Alphonse hefted the suitcase over his shoulder, and glared at his reflection as he passed the bar. He could use a drink, or two; technically he'd been alive for nineteen years, but physically his body was only about sixteen. Even with a great deal of bluster, he doubted he'd get a drink – and if he did, it might not be worth the hassle.
Checking into the first small inn he found, he left his suitcase in the room and headed out to investigate Soswell. The streets were tangled and narrow, set up on the winding angles of a mountain town. Alphonse kept his hands in his pockets, his shoulders hunched against the wind whistling through the alleys and streets. But his eyes were open wide, searching back and forth across the few people who had business in the early evening, either hustling home, or going out after a day in the mines.
A familiar set of the shoulders up ahead, and Alphonse smiled to himself. Farman was dressed in casual clothes, laughing and flirting with a young woman leaning out of the coffee shop take-out window. Alphonse stepped up as though getting in line. Farman turned to look, and Alphonse – struck suddenly by a curious premonition – pretended not to see him, but instead studied the list of warm drinks. Farman paid for his order, and stepped away, allowing Alphonse to place a request.
The girl moved away from the window to make the drink, and Farman paused with his back to Alphonse, his lips near the drink.
"You got here several hours after we were expecting you. Something happen?"
"Yeah," Alphonse said, keeping his head down. "Coach broke down, horses took off, and a greeting party arrived. They wanted me to go with them—and I think the coach driver was in on it, too."
Farman made an annoyed sound. "Wonder how they knew."
"Hyle practically puts up a billboard for every visiting Alchemist," Alphonse replied, a bit smartly. His gaze darted back and forth across the street, noting the people wrapped in warm cloaks, scarves around their faces, hats pulled down low. The wind ruffled his hair, and made his ears feel like ice cubes. "Anyone with half a brain would've known by lunchtime that I was heading for Soswell."
The girl returned, and Alphonse paid for his drink, accepting it gratefully. He walked off, turning the corner into an alleyway and ducking behind the brick faŤade of the building. Farman took up position at the corner, sipping his coffee leisurely while townspeople hurried past.
"Hawkeye's spoken with First Lieutenant Tartleton, the town's administrator. They're preparing the remains tomorrow for escort back to Central."
Alphonse swallowed hard, his fingers clenched around his cup.
"She's also been up to see—where it happened," Farman continued. The wind carried his whispers to Alphonse's ears. "Fury and Thompson visited Havoc, but he has no news, either. The hospital staff didn't even tell him about the fire until this morning."
"Hospital?" Alphonse's coffee sloshed over his hand, and he winced.
"Yeah—he was apparently in quite a knock-down, drag-out brawl defending some girl's chastity, the night of the fire," Farman drawled. He seemed amused, but preoccupied. "Suffered a bad concussion, two fractured ribs, broken wrist. Doesn't remember too much of that evening. I hear his mouth's intact, though."
"The night of the fire—" Alphonse murmured. He risked a glance around the corner at Farman; the man was frowning intently at his empty coffee cup.
He had no doubt Havoc would defend a girl; Havoc was that kind of guy. But from what Alphonse knew, Havoc was perfectly capable of taking on several guys without breaking a sweat. The only thing that might make Havoc break a sweat was the thought of a dress-down from Mustang for brawling while on an official mission.
"Don't worry," Farman whispered. "Havoc's a lot tougher than he acts. He's lazy, but he's made of strong stuff. It'd take at least six, seven guys to do that much damage."
"How'd he get to the hospital?" Alphonse listed the information in his head, sorting through it all like the words were elements in a complex array. It only confirmed his suspicions: something was missing.
"Someone brought him in the next morning," Farman said. "All those injuries, and he nearly froze to death, too."
Alphonse took a deep breath, and let it out. The wind carrying the puff of white away, and he was left with the steam rising gently from his coffee, heating his chin.
"The hospital staff didn't get a name, but Captain Hawkeye has requested First Lieutenant Tartleton request the person step forward, so he – or she – can be thanked." Farman snorted. "You'd think a girl whose life was defended would stick around to help her knight in shining armor."
Yeah, Alphonse thought; that's one bit that was missing. Most people wouldn't leave their rescuer lying in an alleyway.
