It said a lot about the difficulties of the Flowers case that, as Roy ploughed through a stack of documents on the murder, he was actually becoming tempted to attack his in-tray instead. Thanks to a little bribery, Roy had in his hands an official copy of the Central Metropolitan Police file on the case. It had been disgustingly easy to obtain, though he didn't take much comfort in that thought. The police were treating the murder as a burglary gone wrong. That they weren't considering investigating any further said a great deal about both the burgeoning rate of violent crime and the dubious quality of local policing. The report gave sparse details outlining the crime. No one had seen the killer enter the building, which was not a surprise given how simple it would have been to follow a resident in at one of the entrances. Sometime around 2130, a loud crash had been heard by several tenants in nearby apartments, although, being good city dwellers, they had done nothing to investigate. He supposed they were lucky Catalina had been there to take a statement from Ms. Flowers herself before the inevitable, as they didn't have much else to go on.
Roy succumbed, and glanced over to the memo on top of his in-tray. It was actually rather promising: an argument from one of the neutral generals Roy had hopes of winning over, in favour of a renaming the restored University Park in memory of Olivia Armstrong. This hadn't been Roy's idea, but he was passionately in favour for several reasons. The first was that Major Armstrong liked the idea, and he liked Major Armstrong, owed the man a great deal and also felt somewhat sorry for him. The second reason was that to do so would reinforce the official excuse for the big coup, that after a long life of working tirelessly for Amestris, Bradley had suddenly snapped and declined into violent insanity. Olivia Armstrong and Mustang had together been forced to take rapid, terrible and courageous action to save the country and — God help them all — Bradley's legacy. Of course, the brass were well aware of what sad trash this explanation was. They all knew enough of the truth about both Bradley and the coup that if enough of them voted for this proposal to pass it, it would be a symbolic victory for Roy, a thorn in Hakuro's side, and another step towards the true vote of confidence he needed to take power.
Finally — and this was the kicker — there was the fact that the posthumously promoted General Armstrong would have hated with a blistering passion the idea of having her name attached to the park, this place where students, slackers and bored office workers lounged about on the grass. This place where people skipped work, ate ices, made out in public and napped in the daytime. To annoy Olivia Armstrong beyond the grave felt like a fitting tribute to their working relationship. Also, to be fair, had their positions been reversed — had he been impaled on a dying homunculus' sword and had she survived to struggle her way to the top — he was sure that she would have done the same for him. That is, he would have been tremendously pleased to have had University Park renamed after him — for pretty much all the reasons she would have hated it — and so she doubtless would have prevented the renaming purely in order to irritate his wandering ghost. Truly, Roy's in-tray rarely saw such a satisfying opportunity to hit so many targets with a single shot. It was so good that unfortunately, he was going to have to set aside the task of writing his reply as a reward for when he'd slogged through the rest of the Flowers papers. He grudgingly turned back to his task.
Roy skimmed the autopsy report — trauma and blood loss, no surprises there — closed the police file and moved on to a stack of photographs of the crime scene and an accompanying report. These had been taken not by the police, whose own documentation of the scene had been both cursory and inadequate. Instead, these were from his own men. Fuery and Falman had been dispatched to the apartment with Captain Catalina's keys early on Saturday morning with orders to make a comprehensive record of what they found. Poor Fuery, this is what he had gotten for mentioning his hobbies around the office. After a troop of metropolitan police officers had laid their sticky hands all over the apartment, there was little point in attempting any fingerprinting. Roy turned to Falman's report, which as usual was an exhaustive recitation of every relevant and irrelevant detail: long, dull as a telephone directory and, unfortunately, exactly what was called for in this instance. He stopped feeling sorry for Fuery and started feeling sorry for himself. Was there perhaps anything left in that pot of coffee?
Once in the little office kitchen, Roy stood at the open window and sipped at his mug of lukewarm, bitter coffee. There was something more to this case than burglary. He and Hawkeye were both sure of it — and if he could doubt his own instincts, he could never fault Riza's — but whatever motive that was hidden beneath the surface was currently eluding him in a most taunting way. Perhaps it was time to consult Madam Christmas? He knew his foster mother was currently pretty busy with the construction of her new bar, but she could never resist a good mystery, and besides, most of the girls would be at a loose end. Perhaps if he stopped by her place and ran it by them, they might spot something that had escaped him and his team.
Of course, the one person whose opinion Roy really needed on the case, he couldn't ask.
The moment he allowed himself to think that, Roy's stomach gave a nauseous twist around the coffee. Clearly, this was what was really bothering him this morning. Five minutes with this towering junk-heap of detail and incident, and Hughes would have sifted straight through all the crap to the one or two points that really mattered. He would have pulled a lead, a theory and likely a suspect list seemingly from thin air and made it all look easy. Then he would have grinned and savoured Roy's annoyance, and persuaded him out for a drink after work, in order to witter endlessly about his brilliant and sexy wife and his gifted and adorable child, and probably also to try and push Roy into proposing to Hawkeye through the power of incessant badgering alone.
None of these things were going to happen.
