Riza was ready.
The man in the doorway cocked the hammer of the gun as he brought it up, and she was ready — however much good that was going to do her. There was a flash and a crack, and it had already happened: the gun had gone off.
Riza had dived hard into a crouch a fraction of a second before, her torso twisting to one side with one leg swung out and pointed towards the man. In the same movement, she used her momentum to skid forward on the slick floor as if she was skating — the gun fired again, tracking her — and she got her stretched leg between the man's feet and twisted her body. The adrenaline rush numbed her. She had no idea if she'd been hit.
The man went down, hard onto his side. Riza just about kept her balance. He bellowed as he hit the tile; it was the first sound she'd heard him make yet. The gun clattered on the floor, and Riza dove for the gun, but the man had already recovered it and was swinging it up again to shoot.
Then Riza was moving before she even knew if she could move or not, sprinting barefoot out the door and into the gymnasium corridor. Her entire body felt numb and buzzing. Was she shot? She had to be. He'd fired two shots, close range at that ... at least one of them must have struck her. She had no idea where, though. She couldn't feel a thing through the chemical high that was keeping her running. She passed doors, but rejected them; they led to little rooms, where she'd be trapped like an animal. What now? Get to her locker and the sidearm inside it? Get up to her apartment? Get out onto the street? Which?
The fire exit, she decided. Her gun tempted her sorely, but to get to the locker and fumble it open would take time she didn't have. She reached the open gymnasium floor and sprinted across it, heading for the double doors at the end, and feeling unpleasantly like one of her own targets. She reached them, and opened and shut the door carefully so it wouldn't squeal on its hinges. Once through the doors, she padded quickly to the corridor's end, and pushed down the fire door's latch.
The door didn't budge.
She pushed the latch again, trying to do it as quietly as possible. Nothing happened. She looked down the middle of the double doors, past the tantalising crack of streetlamp light to where the lock would be if someone had turned it. A solid little bar ran between the doors: they had indeed been locked. Oh hell.
For a moment, Riza was impressed with the assassin's forethought. Then she vaguely remembered an officious notice to tenants from the building's janitor, half-read then thrown away: he would be locking the exterior doors in the evening for security purposes. She'd always disliked that janitor. Right now she would happily kick him in the eye. Right. So what next?
She moved back down the corridor, forcing herself to breathe slowly and carefully. Several doors along the corridor led to small supply and equipment closets. Hiding like an animal was not a good option, but to return to the open floor of the gymnasium now would expose her. Was there a way she could pry the door open? She wasn't sure she'd be able to ram it with her shoulder, but perhaps if there was something in one of the closets she could use as a crowbar?
Riza pushed the first closet door open, and abruptly realised that her left hand was covered in wet blood. She looked down, and tried to flex it. It felt normal, as far as she could tell, though no part of her felt normal right now. She looked again and realised that the blood wasn't coming from her hand, but trailed all the way down her arm from her shoulder. She flipped the closet light on, and as her eyes roved over the shelves of cleaning equipment, she explored her shoulder with her right hand, prodding carefully. At the top of her shoulder, just behind the ridge of the clavicle, she felt an acutely sharp throb of pain. He must have hit her with that first shot as she'd dropped and twisted. She hadn't even felt it. The wound felt small and messy, like raw meat. As soon as she knew it was there and had touched it, it started a harsh, regular pulse of pain, but it didn't seem to be bleeding too heavily. There was no exit wound that she could find. Was the bullet still in her shoulder, or had it only grazed her? The latter, hopefully. Riza tried to cycle her shoulder and found it agony. Investigating further, she found that she could move her elbow, wrist and hand freely, but moving her upper arm from her side pulled too painfully at the wound.
After finding nothing useful in this cupboard, Riza returned to the main corridor to try the next door — and stopped dead. On the floor, a wavering line of little drops of blood reached from one end of the corridor to the other. It suddenly occurred to her that her wound must have been dripping blood steadily since she'd been shot. It would be a neat trail, leading the assassin straight to her current location, where once again she was unarmed, without an exit — and now wounded, too.
As if she had called him with that thought, the door swung open and the man stood framed in the doorway, his pistol trained on her, his face expressionless. He was sweating lightly from the chase, but his posture was calm and relaxed. Riza found herself wanting to say something forceful to him — about his chosen profession, about this humilating pursuit, about how much she wished she had a gun in her hand so he could see exactly what she was capable of — but suddenly she found he wasn't worth the effort. Instead, she just shrugged at him, and held his gaze, waiting.
He didn't drop her immediately, as a true professional would. He just smiled a little and stepped forward quietly, until he was standing only a couple of feet away, right up in her face. He held the gun loosely, casually pointed into her stomach. He was taking this moment, Riza realised, to meet her eyes and sniff her fear. She had a brief flash of memory — a shark's grin, the sun and the moon, palms held out and ready to clap - and then there wasn't another moment for him to savour.
She brought her left hand up and across from her side to grab the gun's muzzle, continued her arm's movement down, and twisted the man's arm sideways and inwards as she did so. Now the length of the gun was braced against his stomach, the muzzle pointing harmlessly out to one side of them. The man's arm was twisted across his body at a painful angle. He started a torrent of curses, you fucking bitch, you little — but they barely registered. He pushed back at her hand and twisted hard. He was strong, but his stance was weak, and Riza had learnt a long time ago to be fast. Before he could break her hold she had brought her left hand in under the gun and flipped it over to point the muzzle in. She heard a boney snap as his finger broke. Now the gun's barrel was jammed into the man's stomach. Her shoulder screamed at her, and the man screamed at her, and she ignored them both. She went to flip the gun back and take it from him, but his hand was clamped around it rigidly, and even with a broken finger he was too strong for her to break his grip. Her slim index finger slipped over his own on the trigger. She and he were so close that they were almost forehead to forehead. He had fallen silent, and was staring at her with livid rage. Then his foot jerked hard around her ankle, trying to trip her, twisting his arm forcefully in an attempt to bring the gun up and the muzzle round. She'd braced herself, but her foot still skidded hard.
