Chapter 1: Fall of the State Alchemists
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Sunday, February 19 1911, 11:26 – Central City – Southern District – Central Prison – Complex A
This, Roy reflected absently as he went about his brief morning workout, was how a dog went through life; in shades of grey. No matter where you went within the towering, fortified complex you ran – or rather shuffled – into nothing but grey floors, ditto tiled walls, ceilings, and even facilities. Obviously, the cells were intentionally kept vapid and spartan in terms of comfort and décor, and the communal cafeteria wasn’t supposed to remind any inmate of that chic gourmet restaurant on Sixth Avenue, whose fine dining was a vague recollection of better times compared to the protein-rich slop the prisoners got served for chow. But even the infirmary, the psych ward (the latest studies claimed you’d want to put some calming pastel tints there) and the courtyard – a cracked, bare slab of concrete – were void of any colour or plant life. Likewise similar to dogs, the dangerous criminals got walked around the yard once a day with the same efficiency as the inferior quadrupeds. The lucky fellows, those charged with lesser crimes, were even signed up for regular exercise in the onsite gym. Otherwise, there wasn’t much else to do but sleep or read. Provided you could get your hands on any kind of newspaper or literature; as former state rank alchemists it was assumed they would try to hide cipher in an old novel and code in the first best porn magazine. It wasn’t a completely outrageous assumption as Voyager had attempted the trick with a roll of toilet paper. Else, one might try-out for a crafts or clean-up ‘job’ and take the opportunity to mingle in cliques. On that last point Roy could admit that the differences between the politics of the army from whose ranks he had been dishonourably discharged not even three months prior and this Darwinesque environment didn’t deviate all that much.
1910 had been prophesised to be the year of great change, soothsayers and rag papers alike had made almost as much fuss as they had at the turn of the century. For once they hadn’t been far off the mark, though no true Armageddon came to pass. Führer King Bradley had been assassinated shortly into the New Year, during the annual Ishval Memorial Parade – a small, formal tradition installed in 1909 to appease the growing popular disquiet when news of the inhuman extermination campaign reached the home front uncensored. In hindsight, and in no small part due to information leaks from the lower ranks of the military regarding Order 3066, a hit job was bound to happen sooner or later.
The sudden execution of the man who was both Commander-in-Chief and Führer of the State was the start of country wide riots, instigated by terrorist cells who clamoured for the full reinstitution of Parliament’s authority, unbound by the military’s oppressive yoke. Pro-military state radio broadcasts aside, within months the vox populi – never the most supportive of the military regime, even at the height of economic prowess – shifted to support the insurgents, further crippling the army’s grip on the nation. Due to this state of inner turmoil – on par with Creta’s own permanent code red – the military’s border security came close to being overwhelmed; the manpower stretched too thin between threats of invasion at the borders and internal uprisings. Insulated from both the north and south by the encroaching threat of ever looming war with Drachma and with Aerugo spoiling for conflict to reap its benefits, the newly installed General from the old guard – former Lieutenant General Grumman – eventually had to concede proper legislative and judicial attorneyship back to Parliament. This move allowed Grumman’s men to focus solely on the border skirmishes as the majority of the national riots ceased and the regional police forces – now with the backing of the new government – got a bigger stick to swing around and deal with local crime more efficiently.
While the civilians might be happy about the changes in the short run, this shift of power caused further tension between, for example, the soldiers of Eastern Command and the local PD. Conflicts about jurisdiction sprouted like weeds as all waited for new laws to pass and shed some light on the matter, however, in a democracy, it takes ages to pass and then implement new legislation. Thus human trafficking, primarily from the East and South, grew into a more pressing concern. While local civilian police might have the legal right and blessing to deal with the issue, they simply lacked the means and experience MP would have used to suppress the problem. Illegal aliens settling into Amestris’ big cities became an irreversible common sight. In turn Central government and military leadership alike, especially the top brass whom were still sore over the concession of power, turned the heat further up on the districts to solve the situation. It was a mess. The police force of East City grudgingly turned to Brigadier-General Roy Mustang, commander of Eastern HQ for assistance, like his colleagues in North, South, West and Central City were pressed to. Unfortunately, Roy’s options to provide said demanded aid were limited. Until the government officially gave the military the ‘go ahead’ his hands were bound.
When winter set in and the time came at last to lend a hand thanks to the new amendments, Roy had other pressing matters to worry about. Rumours of a war crime tribunal had been festering for a while and the anticipation of retribution became the palpable, hulking elephant in the room. The Brigadier-General made plans to get his subordinates – the ones who had been there with him during the Ishval war – out of the tightening noose. The new contacts he and his men had gained lurking in the alleyways of blooming Xing Town were only too happy to help spirit people away for the right price. And the knowledge certain Aerugan immigrants possessed when it came to forged visas and other credentials were quite useful for such a getaway. As for his own hide, he had made his peace with facing whatever fate awaited him a long time ago.
The descent of the Sword of Damocles wasn’t necessarily as doom-saying as Roy had come to expect. Only the top brass were held responsible, them and the at-the-time enlisted State Alchemists. Willing or not, they had been the brains behind the operation and the force of mass destruction that had enabled Order 3066 in the most crucial ways, respectively. The new government insisted on in-depth individual trials though, a small mercy. Still, many attempted out outrun their fate, the majority were caught. The few, who escaped, such as Brigadier General Clemin and the Crystal Alchemist, were not heard from again. Whether they had made a successful getaway across one of the borders or met a mob in some dark alley while attempting the former remained anyone’s guess. The other accused, upon apprehension – a truly hazardous task when it came to resisting State Alchemists – were stripped of their rank and prestige, and deported post-haste to the only maximum security facility that could hope to contain such a large number of top alchemists: Central Prison.
In contrast to the regular former brass, who were unceremoniously cramped two to four men per cell due to the sudden influx of offenders from all five provinces, the alchemists got detained in individual cells, with security sweeps six times a day. It wasn’t any special treatment so much as cold logic and necessity. A regular con who got his hands on a shank formed a danger to perhaps a handful of people. However, if a former State Alchemist were to get his hands on something sharp enough to carve transmutation circles, then the whole building perimeter was at risk. Hence the precaution of stocks to shackle the alchemists’ hands and contain the threat they could pose. It wouldn’t do if they were to get creative. Likewise, even yard time for these big time security risks was individually scheduled so there would be no opportunity to gang up on the jailers, less risk of any contraband items being smuggled in and haggled over either, as was often the case in the collective ward.
Although the former State Alchemists weren’t granted the chance to interact up and personal, shouting matches between cells aside, their bets still ran high about those select few of their ranks would had so far eluded capture.
Today wasn’t a bad day, as monotonous routine went. His morning ‘walk’ had allowed him to feel some feeble sunshine on his skin and breathe in the crisp air of a clear day after the most recent light snowfall. Better yet, Riza was scheduled for a visit that afternoon, and she would bring him a wealth of knowledge on matters of the outside world. He needed to keep track of the current political climate, especially with his own trial coming up next April. It could go either way for him.
Grand had faced the firing squad with bravado, and the jury was still out on Comanche; however, Armstrong got off extremely light just last month with a community service project to help rebuild the Ishval province. The government probably saw it as a most lucrative solution: cost-effective and it incorporated their new philosophy of ‘what alchemy once destroyed, it can now rebuild’. There wasn’t a former soldier who doubted the Ishvalans would want to return to such an oblique power display of Amestris’ might - not to mention the Strong Arm’s sense of aesthetics wasn’t exactly mainstream. Just like no one doubted that the Armstrong family’s many connections had helped Alex escape early execution, as his trial had been one of the first and the masses were demanding blood to cleanse the country’s tarnished reputation.
Unexpected commotion drew Roy’s attention to the end of the corridor. He smirked humourlessly, that ruckus meant they’d apprehended another one. The prestigious status that alchemists of Amestris had claimed since day one had taken a deep-sea dive toward an all-time low. Anyone even suspected of anything but constructive alchemy faced severe charges these days, according to Breda’s latest intel. However, only the worst (and most skilled) violators got to experience the wonders of the level one facility here in Central. Probably another unfortunate washed out soul who’d got drunk on the beauty of alchemy, then crossed one too many lines and left incriminating evidence behind, or it could just be the next megalomaniac out for blood, due to a newly acquired god complex.
Roy was expecting the newcomer to be of the obsessive, twitchy type. An overworked, having long since lost touch with reality kind of researcher. The sort who ends up looking like a wreck due to lack of nourishment, because everything that isn’t the project just gets pushed to the backburner for as long as humanly possible, skin that hadn’t felt the light of day in so long that the melanin just went on permanent strike. He threw in a pair of glasses to complete the mental image: reading tiny script in a poorly lit environment will ruin your eyesight before long.
He abandoned his push-up session (not much else to do and he’d found out soon enough that doing no more than pacing drove him to distraction) and leaned against the cell bars, craning his neck to take in the view slowly progressing in his direction, prepared to make a tally of how many points he scored on his prediction. He wasn’t the only one. Fresh meat in their ‘department’ was a rare form of diversion from the usual rut.
The guard on duty – a buff middle aged man who could be reasoned with, but usually lacked in patience – approached his end of the corridor slowly. At first Roy thought he’d been mistaken after all. It looked like there was no one else. A new variation of the surprise inspections perhaps? But then he started to pick up on the first comments thrown at the man from his esteemed partners in crime. The ones who had already gotten a closer look.
“Hey, Badge, you’re dumping the minor in the wrong cesspool. Can’t the State hire people competent enough not to blotch up prisoner transfer orders?” As a post-Ishval deserter, who had hoped to walk when the military went through its upheaval, McDougal demonstrated his anti-patriotic feelings and disillusionment of the system vocally like usual.
Dissecting the man’s meaning, Roy directed his gaze down. And down. And – unbelievably – further down still.
Even Kimblee felt the need to add his two cenz it seemed. “Indeed, you must admit that child is barely out of his diapers.”
That got a first real reaction from the midget, who was all but drowning in the size S standard garb. “I’m already twelve, you asshole!” He might have sounded a lot tougher if his voice didn’t cling to the boy soprano of a preteen and the neckline of his shirt wouldn’t have slipped over his left shoulder as he turned to snarl. So young and younger looking still. Roy would have sooner pegged the boy at age nine.
Apparently, he wasn’t the only on to doubt. “Come now,” Crowley – their senior in done jail time, a slightly cracked, egocentric fellow – goaded, “surely your mother taught you not to fib.”
If it hadn’t been for the much taller guard actively restraining him, the runt might have actually flown at the bars separating him from the Silver Bullet Alchemist. Roy had to hand it to the little guy: he had spunk. And more temper than common sense. Screaming something about knocking teeth out and a future of liquid foods while brandishing tiny fists and… Was that automail? Roy blinked. It was. The kid had automail at that age. Then again – the clogs in Roy’s mind recovered from the slight shock – he was here at that age. Disturbing, certainly. But most interesting.
Saturday, March 31 1911, 14:38 – Central Prison – Complex A
Roy relaxed in the nowadays rare moment of silence. The midget, also referred to by the other occupants of their wing as Little Hellion, was being walked, thus granting them all a reprieve from his – admittedly incurred – rants and antics. No doubt the boy – Elric, according to the guards; first name Ed, or so claimed the kid himself – was using the opportunity to make new acquaintances with the most recent batch of illegal immigrants, squeezed into C Wing, who got their yard time simultaneously. How the aggravating brat managed it, Roy had yet to puzzle out.
Not that it mattered all that much in the larger scheme of things. Roy walked over to the bars as the guard on shift came to retrieve him for his weekly visitor. Breda was scheduled for today. Last week Falman had informed Roy that the Rook would come and work through as much of the evidence in his file as they could within the short timespan they had available to best prepare their strategy to use in court. It would become a recurring event, leading up to the day of the trial itself.
Therefore Roy was taken by surprise when his visitor was younger, slender yet much more voluptuous and not looking pleased to see him.
“Major General Armstrong, to what do I owe this rare pleasure?”
She gave the empty chair across the tiny table at which she was seated a nudge with her foot. Roy was sure she would have gone for a show of force and agitation, were it not for the fact that – as a precautionary measure – all chairs and tables were crafted as an extension of the floor. Not wanting to go through the trouble of bolting the furniture, the management had decided to bring in a certified, harmless alchemist. The quality of the floor wasn’t badly affected and no one needed to worry about anyone getting aggressive with the accommodations. Olivia looked about as happy to see him as he greeted a rainy morning without umbrella, but there was that flicker of cold calculation in her gaze. She wanted – no, needed – something from him or she wouldn’t have come here personally.
“Shove the meaningless pleasantries and sit down, Mustang.” You didn’t talk back to a woman like her. The Ice Queen was used to ordering people around and you obeyed her or she’d use her family heirloom to turn you into kebab.
The Major General swept her eyes across the room – a habit the military drilled into you that you just didn’t lose: always know enemy positions and possible exits. In a low voice that forced him to lean in to listen, she stated her business. “I’ve had my men speak with some of your former underlings.” She pursed her full lips. “You’ve trained them to be undyingly loyal, I’ll grant you that much.”
Roy nodded gravely. Even though he’d been fully aware of that fact, coming from the Northern Wall of Briggs it was a grand compliment indeed. She continued what came down to a debriefing. “You should know that my plan finds favour with your queen.”
His eyes widened as he understood the unspoken implication. “What did you blackmail her with then?”
She smiled, as clear and cutting as frostbite, voice dimming further. “Nothing as of yet. Truly, Mustang, the error was yours. Did you honestly think no one with half a brain would figure out that only the hawk’s eyes could have had a clear shot at the late Fuhrer?”
Outwardly Roy didn’t even blink. “The investigation was closed. The true culprit was apprehended and tried. He confessed verbally upon apprehension and later again in writing.”
She shrugged. “Fanatics. One suicidal person eager to go down in history by claiming responsibility for the assault is hardly conclusive proof, when all other evidence is conveniently lacking.”
He couldn’t help but tense. Olivia had been part of the memorial parade that day, as a high ranking officer already called to Central on an unrelated matter, and as such had been ordered to join the charade. There was no way she had gathered anything concrete on his team, was there?
Nevertheless, she had him by the balls and she knew it. “You are hardly the first person clever enough to gather intelligent followers, Mustang. You are going to be facing a firing squad and we both know it. Now, just in case you are okay with that or some other such bull, I needed to obtain some leverage, you see? Unless you want to drag your faithful dogs down with you to the slaughter. Such fatalistic nonsense. It used to be an ancient Drachman ritual: upon the master’s death, several of his slaves would lay down their lives to serve him in the Beyond.” She shrugged with apathy. “I expect stupidity from you, Mustang, but not barbarism.”
Cold sweat trailed down Roy’s back; as his quick mind envisioned different scenarios in which Olivia could possibly still use him. So this was what her surprise visit came down to. He awaited her terms with bated breath.
“I have a simple proposition for you. The government is anxiously putting a new project together, on trial basis. It ties into the new series of laws being passed, regarding the legal practise of alchemy. A whole new agency, if you will. Alchemical Crime Investigative Services. We’ll be calling it ACIS for short.”
Roy caught her use of plural address and raised an eyebrow. She waived a hand impatiently. “After that whole public fiasco with my little brother, I’m recommended to ‘put my leadership skills to another use.’”
His surprise was obvious. It had been no secret she had been aiming to claim the highest position within the military. To be waylaid now, with Central’s top brass out of the way and the proverbial throne right for the taking… Olivia ignored his blatant curiosity. “Lab 1 will be converted to suit our needs. The project will be up and running before the end of spring.”
He cleared his throat. “What can you tell me about the government’s plans for this agency? Afterwards, I’d like to hear your plans regarding it and my role in this matter. I will have some demands of my own.”
She looked like the cat that had killed the careless mouse. “I would expect no less from you.” Olivia Mira Armstrong only ever dealt in backhanded compliments, delivered with an attitude of faux indifference, occasionally tempered by flares of surprise attacks.
Chapter 2: Team Mustang's Special Case
After the horrors of Ishval, another run-of-the-mill investigative job should be a piece of cake for Roy and his men, right?
Wednesday, April 07 1916, 11:57 – Central City – Western District – Alchemical Criminal Investigative Service HQ
The overcast spring day seemed to slip by like most normal days at Central’s understaffed and – mostly – overworked investigation headquarters. As a former laboratory of alchemical research, it had been a prime location to partially convert into an office suitable both for old fashioned detective work and progressive alchemic analysis.
The interrogation rooms – by now five years in service – were already worn thin by a daily variety of human traffic being grilled for information. Everything was meticulously recorded on tape and then crosschecked by some of those perfectionist detail freaks, as Jean Havoc liked to think of them. Or maybe that was just the image they’d accumulated under Sheska’s obsessive department leadership.
Out on the sprawling floor of the bullpen, assistants and underdogs were running their legs off either delivering or filing impressive stacks of triplicate paperwork. If they so much as creased the papers, either covered with new array designs ready for testing or theoretical reconstructions of used destructive force, there’d be hell to pay.
Specialized agents (not just alchemists, nothing would ever get done if you put enough of the geeks under one roof and gave them carte blanche) like the former Second Lieutenant turned ACIS personnel Heymans Breda were in charge of follow-up and the progress of their team’s cases. ‘Or a lack thereof,’ Breda’s co-worker, Jean Havoc, mused grimly. ‘The Chief is not going to be happy today…’ Jean huffed; with the trail of one of their latest most wanted rogues - street name for an alchemist gone wrong - gone cold, Mustang had pulled Jean from his hunt in the field and made him assist Breda in useless paper-pushing activities.
Slightly removed from all this more or less normal bureaucratic haywire, the forensic specialists spent their time secluded in their labs, surrounded by their meek assistants (investigative technology had really taken a flying leap forward since engineers and alchemists finally got the sorely needed government funding as incentive to stick their heads together), analysing everything from runic carvings to bodily fluids found on scene. Jean happily left them to it. He was content to tail the twisted bastards responsible for the heinous crimes under investigation and arrest their wacko asses. When he wasn’t stuck behind a coffee ring stained desk, that is. Jean glowered at his lost target’s sketched facial composite on their ‘Most Wanted’ wall panel. Jean vowed to personally insure that he’d do one better next time and then Crichton’s sketch would be crossed off the Wall of Fame and nothing more than a mug shot in the morning papers, soon to be forgotten as the con rotted in prison once more.
Despite being a senior field agent, Jean was for the immediate future all but chained to his desk. He slouched in his squeaky chair – chaffing at the restrictions placed upon his person and bored out of his mind – as he contemplated the quirks of the aforementioned science oddballs and eyed his soggy sandwich with something approaching distaste. Why couldn’t those high and mighty scientists spend their time usefully and invent a way to keep a home packed meal fresh throughout the day? He wasn’t a fussy eater by any means (and if he had ever been his stint in the army had cured him of it), any food made for good fuel when you could be called to a new case at the drop of a hat and out on assignment there wasn’t much choice on their limited budget to speak of. That didn’t mean he couldn’t envy the director and her entourage, who were going out to lunch at that fancy Aerugan restaurant two blocks away and most likely wouldn’t return for an hour or two. Work hours. A fact that was especially unfair, as the regular agents and field grunts like him – when they actually were at headquarters – got limited to a much shorter, clocked midday break.
Jean grudgingly caved to his stomach’s demand for food and took a bite out of his unappealing BLT. As he ate, his gaze slid past the mismatch of cluttered desks to fix alternatively on the huge dotted map of Amestris and its little local sister: a colour string tagged map of Central City.
Technically, Jean couldn’t really afford the luxury to squander time, however. Even though he was merely holding the fort for Breda, the paper trails wouldn’t solve themselves. As such, he was waiting on that confirmation call from their favourite floral delivery service from East City (a bigger ruse the metropolis hadn’t seen since the old days of rigged shoot-outs) regarding their best lead on a gold creation/money laundering case in a residential area. Then there was the closing report for that string of wrapped up jewelry robberies. Jean hadn’t minded chasing the well-endowed thief at the time, but he’d been putting off the bureaucratic side of the matter for two days in a row now. He leafed through a moderate stack of paper and found a potential just procrastination cause. After all, those two separate chimera sightings right here in Central would need looking into. Even if it turned out to be another innocuous hoax, it would get him away from this miserable deskwork.
Scrubbing a hand over his chin in thought, Jean made a mental note to shave again starting tomorrow. His latest attempt at growing out a sexy goatee didn’t seem to mark him as any more distinguished in the eyes of the ladies, or by Rebecca, specifically. He had been hoping to score some ‘ruggedly handsome’ points, not get duped a ‘scruffy, failed attempt at facial grooming.’ Rather harsh judgement that had been.
His musings were interrupted as Riza finally approached her desk, across from his own, now that she’d apparently been released from Director Armstrong’s clutches. With a huge grin he spoke up, “And how is my favourite girl holding up today?”
He got a wan smile for his efforts. “So nice of you to ask, Jean; Garfiel used the same phrasing this morning.” Havoc suppressed the urge to cringe at the not ill-meant comparison. He didn’t hold anything against the man per se and couldn’t care less about the ME’s hobbies, but some aspects of the guy’s dramatic personality just rubbed him wrong. Riza wasn’t done with him yet. “And you don’t want it to get back to Rebecca that I’m your favourite now, do you?”
He raised his hands in mock surrender. Good, at least her spunk was returning. Hawkeye had been absent for five weeks, following her involvement in a cut-throat situation with little kids. The disturbing part had been that it was another child – barely nine years old, unhinged and fallen through the cracks of the social care system – doing the butchering with some basic but lethal form of alchemy. Riza had been very lucky the paramedics had got to her in time. A severed artery was nothing to sneeze at. Jean would bet an entire pack of his favourite brand of cigarettes that the director had made sure Riza got loads of counselling during her down time. She still looked a bit worse for the wear: her complexion not as rosy as usual, actual dark circles under her eyes attesting to recently developed insomnia, and Jean didn’t need a fancy degree in psychology to tell Riza was still under loads of stress. But she had vowed to be back on active duty within a short time span and so she was. He respected that.
