The next time Ed looked up after his brother had left, the sky outside was dark. He yawned widely and stretched against the back of his chair, feeling a few joints pop. The Xerxeans were crazy. Well, he guessed he'd known that already. Never having gotten the chance to ask, he wasn't quite sure how his father had ended up as a human Philosopher's Stone anyway, or how the Xerxean alchemists had created that thing with his face — but he did suspect that the two events had been connected. The one thing he did know was that whatever had happened, it had destroyed the whole of Xerxes in a single day. All of that left him with little patience for the endless mystical babble that he was currently wading through.
The trouble was, Xerxean culture made no distinctions between science, art and religion. In theory, that was interesting, but in practice, it meant that what had been preserved of their alchemical science was clogged up with theology and superstition. Xerxeans had seemed to treat complex combinations of formula prayers and religious rituals as just as essential a part of any transmutation as circle and formula. It was weird to think that he was related to these people. The rituals apparently stemmed from a terror offending their many weird-looking animal-headed gods, all of whom apparently had the power to drop a plague on Xerxes in an instant if a single alchemist drew an array without the requisite "pleases" and "thank yous". Yet in the end, no angry god had been needed to blight Xerxes, and the plague that had destroyed his father's people was alchemy itself. Much as Ed was a devout atheist, much as he would rather cheer for science and boo and hiss at religion, he knew which was the real bad guy in this situation. The Xerxeans' terror of their gods had done them no harm in the end; they should have been far more afraid of their own science.
Despite that knowledge, hypocrite that he was, he was sitting with a pile of taboo alchemy books that reached above his head, avid to fathom The Perfection of Matter, crazy to know what the lost science of takwin was. Despite the fact that he strongly suspected it was going to turn out to be something no one should ever know about. Despite the fact that at least one ordinary, nice person had already been killed over this secret. As if that all of that wasn't enough Ed had also, once again, dragged his little brother along for the ride. It seemed Ed wasn't so good at taking on board important life lessons. He'd looked into the face of the Gate, what was it, four times now? He'd seen it take his leg, his arm, his little brother. He'd heard it laugh at him with his own voice every time he'd returned.
He'd seen it tear his father to pieces while the old man smiled.
Ed closed his eyes for a moment, took a deep breath in, and let it out. He told himself firmly that he had a good reason for investigating this book. If Katie Flowers had been killed because of The Perfection of Matter, that meant that someone thought its secrets worth killing for, and that sooner or later, others would probably die for it too. Ed also reminded himself that he was working for Mustang, who for all his many annoying personality traits, could be trusted, and who knew personally exactly how dangerous the desire for knowledge could be. All Ed could do was apply checks and balances to his own obsessions: he would always be an alchemist through and through, and so would Al, really, though Al had always had been better than him at knowing when to stop. He rubbed absently at a painful knot at the top of his right shoulder blade, just where it took the weight of his automail port. He needed a break from this.
He got up, stretched, opened the window to let in a little chilly night air, and thought, hey, I didn't look for stuff to embarrass Mustang with yet! He'd been so absorbed in the reading that he'd all but forgotten his plan, but now that he needed to give his brain a brief rest from taboo alchemy, this was the perfect time for it. Teenage journals, old photos that totally didn't show his best side, girly romance novels, maybe even his porn stash, the possibilities were endless. This was going to be awesome.
Thanks to the years of training he'd had on his quest, Ed was a very fast researcher. In just twenty minutes, he'd not only skimmed the spine of every title in the study and flipped through the few promising volumes, he'd also checked for hidden drawers and looked over the kitchen and bathroom. Along the way he'd discovered a few mildly interesting facts about Mustang, like the fact that he collected old newspaper cartoons, but unfortunately, his haul of blackmail material had been somewhat disappointing. The study had shown that, as he'd guessed, most of the alchemy books were ex libris Hawkeye, whoever that was (the Major's mom? dad? cousin? it wasn't exactly a common name).
When he'd moved on to the living room, he'd been expecting great things: the bachelor pad of doom and so on. What a disappointment it had been. He'd been hoping for coloured lamps and a sheepskin rug, but no. It was just another pleasant, high-ceilinged room with tall windows. There was a mantlepiece with a square clock in the centre, a streamlined, modern-looking leather armchair and sofa, and a low, cuboid rotating bookcase holding a few more novels and chess books. There were no pictures on the wall, embarrassing or otherwise. It was boring...kind of cool, but boring.
The room had the distinct air of not being lived in, though honestly, the whole flat did. Save for the utility bills on the bookcase and the study itself, there really wasn't anything to indicate that this was even the brigadier general's place. The most promising thing about the room was an album and a box of photos that he found on one side of the little bookcase.
Ed picked up the box and opened it. There were photographs crammed into the box in haphazard piles. Ed flipped through them quickly without disturbing the order — he could totally be a cat burglar if he wanted. There were a few pictures of the team, but most of the photos were pretty old and showed people Ed didn't know. There were a lot of girls in them. The names on the back — Iris, Edie, Lily, Emily — weren't particularly helpful. In the whole box, there were only two really good ones. One of these was an unlabelled photo of a teenage girl with a puffy, old-fashioned hairdo, hugging a solemn, spooky little dark-haired kid who could only be Roy Mustang, aged five. Ha. But who was the girl? A sister? A friend? She was way too young to be his mom, and besides, she didn't look a thing like Mustang. Ed suddently realised he knew absolutely nothing about the brigadier general's family, and that he was vaguely curious. The other photograph worth noting showed Mustang as a slim, slightly gawky teenager, standing in a garden with a pretty girl in a polo neck sweater. Ed couldn't place her at first, but on second glance, it was absolutely, definitely Major Hawkeye. It was weird to see what she'd been like as a young girl, all little and cute and Winry-like. Ed put the lid back on the box, and guiltlessly cracked open the photo album.
