Nobody seems to stare at the odd procession making its way down an alley in Central. Greed considers this quite astounding until Dorochet points out that they're in a part of town where people quickly learn to ignore odd-looking strangers. Or else.
Even so, Greed muses, it was a stroke of luck that they found the clothes. In the laboratory, Greed's clothes were over a century old and everyone else was naked; much as the people living in this part of town might be used to minding their own business, that sight would have been far too odd ignore.
But Greed came across a clothes-line while scouting the surroundings of the facility and his new-found conscience didn't protest him swiping the nearly-dry garments. Unfortunately, they all seemed to belong to the same person. Law looks distinctly uncomfortable in the shirt several sizes too small for him, while Dorochet is drowning in his and Martel is tripping over her over-large trousers and giving death g It's a perfectly ordinary day at East City Headquarters. Havoc is pining for a smoke in the hallway, Farman is doing paperwork that isn't actually his, a forlorn-looking cat that was rescued either by Fury or Fullmetal and no one has the heart to throw out is sitting in the corner, said alchemist is in a briefing, Hughes (who is on loan from Central) is interrupting said briefing and Colonel Roy Mustang, ruler of his small domain, is sipping coffee and using said interrupted briefing as an excuse to get out of the paperwork that Hawkeye is trying to push on him.
In short, nothing unusual.
This impression lasts until one looks closely. Then one may notice that Havoc is looking more nervous and edgy than usual, Farman's hand is shaking a little and he keeps glancing towards the door and there haven't been any shouts of "And THIS is Alicia's latest masterwork!" from the inner office for easily half an hour.
Luckily, Roy doesn't think anyone will look closely. And with Havoc and Farman on door duty, Hawkeye guarding the other approaches and Fury having gone over this room with a fine-toothed comb, checking for listening devices, beforehand... they should be reasonably safe.
He puts down his coffee cup. "All right, everything that's said here doesn't leave the room, understand?"
Hughes and Fullmetal chorus "yes", Fullmetal looking as affronted as a suit of armour can—for good reason, they've already had the 'discretion' talk several times.
Roy takes pity on the boy and explains. "We did not get leave to investigate the Fifth Laboratory and we are withholding crucial information from our superiors. If this comes out, it could mean the abrupt and... rather painful... end of our careers." He lets them dwell on that for a moment, then continues. "So. Fullmetal, report."
Fullmetal has gotten rather good at military-style reports in the year and a half since he joined Mustang's force. In the beginning, the boy's narration reminded Roy of a cross between an alchemical research paper and a primary school essay. Now, his report is clear, concise and presents all the important facts in a militarily correct fashion.
Roy isn't quite sure if the twinge in his chest is guilt or pride.
Fullmetal finishes quickly, summarising facts they've all gone over before, and Mustang continues on to the next point.
"These are the documents that were recovered from Fifth Laboratory," he says, motioning to several piles of paper on his desk. "I've put together the ones that could be used as evidence against the people responsible for this operation," a gesture at one of the smaller piles, "but I'm still working out precisely how to do that. I cannot simply go to the military court and say 'I have these documents as evidence that the following people were involved in a conspiracy'; I need to explain how I came to possess these documents without incriminating myself with regards to the Fifth Laboratory investigation."
Hughes frowns. "That one will be tricky. Especially since as soon as Gran realises what happened he'll be doing everything possible to discredit, if not outright incriminate, you." He stares into space for a few moments. "It would be... better... if the one doing the accusing were not openly known to be connected to you. It would also be better if one of the ones accusing, or at least backing the accuser, were somewhat higher in rank than Colonel—no offense, Roy—"
"None taken," Roy interjects.
"-good. Anyway, I'd say it's time to start calling in favours, gathering all the allies we can. We're probably going to need them. Unfortunately, offhand I can't think of anyone beyond the rank of Lieutenant Colonel who'd support us."
Roy considers. He trusts his subordinates completely, but they aren't likely to be much help in this regard. Who else would support him? Several Majors, some Lieutenant Colonels... He has been working on getting Colonel Phelps onto his side, but doesn't want to risk the progress he's made with something this big. Colonel Davids has expressed some respect for Roy's methods and goals, but again not nearly enough to use him in this operation. No, Roy can't think of anyone else offhand.
Maybe. But it would be risky.
He'll have to consider it.
Roy shakes his head. "I'll see what I can do, Hughes, but I don't exactly have a great number of friends in the higher ranks either."
"Well, let's just try and gather as many allies as we can, shall we? Also, regarding Gran, I might have an idea. I'm not sure if it will work..." Hughes trails off.
