“Letter for you, sir,” Hawkeye dropped a rather inconspicuous-looking letter on Mustang’s desk.
He frowned and picked it up. He wasn’t expecting any mail from anyone. Then again, Hughes was having the time of his life sending Mustang every photo he had ever taken of Garcia. It was honestly getting out of hand. The letter itself was thin, probably not even containing more than a page. He turned it over.
“It’s not filled with poison,” Hawkeye said, walking back to her desk. “So quit stalling and open it up. You’re running behind on your paperwork.”
God, paperwork. Was there any torture anyone could design that was worse than paperwork?
“Trisha Elric, Resembool,” he muttered, reading the shaky, but still neat script of the return address. The actual address wasn’t technically for him, it was for the last person who had his position. Strange, he had been missing, presumed dead, for almost three years now. Some people thought Mustang himself had killed the man to get his position. Mustang let the rumors swirl. He was still in Ishval at the time, trying to survive and not blow his brains out because of the dread. He didn’t have time to think of assassinating his competition for a promotion.
Hawkeye’s eyes were boring into him. She was two seconds away from shooting him. Best not to test her.
He opened the letter and read it, his eyes widening slightly.
“Interesting,” he muttered. “Hawkeye!”
“Book me a ticket for Resembool. I’m leaving immediately.” He stood up from his chair, the men in the room all looking at each other confused.
“And what business do you have in Resembool?”
“The letter was meant for Lieutenant Colonel Hartford. I’m going to see if this woman knows anything about his disappearance.”
“Are you sure you’re not just trying to get out of work, sir?”
He pulled on his coat and grinned at her. “Now Hawkeye, you’ve known me for years. When have I ever tried to get out of work?”
Hawkeye didn’t answer. She didn’t have to; which made her all the more terrifying.
“It should be a relatively quick trip out east,” he said. “I doubt she knows everything, but if she can tell us anything new about Hartford, it would be horrible for me not to check.”
“Whatever you have to tell yourself, sir.”
Truthfully, he didn’t think this Trisha Elric knew anything about Hartford. Based on her letter it sounded like Hartford knew her husband, not her. He couldn’t deny he was curious, though. She sounded desperate, practically begging whichever recipient received the letter to come to Resembool immediately. He had never been, and a glance at the map on the wall showed it was a tiny town deep in sheep country. What connection could a regular-old sheep farmer’s wife have with the military?
He supposed that’s why he was heading there, to find out. And to get out of work. What was he supposed to do? Ignore a lead that could end with him finding the missing lieutenant colonel? Not a chance. Besides, he hadn’t had a vacation in years. Just one quick little trip to one small town and he’d be back.
To say the train stopped at Resembool would be a bit misleading. Technically, it stopped approximately four miles in between the eight nearest towns. And since this was a small town where people didn’t even own cars, this meant that Mustang was forced to walk to town, in the pouring rain. God, he hated the rain.
“There wasn’t even a cart for me to hire,” he said, shivering and pulling the coat tighter around himself to try and stave off the chill. “So much for a brief vacation.”
Thankfully, some helpful people at the station had put him on the right road, telling him to follow it, and eventually, he’d get to the main part of Resembool. Of course, calling it a road was very generous. He had seen hiking trails in the mountains that were better maintained than this thing. Deep ruts and grooves from repeated use caused puddles to form, soaking through Mustang’s boots and staining the bottom of his pants. More than once, he misjudged the depth of the pothole and ended up slipping and falling to the ground, covering himself in mud and wet grass. Not a very picture-perfect image of a soldier who was so terrifying, people told horror stories about him.
After about three hours of slipping, falling, getting soaked with mud and rain, he finally got to the town. Kind of. The stupid town was small enough that it probably couldn’t even legally be considered a town. What was the legal definition of a town? There had to be one. Otherwise, how did you know when a town became a city?
