Title: All Wet
Author: Kristen Sharpe
Date: August 22, 2011
Finished: January 4, 2015
Warnings: One brief moment of unpleasantness.
Genre/Continuity: Animeverse, an expansion of the flashback from the opening of "Conqueror of Shamballa".
Disclaimer: "Fullmetal Alchemist" belongs to Hiromu Arakawa, Square ENIX, Studio BONES and various other parties.
Summary: After the first few crackpots, you started to get a feel for the type. Castles were never a good sign. Floating castles even less so.
"A castle? He has an entire castle?"
"A... floating castle?"
"Probably not." Gold eyes turned calculating as they stared across the water. "It's probably built on a small island or built up from the bottom." The eyes narrowed in irritation, and Edward Elric threw his hands up in the air. "Who does that?"
As the young alchemist flailed, his even younger brother considered the situation. "The file the Colonel gave us did say Huskisson ran a mining operation. He probably built it with the money from that."
"It's not about where he got the money, Al!" Ed stomped up and down the sandy shoreline. "Normal rich people build mansions. On land. Anyone who decides to build a fortress in the middle of a lake—"
"It's a sea, Brother." A small, inland sea just touching the southwestern corner of Amestris. "The Edessa Sea."
"—is a lunatic with delusions of grandeur!" Ed finished, oblivious. "He's got a new weapon he wants to show Central Command? I'll bet he does. He'll show it to them as it blows up in their faces."
"And, that's assuming he doesn't demonstrate it first by blowing me up." Ed was warming to his rant. "Or maybe I'm just the delivery boy. He gives me his new toy." He pantomimed accepting an invisible gift. "Tells me to be sure to push this button or pull that lever to give the brass a big surprise." Pulling his face into a dopey grin and crossing his eyes, Ed poked at the air. "So, like the good dog I am," if he heard Al's snort he didn't let it interrupt him, "I don't ask questions and do just like I'm told and - KABOOM!" Ed threw his arms out. "I get blown up along with half of Central Command." He scowled. "You know what, I should bring it back. Leave it right on the Colonel's desk and run—"
"We could be chasing real leads, Al!" Ed growled. "Not checking in on the latest maniac who wants to take over the country. And, it's all Mustang's fault!"
"Brooother." Al dragged the word out meaningfully. "Are you even listening to yourself?"
Ed drooped some at last. "Oh, fine. We'll warn the Colonel's staff first. I like them okay."
Al released a sound something like a sigh. But, privately, he had to admit that Ed's concerns weren't unfounded. Huskisson's - home? facility? - was ridiculously ostentatious for a mining operation. And, it was a fortress. Stone walls, narrow windows. And, there was no way to approach it without being seen.
Central Command was more accessible.
Wishing he had a physical capacity to sigh out his frustrations, Al looked toward his brother. Thankfully, Ed was finally winding down.
"Well, let's see if we can find a boat and get this over with," he said with an air of resignation.
Finding a boat proved easy enough. Finding a boat that any of the local fishermen would part with was another matter.
"To the castle?" The elderly man they had found quietly mending nets by the nearest dock stared at them owlishly.
"Yeah," Ed thumbed to the edifice rising from the water, "we need to get out there."
The old man frowned, mouth folding into deep wrinkles as he looked from Ed to Al. "There used to be a ferry every day. When workers were still going in."
"When...?" Al questioned. "They aren't now?"
The frown deepened into a scowl. "There aren't any left to go," the man said bitterly. "It's been three weeks, and everyone who went to work the mines that last morning hasn't come back."
"Not at all?" Ed asked. "There's no way that place can hold enough supplies."
"I doubt it needs to, boy." The old man shook his head wearily. "They're all dead in a mine collapse by now. It happens often enough. But," he frowned darkly, "that Huskisson could at least notify the families."
Ed and Al exchanged a worried look. A mine collapse was logical enough. But, people disappearing from the same place where they had been sent to examine a supposed new weapon couldn't be a good sign.