He was only three pages in before he realised what he was looking at. Mustang was not the kind of person who spent an evening putting his photos in albums, he was the kind of person who shoved them all in a shoebox. This album had been a gift, and it was obvious who it was from.
Ed flipped through the pages slowly, feeling affectionate, sad, and increasingly like an asshole. Hughes hadn't put the photos in date order, but had instead jumbled them about randomly. It seemed like, more than anything, he'd selected the photos and the order to get a rise out of Mustang. There were some of the two of them in uniform, or of the old East HQ team in the office, or everyone kicking back in some bar. There was a good one of Rebecca and Hawkeye looking scary together with big guns and little smirks. Some of the photos were pretty old. Apparently Mustang and Hughes had been at military academy together, and apparently there they had spent most of the time drunk or goofing off.
It was odd to see what they'd looked like at his own age — apparently, like total dorks. Hughes was kind of the same, but he'd looked even goofier without the little beard. Mustang had changed a lot more. He'd had shorter hair in those days for a start — you could actually see his eyes in these pictures. Moreover, in most of the photos, he wasn't pulling any of those Mustang-y I'm-smarter-than-you faces. He looked oddly open and cheerful, but then maybe that was because it was Hughes taking the pictures. There was a really funny shot of Mustang holding Elicia as a tiny baby, looking as nervous as if he was holding a ticking bomb. There was an assload more with Elicia in them, of course. She looked about three in this one — oh shit. Hughes must have taken this picture, must have made the album itself, only a short time before he had died. Ed squeezed his eyes shut, now feeling like a total jackass of the highest order. He carefully replaced the album, and decided that he was not, in fact, going to be using any of the photographs he'd found for mockery material. Chastened, he got himself a glass of water from the kitchen, and returned to his research in the study.
After another annoying but relatively productive hour of sifting science from ritual and evidence from mysticism, Ed found his mind wandering again, this time to the familiar waters of self-reproach. Hughes' photo album ... as if he hadn't been enough of a thoughtless dick recently with the way he'd been with Winry when they broke up. She'd deserved a hell of a lot better. Even worse than the fact that they hadn't made it as a couple, he'd been enough of an unforgivable ass that he might have permanently damaged their friendship. He didn't need to ruin another — not that he and Mustang were even friends, but still. That album was like the inscription he still kept inside his pocket watch, something painfully personal and out of bounds, and he'd pried into it like a jerk.
He decided it'd be okay to take another quick break, though this time he would try to behave himself. He opened the bookcase where he'd seen the books on fire alchemy and the transmutation of gases, and idly took out a volume. He flipped through the pages rapidly. Huh. Picking up another, he found the same thing. Ed had never really looked into fire alchemy, but the approaches these books took were convoluted and inefficient, involving massive expenditure of energy. Oddly, Mustang's technique couldn't be further from these: just splitting water particles in the air, oxygen from hydrogen, a basic transmutation with so little energy required you could do it all day with little risk of a rebound. It was either elegantly simple or idiotically basic, Ed could never decide which. Either way, it was funny that these guys had never come up with it, given how straightforward it was. In fact, Ed bet that while this technique had likely earned Mustang his silver pocket watch, that he himself could do it right now without blinking ... minus the spark, of course. He was in a library full of flammable papery things, after all, he wasn't stupid.
Ed tapped his fingers together, and recalled the formula. Oxygen flooded the air around him in a vague, intoxicating cloud. Whoa, head rush. Maybe he shouldn't have done that ... Ed opened a window, then stumbled to the sofa and lay there for a while until he felt a little less high.
So, the array itself was simple, but controlling it must be the sort of thing that took some practice. The formula always had the look of a shorthand array to him, now he thought about it. Like nearly any personal array that an alchemist displayed publicly, there must be more to it than meets the eye, parts of the formula that didn't always need to be drawn out, just held in the mind. Dumb of Ed to have tried to use the shorthand on its own, without comprehending it, but then the array had just seemed so basic: elementary school stuff. If you didn't mind class 4A blowing up the homeroom or passing out in a little pile.
He got up slowly and sat back at the desk, sketching the fire array with a pencil, with a quarter of the outer circle left off for safety. The second, inner circle, he thought, that's for refinement and control. He'd bet that the plain, unadorned inner circle was shorthand for something much more complex and specific in the original formula. But what? How did you direct a gas, goddammit? Gases were essentially volatile, they moved in whatever direction they liked, they couldn't be contained, they spread and were difficult to repel... Eh, what a pain in the ass. Who'd ever specialise by choice in the transmutation of gases? But Mustang used that stupid, simple little chemical change so precisely. The fire always seemed to go exactly where he wanted it, to die the moment he asked it to, and he made it look so maddeningly easy. He couldn't, couldn't be doing it on willpower alone. That would be nuts.