In theory, there was a point in time at which these sudden, violent surges of memory were supposed to become almost painless; a bittersweet, nostalgic pleasure instead of something that made your guts clench, that made you want to smash a fist through the nearest window. After four years, Roy was long done waiting for it.
He tipped the rest of the cold coffee into the sink, then stalked back to his desk to stare fruitlessly at photographs of bloodstains and carpet.
Havoc pivoted to face the wall, flicked on the brakes of his wheelchair, and lifted the latest box of books out of his lap and on top of the existing pile of crates in the hallway of Katie and Rebecca's apartment. It was Monday morning, and Katie's little sister, Peggy, who lived on the other side of town, was actually supposed to be helping Rebecca clear her late sister's possessions from the apartment. However, Mustang and Hawkeye had put their heads together, and Hawkeye had strongarmed poor Rebecca into phoning Peggy and kindly offering to spare her the burden of sifting through her dead sister's possessions. Rebecca could get her friend, Riza, to help pack up, so the girl could go and be with her family. As for Havoc, he'd just had an unexpected morning off after a client with the summer flu cancelled on him last minute. As with much of his time off, he'd been hoping to spend it taking Rebecca out somewhere nice. Instead, he had ended up spending it with work outside of the office. Being on Team Mustang, as ever, was a seven-day-week kind of job.
As ever, there was the official reason they were here doing this, and then there was the real reason Mustang had ordered them here. They were in fact combing the apartment for any evidence that might suggest why someone would want to shoot a nice, well-behaved career girl and junior league politician in her bachelorette pad. There was always the possibility that they had in fact been after Rebecca and were just really awful at checking their facts. However, this was starting to look increasingly unlikely.
Mustang, Hawkeye, Rebecca and Havoc had established in a short meeting on Saturday afternoon that there was no reason that Captain Catalina should be targeted by persons unknown, i.e. Hakuro's gang of asswipes. Havoc wasn't even supposed to be working on this case, he had other things to work on of his own. However, he had rapidly realised that the reason he'd been called to the meeting was because Mustang had considered the possibility that Rebecca might be covering up that she had done something dumb, like accidentally leak a secret document, or claim after five gin slings that she was going to give Hakuro a bullet between the eyes. If that had indeed been the case, Havoc knew that Mustang was sure that he would ultimately feel obliged to rat out his girlfriend, thereby sacrificing another potentially good relationship to the Great Goal in the Sky. Thanks, boss.
Luckily, Havoc had chosen wisely this time. While Rebecca did a lot of ridiculous things after five gin slings (most of them kind of fun), she did not blab secrets or boast about non-existent assassination plans. Rebecca was solid. So she had bristled, and Havoc had bristled, and Hawkeye had sighed a lot, and Mustang had pinched the bridge of his nose. Then they'd moved on and established that Rebecca, unlike Mustang or other members of his team, was not important enough that someone would assassinate her purely to damage their faction. At this point, things had been so awkward that Mustang had insisted on taking them all for a quick early evening drink in the officers' mess. Rebecca had quickly made it painfully obvious to all of them that she knew Mustang was doing this because he wanted to make it up to Havoc, but pretty much didn't care about her own hurt feelings. The drinks had become almost more awkward than the meeting. Very small glasses of lager had been hastily downed, and they had departed rapidly in several directions. Thanks again, chief.
Next to the pile of boxes in the hall, Hayate lay obediently flat, thumping his tail against the hall carpet. Hawkeye sat by the telephone table not far from him. She was using a bottle of white spirit and a tissue to carefully clean the blood from the phone receiver. She gave Havoc a little smile, and nodded towards the living room where Rebecca was currently sorting her own possessions from her flatmate's. "How's she doing?"
"She's holding up good. It's funny, Becky likes to complain about the small stuff, but she's really a tough little nut, isn't she?" In reality, Rebecca had spent an hour crying like a kid in his arms the previous night — but she'd kill him if he told Hawkeye that — and somehow, he felt good about protecting Rebecca's dignity like this.
Hawkeye smiled in that noncommittal way she had that told you nothing about whether she'd bought your web of lies. "And do we have any clues?"
"Nope. Not a thing so far. We haven't found anything strange in Katie's books and papers, just boring party politics stuff: flyers and memos of constituency meetings, 'Can we get the city council to fix the broken street lamps on Hornbeam Street', and one hell of a collection of movie magazines. Maybe the burglar, assassin, whatever, got whatever he came for?"
"That's likely. Still, it's better if we make a thorough check."
"Hey, Jean!" Down the hall, Rebecca had poked her head out the living room doorway. "I need a strong pair of arms over here. The coffee table drawer's totally wedged shut."
Havoc turned on a dime, somehow managing to avoid both Hayate's tail and the pile of boxes, heading straight to the living room to help out. In a good detective novel, this is where they'd hit a clue: a note with half of it torn off, a monogrammed handkerchief with initials shared by three different suspects, that kind of thing. Havoc was betting that back here in the real world, all any of them was going to get out of this morning was backache.
