"I'm not saying it would be easy, young Alphonse," the General said, steepling his hands in front of his face. He winked, quick enough that Alphonse wasn't sure if he'd seen. General Cameron continued, "but I hear some talents run in the family." "Sir," Alphonse said: prompt, question, and agreement. "Not so formal, young man," Cameron replied. The woman—whom Alphonse guessed to be the General's wife—brought them tea, and left the tray on the low table. Cameron watched her go, a gentle smile on his lips. "Roy Mustang was one of my staff, for the duration of his time in East City."
"Oh," Alphonse exclaimed. "I didn't—"
"No matter," Cameron told him, waving a hand. "I made sure not to impose on Mustang's work, nor on that of his management of your brother, though I did enjoy hearing the stories."
Alphonse was pretty sure he was blushing madly.
"He's a firebrand," Cameron said, a bit fondly. "Rather poetic justice, watching him deal with that sharp blade."
"He...yes," Alphonse managed, catching up with the General's words in time to realize that the firebrand wasn't Edward, but Mustang. Alphonse smiled, at that, feeling a little better.
"Now, then," Cameron told him. "We need to pull some strings. I understand you had a perfect score on the National Alchemist Exam? That was...1910?"
"Yes, sir," Alphonse replied. "I'm assuming I'll need to retake it—"
"No need. The scores stand for ten years, if you scored above a certain percentage. More fail the practical, by not having something the military can use. Letting the scores stand is a way to prevent all of them from packing the headquarters every year." Cameron's eyes glinted. "I suspect it's also a way to get out of the paperwork required to grade those exams."
"It was rather difficult," Alphonse said. "I'd be relieved to not have to do that part again."
"Rather difficult!" The General chortled. "Yes. The annual review processes are a regular event, and that might be...Well, I shall make some calls. Are you familiar with the explosives and obstacle range, just north of the city?"
"Be there tomorrow morning, at eight. Do you have a place to stay?"
Alphonse thought of Gracia, and nodded. "I'm pretty sure I do."
Gracia was cleaning up the last of the meal when Alphonse came down the stairs. She glanced up, a plate in one hand, and gave him a brilliant smile. "Thank you for tucking her in," she said. "She misses both of you so much, sometimes."
"I was surprised she even remembered me," Alphonse admitted. He'd been away from Central ever since...well, he decided, long enough that he'd figured most children would forget him. And not being a suit of armor anymore... "Children have longer memories than adults realize," she replied, and her expression darkened, for just a minute. Alphonse covered the pause by assisting her with the rest of the cleanup, and soon they were sitting in the living room over cups of hot chocolate.
"Brother got the assignment at the last minute," Alphonse began, between sips. "He was supposed to head to the North, but then he called and said he'd changed his plans."
"That was my fault. I meddled," Gracia said. "It was Roy's..." She flushed. "I mean, the General's birthday. I made Edward keep him company, since..." Her voice trailed off, and she stared down into her cup for a second, before smiling gamely. "They were assigned two days later."
"I doubt the General's birthday had anything to do with it," he said, and ran his finger across the edge of the mug. It said, World's Best Daddy. He felt his stomach twist with a sudden visceral ache.
"I think...Edward decided to go on that trip because I pushed him to keep the General company," Gracia replied. She sighed, and bowed her head. "I'm sorry, Alphonse. If I hadn't, then at least—"
"Ms. Gracia," Alphonse protested. He wondered if this was going to be an eternal refrain for him, explaining to everyone. "Brother is going to go where he wants to go. He's not very good at taking orders. Don't think you pushed him into anything he probably didn't already want to do."
"I suppose." Gracia smiled, and glanced at the time. "The guest bedroom's ready for you. You're going to need to be awake early to make it to the testing grounds by eight."
"I usually wake up at dawn," Alphonse said, and shrugged. "I missed enough. I don't like missing anything, now."
