Roy Mustang snarled audibly as the telephone rang on his desk, interrupting the tense silence that filled the office. His team was gathered around him and, until that moment, had been locked in heated discussion concerning the Grumman situation. It was becoming a nightmare. When Mustang had finally gotten reassigned to Central Command two years before, he had hoped it was a sign that the old man was finally loosening up on the position of command that he had bitten into and never let go of since the Promised Day.
Hoped was the operative word. In the back of his mind Mustang suspected that the real reason Grumman had allowed him back into the capital for the first time in eight years was to keep a closer eye on his most dangerous contestant for the seat of power. The old fox was cunning, and it was the exact plan of action Mustang would have taken, had it not revealed one crucial factor – Grumman was weakening and he knew it. Mustang had been in the East for years aiding in the reconstruction of Ishval. Once back in in Central Mustang knew it was only a matter of time until a power struggle ensued.
He had every intention of keeping it from escalating and, more importantly, of being at the top of the pile when the dust cleared. As such, he had no time for interruptions.
"I thought I told you to disconnect that blasted thing!" he rounded on the smallest of his Unit, Kain Fuery. Now in his early thirties Fuery still had the appearance of a boy, with his small stature, black hair and round childlike face. Many had underestimated him over the years, which had proven to be of great advantage both to him and to Mustang's Unit. Fuery was actually an expert with communications and surveillance equipment. At this moment he was the subject of his superior's ire.
Before Furey could splutter out an apology for not sabotaging a State phone-line, a decided click resounded though the office as Riza Hawkeye picked up the phone. "State Alchemist Roy Mustang's Office. What's your business?"
Mustang threw his second in command a dirty look, running his fingers along the pencil mustache he had grown out years before. Hawkeye often told him that the irritated habit was a tell. Now, however, the tall, blond, imposing sniper did not even blink. Rather, Roy watched as the corners of her mouth tightened. Wordlessly, she offered him the phone. "It's Fullmetal, sir."
Mustang took the phone.
"Outside line, fifteen minutes." The line went dead.
Ten minutes later Roy Mustang was staring at a phone booth just outside Central Command. His lip curled in impatience. He didn't have time for this. What kind of authority did Fullmetal think he still had, calling Mustang out to get off a government line to talk? He wasn't even a State Alchemist anymore. Not officially, anyway.
But Mustang was a State Alchemist. He rallied quickly and asked questions on the way to the mission. And at the back of his mind Roy knew that whatever Edward Elric had found that demanded for Roy to step into this phone booth would be significant.
The phone rang. Roy stepped across the threshold into the phone booth, shut the door behind him, and allowed the little boxed space to close in around him. He picked up the telephone.
"Write this address down. Come immediately."
Despite himself, as he pulled out a pen and paper, Mustang's annoyance began to give rise to foreboding. There was something metallic in Ed's voice.
Forty-five minutes later he was pushing open a screen door to an upscale clinic in the suburbs of Central. Edward Elric was sitting in a plush armchair, head bent and resting in his hands. He looked up when the little bell attached to the door tickled to signal Mustang's arrival.
"So," Roy complained loudly as he barged into an unassuming little entrance hall. "What was so urgent that you had to bring me all the way out here?" He allowed his volume to obscure any of the unease that had begun to grow in his mind during the tedious drive. He took no note of the matronly little nurse who shushed him as she passed by with a tray of medication. "Do you have any idea what's going on in Central right now, Fullmetal? No, of course not. You've retired into the country to live your quiet little life of wife and kids. Just because I occasionally still call on your services doesn't mean you can just show back up in the Capital to go distracting me from Grumman and the very real possibility of a–"
Mustang stared into Ed's eyes. They were the eyes of the eleven year old boy he had come to recruit for the military fourteen years before. They were the eyes of an Alchemist who had seen what should be impossible.
Wordlessly, Ed rose from the armchair and made his way down the hall. Wordlessly, Roy followed. They stopped before a door on which the nameplate simply read "John Doe." Ed reached for the handle.
"Fullmetal," Roy cut in. He had no idea what was going on, but he recognized that there was magnitude to it. "Tell me. What is beyond this door?"
Edward Elric placed his hand on the door handle.
"Tell me. That's an order."
Ed pushed the door open.
