velvet mace


chapter 15.

What a mess, thought Maes Hughes, stepping over the scattered papers in his office, until he found an empty spot of floor. He then carefully sat down, not because it hurt anymore, thank goodness Sloth hadn't ruptured anything, but rather because the weight of responsibility on his shoulders made his legs feel a bit shaky.

It had been a week since he'd set foot in this place. He'd been too busy following up on the leads. Greed's home had been a goldmine of information. Although the man had made some attempt to destroy his records, apparently he hadn't had time to burn them. Hughes had managed to call in a favor with a couple of alchemists for hire to reassemble several stacks of shredded documents. Even more documents had simply been left intact in the drawers of Greed's office.

It had seemed like a find, and in a way it HAD been a bonanza. Over a dozen of Greed's middlemen had been picked up and put in jail on various racketeering charges. The crime lord's reign had come to a spectacular end. Thousands of pounds of opium had been seized, along with hundreds of illegal alchemic scrolls, an arsenal of weapons, and a minting press. Even a few pieces of priceless stolen art had been reunited with their ecstatic owners.

But the files had not led them to Greed, and Roy was still missing. It was as if the two had vanished off the face of the planet.

Hughes was frustrated. The Fuhrer himself had praised Hughes for making Central a safer city. Then, nearly in the same breath, he'd assigned almost all of Hughes' team out from under him. Maes knew there was little love between Bradley and Roy, but to make Roy's rescue all but impossible seemed evil.

Hughes had tried to raise some concern and protest with the brass, but the only thing anyone had time for was the sudden exploding concern over Lior. It was as if Roy had been forgotten.

Half a day's work, man. Three, four hours tops. You'll be back before Hawkeye even knows you are gone.

Fuck. Maes rubbed his close cropped beard.

Roy was probably dead. The golden hours were long gone, and experience told Hughes, that sometimes the bodies didn't turn up for weeks. Sometimes they never turned up at all. Still he couldn't give up hope—the fear—that somewhere out there Roy was alive, waiting for rescue. A rescue that seemed more and more unlikely as the trail grew colder.

"They are being abused, physically, emotionally and— sexually." Roy's eyes looked out into the abyss.

Sloth's watery body flashed in front of Maes eyes. He needed a lead and he needed it now.

The papers around him came to his attention once more. One thing he was sure, there would be no clue in any of this mess. And yet, while he waited for his last few agents to report, or inspiration to strike, cleaning gave him something to do. After all, Roy was hardly his only case.

Hughes grabbed the papers next to him and began making a stack. His hands were shaking a bit. He shook his head and tried to clear his mind. His first priority at this point, was to get everything off the floor, and sort out what was destroyed from what could still be salvaged. After that would come the longer, more tedious task of organizing his files again.

Contrary to popular belief, Hughes' files were in fact in a very logical alphabetical order—just not the alphabetical order people were used to. Early on in his career as a military investigator he discovered that various members of the brass felt utterly entitled to wander into his office and pull any file they felt like, without bothering to inform him about it ahead of time—or even after the fact. The fourth time it happened, Hughes broke his cases down into three or four files each and reordered them. The result was that no one could find a file without his assistance, but he could find them instantly.

Usually that was a good thing, but this time it meant that Sloth had tossed about half his files out on the floor in the process of finding the ones she wanted. This was going to take days to sort out. It all seemed so exhausting.

Hughes piled the first double handful of papers on his desk and then sat down on his chair, running his hands through his short uncombed hair. Idly he picked up the phone receiver, only to put it down again with disgust. He pulled the cord and stared at the broken end.

A knock startled him.

"Who is it?" Paranoia made his stomach clench.

A tall, beefy looking man with a buzz cut of almost invisible white-blond hair walked in. "Sir, my name is Corporal Foster, I've been assigned to be your bodyguard."

"My bodyguard? I didn't ask for a bodyguard." Hughes scanned the person over. The Corporal's uniform was perfect, correct in color and every detail, but Hughes didn't recognize the man, and that bothered him.

The man pulled out a piece of paper from his breast pocket. "My orders sir."

Hughes took them. They were on proper military issue paper
—the feel, the smell was authentic. The signature was recognizably the Fuhrer's. I don't know every enlisted soldier in the army. Hughes reasoned. This guy's probably not one of Greed's

Hughes relaxed with some effort. A bodyguard made sense. Not many knew about Sloth's visit to his office, but the Fuhrer did. He'd been attacked once; there was no reason to think he couldn't be again. Especially since he was still on the case—even if it had all but ground to a halt. Still, something didn't feel right.

"If you wish, I'll wait outside the door," said Foster.

"No, no," said Hughes. Get a grip, he told himself. Or Greed would get his wish and I really will be off this case. That bothered Hughes a lot because the man to take his place would be Archer, and Hughes opinion of Archer as an investigator had not improved over the last seven days. Archer was far too involved in the excitement of warmongering to care about the Greed case anyway.

"Hell no, man," he said, acting casual. "You are here; I'm putting you to work. I've got an office to clean up."

For a second the man seemed strangely annoyed, but then he smiled a little. "Yes, sir."

They were at it for about half an hour before Foster spoke again. "Sir, aren't you investigating the Greed case?"

Salt in wounds.

"Yes," said Hughes, keeping the bitterness out of his voice. "Definitely. I'm waiting on some information. My team is out checking leads as we speak. Someone in Greed's posse must have a clue where he'd go." He stood up and gave the man an assessing look. Foster's had a faintly skeptical look on his face. "Still, if you have any ideas, I'd love to hear them."

Foster suddenly turned his eyes away and shrugged his shoulders uncomfortably.

"No, really," Hughes persisted. "What do you know of the case?"

"Not much, sir," said the corporal. "You were attacked in your office." There was something just slightly wrong with the way the man said that. A suggestion in his voice that maybe Foster didn't think the attack was such a bad thing.

I don't like him, thought Hughes. That's okay; I don't have to like him. He needs to do his job and I need to do mine.

There was a tentative knock at the door, and they both spun to look. Riza poked her head in the door, looking concerned.

Foster's hand went to his gun. Riza's eyes narrowed and her hand instinctively went to her side, but Foster was drawn and aimed first. Riza froze, hand still on the grip of her pistol. Her eyes quickly tracked up and down Foster's body, then she lifted her hands up in a gesture of surrender.