"Mm," Gracia replied, and it reminded Alphonse of Mustang's noncommittal responses. He wondered if it meant the same thing when Gracia made that sound. She stood, and collected their empty cups. "I'm awake about that time, to start getting Alicia ready for school. I can drop you off before I take her to school."
"You don't have to..." Alphonse stood, as well. He was now just a few inches taller than her, but still not as tall as Hughes had been. Somehow, he'd expected that when he was human again, he'd be looking up at Gracia. It felt odd to see her head tilted back to smile at him, when he felt so young—and yet so old—in comparison. "But I would really appreciate it," he finished.
"Anything, Alphonse," she replied, patting him on the shoulder. "You only have to ask."
He nodded, and something must've shown on her face, because she paused, her eyebrows raised.
"I'm just nervous," Alphonse said. "I don't think I'll sleep much tonight."
"You'll do fine," Gracia said, and laughed. "There's no way you couldn't."
"I wish! But I—"
"Alphonse," Gracia chided. "Don't worry so much."
He felt rather presumptuous, hearing the words spill from his lips. "I could say the same to you, Ms. Gracia. We'll find out what happened. I promise."
"I know you will," Gracia whispered, and kissed him on the cheek. "Good night, dear."
The explosives and obstacle range was a fifteen-acre plot of land occupied by trees, obstacle courses, and several old stone buildings whose roofs had long since caved in. Mostly the area was used for small explosives and boot camp. The entire area was ringed by a foot track for morning runs. Alphonse's boots crunched on the winter leaves, echoing dully on the tarmac before landing on frost-covered grass on the other side.
Ahead across a broad field he could see General Cameron, looking patrician and reserved, leaning on a cane. There were five others with him, also in military dress. Alphonse pulled his gray cloak closer about him, and shivered as the wind hit the back of his neck. Not for the first time he wished he'd had it made with a hood.
The group turned to look at Alphonse as he approached, and General Cameron gave him a slight smile.
"Alphonse Elric, these officers perform the annual reviews for National Alchemists." He introduced each in turn, and Alphonse nodded nervously, giving each person—two men, two women—a polite smile. The fifth person was Generalissimo Thayer, who grinned broadly but said nothing, his hands in his pockets.
Cameron cleared his throat, and leaned heavily on the cane for a second, then began walking towards the middle of the training grounds. They passed the stone buildings, and Alphonse halted.
"I could do it here, if that's okay," he told them, having an idea already of what he might do. He'd been up most of the night worried about it, remembering his brother's stories about the original test, and the annual evaluations after that.
"I'm going to give you the standard speech, young man," one of the men said. He was in his fifties, with graying hair at the temples. He rocked back on his heels, grinned at the other examiners, and began reciting a series of warnings and explanations that were obviously long-since burned into his memory. Most of it involved the requirements of checking their materials before beginning, and various other notes of safety.
Some of which, Alphonse noted, were probably due solely to Edward's more gloriously destructive maneuvers over the years. He caught the phrase, 'don't destroy anything you can't repair in one day,' and nearly smirked. When the man finished, Alphonse blinked, and nodded.
"Yes, sir," he said, hoping they didn't quiz him too hard. He'd caught most of it, but... His stomach felt queasy.
"What's your radius?" One of the women asked, digging a notepad from her pocket. She looked at Alphonse expectantly, and he eyed the three buildings with a judicious eye.
"Just stand back there," he said, waving in the direction of a low bunker used for storing obstacle course items.
The group moved back, and several more got out their notepads, ready to observe. Alphonse waited until General Cameron and the others had moved to a point about two hundred feet away. He took a deep breath, raised his hands before him.
He brought his palms together with a solid slap.
Dropping to his knees, he put his hands on the ground and pushed.
The shockwave tore across the ground, beaten winter-grass whipping in the underground force. A wave of light spread out in a half-circle, threads of blue and silver. A second later the three buildings exploded upwards. The tall flag over the main grounds rippled violently, one of its tie-downs ripped from its mooring. Stones and rocks and broken rotting wood arced into the air, smashed and scattered into the molecules of their origin.
