"The 'boy?' Ah, do you mean your young nephew?" As he spoke, the man raised a questioning eyebrow at his female companion. She nodded briskly and pushed a lock of her thick, wavy hair behind one ear.
Although no one would've described the woman as pretty, there was something about her—a quality she possessed that made people stop and take a second look. She was certainly striking: tall, with broad shoulders and generously lush curves, that glossy black hair tumbling all down her back, and shrewd dark eyes that seemed always to see more than what was on the surface.
Madame Christmas, as she chose to be called professionally, was currently perched on a bar stool in her newly opened establishment, her long legs crossed demurely at the ankle and her fingers tangled in a long silvery necklace. At first glance, Chris Mustang looked no older than the girls she employed. Her crow's feet and frown lines were expertly concealed under a heavy layer of makeup, which gave her the appearance of a flawless complexion. The man sitting beside her only knew how old she really was because he'd once looked up her birth certificate while checking into her background, and even he had been surprised. As he knew all too well, it was not wise to underestimate this woman.
Keeping that in mind, he tapped his fingers pensively against the glass she'd set in front of him only a moment before. He had a feeling he knew where she was headed with the "casual" mention of her nephew's interest in the sciences.
"Let me guess, the young man has his heart set on learning alchemy?" he said, picking up the glass at last. Chris pursed her plump crimson lips and shot him an unreadable sidelong glance. He took a sip of his drink to hide his smile. She hadn't expected him to see through her quite so quickly.
Brigadier General Grumman had discovered his affinity for the political aspects of his job early on in his military career. Learning to recognize pretense, discovering the hidden truths mixed in with the lies, dancing around a topic so that both parties understood what was being offered without actually committing themselves to anything officially—he honestly enjoyed the little games that were played on a daily basis. He was very good at what he did, so sometimes he couldn't really help but use those observational skills even in the most mundane situations. Plus, it was fun to throw someone as skilled as Chris off-balance every now and again.
"You've got it," she admitted. "Roy's fallen in love with the subject. He's been trying to teach himself as he goes along, but he's had to squeeze alchemy in between his regular classes at the secondary school, so he hasn't gotten very far." Chris gestured to the necklace she'd been toying with a moment earlier. "Little brat made this thing for me out of some scrap metal the other day," she snorted derisively. "I told him it was shoddy craftsmanship, but he didn't seem all that put out."
I'll just bet she did too, thought Grumman, hiding another smirk.
"And he wouldn't shut up until I at least tried it on," Chris was saying. "If it turns my skin green, I'll have his hide."
But Grumman noticed that her eyes had gone soft. And then there was the fact that she was still wearing the necklace. Underneath that cold and calculating exterior, they both knew she loved the kid fiercely and would do anything for him.
"So," she continued crisply, interrupting this train of thought. "As you're in the military, I'm sure you are acquainted with plenty of state certified alchemists. Do you know of any that would be willing to take on the brat for a pupil?" No sense in beating around the bush now that he'd called her out, after all. Grumman hesitated a moment, and Chris shifted slightly on her stool. With studied indifference, she added: "And the cost isn't an object. His parents left money enough to cover his schooling."
This time Grumman didn't bother to hide his smirk. Whether that statement was true or not, he was absolutely certain that Chris and her girls would willingly pool their own carefully hoarded resources to send the boy to a private tutor if need be. The boy was well and truly spoiled by those hard-eyed beauties. He'd seen how their faces lit up when the kid came around—they all adored him. Even the boy had to have noticed this weak spot by now. He referred to them as his older sisters, for pity's sake.
Clearly the apple didn't fall far from the tree, Grumman thought. If things continued as they were now, young Roy might grow up to become as manipulative as his foster mother. And if he did, he'd make an excellent heir to his aunt's little information-gathering spy ring. She'd collected a tight knit and loyal group of girls with just the right combination of brains and sex appeal, and she was always on the lookout for new talent. Her girls loved and respected her, and she looked out for their best interests, though she ruled them with an iron fist. It would be just like her to be grooming a teenage boy to take over for her someday, he mused.
"Well…" Grumman cleared his throat, stalling for time. An idea had occurred to him the moment the word 'alchemy' had been mentioned, and he had still not decided within himself whether it was a good one. "I do know of someone," he said at last, hesitantly. "But…this person isn't a state certified alchemist. He's actually a bit of a recluse; lives in a little farming town up north. But according to my sources, he's extremely talented." Chris only tilted her head, listening carefully. "In fact, the military has been trying to recruit him for years. He keeps refusing them no matter how much money they offer. He's apparently a specialist in elemental alchemy. According to the rumors, his particular area of expertise is fire."
"I can see why the military would be interested in him, then," Chris said thoughtfully, displaying her immediate grasp of the implications of such a specialty. She always had been a sharp one, Grumman thought as he chuckled.
"Yes, he would be quite the asset, if only they could convince him that their intentions are pure." Which, of course, they weren't. "Anyway, I'm certain that if you were to write to him about your boy," Grumman continued, "this particular alchemist would accept him as a pupil, at least on a trial basis."
"Trial basis?" she echoed.
"Well, if all the rumors are true, he's an exacting man, only willing to exert himself to teach those who show significant talent, if not outright genius."
"If he's such an exacting man, I'm surprised that he'd accept pupils at all," she said, a slight frown appearing on her carefully made-up face.
"Yes; even those students he only accepts because of his precarious financial state. He's sunk into a sort of genteel poverty since his wife's death a few years back. He needs the income from boarding pupils to get by."
"Did the wife come from money, then?"
