"Veritas Veritatum"


It's easy enough to spot him. Everyone else in there is vast, and tanned, and fair, while he's light, dark, and pale, dressed in a white collared shirt and black slacks to their common laboring clothes. And he has that peculiar bearing that seems innate to all the brass – that pride that goes beyond pride. Even hunched over a bar, even so, even with a glass before him and a bottle beside that, he seems somehow upright. And all the others treat him with deference, polite even when they're telling a bawdy joke. Lord, but it's a mystery how Mustang had evaded capture this long.

But here I am, the first to make my way across the bar, careful not to brush into any of the four enormous men who're even now shooting me nasty looks. Are the glares general distrust of the military, or had Mustang told them the details? Probably the former; they aren't tossing me out on my ass, and the man was supposed to have been able to rally loyalty from the least among his followers. Good. If a fight breaks out, it would be easier if he didn't have any allies. And...these are common folk. It'll be good if they don't get involved.

Maybe - a bit of insurance that they won't get involved wouldn't be out of line. I go over to the man who looks to be the leader among them.

"We're evacuating this place," I inform him.

He doesn't look terribly impressed, spitting his toothpick out onto the ground. "Yeah?"

"Yeah," I respond, looking up at him with all the intimidation I can muster. Be easier if I were taller. Dammit.

He looks over at Mustang, who hasn't budged an inch, and shrugs. "Whatever," he says, and jerks his head toward the door. The other men follow him. Once the door's closed behind them, I sit beside the man I've come to find.

Mustang does glance over when I take my seat, but that's his only reaction. He's supposed to react more, dammit. He's supposed to tense up at the familiar blue, and, gripping his drink, tell me that I'll never take him alive. Instead, after that single look, he stares straight ahead and sips, then sets the glass down with a world-weary sigh. Dammit; this would be easier if it were more like how it were supposed to be.

I reach into my pocket and pull out the watch he'd left behind years ago, drop it onto the bar beside him. Again, not as much of a reaction as I'd hoped for, but at least this time there is one. A sharp breath, and a twitch of the hand, as though he couldn't quite kick the habit of having it in his grasp – then relaxation again, a snort of contempt for himself or for me.

"Capture, then?" he asks, utterly inflectionless. A quick glance at his face shows it to be similarly composed, with perhaps a hint of sardonic hovering about his eyes. Strange, how much his face had changed from the photo I'd seen. He didn't look nearly so morose before.

"That's up to you, Lieutenant Colonel," I reply, matching calm for calm.

Again a snort, as though he wants to laugh, but can't, really – not quite. "Do you know who I am?" he asks. Before I can answer, he amends his question: "Do you know who I used to be?"

I probably should make some sort of comment about how he has the potential to be that someone again, since that's generally what the script calls for, but his question interests me. So I decide to go where he leads. "I'm familiar with your record, yes."

"And yet you're here. Major – " Impressive, that; I hadn't seen him look at my uniform – "you'll need to overpower me to capture or to kill, and that's impossible for you. You know that I'm not exaggerating when I say that I could have you dead with a mere snap of my fingers. I could have you roasted, writhing in your burning flesh...I could bring this entire building down around your ears."

"You wouldn't do that." Not the last one, anyway. He'd been famous for his squeamishness over the deaths of innocents. Besides, there's no need to be worried, not yet – he doesn't have his gloves on, and I don't think he's noticed that I'm an alchemist. He's just talking.

"I wouldn't have to. There are far more efficient ways of killing you." He holds his glass up to eye level. "Far more artful ways of doing it, too. You would be amazed at what you can do when you combine alcohol and fire. This one man – he had half a glass of wine with him when I found him. It was incredible to behold." His voice remains calm, tightly controlled, but the glass he holds shakes, and when I glance over again his eyes are closed.

"There are twenty men outside, Mustang," I say. "One has a machine gun, ten semi-automatics, and two are alchemists." Actually, I have four, but one of them is quite good with guns, but whatever. "Even if you were to kill me – it wouldn't accomplish anything."

He snorts. I can't tell if he believes me. "It would give me satisfaction," he says.

"It would?" Mustang doesn't respond. "From what I've heard, you never had a taste for killing. You weren't a Kimbley – "

"What could induce you to take this mission?" he asks suddenly. Only then does he actually turn his head, turn to look at me. "God," he whispers. "You're only a kid." Oh, thanks. Asshole. "Why would you ever come here? I'll kill you sooner than go back. You have to know that."

I hesitate. I know, I know – I'm not supposed to hesitate, but I don't really know how to respond. "Because there was no one else who wanted to do it."

"Ambition, then." He laughs and looks back into his drink. "I know that one. Take the jobs that no one else wants, and maybe they'll start appreciating you for it. Yes, I remember that."

