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velvet mace

Pawns

chapter 5. Books

They moved Roy out of his cell and into another built
much the same way only completely underground. Roy wasn't sure it was an improvement.
On the one hand, the cell was larger and contained a second bed and a built
in desk. On the other, it lacked the narrow high window and that streak of sunlight
Roy used to watch creep across the walls.

The second bed though. That was something. After a year
of solitary confinement, company, anyone's company, was something to cherish.

The Thug visited him again, sitting on the second bed.
"You start working tomorrow. We've prepared a laboratory for you. You won't
be allowed your gloves, but you will be given access to writing equipment and
paper."

"Do you think that is risky?"

"Should I?" The Thug eyed him over. "You know what I think?
I think you are beat. I think you've had a long, long time to think over your
life and your options. I think that you WANT to work for me, just out of sheer
boredom. I don't think you would try to escape even if the possibility was left
open. Which it won't be.

"If you behave yourself, we may even be able to assign
you a research partner."

Roy held himself steady. He was already hopeful of having
some company, but having the company of an intellectual equal, an alchemist....
They were pulling out all the stops on this one. They must really want his cooperation.

"Until then, I have brought you over some reading material
for tonight." The Thug stood up tapped on the small glass window and then called
out through the tray slit. "Hey-ya, bring them over." Three gaurds entered the
room each with an armload of books.

Roy's eyes were wide. Never in twelve months had he been
given this wealth of material to work with. If he was lucky, he was given a
book or two a month, but this, this was almost too much.

"I can't possibly read all of that in one night," said
Roy.

"We wouldn't expect you to," assured the Thug. "You can
read which ever of these books strike your fancy, as deeply or shallowly as
you like. They won't be taken away. No notes though, at least not for tonight.
Just peruse them. Look for a connection between them. What does all this have
in common. I'll come by for an oral report tomorrow morning at 900 hours."

The Thug opened the door and ushered the gaurds out, but
then paused a genuine smile on his face. "Now, remember to sleep tonight, too.
Tomorrow the real work starts."

The Thug left.

Roy stood up and crossed the room to the desk, now piled
precariously high with books. His hands were shaking. Where to begin? He lifted
the first book, savoring the smell, the feel of the leather cover under his
fingertips. He flipped quickly through the pages. Theory, some sketched arrays.
Sweet.

He put it down and grabbed a second book.

Curious... this wasn't about alchemy at all. It was an
anatomy book. Interesting. And this one was a volume on philosophy and ethics
of experimentation. An in-depth treatise on the construction of blind and double-blind
tests. Medical Ethics. The care and breeding of rabbits. Pharmacology. And here,
this one was a personal notebook.

He opened the pages. Coded, naturally, as many Alchemists
choose to code their work. Roy felt a fierce joy. Something to wrap his brain
about and shake the cobwebs out at last. The code itself seemed simple enough,
but without pen and paper to write it down it took real concentration to break.
The handwriting though was somewhat familiar. And there was something about
the choice of code words and abbreviations...

Ah, this was Edward's notebook.

Did that mean that they had caught him?

Did that mean ...? Roy's breath caught.

Rank

A lot of being in the Army appeared to be waiting, punctuated
by brief interviews with various people. Al had waited in a truck for the train.
Waited in the train for a truck. Waited in a warehouse filled with the smell
of fear and sweat for someone to "sort" him. Waiting after the initial interview
for the second interview with Dunn. Waiting for a uniform. Waiting for papers.
Waiting for his turn at the Mess hall. Waiting to be handed a Dorm assignment
for the night. Waiting for orientation. And now he was waiting in yet another
anonymous office lobby for someone to take him to where he would be working.

He never saw the same faces twice. And despite Dunn's
assurance, he'd never even glimpsed Winry. None of the people he'd spoken to
along the way even knew her name. He hoped she hadn't been sent on with the
rest of the conscripts by accident.

The secretary put down the phone at her desk and called
over to him. "Specialist Elric, he's ready for you. Third door on the right."

Al followed her directions and arrived at a long narrow
office, crammed with three desks, a plethora of filing cabinets and boxes, and
a couple mismatched stools. At the desk farthest from the door, a lean man with
black hair slicked down against his neck vaguely gestured for him to come in
and take a seat on one of the stools.

"Forgive the mess," said the man. He stood, holding his
hand out over the desk for a shake. "I'm in the process of being moved to a
new office."

Al reluctantly shook his hand. As he did so, he noted
the watch chain attached to a belt loop, and then his eye caught on the man's
belt buckle. An alchemical array was engraved into the silver. Something to
do with light. Al let go and sat down.

"I'm Andrew Gardner, the Midnight Alchemist."

"Midnight. Poetic."

"Yes." He cleared his voice awkwardly. "Well, I suppose
it was better than the first name they planned on giving me. I was hoping for
Light Alchemist, but apparently that was taken. Dark Alchemist made me sound
so sinister. The Fuhrer was generous enough to reconsider." He leaned back in
his chair. "Of course, my specialty is bending light waves."

"Really."

"Yes, and you'd be surprised how useful such a skill is.
But in any case, this really has nothing to do with you." Midnight tapped his
chin. "Do you have a specialty yet? Your brother tends to go for creating physical
objects, walls, weapons and the like. What do you prefer to do?"

"Well until lately, it was fixing dolls and repairing
toasters," said Al, blandly.

"And making exact replicas of books."

Al's eyes narrowed. Midnight smiled. "It didn't seem to
be your brother's style. You are a more... nuanced alchemist, aren't you. Not
so much show, more detail. I've read you notebooks. One of my people broke the
codes you and your brother used. So you are thinking about medical alchemy as
your next project."

