Author: Jordanna Morgan (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Archive Rights: Please request the author’s consent.
Rating/Warnings: Mild PG for fantasy violence and desperate situations.
Characters: Hughes, Alphonse, Edward, Mustang, Scar.
Setting: First anime. These events take place sometime after my story “Roughing It”, in which Hughes learned the truth about the Elrics’ past. In terms of where it fits within canon events, I leave that up to the reader.
Summary: During a manhunt for Scar, Hughes and Alphonse become trapped and endangered, leading Al to make a grave request.
Disclaimer: They belong to Hiromu Arakawa. I’m just playing with them.
Notes: Some time ago, I decided that I would challenge myself to write a hurt/comfort story in which Al is the “hurt” one. I was interested in the unusual approach this would require, because although Al feels no pain, he can be damaged and is by no means immune to fear. I also wanted the comforter to be someone other than the obvious choice of Edward—and as it turned out, a non-alchemist was necessary for the situation I came up with. In the end, Hughes got the role, which had a nice bonus of allowing for two different paternal dynamics in the story: Hughes to Al, and Mustang to Ed.
The coal mine was vast, a sprawling complex located several miles outside of East City. From the access road at the top of an overlooking ridge, nearly all of it could be seen: tunnel mouths yawning open among machine-scarred hills, metal outbuildings clustered around massive pieces of equipment, railway tracks winding in and out of it all. In the distance, the hilltops were still forested with towering pines that had not yet fallen to the ravages of industry.
Roy Mustang surveyed the landscape keenly as he stepped out of the staff car. His appraisal was not optimistic—a thought that was suddenly materialized out loud by a muttering voice behind him.
“Geeze, it’d be easier to find somebody hiding in Central than down there in that overgrown antpile!”
“Relax, Fullmetal,” Mustang replied unamusedly, as he turned to face the red-coated teenager who had jumped down from the back of a military truck. “The terrain may be challenging, but it has its advantages. With the miners evacuated, there’s no risk of civilian casualties here, and the local police have been able to set up a perimeter. Our alchemist-killer is cornered this time.”
“Yeah, well, somebody better tell him that.” Edward Elric folded his arms over his chest and glared down into the tunnel-pocked valley below. Behind him, his brother Alphonse clambered down from the truck bed, armor limbs clattering noisily.
Mustang ignored the grumbles of his young protégé. Gesturing a signal to the detachment of soldiers who had also spilled out of the truck, he started toward a makeshift table that was set up beside the road a dozen yards away. Several military officers and police stood examining maps and diagrams, but Mustang moved straight to the dark-haired major who broke off from the group to meet him.
“Hughes,” he greeted his friend, with a subdued trace of warmth. “We’ve got to stop meeting like this.”
“Trouble does seem to be the only thing that gets us together these days.” Maes Hughes half-smiled for only a moment. “This time we’ve got a real shot at nailing him, though.”
“You’re sure it’s Scar?”
“About as sure as we can be. His latest State Alchemist kill was definitely about a mile from here… One look at the body was enough to tell us who did it. But apparently the victim got off a shot first. His sidearm had been fired, and we found blood at the scene that wasn’t his. Then the mine foreman reported someone fitting Scar’s description was seen going into an unused shaft—and it looked like he was injured.” Hughes shrugged. “The local law moved in fast to evacuate the miners and surround the area. Now it’s just a matter of combing through all the tunnels in these hills. He has to still be there somewhere, if he was here at all.”
“That could be a big if.”
“Not too big to justify calling in all the cops and military within fifty miles. You’ve seen what this guy does to people like you.” Hughes’ voice lowered. “I don’t have a good feeling about this, Roy. You and the Elric boys be careful, okay?”
“I intend to… but Ed doesn’t know the meaning of the word. I would have kept them out of this, but it’s just my bad luck he was in my office when the report came in, and he insisted on coming.” Mustang scowled. “Don’t worry, Maes. I’ll keep him close.”
Hughes nodded, and together the two men approached the plotting table, where the local police chief and Hughes’ aides were gathered. Ed had already interjected himself among them, to study the map with amber-eyed intensity. More discreet in spite of his conspicuous size, Al stood at a slight remove, a few steps behind his brother.
“Colonel, this is the search grid we mapped out with Major Hughes.” The police chief, a burly man named Grogan, thumped his hand heavily on the map. “Between my men and the soldiers the Major brought with him, we’ve already worked our way out to about… here. That still leaves us roughly three-quarters of the ground within the cordon to search. It’s slow going with the mine shafts. The surface area we have to cover isn’t so big, but those tunnels can stretch a whole lot farther under the ground.”
