"You're sure about this," Maes said, stopping Roy from going through the doors to the emergency room.
"I'm sure. That reporter published photos of both you and Strongarm," Roy replied and his friends both scowled.
"Pain in the ass," Maes muttered.
Roy nodded. "I know. John was no fool. Most alchemists are fairly intelligent," he said, ignoring the twin snorts from Dev and Ed. "John wasn't particularly violent, but being tortured and maimed changes a man. I don't know what he'll do."
"You sound like you almost feel sorry for him." Maes's eyes were hard behind his lenses.
"In a way, I do. That war turned too many of us into monsters, but if he's the one killing these women, that is what he is. I'm the best person to stop him. He wanted to get my attention, after all. You or Armstrong would only spook him."
"But you're taking a man who can barely walk." Maes jerked his chin at Dev.
"My mom is working the same floor with him," Dev grumbled. "I'm going. Besides, I'm pretending I'm hurt. She'll come look after me and be away from him."
"You're not pretending," Roy reminded him. "I think you did mess up your leg and should have come here two days ago."
"And I'll be with him just in case things go wrong," Ed said. "I sent Al after Winry just in case this guy left early. If he's here and he can sneak alchemy past Mustang, I can protect any of the innocents we can't just get out of there without alerting the guy."
"And I'll be there," Riza said quietly. "Pretending to be ill."
Roy wondered just how much of that was pretend. "We have it covered."
"Yeah," Hughes sighed. "I just don't like sitting out when I'm the one who should be arresting him." He brushed a hand over his lapel. "I'm incognito, after all."
Only Hughes would think a purple suit would make him an everyman. Roy shrugged. "Fine, pull the hat down low and take off your glasses. And stay the hell back. Hopefully he'll think you're in for a psych consult in that suit."
Maes made a face then turned back to his men, giving them orders to be waiting outside the emergency room, orders he should have been taking himself. Roy left him and went into the emergency room. It was more crowded than he hoped for. Most of the people looked rampagingly ill with the same killer cough he had so recently suffered from, or were moaning and crying, holding various limbs in awkward angles. Winter claimed a lot of casualties. He signaled for his companions to hang back, sit down, look like patients, do what they had discussed. Roy only trusted Riza to obey orders and follow the plan.
He spotted Hala working the front desk, apparently triaging patients. Roy didn't recognize the man giving orders to a younger nurse at first. John had aged since Roy had seen him, but then again it had been well over fifteen years, and John was older than Roy. Roy had been the youngest State Alchemist until Edward. Many of the men he served with had been a decade his senior.
Roy walked up to the front desk and Hala handed him a clipboard and paperwork like a pro. Well, she was, he supposed.
"Fill it out and have a seat. We'll get you in to the see the doctor in order of seriousness of your aliment," she said, in a half-bored tone but he could see the worry in her ruby eyes as she pretended sudden recognition. "Oh, Ambassador, I'm sorry. Is something wrong?"
"Your son fell and we brought him in." Roy jerked a thumb toward the back of the waiting room. "He can fill out his own paperwork."
"Is he hurt badly?" Hala turned to John and said. "John, can you man the desk for a few minutes? My son fell. I'm going to go check on him."
"Sure." John turned, his eyes widening. There was no doubt he recognized Roy. "Flame?"
Roy blinked. "Do I know…oh my god, Whip? Is that you?"
A huge grin spread across John's face and he stuck out his automail hand. Roy shook it.
"I can't believe it's you, Mustang. What are you doing here?"
"It's being a bad day. I work with Hala's son." Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Hala get halfway around the desk before a doctor stopped her, officiously ordering her back to work.
"You checking out Hala?" John grinned, picking up on Roy's interest.
He winced. He should know better than to be so obvious. "What can I say? She's older than me but she's hot. Hang on a moment. I want to catch up, but I have to do something first," Roy said, moving over to the doctor's side. "Doctor, this woman's son could use your help."
"Soldier, you don't tell me what do in this hospital," he replied.
