First: infinite thanks to Roaming Fool, who beta'd this chapter!
This story takes place in the anime-verse, after the movie. So the "minor spoilers" will be for those who haven't seen the movie.
This is the first chapter of a nine-chapter story. I wanted to start getting something up here, even though there may yet be some changes. Any changes to this particular chapter will only be cosmetic, however, so I think I can put it up while the next ones are still being edited.
Chapter 1 – A Deep Problem
The way tales told it later, Roy Mustang returned from his self-imposed exile purely out of the goodness of his heart and in service to his country, to try to save the world. And only reluctantly did he accept all the honours and rank that the new parliament pressed upon him in eternal gratitude.
Those who attended parliament that day, as well as those who knew Mustang better, smiled ruefully and added some details that never got into the first story.
He had stood with casual assurance on the audience floor at the base of the circularassembly hall, the members of parliament ranged in solemn rows above him in the bowl of the amphitheatre, while attending citizens watched from the gallery above them. A hand in one pocket, the other gesturing to emphasize his points, he described in crisp detail what must be done to destroy the huge transmutation circle in the dead city underneath Central, so that a conquering invasion from the other world could never happen again.
As he spoke, the late morning sun began to slant in from the topmost row of windows in the eastern wall of the building. By the time he had finished, a swath of brilliant light illuminated him, emphasizing the clean lines of his uniform and the calm confidence of his stance, while everything around him melted into vague shadow.
Up in the gallery, his former subordinates, Lieutenants Hawkeye and Havoc, glanced knowingly at each other.
"Manipulative bastard, isn't he?" Havoc murmured approvingly. Hawkeye's lips twitched in response, though she said nothing.
And when the prime minister asked what he would require in return for destroying the alchemic circle and making Central safe again, Mustang had smiled – in that narrow, self-assured way he had, eyes downcast (or rather, eye downcast, since one ruined eye was now covered by a patch) – and had coolly requested a return of all honours, rank, and status that he had given up after the disappearance of the Fuhrer and the formation of the new government.
An astonished murmur had rippled throughout the assembly as the prime minister watched the man. Mustang hadn't moved, maintaining his relaxed demeanour, calmly awaiting the governing body's decision. He appeared ready to accept either agreement or refusal with equal tranquility. But they knew – and most importantly, so did he – that they were virtually at his mercy.
Lieutenant-Colonel Alex Louis Armstrong, who had stood just behind the man during the entire proceeding, always maintained that the Flame Alchemist would have undertaken the task no matter what parliament's response had been. Mustang's subordinates staunchly agreed. But even they would chuckle, and admit that the scene was exactly what you'd have expected from him. He always had conducted his career with a certain arrogant flair.
Those who still missed the old regime and had not forgotten Mustang's part in the demise of the Fuhrer were not pleased at his revived heroic status and parliament's uncomfortable role of supplicant. They muttered in the background that the man was finally doing very well for himself despite his part in Bradley's overthrow. Two years' exile hadn't been much of a price to pay, had it?
In the end, though, the dissenting voices were completely silenced, while the tale of the "selfless" alchemist took hold in the public imagination. And the odd thing was that those who knew him, despite the details they could add to the story, claimed that the popular tale was ultimately the true one after all. Roy Mustang loved his country – loved his world, in fact -- despite all he had suffered for them, and would be willing to give his very life's blood in their service, whether or not he received anything in return.
Still, in the weeks after the Elric brothers had crossed the Gate to the world on the other side, everything was restored to him: his rank as general, his certification as a State Alchemist, his wealth, his reputation, medals, honour – everything. Whatever he asked for in those weeks was given to him without question. He had already helped save the world once, and nobody was going to begrudge anything he wanted as he strove to make it permanently safe.
The process began when he made his way down for the first time to the underground cavern, to view the buried city. He took Armstrong with him, along with Hawkeye and Havoc, as well as the others who had served under his command before his absence, and had now returned to his company: Falman, Breda, and Fuery.
Mustang and Armstrong halted at the top of the path, gazing down in stunned silence at the panorama spread before them. The cavern curved around in a bowl shape, the dead city filling the bowl, its buildings tilting drunkenly toward the open square in the centre as they rose up the sides. The original lines of streets and avenues were still visible, and the boulevards where long-dead trees had marched down the middle of main roads. The higher the buildings rose up the sides of the vast bowl, the more they stood in shadow.