Half an hour later, Ed was hard at work again...just not on Xerxean alchemy. After a crazed hunt through the study for Mustang's notebooks — which of course he hadn't found, even after another thorough check for hollow panels and secret desk drawers — Ed ended up sitting back at the desk with a pile of books on fire alchemy. Right now he was sketching his eleventh educated guess on how the array's inner circle worked. He wasn't actually testing these physically — lesson learnt — just running the logic of them through his head to see if it was true. His previous instincts about the books were right: Mustang apart, alchemic science was about as successful at controlling fire as medical science was at controlling tuberculosis, which was to say, not at all. All the books he'd looked through so far could pretty much be summarised the same way. "I tried this thing and it didn't quite work and now I have no eyebrows, but I'm writing it up anyway and trying to bullshit that we've all learnt something useful so that my department can score funding for some better couches".
Anyway, Mustang hadn't learnt much from these guys, because there wasn't much to learn. Perhaps his teacher's research had only been circulated privately, or — no way, he couldn't have — Mustang had even come up with the whole damn thing on his own. Ed started thinking through guess number eleven. The inner circle could provide a kind of reversal, a second transmutation to contain the first by combining oxygen atoms around the fire with the extra hydrogen created by the array, but then if that was the case, wouldn't ...
"Close, but no cigar." Mustang's voice sounded from right by his ear. Ed's whole body jerked. The lead of his pencil punched a neat hole through the paper, then snapped.
When the hell had he come in? Ed turned around. Mustang was leaning right over his left shoulder. He looked at Ed through his bangs, and grinned with one side of his mouth. Their faces were inches apart, and that was way too close. Gah. Ed ducked his head to one side.
Mustang ignored him, reaching an arm over Ed's shoulder to pick up another pencil from the desk. He added a couple of strokes to the inner circle, then stepped back and leant against the desk, looking down at him. Mustang's jacket was off. He looked surprisingly smaller and slighter without it, his sleeves rolled up, wiry arms folded. How long had he been in the apartment anyway?
Mustang said, "There's a trick to it of course, but actually, the inner circle's largely concerned with refining the accuracy of the initial transmutation of gases. It doesn't control or contain anything in and of itself." With a smug pause, he let Ed take that one in. So whatever was in the inner circle, it didn't protect the user or contain the transmutation. It just made it possible for a skilled user to aim the weapon precisely. A very skilled user. Huh. It really was all about control.
Irritated, but too impressed to come up with an insult, Ed settled for holding his own intellectually. He glanced at the changes Mustang had made to his sketch. "So it's all about the speed, then? Drawing a line in the air and getting the reaction done before the gas disperses?"
"Yes, in part, but —" Mustang seemed to stop himself. "I'm not going to teach you how to do this, Edward."
"I wasn't trying to learn! I was just, you know, curious. Intellectually. And you have all these books on fire alchemy, which are all, by the way, total crap ..."
"You're right. No one before my teacher ever had any success worth glancing at. My teacher never wrote a book, of course."
Ed picked up the hint. Hawkeye Senior had to be dead. But that meant ... "Hey. Seriously, did you ever think about taking on an apprentice? Not me! I just mean, if someone takes you out, and you've hidden your notes away somewhere, all that knowledge would just" — he waved his hands — "go to waste."
Mustang looked at him through his fringe, with one of those intense, impenetrable looks. This particular time, though, Ed could kind of guess what was going on in his head. He started to regret his previous comment.
Mustang said evenly, "I think one Flame Alchemist is enough for the world. Don't you?"
There was a heavy silence.
Ed said, slowly, "You know, the other students at the university keep asking Al how to transmute without a circle. He just says to them, 'You think you wanna know, but trust me, actually you don't.' But they never stop asking."
Mustang responded with a faint smile.
"This book. I know your old teacher thought it was about medical alchemy, and Al thinks so too, but personally, I've got a feeling it's going to turn out to be something pretty fucking wrong. But — I still need to see it for myself, I still feel like I can't stop before I work out the puzzle, get all the secrets out." He sighed, puffed a breath up to ruffle his bangs, and smiled wryly. "It's like I was saying in the park. Alchemists suck. There's just something wrong with our brains or something."
Mustang was looking at him differently now, eye to eye, open, empathetic even. He got it. It was a total relief how much he got it. God, now they really were having a moment, but Ed would feel like a jerk if he made a stupid joke this time, especially after the way he'd snooped in the living room earlier. And honestly, it had made him feel better, cleaner somehow, to confess to another alchemist how disturbed he was by his compulsion to fathom The Perfection of Matter.
They looked at each other for another long moment. Then Mustang casually picked up a piece of paper from the desk and held it in front of Ed's face. On it were Ed's workings for the little sonic array he'd cooked up earlier to check the study for hidden drawers and panels.
"By the way, Fullmetal," he said, conversationally. "Do you really think I didn't anticipate that you'd search for my notebooks?"
Roy had left the brothers a spare key, so he was somewhat surprised to see them both in his office at 0930 the next morning. He was even more surprised to see that Alphonse was sporting two blacked eyes, a swollen nose and an impressive bruise under his chin. At first, he imagined some unwise person must have started a bar fight with Alphonse. He looked at Al's lanky frame and his bright-eyed, likeable face, and thought, I wouldn't like to see the other guy.
Al greeted him cheerily, "Morning, Brigadier General." Fullmetal just waved offhandedly.
Then, both brothers started speaking at once. The volume rose as they both tried to talk over the other, before Alphonse gave Edward a harsh look, and Ed sighed and shut up.
Al started up again. "I got attacked last night on my way home from your place. Mugged, or something. I'm not quite sure what it was, actually, so we thought we should tell you."
Mustang nodded for him to go on.
"Two guys by the canal ... they tried to set me up for it with a con like they were robbers, but when they fought — they really knew what they were doing. One of them fought me barehanded when I had a polearm, and he was handling it fine."