"General, and do I really have to pull all the many strings I could to make your life miserable when you could do the nice thing and help one of your nurses with her injured son?" Roy smiled, as cold as the wind outside.
The man sputtered but let Hala lead him back toward where Dev sat. Roy watched her lean in, whispering something. The doctor looked back alarmed, then started moving faster. Roy just hoped she could stop him at Dev's side long enough to be convincing. He'd best distract John again just in case.
"Sorry about that. I had no idea you were back in Central working," Roy said, casting one last glance back at Hala.
"For a couple years now, not quite what I wanted to be doing, but the research." John frowned. "It makes me anxious thinking about doing alchemic research. I can still do what I used to, but I'm even rusty at that."
"I know what you mean. The war put me off learning anything new for a long time." Roy scowled. "Didn't really feel like an alchemist any more."
John nodded knowingly, pulling a chart off the desk and handing it to a nurse who approached them. She went off to call the person back to the treatment area. "I saw the newspapers with all your wedding photos. I remember Hawkeye from those days. You sure you want to be eyeing up Ishbalan nurses when she's not looking?"
Roy laughed "Fair point. She's here, too. We were taking her out to the car when Dev fell. He's not particularly steady on his feet. The war didn't treat him well either."
"Did it treat anyone well?" John asked bitterly, turning to look over the waiting room. "She looks tired"
Roy frowned. John was sharper than he remembered. He sure as hell hoped John didn't spot Maes as well. A crowded waiting room was no place for an alchemy battle. "I was just in this hospital a few weeks ago with pneumonia. I'm hoping she doesn't have the same bug."
John turned back. "Could be. Could be pregnant, she has that look."
Roy's mouth dropped, involuntarily twisting back to look at his wife. Why the hell had he never thought about that? Mostly because tired could be anything and that was the only complain Riza had mentioned. "I didn't think of that. Certainly possible. That would be better than her getting sick with pneumonia, too."
John nodded. "I'll be honest; I was surprised to hear you got married. You had a certain reputation. We used to talk about it back then, remember?"
Roy's mouth felt suddenly dry, but he managed to say, "Yes, I do. That was a long time ago."
"Hawkeye was a pretty thing, still is. Always wondered what her feet looked like under those boots. Guess you're lucky enough to know."
Roy smiled, shaking a finger at John. "They are very nice and they're all mine."
"Wouldn't dream otherwise." John held up his hands. "I know you were here in the hospital a lot last year. I thought about coming up to see you, even though it wasn't my floor. I wasn't sure if you'd welcome a visit from someone from that…time."
Roy wondered if things might have turned out a little differently if John had. The killings seemed to be a new thing, unless the alchemist had done it wherever he had lived before moving back to Central. "It would have been okay. I came to see you when you were…recovering. I'm not sure you remember that."
"Barely. I thought it might even be a dream. They had me on a lot of medications." John glanced down at his metal hand, flexing the finger. "I didn't have this hand then either. Well, any hand, not this one. This one is new. Hala's son introduced me to his automail mechanic, surprisingly pretty, Most of the ones I knew were burly creatures."
"Ah, Miss Rockbell. Yes, she is lovely, a bit young for my tastes but still. She's my mechanic, too. Lost a leg a couple years back."
John shot him a pitying look. "That is never easy." He shook his head. "I can't believe you decided to get married. I'm still looking for that special one, you know?" John stared at Roy. "You really do know, don't you? About collecting?"
"Most alchemists know that. I have met very few who didn't collect something," Roy said, knowing he wasn't going to be able to wait for a time where there were less people about. John was nearly there and the fight could start at any time.
"Do you know that Ishbalans believe the energies of our bodies can imbue inanimate objects with power? Centuries ago, they would knock down an entire wall in a room where someone died, so the spirit wouldn't linger. They wouldn't take old furniture for fear of some spiritual power clinging to it."
Roy shook his head. "I work with priests every day, but they tell me little about their beliefs. I think they believe I'll ridicule them for it."
