Fullmetal Alchemist Fan Fiction ❯ Arcanum Paterfamilias ❯ Chapter Six: Heyan ( Chapter 6 )

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Arcanum Paterfamilias -- Chapter Six: Heyan

He waited. The valiant little Xingese girl was safe under the protection of no less than Alphonse Elric, and the doctor who lived in the house was competent enough to have won the boy’s confidence. The watcher had kept his word. He owed them nothing except perhaps their lives, but he sat silent and still on the rooftop, watching the house and waiting.

The Flame Alchemist was both a threat and an opportunity... if he could be lured into territory that favored close combat rather than ranged attacks. The apostate’s eyes narrowed. Sooner or later Roy Mustang would leave the house. Sooner or later his blonde shadow would go home or let down her guard. But for now--

The instrument of God’s vengeance landed in the alley, taking the shock deep in his knees and staying crouched for a long moment to listen for any sign that his descent had been noticed. He vaulted the fence, allowed himself a hiss at the rose thorns, then stalked the shadows of the doctor's house, avoiding the rectangles of light cast into the weedy yard by the open windows. He chose his cover, then risked discovery to peek in one of the windows that opened up on the side yard. Mei Chan was asleep on the sofa, with her black and white pet snuggled up between her shoulder and chin. Alphonse Elric kept vigil nearby, carefully writing in a notebook perched on the arm of his chair. The steel boy looked up as the voices floated into the living room. He got up, trying to move quietly as he headed for the kitchen. As the massive suit of armor passed, the tiny girl's eyes opened a little and her gaze followed the younger Elric for a few steps. She smiled, then shifted her sleepy familiar up to lie across her ear and burrowed back into the sofa cushions and sleep.

The observer slipped from one window to another, listening closely, though the conversation going on in the kitchen offered little of interest. The revelation of the Fuhrer’s true nature had forced Roy Mustang to play his hand too soon. That hurry had cost the alchemist already, and would likely force him to make another mistake -- perhaps one which could cost him his life. The scarred apostate didn’t particularly care whether Mustang fell to the military or under his hand. Still, he paused to listen.

"So who is Rachel?" Alphonse asked patiently.

"She's the innocent victim we found in the wreckage. She's been living at a private hospital... until recently."

"If you could call that livin'. Nothin' but a ragdoll, if you ask me. You might've done her a favor if you'd've snapped your fingers at <u>her.</u>

"You know why I couldn't."

"Yeah, and now it's come back to bite you in the ass."

"Colonel? You're leaving a lot of things out,"
Alphonse pressed.

"Doctor Knox told me Rachel's family had her transferred." Mustang said. "Which isn't possible, because <u>I'm</u> the closest thing she has to family."

A twig snapped behind him, and he spun and lunged sideways. Not fast enough. The blinding light of an alchemical reaction hid the snaking tendrils of rose branches whipping around his arms and waist and slamming him into the wall beneath the kitchen window. The back of his head bounced off the sill, and he heard the crack of old wood even as stars exploded behind his eyes, blinding him still further. There was a wordless shout of alarm somewhere inside the house, then running feet.

"Well, look what my brother forgot to drag in.” Fullmetal said as he tromped closer to the man pinned against the wall. "What the hell are you doing here, Scar?"

Scar shook his head in an attempt to make the world around him stop spinning, and immediately regretted it as his stomach decided to join the world in its whirling dance. Something wet rolled down the back of his neck. He twisted his right wrist, stretching his fingers to find anything solid, then froze when he heard the hammer of a handgun click.

"Way to attract attention, Fullmetal," the Flame Colonel said as his lieutenant drew aim.

"At least I'm paying attention!" Fullmetal snapped. "Scar could've collapsed the house on you, you know."

Scar blinked the stars and spots out of his eyes. He heard someone step closer and the soft crack of joints as the person crouched in front of him.

"Colonel," Alphonse warned. Mustang's blonde aide shifted closer, her pistol aimed at the junction of scars on the apostate's face that had given him the only name he merited or answered to, in this country.

"Well, well, well," Mustang purred. "It looks like you're well and truly caught, Scar." He casually tugged on an embroidered glove. “Now the big question is, do I deliver you to the top brass seared or broiled?”

The apostate snarled and flexed against his restraints, ignoring the jabbing of the thorns piercing his skin. The branches didn't give at all. Of course. Fullmetal learned fast, and for an alchemist of his power, making rose branches strong enough to restrain a grown man was no challenge at all.

Mustang studied Scar for a long moment, then said, "This is a welcome stroke of good luck." He smirked. "The Scar of Ishbal captured by one of my subordinates. Having a bargaining chip like you puts me in a powerful position with my superiors." He tilted his head and thought for a moment.

