanced over his shoulder at the chess set, which had been left on the table without being used, then continued on his way.

Chapter Text

Martha Bradley hummed as she counted stitches, needles clicking merrily. She was knitting a throw in her late husband's favorite colors, dark blue and cream. Although she had moved to a smaller house--Grumman had wanted the old one searched, and soldiers seemed incapable of searching things without turning them topsy-turvy--it comforted her to have something of King.

Grumman thought that she didn't know what King Bradley had been, or what his eyepatch had concealed. Martha was content to let him keep thinking that. She hadn't found out until after King's death, of course. Her one regret was that she hadn't been able to tell King, face to face, that she knew; that, whatever his other crimes, she did not regret the life they had built together.

She had pulled a stitch too tight; she unknit it and tried again, paying closer attention to the tension. King had not loved her. She was sure of that now. But his devotion, whatever its source, had been genuine. As a younger woman, she had been flattered by the flowers and the letters with their quotes from favorite poets ("You will forgive me for not writing you odes myself, but verse has never been one of my gifts," he had once written), charmed by his stateliness as a dance partner. Later she learned to appreciate his fixity of purpose: if he didn't know love, he at least believed in duty.

He had betrayed her at the end, but he had given her long years of contentment before then.

Martha quickly counted her stitches, then paused. Selim was awfully quiet. She knew that quiet children were usually up to no good. Sweet-natured as he was, even Selim had moments of mischief, like that time he got into the aspic. She had thought for a moment that he was being eaten by a slime mold.

Smiling to herself, she put the knitting in its basket and called out, "Selim?"

There was no answer.

That didn't necessarily mean anything: he often liked to sit on the floor in the study and page through the books. He especially liked the ones about animals: Xingese birds, Ishbal's drab lizards and snakes, coral reefs in the far-off ocean. Sometimes he grew so absorbed in the pictures that he didn't hear her calling.

She tried the study first. He wasn't there, although a few crumbs suggested he had gotten into the biscuits. Next she checked his bedroom, but he wasn't even under the bed. (She swept the floor diligently and left a thick blanket and a pillow beneath the bed for those times when he felt like playing at caves or forts.)

As it turned out, Selim was in the sun room. He liked to help her water the flowers and herbs. That wasn't what he was doing, however. He sat with his back to the door, oblivious to her quiet tread, face lifted toward the sunlight.

Selim was wiggling his fingers and chanting a rhyme to himself:

"Seven little horses
Ride into the sky.
One falls down
The rest go by."

The shadows cast by his hands slanted behind him, as they should be. But there were seven more shadows moving in time to the chant, galloping across the floor: seven little horses with red eyes and sharp teeth.

Martha paled and pressed her hands to her mouth to keep from crying out. Nevertheless, the horses heard her. They whirled, ears pricked, eyes gleaming.

Selim scooted around to face her. "Mama!" he said. "Do you see the pretty horses? We've been playing together."

"I--I see," she said, endeavoring to remain calm, although what she really wanted was to sit down with a hot toddy. "What are their names?"

He frowned. "I don't know. Would you like to help me name them?"

Martha stood very still as the horses pranced in a circle, tossing their manes. Such pretty horses, and such sharp teeth. "You know how my eyes are, Selim. It's hard for me to tell them apart. Can you introduce me to them?"

His face brightened. "This one will be Midnight, and this one will be Blackie, and this one will be Coal. What are some other things that are black, Mama?"

"Ash," she suggested. Despair. Desperation. "Obsidian."

"What's obsidian?"

She had to focus. Stay calm so she wouldn't alarm Selim. "It's a special kind of rock, a black glass that comes from volcanoes. It's rare in Amestris. A friend of mine had some obsidian jewelry, but it was imported from Xing."

"That one can be Obsidian, then."

Martha smiled weakly. How long had this been going on? It couldn't be too long, or else Grumman's agents would have found out. This meant she had a little time--"Selim, would you be a good boy and pick out some clothes? I'll get you a bag."

"Why, Mama?"

The horses subsided into black triangles, and then faded entirely. But she knew they could return at any time.

"We're going on a trip," Martha said.

He was young enough not to question the suddenness of this decision. "Where are we going?"

"It'll be a surprise," she said. "Now, hurry--we wouldn't want to be late." As he got up, she said, "One more thing, Selim."

"Yes, Mama?"

"Your friends have to be a secret for now, all right? It's fine when you're with me, but no one else must see them. We can tell the horses stories to keep them company, but they must keep out of sight."

He blinked up at her. "Yes, Mama." Then he ran out of the solar room to pack his clothes.

Martha bit back a sob. Hands shaking, she packed a change of clothes, a blanket, the contents of the breadbasket, some cheese and apples, her less showy pieces of jewelry. Painkillers, bandages, the cough syrup that Selim disliked so much.

Her original thought had been to head for East Area, because Mustang struck her as an honorable man. On the other hand, Mustang had been close to Grumman in the past. No; better to go north and take her chances with the Wall of Briggs. Olivier Armstrong didn't strike her as having any maternal urges whatsoever, but her self-reliance was legendary. She might at least hear Martha out.

"I'm ready, Mama," Selim said, holding out his clothes.

Martha clutched him tight in a hug and whispered, "There's a good boy." But there was no more time for sentiment. After she shoved his clothes into the bag, they headed out the back door.

Chapter Text

Mustang made a point of tasting every bite of his lunch. Even years later, he remembered the gritty crunch of sand in his mouth, the taste of stagnant water, the tough, blackened crusts of bread. Oversalted stew and insipid canned fruit preserved in syrup. They had teased the Prism Alchemist for the cookies and chocolates his fiancée sent, which always arrived in crumbs, and which he shared generously; but what delicious crumbs after days beneath the hellforge sun and nights of whispering terror. Food was not something he took for granted any longer.

He had seen no sign of Hawkeye in the officers' mess. It was difficult not to shy at shadows, to shut away the inward chant of homunculus, homunculus every time something moved in his peripheral vision. Still, she could take care of herself. They were wiser now, all of them, and she had never been reckless.

After the last bite of salad--he had no appetite for dessert, although there was a pretty row of trifles in long-stemmed glasses on a bed of ice--Mustang headed to the designated conference room. He took his seat between General Thorpe and General Ritter. The latter nodded curtly to him.

Mustang couldn't help but think of a folktale that his foster mother had read to him years ago, about a queen dark of face and full of grace who owned a great table of granite and gold. If anyone spoke false while at council, the table would split down the middle. Mustang had pointed out that the table must have been in pieces in short order, all the while calculating powers of two in his head, and his mother had laughed.

"Not nervous at all, Mustang?" Thorpe said in a genial voice that made Mustang bristle. "This will be over with soon, I'm sure. But then, you don't have anything pressing in your schedule, do you?"

"Gentlemen," Grumman said from the center of their side of the table, "the Ishbalans will be here shortly." A leather folder trimmed with brass rested in front of him. Mustang was pretty sure he knew what it contained.

"Shortly," in this case, meant that the six Ishbalans, four men and two women, filed into the room before a minute had passed. One of the women was on crutches, as her right leg was missing below the knee. All but one of the men were gaunt, with the words of the world's cares written into their faces.

"You know who I am," the Fuhrer said, and gestured for the other generals to introduce themselves. The one-legged woman's mouth quirked when Mustang gave his name. In Ishbal, of all places, they knew his name and measure.

One by one the Ishbalans gave their names: Kimuz, a priest; Daivrit, a sad-eyed weaver; Mahasar, who gave no profession but whose hands looked like they knew the weight of guns; scowling Shuel, a widower; Guzel, the one-legged woman, a poet; and Yaznash, the other woman, a temple scribe.

"Who is your leader?" Grumman said.

"I will speak for us when one voice is required," Kimuz said with a kind of understated dignity. "But we are all here with the same purpose."

"Go on."

"We have seen the shipments that arrive in our homeland to support your soldiers," Kimuz said. "But you are surely aware that Ishbal is, like much of Amestris, short of food. Many people are going hungry. We came to beg your assistance."

Looking at the priest's grave face, Mustang thought it was likely that Kimuz was not accustomed to begging for anything. But Mustang saw no shame there, either. It humbled him.

Grumman cleared his throat. "As you say, there's little to be had anywhere. The military is Amestris's backbone. The soldiers that protect us from incursions from Drachma or Aerugo must eat."

It was difficult to read his expression behind the eyeglasses. Perhaps it was just as well.

Kimuz inclined his head. "We're not disputing that. But as representatives of our people, it is our duty to ask."

Mustang affected not to notice the sharp look that Thorpe gave him at "representatives." He was sure Thorpe wasn't the only one.

If Kimuz had approached Mustang himself, perhaps something could have been done discreetly. But it was too late for that, and perhaps, understandably, they hadn't trusted him of all people. The Ishbalans had elected to go straight to the Fuhrer, and who was to say that wasn't their right? The government had served them badly, but it was still theirs.

More accurately, it had been imposed on them. We have made you our responsibility, Mustang thought. Even if the current regime cares not to remember it.

"I'm sorry," Grumman said, with what was almost a note of kindness.

Guzel shook her head. "I told you it would be no use, Kimuz. Now it's my turn." She had a smile like a falcon's, sharp and fierce and utterly without warmth. "Grumman."

It was then that Mustang realized that Kimuz had not once addressed the Fuhrer by his title.

Guzel continued, "Your government did irreparable harm to our people in its war of extermination."

"No one's denying what's in the history books," General Ritter said, in what was probably meant to be a conciliatory tone.

Guzel did not so much as spare her a glance. What good were history books, after all, when they had been penned by the perpetrators? "Every stain of blood, every bullet spent, every pile of bones--these we have endured. Your government owes my people reparations. What better time than now?"

"You pick a poor time to make your demands," Grumman said.

Mustang was trying not to stare at the woman. Reparations. Reparations. Was it audacity or desperation that had driven the Ishbalans to this, or some combination of the two?

"On the contrary," Guzel returned, "it is the best time of all. What would it prove to ask you for something that was easy for you to give?"

"I can't believe you're entertaining this notion, Fuhrer." Knecht, from the other side of Grumman, scowling at the delegation.

Grumman raised an eyebrow. "It's not that what they ask is unjust, Cameron. It's that it's impossible."

Guzel raised her eyes to Mustang. "I was told honor was not dead even here."

Mustang felt the sluggish trickle of sweat at the small of his back, the tension in his neck and shoulders. Carefully, he said, "I acknowledge the justice of your claim."

He was not wearing his gloves, but he felt the fabric anyway, as though it chafed the raw edges of his soul.

"What good is acknowledgment," Mahasar said abruptly, "without action?"

"The decision is not in the Flame Alchemist's hands," Grumman said, and Mustang couldn't help but wince at the deliberate use of his title.

But really, was any Ishbalan ever going to forget who he was and what he had done?

