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velvet mace

Pawns

chapter 29.

Winry snuggled her head against Al's shoulder and ran
her finger lightly over his bare stomach. She would have to get out of bed soon.
Shower. Put on her uniform and hurry back over to the hospital before her shift
began. But she still had a few moments to savor, and these days she did. Who
knew what would happen between now and shift's end.

"Al, tell me about the house we are going to have," she
said. "What do you think, white paint?"

"No, that would be boring. I was thinking a more earthy
tone. Terra cotta maybe."

"Ooh, with archways? That would look exotic."

"I could make us some of those." Al stroked her hair.
"And we'll have a large yard in back."

"I don't know," Winry traced a circle around his belly
button. "Rush valley's pretty expensive. We'd have to be making a lot of money
to afford a big yard."

"A big yard with a pool," insisted Al. "We'll be making
tons of money. Between your clinic and my grants and contracts we'll be rich."

Winry sighed. "Mmm. Sounds like we will be busy. Who's
going to stay home with the kids?"

"Ed will, of course," said Al firmly.

Winry rose up on her elbow. "So Ed's going to live with
us now?"

"Yep. How else am I going to keep him out of trouble?
Don't worry, our kids will love their uncle Ed. And he can clean the house and
cook."

"And what about Uncle Roy? Is he gonna be living with
us, too?"

"No, no. Fuhrer Mustang is going to live far, far away
in Central, sending me generous research grants."

Winry sat up and slid out of bed. "Well, now that hardly
seems fair, Al. Having Ed all alone with our kids. And you know, maybe you should
be worried I might have an affair with him, while you are so busy with those
contracts."

Al stretched. "Nah, it's more likely Ed will be having
an affair with the pool boy."

"So now we have a pool boy?"

"Of course." Al swung his feet out of bed and ran his
fingers through his own hair. "Gotta keep my birthday present busy you know."

Winry laughed. "Midnight's going to be our pool boy? Somehow
I don't think he'll be that interested having an affair with Ed, though. He
doesn't seem the type."

"He's the type if I say he is," said Al.

Winry felt suddenly sick. "You know, this isn't funny
anymore."

"Yeah," said Al. "It kind of stopped being funny a little
bit ago."

Winry left him to take a shower. When she returned he
was dressed and his hair fixed back in its low ponytail. "You know, I love your
brother and all, but I'm not sure I want to live with him. And really who he
dates should be his own business."

"He can live next door. And I honestly can't believe you
are defending Roy, Winry. Look at them, he's so, so, OLD. And hell, look at
what he got us doing. I'd like to think I am smart, but man, most mornings I
wake up and want to smack myself in the head. Why am I doing this? The answer
always comes back: because Roy talked me into it."

Winry paused in shrugging on her pants. "Honestly, I can't
believe I'm defending him myself. But you know, there are a lot of people out
there who wouldn't approve of us either. They would say we were too young and
didn't know what we were doing."

"We've never been young," said Al. "It's not the same."

"Maybe. But it's not our business who Ed wants to date
either."

Winry grabbed Al's brush off the end table and ran it
through her hair. "What are you up to today?" she asked.

"Helping Roy enslave people." Al grabbed Winry's shoulders
and leaned in for a kiss. "Now remind me why I'm a good guy, Winry. Because,
honestly, I think I've forgotten."

One More

"Just one more," said Roy putting a hand on Al's shoulder. "And then we'll be
done."

"That's what you said yesterday." Al looked over to where
Ed was sitting, a slice of toast hanging out of his mouth and the blueprints
of the 5th lab spread across his lap.

"This time I mean it. Just one more."

"Maybe two, " said Ed, removing the toast.

"Brother!"

Ed looked up innocently. "Ok, one. But Al, it's not like
these guys are going to stay this way. It's only for two more days and then
I'm taking all the arrays off. And anyway, we barely need to touch their minds.
Just reset their loyalties, and off they go to do their job like normal."

"One more," said Al. "And it's easy to say that when you
aren't involved."

"Roy fixed Carr. The others are all fine. And anyway,
they knew they were giving up their freedom when they signed on to the military.
Roy is making sure that none of them are conscripts. You aren't having trouble
with Midnight are you?"

Al thought briefly of Andrew. The man seemed happy enough,
but there was a slight twitchiness about him that was bothersome. Lately, Midnight
had taken to disappearing whenever given permission. For a man who had been
so driven to his job before, it seemed a rather severe departure.

