AU at chapter 29. Ed gets caught up in military politics. Slashy subtext, original characters, violence.
As it had turned out, there was a military record in the file Mustang gave him in Central- it was simply hidden in the middle of the other files. Tricky bastard- was he trying to hide it from prying eyes, or from Ed? River had a distinguished record of service, having enlisted as a Second Lieutenant during the conflict with Ishbal, at the same time and rank Mustang had enlisted. Their promotion history had been similar as well, up to a point- once the civil war had ended a year ago, Mustang received a promotion to Major General while River remained at Brigadier General.
However, one thing that was noticeably absent was any record of the crimes supposedly committed. Every page Ed turned made this assignment look more like Mustang's dirty work, clearing the way for a promotion to Lieutenant General without ever having to leave Central. Granted, Ed wasn't expecting an open record of them. Nearly every commissioned officer in the military had something hiding in his past- Ed's own attempt at human transmutation unfortunately came to mind- and almost none were public record. Still, there was no trace of anything here. River's record appeared impeccable.
Colonel Soren Albert, the man keeping track of Ed for River, didn't have such a spotless history. He'd been censured several times for violence, and once more serious charges had been filed against him- they'd been dropped, though, at the behest of the Brigadier General. There was no record of what he'd been charged with, which was odd. Ed frowned and opened the next file, a departmental report on the fires in the area. All of them had occurred within a mile of one of the two rivers, something that was even stranger.
The latest one had been near the waterfall of the West River (as the two rivers were creatively called the East and West rivers for the positions in the town), and had destroyed a number of houses in the area. Officially, the Ishbalites in the area were being investigated for the destruction- and that was ridiculous. The people of Ishbal had never done anything unless provoked, that Ed had seen- except Scar, of course, but he was one man out of an entire people.
There were photographs in the report, black-and-white witnesses to ruined buildings and charred vegetation, with water on the ground-
-wait, water on the ground? Ed held the photograph up and looked at it more closely, a line forming between his eyebrows in concentration. There was indeed water on the ground- a lot of it, sitting stagnant on a charred fire site that showed no signs of having been extinguished by said water. And there in the water, almost hidden by the reflection of sun on the water- was that an array? If he squinted, he could almost make out a symbol... it could be a water array, but if he looked at it another way it could be something else entirely...
He closed the file and swept the entire pile into the crook of his human arm, not stupid or naÃ¯ve enough to leave them behind to be found. He'd need to find a camera somewhere on this base... perhaps there would be one in the archive room? It would be even better if he didn't have to explain his borrowing of equipment, in case someone took offense to his investigating the site- and if the Flux Alchemist had drawn an array at the site of the fire, he would probably take a great deal of offense to Ed poking around and taking photographs.
A trip to the archives indeed got him a camera, albeit an old one. He only hoped that it would work well enough to take a clear picture of whatever was still out there. Oddly enough, there was no sign of Colonel Albert as Ed made his way through the halls and off the base. Normally the man was right on Ed's heels if it so much as looked like Ed was leaving base, and that made him suspicious now. Something was going on, and Ed could only hope it wouldn't involve him.
Today there was more life in Two Falls, a business day with soldiers, civilians, and displaced Ishbalites alike on the streets. A few people looked at Ed askance; and officer dragging an outdated camera up past the town's edge probably wasn't an everyday occurrence. Soon the town faded into scrub and the river wound closer, and Ed knew he was approaching the site.
Up close, the area around the West River looked even stranger. The river was actually swollen, as if it had rained recently, eating away at the bank and spilling over in places. Vegetation clung tenaciously to its position near the water, and it was healthy and green. Only inches away, though, the grass faded to grey-brown brittleness- and that wasn't even closest to the fire site, where char streaked across the muddy ground....
/Muddy/. He was closer to the site than he thought, standing where there had been stagnant water in the photograph. Ed stopped and knelt down without a care for his uniform, right into the mud. And there, hidden under what remained of the grass and half-ruined by the mud, was the array from the photograph. On closer inspection, it was indeed a water array- a broken one, fractured by sitting under mud and ash for so long, but undeniably the remains of one. Ed took several pictures of the array before pulling the camera strap over his head again and clapping his hands together on the array.