“I’m not the only one whose favourite you are just for today.” He gave her a sly wink. “Everyone is relieved and hoping the boss will finally pull his head-”
“If you’ve got time to be yammering, Havoc,” Jean froze and dropped his half-eaten sandwich - speak of the devil! “Then you’ve got time to be doing your job, catching clever scum. Understood?”
Jean was already scrambling for pen, pencil and phone, nodding vigorously, “Yes, sir.” Internally, Jean cursed his ingrained habits concerning the direct orders of a superior officer. At least he had learned to drop the reflexive salute that had been part of their interaction for years.
Riza shot Havoc a sympathetic look from her side of the desk. Jean knew her well enough to read the apology in her eyes. Basically she was saying sorry for Mustang riding their asses hard to deal with his worry, frustration and helplessness over Hawkeye’s near death experience. Jean shot her a grin. He knew – and the entire office with him, even the newbies – that those two were thick as thieves. Really, they should just give in and marry, careers be damned, and save everyone the headache. Most likely the real reason they hadn’t was either too ambitious by halve or more sinister than Jean cared to know. For that matter…
“Not working hard enough, Havoc.” Jean looked at Roy’s larger desk, three spots diagonally across from his own work space and was relieved to hear some of the usual humour return to the chief’s tone. Excellent, the Hawk had come to save the day again. This time just by gracing her colleagues with her presence, instead of a gun’s blazing fury in the middle for a gang firefight or that whole saving the nation gig that just wasn’t to be mentioned ever. Things were starting to look up again. And they still had that welcome back surprise party planned for Riza at 1900 hours. Maybe this day wouldn’t turn out to be such a dump after all.
Now if only he could figure out what had gone wrong on his latest date. It hadn’t been his table manners; those were spot on after lots of learn-through-doing etiquette lessons. A returned favour of the Armstrong family had been involved there. He didn’t like to recall the horrors he’d lived through at their hands when sober. And the beauty meeting him hadn’t been allergic to the bouquet the flower shop owner had assembled for him, which was always a good thing. His laundry had been done and ironed, so that shouldn’t be the issue either. It couldn’t purely have been that not totally innocent lingerie comment, could it?
“Yo, Havoc!” Hughes looked especially cheerful today, as he walked up to Jean’s desk and startled him from his reverie. Either the man was glad for his best mate that Riza was back, if his broad smile at Roy in passing was anything to go by, or else his wife would be cooking his favourite meal tonight or some such nonsense. One could never tell with 100% accuracy when it concerned Hughes. “Am I glad to finally get a hold of you! You forgot to drop the surveillance pictures for that Lior girl’s file on my desk, so I thought I’d drop by and show you my latest family snapshots to remind you. Look, this one is my darling Elicia in her new dress on her tricycle, and here I have a group shot of…”
Jean made another mental note as he picked up and tossed the rest of his uneaten sandwich into the trash can with a long-suffering expression plastered across his features: must get payback for this intolerable torture a.s.a.p.
Wednesday, April 07, 18:49 – Central City – ACSI HQ
“Sorry, people, time-out,” Havoc’s tone was tense as he stood in the slim doorway of the interrogation room, not looking at all apologetic about interrupting Maes’ confrontation with known felon Roa. The bull of a man was surprisingly clever, unfortunately, and disproved their running criminological theory of brawn over brains as a prerequisite for joining the lowest tiers of Central’s most notorious, invitation-only gang. The gang was rumoured to have a rogue or two in its midst, which gave ACIS the premise they needed to butt into what would have otherwise been regular police work.
Contrite or not, Jean did, however, look like his latest date was about to walk out on him: all shuffling feet along with barely suppressed anxiety tightening the corners around his mouth spasmodically. Either he had taken Maes’ earlier picture prank wrong (most unlikely) or Rebecca was making him give up smoking (improbable) or Jean didn’t want to be the bearer of capital B Bad news. Hughes didn’t consider himself to be a sadistic individual by a long shot, but he sincerely hoped the man’s agitation was due to the second option.
Smothering the urge to smooth out the newly forming wrinkles on his forehead, Maes followed his primarily leg-work colleague out of the room, to where they could watch the thickset man without being overheard.
Maes frowned, observing his potential information source through the tinged one-way mirror. The solid mass of muscle didn’t so much as twitch! It was just unnatural, because he knew those chairs were anything but comfortable. It was, after all, the main reason why they were used. Well, that and budget, but not a day went by that the finance guys weren’t bitching about something or another in the same breath as ‘cost-cutting.’ They’d even replaced the brand new and instantly loved coffee machine with a regular coffee bean grinder and kettle, the latter of which sported a permanent flaky oxide problem and could die on them any moment. But you just didn’t mess with the coffee supply, so a petition was making its round through the building, towards management. After all, the situation was a right health-hazard insofar that a lack of coffee at the office would decrease their overall efficiency by 41%, or so Maria Ross had claimed.
“Rebecca making you sleep on the couch again?” Maes inquired optimistically after Havoc’s on-and-off romantic conquest. His logic seemed lost on Jean, who drew out his response without the usual bite such a remark would garner and fiddled with the manila folder he held like it contained a particular nasty STD. “Somehow, I get the feeling this isn’t about Riza’s party either.”
“No. And, no, looks like we’re gonna have to reschedule that one. Anyway, I thought you should be the first to know this. Well, the Chief knows of course, but…” Maes waved off that comment. It went without saying: Roy made it his business to know everything that went on in the office with his team as soon as the intelligence was available. “We’re trying to keep this under wraps from the director for now.” Havoc confided conspiratorially.
Maes suppressed a scoff: it was an admirable sentiment of Jean, but no one could put anything past Director Olivia Mira Armstrong. Both men looked around surreptitiously, as if their thoughts alone could summon her right and left hand men. It really could, they just hadn’t acquired enough empirical proof for that hypothesis yet.
Admittedly, they’d come close at last year’s gala. The director had been forced into a mini-skirt outfit and though it had elegant leggings to match, it still showed off her legs in such a way that those present had predicted an increase of female assault for the new year by crime passionnel. Who knew the director had such killer legs? Normally she hid them in the wide slacks she favoured in lieu of her abandoned uniform. But in that fancy get-up, the gents were conflicted about where to stare first. Which was the whole point: impress the bigwigs into getting more leeway with budget and the additional manpower they sorely needed. By the end of the evening, Armstrong had only achieved some the latter – which just went to show how much upper management hoarded the cash flow – and she had subsequently put Roy into the hospital with a mild concussion for a wrongly timed smart-aleck remark.
In their own way, her aids were no less intimidating. Misha - formerly known as Scar, converted to the Director’s legal ways of hunting down rogue alchemists - and Miles were the precinct politics bloodhounds. Bearing down on any bureaucratic shit hitting the fan – misplaced forensic reports, communication gone wrong between departments, the mounting sexual tension between Roy and Riza, you name it – faster than you could say ‘she’s got a gun!’ Thus, when neither of the I.A. duo made a sudden appearance due to some freaky telepathy thing they had going on (of which Breda could spout details), it was seen as both a moment of rare fortune as well as an ominous sign of an approaching apocalypse. Especially since anyone knew exactly who got dispatched the moment a target was deemed too dangerous to bring in alive. The assassin duo was no more than a couple of boring pencil pushers in the eyes of tax collectors only.
“Alright,” Maes reached for the folder, “hand over the bombshell then. What is it this time? Have more protesters been obstructing the final test-runs of the Orient Express in Ishval? Did Don Cornello swear off Letoism? Has democracy once more fallen to dictatorship, because our government can’t form efficient coalitions?”
His sarcasm made Havoc shed his wariness at last. “See if I’ll put it to you nicely next time. No, no major problems on the Ishval-Xing railway today, no holy wars escalating or evil overlords plotting world domination at the moment.” Really, there was no need to become over-dramatic to the point of B radio drama clichés, “Breda was just cooling his heels ‘down under’ to get started on his collective report and he thought you should know that some of the blood at the crime scene in the Chang Quarter – you know, the double homicide and one survivor that was called in at 17:52? First observation: bite and claw marks, missing bits, knife wounds, partial array craved into the dirt. Riza and Breda went to wrap things up.” You knew things went south when Jean didn’t smile at his own lame jokes. “Well, they got us all the goodies about half an hour ago, Garfiel has been digging around in the gunk ever since. First reports are coming in now.” Here Jean hesitated uncharacteristically, “Brosh discovered it and then ran his theory by Maria to be sure and so Breda – well, he was already there, wasn’t he? – he informed the Chief, who told me to tell you,” He’d better get to the point soon. Hughes was starting to get worried. Havoc didn’t sound like he usually did when Roy wanted Maes’ opinion on a case. This sounded like it could affect the team.
That would be bad, in a major way. If someone they knew got involved or worse… Havoc was still talking, heaving a deep breath as he declared, “Some of the swapped DNA matches your charity case kid.”
* * *
Roy sat on top of the toilet seat, lid down, solving the Central Times’ crossword of the day with outward utter nonchalance – having skipped past uninformative headlines on another new rebel group rising in notoriety. The way he had composed himself, no one would guess at the unease that churned in his gut. Havoc was sure taking his time briefing Hughes. Roy had expected his best friend to come barging into the men’s room at least six minutes ago. At this rate, he might yet actually finish the puzzle before Hughes showed up.
Roy might be commander of his own small investigation team, but lacking the privacy of his own office, with his desk strategically placed – on Olivia’s orders – near the middle of the bullpen and in the thick of things, the restroom was the most secure meeting on their department floor he and Hughes had yet found. Back when they’d started out at ACIS, they’d tried to hold similar rendez-vous in the copy room. Took them less than a month to learn they would never get rid of the overworked secretaries looking for a brief chance to socialize. The quickly dilapidating kitchenette was out for obvious reasons: everyone wanted to stick around the coffee pot and people popping in for a refill of some hot beverage or a quick snack were far too frequent.
Roy made a random mental note to ask the cleaning ladies about citrus air freshener in the restrooms. The lavender smell the cleaning staff had procured for five months straight now was well and truly starting to agitate his sinuses. Tapping a pencil against the folded newspaper, Roy’s contemplation both of the dilemma his team now faced and randomly of the puzzle word ‘first man to climb Mt. Poros, seven letters’ was violently interrupted. Hughes hardly waited for Roy to unlock the door of his stall and give the all clear to plough on with a veritable inquisition.
“You gave me your word, Roy. After the last debacle with Riza, you signed the kid up for two months leave. I damned well know you were grateful that Alphonse could keep Riza from bleeding out until the EMT’s reached them. Even he knows it, though you’re too damn proud to show it!”
Hughes heaved in a deep breath and momentarily fiddled with the side of his glasses, as if he wanted to pull them off for polishing, but was too worked up to waste time on the upkeep. The harsh light above the sink reflected off his spectacles, shielding eyes that Roy knew to be too open and vulnerable right now.
“You could have at least informed me that the scouting mission roster was so jam-packed you had to deploy him again anyway. What was the sense of further involving Jean, just to tell me the kid got sloppy on this one? It’s not your usual style, Roy, and it’s turning my hair grey.”
Roy didn’t relish in the task of setting Maes straight, but the sooner his friend got clued in, the better for everyone involved. “This is Ed’s doing, Hughes, not Alphonse’s.”
It was odd that for all that Hughes usually kept his head straight under duress – it was one his qualities Roy most respected – he easily lost some focus once things started hitting closer to home.
“Of course I get that any forensic evidence will show up as Ed’s, and I do understand that the paper trail will be a huge pain in the ass for you, but why couldn’t you swipe it under the rug like you usually do? Did the Director interfere personally? I don’t see the difference this time-”
“No, Hughes, you’re not listening. I did not give Alphonse any assignment. Certainly not with Riza, she just got back on her feet, which is why I’m keeping her occupied with the more passive cases, and absolutely not for the kid to tackle solo. I did promise two months holiday to recuperate from the recent trauma. How many times have I broken my given word to you, in all the time we’ve known each other?”
Now Roy had his friend’s full attention, he pushed on while Hughes was still digesting this nugget of information. “Whatever the kid got mixed up in, it was either Ed doing the involving, or else Al operating in the capacity of a private individual. No one sanctioned their movement. That’s why Jean – and probably the whole team – will be involved in this one. It’s why I am allowing a trail in the first place. This is our code orange for worst case scenario: a full-scale manhunt.”
Roy didn’t gentle his tone in the least, Maes needed to get his head on straight right now, or there could very well be a steep price to pay down the road. If it helped his best friend that Roy stayed firmly in ‘Brigadier General mode’ instead of acting more considerate, so be it.
“Do you fully understand what this could mean, Maes?” The last thing Roy wanted to do was publically announce a ‘be on the look-out’ for Edward in the capacity of a rogue alchemist. With his running record, the boy would have a hard enough time ever finding an honest job outside of ACIS as it was, without adding to that file. However, if Edward had turned on them – whether it was a case of coercion from malignant factors or the capital offence of wilful treason – then sooner or later Roy’s hand would be forced.
Hughes grimaced, opened his month to argue, shut it again, swallowed hard, nodded once and then resolutely walked out. Roy sighed. The pawns were moving rapidly across the board and he had a phone call to make if he wanted to remain one of the players in control.
It was high time for Kate, the alias of Sergeant Major Fuery, who still served under Grumman’s command in the East Area, to share the latest gossip on those charming high ranking officers with the other girls at one of East City’s most popular clubs. Through these girls, word would then find its way back to Roy’s core intel gathering base here in Central: Madame Christmas’ hostess bar. As one of Roy’s former military staff, Fuery had once vowed to help Roy change their country for the better. So, ever since the debacle of 1911, Kain remained Roy’s ear to the ground on General Grumman’s movement and through the latter unearth the recent most inner campaigns and politics of the military. At least when he wasn’t otherwise occupied burrowing his way under the border with Aerugo, running their communications system amuck in an attempt to track down smuggling routes, or so Roy’s sources would have him believe.
* * *
Maes really, desperately needed to check in at home. Just a brief moment to make sure Gracia and Elicia were all right and to check he knew as much of this whole situation regarding their foster boys as he could. Because, clearly, he didn’t know the situation as much as he’d anticipated; whatever he’d been expecting from Jean’s ramble and Roy’s orders, it hadn’t been this. Of course, he’d known from the start that Ed’s history wasn’t squeaky clean, and that with those boys’ past and present situation, they were bound to get mixed up in tough situations, close calls and misunderstandings – and there had been plenty of those already. But unsanctioned involvement in a murder… Also, Maes didn’t know how long he had before word of this new development made it to Director Armstrong’s ears and then he’d truly be in a bind. Even Roy, who was going out on a limb for Maes by not having called him off the case yet – more like the opposite, giving him leeway to sniff things out – was bound to concede authority at some point further down the road. Especially should the worst have happened.
So, reluctantly, because he couldn’t afford the time it took to go call Gracia on a public phone booth, Maes made it his priority to check in with the forensics team first. It had been a tough call, as he had also wanted to be on the team who got to interview the sole survivor of the homicide. There Roy had drawn the line, with Jean as his witness, reassuring Maes that it wasn’t Ed in the hospital, nor in the morgue, and that Maes would be clued in to the information the team got from the pending interviews. It was vital they got a solid grip on what was going down before anyone else did.
The ever present smell of antiseptics was never powerful enough to overcome the odour of the opened up cadavers. The strong scent of peppermint mingled in said atmosphere in a surprisingly unpleasant mix. The heavily flavoured chewing gum marked the pathologist as another of the department chain-smokers. Maes entered as Knox folded a large section of savaged chest skin back into alignment. “What have you got for me, doctor?”
“It’s quite peculiar, Hughes. Take this fellow for example.” Knox gestured at the oldest of the double homicide victims, a gaunt, scruffy man who’d habitually been lacking in personal hygiene. “Mr. Yoki Yonald used to be local dealer, mostly from his home-grown botanical patch of basement. According to his file over the years he got overconfident, started spending his profits in advance and then his exotic crop failed him. Or so the report the PD gathered on him claims. Apparently, he got creative after that with new odd substances offered on the black market. Tried to reacquire a share of the profit, they suspect. It is further speculated other offering parties got territorial. Needless to say, this man fell onto some hard times. Regardless, I’d say he is the oddest case of the pair. TOD correlates with the other one, but look at this,” Knox indicated the tale tell jab of a needle inserted without much care into the man’s otherwise mauled forearm, and the unusual scaly rash spreading out from the epicentre of the needle puncture wound.
“Not very unusual for a dealer to also be a user, don’t you think, Doc?” It certainly would fit in with the man’s history and general unkempt appearance. “Nor are allergic reactions all that uncommon.”
Knox grimaced and Garfiel took his cue to join in with what information they had literally dug out. “Ah, but here’s the thing, sweetheart: the blood revealed older traces of illegal substances which are commonly inhaled by the user, not injected. He wasn’t the needle sticking type. And this drug is most odd. I’m no expert on the matter, but I’d say it’s over 60% composed of modified serotonin.”
At a prodding glance, he clarified: “It’s a stimulant that is reasoned to be a contributor to feelings of well-being. In short, I’d say it was used to create a ‘happy drug.’” Garfiel polished his nails on an unstained patch of his scrubs. “Not much other reason I can see to pump the hormone of an alligator into the bloodstream.”
Maes rubbed the stubble on his chin, pensive. “So, Mr. Yonald made the right connections to get him out of his funk and kicked the bucket happy as can be. You both think the allergic reaction significant to the COD?”
Knox took point again. “Cause of death is definitely this overdose injected into the bloodstream. Far too high a dosage for a first time user, who is merely expanding his type of fix. Obviously, the massive blood loss and shock from the wild animal attack sped his departure along, but the rapport will be an OD case.”
Not quite their regular jurisdiction. “You suspect foul play with the injection I take it.”
Knox bit down hard on his minty gum. “It does seem farfetched, I know. Why dope up a man with such a novel substance – no doubt worth a small fortune on the streets – when he’s already dying from his injuries as long as he is left unattended? Or for that matter, why not simply pump some lead into him instead of the drugs? Everyone lowlife in this city comes heavily armed these days. It would be a far cheaper solution, though risking eventual identification, with forensic ballistics becoming more common practice.” Knox nodded at his own conclusion that the perpetrator wanted to insure maximum anonymity. “In a way, this case is a bit similar to another I once had in Baschool. Unlucky fellow, who turned out to be allergic to metal. Tragically ironic, as he ended up being impaled on a broken pipeline during a mining incident. Of course, later it was revealed to be a setup and that it was no mere coincidence that the explosion occurred when it did-”
“But you’re convinced this gentleman was some big animal’s idea of entertainment before he got loopy?” Maes rallied the good doctor back on track. Practical though the examiner was, once he got reminiscent on past cases it was hard to pull his sharp mind back into the present.
The pathologist shrugged. “Unlikely, I realise, but when compared to what I speculate to be this man’s habit… Still, empirically, I have no more to go on than a gut feeling.”
“Those usually turn out to be right.” Maes nodded even as Garfiel hummed his approval. “What is this one’s story then?” He indicated the second corpse.
“Meet Dogster Dorochet, shadow man, literally disappeared completely off the grid about twelve years ago. Yet where he disappeared to is no longer a mystery. Notice the tattoo.”
“Quite hard to miss.” Visible even through the numerous bite marks, a dark collar-like band with a bear claw ‘charm’ at the base of the throat had been imprinted around the man’s neck. Maes pointed at the claw artistry, “That’s the Chang clan’s symbol, isn’t it? A bear paw. Looks like Dorochet became one of their guard dogs.”
“And an elite one too, to be their princess’s bodyguard. He took a lot of abuse before his opponent – either something or someone – won and reduced him into a human chew toy.”
Maes eyebrows shot up above his glasses, ignoring Knox’s black humour. “Then the surviving victim, whom Mustang and Jean have gone to interview in the hospital, would be-”
Garfiel harrumphed. “Heiress to the Chang clan, the first person in line to inherit the despicable family business, if our sources are accurate. Unfortunate circumstances, but then again a small miracle that she lives to reach her teenage years, being born into that position.”
The immigrated Xingese clans shared one common goal before all: become the undisputed Xingese authority within Amestrian borders and be in prime position for a complete take-over from the big cities outward through the provinces until the border towns. A lofty endeavour for the small sleeper cells, mostly planned to strike the economy first and avoid needless bloodshed. One that would take many years to try and accomplish. So far, only the internal clan clashes were a known fact to Amestrian authorities, as a power struggle of like proportions could not possibly be waged bloodlessly – especially not with patriotism, pride and honour on the line. Over recent years, the number of violent altercations claimed by the clans rose alarmingly - a development that concerned many a civilian and which kept the right wing politicians secured in their re-elected seats.
Knox, Maes and Garfiel shared a moment of grim silence, each thinking about their own families in such troubled times. Even if their nation had kept the peace for a good number of consecutive years now, it was hardly through mere diplomacy they’d maintained the status quo. Knox recovered first and continued where the conversation had drifted off; the incidents that befall young victims had become happenstance to him over the years.
“And finally, we get to the intriguing part.” Knox waved a hand at the third table and Hughes wondered how he never quite got used to the sight of alchemic fuckups. On the third table lay the carcass of an odd animal hybrid: a reptilian head with rows of fangs meant to rend limbs melded into a large feline body, with wings of a vulture sprouting from its back. Its tender underbelly had been sliced open in a jagged cut. Not the pathologists’ work then. Both men were old hands at dissecting, their cuts as smooth as if they cut butter instead of flesh.
“We’re calling in a specialist for that peculiar specimen.” Garfiel commented. “A zoologist would be better suited to examine those remains.”
Knox harrumphed. “On to the ‘good’ news: if that out of whack biological abomination didn’t mark this sorry scene as our jurisdictive playing field,” The pathologist waved a hand at the carcass, “then this lead would.” The ME shoved two polaroid pictures under Hughes’ nose. “These were taken at the scene. Half an array carved into to the dirt, hastily, judging by those dug-in angles, but shaping up to be a perfect circle. You’d have to talk to an alchemist to be sure, but this circle doesn’t at first glance match with Amestris’ mainstream teachings, if I’m not mistaken. The same goes for the second one, of a similar pattern though with a touch more finesse, which has been carved into Dorochet’s back. I estimate this was done either not two hours prior to his demise or else within fifteen minutes post-mortem, judging by the amount of blood loss and how rigor mortis would have affected the carving of cold, stiffened flesh as opposed to a warm, pliable epidermis and dermis alike.”
