Chapter 2

Oranges and reds thrown across the sky like spilled paint. The warped, rough wood of the crates he was leaning against. Dried blood on his leg, pain in dull throbs up to his hip. Roy, beside him, a comfortable presence, passing the canteen. Tired gray eyes, but still a small smile reserved for him alone.

"Be careful, Ed."

Edward woke with a snuffle, too warm. The sun was beating down on his shoulders, amplified by the thick glass of his office. Edward's cheek rested on the grate of his automail forearm, and he sighed against it, before he realized he was sleeping sitting at his desk, in his office, and the sun was up.

He sat up quickly, scattering the pages of the report he had been reading when he'd thought to rest his eyes a bit hours before. Several pages stuck together and Edward wiped his mouth furiously while glancing at the clock, horrified. It was already a quarter after nine, why hadn't Hawkeye come in to rouse him in her usual direct way? Edward glanced down at the papers cast all over the desk and some fluttering still to the floor beside his feet.

"Good morning," Russell Tringham said, from where he was seated on one of the couches that sat across from each other in front of Edward's desk. He had his boots on the coffee table, and was flipping through a packet of papers.

Edward blinked at Russell, looked down at his desk, and then back up again. "What the hell are you doin' here?"

Russell flipped another page over in the packet, eyes skimming the information. "You requested this from Colonel Neuhaus," he said. "I was wondering why."

...requested from Colonel Neuhaus...? Edward propped his elbow on the desk, fingers in his hair - he wasn't awake enough for this, where was Hawkeye when he needed her? "That should have been sealed," Edward said.

Russell held up the torn envelope.

"That's sensitive material. I could have you court-martialed."

Finally Russell looked up at Edward, with an expression that distinctly said "I'd love to see you try."

Edward sighed and closed his eyes, cool metal fingertips pressed into his hairline. "What do you want, Russell?"

Russell flipped the packet closed and tucked it back into the envelope. "Well, I want to know what you've got on Neuhaus that he'll jump to your requests like clockwork," he said philosophically. "But I know you won't give that up, so." He stood up and walked over to Edward's desk, tossing the torn envelope on top of Edward's stack of folders. "Just thought I'd stop by and say hi."

Edward opened his eyes and glared daggers at Russell, who returned the glower. "What did you find out, Major Tringham?"

"Keep an eye on the Drachmians," Russell said after a pause. "They're up to something."

"That's it?" Edward said. "I could have told you that, do you really not have anything worthwhile?"

"Nope," Russell said cheerfully. "I just wanted to snoop through your mail, Colonel Elric."

"You know," Edward said. "I could have you taken out back and shot, I bet no one would bat an eye."

Russell's expression didn't change a whit. "You wouldn't do that."

"Wouldn't I?"

"Nope," Russell said. "You'd want to do it yourself." He waved a hand over his shoulder as he let himself out of the Edward's office, leaving the door ajar behind him. Edward glowered at the door, then picked up the torn envelope as Hawkeye opened the door fully.

"Glad to see you've joined us this morning, Colonel Elric," she said, her expression neutral but eyes very dangerous.

Edward pointed the envelope at her. "If you wanted me working earlier you could have woken me," he said, accusatory. "Instead of letting HIM in here."

"He had official business," Hawkeye said, picking up the pile of folders balance precariously at the edge of the desk. "Besides. I was too busy dealing with the military police first thing this morning. There were several members of a local gang found transmuted into a cage made out of a lamppost."

"Really," Edward said. Hawkeye gave him a Look, and Edward found shuffling his papers a little more interesting.

Havoc swung in the room, carrying a mug of coffee. "Hey, boss," he said cheerfully. "Nice work on the-" he faltered when he saw Hawkeye, who raised an eyebrow at Havoc. "...heard you walked Sheska home?" he offered weakly.

Edward raised an eyebrow at Havoc, who deposited the mug of coffee on Edward's desk and didn't linger, escaping out of the office quickly. "The next time you feel like you need to take out your frustration on anything, there is a gym on base," Hawkeye said simply. "You don't have any meetings before noon, Ed. Go home and get a shower."

He looked at her in surprise, but she had already dismissed herself, crossing the room. Edward picked up the torn envelope and tapped it against his flesh palm a moment, thinking hard. The coffee that Havoc had left him was just as he liked it, too strong and black as night. Maybe he was stretching himself too thin. As soon as the State Alchemist exams were done and over with, he'd take a vacation. Go see Al, get his automail maintenance out of the way. He deserved at least that much.

Decisively, Edward stood up, scooping his jacket off the back of the desk chair and shrugging it on. Wouldn't do to seem too improper, even if it was a Friday. He tucked the envelope under his arm and freed his ponytail from the collar, and then he too headed out the door.

Fletcher had slept in, stretched face-down on the too-small single bed, covers kicked to the floor. The thin, military-issue blinds did little to stop the bright sunlight from rousing him. Grumbling, he rolled out of bed and staggered down the hall to the communal bathrooms.

It was late enough in the morning that the initial rush for the too few, small box showers was over. He was able to nab the furthest one from the door, the one that had the best water pressure so he could get a quick shave in with his shower. Feeling more awake now, he dressed quickly and headed out.

The city was bright, sunshine streaming down from a cloudless blue sky. The sullen, pale gray day of yesterday was nowhere to be seen. Fletcher scratched his damp hair, then shaded his eyes as he looked around. His stomach grumbled a bit in protest, so the first order of business was going to be breakfast. Or rather, given the time, more of a brunch.

A dark-haired kid brushed past Fletcher, who was standing stationary on the stairs. He leaped the last few stairs, stumbling in his hurry, but he shot off down the street. Fletcher watched him run curiously, but then shrugged his shoulders. Teenagers.

The cafe was right where he guessed it would be. It was a warm morning, warmer than yesterday, so Fletcher elected to sit at one of the small tables outside, enjoying the sunlight. Russell had given him a rundown the night before as they walked around the town into the later hours of the night. Staggering about like a couple of drunkards didn't make them memorable, he hoped.

This whole thing was some sort of sting operation. There were suspected terrorists in the mixed group of candidates. Surprisingly, it wasn't the Ishbalans they were worried about - it was the Drachmians. Fletcher hadn't been following the news closely, but he knew that tensions with the northern country were at the worst they'd been in years.

Interesting, then, that the sole female Drachmian taking the exam came to him, wasn't it?

Fletcher sipped his coffee and pondered, watching the pedestrian traffic. Russell hadn't been entirely forthcoming with all the details; Fletcher suspected he wasn't allowed to be. This wasn't Russell's operation, he was just another weapon in probably a vast fleet of agents. The thought amused him somewhat - Russell had changed, it seemed. Good for him. Maybe once this mess was over he'd actually keep in contact with his older brother.

But what he really didn't understand was if there was a suspected terrorist cell within a group taking examinations to join the military, why they didn't just halt the exams. This country was not exactly known for its subtlety.

Of course, that was under a different administration.

Fletcher was so lost in his thoughts he almost didn't notice that someone had seated themselves opposite him until they cleared their throat. He looked up guilty, and an eyebrow raised in surprised. "Ioana!"