The hall carpet was smeared with nasty, red-brown stains. In one of them, he could distinctly make out the shape of a small, bare footprint. What kind of fucking asshole had this burglar been anyway? Inside the living room, Rebecca had just about cleared a path for him around the piles of books, records, papers, plates, bowls and other assorted junk.
"You never realise how much pointless crap you have until you move house, huh?" She was trying to sound perky, but there was a sharp edge to her voice. Jeez, she didn't have to be such a trouper about it, this was him. A moment later it occurred to Havoc that no, it wasn't just him. Hawkeye was here, too, and much as she and Rebecca were good friends, they had this weird competitive thing going on. Then again, he guessed he was like that with his buddies too. He went over and squeezed her hand, and Becky gave him a twitchy little grin. Behind them, he heard Hawkeye walking quietly through the hall, ready to start going through the bedroom.
"So, you're definitely not going to stay on and get a new roommate?"
"Nah. Sick of this asshole landlord. I know we're paid up until the end of the month, but I'd rather haul all my stuff out of here and just dump it in a dorm room already." Good, because that had been crazy talk. He didn't consider himself an overbearing boyfriend, but truthfully he would have been uncomfortable to see Becky stay here now.
"I told you. Come and stay at mine, there's plenty of room." Was he going to regret this? He gave it a day before Breda was making predictions of married doom and miming a whip.
Rebecca smiled at him. "I'll stay, but there's no way you have room for my pointy shoe collection. Seriously, you're not ready for it."
Havoc, if he was honest with himself, was kind of enjoying this right now. Rebecca was athletic, capable and an awesome shot, all things he very much liked about her — especially "athletic" — but that time they got mugged last month, he'd been the one spilled on his ass in the mud, and she'd been the one chasing down and pistol-whipping the dickwad with the knife. It had been a big blow to his manhood to say the least, much as he hated to admit it. He needed to know that when the chips were down, he was still the guy, and even if he knew he was kind of a douche for thinking it, holding his cute, hard-ass little girlfriend while she sobbed into his shoulder and got tears and snot all over his t-shirt: well, it kind of made him feel like the guy.
He eyed the height of the coffee table, then used his left arm and upper abs to haul himself forward and get a grip on the drawer handle with his right. Rebecca cut in, "Just don't break the handle, pal. The landlord's being enough of an ass as it is." He grinned at her easily, tested the drawer — definitely wedged shut — then gave the handle a good strong yank. The drawer flew open, out of the table, and into his lap.
Inside was a yellowing bill from the gas company, a pencil, two dead flies and a pair of scissors. The scissors must have been what was holding the drawer shut. So much for mystery.
Just then, there was a loud rapping at the apartment door. Havoc thought, Katie's sister came after all. Or maybe — The three of them got out into the big, square hall at the same time. They exchanged looks. Hawkeye shifted watchfully, and Rebecca tucked her sidearm into the back of her pants. Havoc moved to the door and reached forward for the latch.
"Hey there," he said to the man standing in the doorway. He was somewhere in his sixties, small and dapper in an old-fashioned suit and a round-collared shirt.
The man smiled disarmingly and said, "Hello. I am so, so sorry to interrupt you at this terrible time. You must be Katherine's little brother?" His voice was soft, gentle and polite, but there was something surprised in it. He hadn't been expecting to see Havoc and the girls there, that was for sure.
"Nah, I'm not family. Just here to help her roommate with some things. Were you looking for someone?"
"No, no. It's uh, rather a small thing. I don't like to trouble you with it..." His manner was hesitant. He gave the same sweet, apologetic smile. It was somehow too large for his face. His eyes were twinkly and sharp. He kind of reminded Havoc of a clever little monkey, a pet an old girlfriend of his once had. Havoc had never gotten along with that monkey. The damn thing bit.
The man shifted forward, as if he was expecting Havoc to move back and let him in. Havoc didn't move, and Hawkeye and Rebecca moved forward to flank him. They all waited.
The old man frowned a little and his eyes got big and uncertain, as if their rudeness was making him feel guilty. He said, still soft, "Erm, I was a party comrade of poor Katherine's. I lent her a book recently. It's a funny old thing, rather silly, but she liked old books very much, and I thought she might find it interesting. I wasn't going to call on you, but I'm afraid my wife insisted on it. The book's rather valuable, you see, because of its age. Might I come in and look for it?"
Rebecca cut in. "Well, we've just about finished going through Katie's things. What's this book look like?"
"It's rather small, about so big" — he held up his hands to show — "brown leather binding, very old and delicate. You'd know if you saw it, I'm sure. Perhaps if I could look?" He edged forward again, and actually put a hand softly to the frame of Havoc's chair, as if to move him out of the way like a piece of furniture. Havoc clicked on his brakes and eyeballed the guy aggressively. Just you try, buddy.
Hawkeye smiled politely and shifted a little, letting him see the gun holster under her jacket. "I'm afraid we haven't seen anything like that," she said. "But if you left your name and address, perhaps we could let you know if we come across it?"