Thankfully, some farmers were still out, working the fields. He tightened his coat, hoping his uniform wasn’t visible to them. There was no telling how these people would react to the military. Most people didn’t like them. He couldn’t blame them. However, the letter was sent to the military, so this woman knew what she was getting into.
“Hello,” he called.
The farmers stopped what they were doing and eyed him suspiciously. Fair enough, there wasn’t much reason for a stranger to visit.
“I received a letter from Trisha Elric asking me to come. Do you know where she lives? There isn’t an address listed.”
The men’s faces dropped; suspicion being replaced with sadness.
“Yeah, she said she sent a few of them. Come on, I’ll take you to her.”
This didn’t bode well. Still, Mustang was here, he’d press onwards.
“Do you know much about what’s going on,” the farmer asked.
“No,” Mustang said. “To be honest, the letter was kind of vague. But it sounded urgent, so I came right away.” He looked down at his mud-splattered coat.
The black boots of his uniform were covered in tan mud, obscuring their color and making them heavy and unstable as the soil caked on the soles unevenly. Maybe he should hold off on visiting Ms. Elric until he cleaned up a bit. He looked around. Then again, this place didn’t seem like the kind of place to have an inn. Shit, he didn’t even think about that when he rushed to the train station earlier in the day. Maybe a farmer would be nice enough to let him crash in their barn until his train back. It wouldn’t be the first time he slept in a barn. Thanks, alchemy teacher!
“Then I won’t tell you. She had to have a reason for keeping it vague. Do you know her well?”
I don’t know her at all. “Not really. The letter was addressed to my predecessor, but he’s been missing for a few years. In all honesty, I was hoping to maybe see if she knew anything about his disappearance.”
The man studied him. “And what was it that you said you did, mister?”
“Call me Roy.” True, most people didn’t know the Flame Alchemist’s real name, but he didn’t want to press his luck. “And I don’t think I ever told you what I did.”
The farmer looked as if he wanted to say something, but didn’t, instead of stopping in front of a small house quite a way away from the main part of the town.
“Here we are. I don’t think she’ll be able to help you with your missing colleague, Mr. Roy. Good luck, though.” He patted him on the shoulder and then turned to walk back down the road.
Mustang took a deep breath and studied the house. It was a small, but relatively nice two-story house. There was laundry hanging up on the side, which was a bit odd considering the rain.
“Guess she doesn’t care much about dry sheets,” he muttered. The rain itself had lessened considerably on his walk over here, thankfully.
He walked over to the side of the house and did his best to scrape off the mud on his shoes and clothes, trying to make himself at least a bit more presentable.
“Should have had Hawkeye come with me. She knows how to get information out of people without them feeling like they’re threatened.” To be fair, she could also get information out of people when they did feel like they were being threatened.
Finally, he decided to go into the house. His clothes were stained and ruined, and there was nothing he could do about it now. Might as well get it over with and figure out what Trisha Elric wanted.
He took another deep breath and knocked on the door. There were lights on in the house, but he didn’t hear much movement. He took out his pocket watch to look at the time. Six o’clock, so they would probably be eating dinner. If he had planned this better, he wouldn’t have come at such an awkward time. At least with this weather and at this time of night, someone would be guaranteed to be home.
The door opened.
“Well, if it isn’t a stray dog.”
He looked down to see a very tiny, elderly woman smoking and glaring up at him. This was… not how he pictured Trisha Elric to look. Granted, he didn’t picture her to look like much, but he assumed she would be younger. And taller.
“What do you want?”
Mustang furrowed his brow. Was the woman senile? He pulled out the letter. “You wrote asking me to come here. Well, not me, but the man you did write to has been missing for several years.”
“Pinako,” a weak voice called from the next room, “Let him inside.”
The woman, who was Pinako and not Trisha Elric, turned from him. “You really shouldn’t be accepting visitors right now. You need to rest.”
“Please, let him in. I need to talk to him.”