"I'll be at the Proud Lion for dinner," Farman said. "In the back."
"If it's a bar, I won't be able to get in."
"Ah, right." Farman chuckled, low in his throat, and stepped back to the window to request another cup of coffee. After a minute, Farman walked past, just slow enough for Alphonse to hear his words. "The Captain's staying at an inn called Three Small Rooms. Naturally this means she's in Room 17, on the second floor. Dinner with the local brass at eight, but she'll be expecting your report no later than ten. Go right on up, since by midnight the entire town will probably know our faces. Take advantage of it while you can."
Alphonse tossed his coffee cup into the trash, and headed down the alley, coming out on the next block and merging easily with the foot traffic. A block later he turned again, taking advantage of the moment to check behind him. He didn't see anyone following him, but took a few more turns through the narrow streets just to make sure.
The sun was setting and the street lamps were flickering on. He passed the burnt husk of the military headquarters, noting the fact that the main floor was somehow intact. Several of the front windows on the first floor had their lights on, and he could see a receptionist getting up to pull the curtains closed. A minute or two later, the light clicked off, and Alphonse leaned back to stare up at the fourth and fifth floors, their empty window frames as blank and dark as the cloudy sky overhead. He sighed, and turned in the direction of the inn.
Two blocks down the main street, he passed a restaurant, and stepped inside for a meal. Taking a place at the counter, down by the end, he ordered something simple and settled down to wait. If his brother was dead, it was definitely murder, and possibly related to his brother's position as a National Alchemist. He wasn't sure why he'd concluded that, but between Hyle's over-abundance of Alchemist-adoration, and the men on the road, the only other option was that someone had a use for Alchemists. If Edward had put up too much of a fight, they may have decided to simply kill him instead.
But why kill General Mustang, too, unless it was a matter of wrong time, wrong place? Or perhaps Mustang's affinity made for a convenient cover. Alphonse sighed, and lowered his chin onto his crossed arms.
"The food's not that bad," a low voice said. Alphonse turned to see a guy sitting next to him, not too much older than Alphonse, with reddish-brown hair, pulled back in a ponytail. The guy grinned, and set the menu down. "Actually, don't eat the hamburger in this town. Our butcher's from Xerxes, and it's rumored he has some peculiar ideas about what constitutes edible meat."
"I ordered the beef," Alphonse said.
"Good choice. With sweet potatoes?" The young man hummed happily, casting a sideways look at Alphonse. His eyes went wide, then, and he blinked.
"Something wrong?" Alphonse bit back the next words he thought to say: you look like you've seen a ghost.
"Damn if you don't look—" The young man blinked, flushing slightly. His gaze dropped, but came back up again with a cheerful grin. "My brother-in-law. Spitting image."
Alphonse smiled. "Sorry to disappoint?"
"No, he's a right bastard, sometimes," the young man said. His gaze flickered over Alphonse and he flinched again, but so minutely Alphonse almost doubted he'd seen it but for the tension in the young man's shoulders. "You're a traveler?"
"Yeah, just passing through, on my way to Youswell," Alphonse lied. "Not the best time of year to travel, I'll admit."
"You've got that right," the young man said. "Another week or two, the mountain pass will be unmanageable. Go now, while you can."
"I'll keep that in mind." Alphonse's meal arrived, and he was quiet for several minutes, eating slowly and steadily. The beef was a bit bland, but tender, and he let the spices from the potatoes melt on his tongue.
"Must be good tonight," the young man said. "Maybe I should've ordered the beef. You look like you're in heaven."
Alphonse shifted uncomfortably. "I like good food," he murmured, embarrassed.
"I can't argue that," came the reply. A plate was set down before the young man, and he too, began to eat. He was done before Alphonse had even managed to finish half the potatoes, and the young man set money down on the counter. "Travel safe."
"Thanks," Alphonse said around a mouth of potatoes. He waved in the young man's direction, but didn't look, and kept his head down. The minute the young man pushed through the door, Alphonse came to his feet. Tossing down enough for the food and the tip, Alphonse strode across the half-empty restaurant, and out into the street.