“What about safety?” Mustang asked. “Any risk of cave-ins?”
“Well, officially, the mine company’s inspection papers are in order—but that doesn’t mean these people don’t find ways to cut corners. There are also a few shafts that have been abandoned and sealed up. You can see them marked on the map.”
“And if Scar decides to go out on his own terms, by bringing down a tunnel on himself and anyone who goes in after him…” Hughes did not complete the thought. There was no need to.
Uninvited, Ed spoke up. “You already searched the tunnel he was supposedly seen going into?”
“That was the first thing we did. Nobody was there.” Chief Grogan eyed Ed skeptically—no doubt wondering what a mere boy was doing in the middle of such dangerous affairs, regardless of the State Alchemist watch chain on his belt. “We found a few spots that looked like blood, but there hasn’t been time to test it for sure.”
Hughes offered, “Scar was probably just looking for a place to rest a minute and take care of his wound. If he did lose the amount of blood we found at the murder scene, he can’t move too fast right now. He must not have known he was spotted until he came out and realized the police were moving in. Then he didn’t have any choice but to find somewhere else to hide—even though he knows he’s trapped.”
“Cornered animals are the most dangerous,” Mustang murmured. “Alright. I’ll start deploying my men along the search grid—and you’re with me, Edward,” he added peremptorily, as Ed confidently opened his mouth to claim a search area for himself.
Ed’s face immediately reddened with vexation. “Colonel—”
“That’s an order.”
Mustang’s tone was enough to settle the matter. Fullmetal snapped his mouth shut and glared sulkingly at his superior, but he made no further objection.
Hughes studied the map, rubbing the back of his neck. “I think I’ll head the search in this section here. It was one of the less active areas before the miners were evacuated, and Scar would’ve been trying to avoid running into anyone. One of the abandoned shafts is there, too.”
“Be careful, Hughes,” Mustang said firmly.
“The same goes for yourself.”
Edward looked back and forth between the two men. Then he spoke up, glancing over his shoulder at his steel-bodied sibling.
“Hey, Al? I think you should go with Major Hughes, instead of with Mustang and me.”
Alphonse flinched and stepped forward. “But Brother…”
“Look, you just heard I’m on Mustang’s leash—but it’d be kind of a waste for all three of us alchemists to be in the same group. You might be able to help Hughes. Even if he doesn’t need your alchemy, your strength might come in handy, if there are any problems with that abandoned tunnel.” Ed grinned, bright and reassuring. “Don’t worry about me. I’ll just hide behind the Colonel if things get too scary.”
For a moment, Mustang distinctly sensed that Al wanted to roll the eyes he didn’t have. He felt a very similar sensation himself.
“Fine,” Al conceded at last, in a strained tone. “Just don’t do anything stupid.”
Mustang interrupted before Ed could argue the point. “Alright. Hughes, you and Al meet us back here in two hours. Hopefully we’ll have news by then that Scar has been captured in a different search area—but if you do spot him, don’t take any chances. Call for more backup before you make another move.”
“Will do.” With a confident salute, Hughes moved off to speak to his own subordinates who were on hand. After a slight hesitation, Alphonse followed… and as they watched him go, the shadowed expression that flitted across Ed’s face was not lost upon Mustang.
For the next few minutes, Mustang was taken up with the task of assigning his men to their search areas and giving them instructions. Ed stood apart, arms folded, waiting, with a preoccupied thoughtfulness that was nothing like his earlier display of arrogant confidence. Although Al and Hughes had disappeared among the hills below, his gaze remained turned in the direction they had gone.
“You want to tell me the real reason you sent Al with Hughes?” the Colonel asked, when he finally strode back to where Fullmetal stood.
Ed’s face screwed up in a surprised scowl, but only for a moment. Then he looked away, shifting his weight uncomfortably.
“You and I are State Alchemists, but Al isn’t. I just think—he’ll be safer with Hughes instead of us. Because we’re the ones Scar wants to kill.”
“If Hughes’ search party runs into Scar first, it won’t matter if they’re State Alchemists or not. To escape, Scar would fight them just as hard as he’d fight us.” Mustang shrugged. “Assuming he’s able to put up much of a fight at all. If we’re lucky, he may have been injured so badly that he’s already dead.”
“And we’ve been lucky when, exactly?”
