chapter 1.

The Fuhrer stopped his pacing in front of the large bay window, hands gripping each other behind his back. He gave Mustang a tight smile that concealed none of his animosity. "I bet you thought that you'd be the one in this office, eh, Mustang," he said, "after you killed King Bradley."

His hand twitched; he couldn't let that statement pass for a moment. "Sir," he said. "With all due respect, I did not kill the Fuhrer, Sir. That was—"

Halcrow cut him off with a choppy wave of his hand, face tightening. "—-A shape-shifting homunculus, who had killed the Fuhrer and taken his place," he finished. "Yes, the forensics team went over the remains in great detail, and concluded that they were definitely not human. I know all this, Mustang. But the question still remains: how did you know about it?"

Mustang didn't answer. Halcrow's lips twisted into a smile. "I asked you a question, Brigadier General," he said. "How did you know that the homunculus was impersonating the Fuhrer? Or did the creature simply get to the Fuhrer before you did?"

He really would have preferred to remain silent, but he didn't have that option. "A report came to my attention," he said, "of certain events that occurred in the Fifth Laboratory six months ago, about the existence of these creations. In conjunction with some reports of the Fuhrer appearing in places he could not have been to, the conclusion was obvious. When I received reports that the Fuhrer was acting strange and out of character, I of course hastened to the scene and acted as I saw fit."

"A plausible story," Halcrow said. "And nicely uncheckable, since the First Branch has also been destroyed and none of these so-called records remain."

Actually, a record did still remain; in the mind of the librarian Sciescka, who had read and memorized all the reports during her investigation into Hughes' death. But Mustang was not about to unloose the paranoid wrath of the new Fuhrer on that poor girl, and so he kept his tongue again.

Halcrow gave a disgusted snort, turning his back on Mustang and returning stand beside his desk. "King Bradley was always too soft on you, Mustang," he said. "He let you, and your traveling circus of freaks, and your pet alchemists, all run wild. You can be sure I won't make the same mistakes you did."

Why should he, when he had so many new ones to make? Mustang wondered irrelevantly. He didn't let the bite of fear show in his voice, though, when he said, "On that subject, Sir, I have a question—"

"How's that?" Halcrow said as he rounded on Mustang. "Questioning your orders already, Mustang?"

"Of course not, Sir." His throat was a little dry, but he did not swallow, or lick his lips, or give any other possible sign of weakness. Halcrow was searching for it, he could tell, with all the avid anticipation of a hawk waiting for the rabbit to poke its head above the hole again. Too bad for Halcrow; Mustang was a beast that knew too damn well when to keep its head down. "I was merely curious about the new assignments of my staff."

"Oh, yes, that." Halcrow's sharp air faded slightly, and he waved a hand as though brushing off an irritating fly. "On looking through the personnel records of your—so loyal—" again the barely veiled tone—"staff members, it came to my attention that several of them had not been on rotation in years. Of course reassignment for most of them was well overdo."

Damn, that was only as he'd expected, but it still brought a sour taste to his mouth. Too easy to deprive him of all his loyalists, all his support in a single clean sweep. Mustang had no doubt that they had also been separated from each other, and probably sent to the most remote locations possible. Damn and damn! Would Halcrow have gone so far as to send them into active combat zones, in the hopes that enemy fire would do the work of dismantling his opponent's network for him? Had he inadvertently led his men into death, after all?

Fear tightened his throat, and he barely kept the reaction to his hands, a slight clenching of the fingers before he forced them to relax. No, he was getting ahead of himself. They were all Halcrow's men, now; and they were good men, surely Halcrow would have better sense than to waste officers of that quality in pointless, petty revenge.

Years of practice served him well now, and he kept his voice perfectly calm as he responded, "I can only hope that they will serve their nation to the best of their abilities under their new positions."

"Hmmph. Yes, no doubt they will." Halcrow sounded almost disappointed by his response, as though he'd hoped for some greater reaction. Mustang was sure he had. This sort of verbal fencing, the interplay of response and body language, was a game he'd always excelled in, as smoothly as he had handled any other kind of weapon. Halcrow by contrast was a clumsy, too-obvious player, never quite as adept. But that was all right, Mustang reflected distantly, because if they dueled now, it was only Mustang's life that was on the line.

Halcrow had wandered back to the window; Mustang noted with a remote interest that he didn't seem to like having his back to it. "Speaking of serving to the best of one's abilities," he said, and there was a tone in his voice that brought all of Mustang's senses back to alert. "There's still the matter of the Fullmetal Alchemist."

Mustang's heart gave a lurch of fear, but he managed to keep his tone even as he answered, "Sir?"

Halcrow turned to face him, smiling again. His hand rested on a thick file folder, sitting on top of a stack of others on the desk. "His records came to my desk along with everything else of King Bradley's," he said. "Some of them were quite the revelation."

That comment didn't require a response, so Mustang didn't rise to the bait. He merely raised his chin slightly, and set his hands behind his back, posture a study in relaxed inquiry. The fact that this also concealed any tremors in his hands from Halcrow's view was merely an added benefit.

"Of course the boy's abilities are amazing," Halcrow said, and shook his head. A faint look that was a cross between disbelief and superstitious disgust crossed his features. "Hardly surprising, considering who his father was. But then there are the boy's discipline problems."