Pinako turned back to him, taking a moment to study him. Mustang normally prided himself on being unflappable under scrutiny. You had to have thick skin to be a soldier. He had had his fair share of superior and inferior officers studying him, trying to find a weakness or a crack. He never broke with them. Pinako, on the other hand, seemed to have that same penetrating glare that Hawkeye had. Damn, he really should have brought her with him.
“Alright. Don’t track mud into the house. It’ll be a pain to clean it.” She turned and stepped inside.
Mustang followed her and hung his coat on the rack, wincing as water dripped from it onto a puddle on the floor. Hopefully, she wouldn’t kill him for this. The work he had done outside to remove the mud from his boots paid off, though, and he was able to walk through the house without making too much of a mess.
He followed Pinako to the room, taking the chance to look around and study his surroundings. The house seemed like any normal house, or what he would assume to be a normal house. Growing up in a brothel made it difficult for him to tell these things sometimes. He could tell that something was very wrong, though. The general care and upkeep seemed to have fallen to the wayside. It was clean but clean in a way that suggested the owner couldn’t do much. Certain sections, like the stairs and picture frames, held a layer of dust. He could see some of the pictures seemed to have kids in them, two of them by the looks of it. This entire situation got stranger and stranger by the second.
He stepped into the room and saw a woman sitting on a bed, and what he assumed to be a doctor beside her. She had long, chestnut hair tied over one shoulder, and hazel eyes. Her skin was waxy and pale. She was thin, dangerously so. She was sick, Mustang realized. Sick and probably dying. She had probably been quite beautiful once. Now that beauty was replaced by a woman who seemed just minutes from death.
“Doctor, you can leave us,” she said, putting a hand on his arm.
“You being here won’t make me die any slower. Please, go be with your family.” She smiled at him, still seeming warm and comforting despite her obvious pain.
The doctor hesitated for a moment. “Alright. But call if you need anything.”
“I’ll walk you out,” Pinako said, leaving Mustang and Trisha Elric alone in a room.
“Are you Lieutenant Colonel Hartford?” she asked.
“No, that’s part of the reason I came. My name is Lieutenant Colonel Roy Mustang,” he stepped forward and held out his hand. She didn’t take it. “Lieutenant Colonel Hartford has been missing for about three years now. I was hoping, since you wrote to him, you might know something about his disappearance.”
Trisha Elric turned away and started laughed.
Mustang was frozen in place, uncertain of what to do.
“Fourteen letters,” she said, gasping for breath. “I sent out fourteen letters and the only one to answer them is a dog of the military. And not even the person I meant to send for in the first place.”
He bristled. Normally, he didn’t mind being heckled. He thought he deserved to be harassed for his role in the massacre. However, this woman wrote to him, asking him for help. Even if she was upset that Hartford didn’t show up, he was still in the military! And by all accounts, Hartford wasn’t a great person, to begin with.
“If you don’t want my help, then I’ll be on my way.”
“No, no,” Trisha said, coughing so violently, Mustang worried she might cough up a lung.
“Trisha!” Pinako said, rushing back in and helping support her until the fit had passed. “You shouldn’t have sent him home. You’re sick.”
She shook her head. “No, I’m dying. There’s nothing he can do and I need help.”
She looked back to Mustang, eyes taking in every detail. “Don’t leave. You’re my last chance to save them.” Her eyes flickered down to the silver chain of his pocket watch. “You’re an alchemist?”
“Yes.” He narrowed his eyes, trying to figure out what she wanted.
“Did you serve in Ishval?”
He bristled again. “Yes.” There was no use lying about it. He was ashamed to admit it but denying it wouldn’t rid him of the guilt.
She sighed. “I suppose you are the only person who can help at this point. I don’t trust you, but like I said. I’m dying. If you do kill me because of what I know, you won’t be cutting my life short.”
“Now hold on a moment, no one is killing anyone,” Pinako said, turning to glare at Mustang.
“I came here because you asked for my help, ma’am, nothing more.” He said. Seriously, what did this woman know that made her think that he was going to kill her? “You mentioned something about saving them, is that what this is all about?”