"Wait," said Hughes alarmed at how fast things had gone out of control. "I know her."

Reluctantly, Foster reholstered his weapon.

Well, he is quick on the trigger, thought Hughes. There is that at least. Not that it will make any difference against Sloth. To Riza he said, "Come in."

Riza walked in avoiding the papers on the floor. She looked rather pointedly at Foster, who stared coldly back.

Hughes sensed continuing tension between the two. "Foster," said Hughes. "Why don't you wait outside and guard the door."

There was no mistaking that look of annoyance this time, but Foster walked out. Riza closed the door behind him and then gave Hughes a curious gaze.

"My bodyguard," Maes explained. "Apparently the Fuhrer seems to think I need one."

"It's not a bad idea," said Riza. "But I would have thought he'd have assigned you one days ago."

Hughes nodded. That was the crux, wasn't it? Why now? Why provide him protection when the case was going cold, and the linger threat being discounted. Why take away more than half of his team and replace him with one man who couldn't even hurt the monsters he was chasing?

"Maybe to keep an eye on me, rather than my enemies." He shook his head, ashamed that he would even consider the option, and yet he felt a bit of relief having said it. Now it was time for Riza to say something to put his fears to rest.

"I see," she said, eyes lowering to the cluttered floor. "I think you are right."

Hughes closed his eyes in long blink. "They are writing this off. They are whitewashing Roy out of existence." He felt the anger which had been simmering since his meeting with the Furher bubble over. "They don't want Greed to be found."

"I've noticed that as well," said Riza. "We've been trying on our end, Havoc and I, but we keep coming up against obstacles." She knelt and began picking up papers. "Archer told us specifically that there were roadblocks placed within hours of the raid. I made some inquiries with the transportation department. They had never heard of the orders."

Hughes nodded. "I talked to Gran and Haruko about needing more man power. I got no where."

"Archer is the same," said Riza. "I think he likes the Colonel's job. He seems rather comfortable there."

Yes he would, wouldn't he. The last week had been rather a good one for Archer, carreer-wise. Hughes didn't have any idea what Archer had done to earn so much favor with the Fuhrer, but it made him uncomfortable. Hughes didn't trust the man, never had.

"How is working under Archer going," he asked.

Riza snorted, then as if something had burst within her she started laughing. Hughes waited until she could stifle the sounds with her forearm and wipe the moisture from the corners of her eyes. "It's horrible," she said when she could. "It's an absolute disaster."

Maes closed on her and put a gentle hand on her back. She shrugged it away in a way that was both apologetic but firm. Her usual control was back. "He doesn't listen to any of us, sir. It's like talking to a wall. The only one he listens to is Kimbly, and that's not always such a good thing."

"Kimbly is still hanging around him?" It had been a week since Maes had been back on base. He had honestly not missed the interoffice politics.

"All Kimbly does is sit around on our couch drinking coffee and glaring whenever Havoc or I get close to Archer. He's like a guard dog. It's gotten to the point where Havoc and I find any excuse we can to be somewhere else. Sir, there are alchemists complaining every day about Archer." Hughes brows twitched at the lack of honorific. Riza's disgust for the man was clear.

"That bad," said Maes sympathetically A large part of Roy's peacetime job was managing the two dozen or so alchemists who acted as a roaming eye and hand for the military. They were a notoriously independent and egotistical lot and keeping them in line often tested Roy's patience and acumen. Hughes could imagine them coming up against Archer's brittle tolerance.

"Archer knows nothing, absolutely nothing, about alchemy," said Riza. "And worse he doesn't even care. All he wants to talk about is Lior."

"How is that situation in Lior?" Hughes asked.

"We don't know, sir," said Riza. "That's the problem. The alchemist the Colonel sent hasn't report in. He's two weeks overdue. The rumors we have of Father Cornello's following is that they are well armed and fanatical. It's not a good situation."

Maes nodded. Alchemy was something of a double-edged sword, on one hand bringing about conveniences that could be achieved no other way, on the other being destructive and destabilizing. Most Alchemists were content restoring what had been destroyed by vandalism or time—everything from great bridges to fine art. Some were more artistic, creating everything from simple clockwork robots to elaborate moving sculptures. Still others were scientists, finding new ways to break down the world and reassemble it for the benefit of humanity.

But inevitably there were those who used alchemy to gain power over others. Everything from fighting alchemy, such as Roys' signature flames, to those devilish scrolls that the Elric boys had invented.

Lately there had been rumors of a man out in a desert city of Lior who offered up "miracles" in return for religious devotion. It was a classic but highly illegal power scheme—it cropped up about once every decade, mostly in the form of little cults in isolated villages where the populace hadn't seen any serious alchemy in some time.

But Lior was no tiny burg. It was a major trading hub in the South West, with a population approaching fifteen thousand. Nor was it uneducated, it had it's own small religious college. The people there should damn well have known about alchemy before this new sham artist showed his face. And yet initial reports showed that this Alchemist "Father" Cornello ruled the town with an iron fist wrapped in the trappings of Letoism and sugared with alchemic shenanigans trumped up as miracles.

"What does Archer say about Lior?" asked Hughes.

"He's petitioning for full military suppression on the basis that their religious fanaticism could be dangerous to the State. He wants to use the missing Alchemist as the justification for a military lock down on the city."

"He's has Roy's job for five days and he's already starting a war?" Hughes shook his head in disbelief. "That's mad. The brass won't go for it."

Riza said nothing. The silence stretched awkwardly.

"You are kidding," said Maes horrified.

"I don't think it's just Archer. The Colonel has been under pressure for weeks to recommend harsh measures towards Lior. He told me he didn't think it was prudent and he was resisting the notion. But now he's gone."

This made more sense. "So Archer is just doing what he's been told."

Riza nodded. "Enthusiastically though. Archer told me he was looking forward to seeing war again."

"If I'd realized just how important what Roy was doing
—I never would have asked him to take on his job."

Riza smiled sadly. "There wasn't any way you could know. But I should have suspected something was up when he came to work without his uniform. I wish I'd pursued it. If the Colonel had just had someone else with him—"

"What ifs will make us crazy," said Maes.

"Yes, sir," said Riza.

"I'm not giving up," said Maes firmly.

"Neither am I."

"I need another lead."