"What?" Roy asks after a minute.
"What? Eh? What were we talking about?"
"Your idea, Hughes. You know, the dubious one that may or may not help us in removing Gran as a threat," Roy answers through clenched teeth. It's only their good and long friendship that is keeping Hughes from being strangled right now, and even that only goes so far.
Luckily, the man seems to take the hint. "Right, that. It's... well, it would probably be better if I didn't tell you." Or not. "If it doesn't work, it's better you don't know, and if it does... the same, actually."
Roy massages his forehead. "Hughes."
"Really, Roy!" Hughes is the picture of wide-eyed innocence. Roy doesn't buy it for one instance. He contemplates asking precisely how illegal this "idea" is likely to be, then reconsiders. Given the chain of events that led to this situation, Roy is the last person to complain about legality.
He still doesn't like it. However... Hughes is an intelligence officer for a reason, after all.
"Fine. But if this explodes in your, or more importantly, in my face..." Roy lets his voice trail off ominously and raises his hand, prominently displaying the array on the back of his glove.
Hughes pales. "All right, sheesh!"
They both turn at the sound of metal clanking. Fullmetal has shifted on the sofa and is rubbing the back of his neck sheepishly.
Roy had quite forgotten the boy was there, and going by his expression, Hughes had too. It was really quite a marvel, how a six-foot tall suit of armour could fade into the background so.
A dangerous ability, that.
"Onto our next point, then," Roy says quickly. "Namely, the location of one Edward Elric."
Fullmetal sits up, focussing fully on his superior. "Have you found my brother?"
Roy sighs. "No, Fullmetal. Not yet." He does his best not to cringe under the glare that comes his way.
Hughes jumps in. "We're trying to track him right now, Al. However, to do that we need to find out who is with him and where they might go."
Fullmetal jumps to his feet. "Brother would go to—"
"I very much doubt Edward is in control of where they are heading," Roy interjects and the boy sits back down with a thump. "As near as we can tell, he and a group of chimerae were taken out of their cells during the chaos. By whom, we haven't been able to find out, nor whether they were subject, scientist or intruder."
"Very many cells were opened. How do you know my brother didn't leave on his own?"
Hughes turns a pitying look on the boy. "Al, the procedure notes we've gathered indicate that Edward's automail was removed in the first days at the facility and later taken away. Your brother wasn't capable of leaving on his own."
Fullmetal is silent. Roy watches him in concern for a few moments—the boy is taking all this very hard—then continues.
"Now, almost all the cells were empty. Most of them were so damaged in the chaos that the subjects managed to escape that way, but, a few were unlocked and opened from the outside."
Hughes frowns. "Perhaps one of the scientists released them?"
"It's a possibility. However, apparently the scientists that were in the lab at the time were all killed, and several of them were missing keys. This doesn't explain who did, though—there was no evidence of another intruder. Possibly something from one the cells Fullmetal damaged in his infiltration, but according to these documents those were either empty or contained non-sentient chimerae," Roy says.
"Discreet investigations have shown that most of the subjects from the damaged cells were recovered, but not one of the ones from the unlocked cells." Roy pauses. "Incidentally, all of the cells from G-13 to G-25 were unlocked. Now, we know that Edward Elric was held in G-13. Cells G-14 to G-20 were empty. However, G-21 to G-25 held..." Roy rifles through his notes, "all the successful human chimerae."
Fullmetal flinches. "Human chimerae? They were... making those?" Those odd eyes dim and Roy thinks he knows what the boy is remembering.
He cannot help a wash of guilt; it was his idea to send the boy to Tucker and as such, the boy's involvement in the events that followed is his fault. If Roy hadn't thought a more caring atmosphere would be better for him, Fullmetal would never have gotten to know Nina Tucker and much of the trauma that followed would have been prevented.
But that is all in the past now.
"They were," Roy answers the question. "Apparently condemned prisoners were taken from the nearby Second Prison. Instead of executing them, they were... used."
"Hughes, how are the attempts to track them going?" Roy asks, quickly changing the subject.
Hughes leans back and sighs. "Not that well, I'm afraid to say. We've been able to discover that they are traveling in a group and trace them south to Weaver's Alley. Unfortunately, we haven't found anything past there. They're a large group, they leave tracks which we will find but for now we're at an impasse."
There is a moment of silence, then Fullmetal begins speaking. His voice is eerily still. "So, you're saying that the people who took my brother were originally prisoners sentenced to death for their various crimes. And that you can't find them anywhere."