Trisha’s eyes burned with a protective fire that was honestly a bit surprising given her current state. “Yes.” She swung her legs off the bed. “Pinako, help me out. We need to go downstairs. It’ll be easier to show you and go from there.”
“You need to rest.” Pinako steadied her with an arm on her elbow.
Mustang came to her other side and helped her off the bed. He knew no amount of scolding or pleading for reason would keep this woman on the bed. He recognized that fire in her, the fire that burned in him as well. His mission, to become the Fuhrer and change this country for the better blinded him to all other pain and suffering. He suspected that Trisha’s fire burned to save her children, the two he had seen in pictures covered by several years’ worth of dust and grime. He still didn’t know why this was a military issue, but he was hoping to find out.
“Rest won’t do me any good. You know I don’t have much time. I need to explain it all before it’s too late. If I don’t, everyone could die.”
Mustang and Pinako exchanged glances. She didn’t seem to know much of what was going on either. They made their way down the hall, torturously slow. Even the few feet they walked sent Trisha gasping and panting, coughing harshly with each step. Mustang was starting to agree with Pinako. She should have stayed in bed.
The stairs were even worse. He thought about offering to carry her down the stair. Given her current state, she probably didn’t weigh very much. However, he decided against it. She was fighting not for her life at this point, but for her dignity. Maybe he’d offer on the way back up, but for now, he’d let that fire burn in her a little longer.
They ended up in a small library. Surprisingly, it was well stocked for being in a small house in the middle of nowhere. It must have belonged to her husband. He supposed it wasn’t impossible that a simple sheep farmer was so well-read, but where did he get some of these books? Family heirlooms?
“That one. Take it.” Trisha pointed to an inconspicuous-looking red book on the second-highest shelf. The gold lettering had chipped and faded from years of use.
He reached up and pulled it, surprised to find it didn’t come out, but rather jolt against the shelf, clicking, almost as if he had pulled on a door handle.
The bookshelf swung open to reveal a secret room, filled with even more books.
“Um…” Mustang turned back to the women. Pinako looked just as gobsmacked as he did. “Is this the part where you reveal you’re in some secret cult and lured me here to sacrifice me?”
It sounded ridiculous. Then again, he just discovered a secret room in the basement of a house in the middle of nowhere. Cults usually liked to live in big communes in the middle of nowhere. Shit, Hawkeye was going to kill him for getting killed by a bunch of cultists.
“Trisha,” Pinako breathed. “Is this Hohenheim’s?”
“Who’s Hohenheim?” The only thing that was keeping him from completely freaking out was the fact that Pinako seemed just as confused as he did. Great, so he wasn’t a dumbass for walking into a cult trap!
Trisha nodded and pushed off the chair. “Come on, help me inside.”
Mustang rushed to her side and helped her into the room, setting her down on another chair. He looked around the room, eyes widening as he realized that these books were all alchemic books. Hundreds of them, titles he recognized and had read, and titles that he recognized but had never even seen. Some of them had to have been thousands of years old. What caught his eye though was a map of Amestris. It wasn’t just any map, though. On it was a transmutation circle. His heart stopped when he recognized one of the points was Ishbal.
“Pinako, you remembered my husband leaving several years ago.”
He pulled his eyes off the map, hoping she’d explain it at some point.
Pinako nodded. “Yes, I did. It was quite sudden if I remembered. One day he was just… gone.”
Trisha looked down at her hands. “He had been planning it for a while. He wanted to do some more research. He thought he could fix it.” She shook her head. “That doesn’t matter now. I haven’t seen him or been able to get ahold of him for years now. Anyways, about two months after he left, someone who looked like him showed up at our house.”
Mustang furrowed his brow, listening to every word she said.
Tears started slipping down her cheeks as she continued. “My husband isn’t fully human. He was, at one point. But something happened and he lost his ability to die. That’s what he was researching. He came back and told me he had figured it out, but there was no way to know how long he would have once he completed his work. Because of this, he asked to take the boys with him on a trip to Central City, to see the library. You know how much those boys love to read.”
