bob fish

Shell Game

Brigadier Killer Sentenced to Death: 2nd Lt. Maria Ross named as murderer in case of Maes Hughes

Following her conviction today by military tribunal, the murderer of war hero Brigadier General Maes Hughes has been named as Second Lieutenant Maria Ross. A direct subordinate of Brigadier General Hughes, Ross was described by a colleague as a quiet and determined figure with a reputation within the department for her excellent marksmanship. The source confirms that Ross was an Ishbalan Republican sympathiser who had privately made controversial comments. Brigadier General Hughes was decorated several times for his actions in the Ishbal campaign. He was found shot to death in a telephone box only yards from Headquarters last month.

In accordance with the Secrecy Act of 1904, full details of the trial itself cannot be disclosed for reasons of national security. However, Colonel Henry Douglas of the Military Police today confirmed that Ross was suspected after it was discovered that, two days after Hughes' murder, she had requested a replacement for one round of ammunition for her sidearm. The gun's calibre matched that of the bullet which killed Hughes. After interrogation and further investigation, Ross was convicted on overwhelming evidence. Douglas dismissed allegations that the military faces a growing problem of terrorism from within.

The sentence of death by firing squad is set to be carried out in the next two days. Brigadier General Hughes' widow was unavailable for comment to the press.

Central Times, evening edition, October 3rd 1914.

It's going to have to be tonight, then.

When you sign up for Team Mustang, a little skullduggery is part of the deal. But even this is a tall order, Breda thinks to himself. The indecent, suspicious haste of the court martial suggests they'll shoot Ross tomorrow at dawn, as likely as not. The Colonel has less than twelve hours to break this woman out of jail; but that's the easy part. Arranging her death, now that's going to take some real sleight of hand.

And while the Chief practices his best vengeful face and looks up the recipe for a fake corpse in some freaky alchemy cookbook, Breda and the rest of Team Mustang get to deal with the really annoying bit of this operation: the shopping.

"Item one, the bones and flesh of a pig," reads Breda.

"Cool, we'll just hit the butcher's," says Havoc.

"They have whole pigs? I thought they just had the parts?" Breda draws a squiggle in the dust on the kitchen table. This abandoned apartment really smells like an abandoned apartment. Still, it could be worse. He could be babysitting a serial killer golem with a reading age of seven. Poor Falman.

"No, they buy the pigs and they butcher them. That's why they're called butchers, city boy."

"Well, excuse me for not spending my childhood knee deep in cow shit."

"No, but you get to spend your adulthood waist high in bullshit."

Breda doesn't have a comeback for that little zinger right off, so he just carries on with his list. "Item two, twenty-five kilograms of carbon, and it says in brackets, 'i.e. charcoal.'"

"Why does the Chief need us to get him a big bag of charcoal? Can't he just snap at a chair that annoyed him or something?"

Breda shrugs. "Item three, four litres of ammonia. Item four, one and a half kilos of lime. Item five, eight hundred grams of phosphorus."

Havoc pulls a face. "What does phosphorus even look like?"

"I think it glows. Like that mould in caves that glows? Item five, eighty grams of sultanas."

"Grocery store?"

"Oh, wait, I think that's sulphur, not sultanas. The Colonel writes his 'p's all loopy, they look like 't's."

"Girly handwriting." Havoc takes a drag on his cigarette.

"I think you should tell him that at the mission debriefing. Accuracy compromised by girly alchemist handwriting."

"What's on the rest of the list, just more of the same weird chemicals and shit?"

Breda glances down it. "Pretty much. And table salt."



They both snort together. Alchemy stuff is always reliably bizarre. Breda had a five minute fascination with alchemy in middle school — then he tried to transmute a wooden model train and nearly blinded himself on the splinters. Now that he's actually worked with State Alchemists and seen what they're like, he considers this a lucky escape. Sure, the Chief is a bang-up guy, he'd follow him into hell, yadda yadda yadda, but somewhere behind that heroic, shiny-haired facade lurks a weird, obsessive alchemy nerd like the rest. With girly handwriting.