"Are you out of your mind?" Fullmetal demanded. “I don’t like him either, but you can’t just turn a human being over to--”

“As you were, Major.” Mustang’s order wasn’t loud, but it stopped Edward’s tirade. Still, the grinding of teeth and clenched fists were as good as a shout. The colonel turned his attention back to his prisoner and smiled. "Let's take this conversation inside, shall we?"

"Colonel," the Flame Alchemist’s assistant said, "have you forgotten that this man has a vendetta against State Alchemists?"

“I haven’t forgotten that or anything else of what we know about him, Lieutenant.” Mustang’s dark eyes stared into Ishvarun red ones. "Fullmetal, you can make sure he can't make anyone's head explode, can't you?"

The young alchemist glared at his commanding officer, but clapped his palms together with a sharp report.

“You want to let the kid go now,” the guttural voice repeated. The thick-muscled arm tightened around the intruder’s neck.

“You can’t kill me,” the man rasped. “I know--” he grunted as Wahyid drove an elbow back into his gut and flipped out of his captor’s grip, taking the man’s sword with him.

“Let him go, please, Mhesta Heinkel,” Mishyael’s senior ungwaiyar said in soft, precise tones. He took a step into the left-hand guard stance, eyes glittering.

“Not my call, buddy,” the Amestrian answered. “Unless this guy makes my night and puts up a fight.”

“I think we’ve made our point,” the Emissary said smoothly. “Bring him in and have a seat, Heinkel. Don’t kill him yet, Wahyid, I’d like to know why he and his friends crashed my party.”

“Your people kneel under the swords of my tribe!” the intruder snapped. He tried to evade Heinkel’s shove, but the big blond man pushed him into the room anyway.

“No they don’t,” Miles commented as he pulled the heavy curtain aside and peeked out the window. “Your tribe just surrendered to the Emperor of Xing and an eight-year-old boy.” He glanced over his shoulder at Mishyael. “You might want to have a talk with him about being gracious in victory.”

Roy Mustang chuckled and got to his feet. “Let him crow a little, he’s having an exciting night. I’m going to make an appearance outside, just to make it clear that the situation’s under control.” He turned toward the invader. “I’d like to write this off as a stunt to impress your friends. Come outside with me and call them off, and we’ll start again as if you came to the gate and asked like a civilized man.”

“I deal with varisti as they deal with all others,” the man shot back. “Tell me, is it civilized to barter for lives? To treat a man as an ox and a woman as a cow, and lock their children into a pen for fattening?”

Roy Mustang’s mouth tightened. “That’s a severe accusation, but it’ll have to wait until I’ve seen to my people.” He strode toward the door without waiting for Riza to guide him. The authority and set face of the Emissary of Amestris opened his path and tugged everyone in the room into a ragged column at his heels.


“I’ll start with the simple questions,” the Emperor of Xing said in a deadly level tone. “What is your name?”

The bound leather-clad Ishbalan on his knees at Ling’s feet growled, but didn’t answer.

“Ah-- my apologies, I didn’t realize you’re a brain-damaged animal.” The Emperor gave the shadow guard holding the man a curt order in Xingese. The masked warrior yanked the prisoner to his feet, then kicked him in the ribs, tossing him onto his side beside the man glaring up the barrel of Jean Havoc’s automatic.

Jean grinned at the men. “Don’t take it personally. It’s an Emperor thing -- if he doesn’t insult you from time to time he has to give you one of his spare palaces and some pretty girls to keep you company in it.”

Ling’s expression never changed. “Now, who among you is the zookeeper?” He swept his eyes over the courtyard, and lit on the figure of a woman wearing a vest of elaborately-woven leather strips festooned with mismatched coins and jewels. “That’s no pet’s collar. Would you mind bringing her forward, Ambassador Clancy?”

“Caledonia is always ready to do her friend Xing a favor,” the extravagantly bearded man answered pleasantly. He gave the woman a shove toward the Emperor. “She was fun to play with. Perhaps I’ll take her home with me -- a man’s sword gets dull left too long sheathed.”

“A man’s brains get dull if he does all his thinking with his sword,” Clancy’s wife Nia shot back over her shoulder. She and two ungwaiyar stood guard over a squad of six sullen teenaged prisoners, two of them girls and none of them appearing over sixteen.

The woman in Clancy’s grip snarled. “Your sword and your stones will shrivel to dust in the desert!” She wrenched her shoulder back under the ambassador’s hand, risking the edge of the man’s not-entirely-ceremonial sword, then gasped as his hand grabbed her hair and yanked her back.

“A bit of advice, girlie.” The Caledonian’s voice deepened into a rolling growl. “Tie up this hair until you learn to guard against your enemy making a handle of it -- and never let him taunt you into making threats you’re in no position to back.”