Edward cut in. "And they got away. But it wasn't Al's fault, he thought they were going for the bag with his alchemy notes in it."
"Brother! I was getting to that part." Al turned back to Roy. "But — I thought about it after, and I don't actually think they were trying to rob me. Which is weird. They were two trained guys, just beating up on me. I don't even think they were trying to kill me."
Had it been Edward who'd been in the fight, the only motive the men would have needed would be meeting him at the wrong moment. Alphonse, on the other hand, didn't attract trouble. This business looked deliberate. Roy said, "Could you have been followed? Did either of you see anyone?"
Ed and Al both responded with a fervent "no". Al had thought he was alone for much of his walk home; Ed, heading out much later, had just hailed a cab off the street. In the twisting streets of the old city, however, it would have been easy for a skilled pursuer to follow even someone as observant and well-trained as Alphonse. Especially if he had been thinking about alchemy at the time. Both brothers tended to get absorbed in their work, to say the least.
"But what I don't get is how beating me up would harm the investigation. Okay, so I'm working on this, but it's just for a day or two." Al paused, and frowned a bit. "What I mean is, why target me? I'm not even on the team. Why not Ed, or you, or Hawkeye?"
"I can think of a very obvious reason why. Fullmetal has less than a month to go on his contract. If you'd been put in the hospital, he might abandon his work on this case and take you with him."
Edward said loudly, "If you think I'd be scared off by some asshole threatening Al — he can totally handle himself-" and halfway through the sentence Al started talking over him, saying "You know, I wouldn't stop working on it just because some jerk tried to push me around-"
For the sake of the collective eardrums of the office, Roy stopped them by holding up a hand. Or at least, this stopped Alphonse, and he in turn stopped Edward with an elbow-jab to the side.
Roy said, "This is a delicate business. Were someone to attack me — or Major Hawkeye — it would be ... unsettling. For the military. It might backfire on the person ordering the assault. Taking Fullmetal off the case would be relatively collateral-free, especially since he's due to retire. And they targeted you, Alphonse. And as you say, it looks like they intended to injure you, not kill you, and the set-up would make it easy to pass off as a mugging. Which fits the m.o. of the Flowers killing, which was meant to look like a burglary."
"But they'd have to be pretty sneaky. I mean, they'd need to find out that Al and I were working on the case at your apartment, and maybe know that my contract was coming up. And they'd have to be watching the apartment entrance to follow Al when he left."
Roy pinched the bridge of his nose. He agreed — and he didn't like where this was going. He said, "I know. I think we're all being closely watched. Someone showed up at Flowers' apartment asking about the book. He claimed to be a party colleague of Ms. Flowers and had some doubtful story about lending her the book. We haven't managed to track him down so far." Roy was hoping that the man in question would turn up at Flowers' funeral. Catalina was under orders to collar him if so, but he strongly suspected that the man wasn't a grieving party colleague at all.
"In any case, I think we can assume we're on the right track here. Your assignment is probably going to give us the key to this thing — we need to know what's in that book." He looked them both over. With their folded arms and stubborn frowns, he found them suddenly very alike. "Listen: I've instructed all of my team to be cautious about their personal safety. That extends to you two as well. Keep your wits about you. Alphonse, of course you're not under orders. If you want to bow out of the investigation, I'm fine with that."
Al cut in quickly. "No, I want to! I'd really like to keep going at it, if that's okay. All the stuff on Xerxean alchemy we've looked up is actually really helping with my research. Oh — and would it be okay if I used your astrolabe when I'm over later today? I don't have one, and I need to look up a bunch of astronomy stuff for some of the reading Professor Mackintosh has set me." He paused his rush of words to take a breath. "And besides, I really don't like being threatened." There was suddenly a subtle edge to his voice, to his manner. Roy thought, good for you. He found himself remembering why he had so much time for Alphonse.
The Elrics departed: Alphonse heading to the university, and Edward back to Roy's library. The book's investigation couldn't be in better hands. Now to find out how Flowers had gotten her hands on it in the first place.
The weather that afternoon was cloudy but breezy as Roy walked past the newly-planted flower beds and half built fountains of University Park — soon to be Armstrong Park, he corrected himself triumphantly. He wondered idly where the inevitable intimidating statue of General Armstrong would be, and decided that the central junction at the top of the hill would be suitably pompous and impressive. He hoped they had her waving that sword around.
He was glad that his team's next line of enquiry gave him an excuse to get out of the office and a chance to check up on another matter upon which he wanted to keep tabs. This quick trip out was also a treat to himself before he'd have to spend the rest of today's waking hours preparing himself and his team for tomorrow's all-day meeting with the brass. In the absence of a standing Fuhrer, Amestris was being governed by committee, so these lengthy meetings were a tedious regularity.
It was going to be a real bastard of a meeting. Someone from Hakuro's faction, if not the man himself, was still likely to be behind the Flowers killing. If Hakuro was involved, he'd be watching Roy. Even if not, he and his little minions would probably pick up on the fact that Roy was scoping him out. Either way, he and Hakuro were very likely going to be spending the meeting circling each other warily, each attempting to divine the other's intention without starting a fight, while nearly everyone else in the room did their best to defuse the tension by spraying it with as much concealing bullshit as possible. Ah, well. Onwards and upwards.