A quick glance and he identified the young man, wrapped in a dark coat, turning a corner a block away. Alphonse jogged across the street, hugging the shadows of the dark shop fronts, following the man.
Two more blocks, and the man up ahead turned down a street that Alphonse vaguely recalled led away from the town, and up towards the mine. He frowned, not sure how he'd cover his footsteps or his presence once they were away from the town's buildings and people. The houses were thinning, going from two and three story buildings to low-slung cottages that hugged the road. Their walls gave little cover, but it was better than nothing.
Alphonse wrapped his cloak around himself, pulling it tighter against the wind, and kept his eyes trained on the short but bulky shape a half-block ahead of him. Abruptly the figure stopped, and Alphonse stepped sideways to lean into the shadow of a house wall. He held his breath, watching as the young man pushed open a gate and stepped through.
The gate clanked shut, echoing in the empty street, and Alphonse counted to ten before stealing forward. Once there, he peered around the gatepost in time to see the young man stepping up to the front door of what looked like a massive warehouse, maybe two, three stories high. The small side door opened and closed, and the young man entered.
Alphonse remained where he was for a long moment, his gaze moving back and forth across the dark building. It wasn't a residence; he was certain of that. The wide gate, and the large doors farther down the building, meant it was probably a storage location, and designed for trucks to enter, pick up or drop off goods, and trundle back out again. There were some peculiar shapes in the overgrown yard near the path from the gate to the building, and Alphonse squinted at them for several minutes before figuring out they were machinery.
Something to do with the mine, he decided, and sighed. Leaning against the post to consider it, he chewed his lower lip for a second before pushing away from the gatepost and walking back the way he'd come. He stayed in the shadows until he was back in the main part of Soswell, where he stepped onto the sidewalk as if he'd only gone for a walk after dinner. It took a few wrong turns, but eventually he was standing in front of a hotel whose sign identified it as Three Small Rooms.
Odd name, Alphonse thought, and shrugged. His senses were still tingling about the man's reaction to seeing Alphonse. Given everything else that had happened in the past twenty-four hours, Alphonse wasn't about to ignore his intuition. The problem was, he also now couldn't ignore that he had a commanding officer.
Alphonse squared his shoulders and pulled open the front door of the same hotel, while mentally marshalling his thoughts for what he'd say. He could only hope Captain Hawkeye would as forgiving about his choice to follow the stranger as Mustang would have been.
"It's not a great deal to go on," Hawkeye said.
She was dressed in her uniform pants, but her jacket was off. She'd been waiting for Alphonse's knock, and ushered him into a little sitting room. The closed door led to the bedroom, but Alphonse tried to ignore that. The idea of Captain Hawkeye having a private life startled him too much, but knowing he was surprised also amused him.
"No, ma'am," Alphonse replied. "Maybe the guy just doesn't like his brother-in-law, but he stared at me awfully close."
"Is there any chance he realized you followed him?" Hawkeye studied Alphonse, her eyes shadowed despite the lit lamp on the small table by her chair. Her hair caught the light, and shone nearly as gold as Edward's. It made Alphonse's heart ache. He had to shake himself to remember his duty.
"I'm almost certain he didn't," Alphonse assured her. "Anyone there saw me leave right after he did, but no one followed me out. And the restaurant was well lit, and the lower halves of the windows were shuttered. They wouldn't have been able to see out even if they tried."
Hawkeye hummed under her breath, then nodded. "I'll be meeting with Havoc in the morning, to check on his condition personally. We're supposed to leave after lunch. He may be able to travel, but that remains to be seen."
"You say that like you're not sure you're leaving tomorrow," Alphonse said, following a hunch from knowing Hawkeye for so many years.
Her smile was tight, and she nodded once. "Perhaps. At dinner tonight Tartleton implied the investigation has revealed the fire may have been arson."
"Any idea by whom?"
"He mentioned some unrest in the town, over the past six or seven months, mostly related to the economy." Hawkeye leaned back, crossing her arms. Her voice was thoughtful. "It's possible the arsonists were targeting the military headquarters, and the General's visit was a coincidence."
"From the discussion I had with General Cameron, there are a lot of coincidences involved in this," Alphonse murmured.