"If you forgive me," said a new voice and Hughes turned to see Foster standing in the door. For a second Hughes skin crawled. He hadn't noticed the door opening. That by itself was bad.

"Yes," said Hughes awkwardly after a moment.

"Well, I was wondering if you thought about checking up on the Elric's home town."

Hughes blinked. He was of course planning on doing that, but it didn't seem like a priority to him. After all the boys had been kidnapped five years before, the family could probably wait a few more days or even weeks before being told. "What do you think I'd find there."

"Well," said Foster, rubbing the back of his neck. "Maybe nothing, but they are Hohenheim's kids, right?"

Hughes nodded. "Yes." Well, apparently Foster had read Roy's report after all.

"Maybe that old—alchemist might be able to help you find his kids." Foster grinned.

Riza turned to look at Maes. "Hohenheim would be very useful against the homunculi," she said. "A good ally."

Maes nodded, a slow smile forming. "That could be useful indeed," He said. "Yes. Yes indeed."

Foster seemed very pleased as well. After Hawkeye had left, Maes went back to ordering his files again, but in a distracted manner. With half an eye he kept track of Foster. The man seemed much more pleased than he'd been before the decision to check up on the Elrics. I wonder what it is that the Military really wants? Is finding Hohenheim that important?

Hughes shrugged. He needed to stop thinking of his goals and the military's as being separate things. I WORK for the military he thought. Why hint. Why not just order me to follow that up.

Nothing made sense, not Foster, not Archer's promotion, not Roy's disappearance, and that bothered Hughes a lot.
Hughes found the train ride to Rizembool lonely. He kept seeing things out the window that Elysia would have enjoyed. He'd never had the occasion to take her out of the city before. He imagined she would have been excited by the rattling and noise.

Foster wasn't much of a companion. Mostly, he sat staring glumly into space. At first Foster listened to Hughes talk about Roy, Greed and the case. He listened intently enough and asked quiestions, but provided no particular insights himself. Soon Hughes had exhausted what he knew and could speculate on the case, and aside from the idea of finding Hohenheim, Foster had no opinions.

From then on through the rest of the three day trip was spent in silence. The conversations Hughes attempted died down rather quickly under the man's icy blue gaze. Outside of the case, Foster had no interest in other subjects whatsoever. He was downright hostile when Hughes attempted to switch the topic of conversation over to Foster's past, in hopes of finding some common ground they could converse on.

He was, however, good for errands. Hughes shoved a few coins into Foster's hands and almost pushed him out of the compartment. "Any sandwich will do," he said.

Once Foster was gone, Hughes opened his briefcase again and quickly pulled out the unmarked file Riza had prepared for him before they left. He flipped it open and Foster's dossier fell into his lap.

The man was legitimate. He'd been in the military for a decade, but was usually stationed out West, which would explain why Hughes hadn't seen him before. His record was dull and unspectacular. An Ishabal veteran, he'd been transferred to a small post mid war, and except for brief reassignments to central and other places, that's where he'd stayed. Hughes wondered if maybe Foster had a wife and children waiting for him in that small town. That might explain Foster's attitude.

Or not. Why on earth would the Fuhrer transfer a man away from his family and familiar post all the way out to central to watch Hughes? There were dozens of MP's already stationed in Central who could have done the job just as easily.

Hughes closed the file and put it away. This whole situation stank. He looked out the window and noticed a herd of Llamas. Elysia would have loved to see them. Hughes was glad she wasn't there.

Finding the Elric house wasn't difficult. There weren't a lot of houses in Rizembool, and the directions the local constable had given them were pretty explicit. The people gathered around the tiny excuse of a town had been more than helpful as well, filling Hughes in with more than he ever cared to know about the two boys. Not too surprisingly, there had been a lot of excitement in the tiny community about the military's sudden interest in what had been a local mystery.

The consensus had been that the boys had run away. Apparently they were an adventuresome pair, and quite a few expensive items had gone missing from the family home at the same time—funding for their new life, somewhere more glamorous and exciting than Rizembool, everyone had reasoned.

More glamorous and exciting, perhaps, thought Hughes, remembering Greed's luxurous home. But then he thought of the room with the small barred window on the second floor, the drawers filled with boys clothes
—a matched set of everything. Almost against his will he remembered the bottle of sexual lubricant and he'd come across in the desk drawer—more than half empty. Glamorous and exciting and utterly miserable.

Hughes didn't have the heart to tell these people what he knew of the kids' lives after they'd left. The townspeople seemed happy with their notion that the boys were just too busy living it up somewhere else to write. Until that situation changed, there wasn't much point in spoiling the fantasy.

Two hours after their arrival, Hughes stopped on the path leading from the over grown driveway to the Elric house. It had an oddly tended look to it. Was there someone living there?

Foster noticed too. "Let me go first, sir," he knocked on the door. Nothing happened. He turned the handle and the door opened. "They are trusting out there aren't they."

Foster and Hughes stepped in. Hughes eyes swept around the main living area. It didn't have the coat of dust one would expect after five years of neglect, but neither did it have signs of recent occupation. Everything was neat, sheets laid over the furniture, the cupboards in the kitchen were bare, and the ice box empty. Hughes climbed to the second floor and found two bedrooms, one of which was clearly the boys' room. It was dominated by a large bookcase and a desk. The two beds were shoved in a corner almost as an afterthought to the children's scholarly inclinations. Still left on the desk were schoolbooks, now a bit dingy, and a small stack of papers—a mix of fantasy drawings and rather elaborate chemical formulas and arrays. The second bedroom had a single large bed, neatly made, with the long dried remnants of a flower ring in the middle.

Hughes turned and found Foster looking intently at a photograph on the night table.

He looked at it and his stomach dropped. It was Sloth, one menacing arm around each of two small blond boys necks. Smiling.

The homunculi are created when someone tries to bring back someone from the dead.

No, this wasn't Sloth, Hughes realized with a lurch, this was the boy's mother. The strange conversation Sloth had had with Hughes about family began to make a kind of sickening sense. The boys had tried human transmutation. They had tried to bring back their mother despite the danger. They had succeeded in creating a horror.

And if Sloth and Greed were homunculi, did that mean there were 5 more, to carry on the theme? It was a disturbing thought indeed.

"Here, I need that picture," said Hughes. Foster handed it over and Hughes freed it from its frame and put it in his briefcase.