The dark-haired Drachmian woman smiled at him. "Good morning," she said, her accent even less today than it had been in the past. "I've been practicing my Amestrian. Better, yes?"

He nodded and returned her smile. "Definitely better, I can tell."

"Good, good." She waved down the waiter and ordered herself a drink while Fletcher watched her. She had her long, dark hair loose today, and it fell in soft waves down past her shoulders. "My interview is this afternoon," she told him, her attention back to Fletcher.

"Same as mine," Fletcher said, surprised. "I heard only one person didn't pass the examination yesterday."

She nodded her head. "The gentleman from Aeruga," she said. "With the, the hair," she illustrated in the air with her hand. Fletcher knew exactly who she was talking about, the alchemist in question had dyed his hair a fair shade of blue "to remind him of the waters," he had said breathlessly in his strange accent. Amestris was a landlocked nation; Aeruga was famed for its beaches and the ocean it bordered.

It was no surprise he'd failed, Fletcher was fairly sure he'd been copying off the person in front of him in the first written examination. "Are you worried?" he asked Ioana.

"A leetle," she said, her accent slipping through. "I heard that the interviewer is quite tough." She accepted her drink from the waiter and took some napkins as well.

"I'm sure you'll be fine," Fletcher murmured.

"You're not nervous?" She looked at him in surprise. Fletcher shook his head, a smile playing on his face.

"Not at all. If my brother can pass it, I shouldn't have any difficulties." The written test had been the hardest step - his brother was a better alchemist when it came down to the theoretical, but Fletcher was the diplomat and the people person. He was confident enough in his abilities for the practical examination, the interview in his mind was just a formality.

"You are quite confident, I see," she stirred her drink with her spoon. "I am worried that all that will be seen is my nationality."

"You do seem awfully chummy with the other Drachmian candidates," Fletcher said.

"It is, easier." Her eyes were dark brown, the same color as her drink. "When you share a common language, even if your ... ideals are not the same. Tell me, Fletcher. What do you think of your military, your government?"

"That's a strange question to ask," Fletcher said carefully.

"It is just different," she murmured. "Freedoms exist here that I did not grow up with. I was to be sold in a marriage to a man twice my age just so my parents could eat for the month." She nodded to the sidewalk, where several soldiers were passing in a small contingent, laughing among themselves. "This is a military state and yet it is by far a more peaceful place than my homeland ever was."

Fletcher smiled at her, his hands on his coffee cup. "Then I hope that you'll be happy here," he said.

"Da," she said. "I believe I will be."

Rian ran down the street haphazardly, scarf streaming out behind him like a tail. Of all the things that was going on right now, getting a phone call at the military dorms was not topping the list of his current expectations.

It was a sunny morning, almost too warm for his customary jacket and scarf, but he didn't have time to shed them. He had bolted out of the door of the dorm, forgetting both his wallet and his tiny leather notebook. He'd gotten halfway across town before he realized he didn't have any cash, and had to run back to the dorm before retracing his route.

He had been up early. Sleep wasn't coming to him easy, his interview was tomorrow and he was staying awake out of sheer agitation. He'd gone over the plan, his backup plan, and even a third auxiliary plan until he couldn't read his own handwriting any longer, and still yet he couldn't sleep. He'd laid awake on top of the covers, counting the cracked ceiling tiles until the pale light of dawn crept under the half-closed blinds.

And then, he got a phone call.

Rian arrived, nearly wheezing, at the train station. He pressed one hand against a support beam and tried to catch his breath. The train was still sitting in the station as it boarded passengers headed to its next destination. It was a Friday morning so it wasn't possibly as crowded as it would be on the weekend, but there was still a healthy crush of people. Rian looked up and scanned the crowd.

"Yo," a voice said from behind him.

He started, then turned and scowled up at Anthony Hargrove. "What the FUCK are you doing here?" Rian shouted - or rather, tried to, as he inhaled he choked and started coughing. Anthony leaned over and started whacking his back to help try to clean his pipes.

After a minute or so of this, Rian managed to croak out his exclamation. Anthony grinned at him. "I'm going to go to school here," he said. "When I heard the State Alchemist exams were this week, well - you were studying pretty hard before you took off. Wasn't hard to put two and two together, bro."

"School?" Rian said weakly. "Who else knows about the exams?"

"Just me, don't worry," Anthony said. "Do you need a drink?"

Rian nodded his head as his plans, carefully constructed, evaporated right before his eyes.

The diner they found was just down the street from the train station and was crowded with people, presumably mostly from the train that had just let off. Anthony had a single suitcase that he carried tossed over his shoulder carelessly. He must have gotten even taller in the time Rian had been gone, because he barely came up to his adopted brother's shoulder.

He gulped down water in the diner as Anthony hollered at someone he recognized from the train ride from the countryside. They squeezed into a small booth with Anthony's new friends, a young couple who was trying to find their fortune in the big city. Rian felt small and young - even with Anthony being his own age, he felt dwarfed beside him.

The couple - John and Mary - were bright and cheerful, and were amazed to hear that someone as young as Rian was in the midst of the State Alchemist exams. He demonstrated his alchemy for them, scribbling a small array on a napkin and stirring up enough wind that it blew off the bonnet of the woman sitting at the table next to them. Mary laughed wildly at this, even as the woman stormed out of the diner.

John confessed that he had tried some alchemy, but wasn't particularly good at it. Anthony showed them the transmutation that Rian had taught him, caught his napkin on fire and nearly the edge of his shirt before John had to lean over and dump his water out over the small flame.

At that point, they were asked to leave the diner.

They bid farewell to the young couple, wished them luck, and bought their lunch instead from a street vendor. Anthony leaned against the stone wall behind the vendor while Rian hiked himself up on it to sit, and they ate their sandwiches.

It was, Rian realized suddenly, the most fun he'd had in a long time.

"So at that point," Anthony said. "I realized that hell, if a runt like you can strike out on his own and make something of himself, why can't I?"

Rian punched Anthony in the shoulder. "I'm not a runt," he said. "Xingians hit their growth spurts notoriously late."

"You keep telling yourself that," Anthony teased him. "So I've decided I'm going to enlist."

Rian's expression fell, quickly. "You're going to join the military?"

"Well, maybe." Anthony waved his hand in the air. "I mean, I kinda would want to be a police officer, not active military, but you have to enroll in the military academy either way."

"But if we go to war, you could be conscripted."

Anthony sighed, and crumpled the paper his sandwich had come wrapped in. "I know. That's the biggest risk, and I don't think mom would be able to stand it if I went off to war." They both looked out quietly to the sidewalk, watching the people stop at the sandwich vendor. Rian knew that story; how his adoptive mother had seen her brother off at the train station because her parents had disowned him, and then how she had been the one to receive him when he returned home in a casket.

"However," Anthony said. "YOU'RE joining the military."

Rian kicked his heel off the stone wall. "It's complicated, Tony."

"It always is, with you." Anthony hiked himself up onto the wall beside Rian. "So," he said. "You gonna tell me what's up with this whole State Alchemist thing, or what?"