I can't help but make things difficult by shaking my head. "That's not it. I don't give a damn about promotions."

"No?" He seems only marginally surprised. "Is there a reward on my head, then?"

"I don't care about money, either."

"Really? I must have misread you entirely, then."

"Look, Lieutenant Colonel – " Maybe I can will him to be cooperative? "Please. This doesn't have to be difficult."

"Oh, but I want it to be." Nope; no, psychic powers are definitely malfunctioning. "The military's heartache is my only joy."

Oh, come on, Mustang. Don't be an asshole. "What would it take to bring you back? You were a valuable soldier. You were a hero. They'd accept you unconditionally, give you anything you wanted – "

"Are you familiar with equivalent trade, Major?" he asks.

I can't suppress a little laugh. "Trust me. I know all about it."

I guess the way I said it finally clues him in, because his eyes flick downwards to my pocket and then back up, and then there's a bit of understanding in them. Then he shakes his head, slowly. "The military? They love the thought of it. Tit for tat. They give you money. They give you opportunities for research. They protect your loved ones. And it sounds like a good deal at first, but then they start to take. 'Equivalent trade,' they say – 'See what we gave you; will you deny us our reward?' How could you? But they take your innocence, Major. They take your soul. They take your sleep. They dip your hands in blood and leave you to try to wash it off. It never comes off. And when you can't do anything but stand there, dazed, drained of the last vestiges of humanity – then they laugh and go off to find someone else, cackling about equivalent trade."

Maybe he's crazy. That'd make things considerably easier. I could just report back – sorry, General, but one Roy Mustang is off his rocker. If you really need someone to give you crap philosophy I can pop back over there and fetch him for you, but if you wanted a real alchemist...

"I bet you don't know what to say to that, do you?" he asks, and concludes by draining his glass.

Why, no. No, I don't, but thank you. "So, what you're trying to say is – "

"What I'm trying to say," he interrupts, "is that you should get out while you still can."

"What, and stay in this damn backwater and join you every night in getting drunk off your ass?"

"No, actually. This damn backwater is mine. You'll have to find your own."

"You realize how ridiculous all this is, don't you, Lieutenant Colonel?" I ask him. I should really stop letting him distract me. "You can't stay here. You're a state alchemist."

"A dog of the military," he half-corrects.

I keep myself from shrugging. "And a dog doesn't leave its master."

"That's remarkable, that you say that, because I think I have." He pours himself another glass of whatever it is his bottle contains – something potent, by the looks of it, I've never really been good with anything beyond the basic chemical composition of alcohol – then holds it up to the light and takes a long drink. "I've left the Flame Alchemist behind."

"And what is it that you do out here, then?" I ask him. God. I don't want to do this, the man seems like a complete psychological wreck, but... "You know how we heard about you out here, don't you? There were rumors of a man who destroyed the invading Drachma forces with a snap of his fingers." He doesn't respond. I avoid looking at him. "All along the border, villages had been destroyed, but at this one, they said, the corpses of the invaders lay charred for as far as the eye could see..."

"Shut up," he whispers. Sorry.

"It's impossible for you to leave the Flame Alchemist behind."

"No," he mutters. He's shaking, his voice is shaking – maybe he really is insane. "It's not – I'm...I'm protecting the people of this town. They'd die if I didn't..."

"You're doing exactly what you would do in the military," I say, trying to sound soothing. I've never been good with the whole "soothing" thing, but I do fairly well, considering. "It's just that in the service of Amestris, you'd be defending the entire nation. There's not really a difference."

God forbid the man actually be cooperative, though. "Defending!" he says with a patently forced laugh. "If you think anything about the military actually involves defending – " He cuts himself off with another drink. "You know about Ishvar," he says.

Ah. Yes. They'd said he'd had the most exquisite fixation on that particular war. "Yeah."

"Good. Good. I hope they never let you forget about it," he says.

Goddammit all. I'm not helping myself in the least by being sympathetic towards him, by supporting what he says, but there I am, replying, "It's not as if they tell us what really happened, though."

"No," he murmurs. "They wouldn't, would they?" He takes another long drink and broods into his glass another while longer. "What're they giving you to come here? To apprehend the – dangerous and wanted criminal..."

"Research notes," I reply, unable to help but shrug. He looks over at me, looks me up and down, and nods.

"Not for something ordinary, I hope."

"No."

He ponders a moment, and smiles. "Something like the Philosopher's Stone, or..."

"Yes."

"The Philosopher's Stone? Really?" I don't respond, but he smiles to himself. "That's nice, really. That I'll be sacrificed for the pinnacle of alchemic strivings...There's some sort of a nice metaphor in there somewhere."