Once outside the park gates, he crossed the road and passed through the matching gates of the university campus opposite it, giving the porter a little nod as he went through. He hardly ever came here these days, but he still remembered the route well: along the central path, past the tall, square, many-columned buildings in pale stone on either side of him and open grass quadrangles, with the river on one side and the road on the other. He turned left, walked through a stone archway, and found the side entrance of the Department of Elemental Alchemy. Back when he'd been a cadet, and studying for his State Alchemist's certification, the academy had sent him here for weekly tutorials to prepare him for the examination. At first, he hadn't been able to imagine having any teacher other than Master Hawkeye, but Professor Mackintosh had quickly proved to be very much her own woman. It had hardly hurt that she was, in her own competent way, as impressively loopy as Hawkeye himself.
Up on the third floor, Professor Mackintosh still kept the same office she'd had over a decade ago. He knocked, saw a hand wave at him through the frosted glass of the door, and heard her call "Come on in."
Inside the office, Mackintosh was sat at her desk with the chair swung around to face the room's sofa. Neither her office nor she had changed much in the last few years. There were the same bizarre stuffed animals and trophies mounted on walls and shelves, including Roy's favourite, the diorama of squirrels playing cards. There were the wildly inaccurate nineteenth-century diagrams of molecules, with which she liked to torment undergraduates by asking them to point out the mistakes, and then there was Mackintosh herself. She was a stocky woman in her sixties, with a packet of chalk and another of cigarettes stuffed into her worn cardigan — she'd been known to get them mixed up — and an oddly precise pudding-bowl haircut, which Roy had always suspected to be self-administered. On the sofa, a young man of around twenty was sitting, holding a few sheets of closely-written paper. He was sweating slightly.
"Hello, Roy!" Mackintosh said. "I'll just be a few minutes, I'm running a little late with my tutorials. Sit outside and take a look at that article on my pinboard." The undergraduate stared openly at Roy. Roy raised his eyebrows a little, aiming for a combination of sharpness (to remind him that they weren't in the same boat) and fellow-feeling (because in some respects they were). He wasn't sure whether the young man's surprise was due to seeing a high-ranking military officer suddenly walk into his tutor's study, to the fact that she called him by his first name, or possibly due to the fact that she was casually and freely ordering him around. Roy didn't take orders from many people these days, but teachers were a weak point with him. He nodded to Mackintosh, and wandered out, leaving the wretched undergraduate to his fate.
In the corridor, he looked over the article she'd pointed out. It was a newspaper clipping from the Herald on the Department's research into the alchemical detection of carbon monoxide leaks. She'd circled all the factual errors in red. Roy wondered if she'd sent the Herald a copy. Chuckling under his breath, he figured she probably had. From within the room, he heard Mackintosh's voice booming "... is a complete and proven fallacy, as you'd know if you'd actually read any of the books in your essay's bibliography." He repressed a pang of sympathetic pain.
Mackintosh continued, quite caustically, "You haven't done a stroke of work this week, have you? You just knocked this together last night and thought you'd wander along ..." Roy moved along the corridor a little and looked over another noticeboard. This one held advertisements from students selling old textbooks, and posters for various student societies. He was pleased to note that at least four of the latter came from student-run political groups of the kind whose members would have found themselves expelled and quite possibly jailed back in the Bradley years.
The door to Mackintosh's office banged open. The hapless undergraduate walked out very quickly with his head down. Roy wandered in.
Mackintosh greeted him with a nod, and Roy took a seat on the sofa. After a couple of minutes' small talk about department life, Roy got down to business — or at least the first part of it. "So," he said, "how is Alphonse coming along?"
Mackintosh snorted a laugh. "I saw him this morning. He had a nice pair of black eyes. Wouldn't tell me how he got them. Went drinking and got into a fight with some town lads, I expect. I don't know which time of year makes 'em worse, autumn or examination time."
Roy didn't correct her. "What about his studies? How far do you think he has to go before he's ready?"
"Oh, he's ready. Whenever he wants, really, he's just too much of a perfectionist."
"From what I've seen of his work, he can be a little meticulous." Or maybe he was deliberately stalling, he thought. Roy hoped he'd get a chance over the next few days to bring this up with Alphonse when they were alone.
Mackintosh added, "He's a very bright young man indeed. A little on the odd side, though. Keeps stroking the cushions in tutorials. You'd think the boy had never felt cotton before. Bizarre habit, not sure he even knows he's doing it. Bit of a story there, is there?"
How to broach this? Most of Roy's Elric-based excuses were aimed at people with less of a talent for seeing through people. He decided to go for a severely edited version of the truth. "He wasn't well for a few years. He's made a very good recovery, though. He's extremely determined. I've no doubt he's going to succeed at whatever he turns his hand to."
Mackintosh answered with a disapproving "hmm". Roy remembered that noise unpleasantly well from his time studying under her. He wasn't quite sure which part of his answer she was taking aim at, but decided on a swift change of subject in any case.
"I can't stop for long, but there was one other thing I wouldn't mind your advice on. I'm looking out for a particular rare book, and I wondered whether you'd know if there are any copies circulating at the moment." This was the main reason behind his visit. Mackintosh was a voracious collector of rare texts, with a particular appetite for the dubious and the banned, and seemed to be on friendly terms with every book dealer in the country, both reputable and disreputable. If he was going to successfully pick her brains about her highly illegal hobby, he was going to have to do it her on her own turf.
"I've been doing the rounds rather a lot lately, so I'd probably know. What is it?"
"The Perfection of Matter."
Professor Mackintosh raised an eyebrow. Roy gave her his best unreadable stare. It was a battle of wills.
She leant back. "And why, exactly, has that piqued your interest? I can't help but notice that this book has absolutely nothing to do with your field."