Foster had already picked up the second photograph— an older one by the yellowing. He quickly broke the frame and pulled it free. Hughes looked over his shoulder.

The photograph showed Sloth—no Trisha Elric as very young woman, perhaps only in her late teens. She was standing next to a very tall man with long blond hair and a full beard. His eyes looked sad even as his lips smiled. He seemed a gentle enough soul, but looks were deceiving. He had abandoned his own wife and small children. What circumstances could have lead him to do that?

Hughes insides squirmed as he thought of Gracia and Elysia, off someplace unknown. He hadn't heard their voices in a week.

"I wonder if this is Hohenheim," said Hughes.

"It's Hohenheim," said Foster. Hughes was a little taken aback by the intensity of the bodyguard's expression. Foster was pleased in a way that made Hughes flesh crawl. Hughes looked briefly at the picture, but could see nothing especially unusual about it. Was Hohenheim really that important?

Hughes turned the photograph over and noted the names and date on the back. "Yes. Well this is something."

They searched the rest of the house. The basement had been thoroughly picked over, but there was signs that the place had once been Hohenheim's study. There were plenty of beakers, jars of raw ingredients, and other alchemic knickknacks. A giant empty suit of armor stood guard at the door.

Foster set to rifling through the desk with a vengeance, as though he had an idea of exactly what he was looking for. Hughes was more careful, picking up the papers that Foster glanced at and discarded. It was almost entirely correspondence, love letters from Trisha, letters from friends, a few from other Alchemists, asking for help. No mention of Greed anywhere. Foster pulled aside envelopes with addresses on them. "We can use these," he said.

The military must really want to find Hohenheim, thought Maes. He took the stack of addresses and placed them in his briefcase, feeling a bit uncomfortable.

"Who the hell are you people," said a dangerously low voice. "And what are you doing here."

Hughes spun and was surprised to find a small woman, bent from age, yet surprisingly spry, glaring at them from the doorway. Her eyes looked huge through her thick glasses, and her grey hair was swept back in a tight bun. The scowl on her face was ferocious and Hughes stepped back into the desk without thinking.

Foster drew his gun, but Hughes quickly waved him to stand down.

"I'm Lt. Colonel Hughes, ma'am," he said. "Sorry about the gun." Reluctantly Foster reholstered it, but his eyes remained narrowed. To the woman's credit she'd hardly flinched at the threat. Hughes was impressed.

"I could tell that from your uniform, Colonel. What are you doing here," said the woman, snappishly. "I'm Pinako Rockbell, and this house isn't abandoned. It belongs to some dear friends of mine. If you don't get out I'll call the constable on you."

"The constable knows we are here, ma'am," said Foster. "Go about your business."

"No stay," Hughes quickly countermanded. "Are you the one keeping this place up?" asked Hughes.


"Then you must know about the Elric Brothers."

"Are the boys in trouble?" She stared hard into his face. "They are aren't they? Did they interfere in some military business? Don't tell me those two signed up!"

"No, no they haven't signed up, but they are in trouble. We are trying to save them."

Pinako snorted. "Don't tell me you are here to help people, all the military knows how to do is destroy things." She then held still. "Do you know what happened to Edward and Alphonse?" The question came reluctantly, as though her curiosity had overtaken her better judgment.

"We are looking for them right now. They aren't in any trouble with the military," Hughes hastened to say. "They are just in the company of some people who we need to find."

"Well, you won't find anything here. This place has been picked clean for five years."

"Where is Hohenheim," asked Foster, brusquely.

Pinako raised an eyebrow. "You tell me." She again turned to leave.

Hughes raised a quick hand. "Listen, wait, I think we got off on the wrong foot. The military is on your side. The boys are in serious trouble. Please, you have to help me," Hughes lowered his voice. "They really need you right now."

"Very well," said Pinako doubtfully.

"Were you close to the boys? Are you related?"

"Not by blood, but I considered them to be my grandchildren," Pinako leaned on her stick a little heavier, "I would have been their guardian, if they hadn't run away," she sighed.

"Have they contacted you in any way in the last week?" pressed Hughes.

Pinako snorted. "They haven't even written once since they ran off. I have no idea where they are. I keep up the house in case they care to return, but that's as close as I've gotten to them in five years."

That was a disappointment, but not unexpected.

"Now don't be coy with me," said Pinako. "Spit it out and don't spare my feelings. What have those boys been up to?"

"They didn't run off," said Hughes. "They were kidnapped. On the day of their mother's funeral, a very dangerous man tricked them into going with them. They've been held captive ever since."

Pinako stood frozen for a full minute. "No. That's impossible. Edward is too strong, too willful. No one can keep that boy down. And Al, Al's a strong boy too. They would have run away."

Hughes shook his head. "Edward tried to get away. He wrote the military. Here," Hughes opened up his briefcase and flipped through his files until he found the six letters. He handed them over to Pinako.

There was a long period of silence while she read through them twice. Her hands shook a little but she kept her face stony till the end of the second read through. Then she put the letter down and rubbed her cheeks. "Where are they? Where are Ed and Al?"

"We don't know," said Hughes. "We are hoping to find Hohenheim. We thought that perhaps he would be able to help get them back."

Pinako opened her mouth. "He's—" she hesitated.

"Where?" asked Foster, sharply.

"Not here," said Pinako with a glare.

Hughes sighed in frustration.

Pinako seemed to take some reluctant pity on him. "I can't say I can help you much, but thank you for telling me about the boys. If you want, you may come over next door for a hot dinner." She looked reluctantly over at Foster, and finally gave a nod in his direction. "You, too."

Hughes took the first opportunity he could to pull Foster aside. He held Foster's lapel to keep him from moving away and put on his most determined face.

"Listen," he said, practically nose to nose with his wider, more muscular underling. "Don't screw with my investigation. You showed me you can keep your yap shut on the train trip over. Use that skill now."

"Yes, sir," said Foster with a slight smirk. Hughes prided himself on being an easygoing man, but this was just too much.

"I mean it. I out rank you. Next word out of your mouth towards that woman, other than please or thank you, and I'm putting you on a train back to Central."

Foster narrowed his eyes. "You can't do that, sir. I'm here on the Fuhrer's orders."

"Fuhrer be damned. If you interfere with my investigation, he can damn well send me another bodyguard. I don't like you Foster. Don't get on my bad side." Hughes belly burned.