Or what, indeed. Rian didn't meet his adopted brother's look, staring straight ahead. He couldn't tell Anthony. Anthony understood a lot about him, but he couldn't just tell him that he was planning to die just the very next day. He'd never understand that. He'd try to stop him any way possible, and Rian couldn't let him do that. He instead summoned a smile up from somewhere and grinned at his brother. "I'm just trying to find my way," he said. "Honoring my mom - my birth mom's heritage and make a living helping people."

Anthony made an "uh huh" noise like he didn't quite believe Rian, but that was okay. He only didn't have to suspect the truth for a few more days. Rian was insanely glad that his adoptive family wasn't forceful about making him give up his family name - that way when Anthony tried to enlist their relation wouldn't be turned up.

Except - "Wait a minute," Rian said. "You're seventeen, same as me. You're not gonna be ABLE to enlist until next year."

"That's the thing about small towns," Anthony said. "They don't keep very precise birth records." He grinned at Rian. "What, you think a little thing like that is gonna keep me from making it on my own? I'd at least thought THAT far ahead, squirt."

"I am NOT a squirt," Rian shoved at his adopted brother with both hands, and Anthony laughed. Rian scowled at him and glanced back out at the street, in time to see a familiar face crossing through pedestrian traffic opposite them. Rian froze for a split second, then scrambled off the stone wall and behind it, using his brother as a human shield.

"What the hell?" Anthony said, twisting and trying to see Rian, who was crouched. "What has gotten IN to you?"

"Nothing," Rian said. "Nothing at all, just dropped a wrapper, don't want to be a litterbug is all."

"Uh-huh," Anthony said. "Who are you hiding from?"

"Military uniform, blond ponytail."

Anthony scanned up and down the street. "I see him, he's gone the other direction. What did you DO to him?"

"Me, I didn't do nothin'," Rian grumbled, popping out of his crouch and folding his arms on the wall, resting his chin on them. "He's the one who started it."


"You don't have to believe me, just be my human shield," Rian said. "So, where are you staying?"

Edward shucked his jacket off, throwing it in the direction of the couch, before collapsing into the overstuffed arm chair beside the fireplace. He took a deep breath, exhaled slow and sank back into his favorite chair. No stiff-backed desk chair this, he could sleep (and had) in this monstrosity.

He still had the envelope clutched in his automail hand. He looked at the torn open manilla envelope, and then pulled the packet of papers out. Sunlight slotted through his blinds, dust thick in the air.

He had never asked Colonel Neuhaus to send anything over.

The packet was full of information about all the Drachmian candidates - where they came from, their ages, as much personal information that could have been gathered. Some had fully detailed personal histories, others were largely blank. It was as much information that could be pulled, from an undercover agent living deep in Drachma itself. Edward didn't know too much of the particulars of the agent, he wasn't in Intelligence, but they had done good work.

Russell had thoughtfully written some notes in the margins, his own thoughts on the candidates in particular - some useful, others classic Russell being an ass. He let Russell do his own thing, though, because he was damn good at it. He was not necessarily deep undercover material, but he made a decent enough spy.

There was definitely something going on here. Edward was relieved that acting-Fuhrer Dalton had decided to sit the actual interviews out this year - but that didn't mean that they were safe. Now the question was, did they want to continue the interviews as if nothing had happened, or did they want to collar these people now and sort out the mess later? Edward closed the packet and tossed it on his coffee table.

The Drachmians could be an independent terrorist cell. Or they could be spies, sent through to test and gauge the strengths and weaknesses of the Amestrian army. They could even just be people escaping the oppressive regime of a differing government and not up to anything at all. They were all equally possible in the long run. He'd have to take a gamble, but first he wanted to talk to Alphonse about it.

And he couldn't do it from here. His military would have bugged his home phone as well as the phone in his office. Edward sighed, then slowly got up out of the arm chair. First, a shower.

Alphonse Elric was writing out a report quickly as people rushed around him. The office he worked in in East City was large, hectic, and always noisy. He'd learned to tune it all out though, and focus on what was immediately in front of him - occasionally to his detriment, if someone was trying to get his attention. As someone was trying to do, right now.

Fortunately, his staff was as used to this as anyone. Second Lieutenant Colleen Griffith was usually the most direct about it - she simply whapped him in the head with the folders she had in her arms.

"Hey, ow!" Alphonse said, and looked up, one hand flying to the back of his head tenderly.

"Suck it up, I barely swatted you," Colleen said. "Phone, lieutenant colonel."

"Oh?" Alphonse looked at the phone on his desk. It hadn't rung once since he sat down today - he belatedly remembered that because of the deadlines he had unplugged it from the wall. "Oh."

"Use Fuery's phone," she said. "He's out working on the radio lines that got pulled down when that car overturned last week." She nodded to Kain Fuery's empty desk, and Alphonse stood up from his desk chair.

"Thanks, lieutenant," he said, then hesitated. "It's not my wife, is it?"

She shook her head. "No sir."

"Hm," Alphonse said.

He picked up the heavy phone from the desk and carried it to the windows - there was no way to truly make a conversation private in this office, but with his back to the room most would know not to bother him. "Lieutenant Colonel Elric," he said, as he picked up the receiver.

"Hey, Al," his brother said. "I have a question for you."

"Brother," Alphonse said carefully. "I am at work."

"I know. You guys keep your lines swept clean though, right?"

"Daily." There was strange background noise coming down the line from Edward's side of the conversation. "Where are YOU?"

"Bar." Edward hesitated a moment. "So, that whole trying to get to me to come to East City thing, was that about the Drachma terrorist plot?"

"...dammit, Ed."

"You're not my only Intelligence resource, you know." Edward said smugly. "So were you going to ever let me know what you knew, or what?"

"I wasn't sure of anything, I'm still not." Alphonse leaned his arm against the glass window and then his forehead against his arm. "This could get really bad really fast, brother."

"I figured. We've got most of the Drachmian candidates scheduled for tomorrow for interviews, just one today. I'm just not sure if we should go on with the interviews or not, all the reports are conflicting."

"If you need my help I can hop on a train and be there by tonight," Alphonse offered after a moment's thought.

"Idiot, you need to be there, isn't Winry getting ready to pop any day now? Besides." There was a momentary hitch on the line and then Edward's voice reappeared. "Damn fucking waste of money eating my cenz like that." He sighed. "I'm not cut out for this Intelligence shit, Al."

"You're better at it than you think," Alphonse murmured. "Look, this can go south pretty fast. It's not like Central City is that far away, it's only a quarter day's travel by train, I can get there tonight and take the train back tomorrow-"

"No, Al. If I need your help I'll call you."

Alphonse let that hang in the air a second. "Ed," he said. "You called me now."

"Shut up, I'm just trying to talk out what I need to do." Another moment of silence, then, "Look, my time's about to run out, we'll talk later, okay?" The line disconnected before Alphonse could say anything else.

He looked at the receiver in silence a long moment before setting it back on the phone, and walking the phone back to Fuery's desk.

Then he made a decision, grabbing his military jacket off of the back of his desk chair. Colleen had come back by his desk. "Where are you off to?"