There was one wide swath of light that slashed in at an angle from the jagged hole that had been blasted into the cavern roof by the escaping ships of the invaders. But apart from that, the stone in the high, arching roof gave off a silvery sheen that lit the centre of the city almost as brightly as daylight and made the path clear before the observers' feet. The dust glittered as they disturbed it, and the edges of their shadows seemed to shimmer at the edges.
"That light has an odd quality to it...," Armstrong murmured.
"I can feel it," Mustang answered, his voice falling into the silence as though muffled by blankets. "It makes my skin crawl."
The group proceeded down the curving path in silence. There was a heavy quality to this place that quelled any impulse to speak. The buildings were perfectly intact, as though one could glance into any window and expect to see people going about their normal lives inside. But they were dead and empty, and a deathly hush lay over everything. The sound of the intruders' footfalls seemed to absorb into the dead air, thickening around them like an aural fog as they made their way down toward the bottom of the bowl.
The air was dry and equally lifeless, all growth and even decay having shrivelled and disappeared from this cavern centuries ago. As the visitors breathed, it seemed to suck the moisture from their mouths and lungs, and when they swallowed afterward, they could taste sterile dust.
When they emerged into the huge centre square, with the city rising in tilted rows all around, it seemed to loom above with an almost physical, oppressive weight, as though ready to collapse on top of them. Yet on the way down, Armstrong had detoured a couple of times to test the stability of a few buildings that tilted especially precariously, and had discovered that all were fixed and stable despite appearances.
The group approached the gigantic transmutation circle and paused at the edge. Fuery bent to reach a curious hand toward one of the lines on the pavement.
"Don't touch that!" Mustang barked.
Fuery jerked his hand back and stood up. "Sorry, sir," he muttered. "Sorry."
"I just don't want to risk something happening to you, that's all," Mustang explained, touching his shoulder briefly. "Best to stay back till we know it's safe, all right?" He paced a few steps along the boundary of the circle, Armstrong walking in the other direction, each peering at the patterns of the array.
Havoc turned slowly around and around, gazing up at the buildings surrounding them in rising tiers. "An entire city," he mused. "It doesn't even look like it collapsed in an earthquake. No cracks in the ground, no broken buildings...though there is that tilt, the higher up you go. But how did it get down here? How can you sink a whole city into a cavern like this, without any damage to it?"
"It was pulled down here, deliberately," Mustang said.
"But how? How could it be done at all, deliberately or not?"
His commander's eye fixed itself on him, and Havoc felt the hair beginning to stand up on the back of his neck. "Alchemy," was all the man said, before returning to his study of the surroundings. But after a moment he added quietly, as though to himself, "Never trust anyone who has lived for such a very long time."
"Who do you mean, sir? The homunculi?" Hawkeye asked.
"I'm not sure. It's something Hohenheim said to me. He seemed to be talking about the homunculi, but...I think he meant more than that."
Mustang stepped into the array, bending slightly to trace the path of its lines, moving back and forth across the circle. Armstrong joined him inside it, walking a slightly different path as he, too, carefully observed how the lines were arranged.
"This place gives me the creeps," Breda muttered, hunching into himself as though he could feel the weight of the buildings bearing down on him.
"Try to think of something else, Breda," Havoc said absently, still surveying the lines of the streets rising above him.
"Think of something else. Right. Never would have thought of that," Breda rolled his eyes.
Mustang went down on one knee, calling, "Armstrong, come here. Let's activate this array, and get a better idea what it does."
"Activate, sir?" Falman shifted his feet uneasily. "Won't that open the Gate again?"
"I don't think so. But we'll stop before it can go that far." Mustang glanced at Armstrong as the big man bent beside him. "I wish there'd been time for Al to tell me more about this array before he had to jump across."
He pressed one palm into the circle, Armstrong's hands flattening on either side of his. The lines began to glow, and the two men closed their eyes as though needing to close down the outer senses to concentrate on the inner.
"It's...very complex...," Mustang whispered.
Armstrong nodded. "It would have to be. But...wait." He frowned. "What is this – "
Mustang leapt to his feet, staggering away, hunching over and retching violently. Armstrong strode to his side, throwing an arm about his shoulders. With the other he waved Hawkeye sternly back, as she thrust to the edge of the array.
