It didn't take long for Ed, Archer and Armstrong to reach the hotel where the Führer said he would be. And when they walked inside, they saw that King Bradley was seated on one of the armchairs in the main hall, already waiting for them.
"Ah," Bradley said with a big smile on his face. "I see you didn't take long. Good work, gentlemen."
Armstrong and Archer didn't say anything. Ed however, raised an eyebrow full of curiosity. "I was told you wanted to see me, Sir," he said.
"Quite right, Major Elric," Bradley said with a nod. He turned to the other two soldiers and waved his hand, showing in this way that they were dismissed; whatever he meant to say to Ed, it was for the boy's ears alone.
Armstrong and Archer understood perfectly. Without saying a word, they saluted and remained where they were, whereas Ed and Bradley walked up to the room that the Führer had booked in the meantime.
"It's nice to see you well," Bradley commented once the door was closed. He took a seat in the centre of the room, regarding Ed through his good eye.
"Yeah… Thank you, Sir," Ed said, suddenly feeling quite nervous; he never liked it when the Führer was scrutinising him like that.
"I have to admit that I was surprised to hear that you were here," Bradley continued on. "Did you come to break into any labs in the South as well?"
"Uh… no," Ed answered, swallowing hard. He could handle being teased like that from Mustang, but now he had to bite his tongue in order not to retort rudely.
On the other hand, he couldn't exactly say that he was practically kidnapped, no matter how true it was. So, he decided to skip the details.
"My Teacher actually lives here."
"Oh?" Bradley certainly sounded intrigued. "Judging by her student, I have to guess she must be quite remarkable."
"You've got that part right, Sir," Ed said. And terrifying too, he added mentally.
"It's a shame that she didn't sign on as a State Alchemist. She would have been quite the valuable asset."
Ed didn't say anything to that, because it was then that he recalled the time when Al had said something like that to their Teacher on their first meeting.
Her reply had been a fist landing on Al's head and an angry: "WHO ARE YOU CALLING A STATE ALCHEMIST?"
Ed winced at the memory.
Yes, she would be a valuable asset all right – if the army had a death wish.
"Your Excellency has more than enough men under his service, ready to obey every command," Ed said evasively.
"And yet the list grows thinner with each passing day," Bradley said.
Ed frowned, not expecting that kind of answer. "What do you mean, Sir?"
"Oh my," Bradley said, acting quite surprised. "I see you haven't heard the news then."
To say that Ed was now curious would have been an understatement. "What news?"
Bradley didn't answer at once though. He crossed his arms in discomfort, and he bowed his head in what seemed to be regret. "I'm afraid I'm in the most unpleasant position to inform you that your friend, former Lieutenant Colonel Hughes, is dead."
All Ed could do at first was stare at the Führer dumbly, thinking that his ears played tricks on him. "I-I'm sorry… what?"
Bradley spoke kindly now, as though trying to be as gentle about this as possible. "Maes Hughes is no more. He was killed on duty."
Ed didn't know what to say. What was he supposed to say?
"But… He was fine when I left. He even waved goodbye…"
"And a few hours later, he was murdered."
That was all that Ed could take standing. Feeling his limbs betraying him, he collapsed on an armchair nearby, his jaw slack. He tried to form words, but it proved a much more difficult task than he had expected. In the end, all he managed to utter was:
"What the hell?"
And then anger washed through him, which made him ask a different kind of question.
Bradley sighed. "We're not sure. However, considering the recent events, it probably has to do with the philosopher's stone."
Ed swallowed hard, understanding what Bradley was telling him.
Someone deemed Hughes was too deeply involved in the investigation considering the stone, so they silenced him.
Silenced him only because he was trying to help the boys.
"Damn it…" Ed rested his head against his automail hand and closed his eyes tightly in an attempt to control his emotions. "It's my fault."
"It was because of me…" Ed continued, shaking his head. "I… I pulled him into this."