"You think I want to be here, walking around this turd of a town?" Foster snarled back. "Think I like guarding Mr. Family Man while he has pie with the yokels? I don't. We both answer to a higher authority. We are stuck with each other until you end your investigation. And as for bad sides," said Foster with a grin. "You sure the hell don't want to see mine."

Hughes gasped at the insolence and stepped back. "Not a word," he said. "We go back to central on tomorrow's train. Then I'm requesting a replacement."

"Good luck with that, sir," said Foster derisively. He then shrugged free of Hughes' grip and walked away.

Thankfully, Foster DID keep his mouth shut at Pinako's home. And after a while Hughes was able to use his charm and friendliness to get the old woman and her sweet granddaughter to open up.

They were automail engineers, the Rockbells, close friends to the Elrics for years. Pinako had been an old drinking buddy of Hohenhiem's, back when she was young. This made Hughes' frown a bit. The man in the picture looked no older than his forties, and Pinako was fast approaching eighty. But then there was something abnormal about most of the people connected to Greed. This probably shouldn't have come as a surprise.

Winry, the granddaughter, was about the same age as Ed and Al, and had been their childhood friend. Where Pinako remained calm through the dinner, Winry became increasingly agitated the more she found out about what had become of her playmates.

"You knew they were being held for weeks and you didn't free them?" said the blonde teen aghast.

Hughes sighed. How could he say that it took the military time to investigate such a large and dangerous cartel? Without the right information any rescue attempt would have failed anyway. "We just didn't know enough," he said lamely. "We raided as soon as we could, but they had already left. As it was, it cost us four men's lives—" Hughes trailed off. "And one of our own was taken hostage."

Winry's expression remained hard.

"If I knew where they were right now, you bet I'd be ordering a raid to free them," said Hughes, under the girls withering glare. "But I don't know where they are. I was hoping the perhaps Hohenheim would have some skills he could lend us."

Winry's eyes opened wide but before she could say anything, Pinako spoke again. "We don't know where he is. I told you that already."

Winry looked at her picked over plate. "No. No we don't. I'm very sorry." She then got up and excused herself.

"You'll forgive her," said Pinako. "This is rather a shock for her. She's lost a lot of people in her life," continued Pinako thoughtfully. "Colonel. Please, bring those boys home safe."

"I will do everything in my power to," said Hughes. "Listen, this is more than just a case to me," he said. "One of my dearest oldest friends was kidnapped by Greed as well. I've very worried about him and what that creature could be doing to him right now. I understand that Hohenheim was a good friend to you and I can see that you might want to protect him. But please, people's lives are at stake here."

Pinako's expression softened a bit, but then she looked over at Foster. "I want to help your friend, and I want to help Ed and Al, believe me. But I don't know Hohenhiem is. If you leave me a phone number I can contact you, if I find out anything, I will tell you."

Hughes nodded his head. "That's all I can ask."

As helpful as the Rockbells had tried to be, in the end they didn't seem to know anything relevant. Hughes felt some relief having told Ed and Al's next of kin of their fate, but it didn't do much to lift the weight on his soul. Now two more people were miserable.

Foster walked a step behind him all the way back to the Elric house. Hughes did his best to ignore the man. He wanted nothing more to do with him. They'd look a bit longer in the house, but Hughes had no faith that they'd find anything more useful than the pictures and the addresses.

By unspoken agreement they slept in separate rooms. Foster took the master bed, throwing aside the fragile ring of flowers without any sign of sentiment. Hughes ground his teeth and went to the boys' bedroom. He picked the bed closest to the open window and lay down and tried to sleep.

Foster's earlier insubordination combined with worries about Roy to make Hughes' stomach churn and his muscles twitch. The room smelled old and stale like an attic. At last he gave up trying to sleep and simply stared out the window at the gibbous moon.

Suddenly he heard a door creak open. He stayed still. It was Foster probably looking for the bathroom. To Hughes surprise the footsteps continued on down the steps to the first floor. Where was Foster going?

Hughes sat up and looked out his window. Sure enough a moment later the front door opened and Foster walked out onto the path to the road and continued on.

Hughes quickly felt for his pants and shoes. He shrugged everything on and hurried down the stairs. By the time he got to the road Foster had disappeared, but Hughes knew which way he went. Risembool was not so large that a person could get lost in it that easily.

Hughes considered using the flashlight strapped to his hip, but then decided against it. The moon was bright enough and his eyes were adjusted to the dimness. It was a cloudless night and there seemed to be a million stars crowded into the black. He walked on following the rutted dirt path, headed back towards the town. For a while Hughes saw nothing and no one. Then, as he climbed up one rather high hill, he spotted a figure walking down the road ahead. The person abruptly turned off of the road and crossed into a area obscured by trees.

Hughes quickly moved down the hill to where Foster had left the road. What on earth was that man up to? What was out here that Foster felt the need to see at this time of night? Was it merely a midnight stroll? Paranoia and curiosity lead Hughes to tread quietly on the grass beside the road, he hoped the sparse greenery obscured his figure enough. He scanned the feild for movement in the dim ambiant light.

He noticed the stones sticking up at regular interval and realized he'd stumbled on the local the graveyard. Off to the left, Hughes heard the shriek of metal twisting and breaking. Gritting his teeth he found a clump of bushes and crouched down next to them.

Not long later he saw a large figure walking back across the graveyard towards him. The figure fished in it's pocket for a moment and then brought out a flashlight. A small circle of light flashed jaggedly over the ground until it settled on the grave markers. Foster's face was ever so slightly lit by the reflected light.

Hughes noticed the shovel in Foster's hand. He couldn't possibly—

Foster snapped the flashlight off and then lifted the shovel. A moment later Hughes heard a grunting and the sound of earth on metal. The next hour proceeded like a repetitive bad dream as Foster dug with tireless swiftness through several feet deep of earth. Hughes sat in frozen fascination.

I should say something. thought Hughes in horror, but he remained quiet.

Finally the shovel cracked against something firmer. Foster grunted slightly again then brought the shovel up and down in a stabbing movement, until Hughes heard the splintering of wood. Foster reached down and began throwing things out by hand. First bits of something flat, but then later he pulled up something that in the dim light looked to be partially fleshed bones. Foster pulled himself up out of the grave, then pushed the body parts into a sack. He dusted himself off.