"Others would seek out these special objects for the power. The more violent the death, the more powerful the object. I thought you should know that," John said, his hand disappearing into the pocket of his hospital uniform. "You would understand. I'm sure of that."
Roy moved just as John's hand came up, something metal clutched in it. He used a method of attack his grandfather had taught him when he was young, quick and efficient with no collateral damage. Roy struck the side of his hand against John's carotid, pressing tight. The man yelped, stumbling back a step. Roy moved with him, keeping the pressure on. It felt like minutes when he knew it was only seconds. John passed out. Roy barely caught the man before he crashed into the desk.
"Got him?" Maes hollered.
Maes disappeared out the swinging doors then returned with Armstrong and the rest of their men. Armstrong had a small stockade that would keep John's hands separated. Roy fished up the amulet John had dropped, running a finger over the rune, memorizing it. He and Al could benefit from the reverse of this transmutation circle as they researched healing alchemy.
"That was easier than I expected," Maes said, staring down at his prisoner.
"Easy for you to say. He's rather mad," Roy said. "Talking about some Ishbalan belief that death can make objects powerful, know what he's talking about, Dev?"
"Old superstition," the young man said, hobbling up with Ed and Hala in tow. "What did he want to make powerful?"
"The shoes, I would guess. That was his thing." Roy shrugged as Riza came up to him.
"And why would he think you'd understand that." Ed glared at the fallen man, horror in his gold eyes.
"He just did."
"For no reason?" Dev pressed.
"He probably assumed the general likes to incorporate shoes and toes into his sex play," Hala said and Roy blushed.
"You came up with that too fast for comfort, Mom." Dev wrinkled his nose.
"You can imagine the sexual misadventures we see coming through here," Hala said then wagged a finger at Roy. "And I heard what you said about me."
Dev whipped around to face Roy. "What did you say about my mother?"
"That she's hot."
Dev pushed him. "Stay away from my mother."
Roy sighed, leaning against Riza. "Mrs. Jasso, now that we have your idiot son in the hospital, maybe you should make him see a doctor to be sure he didn't rebreak that leg when he fell."
"Don't you worry. Come along, son. That bullet did a lot of damage. Your leg is still fragile." Hala caught Dev's arm, pulling him away from the desk. Dev sputtered something about not getting to see how it all ended, but Roy wasn't sure what else there was to see.
"That was a cool move you used on him, Mustang," Ed said. "He doesn't look scary. I guess I thought he would."
"Looking human is what makes monsters so very scary," Maes said.
Roy nodded, reaching for Riza's hand. "How are you feeling?"
Her brow knit. "What's with all the concern? I'm fine, Roy."
"You've been so tired lately."
"And now I'm not. Never underestimate how tiring you can be." She smiled. "Just like your sisters are always saying."
He snorted at her teasing. "Fine. I guess you and Armstrong can take it from here, Maes."
His friend's eyes narrowed. "I'm sure we can."
Roy held up his hands. "Sorry, didn't mean to sound so dickish."
"You can't help it. It's what you are," Ed said. "Show me how that move works some time."
"Can't be revealing Xingese fighting techniques to a non-Xingese." Roy smirked and Riza nudged him.
"See, there's the dick." Ed shrugged. "I'll just ask your niece."
"Be my guest. She's likely to use it on you."
Ed rolled his eyes. "I'll go tell Al and Winry it's over – provided, of course, you didn't just knock out an innocent man since we have almost no proof. Speaking of which, Winry thinks she still has his old hand in the scrap bin, not that I'm sure it helps much."
"Proves it leaked. That might be enough. I think this guy wants to talk, if only to you, Roy," Maes said.
"If that's what it takes, I can come to the interrogations," Roy said.
"You may have to." Maes smirked. "I'm not sure Alex Louis or I could convincingly talk about feet being sexy."
"Go to hell. If I'm done, I'm taking my wife home."
"You have to write reports about this first," Riza countered. "You're going to your office."