"Fuhrer," Mustang said, wishing his mouth weren't so parched, "I think their claim merits careful consideration." He sounded like the paperwork that crossed his desk daily, all sterile regulations and stale details. Next to him, he heard a tiny sigh from Ritter.

Under other circumstances, Ritter might have been worth cultivation as a possible ally--in the small matters, if not in the large ones. Knecht and Thorpe were probably lost causes, and Rudin was so flexible in outlook that pinning him down on anything was like sewing the wind. If only he'd had more time.

Grumman opened the folder and drew out his charts and figures, just the way Mustang had known he would. "I am sorry to disappoint you," he said, "but our situation requires--triage, you might say. I could offer you some token sum of aid to your region, but we both know that it would be nothing more than a gesture."

"Flame Alchemist," Guzel said directly to Mustang. "We are not and will never be friends. But this is a thing your people owe us, even if you care nothing about the people who are starving."

"I don't deny it," Mustang said, each word falling like dust and lead. "But I can't help you. I'm sorry."

He could fight for this. He could make this cause the ditch he died in. And that was precisely the problem: his position in Grumman's inner circle was precarious, and he knew that any plea he made would be heard, then dismissed. It wasn't that he objected to making a stand on principle. It was that he refused to do so pointlessly.

The rest of the talks passed in a haze. Guzel did not look at him again, but all he could think of, over and over, what disappointment looked like on Hawkeye's face.

Chapter Text

Rosé's food stand had been doing good business since Fuhrer Bradley's death. While Reole had been hit by its share of shortages, Rosé was not averse to experimentation. In the evenings, when she went home to her small, tidy apartment, she spent hours perfecting her griddle cakes or finding novel ways to season turnip greens. Years ago, her mother had insisted that you could make anything delicious if you tried hard enough. Rosé still hadn't figured out how to make this latest batch of mushrooms any better--she was thinking of stuffing them with bread crumbs and grated cheese rinds and hoping for the best--but it never hurt to try.

This morning, Rosé had arrived armed with more flour--she and her next-door neighbor had caught up on the neighborhood news while sifting out as many stones as they could--and a few more ways to dress up fruit that hadn't fully ripened before being picked for market. She had also brought new batteries for the radio. It was an indulgence, but she had been frugal even before everything became so expensive, and she could spare the money. Besides, although she didn't precisely enjoy listening to the news, she wanted to know what was going on in the country.

"Oh, anything but the news, dear," her first customer said with a wince as she watched Rosé fiddle with the radio's settings. It was a widow who liked to linger in the vicinity of the stand all day, gossiping with her friends.

Obligingly, Rosé searched until she found a station playing a dance, all fiddles and flutes and merry drums. For a moment she remembered dances in the town square, her boyfriend's hand almost meeting hers--but only for a moment. Walk forward, not back, she thought with a rueful smile.

Still, the news could not be escaped so easily. A cluster of unemployed men grimly ate their griddle cakes, sopping up the last traces of syrup, and discussed how difficult it was to find hire even reconstructing the town. "The work wants doing," one of them said. "It'd get done faster with more hands. But they won't pay the wages for more people." A young woman and her betrothed were considering moving to Central City on account of "those Ishbalan upstarts" and their propensity for bloodletting; they didn't want to be any closer to Ishbal than they could help. One graybeard passing by opined that any day now, the Fuhrer would lift the prohibition on the transmutation of gold and hand out a decent living wage to everyone who needed it.

"Sure," one of the unemployed men said, "and there'll be jobs for people guarding all those gold shipments. Tell us another fairytale, grandfather."

"What's your thoughts on all this, Rosé?" another one asked. "Are you going to be part of the rally?"

"What rally?" she asked after checking to make sure that she wasn't going to burn the sausage. At least the second question meant she could get away without answering the first. The truth was, she wasn't sure what she thought. But she was betting that if transmutation were the answer, the Fuhrer would have resorted to it already.

"You haven't heard? Well, I suppose the police keep taking down the flyers. A group of folks mean to protest the food shortages. Demand some action from the government."

"Well," Rosé said carefully, "I'm not sure what's to be done. Bad weather is bad weather. They say it's hard all around."

"Ah, but you're too good-hearted to see what's really going on, Rosé," the man said, thumping the rickety table for emphasis. "Honest men and women scraping through their savings just to get by while the Fuhrer and his men feast like the queens and kings of old. Why, old Kella overheard some soldiers talking about plans to send relief into Ishbal. If they can spare food for that hellhole, why not some crumbs for Reole?"

Maybe she was good-hearted; that wasn't the sort of thing one could rightly judge for oneself. But it didn't have anything to do with good-heartedness. She'd seen what had come of seeking miraculous solutions in a world full of hard edges and harsh truths. What baffled her was that almost everyone here, too, had seen Cornello unmasked, and yet they had taken different lessons from the experience.

On the other hand, who was she to judge the frustrations of people struggling to make ends meet when she was living in comfort?

"When's the rally?" Rosé asked: an innocuous enough question, she hoped.

"It's in two days' time, in front of the town hall," someone else said. "If enough of us show up, they're bound to see how serious it is. We can't let matters get any worse here."

The conversation became more animated as everyone insisted on having their own say about the best time of day for the rally, what to paint on the signs they would bring, what they would do when the police inevitably showed up (everything from throwing stale bread to storming the town hall with brooms). Rosé sighed, nursing the faint hope that no one involved would lose their temper. She couldn't imagine that the town's authorities would take kindly to the whole affair.

Rosé's friend Elia came to take over the stand while Rosé sat down to eat her own lunch. Elia was a curly-haired woman with long, nervous hands, always in motion. It made Rosé twitch sometimes watching her friend, but Elia was surprisingly nimble.

"Been pretty busy all day, has it?" Elia call over her shoulder as she added a new batch of falafel to the hot oil.

"I'm afraid so," Rosé said after she had swallowed her mouthful of sandwich. The cheese was terrible, and slathering the whole thing with mustard had not actually improved matters. "Everyone's on edge."

"Are you still pining after that short blond alchemist?" Elia asked teasingly.

She colored. "Oh, it's not like that. He's got a girlfriend." Still, Ed had visited Reole several times in the past few years, and he had made a point of coming to see her each time.

"You're still sweet on him, though."

Rosé finished her sandwich, even the crusts. She remembered her mother trimming the crusts from her toast when she was a little girl. She wasn't too fond of them even now, but she wasn't about to discard them when people were going hungry. "He's a good friend," she said simply. "Really, that's the important thing."

"When's he stopping by again?"

"Oh, I don't know.--Shall I take over?"

"Just let me finish this order." Elia arranged the falafel in a circle on the plate and sprinkled them with chopped parsley, then spooned a careful measure of yogurt sauce over them. "There," she said, smiling down at a ten-year-old girl with her hair in pigtails.

"Thanks for your help, Elia," Rosé said.

"There are worse part-time jobs," Elia said. "I'll see you tomorrow?"

"Of course."

The rest of the afternoon passed all too slowly. Rosé was used to the heat of the cookfire, but it was still a relief when she handed out the last plate of fried dough dusted with sugar. The sun was low in the sky, and she looked longingly at the blue expanse, wishing for clouds, some portent of rain.

Carefully, she ran the hot oil through a sieve to strain out morsels of food, then emptied it into a container for tomorrow's use. She would have to replace the oil soon, but surely one more day would be all right.

Tonight, instead of taking her usual route home, Rosé walked the long way around to have a look at some of the flyers the men had mentioned. She knew Reole's streets with the same easy intimacy that she knew the arrangement of furniture in her apartment. Nevertheless, she caught herself shying at sudden noises--carters calling to each other, a cat's yowl, glass shattering against a pile of rubble that had never been carried away.

It took some hunting, but she finally located one of the flyers discarded in a side street along with someone's school notes. Someone with real knowledge of typesetting had designed the flyer: bold black letters in a strident font, easy to read while conveying a sense of importance. CITIZENS OF REOLE UNITE, said the flyer. DEMAND WHAT IS DUE TO YOU. There was even a silhouette of a man with both arms upraised. She imagined that she was supposed to find the image inspiring.

She turned the flyer this way and that, examining the careless folds, the smudges near the bottom left corner, a cryptic list of numbers scribbled on the back with half the items crossed out. Curiously, these trivial details made the flyer more real, and more dangerous. Other people before her had seen it; other people would heed its claims.

Rosé knew better than to hold on to the flyer, just in case of trouble. So she dropped it in a nearby waste bin and continued on her way home. The roofs, the rubble, the ruddy sky: all of them looked unfamiliar, as though she had stepped out of bed the wrong way and landed in a dream-Reole askew of the real thing.

As a little girl she had sometimes spent hours wandering through her mother's garden looking for a door back to the uncharted land of her dreams. As an adult, she knew better to look for any such thing. But she couldn't help wishing that a way existed back to a world where people looked out for each other and didn't need to threaten violence in order to get food.

She reached her apartment building with its yellowing hedges and the marigolds, which were stubbornly bright. Ordinarily they would have cheered her, but she hardly paused as she passed them.

It was a relief to sit down at her table, a solid affair in teak that had belonged to her grandmother. Rosé traced the carved vines with her fingers, taking comfort in the familiar winding curves. What do I do? she asked herself.

Nothing she could do would prevent the rally from taking place, even if she was convinced that it would aggravate the town's authorities at best and end in violence at worst. She didn't have that kind of influence. And she wasn't sure she wanted to draw attention to herself by speaking up when she didn't know it would do any good.

The trouble was, it wasn't just a matter of one rally in Reole. You didn't have to listen to the radio every day to know that the entire nation was foundering.

Rosé's thoughts went again to Edward. He wasn't a state alchemist any longer, he had made that clear to her, but he was the only person she knew who might have the connections to make a difference. And he would listen to her concerns. She was sure of it.

Could she send him a letter? He had given her a mailing address in case of emergency, but it was in Resembool and she was sure that he wasn't often to be found there. He'd also said that mail care of one Lieutenant Riza Hawkeye would reach him faster, but could she really trust an officer? But surely Edward's judgment of people was reliable. For that matter, how much could she trust the post?

Rosé stared down at the familiar table, the unfamiliar fists that her hands had bunched themselves into. She was going to have to find Ed and talk to him in person. She would try Resembool first.

Elia would probably be happy to take over the food stand in Rosé's absence. If anyone thought the timing of Rosé's journey was suspicious, well, that couldn't be helped.

If her course of action was so clear, why did she feel so wretched?

Rosé turned on the radio and listened to the news all evening as she packed, but all she could hear was the static.

Chapter Text

It wasn't until they were on the train for East City, with Central's buildings diminishing behind them like a memory of dust, that Mustang spoke to Hawkeye again. Oh, they'd exchanged a few inconsequential words, but it was impossible to have a real conversation without lapsing into curdled pleasantries. He was starting to feel like a wind-up puppet or a parrot.