"You did nothing of the sort," Bradley said. "Brigadier General Hughes knew the danger and yet he decided to face it."
"But he had a family! And…a good friend," Ed froze, because it was then that the thought occurred to him. "Has Colonel Mustang been informed?" he asked, his eyes now wide-open.
"Oh…" Ed lowered his gaze. "I see."
Bradley sighed and regarded Ed with as much of a softened expression as a hardened leader of the State was allowed to have. "I'm sorry. When I came here I didn't expect I would be the bearer of such grievous news."
"Then why did you come, Sir?" Ed asked. He now sounded quite tired.
"Because of what's been happening in the East, in the area of Liore."
"Liore?" Yes, Ed remembered the city quite well, even though he had visited it more than a year ago. He'd had to convince its citizens – among them a young girl – that the spiritual leader that they believed in with such passionate faith was nothing more than a con-man. "I thought everything was well there."
"No, mister Elric," Bradley said with a shake of his head. "Unfortunately, there has been a civil war after Father Cornello's disappearance, and for all the military's efforts, things only got from bad to worse. In fact, what started as a local conflict has quickly evolved into a full-scale war. You know, of course, what that means, young Elric."
Ed winced. Yes, he knew. He was hoping that he would have gotten out of the military before something like that happened but, apparently, it wasn't meant to be.
"Am I to be transferred now?"
"No. But you will be soon, so you'd better start journeying back to Central; you will have to be with your unit when you'll be dispatched to war."
So it has come down to this.
Still, Ed needed some more time here in Dublith; there was the matter of the mysterious boy to be settled after all.
However, Ed knew that he couldn't say that to the Führer.
"Sir, with all due respect, I can't leave yet," he said.
Bradley raised an eyebrow in mild surprise. "Oh? Why is that?"
"My escort, Sergeant Beregond, has set off on an errand I appointed him. I already gave him instructions to meet me here."
The Führer frowned and contemplated matters carefully before answering. "Very well, you may wait for him. But after that, you will have to go straight to Central."
Ed stood up and bowed his head. "Understood, Sir. Thank you."
"Dismissed, Major," Bradley said with a nod.
Ed didn't have to be told twice. As soon as he saluted, he was out of the room and heading for the shop once more.
And yet it was with a heavy heart that he walked away.
Dante stepped out into the porch in order to check out the plants that she was growing there. Judging that they had reached into quite the satisfactory growth, she plucked out several flowers and leaves and put them carefully on her apron. After all, they would serve perfectly as herbal teas.
She was still focused on that task when she got the odd feeling that she was being watched. She turned around, but all saw was a small bird perched on a tree nearby.
She nevertheless smirked knowingly. "My apprentice has gone shopping in town, if that's what you're concerned about."
Understanding what it was told, the little bird glided toward the porch and landed close to Dante. Moments later, light surrounded the animal and Envy appeared in its stead.
"I'll never know how you manage to see through my disguises," he declared, dusting himself.
"It's a mother thing, I suppose," Dante replied with a chuckle. However, her mirth died out almost at once. "For you to be here, it means you have news. Perhaps you want to tell me that you were discovered, too?"
Envy frowned. "No, I wanted to tell you the Elric Brothers are here." He regarded Dante curiously. "Why would you say that? Who was discovered?"
Dante didn't bother to answer; not in words anyway. She just pointed at the direction of the balcony door and inside the mansion.
There, amid the shadows, Envy could clearly see the forms of Lust and Gluttony. They had their heads bowed, as though awaiting some kind of severe punishment.
"Ah, I see." Envy said. "They blundered."
"We were caught off guard!" Lust exclaimed defensively. "This wouldn't have happened if you had bothered to warn us the sergeant had separated from the boys!"
"I would have warned you if I knew about it," Envy said, shrugging.
"So who blundered now?" the female homunculus said venomously.
"Enough!" Dante said, raising a commanding hand. "We have other priorities. And though it was unplanned, Lust and Gluttony's meeting with the sergeant proved educational."