“Yeah! Lose your temper and you lose the fight! Even babies and varisti know that!” Diyari chimed in from beside his mother. “But I guess you’re just a dumb girl, so you don’t know any better. I could beat you. I bet my baby sister could beat you!”

“That’s enough, Diyari,” Ysa said with only a faint waver in her tone. “Your actions made your point.” Xiulan stood silently beside Ysa, her brightly-embroidered silk robes and elaborate headdress at odds with her cold, haughty expression. Two shadow guard stood sentinel over the Xingese princess and the yevarshedaht’s wife.

“No need to rub it in,” another voice agreed from the back porch. Roy Mustang took his wife’s arm with one hand and kept the other casually in his pocket as she guided him around and between the upended tables and chairs. “Are there any serious injuries?”

“My husband’s arm is broken!” The Drachmani ambassador’s wife raised her voice in tones of high dudgeon. “What happened to your security, Amestrian? Was this a plot to disgrace Drachma?”

“I would think twice before you accuse Caledonia and Xing of conspiring with Amestris, Lady,” Clancy rumbled. “Or did you not notice that we defended you and your sniveling man from these fragrant barbarians?”

“I apologize for the insult and injury, Madam,” Roy interrupted smoothly. “I’ll see to it he’s attended by the finest doctors in the city.”

Mishyael shouldered past the Emissary and a Xingese shadow guard holding two glowering nomads at swordpoint and crossed the courtyard to his wife and son. “Are you hurt?” He went to one knee and cupped his wife’s face.

“Momma fainted,” Diyari piped up before his mother could answer. “She was scared because he--” he pointed at the bound man under Havoc’s gun, “grabbed me and held a knife on me."

“What?” The senior yevarshedaht turned and stood, slowly. He focused on the intruder with eyes gone to slits. “Put away your gun, Jean Havoc.”

Baju.” Abrahn sheathed his sword. “This is the Emissary’s home, Mishyael.”

“I already beat him, Papa,” Diyari said with pride. “Zhoji Jean didn’t even have to shoot him for me.”

“He is definitely your kid,” Jean said with barely-contained humor, though his sharp blue eyes never wavered from his prisoners.

“Yes, and those who attack my wife and children will answer to me for their crimes.” Mishyael moved toward the captive.

“I’m all right, my love.” Ysa put both hands around her husband’s tattooed right arm. “You should be proud of Diyari. He escaped on his own.”

“So that is why you’ve gone soft, tribeless one,” the man in Heinkel’s strong grip hissed.

“You sure you want this one alive, Boss?” Heinkel’s voice didn’t sound entirely human. “He’s really gettin’ annoying, and it looks like we got a lot to choose from.” His basso growl mangled the words almost beyond recognition.

“Let’s not do anything irreversible just yet,” Roy Mustang answered. “I think the party’s over for tonight, ladies and gentlemen.”

“You have our apologies for this breach,” Hamzhya said stiffly. “We will put these intruders in a place suited for barbarians and assist you in cleaning the mess they made.”

“Thank you, Admi.” The Emissary inclined his head a little. “If it’s all right, I’ll keep this one for a while.” He waved toward the man in Heinkel’s grip. “I want to know why he decided to drop in on us tonight.”

“You must do as seems good for your country, of course,” Hamzhya answered. “Perhaps I will stay and hear for myself what he will say.”

“This should be a good story,” Clancy agreed. “And it’s a good idea to split up the prisoners...” his eyes narrowed and his grin chilled to something closer to a feral snarl. ”...if you’re going to keep prisoners.”

“You’re welcome to stay, my friend,” Roy told him. “Now. Let’s clean this up and have a talk according to civilized rules.”

They bound his hands behind his back and strapped the right one to grasp the opposite forearm. Any attempt to free himself would cost him a sizable swatch of skin, if not muscle and bone. He was tightly hobbled as well, which said that they feared him. Mustang gave him an ungentle shove in the back of the knee and pushed him down to kneel on the kitchen floor.

Mister Scar!” A missile of flying braids and silk robes hit him in the chest and wrapped child-sized arms around his neck. “Mister Scar, what happened? Why are you a prisoner?”

“He’s killed nine State Alchemists that we’re sure of, along with more than a dozen bystanders,” Roy Mustang stated in a flat command tone. “The only reason he’s still breathing is I haven’t decided how best to make use of him.”

Mei turned on the Flame Alchemist with all of the indignant fury of an offended woman upbraiding a wayward man, and the animal on her shoulder growled. “What are you going to do to him? Are you going to use him to create more monsters like the ones that live under this city?” She let go of Scar’s neck with one hand and made a fast sweep, revealing a set of throwing knives between her fingers. “You try, and I’ll stop you! You just see if I don’t!”

