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Pawns

chapter 35. Flame

Midnight flipped through the pages of
reports, some typewritten, some in the various scrawls of Roy, Al and
Ed. He stopped when he found the array. He'd drawn that array dozens of
times
now, but he'd never draw it again. In a little bit he wouldn't even
remember
it.

He felt a compulsion to trace it out one last time, just for
the sensual feel of it. He placed his index finger on the outermost
circle
and started sweeping around. The array was almost pretty.

His finger
traced the last line and it felt like completion, like he could move on
now
knowing the job was done. My brainchild, he thought, though honestly he
had little to do with the way it turned out. Still it was a big
accomplishment.

Time to put it away.

He flipped the file closed and patted
the blank manila folder, then with a whole lot more care than he needed
to
he placed it in the metal trash can.

Roy seemed almost amused. "Saying goodbye?"

"Seven months of my life. It's a lot to give up."

Roy
hesitated. "It's not necessary that you give it up. We can let you keep
your memories. We can make it so you can't reproduce the actual design."

Midnight
shook his head. "No. I'd like my innocence back, thank you. I've talked
it over with Al about what I'll remember and what I won't. I've got it
all
scripted out." Midnight took a deep breath. "I'm the Midnight Alchemist
after all, not the Mind Controller."

Roy laughed. "Yes, and I'm Flame, not Puppet Master."

Midnight raised an eyebrow. "Are you going to erase your own memories?"

Roy's
smile abruptly faded. "No. I don't have that luxury. I will get to
wrestle
with my conscience the old fashioned way." He looked at the files in
the
trash. "Is that everything? That was quick."

Midnight nodded. "The
nice thing about top secret projects is that they don't leave a lot of
copies
around. The Fuhrer received all his reports orally; he was too paranoid
of his own people to keep a paper trail. By the way, how is he doing?
Busy,
I see. I saw the paper today."

Roy cleared his voice. "He's one of those things I'm going to have to
wrestle with."

"Mmm." Midnight picked up the trashcan and moved it away from the desk.
"Well, would you like to do the honors?"

Roy
put on the gloves; slowly, Midnight noticed, as though he were still
getting
used to the idea of wearing them. He hesitated a moment and then
snapped.

There was a whoosh and the trash can flared up dramatically. A spike of
flame 6 feet tall lit the room.

Both men jumped back instinctively, then laughed at the sheer spectacle
of it.

"Put it out before it burns the ceiling!" said Midnight, half scared,
half delighted.

"I'm working on it."

The
fire immediately died down to a more manageable roar. The two
alchemists
watched it burn. "Should have gotten marshmallows," Roy said.

"Yeah. Was that the first thing you've burned?"

"In almost 16 months, yes."

"Not shabby."

"My control needs some work."

Smoke
billowed off the ceiling and began to make them both cough. Roy waved
his
hand and the fire abruptly went out. Midnight opened the windows and
started
up the fans. There was nothing but blackened ashes left in the trash.

"Well,
you did the job." Midnight breathed, coughing just a little. He felt
lighter
having unburdened himself of the files. It was over. All but one tough
part and he wasn't backing out of that. "So has everyone else's arrays
been
removed?"

"Yours is the last," said Roy

"I suppose that's fitting
since I was the first as well." Midnight leaned against the wall and
looked
out at the building across the street. He then let out one last choppy
laugh. "Looks like I'm never going to collect on that debt you owe me.
I won't
remember it."

"You might not," said Roy, and then he put a hand on Midnights
shoulder. "But I will. I'm not going to forget."

Midnight smiled. "Well then, I guess I'm just going to have to trust
that you'll do right by me."

Fuhrer

When
Roy returned to his apartment, he noticed Ed sitting on the couch
reading
the paper. The young man was frowning and Roy knew exactly why. "I'm
guessing
you didn't know what he was going to do, " Ed said.

"Of course not. I'll have to talk with him about it. I don't want a
repeat of this sort
of thing. It was taking my interests too far."

"Yeah," said Ed, sighing. "I suppose that's the way he's used to
operating. Get rid of those who
oppose him. I shouldn't be surprised, but it caught me off guard." He
put the paper on the coffee table and Roy read the headline again.

MUSTANG INVESTIGATION REOPENED IN LIGHT OF INFORMANT'S SUICIDE.

"He was the guy who ratted you out," said Ed.

Roy
looked at the picture of the underling he'd once trusted enough to let
in
on his ambitions. It had been a poor choice, but at the time the man
seemed
earnest and trustworthy enough. He'd been found in a public park, shot
in
the head, with the gun still in his hand. The suicide note had been
long,
claiming jealousy over a stolen girlfriend had lead the young man to
plant
evidence of treason in Roy's apartment.

A trade. Defamation of one sort for defamation of another. His
patriotism would be restored at the price of his character.

"I don't suppose you stole his girlfriend, did you?"

Roy
shook his head. "I only stole Havoc's, and I only did that because he
was
such a good sport about it. No, that's not true. I did it because I was
a jerk. But this guy... I didn't even know this man had a girlfriend.
It's
possible he didn't."

"So it's all nonsense."