"If you read our notebooks, then you wouldn't need to
ask."

Midnight smiled. "Surprisingly enough, one of the projects
that I am involved with is along the lines of medical alchemy. Not precisely
the kind you and your brother were researching, but close enough. I already
have one alchemist on the project, and a team of scientists and technicians
to back him up. I plan to add you and one more, if possible, later. I myself
will occasionally pop in to help, but my expertise is rather stretched thin
these days. Needless to say, I will not be micromanaging you.

"But I do expect reports and results. Even if the results
are negative. I don't want to you to sugar coat anything. Don't give me false
hope, don't falsify evidence. Don't slack off either, because I will know the
difference."

Al felt vaguely insulted. "I keep my word. I've yet to
see if your people have kept theirs."

"Ah, yes. Winry Rockbell." Midnight seemed to savor the
name. "She throws a mean punch, you know." He touched his chin. Al could see
the remnants of a bruise. "As we speak, she is being settled into the residents
quarters behind the Central Rehabilitation Hospital. After you've seen the lab
and your new quarters, you will be free to walk over and see her. I can sketch
you a map if you need one. Forgive me if I don't choose to accompany you."

Al felt a surge of relief. He was tempted to ask why and
when Winry had thrown a punch at Midnight but other questions were more pressing.
"What is this medical alchemy you want me to be involved with."

Midnight blinked. "Put simply, we are looking for an alchemical
cure for battle fatigue."

"Battle fatigue?"

"Mental illness strikes even the most seasoned and valuable
members of the military. It can render an alchemist or soldier worse than useless,
and even when they are retired, they have difficulty readjusting back into the
community. Last week, a Major was taken from the front lines for shooting indiscriminately
at his own troops. He claimed he was putting them out of their misery. We brought
him back and he turned on the nurses in the hospital, breaking one woman's neck
before throwing himself out the window to his death. If we had an alchemical
way of restoring his peace of mind... just consider it. Consider the pain and
misery that could be prevented."

Al nodded avidly. His mind was already sifting through
possible array combinations.

"Have you considered trying out for State Alchemist this
spring?"

The change of subject caught Al off guard. "I don't see
the point in it. I'm already doing alchemy for the military. I don't need a
fancy name."

Midnight smiled broadly. "There is Military and then there
is Military. For one thing, you will get the watch. For another, your rank will
be increased to officer grade. With rank you will have more say to what projects
you work on, as well as having better pay, better quarters, better working conditions,
better hours and vacation. I'd consider it. I think you could go far with us."

Al felt a smile beginning to form on his lips, the first
one since being captured over a week before.

Introductions

Roy paused in taking notes to tap his pencil against his
chin. It felt good to be writing again. It had been so long, his fingers were
clumsy and his handwriting off. Twelve months during which he had been forbidden
to hold anything more pointed than a spoon. He felt a strong urge to draw a
fire array—not that he wanted fire, but just for the sheer sensual pleasure
of creating it. Even without a spark, the itch to feel the oxygen gather and
concentrate between his fingers was almost overpowering.

He did not dare. Although he was allowed a pencil and
paper, he was told no arrays. This job was too precious to lose. Who knew how
long they'd shelve him, alone and bored stupid, if he tempted fate now. A lifetime
of staring at empty walls... he shuddered to think of it.

The door to his workroom opened, but he didn't bother
to look up. Guards changed shifts, exchanged messages. It didn't matter. If
they wanted him they'd call his name.

"Attention!"

As though a string had been pulled, Roy turned in his
chair and stood at attention. He saw Midnight enter the room, and behind him...Roy's
eyes narrowed.

For just the briefest seconds he thought it was Edward,
but no. The height was similar, as was the build. Same fine boned features.
Same long hair. But the coloring was off. Where Ed's hair was sunny and his
eyes gold, this one's eyes were a grey-hazel and his hair the color of dark
honey.

"Al?" asked Roy.

Al's eyes met his and Roy saw a flash of recognition,
followed by surprise and concern. "Colonel!"

"I'm not a Colonel anymore, Al," said Roy carefully, aware
that Midnight was watching both their reactions. He took in Al's uniform, and
noticed the stripes. "In fact, right now you outrank me. Specialist, eh?"

"Yes, sir."

"You don't need to call him, sir," said Midnight. "He's
a private. The lowest rank in the Army, same as those conscripts you rode in
with." Midnight then turned to him. "I leave it to you to show him the ropes
around here. Just get him briefed on the project, then Al you can go, find your
girl. Would you like that map?"

"No, sir," said Al, not looking away from Roy. "I know
the city. It hasn't changed that much."

Midnight nodded and, with a quick look of warning to Roy,
he left the room.

"Are you alright, sir?" asked Al.

"You better not call me sir, Al," said Roy, trying hard
to keep the trembling out of his voice. Roy's heart was beating hard. Just seeing
a friendly face, even if it wasn't one he recognized, just knowing the soul
in front of him was a true friend, and not someone collecting evidence to use
against him... but he didn't want to frighten Al with his intensity, so he choked
it back and tried to hide it behind hands that wouldn't hold still and a voice
that was just a bit too abrupt. "It will only get both of us in trouble. Call
me Roy."

Al blinked. He looked around the room, eyes pausing on
the guard by the door.

"They don't want you showing any sort of deference to
me. They are afraid it might give me ideas. We are partners in this project,
I'm not your superior."

"Are you alright, Roy?" asked Al in a softer voice.

Roy couldn't keep the laugh of relief out of his voice.
"Better now than I've been for twelve months. Come, let me explain what I've
discovered so far."