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velvet mace

Pawns

chapter 11. The Note

Winry hated to admit it, but it was getting easier and
easier to ignore the MP that followed Al wherever he went. Although modesty
was never her biggest issue when it came to dressing, and she certainly didn't
mind an appreciative look from a stranger, there was something about public
displays of affection that just didn't sit right with her. As a result, it felt
a little strange to be kissing Al in secluded section of the park, with some
guy she didn't know sitting on a rock right across the path from their bench.

Inured as she was, she couldn't suppress the little outraged
gasp when Al suddenly slipped his hand under her shirt to feel her up. Her eyes
darted over to the MP, who was, of course, watching.

She felt the fingers slip under her bra and tensed. "Al,"
she whispered warningly.

The fingers retreated and Al pulled away with a somewhat
sheepish expression on his face. "I wonder if they will allow us to get a hotel
room," he asked.

His fingers were out, but there was something kind of
uncomfortable left in her bra. Winry felt a second's confusion and then realized
Al had stuffed a folded note into the cup.

"We could ask him," said Winry.

They looked over at the MP. "I'm under orders not to let
you leave my sight. What you folks choose to do is your business, so long as
it doesn't violate the rules." He smirked.

"Ok," said Winry with disgust. "I'm sorry Al, but no.
I do have a shred of self-respect left."

Al sighed and shrugged. "Lets walk then. You hungry?"

They started walking. The note in her bra was irritating
her. "No, but I could use a bathroom, " she said.

"I saw one down this path."

The MP stayed outside with Al while Winry walked into
the dimly lit, dank and cold public restroom. Inside she quickly pulled the
note out.

The handwriting wasn't Al's. The things it asked her to
do were not the sort of things Al would ask for. But Al had given it to her,
and doubtless he knew what it said. She wasn't sure she trusted Mustang as Al
did, but it didn't really matter. She'd do it because Al wanted her to. She
read it a second time to memorize the instructions and then shredded it into
tiny pieces and flushed them away.

Al and the MP were chatting amiably together when she
came out. As if they were all just good friends. As if this situation were even
remotely normal.

"Let's go," she told them. They wandered out of the park,
Al holding her hand, the MP following a few steps behind them. They passed by
a jewelry shop, and Winry tugged Al in. For a while they window shopped, but
didn't buy anything. They repeated the routine for a hat shop.

And then stopped outside a Tattoo shop.

Feeling a little mischievous, Winry followed what the
note requested she do. She looked over the display of decorative tattoos taped
to the window, and her eye hit on one. A small, simple star. It probably wouldn't
hurt that much and it reminded her of the more peaceful times when they would
lie out under the night sky, just her and Al and Ed.

"So cute," she said. "Oh, Al, we should get matching tattoos.
A friend of mine and her boyfriend have them. Look isn't that star adorable."

"I'm not sure they'll let me get tattooed," said Al, feigning
surprise.

"Oh, it's but it's just a star. It's not an array or anything.
And it's so tiny." Winry turned to the MP. "Oh please, oh please?"

The MP looked uncomfortable. "He'll have to get it approved,
but I don't see why they'd object to him getting a star. So long as it isn't
an array, it should be fine."

Al smiled and Winry caught the knowing look in his eyes.

"Let's find out how much it costs," Winry said, and walked
in.

In the store, Al did his part. He took two steps and then
stumbled spectacularly, falling into a rack of souvenir shirts, knocking everything
to the floor. "Sorry, " he called out, and started picking things up.

The owner of the shop moved to help but Winry touched
his heavily tattooed arm. She asked him the question, quietly. He looked at
her surprised, then looked at the MP helping Al pick up the shirts. Sizing it
all up he nodded and whispered a figure.

It was a hell of a lot more money than she expected, She
and Al weren't going to be buying anything any time soon, but she nodded. "How
long will it take?"

"Give me two weeks. I'll need half up front."

"Ok, we'll be back Friday, that's when we get paid, I'll
give you the money then."

"Sure thing. Two weeks after that."

The MP and Al returned. "It's more expensive than I thought.
Let's do it Friday when we get paid," she said. "If you can get approval."

Al nodded.

Privacy

Midnight wasn't surprised when Al wandered into his office.
Technically it was the kid's day off. His too, but Midnight had pretty much
given up on the notion of time off. Between briefings, managing his staff, paperwork
and trying to keep up with what Elric's and Mustang were doing, he had several
full time jobs.

He shoved aside the document he was reading and gave the
young alchemist his full attention.

The kid was pissed. He could tell that only because he
was well versed with Al's expressions, or rather lack there-of. The kid smiled
easily enough when he was happy, but when he was truly angry his round face
took on a deceptively placid air, and only the cold hard look to his eyes betrayed
the depth of his emotions.

"To what do I owe the pleasure of your attitude?" Midnight
asked.

"I want some privacy."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean Winry and I are not some tawdry sex show for the
MPs."