"Where do people even get this stuff?" Havoc shakes his head. "Did the Chief say anything about where?

"Of course he didn't. Ours not to reason why, ours just to make it happen while he sits behind the desk plotting stuff and checking his hair in the window."

"Are there alchemy stores? You ever see anything like that?"

Breda hasn't. "Maybe they get the stuff from wholesale places?"

"Eh, maybe we should call up some butchers and score a pig first? I bet Hawkeye knows where to get the rest — if not, she'll just ask the Chief so we don't have to."

Hawkeye has the slight headache that always follows a long shift on look out: too much time focusing through rifle sights, too little opportunity to safely take a break. She enters the kitchen of the safehouse with Hayate trotting at her side, and places her wrapped rifle against the wall.

Havoc and Breda stand and salute. As she salutes back, she notices how Breda's face drops as he spots the little dog. He still acts as though at any moment, Hayate could turn into a raging, biting menace to his nose. Hawkeye gave him the dog safety talk the first day Hayate came into the office. Breda's progress with dog toleration is slow, but appreciable: he's trainable. At least he's not jumping on chairs any more.

"We need to move fast. I'm told you have a shopping list." Havoc slides it across the table to her, and they all sit. She glances over the Colonel's familiar looping scribble. All about as expected.

"Sir, the Chief give any you any hints about where to get all this chemical stuff?" Havoc has leaned over to fuss with Hayate's ears.

The reply is halfway to her mouth before a pang of alarm makes her hesitate, and calculate. Will they wonder how she knows so much about alchemy? No, this is safe ground. "Any large pharmacy." She looks down the list. "Don't get it all in one place."

"Do they report it if people buy stuff that might be for human transmutation?"

"It's possible," Hawkeye half-lies. She knows quite well that they do, thanks to her father's habit of sending her to do his shopping. Anything that could be used for dangerous or biological alchemy has to be signed for, she knows. When she was thirteen, she also discovered that if you buy carbon, ammonia, and phosphorus at the same time and are unable to tell the pharmacist what kind of transmutation it's for, you find yourself under arrest. After she'd spent several hours swinging her legs in a police cell, her father managed to secure her release by pouring torrents of scorn upon the idea that a thirteen year old child could be plotting human transmutation. It had certainly seemed convincing at the time.

"Listen," she says, "here's what we do. We'll divide the ingredients list into three." She grabs a scratch pad, and discreetly separates the ingredients into more innocent-looking groups. Then she notes down the name of a major pharmacy on each piece of paper.

It's all in the delivery: Havoc and Breda seem to just accept this as another example of what they seem to see as her spooky efficiency.

"The Chief got you doing his shopping at assessment time, sir?" Havoc grins the cheeky grin that lets him get away with saying cheeky things to superior officers.

Hawkeye smiles slightly; it's a perfect cover story. "So," she asks, "who's going to chauffeur our pig?"

"You know," says Breda, "I think the pig-chauffeuring mission was allocated by underhanded means." He gets the pig in a bear-hug under its front legs, and tries to keep breathing through his mouth. He thought a butcher yard would smell — well, like a butcher's. But there are chemicals, and big stinky tubs of something or other that he really doesn't want to enquire about, and — it's just not good.

"Cut me some slack, man," says Havoc, gingerly getting a good grip on the crotch end. "I've only been dating her two weeks! I'm not getting dumped because my car smells like a slaughterhouse and Solaris thinks I'm a serial killer."

"Statistically speaking, she's going to dump you at some point, you know," says Breda heartlessly. Then he lifts, and grunts. Is it him or is this pig kind of fat?

"Obviously she's going to dump me," says Havoc, talking easily while hefting his end of the pig. "She's sweet, she's classy, and she knows what the offside rule is." Havo probably thinks he's being discreet in not adding that her rack needs its own postal code and she's great in the sack, but unfortunately for Breda, he's already let slip these annoying details on previous occasions.

