Title: Collared: Chapter 11: Eye of the Storm
"That's about it." Roy leaned against the bar. "The rest you know. Central command sent aid—remarkably quickly given their previous remarks—"
"And then swept the lot of you out so fast they left skid marks," Hughes finished for him.
Roy swirled the dregs of his drink and muttered, "One might think they had something to hide."
This was one of Central's noisiest bars, and one of the best places to go if you wanted to minimize your chances of being overheard. They made a point of stopping here whenever Roy was in town whether they had business to discuss or not.
"What are you going to tell them at your debriefing?"
"The truth," Roy asserted. "That we were attacked by strange creatures, the likes of which I'd never seen before, and that the scarred man activated a city-wide array."
"The townsfolk and their tunnels?"
"The tunnel entrances seem to have been destroyed in the array."
"We did search."
Hughes waved away the indignation. "As to the stuff that won't make it into your report—you believe that kid's story?"
"I believe he wasn't lying." He drained the glass, staring up at the smoky overhead lights. "Ed is . . . very transparent. I know it's a lot of wild claims with some serious implications—"
"To say the least."
"—but I've been trying to poke holes in what he said ever since he told me, and so far—nothing." He shook his head. "Maybe you'll have better luck."
Hughes studied the array Roy had sketched on a napkin. "If there's any truth to this—to any of it—it changes the game. This is much more than incompetent leadership and arrogance."
"But one step at a time." He crumpled the napkin and dropped into a nearby ashtray. Roy discreetly pulled on his glove and snapped, reducing it to ash. "I'll see what I can dig up. You concentrate on dancing around the Brass."
"When you put it that way it sounds bad," Roy joked. He pushed his glass away and stood. "I'll likely be tied up for the next week, but I'll touch base before I leave Central."
"Sure—I should have something by then. Oh, and Roy—" Hughes expression changed to a knowing smile and Roy inwardly groaned. "I did warn you about that kid."
He stared at the surface of the bar with its many stains from years and years of condensation rings. He wanted to defend himself, but anything he could think to say sounded hollow.
"You went and left yourself vulnerable, just like I said." When Roy didn't respond, he pressed, "Was it worth it?"
Roy wasn't sure he had an answer.
Did you see the array?
No. Only a small portion of the lines.
Why was that?
It was too large to see clearly.
You're certain the scarred man was responsible?
Based on the threats he made and the timing, yes.
Did you see him activate the array?
So someone else could have activated it.
That would be unlikely.
But not impossible.
. . . No. Sir.
Your hostage was there as well?
So he could have been the one to activate it.
I find that highly unlikely.
Why is that?
When I last saw him he was fighting with the scarred man.
But in theory, he could have.
I find it unlikely. Sir.
It was taking all of Roy's carefully honed skill not to reveal more than he wanted. The panel of generals had given no more than cursory attention to the strange monsters and their attack on the base, and seemed much more interested in the scarred man and in his hostage. If Roy had his druthers he'd give the military enough to hang Scar and then some, but keeping Ed and Alphonse out of their sights was taking an exceptional amount of finesse. Luckily no one else had seen Ed perform his peculiar circleless alchemy. The animated suit of armor could be lumped in with the strangeness of regenerating, shapeshifting monsters, as much as Roy felt like he was betraying to boy by doing so. But the panel seemed very aggravated that he had let his young hostage slip away—more aggravated than they were about losing an entire town and half of the soldiers there.
After three days Roy was at his limit. At least now the panel had retired to council and given him the evening to himself. He'd decided to take advantage and head to the bar—this time to drink.
Roy had put enough distance between himself and headquarters to allow himself to wince and rub the back of his neck. He had a definite tension headache coming on.
A flash of yellow-gold in the corner of his eye pulled him out of his thoughts. He stopped dead on the sidewalk and turned, but his initial rush of excitement and trepidation was replaced by confusion. He knew of only one person with that peculiar shade of blond, but the man he'd just passed was a good twenty years older and at least a foot taller. Something clicked, and on impulse he said, "Van Hohenheim?"
The man paused and turned, giving him a politely puzzled look behind his spectacles. It was surreal, seeing such a bland expression on features so close to Ed's. "Hm? I'm sorry young man, do I know you . . . ?"
"No," Roy clarified. "But I know your son."
His face lit up. "Ah! Edward? Or Alphonse? They've both grown so much since I left."
Roy took a step closer, studying this stranger and wondering how he could have sired such a spitfire. Perhaps Ed had inherited the looks but not the personality. "I've met them both. But I had more time to know Ed."
"Edward. . . ." His smile looked wistful. "He's a fine boy. I saw him when I went looking for my house. He punched me."
Roy covered a startled laugh with a cough as the other man finished with "I hadn't realized quite so much time had passed."
"How old were they when you last saw them?"
"Small . . . they were both such tiny things. I never meant to be gone so long." Van Hohenheim sighed. "They seem to have gotten themselves into trouble after they lost their mother. My dear Trisha . . . but Edward wouldn't talk to me."
"He's a teenager," Roy consoled. "But I might have gleaned a thing or two from him. Would you care for a drink?" Instinct and simple curiosity were telling him to keep this man talking.
Van Hohenheim seemed to think for a moment, and then smiled. "All right. We have some time yet."
Roy was finding that this Van Hohenheim—or whoever he really was—would be a very easy man to underestimate. Most of the time he acted like his mind was somewhere else, and then he would remark on some seemingly innocuous detail. But Roy recognized the same sharp intelligence that he'd seen in Ed's eyes, and it kept him on his guard. He was playing a different version of the same game he'd been playing with the generals, only this time he was even less sure of the stakes.