"I'm cutting out early," Alphonse said. "You're in charge."

"You forget that just about everyone here outranks me, Lieutenant Colonel."

"No," Alphonse said. "I don't. I'll see you in a few days, Lieutenant."

It was a mistake to have called Alphonse, Edward realized an hour or so later. Freshly showered and shaved, he had stopped by his favorite out-of-the-way, ask-no-questions pub to eat a brief lunch and shoot the shit, and eventually use the pay phone in the back of the bar. It didn't have a booth to it, so it was risky, but there was no one lingering on that side of the bar this time of the day, and the bartender minded his own business.

That taken care of, and with a full stomach, Edward put in an appearance back at the office for Hawkeye's sake. There was a fair bit of paperwork piled on his desk, but a brief glance at it showed nothing too pressing to work on - and that made him hesitate. The re-certification of existing State Alchemists had been the preceding week, and while that time was pretty hectic the tests were pretty much pass or fail. Edward had delegated that responsibility out, mostly because it was the time of the year when the idiots came out to play in full force. For the most part, Edward had steered the re-certification process away from "so, what have you accomplished with your title?" Just a test to re-certify, and quarterly status reports. That had taken some doing, as the military was fond of its human weapons, but nobody wanted another Tucker chimera incident.

Nothing jumped out at him from the reports. The majority of what he dealt with in a usual week were alchemists trying to play god with animals again and chimera getting out of hand. There was the occasional alchemist who sold out, or defected - but those were pretty rare, which was a pity. Edward didn't have as much occasion to get out in the field and hand out a solid thrashing like he used to. Nothing was pressing here, just a few autopsy reports from two idiot alchemists who thought they could be the ones to break the human transmutation taboo and a necropsy of a wild chimera found roaming the forests on the outside of the city.

It was just Cushler and Havoc in the office when Edward emerged. He looked toward Hawkeye's empty desk, puzzled as Cushler sat up quickly, boots that had been resting on top of his desk thumping to the ground loudly. The noise caught Edward's attention - Cushler was sitting up and attempting to look productive, but Havoc was having none of it, still sitting with his feet up on the desk and unlit cigarette clamped in his teeth. Edward looked between them. "Where's Hawkeye?"

"She an' Sheska went to lunch, boss," Havoc said. "You came back a bit early, I don't think she was expecting that." He flashed a thumbs-up to Edward. "Nice work on that, it's hard as hell to surprise her."

"Mm," Edward said, not caring in the slightest. He tapped his automail on the lip of Hawkeye's desk as he thought. "I only have the one meeting this afternoon, and I'm the highest-ranked officer there."

Cushler looked at Havoc, who was watching Edward, eyebrows raised. "Thinking of canceling, boss?"

"It's not that necessary," Edward said. "I've got a fuck-ton of those State Alchemist interviews this afternoon and evening, we only did five yesterday." He scowled. "If I have to sit next to General Howard another five minutes I might have to set him on fire." Edward realized after a second that Cushler was staring at him, slightly agog. "Something the matter, corporal?"

"Oh, uh," Cushler said. "No sir."

Edward exhaled in exasperation, then looked to Havoc for support. "He's still scared of me, isn't he?"

"You did threaten to feed them both to that nasty bull/crocodile chimera we found a year or so ago," Havoc reminded Edward mildly.

"For fuck's sake," Edward said to Cushler. "How long have you been in this command? Be more scared of Hawkeye, she'll shoot you first before I get to you anyway." He hiked a thumb at the desk behind him. "Besides, she's closer to you guys. At least I have a door between me and instant death."

Edward looked between Havoc and Cushler a moment, then sighed. "She's right behind me again, isn't she?"

Hawkeye, who had come in the open door behind Edward, dropped a box she had been carrying onto her desk. Edward only winced a little at the noise, and finally looked over his shoulder and offered a slightly sheepish grin.

Sheska was lingering in the doorway, caught his eye and grinned back, before Hawkeye looked up. "Sheska, I need the records pulled that we were talking about before the end of the day, please."

"Oh, um," Sheska said. "Yes ma'am, right away." She ducked out the door quickly.

Edward scratched the side of his nose. "Hey," he said, feeling oddly like he was asking permission instead of giving orders. "I need to have that meeting from this afternoon rescheduled to sometime next week."

Hawkeye looked up at Edward, eyes calculating. "I'll see what I can do," she said after a moment, then seated herself at her desk. Edward cast a glance over his shoulder at Havoc, who shrugged, and then Edward looked to Cushler, who was studiously staring at his desk as if staring at the empty desk would magically sprout new paperwork.

"For fuck's sake," Edward said. "Where's your other half, corporal?"

"Bailey's out of town," Havoc answered for him. "Remember, boss? You sent him checking up on that strange chimera sighting toward the North."

Edward blinked, he had just signed off on the order yesterday, Hawkeye had probably selected Bailey for the mission, she knew the sergeant better than he did. "That tears it. Havoc, Red Lion pub tonight, bring this one." He pointed at Cushler. Then he glanced over his shoulder at Hawkeye. "Want to join us this week, Hawkeye?"

"Far be it from me to want to break up your boy's club," Hawkeye murmured, flipping several pages in the old bound book of records and making notations on the paper she had beside it. "Perhaps you should ask Sheska, Ed?"

"Good idea, where'd she go?" Edward stopped. "I don't really have time to go look for her right now, if she pokes her head in again someone invite her."

"Dunno boss," Havoc said. "Maybe you should ask her."

"If I see her," Edward said.

"What are you up to that you need the afternoon off?" Havoc said, finally dropping his boots off his desk.

"Espionage stuff," Edward said. "I should be in Intelligence, they could use someone sneaky like me." He pointed at Havoc. "If you laugh I'll break your nose, Havoc."

When he glanced back to Hawkeye she was smiling as she copied down her notes. "Also," he said. "If any of you see Alphonse, you have my permission to drag his recalcitrant ass to the train station and put him on the first train back to East City." He waved a hand in the air and ducked out of the office, leaving Havoc giving Hawkeye a confused look behind him.

After breakfast, Fletcher parted ways with Ioana. She mentioned something about a study group with the other Drachmian candidates, and while that might have been worthwhile Fletcher's Drachmian was shit. So he turned her down, and took the time to stroll around the city.

He knew, really, that he should have gone with her. He needed to meet some of the other candidates - the bulk of the interviews would complete on Saturday, and the practical examinations would begin next week. Fletcher really needed to decide what he'd do for his practical on top of all this. He made a note to talk with Russell just to make sure he didn't duplicate his older brother.

Eventually Fletcher found himself at a small book shoppe. Always, if he wasn't thinking about it, his feet would lead him to a bookseller. It seemed encoded in his genes. Fletcher shrugged his shoulders and pushed the door open.

The tiny bell tinkled, alerting the shopkeeper to his entrance. Fletcher smiled at the tiny elderly woman, who sat perched on a stool, a cat nearly as large as she spread out on the counter before her, purring.