Roy sighs, stands up. "Yes. That is the situation. However, we will find them. As Hughes said, they're a large group, they only have a limited amount of resources, they will leave tracks and we will find those." The boy is silent and Roy feels a stab of pity. "Look, Fullmetal, why don't you go back to the dorms for now? Catch up on your sleep—" he actually isn't sure whether the boy can sleep at all in his current state—"read some alchemy books. Distract yourself." He rests his hand on a cold metal shoulder. The sensation is mildly disturbing. "There's nothing we can do right now. Get some rest."
Roy is fully prepared to make that an order if he has to, but wonder of wonders Fullmetal stands and starts to make his way towards the door. He must be more tired, or what passes for it, than he let on. Either that or he is seeing the logic of Roy's statement.
That would be the day.
"Sir? If anything turns up..."
"If anything turns up, we will contact you straight away," Roy promises and watches the boy leave.
Once Fullmetal has gone, Roy turns to Hughes.
"I assume you will take care of these, then?" he asks, motioning to the documents. Quite apart from any plans of Hughes', it would be... bad... if they were to be found in Roy's office.
Hughes has already grabbed a pile and is leafing through it, but nods distractedly. "Of course I will, Roy. Hmm... these are interesting."
Roy peers over his shoulder. "The visitor's record. I thought that might interest you. Bureaucratic paperwork is in the pile you took that from, by date. Those are the ones we'll need as evidence to prove which people were involved. Notes on procedures are in the pile to its right, arranged by subject matter. These I'd prefer to keep very well hidden for a while. Most of the techniques they used are not exactly... ethical, and it would not be good if certain other members of the higher ranks saw these. The pile to the left is documentation of their... experiments." He grimaces. "We will probably need that as evidence of their wrongdoings. I would, however, prefer to remove the more sensitive information from it beforehand."
Hughes looks up. "And the small pile behind it?"
Roy doesn't say anything, but some expression must have crossed his features. Hughes slowly puts down the file he is perusing and picks up the first sheet of the smallest pile. Then stiffens.
The sheet falls from nerveless fingers. "Fuck," Hughes mutters and rubs a hand across his forehead. He looks quite pale and is shaking slightly.
Roy picks up the page carefully, holding it like something that is dirty and he doesn't quite want to touch. The title typed in neat black letters across the page jumps out at him. 'Case notes: Subject 046723—Page 1'.
There is a photograph attached to this page. One of a small, naked, frightened-looking boy lying on what looks to be the floor of a laboratory cell. A small boy missing two limbs. A small boy with matted, dirty hair that looks a bit yellowish and golden eyes.
He drops the page back onto the pile and turns to look at Hughes. Their eyes meet and Roy knows they are in complete agreement.
Alphonse must never see these documents.
The next week is deceptively lazy. With Hughes gone and the documents with him, there is not much to do. Not much they can do if they don't want to alert Gran. And so Roy drinks coffee and avoids paperwork and hopes Hughes is getting more done than he is.
Fullmetal spends much of the week pacing, snapping at anyone who approaches him and generally driving Roy's crew to the distraction. It is very uncharacteristic behaviour for the usually mild-mannered boy and gets to the point where Hawkeye actually threatens to shoot him if he doesn't remove himself from the office right now because there are people who are actually trying to get work done here, thank you very much.
Fullmetal leaves after that, abashed.
Roy can sympathise. Right now, all they can do is wait and that is something neither of them are very good at.
On Wednesday, as on every Wednesday, Roy plays chess with the General.
They talk of inanities, of this-and-that event that the General didn't attend and Roy detested, of military society and civilian society and the climate of East City. They sip tea, nibble at biscuits and Roy is soundly beaten.
Afterwards, the General goes over the game again with Roy—strategies used, mistakes made, oversights and gambits. He does this every week and Roy appreciates the thought even if it hasn't brought about any noticeable improvement.
This week, however, the General stops in the middle of his dissection. Pauses.
"You were distracted today," he says.
Roy feels his cheeks heat; it is true, much as he would like to deny it. He had other things on his mind.
"Is there something you wish to tell me?" his mentor asks.
He has deliberated this point before, argued it back and forth a thousand times, and the conclusion is the same—the General has never given him any reason not to trust him.
Roy takes a deep breath. "I have a—hypothetical question."
The deception is woefully inadequate and the General will see through it in an instant. Roy knows that, but he doubts he has the courage to do without it.
The other man seems to understand that, and rather than scoffing or being insulted at the transparent subterfuge, he simply nods.
