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velvet mace

Pawns

chapter 23. One Final Hope

"Release him," said Mustang, with a broad closed-lipped
smile.

Ashfell felt the straps loosening, stretching, breaking,
and sliding down around him. For a moment he did nothing, assessing the situation.

He didn't feel any different. But he saw the glow of alchemy
and felt a slight tingle in his foot where Al had touched. He'd heard his own
mouth speak his assent. "Yes." Yes, he would obey. Yes, he trusted Mustang.

He looked at Mustang. It's true, I trust him. I trust
what he says is true. I trust that he is competent, and that what he sets his
mind to he will do. But that doesn't change the fact that I'd rather die than
be his slave.

It doesn't change the fact that I want to kill him.

Perhaps, just perhaps the array didn't work quite as it
was supposed to. Certainly Ashfell was no thoughtless zombie, the way Carr appeared
to be. Ah, but they didn't know that did they. If Ashfell was quick enough....

He schooled his expression to be blank. It was difficult.
Even under less stressful circumstances he was not much of an actor. He tentatively
stood up and put his feet on the ground. The gravel dug painfully into his bare
foot, but the adrenaline rushing through his veins counteracted the discomfort.
He took two steps closer to Roy.

He should say something to put the man off guard. "What
do you want me to do," would be a logically subservient thing to say, but Ashfell
wouldn't do that. If the array was at all active that would be an invitation
for Mustang to interfere with him.

Three more steps. Mustang simply watched him, eyes assessing.
If he could get his hands on Roy's neck, he could snap it before the man had
a chance to say anything. Almost there.

Closer. Then he launched himself.

Mustang simply stepped back and to the side, allowing
Ashfell to run past him. "You won't hurt me," he said calmly.

Ashfell balled his fists impotently. Not me, perhaps,
but someone surely will. A lot. And soon.
He looked daggers at Roy, wishing
his anger alone could do the job.

"Don't direct his actions," Al said. "It's not like ordering
a soldier. You have to address his motivations."

Roy's eyes flickered over to Al, narrowing. Ah, some
rivalry. A little dissent amongst the ranks.
Ashfell turned to consider
the slight, small youth. So fragile looking, so young. Yet, that's where the
real power was. Get Al, and Roy was a goner.

"Don't let him use you, Al," Ashfell said. "You can get
out of this still. You have a promising military career ahead of you—both
you and your brother. Don't throw it all away on this piece of trash."

Al said nothing.

"He's USING you, boy." Ashfell continued.

"That's enough," Mustang said. "Be quiet."

Ashfell couldn't find words. Damn it all, the array WAS
working. This was going to be hell.

"You have to address his motivations," Al said. "Not his
actions. He's USELESS to us otherwise."

"Clarify," Mustang said abruptly. Angrily.

"If you keep directing what he does and what he thinks,
he's going to look like Carr. No one is going to think he is uncompromised.
I'm sure there are at least a few other people in the lab who know what we are
up to. When they see him, they will simply call out the heavy guns."

Ashfells assessment of Al rose a few notches. Midnight
was right, the kid was smart. If only he could talk, he could play on that...
perhaps convince the kid of the futility of his actions.

"Stop being his commanding officer. Be his..." Al hesitated.

"Be his what."

"God." Al's eyes seemed a bit bright. This was killing
the kid. Yes. He didn't like doing this. Ashfell could work that, too. He couldn't
speak, but he could use his eyes. His body movements. He put all into what acting
skill he had and begged the kid with his eyes. Protect me. From him. Don't
let him do this to me.

Al looked briefly at him then turned his head pointedly
away. Damn.

"Don't tell him what to do. Tell him what to believe."

Oh, hell no.

Ashfell turned and ran. If he could get to the road...

"Stop," ordered Mustang.

Ashfell's feet became glued to the ground, but his momentum
pushed him over, he tumbled into the grass.

"Don't move." Ashfell found himself staring at the grass,
hunched over, propped up by his hands, his legs twisted under him. He couldn't
move.

Al continued, "I know you think that it's better to just
deal with the body. Leave the soul alone," said Al. "I know you think that somehow
resolves your guilt that you haven't changed the real him, only imprisoned him
in his flesh. I considered this as well. But that's not the way it works. It
hurts him, and it doesn't help us. You have to go to the core. Tell him to love
you. Tell him to want to do what you say. Make your dreams, his dreams. That's
how it works. That's how it worked with..."

With Midnight. That's why Midnight acted like a normal
person.

Midnight knew this, too, because Ashfell could hear his
anguished, "Al..."

"Andrew, lets go for a walk," Al said. "Let Roy figure
this out for himself."

And for a while it was quiet. Then Ashfell felt a hand
on his back. "You can stand up," Mustang said. Ashfell did. He saw Al and Midnight
walking slowly down the gravel road. The driver—that would be Al's girl Ashfell
realized—was sitting on the side of the road next to Ed and Carr. The three
of them watching what was going on, quietly. Well, what a posse, Mustang had
here. Was there more or was this it?