For a second, everything seemed to hover, and Alphonse clapped his hands again. He spread them, palms out, pressed his hands to the ground, and pulled.
The pebbles and splinters came flying back, as another wave of blue light spread from the farthest points of the half-circle to come rushing back at Alphonse. The buildings settled back down into themselves, even the collapsed roofs returning to their original shrunken positions. The tie-down on the large banner whipped, metal shrieking as the hook caught and held.
Alphonse regarded the buildings with a careful eye. Standing, he wiped off the knees of his pants while the examiners approached him. General Cameron looked thoughtful, while Generalissimo Thayer was laughing about something one of the examiners had said.
"Well, young man," Thayer said when they reached Alphonse. "I see you have more in common with your brother than meets the eye." His gaze jumped from Alphonse's sandy brown hair, to the gray cloak, and the black jeans and gray overcoat underneath. "Other than the same taste in footwear," he added, and chuckled.
"Yes, sir," Alphonse said, not really sure how to take the man. He offered a small smile, and Thayer's chuckles grew.
"Any questions?" Thayer looked around at the examiners. The one who'd given Alphonse instructions stepped forward.
"You have impeccable control over the process of deconstruction and recreation," he commented. "But your control over the blast radius is questionable."
Alphonse thought for a second, looking around. "The flag," he said. He clapped his hands, knelt, and pushed. The wave of light this time was nearly gunshot thin; the flag splintered and ripped. Alphonse raised his hands and waited, still crouched before them.
General Cameron coughed. "You can put it back, now, Alphonse. I think you've proven your point."
"Yes, sir." Alphonse tossed a quick smile at Cameron; a clap, flash, and a moment later the flag's ribbons were solid, waving gently in the midwinter breeze. He came to his feet.
"Good enough?" The examiner looked around, and the other three nodded.
"One more question, Alphonse Elric," Generalissimo Thayer said. The smile lines disappeared from his face, replaced by a grim look that belonged on the battlefield. "What's your purpose, in all this?"
To find my brother, Alphonse thought...but is that all? If he's dead, then...He frowned, considering it for several moments before answering cautiously, "I'm here for the people."
Thayer's eyebrows went up, and he stared at Alphonse for a long time. The others waited, unmoving, though the winter breeze caught their coats and the flag snapped a few times as the breeze picked up. Finally Thayer nodded.
"We'll notify you with our decision, General," the head examiner told Cameron. The four saluted, and as a group, left the grounds, Generalissimo Thayer in their lead.
"Alphonse," Cameron said, and sighed. He leaned on his cane for a moment, staring up at the flag. Then he seemed to come back to himself, and he smiled distantly. "My car is waiting. Would you like to join me for lunch? I go there everyday, and I'm sure any messenger will be sent there first."
"That's generous of you, sir," Alphonse said.
"Ah, but I know you alchemists," Cameron said, and his eyes twinkled in the early morning sunshine. "I expect equivalent trade."
"Yes, sir," Alphonse replied, soberly, tensing.
"That is to say, offer me your arm, young man, I'm not nearly as spry as I used to be." Alphonse offered his support, and together the two slowly made their way to Cameron's waiting driver and car.
"This is the officer's club," Alphonse said, surprised. He opened the door, helping General Cameron from the car.
"That's right," Cameron said, leaning on his cane but walking with an amazing quickness now that he was back on even ground. Inside, a young lady took their coats, and a middle-aged gentleman welcomed Cameron by name and led them to a table near the back. Cameron slid into his chair with a grateful sigh. "It's good food...and it's warm. I'm afraid I'm not up to long cold mornings, these days."
Alphonse nodded, aware that he'd been handed a menu but the General hadn't been. It was pretty clear the General was a regular, and from the looks and smiles from the staff, one of the staff's favorites, as well. It wasn't surprising, given the man's elegant yet congenial manners.