"How would you know — have you seen a copy?" Roy was past thirty and near the top of his country's military; he could try a little backchat. "You're aware that there's no decent interpretation extant, so technically, it could be about anything?"
"Takwin, isn't it? Whichever way you slice it, that's biological alchemy. Your only alchemic experience with biology is grilling it."
Roy pulled a face. So much for backchat. In some ways, he'd rather be stuck in a meeting with Hakuro.
Mackintosh barrelled on. "I'm presuming you wouldn't be so thick-headed as to think this would be suitable reading for Alphonse?"
"Absolutely not." Alphonse, who was so far beyond needing to be kept innocent of the dangers of taboo alchemy, was probably in Roy's study at that exact moment with his nose buried deep in the unsuitable book in question. "This is a favour for a State Alchemist colleague in biological alchemy, on plant enzymes. Normally he keeps his nose clean with this sort of thing, but he's following up a reference which he thinks might hold the key to his latest book. It's rather interesting —"
"All right." Mackintosh stopped him with one hand. She appeared to be buying the story. He congratulated himself on a well-played move. Like many alchemists who specialised, Mackintosh had not the remotest interest in research in the other alchemical disciplines: he'd killed her curiosity with one blow.
She tapped her front teeth with a pencil. "I think Meeks had a copy the last time I saw him, a couple of months ago. Shall I give him a call for you?"
"No, that's all right. I can look up him up myself and see if he's still got it."
Mackintosh sniffed. "I expect you'll be out of luck, it's a rare one. A good few people will be after that."
"I'll see. Perhaps if it's that rare, my colleague could prevail on the person who bought it to let him take a look? Anyway, I'll give Meeks a call. Thanks." Meeks had sold Master Hawkeye a great deal of the library that was now Roy's own, including most of the illegal books in the smoked-glass case. Roy, however, had never gotten along with Meeks. Luckily, he knew someone who did.
Mackintosh looked him over as he got up from the sofa and straightened up his uniform. "Roy?" He waited in resignation for her parting shot. "Next time you drop by, if you could not carry a loaded gun around a building where about a hundred people are transmuting gas? Besides the fact that it's embarrassing for us all to see a renowned State Alchemist forgetting basic safety procedures, it tends to make people nervous."
Riza sat back in the wooden booth and sipped at her soda. Hayate lay quietly at her feet. Mr. Meeks was, of course, late. She had a 50 cenz bet with Roy that he was also going to turn up drunk. She looked around her. She had never been to this restaurant before, but she was getting the impression Meeks was a regular, if only because it was one of those little bistros which had nothing but regulars. Riza was at a quiet booth near the back. Over at the bar, two middle-aged men with glasses of beer were openly staring at what they could see of Riza. She was guessing the privacy of the high booths was one of the reasons Meeks came here on business. On the other side of the narrow room, a noisy group of workmen were eating the house special and drinking rough red wine out of little tumblers. A little cloud of smoke hung over their heads. In fact, the air of the restaurant was so thick with smoke it was almost visible. It was surprising that Meeks, one of the best men in his business, brought his rare books in here. Her father would have had a fit if he'd known. He had always made a habit of carefully closing every one of his glass-fronted bookcases before he lit his evening pipe.
The little bell on the front door rang as it opened. Riza raised herself from her seat, enough to spot Mr Meeks making his way across the room and to catch his eye. He beamed at her and bustled over. He looked the same he'd always done, if rather fatter: bald, red-faced, cheerful and noisy, pushing his way past waiters and diners with friendly excuses. He was walking fairly steadily, though. Was she going to have to hand Roy the 50 cenz? He'd claimed she'd exaggerated Meeks' drunkenness when she was younger, on account of her being a tiny, bossy minature adult instead of a normal child. She'd retorted that being brought up in a hostess bar had evidently given him an abnormally high tolerance for lecherous drunkards. She'd won that round at least, even if she wasn't going to win the pot.
Mr. Meeks reached her booth, and she rose to greet him. He gave her a big smile and said "Hello, sweetheart. Aren't you looking grown-up?" She ought to, she was nearly thirty, but she bit her tongue; despite her comment about lechers, Meeks had always treated her like an affectionate uncle. It couldn't have hurt that the amount of money he'd relieved her father of over the years had probably paid for half his house. Meeks leaned across the table and kissed her on the cheek. His breath smelled powerfully of strong liquor. Roy was going to have to fork over the money after all. Perhaps she'd use it to treat Rebecca to lunch at the Hussar?
A waiter trotted over as soon as Mr Meeks sat himself down. It had taken Riza ten minutes to catch someone to bring her a soda, and another fifteen for the drink to arrive. Ordinarily she was excellent at dealing with waiters, but Meeks was a regular here, and it was evidently that sort of place.
"Let me get you a drink, dear." Mr Meeks turned to the waiter without waiting for her response and ordered a pint of stout for him and a glass of sweet sherry for her. In reality, Riza didn't feel like drinking at all — it was a Tuesday night with a six-hour meeting ahead of her the next day — and if she did, she'd want her sherry bone-dry and straight out of the icebox ... but she played along.
"So, what brings you here? Haven't decided to take up alchemy, have you?" Mr. Meeks laughed heartily at his own joke.
Riza smiled sweetly, with some effort. "No. I'm actually doing a favour for a State Alchemist friend of mine. He doesn't normally dabble with rare texts, but he's hoping to track down one in particular for a project on plant enzymes."