Then it seemed for a second that Foster had his head turned in Hughes' direction. Maes held his breath and didn't move at all. After a long tense moment, Foster shrugged. He reached down and lifted the sack, then headed back towards the road.

Maes watched as Foster walked up the hill towards the Elric house again. Only when the bodygaurd was completely obscured by trees did Hughes finally stand up and walk hesitantly towards the desecrated grave.

"What the hell," he whispered softly to himself.

He reached down and unclipped the flashlight from his belt and played it over the ground. The marker read Trisha Elric. The hole Foster had dug was steep and narrow and at the bottom, a 1 x 2 foot hole had been broken out of the pine box. On the ground near the heap of dirt were remnants of rotting cloth, a clump of hair and a rib.

Why would the military be interested in Trisha's body? Did it have something to do with Sloth? If they needed the bones for some alchemic reason, why hadn't they just told Hughes? With the help of the local constible she could have been exhumed with dignity. But why bother with the bones at all. He wished he knew more about human transmutation, but the subject was so dicey that unless one had a good reason, access to that section of the library was denied to even high ranking intelligence officers like himself.


Hughes spun around and brought his flashlight up, expecting to see Foster. It wasn't.

"R-Roy???" Hughes played the flashlight over the man's face. Oh, God it was Roy. The round face looked paler than usual, and Roy had lifted a bare hand up to shield his dark eyes, but it was him. He was alive! He was safe!

He was hurt. Hughes played the light up and down Mustang's body. Roy was wearing the remnants of his uniform pants. The skirt had been torn off, leaving only a bit of cloth near the buttons. His feet were bare and caked with mud. Scanning up Hughes noticed the white issue shirt, torn open and ripped in several places. Beneath Roy's ribs were darkened with smears of old blood and bruises.

"Maes," Roy said again and stumbled to his knees.

Hughes ran forward to catch him. "Roy, Roy, oh God I was so worried about you. Are you alright?" He felt an a painful pang of joy run through his veins. Roy was alive. It was Hughes' dearest fantasy come true.

Roy buried his face in Maes stomach, his arms reached around his waist and gripped him fast. Hughes stroked his hair, alarmed to feel the dried clots of blood. "It was horrible." Roy's voice was muffled by Hughes' clothes.

"Roy, oh God, Roy," said Hughes hugging the other tight. "I was so worried about you. We have to get you to a hospital."

"Why Maes?" said Roy, pulling his mouth free.

"You are hurt, Roy. We gotta get you patched up."

"Why did you send me there. Why the fuck didn't you tell me what I'd be up against?"

Guilt slammed into Hughes chest like a truck. "I didn't know." Hughes mouth felt dry.

"You said a couple of hours. I trusted you." There was a growl of anger in Roy's voice. "Do you have any idea what they did to me?"

Hughes bent down to pick Roy up, get him to his feet. Roy must be in terrible pain to be saying this. The horrors the man must have seen—"I'm sorry Roy. I really didn't know. If I had known I wouldn't have sent you. I swear I wouldn't have."

Roy pulled Hughes hips with alarming strength, and Hughes fell to the ground onto his back. A moment later he felt Roy roll on top of him and straddle his hips. Hughes flashlight fell out of his hands and spun around pointing at Trisha's grave. The light reflected off the stone marker lit Roy's face and Hughes saw incredible fury in his eyes.

"I was raped Hughes. Repeatedly. Daily. Almost hourly. Raped and tortured, day after day. Do you have any idea what that feels like?"

Hughes flashed on Sloth's watery body, the sensation of her slipping obscenely between his clenched thighs, invading him, stretching him apart from the inside. He gagged.

"It hurt, Maes. It hurt so much. I thought I was going to die. Do you understand? Can you even guess?"

The sensations of the past forced their way back up. He was helpless, moving but fruitlessly against Sloth's body. His mouth was invaded and filled, all the way to the very back, the fear of drowning mixed with the sensations rippling up from the rest of his tormented body. The pain of her body surging rhythmically into his, the pleasure of being tenderly stroked and pulled along his entire length, like the most exquisite blowjob, all mixed together, overwhelming him.

"I'm sorry you had to go threw that. I'm sorry, but please..." Hughes held Roy's shoulders, trying to push him off without rejecting him. His body shook with adrenaline. Roy's body, his words were mixing with Hughes memory, and he thought he might vomit. As much as he wanted to comfort his friend, he couldn't bear to be held pressed against the ground like this. It was too close.

'You are sorry?" It sounded like Roy didn't believe it, and that lack of faith hurt. How could Roy think he would be so callous?

"I'm sorry. I never wished that on you, please trust me. Please." Hughes heard the sob in his own voice. "Forgive me. Roy please get off of me. I can't—"

The fury in Roy's face faded. "I'm sorry Maes." He lifted a hand and touched Hughes face. Hughes felt his guts squirming. Guilt mixed with revulsion mixed with unbelievable relief. He saw the Roy he knew there, and it made the Roy of a few moments before seem like a hallucination.

"I'm so glad you are alive, Roy," said Hughes. "Please. Let me up, I know where some automail engineers are. They'll be able to patch you up."

"Don't you care about Greed and his people?" asked Roy.

"You come first," said Hughes firmly. "I can track them down later." Hughes bucked his hips and tried to push Roy off. The other didn't move. Roy seemed terribly heavy. Hughes was distracted by the stones digging into his back and the smell of rot. His eyes were wholly focused on Roy's face and the strange almost deranged expression that had reformed. The joy Hughes had earlier felt was ebbing, and he felt afraid.

"Do I really come first?" Roy tilted his head. He made no move to lift himself off of Hughes, and instead he leaned down and took Hughes wrists one by one and then pinned them to the ground to either side of his head. "What would you do for me, Maes. What do you think you can do to make this up for me."

"I don't understand," said Hughes, confused. Why was Roy like this? He tried to free his hands but Roy's grip was too tight. "Please, Roy, that hurts."

"Tell, me Maes. What are you willing to do for me?"

"Anything Roy, anything. I'll avenge you, I'll get you help. Anything you need."

"Will you take the taste of Greed out of my mouth?"