Midnight sighed in a deep breath. "You are a very valuable
member of my staff. It's not safe these days to have you wander around without
an escort. There are enemy agents everywhere."

Al actually rolled his eyes. "Give me a bit of credit
here," he said. "I know they aren't there for my protection. They are there
to make sure I'm not passing state secrets along to Winry. Have I in all this
time EVER given any reason for you to doubt my discretion?"

Midnight thought for a moment, then conceded. "No."

"I signed the enlistment papers. You folks have me, "
Al continued. "It's about time I was treated like a volunteer and not a fresh
conscript or a prisoner."

"What do you propose?"

"Some God-damn PRIVATE time with my girlfriend. I assume
you once had girlfriend."

Midnight smiled. "I distantly remember such a time." He
leaned forward. "I really meant it about the operatives. When you are out, security
is a must."

"Well then how about allowing Winry into my room. You
know I don't live in a dorm. That place you have set up for me is practically
an apartment. And it's private, it's not like I would be scandalizing a roommate
or anything."

Midnight considered. The room Al had been given had been
designed for an officer with the minimum rank of Major, as such it was far more
luxurious than a Specialist deserved. There had been reasons for the room. Firstly
it isolated the boy, which made keeping an eye on his comings and goings easier.
Secondly it provided an incentive for the boy to work—it was something that
could be taken away. Midnight rather doubted the kid would like to lose his
private bathroom. Thirdly it was in the same building as they worked, which
reduced the need for security around the kid... who despite his protestations
actually did require an escort. Al was, quite simply, not replaceable.

There were no practical reasons to prevent Al from seeing
his girlfriend in his room. Still it would be a massive breach of protocol.
Something that his superiors might actually raise an eyebrow at. Yet, the only
excuse that came quickly to his tongue was: "The fifth lab complex is a secure
facility. She would need clearance."

"Then clear her."

Midnight cupped his chin. "Very well. Though it will look
strange. Encouraging minors to have sex is not the way the Army usually operates.
Use protection. The fall out of a pregnancy would not be good for either of
us."

Al looked relieved. "Oh, and one more thing, " he said.

"You really want favors today," drawled Midnight. "Luckily
I'm in an amenable mood."

"I'd like to get a tattoo. Not an array, just a little
star, on my hand."

Midnight was actually expecting this request. He'd been
informed by Ashfell. "Yes, provided I be there to watch you get it. No funny
business."

Al lifted an eyebrow.

"Take it or leave it."

"I'll take it." Suspicious, he added, "Why the sudden
generosity?"

Midnight lifted the corner of his lip. "Tomorrow we start
using dogs. I expect no more fits of conscience out of you over it, or else
I might change my mind about your need for privacy."

Al turned pale and swallowed hard.

"You are dismissed," said Midnight, and waved him off.

The Breaking Point

Ed bent over near the cage, his one hand on his knee for support. The animal
within suddenly lunged at him, teeth clanking against the bars. Ed backed up
quickly, wiping a drop of the beasts spittle from his cheek. "What the hell
did they do to it to get it so pissed."

Al was standing about as far as he could from the cage
and still be in the same room.

"They tortured it, " said Roy. "Look at the paws."

"The hell, " said Ed. "Why on earth would they do that?
It's just a poor mangy mutt."

"Why they did it isn't important," said Roy softly. "The
important thing is to know that it's within our power to take away its fear
and suffering."

Revulsion crawled up Ed's throat, and he tasted bile.
Sick is what it was. Sick and twisted.

Al called out, still turned away, face into the concrete.
"Roy, Ed, someone, just trank the damn thing already. I don't want to listen
to it anymore."

"If they just gave me back my arm, I could sedate it a
whole lot easier," grumbled Ed. He looked over to see if the guard had taken
the hint. If he had he was showing absolutely no sign of it.

Sighing, he reached for the loaded gun on the table, and
put feathered dart into the dog's side. No one spoke as the dog whined, then
went quiet.

Ed turned around and caught Roy exchanging some quick
signs with Al, Their bodies blocked too much for Ed to see exactly what they
were saying, but there was no mistaking the hardening of Al's expression. Roy's
shoulders twitched. Ed knew he was signing something more. Suddenly Al's glare
softened, and he turned his head away, as though in submission.

Damn Roy, what was he pulling over on Al. Whatever it
was, it was time to put a stop to it. "Yo, Roy, I can't drag this thing out
on my own, come help me here."

"I hate this," Al muttered loudly.

Ed went over to reassure Al while Roy struggled to pull
the unconscious animal out of its crate. "I hate this too, but what can we do.
Come on; let's just get it done. I can draw the array if you like."

Al shrugged off his proffered arm. "I'm ok. I'm just in
a foul mood right now. I can draw your array."

Ed stepped back. He hadn't seen Al like this in a long
time. "Have I done something...?" he asked.