Roy continues. "Let us suppose that in a military organisation, much like ours, there is corruption among some of its higher-ranking officers, something many are aware of but no one can prove. Now let us suppose that a relatively low-ranking officer, one with quite a few enemies in those ranks, were in possession of evidence of that corruption."
He coughs, sips the rest of his tea. It has gone cold.
"The officer intends to take this evidence to the other high-ranking members of the military, so as to expose the corrupt ones. However, his enemies are doing their best to discredit him. Furthermore, he did not come by this evidence in a legal fashion."
The General frowns. "In what manner—no. Did he come by it in an ethical manner?"
Roy coughs again. There is no tea left and his throat is still horribly dry. "Yes—well, relatively speaking. He sent a small team to investigate a restricted area. He had no permission to do so."
"Ah. And what is the evidence?" the other man asks.
"Evidence of unethical experiments. Most notably, in the areas of human chimerae and soul transmutation, using unwilling test subjects."
It is only because Roy is watching closely that he sees the General jerk at that, almost dropping his teacup. The man composes himself quickly, however. "I see," he says and closes his eyes, obviously deep in thought.
The silence after that lasts so long and is so oppressive that Roy almost starts to fidget. He was about to start drumming his fingers on the tabletop when the General opens his eyes.
"Your hypothetical situation and its solution can be illustrated using chess, to return to our original subject. The officer in question is a minor piece—perhaps a pawn, if you'll forgive the analogy. Through some manner—perhaps strategy on the one player's side or carelessness on the other's—he has come to threaten a powerful piece—this queen, say.
Now, as things stand he is in a very bad position. He is all alone and as soon as the queen discovers this threat she will lash out and destroy him. Do you follow me?"
Roy nods glumly. A pawn threatening a queen describes his situation far too well, in his opinion.
"This changes, however, if the pawn has allies. Take this rook, for instance. If we place him here, then it is the queen that is in a very bad position. If she moves to destroy the pawn, she leaves herself open to counterattack by the rook. All she can do is flee, and if certain other pieces are placed judiciously, she cannot even do that.
You see, in this case the pawn is not alone. He is protected by another piece, one more powerful than himself."
Roy mulls that over. "So you are saying the officer should try to make allies among those more powerful than himself?"
The General looks at Roy and smiles faintly. "I think the officer already has allies, if he knows where to look."
This Wednesday, as every Wednesday, Roy prepares to leave once the tea is gone. He gathers up his coat, thanks the General for his hospitality and says farewell. This Wednesday, as every Wednesday, the General thanks him in return for the game and bids him a good journey.
However, this Wednesday the General puts his hand on Roy's shoulder and squeezes slightly. And that has not happened on any Wednesday before.
Roy cannot help but feel that, although he lost the game, he won something far more important today.
On Friday, Hughes comes back.
Another meeting is held, in the same manner as the last one, and if Farman is a tad more edgy and Hughes a little less exuberant than in the one before, Roy cannot blame them. He only hopes no one else has noticed.
"So. There's good news, better news and bad news," Hughes says from behind Roy's desk.
Roy, consigned to the sofa, raises an eyebrow. "Do continue."
"The good news is—Gran has no idea who was behind the Fifth Laboratory operation. As a matter of fact, he doesn't appear to realise there was an operation. He seems to believe the chaos was caused by the chimerae's escaping, which in turn was caused by an accident—a soul-armour going berserk." Hughes smirks at Fullmetal, who rubs the back of his neck in embarrassment, then continues. "Once he realises the documents are missing, he may realise there was more to it, or not. But for the time being, he is attempting to clean up the mess before anyone realises what has happened. He is not expending much effort into tracking the chimerae, nor is he looking for traitors in the military."
"That is... almost too good to be true," Roy says slowly.
Hughes grins at him, then sobers up. "Now for the bad news—the destruction of Fifth Laboratory has caught the attention of others in the military. Most notably one Frank Archer."
Roy cocks his head; the name isn't familiar to him.
Hughes takes a few files from his bag and hands them to Roy. "Lieutenant Colonel. Not particularly powerful in the grand scheme of things. He was recently promoted and is still a relative unknown; this means that he has neither many allies nor many enemies in the upper ranks. He does not appear to have a driving motive apart from ambition and is rather... ruthless... in the pursuit of power."
Roy sets the files aside for the moment. He will go through them later.
"Archer is tracking the chimerae. He is quite intelligent and resourceful. I can't say how close he is for sure because I don't have anyone in his command. Closer than we'd like, for certain."
"Is there anyone in his group you might be able to... convert?" Roy asks.