There didn't seem to be anyone else perusing the ancient book stacks. It was a used book store, full of antique manuscripts and ancient codexes - shifting towers of dusty books, with sunlight streaming through the stacks, let in through huge old paned windows. It was the sort of store he could lose hours in. He wandered toward the back end, finding several old treatises on the basics of plant alchemy and the precision of soil mixture and immersed himself in the words, turning the brittle yellow pages carefully.

He stood by one of the windows, panes blurred with dust. At first, Fletcher wasn't paying attention to the low murmur of traffic outside - there was another cafe adjacent to the store, without outdoor seating - until he recognized a familiar accent to the voice speaking. He looked up, out the window - it was hard to see, but he thought he recognized Ioana from the curves. It certainly sounded like her, a mixture of heavily accented Amestrian and native Drachmian.

The replies, however, came in his own native language, with brisk military precision. Ioana was talking to a military officer.

Then a third voice joined the conversation, in thick Drachmian. Fletcher knew he shouldn't eavesdrop, but also remembered his brother's warnings about the Drachmians in the candidate mix. Fletcher leaned forward and looked to the old lady sitting behind the counter - she seemed to be drowsing in the early afternoon sunlight, so he flipped the catch of the window and carefully pulled the window in, wincing as it squeaked slightly in complaint.

The voices were clearer now. "-and three bombs." That was Ioana. "Can you guarantee his presence?"

"The acting-Fuhrer is skittish." The officer. Fletcher didn't recognize his voice, and he could not risk peeking out the window. "He did not attend yesterday's interviews, and the rumor is he won't be at today's either."

The man with the thickest accent spoke, and for a moment Fletcher couldn't tell if it was Drachmian or Amestrian, until the officer responded. "No," the man said. "No backup. If he's not at today's interviews, we will complete the plan regardless tomorrow. Even without his death, the assassination attempt will throw the country into enough chaos that they'll be looking for enemies around every corner."

"Be careful what you speak aloud, Jakob," Ioana's voice was clear now. Fletcher could see her slightly, and he nearly ducked when she turned her head to look about. "There are ears everywhere."

Fletcher had heard enough. He reached out to close the open window, but hesitated when he thought about the noise the old frame had made when he opened it. He put the book down that he had been holding and made his way to the front of the store, ignoring the sleeping shopkeeper as he ducked out the door-

-only to be confronted by a broad-shouldered, dark-haired man that Fletcher recognized from the dorms ... a Drachmian. He stood taller than Fletcher, his coarse hair nearly brushing the top of the shop's door frame.

"Uh," Fletcher said. "Excuse me-"

The man reached to grab Fletcher's shoulder, and Fletcher backpedaled, right into a display of haphazardly piled books. They crashed to the floor and he caught Fletcher, yanking him forward. The shopkeeper's cat had shot up at the crash and fled the scene, racing toward the back of the store.

"Hey!" Fletcher yelled as he was manhandled out the door. The Drachmian outweighed him by at least fifty pounds and he had a solid grip on Fletcher's shoulder, steering him the way he wanted him to go. "Hey, let me go you creep!"

Once outside, and no longer in the narrow confines of the store it gave Fletcher more room to move. He'd never been formally trained in any sort of fighting, but he had grown up alone with an older brother who oscillated between mothering him and wrestling with him. Fletcher twisted, this time breaking free of the one-handed grip the larger man had on him.

He could stay and fight, or he could run like hell. The man was huge, there way no WAY Fletcher was sticking around to try and fight that. He instead ducked forward and made to bolt.

But then the man caught him by the back of the jacket. Fletcher flailed as he was yanked off balance and tried to regain his footing. There was nothing good for him to get a grip on as the large man gripped his shoulder again tightly. Fletcher locked up as the large Drachmian man grinned at him unpleasantly. "Think we should have a little discussion, yes?"

His impossibly thick accent gave him away as the third member of the conspirators that met outside the book seller's. Fletcher tried to yank his head away but the man turned him and steered him toward the outdoor cafe. Ioana was standing at the low black metal fence that separated the patio from the sidewalk. She watched the man prod him forward dispassionately, and Fletcher narrowed his eyes at her. "I don't know what your game is," Fletcher said, "but you're an idiot to try it."

"Release him," Ioana said to the man holding Fletcher. "We're in public, Maks."

"No," the man said, his grip on Fletcher tightening. He said something sharp to Ioana in Drachmian, and an angry flush rose to her face.

"I said-" she started, and Maks yanked Fletcher back.

"Collateral," he said calmly, and for a split-second Fletcher thought that Ioana looked sorry for him. He tried to twist in Maks' grip, and as he turned his head, he saw the huge fist heading toward him before he could move further.

Edward returned to the base only just in time as several of the interviewees milled around in the waiting area outside the main room. Edward managed to ignore them - and very few of them gave him a second look as he passed. He was looking for Hawkeye, but instead found Sheska manning the desk.

She was doing about three things at the same time and moving quickly into the realm of overwhelmed; trying to sign-in the interviewees, answering questions and, spotting Edward, immediately stuttering to a halt mid-sentence. He gave her a peculiar look as she tried to find her place again and finish answering the man's sentence.

The other alchemist signed in, Sheska shooed them away from her desk and sighed in relief. "Where have you been?" she asked Edward. "General Howard has been at my desk every five minutes wanting to know where you were."

"General Howard can-" Edward started to say, but Sheska grabbed his jacket and tugged it. Edward looked at her, surprised, as she straightened it, and just then Edward realized the door out of his vision had opened.

"Colonel Elric," General Howard's voice was deep and threatening. "I'm glad you could join us today."

Edward bit the inside of his cheek to keep from retorting as he'd liked. "Sorry to inconvenience you," he said instead, waiting just long enough for Howard to start to stew as he added on the, "sir."

Sheska gave him a look that Hawkeye had to have taught her, and handed him the folders she'd had on her desk. She looked over her list and frowned before handing it to him as well. "Two no-shows," she told him. "What do you want me to do if they turn up late?"

"Tell them to wait," Edward said. "If I still feel like it after this circus is done for the night we'll take'em late, otherwise they can sit next year." He tucked the folders under his arm and headed for the door where General Howard stood, glowering at him. That was strange, yesterday Howard had already seated himself at the table, jockeying for the center spot despite Edward's job leading the interview.

"Oh," Sheska said. "I almost forgot, the acting-Fuhrer sent his replacement."

"His replacement?" Edward repeated as Howard stepped aside to allow Edward entrance into the meeting room. The room was set up exactly the same as yesterday, a long table for them to sit at and a single chair in the center of the room specifically designed to throw the alchemists off guard and make them nervous.

There was someone already in the center chair, the one that Edward had decided was his seat (and the one that he had childishly and silently fought with Howard over yesterday). A single ice-blue eye flicked up to meet his entrance, the other hidden behind a sheet of cold blonde hair.

"Fullmetal," Major-General Olivier Mira Armstrong said. "You're late."

"Aw, fuck," Edward said illustratively, as Howard closed the door behind them.

It was long after dark by the time the last of the alchemists was dismissed, tail tucked firmly between his legs. Edward was used to having one glowering presence on one side attempting to intimidate the prospective State Alchemists - but Major General Armstrong was a terrifying force all of her own.