Time stopped. Roy did not know how long he stood in the doorway. All sense of who he was and where he was evaporated. Having force himself through this world for the last ten years without this man, nothing in the world now excited except for this man. The details registered upon Roy's mind before the whole. …There were wisps of grey in his black hair. The boyish curl which always dangled stubbornly front of his face hung limp. The five o'clock shadow which he had always vainly maintained as 'sexy' had become a patchy and uneven beard. There were a few more lines underneath his eyes than there had been the last time Roy had seen him. He had grown older.
He had lived.
Were Roy Mustang not certain beyond a shadow of a doubt that his eyes had been healed by no less than a Philosopher Stone he would have though himself still blind, and this some cruel and twisted dream. One that he had dreamed often enough in the last many years. "Maes?!"
His legs took on a life of their own. He stepped over the threshold to go to him. To touch him. To make certain this was not a dream. How could this not be a dream? And how could his heart swell and break in the same instant? The violent pumping of his blood in his ears deafened the room. Maes Hughes, his dearest and greatest friend, was alive.
A hand clamped down on Mustang's shoulder before he could take another step.
He looked around, breaking his gaze from the man he known he would never see again. Doctor Knox, a fellow veteran of the Ishvalan War of Extermination, was standing just behind him. "Unhand me this instant!" The words came out like venom. Roy did not register anything. He did not registered how easily the surly doctor removed his hand from Mustang's shoulder. He did not register the pain that flashed behind Knox's spectacles. All he knew was that Maes Hughes was in this room. No. He did not allow himself to know that yet either. Not until he heard his voice. Not until–
The man who looked up at him from the hospital bed did so with vacant eyes. They were not the bristling green that he had known, sharper than the push knives he had wielded. The man who looked up at him did not know him. Maes Hughes was not here at all.
The room crashed back around Roy with a shattering thunderclap that resounded in his core. Alphonse Elric was leaning against the wall. Edward Elric had taken up a place by his younger brother, perching on an antique writing desk, arms folded, still not saying a word. Behind Mustang Doctor Knox now entered the room. He quietly closed the door behind them. In the armchair placed in the corner was Sheska, the woman who had once worked for Hughes in Investigations.
The feeling in his own body returned to him. Roy registered that his fingers were trembling. Cold sweat had broken out on his forehead and the back of his neck. "How… What… What is going on here?"
Alphonse pulled the chair out from the desk on which Ed was leaning. The sound of the legs scraping against the floor cause Mustang to convulse, bringing his fingers together and pointing them at Al. Edward stood up instantly to stand in front of his younger brother.
It wasn't just his fingers any longer. Mustang's entire arm… his whole body was shaking. Roy stood frozen, exposed, his reflexes screaming at him, his fingers pressed together, prepared to snap. To set fire to the world all over again.
"Please, sir," Sheska whispered
Mustang turned sharply to look at her, eyes wide and uncomprehending.
She was gesturing to the seat that Al had offered. "Let us tell you everything. From the beginning."
Roy Mustang lowered his arm. Knees quavering, he eased himself into the chair behind the desk, eyes fixed on the man in the bed. The man in the bed… who gave a polite, vague smile to all those in the room, before turning to gaze out window at the garden patches below.
"Talk, then," Mustang rasped. "Explain."
"Come on, come on, come on, where are you?!" Sheska sped the black government car through the darkened grounds of Central Command. This really didn't seem like a good idea. She didn't exactly have a driver's license. Just the few lessons that Mr. Hughes had given her. And on that topic, this wasn't exactly her car. If she crashed it, or if she got caught, she was sure to be fired! And if she was fired then how on earth would she be able to support her dear little mother? And just when she'd found such a nice clinic for her too! Sheska yelped as she took the car over a curb, off the street, and onto one of the large boulevards.
Now she was blatantly disregarding the law, driving on pedestrian walkways! Even if she'd had a driver's license and she did own this car, driving it all over gated Capital property would never fly!
"Gosh darn it, Mr. Hughes, where are you!?"
He had told her to go home. He had told her to put all the books that he'd been researching back onto the shelves, and to leave no trace of their activities for anyone to find. She had done that, all of that. And then she had forgotten her stupid glasses case in her desk drawer and had come back for it. This was what she got for trying to impress that cute blond Captain down the hall! No. What she'd gotten for that was walking straight into a stupid door when she tried to parade herself in front of him without her glasses on. Stupid, stupid, stupid!
When she had come back inside the girl behind the communications desk was in hysterics. She was talking about Mr. Hughes, and how he had tried to make a call, but then left without waiting. That was when Sheska had seen the blood on one of the State telephones.
"Damnit!" She swore despite herself, hitting the accelerator. She rounded the corner. A streetlight momentarily blinded her. She saw a phone booth.