It was risky, sure- a ruined array could go horribly awry when reactivated, especially when the person activating wasn't its creator, and Ed didn't know what this array was set to do in the first place. But he needed to find out what connection a water array could possibly have to do with fire. Sure, other arrays could spark a fire- Ed had seen no few transmutations start electrical fires, and Mustang was a living testament to the connection between air and fire- but a water array? That shouldn't have been possible.
The array activated with a flash, and for an instant Ed wasn't sure that he'd read the symbols correctly, that it was a water array. It felt like heat lightning around him, dry and stinging against his skin; then it was gone and the air around him was heavy and humid. He stood up and instantly regretted it as the motion stirred up enough dust to leave him coughing.
All of the mud under him was gone. That, coupled with the sudden humidity of the air around him, told him what this array was for. He'd just transmuted the water from the surrounding mud and grass into water vapor, leaving the ground dry and dusty. That would explain how a fire started in such proximity to so much water, and why a drought and a rain-swollen river could sit side by side.
There was no way the alchemy-hating Ishbalites could possibly have done this- and there were no Certified alchemists among the civilians, Ed had checked into that possibility in the town's records. That left the Brigadier General, the only alchemist stationed in Two Falls. A water-specific alchemist, at that.
He made it back onto base and into his office, still with no Albert in sight, and that suspicion of something happening where he couldn't see it rose again. As a precaution, he switched the film- careful not to expose it, because he was definitely not stupid enough to destroy the only piece of evidence linking River to the fire- so that the film in his camera was blank and the roll with the evidence sat safely in a canister, to be sent off to Central.
"I didn't think you'd be one to sunburn so easily, Lieutenant Colonel... I suppose it's the blonde hair." Soren Albert leaned against the doorframe, sounding anything but lighthearted. "Or was it alchemy, perhaps?"
"What?" Ed asked blankly. He didn't sunburn particularly easily, and he hadn't been outside that long.
"Your face," the Colonel elaborated, gesturing to his cheeks. "You look a bit burned. I was asking you whether it was sunburn or alchemy."
"Sunburn," Ed lied without hesitation. "You're right, it's the curse of having this hair. Tell me, is there any array to do that? There are a few people I'd like to use it on, let me tell you-"
"Stop fucking around, Lieutenant Colonel." Albert slammed his hands down on the desk, to either side of Ed, and leaned in closely. "You just can't let this sit, can you? A few fires started by the Ishbalites... is that really so important?"
"Yes, when the Ishbalites didn't start them." Ed countered, drawing himself up where Albert clearly expected him to shrink back. "Don't you have a real job, besides following me around like some kind of dog?"
That had been the wrong thing to say. Albert reached out and yanked the camera from around Ed's neck before he had time to react; then he pulled out his gun and cocked it, ready to fire.
"You're going to shoot me?" Ed asked disbelievingly, standing up. The Colonel pushed him back down, moving far more quickly than Ed did. Then he threw the camera to the ground and shot it through the middle.
"I trust that we understand one another, Lieutenant Colonel?" Soren Albert asked softly, and left the room.
When he was gone, Ed took the film canister from his desk drawer and scrawled a note to go with it: /forward to Mustang/. His military mail would almost certainly be watched, but he just might get this through civilian mail to Winry and Al. And he would send it express, because he wasn't sure how long he had.
The next two weeks were very quietly hellish for Edward. The Colonel had very obviously told River about the incident with the camera, because the man went around looking more smug than Mustang had ever been. Albert still tailed Ed, even though he'd done no real investigation since his time at the last fire site. He dutifully went through the records of Ishbalites and noncommissioned officers to appease the Brigadier General, but that was it.
Today Ed chose a file at random from a yet-uncategorized stack, something about the statistics of Ishbalite refugees in the civil war; it was much older than anything else in the records room. Number of men, number of women, number of children, value of possessions with them, relative health of the people... painfully boring, and repetitious besides.