“Mei!” Alphonse put his big steel body between the girl and the colonel, and gently took hold of her wrist. “Mei, it’s okay. Colonel Mustang wouldn’t do that.”

The colonel turned and leaned on the edge of the table, studiously looking down at the baseboards well away from any of them. “That would be an inexcusable waste of an irreplaceable resource.”

“What d--” Alphonse paused as the doctor returned from the front room with alcohol, gauze and a suture kit.

Knox glared at the little girl. "What are you doing up?"


"No buts," Knox snapped, as he set the first-aid kit on the table. "Patients are supposed to stay in bed." He pointed at the living room. "Now get back there, and don't make me tie you down."

Mei went pale, but stood her ground. "I'm staying with Mister Scar!" she declared with a stomp of a slippered foot, her little pet squeaking in agreement.

The kitchen was silent as the stand-off stretched between the gruff doctor and the tiny girl. Finally, Knox huffed and turned back to the table, laying out his instruments. "Do whatever you want. Just stay the hell out of my way."

“What are you doing?" Fullmetal demanded.

"He's a human being and he's injured," Knox said gruffly as he started dabbing at the wound on the back of Scar's head. “Besides, you lot can’t interrogate and torture him very well if he’s passed out from blood loss, can you?”

“If I am to be tortured, treating my wounds is a cruelty.” His own voice was an echoing buzz that only added to the furious hum of a hornets’ nest in the alchemist killer’s head.

Mei sucked in a short breath and put her body between the military officers and the apostate’s chest. The blonde woman silently moved until she had a clear shot at the captive’s head.

Knox snorted, then brusquely wrapped one hand around the prisoner’s forehead and turned the cut toward the kitchen light. “If you’d been caught by almost any other officer you’d have screamed yourself hoarse already. Now hold still.” Scissors snipped, then a razor began to shave the blood-caked hair from around the wound.

Faintly dizzy soreness built to a throbbing sick pressure behind the Ishvarun’s eyes. He took a deep breath, accepting the pain as part of himself. The warrior of God gasped as the razor caught on swollen skin, and the blaze of fresh pain blotted out the hum inside his head for a moment.

“I’ve heard enough screams for one lifetime,” Roy Mustang said quietly. “But there are things I want, and I’m willing to endure more screaming to get them.”

“Like what, another star on your uniform?” Edward challenged the older alchemist with his eyebrows lowering like a storm. “Or are you willing to torture people just to make them say you’re right?”

“That’s not what he wants, Brother,” Alphonse said sharply. He turned toward Mustang. “You said you’re willing to endure more screaming. That means you think you’ll do some of it yourself, doesn’t it?”

Mustang’s face tightened, then dimmed and blurred as the apostate’s vision grayed. Scar swallowed the throbbing ache and breathed deeply, waiting for the nausea to pass.

“We caused horrors,” Mustang’s aide murmured. “So we can’t flinch when those horrors come back to us.” Something flickered in her eyes as she met the captive’s red glare, but her aim never wavered. “In a way it’s like equivalent exchange.”

“But it’s not,” Alphonse insisted. His boyish pitch climbed higher until it teetered on the precipice of tears.

“Yeah... lives aren’t interchangeable.” Edward stared in the direction of Knox’s hands, but his attention was turned inward. “No matter what...” He lifted his head and met the lieutenant’s eyes. “...no matter what you do, nothing will balance the equation. Lives can’t be judged and valued that way,” Fullmetal finished.

Fury rose with his gorge, and the apostate lifted his head to snarl at the boy. “Maybe that’s why your military killed so many of my people.” He jerked by reflex as the doctor brusquely spread one hand over his eyes and turned his head by main force. He held himself rigid and spat at the floor even as the razor scraped swollen, angry skin. “Bodies are easily counted and weighed against each other.”

“You’re not winning any sympathy, you know,” Knox commented. He lay down the razor and poured rubbing alcohol onto a clean cloth.

The alcohol burned as the doctor cleaned the wound. The Scar of Ishbal welcomed the pain and used it to keep the broken fragments of memory at bay. They were dead, all of them, and the images would never leave him. He forced the bloody streets of his home back down into the darkness, and watched the Flame Colonel and the woman who held her gun on him. He could hide and succumb to the horror again later. When he wasn’t bound and surrounded by enemies.

Mustang shifted his weight, turning to meet accusing red eyes. “Most men are worth a lot more alive than dead,” he said calmly. He leaned back on the edge of the table, setting his gloved hands to it in a casual pose. “If I turn you in, some real monsters will alchemically torture you, and eventually we’ll have either a chimera or another homunculus with the training and power of the Scar on our hands.” He turned and sized the Ishvarun up with a cynical smirk. “I’d hate to see what Lust would look like wearing your face. On top of that, the Fuhrer will know I've got connections to Doctor Knox." He turned just his head and met the doctor’s eyes as Knox threaded a curved needle. "That would risk the lives of everyone in this house, including two foreigners who have nothing to do with this." He glanced at Fullmetal. "By extension, I would be endangering people who are important to you." He flipped his gaze back down at Scar. "But I'm not going to let you just waltz out of here."

