chapter 1.

"Alphonse-kun," the Fuhrer greeted, watching carefully as the boy opened the door and let himself in. "Good afternoon."

As always, there was a spark of hope in the younger Elric's expression, and it dug its claws into him as it had every day for the past eight months. The slightly vulnerable look in those large, bronze eyes and the determined set of the boy's mouth were enough to make Roy wish that he could postpone this meeting even one day further.

But he had set for himself what he felt to be a reasonable timetable, and it had been perhaps too long already. To make the boy keep waiting would be cruel—not that telling him, the man reflected bitterly, would be kind.

"Good afternoon, Fuhrer." Alphonse had stopped calling him Colonel by accident after the first week, and Roy suspected that, had he not been so distressed early on, even those small mistakes would have been corrected by the boy's meticulous attention to detail.

Roy hesitated a moment, looking at the layers of hope and worry in those bronze eyes. " may want to take a seat, Alphonse-kun."

The boy stepped forward to grasp the back of the chair with a sense of enthusiasm that he couldn't quite conceal, and was speaking even before he'd settled himself in the seat. "Is there word, then? What's happened?"

Roy took a long breath, deep in and then out, before he spoke again. "Alphonse-kun... I haven't been entirely up front with you."

"You... haven't?" The boy's face was painfully easy to read; the expression announced quite clearly that the idea had never so much as occurred to him, and Roy watched as he turned it over for the first time, evidently uncertain as to whether the announcement was a good thing or a bad one, given the situation. For a moment, the younger Elric struggled for words, plainly at a loss for something to say.

"No," Roy conceded, the words heavy on his tongue. "I haven't." Reaching for the stack of papers that he'd removed from his file cabinet in preparation for Alphonse's visit, the man leaned over the desk to hand them to the boy. "Actually, we've been in contact with your brother's kidnappers since the day after he was taken."

It looked as though someone had punched the boy; his mouth was open slightly, face gone suddenly very white. Visibly, he struggled to respond, eyes wounded and shocked—not angry. Not yet.

"Their demands were unreasonable," he continued, sliding a copy of said demands across the top of the desk and toward the boy. "They requested government approval and funding for alchemical experimentation on living human beings." Calm grey eyes watched as Alphonse's gaze slid over the paper, growing wider with each passing second. "I couldn't grant that."

"So you told them no?" The anger still hadn't surfaced yet, but Roy could see the sparks of it, building under a layer of bewilderment. "They have my brother!"

"Intelligence officers were dispatched to the area immediately to investigate for an experimental facility," the man told him evenly. "They found nothing. Attempts to discover the source of the communications also failed."

Roy could have added that he'd poured an unreasonable amount of his manpower into the task for the better part of the time that Fullmetal had been missing. Could have recounted the fact that he'd missed vital opportunities to force some semblance of stability onto the newly formed government due to the time he'd personally spent on the case. But in all honesty, he doubted that Alphonse would care very much.

"A month and a half ago," Roy continued, careful to keep his voice level, "We stopped receiving correspondence from your brother's captors. Previously, they had been delivering an update daily." The boy was wearing that look again, as though someone had struck him. "The papers in your lap are the complete log of those correspondences."

The man waited as Alphonse picked up the first sheet, watched the boy's face as he began to read. He recalled the first time that he'd seen the words, himself, remembered the pit of horror that had formed at the bottom of his stomach.

The Fullmetal Alchemist has been taken into custody, it had read, tone as abrupt and simple as that of the rest of the many, many messages since. A list of our demands is attached. To encourage cooperation, a daily status report.

He hadn't understood, at first, what to expect—and now, watching Alphonse, he saw his past confusion mirrored in the lightly furrowed brow, the slight frown tugging at the corners of his lips. And then the boy was pressing on, reading for the first time a note that Roy had seen enough times to know by heart.

Removed the subject's limbs. Bound arm and hand. Corrected attempts to resist with physical dissuasion. Sedative needed to induce silence.

"Physical... dissuasion?" Alphonse murmured aloud. By the look on the boy's face, that of just-dawning horror, he hadn't even been aware that he'd spoken, reaching already to turn the page and see what the next day's correspondence had contained.

As he read, Alphonse's face drained of color, the pain in his eyes almost a tangible presence in the room. Roy wondered, thick with sympathy for the boy, whether he'd looked the same as he'd read the words for the first time; certainly, he hadn't felt so very different than the younger Elric seemed now.

When Alphonse began flipping desperately back through pages, the man knew precisely the section that he'd gotten to, remembered doing the same himself, checking, just to be sure, even though he knew, knew he hadn't been mistaken.

Fed the subject. It hadn't been written until the fifth correspondence.

The pages turned faster, now; when Alphonse was through nearly twenty, he began skimming, eyes flashing across the words so quickly that he must only have been catching pieces of what was written. His hands were shaking, expression the most devastated representation of human emotion that Roy had ever seen—and he had seen many.

After thirty, the boy began crying, though Roy suspected that he didn't realize it; the tears were falling quietly, despite the fact that Alphonse's shoulders were shaking with what may or may not have been suppressed sobs.

He didn't finish reading.

Alphonse wasn't quite halfway when he stopped abruptly, throwing the log from him as though it was something that burned. It landed on the desk, paperclip ensuring that it remained unscathed, and the boy was beside it a moment later, clenching the wood on either side of it so hard that his knuckles faded to white.

"So what's changed?" The desperate edge to the younger Elric's tone forced a spike of pain through the man's heart. "Something's happened, hasn't it?" The boy's voice was unsteady; his cheeks weren't pale any longer, but flushed from the tears. "It must have—otherwise you'd just have kept it a secret!" There was accusation behind the words, and were Roy a weaker man he might have flinched under the combination of the tone and the knowledge that Alphonse was, in fact, quite right.

"I'm telling you now because..." And here he hesitated; this was the part he'd been dreading, perhaps more than the rest. "There have been riots in several cities to the north, and an insurgency has sprung up to the west. Alphonse-kun, I can't afford to dedicate the manpower to this case any longer."

There was a moment of stunned silence before the noise escaped him, small and quite forlorn in the spacious office. It might have been a sob, or perhaps a strangled sound of rage; Roy suspected that what it was wasn't particularly important. Another followed, louder than the first, but Alphonse bit the rest off forcibly, digging his teeth into his lower lip. And when he raised wet bronze eyes to Roy's face, there was no longer just anguish; outrage boiled below the surface, hot and sharp and plain.

Slowly, deliberately, the boy moved to pick up the sheaf of papers that he'd discarded so recently, adding to it the list of demands that had been passed him earlier. When he spoke, his tone was savage, quite at odds with the polite words themselves. "If you don't mind then, Fuhrer, I'd like to investigate on my own."

"I thought you might." He'd expected Alphonse's anger, certainly—deserved it, probably. But neither fact made it any easier to face. "Which is why I'm prepared to offer you a contract position. If you agree, I can see to it that you receive a military grant in order to pursue..."

But Alphonse wasn't listening any longer. He was sparing the new Fuhrer one final look dark with loathing, was clutching the sheaf of paper possessively to his chest as he stalked his way to the door of the room.

As it slammed shut behind him, Roy had the chance to reflect that, in all his years of putting up with Fullmetal's tantrums, the boy had never managed to approach the level of hatred poured into his little brother's last glare. But then, the man considered, if it had been Alphonse taken, he suspected that he'd have seen a whole new side of Edward's temper.

Alone in his office, the Fuhrer regretted once more that he hadn't tried harder to dissuade Fullmetal from taking the mission.