Title: Mother Arc: Chapter 23
Genre: family saga
Summary: "You're not so magnanimous that you'd go to all this trouble for just scraps of knowledge. So what is it?"
It wasn't often that Al missed the armor. But as dawn crept over the edge of the desert, he was starting to resent his flesh-and-blood body's need for sleep. Just a little.
They'd spent the whole night tailing the men who'd driven in at dusk. So far it seemed like they were scoping out the town, but he couldn't risk getting close enough to be sure. He'd picked up snatches of conversation that sounded like they were discussing the rebuilding, but there was something else in their conversation as well, and names he could never quite catch.
Even with the construction being aided by alchemy much of the town was still unfinished and currently unlivable. It had given these men ample chance to slip in unnoticed, but Al wasn't sure what good that would do them. Perhaps they thought that if they only poked around the unoccupied sections they wouldn't be noticed, but they'd be spotted as soon as the town began to stir and the work for the day began.
Al suppressed another yawn and rubbed his eyes.
"How much was left?"
Only the reflexes gained from years on the road engaged in sometimes less-than-legal pursuits kept Al from startling audibly when Ling suddenly spoke in his ear.
"I mean when this city was destroyed," he continued, acting like Al hadn't just tried to jump out of his own skin and nearly creamed the Xingian prince in the process. "How much was left?"
"What does it matter?" he hissed.
"Well, they care." Ling pointed to their quarry. "So it must matter to someone."
"I don't know," Al admitted. "Everything got covered by the sand."
"Then there were things to be covered up?"
"Yeah, I guess. I think they found some debris from the old city when the rebuilding started, but I haven't asked." He had never thought to before he got his memories back. Now . . . he remembered that incident perhaps a little too well. "What does it matter what . . . was. . . ."
Al turned to stare at the strangers as something dawn on him.
Ling was smiling. An irritating, smug, far too knowing smile.
"You knew that's why they were here!" Al hissed. "You knew they were here to plant evidence!"
The prince shrugged. "That made the most sense."
"But what—" Al cut himself off, grabbing Ling's sleeve and dragging him to the other end of the alley. Hopefully out of earshot. "But what could they plant? What good would it do them to plant anything?"
"You tell me," Ling returned. "You were here then, right? They want to make your friend look bad—how would they do that?"
The young man shoved a hand through his hair, shaking his head. "I don't know! I was just a kid back then—I had my brother and Martel and then Scar to worry about, I wasn't paying attention to what the colonel and the others were doing. Not really." He sank down and set his back to the empty building behind him. "Okay. Okay, Archer was in command, he'd brought in Kimblee and sent the last wave of soldiers into the city. But he sent Brother in first to—"
Al stopped, stared hard at the prince. Ling was crouched down in front of him, smiling and patiently listening. Calculating.
"Yes?" he prompted when the boy stayed silent. "What had your brother been sent to do?"
He caught Ling's wrist before he could go for his sword. The momentum carried them over backwards and they tussled, spraying sand. Ling managed to draw his weapon at one point, but Al drove an elbow into his wrist and shoved the blade out of reach.
Ling was good. Probably the strongest opponent he'd had faced in years. But Al had the memory of blood and destruction and hundreds of souls being forced into his being driving him. In the end he pinned the Xingian prince against the sand, one hand against his throat.
"Careful," Ling cajoled, attempting a smile. "They might hear."
"I don't care," Al spat. "No more games. What do you want?" Ling tried to squirm away and he tightened his hold, digging in knees and elbows to keep him in place. "You're not so magnanimous that you'd go to all this trouble for just scraps of knowledge. So what is it?"
"Scraps?" Ling scoffed. "The emperor is all but dead! We children, we fight for any scraps we can find. Anything to gain favor and get in close."
"Make sure you're next in line when the old man bites it, huh? Then what? What happens after you've gotten the top seat?"
"Then I rule."
"No!" Al snapped. "Then you have every power-hungry maniac in the known world clawing for your throat! They'll want what you have whether it's real or not, and they won't care who dies! That knowledge destroyed this city. It destroyed Ishval—it very nearly tore the entire country down! All for the slim chance that someone might get desperate enough to try the impossible." He paused to take a breath, studying his captive. "You care about your people?"
"Not the power. Not the ability to rule as a concept. Not the country as an abstract—the people. The men, the women, the children—you care about them?"
"Of course! A country is her people!"
"Then imagine a city about this size—no, maybe twice this. Imagine all the people in that city. The workmen, the nobles, the peasants, the children playing in the streets—imagine their faces. Can you see them?" He waited for an acknowledgement. "Now imagine them suddenly gone! Swallowed up in a flash of light. One moment they're going about their daily lives, and the next—wiped out as if they never were. Swallowed up—compressed—smashed into a single Red Stone. All those lives—all those people—turned into pure energy and stored in—in—" He choked. "It wasn't even a complete Stone. All those lives—and it wasn't even complete."