"This is gonna hurt like a bitch," Knox said. "I don't have anything to numb the skin."

Mei glanced from Scar to Knox, and her face set. "I can seal his wound. It won’t hurt him." She took a step toward the doctor, then wobbled and sat down hard on the floor. "I can--" She moaned and fell against the apostate's side.

"Mei!" Alphonse cried. He knelt and gingerly lifted her, cradling her in his arms as he carried her back into the living room. "You're so reckless," he chided softly.

"The gun isn't necessary, Lieutenant," Knox said, as he pierced the apostate's skin with the needle. Scar grunted, then closed his eyes and took a deep breath, holding it for a moment and commanding his heart to slow before he let the air sigh out through his nose.

"You'll have to forgive me, Doctor," Mustang said bluntly, "but I prefer not to take chances I can avoid."

"What's he gonna use? Harsh language?"

“Anyone who expects better from the Flame Alchemist is a fool,” the exile hissed, raising his head again to glare into the Amestrian's dark eyes.

Mustang lifted an eyebrow and one corner of his mouth. "My reputation precedes me."

“I neither know nor care about your reputation, alchemist,” Scar growled. He paused and took a breath as the needle punched through his already sore skin, then let the pain further fuel his rage. “I’ve seen the victims of your flames. There will be vengeance for their suffering.”

“I don’t doubt it,” the colonel answered coolly, then his expression and tone took on a harsh, bitter edge. “The only question is who my executioner will be when the time comes.” He ignored the sharp glance his lieutenant threw him.

Executioner?” Alphonse squeaked as he returned from the living room. “But--”

“It’s the legacy of Ishbal,” the blonde woman said levelly. “Those of us who fought that war will answer for it, someday.” She didn’t bat an eyelash as her commander’s face darkened.

“But you didn’t know about the homunculi or how corrupt the military is,” Alphonse protested.

"The homunculus Envy pulled the trigger which began the war," Scar growled, "but human soldiers and alchemists are responsible for the wholesale slaughter of my people."  He said it knowing it was true, but something in him knotted in shock nonetheless. Homunculus. It wasn’t possible, the scholars agreed it was only a myth... Scar pulled away from the doctor and shook his head to clear it. What scholars believed crumbled before the evidence of experience.

“True.” Mustang glanced at his lieutenant, who shifted a step to one side, her aim never wavering as her commander pulled a chair out, then straddled it and rested his arms on the back. “We did keep following our orders with our consciences screaming.” He met his bound enemy’s glare with hardened impassivity. “But grief, guilt, and vengeance are all luxuries of those of us who survived.”

Zaio’autsa anakmiya,” Scar snarled

“If you have something to say, say it in Amestrian or shut up,” Roy snapped. “Unlike you, I have obligations and people waiting for me.”

“You gave them no chance to surrender,” Scar ground out through clenched teeth. You surrounded the villages and set even the stones on fire.”

“Yes, I did,” Mustang answered softly. “And there’s nothing I can do to change that. I can only remember it and do whatever it takes to prevent it from happening again.”

Edward Elric looked from one adult to the next, his usual prickly stance vanishing behind a child’s wide-eyed dawning horror. "Colonel," he began softly, "Can I ask...?"

"About the war?" At Edward's nod, Mustang met Scar's glare. After a long moment, the colonel shook his head. "We were told it was the suppression of a rebellion. That once the Ishbalans realized they couldn’t win they’d back off.” He didn’t flinch from the hatred emanating from the pained figure on his knees on the floor. “They fought back harder than we’d expected. We took some beatings -- whatever you’ve heard about the warrior-priests, it’s probably not even close to the truth. We were told these people were religious zealots who’d fight to the death.” He directed his undivided attention at Scar. “That anyone old enough to lift a gun was a threat. I saw -- and I killed -- armed children. At first I thought it was because the Ishbalans were willing to throw away their children for their god.”

“You know nothing of us,” Scar snarled, his voice hard as he strained against his bonds. Thorns dug into his skin. He fought the old pain back and went on. “God needs neither defenders nor sacrifice. Those children were not a blood price. You had no right to take their lives!”

"Hold still," Knox ordered. He put a hand on top of the apostate’s head and grabbed a fistful of white hair to keep his patient from moving.

“No,” Mustang agreed in a terrible soft voice. “You put rifles in the hands of children because all the grown men were either dead or busy trying to hold off an invasion elsewhere.”