The man stepped backwards and coughed. His face was sharp and watchful and his eyes flicked around the three of them, as if taking them in properly for the first time. Then he started to babble softly. "Oh no, oh no. I couldn't possibly trouble you ... never mind. Never mind. Thank you." And with a jerky, polite nod, he turned away. His shoes tapped down the hallway.
The man's steps faded out slowly, and then they heard the ping of the elevator doors opening. Havoc shut the apartment door and turned to the girls. "What the hell was that all about?"
Hawkeye looked at them both quietly for a moment, then she walked over to where her bag lay by the coatstand, opened it up and pulled out a tiny book bound in plain brown leather. She handed it to Havoc, and said, "Careful. It's very old."
Havoc asked her "Where did you find it?" at the same time Rebecca squeaked, "Why did you just hide it in your bag?"
Hawkeye looked guilty. It was a strange look on her. "I — didn't think it was necessary to tell you about this. I was going to take it straight to the brigadier general. It's best that a State Alchemist we can trust deals with this book."
Havoc replied "So what's up with it?" at the same time as Rebecca screeched, "Why didn't you tell us?"
Hawkeye flopped back down onto the telephone seat, and exhaled hard. Then she said, "I know this book. It's a very rare alchemic text, hundreds of years old."
Havoc said, "You know it from your dad, huh?"
"Your dad was an alchemist? Why don't I know that? How come you told him, but I don't know?" Hawkeye hadn't exactly told him about her father, but it was long and complicated and best left for later. For now, they needed to focus on this book.
Hawkeye looked trapped, which was another expression he wasn't used to seeing on her. She answered very quietly, "He had a copy of it. But it's illegal. It's banned."
"Jeez. Human transmutation, huh?" Why did it seem that every banned text or secret clue they stumbled upon somehow came back to that? It wasn't a thought he liked to linger on.
Rebecca looked at them blankly. "Human trana-what? Is that a bad thing?"
"I couldn't tell you. I never even opened my father's copy."
Havoc took another look at the book, tiny, fragile and decaying in his hands. A lot of things to do with alchemy were often much more dangerous than they looked. Carefully, he cracked it open. Rebecca and Hawkeye leant forwards over his shoulders to get a look.
The title page said, in old-fashioned, wonky printing, "The Perfection of Matter". There was no author's name. Below the title, there was a creepy little picture of a man in robes holding a square carved box with a big eye painted on it.
Rebecca said with a kind of awe, "Alchemists are such nutjobs." Hawkeye and Havoc both frowned at her.
She shrugged. "What? No offence to our fearless leader, I'm totally loyal, 'till the day I die, rah rah rah go team. But — tell me you don't have to be sorta weird to want one of those." She jabbed a finger at the freaky eye-box.
Hawkeye and Havoc exchanged looks, and silently agreed that they were going to have to concede the point.
Ed had had every intention of showing up without the sandwiches, really he had, but when he had found himself wandering back to Central Headquarters just before 1300, he had passed that deli that he liked and quite suddenly had realised that he was absolutely starving. Then he had intended to head in, buy a pastry and scoff it on the way to the meeting point, claiming he'd forgotten he was supposed to bring any lunch. By the time he'd gotten to the front of the line, however, his resolve had weakened. That patiently nagging inner voice of his, the one that alternately sounded like his mother or Teacher or Al, or — more recently — even Winry, had won its battle with him. So, as happened all too frequently these days, he found himself doing what he knew he should do, rather than what he had really wanted to do. He ordered two ham sandwiches with dill pickle and two bottles of lemonade. Fuck him if he doesn't like pickles, he thought, trying gamely to console his sulking inner child.
Fifteen minutes later, they were walking deep in the woods of the park. Mustang had graciously accepted his sandwich and explained that since he was unbelievably paranoid and suspicious from a long life of manipulation and skullduggery, it consoled his obsessive little mind to have some conversations outside of Headquarters and somewhere that looked a bit more like a scene out of a spy movie. Well, that hadn't been quite what he'd said, but Ed understood that to be the gist of it. Although, to be honest, Hakuro and his guys seemed to be the kind of underhanded assholes that were worth being paranoid over.
After hearing out the basics of the Flowers case and consuming half a ham sandwich, Ed realised that so far they'd got through the conversation without a single real insult. He wasn't sure whether to be proud of his evident maturity or ashamed for dropping the ball, but before he could decide, Mustang said something that totally distracted him.
"So, Fullmetal, your first assignment on this case: I want you to read a book for me, and then give me a book report."
Okay, so now it was insult time. Right, he was totally on it. "Are you freaking kidding me? I told you, no pointless busy work, and by the way, asshole, I'm nearly nineteen, your jokes are way behind the times. Give me a real job to do or take me off the case."
Mustang raised an eyebrow and looked slightly smug, like he'd scored a hit. "Let me rephrase. I want you to read a banned, highly illegal alchemic text for me. Major Hawkeye found it in Flowers' apartment. Flowers wasn't an alchemist, and the text is a very esoteric one. There's no way she could have made head nor tail of the contents, which leaves us with the question of what on earth she was doing with it. That's where you come in."
Great, he'd been set up, and now he was too fascinated with the idea of this book to try for a good come-back. "So, you think the murder had something to do with this book?"