"Hawkeye – stay away!" Mustang managed to gasp. He might have his back to her at the moment, but he knew her very well. "Just – just give me a minute. I'm fine." He pulled away from Armstrong, leaning over with his hands on his knees. He took a few long, scraping breaths, trying to calm the dry heaving of his body.
Hawkeye felt a firm hand on her arm, and tried to tug out of Havoc's grip. He said tersely, "I'm sure the chief can handle this. If he's reacting this way by standing on that thing, I don't think you want to know what might happen to you if you walk on it."
"I know, but..." She bit her lip, then nodded. "Yes. Of course you're right. For now."
At last Roy straightened, taking control of himself. But he could barely mask the revulsion on his face as he turned back to Armstrong. "You felt it...?" It was half-statement, half-question.
"I did," Armstrong nodded with a grimace. "It's an abomination."
For some reason, Roy was gazing up at the buildings again, scanning them, up and up as far as they climbed. "That's why it's empty." His voice shook and he swallowed, as though on the verge of gagging again. "That's what happened..."
"But who could have done it?" Armstrong burst out. "To commit such abomination – such, such monstrosity – "
"Lieutenant-Colonel." Roy stopped him with a hand on his arm. Then he turned to face his subordinates, still lined up along the edge of the circle, watching anxiously. "All of you. I need to know who else has been in this place, or who knew about it. Ed came here, and never returned until the Gate opened recently from the other world. Did anyone come back to the surface after he vanished? Aside from Al? Who would have known anything about what happened when Ed came here?"
"Maybe Ed's teacher," Havoc ventured. "She was an alchemist. What was her name...?"
"Izumi," Hawkeye supplied. "But she died recently."
"Think," Roy urged them, stepping closer to the edge of the circle. "It wouldn't have to have been an alchemist. Al reappeared as a ten-year old boy with no memory of how he got here. How did he find his way out?"
"Rose," Armstrong remembered. "The girl Rose, from Lior. She was here, and took the boy home."
"Good. That's the kind of information I need. Is she in Lior now?"
"Only recently. She lived with the Rockbells for a while after Edward disappeared."
The Rockbells. Mustang shared a glance with Hawkeye at the edge of the circle. "I see," was all he said, however. "Then she may have told them something as well. We'll stop in there, on our way to Lior."
"We won't need to, sir," Falman interjected. "Winry Rockbell is here, in Central."
"Are you sure? What would she be doing here?"
"She came to find Ed. She brought him a new set of automail. Though I don't know how she knew he was going to show up."
"I called her, actually," Mustang said. "Before I came to Central myself. But never mind that. How do you know she's still here?"
"I saw her in Sciezka's office yesterday. She said she's staying for another week."
"Then that might save some time. Winry might have enough information that I won't need to speak with Rose."
They left the underground cavern shortly thereafter. Havoc walked up the path just ahead of the two alchemists. He didn't actually plan to eavesdrop, especially since they weren't talking about much more than the composition of the stone that made up the high roof. But he almost couldn't help listening when Armstrong's voice suddenly dropped in volume.
"You know this isn't going to be as straightforward as we thought, Roy."
"I know. It goes so deep..."
Their footsteps fell in a measured pace, the sound quickly muffled and absorbed into the heavy atmosphere.
"Do you even need to speak with Miss Rockbell?" Armstrong continued. "You must already know what went on here."
"I know some of it. Maybe I'm hoping she'll tell me it wasn't as bad as I think it was."
Havoc found himself straining to listen now. What could Winry Rockbell possibly know, and what was it about this place that had the two greatest alchemists in Amestris so worried?
"But you felt what I felt. There's not much chance that we're mistaken," Armstrong insisted.
A short silence. "I know," Mustang said quietly.
When they reached the sanctuary at the top of the stairs, he issued crisp instructions. "We've got a lot of work ahead of us, people, so listen carefully. Breda, I need you to talk to the munitions people. Find out how quickly we'll be able to get a very large amount of explosives."
"Just how large, sir?"
"Maybe enough to level the underground city."
Breda gaped. "The city? The entire city?"
"I'm not sure yet. But take them down with you, and get an estimate. I need it in the next four or five days. No, make it a week."
