"I think," Jean said carefully, holding Alexander Edwards' personal file between his gloved fingertips, "this has been tampered with."
"How so?" Breda asked, still waiting by the door of the university's small secretarial office.
"Alchemy. I think. We should probably ask a State Alchemist to have a look at it." Jean slipped it into a plastic bag, and nodded at the nervous women standing in front of her desk. "Thanks for your help, ma'am, we're just borrowing this for a while."
She nodded nervously, and Havoc tipped her a smile and a wink. His mind was on something other than flirting, however; alchemical tampering with this particular file, not to mention the portrait with the same initials, had given him a sneaking suspicion. It wasn't fully formed, and he knew if he mentioned it to anyone he'd be ridiculed, but at the same time he felt like he was close. Alexander had reminded him forcefully of someone familiar in the market place, but he couldn't quite think who. There wasn't enough evidence to point out that the boy had done anything wrong, yet, let alone to order him arrested and questioned, so he'd decided to investigate more thoroughly.
Breda strode with him down the corridor, nodding innocently at the soldiers who passed them occasionally. Out of the corner of his mouth, he asked, "have you shown anyone the portrait yet?"
"I might show Farman," Havoc said, quietly. "I want it dated. If it's old, it's still odd but a lot easier to explain, but if it's recent..."
"I don't understand," Breda complained.
"If the signature is indeed that of Alexander Edwards, it might be something he painted when he was still in Central. You have to admit, the Lieutenant Colonel does make a striking sight. Maybe she even posed for it. But if it's recent..."
"It could be from memory," Breda said with a small frown.
"Could be," Havoc agreed. "But you'd have to have known someone well to be able to paint them from memory, especially when you've been in this town for at least two years. The date he started working here was on his form," he added when Breda shot him a curious glance.
"Of course, it might not even be the same person."
"Maybe not, but the file has been changed, and that means there's something he doesn't want us to know. So, I want to find out," he said. "The style of the type in the printed sections of his background and his family sections is off, and some parts of them don't match up—he's listed himself down as being 'single', on his personal information form, but on his background it says he's living with his 'partner of five years'. That's it, though. I think it's been done alchemically because it's too good to be a common forgery." They emerged in the cafeteria, and blinked at the unusual amount of people gathered there.
"What's going on?" Breda demanded loudly, but though he got a few confused glances from people nearby, nobody bothered to explain.
Jean spotted Maria Ross standing demurely by the far wall, Danny Broche beside her. He made his way over, squeezing past clusters of people, all of whom were engaged in some good old-fashioned whinging—which, along with all that damn paperwork, made up three quarters of military activities.
"Have you heard?" Maria offered by way of greeting.
"No, just got here. What happened?"
"You just missed the Fuhrer's announcement. We start moving on Yikatrinburg in five hours."
"What bought that on?" Breda demanded. "I thought we were going to sit tight until they lost their nerve and either blew us up or ran away."
"So did I," Maria said with a frown. "Something must have happened, though."
Havoc reviewed the last two hours since Mustang's arrival. "He went to speak to Fury, then to General Armstrong and Colonel McQueen. They must've told him something which made him change his mind."
"Eh, maybe they threatened us," Broche said with a shrug.
"Maybe. We'll probably get a better explanation later. Either that or some snapped fingers and one of his, 'don't interrupt me, I'm plotting world domination!' speeches." Havoc said with a knowing grin. "Well, I'd better get moving. I'll probably be in Hawkeye's squadron, and she'll kill me if I'm not where I'm supposed to be."
Ross grinned at him. "I don't need to say "good luck", do I?"
"Only to Breda—he forgets these things."
"Piss off, Jean."
They laughed, because it was better than thinking about what lay ahead. Jean was a hardened soldier—God, he'd survived Ishbal—but it was that moment, the bit where you stepped into enemy territory for the first time, that always unnerved him. The tension could be maddening. Anything could be waiting for you with cities, too; guerrilla warfare was a bitch, only slightly better than trenches.
As he skulked towards the encampment he'd been assigned to, on the east side of the city, he felt the borrowed file press against his ribcage. Damn. Alexander and his secrets would have to wait.
The loud knock on the door roused Alphonse, who flopped pitifully and slammed his pillow over his head. "Brother," he complained sleepily, "tell them to go away."
"No bloody way," Ed muttered. He had been curled against the warmth of Al's back, but now he stretched and nudged his brother into sitting up. "It could be the military. You answer the door, I'm gonna leave. Call me back if it's okay." Their bathroom window overlooked the roof of the house next door, and thus made a perfect escape route for someone as athletic as Edward.