"Such events don't happen spontaneously," Hawkeye commented, as if to herself. "They require planning, and reconnaissance. General Mustang's visit was entirely unexpected. At most, they would have had a day, maybe two, to prepare, if he had been the target."
"From what my brother said, only Generalissimo Thayer and General Mascroft knew of the assignment, and General Mustang left the next morning. And no one knew my brother was going along except Generalissmo Thayer."
"I'm not willing to assume yet that this was planned from Central," Hawkeye said, looking uncomfortable.
Alphonse nodded. "But those guys on the road—"
"Right. That." She sighed, and leaned her chin on her cheek. It reminded Alphonse of Mustang. "That does tend to make me think the arson issue is a cover, just as much as the idea that the fire was purely an alchemical accident." Hawkeye leveled her gaze at Alphonse. "So let's begin with the assumption that the arson was independent of the General's visit, and is part of trouble related to the economy. Any ideas, Halmos?"
"It has been difficult these past few years, stabilizing after the Thayer Coup," Alphonse mused. "The Youswell and Soswell mines produce metals, which are in greatest demand during wartime."
"But metal is also used in many peacetime applications."
"True, but as I understand, the mines and factories around this region were set up for wartime production. Their difficulties recently have been related mostly to the changeover from one type of production to some kind of replacement, right?"
"Maybe they're still producing items for war."
"That's a rather large leap." Hawkeye frowned. "And in that case, why set the military headquarters on fire?"
"I don't know." Alphonse ducked his head. "No offense, ma'am, but I can't help but notice you keep assuming General Mustang was the target. What if my brother was? Ignoring the question of what a factory might produce, a National Alchemist who works without an array would be a mighty powerful factory in his own right. The folks in Hyle noticed that I did the same, and then those men tried to abduct me – what if they tried the same with my brother?"
"Abduct him to make him work for them?" Hawkeye looked amused.
Alphonse grinned. "Ah, yeah, well, that is the drawback in my theory. He is rather recalcitrant when it comes to following orders, isn't he."
"To say the least."
"If they knew his reputation—" Alphonse turned it over in his head. He was sure he had most of the right parts, but he was missing a few details. "Are there any major weapons smuggling operations, that you know of?"
"Drachma," Hawkeye said. "Oddly, while I was in Central, the place was buzzing with the rumors about Drachma's increased weapons output and smuggling. But during my time in the North, we saw little of it. In fact, I had my report half-written for General Mustang outlining how the Drachma smuggling operations had decreased, over the past year."
"Decreased." Alphonse chewed his lower lip. "What if that were due to competition?"
"We're going out on a seriously speculative branch here, Halmos."
"Yes, ma'am. But—"
"I suggest you look into it nonetheless," Hawkeye said, cutting him off. She smiled tightly, and he relaxed. She understood. "I'll have Farman remain behind, if I'm not able to extend my own visit. I'll tell him to meet you at—two blocks down from the factory, an hour after sunset." She arched an eyebrow at Alphonse.
"There are some houses along that road, and there's a few open spaces before they close in on the road. I'll wait for him in beneath the last tree on the right, before the stretch of house walls. It's about a quarter-mile from the factory."
"Good. I'll let him know." Hawkeye turned, and opened the door leading to the hotel hallway. "Good night, Halmos."
"Good night, Captain," Alphonse said, and left.
The streets were empty, but Alphonse stayed on his guard. Only once inside his hotel room, with his pajamas on and comfortably under the covers, did he relax. He lay with his hands locked behind his head, staring at the ceiling like he had for so many years, and considered the situation, turning it over in his head.
General Mustang and his brother were an unexpected visit, with no more than about forty-eight hours advance warning.
Drachma's weapons smuggling operations had been decreasing.
Central City's rumor mill wasn't aware of that fact.
The cause of the fire had possibly changed from accident to arson.
Alphonse wasn't sure about that last one. Unfortunately, the one person he knew who could speak definitively on the inner life of fire was one of the two people killed in the blaze.
Or perhaps they weren't killed, he thought, letting the wish out to play in his head. It had been there all along, and the attempt on the road only encouraged the hope, somehow. But for the first time, he let the idea out and turned it over in his mind.
Assumption. Soswell was continuing to use its weapons factories, rather than converting to peacetime uses.