She jerked her hand shut. The gun fired.
They looked at each other for a moment, hands twined together on the pistol. Its barrel still pointed at his stomach, and a wisp of smoke trailed up from it. The back of his hand felt damp and very warm on her palms. She could smell the burnt cloth of his shirt. His eyes were full of the utter rage, the utter panic of a man who can see his own death. They both knew what she'd just done. She felt a small, familiar rush of satisfaction, and then the bigger rush of horror and disgust coming up right behind it.
The man sank to his knees, then to the floor. Riza followed him down, dropping into a crouch, her hands still on his around the pistol. Soon enough she had prised it out of his loosened fingers and held it cocked in her own right hand. She came up and stepped away a few paces, holding the gun on him.
The man's face was flushed dark now, his left hand clamped over his belly. There was blood slicking his hand, pooling under him and creeping out around him. There was the vile smell of his guts, filling the air around them. Funny how a scent can take you back to the past so quickly and so vividly. She also remembered exactly what a close-range .45 pistol shot would do to a man's abdomen. This man was not about to get up. It was over.
Riza took one step away from the man, then two. Then she turned her back on him and jogged away to find the nearest telephone.
In some ways, it was a good thing that Roy only heard about the whole thing after it was all over, and that Riza was safe. For one thing, it meant that he could drive to the hospital with a reasonable chance of not totalling his car. Still, the horror of what had happened welled through him retrospectively as he drove through the empty late-night streets. Only a few minutes ago, he had been dozing on his own sofa while Riza, alone and unarmed, faced down some cowardly rat of a murderer. She could have been dying with no one at her side. Not again ... no, not again.
When he reached the hospital, he killed the engine and sat in the car for a couple of minutes, clenching his jaw and breathing slowly, trying to push the rage down from the surface of his mind. This was not a part of him she needed to see right now.
In the hospital cubicle, Riza sat on the side of the bed in gym gear, her sneakers dangling off the floor and a bulky dressing visible on her left shoulder where her polo shirt was open. When she saw him, she smiled, hopping off the bed and giving him an informal little salute. He tapped two fingers to the side of his head in response. Then he pulled her into a tight hug. She relaxed into it and let a deep, tired breath out. After a moment or two, she pulled away gently and gave him a soft, friendly little punch on the upper arm. He smiled back at her.
Riza said quietly, "My attacker is still in surgery at the moment, but I'm afraid it looks like I've killed him."
"Good." It was out of Roy's mouth, low and fierce, before he could even think about moderating his tone.
She frowned. "It is not good. We can't find out who hired him if he's dead. It's really regrettable that I wasn't able to put him down with less force." She smiled with one side of her face. "Still, I'm glad I managed as well as I did."
So was Roy. He said, "I already called Falman. He's going to take charge of guarding the assassin. He'll be here if we get a chance to question the man." If Roy saw the fucker right now, he wasn't sure he could trust himself not to incinerate him. "Someone did his homework. This bastard managed to get you in the only place you don't have a gun stashed ... and I'm including the bath and your own bed here."
Riza swatted his arm again. Her mood was lifting a little, and he felt his own mood lighten along with it. "I'm cautious. Someone has to be."
Roy rolled his eyes theatrically. "Milne again? It was one time. And I'm never going to live it down, am I? You know I was carrying spare gloves at the time-"
"It was not just one time. I can think of several times you've been caught off-guard, without even trying. I keep telling you, all you have to do is carry a grease pencil and a box of camping matches-"
"Which I have done for the last two years." Roy took the matchbox from his inside pocket and shook it at her. "I should be scolding you, for failing to find somewhere to conceal a revolver in a steam room." He waggled his eyebrows suggestively. A dangerous move, perhaps, but she needed cheering up.
Riza huffed out a little laugh. "I'm sure that's specifically prohibited in the Weapons Safety Manual."
"Listen. Come over and stay on my couch tonight. We can talk this whole thing over at mine. And if there are any more murderers, we'll see them off together."
Riza smiled again and hefted her bag with her good arm. "Or burn the place down because one of us heard a floorboard creak."
"Good idea. If there are no assassins by 3am and we're bored, you can shoot the gas stove, and I'll set the library on fire."
Roy took her bag from her and she allowed him to do so, a sign that she was going to take him up on his offer. He opened the cubicle curtain and waved her chivalrously through. With another little laugh and a shake of her head, Riza started toward the hallway. Roy followed her and fell into step by her side, and together they walked down the corridor and out of the hospital doors.
"Bastard," said Breda, standing over the office chessboard.
"Asshole," agreed Havoc, flipping through his rolodex.
"Coward," commented Falman, dumping a neat stack of papers onto Mustang's empty desk.
"Motherfucker," said Fuery. There was a short pause. Everyone stared. Fuery went pink. Then he muttered, "I'm twenty-five. When am I allowed to start swearing?"
"When you can grow a beard, dude," Breda replied. He hovered his forefinger over a knight, then picked it up and moved it assertively, dropping a few croissant crumbs on the board. Check. Then he sauntered back towards his desk with a feeling of job satisfaction.
"So the assassin's still in the hospital?" Ross wandered in with a clipboard.
"He's in the morgue." Breda threw the crumpled paper bag which had held his croissant at a wastepaper basket, violently. It bounced off the side.
"He died without regaining consciousness, at 0417 this morning." Falman added. "Did you know the hour around 4am is by far the most common time of night to die? The current scientific theory is that ..."