Ed quickly hid the dread building in his stomach with a scowl. "Well, we need to get out there," he said. "Could you rent us a boat?"
"Why are you so interested in the place?"
"Well," Ed planted his hands on his hips and puffed his chest out, "we're here on business. You see, I—"
The fisherman was already pointing a long, gnarled finger. "Are you by any chance the Fullmetal Alchemist?"
"That's right!" Ed crowed. "I—" He paused, realizing the finger was directed at Al. "Hey, I'm the—" Suddenly, he was slapping the side of Al's armor. "That's right! This here is the Fullmetal Alchemist!"
Al's armor rattled loudly with his surprise. "Br—Brother?"
Ed continued unfazed. "We're here to investigate this Huskisson guy."
The old man's wrinkles curled upward this time. "Ha, that would serve him right!"
Ed nodded along cheerfully. "So, about the boat?"
The fisherman waved a hand. "If it's to get the truth for everyone, you can take mine free of charge." The hand indicated a worn but serviceable rowboat tied alongside the nearest pier. "I've these nets to mend today as it is."
"That's very kind of—" Al began.
"Thanks, Mister!" said Ed before darting down the pier toward the boat.
Al thanked the fisherman himself and then followed Ed at a more normal pace. Reaching the boat, he watched his brother tapping thoughtfully at the bottom of it before quietly voicing his thoughts.
"You're planning something crazy, aren't you?"
"It's not crazy; it's perfect." Neither the words nor Ed's overly large grin were reassuring.
"I knew it was going to be crazy," Al moaned as he slowly rowed his way toward the castle.
A steady tapping came from the bottom of the otherwise empty boat, beating out an irregular rhythm in the code he and Ed had agreed upon. Mostly reassured, Al dared a glance at the small opening on the left side of the boat. Truthfully, it was a tube alchemized all the way through the boat, but it was doing a good impression of a knothole in the rough wood.
That was the first problem with Ed's crazy plans: he was a crazy genius, which meant he could actually carry out his schemes. The second problem was more universal: no plan survives contact with the enemy. Which meant Ed always had to improvise. Suddenly, violently, and all over the place. That was the part that worried Al. When the plan itself was crazy, the improvisation could be nothing less than sheer insanity. On the bright side, few enemies survived contact with the improvisation.
The castle was closer now, and Al could make out a dock facing the shore. A large boat was already bobbing alongside it, probably the ferry the old man had mentioned. Al angled in that direction as he let his gaze roam over the castle walls.
There was a glint of light in one of the upper windows, there and gone in an instant.
So, someone was watching.
Which meant it was time for him to give them something to watch.
Choosing the side opposite the ferry, Al brought the boat up to the dock carefully. A sturdy rope was wrapped around one of the pilings, and, standing gingerly, he reached for it. When your soul was tied to a suit of heavy armor with a seal made of water-soluble blood, capsizing was a Very Bad Idea. He and Ed had taken precautions, but, all the same, it was a relief to get the boat tied securely and climb up on to the far more solid dock.
After giving the boat a couple of stomps that he hoped looked like he was questioning its seaworthiness. He repeated the gesture on the dock for good measure and then got to work.
He began with a slow, graceful movement that mimicked the first step of one of Teacher's drills. He flowed into the second. Then, he turned, armor glinting in the sun, and struck a pose that would have brought tears to the eyes of Alex Louis Armstrong.
It was showy. It was absurd. It was also, Al knew from experience, very, very distracting.
Beneath the castle, Ed was not having nearly so much fun.
When he had spotted the black mouth of a tunnel in the shoreline near the dock, it had seemed like the perfect entrance point. A simple equation, a clap, and the metal grate that covered the tunnel was bent aside. Inside, there was a steady current, and he let it carry him along.
Only now was he finding the holes in his plan. First, the diving helmet he'd fashioned for himself only held so much air, and it was running out. Second, the current that was now helpfully shooting him along the tunnel faster was a little worrying. Something had to make a current like that, didn't it? Some sort of machinery like a pump or a propel—
A pulsing roar reached his ears, and he was suddenly shooting upward through a much narrower tunnel.