“Hang on,” Pinako said. “Ed and Al? I thought they had died.”
At this, Trisha started sobbing, loudly. Shit, Mustang did not deal well with crying people. This was outside of his comfort zone. Especially since he had just met this woman.
“I was too ashamed to admit that I let some stranger run off with them. My children, they’ve been missing since that thing showed up at my house pretending to be my husband. I knew something was wrong but I didn’t listen and now my boys are gone.”
Thankfully, Pinako seemed to be more than happy to comfort the sobbing woman. Mustang just had to stand awkwardly in the corner, occasionally glancing over at the map of Amestris and the transmutation circle.
Trisha’s sobbing slowly ceased and she took a few deep breaths. “Once I realized what had happened, I decided to try and find them myself. I searched everywhere, trying to learn as much as I could about the rot in this country.”
She gestured around the room. “I’m no alchemist, so most of these things that I found, I didn’t know what to do with, or who to trust. I was hoping I could figure it out, but…”
“You got sick,” Mustang said, still not certain if he believed any of this or what he was even supposed to do with it.
“Why do you have Ishbal circled on the map?” he asked, looking back at that damn transmutation circle. It was one he had never seen before, but he couldn’t deny that it was one. He even recognized a few names of previous conflicts the country had. It seemed like this damn country was always at war. He never realized, or maybe never wanted to realize, how cleanly circular the country was. As if it was planned to be this way from the start.
“I don’t really know. Like I said, I’m not an alchemist. I’m pretty sure the military is involved, but that’s about it. But I did read something about a Crimson Crest in one of the books. The notes are all there for you.”
Mustang narrowed his eyes. If what she was implying was true, then the massacre he participated in was planned from the start. The massacre he thought was pointless, turned out to have a point, one even sicker and more depraved than simply murdering an ethnic group of people for no reason. He felt sick.
She grabbed his wrist and yanked him down. “Please, you have to save my children,” she said, her breathing getting heavier once more. The fluid in her lungs rattled in an unsettling way.
“You’re the only one who can. You have to find them and save them from that monster. My notes are all here. My husband’s notes are all here. Please, you have to help them. They’re just children!”
She started hacking again, hard enough to shake her from her chair.
“Trisha!” Pinako said, rushing to her side. “Help me get her back upstairs!”
Mustang complied, carrying her back up the stairs and to the bed.
“I’m going to get the doctor. Stay with her!” She rushed out the door, not even bothering to take a coat.
Mustang did his best to help support her so she was breathing better. Her hand wrapped around his wrist once more.
“Please, promise me.” She gasped, her chest heaving as her lungs struggled to take in air.
Mustang didn’t like making promises he couldn’t keep. Especially since he still didn’t know everything that was going on.
He couldn’t help but take her hand and nod. “I promise. I’ll do everything I can to find them and bring them home.”
Trisha looked towards the side table, her other hand messing around with some of the things, knocking over a small vase of flowers. She didn’t seem to care much, instead of pulling back to reveal a small locket in her hand.
She opened it and handed it to Mustang. There were two children in the photo. One was still a baby and the other one was a little bit older. The older one had blond hair and golden eyes, a very strange combination. The other one was still blonde with brown eyes, but his hair was a bit more on the brown side than his brother's.
Trisha put a hand on his cheek and he tore his eyes away from the locket to look at her.
She was smiling at him. “I trust you.”
Mustang smiled at her. “Even though I’m a dog of the military?”
“You have kind eyes. That’s enough for me.”
His smile dropped. He didn’t know the last time anyone had said any of his features were kind, let alone kind enough to entrust the safety of their children to him. Most people hid their children away. He couldn’t blame them.
The door flew open and Mustang stood up.
Pinako pushed him away from the bed while the doctor from earlier set to work.
He could tell, though, that it was too late. The fire in Trisha Elric’s eyes burned out. She was dead.