"My scientific theory is that he was a cowardly fucking dickwad who deserved to be gutshot with his own gun." This was Dino, who was new to the team, and apparently picked things up fast.
"Mmm." This was Miles, another newcomer. He didn't say much, but it was impressive how much meaning and emphasis he could pack into his conversational noises.
"And didja hear about that bookseller Hawkeye got the info from, Jasper Meeks?" Breda retrieved his paper bag and dropped it into the bin. "He turned up floating in the West Canal this morning with his throat cut. We sent a couple of guys round to his house last night after the murder attempt, but he wasn't in — guess they got him straight after he left Hawkeye."
"Guys." Havoc waved a hand for silence, and got it. There was only the vaguest hint of apology in his tone. Jeez, it was so much more difficult to fuck with him these days. "Sorry to break up the party, but if we're going to talk about this stuff, we should probably just save it for the case meeting we were supposed to be having five minutes ago."
When Mustang had insisted that all meetings on certain sensitive topics take place outside of headquarters, he really should have been able to predict that certain key members of his inner circle would take this to mean "in the back room of a pub, with refreshments funded by the petty cash box." As far as Breda was concerned, with the crazy hours they were working, any fringe benefits they could manage to secure were fair enough. Luckily, Havoc agreed, and so the relevant personnel headed out to one of their regular haunts, and took a private room in the back.
Breda put a tray of drinks down on the table. He handed a milky coffee to Ross, a lime soda to Fuery, an iced water to Falman, a pint of brown ale to Havoc, a lager to himself, and a bowl of nuts to the table at large. He also put down three pork pies, not five, because the spirit of competition was good for people.
Havoc took a sip of ale and rested his cigarette on the ashtray. Then he narrowed his eyes, steepled his fingers, attempted to wipe the smile from his face, and said forcefully, "First Lieutenant Breda, the facts, please."
Ross giggled. Fuery smirked round his lime soda. Breda threw a peanut at Havoc.
Havoc grinned infuriatingly and waved his cigarette. "Hey now, First Lieutenant. Don't make me write you up for insubordination."
Breda threw another peanut, and Havoc caught it neatly in his mouth. Then he threw a peanut back and it caught Breda in the eye.
Ross said dryly, "See how we strike fear into the hearts of evildoers."
Breda leant forward, and got down to business. "Well, sir"- Havoc beamed at him smugly, savouring the honorific and ignoring the sarcasm —"Here's what we've got. Someone bought a copy of an illegal alchemic text called The Perfection of Matter from a sketchy alchemy book dealer called Meeks. Captain Catalina's roommate Katherine Flowers, a politician with no interest in alchemy, bought another copy recently. Someone shot Flowers to death in her own apartment. Someone who fits the description of the guy who bought the book turned up at the apartment Sunday and tried to retrieve the other copy."
Ross frowned. "So the implication is that this person, these people, are using the book for some kind of illicit research? But the Brigadier General hinted to me that we're thinking it was a political murder. Are we speculating that Hakuro's faction are involved in taboo alchemy?"
There was a silence round the table, then four nods. Falman sighed heavily, and Havoc took a big bite of pork pie.
Ross said, "Ah." Then, a little gingerly, "What kind of taboo alchemy?"
"We won't know the details until the Elrics get back to us, but — it's biological alchemy. Consider the nasty possibilities."
There was a short pause, while everyone considered the nasty possibilities. Ross looked grim, and a little hunted. Havoc glowered and took a long drag on his cigarette. Fuery looked like he was watching one of the gory parts from a horror movie. Falman sweated lightly.
Breda took a swig of beer, and decided it was time to rescue everyone from memory lane. "Now here's what I think about the Flowers murder: someone knew Catalina wouldn't be at home that evening to fill his ass full of lead." Signs of renewed interest from around the table; nice save. "There's no doubt our somebody was after the book, but he left without it. My guess: a pal of his was watching the office, and knew Catalina was on her way home."
Ross tapped her coffee spoon against her front teeth. "But how would that work? The murderer was in the apartment, how could his colleague warn him?"
Fuery said, "They could do it pretty easily, actually. He could have had a radio — or they could have a signal system like the one we had worked out for the coup — when Catalina left the office, the accomplice could have radioed or called a third colleague who was in a building with a window that could be seen from Catalina and Flowers' place. You put a light in the window, and that's the murderer's signal to get out quick. And there are so many abandoned buildings in the city right now, it wouldn't be difficult."
"So, these asswipes have manpower and resources, then — and they've got to be good." Havoc waved his pork pie in a manner that was perhaps meant to convey 'top quality assassins.' "I mean, Al says the people who attacked him were professionals. And whoever followed Hawkeye home last night — well, they managed to follow her home without her spotting them and popping a cap in their eye. That's not just professional, that's serious."
Fuery asked, "But how did they know to attack her in the gym? I mean, it was really late when she got in, right? Wouldn't they assume she was just going to bed?"
Breda said, "My theory is, the guy was watching her apartment. He was probably planning to wait until she was asleep, then move in for the kill. Hawkeye hitting the gym was just a lucky chance."
Havoc laughed shortly. "Not sure I'd rate his chances even if she was asleep. I mean, can you imagine the amount of firepower she must be keeping at home? I mean, we all carry, but Hawkeye — I've seen that woman packing three guns at a kid's birthday party."
"I dunno," said Breda. "The big gangs do that thing where they wait for the person to fall asleep, then put a pipe under the bedroom door and gas them."
Fuery said, "I think I'm going to sleep with all the windows open now."
Havoc said, "Becky likes to do that anyway, so we're good." He got a dreamy, thoughtful look in his eyes. "I think she must just have really good circulation, she never gets cold, you know, and you'd think she would, 'cause she likes to sleep nak-"
"Jar!" yelled Breda.