They spoke little, and Cameron seemed to be content watching the late morning crowd while Alphonse pondered his choices. Picking something at random that he'd never had before, he gave his order to the waiter. Alphonse settled his napkin in his lap, clasped his hands, and waited.
"The Generalissimo was wrong," Cameron said, in a conversational tone, but he looked amused. "There is much in your appearance that is like your brother, but far less in temperament."
"We are two different people," Alphonse pointed out.
"Of course." Cameron pursed his lips, and leaned forward. "Are you aware of the purpose behind General Mustang's assignment to Hyle?"
"Only the barest bones, sir. My brother called me the night before he left, and again from Hyle, before he left for Soswell. General Mustang was supposed to find out what had happened to two National Alchemists."
"That's right," Cameron confirmed. He settled back in his chair, and studied Alphonse for a long moment. "This doesn't seem to surprise you."
"I know General Mustang has been given demanding assignments in the past," Alphonse answered, picking his words carefully. "And with my brother going along, I figured there must be some danger involved."
"Or would be," Cameron said in a low undertone, "once those two started their first argument."
Alphonse choked on a laugh. "I see you're fully aware of their...working relationship."
"My office was down the hall from General Mustang's, in East City," Cameron said, and arched a quick eyebrow, come and gone in amused solidarity. "I heard the doors slamming often enough, usually followed by a young man's voice complaining bitterly as it passed my door."
"Oh, gracious, I'm so sorry, sir, I had no idea," Alphonse sputtered. He knew he should've done more to get Edward to stop ranting, so many times, but sometimes it was just easier to let Edward get it out of his system right away. "Brother can be—"
"Colorful," Cameron said. "I think that was the word my secretary used. Which prompted a rather colorful reaction from the then-Colonel Mustang and a bit of a sulk, too, I believe." He winked at Alphonse. "They are too wise to woo peaceably."
Cameron shook his head, waving one hand good-naturedly. "It's just an expression. Regardless, as I've been able to gather, Major General Mascroft recommended General Mustang be assigned the duty. There is nothing on record of animosity between the two men, but it's wise to be aware of one's...benefactors."
Alphonse caught the merest hesitation, and nodded firmly. Cameron gave him a long look, and Alphonse lifted his chin, just a degree.
"Yes, young man," Cameron said, recognizing and answering the unspoken question.
"Sending a General to track down two Alchemists seems like overkill," Alphonse said, emboldened by Cameron's affability. "Wouldn't that normally be for someone more..." He shrugged, not sure. "Administrative?"
"Depends on the situation," Cameron said. He leaned back as their lunch was delivered, and thanked the waitress with a smile. When she'd departed, he was silent for a moment, cutting his steak gracefully but not eating right away. "If there's suspicion of the Alchemist leaving his or her post without permission, a General is a more efficient option."
"Sir?" Alphonse held his fork and knife, and the engraved bumps on the handles were enough to remind him he really wasn't in Reisensburg, but at the Officer's Club in Central, having lunch with a Major General. Yet, at the same time, that was still an egg, a biscuit, some ham, and some kind of sauce that he hadn't known but it smelled delicious. He took a long pause, trying to inhale the scent as unobtrusively as possible.
"A General has the authority to judge and order a sentence carried out, on the spot, without need for a military tribunal. This is relatively rare, however, and most of the time an administrative investigator is sent. A General would normally only be sent in times of war when time is an issue," Cameron mused. "Although the rumors of arms smuggling—"
"War?" Alphonse flushed, realizing he'd interrupted, and hastily shoved a bit of egg and sauce into his mouth. Then he stopped, and had to grin outright, lips tightly sealed. It was exquisite. While the General spoke, Alphonse chewed very slowly, drawing each taste out as long as possible.
"I hope not. Drachma has often smuggled arms over the borders, supplying those who would incite unrest." Cameron frowned slightly, noting Alphonse's careful and steady eating, then seemed to understand, and chuckled. "Yes, the food here is always excellent."