Roy's shoulders slumped, but he let her lead him away. He glanced back at the Whip Alchemist as Hughes's men brought over a gurney to cart him out on. He couldn't help wondering if the war drove John to murder or was it always there, just lurking in the corners of his tortured mind?
"Sorry if we're the last ones here," Ed said, stomping the snow off his boots outside on the porch. His golden eyes took on a wicked gleam. "Al had to make himself pretty."
Al shoved Ed inside Roy's house. Roy neatly sidestepped the brothers. "Shut up."
With a sudden cloud of moisture, the remaining snow succumbed to the brothers' transmutation from solid to gaseous state, leaving their foot gear house-safe by Riza's standards.
"We just better not get trapped here again," Ed grumbled.
"What my brother means is thanks for asking us here for dinner." Al shucked his coat.
"You're barely in the house and you're already causing trouble." Winry tsked, coming into the foyer, an apron draped over her body.
"You're the one who wants to put up with this. Don't look at us," Roy said and she swatted his arm.
"As if Riza doesn't put up with the same. Come on, we're about ready to eat," Winry said.
"Ed! Al!" Elicia came barreling out of the living room, leaping on Ed, who caught her in an embrace.
"You get bigger every day, Elicia." Al ruffled her hair as Ed struggled to extricate himself.
"I do. Daddy measures me against the door!"
"Our mom used to do that until Ed started crying because he never grew." Al grinned until Ed reached over and cuffed him on the back of the head.
Winry sighed. "Try not to fight until after dinner. I'm sure by then Dev will be ready to help."
"I plan on throwing at least two of them out in the snow before long," Roy said.
"And I'm sure Riza will send you right after." Winry gave him a look.
Roy laughed, herding his guests toward the dining room. Dev, Alex Louis and Maes were already seated. Winry took Elicia back into the kitchen. "You're not helping?"
"The women said we were dangerous and sent us out here," Maes said.
"Probably true. Have a seat, boys. I'll go see if they need any help," Roy said.
"Don't bother. You're worse than the whole lot of them," Li-Ying called from the kitchen.
"Fine, I'll sit and be lazy," Roy called back.
"You are the expert at that."
Roy sat at the table, looking at Armstrong. "And you wish to date that sword-tongued woman, why?"
"She is quite a lovely woman," Alex Louis said. "And she does not treat me the way she does you." His mustache twitched as he smiled. "I suppose I am better behaved."
Roy snorted. "You're definitely more genteel. I'm just glad everyone could be here for the celebration. It's not quite mid-winter yet, but we're celebrating early. Certainly cold enough. And we're celebrating the closing of your first major case since you've been…back, Hughes."
"He confessed then?" Ed asked, leaning his elbows on the table in his eagerness to find out the answer.
Maes nodded. "With Roy's help. He seemed anxious to tell his story. He'll be committed to a high security asylum that specializes in dealing with you alchemists. They assured us he'll never be released."
"And they assured us Kimblee was dead when he wasn't." Roy eyed Armstrong again. "I certainly hope your sister's administration is more honest."
"As do I, Flame."
"How in the hell did he manage to adopt a purely Ishbalan custom, and an ancient one at that, as his reason for killing to imbue those shoes with power?" Dev asked. "And for what purpose?"
"The high? The imaginary perfect woman? I have no idea. He is insane." Roy got back up and took one of the open bottles of wine off the side board. He started pouring glasses. "I guess when he was at the mercy of those Ishbalan priests, the power they had over him made an impression. Maybe he studied Ishbalan culture along with Xingese when he was learning his alchemy. I don't know. I suppose I could always ask him. He wanted me to visit, part of the confession hinged on the promise that I would."
"Better you than me," Maes said, with a shake of his head.
"Yeah, still there might be something in his research that Alphonse, Miao-Yin and I can use in regards to healing alchemy." Roy shrugged.
"Yes, because it worked out so well for Pandur," Dev rolled his eyes.