"How?" Envy asked, not really understanding. However, when Dante explained things to him, he raised an eyebrow.
"So… we were about to underestimate our pawns," he commented thoughtfully, before shaking his head. "Still, I think Lust and Gluttony should have killed him while they had the chance. He knows too much; he'll try to stop us."
"Not us, Scar. And if he manages… well, there are plenty of other candidates," Dante said. "It's someone else that we should be worried about presently. Greed's here."
"Really?" Envy said, intrigued. He snorted contemptuously. "Sealed in a prison for more than a century and he still hasn't learned his lesson. So what does he want?"
"I don't know," Dante said. "But I'll certainly not tolerate him on my doorstep."
Al didn't remain idle when Ed was obliged to follow Lieutenant Colonel Archer and Major Armstrong. His brother had already told him what he was supposed to do anyway. And so, just as the sun was about to set, Alphonse found himself hurrying at the butcher shop.
To his surprise – and horror - he saw the boy sitting on the roof.
"What are you doing up there?" he called out.
The boy looked down at him apprehensively. "N-Nothing," he said weakly. "Everyone's gone and I didn't know what to do."
If Al could, he would have winced. Everyone got so concerned about Izumi that they forgot all about him.
"Look, I'm coming up. Will that be okay with you?"
The boy blinked a couple of times, certainly not expecting that kind of question. "Um… yeah… I guess."
And so, minutes later, Al was sitting on the roof right beside the boy, desperately trying to find a way to ask him what he had in mind. After all, it was a bit silly to say: You know, that's funny, my brother used to have two limbs like yours. Did you by any chance get them from a big gate thingy where the dead linger?
In the end, it was the boy that got him out of that embarrassing position.
"Why am I so different from you?"
Al stared at the boy. "What do you mean?"
The boy pursed his lips in an attempt to find the correct words. "Your voice sounds like mine, and yet you're huge and metallic."
"Oh," Al said. "This is not my real body. I lost that one a long time ago."
"And the one you call 'Brother'? He's metallic too."
"Yeah," Al replied softly. "He lost his arm and leg too."
The boy frowned, trying to comprehend what he was being told. "So where are they?"
Al felt like he wanted to disappear at that point. But the boy asked the same innocent - and so hurtful – question.
"Where are they?"
Al wasn't sure how much of it he could stand. And so he did the only thing he could do: he diverted the subject.
"Hey… I couldn't help but notice that scar of yours. Where did you get it?"
The boy was certainly confused. "I… don't remember." He swallowed hard. "Is that bad?"
Al tensed before he could help it. Nevertheless, he forced himself to sound quite calm when he said: "No. It's not bad."
He couldn't do it.
He couldn't confront the kid; not like this. The boy didn't remember anything that happened at the gate, very much like Alphonse didn't. That certainly didn't make the boy responsible for his actions.
Still, the question remained: how did his brother's limbs end up being the boy's? One theory that Al came up with was that the limbs were compatible age-wise, but somehow Al wasn't satisfied. He was sure that there was something more involved. The question now was: what?
Perhaps he and Ed could somehow make the boy remember. He didn't know how that was supposed to be done, but they would have to figure something out.
Then again… Ed warned him that the gate was a pretty scary place. That it was a blessing that one couldn't remember their confrontation with it.
So now what were they supposed to do?
It was then that he saw a familiar form approaching the shop. And when he noticed Ed's slumped shoulders and bowed head, he knew that Ed was coming with his own piece of news – bad news.
What he didn't notice were three strange figures standing on the roof of another building several feet away from him and the boy, discussing amongst themselves whether they should attack now that their target was within eyesight.
"No," the huge man, Loa, finally said. "There are too many witnesses. We'll have to find another chance."
"But what are we going to say to Greed?" the smaller man asked.
The lithe woman by the name of Martel answered: "The truth. He might have a better idea in mind."
And with that, they were gone, using the shadows the setting sun provided them as cover.