It was the age of the report and the repetition that caught Ed's eye. The end of the report went into great detail about an assignment River had done with Mustang, of all people, in Ishbal- and either River was absolutely enamored of Mustang (unlikely, given that the Major General wanted him out) or this was a code that used Mustang's name for something important.
Alchemy notes. He'd just stumbled across coded alchemy notes, probably River's own. They had to be- and they weren't particularly well encrypted, either, given the seemingly random repetition of names and data. A truly intelligent alchemist would have made a document that flowed far more naturally, a code with meaning in its own right.
Given that elementary error in the code, Ed decided to start with the obvious and assume that River stood for water and Mustang stood for fire. He went from there, and discovered to his immense amusement that he was right. The notes seemed to be detailing the very array Ed had activated near the river, and River taking Mustang's place on some mission seemed a ridiculously less than subtle way to code using a water array to start a fire.
"Have you made any more headway with the list of suspects I gave you?" Colonel Albert asked, surprising Ed. He'd been so absorbed in his decryption that he hadn't heard the man enter his office. Albert stepped up to the desk and peered down at the notebook there; Ed slammed it closed, glaring up at him.
"None of your damn business," Ed snarled, placing his automail hand on the cover protectively. He was done with mincing around in circles, using military etiquette and avoiding things. Albert knew what Ed was doing, and Ed knew what Albert was doing. There was no use in trying to hide it any longer. "And you can't order me to show you National Alchemist business when you're not one yourself, so you might as well give up and go away."
The man was fast; Ed had to give him credit for that. He didn't have time to duck away before the Colonel had him by the collar and was dragging him up out of his chair in outrage.
"I warned you once already, Lieutenant Colonel," he said quietly, the soft voice at odds with his motions. "But you can't just leave things alone, can you? It's going to get you in trouble someday... someday soon."
"What the hell is wrong with you?" Ed demanded, hand still heavy on the notebook. Albert probably counted on Ed trying to slip away from him first and protect the notes second. Ed decided to reverse that and get the notes first, get away second. It wasn't as if he couldn't throttle the man easily, after all.
"Nothing," he said in that same quiet tone. One hand wandered up from Ed's collar to his shoulder, and his fingers fumbled for the tie of Ed's braid. By the time it came undone and his hair slipped loose around his shoulders, Ed had a firm hold on the notebook- this time with his human hand. Nearly as fast as the other man had been, suddenly Ed had his automail hand wrapped around Albert's throat and the notebook safely out of the man's reach.
"What the fuck is wrong with you, anyway?" Ed asked coldly. He wasn't angry- no, if he'd been angry it would be hot instead of cold, cold anger was for people like Mustang. "Did River put you up to this? Did someone in his spy network tell him that the agent Central was sending would like that, that you could seduce that agent into doing what you wanted if violence didn't work? You disgust me."
Colonel Soren Albert was, unfortunately, unable to answer him. Most people would have trouble, though, talking with an automail fist around their throats.
"Really, Fullmetal. Contrary to what you seem to think, I did not send you here with the intention of strangling the commanding officers."
Ed dropped Albert to the ground, more out of shock than any sort of obedience to the implied command. He turned around, slowly, to see Mustang in the doorway.
"Please leave us. Lieutenant Colonel Elric needs to be debriefed," Mustang said pleasantly to Albert as the Colonel picked himself up; Albert was quite obviously in pain. There would be a nasty bruise on his throat shortly, if the angry marks there were any indication.
"And who are you?" Albert rasped out nastily, though his eyes didn't leave Ed.
"Major General Roy Mustang. I was sent down from Central to investigate what's going on out here. You see, when it takes one of our brightest young officers over two weeks to unravel a simple case of arson, the authority in Central believes that there must be something much larger going on." Roy smiled, the smile that was disarming and simple rather than his smirk. The dangerous smile. "I've already met with Brigadier General River about this."