“Then look at it this way. If we’re so unlucky, you and I will be the ones who find Scar and have to take him down.” Mustang gave the boy a slap on his steel shoulder. It was outwardly an admonishment; but somewhere underneath, there was encouragement in the gesture as well. “Come on. The sooner he is found, the sooner you can stop worrying about your brother.”
With a noncommittal grunt, Ed unfolded his arms and followed Mustang. The Colonel signaled to the men who would accompany them to their search area, and they set off.
On the orders of Chief Grogan, Maes Hughes was accompanied by a local policeman: a fresh-faced, flaxen-haired young man by the name of Dyson. Also with him was one of his own officers, a middle-aged and sour-tempered but highly proficient lieutenant named Voss.
And Alphonse Elric, of course. It surprised Maes a little—and not in an especially good way—that Edward had sent his brother along with a different search party. Not that he minded Al’s company or failed to respect his very real abilities, but it was simply… uncharacteristic of Ed to let Al out of his sight.
Together the four made their way out to their section of the search grid, along the western side of the mine’s lands. It was an unremarkable part of the property, containing little more than some rusting outbuildings and a few still-standing scraggly pines. As they moved slowly across the open ground toward the structures, no signs of life were to be seen.
Maes turned to Al, who had spoken. The armor-bodied boy had stopped and squatted, examining the ground in front of him. Although lacking any sense of touch, he reached down to rake his leather fingertips through the loose, dry soil. “This dirt isn’t right.”
The statement prompted the three men of the search party to bend down and study the ground as well. As far as Maes could see, it looked like perfectly ordinary earth: dark, dry, and rather sandy.
It was Voss who verbalized that sentiment. He shrugged and stated flatly, “Just looks like dirt to me.”
“That’s because you’re not an alchemist.” Al scooped up a handful of the soil in his palm, raising it close to the level of his eye slits. “Someone used alchemy on the soil here, but their equations for the minerals in it were just a tiny bit off. I can see the way it caused some crystallization. It also made the color a little different from what we saw farther back.” He tilted his helmet in the direction they had come from.
Dyson’s eyebrows arched. “You know, I think he’s right. I was going to comment on that, but I figured the ground had just been stirred up by passing machinery or something.”
“So what was someone trying to do with the dirt here?” Maes asked.
Al looked up at him, and then stood. “Just what Officer Dyson said. I think they were trying to turn the soil over—to cover up footprints.”
“Scar,” Voss growled immediately, clenching his fists.
Maes’ heart skipped a beat, but he couldn’t help staring up at Al in a brief moment of admiration. With his gentle, optimistic way of looking at the world, the younger Elric could sometimes seem unduly simple, and he appeared content to live in his brother’s intellectual shadow; but in fact, he was at least very close to Ed’s equal for brilliance. His patience and common sense might even have helped him to apply his intelligence better. Yet it startled Maes a little to be reminded that Al, too, was a genius—and he was sorry for that.
“Good work,” he said sincerely, giving the metal boy a light tap on the vambrace. “If nothing else, we know he was around here at some point. Do these signs in the dirt give us any kind of trail we can follow?”
“Not an exact one, but maybe it’s something we can go by.” Al moved forward a few paces, continuing to examine the soil. “It looks like Scar’s transmutation affected a lot of ground—either to make sure his tracks were covered really well, or because he wasn’t very good at calculating the size and power of it. But that helps us, because the crystallization pattern shows which way the alchemic energy radiated from. It was… that way.” He straightened, pointing roughly twenty degrees to their left with a leather digit. In the distance stood a few small, run-down buildings made of wood and sheet metal, and beyond those lay an expanse of scrub pines tangled with undergrowth.
As the three adult men exchanged glances, Maes knew Voss and Dyson had sized up the area with much the same view as his own. Between the neglected outbuildings and the undeveloped land, this little-trafficked corner of the property would be as attractive as any to their fugitive. Furthermore, the thick screen of trees would conceal the fact that police forces were waiting in the hills beyond. If Scar was not too weak, and if he had not realized he would only run straight into captors on the other side, he may have set out to flee through the woods… or he might have taken refuge in one of the shacks, to nurse his wound and gather the strength for such an attempt.
“Let’s go,” Maes said in a hard tone, drawing his gun from the holster at his hip. “Be ready for anything. Al, you stay behind me. I mean it,” he added before Al could make a sound, anticipating the boy’s protest that he was less vulnerable than his fleshly comrades.