"But we're outside the office! Don't be bending the rules on me, man."
"Since this is an official unofficial meeting and we're all pulling rank on each other and shit, office rules apply. Pony up."
Fuery pulled a jam jar out of his bag and held it out to Havoc. It had a slot stabbed into the lid and it was about half full with coins and the odd note. A label glued to it read, "The Havoc-Catalina TMI Fund. Please Give Generously."
"I can't believe you brought the jar to the pub," Havoc grumbled, fishing about in his pockets for a coin.
"What do we do when it's full?" asked Ross.
"Take ourselves out for dinner without them," said Breda.
Fuery rattled the jar. "I think we might end up with enough for a whole weekend away."
"We could call it a retreat," said Ross. "To recharge our batteries and prepare for a fresh onslaught."
"Jealous little people," said Havoc. "Petty, insanely jealous little people."
Unruffled, Ross changed the subject. "This man who bought the first copy of the book? He's likely to be a state alchemist, yes? Captain Havoc, you saw him, and so did Major Hawkeye and Captain Catalina. If we went through the state alchemist files, would you recognise him from a photograph?"
"Most definitely. Guy was a weird-looking asshole, his ears stick out like yacht sails."
Falman said, "But that's seventy-eight years of records. To go through them all, Captain Havoc would have to spend the next two weeks in the file room."
Havoc said, quickly, "Not gonna happen."
Breda said, "Okay, then, let's break this down. How old was this guy at most, seventy-five? We go through the records and put together a list of every male State Alchemist who qualified in the last fifty years, then we pull the files, get the photographs and give them to Havo."
Falman nodded. "That's doable. I'll get a few of the lower ranks on it, and we can get the photos on your desk by tonight, Captain. You're working this evening?"
Havoc shrugged and pulled a face. "Like everyone else. There's another trail we can follow, too. I've been thinking, and I reckon I can find out where all these hired goons are coming from. Our guy is probably hiring them all out of the same gang. Rivalry between different gangs in organised crime is pretty harsh, he'd have to be dumb to be using two competitors. And there aren't many gangs operating who are that professional, I reckon we're looking at a pretty short list. These guys might be tracking us, but I can track 'em right back."
Fuery boggled. "How do you know all this gangster stuff? I thought you dealt with businessmen."
"Yeah, legitimate businessmen," said Havoc dryly. "Everyone big in business is mixed up in this stuff. If I didn't want to shake hands with the rotten ones, I'd pretty much be cutting deals with my ma and that old guy who sells pretzels by the railway station."
Fuery sighed, and went for the last pork pie. Before he'd reached across the table, Ross had already claimed it and taken a delicate bite.
Rebecca's feet hurt. This was what happened when you were forced to wear chunky army boots to work all day: you finally found an occasion where you could put on some kick-ass heels, and what did you get? Blisters on your achilles tendons, that's what. Of course there had been that time, just after Jean had rejoined the team, when she'd managed to get away with wearing the uniform skirt and heels every day for a whole two weeks. In the end, Riza had pulled rank on her and informed her that as part of her job was security, she needed to be able to run and shoot without being tripped up by her own pencil skirt and non-regulation black stilettos. Still, she was fairly sure that Riza had deliberately delayed the telling-off until the sexy girl uniform had fulfilled its mission. Riza might have a stick up her ass sometimes, but when the chips were down, she was a true friend.
Rebecca's mind was wandering. She couldn't blame it. She really didn't want to be here. Funerals sucked.
This funeral in particular was offering plenty of suckage besides the central, horrible, impossible fact of Katie being gone. Rebecca's heels hurt. The roots of her hair were aching — she'd fought it into a neat, tight bun with about a bajillion hairpins, most of which were digging into her scalp. The funeral itself was mostly a big pile of crapola. Katie's dad had made a sweet speech about how headstrong she was and how she'd always gone after what she wanted in life, but then he'd broken down halfway through and had to be helped off the podium. Then the celebrant had completely undercut his words with an improvised babble about what a tragedy it was that Katherine — whom he'd never met — had never had the chance to know the height of womanly fulfillment as a wife and mother. All Katie and Rebecca's old schoolfriends had nodded sagely, and Rebecca had felt outraged. Whenever the old crowd got together, these women — most of whose kids were practically teenagers now — had always treated Katie and Rebecca like aliens. They seemed to think careers in the army and politics were some kind of sad, compensatory hobby that kept them both busy since they didn't have a husband, kids or a home to run. Katie and she had turned it into a game, to try and shock them as much as possible with their unfeminine achievements. Katie blithely talked about how the civil service ran on bribes and how she'd beat her nearest rival for parliamentary candidate by playing dirty, and Rebecca would one-up her with funny stories about firing a rocket launcher at a truck or blowing her boyfriend in the firing range equipment closet. The schoolfriends were shocked, and Katie and Rebecca would go home afterwards and cheer each other up by mocking them until they couldn't speak for laughing, and celebrating all the cool stuff they got to do that their friends back in the 'burbs were missing out on. They'd make each other feel better about it by saying things like am I a bitch? Am I awful for saying this? They would never be able to do that again. Those losers got to have the last word about Katie's life, and it was so goddamn unfair.
Yet another thing that sucked: she had a mission here. She was supposed to be gathering information on the sly and watching out for that monkey-faced weirdo who'd turned up at the flat and tried to take Katie's freaky alchemy book. All right, she was on board with that. She wanted to nail the bastards...but Rebecca was not entirely confident of her spying abilities. Broad innuendo and below-the-belt verbal attacks she was great at, but delicate deception ... not so much. Plus, she wasn't exactly firing on all cylinders right now. She hadn't had a full night's sleep since the murder, and she'd been feeling spaced out and wonky with sleep deprivation for days. Every morning she would wake up and feel normal for three seconds of peaceful ignorance, and then the whole horrible thing would crash down on her at once. Even worse than the sleepless nights, she kept having these moments where she'd be doing something ordinary — typing, buying a sandwich, cleaning her gun — and then, boom, she'd see Katie lying in a bathtub full of blood and all that horror and helplessness and fear would sock her right over the head. Rebecca hated the freak-outs. It wasn't that she minded being looked after once in a while (Jean had been so good to her these past few days), it was just feeling so out of control that got her, having no idea what shit her brain was going to pull on her next.