"Yeah," says Breda, "you ride that sweet train until she boots your sorry ass off of it." He feels his leg muscles strain as he steps backwards with his weight of pig. "I still think Hawkeye's car would have been fine."

"She has a good point. It's a military car, it's not hers. It's not going to be very secret if supplies ask about the dead pig smell when they audit her gas consumption." Havoc rolls his cigarette around his mouth.

"Why can't she just use my cover story?" Breda feels a ticklish droplet of sweat trickle down the back of his neck.

"Which of the two of you is more likely to host a barbecue?"

Breda shoots Havoc a wounded look, even though he knows Havoc just meant that he's a sociable guy and Hawkeye works thirty-six hours a day.

Havoc grunts and hefts the pig a little higher. Breda takes another step back — and suddenly his foot's skidding in something slick, and he's sliding backwards. He breaks his fall with his arms, which is great — only now he's let go of the pig. The front end lands on his chest with a thump and knocks the wind out of him.

Havoc stares, his half-smoked cigarette hanging off his lip and the inevitable smart remark eluding him for now. He lowers his end of pig. "You okay, man?"

Is he okay? Breda is sitting in a puddle of stinking grease, leaning up on his scraped elbows, with a dead pig lying on top of him, close enough to smooch. Its eyes are closed to slits and its mouth hangs open unbelievingly. Oh, man, it seems to say, the things you do for the cause.

In the break room, the Colonel glances casually out of the door, then opens his innocuous, plain-covered little book, eyebrows raised nonchalantly. It's so very obvious, Hawkeye thinks, that he might as well be whistling.

"You look too innocent," says Hawkeye. "It makes you look like you're up to something."

The Colonel pouts. "You're biased. Besides being overly suspicious, you know that I'm up to something. Actually, lots of people think I have an excellent character."

"Lots of people fool easily. If you can't look less suspicious, you should probably just hide your face behind a book. That book, not the one you're holding, it's bigger." Hawkeye points at the other biological alchemy text the Colonel has brought with him. "Or you could pretend to be napping. You're quite good at that, sir."

Colonel Mustang gives her a very weary look. "At least Hayate respects me," he says, scratching the little dog's head.

"That's because you sneak him cookies. Which you shouldn't. He'll get cheekier with time."

"Like everyone else, then, Lieutenant?"

"Like some people I've known, for sure, sir." And on that she leaves, which means she's gotten the last word.

It's a neat little plan. Hawkeye will liberate Maria Ross's dental records from the base's dental clinic, then the Colonel will do what he needs to with them, so that everything will look above board for the autopsy report. Afterwards, their old comrade Dr Knox will return Ross's dental records to their place and apologise grudgingly to the secretary for borrowing them without notice.

The entrance to the dental surgeon's office is, luckily for them, in the middle of Central Headquarters itself, at the end of a corridor with a break room two doors down. The Colonel has an excuse for being in that part of the building in the pile of borrowed investigations files on the coffee table. The quieter evening shift has begun, and the dental office was locked up hours ago. Still, there are some people around at this time of evening: she will have to be quick about it.

The sash windows are heavy; the Colonel has left one open in the break room, and if someone passes the open door, he plans to accidentally slam it. The noise should give her a little warning to lay low, and he'll slam it again when it's safe. They've gotten good at these sorts of arrangements, over the years. And Hawkeye has gotten good with a set of lockpicks.

When she returns with the dental records stashed in her clipboard, the Colonel is pretending to be asleep. So is Hayate.

Roy could really have used more time to study up on how to make this thing. Hawkeye was way too quick. Well, not quite. Time's of the essence — in fact, Roy needs to be back in the office in an hour's time. No one back at HQ will be surprised to see that he slacked off on the evening shift — but this jailbreak is running on a timescale. By the time news of Maria Ross's escape hits the brass, this work has to be finished and Roy has to be back at HQ.