"Alphonse and Miao-Yin are more stable. I have Ishbalans torturing me daily, so I'm more of a risk," Roy admitted, giving Dev the hairy eye.
"Glad to be of help," Dev replied as Li-Ying and Miao-Yin came out, carrying trays of soup.
"This is a traditional soup," Li-Ying said, "Sweet with equally sweet rice flour balls in them."
"I'm getting the wine, less traditional since the last time I gave rice wine to some of you, you whined it was lighter fluid." Roy snickered.
The women doled out the bowls before settling down, Winry between the brothers and Miao-Yin to Al's other side. Hala set next to her son and the rest of the women took up spots next to their lovers. Roy gestured to Maes who popped up and hefted the tripod that had been leaning against the sideboard.
He set up the camera and rejoined them. "It's on timer. Smile."
Everyone turned dutifully to the camera and grinned. They sat frozen until the flash blinded them.
"I can not believe I'm in family pictures with you, Mustang," Hala said, making a face.
"Definitely unexpected but welcome, nonetheless," he agreed. "And we owe you and Dev a thank you. If you hadn't actually known John, we wouldn't have caught…" Roy trailed off, looking into Elicia's young face. "the bad guy."
"It was just coincidence," Dev said.
"Many cases are solved that way. Just a random bit of information you overhear and the pieces fall into place," Maes replied.
"I don't think I'd be cut out for your job," Dev said, tasting his soup. "Okay, this is really good. Why didn't we ever think of sweet soups when I was a kid?"
"Because you'd be fatter than a house by now with your sweet tooth," his mother replied.
Once the soup was polished off, Roy poured more wine and Riza and his kin went back to bring out more food. Li-Ying set up three hot pots within easy reach and Roy started the fire under them. Several other platters joined the ranks.
"You just take the skewer and put it in the sauce. It'll cook fast," Roy said. "This plate is tea-smoked duck. Those are noodles and vegetables with a garlic sauce and that reddish chicken dish is made with peppers of death. Consider that a warning."
"Ishbalans do eat hot cuisine more often than not," Dev reminded him, helping himself to a small portion of the chicken. He popped one piece into his mouth then made a face.
"You heard me warn him, Hala," Roy said.
"My son makes his own choices. On the upside, now that you've probably given him third degree burns on his tongue from the looks of his face, maybe you'll have a quiet evening," the nurse replied, wagging her head.
"That is insane," Dev rasped, red-faced.
"That's not even as hot as we could have made it. It's traditionally even hotter," Li-Ying said.
"Does it melt the pot when you're done?" Gracia laughed.
"If it's done right," she grinned.
Roy raised his wine glass. "A quick toast. Here's to another success. Improving the world is a never ending battle so we should celebrate where we can."
After the 'here, here's' and the clinking of glasses, they gave the lavish meal the attention it deserved. Afterward, Roy got the men to help him clear the table and do the dishes. By the time he had gotten to the living room, his sister had started sticks of incense on the mantle in front of their parents' photo. She explained it to the men when Alphonse asked. As talk of honoring the dead faded away, and the younger members of the gathering argued over which game they could all play, Roy sat next to Riza on the couch. He draped an arm around her, pulling her close.
"What are you thinking about?" she asked.
What he really was thinking about were John's words. But he couldn't talk to Riza about that now. If he asked her if she were pregnant in front of everyone, she'd probably hit him. If she said yes, he'd cry. No way in hell was he going to cry in front of Ed and Dev. Even Maes would torment him and Alex Louis would probably hug him until ribs broke. Maybe she really was simply tired. Either way, that would have to wait.
"That I'm the luckiest man alive some days." He kissed her.
"Oh god!" Dev groaned
"No one wants to see that!" Ed added.
"Some of us do," Riza replied, laughing.
As they dragged out a board game that Elicia could play yet wouldn't bore the adults, Roy realized his words were so very true. He could have easily ended up like John, half mad, a danger to himself and others. Instead, here he was surrounded by friends and family, in spite of all the horrible things he had done. He was luckier than he knew. What man could ask for more?