"Do the military ever knock?" Al asked, pulling himself over to the edge of the bed. "Eh. Where are my pants?" Ed threw them at him and left the room, and the knocking got even louder. It was starting to sound like someone was trying to play some sort of heavy drum solo with his door knocker. "I'm COMING! Let me get dressed, already!"
Perhaps he shouldn't have been surprised that it was Winry on his doorstep, toolbox over her shoulder, looking just as pissed as he felt. "What took you so long?" she demanded, stepping in and looking around. "And where's your obnoxious brother?"
"He jumped out the bathroom window when he heard you knocking," Alphonse snapped, shutting the door behind her. Winry stared at him for a couple of minutes before her corners of her thunderous scowl twitched, and she began to laugh.
"That's one way to avoid automail maintenance," she said between giggles, bent double with the force of her laughter, her hands on her knees. Al felt his own black mood slip a little and cracked his first smile of the day—and he hadn't even had his coffee yet.
"I don't know, it depends how he landed. If he's damaged it, we'd have to fight over who gets to kill him...Hmm. Want something to drink? We don't have any white sugar, though."
"Tea, please. If he damaged anything, we can share; I'd kill him for not appreciating my work and you'd kill him for wasting your money," she said with a wry grin as Alphonse filled the kettle up. "I'll go fetch him. Where is he?"
"I told you, he jumped out the bathroom window," Al said, stifling a yawn as he put the kettle on the stove. The pants were Ed's, and, though he would never point it out to his brother, they were far too small. He peered down at his exposed ankles and pursed his lips, wanting very much to go change. "I'll just go call him. It's...um...two whistles for 'Winry', I think."
"You even have a code?" Winry asked, an expression of amusement creeping across her face.
"His fault. I was painting and he was bored."
Ed was to be found lurking directly under the window ledge, difficult to spot either from the bathroom or the road in front of the building. He'd grabbed his boxers before his impromptu exit and a pair of socks, but they were the only items of clothing he wore. Al frowned at the sight, reminded that winter was approaching and they'd have to start leaving a coat in the bathroom or something, otherwise Edward might freeze to death. "Brother, it's Winry," he called, offering his left arm to Ed to let him climb back in. "You should have put on some shorts or something," he said with a frown, looking his brother up and down. "You look..."
"I know," Ed snarled, but he was shivering as he did so, and Al couldn't find it in himself to be annoyed. Edward's clothes, abandoned after his shower last night, were scattered over the bathroom floor, and Al picked them up and sniffed them to test their freshness.
"Ugh. We need to do the washing," he said with absolutely no enthusiasm. "Whose turn is it?"
"Yours," Ed said, already wandering into their bedroom to raid their chest of drawers. Al sighed and returned to the living room, where the kettle was just finished boiling, to find Winry in the process of apparently emptying out his kitchen shelves onto the floor.
"Where'd you keep the tea bags?" she asked, digging through an overhead cupboard. Al lifted the lid on a small pot by the kitchen sink and peered thoughtfully at the contents.
"Brother, did we buy green tea or is that mould?"
"Probably mould, Winry's the only one who drinks the damn stuff," Ed replied, emerging from the bedroom as he did so. "Hey there."
"...I am definitely taking you two shopping. Until then, I'll have coffee," Winry said, still kneeling on the kitchen counter but now staring in horrified fascination at the green teabags in the pot. "And 'hey' yourself, Ed." She shifted until her legs were dangling over the side of the counter, watching Ed take a seat close to the fire. "So, how's life been for you two lately?"
"Fine," Al said, pouring carefully. "I had a moment of disaster yesterday when I met Jean Havoc in the market-place, but that's about it, and judging from the fact that Fuhrer Mustang hasn't burned the door down so far, we're okay."
"Ah. I heard he was coming here before I left Central. That's why I'm late—the trains only go as far as North City at the moment."
"How'd you get here, then? Drove?" Ed asked, and Al slid his cup of coffee across the table towards him.
"I was planning to get off at North City, hire a car, and go from there to here. But—thanks, Al, this coffee looks good and more importantly, safe—North City has a population of essentially three men. And a goat."
"So you stole the goat?"