Assumption. Edward Elric would be of some use to an illegal operation.
Alphonse paused. Anyone who knew of his brother's talent was likely to know of his reputation.
The two went hand in hand, announced from a mile away by his brother's temper and arrogance. Alphonse rolled over on his side, and stared at the dark hotel room. He could see the gray shape of his cloak lying across the back of the one chair. His brother's red coat was known just about everywhere, now, as was his dislike for authority – most authority, Alphonse amended – and his disinterest in playing by the rules.
Perhaps, Alphonse mused, anyone who abducted his brother to use Edward's skills would do so under the impression that Edward would willingly subvert the military. He had no love lost for the military's use of Alchemists, even if he abided by their rules as term of his service.
No. Alphonse rolled back to stare at the ceiling again. Edward loathed war, and killing, even more than he loathed the military. He would never willingly assist anyone to create, let alone distribute, more weapons of war.
The sudden leap struck Alphonse like a physical blow. Edward would only willingly assist under one condition.
He'd do it to protect those he loved.
There were only a few people in this world in that category, but it'd require only one hostage to force Edward's hand. There was only one time that Edward had balked, one price he wouldn't pay: murder by his own hand. Even then Edward had spent days, weeks afterwards berating himself for what he saw as his failure to protect Alphonse.
Despite the fact that I was screaming for him to stop, Alphonse thought dryly. Brother always did have a strange way of measuring right and wrong.
Does, he corrected. Brother always does have—
Alphonse sat straight up in bed, gasping.
There had been no remains of either body, just ashes and the melted remains of Roy's watch. There would have been something, no matter how fiercely the fire burned. Hawkeye had implied as much. There would have been something.
Alphonse scrambled out of bed, unable to wait a moment longer. He tore off his pajamas, and yanked a clean shirt over his head. Two more minutes he was dressed, and hesitating in the door. He paused to grab the folder that held his National Alchemists' certificate, and flipped it over on the back.
He pondered for a second, unsure what to write that wouldn't be understood by the wrong eyes, whoever that might be. After a second, he grinned down at the folder in his hand, and withdrew the single sheet declaring him to be a National Alchemist. For six years his brother had used his watch as grounds to act, time and again, above and beyond, to bluster his way into trouble and out again.
Alphonse laid the certificate on the bed's blanket. When he left, he shut the door quietly behind him.
The moon was out and full; its light turned the road into stark shadows. Not having seen the road in daylight, Alphonse was forced to move slowly, waiting for long moments before creeping to the next collection of shadows, hugging the house walls.
The factory loomed at the side of the road. Alphonse crouched by the wall, tucked into a crevice between factory wall and house wall, and checked his watch. He had lain in bed thinking for a great deal longer than he'd realized, and he'd not managed to travel directly from the hotel to the factory road, either. The landmarks were unfamiliar, and he'd gotten lost a few times, which had eaten up an hour of backtracking through the mountain town.
Alphonse swore under his breath, and grinned at the same instant. Edward would be mortified to hear him use such language, even if his brother had a mouth that six bars of soap couldn't clean. He tilted the watch to catch the moonlight, and noted it was two hours before dawn.
Enough time to at least investigate, he assured himself, and snapped the watch closed. The click echoed like a gunshot in the empty street, and he was motionless for a long time, waiting. No lights came on, and no dogs barked, and he sighed in relief.
Now, he told himself, I've just got to figure out how to get in.
He waited a long time by the corner of the factory wall, before he finally noticed movement by the gate. One guard, possibly two; a pair came out from the building, relieving the guards at the gate.
Damn: now the gate's covered by guards who are refreshed, and awake. Alphonse hoisted himself up onto the house wall that ran alongside the factory's grounds, and crept on his belly, dragging himself forward by his elbows, a few inches every minute. There was no movement from the guards, and the house to his right remained dark and quiet.
Forty feet away from the road, the house's high stone wall curved around its property line, and Alphonse came up into a crouch. He counted to twenty, waited again, and dropped silently over the wall onto the factory grounds.
Again he had to wait, measuring the distance from his position in some low bushes. The building was perhaps a hundred feet away, and Alphonse grimaced. If this turned out to be nothing, he was going to look the fool.