Ashfell's people would crush them. The REAL car coming
to pick him up would surely have arrived by now at Dunn's. Dunn would realize
that Ashfell had been kidnapped. Dunn would call headquarters, get the real
troops out. They would be combing the area by now looking for him.

It was all going to end bad for Mustang and his people.
Ashfell didn't have to lift a hand. He smiled.

"It would be better to have you as an ally," Mustang said.
"I'll have you know, I don't enjoy doing evil things. I don't mind giving people
orders, but I don't like making..."

Don't like owning people? thought Ashfell.
Come on. You are fooling no one. You LOVE manipulating people. Or is it just
that you don't like to cheat when you twist their thoughts into your own.

Mustangs face suddenly grew hard as though he'd made a
decision he didn't like. "You want to be my ally," he said.

Ashfell shuddered. Something deep within shifted and for
a moment his thoughts slid sideways and became incongruent. Then they settled
back into place.

Manipulation is what everyone wanted. Everyone in power.
Roy was no different. He just payed a steeper price than most for his ambitions.

For the first time Ashfell felt a bit sorry for Mustang.
Really, the only thing he had wanted, his greatest sin, was to want to depose
the Fuhrer and take his place. This was nothing that many others didn't also
want. Even Ashfell had more than a few moments when he wished the Fuhrer would
fall down a flight of stairs or something. The only reason Mustang was being
so brutally punished was so that he could serve as a deterrent against others.

Ashfell's eyes widened with sudden realization.

Mustang the untouchable. That's what he was always called.
No matter how he schemed, no matter how much he placed himself in untenable
situations. No matter how defiant, he ALWAYS landed on his feet. That's what
Ashfell had hated most. The slickness of him. That oily slippery ability to
shirk responsibility for his actions. He ALWAYS got off with a slap on the wrist
and a shaken finger. Always, until Ashfell bust into his house at 3 am and took
him, stripped him of absolutely everything, and tossed his sorry ass in jail.

Oh, that had felt good to see the untouchable Mustang
go down at last. Finally succumb to the same rules as everyone else.

And that was precisely why the Fuhrer had done it. It
had told EVERYONE in the military that no one was immune. If they thought to
oppose him, they would lose it all. It had cemented his power over the military
the way nothing else could have.

For the first time Ashfell actually wondered if the damning
evidence he'd found in Mustang's house were even real—or had they been planted?

Mustang was frowning now. "You can speak, " he finally
said.

"Can you answer me a question?" Ashfell asked.

"Yes."

"Was it a frame up? Your treason. Was that framed."

Roy smiled. "Only sort of. The evidence they showed me
was planted, but I did plan on deposing the Fuhrer. This Fuhrer has been nothing
but a disaster for our country."

That was so true.

"And you think you will make a good one. A good Fuhrer.
A better one than what we have?"

"Yes. And so do you."

Comfort

Al put a companionable hand on Midnight's back. "We had
to do this to him. There was no other choice." He wasn't sure if he was talking
to Midnight or himself. Did it matter?

"Al," said Midnight.

"Yes."

"When this is over, will you—will he remove the arrays?"

"Absolutely." In this Al was determined. "And I'll destroy
all record of them as well. There is such a thing as too much power."

"Thank you."

For what? For promising to let you be your own person
again. For not wanting to enslave the world? How big of me.

"Al," said Midnight.

"What?"

"I'm glad it was you." Midnight's eyes were straight ahead.

"Me?"

"And not him."

Al couldn't say anything. He wished it was just the opposite.
But then how much was his innocence worth? Did it really stack up against what
Midnight, Carr and Ashfell had lost?

"I'm all right," Midnight continued. "You don't have to
worry about me."

Al shook his head at the irony. To think Midnight would
be comforting him.

Useless

"You know that was a sweet piece of machinery before you tore it apart." Winry
looked sadly at the remains of the car. "I don't think even the best engineer
could put that back together again."

Ed followed her eyes. Boy, he'd made a hash of it hadn't
he. It wouldn't be driving anywhere, likely ever again. Unless he fixed it.
Which, perhaps he could do. It would be better than just sitting here uselessly
while his brother and Roy dealt with their prospective wards.

Ed smacked his palms together. The ache in his automail
grew worse briefly, but then subsided again. Ed's mind was already past that,
visualizing the array he'd need, feeling the power swell through him, like a
river through its banks. It circulated, spiraled in strength, followed the lines
of his mind and, there, reached its peak. He touched his hands to the ground
and "placed" the array.