A faintly disapproving sound vibrated through Al’s chestplate, but he half-bowed obediently. “Yes sir.”
Cautiously and quietly, the four searchers advanced toward the buildings. The sliding metal doors of the largest one stood half-open, but only darkness was visible inside.
“Wait.” Voss narrowed his eyes and stepped to the fore, with his gun clenched in a ready grip. “I think I see something.”
As the lieutenant approached the threshold with wary steps, a sudden sense of foreboding blossomed inside Maes. He drew a breath to order Voss back, to say they would send Al to report the evidence of the transmuted soil and bring reinforcements; but his words evaporated when he saw what had caught the other man’s eye. He saw the reddish markings on the edge of the door, and realized they were not simply more rust, but faint streaks of blood left by grasping fingers.
A tall figure suddenly loomed out of the shadows inside the metal building. One hand reached out, meeting Voss’ temple before he could pull the trigger of his gun.
There was no scream. There was only a vivid scarlet flash, a spurt of darker red that sprayed out across the dry ground… and Voss fell, absent a large piece of the side of his skull.
Like something seen in a lightning flash, Maes’ mind captured a single frozen snapshot of the man in the doorway. Eyes burning a crimson hue beneath a scarred brow. A jacket hanging loosely over a bare and muscular brown-skinned chest. A left arm wrapped in bloodstained tatters of white cloth that may once have been his shirt.
For an instant, their gazes met electrically over the barrel of Maes’ gun—and then Maes fired.
The alchemist-killer did not react by ducking behind the shelter of the outbuilding’s steel siding. Instead he dropped flat on his stomach in the open doorway. His lethal right hand slammed down on the ground, just beyond the threshold.
Scarlet spiderwebs of blinding-bright energy surged from the point of Scar’s touch, racing over and through the soil. There was a sound like rolling thunder, not from the sky above, but from below… and suddenly, the world fell out from underneath Maes’ feet.
“…Major Hughes, please wake up!”
The high, frightened voice was the first thing to register in Maes’ awareness. The second thing was the pain.
This was not good. He felt as if his entire body had been wadded into a ball, shaken violently, and thrown down again in some careless giant’s game of dice. His right arm was throbbing in agony; he vaguely recognized a sticky warmth of blood below the shoulder. His right leg was bent torturously somewhere underneath him. His head ached so savagely that he could barely see even after he opened his eyes.
“Al?” he mumbled, and tasted dirt. It was in his mouth, up his nose, under his eyelids, and he belatedly realized the heaviness on the left side of his body was a layer of dirt and small rocks too. He squirmed free of it awkwardly as he tried to blink his irritated vision into focus, absent his eyeglasses.
What he finally deciphered from the landscape around him made him wish he hadn’t looked at all.
He was sitting in the bottom of a massive crater, perhaps thirty feet across, with steep earthen walls rising twenty feet or more on all sides. The sunlight that filtered down from high above was dim, but he could see enormous mounds of earth and rock heaped around him… and from the side of one such heap, he noticed a glint of steel.
“Al!” he gasped, stumbling to his feet—only to realize that a stumble was the best he would be able to manage for a while. Although his leg was not broken, it was twisted badly. Placing any weight on it caused tremendous pain. It was all he could do to stagger over to the steel-glint and drop himself in front of it, and what he found there on closer inspection only alarmed him more.
Alphonse Elric was trapped. His armor body was almost completely buried beneath the largest heap of earthen debris, and further pinned by a particularly heavy rocky slab that had wedged above him. He lay at a slight angle on what passed for his stomach, with only his shoulders and part of his right side exposed. His right arm was entirely missing, torn away at its joints just below his now-bent shoulder spikes. His helmet had also detached, and sat almost comically upright and undamaged below the protruding edge of his chestplate, as trickles of loose earth spilled down into the void of his neck-opening.
For a brief moment, Maes’ gut lurched with instinctive horror… and then he forced himself to remember that Al could feel no pain.
“Are you—okay?” he asked awkwardly, laying his good hand on the upper rim of Al’s backplate. It was a rather pointless gesture, but he was fairly sure Al could at least see that his hand was up there somewhere.
“Yeah,” Al’s small, bodiless voice responded from within the empty steel. “I’m just stuck—I can’t move.”
“What happened to Dyson?”
“…I don’t know.” Al’s tone was heavy. “I tried calling his name too, but he didn’t answer. What about you? Are you hurt bad, sir?”