"Hoping to impress him, eh, are you? Well, I'd be delighted to help." Actually, the cover story was that helping the fictional plant alchemist out would further Riza's own career, but she should have thought of this instead. "What's the volume?"
"The Perfection of Matter?"
Mr Meeks whistled. "Plant enzymes, was it? Are you sure this fellow isn't spinning you a bit of a yarn about what he wants the book for? It's not something you'd want to go waving round army headquarters, if you know what I'm saying."
"Oh no, he's very trustworthy."
Mr. Meeks' eyes narrowed. "Not thingy, the apprentice, is it?" Riza shook her head vigorously. "No, he went for your father's field, didn't he?" Riza nodded, mumbling an affirmation.
"Good," said Meeks approvingly. "Never trusted the fellow. Shifty little eyes. Sly. You're a charming young lady, you could do far better for yourself." She was definitely going to be repeating that description to Roy when she reported back.
He took a long gulp of his beer. "I'm afraid I don't have a copy at the moment. It's rather scarce — rather expensive too, I'm afraid. Funnily enough, though, I've sold a couple of copies recently."
Riza felt a little jolt of adrenaline. More than one?
"Sold the last one to another young lady hoping to impress a boyfriend a couple of weeks back." That had to be Flowers. "Don't know what makes the alchemists so popular with you girls. Suppose it's the intoxicating allure of power, eh?" His laugh boomed across the room. Riza repressed a snort.
"What about the other one?" She kept her voice casual.
"Oh, that was months ago."
Riza sighed, trying to sound disappointed. "That's a shame. My friend really does want this book." She frowned. "I wonder — this is quite cheeky, but perhaps — alchemists like to help each other out, don't they? Perhaps if my friend asked someone who had a copy if he could see it?"
Mr. Meeks shook his head. "I'm sorry sweetheart. Professional discretion, I really couldn't disclose a client's identity, especially when we're talking about a book like this one."
Riza looked crestfallen. "Oh dear." She furrowed her brow. "I was so sure you'd be able to get a copy." She looked a little ashamed of herself. "I might have made a promise I can't keep." It was obvious manipulation, but it was worth a shot. Meeks had always had a soft spot for her.
He huffed out a breath. "Well ... the first fellow wasn't a regular client. Never met him before, called me out of the blue. I think he might have been one of yours, though, State-certified. I mean, if he was, if your friend were to bump into him in the canteen and start up a conversation, he might be able to swing it."
"Oh. That's sweet of you. What was his name?"
Meeks shrugged and grinned, annoyingly serene. "Didn't give me a name. You know how it works, sweetheart, of course I'd catch it. Funny looking old fellow. Big ears. Like a little monkey." The man who'd called at the apartment. Riza had suspected as much, but still she was suddenly aware of her own pulse.
"I don't think I know him. What about the woman? She didn't mention who her boyfriend was?"
"No —" Meeks drew out the word — "but with her I might be able to help. Katherine Flowers. Not a very common surname, is it? I expect you'd be able to find her in the telephone directory. But I really shouldn't be telling you this. Perhaps you could just sniff around and find out who her young man is? He could well be a State Alchemist, if he lives in the city and he's working on this kind of level."
Riza smiled, full of gratitude that was suddenly sincere. Despite all his irritating qualities, Mr. Meeks was kind to her. He always had been. "Thank you. You've really helped me out."
Mr. Meeks gave her a big, beery grin. "Quite all right, quite all right. I know I can trust Hawkeye's little girl to be careful with my reputation." Then he frowned — the first time Riza had seen him do so. "You be careful with that Flowers girl, though. I didn't like her at all. Sly. Cunning. Pity her poor fellow, eh?"
Turning onto the boulevard where her building was located, Riza spotted a telephone box on a street corner. The pavement was wide. From the box, she would see anyone close enough to be listening or watching her. People were still passing up and down the street. It was a good spot. If she was going to call Roy now, it should be from here. She hesitated for a moment, considering it. If she called him now, most likely she would wake him up from a much needed sleep. Then he would have to leave his apartment and walk two blocks to the nearest telephone box to return her call so they could speak securely, and after they had discussed the case, he would return home wired and purposeful, stay up half the night working and pacing and drinking black coffee. Of course then he'd turn up at the office the next morning exhausted - again - and probably have to be discreetly prodded with a pencil when she caught him nodding off during tomorrow's marathon meeting. But no. This was an important development, and best shared immediately.
She slipped into the phonebooth, popped in a coin and dialled.
After she'd counted twenty rings of Roy's telephone, it was clear he wasn't in. Roy was a light sleeper, and his flat was compact enough that he'd reach the hall telephone quickly. No, he would likely have popped out to pick up a late dinner from that dubious little all-night deli opposite his building, where he seemed to get food far too often for the good of his own stomach lining. Hanging suspiciously around the phone box was hardly sensible. No, the better plan was to go home for a few minutes, and then to take Hayate for a late walk and try to call Roy again, perhaps from the phone booth at the other end of her building.
Once at home and waiting, Riza found herself annoyingly wired. She contemplated putting her nervous energy to use and attacking the few unpacked boxes that still taunted her, so long after she'd moved to Central. No, she had a better idea. At this hour, her building's basement gymnasium would be completely deserted. She could tire herself out and release some tension by lifting some weights, or doing a few laps of the pool. Then she could have a short spell in the steam room.
Riza had been more tired than she had thought; she'd barely done five laps of the pool before she felt her energy starting to flag. Since this wasn't a proper workout, she didn't push herself. She climbed out, towelled herself off, and headed to the small, tiled steam room. She ladled some water from the tank into the rock chamber, and was pleased to hear that the rocks were still hot enough to hiss with the contact, and to feel an immediate blast of warm, thick steam on her face.