Mustang was in the middle of a thoroughly impenetrable collection of "industrial aesthetic" short stories by someone he'd never heard of when Hawkeye cleared her throat. She wasn't given to unnecessary sound or motion. He looked up immediately, alert but saying nothing.

"I talked with Rebecca," she said without preamble.

"Has she managed to get hitched yet?" Mustang said, because he had to say something.

"Not for want of trying," she said dryly. "They never measure up, she says. The men, that is."

"Well, no harm in having high standards."

Wisely, Hawkeye didn't pursue that line of thought. "Rebecca says the military has been commendably efficient in picking up the pieces that our last Fuhrer left us. It's almost as if there's been no changeover."

"Those were her words?" Mustang said sharply.

"Very nearly so, sir."

They lapsed back into silence for the next two hours. Mustang discovered that it was possible to read a hundred pages without absorbing any of their content. He wished he could blame the book, but it was clearly his state of mind.

"It looks so peaceful from here," he finally said. Trees lightly painted by the encroaching autumn, three dogs playing in a sere meadow, a bounding rabbit. Field workers with scythes bright in their hands. But he thought of superheated water, glassy-calm to the eye until you perturbed it and set it boiling away violently.

"Everything looks peaceful if you have too much distance," Hawkeye returned. "When people go for picnics, sir, do they notice the warring ants beneath their feet?"

Ordinarily Mustang would have accused her--playfully, of course--of an overactive sensitivity, and she would have made some clever yet entirely proper retort. Such games seemed less important, now. "You trust Lieutenant Catalina's assessment of the situation."

If he hadn't been looking for it, he would have missed that tiny frown. "She had no reason to lie to me, sir. We were just friends commiserating over the workloads that our superiors burdened us with."

He ignored the dig, as he was meant to. "Is she loyal?"

"For all her complaints, she serves Grumman as well as she knows how, sir."

Mustang dropped the line of inquiry. This was getting beyond what they could excuse as small talk on the train. He nodded to her and decided to take a nap.

They pulled into the station in East City at 3:46 p.m. He felt as though he had escaped a prison, and had to quell the urge to stretch and crack his knuckles like some first-year recruit. The air was sharp and dry and strangely suffocating. He caught himself reciting the atmosphere's composition under his breath: 78.09% nitrogen, 20.95% oxygen, 0.93% argon, 0.039% carbon dioxide...

"--sir?"

"They say fish don't notice the water they swim in, either," Mustang said.

She looked at him sidelong; maybe that was a sigh.

Was that what war had become to him? The air he breathed? There wasn't any good answer to that question, but he was long past pretending the world was a series of exams with neatly partitioned problems and solutions.

They took a single car from the station, sitting side by side in the back without looking at each other. The driver wanted to chat about fashion, of all things. Mustang was happy to share his opinion on cufflinks and ties and different cuts of jackets, not least because of Hawkeye's long-suffering expression. It was good to see her exasperated by a triviality rather than the more serious matters they would deal with soon.

"Sir," Hawkeye said, and again, more stridently, "Sir!"

In all the world's orchestras there is no drum quite like gunfire, whether it's the deeper report of a cannon or the nervous rattling of a machine gun. Mustang hadn't seen the gunner, but the shot had sounded from behind them. "Take a left here," he barked.

The man kept driving straight.

The next three gunshots came from ahead of them. Mustang lunged forward and tried to grab the driver, but too late. The man flung open the door and jumped out of the car.

"Get down, sir," Hawkeye snapped.

"We have to turn around," he said.

The car continued to barrel forward. Mustang tried simultaneously to hunker down and to squeeze himself through the gap between the front two seats. It seemed that he could hear everything, everything: the whispering friction of his coat against the seats' upholstery, his percussive heartbeat, Hawkeye's bitten-off oath. The car's rumbling, another pepper-spray of gunfire, a faraway tinny shriek. Breaking glass. He didn't turn to see which window had been hit.

He landed in the driver's seat with a jolt. Didn't waste time on the door hanging open. Instead, he floored the gas and swerved. He didn't dare look back to see if Hawkeye was all right, either, but he trusted she was hanging on, and he could hear her breathing, a little uneven, but only a little. The snick of a safety being released.

"You know what their mistake was," Hawkeye was saying in a staccato voice, "they shouldn't have used the driver to lead us into the ambush. The driver should have been the ambush."

He found a left. Took it. Took a right after that. Another car saw them coming and pulled over: a sensible action. When had he gotten the notion that his world was a world of sensible actions? "He would probably have gotten one of us if he had good reflexes," Mustang said. "But not the other."

Hawkeye said, "I don't think I was the target. Sir."

The gunfire had stopped. Presumably their attackers had given up at this range. If they were smart, they'd go to ground instead of carrying out some crazy pursuit in broad daylight. Mustang found himself hoping they'd come after them anyway.

They didn't come after them anyway. Pity.

"We'd better get directly back to headquarters," Hawkeye said when he paused to pull the door, swinging unsettling on its hinge, shut.

"It's the scenic route for us, then," he said.

How was it possible to live in a city so long and to stop seeing it? He knew these streets, these turns, these dark-mouthed alleys, and yet it seemed, through the lens of adrenaline, that he was in a maze of some tyrant's devising, all right angles and oppressively straight lines.

It was a great relief to see headquarters with its banner, and less of a relief to find that the guard was doubled. He pulled up by the curb. He and Hawkeye hastened to the guards together.

They saluted. "Sir, you're all right," said the woman at their head: Lieutenant Blanche.

He recognized that tightness around her eyes: fear. "We were attacked," he said. "I take it we weren't the only ones."

"Sir," she said. "We received word from Central an hour ago. The Radiant Alchemist was assassinated. A single bullet through the back of the head."

Mustang looked at Hawkeye. Her mouth was a thin line. "I see," Mustang said heavily. Who needed Scar when a bullet would do the job just as efficiently, from a safe distance? Were the assassins Jurists? Or was there someone else behind the attempts? "We'd better alert Central," he said. "Come on, Lieutenant."

Hawkeye nodded and followed him to the office, still frowning. She did not engage the safety of her gun until they were in the office. For the rest of the day, through the briefings and the shuffled security procedures and the composition of a carefully worded missive to the Fuhrer, Mustang heard in his head , not the gunfire, but the tiny snick of the safety.

Chapter Text

T307 was contemplating ways to bargain for more live ammunition when the boy broke in.

T307 and Dr. Serena Raigan disagreed over many things, from the necessity of live-fire trials to the literary merits of De Greif's chansons de geste. He felt that there was value to be had in tales of heroics; Raigan said the verses minimized the human cost of war. The fact that Raigan could say things like that with a straight face was one of the things he liked about her. She was full of self-contradictions, and it reminded him that he could aspire to higher things.

The boy--not quite a boy, T307 realized now that he was drawing closer, lightfoot and careful. A young man, small of stature, with yellow hair in a braid and unusual yellowy eyes and a drab coat that might once have been green. Color vision was not one of the things that T307 had expected to retain in his new life, and he treasured every moment of it. One of the walls of his home--he preferred to think of it that way--was covered with paintings. The paintings were not extraordinary in themselves: still lifes with ever-blooming flowers in sultry vases, pretty young women under bright umbrellas, rain-veiled streets in subtle shades of gray and blue and lightning-flicker yellow. They were the kinds of paintings you'd find in sitting rooms, conversation pieces for all of five minutes before the topic turned to the weather or to the taste of the tarts. But they pleased him anyway.

T307 should have raised the alarm, but the boy looked his way and said, musingly, "Looks like a Briggs model," before turning his attention to the paintings. He looked at them for a long time, left to right and top to bottom, pausing sometimes over the ones that T307 himself thought were the finer examples. Then he came over to T307 himself and ran his hand carefully over one of T307's armor tiles.

He held still. It had been a long time since he had spoken with anyone but Dr. Raigan or the Spectral Alchemist. Sometimes he hungered for the world outside, even if he had no hands anymore, or eyes.

The young man rapped on his treads. "Maybe I was wrong," he said, brow furrowing.

T307 said, "I really doubt that."

Instead of startling or jumping up in the air--both of which Dr. Raigan had done on that first day--the man leaned forward with interest. "You know," he said, "sometimes I hate being right. Who are you?"

"My designation is T307."

"But you must have had a name once. I assume you were human."

T307 rumbled. "You're taking this very calmly."

The man laughed, not without bitterness. "I've seen stranger things in my time. How did you get here?"

"And you like asking questions."

"Seriously, it doesn't bother you? Being here like this? Although," and he patted T307's flank again, "I suppose I can see the attraction."

"I was a volunteer," T307 said.

The stranger raised an eyebrow.

"I was a soldier injured in the firefight over Central," T307 said matter-of-factly. "Paralyzed from the neck down. I was given an opportunity to serve again and I took it. My parents have six children and times are rough. I don't regret it."

The stranger said, carefully, "Then there are probably others like you."

"They tried. I was one of the successes, but there aren't many of us. I'm not an alchemist or a physician, but my understanding is that a human soul wants to be housed in a body like the one it's used to controlling. A puppet of similar shape, you might say. They found out the hard way that being put in a body too different from human form tends to drive us mad."

"And you're an exception."

There were times when T307 missed being able to shrug. It was like a perpetual itch, this inability to do the things he had been used to doing. "I got lucky, I suppose. As I said, I'm not an alchemist."

"I suppose you're going to tell your superiors that I was here," the stranger said, looking at him thoughtfully.

"I find it very difficult to lie to Dr. Raigan," T307 said. "But chances are she won't ask."

"You're being awfully accommodating, you know."

T307 said, with perfect candor, "It gets lonely here." He didn't mention that he remembered the scars he used to have across his slat armor, from the time T288 had gone berserk. T288 hadn't been the first or the last of his comrades to be decommissioned, but T307 always wondered if it had really been necessary to run so many trials with tanks; if there had been some better way to screen the volunteers.

"I had been wondering why this area was so poorly guarded." But he didn't seem overly concerned.

"I'm mostly able to take care of myself," T307 agreed. He didn't ask what the man was doing here, or why he had so many questions. Some things were safer not to know. "Are you in any hurry?"

"Not really. Why?"

"I don't get much news of the outside world here," T307 said. It was mostly true. "I'm not talking about newspapers and politics. I mean the ordinary things, like laundry lines and flowerpots in windowsills and people taking their dogs for walks. I don't get a lot of that down here."

The stranger was looking reflectively at one of the paintings, the rainy street with its mercurial lighting. "I don't imagine you do. I have to warn you I'm not the world's greatest storyteller. But I can try." And he began telling T307 about simple things, small things, the most important things in the world: the taste of pigeon pies fresh from the oven, the way rain had a way of slanting under the umbrella's cover (the feeling of rain on his skin was one of the things T307 missed most), children singing as they played Chase the Fox.

There was a good chance he'd have to kill the young man, or someone very like him, at some point in the near future. Still, T307 had been a soldier, and every soldier understood that there were moments when you looked the enemy in the eye and recognized that you were both people; that you had something in common that all the flags and anthems and oaths in the world couldn't erase.