But anyway, that wasn't something to trouble Ed with.
"They didn't sign on to have their souls messed with."

"Al," said Roy. "I understand your feelings. Believe me,
I know exactly what you are going through. But there is no point in carrying
more guilt than you need to. Feeling awful about something you have to do doesn't
make the job any easier. Your pain doesn't lessen anyone else's. We need enough
people on our side to overwhelm the others. If we don't have enough we put everyone
in more danger than need be, and that includes the people we've already recruited.
We don't have time to gather allies any other way."

"Recruited. That's an interesting term for it, Roy." But
Al felt his self-hatred begin to waver.

"Recruited," said Roy firmly. "Like you were recruited."

"Not quite."

"I see, so how much discretion do you have in your actions
right now. Can you choose what job you want? Can you quit? And really, were
you given much of a chance to refuse in the first place? At least these people
signed up to be in the military of their own free will."

Al didn't say anything.

"Sometimes during war, you have to order men to do dangerous
things. Sometimes you have to ask them to do things that are all but suicidal.
Compared to being on the Front, what we have in mind is nothing. And compared
to being kidnapped off the street, never allowed to say good bye to your loved
ones and sent off, ill prepared into battle, our recruits have it good." Roy's
hand patted his back. "Let it go. You were able to do that for the rats and
the dogs, you can do it for this as well."

Al sighed.

There was a knock on the door, and Ed and Roy quickly
retreated to the other room. Wearily Al opened the door and saw a young woman
in uniform. "The Major sent me up here, said I was needed for something." She
was trying to cover up her curiosity but failing miserably.

"Come on in, soldier," said Al ushering her in. And while
her eyes were glued to the picture window at the far end of the room, Al quietly
closed and locked the door behind her.

Slip

"Colonel," said Sgt. Cotes over the intercom. "Fuhrer
Goddard, sir, line one."

Unlike Fuhrer Bradley, Fuhrer Goddard didn't live in Central,
but some ways North at the much smaller city of Dunsk, where Parliament met
three quarters of the year. Though he brought an escort with him, he always
required more: Drivers for himself and his entourage, a concierge, and for lack
of a better word, servants to fetch and cater to the whims of not only the man
himself but everyone in his party.

And coming up with soldiers to fit the bill was no easy
task either. This Fuhrer was amazingly finicky. He required those under him
to follow his directions with such perfection it almost required a psychic bond.
While those in his entourage had learned all the Fuhrers quirks and quibbles,
the people Dunn needed to assign did not. After the last visit, every single
one of those he'd assigned to the Fuhrer had requested they NOT be considered
again when the next time came up.

Dunn quickly lifted the receiver and hit the button. "Sir,
what may I do for you?"

There was the faint crackle and hiss that came with field
phones, but the voice on the other end was deep and somewhat jovial. "Avery,
good to hear your voice. Just wanted to check in with you and make sure everything
is fine for tomorrow."

Avery quickly opened his filing cabinet, and began pulling
out files with one hand. "Yes, sir. Everything is fine. I'm assembling your
security detail as we speak. There are quarters set up at the 5th lab itself.
May I ask, sir, how long you expect to be here this time?"

"I'm not sure myself."

That wasn't helpful.

"And in your party, sir, how many will you have this time?"

"I'm traveling light today, there will only be five with
me. They will need housing as well."

Avery sighed in relief. The 5th lab could accommodate
that number of people.

"However, I will require an extra number of security this
time. I want your best people. Seasoned only, Avery. No conscripts."

Avery gritted his teeth. That would mean calling upon
some of the people who had BEGGED not to be involved again. And he'd have to
soothe the feelings of not only the soldiers, but the staff that generally relied
upon them. Some of the Colonels and Generals took it seriously amiss when they
found their best men assigned out from under them, and Dunn's lower rank often
made the phone calls rather awkward.

However he could understand the Fuhrer's need. Considering
the ruckus last week, extra security would be expected.

"Of course," said Dunn as smoothly as he could. "I'll
give you the best Central has to offer. Though I highly doubt there will be
anymore security lapses."

There was a moment of silence. "Security lapses?"

Suddenly Dunn felt his stomach clench. The Fuhrer didn't
know about the break out. Well of course, Ashfell wouldn't want the Fuhrer to
know about it if there was anyway to avoid it. The man had some sense. Fuhrer
Goddard's scathing tongue and even more severe punishments were well known.
Ashfell would be lucky to get by with just a reprimand on his record. Goddard
frequently dropped ranks on those who failed him.