Maes at the image of the cut flesh and shot his next question at Garfiel. “These symbols aren’t all of Xingese origin, are they? The majority looks like some dialect of it, but those symbols on the outer ring remind me of the formal Ishval script.”
“I only know a smidgen of Ishval’s lovely alphabet, dear.” Last summer the man had thought it fashionable to get some Ishval henna hand-painting done and had looked into the alphabet and psalms for a brief stint. “Clever Miss Sheska would be a better person to ask that question I’m afraid.” In addition to overseeing a majority of the legal paperwork trail, Sheska was recently promoted part-time to the tech lab team. She made a skilled graphologist with her photographic memory, which came in handy at the oddest times. Like at their last shared poker night, she’d cleaned house. As the money earned went into the care for her ailing mother, no one was sore about it for too long.
Maes nodded in consent, antsy and ready to move on to the tech lab for other, more specific clues. “All right, will do. Thanks, both of you.”
He was already out the door when Knox shouted after him. “And Hughes? Try to keep your head straight on with this one! Wouldn’t want to have to give Mustang a report about you lounging on one of my five-star examination tables.”
* * *
Maes left the smell of bodies behind as he trespassed upon the domain of more lab techs, where the more pleasant smell of toffee and fruit drops mingled with a feminine perfume. Too sweet a scent, but a far cry better than the cloying air of the autopsy room.
“Man, Hughes, you would not believe what I found contaminating my crime scene.” Brosh exclaimed, as he bustled about his lab, picking up different samples only to put them back down somewhere else. All the while listening to the results of another analysis being rattled off by his resident underdog alchemist and glowering at the outcome, as if his aid was personally responsible for this transgression of his expectations. Seemed like the younger man wanted to avoid the more crucial facts of Maes’ case for the moment. Denny got a slap upside the head for his efforts from his partner Ross. “Our crime scene, remember? That sexist comment will have me working overtime again to prove who the boss in this lab is. That means you owe me more caffeine and sugar. I expect a large coffee and a good chunk of chocolate fudge hand delivered, no later than 9 p.m.”
His one-sided crush effectively distracted Denny further. “Right, right. So, Hughes! It was totally unexpected. Not something you see every day.” Hughes privately agreed, it wasn’t every day a real chimera soiled your crime scene. Denny rambled on. “I thought it was cat hair at first, see? But I had my resident geek,” Denny waved a hand holding both pen and notepad at the assistant alchemist, “analyse its molecular components, because it might be a clue pointing to an animal freak or a vet, you know?”
Maes stood leaning against the wall in his best lackadaisical pose, hands shoved down his pockets in a clear effort not to intimidate either of the duo. Upsetting Maria would get him nowhere and breaking their relaxed routine by forcing Denny to get straight to the point for once and provide some sorely needed answers, would only make the younger man freeze up. The alchemist – Chuck? Maes couldn’t be bothered to try and pin a name on the harried lab assistant – had been trained not to speak out of term, so he didn’t get taken into account at all.
‘Cut to the chase, kid. It’s my family on the line here,’ Maes did his best not to let his impatience at their theatrics drama show. Both rookies still easily became flustered under pressure and the last thing they all needed right now was indirectly attracting the director’s attention. Maes wanted to deal with this case himself as much as he could. Roy would grant him that permission to a certain degree for the time being, but Director Armstrong would call on his personal involvement and get him – and Riza, as directly involved agent, and maybe even Roy, the clued in team leader – off the case, probably suspended even. His parental instincts couldn’t afford that; he needed to be on this incident every step of the way. This was countered, but sadly not outbalanced by the fact that he felt like a heel for endangering Roy and Riza’s ambitious career plans.
Maes was spared from making some inane comment as Denny really warmed up to the subject, circumstances aside. The guy loved his job, plain and simple, even when forced to collaborate with incompetent alchemists. Brosh especially relished the moments in which he could share his knowledge on their latest discoveries.
Which was normally fine and dandy with Maes, except now that he was still holding his breath for a substantial evidence claim, like the DNA sample Jean had mentioned and Roy hadn’t denied. It could be anything from a few strands of hair to a whole automail limb. A vision which really didn’t help his tight strung equilibrium. He had to call home straight after this little chat, ensure that everyone was accounted for and in one piece. Then work from there to reconstruct what he’d been missing out on. If anything truly bad had happened…
“I didn’t believe the result. Just look at it!” A tiny see-through evidence bag was shoved into Maes’ face. It was one of the thousands they went through monthly; too many of those labelled little buggers even on a weekly basis to keep proper stock of. Perhaps that was the reason why Riza enforced special care with them. The label on this one proclaimed in Brosh’s harried chicken scratch the current date, place of the crime, case serial number and some Latin gibberish. Within lay no more than a single, short strand of grey – or maybe black – hair. It was a difficult to focus on the miniature detail until it was thrust underneath his nose. Too dark to have been shed by the copper-coloured feline part of the chimera. Luckily, it wasn’t dark blond either, that was something at least. With some squinting Hughes saw it was actually a black and white hair, coarse structure.
“What’s so extraordinary about it?” He queried. There, precisely the clipped yet dramatic one-liner the younger man craved and to Maes’ relief his own voice still came out neutral enough. If Denny made all this drama over some back-alley tabby, Maes just might lose his finely controlled temper after all.
“It’s panda hair!” Denny puffed out his chest like he’d just stated the answer to the ‘whodunit’ regarding the late president’s murder. And hadn’t that case been an utter nightmare? For more than one reason.
Hughes blinked, despite everything. Okay, so that he hadn’t expected either. “But those are only native-”
“-to Xing!” Brosh completed before Maes got the chance, nodding with enough exaggerated enthusiasm to induce a whiplash. “So then, what’s it doing here one might ask.” The DNA analyst was buzzing, whether it was the stress of the situation, the strain on his less than stellar acting skills or the consummation of four of those carbonated sodas both he and Maria were into was anyone’s guess. “Circus worker, maybe?” Denny scratched his head, “I can’t think of anyone else in Central, who’d have a panda. What would you even have it for? Some general’s idea to commission an exotic rug for their coastal retreat?” The lame joke was shot Maes’ way, who responded with actual information out of reflex.
“I heard the core family of the Chang mob has a panda as mascot.”
Denny laughed like he’d been told a great joke. “Yeah, right! As if they could sneak in something that large into Central.” When Hughes didn’t smile back, he became incredulous. “You’re serious! For real?”
Maes shrugged, connecting the dots. First a bear theme tattoo on the guard, now a real panda? This wasn’t like the Chang clan had left their calling card, so much as a billboard advertisement. “They’re masters of tradecraft, Denny. If they can smuggle people, drugs and weapons into the country without being caught at it or charges sliding because of circumstantiality, why not import a giant mammal illegally?”
Brosh was still taking it all in, observing the hair with shocked respect as if staring at the actual animal it came from, or those who’d gotten it there in the first place. “Guess we should be happy they don’t prefer tigers or lions then, huh?”
“No worries. Word on the streets is those are only kept by the Yao clan.” Maes deadpanned. He’d come by that nugget of information through Roy’s aunt, bless her heart. Chris Mustang may be known to most of East City and even some of the higher-ups in Central thanks to her successful gentlemen’s club, but if you knew the right person who knew her by extension, then she could get you paydirt on anyone. It was a goldmine.
Denny’s shocked silence wasn’t going to last long, Maes knew that from plenty of experience, but it gave him the opening he needed to cut to the crux of the matter. “Right now it doesn’t matter if the Chang dot on all things cute, furry and humongous. You got anything useful, Brosh? Human hair, blood or body parts?” His voice came out a bit strangled on that last bit. “The reason why I’m here in the first place, perhaps?” And if he came across as far more snappish than usual he had a damned good cause to pin as scapegoat.
Denny finally seemed to realize how far off track he’d gotten with his exotic mammals story and then almost upset a desk containing some delicate samples – his friendly neighbourhood assistant barely managed to save the test tubes – in his haste to pull out a wad of paper covered in scientific formulae and subgrade arrays. “Sorry, boss.” He leafed through the file like a speedreader. “Okay, well, although the roads were damp from drizzle, you know the analysis from residue found in shoe imprints takes forever.” That was true, and shoe imprint matching was still out of their league, with the exception of a few handmade expensive pairs that could be tracked back through a distinct trademark in the sole pattern to the custom shoemaker. “That’s not to say we have nothing.” Denny regained his professional bearing. “So, we have blood of our three vics all over the place. Four, if you want to count that chimera carcass.”
That was Brosh for you: completely dedicated to and absorbed in his own little niche. Because, in the world according to his special view cause of death could be such a minor part of the bigger picture.
“But we also found some splatters of this.” A flimsy, double glass slide was held up for Maes’ purview. Secured in-between the two layers was a single drop of blood. Denny’s voice wobbled just a bit as he stated what Maes had tried to deny for the past half hour. “We’ve run the test three times, just to be sure. It is an undeniable positive match against the State’s criminal records archive for Edward Elric.”
Here Brosh faltered, then picked up pace again. “Don’t worry, there wasn’t much of it, or so Breda swore on his own mom’s grave. I thought she was still alive…” Denny pondered, briefly forgetting his audience. Maria poked him out of his less than encouraging daze with an elbow to the ribs. The young man hurriedly picked up another labelled bag, this one with a 1.6 inch bolt and a few tiny pieces of curved metal inside. “We believe this to be part of Edward’s automail. As you can see, it’s only a few flimsy bits. Surface damage on par with a scrape, we suspect. All in all, it’s probably nothing. No cause for concern.” Denny’s mood fluctuated again. “But it places Edward at the crime scene, so you know Mustang will have to bring him in for questioning soon. I’m sorry Hughes.” He anxiously awaited a reply. As if Maes could fairly fault him for just doing his job.
Chapter 3: Alchemy and Existentiality
In the end, it's about family and survival. This was also the beginning, even if those involved don't know it yet.
The perfect Ouroboros.
Please remember:no homunculi
Spoilers for movie: Star of Milos
Wednesday, April 07, 19:20 – Central City – Western District – General Hospital – PACU
Heymans Breda had to hand it to his direct superior: Mustang knew how to be the irresistible charmer and the no nonsense arm of the law all in one. Even the middle-aged, overly tired nurse at the reception desk, who had looked to be more interested in her co-workers’ latest gossip than whomever else – visitor or potential patient – came to bother her, was putty in Mustang’s womanizer hands. It was crude and transparent, yet highly effective strategy. Heymans would have bet a bottle of old Youswell scotch that if he had walked up to the woman, flashing nothing but his agency ID and most winning smile, he would have been told to sit down and made to wait up to an hour before being permitted to see the patient they needed to question. So, of course, it took the Chief ten minutes, tops. Alchemic law could go hang itself; Heymans put his money on Murphy’s Law and nothing else. However, he didn’t begrudge Roy his womanizing ways like Jean did, especially since it allowed them to get facts on the case faster than normal.
Upon entering Miss Chang’s tiny but private recovery room, they were greeted with a somewhat woozy string of rapid Xingese as the girl – mostly obscured from sight by starched blankets – regained some of her bearing. Heymans had picked up only the basics of the foreign language, starting from some random insults and then expanding into the rudimentary vocabulary for some merchandize over the more recent years spent around Xing Town, so he had no true grasp on what was said, but in his boss’s reply he could vaguely recognize what he thought to be a reply and an introduction. There was some other gibberish thrown in that he thought might be a proverbial wish for good health and fortune – if he interpreted that bit about rice grains right.
Heymans wasn’t overly concerned with the language barrier; however, as he was more occupied with the girl’s two other visitors. An older lean man positioned next to the door, the only point of entry, the other casually leaning on the wall within arm’s reach of the young girl. Both were clothed in dark, overlapping yet giving fabrics, embroidered with exotic symbols in darker thread. They could only be her bodyguards masquerading as companions or perhaps even as chaperones. Heymans made a mental note not to while away long minutes playing hangman with Jean the next time he and his colleagues were forced to sit through a mandatory debriefing about the most common practices of the foreign cultures now crossing their paths on a regular basis.
The slip of a girl, Heymans never would have pegged her for a blooming teenager, seemed moderately insulted – even through the after effects of recent trauma and possibly follow-up surgery – by the Chief’s introduction. Dark eyes focused and flashed hostility as she rebutted whatever assumptions she suspected the pair of them held. “I’ll have you know, Officer Mustang, that I have an excellent command of your plebeian language.”
Heymans tensed at her irritation, keeping a wary eye on her guards. Roy wasn’t so easily thrown, off course. “I apologize, Miss Chang. It was only my intention to accommodate you, considering recent events. I meant no insult to you or your family.”
Heymans put his faith in Mustang’s fancy flattery strategy and braved a closer look at the princess’ clip note chart for injuries and treatment. His boss’s tactic worked like a formal icebreaker of sorts as Mustang redirected the odd flow of conversation back into more familiar territory.
“If you could spare the time to answer a few standard procedure questions, we will leave you in peace to recuperate.” Roy didn’t wait for her to object. “Please tell us all you can recall of the incident that caused these injuries. The smallest details can make the difference in apprehending the culprit.”
May Chang was apparently used to getting her way – four fractured ribs and a torn ligament notwithstanding, Heymans read the off her chart, somewhat impressed – because she didn’t even try and feign thinking up a reply. “My clan has good trackers; we require none of your meddling. I’ll cooperate with your interrogation; in so far as it is relevant to your investigation.” Her small fists tightened on the bed sheets. “But only if you tell me first what happened to my – companions.”
She wanted to play hard ball, well, Roy Mustang had one mean curve throw, as anyone he’d ever worked with or against him could tell you. He approached slowly with hands relaxed in plain sight, so as not to trigger her bodyguards into defensive movement, but with all the purpose and bearing he’d had as the Flame Alchemist. Selecting a few of the polaroid pictures Heymans himself had snapped at the crime scene from an inner pocket of his ACIS regulation jacket with careful deliberation, Roy confronted her with the fate she’d somehow escaped. Heymans knew the boss had picked up on the ‘companions’ part, and wondered what May Chang’s business with lowlife Yoki had been. The princess’s mother and clan leader – Lian Chang – may claim in an official statement to Parliament that all of their imported drugs were to use for medicinal purposes only, few if any Amstrians believed the word of an infamous concubine. And if the Chang clan was expanding its obscure business into a full-blown drugs cartel, Central City could have a full out international gang war near the commercial hub of Central on their hands by the end of summer.
While Heymans pondered these possibilities and the best ways to counteract or neutralize their consequences, carefully fishing around in his bag for pencil and paper, Mustang was already playing his cards. “This is what happened to your last companions, Miss Chang. I hope for your sake your new ones will keep a better track record.”
One of the guards moved away from the wall, reaching and half unsheathing a gleaming dagger. Heymans’s fingers reflexively twitched on top of his sidearm, whishing he had passed this part of the case on to his more combat seasoned buddy Jean. Before the situation could become even more hostile, the princess barked a clear stand down order at her entourage. Then she turned to Mustang, aggrieved.
“I don’t care what you believe, Dorchette was a good man. He understood loyalty as Xing customs and tradition demands it.” Her tone softened when she spoke, her gaze drifted, as she relived the memory. If it was an act, Heymans thought she deserved an award for it. “He shielded me. The regular chimera was no challenge, so I got overconfident. I underestimated the other enemy.” Her voice gained a bitter edge and she glowered at Mustang for making her relive what the crime scene indicated to have been a brutal event. “Any warrior worth their salt can read the enemy’s intentions through their qi and muscle movement above all else. The human chimera was swift as a striking snake. I am no slow fighter, but its speed was beyond my own physical capacity. I just couldn’t move fast enough.”
Heymans traded another look with his boss at the girl’s description. A human chimera? Those were very rare, supposedly because they were unbelievably hard to create successfully. More than one alchemist had been apprehended by the State directly or later by ACIS specifically, because that person messed up the polymerized reconstruction of the subjects of the transmutation. Such a crucial error left the result of the attempted transmutation dying either during or immediately after the distasteful meshing of species. Or rather, ACIS could make the arrest if the backlash of such a violent transmutation, which usually attracted the agency’s attention, didn’t kill the law-breaking alchemist first.
Mustang spared one of Miss Chang’s bodyguards a glare when this one spoke to prompt the girl from her trip down memory lane, presumably to prevent her from speaking further. Mustang took charge of the conversation again, when it became apparent the princess wasn’t going to elaborate beyond the few vague hints she’d dropped.
“We are going to need details on your,” he hesitated, “assailant’s appearance to track them down swiftly. I must also ask you, if you would be willing to identify this culprit once we’ve apprehended them.” Glancing about the more, he added with a placating smile. “Anonymously, of course.”
Heymans silently marvelled that the boss was willing to accommodate these people so much. He reckoned there was a good reason, perhaps even some history behind it.
The Xingese didn’t seem to grasp how much of a compromise Mustang was offering. The princess shook her head, the beads in her long braids jingling against each other at the movement. “I will not. You, sir, have not answered my question yet. You’ve only confirmed that Dorchette has died. My new guards already informed me before your arrival that he wasn’t to be found in this ward, nor at our last known location.” Heymans’s pencil hovered motionless above his pad for a moment. She was starting to slip up with the information she disclosed again. Perfect! And she was still talking. The older guard at the door shifted his weight – likely to alert the princess she was losing focus around the investigators, but if she noticed, she just barged on.
“And you are sorely mistaken, if you think I had any sort of ties with that twitchy man, the drug abuser.” She frowned. “It is sad we could not help him with his problems, but it’s not a matter of great importance now. You have told me nothing of my other friends.”
Heymans was starting to think this whole jaunt might be resolved peacefully and prove useful after all to boot. Until the girl continued her line of questioning. “What about Xiao May, my panda, have you found her too? Is she safe and looked after? If your people harmed her-” She let the threat hang.
Heymans stared dumbfounded. She’d been involved in a murder case – got seriously injured while doing so – and here she was worrying about a pet? She must be lying. Neither he nor Riza had spotted large paw prints of the size she was implying. Whenever working the scene in back alleys, Heymans paid additional attention to possible stray dogs lurking about, so he was sceptical of the odds of having overlooked the tell-tale signs of a giant panda.
“She’s just a tiny thing and she’s been with me forever.” The princess’s steel tone wobbled on the last syllables. Heymans plotted the probability of her latest statements, while bracing himself for the teary breakdown he’d expected upon first laying eyes upon her.
May continued to list her objections. “And you purposely left out what happened to-”
Now the nearest guard at her side spoke up too softly to be clearly heard by any but his mistress, clearly overstepping his bounds to do so, even if Heymans couldn’t follow what was exchanged, as the Chang girl replied, her tone short, but her commanding voice wavering. Interesting. Perhaps she would give up a more revealing emotional attachment.
May broke the brief stalemate with shaky resolution. “Mr. Mustang, have your men also harboured the body of Alphonse? Or has a demand for ransom been made?”
To Heymans’s surprise, his boss hesitated. It was so brief, you either had to know him personally or have special training to notice. Sadly, in their company that meant everyone marked it. Mustang played dumb regardless. “Alphonse?”
Miss Chang did not appreciate being strung around like that. “The name is familiar to you; don’t take me for a fool. Alphonse Elric! What happened to him? He was the primary target of the attack. They seemed to want him alive, but it all happened so fast. I was trying to heal Dorchette, before…” She cut herself off and turned a glare with all the heat of the East Desert on the pair of agents. “Tell me what you know or leave now.”
That last name rang a bell with Heymans. Not from any recent case and he had only ever met Edward Elric, Hughes’ odd boy. Yet it seemed to mean something significant to the Chief, and Heymans resolved to find out what the connection was between another mysterious Elric, Mustang and the – dare he say – attached princess.
‘Alphonse Elric, Alphonse…’ With the lull in the conversation, Heymans let his mind chase down the familiarity. It was now obviously pertinent to their current case. He’d heard it before, read it before, quite some time ago since the memory wasn’t as sharp as those of the past two years. And then he had it. The digging he’d asked Charlie to do into the Elric family back in 1911! But the Chief’s move just now had been made with deliberate slowness, like he did when he was shielding someone from a potential threat. This meant that Roy had learned a whole lot more since that conversation years ago, and intentionally kept it from Heymans – one of his closest team members. That in turn meant, Heymans swallowed a sigh, that this case was about to get a lot more complicated.
Saturday, April 14 1911, 15:15 – Central Prison – Main Complex – Visitation area
The newspapers were heralding the Flame Alchemist’s rapidly approaching court day and Roy couldn’t deny he was glad for Olivia’s offer to get him off the hook by working for a different branch of the new government.
Before her conclusive visit, scheduled for the next week, Roy needed to have all his demands presentable in an ironclad manner. He still had some reservations, some lose ends he needed to tie up first before they struck the final bargain, and Roy wanted to be sure of his stipulations, so he knew where to compromise to Olivia’s demands and where to put his foot down – and hope she didn’t cut him off at his metaphorical ankle. Roy had arranged for Falman to be present at his next appointment with Armstrong as well, since they would be drawing up an official contract which would spell to the letter both Roy’s freedom from prison and death, and his limitations to said freedom in the outside world. While Roy was not so bad a slouch at paperwork as he’d allowed his military reputation to reflect, he wasn’t going to fold the ace of having legislatively savvy backup when it came to his future dreams and goals. It was amazing how just the promise of a new life had rekindled Roy’s ambition to good health after little more than 48 hours of hearing an option B. Roy didn’t care for self-analysis, but he reckoned it might just be the shock of his sudden drastically improved life expectancy.
His new list of priorities could roughly be summarised as: getting good deals out of the bargain with Olivia for the inner circle of his former platoon, followed by how many privileges – on par with an average citizen – he could wring out of the negations. That left one last thing he couldn’t in good conscious ignore, until he had more facts.
This was why Roy had – through Breda – called in a favour with one of his former comrades. One who could dig where Fuery, Breda or Falman would fall under suspicion at this time. The media was trying to uncover anything about the Devil of Ishval – Roy thought the moniker accurate enough – and his close associates. Another asset was that Charlie worked fast and efficiently without leaving any trace, always had, even back in Ishval. All of these elements combined formed the reason why Roy had contacted him about the one matter he still needed to sort out, after hearing Olivia’s proposal.