"Ed," Winry said, narrowing her eyes warningly. Ed grinned but didn't follow that comment up with anything about the uses of said goat, for which Al was grateful; Winry's favourite wrench was never far away, and he wasn't paying for the blood to be cleaned out of the carpet... "No, I walked. Seven miles. To some large-ish town whose name I can't even pronounce, let alone spell, and got a lift from a doctor who also had family here. Seven miles! Now don't you dare say I don't make an effort for you," she growled, jabbing a finger at Ed, who contrived to look innocent.
"Wouldn't dream of it," he replied cheerfully, taking a sip of his coffee and lidding his eyes blissfully against the steam. "Mmmph. Thanks, Al, this is good."
Alphonse had found a nearly-fresh loaf of bread in the bread bin and was sawing it into slices. "It's okay," he said without looking around. "Winry, do you want some toast?"
"Um... sure," the girl replied, pushing herself off the kitchen side and standing behind Ed, beginning to run her hands over the edge of the port. "Do you have any jam?"
"Strawberry or raspberry," Ed said, still clutching his coffee tightly. "And some cherry spread in the cupboard to your left, Al. I'll have the strawberry today."
"I'll take the cherry," Winry called, distractedly prodding Edward's shoulder. "Stretch out your arm. No, you don't have to let go of the coffee, idiot. Hmmm."
"This would be much easier if I was lying down, you know," Ed pointed out.
"Yes, but I need to see you using it before I can see what needs doing. You should know that by now. Twist your arm for me."
Al put three slices of bread in a skillet and stuck them on the stove, where the kettle had been a few seconds before. He ambled around the small kitchen, finding plates, knives and the two requested jams, and tried not to watch Winry pulling Edward's cold steel limb around. He couldn't help but feel guilty about recovering his perfect human body while Ed still had his automail, though Ed had assured him repeatedly that it was okay and that he didn't mind being like he was—in fact, had viciously stomped on any of Al's efforts to try and fix his brother's body. "It was you who we needed to restore, not me," Ed had snapped during one particularly heated argument.
"I made a promise, brother!" Al had replied, just as stubbornly. "What use are my promises if you won't let me keep them?" The expression that had appeared on Ed's face when he said that, the hurt and fear and love all mixed together, had stopped Al's efforts with human transmutation quicker than any of their arguing had. The knowledge that Edward was scared—terrified, even—of losing his little brother had been like a splash of cold water to the face. That day had also been the first day Edward had kissed Alphonse with any passion, unlike the usual platonic kisses on his cheeks and forehead before bed, though Al suspected Ed had been itching to do so long before he got his body back.
"Hmmm," Winry said through her teeth, drawing his attention back to the now. He turned the bread in the skillet, grateful that they were only well-toasted rather than charcoal black, and listened with half an ear to Winry's diagnosis. "I think it's a bit too loose here, and the bolts at the elbow are too tight in contrast. And you've done something very weird to the thumb. I'll have a look at your leg after we go shopping, but mostly I think your arm just needs a few tweaks here and there. Like last time."
"The knee's been locking randomly. I think it may be rusting slightly."
"Ed-waard! I tell you every time to oil it more often! This should teach you to listen!"
Alphonse bought the now-finished toast out and put it onto the table, watching Winry flex Ed's elbow joint, a thoughtful expression on her face. Ed tossed his little brother a long-suffering grin and reached for the food, his fingers brushing a few inches shy of the plate, and Al stalled any more efforts by handing him a slice. The silence must have grating on Winry's nerves, because presently she tried to initiate conversation. "So, what would you two be doing today if I wasn't here?"
"I'd be working," Al replied with a shrug. "The military have taken over the university, though."
"At least you still have your painting," Ed pointed out, clenching his teeth as Winry unhooked his arm to examine the efficiency of the port.
"Hold on, you've got something in here. Al, could you fetch me a clean cloth from my bag? Thanks. Um. Oil? Ed! I told you back when you first got the arm I painstakingly crafted; too much oil can be as bad as not enough! Clean up after yourself better, lazy!"
"I do! Ngh—OW, Winry—I mean," Ed snapped, and Alphonse uncrossed his arms to come and hover behind his brother, hand resting on Ed's flesh shoulder, "I do clean up any excess oil, but it's impossible to look inside my own automail port!"
"Then I'll do it for you, brother," Al said quietly, cutting Winry's reply off before she could make it. "All you had to do was ask. You don't have to do everything by yourself, you know."