Hughes beams and Roy has the feeling he's just fallen into a trap. "Why, yes! Recently one Major Armstrong was reassigned to his command. Rather tall, sparkles. State Alchemist. I think you know him."
Yes, Roy does know him, from a place he is quite sure all of them would rather forget. Armstrong is—was—a good man, an honourable man and Ishvar hit him hardest of all. Roy has been avoiding him ever since; although he was on friendly terms with the Major, he knows he will only be a reminder of what none of them want to remember.
But there are more important things than either of their sensibilities at stake. Armstrong is a good man, an honourable man, and that can be easily turned to their advantage. "I'll talk to him, Hughes," Roy says and feels ill. Hughes is asking him to use one of his comrades and he will do it; everything for his goal. But he will not sleep well for the next few nights.
Hughes's expression softens. "It's necessary. And Armstrong is a good man, he would—approve."
Fullmetal is looking back and forth between the two of them in confusion. Time to change the subject; that boy is entirely too smart for his own good, and it suits Roy's purposes to leave him in the dark a while longer.
"And how close are you, Hughes?"
Hughes grins. "That was the better news I mentioned. I've found them!"
There is a clanking noise as Fullmetal jumps up. "You have? How? Where are they? Who—"
His voice is loud and Roy winces, grabbing his arm. "Quiet, Fullmetal." The boy stops and sits back down sheepishly.
"Yep!" Hughes beams. "I won't bore you with the details, but I managed to trace their route in the city." He gets up and walks to the map on the wall. "They travelled through Weaver's Alley here, avoiding the main streets, then left the city to the south. I found what they must have used as a camp the first night in this area of the South Woods, then tracked them past—well. Anyway." Hughes lets the tension rise for a bit, then continues. "They're heading towards Dublith."
There is silence for a moment, then Fullmetal starts grinning.
"That's wonderful news, Major Hughes! There's a train from the station that leaves every afternoon, if we take that we could be in Dublith by—"
Roy sighs and rubs his forehead.
Fullmetal looks at him. Stops.
"You're not going to come, are you." It's not a question.
"We can't," Roy answers all the same and wonders why he feels so defensive. "If we leave for Dublith now, if Colonel Mustang's subordinates leave East City en masse to follow a group of people we should not know of—" he breaks off. The consequences are awfully clear.
Hughes continues anyway. "For one, you'd be deserting your post and ignoring orders. You might be able to wangle permission, but the action would still draw attention. Gran and Archer would notice, and Gran isn't stupid. He'd put two and two together and realise just what you're doing and why—and how you know, which is precisely what we're trying to prevent. It would destroy all our attempts at stealth and would leave you open to attack from all sides."
Fullmetal looks hurt and Roy wants to shake him. He knows the boy isn't stupid, must see the consequences of these actions. He has to see that there are larger things at stake here—
"I see." Fullmetal's voice is frighteningly cold. "So you'll just... throw him away. Let these people leave, with my brother. Because of politics." The sheer amount of venom in that word makes Roy flinch. "You know, sir, I really thought you were better than this. Really thought you'd help me not just because you wanted to use me but because it was the right thing to do. But you're no better than the rest."
"I'm going after my brother. I don't care about politics, about who might figure out what by my actions. I just know that some people have taken—kidnapped—my brother and we don't know what they'll do to him. I'm going after him because he needs me. And because it's the right thing to do."
The boy turns, looks at Roy. "Please think about that, sir."
Then he leaves.
After the door has shut behind Fullmetal and his subordinates start filing in again—Hawkeye with a stack of paperwork in her hand—Roy leans back in his chair and sighs.
Even with Gran at least temporarily neutralised, even with the Fifth Laboratory documents in safe hands, there is still much to be done. Plans to be made. He has to analyse how much of a threat Archer is, whether he can sway Armstrong to his side, how best to use the information gleaned from Fifth Laboratory, how to keep Gran out of the way for longer...
He thinks of a photograph, one of a small, frightened, incredibly young boy with golden eyes lying on a laboratory floor. Of an even younger boy with no eyes at all, glaring at him all the same. Saying he thought Roy was better than this.
"Lieutenant Hawkeye, when was the last time I took leave?" he asks, and is gratified to see Hawkeye blink in surprise. Hughes, though, starts to grin.
"Erm... six years ago, sir," she answers.
Havoc drops his cigarette. Breda rolls his eyes. Fury just stares.
Roy suppresses a grin. "Six years! I suppose it's high time I took some then."
He gets up from the chair and stretches, joints positively creaking.
"I hear Dublith is very nice this time of year."