However, after ten minutes of lying on the steam room's hot wooden bench and letting the wet air soak into her pores, Riza found herself noting, as she always did in here, that here was easily one of the most irritating inconveniences caused by the formula tattooed on her back. Covering up in the swimming pool wasn't really a problem, although shopping for a bathing costume with a high enough collar was always annoying. Hiding her back from a new lover until she could trust them enough to explain a little - well, that was vastly inconvenient, so much so that if would definitely take the top spot if, unfortunately, it wasn't such an infrequent problem. Having to keep her high-collared bathing costume on here in the steam room, until the sweat made her skin itch, the material aggravated the heat and threatened to spoil her mood of sleepy languor - yes, that was definitely the worst of the damn thing. Riza scratched idly at the tight scar on her shoulderblade, and contemplated just stripping naked. After so many years spent carefully covering herself in communal bathrooms, dormitories, changing rooms, she instinctively drew back from exposing herself. But in this situation it wasn't rational, was it? The gymnasium was empty and quiet, the hour so late that it was unlikely she'd be interrupted. And in another five minutes she would have to wash up and head out to telephone Roy. Oh, to hell with it. She might as well enjoy this short break properly. Riza popped the studs along the side of her costume and pulled her head and arms out. She mopped the sweat from her face, back and breasts, and felt immediately better. She settled back against the planks and stretched, enjoying the feeling of the warm wood against the skin of her back.
She must have fallen asleep, because suddenly she started and realised that she'd been drifting through thoughts which were half-dreams. Something about the case: Katie herself had come into the office and shouted at them all for interfering with her life. Roy was utterly indignant, Rebecca was offering to pitch Katie out of the window for him, and Riza herself was intervening, irritated, but thinking at least they're agreeing on something ... There was a creak outside, the sound of a nearby door opening. In an instant, Riza sat bolt upright, wide awake, slipping her costume back on, heart pumping hard. No, this was ridiculous. Her own building. It would be another insomniac tenant, or the janitor, or a cat. She was a soldier, not a schoolgirl, she wasn't going to jump at every noise just because it was past the witching hour.
It occurred to Riza that her gut instincts were generally right.
Outside the steam room, she heard another door open and close, and heavy footsteps approaching. The glass of the steam room door was completely fogged up. If, if, someone was searching for her, they wouldn't be able to see her through the door. She had switched on the lights to every room of the gym when she first came in, because she was only ever comfortable if she could see everything around her clearly, and she was grateful now for her own twitchiness. She slipped to the floor and padded silently to the door, trying her best to keep out of view if someone were to walk in. She crouched by the edge of the door and raised an index finger to slowly wipe the very corner of the glass, praying it didn't squeak and feeling ridiculous for doing so. Then she raised an eye to the peephole she'd made and looked out into the corridor.
A man emerged from the weights room, and looked up and down the corridor. He looked distinctly nondescript: somewhere in his thirties, medium-height and wiry, wearing a dark shirt and denims. The only attention-grabbing thing about him was the gun in his right hand.
Riza clocked the gun: yes, it was a .45 Rinaldi. A decent handgun, compact but powerful, with some range to it, but a kick that made it difficult for an amateur to shoot competently. It wasn't something a petty criminal would carry. Gangsters and assassins were positively fond of it. And Riza? She was in the one place of all places where she neither carried nor concealed a gun. She went to work with a sidearm at her waist. There was always a holster under her jacket on days off, at parties, on dates. She slept with a loaded revolver under her pillow and got gun oil on her sheets. She kept a spare gun wrapped in plastic in the toilet tank and had to fish it out when the plumber came round...but here, of all places, she was unarmed.
The man was moving purposefully down the corridor, heading directly towards the steam room. Riza took a few steps back from the door, and breathed slow and deep. She felt a sharp and unpleasant pang of animal fear, then it was pushed out by anger and self-reproach. She should have been ready for this. She should have taken Hayate out straight away and walked the city streets trying to call Roy from every phone booth she passed, suspicious behaviour be damned. They had suspected that they were being watched, that someone wanted to dissuade people from investigating, had already killed to do so - and yet she'd left herself defenceless, for one brief moment. Now it came to this. Poor Rebecca, losing two friends in one week. She would be so angry. And Roy. Oh no, Roy, it was going to be the exact same thing all over again. Another friend and comrade murdered in the service of his goals, because they'd seen too much of a vile secret. Hughes' murder had nearly destroyed him, and she had been the last thread he'd clung to. How was he going to survive this?
The footsteps rang out clearly. Riza breathed deep, looked around her, and thought fast. Spotting the box of hot rocks, she moved over to it and rubbed her finger along its charcoal-stained wall. The heat scalded her finger a little. She ignored the pain, crouched and daubed a rapid message on the side of the box that wasn't visible from the door: two crude cartoon flowers and the words "bought it". Then she wrote "another", underlining the word.
The footsteps neared the door. Riza stood up, took another deep breath, and squared her shoulders. She had to be ready for any opening, any possibility of escape, of struggle, of negotiation, anything that could prolong her life or improve her chances. If she had the slightest choice in the matter, she was absolutely not going to die here, but the odds were not looking good.
The door swung open. In the doorway, the man looked at Riza, unsurprised and emotionless, his gun held on her casually. Then in one smooth and competent motion, he straightened his gun arm, took aim, cocked the hammer, and fired.