Fortunately, she at least bowed to Edward's superior knowledge of the candidate's alchemical skills, and rarely asked questions directly to them. Howard, on the other hand, grilled the subjects so mercilessly that Edward wondered if he got off on it.

Some promising candidates in the batch, and Edward wanted to see the practical demonstration of their skills. A few duds, but Howard didn't try to pull rank on him in order to bully in the candidates that he liked despite their lack of useful attributes to the military. That was probably due to Major-General Armstrong's presence. Howard was as afraid of her as Edward was - and despite the fact that Edward was not entirely pleased to see her there he knew that he could tentatively consider her an ally.

Howard she would squash under the heel of her boot given half the chance.

And as much as Edward would enjoy throwing Howard into Armstrong's direct path, right now that would just create more work for him overall.

Of course, Armstrong's presence here was odd. He'd had no warning whatsoever that she was in town; Major-General Armstrong held court in the north, keeping strong the border between Amestris and Drachma. If she had planned for a trip to Central City, somewhere along the line someone would have given Edward a heads-up. He'd had to grill Havoc about that later.

But now he was freed. The interviews took place in a designated area off-base - it was an older building annexed to, unsurprisingly, the library. It was the old hall of records, renovated to their purposes when the newer storage facilities were built. Edward waited, of course - Major-General Armstrong left first, her car driven by the half-Ishbalan soldier Miles. Edward tossed a wave off to him, but Miles simply gave him a brief salute. General Howard stood around talking to two of the candidates that Edward had failed - and Sheska lingered still at the desk, deeply engrossed in her chosen book.

Edward couldn't eavesdrop on Howard's conversation without being completely obvious, so instead he leaned against the desk Sheska was seated at, put both hands on the desk and stood on his tip-toes, trying to read the book pages upside-down. However deeply engrossed Sheska was, the fact that he was blocking out her light made her look up in irritation, and she squeaked in surprise at Edward's proximity. "Oh my gosh, are you guys done alrea- what TIME is it?"

"Late," Edward said. "What are you still doing here?" Sheska looked at the book in her hands, and then back up at Edward. Edward snorted. "Look, some of the guys and I were going to meet up at the Red Lion tonight, want to join us?"

Sheska blinked at Edward. "Go.. out? To a pub?"

"Yeah." Edward straightened a bit, glanced over his shoulder at Howard, who was still chatting amiably away. "Maybe get some work done, too," he murmured.

To his surprise, Sheska nearly leaped out of her seat. "I'd love to, Ed," she said. "When? Now? I mean, I'm in my uniform still-"

Edward paused in his scrutiny of Howard, then looked back at Sheska in confusion. "We're all gonna be in our uniforms," he said. "It's a military bar, Sheska..."

"Oh," she said, still grinning from ear to ear. "Are we going now? I'll fetch my coat!" She left her book abandoned on the desk and bolted off, leaving a bewildered Edward in her wake. He scratched the top of his head and sighed, and looked toward the exit again.

The two failed recruits were gone, leaving just Howard watching Edward with cold, calculating eyes. Edward stiffened under the gaze, locking eyes with Howard and refusing to give an inch of ground. After a long, silent moment, Howard broke off the contest with a snort, glancing back to the door. "The military prohibits fraternization," was all Howard said, as his driver opened the door and stuck his head in the room.

Edward didn't respond, watched Howard leave with narrowed eyes. Sheska returned then, pulling on a long, light brown coat. "Ed, what's wrong?" she asked at his expression.

He shook it off, forced a smile for Sheska. "Nothing," he said. "Thanks for helping out tonight, you've been great."

Sheska smiled almost shyly back. "I'm thinking about putting in for a permanent transfer to Central City," she told him. "I like it here."

"Well if you do, let me know," Edward said. "Or, probably Hawkeye. She loves having you around as an assistant, we can always use the spare hands."

Sheska beamed as Edward held the door open for her. Last out of the building, Edward locked the door behind them, and they started down the street toward the pub, The Red Lion.

The Red Lion was a fairly popular hang-out, with its location not too far from base. It was a known military bar - the blue uniform was so ubiquitous that if you WEREN'T in some form of one you stood out. There was some protocol there - officers ignored their soldiers and vice versa; if the military jacket with the epaulets was off military etiquette was ignored. It wasn't a haunt that was frequented often by the upper echelon of the military, on a usual night Ed might be one of the highest ranked officers there.

He held the door for Sheska, who looked a little unsure of this, but entered warily. Edward steered her toward the usual corner, where Havoc sat slumped in a booth, his face a picture of complete rejection. Cushler, who had been sitting across from Havoc, jumped up and looked like he was about to salute when he saw Edward, and Edward gave him a dirty look so he stopped.

"It's so cute how your subordinates are afraid of you," Sheska laughed as Cushler forced Havoc inwards so they could slide into the booth across from them. "I don't even think I want to know what you did to instill such fear."

"I'm not afraid of Colonel Elric," Cushler said defensively.

Edward arched an eyebrow and he shut his mouth so fast his teeth clicked together. Sheska and Edward laughed as Cushler looked furiously at the table.

"What happened to Havoc?" Edward asked Cushler. "Did the waitress reject his attempts at flirting again?"

"Worse," Cushler said. "She called him old."

"Oh, burn," Edward said. Sheska reached forward and patted Havoc's hand that was limply cradling his beer. "Sorry, man. Is this the same one, or a different one?"

"Different one, Colonel," the familiar waitress said, putting two more beers on the table. "Haven't seen you in a while."

"Been busy," Edward said. He glanced to Sheska. "I didn't even ask, do you drink beer?"

"I don't know," Sheska said, hesitantly taking one of the tankards. "Guess I'll find out?" She sniffed the booze delicately and took a small sip of it, grimacing only slightly.

"I think he's gone catatonic," Cushler said, nudging Havoc. "He's been like this all night."

"Leave him be, it'll be nice to have the silence," Edward said. "Usually once you get a beer or three into him he won't shut up."

"That's not very nice," Sheska said, shooting Edward a look. "I'm sure there's a nice girl out there for you somewhere, Havoc."

"Any idea when Bailey's gonna be back?" Edward asked Cushler while Sheska consoled Havoc. "It feels weird to only see one of you."

Havoc came out of his "catatonic trance" thanks to Sheska nattering on about the latest series of fantasy novels she'd been reading between actually doing the work that she was getting paid for. Edward in turns listened to that, bitched about the inaccurate alchemy those novels tended to use, and then got into a long argument about the value of fantasy versus realism when it came to alchemy with Sheska. Cushler interjected a point, surprising both of them and Havoc laughed as the discussion then turned to the State Alchemist candidates. Havoc started describing one of the "smoking hot girls" he saw today with hand gestures.

Edward leaned forward, smacking Havoc's head illustratively. As Havoc sulked, Cushler excused himself and they watched the soldier leave. "Well, he finally seems to be coming out of his shell a little," Edward said thoughtfully, chin in his hand.

Havoc scratched the side of his jaw. "Uh, boss?"