Ed shut his mouth sharply against an automatic protest and nodded thoughtfully. Winry smiled at the pair of them and shook her head, gripping Ed's other shoulder as she pushed his arm back into the port. Ed yelped, half from the familiar pain and half at the unexpectedness of its arrival, and might have leapt off the chair if Al hadn't braced him, wrapping one arm around his chest and pushing down firmly on the living shoulder. Ed slumped in his brother's grip, panting softly as he waited for the after burn to fade. "Thanks, Al," Winry said, wiping her hands on the cloth she'd used to clean the port only seconds before, and threw it down on the table as she vanished into their bathroom. "Get dressed, the pair of you. I'm taking you guys shopping."
Ed pressed his head back against Al's chest and looked up into Al's eyes, managing a rueful smile. "Why are we still friends with her?"
"Because she does a lot for us, brother," Al replied, with a soft smile. He reluctantly released his brother and took a step towards their bedroom, turning a cocky grin on the bemused figure slumped on the chair and holding out a hand. "Come on. Tea isn't the only thing we need to buy."
"Wait—what? You mean—?"
"You must want to go outside, brother. You haven't been able to leave for two weeks. Come on. You can wear one of those bearskins, if you want," he added, grinning at Ed's unamused expression. His brother stood, however, catching Al's hand and allowing himself to be pulled through the door. Al pushed him back over the chest of drawers, kissing him deeply, and pulled away to fling open their wardrobe. Ed rested his elbows on the hard surface behind him and made no effort to move anywhere else, panting with a different sort of breathlessness. Al spared him a grin before leafing through the contents.
Hmm. There was Ed's old red coat, which his brother outright refused to throw away. There was its twin, the fabric a darker red, which Ed had made for him while he was still getting used to his body out of some spare fabric in Pinako Rockbell's attic. There was the fur-lined coat Ed had bought in Central and discovered was too large, which Al wore all the time now; he unhooked that one and threw it onto the bed. A little digging deeper in the recesses of the wardrobe revealed a slim wrap-around light grey trench coat. It wouldn't protect Ed from hypothermia, but it would keep him reasonably warm while being unremarkable enough that nobody would look at it twice.
A brief examination located a choice of a black bandana, one of those odd flat fur hats the locals wore, or a fleece-lined cap with ear-flaps. Ed wordlessly took the bandana, and Al twisted his brother's long golden hair into a low ponytail, securing his bangs behind his ears with a few hair clips, to allow him to wear it. It was only when he went looking for Ed's best pair of sunshades that he felt the anger bubble up in him. Ed must have noticed something was wrong when he took the dark glasses, unfolding the arms and sliding them on. "Don't worry about it," he said gently. "It's only for a little while."
"I know, brother," Al said quietly. "I just don't like it, that's all."
"Never said you had to," Ed replied, a little indifferently, as he tugged on the coat. With his hair out of his face and his gold eyes hidden behind the smoky lenses, he looked a lot less like Ed, but his skin was still too light for a true Northerner. Al bit his lip, but decided that he couldn't be bothered to mess around any more. "I'm ready, what about you?" Ed asked as he finished tugging on his gloves, his voice drawing Al's attention back to the fact that he still wore Ed's too-small pants and the scruffy t-shirt.
"Um. Yeah. You go ahead, I'll catch up."
"Don't take too long, Al," Ed said with a small smirk as he headed out. Al tugged on his own clothes, scowling. He knew the reason behind the secrecy, of course, but that didn't mean he had to like it. He wished, vaguely, that they didn't have to hide, that they didn't have to run from their old friends, that they could walk down the street without fear. But then he thought of Ed's silver watch, and his brother in that encampment outside Lior, announcing in that toneless voice that he was a dog of the military, and they'd have to abandon their search for now, because the military called, and the Fullmetal Alchemist would have to obey. He thought of Ishbal and the tiny crack in Roy Mustang's mask every time he mentioned it. He thought of Tim Marcoh, spending his days in a mire of fear, and guilt.
He weighed the guilt against the fear, thought of Fullmetal as a separate entity, opposed to his brother, and was abruptly glad they'd killed off that part of Edward Elric before something nasty could happen to him.
Havoc pressed his back against the barricade, dropping his rifle across his knees and lighting a cigarette. He knew the old story about the match; first cigarette catches the sniper's eye, and all that, but he didn't think one more fire would be noticeable at the moment.
Half of downtown Yikatrinburg was on fire, burning fiercely. The flames lit up the night sky, and made it seem almost like midday. These fires hadn't been started by the Fuhrer, though; as soon as they could, the terrorists—this mysterious Drachnian, or pro—Drachnian, liberation group whose agenda remained a mystery behind bureaucratic jargon—had detonated the explosives they'd hidden over this segment of the city.