Al sat up and edged back, giving Ling his space. He collapsed back against the wall and dropped his head to his hands.
"Ran Fan is about an inch from gutting me, isn't she."
"She's on the roof," the prince answered. "I have told her to hold off, but she's not happy about it."
Al laughed, because there was nothing else he could do. "Well? You have your answer. You know how a Philosopher's Stone is made. I should warn you, though: even that wouldn't give you true immortality. It catches up to you in the end. The Gate always does."
"Then I suppose it's good that I don't want to make anyone immortal."
He shook his head. "It doesn't matter. Once you make it known that you have this knowledge—or even that you might have it—"
"I see." He heard Ling get up, and crouch back down in front of him. "So that is what happened to this city. To the people here."
Al shook his head again. "The soldiers. Archer had brought in a couple hundred. What happened to the people of Liore—that was the military. The Fuhrer had deliberately aggravated a conflict into a war in the hope that someone would get desperate enough to make the Stone. And it worked—but not like they planned."
"Because you had it."
He laughed again. And if it had a slightly manic edge to it, he could blame it on the lack of sleep. "I was the Stone." He looked up. "I had all those souls—I had them. They were part of me. And less than a handful of transmutations later they were all used up. Right along with the body I had at the time." He pressed his hands against his eyes. "Scar's the one who did it. He set a trap for the military, got all the citizens here out through some tunnels. Then he activated the array with me as the center."
"To save my life. Kimblee had transmuted my armor into a bomb and the only way to stop it was to change it to something else—I didn't want him to! Scar didn't ask me, he just made me the center of the array, and then—" He dropped his hands. "Do you get it now? Do you get why even the knowledge—even the hint of the knowledge is dangerous? So many people were willing to kill just for the chance it might be made. All those people who died in Ishval—who died here—and for what? An alchemic battery that was used up in a matter of weeks."
Ling was staring off to the side, his face pensive. "If my emperor-father knew of this . . . I cannot say he wouldn't attempt it."
Al waved a hand out at the empty part of the city. "Is this really what you want for your country?"
The prince was quiet, staring down the empty alley. Al felt drained. He rubbed his eyes and leaned back against the wall.
Ling grinned suddenly. "On the problem at hand, it occurs to me that we may not need to know what evidence these men are trying to plant. We just need to show that they are planting it. Can you keep them from leaving this city?"
Al blinked, his head spinning at the sudden shift of topic. "Oh. Sure." He pushed himself up and brushed off his clothes. He supposed that other matter was closed—for now. "That'll be easy."
"It was just a job!" The man insisted. He flinched away from her knives, his hands raised. "Look, I don't ask too many questions, all right? I get my money, I do my job, and that's it."
Mei was finding that the seedy parts of a city were much the same in any country. In places such as these, someone always knew something—she just needed to follow the rumors.
She hadn't had to go far to attract attention: small, female, and foreign, they saw her as an easy target. She had let them chase. Let them think they'd cornered her. The first several were idiots; their only use was to lead her up the line. A few well-placed pressure points and they were all too happy to tell her what she wanted to know.
So it had gone for the rest of the night, chasing one rabbit trail after another. Finally, just as morning approached, she cornered her quarry.
"I don't even know the guy's name," he was saying now. "I didn't want to know it."
Mei glared, her fingers tight around her knives. "I did not spend all night chasing you down to get stopped because you didn't want to know!" she spat. "You will tell me who he was—and why he attacked my people!"
"It wasn't even about your people!" he blurted. "I mean, I don't think it was. I didn't ask—" Mei snarled, and he hastened to add, "I mean I'm guessing! He was talking like this was, I dunno, like an afterthought or something. You sort of get a sense for these things when you do this, y'know? It seemed like this was part of some bigger plan. But whatever it was, it wasn't my business."
"Who was he?" she demanded again.
"I don't know! I'd never seen him before. Not the kind who spends much time in this part of town." He hesitated, then added, "Look, I can tell you this much: he moved like he was military. You know how I mean? Always looking like he's about to come to attention."
"Why would the military attack my people?"
The man laughed. "You should be asking which military. And like I said: it wasn't about you."
A sudden realization struck her and she cursed, violently enough that the man flinched back.
"I'm just guessing here!" he insisted "You wanted me to guess, and I guessed. I don't know what's going on, I just do what I'm paid to!"
"This is the same as home," Mei muttered. "I should have seen that sooner." She turned on her heel and stalked out of the alley.
"Uh—um—miss?" the man called after her. "Could you—I-I mean—you're not gonna really—"
Without turning Mei scuffed another array into the ground at her feet and released the man from the concrete hands holding him in place.