"It's certainly suspicious. At the moment, though, we have no idea what it might mean. But if we know why Flowers might have been killed, that might tell us where to look to find out."
"I thought the idea was that Hakuro's guys did it? Something to do with her political work for the Progressives?"
"That was our working theory. But it still leaves us with the question of exactly why. It might be that this whole matter turns out to be nothing to do with the military. In that case, we'll just turn it straight over to the police." He turned and was suddenly looking right at Ed, challenging, intense, his face hard. "However — you understand how crucial it is that we're sure if Hakuro's old guard were involved. If this business blows up, it could be very bad. It could mean civil war. And I won't have that happen. I will not."
Ed suddenly wasn't sure what to do with himself — he found himself absently picking crumbs off his sleeve while trying to avoid Mustang's gaze — but he got the message. No fuck ups. He nodded solidly. "Gotcha, Brigadier General. No talking about this one in the canteen. But hey, I'm telling Al, okay?"
"Discreetly. But of course. I'd be surprised if you didn't. Alphonse's insights would be welcome too, if he has any time to spare aside from his studies."
Huh, what did Mustang know about Al's studies? Ed made a mental note to needle Al about it later. "What's the name of the book?"
"The Perfection of Matter. Heard of it?"
Ed whistled. Of course he'd heard of it; he had once been tasked with researching one of alchemy's biggest taboos, had he not? "That's a rare one. Hasn't it been banned for a couple hundred years?" He thought for a moment. "It's not even on the catalogue for Central Library's restricted vault, and they've got most of the biggies."
"And how odd that you have a mental list of what's in the restricted vault, despite the fact that you're not entitled to know anything about its contents." There was no edge to Mustang's voice, though, just amusement.
"And what about you? Bet you've known what's in there since you were my rank. Since you were my age."
Mustang just tilted his head and smirked an acknowledgement. "This book might be banned, but we don't know why. It's so rare that unfortunately, I'm not aware of anyone who could tell you what it's about. And as I said, it's esoteric in the extreme. It's one of those older texts where making sense of its symbolism involves a lot of work and reflection, and about half a library's worth of reading. I want you to apply yourself to the task, starting this afternoon. And not at Central Library, either. You'll be working in my study. I should have most of the other works you'll want to refer to. Of course, Alphonse is welcome to try his hand too if he'd like."
"Okay..." Ed tried to wrap his head around the oddness of this request. "But why have I gotta look at it at your place? The public library thing I get, but what makes you think my apartment's any less secure than yours?" He warmed to his theme. "I've got my books locked up with a decent alchemical lock, I bet you've just got one of those crappy wood-sealing arrays you could get into with two extra strokes on the circle. Or a fireaxe."
"This book is illegal. I don't want it removed from my library."
"But that makes no sense! You already took it from Catalina's place. If you can cart it around town, I'm pretty sure that I'm safe to do it."
"I did nothing of the kind. I had Major Hawkeye take the copy she found this morning straight to the university library so they could secure it in their restricted vaults. We've told them that she came across it at a house clearance."
"What?" Ed felt poleaxed. "How am I supposed to read it at yours, then?"
"You'll be reading my own copy."
Ed opened his mouth for a moment, but Mustang cut off his rant before he'd even decided what to put in it. "Yes, yes, Fullmetal. If there are no illegal books squirreled away in your own collection, then you can try to scold me."
Crap. The bastard had him there. There were more than a few illegal books in there, actually. Just last night, Al and he had been crowing over that copy of On the Forms of the Caduceus that Al had bought from a weird old guy in a pub while Ed was in Yarvil. All right, so some books turned out to be banned with good reason, but others were just banned because hundreds of years ago they'd annoyed some religious wacko or insulted the Duke of Wherever. Yeah, so some of them discussed some rather sketchy ideas, but pretty often they also contained some mindblowing ones — and you never really knew which it was going to be until you looked for yourself.
Ed gave a wry grin and a shake of his head. "Alchemists suck, don't we?"
Mustang answered with a sidelong look and his own close-lipped smile. "I'm afraid we do."
Gah, they weren't having a moment here, were they? Ed moved swiftly on. "So, have you taken a look in this thing? Did you make anything out?"
"Only that much of it purports to be a translation of a Xerxean alchemic text. The original's lost, of course. As for the subject — are you familiar with the Xerxean term takwin?"
Ed felt his insides tense up. He wasn't sure if it was the mention of Xerxes or...the other thing. "Yeah. Making golems, right?"
Mustang gave him a look, one of those patented, narrow-eyed Mustang looks that let you know something intense was happening in his brain, but gave you absolutely no clue as to what it was. The irritation of it unclenched Ed's stomach, so he took another swig of his lemonade, and then a big bite of ham sandwich.