It was at this point that Ed realized the third hole in his plan. Pipes like this tended to feed into machinery. Into things like boilers that were less than ideal for his continued survival.
Right. Time to make an exit. Ed forced his hands together and reached for the wall of the pipe. There was a crackle of alchemic energy, and then dull light as he spilled out and down onto a hard surface.
Ed ignored everything but the catch on his makeshift helmet, ripping it open and tearing the helmet off to draw in a great, gasping breath. For a minute, he just enjoyed the entirely underrated act of breathing.
So, his "sneak in through the pipes" plan might need some fine tuning. Next time.
For now, he put the thought aside and pushed damp bangs out of his eyes to take stock of his surroundings. He was crouched on a stone floor by a large pipe that was now spewing water. The pipe continued on into cavernous darkness above. And, all around him was a towering labyrinth of thrumming, clacking, hissing machinery.
Frowning, Ed got to his feet and moved to re-seal the pipe he had damaged before something could over-heat and blow up in his face.
"Awfully empty for such a busy place."
With his repair finished, he focused his alchemy on his soaking clothes. A quick transmutation had the water steaming away in its component gases, and he was good to go.
Turning from the mechanical mess, Ed spied a dimly lit door set in a stone wall. It led to an equally dimly lit passageway that opened abruptly into a bright hallway. Industrial stonework suddenly gave way to expensive wood paneling, flickering electric lights to orange sunlight. This was the palatial manor home the exterior had promised.
Slowly, Ed closed the last door, making sure it clicked into place silently.
"So, let's see what's really going on in this place," he muttered to himself.
Nothing much, judging by the rooms of dusty furniture he passed. A glance out a window confirmed that he was rather high in the castle, probably in the owner's living quarters.
If any actual "living" had ever happened here. The rooms were sparsely furnished and reeked of dust and mold.
Then, he found The Lair.
There was no other word for it. The room was a clutter of books and notes, beakers and machine parts. Every flat or mostly flat surface was covered. A narrow path snaked through the chaos, and Ed could follow its progress from a worn chair by a buried desk to a chemist's table to a workbench to a couch that was clearly doing double duty as a bed.
Ed knew immediately what he was seeing.
It was there in the notes scattered carelessly across the floor. In the writing that scrawled from paper to book to desk as if the writer were too feverish to notice the difference. And, definitely in the way every bit of legible writing that wasn't an equation started with, "Fools!" and ended with, "Show them all!"
Someone had gone from scientist to mad scientist. Judging by the number of exclamation points at the end of every instance of, "Fools!", they were probably two steps away from putting on a tacky mask and plotting conquest.
"Augh!" Ed dug his hands into his hair. "I knew it! I knew it!"
Al held the last pose of his "warm-up" for a second more before straightening. Deliberately, he looked at the castle and then away toward the distant shore. He tapped a foot. Then, he reached into the pouch strapped to his thigh and withdrew a pocket watch to make a show of consulting it.
Twenty minutes. Ed should be inside by now.
Al put the watch away and tapped his foot some more.
It couldn't hurt to make his invisible watcher believe he was expecting someone else. And, anything to give Ed more time.
He just wished his impatience - his worry - was all an act.
Ed skimmed over the chaotic contents of The Lair quickly. As the mission report had indicated, Huskisson was building a bomb. Ed wasn't familiar with its key element - uranium - but the equations spoke for themselves. (And, they were sound even if their creator obviously wasn't.) If the thing actually worked, it would be a stupidly powerful bomb. A stupidly powerful bomb built by a raving lunatic.
And, the higher-ups in Central didn't want it. Probably because whatever letter Huskisson had written to them was as crazy as his notes. Just as well. Ed didn't like to think of that kind of power in the military's hands.
That just left one question to answer, Ed thought as he picked his way out of The Lair's chaos.
He scowled as he headed back toward the industrial part of the castle. He had a bad feeling that he wasn't going to like whatever answer he found.