As if all that wasn't enough, she had to deal with the bursts of utter rage, as unpredictable as the violent flashes of memory or the fits of unbearable grief. These bastards had murdered her oldest friend in cold blood, had left her bleeding out and terrified, and now they had gone after Riza too. The idea of being caught unarmed like that creeped Rebecca out in the worst way — it was one of her top five nightmare scenarios, actually — and although Riza didn't exactly share top fives, she knew the woman well enough to be sure it would make her list too. There were so many assholes out there who'd love to get a woman who could outshoot them without her gun. Dickwads. Whoever these people were, she wanted them all in front of her in a line; she wanted to shoot them in the kneecaps, to make them scream. She was so angry that she could hardly recognise herself. Part of her hoped monkey-face didn't show up at the wake, because if he did, she felt like she was going to go straight for her revolver.
So yeah, here she was, half-listening to a bunch of stupid, supposedly comforting funeral speeches that did nothing whatsoever to help, trying to deal with her own malfunctioning brain, trying to accept that there would be no Katie in her life ever again, and to top it all off, she was under orders from the boss to somehow work during all of this and actually shake up some clues. She so didn't feel up to it right now. Goddamn Mustang. She'd like to see him try this sometime.
The meeting was, as expected, interminable. It didn't help that both Roy and Riza were currently functioning on about four hours of sleep. It was predictable that Riza had insisted on coming to work today, despite the gunshot wound, the stitches, and the prescription painkillers. If she had been any other person he might have assumed it was a delirium brought on by the shock of the murder attempt. However, it was Riza, and Roy had been unable to argue with her logic: the murder of his right-hand woman was the kind of move that really could trigger a civil war. Whether or not Hakuro's faction had hired the assassin, it was important that she appear unharmed.
The incident seemed to seal that whoever it was must be truly desperate now to throw off the investigation: for the culprits to risk a direct strike against him and his team that could have rebounded badly upon them ... the implications of that weren't pleasant. For a start, it meant it was more and more likely that those concerned were actually making practical use of The Perfection of Matter. It also suggested a likely scenario that would be very bad indeed, which was that the clock was running down towards the day they'd achieve their goal. Whatever that was.
Most of Bradley's top brass were long gone, either casualties of the Promised Day or having fled the country in its aftermath. Those who remained were the third stringers and the rising stars: men and women who may or may not have known about Fuhrer Bradley's monstrosity or the country's true purpose. Men and women whom nothing, unfortunately, could be pinned upon. However, this business of taboo biological alchemy for some unknown purpose was horribly suggestive of the vileness which had been the old brass's bread and butter: chimerae, artificial humans, the immortal army, and all the rest.
He trusted that Fullmetal and Alphonse were working hard. It was urgent that they decode The Perfection of Matter as soon as possible, before the other side could put it to use. He should explain the situation tonight to give them a little push.
Hakuro's secretary, a middle-aged major with a sharp face, was talking. She had been talking for twenty minutes already, the dullness of her briefing in direct and probably calculated proportion to the amount of buzzing tension in the room. Here they were as usual, the heart of the old guard versus the highest-ranking officers in Roy's faction, facing each other across a committee table and trying really, really hard not to kill one another. Every utterance from anyone's mouth held a hidden freight of meaning so obvious that it was as if subtitles were hanging in the air. Colonel Addison (goalkeeper, Team Hakuro) would say "In my opinion, we should keep up the current procedures for regional joint training exercises", and the subtitle would say your reforms would destroy the military, and then this country, and then land us all in front of a firing squad. Riza, (striker and star player, Team Mustang) would counter with "The survey as I read it suggests that current procedures have some substantial flaws", and it would be obvious to all that she meant this country was shaped by power-crazed monsters and we are going to reshape it into something decent, you old coward, risks and dangers be damned. Then Brigadier General Ionesco, like the equivocator he was, would comment that they both made excellent points, and it would clearly mean please don't do that, it's steak and poker night at my club this evening and I don't want to miss it because you started a war.
At least in the old days, he would have Olivia Armstrong sitting on the opposite side of the table, with her arms folded and a magnificent sneer on her face. She would say something appalling and unconscionable, and Roy would experience a strong urge to kick her on the shin, frequently followed by a vivid sexual fantasy about them ripping each others' uniforms off and going at it on the boardroom table. That had passed the time beautifully. Now with Hakuro across the table from him instead, he had triple the anger and moral disgust, but none of the entertaining sexual tension. It was a real shame Armstrong had gone and got herself killed.
Riza's voice was even, assured, and casual when she spoke, and she took notes with a steady hand as she sat opposite the men who had very possibly tried to have her killed the day before. Buried somewhere deep in her core, there was likely anger and deep disquiet. When Riza Hawkeye told her emotions what to do, they obeyed as quickly and reliably as Hayate — or indeed any of his team for that matter. As for Roy, he could school his face into a blank mask easily enough, but he could only wish to stop the tides of rage that made him want to haul these bastards up by their collars and shake some answers out of them, or perhaps just to fry them all to a crisp. Hakuro was sitting opposite him, arms folded, a tense, red-faced bulk. It seemed he was picking up on Roy's tension; did he know he'd been caught out? Was he guilty or innocent in this?