"Cushler likes you."

"Bullshit he does, he's fuckin' scared of me," Edward said, swilling the remainders of his booze in the bottom of his tankard. "Surprised he hasn't combusted from all the stammering he does."

Sheska giggled as Havoc sighed. "No, boss. He likes you."

Edward looked at Sheska, then at Havoc. "What?"

"Like," Havoc waved his hands in the air. "God, I'm not having this discussion with you boss, you tell him, Sheska!"

Sheska nodded her head and patted Edward's shoulder. "Cushler is sweet on you, Ed."

"Sweet on- wait, what, what the fuck-" He looked back to Havoc. "You're joking."

Havoc shook his head. "You'd have to be blind not to see it."

Elbow on the table, forehead in hand Edward groaned. "I do not need to be dealing with this right now."

"It's cute," Sheska said.

"Yeah," Havoc echoed. "Cute."

Edward gave them both a look. "My subordinate has a crush on me and you both call it cute," he said. "Wonderful." He looked at his woefully empty tankard and sighed. "Not enough booze for this."

"What's the matter with Cushler?" Havoc asked.

Edward opened his mouth and almost said it - He's not Roy. He realized that Havoc's eyes were unusually clear and sober and he snorted instead. "I'm getting another drink," he said, sliding out of the booth and heading for the bar, leaving Sheska and Havoc alone.

He really didn't need this right now. Edward wove around the packed crowd and made it up to the bar. It seemed like he was getting it from all sides now - although there was always the chance that Havoc was pulling one over on him. Which, the more he thought about it, the more likely it seemed. What better way to alleviate his own sorrows than to watch Edward make a dick of himself to his direct subordinate?

Edward glared over his shoulder at the booth, and Havoc waved cheerfully. Cushler had reappeared in Edward's absence. Edward sighed and waved down the bartender.

"You look like you're having fun," Russell Tringham said from directly to his left.

Edward glanced at Russell. "I was, until you showed up."

Russell shrugged. He was sitting at the bar, hands around his own tankard of ale. "That's my job, ruining all your fun," he said. "Had an interesting day, I take it?"

"So when were you going to tell me about Fletcher sitting for the State Alchemist exams?" Edward asked.

"Need to know information," Russell murmured.

"Well, I'm going to be taking it to "need to punch" levels soon," Edward returned. "And that's your only warning, by the way." He took the tankard back from the bartender, thanking him. "Fletcher didn't show."


Russell actually looked surprised. That wasn't the response Edward was expecting. "What do you mean, Fletcher didn't show?"

"I mean," Edward said. "He was one of two no-shows for the interviews today. I don't know how to make that much clearer." He paused. "I didn't take Fletcher as the sort to skip out on important things like that."

Russell stood up, the noise of the bar stool sliding backwards lost in the general din of the pub. "He's not," Russell said.

Edward watched Russell nearly bolt out of the pub, a concerned frown on his face. Russell didn't rabbit often. He was still wearing his concerned face when he sat back down at the booth, to Cushler doing a spot-on impersonation of Hawkeye, to the eternal hilarity of Havoc and Sheska.

He wasn't good at hiding his discomfiture when even slightly inebriated, or perhaps Sheska was more apt to picking up on it. Either way, she was pretty much ready to call it a night, so Edward offered to walk her home. Havoc was well on his way to singing bar ballads at the top of his lungs, arm in arm with Cushler, who seemed to have shed his earlier nervousness. The beer probably helped with that.

Edward wasn't sure what time it was, and didn't bother to fish out his pocket watch to check. Sheska was quietly worried and covered that with incessant chatter about anything and everything that came to mind. Edward was grateful for her running dialogue because he didn't have to speak.

They made it to the military dorm that Sheska was staying at - the same one the State Alchemist candidates had taken over. There was a cluster of them standing outside smoking - most, Edward realized, had already failed the initial written exam and were waiting on friends to either pass or fail to catch the same train.

He caught Sheska looking at him oddly expectantly. "I had fun," Sheska said with a grin. Then she hugged him and trotted up the stairs and into the military dorm.

Edward stood on the sidewalk a little confused by this display, the alcohol still buzzing in the back of his mind. He realized that the smokers were watching him and shoved his hands in the pockets of his trousers before sauntering down the sidewalk and heading back toward the part of town where his flat was located. It had been an eventful night, and he'd barely had any rest. At least he'd sleep like a log before the all-day interviews on Saturday that would wrap up the second part of the State Alchemist examinations. With a stifled yawn, he made his way home.

It had cooled off as the sun had set. Rian sat on that bench in the park and just watched the ducks, and the few people who walked by, until it got too late and he started getting looks. He didn't want to go back to the dorm and sleep, what purpose would that serve?

What purpose did any of it serve, really?

He ambled about town, hands shoved in his pockets. He hadn't counted on Anthony showing up. His brother's abrupt appearance shouldn't have thrown a wrench in his plans and yet it had, shattering Rian's convictions in one fell blow. How was he supposed to head off to die tomorrow morning when he knew his brother was on base himself, preparing for the military academy? Would he be connected back to Anthony? Did he tell the recruiter he had a family member taking the examinations? Rian groaned and ran a hand through his hair, hesitating on the sidewalk.

It was a Friday night, the city was buzzing with activity. People were everywhere, in groups. Store fronts were open, bright with light. Bars and pubs with the doors flapping open, showing people happily carousing and greeting the weekend with shouts and laughter. Rian stalked past all of these, lost in his own little world.

He wanted Howard dead. He was certain of that, at least. And this interview was his best bet at it, his chance to get close to the man, get in close quarters when he was unguarded and kill him. Rian's plan was to make it as messy as possible, the less of him that was left the harder it would be to identify the purpose of the attack, as well as the harder it would be to identify him. But, but, but.

Suddenly he wasn't sure that he could go through with it.

There had to be other ways to take his revenge. Howard had other weaknesses, other times that Rian could use against him. Hell, he'd even made a plan B just in case Howard decided at the last minute he wasn't going to sit in the interviews. But that contingency was in place because it was something Rian couldn't control.

What was he supposed to do if his resolve collapsed around his ears?

He found a stoop to sit on, and buried his head in his hands as his thoughts chased around in senseless circles. Why did stupid Anthony have to show up? Fuck, it ruined everything-

"Hey, you all right?"

Rian blinked, looked up. He looked around in confusion a moment - he had ended up across the street from the train station several blocks away from the main military base that dominated the center of the city - and he really wasn't sure how he'd ended up here.

A tall man in a tan trench coat and trilby had stopped in front of him. He had a suitcase slung over his shoulder and a newspaper tucked under his other arm.

"I'm fine," Rian responded. "Just ... thinking about how stupid brothers are."

The man snorted. "I could write a book." He gave Rian a considering look. "You sure you're all right?"

The look that the man was giving him was making Rian strangely uncomfortable. He shifted under the gaze. "I'm fine," he insisted, getting to his feet. "I have to go."

He could feel the stranger's eyes on him as he took off down the street at a steady trot. Rian shoved his hands into the pockets of his jacket - it might be early spring but it was still nippy at night - and sighed. He had no idea what to do now. The sigh turned into a yawn, which surprised him.