He might not be a person anymore the way most of his old comrades would have understood it, but that truth didn't change.

When the young man was starting to sound hoarse, T307 said, "Thank you. You should go now." It cheered him that the man didn't argue, only tapped his armor one last time in farewell.

T307 watched him go, then went back to marshaling arguments in favor of more live ammunition. The obvious one was the possibility of intruders, of course, but that would open up a line of inquiry that he didn't want to have to answer. Dr. Raigan had her secrets; it pleased him to have one of his own.

Chapter Text

The letter from the Fuhrer, when it arrived, came as no surprise. It arrived by special courier in a sealed envelope. Mustang dismissed the courier, then looked at the envelope as though it contained a coil of snakes. He'd rather face snakes than paper, these days.

There was no use in pretending it was an ordinary letter, and nothing to be gained by delaying, so he opened it with a letter opener that had been a gift from his foster-mother several years back. It was made of bronze, and he'd never been able to get the faint patina out of the crevices in the handle's ornaments of vines and curlicues, as though the metal insisted on its secrets.

You would think that he'd know better than to impute human quirks to an alloy, but there it was.

Grumman's handwriting was immediately recognizable: a beautiful cursive, almost effusive in its curves until you realized that each letter was vertically aligned as if it had been strapped to a ramrod. It said:

To Brigadier General Mustang, greetings:

I trust this missive finds you intact and in good health.

"Intact"? Mustang thought, eyebrows raising. Even so, he could feel the hairs at the back of his neck prickling. He almost wished it were the sort of sensation that one eventually got used to.

Although it has been past policy to allow state alchemists to pursue their research individually, circumstances have changed. Major Derek Thorn, the Radiant Alchemist, was in the middle of critical research on radioactive isotopes. Unfortunately, although an alchemist has been assigned to investigate his notes, we appear to be missing key information.

This partitioning of knowledge can only harm the state in a time of crisis. It is necessary to pool resources so that key information will not be lost. To that end, I would like you to write an instructional treatise on the theoretical foundations of flame alchemy.

Bxd5

Regards,
Fuhrer Grumman

Well, there went his knight. He didn't know what had possessed him to think that correspondence chess against Grumman would be any easier than the face-to-face version.

Excellent use of the passive voice to disclaim responsibility, Mustang thought sourly, rereading the letter. Likewise, the request at the end wasn't just a request, despite the polite phrasing.

Hawkeye came up to him with a stack of folders that, under other circumstances, he would have found threatening. She assessed his expression, which was clearly not as calm and unruffled as he had hoped, and said only, "Shall I refill your coffee?"

It would be easy for her to see that his mug was half-full and easy to guess that the coffee was still warm. Neither of which was the point. So he said, "Yes, if you would."

As she showed her back to him, he could not help but remember the alchemical diagram that had once resided on her skin. All the scar tissue in the world could not change the fact of what her father had done to her. Yet she had never once complained of the man himself. It made him wonder. Did she truly bear no resentment for him, or was it that she was that good at keeping her own counsel? He could believe either of her.

Although the Fuhrer's letter should have distracted him, it had the paradoxical effect of focusing his attention. He thanked Hawkeye curtly for the coffee and drank it in measured sips, scalding his tongue and welcoming the sensation. He caught Fuery with that romance novel, which turned out not to be a romance novel at all but pastoral poetry. "Clearly I haven't given you enough leave so you can wander the country extolling the virtues of sheep and clean living," he said. Fuery turned scarlet. "Don't let me catch you doing it again."

"Sir," Fuery said with a commendable snapped salute. "Yes, sir."

Mustang shoved the poetry in his desk. He'd give it back. After Fuery had sweated a little. The key to extracurricular activities was to not get caught by your superior officer; didn't they teach that anymore?

Rather later in the day, he successfully identified his newfound attentiveness to details of behavior to a quotidian desire to avoid thinking about the dilemma he was faced with. Since he wouldn't be able to discuss the situation with Hawkeye until later, he instead cleared half the paperwork that had been accumulating on his desk for the past month.

They met at her apartment. She had prepared sandwiches and sliced fruit. Black Hayate greeted him with a wagging tail. Mustang smiled and ruffled the dog's coat, and was slobbered over as a reward.

After washing his hands, he sat down to his sandwich. He wasn't sure where she had gotten the pickles, but they had an intriguing spicy-sweet aftertaste. Hawkeye kept looking at him, and he realized that she was waiting for him to explain what was going on, and he was waiting for her to ask.

"I got a request from the Fuhrer," Mustang said, starting with the obvious because it was the only way he could think of to say this at all. "He wants pedagogy out of me, an alchemical treatise."

He hadn't quite managed to say what he meant, but Hawkeye understood him. "I see." She did not say sir. She did not smile, or frown, or give him any indication of what to expect. But then, he supposed she did not owe him these things.

"The difficulty with flame alchemy," Mustang said, as though he were lecturing, "is not in summoning fire. The difficulty is controlling it once you have it." They were both familiar with the names of the alchemists who had died pursuing her father's line of research. "I don't think it's wise for your father's work to become widely known. But it will be difficult to refuse directly, and if I attempt to obfuscate the theory, it will eventually become obvious to whatever alchemists Grumman puts to checking my work."

"It might not be a matter of 'eventually,'" Hawkeye pointed out. "Maybe he already has something and he's testing you."

Mustang leaned back and scowled.

"Sir," Hawkeye said, "you know as well as I do that I'm no alchemist, but I have read your papers."

Mustang looked at her sidelong, not sure he liked where this was going.

"You can't bury the theory in labyrinths of prose, because that's not the way you write, and they'll catch on," she said. "So set a trap."

He stopped himself from making a fist. His frustration wouldn't be any secret, not to her, but it was important to observe the forms of civilized conversation. "You're being uncommonly cryptic."

"I saw the letter," Hawkeye said, unruffled. This was no surprise: he had left it unguarded on his desk for five minutes, long enough for her to read it discreetly. "How long has this chess game been going on?"

"You don't want to know," he said drily. "With Grumman, there's always a chess game."

"How difficult would it be to frame the theory in chess terms?"

Mustang cocked an eyebrow at her. Sometimes he liked to think that their association had developed Hawkeye's ability to be quietly devious, but when he was being honest with himself, he had to admit that she'd always had it.

He gave the matter serious consideration. Any similarities between chess and the requisite arrays were superficial at best. Both were grounded in interlocking sets of rules. Both could be reduced to cold notations on paper. The difference was that, for all the metaphors in the strategy manuals, chess didn't kill.

"It could be done," Mustang said. "But Grumman would catch on."

"That's possible," she said, making no attempt to reassure him.

"Or he might think I need to be assigned even more paperwork if I have time to fool around with elaborate analogies."

"Also possible." Hawkeye was not smiling.

He bit down into his sandwich. Chewed. Swallowed. "I'd better contemplate my next move, then."

That night, his dreams were not written in chess notation, but in ash.

Chapter Text

Although his mother sometimes said that it seemed that they had been wandering forever toward the stony northlands, Selim Bradley knew that it had been little over a month. He had an acute sense of time passing, not just due to the night's wheeling stars and the trees' scattering firefall of leaves, but also because of the shadows. He remembered a great deal more about shadows than his mother would have found comfortable, and the sundial--itself a function of shadow--was one of the oldest man-made clocks.

They could have taken the train for a much shorter journey, of course, but ever since King Bradley had been reported dead in that train incident, Martha Bradley had been suspicious of trains.

For most of their flight, Selim had clung to his mother. Part of it was that he trusted her. Part of it was that, this way, he could send a hundred eyes to watch the road behind them without his mother's knowledge. She tried to be reassuring for his sake, and he respected her for it. He knew that bravery did not come naturally to her. But he knew just as well that if Grumman's agents caught up with them, his abilities would be needed.

They had walked into the latest small village, footsore, trying not to pay too much attention to the curious stares. Martha Bradley wore a hat with a dark veil as though she were in mourning, presumably on the premise that it would blur her features. Besides, who would expect the Fuhrer's widow and son to be traveling in clothes gray with dust trapped in the fibers, with grimy snow on their boots, their heads bowed?

Some of the stores were boarded up; at others, men and women with tired eyes sat at the door and chatted with people who had no money to spend but still missed their old routines of gossip. Even here there were beggars, and Selim knew enough to know that there should not have been so many of them. But of course, this was not a time of plenty. He felt the pinch of hunger as much as any human did, now, although he did not complain of it the way a human child would have.

His mother had been frugal with her money, revealing it only a little at a time with a canniness he would not have suspected of her. In the last large town, she had pawned one of her brooches, accepting the sum that was offered her quickly, but not too quickly. She hadn't said anything to him, of course, but he knew that the loss hurt her. It wasn't that Martha Bradley was an avaricious woman, but rather a sentimental one. Everything she held meant something to her.

That this applied to people as well as jewelry was not lost on Selim.

There was only one inn in a village this small, and it wasn't properly an inn, but rather two spare rooms in an old couple's house, above their workshop. Selim peeked out at the man and woman, one nearly bald and the other with gray hair primly pinned into a sort of cap. They fussed over him. At this point he didn't have to pretend very hard to be shy. It was difficult to lose the habit of wariness, even though the odds that the two were actually agents of the Fuhrer were dim.

The Fuhrer's agents, as it turned out, roused them in the middle of the night. Selim cursed himself for falling asleep. It had been a long walk, and he had fallen asleep with pains in his legs, and dreamed of the house they had left behind, where now there was no one to water the plants or dust the shelves.

"I wouldn't, young sir," a cool female voice came out of the lidless darkness.

There were sources of small light all around: the stars, windows with light creeping out around the curtains, reflections in glass and metal. But Selim heard his mother's cry of dismay, quickly stifled. The stranger's voice had come from the same direction.

Selim had keen sight in the darkness, but it did not take any particular acuity of vision to see the next thing: a flickering cabochon of red tinged with purple, glittering like damnation. It was held in a woman's white-gloved hand, and its light was caught by a swinging silver disc.

"Alchemist," Selim said quietly. "Does the Fuhrer know you have one of those?"

He heard his mother struggling to breathe slowly, calmly. He hadn't meant to upset her; he treasured the childhood she had given him. But the time for childhood was over.

The alchemist only laughed. "Who do you think sent me to retrieve you, young sir?"

"He's done nothing," Martha Bradley said all in a rush. "Please--"

The alchemist did something that caused her to bite her lip with a sob and stop talking.

"I have an offer for you, young sir."

The most terrifying thing about the alchemist was not her arrogance, which might be expected of someone in a vastly superior tactical position, but her air of genuine politeness. "Your name," Selim said. "I want to know who I'm bargaining with."

The alchemist shrugged. "It's really Grumman's hand at work, but you'll know me soon enough, young sir. I'm Major Dara Kantschar, the Spectral Alchemist."

"And your offer?"