Maes shook his head. "I—I can't. I can't erase the past. I—" He was surprised with Roy lowered his face. His lips were soft against Hughes', and the kiss gentle. Hughes felt his brain overload from surprise, and for a second he couldn't do anything. His awareness locked down to the sensation of Roy's warm lips against his own. After a few gentle nips the kisses became more passionate, more needy and desperate, and Hughes found himself wondering what to do.

God, Roy hadn't been like this since Ishaball—so long ago. But those had been different times. He and Roy had been so emotionally exhausted from pain and fear and anger, that it had made sense back then to take comfort in each other. Their lovemaking had been pure relief from stress. And yes, oh yes, Hughes had loved Roy, had absolutely been head over heels in love with him, but it was the circumstances driving those emotions.

After the first disastrous tryst, they'd been more careful with each other. Most of their encounters were satisfied by caresses leading to mutual masturbation. Occasionally, one of them would feel up to giving a blowjob.

Roy was satisfied with that, but Hughes had longed for something more. The pleasure of pressing into Roy's heat had lingered tenaciously on in Hughes memory. The tightness, the friction had been something amazing, and the idea of it turned Hughes on like nothing else. In his imagination, he often repeated the act, visualizing Roy as enjoying it every bit as much as he did. With some work, Hughes was able to procure some actual lubricant, and in a show of equivalent trade he'd allowed Roy to fuck him. The experience had been a bit uncomfortable at first, but nothing near the trauma he'd been expecting. He'd been able to walk just fine the next day. And in fact, it felt good, quite good. After that Hughes had let Roy fuck him several times. But no amount of cajoling or reasoning would bring Roy to bottom again.

"It doesn't hurt, not if I take the time and do it right," said Hughes.

Roy shook his head. "I just don't want to do that. Anything but that."

Hughes sighed. "Ok, buddy." And Roy had kissed him with those incredible girl-wowing lips of his, ending the discussion. Hughes still remembered the smell, the taste of him, the incredible closeness he'd felt. In the night they'd made plans for their future together. For a while Hughes was sure they'd end up being together until old age.

But then war had ended, and sanity had taken over again. In the coldness of a peacetime hotel they had tried to make love one last time.

Hughes remembered the awkwardness of the situation had hit him right away. The room was too bright, too quiet. The bed was too goddamn comfortable and spacious. Roy fell back on the coverlet, fully clothed, looking clean and washed. Hughes smelled his cologne instead of his sweat.

Awkwardly, he'd sat down and leaned in to kiss Roy. Roy tensed just slightly as their lips touched, and Hughes pulled away.

"You know," said Maes said. "We don't have to do this." Roy glanced at him and then stared up at the ceiling. Without the fear, Roy looked, well, awfully male. Handsome still, but not right. It was hard to describe the feeling, but it was as if some of the magnetic pull he'd felt toward the man was gone and all he had was the lingering feeling that he should want to have sex with him rather than the impulse to actually do so.

"It's just not the same," Roy admitted, breaking the awkward silence. "It feels weird."

"Yeah," said Hughes, suddenly relaxing. He let out a laugh of relief. "How about we just go back down to the bar and get some drinks."

Over drinks in the bar they had both admitted that while they loved each other, they were more attracted to women. Then Roy had proceeded to flirt with a pair of cute office workers. When they'd gone back upstairs three hours later, each of them had had their arms around someone—just not each other.

The break up had been remarkably amicable.

And here was Roy again, kissing him, not so gently anymore. Hughes turned his head away. "Roy," he said awkwardly. "It's too late for that. I'm married. I can't." Hughes felt horrible for saying it.

Maybe in Roy's mind this was like the war. Maybe that was why Roy was touching him again like this because he needed that same relief that they'd both needed back then. Who was Hughes to deny him that comfort. Yet at the same time Hughes just couldn't. Gracia was out there, and Hughes vows were already stressed. And then there was the rape that was just too soon to let go.

Roy had been raped, too, thought Hughes. How can he stand to touch me after a week of that, when I can't bear to be touched after a single incident. Doesn't he feel that same terror? How can he violate me when he's been violated himself?

"Roy," said Hughes more forcefully. "Get off."

"You owe me," said Roy with a snarl, "Pony up." He brought his mouth down again on Hughes neck. There was nothing tender about the way he was biting and sucking. Hughes could feel the hickies forming and he struggled and squirmed against it.

"No, I don't buddy," said Hughes, thoroughly frightened now. "I owe you help but not this." He's gone crazy. He's never been like this before.

"I don't fucking want help, I want you." Roy pulled his face close enough for Hughes feel his breath against his ear. "I want to fuck you."

"NO!" said Hughes with his most forceful voice.

"You can't stop me."

Dear God, it was like Sloth again. Only it was Roy's voice, Roy's body. Had she primed him for this somehow? Had Sloth and Greed somehow trained Roy to do this? Hughes struggled harder. Roy yanked both his arms over his head and transferred them to a single hand. So strong, thought Hughes. Or have I gotten weak?

"Don't you love me?" asked Roy in a wheedling tone. Roy never sounded like this. God it looked like Roy, and it sounded like Roy but it couldn't be him. Suddenly Roy's uniform forced itself front and center in Hughes mind.

Roy had not been wearing his uniform the day of his abduction. Roy had been wearing a white tank top and a pair of baggy brown pants. He hadn't had time to go home until the end of the work day. He wouldn't have changed into his uniform. And why would Greed dress him up in one?

And why would Roy even be here, in the middle of the night at a grave. What impossible set of coincidences added up to that?

This wasn't Roy. This was something else, something that could LOOK like Roy. Something that had followed Hughes out here the way he'd followed Foster.

It all made sense.

"Get OFF of me, whoever you are," Hughes yelled.

Roy suddenly sat up and laughed. "Took you long enough to figure that out, Family Man."

That was Foster's derisive term for him.

To Hughes' horror, Roy's features began to shift. There was a strange alchemical light that obscured the point of change as it swept through his body. He became smaller, his face more oval, his eyes wider and more feminine. With a slight shake of his head his hair unfolded and fell down past his shoulders. His voice rose up an octive.

Hughes opened his mouth to scream only to find it filled with water. "Tell me," said Sloth. "Did you miss me?"

Hughes shook his head. The implications sank down through his chest to his belly. Sloth could change her form. Sloth could be ANYONE.

"I missed you." She leaned forward and kissed his forehead. "I missed you a lot."