Mustang looked severely peeved at this. Yay. Then he said, a little sharply, "No one knows what takwin really was. It involved the nurturing of life, that much we can guess, and they believed it was one of the highest goals of alchemy. It's one of those old mysteries that old alchemists with too much time on their hands like to speculate over. The Xerxeans could do so much with alchemy that we still haven't rediscovered." Mustang paused to squeeze the bridge of his nose and take a deep breath. "Life. My first teacher believed it was a lost form of medical alchemy. My second agreed with you, that the goal of takwin was the creation of new forms of life. So yes, golems, perhaps. Golems, or chimerae, or maybe even homunculi."
Ed froze on the spot, with the last chunk of his sandwich sticking straight out of his mouth. He had a strong urge to spit it right out, but a man's dignity is important to him. So, he made a heroic effort and swallowed it down in one gulp. A moment later, he started coughing hard as the crust scraped his oesophagus on the way down.
Mustang gave him a brief, inevitable smirk, then slapped his back a couple of times, hard. Ed turned his head and managed to spit some crumbs onto Mustang's jacket. Score 1-1, he decided.
Apparently, they were headed to the brigadier general's apartment straight away, so Ed stopped at a telephone box to enlist Al. This did not take long.
"Hey, it's me. So I'm on the case, and Mustang wants me to go through this crazy illegal alchemic text that apparently Flowers had in her flat. Yeah, it's The Perfection of Matter. No, I don't know why she had it, that's the point! They handed in Flowers' book, so I've got to go over to Mustang's to look at his copy. Yeah, you heard me. Mustang's library. His private library. Which supposedly has a whole cupboard full of sketchy illegal alchemy texts." Outside the telephone box, Ed heard Mustang clear his throat loudly. "Also, hopefully, there'll be a lot of secret, embarrassing crap I can use against him for twenty-eight days of solid gold mockery before I wave goodbye. So, you want in? If you're not doing anything. Yeah, the bastard wants you to research for free." Ed glanced at Mustang's back through the glass. No reaction. Maybe he hadn't heard this part? "But, the books! Imagine the shit he's got stashed there. If we're lucky, including his teenage journal collection. 'Dear diary, why do girls laugh at my hair? Is it because they're jealous?' "
Al finally cut in while Ed was still laughing loudly at his own excellent joke. "Brother? You had me at the illegal texts part. As for the diary, I'm afraid you're on your own."
"Great! Can you meet us outside the Aerugan bakery on Jordan Boulevard? The one right by the metro entrance, in about twenty minutes?"
"Sure. I'll head there right now. Have fun."
And with that, Al hung up before Ed could ask him what the hell fun was supposed to mean. He holstered the receiver and stepped out of the telephone box. Outside, Mustang was leaning against the glass panels, arms folded and eyes half-closed as if deep in thought.
He looked at Ed and said, "I hope you haven't planned anything too elaborate, Fullmetal. Because you really wouldn't want to start an adolescent pranking war with me. I have experience."
Much as Al approved of Ed's reasons for wanting to help bring Flowers' killer to justice, if he was honest with himself, he didn't really have time for this. He had a tutorial the next morning to prepare for, and he'd been planning to run a couple of experiments that afternoon, but Mustang's library was too good to turn down. And there was The Perfection of Matter, too: a book which he was secretly, intensely curious to examine. It was a relief to know that Ed was nearly as excited as he was. With alchemical taboo, they always relied upon each other to tell one another when to stop, to provide a check for those moments when the lure of knowledge threatened to deviate one's moral compass. They had granted each other permission for this.
Al had only been outside the bakery for five minutes, but he was still jiggling a leg impatiently by the time Ed and Mustang showed up. As the brigadier general turned a key in the front door of an elegant old apartment building in a side street, Al almost had to resist the urge to dash past him and run up the stairs. He looked over to Ed, who gave him a conspiratorial grin. It struck Al again that Ed was possibly even more curious about seeing inside Mustang's apartment than he was about the book itself. Well, if his brother was going to waste half the afternoon combing the rooms obsessively for blackmail and one-upmanship resources, so be it. Al wasn't going to let himself be distracted from the real goods here.
Mustang's apartment was on the third floor, up a large spiral of a staircase. The hallway inside was high-ceilinged and plain. Mustang led them straight through a door on the left and directly into what was apparently his study. It was a spacious room lined from floor to ceiling with glass-fronted bookcases, and lit by a tall window facing onto the building's courtyard. Ed marched right on in as if the room was his own, and started looking over the spines of books in the first case he came across. Al stood in the doorway and looked around the room with curiosity. There was a good-sized wooden desk in the centre, with a worn dark green chesterfield sofa in front of it. In a case off to one side, there was what looked like a decent collection of alchemic instrumentation. Maybe some of these had once belonged to someone else? Al couldn't imagine, given Mustang's speciality, that he got much use out of the beautiful old astrolabe at the front of the case. All in all, it wasn't the biggest private library Al had ever seen, but he was willing to bet it offered quality over quantity.
Mustang cleared his throat. Both brothers looked at him. They'd been lost already. He beckoned them over to the nearest bookcase to the door. He muttered, "I can't quite believe that I'm showing you this," then pulled a grease pencil from his pocket and quickly sketched an array on the plain, square metal panel at the centre of the bookcase doors. It was a smart little locking formula, better than most. Mustang let them see it for a moment, then tapped the array with two fingers to show them how the bookcase door split smoothly and swung quietly open. Then he closed it again, used a handkerchief to wipe some of the array, added the strokes for a reversion and tapped it again to seal the door. Then he wiped the metal panel clean and stepped back.