Roy's breath caught in dismay. Surely not—Halcrow wouldn't do something so senseless as to expel Edward Elric from the military, as petty revenge for a grudge against Mustang himself?

Halcrow was watching for his reaction, Roy realized, so he summoned one up for him. "He is still very young, after all, and a certain amount of defiant behavior is to be expected. Nevertheless, the results he produces far outweigh the difficulties caused by a few minor rebellions!"

Be sold, he cajoled Halcrow silently, don't act rashly...

"Well, of course he's useful," Halcrow said.

Roy breathed again.

Too soon, as Halcrow shook his head again, the frown deepening on his face. "Still, the military can't afford to make special cases in discipline, nor coddle children, nor make pets of alchemists," he said brusquely. Roy felt one corner of his mouth twitch at that bard, but didn't reply aloud.

"Yes, you were far too lenient on the boy," Halcrow was saying, adopting an almost paternal tone. "Of course the military will continue to make use of Edward Elric. But he'll work far more efficiently with proper disciplinary measures applied than he ever did with your lack-a-daisical approach."

Roy's vision seemed to constrict. Not petty revenge, no, he realized. Something far more monstrous... "What are you saying, sir?" he heard his own voice.

"Take this bodyguard creation of his," Halcrow said, and he'd opened the folder at some point and was paging through it. "The soul-bound armor. You've allowed it to run free by the boy's side for years now. By all means, the creature should have been taken to the Fourth Laboratory immediately for study! Think of all the time and effort on the part of our alchemists that would have—"

"His brother," Mustang interrupted, woodenly.

Halcrow looked surprised, and then glowered. "I didn't ask for your opinion, Mustang," he started.

"His brother," Mustang said again, "not his creation. The boy's name is Alphonse Elric, one year younger than the Fullmetal Alchemist, and they have traveled together since leaving their home six years ago."

"Brother, then," Halcrow said, tone edged with anger. "Brother, bodyguard, whatever you like. The thing is clearly a destabilizing influence on the boy. Letting them run wild together is clearly a mistake, and one I plan to have corrected immediately."

"With all due respect, Sir," the words forced themselves out of Mustang's mouth before he could stop them. "I don't believe that's—"

"Are you questioning me, Mustang?" Halcrow hissed, eyes narrowed.

There was a long, still pause. Mustang had to swallow at last, and pushed on. "I am obliged to advise you, Sir," he said, "that your facts may be incorrectly reported. Alphonse is not a destabilizing influence on Fullmetal; on the contrary, the boy relies on his brother a great deal in order to keep him s—" he barely managed to choke off the sane, and replaced it with the more neutral "—steady."

"Oh, is that so?" The look of outraged fury was fading from Halcrow's face, to be replaced by a gloating smirk that Mustang did not like at all. "Well, in that case, all the more reason to separate them. With the younger brother safely under the custody of the State, then the Fullmetal alchemist will become much easier to control. The special forces gets a new addition to its strength; the alchemists get a new pretty puzzle to keep them occupied, and everyone is the better for it."

No! "Sir." Mustang took a breath, alarmed even to himself at how ragged it sounded. He could not afford to lose his cool now, by all that was holy, he could not. "Respectfully, sir, I must object. The Fullmetal alchemist cannot perform to the best of his abilities without his brother nearby to assist him. Separating them in this manner is not only unnecessary but needlessly cruel, Sir—"

"The state alchemists are directly under the authority of the Fuhrer," Halcrow said icily. "In that office, I may dispose them as I see fit."

This was looking worse and worse. Mustang took a gamble. "I would have thought you'd feel more sympathy towards the boy, Sir," he said, "after he saved your life—and the life of your wife and children—on that train six years ago."

A mistake, to mention them. He could tell immediately from the way Halcrow's expression went icy. "And a great lot of good that did him them in the end, didn't it?" he said harshly.

"My apologies, sir," Mustang murmured, trying desperately to backtrack, feeling his footing slip. "Nevertheless, it's not nece—"

"If you continue in this manner," Halcrow snapped, "then I will consider you in contempt of a superior officer, and not only that, but challenging the validity of the Fuhrer's authority. Is that a step you want to take?"

Mustang did not answer. Halcrow took a step forward.

"Go on," he said, voice lowered. "All I need is one excuse, Mustang, just one. Everyone in Central knows that you've been wrapped in treason up to your neck till now, and it's only the devil's own luck that you've managed to slither out of it this far. Give me just one good reason, and I'll have you in front of the court-martial, and while you may be able to lie like a snake on your feet, you can't evade the inquiry of the Court. You'll be up against the wall before you know it, Mustang, right where you belong, eating the bullets of a firing squad for breakfast. So go on. I invite you to. Give me just one excuse to do it, and I will."

Mustang said nothing. However, he was fairly sure that despite his best efforts, Halcrow was close enough that he could not quite conceal the tremors.

Halcrow leaned back, a narrow smile on his face. "Did you have something to say, Mustang?"

"No, sir." The words were delivered in a dead-level tone. "Nothing."

"Good." Halcrow let out a short bark of laughter, and turned back to his own desk. He seated himself, now, looking down at his folders, his posture a clear dismissal of Mustang and all that Mustang might do. "Well, then, General Mustang. It looks like you'll have a busy afternoon in front of you, clearing out your old duties to make way for your new ones."