"The Fuhrer sees interesting potential in your abilities, attenuated as they are. You're surely aware of unrest within Amestris as well as the perennial threats at our borders."

He had read his mother's newspapers, listened to the whispers on the road. He knew.

He knew, too, that Kantschar was correct. Once he would have been able to gut her from throat to heart in an eyeblink. These days, the only ability that he still had was the ability to watch, and he had failed even at that, the one time it mattered.

"I'm listening," Selim said carefully, committing nothing.

Kantschar's smile looked red in the light. "The Fuhrer shares your concern for Mrs. Bradley, you know. You need not worry for her safety. That's his personal assurance."

Selim knew what Kantschar really meant: his mother was going to be a hostage for his good behavior. It would probably have been the same offer even if they hadn't tried to escape. All the same, failure tasted bitter.

"Very well," Selim said. "I assume you're to be my handler."

"An excellent deduction," Kantschar said. "Yes. Come on. We have somewhere to be, and my men will escort Mrs. Bradley back to her rightful home."

Biting his lip, Selim followed her down the stairs, not even daring to sneak one last glance at his mother.

Chapter Text

Mustang had spent more time agonizing over a reasonable timetable for his flame-alchemy-as-chess treatise than he had on the treatise itself. The terrible thing was that Grumman would expect a certain amount of heel-dragging on his part, and make a few allowances--but not too many. He was currently deciding whether it made sense to waste time with pretty filler chessboard diagrams, or whether that would be pushing his luck.

When he came home to a torn newspaper, it was almost a relief. The newspaper had been wedged into his door, and it was torn twice on the short edge and once on the long edge, with a meaningless scribble in red ink in the margin. Edward Elric must be back in town.

It was too much to hope that Ed's news was any better than what he already knew, but Mustang supposed there was only one way to find out.

He checked the usual meeting spots, didn't see the familiar blond head at any of them, and finally ran Ed to ground at a dingy eatery that sold meat pies. The meat pies smelled spicy and rich and delicious, and were probably terrible for you. He ordered one anyway and sat down across from Ed.

"Took you long enough to get here," Ed said from around a mouthful of pie. It looked like his second, or maybe the third, although to be fair the pies weren't very large.

"This better be good," Mustang said.

Ed grinned. "How's the missus?"

Mustang gave him an unamused look. "Don't let her catch you calling her that."

"It's just a bad year for people getting hitched," Ed said, undeterred. "Winry and I talked about it once or twice, but the way things are..."

"Things will settle down eventually," Mustang said with a glibness that he did not feel. "What's the news on the road?"

Ed sketched a crude picture in the crumbs of the first meat pie with his finger, then unselfconsciously licked it clean of gravy.

Mustang watched, stomach clenching, as Ed erased the picture and drew a new one, then erased that, too.

A tank.

A blood seal. Like Alphonse Elric's.

It didn't take any particular skill at arithmetic to put the two together. "You have evidence?" Mustang said, keeping his voice low.

"You'll have to take my word for it." Behind Ed's insouciance was genuine worry.

"So that's where the state budget is going," Mustang said, thinking of the long list of relief items that wanted funding. Replacement tires, pots, coal. Eggs and butter. Lint for bandages.

"Why, are they telling you different?"

Mustang said sardonically, "They're telling everyone different." He always had a notepad on him, one of the side effects of being an unusually lethal bureaucrat. How much could he fit on one sheet? Ordinarily he would entrust Ed with a verbal message, but who knew who was listening, even in this dive? He tore the page off before beginning to write so that the pen wouldn't leave an impression on the other sheets.

The Fuhrer continues alchemical experiments.

Mustang looked up and mouthed, "How many?"

Ed tapped the edge of a plate once, then shrugged.

A tank with a soldier's soul. Perhaps more. Flame alchemy is to be taught to others.

He didn't sign the missive, although it didn't matter. His handwriting was on enough paperwork as it stood. And General Armstrong knew his hand. Despite the fact that they didn't get along, he trusted that she would at least consider the source and take the message seriously.

Mustang slid the note across the table, then took his time finishing his pie. Either he had lost his appetite or it tasted worse the more you ate, all greasy chunks of meat and pallid carrot slices. He wasn't sure which was the case.

Ed scowled at him and began playing with his leftovers, which was to say that he was sculpting a map of Amestris.

When he was done, Mustang reached over and stabbed an unappetizingly limp mushroom slice at the approximate location of the Briggs Fortress with his fork: Go here. Ed kicked him under the table, which was probably all he was going to get in the way of acknowledgment, then commenced remolding the map into a sculpture of a duck. Or possibly a goose. He was working on feathers when Mustang left.

Chapter Text

Ed wished he could have left a message for Winry, but he didn't dare take the risk. He could only hope that the fine bitch hound they had picked out together would deter some of the more mundane threats. He had offered to teach her some self-defense techniques, too, but she had held her hands out to him.

These are my tools, Winry had said. I don't want to damage their sensitivity by practicing those arts.

Nevertheless, they had discussed ways to fortify her apartment, just in case. Knowing her, she had probably found dozens of ways to improve on the booby traps. He wasn't sure he was going to enjoy visiting the bathroom at night on his next visit.

Ed could have walked north, but if even Mustang looked pinched with worry--and to be fair, Ed had his own share of misgivings--speed was more important. So he took the train. On other occasions, he would have marveled at the way the terrain changed as you traveled, something he never tired of: the bleak hills with their grasses laid flat by the winds rolling down the mountains; meadows dotted with flowers in brilliant colors and dozy flocks of black-faced sheep; pale skies pierced by rock and small, hunched trees. Instead, every time he looked out the windows, he only saw his own worries.

He reached the Briggs Fortress on a cold morning, colder even than he had remembered. But the layers of coats and the fur-lined boots kept him warm enough, if not precisely warm.

The sentries who challenged him were no one he remembered: a hulking man with a dour face and a trim, dark woman with a staggeringly large gun at her back. Neither of them looked inclined to be friendly.

Ed figured the direct approach would work best. "I'm Edward Elric, ex-alchemist," he said. "I need to talk to the general."

The woman looked him up and down. "The description fits," she said, which made him wonder just what she knew about him. "But the Wall of Briggs has many demands on her time. How important is this?"

Ed was pretty sure that this meant that the woman believed him just enough to give him enough rope to hang himself with. But it beat most of the alternatives. "It's urgent," he said, making no apology.

The sentries eyed each other. "I'll take him in," the man said.

"You sure you can handle him?" the woman asked, with the air of telling an old joke that was also perfectly serious.

"You're not going to give me any trouble, are you?" the man asked dryly.

"Wouldn't dream of it," Ed said.

On the way up to the fortress proper, the man said, "I'm Lieutenant Roger Braun. Is it true that you gave it up?"

It didn't take any powers of deduction to figure out what "it" meant. Ed grunted assent.

"Do you ever regret it?"

Ed knew he was being sussed out for suspicious intentions or something of the sort, so it was just as well that he had nothing to hide on this front. "I miss alchemy sometimes," he said, "because I got used to it. Got lazy, I suppose. But I don't regret it. It was fair price paid."

"Huh," Braun said, and was silent all the rest of the way. Which was just as well, because Ed was starting to feel as if icicles were about to form on the roof of his mouth.

As it turned out, he was led in to see General Armstrong within the hour. He waited, sipping a scalding mug of soup (no charge, they assured him when he asked) and trying not to shiver too obviously.

Olivier Armstrong swept in through the doors, pausing to exchange a brief word with the guards, then looked down at him. Snow glittered in her hair; snow like captive stars winked from the fur that lined her coat. Her expression betrayed nothing but disdain, but Ed knew now not to take that personally.

"So it's you again," she said. "Come."

He set down the mug and followed her into her office. It was not as warm as he would have hoped, which was probably appropriate. "It's urgent," he said.

"So everyone says." She looked at him thoughtfully. "But you brought me a timely warning once before, and I don't see why it couldn't happen again. Are you still Mustang's lapdog?"

A few years ago, the bait would have worked. Today, however, he just grinned sharply at her and said, "In this government, there are worse things to be."

Her eyes narrowed slightly, but he couldn't tell whether his answer had displeased her. "Say your piece, then."

Ed drew out Mustang's note and passed it over. Watched while she read it. Her face revealed nothing.

"Do you know the extent of these experiments?" the general asked at last.

"I'm only aware of the one tank," Ed said. "And he told me that most of the experiments didn't work because being in nonhuman bodies often drives people mad."

"Was he an early success or a late one?"

Ed kicked himself for not asking. "I'm not sure. He was painted with the designation T307, but I'm not entirely sure what it means. It could be something twisty and scientific."

"Or it could mean that he was number 307," she said coolly. "How do you subdue a human tank?"

"He said he was a volunteer. Crippling injury during the firefight at Central. No regrets."

"We teach our soldiers to be loyal," General Armstrong said, "but it's a vexation that we don't do as good a job of teaching them what to be loyal to." She frowned. "Mustang must be under intense pressure to pass on his alchemical knowledge."

Ed scowled.

"Let me show you something," she said. "I don't condone the Fuhrer's actions, but he is not doing this without purpose." Her smile flashed; it had nothing of mercy in it. "It is, after all, important to understand your enemies as well as your allies."

"Is that what we've come to?" he asked as he fell into step beside her. She didn't shorten her stride for him, but he wouldn't have expected her to. It was curious how he often remembered her as being taller than Mustang when the reverse was the case.

They went into the fort's bowels, where even the lights did nothing to dispel the fundamental grayness of the walls, the permanent chill. The general nodded curtly to the guards and unlocked a small door, then motioned for Ed to precede her inside. She closed the door after her.

All Ed saw were crates, remarkable only for being unusually sturdy; he didn't normally see them reinforced by such thick bands of metal.

Olivier Armstrong stalked over to a cluster of crates on the floor and pulled off their covers, which were not nailed down.

Machine guns. Ammunition. Even rocket launchers.

"Tell me, Edward," she said, "how much have you heard about the riots?"

He shook his head. "I've seen a lot of disgruntled crowds, but no riots."

"In Faranghel," the general said, "insurrectionists stormed the town hall and were bloodily repulsed. Everyone involved is in custody, and the Fuhrer diverted troops there to hush the matter up. You won't have heard of Faranghel on the radio. The Fuhrer is afraid that spreading the news will only fan the flames. There are claims that the protest started as a peaceful one, but at this remove I am unable to say what the truth is. The problem is, Faranghel isn't the only one."

"And the weapons?"

"Spoils of a counterstrike on Drachman arms smugglers," Olivier Armstrong said. "There are violent elements in Amestris. Our weakness is Drachma's opportunity. They're selling weapons to disaffected people in order to destabilize the nation. We may have removed the corrosion in our heart with Fuhrer Bradley, but that doesn't change the fact that we have to deal with enemies from without."

"That doesn't excuse what Grumman's doing," Ed said.