"I don't suppose either of you need to see that again?"
Ed ignored the implicit compliment, snorted, clapped and touched his hands to the panel. The bookcase fell open. He closed the doors, clapped again, and sealed it with a tap. Then he grinned like he'd just laid down a good hand of cards. Al sighed. Any day now his brother was going to learn to be gracious about things.
Mustang had the good sense not to take the bait. He moved on, pointing out the smoked-glass bookcase with double locks that held the banned texts, the shelf that held The Perfection of Matter, and the location of the major reference books they'd need. They could find paper in the first desk drawer, pencils and sharpeners in the mug on the desk. The bathroom was the first door on the right, and the kitchen at the end of the hall. As Mustang spoke, Ed had already cracked the locks on the smoked-glass bookcase, pulled out The Perfection of Matter and two other books that took his fancy, and moved straight on to hit the reference volumes.
"I don't expect you'll get through this today, but if you leave before I get back tonight, I'll want a progress report. Call my office from a phone box, but don't give me the report, just say you've got a wrong number, hang up and wait. We'll trace the call and I'll call you back from an outside line as soon as I can."
"Paranoid much?" said Ed from where he sat cross-legged on the floor, nose already stuck into the book in question.
Since, unlike Al, Ed wasn't looking, he didn't catch the brief flash of pained tension in Mustang's expression before he answered, quietly, "Much." Then he glanced at the doorway. "I'm going to put a pot of coffee on, then I'm heading back to the office. Any questions about the library?"
Ed looked up from his book pile, raised his hand and said brightly, "Yeah. How come all these books say "Hawkeye" in the front?"
Al mentally rolled his eyes, and pinched Ed's upper arm firmly. Ed pretended to ignore him, but struck his left heel down neatly on the toe of Al's shoe. So, escalation, was it?
Mustang said evenly, "Most of them belonged to my teacher." Then he was out the door before either of them could check out the expression on his face.
Ed had risen to his feet and stepped forward. While he was gawping after Mustang, Al took the opportunity to hook a foot round Ed's right ankle from in front, pull his foot forwards from under him, and shoulder him smoothly back to fall straight on his ass on the rug.
Ed glowered up at him from the floor like a sore loser. Al smiled at him sweetly and reached for a book.
Hours later, they still hardly knew anything about The Perfection of Matter. It was a tough one, all right. The symbology and logic of Xerxean alchemy could be pretty odd to modern eyes, even to Al, who was studying a lot of it at the moment. Then there was the translation, evidently poor in parts and deliberately coded in others, and clearly made by someone who didn't entirely understand the original but wanted you to think they did. It was frustratingly slow work, but the journey itself towards the text was fascinating. Al could hardly bear to tear himself away from the reading, the sketches, and the debates, but finally he forced himself. He really had to put something together for his tutorial the next morning. His university tutor might not be quite as terrifying as Teacher, but he certainly didn't want to face her unprepared. He left Ed buried in a commentary on the role of religious practices in Xerxean experimentation, and strolled down to the street.
Outside, the sun was low, the light a rich yellow and the shadows long. It didn't even occur to Al to get home the way he'd gotten to Mustang's, via the metro. He just started out on the hour-long walk between Mustang's place and the flat he shared with Ed in the university quarter without a thought. He walked past shops shutting down for the day, restaurants opening up, cafes and bars filling up with the afterwork crowd of office workers and soldiers. The air smelled of good food. After a little while, he passed into the narrower streets of the old city, his favourite part of town. He wandered down the street that was full of nothing but violin and guitar workshops, sniffed the sawdust and caught glimpses through open studio doorways of craftsmen cutting, sanding and polishing. He cut down a shady, graffitied side-street where old ladies sat outside their doors on kitchen chairs. He smiled and nodded at them as he passed. Old ladies were pretty much the only people in the city who would say "hi" to a stranger the way you would do back home. He liked them for that.
After a few minutes, he was strolling down a long, wide lane, with the high, blank wall of the old garrison on one side, and a canal on the other. He was watching two mallards in the water squawking and flapping their wings in some weird courtship ritual — or maybe they were just fighting — when he heard voices up ahead of him. Two young men stepped out of a little sidestreet ahead of him, holding a map. They were obviously tourists, dressed for warmer weather than Central ever had at this time of year, and arguing in broad Western accents about which street they were on.
"I'm telling you, that isn't the West Canal, 'cause we woulda passed Mercer Street back there if it was."
"No, I think that little cross-street was Mercer. Anyway, this can't be where you think it is, because if it was the East Canal, we'd be near the garrison, and it ain't here."
Al grinned, sympathetic and amused. The first man looked around him, presumably for the garrison, and spotted Al. Al grinned and pointed at the high wall behind him. "That's the garrison. You're right, this is the East Canal."