Mei headed straight back to the embassy grounds; she'd wasted too much time already. She needed to collect her thoughts and regroup.
Just because they hadn't been the true target didn't mean her people weren't in danger. But she needed to know more about this threat before she could decide the best course of action—and how best to turn this to her advantage. Infighting, different factions all vying for power—that she understood.
The embassy didn't look as bad in the daylight. The damaged had been contained to only the three buildings hit by the bombs, and those buildings were still standing. Mostly. She guessed that it wouldn't take a couple of structural alkestrists—or alchemists, she supposed—more than a few days to make repairs.
Her senior aid rushed out to meet her as soon as she was on the embassy grounds. He bowed hastily, clearly agitated. "‹Princess, I'm glad you've returned. We must speak with you on a matter of some urgency.›"
Mei had commandeered the car the military had sent. If her senior staff minded waiting at bit longer at the burnt-out embassy instead of going to the lodging Lieutenant-Colonel Phillips had arranged, none of them voiced it.
Not that they would, Yu reflected as she watched the princess out of the corner of her eye. Not with that look Mei had on her face.
Mei hadn't refused to help. But she hadn't agreed. The look on her face meant she was busy strategizing—calculating how to squeeze out the maximum advantage, like any good child of the emperor would.
Yu took a deep breath and closed her eyes for a moment. She knew the princess. Mei was a kind, sweet girl at her core. But the realities of her life and upbringing meant that she would ignore every kind instinct she had if she thought it would serve her ends.
Perhaps Yu should have approached one of the other alketrists after all. But Mei was the best they had; her intuitive understanding of the human body and its qi lines was outstanding. But along with any child of the emperor came politics and maneuvering—always.
But what her purpose was here, why she had insisted on speaking with Ed before doing anything else, Yu was too tired and worried to figure out.
Or maybe, a small part of her admitted, she just didn't want to think about it. Not on top of everything else.
Mei jumped out of the car as soon as it stopped moving, leaving Yu to thank the driver and ask if he could please wait. Mei was already pounding on the front door. Yu tried to shush her as she rushed up the walk, pointing out that Ed was most likely asleep, never mind the neighbors.
The young woman paused in her pounding. "Then I'll have to go wake him."
Yu was puzzled by this until she realized Mei had scratched an array next to the lock. Her admonishing cry of "Mei!!" was lost to the sound of the transmutation.
Mei shoved the door open and marched into the house like—well—royalty. Somehow Yu didn't think that status would help her much against an explosively tempered alchemist who couldn't have gotten more than a hour's sleep.
The alchemist in question was currently standing at the top of the stairs in boxers and an undershirt, hair rumpled and hands poised to clap. Ed glared down at them—at Mei, specifically—like he was daring her to make a move.
"What the . . . fuck are you doing here."
Yu sighed and leaned against the entryway wall, leaving them to it. If this was how the princess wanted to handle things, then she was on her own.
"We need to talk, Alchemist," Mei started. "I can help your lover—but I need something from you, first. Equivalent exchange, you call it?"
Ed's face closed off. He balled his hands into fists and lowered to them to his sides. "Forget it," was all he said. Simple, and final.
"Heartless!" Mei challenged. "You didn't even hear my request—"
Ed scoffed. "The Stone, right?" He lowered himself down to the top step. "Well, forget it. Not at any price."
"Even the life of the man you love?"
He grimaced, the expression turning into a pained snarl as he shook his head. "Not for Roy, not for Al—" he thrust his automail arm out, "—I gave my arm for my brother. I'd give my life for either one of them—but not this. Do you fucking get it?" His voice caught, emotion finally cracking through. "You have no idea what you're even asking for! No one—" He gulped down a sob. "No one is worth that price."
Yu hardly dared to breathe. She didn't know what to think. Her son's life was being bargained for—and found lacking. Either she had read this young man wrong—or the Stone was more terrible than she had ever imagined.
Mei was quiet for a long moment, staring at the other alchemist. When she finally did speak it was only to say, "I see."
Ed let his head drop to his hands.
"All right then," Mei went on. "We should hurry to the hospital."
Ed jerked his head up. "What—? Wait—you said—"
"I'm sorry." Mei lowered her eyes, for once looking less like a princess and more like just a contrite young woman. "That was cruel of me, I know. I but needed to be sure. I needed to—to understand completely."
Yu gripped the edge of the wall for support. "Mei. . . ."
"I'm sorry," she repeated.
Ed had leapt up and dashed to the bedroom with a mutter of "Lemme put on some fucking pants, shit. . . ."
"Mei!" She wasn't sure what she wanted to say, but she had to say something. This was her son's life being tossed around like a bargaining chip. "You. . . ."
"I'm sorry," she said once more. She still didn't meet her eyes. "I had to know."
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