She saw a body.
Sheska brought the car to a screeching halt. All of the adrenalin that had been coursing through her turned to ice in her veins. She stared out the window of car at the limp body of Mr. Hughes.
Terror constricted her. What was she doing here? She wasn't a soldier. She wasn't field agent. Mr. Hughes had been shot, and he was a veteran of Ishval. What if the killer was still nearby? What if he had seen her? She was going to die– she was going to die in this car, and her body would be found right here, next to that of Mr. Hughes. She was going to die–
A groan cut through the calm of the cool night air and cut through her thoughts.
Sheska was throwing open the door to the backseat of the car. She was scrambling across the cobblestones where blood was already soaking into the grit. She was hauling him across the boulevard, leaving a streak of crimson in her wake. Her entire front was drenched. Her glasses were smeared red. With a 'thump' he hit the floor of the car.
It wasn't until she was speeding away into the night that Sheska realized that, in her hand, she was clutching the ragged remains of what must once had been a family photograph.
Her mind whirled though the thousands of things that she learned from books and ledgers. Surly one of the things that she had learned in her twenty years of life could come in use now. Surely someone she had learned could save a life.
She came up with an address.
"Please! Help me! Somebody, help me!" Sheska hammered her small fist on a door, leaving bloodstains in the woodwork.
"The hell do you think you're doing, calling at this hour of the night!?" At another time the man who opened the door would have terrified Sheska. But she had already felt terror that night. She was so, so far beyond terror now.
"Save him." She latched her bloodied fingers around Doctor Knox's white button down shirt. "I have a place we can take him, but I can't take him there unless you can make sure no one finds out about it! It's where my mother is!" She hauled the doctor out of his house so he could see just whom she had bleeding out in the backseat of her car. "I don't want my mother to be in danger but it's the only place he can get proper care and you have to save him!"
She knew of Doctor Knox from the many gory reports that she had filled for Mr. Hughes. She knew that the man had spent more time in the last few years ending lives than saving them. She knew all of this. She also knew that he was a veteran of the Ishval War, and had been a close companion of Colonel Mustang. And in the place of Roy Mustang and the absent Elric brothers, he would have to do.
Knox had looked into her eyes with a darkness and numbness that could only have come from seeing and breathing death, and she knew that he would help her.
The rest of the night was a blur of shadows and blood. Mr. Hughes had stopped moving entirely by the time the car skidded to a halt in front of the clinic. The floral wall-papered halls were cacophony of indignant nurses roused in the night by the ruckus, frightened screams of patients, and the flickering lights of the oil lamps. All that Sheska remembered clearly were Mr. Hughes's boots as she carried him by the legs, Doctor Knox by the shoulders, into one of the unoccupied rooms.
The protestations of the clinic staff, the curses and threats of Doctor Knox, all became swaddled in medical bandages, clamps and pick sets as they tried to get the bullet out. Mr. Hughes was losing so much blood. She vaguely remembered someone crying out, "We're gonna have to lift a rib!"
When Maes Hughes came round some time past midnight he no longer knew them.
He did not know his own name. He stared up at Sheska with empty eyes. In the end, it had not been the bullet that undid him. It had been the fall and the subsequent blow to the back of the head. The only thing that Sheska had that might have jolted his memory in that instant was the remains of the photograph he had dropped, ruined in his own blood.
He could not identify his assailant. He could not tell them what he had discovered that had spurred his assailant to attempted murder. He could tell them nothing. They could not protect him from nothing.
Sheska and Doctor Knox were confronted with a terrible choice. In this room, ten years before, they had stood on either side of the bed, sleeves rolled up and hands soaked in blood and they decided whether Maes Hughes had survived that night, or whether he had not. If he had survived there was no telling when the murdered would try again, or how. If he survived, vulnerable and in this state, it would only be to die some weeks later by an unknown enemy.
They chose that he did not survive.
Into the hazy hours of dawn Sheska sat in the armchair in the corner of the room, the deafening breathing of a dead man her only company, her hands scrubbed clean and raw, her eyes wide and staring into the darkness. Doctor Knox had swept from the clinic the instant that the choice was made. He had gone to cover their tracks. In the morning, when the sun rose, there was no streak of blood where Sheska had hauled a body from the phone booth to the car. There was, however, a body. A body that Doctor Knox had procured from the morgue and, with the expertise he had acquired in Ishval, masked so perfectly that the distraught Gracia Hughes had no trouble identifying it as her husband, making herself a widow with that single gesture.