Hughes choked as her hand blocked his airway. She withdrew it immediately, looking just a bit consternated. "I see you don't like me in this form. Well, how about this one then?" again there was an alchemic light. She was smaller now, finer boned. Her hair shortened into a bob.

Gracia smiled down on him, rocking her pelvis against his groin suggestively. Her frock crept provocatively up her thighs. Hughes tried to squirm away but her delicate hand around his wrists still held him tight. "Cut it out, Sloth. Leave my wife out of this."

"I think I like this form better then," said Sloth. And in a moment it was Roy sitting on him again. "Like I said before. I want to fuck you. It felt so gooooood last time. I want that again."

"Get off of me," said Hughes.

"Now now," said Roy—no, Sloth. "What did I tell you last week? I said if you didn't drop the investigation I'd come back and do this again. Well you didn't drop it, and here I am."

Part of Hughes mind chimed up that Sloth had not in fact made any such threat, but the reasonable part of him knew that psychopaths weren't swayed by that kind of logic.

Sloth slid down onto his thighs and used his—her
—his hand to loosen Hughes belt. God, no, it was starting again. He looked around the desecrated graveyard for some sort of angle or help but saw nothing "HEY!" he cried out at the top of his voice. "HELP!" He heard nothing back but the sound of the night.

The next moment the world was swimming and he couldn't focus on anything. His face stung and he felt his cheek beginning to swell. "Shhh," said the false Roy.

The monster drew his cock out and began rubbing it lasciviously. "You can't stop me," she said, using Roy's voice. "I'm immortal, invincible. I'm so strong, you are like an ant to me. I can do anything to you that I like, as many times as I like, and you have no choice but to take it."

Hughes spat. That earned him a second backhanded blow.

"Relax," came Roy's voice. "Relax and take it, enjoy it. You might as well, because I'm not stopping until you come. There's only one man in the world who can stop me, and you aren't him."

"What do you want," said Hughes. "Just tell me in plain words what you want."

"I already told you," said Sloth. "Give up the investigation. Don't go looking for that bastard Hohenheim."

"If I promise that, will you let me go?" asked Hughes.

"I promise if you don't I will come back and do this to you again. Rape seems to be the only thing that gets through to you, after all."

Suddenly Sloth let go of his wrists, and for a second Hughes thought maybe perhaps she was done with him. But no, she merely slid down his legs, her right hand slipped from his limp cock to his balls, holding them just firmly enough to make his nerves vibrate with the threat.

Hughes watched with dread as the fake Roy lowered his head onto Hughes cock and began sucking. It felt great and wrong and horrible. It should have been painful, but it wasn't. Hughes closed his eyes and tried not to think of Roy and the smell of his sweat and the taste of his mouth. And he tried not to think of Gracia, and how she would take him and suck him in, her passion and hunger at odds with her innocent face. Horror mixed with pleasure and in the back of Hughes mind he fancied he smelled the rotting stench of Ishbal. The mouth was hot, and it ate at his soul even as it downed his length. The tightness of his stomach almost matched that of his cock. Hughes put his hands on the creature's head, not daring to push away for fear of what it's teeth would do to him.

It had been days since he'd jacked off. He'd ignored the need because it reminded him too much of Sloth. Now he was regretting it because his body needed release. It needed what Sloth was giving him. It was betraying him.

He came and pushed the thing away from him at the same time. His emotions tore. His come surged up anyway, even though Sloth's mouth gone, pumping out in two loathesome waves across his belly. Sloth moved suddenly back as a droplet hit her borrowed face.

Hughes tensed under the fury that took over Roy's face then. A moment later Maes felt the thing's fist smack into the side of his head once more. Hughes had just a second of realization that Sloth's hand smelled of rotting flesh. Then it went dark.

Hughes woke up some unknown amount of time later. His face hurt, his head hurt, his wrists cried out as he flexed his fingers.

Roy was gone. Roy had never been there in the first place. It had all been a mind game. But Hughes had learned something, a bitter horrible something but something nonetheless.

The enemy could be anywhere, in any form. Hughes couldn't trust anyone. The enemy did not want Hughes investigating, she didn't want him to find Hohenheim.

Hohenheim, hohenheim, hohenhiem. The military wanted him, Sloth feared him, the Rockbells were protecting him. Hughes had no idea what Hohenheim could actually do, but it must be pretty spectacular to warrent all this interest.

Still a bit dizzy, Hughes gained his feet. He paused to straighten out his pants, and then staggered to the street, and back to the Elric house. He reached his bed just as the moon set behind a line of trees.

Twelve hours later, Hughes wrinkled his nose. He could smell the faint odor of decay coming from Foster's suitcase as he lifted it up onto the overhead bin of the train's private compartment. He then schooled his expression and turned back to his delinquent "bodyguard."

"Hey, can you run back and see if the dining car is open yet? I'm hungry. Any sandwich will do. And while your at it get me an ice pack." He reached over and gave Foster some money, careful not to actually touch the man's hand. Hughes face felt strange and puffy. He knew that he looked terrible.

"Yes, sir," said Foster in an insolent tone of voice, but he got up and walked out. Hughes watched him leave the car, then quickly grabbed his bag and suitcase. He was cutting this awfully close. The train started to shudder as he hurried down the hall in the opposite direction of Foster. He reached the area between cars just as the train started to pick up speed. He quickly threw his bag over the rail, then jumped over himself onto the gravel.

The train continued to move on, going faster and faster. Hughes sat by the side of the tracks and watched it round a curve and get lost in the trees.

He felt instant relief now that Foster was gone. There was no proof that Foster had been Sloth, but he could have been. Who else knew that Hughes was at the grave? Deep down in Hughes soul, he'd known there was something wrong with Foster from the start. It made sense that Foster was Sloth.

But some things did not add up. Foster wanted him to find Hohenhiem and Sloth did not. Sloth had attacked him viciously each time he'd encountered her. Except for a bit of insolence, Foster had never lifted a finger against him.

One thing was true, Foster had Bradley's signature on his orders. And if Bradley and Sloth had come to some sort of mutual agreement— Well that would explain a lot of things that had been bothering Hughes about the last week. There was no one Hughes could trust, except for himself.

Hughes stood up and grabbed his bags and began the long walk back up to the Rockbell residence. He suspected that they knew something more than they were telling, and maybe if he took off his uniform, they just might be willing to share.