"No, not at all. It was a love match, pure and simple, or so I understand. There was supposed to be a bit of family money on his end once, but when she fell ill, what little they had went towards her medical care. You know, special doctors and new-fangled medicines and the like. Bled him dry, and the effort was futile in the end anyway."
Chris was listening intently, and she had known Grumman for quite some time, so she caught the slight catch in his voice others would've missed. As she focused those sharp dark eyes on his face, he took a too-casual sip of his drink, giving himself away even further by refusing to meet her eyes. Why did this man's story bother Grumman so?
"Since he lives in a small town and won't work for the military, he accepts students he'd rather not waste his time on, for the money they bring in," she said. Although it was a statement rather than a question, Grumman nodded in response, aware that she was still watching his face closely. He'd have to be careful not to slip up again.
"Precisely. He's willing to take students occasionally, as they pay for their lessons, room, and board. And then he takes on the odd village job here and there, as alchemists usually do, but…his neighbors are simple folk, and many of them still pay in things like barrels of cider and bushels of wool. He seems to live on that pittance and not much else, though. Such a waste of talent," Grumman sighed. "Anyway. It won't be easy on your boy. If the kid doesn't show promise, he'll probably be thrown out after a few weeks. But he should at least be able to learn how to transmute you something prettier than that tin-can travesty," he chuckled, hooking Chris's necklace out of the valley of her ample cleavage with one long finger and giving it a playful little tug.
"Hmm. Well, perhaps we'll try it out and see how the boy handles himself," she said, smoothing a non-existent wrinkle in her dress. "Now then. Don't play coy with me, old man. How much will I owe you for being my information broker?" Grumman just laughed.
"Suppose you do something for me in return for the contact information, my dear?"
Here it comes, Chris thought, already mentally skimming through her stable. Even before she'd officially had her own place, Grumman had "borrowed" her girls before. Usually it was to play the air-headed companion to some wealthy politico who needed to be distracted by something pretty and fluffy while the real work was taken care of behind the scenes, safely away from inept interference. Her girls were adept at the acting, and were always happy to be wined and dined at expensive restaurants for such a cause.
"What's the mission, then?" was all she said.
"It's about this alchemist that the boy will be studying with. I want the kid to report to me once he gets there—to tell me anything he can about the man. What his home is like, how he acts, what kind of teacher he is, that sort of thing." It was Chris's turn to raise her eyebrows.
"The boy is still very young, Grumman. I don't know if he's quite ready for espionage." Though she was trying very hard not to show it, Chris had gone extremely tense.
"I'm not really asking him to spy, per se," Grumman said quickly. "This man isn't dangerous. I'm not looking for deep political secrets or scandalous behavior, or anything half so sinister. It's not a case of sending a man behind enemy lines. I merely have a—personal interest in him. Because of his reclusive habits, I haven't been able to learn anything on my own. I expect the information gathered by the boy will be of the most mundane kind. And I can assure you that your nephew won't be in any danger living under this man's roof." Chris shot him a sharp look, letting Grumman know that she knew that he was hiding something from her.
"He'd better not be, old man," she said gruffly. "I once made a foolish promise to my big brother that I would look after his boy if he passed before I did. I won't have him haunting me from beyond the grave for letting something happen to his precious son on my watch," she huffed, trying and failing to conceal the ferocity of her mother-bear instincts.
Grumman waited sedately, his hands folded, while Chris deliberated. He knew full well that she'd only give him an answer once she'd finished her internal debate, and not a second before. Chris slid off the stool, made her way behind the bar, and refilled Grumman's nearly empty glass. Then she floated gracefully across the room, to check on the other patrons frequenting her establishment at this early hour. He had always admired the way she moved—in spite of her height and those bounteous curves, Chris glided along the floor like a dancer, elegant and poised. Regal.
He sighed and reached for his drink. Perhaps he shouldn't have mentioned this alchemist idea after all…it was a huge gamble to involve anyone else in his personal concerns, even someone as discreet as Chris, whom he trusted almost wholeheartedly. But what other option did he have?
It was several minutes later, just when Grumman was starting to feel anxious, that Chris slipped back into the stool at his side and leaned forward to rest her elbows against the bar. Then she shot him the wolfish grin he knew so well, dark eyes sparkling with interest.
"How about this—we'll have the kid keep a journal," she said in her sultry voice. "I'll convince him that he ought to write everything down: his impressions, what he's learning, what the town is like, all that. Tell him it's for my girls, most of whom never made it past primary school themselves. We'll have him send the journal entries home once a month, or once a week, or whatever suits you. It's a win-win: the letters will keep the girls from missing the brat too much while he's away, and he'll be able gather intel without compromising himself, since he won't know that there's anything TO compromise in the first place. Of course, you'll have to allow the girls to read everything through pretty thoroughly first. Will that do?"
God, she was brilliant.
"Chris, my dear, if I were a younger man I'd marry you," Grumman announced.
"And if you were a richer one, I'd let you," she smirked in reply.
"His address," Grumman said, sliding a slip of paper across the bar. "Good luck, Madame Christmas. I'll be in touch."
She waited until he had his hand on the door before she unfolded the paper.
"Berthold Hawkeye, hm?" Chris whispered as the door thudded closed behind Brigadier General Grumman. "What exactly are you hiding from me, old man?"
And so I submit, with much fear and trembling, a little something with which I have been playing for quite some time (actually, I'm ashamed to say for exactly how long...but at least since Prelude, which references later chapters of this story). The idea, of course, is to play around with the pre-series Roy/Riza relationship as the young tweens they probably were when they first met.
**Update: All right, I've decided to go ahead and make this into a proper multi chapter fic. Thanks very much for your feedback! (You know who you are ;D )