Author: Kristen Sharpe
Date: November 13, 2019
Disclaimer: “Fullmetal Alchemist” belongs to Hiromu Arakawa, Square ENIX, Studio BONES and various other parties.
Edward Elric rubbed at sleep grimy eyes as he plodded through the early morning streets of the Capital behind Lord Hughes. Al clanked at his side. The man had woken them - really, only him considering Al's "condition" - at dawn with the news that an informant of his had returned with details on how the dragon escaped its last pursuers. Hughes seemed unusually intense, so Ed hoped that was a good sign.
He wasn’t quite sure what to make of Lord Hughes. The man wasn’t anything like he’d expected.
He was smart, for one thing.
Not an alchemist, but Ed never held that against anyone. No one back home knew alchemy either, but that didn’t make them stupid. They were experts in their crops and their livestock and their smithies.
Just like Lord Hughes was an expert in something.
Not fighting. Though Ed was sure he knew a little of that too. You didn’t survive Teacher’s training without learning when a man had hidden knives.
No. It was more the way Lord Hughes was always watching, studying. He had an incredible memory for details, a knack for picking up on patterns, and an open mind toward the seeming impossible.
Trying not to look as worried as he felt, Ed dared a glance at Al. Hughes might be one of the few people they’d met who could see through their brazen bluff about Al's armor. He had thrown together a few backup explanations involving automail and esoteric alchemy, but they were weak. He and Al just needed to get this job done. Find the dragon, see if it really was the next best thing to a Philosopher’s Stone, and then, hopefully, get Al’s body back.
And, if Hughes was around to see all that, maybe killing his family’s murderer would be enough payment for his silence. If not… Ed did know a few things about dodging knives, and more than a few corners of Amestris remained hidden from official eyes. Like Rush Valley.
"Here we are," Hughes' voice pulled him out of his haphazard planning, and Ed looked up to see that they had stopped in front of a small tavern.
He nodded and followed the man inside. They slipped through a sparse crowd and, after a quiet word from Hughes to a man Ed assumed to be the tavern's owner, into a back room accessible through a door that nearly blended into the wall.
Inside, in a room dimly lit by a single lantern, a cloaked figure was seated at a narrow table. When they entered, the figure rose immediately, revealing a woman with blond hair pinned up at the back of her head, wearing a no-nonsense expression that instantly reminded Ed of Teacher. She was armed too, and probably not only with the bow and arrows he could see clearly resting by her seat. He felt himself unconsciously straighten. This was someone to be taken seriously, someone who had real information.
He wasn't wrong. After the obligatory introductions, the woman, Riza, began her account of finding the dragon in the mountains. Or what she thought was the dragon.
"And then, my arrow passed through it, and the dragon vanished," she finished. "Fading like heat shimmer in the distance as you walk closer."
Ed and Al looked at each other.
"A mirage," said Al, just a bit smugly. "Heat shimmer."
"Yeah, yeah," Ed groused. Then, he reached up to rap his brother's metal shoulder companionably. "The question is: where was the dragon? How could he project the mirage so far?"
"Or was it far?" Al mused.
"Ha!" Ed crowed. "If they can change color for camouflage, like I suggested--"
"Then, it might not have been far away at all," Hughes finished, frowning in thought. "Though it will be long gone by now." A sigh hissed through his teeth.
"But, we know a little bit more about its capabilities," said Al, obviously trying to cheer the man up. He tilted his helmet toward Riza. “Thank you.”
She offered a small but sincere smile in return.
Surprisingly, Hughes shot him a quick, rare smile too. It looked natural on his face, and Ed had the sudden thought that this man had smiled a lot. Once.
“You make a good point,” he said. “And, I already have people watching for any sign of it. A monster like that won’t hide long,” he added darkly.
As they left the tavern, leaving Hughes to pay his informant, Ed ran over everything they’d learned. It matched their speculations and might even explain some of their father’s stranger notes.
But, he felt like he was missing something obvious.
Al voiced it. “Why do you think the dragon hid?” he asked, the bulk of his armor clearing an easy path through the increasingly busy streets. “There weren’t that many hunters. If this dragon is so vicious, why not attack?” He paused a minute. “Do you think it’s two different dragons?”
Ed blinked and then scowled. That was a good point. Dragons were rare, nearly extinct. Most people thought they were myths until this one had attacked. Which meant dragons didn’t make a habit of burning cities to the ground. On the other hand, it meant that seeing two in such a short time frame was unlikely. But, not impossible.
“Or something set it off in the Capital incident,” he ventured. “Someone got too close to its hiding spot, and it felt cornered?” Then, he tossed his arms up. “But, why would it have been there in the first place?”
“Why indeed?” a new voice put in to his left. “Maybe the dragon was desperate for another reason.”
“What?” Ed snorted. “Someone dug in to where it was hibernating like a bear?" He stopped. "Wait, that might be possible. Do you--?”
It was only then that he realized he was talking to a complete stranger. He jumped back, bumping into Al in the process.
A dark-haired man in a long, dark cloak was standing there, looking at him with a thin smirk of a smile. "My apologies," he said. Ed didn't think he looked very apologetic. "I couldn't help but overhear your conversation."
His tone was chiding, and Ed opened his mouth to snap a retort when the man continued, quietly.
"But, yes, you're right. Dragons do hibernate."
He was still giving the man his best flat glare when Al spoke up, "Er, how do you know, Sir?"
"Experience." The man gave Al an intent look before his face softened slightly. "And, though limited, I do have experience with your situation as well. But, that's not something we should speak of here." He turned abruptly and swept into a narrow alley between two buildings.
Ed stared after him.
Al's armor rattled. "Brother, do you think--?"
Ed threw himself into the alley. "Hey, wait!"
He could see the man's back ahead of him, a patch of darker color against the already dim light where the morning sun wasn't quite high enough to peek around the buildings.
The darkness deepened. He stumbled. Did he trip on something?
Nevermind. He had to catch that guy. The weird guy who might know about dragons and maybe Al too. Or he thought he did. Neither was good. He had to--
Darkness flowed in at the edges of his vision, and everything faded away.