“Hell on Earth, where even grown men screamed and cried because there was nothing else they could do,” Knox said softly. “Air choked with the stench of rotting corpses and gun powder, and sand so soaked with blood it clung to your shoes like mud.”

Screams in the desert heat and utter silence in the night... the smell of blood on stone and gunpowder clinging to the rubble... the Scar of Ishbal fought the memories down again and closed his eyes, resting his throbbing head against the doctor’s supporting hand for a moment.

“And no one could pretend we were doing it to protect our country or put down a rebellion anymore,” Hawkeye continued ruthlessly. “We were all guilty... but some of us have more blood on our hands than others.” Her eyes flicked to meet Mustang’s, then she glanced at her own hands, finger steady against the trigger.

“And all to cover up another horror,” Mustang murmured. “The truth behind the truth.”

"You used the blood of my people to create Philosopher's Stones, and put them into the hands of Zolf J. Kimblee," He heard his own voice, guttural and rasping the sounds of the demons’ tongue.  His insides shuddered in horror again, and he threw his hatred at his enemies, one condemned monster to others in their own words. “You used their death screams to kill even more of them!” Pressure built behind his eyes, and he hurriedly tucked his head against the tears he hadn’t known were threatening. Later. Now was not the time for mourning, or any other sign of weakness. He drove the hurt back and wrenched his shoulders hard. Rage. Show them the rage rather than the pain.

There was a tiny gasp, and he turned to see Mei by the door into the front room. "Mei, you’re supposed to be resting!" Alphonse said.

She came the rest of the way into the kitchen, and laid a hesitant hand on the Ishvarun’s trembling shoulder. "I-is it true?" There was a tinge of desperation and heartbreak in her voice. "Is the secret to immortality really made with...?"

“Human lives,” Edward finished grimly, “yeah..."

”Human souls ripped from their bodies and forged into their own cage.” He heard the rasp of his own voice from a distance, the distance between the bloodied sands of his childhood home and this captivity in the filthy foreign house, surrounded by enemies who mocked him with their casual indifference to his hatred and his power. The worn tiles of the kitchen floor rippled and dimmed in his vision as a circle snapped aglow in a memory from an uncertain place and time.

Mustang studied the scarred apostate for a long moment. "What else do you know, Scar?"

“I know enough.” He shifted, twisting his shoulders and back even as Mei slid her hand down his right arm.

“I think that’s enough, young lady.” Mustang’s calm tone never wavered. “Step back, please. I’d rather not have to spend tonight chasing you down and then filling out the forms to explain why I killed you.”

“I won’t let you send him to prison or kill him!” Mei declared with ringing conviction. “He’s my friend!”

“You have strange taste in friends,” the Amestrian answered bluntly. “What happens to him is his decision.” He propped his elbow on the chair and leaned his head in his hand. “I’d rather have an ally than a corpse. You don’t have any reason to love the military, and you’ve got plenty of reasons to want me turned into dog meat. However, there are things I can do for you and things you can do for me before that deathmatch.”

“Death or working for you,” Edward said. “Some choice.”

“It’s the best I’m going to offer,” Mustang said, his gaze never wavering from Scar’s.

"Answer me this, alchemist," Scar said. "Why do you walk this path?" Doctor Knox tugged on his last stitch, and the vigilante winced.

“Because it has to stop,” Mustang answered. He shifted his eyes away. “It took me too long to see the truth of this country and its military, but once I did my path was clear.”

"If this world is based on the concept of Equivalent Exchange, then we must carry the corpses of the people we killed back across the river of blood we filled in exchange for a new generation to live in happiness," the colonel's assistant said softly. “No matter the cost.”

“But you’re trying to stop it now,” Alphonse said, his voice high and uncertain. “That has to count for something.”

"Maybe it does. But it’s nowhere near enough.” Mustang shook his head. “No. All of us who kept fighting that war are well past ever balancing the weight of all those bodies. I joined the military with dreams of using alchemy to help the people of my country. Ishbal changed that.”

“Because the military’s too corrupt for anyone who just wants to be a hero,” Edward finished, with only a slight edge in his tone.

Mustang met the boy’s demanding gaze and nodded, his face closed and his voice noncommittal. “The army under Bradley is no place for a hero or an idealist. For now, my goals are a lot simpler than that.”

“To protect whoever we can,” the woman said quietly.

Mustang nodded again, then turned to meet Scar’s glare with unflinching resolve. "My subordinates will protect their subordinates, who will protect their subordinates, and so on down the chain to the older brother defending his little sister from bullies on the way to school. I will do whatever it takes to make that happen."

"So that’s what’s behind all that damned ambition,” Edward said. A hint of respect softened the edges of his words, and he straightened, relaxing a little and paradoxically looking closer to his real age as he assessed his commanding officer.