The first man slapped his friend on the shoulder. "I told you, man!" Then, to Al, "Thank you, sir. Hey, would you mind helping us out here a little? You see, my friend and I are visitors here, and we're having a few problems trying to find our hotel."
His friend cut in, "You know, the streets back there are so tiny, and half the time they even don't have signs on 'em."
Al remembered how huge Central had seemed when he and Ed had first visited back when they were kids, for Ed's state alchemist examination. They'd had some amazing fights over maps back then — some of them literally fights. "Sure," he said, "I know what you mean. Central's an awesome city, but it's so difficult to find your way around if you don't know it. Where's your hotel?"
The second man said "We're staying at the Majestic. It's one of those big places on Aquaroya Boulevard. We just checked in this morning, only I forgot to pick up a card from the lobby with the whole address."
Al said "Don't worry about it. I know that hotel, I can show you how to get there if you let me have a look for a minute."
"Thank you very much, sir. Nice to meet someone friendly round here." Al laughed, and stepped forward. He knew what they meant.
The two men held up the map and made a space for him between them. Al moved into it, put a finger up to the map — and suddenly he was buzzing, on edge, flooded with nervous energy, his heart hammering at him. He took a step back before he knew why, and something smashed up through the map, caught him on the chin and snapped his head back.
Then he was sitting on the ground, his palms raw where he'd caught himself on the paving stones, his tongue throbbing where he'd bitten it. The men who stood over him looked completely different now, hard-faced and without a trace of confusion. They knew exactly where they were and what they were doing. He should have seen this coming.
The first man swung his hand back. Al could see that his fist was curled around something small and heavy. Next to him, the second man was reaching behind him into the back of his pants. Al felt another electric jolt of fear and tension go through him, but just as it was trying to fill his mind, he leaned back and used his hands to vault his body forward, legs first. He got his right foot between the second man's braced legs and twisted, flipping him on to the ground and sending him sprawling. As the second man dropped, the first man grabbed Al's hair by the roots and hauled him up for a punch. As the fist with the roll of coins in it snapped forward, Al yanked his head to the side, ripping his short hair out of the guy's grip. The punch caught his nose, but most of the impact was lost. Al flattened his hand and hit the guy's solar plexus with a chop. The first man doubled over and went down.
Al sprang backwards, a bit inelegantly, and tried to give himself a moment. Distracting pains were flooding his brain from all over: his bruising jaw, the strained muscles of his neck, the pulled roots of his hair, his busted nose, his tongue, his scraped palms. His whole body was throbbing in rapid time. It was an information overload, that horrible brain-freezing cacophony of sensation that had had him lying face-down in a darkened room so many times in his first months back in the flesh. The two men were moving again. The second one was hauling himself to his feet. Al took a long, slow, deep breath, and let it all pass through him and over him. As he exhaled slowly, the second man pulled a knife and stepped forward. Al clapped, and drew a long polearm up out of the ground.
The two men froze rigid. Al caught the polearm, spun it, and lunged at the second man, catching the wrist of his knife arm and jerking it wide with the impact. The knife flew out into the air and landed in the canal with a little splash, and at the same time, the second man howled and grabbed hard at the shaft of the polearm with his other hand. Instead of pulling back, Al kept his two-handed grip on the polearm and rushed forward, then used his momentum to pull the polearm back and down to strike the second man hard across the front of the knees. He stumbled, and Al saw the first man moving in from the corner of his eye. He planted the polearm and used it to vault back out of reach. Both men were looking at him now in utter indignant horror. The second man was on his knees, clutching the wrist Al had hit and looking shaky. He was out of the fight. The first man was crouched in a solid, well-practiced fighting stance. He was obviously trained. That was kind of odd for a street thief.
Al and the first man circled each other slowly. Al made a feint with the polearm, testing. The man dodged to the side with ease. Al feinted again to one side, and then quickly brought the blunt part of the staff down with a chop aimed at the man's shoulder — but the man turned his body, ready, and slid right past Al, apparently headed for something beyond him. Al instinctively spun round in the other direction to block his progress with the blade.
Oh no, his bag. His notes. The bag was lying a few feet away on the ground, between his polearm and the man he was fighting. Had he been going for the bag, or was it a bluff to distract Al in order to take him down?
Al made a quick decision, sprang sideways, lunged for the bag and caught the strap on the blade of his polearm. He hoisted it in the air, let the bag's strap fall down the length of the shaft to land safely on his shoulders, and turned to defend himself again...and the two men were both off and running, back into the side street they'd come from. Damn. Al sprinted after them, and saw them disappear down a corner into a little lane. He followed after, but found them already gone. Al stood in the lane and listened for a moment. He heard trickling water, conversation drifting from a window, the distant crackle of radio music — but no footsteps. He picked the most likely looking turn and ran round the corner. The new street was just as deserted, apart from a single, tiny old lady who sat by her door on a chair, rolling noodles on a wooden tray.
"Hello," said Al, a little embarrassed. The old lady looked him over. He tried to imagine what she saw of him: a gangly, sweat-soaked young man, covered in dust with a bloody nose and a six foot, blade-topped pole in his hand. She did not say hello.