Roy took two texts with him in the few minutes he had to study up for this transmutation: the one he needed and an old biological alchemy primer, which he had optimistically assumed he'd occasionally using to look up the odd concept on which he was rusty. In fact, Roy spent the whole fifteen minutes of Hawkeye's absence flipping through the primer and marvelling at how much he'd forgotten. He hasn't done biological alchemy of any kind since three years ago, he made a token attempt to show breadth at his assessment. And he hasn't studied it properly for — oh god, is it really eleven years? A good alchemist is doomed to overspecialise, Master Hawkeye always said. But then Master Hawkeye was something of an obsessed lunatic himself.

Roy wishes he'd at least had time to practice on a chicken.

In the living room of the abandoned apartment, Breda has weighed out all the chemicals neatly on pieces of paper. Roy looks around for the bones and meat — and there, resting against the wall, lies what is unmistakably a large, dead pig.

Roy squeezes his eyes shut.

"I said on the list, the bones and flesh of one pig," he says.

Breda looks defensive. "Technically, that is bones and flesh, sir."

"Why don't we just ask Barry?" says Havoc brightly. "He'll have it chopped up for us in ten seconds, and he'll have a whale of a time!"

Roy sighs. "Our friend Barry is already occupied, remember?"

"Oh, he left already for the jail? Wow, better get a move on, chief."

"Could you separate the bones from the flesh with alchemy, sir?" asks Fuery. A mechanic down to his core, he always seems to treat alchemy as a marvellous panacea, which can do pretty much anything in a few chalk strokes and a press of the fingertips. "Edward sliced up a salami like that once back in the old office. It did taste a bit odd, but I suppose that won't matter here."

Great. Now, besides everything else, Roy is in danger of being publicly outperformed by a fifteen year old.

"I'm criminally underrated by my own men," says Roy. "We're short of time, so I suppose I'll just do this with the pig whole." He orders the pig into the centre of the room, and after Havoc and Breda have dragged it next to his chemical supply, he pulls a stick of chalk out of his pocket and gets sketching.

It doesn't go as quickly as he'd hoped, especially given how he has to keep pulling the little book out of his pocket and look up formulae. And it's really not helping to have four pairs of eyes watching him. He glances over and sees Breda's hand twitching towards one of the collection of beer cans on the table. Havoc shakes his head at Breda, and Breda harrumphs. This is so damn distracting.

Finished, Roy paces the circle, ticking off the formula components one by one and vaguely aware that he's muttering under his breath. He'd love to just tell everyone to get out of the room, except that would imply that he doesn't know what he's doing, and — well, if he looks like he knows what he's doing, maybe that will help?

He drops into a crouch, twitches his coat tail where he's just spotted it on the edge of the array — narrow escape — and then closes his eyes and breathes for a moment. He can hear Fuery breathing, and Havoc shuffling about annoyingly, and Hawkeye's watchful silence. He tries again, pretending for a moment that he's working his flames, holds in his mind the feeling of conducting the energy, controlling the reaction. His focus has always been a strength of his; now it returns to him.

He taps his fingers to the array, and pushes.

As he opens his eyes, there's a thunderstorm of blue that lights up the room, and a powerful smell of ozone and chemicals, and the bangs and crackles of a chain of reactions, and Roy feels himself push the transmutation through to a perfect completion, without rebound or residue.

The light fades, and the chemical dust settles, and everyone takes a look at Roy's creation.

Roy blinks.

"Hmm. Is it supposed to look like that?" says Hawkeye.

"Isn't that thing kind of fat? I thought Ross was a little chick," says Havoc.

"Will all the extra fat burn off when you use it? Is it to make it burn better?" asks Fuery.

"Told ya we should have gotten a smaller pig," says Breda.

The dummy is huge. Well, to be fair, it's probably about the right height. But around its thin bones, its limbs are solid and misshapen with the loose chunks of muscle and fat he's stuffed them with. Roy has met Maria Ross, and frankly, you could fit two of her into this thing.