Light reflected off the trees. Time bent backwards in
a slow, controlled way. The front half of the car jerked backwards to meet its
mate; the metal remembered its connections. Bolts shaken loose by his earlier
violence rose off the ground, defying gravity, then slipped into their former
place. What fluids hadn't escaped deep into the ground separated from the dirt
and flowed backwards into their proper receptacles. Hoses united, fiber rewove
itself into a whole. Wires touched, melted without heat. The twisted top rose
off the gravel and settled itself into place, straightening, jagged edges smoothing,
melding. Finishing.

The car remembered itself.

"Or perhaps you can just do that," said Winry, laughing
a little. "Alchemy really is practically magic isn't it."

"Hardly," Ed said.

Ed breathed hard. It had been a while since he'd done
this much alchemy. There was a time, not long ago, when this wouldn't have broken
a sweat on him. He was out of practice, not only from the time in jail, but
the year before that, when the most power he needed to draw in a single day
would be just enough to create a book.

And this day wasn't over. Who knew what else he would
have to do before it was done.

Well, if nothing else, Al's birthday was certainly turning
into a memorable experience.

Carr made a strange murmuring sound, and both of them
looked guiltily at him.

"I wish Roy would do something about him," Winry said.
"This is putrid."

Ed nodded. "I hope Roy does a better job with Ashfell."

Damage Control

Roy felt horrible, but Al was right. He couldn't treat
Ashfell like a subordinant and just order him around. He had hoped that he could
leave the true person untouched and just deal with the surface—that somehow
his victim would simply accept his orders the way any soldier under his command
would. It seemed reasonable. Ordering men to do things, even ordering men to
THINK things was par for the course as a military officer. The soldier never
had any say in the matter.

But the array DIDN'T work that way. The mind, body and
soul were too interconnected. Roy could practically see Car's soul withering.
Under pressure from Al he had made what he thought were kind suggestions to
ease the others suffering, but it only made it worse.

He wouldn't make the same mistake here.

My goals are yours. You want to do what is in my best
interests. You want to be my ally.
Small sentences. Small words. Utterly
unreasonable requests.

I will not tell him to love me. I draw the line there.
I will EARN my worship.

Al was right. It worked. He'd changed Ashfell to the core,
and yet the burly man was more himself than he would have been if Roy had merely
told him what to do.

Was this really all that different from manipulation?
Was this different than how he convinced Ed and Al to join his team. It was
quicker, and it lacked the quid pro quo he'd used with the brothers. There was
nothing in this for Ashfell, except maybe a safer world to work in. But aside
from that, was this really all that different? Mustang still recognized the
Thug, but his attitude had turned 180 degrees.

"You are all pretty well screwed, " Ashfell was saying.

Roy frowned. "I figured there might be complications.
Elaborate."

"Before your people picked me up, I was on the phone to
MY people. They will have noticed that you are missing. Escaped. The whole lab
is on alert."

Roy hissed. "I figured that might happen. But it was a
risk I had to take."

Ashfell nodded. "You need massive amounts of damage control.
I'm not sure I can handle it by myself. You worked me into a corner here."

"What would you suggest?"

"Don't try to pretend this was anything other than what
it looks like."

Roy's eyes widened. "If they knew I was using arrays..."

"No, leave that quiet. Most of 5th lab know nothing about
the arrays anyway. In fact other than those of us here, there are only two others
who know the true nature of your experiments. Even the techs who did the rats
and dogs have no clue what they were being used for. Some of the gaurds may
have guessed, but to be honest, I chose the dullest most trustworthy personnel
I could to be your babysitters in the lab for precisely that reason."

"Who are the two."

"The Fuhrer of course, and my second. Luckily for you,
it is my job to inform the first of what goes wrong. As for the other, I have
no doubt he is coordinating a search party to find you as we speak. It wouldn't
surprise me if he called up most of Central to help out."

"That is a tough place. Your suggestion?"

"This was a kidnapping for revenge. Hold me hostage. Make
a show of it. Tell Al and Midnight and Winry to scram, but Ed will have to be
with us, they won't stop looking until he's accounted for."

"And then when they find us?"

"Surrender. And hopefully they won't hurt you too badly
on the way back to your cell. But I expect you will get a pretty good beating.
My people are very loyal to me. They won't be happy that you accosted me."

"And Carr."

"Unfortunately Dunn saw him. He'll have to go down, too."

Roy looked at the young guard, sitting on the side of
the road, staring blankly into space. It was unfair.

Ashfell understood. "We can try and convince them that
he was threatened into doing it. I don't know how convincing that will be."

"Carr goes with the others," Roy said. "He's out of this."

"Dunn saw him. It will be a glaring flaw in the investigation."

"Which YOU will head up." Roy's eyes were fixed on Carr.
"He goes. He is my responsibility. He is my screw up. He at least gets to sleep
in his own bed tonight." Now that Roy understood, he would have to undo as best
he could the damage his earlier orders had done.

Ashfell nodded and Roy fancied he saw the beginnings of
genuine admiration. "I'm beginning to see why your underlings were so loyal."