“You didn’t really think I was climbing the ladder just to support my own ego, did you, Fullmetal?”

“Colonel...” Alphonse shifted uneasily as the alchemist’s attention moved to him. “If you want to protect as many people as possible...” He faltered, and the colonel’s eyebrow rose.

“You have to go all the way to the top," Edward finished. "You’re planning to take on a homunculus?” His brows knotted together into a scowl. “But even if you become Fuhrer, it wouldn't change the military’s control of this country,"

"You're right. Congress exists as the army's puppet right now. The homunculi are controlling the country through armed coercion. If we want to change that, then someone with power under the old regime will have to cut the puppet strings.” One corner of Mustang’s mouth lifted in a bitter smile. “That’s the paradox of our situation. To free our people we have to tie the nooses around our own necks.”

"Nooses?" Alphonse asked.

"They were called heroes during a time of war," Scar told the boy, "but they will be recognized as mass murderers when righteous men restore peace."

Mustang nodded, his eyes steady on his enemy’s.

Edward took a step toward Mustang, then paused as Alphonse laid a big hand on his brother's shoulder. "Are you insane?" Edward demanded. "If you become Fuhrer, it's as good as committing suicide!"

"Even though the homunculi triggered it, we're the ones who committed the atrocities," Hawkeye said softly. "We must not forget the ones we killed, because they'll never forget us."

Scar narrowed his eyes and slid his gaze toward the blonde woman aiming a gun at his head. "If you are expecting absolution from me--"

"Not at all, Scar,” Mustang interrupted. “But I am demanding a favor of you in exchange for your freedom to hunt and kill more of my people.” His dark eyes glittered, hard and sharp as obsidian. “Something that'll buy both of us time."

Scar scowled. "You presume too much, Roy Mustang."

Mustang chuckled softly. "Yes, I have a habit of doing that." His face stilled again. "But making bargains with devils is what I do best. I’m not asking you to change your goals -- only to add one more name at the top of your list."

Scar’s eyes narrowed. "Rachel?"

"So you did hear that part.” Roy turned his eyes away from the vigilante. “You're very astute. Just what I expected from an Ishbalan warrior-priest."

"Who's Rachel?" Fullmetal demanded.

"What about her?" Alphonse asked.

Scar turned slightly toward Alphonse even as the doctor wound a strip of bandaging around his head. "Why would a State Alchemist keep someone who was not a relative in a private hospital? And how could this person be used as a weapon against him by the Fuhrer?"

Edward turned his odd yellow eyes on the colonel. “So you’ve got -- what, an old girlfriend? And now she’s a hostage?”

“If it was that simple I could work out a deal to get her back.” Mustang’s tightly controlled tone belied his unreadable expression.

“So what’s Scar got to do with her?” Alphonse asked.

“Think about it, Al.”

“You said you found her when you were investigating Doctor Braun's death...” Alphonse appeared to think about that a moment, then the armor rattled in shock. "Wait--y-you said you were sent to his house, and you found Rachel 'in the wreckage'. You didn't mean a car or a train wreck, did you? You meant Doctor Braun's house. Colonel-- was she... is she... a successful human transmutation?"

"Reinhardt Braun succeeded in resurrecting his dead daughter," Mustang said quietly. "At least in form. He was willing, apparently, to give up his entire life to do it. We didn’t find so much as a scrap of his hair in that cellar."

Fullmetal's eyes went wide, and he crossed the space between himself and Mustang in three strides, fisting the front of the Flame Colonel's jacket and yanking him hard against the chairback. "You--" The boy was shaking so hard that Scar could see the older alchemist's hair moving. "You had proof that human transmutation is possible? And you never told us?!"

"What would you have done with that information?" Doctor Knox snapped, as he wedged himself between the two alchemists. He shoved the younger one back a step, but the colonel's jacket remained clenched tightly in Edward's right hand. "The girl is a soulless doll."

"But his research notes--"

"I destroyed them," Mustang said. He glared into Fullmetal’s eyes, then pulled himself out of his grip and straightened. "It was too dangerous to chance their discovery by another alchemist. Imagine what would have happened if they’d fallen into Kimblee's hands, Ed. I never expected to discover two children smart enough to figure out how to pull that stunt and desperate enough to try it."

"So if she’s just a body without a soul, why didn't you kill her back then?" Alphonse asked.

"Idealism," Mustang said bitterly. "For the same reason you wouldn't have, because there was a chance that she did have a soul, that maybe... just maybe... she was human."

"She is human, dammit!" Edward insisted.

"She's in a permanent vegetative state," Knox stated. "She'll never be able to experience living. All she's doing is existing. Keeping her alive like that is cruel."

"And now she's vulnerable to experimentation... or worse," Mustang said. "Allowing her to suffer that, even if she isn't fully aware of it, is doubly cruel."

