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Mustang awoke to find himself on the floor of his room in Gloria's Inn, his hands aching and throbbing in pain. When he looked, he found that the tattoos on the backs of his hands had changed colour. They were no longer the sickly brown-red of dried blood. Instead they were bright shining things, the colour of yellow gold.
He stared briefly, turning his hands back and forth as the pain faded. The sunlight shining in the window struck them, and for a moment the lines and circles seemed to glow as he watched. Then the memory of the previous night's dreams returned, wrenching him out of his wondering stare, and the glow disappeared as Mustang shuddered in horror.
"Okay Roy," he muttered to himself, "time to face reality. There was something in your head last night. Whether or not it was a homunculus is up for debate, but there was definitely something there. Based on last night's little horror show, it may or may not be gone. So-"
A knock at the door interrupted Mustang's conversation with himself.
When he opened it, Mustang found the hostel's owner Gloria with her hand upraised, ready to knock again. She smiled at him.
"Good morning! I'm sorry to disturb you, but we do require guests to have left by twelve o' clock," the landlady announced. "It's half eleven now," she added, seeing Mustang's confused expression.
Mustang blinked. Half eleven? He'd slept that late? Well, if you could call last night's activities sleep, he thought wryly.
"I'll be up and out in ten minutes, Ma'am," he assured the grey-haired woman, before turning around in search of his rucksack.
When he turned back to the door, Gloria was still standing there, the look on her face somewhere between concerned and sheepish.
Mustang raised an eyebrow. "Something I can help you with, Ma'am?"
"Not to pry," she said, "but, er, there wasn't any. . . trouble, was there? The guest in the room next to you said he'd heard noises during the night. Someone shouting, he said."
"Really?" Mustang replied, widening his eyes in apparent confusion. "That's odd. I didn't hear a thing."
"Oh," Gloria said awkwardly. "Well, I'm sure it was nothing then. Perhaps the poor boy was imagining things. He was very tired when he came in."
"That's probably it," he agreed. "Now, how much do I owe you?"
In his little corner of the Flame Alchemist's mind, Envy cursed venomously. He had been so close! He had actually been in control of his host's body, ready to go out and wreak absolute havoc on the unsuspecting world, only to have it wrenched away from him. He had thought Mustang was trapped permanently in his own nightmares, only to have the man toss him out on his ass when Envy had entered the dream to torment him.
Still, he comforted himself, at least I know that it's possible now. I've done it once, so I can do it again. I just need to wait for the optimum time, so that when I take control of this body, the human won't be able to take it back. And then Hohenheim, I'll kill you. After I kill the pipsqueak and the tin can while you and Flame-boy watch.
The night hadn't been a total loss, the homunculus decided. After all, the brief free pass into the mind of his host had resulted in him gleaning quite a bit of knowledge. Such as the fact that the Fullmetal Alchemist was still hanging around. Dead, ghostly and ethereal (which Envy rejoiced in knowing), but still a damn sight more free than the homunculus was, considering Elric apparently had the ability to speak to both versions of the Flame Alchemist face to face.
This was going to make things tricky, Envy decided. From what he'd seen in Mustang's memories, the younger Flame Alchemist appeared to be a naïve moron, but with the older pipsqueak backing him up, the blasted pyromaniac was likely to become more dangerous and inconvenient to Danté's plan much faster than the version that Envy was stuck with had.
Envy let out a frustrated mental sigh.
In the end, after several hours wandering aimlessly around Liore looking for anyone headed east, Mustang figured that his best chance of finding a guide east to Ishbal and then to Xerxes was to go back and talk to Groob, the old station guard. The old man had struck him as one of those people who, if they didn't know someone who could help, then at least knew someone else who did.
It was almost dark by the time he reached the station again, but Groob was still there, and sure enough, the old man was able to point him in the direction of a local tavern, whose barman was an old friend of Groob's and Groob assured him, ' a never endin' fountain o' information, sonny. He'll set ye right'.
So Mustang made his way to the Green Lion and asked for Carl, who turned out to be an old man clearly made from the same mould as Groob: cheerful, slightly drunk and fond of talk.
It took the old barman perhaps an hour to find someone travelling east, during which Mustang made the most of the fact that he was currently in a bar and treated himself to a long awaited drink of alcohol. The beer wasn't particularly strong and was rather bitterer than he'd have liked, but since he'd not been able to stop for a drink since being in Central, Mustang made do.
He was almost finished it when Carl caught his eye and gestured towards a table near the back of the room. Mustang nodded back, drained the last of his drink and walked over to the table with Carl following him, while the old man's son, who had been lounging on a stool in the corner, covered the bar for his father.
"This is Damon," Carl announced, introducing Mustang to the dark-skinned man sitting at the table. He was a bespectacled man in his mid-to-late twenties, with the signature white hair and red eyes of his people. "He an' his brother are headin' home t'Ishbal tomorrow mornin'. Damon, this is Roy. He's lookin' to find someone to travel east with. He's interested in them ruins out in the Eastern Desert."
"The ruins of Xerxes?" Damon asked enthusiastically, his eyes lighting up. "Truly? It's a pleasure to meet a fellow scholar. I'm glad to make your acquaintance, Roy."
Mustang nodded genially, but decided that this was probably not the best time to offer his alchemically tattooed hands for a shake. "Pleasure's all mine," he said with a smile. "You're quite a ways from home, aren't you?"