If Charlie had discovered anything worth mentioning, he would have passed it on to one of Roy’s people by now. All the more reason to have high expectations of his weekly visitor.
When Roy was escorted into the visitation area, Breda sat casually slouched with an elbow propped up on the little table. The pair of them discussed everything from the weather, which was miserable, to Riza’s new pet. Their mundane conversation was designed to discourage the only other pair in the room from listening in. Not that Kimblee or his attorney seemed interested in matters other than their own. The pair of them were seated on the opposite side of the room, but one could never be too careful, especially around a known psychopath.
When they were as sure as they could be that Kimblee wasn’t listening in, Breda got down to business. “Sir, this is all dear old Charlotte could find on that kid you asked about.” Using Roy’s womanizer code to protect their associates was an old habit for his close comrades and one they upheld whenever they weren’t 100% sure of the security of their meeting place. From his inner jacket pocket, Breda fished out three birth certificates, a faded family picture of a young mother and two small children, and three newspaper articles in varying stages of age, as he extrapolated. “Single parent family, used to live in a small apartment in the eastern district of South City. Two kids: Edward, born in 1899 and Alphonse, a turn-of-the-century baby. Found hide nor hair of the father. No wedding or cohabitation contracts, no pictures nor personal items, except for an old journal and some alchemy books in storage under the Elric name.”
Roy nodded. An absent father wasn’t rare; the books on alchemy were a potentially relevant discovery, though. “You had a look at those books, I presume.”
“Alchemy wasn’t an Academy elective for me, Boss.” Breda grinned. “You know I know jack squat about that stuff. But there were a few clear beginners’ books, as well as the more advanced stuff, from what little I could tell.”
“Anything on obscure alchemic matters that the investigation overlooked in their rush to get a conviction?” Because the latest developments in politics and jurisdiction looked grim even for the common alchemist, whose understanding of the craft was more along the lines of an odd hobby. The government was taking its watchdog policies to new extremes – a most stifling climate for scientists. Regardless, in Elric’s case, there would have been a thorough investigation with careful evidence confiscation, prior to a closed hearing jury trial for such a young boy to end up in the maximum security prison in the same wing as former State Alchemists. The most vital pieces of their puzzle were most likely under lock and key in some stuffy state archive.
Breda shook his head. “Most professional investigators aren’t that incapable, you know, to miss such crucial clues. Even if certain MP’s sometimes make us think otherwise.” That last part was more grumbled to himself, so Roy ignored it. Breda didn’t need any prodding to get back to the original topic. “Lucky for us, your buddy Hughes has been working his way up the investigation chain and has access these days to more of the generally restricted cases. It wasn’t hard to get him to look into this one for you.”
Roy smiled fondly at how lucky he was with such loyal and skilled people watching his back and granting personal favours, even when his tally ran out.
Breda shifted on his chair. “But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. First, there’s something interesting about the family.”
Roy raised an eyebrow, surprised that that would need discussing over an A class offense.
“Nice folks, according to the neighbours. Never had much trouble with that family.” Bit hard for Roy to imagine the Little Hellion as ‘not much trouble’, but fair enough Edward didn’t strike Roy as a truly amoral brat either.
“The mother, Trisha Elric, worked part-time in a flower shop. A regular, decent citizen: all paper trails indicate she never set a foot outside South Area: no illegal alien, no smuggler or spy. Kids born at home, though she did wait long to get her kids a doctor check-up. They were three and two at the time. Other than that, no skeletons in her closet of any kind, except for the unknown father of her kids and it’s not like she was the only single parent in that city.” Roy picked up on the past tense use, but kept quiet. If it was relevant, Breda would get around to it in due time.
“All as normal as can be. Then, in autumn 1904 and Miss Elric up and disappears, leaving two boys of five and four alone. One of the neighbours – Sig Curtis – filed a missing person report with the local LEO’s on the boys’ behalf. Three weeks after that report was filed, this appeared in the South Area Post.” Breda sorted out the oldest newspaper clipping, from October 1904, and handed it over to Roy. The headline read: Body of missing woman, 26, found near South City channel. There was a small black and white portrait of Trisha Elric smiling at the camera in the middle of the text, but nothing about the article stood out.
Roy gave his former underling the ‘spill it’ look. “What else?”
Breda shrugged. “It’s just unusual. With a public investigation, not matter how minor and the paperwork involved, you’d think her kids would be herded into the system instead of slipping through the cracks, right? Except those boys were never placed into an orphanage, because it wasn’t necessary. The apartment they lived in? The bills for the apartment – rent, water, gas and electricity – never came in the mail, but the supply was never cut off either. Apparently Curtis volunteered to provide meals for the kids until they were old enough to do it themselves and that was the end of it.”
Roy scowled. “So what you are saying is that an ordinary woman disappears overnight, but her children’s material needs are all taken care of for years in advance?”
Breda nodded. “Those kids may have thought nothing of it, probably assumed Curtis took care of everything, not just the meals. Except he didn’t; swore to who inquired over the years that he didn’t have a clue who funded all those bills.” He grinned. “Fortunately, we’re good at this investigative business. As it turns out, Miss Elric set up a trust fund for those kids the day she signed the rental contract for the apartment they lived in.” A couple of papers detailing bank statements were turned over to Roy. “I don’t know about you, but if that’s the annual salary of florists these days I think I might make a career switch.”
Roy frowned. “It certainly is suspicious. Did you find nothing more on the matter?”
“You know how long it takes for banks to hand over a money trail that might stink, Chief. We’re trying to work around them. No success so far.”
Roy nodded, neither pleased nor all that surprised. “That leaves us with two very young, mostly unsupervised boys living on their own, until one of them is arrested, processed and dumped here. What about the other one?”
“Not seen after the summer of ’10.” Breda presented Roy with the next, even shorter, though indeed far more recent article from August 1910. There was no picture and only a few lines of text, which proclaimed that an alchemic accident had occurred in a certain residential block of South City’s eastern district, and that the culprit had been immediately detained and transported to the nearest hospital, where a formal arrest would take effect once the accused was stabilized and no longer hovering on death’s door.
Roy looked at his companion in disbelief. Even with anti-alchemic paranoia at a peak height, both at the time and on-going, it stretched the limits of credulity that a mere accident would land Edward in Complex A and could have his brother, Alphonse, vanishing without a trace. The final newspaper clipping from February ’11 – right around the time Ed was tossed into prison – yielded little in terms of new information. It simply proclaimed the sentencing of the oldest Elric to ‘death row turned lifetime in prison’ for violating the prohibition on human transmutation, along with a conviction for murder of the first degree. No details of any kind added.
Roy’s brow furrowed in thought. He needed more than this to work with. “Hughes didn’t happen to get a glance at the court papers too, did he?”
According to the files, Edward had admitted to nothing, but the facts found at the scene spoke for themselves and, from there, it wasn’t hard to draw certain logical conclusions. According to the initial police report, the closest neighbours had heard screaming and had seen the light of alchemic rebound flash past their windows – both signs impossible to miss in a crowed apartment building. Mr. Curtis had been the first person on the scene and had saved Ed from dying of blood loss. As such a key witness, Mr. Curtis had been called to testify at the kid’s trial. He was also the first person to claim that Alphonse Elric was dead.
“Edward didn’t deny his younger brother’s death at the trial.” Breda pointed at another page of the copies. “One of the local LEO’s arrived on the scene shortly before Edward was rushed to the hospital.” The given statement of the officer was that the boy wasn’t conscious for long and the only thing the police officer had been able to get out the kid was a mantra of ‘He’s not dead.’ “Of course, that was easily ruled out as shock. As I said, Edward didn’t deny Alphonse’s death at trial. But I talked to a few of those attending jury members. According to them, it sure looked like the kid wanted to object to the murder accusation, but kept his mouth shut.”
And that seemed even more out of character, from what Roy had witnessed of the boy’s abrasive behaviour in the past two months. If Edward had something to say, you could be sure he would spit it in your face instead of talking quietly behind your back.
“You suspect a cover-up, with the kid in the know about it.” Roy stated.
Breda nodded. “From what you’ve told me of him, I’d say so, yes, if it was possible.” A pause. “You’re the alchemy expert here, Colonel. Is it possible somehow?”
“For them both to have survived the rebound of human transmutation? It would be unprecedented.” Roy rubbed a hand across his face. “But even if both somehow survived, it doesn’t make sense to spirit one kid away and leave the other to face charges.” He leafed through the rest of the report. “Even if that neighbour, Curtis, was in on it, there still didn’t seem to be enough time to perform first aid on probably two mutilated kids – on the astronomically slim chance both survived – and get one out of the immediate area and still be within the apartment with the second child when the police showed up. The response time was too fast to allow that. That means that, unless we’re looking at some new form of chimeric alchemy or a similar branch of the art…”
Breda harrumphed. “That Alphonse is really just another victim of fatal alchemic experiments.” He concluded soberly. “Too bad. Such a very young kid.”
Roy smiled at him, even if the whole affair left a sour taste in his mouth. “Admit it, Breda, you liked the potential mystery.”
His comrade nodded and stood, their allotted timeslot was running out anyway. “That too.” He grabbed his hat and made to leave. “Hey, Boss, there was one more thing Hughes wanted you to know.”
Roy waved him off. “I know, I owe him big for this.”
Breda laughed. “Perhaps but he said to give you tell you this: if you manage get the kid out,” Hughes knew him too well, “and Curtis doesn’t take him, Maes and Gracia volunteer.”
With those parting words, Roy was escorted back to his cell. He’d been given a lot of intel to ponder. There was still the oddity with the boys’ unknown benefactor. The disappearance and most likely death of Alphonse Elric could be neatly explained away, but the tiny details kept nagging at Roy. To know for sure, he would need to go to the source. However, the chances of the midget confiding in him were hardly within the realm of possibilities. But Roy could play smart. Given how Edward reacted to taunts about his mother... Roy smirked. Kids were easy to manipulate and his new ploy just might work.
Sunday, April 15 1911, 01:11 – Central Prison – Complex A
Ed took a deep breath, counting down the minutes in his head. All other inmates on their block had been asleep for at least an hour after the latest cell sweep, Ed judged by their slow breathing patterns. There was an interval of about three hours before the guards performed the next check, leaving him now with two spare hours. With the up-kept regimen of interrupted sleep, the former alchemists quickly learned to doze off in ten minutes, tops.
His plan had been difficult to communicate, but both Ed and Crichton were masters of code. Just a few more minutes now, if Crichton held up his end of the deal, and then Ed could stop wasting time in this rat hole and go out there into the wide world to get Al’s body back. He could all but taste the exhilaration of freedom already.
As a teen travelling without a permit from Creta, Ashley Crichton had upon apprehension for petty theft – at age sixteen and with no family to speak of – kept his interest in and gradual mastery of the art of alchemy concealed from his captors, and as a result been shipped into the less monitored general ward, along with the other caught illegal aliens trying to set up shop in Central. Ed had a running theory that the increase of underage illegal aliens could be attributed to all the violent conflicts Amestris instigated, leaving more war orphans to make their own way in the world. Al had expanded that hypothesis by adding that these urchins might more easily adapt to their new surrounding in Amestris than the older generation and be perceived as less of a threat. Thus they might successfully blend in as potential spies, should Amestris’ neighbours adopt so amoral a policy as to use those children. Regardless of the underlying reason, held in lower risk zone, Ashley was at liberty to draw transmutation circles of his own blood, whereas Ed’s own hands were stocked to prevent just such a scenario. Ed and Ashley’s covert sharing of information during Ed’s exercise walks – disguised as ribbing back and forth over Crichton’s girly name and Ed’s lack of stature – revealed that Crichton wanted to stick around in prison, at least until he could get certain information out of the former State Alchemists. Without either party revealing too much, a coalition of sorts was struck. Ashley, who wanted to know more about the Gate of Truth, would break out and come and free Ed during his escape. Once they were free, the pair would pool knowledge regarding leads on the Philosopher’s Stone, which was Ed’s goal in restoring his little brother.
The minutes ticking by stretched on endlessly. Adrenaline rushed through Ed’s body. Soon, very soon now… Rustling of sheets from the cell to his left jarred his attention back to the present. He growled in agitation. Not that it really made a difference if Mustang was already awake, he supposed. Crichton would hardly be silent about his escape, so most of this bunch would be awake anyway when Ed waved them goodbye. It might actually be nice to get a good look at their faces when he did. Ed grinned. It was their loss that the pompous pricks kept underestimating him.
“Oi, Ed.” The whisper startled him and he cursed out loud. What could the bastard possibly want with him, especially at this hour?
“Shut it, Mustang. I’m trying to sleep here.”
His neighbour snorted. He wasn’t that bad at lying, was he? Now, Al, he didn’t have a crooked bone in his body, but Ed thought he’d put enough irritation into his last statement to sound genuine. Apparently, the Flame Alchemist just didn’t buy it. “Sure, you are. Don’t worry then, I’ll keep it short.”
Ed snarled. “Who are you calling-”
Mustang shushed him sharply. “Do you want to wake everyone up?”
Ed shrugged on reflex, not that the man could see the nonverbal gesture. “Why not? Then you lot can all be cranky in the morning together. What ruins your day makes mine.”
Mustang sighed like a man who’s at the end of his rope. Ed smirked. ‘Mission accomplished.’ Until the man spoke up. “Look, Ed, we both know you’re not the dangerous criminal persona you’re trying to uphold to keep both the guards and the sleazier types during yard time at bay.”
Ed bristled. Was the man trying to psychoanalyse him? Ed had laughed in the face of the few counsellors that had been sent his way since he ended up in this mess. They quickly learned they would get nothing from him. And here this guy, a man facing trial for bloody genocide, thought he was so much better than all of them? Ed resolved to shove his own escape in Mustang’s face right then and there, just to get the insufferable dick to shut up.
However, Mustang was quicker and his question – tone suddenly dead serious and commanding – caught Ed completely off guard. “In August 1910, what really happened to your little brother Alphonse?”
Monday, August 15, 1910, 01:03 – South City – Eastern District – The Elrics’ apartment
The eleven-year old boy forgot to breathe, staring in a combination of denial, horror and guilt. He had been squinting through the semi-darkness of the spare-room-turned-study, looking for anything of use to fix this somehow. The thought pounded in his head in time with his racing heartbeat, which pumped more blood out of his stump. Too much, he knew, but not nearly as awful as the – from what he could see, couldn’t look away – almost 3 out of the total 5.3 liters of blood spilling freely out of the Thing, which should have – been perfect – contained it. Ed’s focus had lingered on the only other moving, living thing in the room – in their whole small apartment – at the result of what should have been their best transmutation ever. Try as he might, he could not tear his eyes away from the not-Mom, part-Al Thing. But he needed to keep looking; needed to keep searching for a way to fix Alphonse.
Charged static lingered in the air even now that most of the discharged energy had dissolved, making Ed’s hair stand on and skin prickle. Not that such a small matter was really all that noticeable beyond the waves of agony rolling through his nerves from where his left leg used to continue beyond his knee. He couldn’t freak out over how that had happened either, not when Al was – like that.
The light bulbs had shattered; the only illumination in the sudden darkness was the night-time illumination on the block, which shone in through the tiny study’s now-blown-out window.
The arms and single leg that kept Ed from slumping to the ground shook with strain, his small body growing increasingly weaker from the combination of barely contained panic, oncoming shock and continued blood loss. His heart beat a rapid rhythm that almost hurt in his chest and the rush of blood in his ears managed to drown out most other sound.
Except for the thumping of that other heart; unblocked by the ribcage, the muscles and skin that should wrap around it protectively, so unnaturally loud it overpowered all other sound. Its beat was irregular, spiking and faltering without pattern. Then there was the wet wheeze of lungs trying to suck in air and drowning in blood instead. Flesh hitting flesh as not-Mom-not-Al, because that – that Thing couldn’t possibly be their mom, nor his little brother, tried to move more than a twitch and failed. Then, with a wilder flail, too thin nails – not enough calcium – were scraping, breaking on bare hardwood, where the thin carpet had been removed to form the centre of a chalk circle now stained liquid red, from where pints of blood dripped, ran and squirted over the edge of the ingredient basin.
All the liquid-covered intestines caught and reflected the meagre light in the cramped room, and then two eyeballs, stuck in a head that was fortunately whole, but with more red liquid still pouring from all natural holes, focused on him. Ed wanted to scream, to crawl away or even just to blink – shut the horrible image out for a millisecond. Then he heard it again, as the Thing found enough oxygen to speak once more in a wet, choking rasp of damaged vocal cords, squeezed from struggling lungs. “Bro-ther.”
Ed finally unfroze, only to curse. Damn, he hadn’t imagined it earlier! ‘Al.’ Somehow the disfigured not-Mom thing really was part-Alphonse. ‘How is that even possible? No, wait, just now, in that Gate.’ The knowledge he needed, out of all the information that had been poured, pounded, sloshed into his brain…
‘The mind, body and soul are all linked.’ Ed only lost his leg to that – Truth, with its disturbing smile and the Gate. ‘But Al, he was taken whole. Body, mind and soul. All elements are connected.’ Except now, somehow, Al was over there in that monstrous, that dying thing. Ed wasn’t alone, he had Al back. The thing in the circle already had all ingredients for the body and mind to form, which meant… That Al’s soul was stuck in the pitiful not-human thing that was dying.
“Al,” a breath, a sob, a curse, and Ed didn’t know what to do!
The not-Mom, part-Al Thing twitched, neck tilting, organs still a pulsing, leaking mess. “Hurt-s.” Drawn out, difficult to form the word, a pain to try and breathe. Eyes that flickered with recognition, and then shut as mangled breath hitched and cut off. The spiking heart slowed down again, further and further. Then it stopped, even as more blood dripped and spilled.
“Al?” Ed needed to move, to figure out how to make this better. His arms finally gave out, but it didn’t matter. He only needed to think, like he had been trying before. Not panic, but think. ‘Come back, don’t leave me. Please, anyone…’ “ALPHONSE!” ‘Think, damnit!’ Was there enough blood left in his brain to think? He was feeling light headed, couldn’t focus.
A sudden boom heralded another sign of life, startling some alertness back into his quitting body, as the front door was kicked in and more light spilled in. It was Mr. Curtis from next door. The big softie, who ever since Mom died gave him and Al burgers and steak and sausage – and some vegetables, because growing boys needed vegetables – for dinner. And Ed was now really never ever going to get his mom back and Al…
Then Mr. Curtis was next to him, ripping cloth for a tourniquet to stop Ed’s bleeding. Not that any of that mattered to Ed, except Mr. Curtis was trying to take him away, clearly alarmed and angry. Even though Ed wanted to leave this place and never come back, he needed to stay. Remain right there until he figured it out how to get Al back. Not whole, he didn’t have enough to offer, even if he gave all of himself. Just a part then, the most important part that made Al unique and human: the soul.
Ed knew the theory, now, having seen most of the Truth. He could use his own blood, there was plenty lying around just waiting to be used. But what to bind Al’s soul to? There were only some books in the room and broken glass and in the other rooms there was the furniture, but nothing remotely useful for a successful soul-binding, where the alchemist could anchor the soul in an inanimate metal object through the iron in the blood rune.
He couldn’t fight Mr. Curtis off. The man was huge and Ed was just not damned tall enough and all strength had left his limbs, he wouldn’t even be sitting upright if the big man hadn’t been holding him up. Black fuzzy spots danced across his vision. He was running out of time.
‘Wait a minute.’ If he was going to use his blood anyway... Ed’s still shaking hands clenched. “Wait,” It came out as a croak, but it got Curtis’s attention. “I can get Al back. Just,” He blinked again. ‘Damned black spots!’ “Give me one minute.”
Ed lifted his shirt, daubing his fingers in the blood seeping through his makeshift bandage. Willed his hands to steady and draw the needed sigils. It was almost simple, now that he knew. Use the medium of blood to call to blood alike; to bind and sustain the flare of life – the incalculable element – that was Al’s very soul. A circle over his heart to call Al’s soul from wherever it had gone next to his own body. Another formula on his forehead to act as the link from his mind to Al’s, which was still somewhere with the Truth. Finally, more circles as insurance over his arms, because no way was he going to pull this off without more toll. Which didn’t matter, as long as this transmutation worked the way it was intended. He only had one shot at it.
He pleaded with Mr. Curtis to put him down, just for a minute, just long enough, so Ed didn’t accidentally draw the nice man with him in the deconstruction, to the Gate and the Truth of the world. No time to search for more chalk in the disarray of the previous attempt, no space in the room left for the final human transmutation circle to be drawn either. Screw it, Ed could be his own circle. He slapped his hands together and stood back before the Gate and its eerie, intimidating guardian with the huge smile and his own leg. Ed was beyond caring, just got in the weird thing’s blank face and bartered for Al’s soul.
Sunday, April 15 1911, 01:16 – Central Prison – Complex A
A loud booming sound shook the sturdy walls of the prison block and had their eardrums ringing from the aftershock that passed through the building, effectively waking everyone and startling Edward out of his frozen trance.
“Mind your own damn business, Mustang! You hear that?” He waved an arm at the far wall theatrically. It wasn’t like any of them could have missed the tremor.
Kimblee spoke, his voice, carrying, despite the ruckus outside and the general confusion being vocalized inside. “Ah, a magnificent explosion of reinforced concrete at close range. Sounds like some artist is staging a breakout.” That caused quite the uproar among the others, who were desperate to use the situation as a diversion to escape themselves.
Roy frowned at that. The blast had not been in their wing, but farther off. More from the direction of general ward. Then Edward was suddenly as close to Roy as the kid could get with a wall and bars still separating them. “You think you’re so superior, don’t you, Mustang? Well, let me tell you: that explosion is my ticket out of here. Now, who’s clever?” The kid sounded triumphant. So sure of himself, so utterly confident that nothing could harm him now.