Hohenheim had a strange, distant smile as Roy finished summarizing the events in Liore. Roy thought it was an odd reaction given that he'd just described his children being in significant danger and he paused, letting the account dangle off during the confrontation with Scar.
"They've grown up," the man finally said into the gap Roy had left. "I'm glad."
"I'm sorry, I'm not sure I follow."
Van Hohenheim tapped a finger against his mug. "To their last mistake, they reacted as children. Running away, trying to hide the evidence, and barreling forward with a child's stubborn insistence that everything can be put to right. That's why my house was gone."
"They'd burned it."
"The extreme reaction of children who are thinking in absolutes, as children will." He drained his mug and waved to the bar tender for another. "But now you've told me they've stayed in this town. To fix a mistake. That's very mature of them." He waited until the bar tender had migrated back down the bar, then continued. "I wonder though if they realize that it wasn't their mistake to begin with. But even so, I'm proud of them."
"Ed wasn't very forthcoming about why they were in Liore," Roy admitted.
"Chasing the Philosopher's Stone, no doubt."
Roy had guessed that much from Ed's venomous reaction to Cornello and his reportedly fake Stone, but he hadn't included those details in his recounting to Van Hohenheim.
"And, like children, the probably didn't stop to consider what was going on around them." He sighed. "I know I haven't seen much of my children in the last few . . . several . . . years, but Edward takes after me quite a bit."
Roy nearly choked on his drink at this.
"When I think of myself at his age," Hohenheim continued, oblivious to how absurd that statement had sounded, "I can only imagine that he and Alphonse were one of the sparks that helped ignite that bloodstain."
He was mixing metaphors but Roy was too busy coughing to point it out.
"They wouldn't have seen that it would have gone off with them or without them. Few would have had the perspective to see that."
"Actually," Roy hazarded, his mind whirling, "Ed was started to think something along those lines. He was becoming convinced that the military had orchestrated the entire conflict."
Van Hohenheim smiled, paternal pride clear on his face. "Smart boy."
Roy stared. "You think he might be right."
"He really is growing up," he mused. "He's starting to see the world around him instead of just his own tiny sphere."
Roy wasn't sure if that was intended as an answer or not.
"But, young man, you've left out something important," he continued. "Did the Ishvalan activate the array?"
Roy hadn't said what the booby trap had been, but he supposed that was an easy enough piece to put together. "He did."
"You can say that with certainty. The array was activated."
Roy bristled. "I was within meters of it."
"It absorbed everything?" His voice was still mild but his eyes had gone sharp. For a moment the familiar resemblance was clear.
"I had to tend to the men and women caught at the edge! To say nothing of the many who vanished completely."
"I am sorry for your soldiers. They didn't deserve to get caught in the middle."
"Caught in the middle of what?"
"Everything." He downed the rest of his drink and stood. "None of you deserve to get caught in this."
Roy grabbed his elbow. "Caught in what? Sir, if you know of some—some mess the military is involved in—"
Van Hohenheim looked at him with sadness bordering on pity. "The military is only another pawn." He calmly extracted his arm. "But don't concern yourself. Soon it won't matter anyway. One way or the other."
"What won't matter—"
"But thank you."
Roy had started to grab for him again but the sudden emotion in his voice made him hesitate.
"For caring about my boys," he continued. "Especially Edward. It's nice to know he had someone like you. Even briefly."
With that parting remark he left Roy sputtering at the bar.
"So do you think he was the Van Hohenheim?"
Roy sighed in exasperation. "I'm sure it's an assumed identity or a family name."
"Passed down the line for generations?"
"If you tear off your shirt and start flexing we're done here."
Hughes grinned and winked. "Not in public."
Roy smacked his shoulder but he was having a hard time not laughing himself. Today had been the last day of hearings and by all indications he and his command had escaped serious repercussions, and he was feeling the giddiness of having dodged a bullet. But he would be leaving Central tomorrow, which gave them little time.
"Be serious," he reprimanded. "Where you able to find anything?"
Hughes shook his head behind his mug. "It's what I didn't find that's significant," he said as he lowered the drink. "I'm having to be careful so it's going slower than I'd like, but I looked into a number of the cases of wounded personnel from the last ten years or so. Most are unexceptional—there's either a record of recovery or a death certificate with a completely believable cause of death and then a burial record. But every so often there's a handful where the paper trail just dead ends. Sometimes in conflicting accounts. One or two could be written off as a clerical error, but there's juuuust a little too many happening a little too often for that."
"So there might be some truth to what Ed said."
"I wouldn't go that far yet. But it certainly doesn't contradict what the kid told you."
Roy stared down at his own drink. He had half hoped his friend would blow the claims apart. He'd built his entire framework on the assumption that the military was incompetent but not actively sinister—and now that foundation was being ripped out from underneath him one plank at a time.
"I'm still looking for patterns," Hughes continued. "I don't have enough data yet to be certain of anything, but I'm not liking the implications of what I'm finding."
Roy nodded. "But for now, we stay our course. I don't want to act until we have something solid."
"And maybe by then we'll have figured out what that action needs to be?"
Roy sighed and dropped his head. "I hadn't wanted to quite say that."
"That's what I'm here for." Hughes clapped him on the back. "I gotta say, Roy. You somehow managed to pick the most useful hostage any field commander has had in a long time. And if your superiors knew why they would call you soft."
Maybe it was the stress, maybe he'd had more to drink than he'd planned, but Roy found himself muttering "They wouldn't be wrong."
"Yeah? Maybe not." Hughes leaned in close. "But don't knock it. That soft heart is why we need you at the top, Roy—don't forget that."
Ed: I didn't show up in this chapter at all, what the fuck.
Me: Don't look at me, you faffed off and forgot to bring the plot with you.
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