Hakuro's secretary still hadn't finished her report. Roy glanced over at Riza's notes, concise and reliable as ever. The last thing she had written on the page was, STOP DAYDREAMING, MUSTANG, in small, neat capitals.
Rebecca hovered around Mr and Mrs Flowers' large sitting room, clutching a half-empty cup of bad, lukewarm coffee. The wake was crowded: Katie's relatives, her annoying so-called schoolfriends, fellow politicians from the Progressive Party, old boyfriends looking nervous — yeah, they're dying on us now — all bumping shoulders and trying to find things to say that weren't completely lame. So far Rebecca had been trapped into conversations with three of Katie's civil service colleagues who had all felt compelled to tell her fulsomely how very sorry they were, yet were clearly not quite as sorry as they were claiming to be. Rebecca suspected the glowing tributes sullied with the faint smell of bullshit had something to do with the presence of Katie's boss. Apparently grief was now acting as a form of workplace one-upmanship. Jeez, this is why Rebecca was right to stick with the army — and oh yeah, there was absolutely no sign of their suspect.
"Hello, there." Rebecca looked over to see a middle-aged man, a few pounds overweight, wearing a good suit, with curly hair in a boyish mop that was starting to turn an undignified grey. He'd lost his looks eight years ago at least, she figured, but it seemed nobody had told him yet. He had to be a politician. "You must be another of Katie's schoolfriends. You don't look like one of those civil service bluestockings." There was a powerful whiff of strong liquor coming off his breath. Wait, they had booze at this thing? Where was it, and why hadn't anyone given her any yet?
Then she thought, oh yeah, mission, and smiled sweetly. "Yeah, Katie and me went back a long time. What about you? You don't look like a civil service bore."
"I was a party comrade of hers, you know, the Progressive Party. Nicholas Dunleavy, Member of Parliament for Central West." He put out a hand for her to shake. It was gentle, and very slightly sweaty. Eww, dead fish handshake.
"Katie was really into all that politics stuff, huh?"
"'Into that politics stuff'?" Dunleavy chuckled at her, then his mood suddenly did a 180. Man, he was wasted. "That girl was the future leader of this party. Of the country, if we had anything to do with it."
What? Was this guy just drunk and full of shit, or? "What? What do you mean? I mean, I heard Katie was going to be a parliamentary candidate, but ... she was so young." Rebecca tried to sound innocent. Luckily, it looked like this guy had already decided that she was an airhead, and had no apparent interest in finding out what she did for a living. So she was good, for now.
Dunleavy suddenly sounded drunkenly bitter. He waved a hand around the room. "The leaders of this party are finished. I'd give 'em three years at the most. They don't have the support of the rank and file. Bradley's parliament was there to look decorative. Now we might get our hands on some real power, these idiots don't know what to do with it. They'll roll over like good dogs and let Mustang's army bunch screw us over."
Rebecca felt utterly flabbergasted. Her mouth hung open. She decided to just run with it — this guy clearly thought she was the type to be easily shocked. "Katie was going for party leadership?"
Something dark and authentically miserable crept into Dunleavy's slurred voice. "No, no, not officially. But she would have been, in time. We were helping her up. She was doing wonderfully ... brilliant woman, so focused, frightening even."
Focused? Frightening? Party leader? What the fuck? This was scatty, mousy little Katie they were talking about, right? She had been brilliant, sure, but a quiet, hard-working type, who kept her head down. Sure, she had a sneaky side a mile wide, but Rebecca had always liked that about her. Was this guy talking out of his ass? Why hadn't Katie said anything?
Oh. Well that sucked, now didn't it?
"Mustang's army bunch are gonna screw you over?" she said weakly. "I thought ... you guys and those guys were allies? I mean, Mustang's a democrat, right? I thought it was Hakuro you didn't like?"
Dunleavy gave her a slightly unfocused, pitying look. "You can't have dealt with the army much, then. The military aren't democrats. You really think they'd reform that far? They'd be reforming themselves out of power, out of a job. Digging their own graves. No. They might be allies, but we're not on the same side. Never trust a soldier."
"Don't people usually say never trust a politician?" Goddamn mouth, it could have asked her first.
Dunleavy looked at her, the cogs visibly turning in his brain. He said, a little reedy, "What did you say your name was again?"
Busted. Ah, fuck it. "Captain Rebecca Catalina, Amestris Army. Katie was my roommate. Although I guess I just got to know her a little better."
"You serve under Mustang." It was a flat statement. Katie must have mentioned that detail. Dunleavy looked at her appraisingly. "Good day to you." He turned on his heel, and walked away.
Rebecca pulled a particularly annoying pin from her bun, and let her hair start to make its escape. She lifted her foot and rubbed at the back of her heel. What the fuck?
It was past ten when Roy finally got back to his apartment. He called out a hello, unsure of whether or not he'd find the place empty. There was no response. He kept his gloves on after he shrugged off his coat, and went to check over the apartment. It was only sensible to be cautious. He sincerely hoped that Fullmetal wasn't such an idiot as to think it'd be funny to startle him.
When he stepped into the library, he found it devoid of murderers and alchemists alike. Well, until he heard a small noise and spotted Edward's booted feet on the floor on the opposite side of the desk. Then he heard a little snore. Roy grinned to himself, and went to check out the rest of the flat.
A couple of minutes later, having found zero assassins, he was back in the library. When Roy would come home and find the room in a semblance of order, he knew it meant that Alphonse had been there too. Today, Alphonse had clearly been elsewhere. The desk was a chaos of papers, half-sketched arrays, empty coffee cups, and crumpled brown paper bags that had once held greasy snack food. The floor was still full of messy stacks of reference books, and increasing amounts of Edward's personal items. One of Ed's hair ties lay on the rug by Roy's foot, with a few wisps of blond hair still caught in it. Ed's brown jacket was slung over the back of the desk chair. On top of a pile of papers sat a little bottle of automail oil with a thin metal needle applicator. Edward had better have been applying that in the bathroom, and not the library. A wind-up portable gramophone lay open on the floor with a stack of records tucked into the pocket inside the lid of its case. Honestly, he might as well have put up curtains and a welcome mat.