She snorted. "Of course not. As I said, he's too weak to hold what he has if he has to resort to such measures. The key is to understand him, not to agree with him. Right now I imagine he has some fantasy that a legion of flame alchemists will save him from the Drachmans, the Cretans, the Aerugoans...I can't imagine how he plans to save himself from the alchemists themselves."

General Armstrong replaced the crates' covers. "The problem with Mustang and Grumman is that they think too much alike. Plans within plans, chess pieces with their neatly circumscribed moves on a board made of squares. The truth is that war is tangled and messy. The truth is that war is about the snakes that live in people's hearts."

She opened the door. As they stepped out, she said, "Tell Mustang that I am aware of the situation and that I'll act accordingly. And warn him that this is a very poor time for another revolution."

"Then what do you advise?" Ed said.

"Grumman will destroy himself. It's only a matter of time."

"Not everyone has time," he said.

"It's too late to save the eggs from breaking," the general said. "The only thing to do now is to plan a better omelette."

Chapter Text

Mustang's days at the office didn't seem to be getting any shorter. He was considering going to a bar to get roaringly drunk. But even drinking had lost most of its appeal. He went straight home, troubled that East City's shadows were more gray than black, that the walls of the less reputable alleys were scabbed with the remains of posters that the city's clean-up crew kept having to tear down.

He wasn't sure when the sky had become his enemy. It was always there, and it changed no more and no less than the season and the weather demanded. But sometimes he looked at the scraps of cloud, the moon's sweet curve, and all it did was remind him of the hundred things he had left undone, a slate on which the world wrote its reminders.

Mostly it made him think of water and the absence of water, things by which people lived and died.

Someone had told him long ago that people never looked up when they were about their business. Ishbal had taught him greater caution, but it was still true that in East City, on his own soil, he wasn't as alert. Still, he made a habit of noting where the windows were, of guessing where ambushes would be set. They'd increased patrols after the assassination attempts earlier, but the sweeps hadn't brought anyone in but the usual roster of beggars and drunkards, the litanies of the unlucky.

He glimpsed the merest movement in a window that was usually dark. That apartment had been vacant for several months. He'd heard the landlord was hoping to find someone to pay its current asking price, but no one could afford the rent.

Mustang was dashing for cover behind a fruit-seller's stand before his conscious brain registered what he was doing. Nothing. He was starting to feel irritated at himself for being overly jumpy when the shot came from a building behind him. The bullet threw sparks not two feet from where his head had been. He flattened himself against the sidewalk, thinking that he had just had the damn coat dry-cleaned three days ago and now he was going to have to have it done all over again. It was amazing what trivia the human mind could occupy itself with in a crisis.

He could wait for reinforcements, but the assassin was sure to get away.

He was wearing his gloves. He only took them off to sleep these days, and he was starting to think even that might be asking for trouble.

Half-crouching, he crab-stepped his way around the stall and peered around it at the alleyways. He was pretty sure the shot had come from ground level. Sure enough, he heard footsteps: no attempt made at secrecy. It was too late for that.

Mustang pelted after the assassin, reflecting that he was going to be lectured by Hawkeye for the rest of the month, and threw flame ahead of him to block the assassin's avenue of escape. The assassin hesitated, spun, and fired off two more shots in rapid succession. His aim was good: one shot clipped Mustang in the shoulder. He hissed at the sudden pain and sent an arc of fire to swallow the assassin's gun hand.

The gun dropped and discharged once. Mustang ignored it and strode forward to grab the assassin, a slope-shouldered man, by the throat. The smell of charred flesh was nauseating. "One chance," he said. "Who sent you?"

Mustang was not an unreasonable man. The assassin was sobbing with pain and shock. The skin was peeling off his hand and forearm in blackened sheets. Mustang waited for the sobbing to subside. But no answer was forthcoming even then.

"If you attempt to escape," Mustang said, "I won't hesitate to cremate you." He doubted that they'd be able to get any answers out of the man, but he had to try anyway.

One of the local patrols had gotten word of the disturbance and met him at the next intersection. Mustang was only too happy to hand his prisoner off to them. "Don't let him escape and don't let him kill himself," Mustang said crisply. "We need all the answers we can get."

Instead of continuing home as he'd planned, he went to the office and reread the official guidelines on interrogation. Regulations had a great deal to say on the subject, mostly practical considerations rather than ethical ones. They had not been revised since Grumman's accession.

He fell asleep at his desk.

When he woke, they told him there was an effigy outside of headquarters, dressed in a black coat, burning.

Chapter Text

It wasn't precisely that Sheska enjoyed reading about alchemy. Or, more accurately, that she enjoyed reading about it more than anything else. Just last month she had spent a peaceful week immersed in studies of lepidopterans. (She was sure that there was some military application, but she was just as happy not to know what it was.)

All the same, during the past year, several state alchemists had been going through certain records and signing out documents, then conscientiously returning them. Sheska was certain they were only doing their jobs, but the truth was that one of the alchemists, a dark, fox-faced woman named Dara Kantschar, gave her the chills. Kantschar was never anything but unfailingly courteous and businesslike, but Sheska thought it might be worth listening to her intuition on this one.

So she had spent part of her time inventorying the documents in the most-trafficked sections of the alchemy wings, and found something curious. According to the records, every one was accounted for. If you only looked at superficialities, the records department had never been in better shape.

It was if you opened up certain documents and looked at the text that the discrepancies became evident. Someone had gone to a lot of trouble to make false copies. Sometimes the text inside was similar; at other times, it was about a completely different branch of alchemy.

If Sheska hadn't trusted her memory absolutely, she would have thought that she was imagining things.

She was not imagining things at all.

Sheska wasn't sure who to trust with this information. State alchemists worked on state business. Their loyalties were suspect. (Like most people, she had her suspicions about the official story concerning the attempted coup.) She would have told Edward Elric, but his location was notable for being in flux all the time, and Edward's brother Alphonse was in Xing.

She didn't like chancing the official mail, but she couldn't very well leave her job to deliver the message. It would draw too much attention. No; she would write a letter to Ed care of his friend Winry's family in Resembool, and hope that it made its way to the appropriate people.

Chapter Text

Of all things, Mustang wasn't expecting more bad news to come in the form of a letter addressed to Edward Elric. But Ed had forwarded the letter to him, so perhaps that should have been warning enough.

The letter was from Sheska. The name had sounded faintly familiar, so he had asked Hawkeye to find out who it was. Without even bothering to check the records, she had replied that that was the name of the librarian that the Elric brothers had talked to in Central City, and that she was working in Records there now. "She has a photographic memory," she added. "I imagine it's a valuable trait."

"Do you ever forget anything?" Mustang asked Hawkeye, a little aggravated.

"Not if it has to do with my job, sir," she said, smiling faintly.

He harrumphed and waved her back to her desk so he could peruse the letter by himself.

Dear Edward,

Hello! I hope this letter finds you in good health. I am so sorry to write to you again but my mother has taken a turn for the worse and I overspent on books this month. I promise it won't happen again, but if you could put in a good word for me, I thought I was due for a promotion and I was passed over. Or maybe you'd like to buy the books from me? I'll do anything!

Humbly yours,
Sheska

Mustang rubbed his temples and sighed. On a separate sheet, written in the same neat, forward-slanting handwriting, was a list of documents. The cover story was flimsy--he was willing to wager that Sheska's mother was no worse than she usually was--but then he supposed that librarians were not ordinarily trained for intelligence work.

And then there was the list of "books." He knew very well that they weren't publicly-available publications but rather alchemical treatises registered with the state, not least because two of them were his. He recognized some of the others: "Rapid Oxidation in Microgravity" by the Radiant Alchemist, "Emission Spectra in Inorganic Fuels" by the Spectral Alchemist, even an elegant paper by the late Kimblee on maximizing fire damage.

Sheska had copied out the dates of registry along with the titles and authors, although whether this was librarian's habit or a sign that she considered the information a vital clue was impossible to tell. It was also impossible to tell without seeing the documents in question--thankfully, she hadn't attempted to sneak out copies, as he was certain she would have been caught--but it looked like most of the research was on flame alchemy.

Specifically, on flame alchemy performed through group ritual.

Mustang unclenched his jaw. He was going to grind his teeth away at this rate. So this is what you've been up to, old man, he thought.

Master Hawkeye had discussed ritual alchemy with Mustang on one afternoon, and one afternoon only. It had been raining softly, pitter-patter pitter-patter on the roof. Riza had been chopping carrots in the kitchen, efficient as always.

"I'm telling you this ahead of time because you'll figure it out eventually," Master Hawkeye had said. "Flame alchemy is difficult and perilous. At some point you'll be asked if there's an easier way to do it. The answer is no."

The older man coughed, then said, "You can break alchemy down into components, just as matter can be broken down into its constituent elements. This is a mathematical truth, and as such, inarguable. The problem is, alchemists in a group ritual must be coordinated in order to have any effect, or the proper effect. We speak of the perfect circle, the perfect array, but in truth nothing drawn by a human hand is truly perfect. When one person attempts alchemy, those imperfections can be overcome. When several people attempt group alchemy, the imperfections are magnified."

"That can't be the whole truth," Mustang said, thinking reflexively of ways to factor the arrays, divide them among several people.

Master Hawkeye's smile was tired and cynical. "Of course not. It never is. According to the theory, a philosopher's stone would be able to catalyze the ritual and cancel out the imperfections. But then, who would be willing to share that kind of power? You can check over the equations in your own time." And that was all he said on the matter.

Mustang looked again at the list of treatises. He had to assume that Sheska knew something was going on with that list.

Studying ritual alchemy was one thing. The important question--whether Grumman had authorized the creation of more philosopher's stones--was unanswered.

He told himself he had no evidence one way or another.

His heart told him something else entirely.

Chapter Text

Scar had had a lot of practicing skulking in Amestrian cities, including East City. This was just as well. He was not so naive as to believe that the average soldier would do anything but shoot him on sight, the more so because of the recent attempts on alchemists' lives.

For once he wasn't responsible. He wasn't even sure he thought the assassination attempts wise, which was not a point of view he would have thought he'd hold. But he thought it likely that the Jurists or their allies were behind the attempts, and he also thought that their actions would most likely harden the state's position on reparations, or Ishbalan self-determination, or anything of that nature.

Security was not much stronger around General Mustang's apartment, but he supposed that they considered that Mustang could fend for himself in a pinch. Scar tipped his hat forward to shadow his eyes and waited at the door. He had spent several days watching Mustang's movements, and it seemed likely that the man would spend a couple of hours drinking before coming home.

He didn't have to wait long, as it turned out. Mustang rounded the corner of the corridor and immediately raised a hand. He wore his gloves. Scar had been expecting as much.

Scar raised his hands. "Just to talk," he said quietly.

Mustang's mouth tightened, but he nodded. "Very well." He came forward to unlock the door, then followed Scar in.