Roy groans. "For the record, this only happened because you bought far too much pig and you bought it in one piece."

He puts his head on one side and does his best to keep his brain in focused crisis mode rather than tetchy office mode. The meat is loose inside the dummy. About half of it needs to be discarded. He could just forget the fancy stuff and use a fairly basic fix-up formula. With that, he can probably slice open the skin, pull out the excess filling, and stitch it up, pulling off the spare skin as he goes. Probably. Not so much medical alchemy as sewing. He moves around the array, erasing lines and sketching new ones, simplifying the formula. Again, four pairs of eyes follow him around the room.

"Don't worry, I should be able to fix this," says Roy, attempting to project a confidence appropriate to a State Alchemist and leader of men. "It won't look pretty, but it's going to be burnt to a crisp anyway by the time anyone sees it." He crouches, pulls in a breath, and touches his fingertips to the array.

There's a terrible, wet tearing sound, and a very unpleasant smell, but through the blue light Roy can see the slit-open dummy yielding up gobbets of excess meat, then knitting itself together —

Something moist slaps him in the face, hard. It drops to the floor. Roy wipes his eyes, wrinkles his nose, and looks down. It's a large chunk of pork.

"Excellent, as expected," says Hawkeye, nodding with approval at the new dummy. At the corners of her mouth, muscles twitch hard. Roy narrows his eyes at her.

Fuery fires off a quick burst of applause. "Bravo, sir!" He springs up and starts collecting the chunks of pork that now litter the room. Havoc and Breda take up the applause, traitorous grins on their faces.

"Huh, we really could have a barbecue with the leftovers," says Breda. He picks up a chunk of flesh and fat, then sniffs it. "Okay, maybe not."

Predictably insubordinate chatter aside, the dummy actually is approaching excellence now. It looks uncanny, half-human and dead to be sure, but it's the right size and shape, built slightly, with hands as small as Ross' own. Roy feels the momentary urge to show off to his old teacher, so he just shoots a quick look at his master's daughter, and she gives him her usual teasing, approving smile.

The ingredients to transmute the teeth are weighed out on the table in bags. Roy scribbles the new circle and formula quickly, then lays out the dummy with its head in the centre. It's unpleasantly slithery to the touch. Fuery proffers the bags, Roy dumps them in the circle. Thirty seconds' study of the dental records, and then Roy touches the circle and directs the current once more.

Then he's done, and the teeth are set, white and shiny with new enamel, in the lipless face. The dummy looks even more disturbing now, but it's serviceable, and he knows it's accurate. And it's complete.

Roy stands, dusts himself down, and wipes a handkerchief over his face. "All right, men," he says, "you've got your orders. Lieutenant Havoc, get the dummy into position in the dumpster on Warehouse Street. Lieutenant Breda, wait here to rendezvous after the incident. Sergeant Fuery, back on the radio lines. Hawkeye, with me to HQ, and clock off to resume your sniping station when you get my signal."



"Yes, sir, right away."

"Sir," finishes Hawkeye, snapping to attention and clicking her heels together.

"Oh, and chief?" says Havoc. "You've, ah, kinda got some pig in your hair."

Maria Ross sits nervously on the edge of the couch in the safehouse's living room. She's still looking pretty shaky, even after sinking most of the glass of water that Breda, unusually genteel, rushed to get for her. Ross is cute for sure, if you like skinny girls, but Havoc is about ninety per cent sure that Breda is barking up the wrong tree here.

Ross sniffs the air and frowns uncertainly. "Sorry about the stink," says Havoc with an apologetic grin. "The Colonel made the dummy here, and it pretty much reeked after." He pulls his cigarette packet from his front pants pocket and offers it. "Smoke? They're practically guaranteed to destroy your sense of smell."

Ross shakes her head and gives him a little smile. "No, thank you, I don't."

"Beer?" Havoc tries.

"Shouldn't we be — well — on the alert?"