Edward was still lying flat on his back on the floor, snuffling in his sleep. Ed's ability to sleep anywhere — a hard wooden floor, a third-class train seat, on one occasion standing upright in front of Roy's desk — was one of his many impressive powers. He had propped a book over his face. Roy leant forward to check — no, it was a reference volume, modern, not expensive or fragile, and he didn't seem to have drooled on it ... much. He was off the hook.
Roy took a moment before waking him up: here was a rare opportunity to take a good look at Edward unobserved. When he was awake, Roy tended to pay more attention to what he was saying (or shouting, or sneering) than anything else. Ed had his left hand over his belly, rucking up his t-shirt to expose a few inches of lean abdominal muscle. The posture was faintly, amusingly reminiscent of the Fullmetal of old: the obnoxious, round-faced, brilliant little brat who had stomped through Roy's old office in East City shouting insults, with his scruffy suitcase, his big boots, that awful jacket, and an embarrassed seven-foot suit of armour trailing in his wake. Now the suit of armour had been replaced with with a freckle-faced, lanky young man with his own sharp tongue and his own brilliance to temper... and here was the new Fullmetal. Roy looked him over, and it was fair to say that he had blossomed. Odd how he was so vocally dismissive of his father and his father's people when he himself looked like he had stepped straight out of a Xerxean tomb painting: the high ponytail, the high cheekbones, the large eyes with a slight feline tilt to them, not to mention that colouring: yellow hair, amber eyes, and olive skin. People must comment. He wondered what Ed had to say when they did.
Well, Roy had had his fun. He decided to call a halt to it now, before he got himself caught.
He picked up a heavy reference book from the desk, held it a few inches above the table top, then let it drop.
Edward twitched, but carried on snoring.
Roy abandoned subtlety, and said loudly and clearly, "Edward, I think I'd prefer my library not to be coated in your spittle."
Ed made a sound, and blearily, clumsily swatted the book from his forehead. Roy bent down and caught it before the pages could crease. Ed looked up at him and said slowly, "Oh. Huh. Sorry, I guess. Is the book okay?"
An apology, and only barely a grudging one. It seemed Edward really had grown up. "Yes. I'm surprised you didn't go for the sofa. It's an excellent spot for a nap."
Ed waved a hand. "I got backache, so I lay down on the floor for a second, and ..." He yawned, then winced at a twinge of pain.
Roy said, "Aren't you a little young to be complaining about a bad back? "
Ed shrugged. "Automail." Of course, Roy mentally kicked himself. "It's heavy, so I use my muscles differently. My back gets all cracky, I have to do all these exercises. It's worse if I sit for a long time." He stretched, and, good as his word, produced a few audible little crunches, clicks and pops. But he didn't get up.
Roy rarely felt a trace of guilt about ordering his staff into long hours, hard work or physical discomfort. Real pain, however, was a different matter. Edward's uncharacteristic quietness and lack of griping bothered Roy, too. "Want some painkillers for it? I have the good ones."
Edward mumbled, "Nothing that'll make me go to sleep. I gotta ..." He waved a hand again, vaguely, and was half-asleep again. Funny to see Edward so relaxed right here in his own home, although maybe that was just the backache and exhaustion.
Roy headed into the bathroom to retrieve the pills and a glass of water. The good ones did, in fact, make you rather drowsy, but he doubted that was going to be a problem for Edward. He'd call him a cab after he'd gotten an update on the research, and order him home to get a decent night's sleep. As he rummaged through the cabinet, he allowed himself a moment to feel bad for Edward. He'd gone through his whole adolescence firmly believing that double amputation and automail were a temporary inconvenience, and now he found himself stuck with both for the rest of his life.
Roy wondered how that had come about, exactly. How on the Promised Day had Al been restored and yet Ed hadn't? On the other hand, he knew absolutely, without needing to ask, why the brothers would not be going back to the Gate for more. Still ...
Back in the library, Edward had stood up, and was doing a series of stretching exercises, slow, tired, and graceful.
Roy put the water and two pills on the desk. Edward finished his move and picked up the pills, flicking them down his throat without even looking at them, and chasing them with most of the glass of water. Then he propped one ankle up on the edge of the desk and started doing some leg stretches. Ed folded himself easily almost in half; his forehead touched his locked knee. His eyelids drooped.
Roy decided to get down to business before Fullmetal crashed and had to be rolled into the cab home. He sat down on the sofa, folded his arms, and said rather conversationally, "Someone tried to murder Major Hawkeye last night."
"What?" Behind him, he felt the desk shift slightly as Edward recoiled with a jerk. Ed was in front of him in a flash. "What? Is she okay? What happened?"
"She's fine." Roy told him what they knew. Edward perched on the arm of the sofa and listened intently, fully awake now.
Edward frowned. "So this guy who bought the first book, if he's an alchemist, he's got to be easy to track down — he's got to be a pretty advanced biological alchemist to make sense of The Perfection of Matter. Maybe he's one of Hakuro's guys, and that's why the Progressives wanted to investigate. They want to weaken the military's old guard, right? Maybe they were going to offer the information to you in exchange for reforms or something?"
Roy blinked. Since when had Edward kept up with politics?
"That's what we're thinking."
Edward huffed a little laugh, then dropped heavily down from his perch to the seat of the couch. He said, "I get it. We're short on time. Al and I — we need this decoding done so we can wrap this up before anyone else gets hurt." That was weird. Roy was leading up to the switch of subject, but he hadn't actually made it yet. "But we're getting close."