"You won't be sacrificed," I say. "No need for that. You can lead a normal life back in the military..."

He shakes his head. "I'd sooner see you dead than go back there, Major, and I'd sooner be dead." He set down his glass and raises his left hand. Shit. He'd gotten one of his gloves on without me seeing. Dramatically, he sets his middle and forefingers against his thumb and looks at me meaningfully. "I'll let you walk away. If you go out there and tell them that it was just a rumor – that I'm not here..."

Okay. Now's time to say something tactful, something that'll make him less desperate and prone to, you know, murder-suicide. Something clever. So: "I can't."

Oh, brilliant. Fucking brilliant. That's just great, Major. Give the man with the capability of killing you a reason to kill you. Shit. Shit.

His face starts to contort as he steels himself for the snap which is about to, you know, incinerate me. So I do the only thing to do: I pick up his glass and dump it out over his glove. It gives him a moment's pause as the alcohol soaks through the cloth.

Then his face hardens again. "I'll just go with you," he says. It's pretty clear by his expression that he doesn't mean that he'll go with me back to Central. "It'll be just as well." Goddammit all. That's even worse. Him, me, and potentially everyone outside, too. Brilliant. If ever there were time for a clever plan –

Ah. I surreptitiously press my hands together, then grab his between mine. "Don't," I say, sounding quite pathetic and pleading, if I do say so myself. He shakes me off, pulls his hand from my grip, and wrenches his eyes shut. With a gargantuan effort, he snaps.

He opens his eyes again and blinks when nothing happens.

Then he glares at me accusingly, I looking innocent all the while, and lifts his glove to his nose, then jerks it away again. "Ether?" he asks, his brow furrowed. "But that's...flammable...You separated the ether and the water in the alcohol," he says, finally catching on.

"I'll do it to the other one, too, if you try to kill me again," I threaten. Way to sound completely ridiculous, moron. He'll definitely be intimidated there.

He looks at me appraisingly, and then his hand plunges into his right pocket. I swear and grab his wrist and wrench away the hand that even now's fumbling for a bit of white cloth. With my other hand, I snatch the glove from his pocket and throw it across the room. He tears his arm from my grip with a grimace and dives for the glove. I clap and press my hands to the wooden floor, which rises up and makes him stumble. He falls, and another transmutation makes the wood reach up to seize him about the wrists and ankles.

"Stop it," I tell him sharply as he begins to fight. I crouch down next to him and see that he's attempting to gouge an array into the wood with his fingernail. I transmute the wood to strengthen it, and he curses ineffectually as he becomes unable to leave a mark.

"I'm not going back," he gasps, forcing his head up to an uncomfortable angle just to be able to stare me down. "I'm not."

"I think you are," I tell him. Good lord. At this point, he's just yelling at storms, or – I don't know. He's completely ineffectual. All words, with no defenses and no offenses. It's...sad, really. He's just...

"I'll kill myself," he pants. "I'll throw myself from the car while it's moving."

"I'm pretty sure they shut the cars, Lieutenant Colonel," I respond.

He fights with the wood about his wrists for a moment, then collapses against the ground. I can't see his face, but his shoulders twitch in a way that's horribly, sickeningly familiar. I want to look away, but – I don't know. It might be sadism or masochism that makes me continue to watch as he weeps at what I'm doing to him.

It's only a few moments before he stops himself with a visible effort, but when he speaks, his voice is audibly thick despite the muffling of the floor. "Do you have anyone you love, Major?"

"Yes." I'm not sure what compels me to elaborate, but I do: "My brother."

"Cherish him," he advises.

"I do."

He laughs with a peculiar...I don't know. Fatalism? "It's equivalent trade, Major," he says, turning his head to look at me from the corner of his eye. "Do you honestly think that we'd be able to kill for so long without being punished? He gives us grief for our grief. Misery for misery. Cherish your brother while you can."

I look down at him. It's easy enough to get what he's getting at. "I don't believe in God, Mr. Mustang."

"I didn't, either," he says.

There was something... "Who did you lose?"

Evidently, that's a topic that's off-limits. "Fuck you," he responds, and attempts once again to free himself. I try desperately to think back to that report.

"Colonel Maes Hughes," I manage. His body jerks visibly. "Shot during the Ishvar uprising."

He's silent a while, then, reluctantly, adds, "And Riza Hawkeye. Captured and executed." He either laughs or sobs. "Neither of them deserved to die. They were both...Maes was engaged, and Riza...she was so...young, and...When they died – that was when I started to believe in God."

Cruel God. "That was when you deserted, too, wasn't it?"

"I couldn't...stand to see people die around me, by my own hand, or...I couldn't stand it."