Alphonse nodded enthusiastically, his attention divided between Cameron's words and the scents and smells of the meal he'd ordered. He made a note to find someone who could cook it for him in Reisensburg. Maybe with a little practice Winly could figure out the recipe. They certainly wouldn't let Edward—
The memory of the night before came rushing back, and the food turned to ashes in his mouth. Alphonse chewed methodically, and forced his attention solely onto the General. Anything was better than the lurking knowledge that he'd never be able to convince his brother to try this meal, that he'd never get to tell Edward about seeing Gracia and Alicia, that he'd never... He sighed, staring down at his half-eaten meal.
"Alphonse?" Cameron's voice was gentle.
"Just..." Alphonse gave the General an apologetic look. "I only found out yesterday evening. And it doesn't seem real, then I remember...and..."
"Yes," Cameron said, softly. "There are no easy losses."
Alphonse nodded, and pushed the second egg-and-biscuit around on the plate. "I'm sorry, sir."
"No need to apologize," Cameron said, and his voice thickened for a moment. He coughed, and sat up straighter, taking another bite of his own meal, but without much enthusiasm either. "The real question is about Mustang's...about the circumstances."
Alphonse nodded, and pushed his plate away. He settled his hands in his lap, sensing this was the bulk of Cameron's information. "I know that General Mustang had as much control over his alchemy—if not more—than my brother."
"Of course," Cameron said. "Ignoring that, there are several other details that have come to my attention. I don't know whether they are coincidence or significant, but you should know them. If you're heading into a trap, I prefer you be armed with as much knowledge as possible."
"Are you sure General Mustang worked for you?" Alphonse narrowed his eyes at Cameron. "It doesn't seem like he picked up much of your style. He never warned Brother and me ahead of time."
"Would your brother have listened?"
"I concede your point, sir," Alphonse had to say, using one of Mustang's favorite jibes. He smiled, though, and the General only shook his head and sighed.
"General Mustang has many enemies, and many more who are simply jealous of...his intelligence, his charisma..."
Cameron turned in his seat, his back to the wall, and his eyes were sharp as he watched the dining room. They were far enough in the back that all sounds reaching them were muffled, but Alphonse thought he recognized some of the same watchful attitude that Hughes sometimes displayed.
"And more importantly, though the young man plays the role of a fun-loving, lazy playboy...he does have a temper," Cameron continued. He glanced sideways at Alphonse. "Was that your take on the General?"
"Not really, sir," Alphonse admitted. "Oh, we heard plenty from his staff, about this girl or that...but I never actually saw him with anyone. But I didn't pay a lot of attention to that, then, so... But personally—" He dropped his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. "—I think his jokes about women wearing miniskirts in the military were just to make First Lieutenant, I mean, Captain Hawkeye see red."
"She has good aim, that one." Cameron's murmur seemed noncommittal; he raised his eyebrows as if prompting Alphonse.
"Colonel— I mean, General Mustang..." Alphonse grew bolder. "...He protected us. And I'm guessing that your telling me all this means you knew of it."
"Very good," Cameron murmured. "You should finish your Eggs Benedict. The chef here is one of the best. No matter what has happened, or may have happened, life is too short to miss out on such pleasures for any longer than one has already." His eyes were sharp, though, and the answer was clear for Alphonse to read: I knew, and I supported him.
"Do you still..." Alphonse left it hanging, for the General to interpret.
"As much as I can," Cameron said, though whether he meant his knowledge of Mustang's actions or goals, Alphonse wasn't certain. Cameron shifted, glancing at Alphonse's plate. There, his meaning was clear.
"Yes, sir," Alphonse said, and began eating again.
"The bottom line," Cameron continued, in that same conversational tone, "is that few would be stupid enough to attack General Mustang outright. Despite his useful masks, no one with any intelligence is ignorant of his skills with his alchemy. And the Fullmetal Alchemist is even more powerful, in his own right."