"How close to being able to tell me what takwin is?"
"Days ... hopefully one or two days. Get off my back, okay, we're working flat out." Ed didn't put a lot of energy into the rote insult.
"Do you have anything for me yet?"
"Nothing solid. We've got a working theory about how the symbology of the code works. Al thinks that the rituals it describes aren't really just rituals: that all the religious concepts and the ritual forms have a double meaning. People might have actually done all the bowing and prayers and incense and crap, but it's also a coded description of the alchemic formulae themselves. We found a couple of other Xerxean texts we think are written the same way, it's kind of one of Al's pet theories."
Roy was fascinated. This culture had seen alchemy not as man's attempts to control the elements, but as holy work, a way of humbly reaching up to the divine. He said, "It's a whole different way of seeing alchemy. What's it like, being immersed in that?" It was as close as he dared come to, how do you feel about your father's people?
"Annoying. All this false humility religious crap, but the guy who wrote that" — he jerked a thumb over at The Perfection of Matter, lying tiny and innocuous on the desk — "was an arrogant son-of-a-bitch. The Xerxeans believed all this crap, and then one day, one of their hypocrite alchemists went and wiped them out to make a giant Philosopher's Stone. Bye bye Xerxes." He waved a dismissive hand, as if to say that the people concerned were nothing to do with him.
Roy didn't know quite what to say — so he got back to business. "I'd like to read your translation when it's done. How do we do that? I gather they'll all be written in your shorthand, and I don't want you giving me a non-encrypted version, it isn't secure. You could read it aloud?"
Ed said, "Maybe I should just tell you the code."
Roy blinked. This was not something he had expected to hear. Alchemists didn't share their encryption methods lightly. His own code, Riza knew, and ... well, that was everyone.
Ed seemed embarrassed at the pause he'd created. He went on, a little fast, "If you just read my shorthand, It'd be only you and me and Al who could understand it. So it's secure. And it'd be a pain in the ass to read it all out to you. And I know then you'd be able to read all my other notes, but that's cool because there's no way you're ever getting your hands on them. Plus if I made up a new code just for these notes, it'd take days and days to come up with a good one, and we don't have time." Never mind that it'd take most alchemists months to do that, Roy thought. It was rather charming when Edward failed to notice that he was being brilliant.
"You're right, this is the best way. If you're prepared to."
Ed shrugged. "It's not like I'm handing you my notebooks." Then Roy thought he heard him mumble, "you're all right." But he couldn't be sure.
A few minutes later, Roy quietly closed the library door. Edward was not currently in a cab, but asleep on the sofa. Roy headed to the bedroom, stripped off his clothes, and stretched out in bed, mulling over the odd conversation he'd just had with Edward. It turned out that Ed had a shorthand system that was designed to look like a diary. More specifically, it had the appearance of a travel journal with the names of elements encrypted, and the means of travel were code for various transmutation processes. It was obviously the same code he'd been using since he was a kid. Still, Edward had been a prodigy. The code was neat, clever and very difficult to unravel by guesswork. Yet it worked logically — once you understood it, it would be possible to guess or invent code for any element or process you wanted to. He imagined that was intentional; the brothers must have used the shorthand to communicate and share their notes.
"If I give you, like, five examples, you can pick up the way the encryption works," Edward had said. Roy had tried not to show his nervousness: Ed always tended to assume that everyone was as clever as he was, only to fall into open mockery when he discovered that they weren't. However, he'd been pleased to find that he had picked it up rather quickly, which was a good thing, as Edward's head had begun drooping by that point.
Not long after, Roy had looked over after reading a test code Edward had given him, and found him fast asleep, his head propped up on his hand. Roy had looked at him, and thought, human weapon or not, I am not sending you off alone and doped up in a cab while assassins are targeting my men. He'd quietly left, and returned with the blanket Riza had used on the living room couch last night. At this rate, his entire team was going to be camped out in his apartment by the end of the week. He'd fully anticipated an annoying confrontation on the subject with a tired, grouchy Fullmetal, but instead had found Edward curled on the couch with his boots off, out like a light. That couldn't be good for his back. Still, there was no way Roy was offering him the bed. He'd thrown the blanket over him, tugged out the corners to cover him properly, and left.
It was interesting, Roy thought, seeing Fullmetal in such a mellow mood. Roy wasn't sure that he didn't miss the jibes. Something was shifting between them these past few days. Perhaps it was talking in the library, the way they could meet as equals there, as fellow scientists, that did it — but when they argued now, Edward and he were doing more than slinging insults. When he was discussing alchemy, Edward's jibes were witty and astute, his challenges usually substantial and worth thinking about. Roy was surprised to find that on this subject at least, their games of words seemed to go somewhere, that he and Edward both seemed to end them charged with new ideas and shifted perspectives. If he were honest with himself, he felt as if —
The telephone rang.
Out in the hallway, Roy picked up. A familiar voice said "Fire brigade?" Followed by a dirty, nicotine-addled laugh.
"Wrong number," said Roy wearily. "Stop disturbing decent citizens so late at night." He hung up, grabbed his jacket, and trudged out to the nearest telephone box to call Havoc back.
Havoc's voice buzzed with static over the field telephone. "Hey, chief. We finished checking through the files, and it looks like our guy was a State Alchemist after all. Retired. You might know him, come to think of it, looks like he was in Ishbal. Henry Katzenklavier?"
There was a short pause, while Roy collected himself and tried to send the bile back to his stomach where it belonged. He held the phone receiver away from his mouth, and put his forehead against the cool glass panes of the booth.
"Chief? You still there?"
Roy closed his eyes for a moment, then shut himself down and reclaimed the receiver.
"Yes. I know him. This isn't good."