"No, brother. This isn't about you, for once." There was
a dull resentment in the voice that suggested that maybe it WAS all about him
in some backwards way.

"What did I do?" asked Ed, beginning to feel the burn.
He thought over his behavior for the past few days but could think of nothing.
Unless it was the way he'd taken his brother's painfully thought out arrays
and tweaked them.

God was that it? The arrays were amazing really, when
Ed first saw them his first impulse had been to wonder what sort of flight of
fancy his brother must have been on when he came up the idea. An array with
no straight lines, just a series of intersecting and enmeshed spirals like some
crazy maze, it was odd, and truly innovative. It almost didn't look like an
array, but rather some child's scribble. Except there was method in the madness,
each intersection was planned, the lines representing memory, pattern, physical
properties, chemistry, chaos: it all fit neatly together somehow.

All Ed had done was add an overlay, something to tighten
the focus, bleed off extra power, prevent collateral damage. But now suddenly
it was HIS array and not his brother's anymore.

Midnight wasn't helping at all. Praising Ed for his innovations,
like Ed even wanted that guys approval. He was doing this because this was what
he had to do to see Al. Having Midnight's approval just made it more loathsome.

And as if reading Ed's thoughts, Midnight appeared at
the door for his daily visit. He walked in the room while Roy was still busy
shaving a patch on the dog's side. This animal had been so wild, that apparently
the techs hadn't wanted to deal with this necessary but mundane step.

Midnight looked at the dog and then looked over at Al
still standing in the corner, looking off in a random direction, and hardened
his expression.

"What did I say, Al?"

Al's head jerked to look at Midnight, eyes cold with fury.
"Wait until I do something wrong before you chew me out, SIR." He fetched the
grease pencil from the table and stalked off towards the dog.

"Listen, Al, " said Ed again. "I'll do it, I really don't
mind."

"I said I don't need your help. This is what I signed
up for. I can do my own goddamn job."

And that hit on a particular sore spot for Ed. "Yeah,
and why DID you sign up, Al?"

Al looked briefly at Midnight. "None of your business."
Al's hand was shaking while he made the array.

And Ed felt himself shaking, too, with suppressed rage.
"Yeah, I kind of think it IS my business. I wouldn't even be here right now
if I hadn't tried to come to your rescue. Then when I get here I find out you
freaking VOLUNTEERED. I'm in jail now because I tried to save your hide. I think
I deserve to know why you did it."

Midnight broke in, "Hey both of you, cool it!"

"I didn't need you to rescue me. You chose to do that.
You chose to turn in your watch and to go AWOL and to break into the conscripts
quarters and cause mayhem. Don't you try and pin your life on me."

"Your array looks like crap," said Ed.

"Screw off, Brother. And stop trying to make everything
that ever happens to me about you. And everything you do about me, either. I
told you I'm in a foul mood. Nothing to do with you. Just leave me the hell
alone."

"ED, AL cool it!" said Midnight, louder.

Ed spun on his boss. "Back off, this is none of your business."

"That array your brother is trying to draw is my business
and you are getting in the way. Cool down or go back to your cell."

Ed turned away, "Screw you," he said and off handedly
flipped him the finger. "Why the heck did you have to torture that poor dog,
you asshole. You know Al likes animals."

And suddenly the world turned dark and he felt himself
being spun into a wall. "I've had quite enough of your attitude," said Midnight.
"Guard. Take him back to his cell. Mustang, too."

"Leave Roy out of this, he had nothing to do with it."

"Shut up, Fullmetal."

They lead him blindly back to his cell. It wasn't until
he was thrust into the room that Midnight released his hold on Ed's sight and
the room blinked brightly into view again.

He turned around ready to flip Midnight off again, but
then realized Roy was being pulled further down the hall. "Hey!" Ed called out.
"What the heck?"

The door closed.

Out of Character

When it was just himself and the guard left in the room,
Al took the razor and shaved a new patch on the dog. He drew the array again,
because his brother was right, he'd botched it the first time.

It was easier without an audience. Easier to just not
think about what he was doing, knowing that no one was going to see the shame
of his failure, or the shame of his success for that matter. If the test worked,
he would eliminate not only the memory of pain, but also it's accompanying stress
and fear. The dog would be a happy, docile companion when he was finished. If
it worked.

He tried not to look at the paws which still had the ends
of electrodes taped to them.

Roy was right. He was going to eliminate its suffering.

Roy was always right.

Always.

And that's what Al hated most, because Roy had signed
that HE would have to be the one to commit the sin when the time came. No one
else.

And that was why he couldn't let Ed shoulder his burdens.
As much as he hated to do this to the dog, he needed to do it as well. He only
hoped that when the real test came, his heart would be hard enough.

Ed won't understand. Al had signed back. He will be horrified
with me.

When the time comes, Roy had signed back, I will deal
with that, too.

Al had no doubt Roy would, too. Because Roy was always
right.