Breda waves his hand expansively. "Don't worry about it! We're guarding you. Plus" — he taps his nose — "we have the eye of the hawk on us."

"Hey," says Havoc, "one of us should take the eye of the hawk some tea and food later on. She scored the sucky job, that's what she gets for being best at it."

Meanwhile, Breda has pressed a can of lager into Ross's hands. She cracks it open and takes a very long pull. Then she starts coughing; seems like some of the foam has gone up her nose. Breda pats her back as she doubles over, which gives Havoc the opportunity to mouth g — a — y at Breda. Breda, evidently still in the land of wishful thinking, rolls his eyes and shakes his head.

"Hey, are you hungry?" says Havoc, as Ross looks up. She blinks at him, as though it hasn't even occurred. "Bet you are. It just hasn't hit yet. You know, action, brush with death, gets you all pumped."

"I'm starving," says Breda. "What about you, Havo?"

"Starving," confirms Havoc, and throws him a beer can. They grin at each other, buoyed by their success in feeding something to Ross.

"Hey, man, why don't you pick us up some pizzas?" asks Breda. "Fuery says the place two streets over is actually pretty good."

Ah, Havoc can see what Breda's trying to pull here. While he's out picking up pizza, Breda will comfort the cute girl. Oh, Heymans, so smart and yet, on occasion, such a dumbass. "Sure. So, Ross, what do you like on your pizza? I'm a fan of the spicy sausage personally, but you know, I can try something different. Bet you get pretty tired of the boyfriend trying to order meat, meat and meat, huh?" Out of Ross's line of sight, Breda scowls at him.

It's not subtle, but it does the job. Ross starts a bit, and says, "Oh no, no boyfriend. Not really my thing."

Breda jumps in with "Pretty girl like you?", but Havoc's already talking over him. "Girlfriend?"

"She dumped me two weeks ago. Sore point." Ross pulls a little face, and winds her fingers around her beer can. "Oh well, nothing like facing a firing squad to put these things in perspective."

"Oh, man," says Havoc. "I hear ya."

"Havoc's between dumpings at the moment," says Breda, with more than a touch of the sour grapes. Hey, it was for his own good. Better to find out sooner than later, Havoc reckons. "Right," Breda continues, "I'm gonna go pick up the pizza. One spicy salami, one egg and spinach, and" — he snaps a finger at Ross.

She shrugs. "Anything. I mean, I don't have any money on me, obviously I don't have any money on me, and I don't know when I can pay you back because I don't know what happens now, and —" Her brow furrows, and her pretty face seems to crumple inwards, and she starts hiccuping. Breda pats her on the back again. After a moment, Havoc realises she's actually started properly crying. He comes over to her and squeezes her shoulder.

"Hey," he says, "hey. It's cool. You've had a hard time. You'll feel better with some food in you. Well, you know, not completely better, but you know. A bit."

After only a few moments, Ross is blinking, swiping her hand across her face. She takes a few big breaths and looks at them both. As they exchange glances, the three of them silently agree to pretend the crying thing didn't really happen.

"Pizza," says Breda. He waves a hand at them as he heads toward the door.

"Don't forget to be sneaky!" says Havoc. Breda shoots him a look, and leaves.

There's a bit of an awkward silence.

"So," says Ross with a polite little smile, "what's your other half's name?"

"Solaris," says Havoc. He shrugs. "I know, kind of unusual name. Religious parents, she says."

"How long have you been seeing each other?"

"Oh, just about a couple of weeks. She's a lovely girl, but, you know, I dunno if it's going to last." Havoc planned to say that to be nice, because it seems mean to boast in front of Ross, girlfriend-less and on the lam as she is. But as soon as he's said it he realises that joshing with Breda apart, yeah — he really doesn't know if this thing with Solaris is going to work out. "She works all these long hours for her job," Havoc explains. "It's this tiny little ad agency, lots of office politics. Plus, of course, there's my work. So we always end up meeting up at crazy time, doing stuff like going for dinner at midnight."