They sat facing each other in the parlor. "This isn't a threat," Scar said after an uncomfortable pause, "but you'll probably take it as one. How much Ishbalan do you speak?"

"Very little," Mustang said, looking nonplussed. "Other than 'How much is this pomegranate?' and 'Which way did he go?', training assumed that we weren't going to be talking much to the, ah, insurrectionists. Some people learned it anyway, but I wasn't one of them."

Scar nodded. "I heard from Guzel," he said, "and by now the delegation's failure is well-known in Ishbal as well. There is a phrase that is becoming common there, an old saying. Tazsheb rai. You cannot build a house of salt--salted wounds, bitter hurts. It will only melt away."

"In other words," Mustang said, "change is not coming fast enough. The situation in Ishbal is not tenable."

"It's not tenable for my people," Scar said, not quite agreeing. "But it will cause difficulties for your government as well. You made me a promise, Mustang. Find a way to keep it. I don't control the situation in Ishbal. I am only telling you what I know."

Mustang's eyes were cold and clear. "I did what I could," he said.

"It's not a matter of blame," Scar said. "It's a matter of necessity."

"And this is the part where you tell me you're not here to make threats."

"Say what you will," Scar said, "but Amestris's instability affects us both." He gave Mustang a piercing look. "You're aware that your government has said nothing in public about the failed talks."

"I'm aware," Mustang said. "There are a lot of things they're not saying. The Ishbal situation is hardly unique in that regard." He tapped the arm of his chair. "I'm in a poor position to make guarantees. But I gave my word. I will look for some way to honor it. You needn't have come all this way, you know. It's even less safe for you than it ordinarily would be."

"People in my homeland are dying of starvation," Scar returned, "and I am accustomed to danger."

Mustang had nothing to say to that.

"I am not eager to see another war of extermination," Scar said. "But if people can expect no respect from your government, they will decide that coin paid in lives is worth paying. Guzel's faction is very strong right now. Tazsheb rai."

"Thank you for the warning," Mustang said, a little stiffly.

Scar was tempted to say that he wasn't doing it for Mustang's sake, although it was true. "I heard about the effigy. You didn't have the protesters arrested. It makes you appear weak, and I can't imagine that was popular with your supporters."

"No." Mustang frowned a little, then said, "I have at least one assassin running around the city. I'm not going to divide my forces by wasting their time on effigy-burning."

"It's your city and your judgment," Scar said. It might be unwise, but he thought he approved. And then, because something more seemed to be called for: "Good luck."

Mustang offered him coffee before he left, but they had said all there was to say. Scar left East City that night, by a twisting road. He expected nothing useful to come out of that meeting, but it mattered something to have tried.

Chapter Text

Rumors had flocked in East City for weeks about troop movements on both the Drachman and Aerugoan borders. Mustang had a map at his desk with dozens of holes, like staring eyes, from the pushpins he had stabbed into it: a scout's report here, an informant's secret there. He had sent in his treatise. It had gotten to the point where even Hawkeye was tired of proofreading the damn thing, and Mustang found himself snapping at people more often.

He'd received no further word from Ed or anything from Olivier, and he tried not to think too hard about what that could mean.

Mustang had just gotten in the office ahead of everyone else, even Hawkeye, when the phone rang. For a dizzying second he thought it was Hughes, calling him to feed him two sentences of useful information and twenty minutes of chatter about Gracia's wonderful cooking and Elicia's latest achievements in coloring books. The old rage kindled in him again, and then died down.

Perhaps Hughes would have found a better way to navigate all this trouble. He'd never find out.

He picked up the phone. "Mustang." Barely suppressed a yawn. He hadn't been getting much sleep lately.

"Ah, Mustang." It was Grumman's voice. Not affable as usual, but tense. "You've heard about the Drachmans."

"I read the reports, sir," Mustang said.

"The situation is worse than you know. General Armstrong reports that the Drachmans have been funding insurrectionists. We've been suppressing the news as much as we can, but that's no longer tenable. It's already an open secret that we've had revolts and demonstrations in various towns. But with the Drachmans nipping at our flanks, it's imperative that we present an image of strength, not division."

"I understand, sir," Mustang said carefully.

"Do you?" Grumman's voice turned gruff. "Listen, Mustang. We've had differences over matters of policy and we'll have them again. But consider the timing. This sort of infighting is exactly what the Drachmans are taking advantage of. They know that if they take on Armstrong directly, they'll just gut themselves on her soldiers' steel. So they're relying on underhanded methods."

Mustang bit back a sharp remark on alchemy and human experimentation, which was just as well, because Hawkeye had just opened the door. He waved at her to keep quiet. She saluted and quietly made her way to her desk, although she made no pretense of interest in her paperwork.

"You'll need to be more specific, sir." Mustang knew he was pushing his luck, but he had to find out how much Grumman was willing to commit to saying.

"Reform," Grumman said. "I'll discuss it with you when Amestris is secure. That's a promise. But there's a time and place for these things. You're young and hot-blooded and you want things to change overnight. But the truth is the world doesn't dance to our convenience. You have to do things in the proper order. Prioritize. If Amestris doesn't survive, I much doubt that the Drachmans will have any compassion for the Ishbalans, or care about enforcing alchemical codes of ethics."

Codes of ethics. Homunculi, philosopher's stone, the red, red cost: were they worth so much more than principle?

But then, he supposed he knew that answer as well as anyone.

Mustang remembered, with glass-edge clarity, the first report he had turned into Grumman as the new Fuhrer. He had brought it to Grumman's house, a sheaf of papers too light for the secrets they bore. Mustang had drunk a glass of robust red wine without tasting anything but his own anxiety.

Grumman read the report twice, then fed the pages to the fire, one by one. Mustang watched them blacken and curl, crumble into gray ash. "You did well," Grumman said. "But some things are not safe to know. Forget you knew them."

Burning things never made them go away. He had learned that at Ishbal; he had learned that upon Hawkeye's back. But he mouthed the required reassurances. He wouldn't have been a soldier if he hadn't been able to master the art of empty formalities.

He should have remembered their few kriegspiel matches. The old man's acuity of memory had never been in question. It would have been easy enough for Grumman to memorize the details pertaining to alchemy, even if he did not himself have the theoretical background to reconstruct arrays. He had an army of state alchemists for that.

Mustang was certain, now, that the philosopher's stone was involved. Finding alchemists willing to create them and use them wouldn't have been a problem. Presumably Grumman had some sort of plan to prevent the creation of more Kimblees.

"Sir," Mustang said, "compromise is one thing, but you're essentially asking me to set aside principles until they're convenient. How do I know that they'll ever be convenient?"

"There are no guarantees," Grumman said. "You should know that by now."

It had been years since Mustang had expected happy endings tied up with ribbons from the world--his foster-mother had been a realist above all else--but he felt a traitorous yearning for pretty promises and simple solutions. At least, he supposed, Grumman was being straight with him.

"Understood, sir," he said, because it was expected of him.

But at some time you had to stop doing things because they were expected and start doing things because they were right.

Chapter Text

There was a fine line between treason and mere insubordination. Olivier Armstrong was intimately familiar with it. She knew very well that what she was doing right now was sufficiently treasonous that Central could hang her out to dry for it. Or try, anyway. It was just as possible that Grumman would be forgiving on account of her known effectiveness, but a timorous soul would not have taken the risk.

Olivier had never been known to anyone as timorous.

"Thank you for seeing me at such abbreviated notice," said the Drachman envoy, Izot Lizurov. He was a tall man, almost gaunt, with a severely trimmed beard and deep-set eyes. He wore a plain coat that was lined with finest ermine: it said something that his one luxury was an entirely practical one.

Olivier turned away from the Amestrian banner on the wall and took a seat across from Izot. "Speak your piece," she said unpromisingly.

Grumman would never have approved this meeting. But Olivier thought it might be possible to learn something from the man, so here he was.

"I won't waste your time with trivialities, General, but surely you know our numbers almost as well as we do," Izot said. "We have never known you to be fond of needless waste."

"'Needless' is a matter of definition," Olivier said.

"Perhaps, perhaps." Izot didn't smile. "I have a proposal from our government to you."

The word choice was not lost on her. "But not to my government."

"Except insofar as you are part of it, no. We're aware of the supply difficulties that all of Amestris, including the North, is experiencing. We are prepared to offer trade with very low tariffs and limited self-rule in Briggs in exchange for right of passage."

"You mean to move on Central," Olivier said, "in exchange for my--secession."

"You know what they say about sieges," Izot said.

She harrumphed. "Yes, I'm sure we've all read the same strategy manuals out of Xerxes and Nerhis Au." Four ways to take a fort: batter the walls down, scale or sap the walls, starvation...or find a traitor. "I'm not interested in being Drachma's satrap."

"We are entirely serious," Izot said, watching her closely.

"So am I," Olivier said. "If you come through Briggs, you'll die on the mountains' teeth."

Izot leaned back, frowning. "Tell me, General. We had understood that you are not on the best of terms with the current Fuhrer--"

Olivier laughed contemptuously. "Don't mistake personal animosity for willingness to turn coat. I hold the North because it needs to be held. Test me at your peril."

He didn't press that line of attack further. "You do know this offer won't come again."

"I know Drachma's measure as well as anyone does in Amestris," Olivier said. "And Drachma knows mine. I think the only bargains we are likely to strike with each other in this generation are the kind that are signed with steel."

Izot nodded slowly. "Yes," he said, "I had rather thought so. But the attempt had to be made."

"You have my hospitality for this night," Olivier said, "and my soldiers will escort you back to the border so you can deliver my answer."

"I fear your graciousness will not save you," Izot said, "but I thank you for it nonetheless."

The guards came in to escort Izot away. After several minutes, Edward Elric came in. He was glowering. "You could have strung him on," he said. He had been listening from the next room. She had discovered that it was impossible to keep him out of the way, so she figured she might as well get some use out of him.

"It wouldn't have worked," she said, regarding him coolly. "The Drachmans would have asked for some gesture of good faith on my part, and then Grumman would have had questions. No; better this way."

"You don't seem terribly worried."

"The fact that they tried it at all suggests that they're desperate," Olivier said. "They know me very well by now. Frankly, if my spies are to be believed, internal pressures in Drachma are just as bad there as they are here."

"I don't know why I thought it would all be over once we defeated Father," Ed said, sighing.

"The problem was never Father or the homunculi," Olivier said somberly. "The problem was us and all our flaws. The homunculi were only capitalizing on what was already present. Now that they're gone, we're doing it to ourselves."

"I can't accept that," Ed said.

Olivier's lip curled. "I've known people who don't believe in gravity, too, but they're just as dead if they jump off a cliff. You have to accept the nature of a problem before you can do anything about it."

"Obviously you think there's a solution," he said, "or you wouldn't still be here."

"Don't mistake me for Mustang," she said. "He's the most dangerous kind of idealist. When he's been broken on the wheel of his own beliefs, I'll still be here, doing what's necessary."