Damon nodded. "Yes. I came west to study the Amestrian culture and to find out more about alchemy if I could as well. The texts back home are woefully lacking in information."
Mustang looked at him in surprise. "I was given to understand that the Ishbalan people believe alchemy to be ungodly."
"Most do. But I believe in studying all knowledge," Damon laughed. "Not just that which the priests think is worthy. I've never been very religious." He looked around mock-furtively. "But don't tell my younger brother that."
"Ah. He is religious, I take it?"
"Studying to become one of the Dei'Ka," Damon admitted with a grin.
"The warrior priests," Mustang remembered, doing his best to suppress a shudder at the word. The Dei'Ka, Ishbal's order of warrior priests had been by far the most skilled and most vicious of the Ishbalan fighters during the civil war. One had once come within a hairsbreadth of taking Mustang's head off with a scimitar. He'd survived the encounter only because of Hawkeye's almost inhuman aiming skills.
"Exactly," Damon said cheerfully, blind to Mustang's sudden unease. "Don't worry, he won't lecture at you much. As long as you're not an alchemist, anyway. You're not, are you?"
"No," Mustang lied, quickly shoving his conspicuously tattooed hands in his pockets. He made a mental note to buy a plain pair of gloves, or at least find some strips of cloth to wrap around his hands. "Just a historian with too much time on his hands who's interested in the Xerxian ruins."
"Aw. Shame," Damon grinned playfully. "I'd like the chance to speak to a real alchemist. I haven't been able to find any in this town. You know, I described some alchemy to the people here and they thought I was talking about magic. Kinda nuts, huh?"
"Crazy," Mustang agreed.
"I suppose it's probably just as well," Damon said regretfully. "Little brother would have had a fit if he'd caught me talking to an alchemist." He looked past Mustang's shoulder and grinned broadly. "And here he comes now. Hello Brother. Look! I've found us a travelling companion. He's on his way east to study the ruins of Xerxes. Isn't that fascinating?"
There was a noncommittal grunt from behind Mustang and he turned to look at his other prospective travelling companion . . . and froze.
Mustang knew that it was difficult for humans to tell individuals in other races apart, the way they would the people of the race they were raised amongst. He was usually better at it than others, though. Even so, the Ishbalan race was an exception for him. After the Civil War, Ishbalan faces in his memories tend to be conflated in a mass of accusing red eyes and screams for mercy and howls of hatred.
But Damon's younger brother's face was still unmistakeable, even a decade younger and missing the pale x-shape across his forehead.
It was Scar.
"Good evening, Ma'am."
Gloria looked up from the table that she was cleaning and found a large blond-bearded man smiling at her hopefully. She wrinkled her nose as the smell of his aftershave wafted towards her, and then wondered why a man with such an impressive beard was using aftershave.
"I'm sorry to arrive here so late," he said apologetically, "but the child and I have only just arrived in town and we have nowhere to stay. I wonder if you could perhaps provide us with lodging?" He indicated a young Ishbalan girl who was standing shyly behind him.
Gloria looked the girl over suspiciously. "Separate rooms?" she asked as innocently as possible.
"Please," the man answered, anger creeping into his voice. "We've just come across the desert and my assistant badly needs some rest." He stressed the girl's status meaningfully, narrowing his eyes at the hostel owner.
Gloria flushed in embarrassment. "Of course, of course, no trouble," she assured him placatingly. "Just a moment please."
As she turned away to fetch the requested sets of room keys, Gloria heard the girl ask, "Why was she looking at me funny?"
"I'm sure I have no idea, child," the blond man replied quickly. He sounded just about as awkward as Gloria felt.
"Yes you do!" the girl insisted. "You just don't want to tell me. And I thought you said you were going to stop calling me child. My name is Alya!"
"And my name is not Heimy, yet you insist upon calling me that," the man pointed out tranquilly.
"But when I asked, you said that was better than Hoho!"
The man identified as Heimy let out a long-suffering sigh.
Fuhrer King Bradley stood in his office in Central Command and looked out the window, surveying the flow and ebb of the human tide around the military's headquarters. Beside him, an old woman sat in an armchair, a cup of tea and a saucer to hand.
"So, Master," the Fuhrer asked, "What did you think of this year's candidates?"
Danté hummed. "They were . . . interesting," she decided. "That young rogue Kimbley was certainly promising. He could help advance my plans for Ishbal a great deal. Yes, indeed. When the time is right, you will be able to wield that particular weapon with devastating force."
Bradley nodded. "What about the Mustang boy?" he asked. "His talents are impressive, no? Not to mention they could be just as effective against crowds as Kimbley's, if not more so."
Danté nodded thoughtfully. "True . . . but there is something . . . odd about him as well."
"What do you mean, Master?"
Danté tilted her head to the side and squinted at the distant setting sun. "I am . . . unsure," she admitted. "Just that when I saw him during the State Examinations, something felt . . .off."
"Should I have one of the others keep an eye on him?" Bradley asked.
Danté let out a ladylike snort. "My dear, since we lost the last Lust, 'the others' consist of Envy and Gluttony, and dear Envy is busy in the north having fun with the Drachmans. That just leaves Gluttony. So, no. Leave young Mustang alone for now. I do not want such a promising boy to be killed and eaten just yet."
Bradley bowed. "As you wish, Master."