I can understand that, I think. I can understand why he'd run from it. But – I can't – there are things I need to do. "I'm sorry," is all I can say.

He turns his face toward the ground again, and slowly shakes his head. "It's not your fault," he responds. Then he looks at me again. "Get out while you can," he says. "Forget the Stone."

"I can't."

"Please," he pleads. "Can't you live with automail?"

He's pretty good. I guess he figured it out when I grabbed him. "It's not for me," I explain.

He thinks for a moment. "Your brother?"

He's really good. "Yeah."

"Then look for it yourself," he tells me. "You don't need the military."

"I do, though. I don't even know where to start without them."

"You can figure something out." A lot of confidence, coming from a man who'd never met me before. "I hope you do," he adds. That sounds a bit more reasonable. "If you stay in the military, Major...Have you killed?"

Oh. "No..."

He nodded. "Get out before you have to," he advises. "The smell...All the water in the world can't get rid of the smell. And the dreams you'll have..." A smile steals over his face, beatific but for the sorrow. "You'll never sleep again," he says.

Oh, god. It was...a hideous thing, to give him back to the military. "Okay," I mutter, bending over him. "You know what? I'm done. No more. Congratulations, Lieutenant Colonel; you've convinced me."

I clap my hands and press them to the ground. The floor releases him, and he rolls onto his back and sits up, rubbing at his wrists and breathing. He looks kind of sick. God – I did that to him? God.

"Have a nice life, Mr. Mustang," I say. "Appreciate it. I'm giving up the Philosopher's Stone for you."

He doesn't look at me. "I – " It takes him a moment before he admits, painfully, "I said all that...for a purpose."

I restrain a "duh," settling instead for a sarcastic, "I'm not an idiot."

"I meant it, though," he says, looking up. "You need to get out."

I can't, you idiot. I have too much left to do. "I'll think about it."

He nods and gathers up his glove, then smiles a smile that is, for the first time, quite genuine. "You're a good kid," he says.

"Don't call me a kid," I snap back. He laughs.

"Young man, then?" he asks, almost tauntingly. I flip him the bird, and he laughs harder. For a moment, I can see who he used to be – the brash soldier in the picture who actually had the balls to smirk for his official portrait. Lord. Maybe killing really did change you that much.

"Is there a back way?" I ask. He nods. "You should go out the back way. Avoid the soldiers I have with me."

"Both of them?" he asks sardonically.

"All four, thank you."

He grins and stands up as I do. "Give my regards to Colonel Marco, if you know him," he says.

I snort. "He's my commanding officer," I say. He starts a little again. "You honestly want me to mention this to him?"

"He sent you to find me?" Mustang asks, all his previous good humor gone. He grits his jaw as I nod, but the storm soon passes, and he holds out his hand. "Never mind, then."

I take his hand. "It's been good meeting you, Lieutenant Colonel Mustang," I say to him.

"I'm glad that there are still people like you around, Major...?"

"Elric."

"Elric," he repeats, and releases me. "For more than one reason."

He takes a deep breath, turns away, and seems to gather himself, then looks back and gives me a sarcastic little salute. I wave to him, and he disappears through a doorway in the rear of the room. I pick up his watch, and go out the door opposite that one.

"Nothing," I declare in disgust to those assembled, and gesture back inside at the vast men who were waiting out there. "Go on, then."

"Nothing?" asks Fury, his eyebrows raised. "You were in there a terribly long time for nothing."

"And we saw a transmutation," Falman adds, watching the men filing back inside.

I shrug. "Bastard of a barkeep took exception to the military. Thought it'd be a good idea to fuck with me. I thought it might be fun to get some practice in," I add with a grin which, I think, is sufficiently feral. "Who the hell gave us that tip, anyway?"

"Someone we won't be paying attention to again," Havoc says, crushing his cigarette underfoot with a grunt of disgust. "Place is a pit."

"No joke," I say, shaking my head. "Ready to head out?"

"Definitely," Breda says, decisively stepping back into the car. I'm about to get in when Havoc catches me by the arm.

"The tall one was the bartender, you know, boss," he mutters.

"Which tall one?" I ask, innocently. "They all seemed pretty tall."

He lets me go and shrugs. "I'm just saying, is all," he says, and opens the door for me.

I spot a flash of white out of the corner of my eye as I'm getting in, but when I look, it's disappeared. I settle back in my seat. A cynical part of me can't help but wonder – is this, then, how Mustang escaped detection, all this time? He even admitted that he was manipulating me.

No. I think – for the most part, I think he was honest. And that's a tragedy, really, in its own way. Because even despite all he told me, I'm going forward. I don't have a choice. Maybe he was trying to save me, when he told me the truth as he saw it, but I'm going to have to see the truth as I see it, or it'll never be mine.