It won't turn out to be nothing, he promised himself. He'd broken into enough places with his brother to recognize the singing sensation of his nerves, the tingle in his awareness that said, you're on the right track. Keep going.
Inch by inch, foot by foot, Alphonse crawled like a snake across the uneven terrain towards the main building. The ground was rough, but had few low bushes, and Alphonse clung to the hope that the rise and fall of the open ground was enough to mask the shape of his body when he'd pause. The barest sound had him freezing in place, holding his breath.
Sixty feet, seventy feet, eighty feet, and he reached the shadow of the main building over him. For a long moment he paused, inhaling the scent of dirt and weeds, breathing through his mouth to keep from coughing as it coasted his lungs. It was a wonderful smell, but for a moment he wished he were armor again – at least cleaning off would be considerably easier. He suspected he was easily the same color as the dirt, by this point.
Moving forward a little faster now that he had the cover of full shadow, Alphonse reached the brick walls of the factory with a relieved sigh. He put one hand on the wall, and the other on the ground beside him, and crept forward in a crouch. It was tiring work, but his muscles were strong. He thanked Winly silently for all the times she'd pushed him to go run, climb trees, and learn to swim, to get his body back in shape.
His gut ached with the slow movements, and he leaned away from the building, looking up at its architecture. It had windows, high up, but none on the ground floor. From what he knew of other factories, and laboratories like in Central, this was common; the main floor of a factory was usually lit by natural light from overhead, not along the wall.
At the corner of the building he was startled to realize there were a series of somewhat smaller buildings grouped behind the main one. Alleys, no wider than a lane and a half, ran between them. Alphonse blinked, and realized he could see in the deep shadows not because his eyes had adjusted – the sun was starting to come up.
He swore again, shook his head at his idiocy and bad timing, and moved forward. He'd made it this far. If he was discovered, hopefully he'd have time to either defend himself alchemically, or he could take a few pages from his brother's books and bluster his way. Straightening up once he determined no one was patrolling the main alley between the first building and the three or four behind it, Alphonse stayed close to the wall.
There were windows back here, on the alley side of the building, and he glanced in a few of them. The gray light of dawn was growing, and it was enough to see offices, desks, papers: nothing out of the ordinary for a factory.
The fifth window, however, changed all that. Alphonse pressed his hands against the glass, and struggled to control his breathing. Sitting on the desk were several guns, two of which looked remarkably similar to models he'd seen in Ishvar. They weren't hunting rifles by any stretch of the imagination.
Satisfied, he turned, just as he heard an engine and the crunching sound of gravel under tires. Leaping forward, Alphonse angled across the open alley and threw himself down one of the smaller alleys between the back buildings.
His boots thudded on the dirt, but that couldn't be helped.
He twisted, pressing himself up against the building. A truck drove past, down the main alley; two men were sitting in the open bed of the truck. One of them raised his head as the truck went past. It wasn't moving that fast, trundling down between the buildings. The man facing Alphonse's direction was leaning forward, and sat back with a grin just as the truck passed the alley mouth. Alphonse hissed. It was the man who'd called him by his title, back on the road to Soswell.
A part of him wanted to leap out and beat the man a second time, but that part was easily squashed. Another part of Alphonse wanted to stake the quick image as proof that Edward had been taken and used for malicious reasons, and not left for dead in a burning building.
No, Alphonse told himself. The only things he could say for certain, at this point, were that the factory contained some kinds of weapons – but that didn't mean it was still manufacturing them. And the presence of a guard who had been up to no good on the road between Hyle and Soswell didn't mean the abduction was related to the factory; it could be that the man was hired out as muscle along with working on his own behalf, whatever that might be.
Too many coincidences, Alphonse thought, and began creeping down the alley. The light was growing brighter, and he tried to move a bit more quickly. Beyond the alley, he could see trees, and he almost laughed at the knowledge that the factory's gate was only along two sides, maybe three. At least it would be a fast track out, rather than attempting the foolhardy notion of running across open turf back to the sidewall.
Alphonse had the plans for departure firmly fixed in his head when he took one more step, and plummeted straight down. He gasped, reached up with his hands – and kept falling.