"Well, except
in that he did plant evidence of treason in my apartment, yes." It had
annoyed
him for months that the evidence he'd been convicted on wasn't even the
truth. It had depressed him for longer that the man who he'd been so
SURE was a
friend, turned out to have been a spy. And everyone had suffered for it.

Ed thoughtfully rubbed his chin. "Could it have been a real suicide?"

Roy
shook his head. He pushed the paper away. "No. But it's done. I talked
with the Fuhrer earlier today, he seems to think in another month or so
they
can close the investigation again. I can have a public apology and my
rank
back. Repairing my image will take longer than that, though. I doubt
I'll
ever be promoted again."

Ed sighed. "Until you become Fuhrer."

Until
I become Fuhrer, Roy thought. He sat down next to Ed on the couch and
pulled
him close. Ed was right. Unless a miracle happened, Ed would never be
the proper host at parties that a Fuhrer required. Ed would remain
headstrong
and loud and far too smart for his own good, and really all the things
that
Roy loved about him in the first place. He would be, in short, a public
embarrassment.

But perhaps the problem wasn't as intractable as it seemed. He squeezed
Ed. "Hmmm."

Phoenix

"Andrew,
are you completely sure about this?" asked Al. It was dim in the room,
and
late. The older alchemist was already in his pajamas, ready for the
night. It was all just as they had planned. But then Midnight had
gotten up, fetched a beer, and asked for a few moments before they
began. Al could wait as
long as Midnight needed... into tomorrow if necessary.

Midnight... Andrew.

Midnight
took another swig of his beer. "Yes, I'm completely sure." Al hoped he
was as resolute as he sounded. Still, he worried. He owed it to
Midnight
to restore him as well as he could.

"I can go get my brother..."

Midnight
shook his head. "No! Please," He raised a hand. "I know this is kind of
paranoid of me, but considering your brother's orientation, I'd rather
not
have him touching my naked butt."

Al giggled. "Ok, but it's just,
I can't completely get rid of the tattoo," Al said apologetically "Not
the
way he could. I mean, I can get rid of the ink, but there will be a
scar
in the shape of the array, and that would be just as bad. I just don't
trust
myself to mess with altering living flesh. I might leave you
disfigured."

"It's ok," said Midnight. "Turn it into a different tattoo. At least,
unlike your brother, you are a decent artist."

"Ed's
not that bad," said Al. "He's just too lazy to do more than crude stick
figures... and this is off the point." He didn't need Midnight thinking
Ed
was a great artist. As long as Midnight had that array on, Al had to be
careful about making declarative statements. Al sucked in a breath and
let
it go. "You ready to start?"

"One moment, let me finish my beer. I think I want a little courage
before we go on."

Al
looked at the painting on Midnight's wall. It was an original abstract.
Nice. Not really Al's taste, but nice. It was part of Midnight's
personality
that he'd never had a chance to know, and now he'd never get to. This
was
the first time he'd been in the man's apartment. It would be the last
time,
too.

They had both agreed that Midnight take an immediate reassignment
somewhere else. Somewhere where he could get a fresh start away from
Al. Like his flesh, there would be scars left on Midnight's mind, even
after
the array was removed. He'd never be truly free of its effects—though
maybe, with time, his mind would compensate, and Midnight would move
on. So long as Al wasn't there to reopen the wounds, that is.

"I'm sorry,
you know," said Al. "I've never regretted anything as much as I've
regretted
what I've done to you. I'm not sure if I can ever make up for it."

"Don't
beat yourself up, Al," said Midnight. "Do you honestly think I'd be
happier
traveling around the countryside arraying the Fuhrer's enemies for him?
No, ironic as it is, you saved my soul. You saved me from myself."
Midnight
took one last swig. "I think I'm ready now."

"Ok."

Midnight
put the empty bottle in the trash and then lay down on his stomach in
bed. Al pulled a chair up close and then pulled out the script Midnight
had written
up himself. It was almost three pages long, and it took a while to get
through. Some memories Midnight had chosen to keep. He wanted to
remember working
with Ed and Roy and Al. He even wanted to remember what they were
working
on. But then the fiction came in. The rats had not responded as well as
they should have, and the dogs had been disastrous. In the end they'd
come
to the conclusion that not only was the array unworkable, but it was
fundamentally
so flawed that there was no point in ever pursuing it. He'd remember
nothing
of being arrayed, or arraying others.

Al reached the last words and
put the paper down on the bed. He had to work fast, while Midnight
processed
the new information.

"When I leave this room, you will forget I was
ever here. You will go to sleep and when you wake up tomorrow, you will
remember only that it was an ordinary, unremarkable night."

He then
grabbed Midnight's waistband and pulled the pajama bottoms down to his
thighs. Placing a paper with a predrawn array strategically over the
alchemist,
he concentrated and imagined how he wanted the tattoo to go. He then
removed
the paper and inspected the results.

In place of the array on Midnight's
left buttock was a bird, gracefully arched over with flames emitting
from
its feathers and beak. A phoenix. Rebirth and a new start. Al admired
his work, knowing he'd never see it again. Then he pulled up the man's
pants.

"Goodnight Andrew," he said, and grabbed all the papers and evidence of
the deed.

Andrew was already asleep and didn't stir when
Al turned off the light and closed the door.