Ross nods. "And that's fun in the first flush of it all, but later on "

"Yeah, exactly. I give it a month before the arguments start up."

"Why is it always one month of dating, then the trouble kicks in? That's what I keep trying to work out."

"Exactly!" Havoc leans forward, delighted both that she totally gets it, and that he's managed to distract Ross from the greater of her troubles. "One month is like, my magic number. I mean, sometimes it takes another few weeks to actually break up, but it's the one month mark when you just know."

"Anna and I had been seeing each other for six weeks," nods Ross. "Of course, we'd been spending every night together since week three. That's what happens when two girls date, the timescales get compressed." Havoc decides he's too sophisticated to mention the joke about the removal truck. "I keep telling myself I'm not going to do that again," Ross continues, "you know, take it slower, put less pressure on it."

"But I hate that thing where you have to play it cool and pretend you don't like a girl as much as you do. I mean, if I'm into someone, I'm into her, you know?"

Ross nods again, and sips on her beer. Havoc's about to carry on talking, but he sees the thoughtful expression on her face as she stares into the middle distance, and manages to stop himself just in time. After a moment, Ross says slowly, "It's funny, isn't it? I always think that everyone else is much better at this than I am. You feel like the city is full of happy couples — but if you think about it, everyone you meet, you date, you break up with — and all the people they've dated and broken up with — they're all in the same boat as you."

Havoc says, "I guess, you know, that's why it's good to have friends who've got your back." Then he sees Ross's face, and he mentally kicks himself. Dammit, he knew it was only a matter of time before he put his foot in his mouth.

Ross's eyes have gone wide, and her forehead is crumpling up. Havoc feels like a dick. "I guess I won't be seeing my friends for a while," she says.

Havoc gets up and puts his hand on her shoulder. "Hey," he says, "we've got your back. Okay?" He knows he shouldn't. He knows there's that small chance that she's guilty after all, and that Breda's going to have to find out one way or another for sure. But dammit, Havoc knows she's innocent. He might not be a detective, but he knows people, you can't grow up in a business like his ma's without knowing people. There's no way she did this thing.

Ross is watching him now. She says slowly, "Barry the Chopper was working for Mustang, wasn't he? When he broke me out?"


"Can I ask you something?" Ross takes a long breath. "Why are you doing this for me?"

Havoc looks her in the eye. "The Chief thinks it's a cover-up job. Someone doesn't like that he's looking into Brigadier General Hughes' murder, and so they got you to take the fall. They're trying to put him off the scent. Plus, you know, he might not look it but he's pretty soft-hearted. I don't reckon he could handle seeing an innocent woman get shot for his best friend's murder. "

"Brigadier General Hughes," says Ross quietly. "He was such a lovely, funny man. And I met his wife a few times, I liked her a lot. It's so horrible."

"Hughes was a really solid guy," says Havoc. "And he was freaking hilarious. The Colonel and him, they were like that." He holds up his first two fingers, crossed. "When the Chief works out who did it" — he pulls a face — "well, wouldn't want to be that guy, that's all I'm saying."

Ross raises her eyebrows and nods heartily. She's seen Mustang in action tonight. You never forget your first time watching him roast something, that's for sure. "Alchemy," she says, "is goddamn terrifying stuff."

Havoc chuckles wryly, flicks open his lighter, and lights up another cigarette.

"I love you," says Barry. "Miss, I adore you! I know we only just met, but — " He drops to his knees and clasps his hands. "I've never seen better aim with a blade!" He gestures as he says this to his forehead, where three Xingese throwing knives have impaled it in a neat line right between his eyes, millimetres between them. "Come with me! Be my blood-splattered bride! Together, we can turn butchery into an art form!"

The Xingese girl, Ran Fan, folds her arms and glowers. "If you're not going to die," she says, "then give me my kunai back."

Prince Ling looks between the two of them, grinning hugely. "Ah, Ran Fan," he says. "It only took you minutes to capture the heart of an exotic and fearsome Amestrian warrior."