In any case, all had been smooth at the lab for 5 days
now. As spectacular as that security failure was, it was not going to repeat,
and there was no point in bringing it up. "It was really nothing sir. Some minor
equipment malfunctions," Dunn lied as slickly as he could.

"I see. Well then. I look forward to seeing you tomorrow."

"And I you," Dunn lied again. He put the receiver back
into its cradle and wiped the sweat from his brow. Ashfell would be furious
with him.

Left Out

Winry was relieved when she returned to the 5th lab after her shift ended. The
soldier at the gate waved her through with a friendly smile, "Nice to see you
Rockbell, you look nice tonight."

"Thanks," and she flirted automatically. Then she couldn't
help it, she pried. "Boring day?" Of course it was, this guy was still smiling.
Dumb question. If anything had happened, it would be obvious.

"The pits. Tomorrow should be interesting—the Fuhrer
comes in. Won't be able to let you come in, though."

"You won't?" Winry's stomach tensed.

"Nah, the place will be locked down for the duration of
the visit. No visitors. It's a security precaution."

This was something she needed to talk to Al about. Talk
to someone about. Though she was terrified, she was also determined. This wouldn't
do. She was in this from the beginning, she WOULD see it through to the end.

She gritted her teeth through the pat down. She had nothing
in her coat these days, nor her shoes. She should have felt more relaxed about
it, but instead she felt a strong wave of fear that somehow the soldier would
find some evidence against her. She had been so blasé when this first
started. Now she was paranoid. In a few hours, less than a full day, everything
she loved, all her hopes and dreams could be taken away forever.

Then they let her through. "He's in his room," said the
guard at the security door before buzzing her in. These days they didn't make
her wait for Al.

She stepped out of the elevator and walked down the cool
carpeted hall to Al's room, knocked twice and waited.

The door opened.

Al looked harried and distracted. Winry cuddled in close
but he seemed unusually stiff. "Two more today. They keep saying they are done
and then they give me more. Come on in."

"I was hoping we could go out to dinner tonight," said
Winry. "I have some money from the last paycheck, and... well... we never really
did celebrate your birthday and..." We may never get another chance
was the rest of the sentence but she couldn't say it. If she said it, it might
make it come true.

"I'm not really in the mood," said Al, then saw the look
on her face. "Oh, all right. I suppose we have to eat somewhere." He walked
over to where his uniform jacket was draped over the back of the chair.

"Before we go, I think I need to talk to Roy."

Al hesitated. "About what. He's really busy planning for
tomorrow."

"I know. And don't even have a clue what you guys are
doing. And that bothers me."

Al cocked his head. "Why?"

"Where am I in this, Al? What am I going to be doing?"

"You are going to be at work making people's arms and
legs," said Al firmly. "It's going to be dangerous over here. If things don't
go down well, I'd feel a lot better knowing you at least were safe."

Winry's heart grew cold. "Well, that's awfully nice for
you, but what about me?"

Al touched his chest, "I have to be here. There's no choice.
I'm the only one who can do this thing."

Winry rolled her head. Al could be a dolt sometimes. "I
KNOW that! But you aren't keeping me safe. Al, if you go down, I go down. Just
being in another building isn't going to save me. They will figure it out fast,
and I'll be going to jail. Hell, I'll be executed."

She reached over and grabbed his shoulders and looked
him straight in the eye. "I was in this BEFORE you were. Wanna know who took
the first risk? I did. I stole the first piece of equipment. I lied. I walked
through security day after day risking my butt for this. And you want me to
sit out the end? So what? So that I can be helpless and worried and not know
what is going on? So that I have no say in my own fate? At least if I'm here,
I can throw a punch at someone if they get out of line. And I heard from a well
informed source that I throw a mean punch."

"Winry, they aren't going to be throwing punches. They
are going to be shooting bullets."

"I can handle a gun," said Winry firmly.

"Could you kill someone with it?"

"If it meant saving you, yes, in a heartbeat."

"Really," said Al, doubtfully. "Because I'm not sure I
could sacrifice one life for another."

"Well, then," said Winry, smiling bitterly, "I guess I
make the better soldier after all. Because, yeah. I could."

Winry pulled him closer and rested her chin on his shoulder.
It felt good to be there. "Give me a job. Any job. I'll do it. Just don't make
me wait on the sidelines. I think that would kill me."