Havoc winced as another one went off, a house about four hundred metres down the street he and the rest of Hawkeye's squadron had barricaded. From the other end of the road came steady fire from an unknown source, but whoever they were, they were too far away, and the weapons they used too dated, to do more than dent the first layer of the barricade. Havoc counted to about five before popping his head over the top of the makeshift wall, aiming carefully, and with three squeezes of the trigger and three matching screams there was an abrupt ringing silence from that end of the road.
Hawkeye had them wait five minutes before leaving cover, rifles over their shoulders and pistols in hand. Farman dragged the communicator, the portable radio of Fury's own design, and through it they could hear the sounds of heavy fire, screams, shouted, breathless instructions and through it all, the hiss of the city-wide flames.
Roy hadn't been planning to use his gloves. He'd wanted to go with Hawkeye's squadron, borrowing a handgun and a sniper rifle; he didn't like firearms, but he'd rather kill that way than with his alchemy. Riza had stepped on that option, however, which was why he found himself in the communications and intelligence tent at the back of the fire-fight with Armstrong towering over him, and not for the first time, he cursed the woman. He listened carefully to the reports fired in through the radios or delivered by breathless sooty or bloody messengers, breathed easier every time Riza reported in, no matter what she said, and worried if he didn't hear her voice at the appointed intervals.
"Second street captured, Private Rupert Flint down, over."
He flinched, but steeled himself. This was Riza Hawkeye, Ishbal veteran, sniper rifle expert and veritable guru on firearm combat. She was surrounded by twenty others, all almost as good, and Jean Havoc, who was another Ishbal survivor. "Flame Alchemist to Lieutenant Colonel Riza Hawkeye—intelligence reports large group making its way towards you down Third Street. Let them wipe you out and I swear, you will be post-humously demoted back to Private. Over."
"Understood, Flame. We will not die this day, over and out."
Armstrong said nothing as Roy paced back and forth, for which the man was obscurely grateful. He couldn't have put his finger on why he hated the thought of losing any more of his subordinates, though he would have blamed the deaths of Maes Hughes and Edward Elric if anyone had asked. He shifted uncomfortably, trying not to think of them, not now, when Riza and Havoc and Farman and Breda were in danger. He had lost too many friends, too many colleagues, and didn't like being this far away from those he had left when they might need his help.
A crackle of static, and a scream tore through the tent from the radio. Riza's voice could be heard shouting for a retreat, and Roy swivelled and made his way out. He was in the jeep waiting outside, with the ignition screeching to life, by the time Armstrong caught up to him. The man took one look at Roy's expression and climbed in the back, tossing the Fuhrer his own communicator. Roy smiled coldly, looking down at his gloved hands on the steering wheel, and jammed a foot down on the accelerator. As the jeep tore through burning, debris-laden streets, an image of Hughes' headstone rose to mind. It was paired with those two tiny graves, side by side, and an image of the broken suit of armour.
He would not lose anyone else.
He ascended the bottom stair, though he didn't need to do so to be higher than the people gathered in the little house. They clutched their weapons, staring up at him with nervous hope, and he permitted himself a slow nod. He raised his arms for silence, forcing his voice to new depths, infecting it with a proud resonance. "It has happened, like I said it would," he claimed, and saw nods in his audience. "The military, led by that foul Fuhrer, have invaded Yikatrinburg. We must fight! For Drachma, we must fight, and prevail! The Amestris army—a hoard of invading mongrels, led by a man so foul, he killed a seventeen year old boy—who trusted him implicitly! Who murdered thousands of innocents in Ishbal, yet still walks proudly amidst the innocent!"
Never mind that Edward Elric had committed suicide, and had, according to his informants, never really liked the man... for the adults in the audience, the knowledge that the man had murdered a child would be enough. And for the younger ones, the green boys clutching their stolen weapons so nervously, it served as a warning about what this man would do. Could do. Roy Mustang kills people like you, he was saying. Kill him and his men to defend your homes and your families!
They bowed and poured out, weapons clutched in their hands, cheers and whoops and battle-cries streaming ahead of them. And many would die when the military eventually conquered Yikatrinburg, but this filthy hellhole was nothing. After wiping this city off the map, the Amestris army would be concentrated and unsuspecting in Rulingrad, and he knew he could take his revenge. Against the military, as a whole, and particularly the Flame Alchemist.