sisyphean effort

Painted Truths

chapter 13. Red Rain

Rain fell in slanted, unforgiving sheets across Central Command, drenching the open parade grounds that Hodge Fuery was currently attempting to cross. He gripped a (mostly useless) umbrella in one hand, and a sleek black dossier in the other; the dossier he held close to his chest as he tried to protect it from the relentless elements. His black boots slapped through standing puddles of water as he hit the staircase leading to command headquarters. In one fell whoosh his umbrella was caught up in a high gust of wind, turned inside out, and yanked from his slippery grasp completely. He watched it through the wavy trails of raindrops that slid over his glasses as it bounced, once, twice, down to the bottom of the concrete stairs. It tumbled, lost, to the green of the open square. Hodge actually swore. And Hodge never swore. He turned and broke into a sprint for the entrance. It had been a horrible day. And the Ice Queen was waiting.

Hodge was afraid of her.

Brigadier General Olivier Mira Armstrong was Fuhrer Mustang's unacknowledged second in command. Hodge was scheduled to meet with the Brigadier General at 9:00 a.m., and glancing at a nearby hallway clock, the time was now 8:55. Hodge broke into another sprint, causing two passing soldiers to dodge neatly out of his way, a spray of raindrops flying in his wake. "Who let the wet dog in?" said one of the soldiers to his partner, attempting a small chuckle that instantly died in his throat. The atmosphere in Central was tense, wary, and the rumors were flying, circulating, becoming more elaborate and ominous as the base talked of only one thing:

What happened to the fuhrer in Aquroya. . .

Hodge rounded the corner of the hallway which lead to the Brigadier General's office. He slowed, trying his best to compose himself before entering. His uniform was soaked—nothing he could do about that—and he tried his best to dry his glasses with just his fingers. This had to be, without a doubt, the most wretched morning he had ever had to endure during his appointment here at Central. It was bad enough that he had to go and give the findings of the initial investigation from Aquroya to the Ice Queen (ah, there it was again: dread, like rain, seeping straight into his pores), but now it seemed certain, all too certain, that Amestris had lost its most beloved fuhrer—and here Hodge felt himself choke up, a well-spring of feelings that he couldn't restrain, could not plug down—and the idea that Roy Mustang, the Fuhrer of Peace, of Amestris's Golden Age, was dead and gone, and in the most ridiculous and ironic manner, seemed too cruel an idea to contemplate.

The Flame Alchemist had apparently died in a pit of fire.

Hodge straightened and opened the door leading to Armstrong's outer office. He was greeted inside by Miles, the Ishvalan who acted as the Brigadier General's personal secretary. Miles had only ever shown Hodge the most gracious and courteous of manners, but it was still unsettling how he couldn't read the other man's eyes behind the reflective lens of his glasses: he always appeared guarded, closed off. But then again, if he had to work directly under the former North Wall of Briggs, he would be guarded, too. Hodge felt himself break out in a cold sweat. Nothing to it, but to go in and give the report. . .

Hodge entered the office, posture timid and quavering as a trapped mouse, and he shut the door softly, silently behind him. The Brigadier General was currently on the telephone, barking orders, obviously reaming someone out—someone probably connected to the Aquroyan "Incident"—and her face was red and covered with an angry scowl. She abruptly slammed the receiver down, the device clanging like a bright, brassy bell. She was the very picture of rage. Hodge winced, but managed a prompt, straight salute. Armstrong's eyes were glaring, and unlike the sky that day, they were a bright, cornflower blue, a blue that was slowly narrowing into a storm cloud. Then she said:

"I hope you have something more substantial to tell me than those good-for-nothing, drunken, party-lovers in Aquroya. . ."

Another wince, but Hodge found his voice firm and unwavering as he began to speak: "The government's investigation has found the fuhrer's residence in Aquroya to be in complete ruins. The local investigators say that fire was the initial cause of the disaster, but the weak, water-logged foundations under the palazzo are what are really to blame for the cave-in. The second story fell first, and after that, a domino effect occurred, and everything collapsed into the Grand Canal. . ."

"I don't give a shit about foundations, Sergeant—what I want to know is, who is to blame for this disaster?"

Hodge gulped. The Brigadier General's body language was tense, like a pantheress ready to pounce. Somebody's head was going to roll for this, and she was obviously going to be the one to see that it happened. "The initial findings aren't clear on that matter, Brigadier General," said Hodge, his voice now betraying his warring emotions. "It could have been accidental—there were a number of lit candles in the windows; it was the Feast of Ascension, you know, and one stupid accident could have set off the entire thing. But there are also a number of unidentified bodies from the wreckage, suggesting that, possibly, this may have been an act of aggression, of sabotage. . ."

Armstrong abruptly cut him off: "And we are sure that the fuhrer himself was among those bodies?" It was the first time that Hodge had ever heard her speak with a hint of sympathy, of emotion. Perhaps the Ice Queen wasn't as unfeeling as he thought.

"Positive, Brigadier General. I have the coroner's report here." How Hodge hated saying those words.

"What else, Sergeant?"

"The resident housekeeper, Mrs. Davenport, said, in a sworn statement, that 'the fuhrer had been behaving "oddly" during his stay in Aquroya and that on the night of the incident, he had all but forced her out of the palazzo.' The same goes for the two lieutenants, Baker and West—"

"—Idiots, both of them," grumbled Armstrong.

"Otherwise, there were no other witnesses from the scene to confirm anything." Hodge thought again of Mrs. Davenport: the housekeeper had been fiercely loyal to the fuhrer, and she had been in tears while giving her statement over the phone. Again, that same word popped up in her conversation with him—odd, the fuhrer's behavior had been "odd." But what did that mean, exactly? Hodge didn't know, but he too felt that the fuhrer had not been himself over the last few days—ever since Xing, in fact, the more he thought about it. . .

"Hodge, I want you to find the address of this man for me."

Again, he saw the fuhrer's shaking fingers as he took the note. . .

Hodge brushed off the strange feeling he got whenever he thought of Xing and that particular moment. He almost opened his mouth to say something about it to the Brigadier General, but one single glance at her cold, angry face, and his voice was clamped into silence. It was a moment, he told himself, a moment and nothing more; it had nothing to do with the horrible tragedy of Aquroya, and certainly would only gain another disgusted look of disdain from the Brigadier General if he spoke of it. So Hodge said nothing, and quietly awaited Armstrong's next set of orders.

"Is that all, Sergeant?"

"For the initial report, Brigadier General."

"Then we leave for Aquroya immediately. I want a full investigation, and I want it run by Central Command. Aquroya is a no-good tourist town, as shifty as its foundations. I expect this won't be easy."

Hodge saluted and prepared to leave. Then he remembered an odd bit of information from the investigation packet, and he turned and said to the Brigadier General, "Oh, and there was one rather, er, strange comment, from one of the gondoliers who was near the broglio that night: he swore up and down he saw the Fullmetal Alchemist on the third floor balcony of the fuhrer's palazzo."

Armstrong froze. A moment passed, then she scoffed: "Really, Sergeant, you shouldn't listen to such nonsense from drunken gondoliers—it's absurd. And don't waste my breath by making me address such foolish statements." Another angry glare and Hodge was cowed into silence.

He gripped the dossier and silently followed the Brigadier General's retreating back from the office.