The government buried a body. It was not that of Maes Hughes.
"Pride was on a school fieldtrip," Edward murmured in the silence after the tale. "Selim Bradley… he was on a school fieldtrip outside of Central. As a homunculus he traveled through shadows. All shadows. But he could only move freely within Central and the tunnels that encompassed Amestris. That's why he didn't kill you that night. It's also why he wasn't at Hughes's funeral. And once he'd returned home… you'd already taken Hughes into the suburbs, just outside his line of sight."
Sheska shuddered. "Yeah… that was a stroke of sheer luck for us. …If you could call anything in this story 'luck."
"As far as we were concerned," Doctor Knox growled, "the hardest part was replacing the body. I only just got it into place before the early bird officials started cropping up on the Command grounds." He turned to look at Mustang. "You'll remember that just a short while later you asked me to do something not dissimilar in faking Maria Ross's death… when she was accused of Hughes's murder."
This roused Roy from his numbness. "So why didn't you tell me then?! Why keep him here, like this, for ten god forsaken years?!" An eruption of emotions went off inside of him. His friend… his best friend was sitting in this hospital bed. Had been sitting there as the last decade of his life trickled by around him. Here stood Knox and Sheska, whom Mustang had considered allies, at whom he had smiled and saluted in the halls of Central Command, and all the while they had known. And never told him.
Knox and Sheska exchanged glances.
"At first," Sheska began, "for the first year, it was out of fear that his murdered would come back and finish the job."
"Then," Knox added, "one year later, the Promised Day arrived. All of Amestris was in chaos for months in the aftermath. Mass panic. Predictions of the end of the world. There was no way we could start bringing the long dead back to life. Who would listen? He would have been branded as an alchemic taboo on the spot. Torn to pieces by the mob. The country was tinderbox waiting for a spark."
"In the meantime, I tried everything within my power," Sheska said, looking at the vacant face of the man who had once given her a fresh start. "I went to the Hughes residence. Mrs. Hughes was so kind. She gave me some photographs of the family." Roy looked away. Sheska continued. "I said it was just for sentimental reasons… to have something to remember him by. But in truth, I probably spent five years flashing those photographs before his eyes, hoping that he would remember something. I keep them in all of the drawers around the room. You know… in case he one day opens one of them and something… clicks." Her voice choked and she curled further into the armchair.
Wordlessly Ed opened a drawer of the desk he was once more leaning against. Sure enough, it was filled with just the sort of happy family photographs that Hughes had shoved in everyone's faces every chance he got. He did not even recognize them now. Ed slammed the drawer shut.
"Then, a year after the Promised Day, just as things were beginning to calm down, the Führer sent you, Mustang, back to Eastern Headquarters," Knox continued. "A year after that, the Elric brothers left the country and with them any knowledge of eastern Alkahestry and its healing properties. Even if we had been able to find a method to restore Hughes's memory, to whom would he have turned in his fragile state? Five years of his life had already gone by. To whom would he had looked for strength? His family, from whose side he had vanished a decade before? So… we waited."
"Edward came back just a year after he set out on his journey. But Alphonse… you took two years. We had given up all hope of an alchemic solution. That was when I attempted the first operation."
Roy's jaw clenched.
"Unsuccessful." Dr. Knox crossed his arms and lowered his head. On his shoulders the weight of disaster bore down upon him. "And of course Alphonse reappeared in Amestris shortly after for the birth of his brother's first child." Knox grit his teeth, "When Hughes was too was too weak for any sort of treatment, let alone alchemic with its laws of equivalent exchange. By the time he was better Alphonse was once more traversing the desert. Mustang returned, only to immediately set out for Xing as well. You've spent the last decade helping to rebuild Ishval and secure it as the trade post between Amestian-Xingese interests. You even managed to chart a railroad across the desert. How long did that take to complete?"
"Construction started seven years ago," Roy answered hollowly. "It was completed three years ago. …It passes directly by the Ruins of Xerxes… opening up the ancient city to archeologists and a steady tourist flow…" He swallowed. In his stupor he had begun pulling quotes from his speeches to the Treasure Committees.
"May and I just took the train to come here…" Al added weakly. "It's… very nice."
"With no knowledge of when you were returning, Mustang," Knox continued curtly, "I attempted a second operation."
Mustang shut his eyes. If only he could shut his ear.
"Unsuccessful," Sheska echoed.