But Ed was smiling. "I don't think you're as different from him as you'd like everyone to believe," he said.

She gave him a long look. "You had better hope that you're wrong." She did not elaborate. Time would do that soon enough, she feared.

Chapter Text

When word did come from Ed, it was by way of a young woman with hair dyed the color of soft roses. Mustang wasn't very impressed by her at first, even though she insisted that she had to talk to him, so he had Hawkeye deal with her.

An hour later, Hawkeye gave him a significant look while passing him the latest revision to the evacuation code. The pink-haired woman was nowhere to be seen. He sighed and made excuses that no one believed, and met her in the records room.

"She's a friend of Edward's," Hawkeye said without preamble. "Rosé Thomas, from Reole. She went looking for him because she thought he could help her."

"With what?"

"Amestris." She elaborated before he could ask: "The state of civil unrest that she saw in Reole, which she surmised must be the case elsewhere as well. She thought that as an ex-alchemist he might still have some pull with people in the government."

Mustang raised his eyebrows. "Ambitious. Well, what did he tell her?"

"She ran him to ground in Briggs. Apparently she was told to assure us that General Armstrong received your message. The general's holding on to Edward because she had questions for him about Central's alchemical capabilities, and apparently you ought to have plenty of expertise in that field of endeavor without Edward's assistance."

"I'm glad Olivier's so confident in me," he said drily. "What else?"

Hawkeye considered, then said, "He wants Winry smuggled out of Central City."

Mustang exhaled in a huff. "That bad, then. If she runs north she'll be in reach of the Drachmans."

"Maybe," she said, "Edward thinks that's the better alternative."

"Where is Thomas now?"

"I made sure I knew everything she could think to tell us," Hawkeye said. "I left her at the train station so she could head back to Reole. She insisted that she has friends there."

He supposed he couldn't argue with that.

An hour after that, Breda came back from an errand across town. He was out of breath and trying not to show it.

"What's the matter?" Mustang asked sharply.

"Demonstration outside the gates to headquarters," Breda said, a little too rapidly. "Talked to one of the gate guards and the estimates run from 200 people on up. It looks like more are gathering. If the signs are to be believed, it's the Jurists."

He'd seen their emblem on posters and flyers around the city, a set of scales with a serpent coiled around their base, poised to strike. "What is their purpose?" he asked.

"They're saying that there's witchery about, sir," Breda said. "That the Fuhrer's made some dark bargain with a homunculus."

"But all the homunculi are--" Mustang's gaze went involuntarily to Hawkeye. She was pale and still.

Shadows with eyes. Shadows with teeth.

It had been some time since he last heard anything about Bradley's widow. Ed had expressed tentative optimism that Selim Bradley would honor his mother even if his disturbing abilities returned. What had changed the situation?

He wondered if this was the result of another of Grumman's plots. After all, Grumman knew firsthand, like any officer, how effective a homunculus could be. Everything that happened in Central happened had Bradley's mark on it, one way or another.

"I'd better go out there," Mustang said.

Breda sucked in his breath. "Sir--"

"I can take care of myself," he added caustically.

"That'd just play into their hands, sir," Fuery said.

"They're calling for you to step down," Breda added. "I don't think they're making distinctions between good alchemists and bad ones at this point."

"I'm not sure there's much of a difference," Mustang said. And then, before anyone could ask him to elaborate: "The least I can do is see if anyone out there is amenable to reason."

There was no way to misinterpret Hawkeye's stare: Take me with you. As though he wouldn't.

He grabbed his coat and put it on as though he were girding himself for battle. He was already wearing his gloves. Hawkeye fell into step behind him on the way out.

"It's a mess out there, sir," one of the gate guards told him as they approached. Her face was sheened with sweat. She looked like she would rather be in a quiet room playing blackjack.

"That's why I'm here," he said smoothly. He didn't feel confident at all, but she wouldn't be able to tell.

The crowd at the gates was surprisingly quiet: the usual jostling noises, but not much more than that. Mustang had half-expected them to be chanting for his blood. He squinted at the signs as he came down the stairs. Some people were holding the Jurists' snake-and-scales, but others waved red banners--for justice meted out in blood, he supposed--and there were even one or two signs in the flowing Ishbalan script, which he couldn't read. He wondered if they had been written by actual Ishbalans. Anything was possible these days.

It was curious how people blurred into a mass of similarities from a distance, like atoms of an element, and only become distinct from each other up close. One woman near the front ranks had two small children with her, and Mustang was suddenly and irrationally furious at her for putting them at risk. As if safety could be had anywhere.

Someone had been alert enough to dispatch reinforcements, even though it didn't look like the protesters were making any effort to push into headquarters proper.

No, scratch that. The crowd had spotted him. The murmuring intensified, turned ugly. Hesitantly at first, then with more confidence, the people in the front ranks stepped forward, pressing against the gates. More followed them, waving their signs and calling out. But even from here it was difficult to hear individual words, just the massed roar of disapproval.

Mustang was beginning to wish that he'd left the damn coat behind. For all that the air had the crispness of winter's approach, he could feel the crowd's anger like the fangs of fire.

He walked up to the gates. "I want to talk to your leader," he said. Said it again until someone finally looked him in the eye.

"We have no leader," a middle-aged man said. He could have been a baker, a banker, a singer of ballads. But the important thing was that he was on the other side of the gate.

Perhaps they had always been on the other side of the gate, these people, and he had just never noticed until now.

"That's all very well," Mustang said, unimpressed, "but I'm not going to repeat myself to everyone. Pick a negotiator and send them to the front."

He turned on his heel and walked away five paces, enough to signal that it was their move next.

"Is this wise, sir?" Hawkeye asked. Her pistol was unholstered.

After perhaps twenty minutes--who knew what they were bickering over, it was still impossible to hear anything clearly from any distance--a stately woman in a gray dress and shawl presented herself at the gate. "I'm Luisa Green. For the moment, I speak for the Jurists."

He did not bow to her or offer to shake her hand; she would have understood it as mockery. "People don't leave their jobs to mob headquarters for no reason at all," he said. "Tell me what you want out of this exercise."

Her eyes narrowed at "mob," but she didn't fall for the bait. "Not everyone has a job," she responded, "the way things are now."

"Times are difficult for everyone," Mustang said noncommittally.

"You've lived in privilege and comfort these past years, General," Luisa said. "We've come to ask you to step down."

"Really," he said. It wasn't as bad as he had expected, which was to say that it was bad enough.

For a mad span of moments, he looked at Luisa Green and thought of how she had given her name--he rather thought it really was her name; how both he and Hawkeye had seen her face and could give her description. Thought about letting her go only to have her followed, thought about learning what she knew and whom she counted as her allies. Leaving an unsigned message on her doorstep, letting her know that she was being watched. Or removing her in the dead of night, if it came to that.

Thought about what it would be like for all of East City to be like this, neighbor watching neighbor with narrowed eyes, soldiers learning to cling to shadows.

They'd do it for him if he asked it. Fuery, Ross, anyone under his command. He could tell them it was necessary, and they would trust him, just as they had always trusted him. It would be so easy.

Grumman would approve, if Mustang found a way to do it well. And Mustang knew he could do it well. But the ability to do something well did not mean that it should be done.

Instead, Mustang looked at Luisa, who was patiently waiting for his response, and nodded curtly. "Send someone in twenty-four hours," he said. "You'll have your answer then."

"Choose wisely," she said.

"I can choose well or choose wisely," Mustang returned, "but not both."

As they walked back to the building, Hawkeye said in a low voice, "What they ask is treason, sir."

He looked straight ahead. "Some might say it's justice."

"Sometimes they're the same thing, sir."

Everyone stared at Mustang when he opened the door. He supposed they wanted answers, or orders, or reassurances; something that would make the world function the way it ought to. He looked at them, wishing he had the ability to set things right.

Before he could think of something to say, the phone rang. He snatched it up. "Mustang here."

"Sergeant Hunt, sir." The man's voice was shaking. "There's a fire in the north end."

"Arson?" On a day like this it could hardly be anything else.

"After a fashion. People are saying they saw alchemists do it, sir. That one of them might have been you."

Grumman. Mustang wasn't sure what was worse: the possibility that Grumman had started the fire to undermine him, because everyone knew Mustang was the only Flame Alchemist; or the idea of alchemists playing with flame alchemy without even that sanction. Either way, it was likely that a philosopher's stone had been involved.

Mustang knew what he had to do now. "Sit down, everyone," he said. "I have something to ask of you."

Chapter Text

In twenty-four hours, the Jurists sent the same woman to the gates, Luisa Green. She was wearing a finer dress and a shawl trimmed with lace. Almost as if she'd thought she had to dress up for the occasion.

Hawkeye nodded to her: not a salute, of course, but the woman deserved some acknowledgment. "I'm Riza Hawkeye," she said.

Hawkeye wasn't in uniform. Not today, and not ever again. Just a cardigan over a shirt and comfortable slacks, for ease of movement.

"Yes," Luisa said, "I know who you are. I presume you have the general's answer."

"I do," Hawkeye said. "He's resigned. As has most of the division. As have I. I imagine the Fuhrer will have his hands full securing the city, unless someone else gets here first." She gave Luisa an assessing look. "I hope you realize that the problems only begin here; they don't get better. Did it never occur to you to wonder who the Fuhrer would replace Mustang with, and if his replacement would be worse?"

"The alternative," Luisa said, "was waiting for change. I think there has been enough waiting in East City, and elsewhere."

"I wish you the best, then," Hawkeye said. She did mean it.

"Why do you follow him?" Luisa said, lowering her voice. "You don't share his crimes."

Hawkeye raised her eyebrows. "But I do," she said. "I was at Ishbal, too. No one remembers one more sniper. They remember the state alchemists. They remember the fires and the explosions. But the dead are just as dead, either way. The tool does not change the crime."

She looked at Luisa again: the expression in the other woman's eyes was troubled, but she didn't seem to have any other questions. "Open the gates," she said to the guards, who were among the few who had chosen not to follow Mustang. "It's time for me to leave, too."

"You should avoid the north," Luisa said. "One of the bakeries was hit by the fire, and people have been fighting over blackened crusts."

"I'm not surprised," Hawkeye said. "Thank you." She gave a last ironic salute to the guards, and walked out into the street.

East City had been Hawkeye's home for a long time. She had thought that it would be possible to build a life here, that loyalty was a sovereign foundation, that she could paper over atrocities with amends. But the truth was otherwise. The truth was written in fire and wrapped up in scars.

Every time Mustang had opened his mouth, these past days, she had wondered if he was going to say something that meant that she would have to shoot him. She knew what it had cost him to give up his vision of advancement, pawn to queen across the chessboard's bloody ranks. It had been her dream, too. But she didn't believe in following dreams to the point of ruin.

She had been a soldier for a long time. Now it was time to become something else.

Hawkeye headed east, to their gathering point: now that they were free of the military, the real work could begin.