Ran Fan says nothing, although she looks like she'd like to.

Falman is burying himself in the newspaper and ignoring all of them, so Breda glances at Maria Ross, wondering what the hell she makes of this little circus. If this is what the rulers of Xing are like, their government must be way more entertaining than Amestris' own.

Ross catches his eye. Her lips press together as if she's trying not to laugh. She says, "Barry, what about all those nice things you said to me yesterday?"

Barry flaps his glove at her. "Don't get me wrong, miss, you're a very nice young woman and I'd just love to cut you up. But a man has to be free to roam where his soul wants to go!"

Ross sighs and sneaks another glance at Breda. "Ah well, kicked to the curb again. Least of my worries." Her voice gets a little throaty on the last few words.

She's taking it all pretty well, Breda thinks. He's not sure how he'd do in her shoes. He fingers the gun in his pocket, and really, really hopes that she turns out to be as innocent of Hughes' murder as she seems.

Prince Ling turns to Barry and clears his throat, as if to remind everyone in the room to pay attention to him. "Much as I appreciate your rescue from prison, sir," he says, "I regret that Ran Fan is not currently free to wed, given her current quest." He curls a finger under his chin. "Unless you could tell us something about where you got that interesting body of yours? Then Ran Fan could just carry you off back to Xing. One arrow, double the vultures, as they say where we're from." He laughs merrily, and beams at everyone in the room in turn.

Ran Fan briefly transfers her glower to Ling, then ducks her head and puts on a strange little mask.

At this opportune moment, the old Xingese guy, Fuu, swings himself through the window, dropping to the floor far too lightly for a man of his vintage. "It's clear," he says. "We should depart quickly."

Breda pulls up the hood of his coat. Ross steps over to Falman and puts a hand on his. "Thank you," she says.

Falman only manages to look at her for a moment before he drops his eyes and mutters, "Oh no, don't mention it." His ears are pink.

Ross sticks a hand out to Barry. "Thank you too, Barry," she says. He takes her small hand with his glove and brings it up to mime a kiss.

Ran Fan nods at her. Prince Ling, without waiting to be asked, bounds up to Ross and takes both her hands in his. "It was a pleasure!" he says, then suddenly his face is completely serious, his voice low and compelling. "You have my word that Fuu will do everything in his power to get you safely over the border." For a moment — and no, not just because of the Xingese thing — he reminds Breda weirdly of the Chief.

"Thank you to all of you," says Ross. Her lower lip wobbles dangerously. "I owe you all so much, and I won't forget it! If I ever get a chance to help any of you." She turns to Breda and Fuu. "Right — let's go!" Quick, before I lose it in front of everyone, her eyes are saying to Breda.

So, off they go. Breda won't be able to relax until they're out of city limits and on their way east. But still: he can't help but feel a pre-emptive warm glow of success. It's not so much that he's proud of himself — all he did this time was buy pig, potassium and pizza — but that he's proud of all of them. One evening, and this is what they can manage. They sawed the lady in half, and no one realised it was a trick. If they're right about Ross, they've prevented a woman being murdered and shamed by whoever the hell is really running this country. And they're one step closer to the bastards who really murdered Hughes, and the reasons why. Moments like this, the little successes, make him feel vindicated for trusting Mustang, for serving under him, signing up for his crazy plot, breaking the law for him, and one day, maybe even soon — Breda knows it's coming — committing treason for him.

He guesses he's not going to see any of the team for a few weeks now. Well, the best of luck to Falman in wrangling his lunatic golem, and the best of luck to the Chief and the rest of his comrades in working out a little more of whatever the fuck is up with this country. It's dangerous, what they're doing, and it's getting worse every day, but the further they get with it, the more certain Breda is that it's worth the risk. At least they're all in it together, eh?

Anyhow, one thing's for sure. By the time he gets back, fifty cenz says Havo's chick will have given him the boot.