Maybe that bed in the military dorm wasn't such a bad idea after all.

Fletcher sneezed himself awake, dirt and dust getting up his nose. He was lying on his side in the most uncomfortable position, face pressed to the ground. He groaned, the sneezing that woke him served to catapult a raging headache to the forefront as he tried to figure out what had happened to him.

The last time Fletcher had woken up like this, he and Russell had been on the bad end of a wronged throng of villagers who couldn't be easily placated by Russell's attempts at smooth talking. To Russell's credit at least the reason the villagers were enraged had nothing to do with his older brother's many con jobs - for once they had honestly walked into a mess that wasn't their doing - but they had been mobbed and thrown into a tiny jail to await a messy execution.

They had escaped handily, by transmuting some dummies to hide under the straw blankets and getting themselves out of the jail, but Fletcher remembered all too well that painful discombobulation of waking from mild-to-serious head trauma. The room was wobbling around the edges - fortunately for him it wasn't particularly well lit.

His shoulders were sore, and it quickly became apparent why - his wrists were tied together. He rubbed his wrists a minute, gauging the material to be thick cord or rope. It wasn't entirely coarse, but it was thick and tied so tightly there was no way he'd easily slip these knots. If his captors had used handcuffs he would have had a better chance at freeing himself.

Fletcher's cheek was pressed to the cold tile floor. It was dusty and dirty in here, but with the dim light there was no telling where he was. No windows, just some wan light that streamed in from under the door. Occasional shadows would pass in front of it - people, obviously. Wherever he was, it was busy.

He shifted his legs. They hadn't been bound, thankfully. He hurt all over, his head most of all. The Drachmians were all terrorists, all of them. Even Ioana. He closed his eyes guiltily, cheek still pressed against the tile. He knew Russell kinda suspected them but Russell really didn't have any solid proof to go on yet, or any idea when they were planning on acting. For all he knew, they were planning on doing something during the practical examinations, not now during the relatively boring interview process. He was the only one who knew what was going on, and he had to warn somebody.

Fletcher rolled onto his back. He still felt woozy, but he had no time for that. With some effort he maneuvered himself into a sitting position and stayed that way a while, waiting for the rushing sound to stop in his ears. Then up on his knees and staggering to his feet, barely able to keep his balance as he stumbled into shelves against a wall. There was a clatter and Fletcher heard various bric-a-brac hit the floor. He was in a supply closet of some kind.

The door would more than likely be locked - not that Fletcher was in any way capable of opening it with his hands bound like they were. He could always turn around and back against the door, fumble for the knob with his bound hands, but that would alert a lot of attention to the fact that he was up and about.

For the first time, Fletcher hesitated. Why was he still alive? The Drachmians were clearly about to pull off a terrorist plot that would end in death and destruction, so why not kill him and dump his body into the river? What benefit was there to keeping him alive?

He heard voices outside the door as they passed, conversing in loud tones. Neither was accented with Drachmian - they both spoke Amestrian with faint rural accents. Soldiers.

What was going on?

Edward hesitated on his doorstep a second, then opened the front door carefully, key in the lock. Something felt uncomfortable and off, and a freshly-honed danger sense overrode the faint buzz of alcohol nicely.

He closed the door behind him carefully, automail leading, and turned the corner into the den from the small foyer.

Alphonse sat on the couch, bare feet on his coffee table, a large book open in his lap and a mug of coffee in his hand. "Took you long enough, brother."

Edward relaxed in the doorway. "Just make yourself at home, why don'tcha," he grumbled, then turned to kick his boots off in the foyer.

"Thanks, I will." Alphonse turned a page in the book. "There's coffee on in the kitchen. I wasn't quite sure where you'd end up, although I suppose it would have been awkward if you'd brought Sheska back here."

Edward paused, halfway into the kitchen. "Why would I bring Sheska back here?"

Alphonse raised an eyebrow. "Weren't you on a date?"

The look of abject horror that crossed Edward's face Alphonse found objectively hilarious. Edward sputtered a moment, and then his face actually turned a deep shade of crimson as everything came together. Alphonse stretched his arms over his head and closed his book. "You're just now figuring this out? I think Hawkeye deserves your rank more than you, brother."

"I, she- WHAT IS GOING ON TONIGHT?" Edward shouted. Alphonse clapped his shoulder and moved him out of the space between the rooms, moving into the kitchen to pour his brother some much-needed coffee. "First Cushler, now SHESKA? Is there something in the water?"

"I keep telling you, you need to put yourse-" Alphonse paused. "Cushler?"

"My, one of the junior members of the garrison," Edward said, shoving stuff off of the chair at the small kitchen table and then collapsing in it, leaning back against the wall. "Apparently has developed some sort of infatuation with me per Havoc."

"I know who Cushler is, brother," Alphonse said. "Is Havoc fucking with you?"

"I haven't had time to check yet," Edward said. "Sheska likes me? Is this why you sent her suddenly to start working with Hawkeye, because if you are trying to set us up so help me I will break your nose, Alphonse."

Alphonse put the coffee cup in front of Edward's face and sighed. "Ed, do we have to do this right now? I'm not here to play matchmaker."

"Good, because I don't need your help. I'm fine by myself." He looked at the coffee cup in front of him and scowled.

"Yeah, you're doing wonderfully, living with a ghost."

"Hey, fuck you." Edward's tone was venomous.

"Brother," Alphonse said sharply. "Roy is dead. He's been dead for five years. You need to move on."

Edward started visibly at the words, and his face rearranged into a wordless snarl. Alphonse simply looked at his brother calmly, a little sadly as Edward sputtered. "Get out of my house, Al."

Alphonse said, very firmly and evenly, "No."

"Don't you - get out, I fucking mean it."

"The next train back to East City isn't until tomorrow evening, so I'm afraid you're stuck with me until then." Alphonse leaned back against the counter and crossed his arms, his posture the very definition of "make me." "Besides," Alphonse said. "I'm here until the end of the interviews. The practical examinations are going to be supervised by acting-Fuhrer Dalton and because of an inspection that just came up, have been moved a week and a half out. So, next train tomorrow evening you are coming with me back to East City because you are going to explain to Winry why I had to come all the way out here to kick your ass."

"I told you not to come," Edward said. "And it had nothing to do with me and every thing to do with this goddamn mess that's going on around the edges of everything." Edward waved his arms in the air illustratively. "Stupid, espionage and Intelligence and terrorists and Drachmians and I am fucking fed the fuck up with it all, I don't get paid enough to put up with all this shit-" Edward stopped mid-sentence and pointed at Alphonse. "An' you still need to get the fuck out."

"At least you've gotten to the point where you can juggle more on your one-track mind," Alphonse murmured. "I know it hurts you to hear it, brother, but Roy is dead and gone. Everyone else has accepted it. It's time you did too."

Edward snarled but it was without the same venom as earlier. He stared down into the coffee in his hands. "You put milk in this," he accused Alphonse instead.

Alphonse scruffed a hand in his hair and sighed.