A low, creaking groan drew Al's attention back to the castle. The door had opened. He turned slowly and waited. A man wearing a long coat and a strange metal half-mask stepped into the light.
"Greetings," he boomed. "You must be the alchemist from Central."
Al dipped his helmet in agreement. If he was going to keep up this ruse, it was best if he avoided speaking for as long as possible. His mind and soul might have aged, but his projected voice refused to follow suit. Not that Ed had any room to talk – and less excuse since he actually had a physical body – but Al saw how people treated Ed due to his age.
Besides, "Well, you see, I'm actually the Fullmetal Alchemist's younger brother," was always good for a distraction.
"Come in, come in," the man urged, stepping out to meet Al. "I can explain some further details of my project while we wait for your companions."
Al pointedly glanced over his shoulder before tilting his armor into a shrug and following the man.
"Good, good," the man continued. "As you can see, I have an excellent isolated location here, which allows me to work undisturbed and in complete secrecy."
Talking was definitely not going to be a problem. The mask and the mad glint in the man's eyes that it only served to enhance, however…
Al sighed. His brother had been right. And, he wasn't sure what was worse: the potential danger that implied or the fact that Ed was going to rub it in for the next week.
Crossing back through the mechanical mess where he first entered, Ed found his crude helmet still lying in the floor and collected it. There was a lunatic somewhere in this castle, and he didn't want that lunatic to know he was here just yet. Then, passing through another stone doorway, he finally found the mine proper. Or the mineshaft, at any rate.
It was a gaping hole ringed by a narrow catwalk with a waist-high railing. He stepped to the edge and looked down. Darkness. Above, thin, intermittent lights illuminated a huge circular tunnel. Air whistled through the open space, though Ed couldn't see any evidence of an opening above. Maybe there were vents.
But, how had anyone gotten down below? Shouldn't there be some form of lift? The lights strung around the shaft dimly illuminated the far wall, but Ed couldn't see any evidence of cables.
Scowling, he started along the catwalk. He could just make out a doorway halfway around.
A fresh gust of air wafted down the shaft, and Ed was struck full in the face with the putrid scent of decay. He froze. Then, with steps now slow and cautious, he approached the doorway and looked inside.
Something hot rose up in his throat, his chest. Whether bile or rage, he didn't care. Instead, he backed away from the obscene pile of tangled bodies until it was well out of sight and he could hang over the open shaft to take a deep breath.
The smell lingered in his nose, on his tongue. Finding the helmet still dangling from limp automail fingers, he pulled it over his head to blot out the stench.
When he could breathe normally, he glared out at nothing. He had known this place was trouble. Like every other place the Stupid Colonel sent him to clean up some crackpot's mess. After the first few crackpots, you started to get a feel for the type. And, you learned that there was only one way to deal with them.
Ed turned toward the machine room with a feral grin twisting his lips. A loud clap rang in the air behind him.
"You said your plan wasn't crazy!" Al accused, frantically bailing out their makeshift boat with his gauntleted hands. There hadn't been time to retrieve the old man's boat from the far side of the island when the explosions started. There had barely been time for Ed to transmute the leaking tub they were using.
"It wasn't at first!" Ed insisted, tossing water aside with Al's own helmet. "I had to improvise!"
As Al had anticipated.
"What happened that you had to rig the entire castle to blow up?"
"You saw those bodies!" Ed growled. "The place was sick, and it had to be done! There's nothing crazy about it!"
It also very conveniently destroyed all of Huskisson's research, Al realized. Still...
"You couldn't wait until we were leaving?" he pressed.
"I didn't think he'd put up so much of a fight," said Ed. "He was already around the bend. You saw that tacky mask!"
Al hissed out his approximation of a sigh. "Brother, you're impossible."
"I am not! And, I told you this place was trouble..."
Here it came, Al thought. The week of, "I told you so." It was a good thing he'd long ago learned how to make wordless protests at irregular intervals without really listening at all.