Alphonse nodded. "That's what bothers me. General Mustang didn't spend all those years protecting us to..." He shrugged, abashed. "Get sloppy, I guess."
"Sloppy," Cameron mused. "No, that word only applies to the General when he wants you to think that."
"Perhaps someone else wants us to think that," Alphonse said, frowning.
"Perhaps." Cameron glanced across the room, his expression reserved, his tone wary and low. "Two Alchemists, disappeared without a trace, and only brought to the attention of the Generalissimo very recently. Within a day of General Mustang's arrival in Hyle, their absences were explained by the convenient excuse of missing paperwork. The next day, General Mustang dies in a conflagration in Soswell."
"The timing," Alphonse said, and realized that if Hawkeye knew of these details, he'd been right in his assessment of her reasons for insisting on her assignment. "My brother wasn't supposed to be there. He didn't give me the details. He said only it was last-minute." Actually, what Edward had mostly done was chortle wickedly about going over Mustang's head, and how he was going to laugh himself silly when Mustang found out.
"The General's enemies may not have been counting on that," Cameron said, and sighed. "Which is the part that saddens me the most, to lose both..."
"That's the reason for the fire," Alphonse murmured, staring down at his meal. "It destroys everything in its path, and leaves little evidence."
"Assuming you could catch either of those two off-guard," Cameron said. He nodded to someone across the room, waving languidly with a long-fingered hand. "I believe we have news."
Alphonse looked up to see Farman heading their way, a large brown envelope under his arm. Farman waved off one of the waitresses as he approached, saying something Alphonse didn't catch. The waitress brightened, throwing a smile towards Alphonse, and Farman continued towards them.
"Alphonse, General," Farman said, and accepted the chair Cameron pointed to.
"I thought you were leaving immediately," Alphonse said, his eyebrows raised. He was pretty sure he'd achieved the watch, and to hell with Edward's response when he found out. Alphonse could always turn in the watch later and be done with it. His stomach tightened. "Is there news? Did—"
"If your brother had ever followed military timelines," Farman drawled, "you two would just be getting to Liore by now." He grinned broadly. "Captain Hawkeye's been moving faster than a steam locomotive the past twenty-four hours. We leave in two hours."
He dropped a manila envelope on the table. It thumped metallically, and Alphonse reached for it with hands he was surprised to see were shaking.
He undid the clasp and slid out the sheet of paper, eyes scanning it quickly. Flipping the envelope upside down, a silver watch slid out into Alphonse's waiting palm. He studied it, flipping it over, then open and closed several times before hooking the chain on his belt loop and pocketing the watch. Alphonse looked up to see Farman frowning at the letter from the Generalissimo.
"Halmos," Farman said. "What kind of an Alchemist's title is that?"
Alphonse chuckled. "It's one given by someone who knows a fair bit of trivia," he said, but refrained from finishing his other suspicion out loud: it's a title chosen by someone with a dry sense of humor, too.
Farman arched an eyebrow at Alphonse.
"Halmos is the symbol at the end of a mathematical proof," Alphonse explained. "It means that what you've attempted to prove...has been." He plucked the sheet from Farman's fingers, folded it neatly, and stuck it in the inside pocket of his coat.
"Good luck, young knight," Cameron said. "I look forward to hearing your report."
Hawkeye, Fury, and Thompson were waiting at the train station when Farman and Alphonse arrived. Hawkeye regarded Alphonse with a long look, and he noted that her eyes didn't widen when her gaze dipped down to see the silver chain, hooked to his belt loop and disappearing into his pocket. She'd known, he realized.
He straightened his cloak, giving Hawkeye a shy smile that soon turned confident under her appraising gaze. Behind them, the train whistled, pulling into the station. Smoke belched from its engine and the wheels screamed as the train slid to a halt.
"Well, Halmos," she said. "Glad to have you along."