"Then, two years ago, you got reassigned to Central, Mustang. But there was still no word from Alphonse and, if anything, with your return to the Capital, Edward Elric only became more reclusive, making a great show of retreating into the countryside after the birth of his second child, ostensibly severing all ties with the military."
Edward's shoulders slumped. He and Roy exchanged glances.
"Finally," Sheska said, "last year, we heard that the Princess May Ling had been designated by the Emperor of Xing to be Ambassador to Amestris – affective 1924. Alphonse once more made a quick visit home to visit his new little niece, but for the first time in years we breathed somewhat easily and didn't fret at the brevity of his visit. There have been so many times that we caught one another is alleyways, asking one another if we should reveal the secret of what we did, and how we hid it. Asking if we had already waited too long."
"But now we knew that soon the Flame Alchemist, the Elric brothers and a Princess of Xing, armed with her Alkahestry, would all be back in Central at last," Knox concluded.
"…I and May moved into our new flat just a couple weeks ago. We don't even have the boxes unpacked yet."
"We didn't dare wait," Sheska said, "until after Grumman announced his recommendation for successor–"
"–If he announces his recommendation for successor," Roy muttered.
"Ten years is a long time to wait for a cure, even in this cursed country," Knox growled.
Roy rose from his seat and approached the bed where Maes Hughes sat. He stared at the man whom he had once known in another lifetime. Slowly, as though only just realizing there he was there, the man who had been Hughes pulled his eyes away from the window and looked up into Mustang's face. He smiled.
Roy swallowed hard. Had there truly been no other way? Could they not have done this three years ago, five years ago? Five years ago Edward had returned from his journeys to the West. Alphonse one year later. He himself had just begun seeing progress on the restoration of Ishval. Surely this could have been done five years ago…. Before Ed had two children of his own… Before he, Roy, acquired his own history with Riza Hawkeye… Surely all of this could have been handled at least five years ago… before life had swept them all up in events, months and years. How had time managed to get away from them so completely? How had it managed to get away from the man in the bed, still waiting for it to restart?
Roy did not know if he would ever be able to fully forgive Knox and Sheska for the decade of Hughes's life that they had both preserved and wasted. But Doctor Knox and Sheska had done that of which Roy Mustang and the Elric brothers had not been capable.
They had saved the life of Maes Hughes.
"Please believe us," Sheska whispered urgently, "we truly did try everything. Even a Philosopher Stone couldn't help him!"
"A Philosopher Stone!?" Even all these years later Edward Elric still reacted to those words like a bloodhound.
Mustang rounded on Knox. "Oh, you even tried a Stone?! Then I expect Doctor Marco was in on all this too, was he?!"
Stoically, Knox gave a curt nod. "He tried to use the Stone on Hughes that same time I brought him to Central to treat your eyes–"
"The same time as?!–" Roy cut himself off. He had to compose himself. He was seeing red. All this time he had been traveling in and out of Central, catching trains and changing ranks, and yet the truth about his dearest friend had been known to three of the people with whom he had worked most closely. Doctor Knox. Doctor Marco. And Sheska.
…Perhaps I really am still blind.
Fullmetal was standing beside him, looking at Hughes, who had once more turned to look out of the window. "You, me and Al. We did all go through the Gateway of Truth, Mustang. And now that we're all here… there has got to be something we can do."
Something to save their old friend, as they three had failed to save him ten years before.
"I've spoken to May," Al said quietly. "She had to find a time to sneak away from all of the meetings, being new to the position and all. She didn't want anyone getting suspicious, what with her being the first foreign ambassador to ever be welcomed into Amestris. But she will be here. Tomorrow."
"And who knows," Sheska said, her voice broken with all of the failed hopes of a decade laced into it. "Maybe this third… operation… maybe three time's the charm?"
Roy Mustang turned to leave the room. He did not want to look back, not at the man in the bed, and not at the ten years that Roy had spent in ignorance while that man had lain in that bed. Mustang halted in the doorway. "If this doesn't work… if this goes south… do I have your word that Elisia Hughes will never learn of any of this?"
He took their silence as their oath, and swept from the room.
FMA 2003VERSE OF MAES HUGHES' SURVIVAL: available now as a one-shot called "To Demand the Finer Things in Life."
So, now you know how Maes Hughes survived in Maes Hughes: In Memoriam. Tell me what you think. Is it believable? Does it work for you with the Brotherhood/manga canon? Please review and critique with anything you'd like to add. Constructive criticism and general impressions are much appreciated.