"Falman." Roy moved to the next task. "I need maps of Central. I want you and Fuery to compare them to the location and dimensions of the underground city. Then go down there and scout its upper edges, for other exits. If there are any openings aside from this one," he indicated the stairwell behind them, "I want to know about them. I also want to know exactly what parts of Central are sitting on top of the cavern roof. If we do shake things up down there, we'll need to reinforce buildings up here."
"Yes, sir," Falman saluted.
Mustang turned to Havoc. "I want you to requisition several work crews. Five or six crews, twenty or thirty people per team. As many as you can get on short notice. We'll need a couple of engineers and munitions experts per team. If you can get some people right away to help Falman and Fuery scout the city, so much the better. But I'd like all teams ready to roll in two weeks, if we don't need to go to Lior."
"I'll get right on it, chief."
"Hawkeye, find Winry Rockbell, and ask if she'd be willing to speak to me. I'll give you the name of a café where we can meet with some privacy. Tomorrow, if she'd like. Tell her that lunch is on me."
"And Hawkeye..." This, as she had already turned to go.
"Sir?" She paused, raising a questioning eyebrow.
Roy's voice softened. "This is a request to her, not a command. If she doesn't want to see me, I'll accept that. Be kind to her."
Their eyes held, till Riza nodded. "I understand. I'll make sure she knows."
"Thank you." He sustained the look a moment longer, then turned away. "Now. You all have work to do. Lieutenant-Colonel Armstrong and I will start planning how to destroy that array."
"General Mustang, sir?" Fuery ventured. "I don't really get it. Is it really so hard to destroy the array? Can't you just...I don't know...erase it somehow?"
"With most arrays, yes. But this one..." Mustang paused, weighing his words. "This one isn't just painted on the stones. It...goes deeper than that. It's going to be complicated. But I'll explain later, when we have more details."
They began to disperse to their various tasks while Armstrong and Mustang stayed back, to continue their earlier discussion. Hawkeye took a few steps toward the exit, but hesitated, looking over her shoulder.
"Riza," Havoc said. "It's okay to leave him for a while. You don't need to protect him any more."
Still she hesitated, until Roy himself glanced up and fell silent. After a moment he murmured, "Go. I'm fine." Only then did she turn, to walk wordlessly out of the sanctuary as the general watched her go.
Havoc found the other men outside the building, preparing to disperse to their appointed jobs. But he seemed to have walked into the middle of a conversation, and Fuery immediately commandeered him for his opinion.
"He's changed, don't you think, Lieutenant? General Mustang, I mean. Don't you think he's different?"
"I don't," Breda said. "He's as good as ever at giving orders."
"Well," Havoc drawled, "that's his job, isn't it?"
"Yes, but there's more to it than that," Fuery insisted. "He seems... nicer. Or at least, he's more willing to explain things. I don't know, I can't really describe it. It's just a feeling I have."
"Maybe he's right, Breda," Havoc said. "Remember when we visited him at that god-forsaken outpost? When he talked about giving up alchemy because every time he tried to use it, he thought of all the people who had died because of him? He'd never have told us something like that, before."
"Well...maybe," Breda conceded.
Havoc thought again of Hawkeye's hesitation a few moments ago, and the general's response to it. Mustang wasn't the only one who had been subtly changed after the events of two years ago. He suddenly wondered if he himself had undergone similar changes, without realizing it.
"Anyway." He brought himself back to the conversation. "It doesn't matter that much. We've still got work to do, don't we? Better get at it, all of you."
"See?" Breda said triumphantly. "He's still a slave driver, and he's turning you into one too. I suppose that means you don't want to draw straws either?"
Fuery said, "We're picking whoever is going to try to find out what the general talks to Winry Rockbell about."
"Why bother," Havoc smirked, "if Mustang is supposed to be much better at explaining things lately?"
"Well, we may think he's changed a bit, but we're not stupid," Fuery answered.
"Besides," Havoc added, "we don't need to draw straws. We'll just send Falman back to Sciezka's office to get the scoop. Winry's bound to tell her everything."
Three sets of eyes fixed themselves on Falman, who was already slumping glumly. Havoc slapped him on the back. "Piece of cake, right?" He put on his best Roy Mustang imitation. "Get on it, Falman. I'll want the information in three days – no, make that two." He pulled a cigarette from his pocket and stuck it jauntily between his lips. "Now, I don't know about you shirkers, but I have things to do."
He sauntered off, heading for the military headquarters. Nope, he thought, no change here. I'm still the same guy I've always been.