Time to change that. After all, Roy couldn’t have the boy try to escape on some hare-brained scheme, a fugitive ever after, if he somehow managed to pull it off without getting himself killed in the process. Roy wasn’t going to allow that when he might be able to spring Edward legally, once he confirmed the boy’s character. Child or not, Roy wasn’t about to let someone accused of murder roam free, if it was true.
“You do realize that if you just break out of here without a solid plan, you’ll be hunted nationwide as a top priority security risk until you’re caught again and put into a straitjacket and diapers for the rest of your time here. That was life, wasn’t it? My, what a pleasant outlook.” Roy let sarcasm bleed into his words, but talked fast, so the impatient imp would at least have to hear him out before he could protest. “That is, if they don’t just shoot you on sight, before you even reach the gates. Now, does that truly sound like a risk worth taking to you, if there is a safer alternative?” He let his voice drop further, so the boy had to strain to hear him over the mounting cacophony of blaring sirens in the courtyard and laced his tone with urgency. “A perfectly legal alternative, I might add. I could get you out with a blank slate, within the next few months, even.”
Ed didn’t sound impressed as he paced his cell restlessly, awaiting the arrival of his conspirator. “I think you’re being very optimistic for a guy who, according to all rumours, will be dead by that time. Funny how people frown upon genocide after the fact, isn’t it, Mustang?”
Roy wasn’t going to explain himself and the atrocities of the Civil War to a snot-nosed brat, who was only trying to divert the subject, while on the edge of making the mistake of a lifetime. “What you don’t know is that I still have excellent connections thanks to my reputation. You should know it’s all about connections among adults – you yourself make buddies with people from the other wards often enough for a chance at being passed small treats or bits of information. How you pull it off in front of the guards is quite competent.” There, treat him like and equal of sorts, thrown in a little praise and he had the kid’s attention. It was so very easy. “You ever heard of the Strong Arm Alchemist? He got out some time before you even got in. Just because he knew the right people.”
Roy’s manipulation should have gone smooth, except his words didn’t have the intended effect. “Spare your breath.” The brat outright dismissed him, just like that. “I have all the connections I need. ‘My buddy’, as you put it, is getting me out. And I have great prospects after that, so you can just shove your deal.” Another explosion, much closer this time rocked the building. As if it had been a signal, Edward’s pacing stopped and for a moment Roy couldn’t make out anything over commotion being raised by his fellow inmates and the blaring alarm.
Then a teenager in prison garb barged through the door at the end of the hallway. “Elric, where are you?” Edward waved the other teen down like he was particularly eager to flag a taxi. Another transmutation, much smaller this time, sang through the air and then Edward was out of his cell, like the barred door had never been locked to begin with. The uproar swelled, bringing the first of the out of breath guards with it, while Edward’s stocks clattered to the floor, the wood slowly disintegrating.
“Freeze.” The guards opened fire without further warning. Shoot to kill orders then. Roy feared for the foolish kids’ lives. Then Edward clapped, slammed his hands to the floor and new walls rose to cut off the guards’ approach from both sides of the hallway. Without a transmutation circle, quick as thought, like such an advanced transmutation was mere child’s play. Then he jerked a thumb over his shoulder and turned to Crichton. “That’s an external wall, but we’re not even close to ground floor and I can only stretch a supporting wall so much without risking structural integrity. You got any ideas?”
Ashley didn’t comment. Activating the transmutation circle on his left hand, he simply blasted the indicated wall with what Roy judged to be a highly concentrated lightning charge. The voltage had to feed enough power into the double reinforced concrete to affect the molecular level, yet the radius was contained to Ed’s empty cell.
Ed’s smile was sharp. “Show-off. I could have done a little reshaping much faster.”
It seemed like Crichton wasn’t fond of banter. “Hurry it up, brat.” The other circle activated and worked with the snow and moisture already present in the air to form a large slide of sorts, stretching from the gaping hole in the wall to the ground on the outside of the towering prison enclosure. “I won’t let you die before I collect my due information.”
Edward sighed, waving a hand lazily, until the patrol on the surrounding walls opened fire on the ice structure. Then he reshaped part of his automail arm plating into a crude shield that could ricochet the bullet spray.
Roy cursed his own inability to prevent this whole situation from spiralling further out of control. “Damnit, Elric. The second I’m out of here a free man, I’ll come string you up and drag your tiny ass to safety, before someone else finds you and puts a bullet throw that impossible thick skull of yours.”
Edward gave him one last, calculating glance, just a hint of softness in his eyes. “You can try if you like. I know Crichton’s price in exchange for our freedom, I can’t be sure of yours. I’ll take my chances for now, thanks.” Then the impossible child went and took the slide towards fleeting freedom, the slide dissolving behind Ashley who followed the cover of Edward’s shielding, bullets whizzing past their ears all the way down. The red alert continued to wail impotently.
Chapter 4: What happens in Xing Town...
Wednesday, April 07 1916, 21:05 Central City – Regent’s Park
“You know, Boss.” Jean paused to light up another cigarette. “Normally, right about now, all of us could have been at Riza’s party. I would have scored a hot date.” He hid a grimace at his latest track record of dates with a deep inhale of nicotine. “Or at least been getting pissed drunk. This better be good.”
Of course, Jean knew it would be. Mustang wouldn’t have made them all cancel on Riza for less than necessity. But the ribbing worked to get some agitation and nerves out of his system. Though Jean claimed pride in his field proficiency, after normal working hours he still preferred an uncomfortable desk chair to the cold, damp wooden park bench that would render his butt numb before the off-the-record meeting was completed.
“Haven’t you been complaining about too much desk work, Havoc?” Mustang asked rhetorically. “I’m getting tired of the petty griping,” It never failed to impress Jean how many layers of different meanings his boss could lay into a single, at face value ordinary sentence. “So you’ll leave on a retrieval mission at first light.” Oh, this was going to be really good then. Now Jean just needed to see how all the puzzle pieces fit together, but then that was what this outing had been designed for.
In order to keep the Director out of the loop for the first crucial hours of the investigation – trying for any longer was an exercise in naive delusion – Mustang had opted to hold the first team debriefing away from I.A.’s big ears and on neutral ground. A security risk in and of itself, but one the boss seemed willing to take for once.
Hence, Roy just happened to pass the park as he went out of his way to buy the newspaper evening edition from the street vendor at the southwest park entrance.
Jean liked to stretch his legs after a busy day, especially one as stressful as the latest developments were shaping this one to be. And what better place to unwind than the slowly emptying park?
Everyone within their department knew that, when she could spare the time, Riza preferred to walk Black Hayate in the park during the evenings. Of course she halted to civilly greet her co-workers once she bumped into Jean and their boss.
From there it could almost be construed as coincidence that Breda’s favourite hotdog stand was stationed not too far away from the newspaper man. Hughes joined them within twenty minutes, after having rushed home to see to it that his wife and daughter were at least safe and sound and to give Gracia some emergency instructions. If he and Mustang normally would meet up inside a café, well, then, it only made sense to disrupt that routine now.
With the direct subordinates gathered ‘round the now crowded park bench – either sitting, shuffling as far away from the dog while still within hearing range or simply leaning close – Mustang briefed them on their progress.
“There are some angles to our new priority case that you should all be made aware of. Normally, the higher-ups and I would have wanted to avoid this step, but the circumstances are changing.”
Jean connected the unspoken dots, but Breda beat him to the punch line. “This case touches upon a Covert Op.”
His boss gave him a look of approval at the quick thinking. “It does. First, however, I want to hear what everyone has dug up so far. Whether the information was gathered on the need to know side of the field,” Jean wasn’t all that surprised when the boss deliberately glanced at Riza. Jean knew of her past involvement in at least two off the record jobs. That Mustang next looked at Hughes was hardly unexpected. Maes and Riza were the closest to the boss out of the lot of them, they were practically his family. “Or otherwise.”
Jean looked at his buddy with a feeling of commiseration. At least Breda had been operating in the dark too. Jean would have felt just a little hurt and a lot like the odd man out otherwise. He knew he was being unreasonable. Jean fully comprehended the importance of need to know cases, with the sometimes sensitive field ops he himself was regularly sent on. Still, this was different; this was something that somehow involved their team directly. No use dwelling on it, but as if was he hardly had collected enough relevant information to get the ball rolling. Fortunately, Breda was willing to help out in that department.
“I suppose, having been the first on the scene, we should start with initial observations. Feel free to interrupt with your more informed interpretation any time.” The last bit was neutrally directed at Riza, who only nodded in reply. “By the time we arrived at the scene, an ambulance was already gearing up to transport Miss Chang, the only survivor to the hospital. Clearly, someone had made the call before our arrival. I highly doubt any of Chang’s own people did so; they seem like a close-knit group, suspicious of outsiders. Those few people who agreed to speak to us of course had neither seen nor heard anything. Any potential witnesses on their part are a dead end.” Breda’s tone at the last part was saturated with disgruntled sarcasm.
The chief nodded. “The clans prefer to deal with any of their own internally, in accordance with their traditions. These include healing, homicide and cooperation with our domestic authorities. Whoever alerted the hospital, it had to have been an outsider. This also implies they were either skilled enough to avoid being thrown out of clan restricted territory, or more likely, tolerated there.”
Jean flicked the butt of his cigarette away. “Isn’t that a rare thing? Those Xingese immigrants strike me as a bunch of paranoia stiffs.”
Mustang continued without acknowledging or denying the slight. “It’s true that not many people can boast clan protection. Additionally, the nearest phone booth would be the central market square. The caller would have to have witnessed the crime first hand, been allowed to escape by the clans and then run to make the call. This, combined with DNA found on the scene, leads us to suspect Edward Elric. Miss Chang gave us a preliminary witness statement, but we’ll have to cross-reference her testimonial of events with Edward’s.”
Jean had followed the boss’s logic up until the part where the Elric name popped up. He turned his bewilderment on Hughes. “What on earth does your brat-through-paperwork want with the Xingese on their private turf? Doesn’t sound like he just got lost to me.”
Hughes looked offended by Jean’s implication, but someone had to say it.
Breda piped up to diffuse the mounting tension, addressing all three agents in the know. “This wouldn’t have anything to do with what you had me look into in 1910 and the Alchemist Restriction Act?”
Riza cleared her throat. “Accurately observed. I’ll be frank about my own semi-involvement in our current situation. For the past few years, about a year since the start-up of our agency, I have been partnering up on scouting missions. The parameters were intelligence, recruitment and detainment. These errands took us mostly to the west and south in order to prevent new altercations in the border towns.” Her tone was neutral – slipping into military mode again, Jean recognised – as she gave a concise summary.
Briefly fooled, Jean jumped to the most obvious conclusion, momentarily derailed by the apparent change of subject. “Cut us some slack next time, Chief. Here we all are worried that you’re so uptight because you’re seeing less of Hawkeye, when you’re really seeing her more than anyone else?”
Breda nudged Jean. “That wouldn’t work if the boss’s every move is still watched. Unless you got rid of both the watchdogs and your impairment without informing us?” That was directed straight at Roy, who scowled and twisted his left hand around his right wrist. Long sleeves, a thick coat and his signature gloves effective hid the State’s detaining wristbands from sight.
Oh, the reorganised R&D department had been obliged to modify Mustang’s cuffs, giving him some measure of leeway. Even those morons set on castrating the alchemy out of anyone ‘not approved’, especially with the State Alchemist programme disbanded, realised that completely crippling Amestris’ only fire oriented alchemist could come to bite them in the ass one day, given all the lethal situations Amestris still faced internally and at its borders. Thus, Roy could still cause some severe burns on an enemy or roast a man’s eyeballs or their tongue. But he would be hard pressed to lethally injure one person, let alone a dozen or more. With the state’s failsafe in place, another Ishbal wouldn’t happen without explicit sanction from the entire democracy. Or rather from said democracy’s conservative representatives.
Riza got them back on track with a sharp look. “My partner on these cases is the one competent alchemist, who purely by chance manages to fool the State’s alchemic dampening system, and whom I trust to enough to cooperate and follow my lead. Breda was correct in his earlier conclusions.” Riza favoured at the man in question with an upward twists of her lips. “Your assessment is valid. Both you and Jean have even met this person on a few occasions. He is Alphonse Elric, except the two of you just know him as Edward.”
That gave both Jean and even fast on the uptake Breda pause. Jean was the first to object. “Hang on a sec. That doesn’t add up in so many ways.”
Hughes shared a long look with Mustang and cleared his throat. “I think I should explain, before we proceed on our findings of today. You see-” He cut himself off suddenly and tensed, hand reaching his hidden throw knife at the same time as Black Hayate’s ears perked up. The entire team readied themselves as the dog’s hackles rose.
Two slim figures emerged slowly from the falling night and joined the gathering. The one in lead position didn’t even need to flash his Central Intelligence ID for them to recognise him. Dressed in an immaculate white suit, Solf Kimblee tipped his fedora to them.
“Oh, please, don’t stop on our account. The Bureau is most eager to hear more about this matter. So, interested are we in fact, that we are proposing a liaison on this particular case.” Kimblee’s smile, though sincere, was sharp enough to cut glace.
Hughes had stiffened and looked ready to skewer the former Red Lotus Alchemist at the first wrong move. Riza was still calm and collected, one of her guns held loosely at her side. Breda on the other hand, seemed to be the only person who focussed more of his attention on Kimblee’s attachée. Personally, Jean wouldn’t mind knocking that superior expression off Kimblee’s mug and couldn’t be bothered observing the ass’s sidekick for longer than a split second. While aware of his potential mistake, Jean preferred to keep his eye on the sociopath he knew to be a treacherous, backstabbing bastard and take his chances with the at first glance harmless looking unknown.
The boss seemed unaffected by Kimblee proposal annex threat. “While I’m flattered you think so highly of me in chain of command, such requests should be presented to Director Armstrong. It is a matter that goes beyond my meagre jurisdiction.”
Kimblee didn’t even bat an eyelid, an ominous sign. “Ah, Flame, surely you don’t think me such a simpleton? I made sure to obtain your director’s approval prior to this friendly get-together.” The mood took a turn awards grim on Team Mustang’s side. Kimblee wasn’t done rubbing salt in the freshly sit wound yet. “She has also promised me her employees’ full cooperation.” He paused, expectant. “I see you’ve got a better poker face since the war. Never worry, Mustang, you won’t have to work with me.”
Now the attention shift towards Kimblee’s partner was collective. Kimblee adjusted the cuffs of his suit. “Gentlemen and lady, as you’ve so brilliantly deduced, this skilled young lady will be CIA’s liaison for this mission. Don’t let her age deceive you; Miss Rockbell is this year’s most skilled of our new sworn in. For the moment, her priority lies in discretely apprehending and safely returning Edward Elric for questioning. You might want to reconsider any qualms you had about this arrangement.”
The boss wasn’t convinced, but slightly more inclined towards negotiation. “Because you claim our interest to be aligned?”
Kimblee shrugged. “Perhaps so. However, you are operating under outdated orders, Mustang.”
Mustang’s bearing shifted subtly from defensive to offensive. “Do enlighten me.”
Kimblee adopted an air of mock disappointment. “Shouldn’t you of all people know better than to try and work around the Ice Queen? Clearly she hasn’t kept you on a short enough leash, for you to forget your quite insignificant place in the grander scheme of politics.”
The Red Lotus Alchemist took in Team Mustang’s apprehensive stance and directed most of his attention to the young woman at his side. “And that, my dear, is how you play an uncooperative audience to get their undivided attention.”
He raised his hands in mock applause, when a distant booming sound scattered the oppressive silence. “My, that does sound like an excellent distraction, if our snitch was correct. If you’ll excuse me, I think I shall look into the cause. It is after all my specialty.” With another tip of his wide brimmed hat, Kimblee turned and started walking.
“Thank you all for your cooperation. Please remember that as our liaison, Miss Rockbells only has to answer to your director, Mustang, and none other.” So confident was Kimblee of his superior position that he showed them only his back as he slid in the none-too-subtle warning. “I must take my leave and let you fill Miss Rockbell in on any pertinent details regarding the Elric case for a speedy rescue.”
Hughes spared Mustang from having to call after the man. “Oi, Kimblee, what are you on about a ‘rescue’?”
Kimblee’s normally dull eyes flickered briefly with a small measure of cold amusement as he looked back over his shoulder. “Ah, yes, none of you would have heard yet, would you? Director Armstrong feels strongly about potential traitors in her own troops. The one sent out to retrieve Elric won’t be one of your trusted pawns, Mustang. I believe the Director delegated that assignment in your team’s absence to one of those Ishvalans she likes to keep around. They are not exactly known for bringing many rogues in alive now, are they?” Kimblee waved a hand farewell at them as he walked under the next lamppost, the sleeve of his suit slipping back to reveal his bare wrist as he sauntered back into the falling night.
Illustration by seta-suzume @ LJ - find the original post of artworks here
Wednesday, April 07, 18:31 – Central City – Eastern District – Xing Town – West End
To any Amestrian who didn’t harbour the immigrated Xingese outward hostility or ill will, the markets and boutiques that formed the hotspot of Xing Town were a real treat to visit. Lively music played on busy squares. You couldn’t walk fifteen yards on the main streets without encountering some exotic food stall - the tiny dishes still sizzling to attract the random passer-by – and the sweet, strong aroma of spices used and sold drifted on the air currents all day and most of the night. To complete the experience, a fair number of merchants liked to dress up in traditional garb to draw the eye of potential customers – Central City folk and tourists alike.
Overall, the commercial front was a peaceful affair. Any Amestrian troublemaker, who wasn’t just a harmless drunk, would be escorted to the edge of the district with minimal fuss – the benefit of having swords, daggers, bombs and who knew what else on hand – by the local neighbourhood watchmen. If the one stirring up unrest was one of their own, that person would be led before his or her clan leader to be straightened out.
Fair enough, tension ran high between the more important clans, but those affairs were mostly kept to their own turf, as much away from the prying eyes of the ignorant city natives as was manageable. In those areas, very tensions and daggers sparked as they clashed in the evening and during the night. Clan symbols were worn liberally by inhabitants and their permanent visitors to stake their right to walk certain back alleys without finding a dagger at their throat two steps in, as well as flaunt the protection of certain clans for all watchdogs to observe.
Normally, no Amestrian except for nosy police forces, who didn’t know when not to meddle in foreign affairs, or people walking the darker paths of life, roamed those areas. Still, rumors of the clans’ supposed brutality spread as they were wont to do. A bad reputation was easily cultivated from there on out. Better that the ignorant Amestrians feared yet respected the clans, than take up arms of mass destruction and try to eliminate the foreigners through genocide. If nothing else, it cautioned the sensible civilians to keep to the impressive commercial hub of Xing Town. Just around the block from the main road you might find, if you knew where to look, the smallest specialty shops that catered exclusively to their own, except for those wealthy few who had experience in matters conducted under-the-counter.
The majority of the regular shops had closed down for the day, but the food stalls and restaurants were just catching the first wave of night time patrons. Conversation and music flared out into the street whenever their doors opened for new clientele, but not even the appetising waft of grilled fish and meat slowed down one lonesome fair haired youth. He strode past the activity in a sightless rush and took to the off-limits back alleys of Xing Town with a determined step that pointed to either utter disregard of danger to his person, familiarity with the territory, or both.
Edward tugged a Xingese lion charm – to the clans a symbol of protection from the Yao Clan specifically, and a sign of auspiciousness in general – on a leather string out from under his black shirt to bounce on his chest, over his heart, as he continued his trek into perilous territory. The metal of the charm caught the light of the sunset while he jogged on, as he knew it would. After all, it wouldn’t do to be gutted on Lin’s doorstep, just for neglecting to claim sanctuary before one of the two guards shadowing him decided to take more lethal pre-emptive action.
Edward’s detour to the market square outside Xing Town and then the long way back in through the tourist catering Fuujin main street and ‘round the back into Yao territory, while avoiding Chang turf and all the attention it might by now have garnered from Amestris’ prime – and also local, less stellar – investigative forces.
A squeaking sound from his right hand caused Ed to briefly divert his attention. Poking out from between a dark leather gloved fist was a tiny, furry head with teeth. The blasted evil panda was still clamping down on his automail thumb with vigour. “You must be even more stupid than I thought: you can chew all you want, it’s never going to hurt.”
He should have just left the simple, tiny mammal to be gobbled up by the chimeras that took down Dorchette before a proper fight could even break out, once the main beast was death and just run for it sooner. Ed was confident the snake woman would have followed him; after all he seemed to be their target, May and her tiny entourage just unlucky bystanders. Wrong time, wrong place. Except there had been no guarantee the mini-panda’s death would have been safe on its own. Should the little pest of a wild mammal turned pet get lost or murdered by a cranky alley cat, then that would have left May even more heart broken than the demise of a guard she valued as a person and… And what was he even doing getting involved in all this shit?
Ed wanted answers. Find out why someone had sent a bunch of chimeras – the successfully created human chimera had been a shocker, both to him and the beangirl – after him. He wasn’t all that special or important. Nor was Al, not really. Not in the grander scheme of things. Certainly not in the way you would expect when talking hit jobs and kidnapping attempts. Ed also, quite desperately wanted to figure out exactly what about their latest Alkahestry attempt during said skirmish had caused Al’s soul anchor to go haywire. May would probably work up a new theory about Al’s seal and the xue-qi she was convinced had been an elemental part of the alchemy Ed had used to forge the bond.
This prediction meant he needed to go knock on Lin’s door for the information. Likely none other in Xing Town but the Yao clan leader would be willing first and foremost and able to help them besides. Ed needed all the facts he could possibly get on who had orchestrated that chimera attack, it had been too methodical. From what brief exchange he’d had with the snake chimera, she didn’t look like the type on a personal vendetta. Which meant someone else was pulling the strings and Ed wanted to be the one of beat the crap out of whatever new bad in town was behind it. That information he could under other circumstances easily get if ACIS were to assign him and Riza the case. This time there was a guarantee they wouldn’t, due to his close involvement. They’d focus on his own pesky personal details that didn’t matter and would lose the trail in doing so. He’d be lucky if they didn’t lock him up for some time for good measure. No way could he let that happen.