Scar watched the Flame Alchemist with a growing sliver of respect. "I understand," he murmured. "It may already be too late, though."

Fullmetal stopped seething and thought a moment. "You think that old geezer would turn this Rachel into another homunculus?"

"I killed the one called Lust," Mustang said. "What better way to get back at me than to turn my ward into her replacement?"

"Or allow his cabal of alchemists and researchers to experiment on her," Knox added.

Mustang nodded. "I’m going to take that option away from him." His gaze landed on Scar. "With the only weapon that can do it without risking anyone else I care about."

"But--" Alphonse blurted. "There's gotta be another way, besides killing her! Maybe we can hide her somewhere safe."

"And what would you do with her?" Scar asked with a bitterly sharp edge. "Where will she go? To Resembool? Does your friend mean so little to you, that you would risk her life to save the life of a doll who cannot even take care of herself?"

"She's a human being!" Fullmetal snapped. "You can't just kill her!"

"How do you define 'human'?" Scar shot back. "Is that creature called 'Envy' human? What about the one the homunculi call 'Father'?"

"That's not the same thing!" Edward cut the air with his automail hand. "She's helpless."

"There must be something we can do to protect her," Alphonse protested.

Mustang sighed. "I’m sorry you had to find out about this, boys. I should have taken care of her the day we found her."

"Don't talk about her like she's a thing!" Fullmetal bellowed.

"That's what I've been tellin' you for years," Knox said to Mustang. "But would you listen to me? Noooo."

"Okay, okay," Mustang said, lifting his hands in weary surrender. "You told me so, I get it."

"The question is, where would they hide her?" Hawkeye asked.

"I've heard rumours here and there, and I'm beginning to think there's a grain of truth to them," Knox said. His eyes rolled toward Mustang.

"What rumours?" Mustang asked.

"Vegetative patients and hopeless cases disappearing without explanation." Knox tied off the bandaging around his captive patient’s head. “Just like Rachel, ’family' comes in and moves them, or they suddenly die from unexplained illnesses. They never come through the morgue, no paperwork on ‘em... in fact their files mysteriously turn up missing, but everyone’s ‘too busy’ to bother looking for ‘em."

Mustang thought a moment. “Doctor, which hospital was Rachel supposed to be transferred to?"

“There’s no actual transfer order,” Knox said. “But my guess is, they moved her to Haven for the Lost. On Broad Street.”

“Funny, isn’t it, how a charity hospital just happens to back right up to Lab Two?” There was no humor in the colonel’s words.

Edward’s mouth fell open. “Just like Lab Five. They’re not even trying to hide it.”

“They don’t really have to,” Mustang answered. “Who’s going to fight them for the homeless, the poor, and the hopelessly insane?”

"I'll bet you good money there's a tunnel from the hospital to the lab," Knox said.

Mustang slid out of his chair and crouched on the floor, his eyes inches from his bound enemy’s. "I can delay the pursuit long enough to give you time to get the hell out of Central, but you’ll have a bigger lead if you don’t collapse any buildings."

"You can claim me as your weapon for tonight, but you will not dictate how I do my work, Flame Alchemist.” The vigilante drove his curse and his promise into the black depths of those impassive dark eyes.

“That was a recommendation, not an order.” Mustang got to his feet. “Do it your way, then. My people and I will be the first on the scene to either capture you again or claim your body and the bounty on your head.”

“Damn you, Mustang, you can’t really be this sick!” Edward lunged toward the colonel, then choked and fell back a step, his eyes widening with disbelief as Riza Hawkeye drew a bead on him and Alphonse. “This-- but it’s wrong.” He winced at the click of a hammer being pulled back, then paled. “Lieutenant, you can’t...”

“She can and she will, Fullmetal,” Mustang said grimly, his gaze never leaving the bound apostate on the floor. “This isn’t your responsibility or your business, so butt out. Scar, I want your word. In your own name.”

“I have no name,” Scar growled. “I give you my word that I'll give the girl ahmurt kuvar."

"What is that?" Edward snapped. "A nice way to say you're gonna--"

“Step back, Edward.” The colonel’s aide’s expression was tight. “You’re not a part of this.”

“Like hell I’m not!” Edward flared. “What are you going to do, shoot me? You’re not that kind of monster.”

“Just stand still, Fullmetal.” The Flame Alchemist snapped his fingers and a precise needle of flame traced the complex knots of rose branches, turning them to ash in an instant and setting the apostate free. “If anyone asks, you had a gun to your head.”

“So we couldn’t stop you,” Alphonse finished, with too much resignation for such a young boy. “That’s not going to make us feel any better, sir.”

“Maybe not.” Mustang met the apostate’s eyes as Scar got to his feet. “But it will ease my conscience.”

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