Had Colonel Albert been less injured, in both body and dignity, he might have stormed out of the room. As it was he slammed the door behind him hard enough to rattle it in its hinges. Ed let out an exasperated breath, a whoosh of air as he sat down again at his desk.
"What in the world was that about?" Roy asked, pulling the room's other wooden chair up in front of the desk and looking for all the world as if he were the one giving the report, and not the other way around. "I thought you were killing him when I came in."
"He's working with River." Ed pushed the notebook across the desk. Roy accepted it and opened it, pulling the war report from the middle. "Those are River's alchemy notes. What's in the notebook is what I managed to decode of them so far- he didn't hide them very well, so it shouldn't take long to finish the rest of them. And I was trying to crush his larynx for sexual harassment."
"/What?/" Roy Mustang had never sounded so shocked before in Ed's presence, let alone at something Ed told him. The man actually choked.
"His name's Colonel Soren Albert, and as far as I can tell he's River's lapdog. He follows me around and keeps track of what I'm doing, and he's absolutely psychotic. When he caught me taking pictures of the array at the fire site, he pulled out his gun and shot the camera. As opposed to taking the film out and exposing it like a rational person." Ed threw his head back in exasperation, loose hair scattering over the back of the chair.
"And of course, rationality is something you know all about, Fullmetal." Roy murmured amusedly, looking at the report. Then he reached into his jacket and pulled out several photographs- the ones Ed had taken at the site. "Alphonse brought these to me two days ago. He was rather surprised that you would send him random photographs of a ruined array, and with such a cryptic message."
"I couldn't send them through military mail. River or that crazy Albert would have gotten them before they made it off base. I knew Al would get them to you, so I sent them to him through the civilian mail. And the array wasn't ruined- I actually reactivated it while I was out there." Ed sat up straight again, unable to keep still in his seat. There was another mannerism he hadn't outgrown yet.
"So that's what happened to your face," Roy said abruptly. "I thought you looked sunburned, at first." He reached over, just as unexpected as his words, and brushed a gloved hand over Ed's still-raw cheek. "You were standing over the sublimation array when you activated it, weren't you?"
"Sublimation array? Is that what it's called?" Ed asked, pulling back and leaning his chair on two legs. "And how do you know so much about it?"
"You're going to fall over backward if you keep doing that," Roy observed clinically, and folded his hands on the desk over the notebook. "And yes, it's called a sublimation array. It transmutes liquid water into airborne vapor- you're burned on your face because it pulled the water out of your face. You must have had your eyes closed when it activated, or else you'd probably be blind."
"You didn't answer my question." Ed ignored his admonition and leaned the chair back even farther. "How did you know about that?"
"It was the Flux Alchemist's specialty in Ishbal." Roy's tone was clipped, enough to cut off any further discussion of the subject. "It was good of you to get the photographs that you did. Sublimation arrays are rare enough that your pictures alone may be enough to damn the man."
"Oh, great," Ed said with immense and genuine relief. "I don't think I could take any more of this. Between the fact that they treat officers here worse than they do regular soldiers in Central and the way that creepy Colonel follows me around, I was ready to snap on them all."
"You still haven't answered my question. Why were you choking that poor man half to death? Did he shoot more of your possessions?" Roy quirked an eyebrow over his folded hands, a trace of that cool left in his voice.
"I did tell you. Sexual harassment. He caught me going over River's notes and jerked me out of the chair- I thought he was going to choke me, but he started messing with my hair instead. He's such a creepy bastard." Ed exhaled hard enough to blow his bangs askew and rested his feet on the bars under the chair, so that only his hands on the desk and the precarious balance of two chair legs on the floor kept him steady.
"I don't know, Fullmetal. Thinking you look good with your hair down hardly qualifies one as creepy, I would say. It's quite an interesting look for you." Roy's eyes had quite an interesting look of their own, but Ed didn't see it.
This was because he'd fallen over backwards. The chair hit the ground with a violent crack- and had Ed been any taller, his head would have as well. As it was, the back of the chair barely kept the nape of his neck steady enough to prevent that. Roy merely looked amused.
"Really, Fullmetal, I told you that would happen."