The shadow of a third guard flitted even closer from the roof of the low building on his left. In reaction, different alchemic circles took shape in his mind – all the right essential principles, angles and elemental runes for protection and counterattack. The instinctive urge to craft a weapon grew, until the perfect array hummed in his mind. As a precaution, Ed dropped the squirming, hostile panda into his wide jacket pocket, so his hands were free. His fingers touched to form the circle on physical plane in preparation to fight back, without his conscious command even as he ran on, ready to whirl around and lay in to his pursuers with a vengeance.
A shock of overriding pain from his left wrist and right ankle disrupted his intense focus on the mathematical equation. Ed cursed his own distracted oversight and the State’s paranoiac disciplinary measures. ‘Damn those backwards weaklings and their idiotic contraptions.’
Resignation bubbled from a special corner of his mind to cool his temper. Along with that emotion came the cherished, though often annoying, voice only he could hear, echoing through his head. -‘Either use Alkahestry or let me fight, Ed.’- Still twitching muscled tensed up again keenly.
“And let you have all the fun again? I don’t think so.” Ed might grumble, but he was more relieved than anything that Al had quickly regained consciousness. Now they just had to figure out what had messed things up in the first place. A flash of memory, related to the ones Ed had been grasping at moments before, overrode his disquiet. It was a slightly older recollection Ed felt only distantly familiar with. He recalled May talking animatedly to Alphonse about the Dragon’s Pulse. The fundament of Alkahestry could provide a possible method to disrupt – theoretically without too much bodily and mental risk - the disabling State devices that confined most of his alchemy. It could be a notionally effective way to ultimately render the monitoring, disciplinary ankle- and wristbands useless.
That was his and Al’s most immediate objective, as it would give Ed that much more leeway in the practical application of alchemy in everyday life and self-defence – a promise of real freedom after all these restrictions. In the long-term state of things, it paved the way for a true fix to Al’s situation, should the Purification Arts turn out to be the nth false lead. But it would all be futile, if Ed couldn’t find out, fast, how this damned Dragon’s Pulse had fucked up the soul bond and undo it. He could only hope that his very limited – almost useless – knowledge of Alkahestry would keep registering with the cuffs as ‘not-alchemy’ and thus remain unrestricted. Otherwise, Ed would truly be powerless again should Al have another spell and Ed didn’t even know for sure if this sudden flux was something he could safely interfere with, or if it would keep resolving itself, like the last time they’d been in a similar bind.
Ed rounded another now too-quiet street corner, brooding over the fact that he didn’t have much to show in way of progress over the last couple of years. In fact, this new fiasco might even make him regress to being chased down by Mustang’s team and he really didn’t want to go through that whole humiliation again. Worse, unlike last time, even though they were practically adults, he and Al now actually had people waiting on them to come home tonight and be let down.
Before the dark mood could comfortably curl around Ed’s dreary thoughts, reassurance that wasn’t his own flooded part of his senses and relaxed some of his tense muscles. -‘Stop worrying, Brother. We’ll find the answers and they’ll forgive us. We’ll work something out.’-
Another person’s optimism is so much harder to ignore when – more than just hearing a pep talk – that person can actively project positive feelings onto your own. ‘Yes, we will. And you’re sitting this one out until we have our answers. You’re not fainting on me again, you sissy.’
-‘And to think you call me overbearing, you ass.’- Shaking his head fondly at Al’s light-hearted retort, Ed forced himself to focus only on the present and on the gate guards coming into view. Not that there was a gate to the small building masquerading as one of many tiny apothecaries, but the bouncers took their job seriously enough to mistake them for the elite royal guards of Lin’s fanciful, and – Ed suspected – often liberally exaggerated tales of his home – a small palace with two temples – and not well known homeland.
Ed slowed his pace to a fast walk, but remained completely nonchalant in the face of the looming form of the sole Amestrian stationed at the side entrance and the coiled grace of the Xingese watchmen to form a living doorway, as well as his three now openly closing in shadows at his back.
Skipping the common courtesy of greeting the slit-eyed gatekeeper first, Ed deliberately ignored the others and addressed his fellow automail equipped countrymen first. “Keeping those gears oiled, Barud? I’ve got no time for games tonight; just tell the royal asshole I need a favour, pronto.” The rolled up wad of hard-earned cenz crinkled in his left hand as he handed them over to the muscular man, who made his tacky eye patch look good.
Everyone who knew anything about the former leader of the terrorist group Blue Squad could tell you the most efficient deals with him were made through generous monetary transactions. Even if the long haired man had clearly never been the brightest kid at school, he could get simple thug jobs done effectively enough for the Yao clan to employ his services. Barud would have taken a well-paying task and figured he’d try his luck with another clan, if he didn’t like the outcome, except the Amestrian had quickly been shown the error of his ways by his new boss. You did not walk away from the Clan you’d served once the deed was done. Loyalty meant the world to the Xingese and even an outsider – once vouched for by one clan – did not just go taking jobs from other families, no matter how well they offered to pay. Whatever united front they presented to the middle and upper-class outside world, clan secrets were jealously guarded. This, of course, also meant that Ed’s current move was outrageously bold. But no Elric had ever been accused of being a coward, at least that he knew of, and Ed just wasn’t the person to pass up on his best chance of getting what he wanted, just because it was rated suicidal by normal standards.
A moment of silent communication passed between the guards, with an aura of clear disapproval radiating from the Xingese party. Just as the panda tore a hole through Ed’s pocket, Barud moved ahead and motioned with his wicked-looking, sub-rate quality automail arm for Ed to follow as one of the shadow guards took up the rear position, leaving gate duty to the other three outside until the rotation of shifts completed.
With no more than a slight exhale of relief at passing the first hurdle and anticipation for the next test, Edward Elric followed his guides through a door that could do with a good maintenance to keep a breeze out, let alone a full barrel attack. Then past the ten square meters of boxes, shelved dark bottles and acid-filled jars that formed the actual apothecary front, which needed dusting to gain some credentials. The small progression made it past the groaning door at the far end of the shop that read in Xingese calligraphy ‘staff only’ and down worn, narrow stairs into the Lion’s Liar.
* * *
The Xingese guard barked a command at both Ed and Barud to stay put and went ahead to inform the Clan Head of their arrival. The only exit lay at their backs, the only way in, another door up ahead. This door was the first hint at what one might find ahead. Painted red and carved with battling dragons that curled around the different elements the Xingese tended to associate with them. The dragons parted as the door opened for the announcer to wave Ed in.
Rolling shoulder blades that had cramped once more with latent tension, Ed marched in. He blinked to adjust to the transition of the multi-coloured dusk to the well-lit room where Lin held his audiences. If Ed wasn’t being allowed further into the clan’s keep, it meant Lin was annoyed at him and there would be some smooth talking to do. Or Ed could just pound the squinty eyed annoyance’s skull in until Lin listened and cut the crap. A much better plan, except for the part where – Right on cue. A shadow shifted, too quick to be natural and then Ed was using all of his flexibility and the durability of his automail to ward off RanFan’s head-on attack. The mini-panda squeaked, leapt from Ed’s ruined coat pocket and got out from underfoot, growling at the ninja girl.
Ed smirked at his opponent. “That eager for some more training, are you?”
RanFan bristled, tone colder than the other times he’d baited her, when she’d been all impulsive, hot-headed fury. “Your game is up. You thought you could betray the Master for that Chang twit and our clan wouldn’t find out?” The rapid slash of one of her kunai missed nicking his neck by a hair, but cut his lucky charm loose. The little lion charm Lin had given him as a mark of trust bounced to the ground; a clear statement of where he stood right now in the eyes of the Yao clan. A turncoat; a dangerous position, to be sure. However, if he could get past her and make Lin to pull his head out of his ass long enough to listen to reason, nothing was lost yet.
Ed wanted to roll his eyes at the whole melodrama. It was clear that RanFan was deadly serious and mortally offended by Ed’s actions. It was such a shame, really. She was such a capable girl at martial arts – not that he’d admit it to her. To lack the needed common sense to balance that skill with good judgement was just sad, really. He parried her next jab at his stomach. “You really need to work on thinking before speaking, if you want to impress your master one day.” And there – just like that she got that bit sloppier; all he needed to gain the upper hand.
Except, when he moved to twist her arm behind her back she had a new trick up her sleeve. Between one blink and the next, Ed went from easy victory to having his back against the wall and a blade at his throat. Huh, maybe she’d learn some sense after all, Ed thought, oddly pleased at that.
“That’s enough, RanFan.” Seated cross-legged on an elevated platform, within a wealth of soft cushions, a pair of Shishi guarding his sides, was Lin Yao. A bratty oddball who needed to learn more respect for his seniors, Ed believed, but who was capable with a blade, a handy, reliable source of information and overall good to have on your side in a skirmish. He also had a tendency to steal the food from another’s plate and – worse – had the entire Yao clan eating out of his hand like he was the second coming of the Sage of the West. This might have had something to do with the fact that he was the sole heir of their prominent clan on Amestrian soil and upheld aristocratic decorum when Clan Law called for it. Like at that very moment.
“I want to hear Edward’s reasons for associating with another clan,” Lin clarified and Ed found the prince’s unusual seriousness jarring, “which all present here know is frowned upon.” That was putting it mildly, considering all the accusations flying around. All hail the mighty Lin, emperor of general understatements and skilled at diffusing certain volatile situations. “The one you’ve accused needs to be breathing to plead his case, Daughter of my Kinsmen.” Even knowing Lin could be serious, it still made Ed blink when the boy-proclaimed-clan-leader slipped into the hierarchic dialect of Xingese.
RanFan looked like she understood her sworn lord’s wish, but remained stubbornly outraged at Ed on Lin’s behalf. “Master of Me and Mine, you can’t let such a traitor live! Our teachings-”
“Are always open for interpretation. Clan tradition, as you state, is important and must be upheld, or improved upon. I refuse to lose a valuable friend over accusation without having reviewed all evidence.”
Even if he didn’t admit it Ed could acknowledge that, whatever other faults Lin may have, he was a decent guy when all was said and done. For that reason, Ed treated him like an equal, which always amused Lin and had his clan up in arms at the outward ‘disrespect’. One would think they’d grow used to it, but it would seem those sticks were planted deep and firmly in the mud.
Skipping the formality and solemnity of the situation, Ed spoke to Lin as he always had – without any deference – and ignored the guards, who stood ready to disembowel him at the first hint of an order to do so. Ed told Lin straight out that he had no choice but to try and get the Chang girl to help him: to restore Al they needed a permanent way around the crippling state barnacles. Ed had at the time exhausted his national leads in alchemy. Roaming about in Xing Town, one would eventually hear whispers about Alkahestry.
Edward had, but as the Yao clan had never bothered with Alkahestry, beyond how their warriors were taught to feel the flow of qi – natural energy – in their surroundings, they were – as Ed put it bluntly – rubbish at it and he’d hunted down the first capable person who wasn’t averse to teaching him. It had taken some months, but where Ed had been flat out refused, Al’s charm saved the day and eventually the May girl of the Chang, who wielded the Purification Arts with the ease of a master, agreed to help her new crush.
That had been about four months ago. They’d met up a few times – mostly on neutral territory, a few times within the Chang Quarter, but always in a different location. May had sworn the one bodyguard she couldn’t shake off to secrecy. Open association with Al and Ed would perilous at best: primarily because her mother - and their entire clan with her - would disapprove on principle, and especially when May discovered Ed was on friendly terms with the arrogant prince of the Yao clan. An outsider who formed an alliance with one clan could not associate with another, unless given specific order or permission by his primary, adoptive clan to do so. Breaking this law was considered high treason by the clans, but May understood the brothers’ reason for going against their law, once Al explained some of the details to her. As such, both parties deemed it wise to keep these educational seminars under wraps. The princess and Al – and, by extension Ed – were only scraping the most basic principles of Alkahestry when May had brought up the Dragon’s Pulse fundament. From there on, theorizing had proceeded into the first small practical applications.
It was mostly Al who did the learning for the pair of them, primarily because Al wasn’t hindered in working alchemy when he and May tried for comparison of the two branches of the science, but also because Ed and May’s personalities just didn’t mesh well. Ed had discovered the additional benefits Alkahestry had to offer him purely by accident when messing around with it one day himself, instead of letting Alphonse doing everything alchemy related. The latter was a modus operandi the great nation of Amestris had unwittingly forced on the brothers. The physical restraints placed upon the handful of exceptional alchemists left ‘free’ to wander around in society were coded to each and every individual alchemist. The bracelets (or in Ed’s case: brace- and anklet) were primarily linked to their minds to override potential acts with an end result in destruction, which then meant it was automatically cued into the body said mind was part of. And lastly, out of pure necessity, to the final part of the trinity, because the soul is tethered to said mind and body.
When Ed had, almost four years past, at last been vouched for by Mustang – and hadn’t the bastard taken his sweet time after Ed’s recapture – his and Alphonse’s prowess in alchemy had marked them prime candidates for such a control system. Ed’s – their – release into the Hughes’s minding care, had only gotten government approval due to the condition of the precautionary Security Restriction. The ankle and wrist cuff had naturally been programmed to Edward, as none of the scientists working on the operation knew about Alphonse and none would clue the good doctors in to that fact.
The restriction worked flawlessly on Ed, who chaffed at the hefty imposed limitations. Naturally, Ed immediately tried everything he could think of to rid himself of the bothersome devices. It did not take long at all to find out that with the cuffs alchemically tethered to his body, trying to remove them by normal means resulted in severe electroshocks to the nervous system. For Ed, this metaphorical slap on the wrist had the potential to overload the wiring of his automail limbs. In his first year as a free operative, Ed had been forced to make more appointments with his cranky mechanic as a result of fried wire feedback than for any inflicted external damage or wear. Yet through this hazardous method of experimentation, Ed did find out one fruitful loophole, insofar as that when it was Al’s soul in control of the body, the device failed to register any alchemy performed as being executed by the triple compound of Ed’s mind, body and soul. Unfortunately, this did not entirely solve the brothers’ problem. The masterminds behind the invention had worked another fail safe into their equations. Having an active link to Ed’s mind and body, any attempts at alchemic destruction of the restraints from an outside alchemic source involved lethal risk to the wearer, in the form of more violent destructive shocks to the system. To date, only the makers of the device could deactivate and remove it by unanimous government sanction; hence the occurrence was all but unheard of. That didn’t stop the brothers from wanting to discover another way.
Being both adapt and able to use alchemy, Alphonse was an invaluable resource to ACIS – the unspoken yet ultimately deciding factor in their release sanction. The Armstrong family connections may have been dented after the Civil War, but they neither bent nor broke. As an added bonus, by assigning Riza Hawkeye as the boy’s handler, Olivia Armstrong had the absolute guarantee that Mustang would keep a close eye on the boy. The ironclad game plan. In the end, the arrangement ended up beneficial for Al and by extension Ed, too, who otherwise would not have had the opportunity to explore and learn as much as he did while on missions with Riza. That was not to say that their situation was ideal. The boys had a valid reason in their urgency to restore Alphonse’s soul to his own lost body. The human body was made to house only the soul that belonged to it. The earliest philosophers of ancient times, eons before the forming of the great kingdoms, tried to explain this phenomenon with many different ideas. The most well-known of those theories was that the body, mind and soul all together form one single self-sufficient existence; an existence which can only be truly alive when all these elements function in sync. By cramming in a second shred of a whole entity, as Ed had done, he put additional strain on both his own mind and body, which, in turn, increased the risk of said body eventually rejecting the much similar, yet not native, soul. Another, less significant side-effect of this mash-up was their shared, and often warped, ability of the mind to store memories. With tethers to two, some memories unintentionally carried over from one mind to the other. Add to that how Alphonse’s logic and associative brainwave patterns, as his own individual, had been fundamentally different from Edward’s. With the body sharing, Al’s different thought patterns tried to follow the same route through Ed’s brain, which was wired to another style of thought pattern. The fluke not only resulted in frequent headaches – induced by Edward’s brain trying to reroute itself frequently – and additional the fragmented shards of memory his mind would gain at random intervals, but also that either some of Al’s or even his own memories would randomly be stored only in Alphonse’s psyche. In short, it left Al often with too much input, occasionally bordering on an existentiality crisis, and Ed with a patchwork quilt of recollections.
Lin waited, expression neutral and posture rigid, while Ed said his piece. “And after all that you still seek my aid?”
Ed almost snarled. Had the idiot really not been listening? “I need everything your eyes on the ground have heard about this increase in chimera attacks, especially about the last one, the full details.” He scratched the back of his head, warily. “Depending on what we learn from that, I might need a way to get out of town undetected to go snake hunting. More than that, I need you to stop wasting our time with this whole judgemental thing and just have my back as my friend, you stupid, spoilt-”
He could have rambled on for quite a bit, mortally offended guards or not, had Lin not interrupted him, his pleased smile finally making an appearance on that previously oddly stoic face. “I’ve heard enough. Though your methods were wrong, your reasons and goals were not of treasonous intent. The accusations against you have now been heard and dropped.” The shutters on his good natured expression came up again to utter one more warning. “This will not happen again. The next time you have no choice but to ally yourself with one of the other clans, you ask my permission.” Ed opened his mouth to retort, but Lin bulled ahead. “Remember, you pledged your allegiance to me first. You are one of mine and I take care of my own. This is non-negotiable.”
Only when Ed nodded, mulishly silent, did the guards back up a few steps and RanFan’s dagger was no longer poised at his jugular. The girl also reluctantly handed Ed back his protection charm.
Lin clapped his hands once, all cheer once more. Ed could almost appreciate the irony: and people called him bipolar. “Let’s retire to the lounge, have something to eat and discuss business. I heard a passing-through band of one of Edison’s arms smugglers are heading west tonight…”
Illustration by seta-suzume @ LJ
Chapter 5: On the Right Track
Friday, April 09, 07:14 – West Area – West City – Paddington Station
Into this bustling crowd, two casually dressed civilians blended into the scene. Winry Rockbell sat down on the bench at platform 4 next to Jean, who seemed absorbed in the latest newspaper headlines, a lit cigarette clamped between his lips.
Her posture relaxed in a mime of boredom as she relayed in hushed tones what she’d learned to her temporary partner on the case. “I had a chat with the conductors. Five trains from Central will be making a stop here in the next hour. Of those, one is a freight train that will turn around back to Central immediately after unloading. Unless our information proves false,” her tone suggested how unlikely she thought such a thing might be, “and the subject plans to disembark here in West, we can eliminate that option. The 07:38 arrival will turn north towards Rivière, the 07:44 toward North City. Both are likely options we may also discard. The timeframe we’re working with makes it impossible for the target to have obtained the proper automail replacement for the northern climate. Also, from Elric’s records, he is entirely unfamiliar with North Area and unlikely to venture there, unless he completely runs out of options. The train from 07:35 will take the roundabout track towards South City. This would be a viable option, except-”
Havoc flicked some dangling ash from the tip of his smoke. She’d reached the point where he saw fit to interrupt and strip the whole deduction process down to the core. If he didn’t add his two cenz, she might think him some dumb country hick who needed to have everything explained to him. He didn’t much care how impressive her grades might have been in CIA training, or that on this mission she technically outranked him, he was the senior field agent. “Except your informant was confident Edward would continue all the way west to one of the border towns, after ditching the smugglers’ caravan he was stopped leaving Central with. Our best bet is that he’ll transfer onto the 07:45, with its terminus in Pendleton.” Havoc turned a page of the paper. “That means we still have some time to kill. We should grab some food, Miss Rockbell. We’ll mingle and the babble of people around us will keep anyone from listening in on our conversation.”
As they abandoned the bench for more comfortable and warmer arrangements, Jean made note of one of the cloaked beggars moving from the spot the tall man had occupied for the last half hour. Maybe he was just paranoid, but either way, Jean didn’t want to risk any confrontations this early into the game.
Friday, April 09, 08:21 – West Area – Steamer train en route to Pendleton
There were only a dozen or so people in the compartment. A couple of farmers’ wives with baskets of eggs and fruits, some elderly, half blind upper-class lady – probably en route to some social event – a small family that looked like they might be refugees and a gentleman in a suit, absorbed in the daily paper. Once in a while, a bearded Xingese immigrant passed by with a reed basket of food items to sell to the peckish travellers. Edward, travelling light with only the canvas bag of emergency supplies Lin had gifted him, observed his surroundings past a jaw-breaking yawn.
Though wary about pursuit, the past virtually sleepless nights coupled with the gradual decrease of stress now that he’d left the big cities behind well and truly lessened Ed’s state of alertness. The to-all-appearances harmless civilians sharing his part of the train, along with the rocking motion of the vehicle, made Ed give in and indulge in a catnap.
No matter how well he tried to keep up his regular training; unusually trying days left his body aching more fiercely than was the norm. That tended to upset the control he and Al shared over his body. Another factor to add to his weariness was that the last shock to his automail two days prior seemed to have messed up his fine motor control and he couldn’t squander any time getting it fixed. Lin’s best lead had him following the route of some tattooed woman, whose description sounded similar to the brief glances Ed and Al had caught of their snake chimera attacker. This woman had been spotted, Lin’s spies had ferreted out, leaving the scene of Dorchette and Yoki’s murders, and caught one of the trains West. Hence, Ed was tailing the track. He would have no doubt lost the trace at West City, without the Yao clan’s assistance. As one of the bigger clan’s, they were present in Amestris Big 5 cities. One of their own was working night shifts off the books in West City’s military hospital. This person’s reports had over the past seven months reported a notable and unusual increase in predator inflicted wounds. The military clearly didn’t want to spread the news of an additional threat at one of their actively contested borders. Chances were good they suspected the Cretan army of using such a scare tactic. The fact that Creta wasn’t boosting the tactic was unsettling, though. As if both sides of the frontier campaign were raided by possible chimera attacks during the night. Backed by that reasoning Ed and Al agreed to try out the current hotspot right out on the western border, a tiny town called Pendleton.
Regrettably, neither Edward nor Alphonse could be sure if the supposedly hushed up chimera attacks were just a ruse, nor if there was any correlation with the westward bound human chimera. Or whether and if so, how deeply, the latter was involved in the recent Central based chimera attacks (Lin’s agents were good, but they were still human and mostly working with hastily reaped, second-hand information). Nonetheless, following only a day behind their suspect, towards a promising site, meant the Elrics had a good shot at finding one of chimera’s hideouts. Even if Ed screwed up somehow or Al lost his footing and an ambush did lie in wait, any confrontation would lead to additional information.
With that in mind, Ed relaxed enough to rest his eyes and aching body, just for a moment -
And tumble into a surprisingly pleasant dream about a curvy figure cuddling up to him, and then there were lips pressed to his own. Still mostly asleep, he wet his lips instinctively when the pressure disappeared. Warm breath tickled the shell of his ear. “Good, now wake up. Don’t worry; what you’ve just ingested is only a mild paralyzing agent,” someone whispered, barely audible. “It should slow your motor control temporarily, no more. Don’t be alarmed. It keeps you docile, to avoid a fuss.”
Not the exactly the kinky speech he’d expected to dream up. ‘What?’
Utterly bemused and more than a little startled, Ed’s eyes shot open to find a somewhat cute girl of more or less his own age sitting on his lap and restraining his wrists at his sides and out of view, looking no more than teasing to the casual observer. ‘The hell?! Al, please say this is your weird, secret girlfriend.’
-‘Mine? If anything, she’s your type. Snap out of it, already, whoever she is, she means trouble and we’ve got to get away from her.’- Ed didn’t need Al’s alarm as confirmation of a set-up. How dare she? He’d show this conniving bitch not to mess with an Elric. She wasn’t even looking at him anymore, completely dismissing him as a viable threat, large blue eyes roaming the compartment.
“Mr. Havoc should be here with the new restraints already.” She worried soft, pink lips with her teeth. Feeling his glare, she redirected her attention to him. “My name is Winry Rockbell; I’m a certified CIA operative.” Sadly the ‘certified operative’ didn’t release Ed’s arms to flash an ID. Not too amateuristic then, Ed mused. She wasn’t so much telling him his rights as giving him field orders.
“We’re evacuating this train at the next stop and returning to Central. There you’ll be handed over into our custody, until this case has been resolved without further casualties. Mr. Havoc and I will keep you safe until then. Mr. Mustang’s team will continue the investigation, if he receives proper clearance from Director Armstrong.”
Ed seethed and made to shove her off and punch that pretty face in with his right fist. Except whatever crap she’d introduced into his system took effect with a speed like wildfire, leaving his limbs sluggish and impossibly heavy. While he managed to move them, they lacked most of his strength and all he accomplished was breaking her pincer grip on him and jostle their positions with a weak push. Ed was starting to fear that the crazy Rockbell girl had either miscalculated his body mass to consider the sedative as ‘mild’, or else he didn’t want to stick around to find out what classified as ‘knock-out’ in her books. So far, their serious drama hadn’t attracted attention yet, except from the sour old lady, seated on a bench parallel to Ed’s, giving them a disapproving glower. His left arm cooperated just enough for Ed to toss the holier-than-thou woman a rude gesture. She sniffed and turned away from the pair of them.
Ed made a silent solemn vow to castrate Havoc for his involvement in this whole stunt. He refused to be dragged back to Central City with nothing to show for himself by a weak-looking girl of all people. “Who are you and what gives you the damn right to haul me off like this? Do you know who I am?”
“I know that you, Mister Undercover Agent, weren’t sanctioned to take up this case, nor did you report your direct involvement to your handler or any other of your superiors. I’ll be surprised if they let you keep your badge after this stunt.” Winry rolled her eyes. “Although, I suppose that ACIS isn’t too concerned with fine lines and doing things by the book.”
Ed scoffed. “We produce the results the bigwigs want, that’s all that ever matters, and if you think otherwise, you’re just hopelessly naïve. Naivety will get you killed, especially with the CIA.”
Most of Winry’s attention was still on the handful of ignorant people on the train. Someone sneezed, another read a novel, and not even they old lady was paying them close attention anymore. Ed was weighing his and Al’s options for a countermove. This supposed CIA chick thought him docile now that he was incapacitated in her eyes. Okay, so, the tranquilisers she’d used were damned effective and Ed had no hope of physically overpowering her within the next hour. There was another gamble he could take, however, which just might knock her out while staying his drowsiness.
Winry cried out in surprise at the unexpected nature of his attack, the pain of it wracking her body. As she fell away from Ed, he forced himself to his feet, only for his legs to fold under him. Agony radiated from both automail ports before all feeling abruptly cut off. Of all the times for the damn things to completely give out on him!
Alphonse was berating him violently. Al grabbed control to at least try to alchemically purge the drugs from their system swifter, so they could move more easily and have a hope of making emergency repairs to the conked out automail. Everyone stared now, but the center of focus shifted when the train door crashed open and panicked people rushed through, fighting to move further up to the front of the train. These seeds of discord bloomed when the cause of the sudden migration followed on their heels. A towering man with a grim expression on his scarred face limped into the train car, blood dripping from his injured thigh. More blood splattered his tanned right hand and the front of his cream-colored shirt.
Clouded red eyes found Alphonse’s own, making his breath hitch. -‘Armstrong’s hit man!’- For the first time, Al could truly believe the rumours in the slums about Misha and the awful reputation that clung to the man wherever he went. This fellow was definitely not here by accident. His eyes told the boys that the Rogue Terminator was also not here to just haul them back to Central, like the cute blonde. Where was Havoc? Al looked at the man’s leg wound and grimaced in worry. Gunshot wound, recent. Likely Havoc’s work then. Trying to scramble upright, Al cursed when none of his – rather Ed’s – limbs cooperated. Injured or not, the scarred Ishvalan clearly had the upper hand, and unless they could figure a way out of this, they were going to die!
* * *
Winry wanted to hit something, preferably the stubborn blond she was supposed to arrest, but also protect. So what if she’d used an underhanded method to trick an all but unconscious person? The end justified the means, or so Mr. Kimblee had drilled into her from day one of covert activity and assessment training. The train she and Mr. Havoc had boarded wasn’t crowded, but in such close quarters, the ACIS agent had agreed with her suggestion to act discreetly so as to prevent a panic, and she could hardly waltz up to Edward and stick him with a needle in plain view of the civilians. The charade of enthusiastic public affection had at least gone over as ‘normal if distasteful’ with the small, mostly inattentive crowd.
Winry had wasted no time in incapacitating her target painlessly and without commotion. For her first time actually using such a tactic, it went rather well, even though she hoped not to make a habit of it. She quickly wiped the mild toxin and the protective under-layer of beeswax from her own lips as she immobilised Edward’s movement and resolved to think of different methods to execute a similar operation in the future. Just because it wasn’t too bad this time didn’t mean her next target couldn’t be some dangerously insane pervert, old enough to be her grandfather. Perhaps Mr. Havoc would be willing to share a few tips from his years as a senior agent. However, Winry couldn’t help but feel as if her partner on this case was only humouring her. There was no small amount of animosity between their two agencies, but perhaps this mission could help scab over that rift, she reflected optimistically.
No time to think about it further. Winry needed to stay in the present. From her initial success on out, her smooth sailing hit a thunderstorm named Edward Elric. No matter how smart her target was claimed to be, he acted like an obnoxious jerk and somehow failed to grasp the concept of a good cover maintained for the benefit of the clueless public eye. A failure which – considering his occupation – was plain ridiculous. They both operated for agencies that were all but invisible to the general populace, at least to those with a blank criminal record. To be fair, yes, she was technically taking him into custody – something she herself wouldn’t have been thrilled at either, had their positions been reversed – but in the long run it was in his own best interest – and life expectancy – to cooperate.
Then Mr. Havoc failed to show up, which meant that either he was double-crossing her (given the hostility she’d witnessed between Mr. Kimblee and Mr. Mustang’s team that wasn’t such a far-out conclusion), or else he could have been compromised by a third party. Both situations presented a direct threat to her person, however, only the second option could lead a truly disastrous mission ending. The prospect was an awful lot of responsibility on Winry’s slim shoulders all of a sudden and during her very first solo assignment, to boot.
If Alphonse really was ‘the polite one’, then her cenz were stacked on Edward being the real ass. After she went out of her way to protect him against his own actions, and their consequences, he worked around the sedatives to attack her. An unexpected move for its recklessness that had momentarily crippled her and, as icing on the cake, spectacularly blown their just-established cover to smithereens. Winry supposed she should thank her lucky stars Edward hadn’t seriously injured her with that counterattack. She only held a carefully studied theoretical knowledge of what high calibre alchemists could inflict upon opponents. Even if, still fresh out of training, she had not yet seen Mr. Kimblee ‘in action’, she’d heard the whispers, even seen a few autopsy photographs to know fully well that the relatives of those terrorists who opposed the Red Lotus’s assignments were lucky if they had a mostly intact corpse to bury afterward.
All that aside, her situation fell outside of optimal mission parameters, and that was even before pandemonium broke out. Still a little shaky as she got her feet under her, Winry thought it was no wonder Mr. Kimblee had been so pleased to get rid of those alchemic suppressants, the device packed a real punch! Sparing her captive a brief glance, Winry surmised Edward was far worse off and in no condition to pull another stunt anytime soon, let alone run off anywhere. She’d probably have to take him to the first mechanic they crossed on their way back to Central if she didn’t want to carry him all the way fireman style. Confident enough to at least halfway turn her back on the Elric boy for the second, she redirected her attention to scan the small crowd rushing past them for hidden weapons.
Likely the threat came from the back end of the train where the rush had started. Winry had her basic disarming training and if things went south, her handgun, a snub-nosed .38, loaded yet never before used outside of training. She also ought to check on her perhaps compromised back-up, Mr. Havoc. However, she mustn’t forget that her main priority was to stick to Edward like glue. Fulfilling the mission’s prime directive was in the end all that truly mattered; that was Mr. Kimblee’s second rule. With both exit doors along the train compartment blocked by moving bodies, what were her other options? What was the best way to proceed?
Her reluctant companion cursed once more beside her. Winry would have ignored it like his previous bout of swearing, except this expletive had a desperate edge to it, making her pause in her calculation of taking a tumble out of one of the windows of the chugging steam train.
‘Danger,’ her senses screamed in response, hand going for her sidearm. Winry didn’t need to search long for the source for her companion’s alarm. Her bright eyes rested on a bloodied leg and midriff before moving up a tanned, distinctively tattooed arm to rest on a peculiar scarred face. Mr. Kimblee had mentioned Director Armstrong liked to keep Ishbalans around, but Winry had never expected to come across that person in this situation. For the first time in almost a decade, Winry stood abruptly face to face with the red-eyed demon of her childhood trauma.
The recollection barely lasted the blink of an eye, but to her it seemed like hours; hours in which she was no longer the capable young woman she’d studied and trained years to become, but once again a lonely, desperate nine-year-old girl, surrounded by the screams of the wounded and dying patients of the Ishval’s Kanda region. Antiseptic was one of the few supplies the Rockbells had left aplenty in stock and so the entire house, with the ground floor serving as field hospital, smelled of it. That and smoke and, on that particular day, of something far more unpleasant. In that small world of uncertainty, pain and death, healing, despair and the odd flicker of hope, the world stopped rotating on its axis for one small girl. Frozen on the threshold of the normally off-limits surgery room, where her mom and dad lay limp and unmoving – massacred. Even Den, whose sudden alarm had caused Winry to disobey her warning to find out what was more alarming than usual, had been hurt. The dog bled profusely from a missing front paw, alternatively whimpering in agony and growling at the hysterical, larger-than-life culprit. Winry felt utterly disconnected from reality in that moment of discovery. And because it wasn’t – couldn’t be – really happening, she was soon moving toward her parents and dog. She didn’t know when the monster left, or why he spared her. Maybe it was something the somewhat nice yet bitter one-eyed woman, so different from her own granny, had said. Maybe one of the other patients had tried to help. Maybe he just left, like the others did. A few of her parents’ patients tried to convince her to leave with them; leave her family behind and run away from all the pain and death. Winry stayed after the sun set and all she did was try to keep Den alive and pray to her granny in heaven to look after her mom and dad. She stayed until after the sun had risen again and Mr. Kimblee and his soldiers came. Unlike the Ishvalans, they didn’t ask what Winry wanted. They simply covered her mom and dad with dirty sheets and took her – and Den – if only because she didn’t let go of the injured dog – away from hell on earth. During the drive between their hospital and the Amestrian base camp, several soldiers tried to comfort her, yet the only words that stuck with her were Mr. Kimblee’s. He told Winry if she ever wanted to set things right, then she should become better and cleverer then her parent’s murderer. The reality that she was alone in the world still hadn’t truly caught up with her, but that advice penetrated the shock and stayed with her.
Illustration by seta-suzume @ LJ
Then time caught up with Winry. A decade had gone by, and she stood a lot taller than the day she lost almost everything, even if it was on wobbly knees. In her second of recollection, the scarred man of her nightmares had dismissed her as a threat and angled past her, toward the person she was supposed to protect. She was no longer aware of the other people evacuating the compartment. All she saw was the golden haired boy, struggling to connect a sluggish flesh hand with the completely limp automail one and not managing it in time, and the red-eyed demon. The man who had taken her loved ones away from her, who was still bleeding, vulnerable. He was reaching past her, his face set in stone, posture promising certain death to the one he’d set his sights on. Winry’s shaking hands managed to click the safety off her gun. His gaze flickered to her at last and hesitated. Winry held the still imposing figure at point blank range. No matter how fast he moved, she would hit something vital. She had to shoot him, there was no either way. She ought to shoot him. If not for justice, then simply because if she didn’t, he’d kill Elric – had probably already murdered Mr. Havoc – and she would be just as helpless as back then if she didn’t act immediately.
A gun discharged. Brakes screeched as the train lurched on its tracks. Someone had finally alerted the engineer.
Thursday, April 08, 09:36 – Central City – ACSI HQ
The atmosphere was oppressive to the point of counter-productivity. There had been a row during the earliest office hours. Not just a disagreement, a veritable commotion. Behind closed doors, mind you, despite the fact that less than a dozen people had been present for such an early hour. But one of the cleaning ladies had inadvertently overheard, and she just had to tell the other, who whispered about it with the receptionist, and as more people trickled in the rumours gained speed from that point onwards.
Mustang was looking for trouble, the whispers said. He was one of their star agents, held an almost flawless record in solving the cases he took an interest in. But now some half hushed-up case – it promised to be a big one then, Mustang always picked the more complex ones that would gain renown – had been reassigned by the Director to one of The Deadly Duo. Whatever the outcome of this whole affair, it would be big enough to make the morning headlines, or so Sheska heard from her more chatter-happy colleagues.
For once the rumours weren’t far exaggerated, Sheska guessed, judging by the grim expressions of Team Mustang as their leader debriefed to Miles, who stood self-assured and at ease, yet fully intent on all the information he was presented with. Like he was measuring the veracity of each word he was presented with carefully. That was just Sheska’s speculation, as it was hard as ever to read the former major with his habit of wearing dark glasses indoors. Not that office politics shuffling around a previously claimed case was much of her business, really. She had only observed the public deference so she would know to reclassify reports linked to this case with a higher clearance restriction. With that thought, Sheska focussed her attention on more interesting and urgent matters requiring her input, like all the records the new leader on their biggest running assignment had requested only an hour ago and expected ASAP.
Miles nodded as he addressed the team that was temporarily his. “I will only say this once: you will stop brooding and letting Elric’s interference in this case distract you, and start focussing on the crux of the mess this is becoming.” Miles addressed Mustang like just another subordinate on the team. Roy was too professional to object or show anything but an utterly neutral mask. The army had taught him early on to take orders from anyone, no matter if they were an ass or bully, and Miles wasn’t going out of his way to rub the sad state of affairs in their faces, just brusque in his manner.
“Mustang, you have been assigned an additional chore, for the record. I know you have unofficial associates by the dozens. The Xingese aren’t talking to us in an official capacity. Use whatever ties you must, but find some answers. Someone on Chang turf must have seen something. Bribe the clan leader, if you must, to make the guard chat. I don’t care how you get it done. Lose the uniform, take Hawkeye with you.” Miles wasn’t about to set one of their most dangerous agents loose in such a big, political playground as Xing Town without his handler. “You will do this after you call Havoc and have him return from ‘vacation’ earlier than planned. Unforeseen circumstances may be a nuisance, but they are also a fact of life. I’m convinced someone else will be around to enjoy the sight of all that wildlife he’s spotting.” Miles did not make idle threats. Misha was already tracking down the wayward Elric and if one of Mustang’s other dogs got caught in the crossfire that would incite, that would be a waste of an otherwise good agent.
With Mustang chewed out and his team made aware of the shift in authority, all that Miles had to do was pick up the reins. The Director had suspended Hughes early that same morning, but due to Kimblee’s meddling, the CIA’s ‘liaison’ – no matter how green on the field – could still throw a spanner in whatever the game CIA wanted to play with ACIS for more influence, resources and the chance to discredit the other party. However, if Miss Rockbell did manage to babysit Elric and was fully occupied with that momentous task, it left the rest of ACIS free to pursue more immediate concerns.
Miles turned back to the board on which he hung several pictures. “Dorchette’s personal history isn’t yielding much interest. His surviving family believed him to be dead four years prior to his actual murder. His mother claims Dorchette always fell in with the wrong crowd. Any leads we may have obtained from his petty crime curriculum, Sheska’s team will sift through. However, we’ve found other clues that now deceased dealer Yoki’s past. It was clear as day, once you read in-between the lines of the police reports and possess the need to know information that some of us do.” Miles paused to rankle across still open sores, even as he put up Yoki’s mug shot and drew a cross on it with a marker. “If all of you hadn’t been focussing your energy and attention on a juvenile distraction, then the director would have been able to clue you in during the first twelve hours of this investigation. We’ve found evidence to the fact that the last steady job Yoki Yonald held for any significant amount of time was that of accountant for the Thule R&D Facility.”
Breda made a few notes. “That private funded entrepreneurship, out West, that you never really hear much news or results from, despite their proclaimed mission to provide the ultimate innovation of the alchemic engine?”
Mustang looked pensive at Miles confirmation. “A quiet company the Director is suspicious enough of that you’ve gone digging and none of us regulars have been informed, you say.” He exchanged a brief look with Hawkeye and got a tiny negative gesture in reply, signalling she had been kept out of the loop as well. “Did you find out what they wanted to keep hidden?”
Miles debated how much to disclose. Given the way Misha should be closing in on his targets and how the result of the rough Ishvalan’s actions would leak to the media sooner or later, frankness on current proceedings might be called for. “We never got in. At the present, we still lack the warrant and jurisdiction. Everything we’ve learned recently has been provided by an inside source, one of their employees, a man who calls himself Lujon.” Miles pointed out the grainy picture of an ordinary man in his late twenties, and reduced the facts down to their essence. “Apparently, he wants out now that more of his co-workers get spirited away.” Two more low quality pictures got crossed off as deceased. “The facility had their pockets lined with gold, up until a couple of years ago, according to our rat.”
Hawkeye drew her own conclusion. “You suspect one of the more prominent former military persons to have been the moneylender.”
“We’ve narrowed our prime suspects down to Brigadier General Clemin and Lieutenant General Gardner.” The big shots’ profile pictures got moved to the top of the board. Miles extrapolated. “Both had plenty of affluence and possible interest in the true research matter, if their proven prior affiliation with the head of the science department, Dr. Hiesgart, has set a trend.” The photograph of the balding, gold-toothed man, took up residence right below those of the two prime suspects. “However, just because this research center’s funding might be budgeted since the bigwigs’ discharges, it would seem their current lack lies more along the lines of general resources rather than currency.”
Mustang contemplated the new intel and nodded toward a more private meeting room to continue the conversation. Miles, who had been about to suggest such a move gave Mustang a look that was a touch less frosty. Once they were the more secured area, Roy continued his line of reasoning. “These people might still have some backing in the current government, financially, if not ethically, or openly. Just what do we suspect they’re really trying to develop in this facility?”
“Though our border conflicts are at a stalemate, this status quo could change any given day. As it stands, our military now only deploys the regular troops for border patrol and surveillance. Historically, we haven’t been this weak since before the State Alchemist programme was installed. The director and a select few decorated people suspect Thule has been working, even before the fall of the old government, to make superior, special forces units through chimeric research.”
Discomfort lingered around the team after that last statement. It sounded exactly like the sort of thing the Führer King and his lapdogs might have approved of. But to think the current elected officials weren’t averse to the idea of sanctioning, or at least turning a blind eye to this sort of inhumane experimentation for the greater good, was disquieting. Mustang slipped back into leadership position with the grace of habit. “So, you are saying we need an excuse to head west and infiltrate that facility to gather substantial evidence to have them disbanded?”
To the team members’ surprise they got a negative response. “The circumstances around Thule are in motion. We don’t have to worry about their lab in the west for the present, that situation will resolve itself. The Director has already made some phone calls.” Miles adjourned the meeting. “Yet that does not entirely resolve the situation. I will be taking a more local trip into the city slums, Breda will come with. Rendez-vous here at 17:30.” They had more one direct threat to deal with, the squad read between the lines. Team Mustang geared up for action.
Chapter 6: Chimera Crisis
Warning: bit of gore, nothing graphic.
Monday, April 12, 16:42 – West Area – Frontier town – Pendleton
The off-key whistling of a Xingese drover, who called himself Han, announced an ox drawn hay cart, passing through a deserted part of the Wild West. His cheerfulness clashed with the rising anxieties of the four people hitchhiking in the dry hay. They drove through many jagged peaks and canyons, with stretches of overgrown ground in-between. The land looked like it had not changed since the beginning of time and felt foreign enough to be the milestone markers to the ends of the earth. In reality, the rough terrain sheltered their destination: the often fatally disputed border town of Pendleton. The quartet plus odd man out made for a peculiar group, indeed. The stoic Ishvalan, his wounds sloppily treated and wrists cuffed behind his back, was just the beginning. The others included a heavily wounded, snoozing senior field agent, an agitated, fretting young woman whom no one would suspect to be a government operative, and a buff young man with only half his limbs in working order. There was a joke to be had in there, the more cynical of the lot mused.
The Xingese man unceremoniously left them to fend for themselves a quarter mile out from the town fences, waving once he urged his oxen on their way. The quartet got a good look at the gates as they made their way up the road leading into Pendleton.
The sunny, blue sky clashed with the barbed wire barricades surrounding the ghost town, where only those cloaked in Amestrian blue uniforms roamed. The bright colour contrasted sharply with the iron-rich reddish earth.
As Pendleton was considered an active front in the war zone, being allowed to approach and finally receiving clearance from the security patrols to proceed further was a painfully slow and hazardous process for their ragtag group. During each longer period, the odd bunch of travellers were made to wait there were at least ten different guns aimed at their vital organs.
The stretch of no man’s land to the west was quiet for a hotspot of conflict, though a state of alert was rigorously maintained. No active clashes from the direction of the descending sun painted the earth a darker red that day. Surprisingly, it was due north of the ghost town where dust swirled and kicked up. Shouting, the bark of many guns and even the roar of an armoured tank could be heard blowing the thick packed earth, solid rock and who knew what else to kingdom come.
The captain who was to grant the mismatched colleagues entrance and their own personal guards, straightened after he inspected their presented badges for forgery. The man actually saluted their company when he first addressed the least likely person of their merry band.
“Sir,” the man greeted Misha, and waved over the nearest corporal. He ordered said person to retrieve a medic and a specialist, the latter to remove the restraints Havoc had managed to shackle onto the Ishvalan. “Western Command gave orders to assume you incapacitated when you failed to report in by noon today and launched the Operation Red River. Casualties on our side are twenty-four, with fifty-two wounded.” The captain looked shamed by his commanders’ error in judgement. “The Lieutenant Colonel in charge of the operation sent the foot soldiers in first to scout the perimeter. We had anticipated a measure of vigilance and resistance from the enemy, but not an entire platoon of vicious chimera.”
Winry and Edward protested loudly and even Havoc objected when the specialist was introduced and, with little ado, freed Misha from his cuffs. Even with the Ishvalan’s destructive alchemy contained as it was, the man was still a physical threat and these western idiots wanted to set him loose? Their protest was stifled by the captain.
“We had direct orders to let this man assist the cause. Miss Rockbell is free to accompany him in her own capacity as federal agent, should she wish to.” Winry involuntarily moved a step away from the Ishvalan, closer to the sagging Jean and Edward.
“You two, however,” the captain paused to appreciate the state they were in. The clothes on Havoc’s left side were saturated with blood, while Edward dragged the weight of two borderline dysfunctional limbs. He complained of a killer headache now that the sedatives had run their course. “Will catch the first train back to Central, once the medic has patched you up.”
The Ishvalan made to leave the trio behind and head for the battlefield, leaving the others hanging in anticipation for a murderous outburst that never came. Not from the Ishvalan at least.
“Oi, Captain Idiot!” Ed banked on the man’s affront to stop ignoring their protests. “Did the sun boil your brain? Why are you releasing him? He almost killed all of us!” Ed’s left arm gesticulated wildly between Misha and his own companions. Just because the Ishvalan hadn’t murdered them in their sleep over the past few days – they’d rotated vigil to be sure – didn’t mean he couldn’t change his mind. Men like him were ruthless.
Then Ed turned towards the balding man, who’d undone Misha’s cuffs with little fuss and the ease of habit. It infuriated Ed all the more, for his own countless failures to do just that. “Hey, you, Kinky Geek! If you’re open for business, why not take these off,” Ed shook his left sleeve away from his own bracelet, “now you’ve sprung homicidal over there?”
The assassin paused long enough to give Edward a warning, before the State Restriction scientist could even process Ed’s impetuous request.
“Your soul should have returned to Ishvala this week, Elric. There are two reasons standing between you and that fate, and you’d better heed them. That restriction,” he nodded at the alchemic repressor Edward just could not get rid of, “and more importantly the protection of the Rockbells’ daughter.”
Both Winry and Ed gaped at the haunted man who had almost been the death of both of them.
“The moment you discard those, you’ll be another enemy for me to hunt down. Remember that well.” With those foreboding words, the scarred Ishvalan left to separate more mortal souls from their living shells during the in-full-swing Red River Op.
The medic treated and bandaged the nasty wound to Jean’s ribs. Winry was still processing the shock of the past few hours while Edward stewed over a lost golden opportunity, as the still flustered scientist had hastily scurried off. Winry only had superficial scratches and bruises and, when Edward’s turn came, he grumbled at the medic that all he needed was a mechanic. When informed that the nearest mechanic was located in West City, Edward didn’t take it well.
Winry looked contemplative. “You know,” she finally interrupted Ed. “My grandmother was an automail mechanic.”
Edward wasn’t in the mood for small talk. To him, nice or not, Winry Rockbell was an odd nuisance – slanted against ACIS on Kimblee’s side of bureaucracy – that he needed to be rid of before all else.
“That’s nice. So?” His insincerity to stop any chatter didn’t work.
Winry looked at him, a ‘you don’t want to mess with me’ look firmly back in place in those blazing blue eyes, now that her tormentor had gone. “I’ve read most of her books. I could take a look at the damage. I can’t possibly make things worse.”
Ed wanted to protest just how badly she could mess up with the wiring, if she was just going to play around. But the limbs felt like they would need replacing anyway, and at the moment they were little more than dead weight. He was in no condition to follow Misha and find out the secrets hidden under the desert. Al called the shot. “That might be helpful, thank you.”
She looked honestly surprised. Even Havoc, sitting nearby, paused in lighting his cigarette. Alphonse chuckled, interpreting their stares. “Brother is actually quite considerate, once you learn to read him.” He defended his self-sacrificing older sibling. “You just caught him at the wrong time.”
Alphonse sighed. “Besides, we need to be able to move around, if we are going to help out there.” He pointed in the direction of the violent conflict on the horizon, where the forbidden research center carved out one of the rock peaks. The younger Elric flexed his left hand and looked toward Jean once the doctor was out of earshot. “And once all that senseless fighting is over, we need to confiscate their research notes before the military can run off with it.”
* * *
Before the scarred Ishvalan’s arrival, the soldiers from western headquarters had been making slow progress across no man’s land. Their march toward one of the many crags in the largest jutting rock that harboured the perfectly concealed entrance to the Thule facility’s suspected misdeeds was a slow progression with heavy casualties. After Misha, wounded and bandaged up though he was, ploughed his way through the resistance, the going got easier a lot faster for the regular soldiers.
Alphonse followed in the wake of the dead, dying and the advancing soldiers, down out of the dry heat and blinding sunlight and into the cool belly of the hidden facility. As he progressed farther down into the torchlight, the spiralling slope of the natural cave walls gave way to manmade doors – so Al discovered upon looking through a few doorways, thrown open either by escaping scientists, experiments or invaders, or a few simply kept unlocked – and the labs they hid from scrutiny of both the population and the majority of Amestris’ government.
Most laboratories they passed were devoid of life. The scientists had either fled the commotion, taking the most valuable parts of their research with them, or they’d been so absorbed in their work that either the soldiers or Misha had taken them by surprise. If the latter had happened upon them, there were bloody corpses left behind. When it had been the soldiers, they’d got orders to take as many of the scientists alive as possible. Had the scientists resisted too violently, for example by trying to set their precious specimens upon the bluecoats, then fire had been opened at will and there were still bodies for the clean-up team to pick up.
Alphonse knew he needed to vacate this slaughterhouse before the body bags came in. He couldn’t take nearly as much time as he needed to look through the few scattered research notes left behind in various labs. His one bit of luck was that the scientists had apparently felt safe enough from the outside world they hadn’t bothered with encrypting their work. This let Al more readily discard what work didn’t appear to have any use to him as he scavenged the labs.
Anything reporting the successful merger of two species got slipped into the canvas bag hung over his left shoulder. Such notes might just hold a vital clue to unmerging his own soul from his brother’s body, when the time came. At that rate, other papers, likely from research assistants on subjects like lobster/algae symbiosis, got left behind. A repugnant folder, labelled Xerxian Supremacy Breeding Programme, found in an utterly overturned, larger than average lab, gave Al pause. He leafed through some observations, catching a few random dates like 1899 and 1900, both reporting on the success of mating Remnant #23 with Subject E78. The project had been cancelled in 1902 for reasons that had been blacked out on the paper, before resuming again as if it had never been on hold, two years later. Not seeing any relevance and discomforted by the idea of breeding humans for some sort of specific gene pool, Al left that file alone and searched for other clues. In doing so, he noticed that the far wall looked like it had been recently patched up through alchemy. If his knocking hadn’t have sounded hollow, it might have been nothing. Maybe it wasn’t anything; both Misha and the military seemed to have brushed past it, but Alphonse thought – more than a little spurred on by Ed’s own curiosity – it couldn’t hurt to take a look. There was a certain scent on the air, Al realised, that Ed recognised. Agitated feedback flooded Alphonse’s system, a queasy feeling settling in his stomach along with the sensation.
“What is it?” Al asked his brother out loud, because Ed just didn’t deal in ‘upset’. Ed normally got pissed off, plain morose or pulled a mother hen impression. This new kind of discomfort unsettled Alphonse.
‘This smell, I hate it.’ His brother wasn’t talking about the blood or the fire or the stale air in which the other scents mingled. It was something else, fleeting yet lingering. Al was drawing a blank, but he trusted Ed on the matter. Whatever was unnerving his brother, it was a recollection currently beyond their grasp. Though, if the bad feeling was anything to go by, perhaps they were better off not knowing. It wasn’t like they had time to squander, either. Better to get on with their job.
Alphonse was again distracted from his self-appointed task of deconstructing the cover-up wall, this time by sounds much closer than the more distant shots of soldier retribution and remaining chimeras being caged or killed.
A long, low whine echoed off the large cavernous path just outside the lab. It was followed by a harsh shushing sound and a man speaking in hushed tones. Prodded to find out if the stranger was friend or foe, Al moved closer to the partially open doorway and hoped Ed’s automail didn’t squeak too loudly to be detected by whoever happened by.
As he moved closer, Al finally got into hearing range. The man speaking was definitely not someone either he or Ed knew, judging by his voice. “You just have to be a good girl while we play hide and seek with the soldiers, okay, Nina?”
A deep, raspy voice that didn’t sound anything like a little girl – or even a little boy – answered slowly. “Okay.”
It spoke again, a soft whine trailing its words. “It hurts, Daddy.”
It seemed as if the brothers felt a simultaneous blow to their midriff. Al’s breath caught as the memories from two different viewpoints tried to overlap and meld together in his mind. The memory took the brothers – shoved them, really, down memory lane at breakneck speed – back to that day, in that dark room, to that lowest moment of utter despair.
‘“Hurt-s.”’/-‘“Hurt-s.”’- The shifting, partially overlapping viewpoints associated with the traumatic memory, one from Ed’s point of view at a young age, the other an impression of Al’s soul trapped in their failure, fought for their attention. It physically hurt. Alphonse’s sense of the present blurred. His – Ed’s – head pounded as blood rushed in his ears and his stomach turned at the repressed shock and revulsion which lingered with that dark memory. Alphonse’s thoughts twisted their way through Ed’s mind, rushed to the next thing Al remembered: an endless plain of white and a huge set of stone doors. There was a person there, Alphonse had seen him before, last time too, but last time was later than what Al just thought of. Not that he was given the time to analyse, he just caught a glimpse of a starving body with a long, golden mane, reaching for him and, in response, Al felt an overwhelming sense of belonging and the desire to grab that hand.
“Golden hair and eyes.” The man’s eyes glazed over, he continued in a mutter, mostly to himself. “I never thought Marcoh had actually produced any substantial results for Edison.” His gaze lingered on the half-functional automail limbs. Small eyes narrowed suspiciously. “Not that Edison would ever grant the resources to a failure to get expensive replacements.”
The man wasn’t finished yet. “If you’re not an experiment, then you’re with the soldiers. An expendable liability. Years of work they’ve ruined.” He cocked the gun. Al was ready this time and a low wall of earth sprang into existence to ricochet the bullet. A large hand, made of the same mineral composition immobilised his attacker, while the man marvelled at his display of alchemy.
“You are one of his creations! Improbable, but the facts are there. Your colouring could have been attributed to a genetic glitch, but to possess the quick reflexes and superior affinity for alchemy as well... The chances are astronomical.”
‘Definitely a mad scientist.’
The chimera had positioned itself in front of the caught scientist, clearly defensive, yet not attacking.
This left all the short span of time Alphonse needed to inspect the hidden section he’d discovered earlier. It turned out to be pretty disappointing. It had most definitely been part of one large laboratory; however now it stood ransacked and deserted.
Loud growls made Al swivel back to the chimera and captured scientist. Misha was making his way back up to the surface it would seem, and had happened upon them. Again Al witnessed the killer in those ruby eyes as Misha passed judgement on the other man.
“Shou Tucker, the Sewing-Life Alchemist.”
Alphonse was surprised; Ed full blown shocked that the raving imbecile was a former State Alchemist.
“He knows a lot, he might prove useful.” Al volunteered in order to deter the scarred Ishvalan. Neither of the brothers condoned coldblooded murder, no matter what heinous deeds Tucker might have committed.
Ruby eyes regarded Al frostily. “He is a breathing sin upon Ishvala’s larger creation. Obliterating such evil and its consequences,” the tattooed man spared a glance at the growling chimera, “would be a kindness for the greater good.”
Ed started moving almost before Misha, nearly the same time as the chimera leapt. Ed screamed, furious, because he knew that chimera was part little girl. Al shoved Ed aside, clapping hands together to form spikes out of the ground to drive the man away from his next victims. Alphonse was fast as ever. The Ishvalan was faster.
Al and Ed stared in equal horror at the mess Misha made of their attack, the alchemist and, most importantly, the chimera.
The assassin turned away from the bodies. “The next time you attempt to strike me, this will be you.” He indicated the two corpses that now joined the multitude of his victims. “Come, Elric. We will leave this hellhole now.”
The man who had singlehandedly turned the tide on the Red River Op left the horror of the Thule Facility in ruins.
Chapter 7: Case Closed
Yet the real quest for answers is only just beginning.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Friday, April 13, 09:36 – Central City – National Central Library – First Branch
It took a serious game of connect the dots to link all recent reports of chimera sightings in and around Central together with what the eyes and ears of the slum folk picked up and could be persuaded to share with Miles. That information was then cross-referenced against what intel certain spies of the populace of Xing Town would barter with Roy for.
At that point, Team Mustang had verified the Director’s lead, but had held back on a full out raid on the suspected hideout once reports from West Area started coming in. ACIS would grant those factors who’d escaped the raid on the Thule facility a few days of false belief that they’d successfully escaped persecution. Those people would be lured to the ‘uncompromised’ safety of their Central-based alleged hideout: the mostly intact vaults under the once massive archive of the First Branch National Library. Speculation had been that those hiding there used part of the adjunctive sewer network to move around the metropolis mostly undetected; hence a lack of regular track patterns above ground, and a way to keep the enemy safe from view and compromise.
“There is a certain irony to it.” Breda pondered. “The cream of the crop of the military turned insurgent after their dishonourable exile. For them to then be linked to directing scouts of a veritable chimera army from the epicentre of the First Branch Library, no less.” The building had been torched during one of the 1910 protests against the State Alchemist programme, and its ruins never rebuilt once it was judged beyond a reasonable restoration effort. “A terrorist programme succeeding through banned forms of alchemy, operating from the ashes of what was once a source of wealth for said alchemy. It’s clever. Shows some of the intelligence of the leaders to be more than just brawn. Who knows what the guerrillas might have salvaged from the library vaults over time?”
Roy slipped on his pristine gloves, the coarse texture across his skin a familiar responsibility, the salamander symbol winking up at him. He would not be able to perform the tactical assault and defence as he once had, but precisely aimed pinprick attacks and the creation of smokescreens were valuable in their own right.
With Havoc returned from the West, but stuck in the hospital, Team Mustang felt two men short. Scar had not been released from the doctors’ clutches either, admitted as he had been upon his return for gunshot wounds, cracked ribs and a damaged lung. Olivia Armstrong had been wise enough to keep the still green CIA liaison on Elric protection detail and had consented that CIA sequester the boy in one of their personal holding cells until the current terrorist problems could be resolved. This arrangement only worked because the director made a deal with the Elrics that they were free to study the scattered research notes the boys had pilfered from the Thule Company, as long as they remained on CIA ground and under the assigned protection detail. Once Edward had started reading, the CIA had no more fuss with him. Immerged in the coded notes as Edward was and separated from all the daily administrative business, the young man didn’t even notice his bodyguard, Winry Rockbell, all that much.
Miles was filling in for the team’s missing personnel, but the squad wasn’t complete until Hughes had brazenly shown up, combat ready, with some unexpected backup. “Greetings, Roy Mustang, estranged son of the Su Clan.” Lin Yao had come with in person, along with a couple of trackers and a handful of his most skilled bodyguards.
The Yao clan leader defended his voluntary involvement: “I believe we can agree it is in both our interests to see this threat removed from the city.” And possibly obtain more information on the forbidden branches of alchemy than the government wanted anyone – let alone these foreigners – to get their hands on. Just like that, the prince, an illegal immigrant, had invited himself to a professional ACIS raid. Under normal circumstances, Lin’s offer would have been flat out refused. At gunpoint. Mostly for politics’ sake. However, even the by-the-book Miles was not going to turn down the excellent skills of the Xingese warriors. This operation would simply be listed as another event that had never occurred in Central’s streets, along with a whole slew of similar happenstances in the site’s rich history which were still whispered on the wind.
The extended team descended past the ashes of lost knowledge, into the brick bowels of the once grand reference library. Strong drafts created a breeze that muffled the sound of their footsteps to a certain extent.
They followed the nigh inaudible instructions of their Xingese shadows to take a left, further down, then two times right. Every dark, dank corner harboured shifting shadows that might cloak a feral nature with dripping fangs, sharp claws and top notch night vision.
The few chimeric beasts who charged them head on never stood a chance. A few rounds fired left the sharp scent of gunpowder lingering on the air current, soon mingling with the acrid scent of singed hair as Roy pitched his flames. Having revealed their approach, the team moved on swifter, though not compromising on their caution. The scrape of metal against bone could be heard occasionally as the Xingese picked up the ‘slack.’ One of Hughes’ throwing knives dropped another charging monster. Slobber dribbled, blood sprayed and snarls and yelps echoed in the vast underground interlinked vaults.
With Lin’s assistance in sensing different types of life-force, locating the mastermind, Professor Hiesgart, changed from a darn slim chance to better odds. The team’s luck turned once they tried to take the old man into custody. The paranoid ‘good doctor’ had, over the years, created a small superhuman armed force for his personal protection.
Roy stretched the limits of his inhibited alchemy to ensure the relative safety of those under his command. While they fought, the professor monologued at leisure about how the intruders shouldn’t be damaged too badly, they could make fine specimens for the latest chimeric merger method he was developing. The old man’s overconfidence in his finest creations cost him his victory and freedom.
Some of their own were injured in the vicious mêlée, but finally the man was overpowered and ACIS plus Lin’s guards could start to either further eliminate or capture some of the chimera alive, depending on their ferocity or docility. The captured, more even-tempered creatures and handful of human chimeras would still be treated lab rats, but if there was any chance of restoration for them, then there was no sense in rushing their demise.
Central military reinforcements arrived suspiciously late to the scene, something to discuss with the director, as Roy made a mental note to do. Still, the troops were in time to cart the babbling Professor Hiesgart and his snivelling conspirator, former Brigadier General Edison, off linea recta to Central Prison, to join the recently incarcerated in West Area and then transferred former Brigadier General Clemin.
Once all hostiles were secured onto their armoured transported and everyone was accounted for, Roy smirked at his mostly intact crew. “Too bad Jean had to sit this one out. He would have loved how the media is going to have a field day with this.”
Indeed, the departure of the MP vehicles left the just arrived ambulances and the first reporters crowding the scene. ACIS’ temporary, foreign backup had vacated the scene, back to their own territory, through the very tunnels they’d just combed out.
Roy hustled Hughes with his dislocated shoulder and Breda with a nasty leg wound toward the paramedics as he straightened his uniform and caught Miles’ eye. Time to weave a wonderful tall tale for the press.
Monday, April 16, 10:04 – Central City – ACSI HQ
Three ugly mugs had been crossed off the most wanted list. No one had died and Riza’s welcome back party was rescheduled for the day Havoc would be released from the hospital. Hughes’ suspension had been lifted, even though Olivia had reassigned Roy’s best friend to Sheska’s dull department for the foreseeable future. On the bright side, Roy had another newspaper clipping, ACIS’s Most Successful Saves the Day, to rub in General Grumman’s face the next time their paths crossed.
Winry beamed at Riza as the pair met up for lunch. “The Director of Intelligence has granted me a full six months period to continue my liaison function with your agency. I look forward to working with you all.”
Team Mustang didn’t mind much the chance to break Kimblee’s hold over the young woman’s psyche. As an added bonus, it presented the veritable golden opportunity for Miss Rockbell to train in the delicate procedure of being the handler of a brass genius, who – like Hughes – remained under close surveillance for the near future. Especially with said boy going on about having cracked the code of the pilfered Thule research documents and wanting to track down the presumed dead Crystal Alchemist. Not that the regular agents had much time to be concerned with such minor details in the grand scheme of things.
Knox came to inform Roy, who was trying and failing to get his influx of paperwork into some semblance of order, that he had the works ready on three cadavers and needed a signature. If Mustang could be so good as to do some actual work? It was the perfect excuse and really, the papers could be delegated.
Team Mustang had their next case lined up.
No pandas were hurt during the production of this story (a.k.a. yes, Xiao Mei get reunited with May, even though RanFan wanted to use the little bugger for target practice.)
Open ended, mostly because I like the idea of this just being one possible case in the 'verse. (That doesn't mean I'll write more about it, just that I can if I ever want to. If I do, it'll have more Hughes - and Kimblee. And I could get into the whole deal with Trisha, but story's gotta end somewhere, right?) Also, the super short last scene is because I simply ran out of time. ^^; Like I said: might work on that some day.
Any feedback you want to leave will be treasured. This completes my first time writing BigBang. XD
Thanks again, evil_little_dog & chiiyo86