Maes smiled weakly, if only to give Al reassurance. “I’ll be alright, but I don’t think I’ll be much help digging you out of there right now. My leg’s twisted, and my arm’s not too useful.” Painfully he flexed his right arm. The sleeve of his uniform jacket was torn and bloody. He removed his left hand from Al’s back and carefully eased the garment off, first to glance at his wristwatch—which he found had stopped—and then to care for the deep gash that ran almost from his elbow to his shoulder. “How long was I out?”
“About ten minutes, I think.” A sudden shower of soil sprinkled down between Al’s headless shoulders. Maes realized he was trying futilely to move, as if to get a better look at the bleak view around them. “It happened so fast. Scar split open the ground under us so he could get away, but the transmutation he used wouldn’t have made a hole this deep. There are pieces of wood from support beams mixed in with all this dirt, and I can see tool marks on the wall over there. I think we fell into a mine shaft.”
“Yeah, that’s what it looks like.” As Maes tore strips of fabric from his jacket and wrapped them around his arm, he studied the debris of the cave-in. His wits were still fuzzy, but they could confirm Al’s observations. In several places, the sides of the pit were straight and smooth, with unmistakable patterns of grooves from earth-moving machinery. This chamber had once been excavated by man; but if it had ever possessed an exit tunnel, it was now buried by the tons of fallen soil and rock.
Near the spot where he had landed, Maes noticed the especially jagged end of a broken joist protruding from the dirt. It seemed the likely cause of his injured arm. He was only lucky it hadn’t caught him in the neck or the stomach instead.
Now he feared the missing member of their party had not met with similar luck.
“I’m going to see if I can find Dyson,” he informed Al, as he awkwardly tied off the bandages with his left hand. “You’re… sure you’ll be alright like that for a while?”
“I’m fine. I’m just worried about Dyson, and you… and anyone else up above who runs into Scar.” More loose earth slid down into the hollow of Al’s torso. It was caused by a shudder through his steel, and Maes felt a swift, sharp pang of regret—and rage—that the boy had witnessed Voss’ murder.
“They’ll get him,” Maes said grimly. “And they’ll be along to find us any time. Just sit tight… uh, not that you can really do anything else right now. If you need me, give me a yell. I can’t go far either.”
He gingerly pushed himself to his feet. It was agony to place weight on his injured leg, but he clenched his jaw and hobbled away to search the bottom of the pit, leaning his hand on any wall or heap of rubble he could reach for support.
It took him almost no time to find Dyson. Ten feet away, off to one side and beyond Al’s limited range of view, he saw a tuft of blond hair and a limp hand protruding from beneath a heavy fallen beam. His heart turned over as he lunged forward, briefly forgetting his pain… and then it sank as his fingers closed around the wrist, to find no trace of a pulse.
He closed his eyes, shook his head, and struggled back to the spot where Al was pinned.
“Dyson didn’t make it,” he announced quietly.
“Oh… oh, no.” Al’s voice quivered, soft and mournful. “I’m sorry. For him, and for Lieutenant Voss…”
“They died doing the jobs they cared about. I think it was quick for them both.” The words sounded trite and comfortless to Maes’ ears, but he said them anyway, in case they might be any consolation to Al. The boy’s own predicament had to be unnerving enough for him. Even if he felt no pain or discomfort, he was surely not used to finding his inhumanly strong body in such a helpless state.
Maes crouched awkwardly, studying the earth, stones, and fragments of wooden beams that had fallen on top of Al. He appeared to have taken the brunt of the collapse. Had his body been flesh, he certainly would not have survived; as it was, he was going nowhere any time soon. The debris towered several feet deep, and its sheer weight had packed it down firmly around him. Maes considered the chances of trying to dig him free by hand, but with his own right arm severely hampered by his injury, it was a daunting prospect—and he did not at all like the precarious angle of the rocky protrusion wedged in a foot above Al. If much soil was removed from around it, he feared it would slip still further, and only worsen Al’s entrapment.
Al was plainly aware of the direction of Maes’ thoughts. He chuckled from pure nervousness, his mangled shoulder-spikes giving a little shrug above the open hole where his rerebrace belonged. “If I hadn’t lost my arm in the cave-in, I could have drawn a transmutation circle and moved the dirt myself… Sorry.”
“There’s nothing for you to be sorry for.” Maes looked at the torn edges of metal where Al’s arm had sheared off, and was unable to suppress a grimace. “Where’d it go, anyway?”
“I dunno. I… kinda have a weird feeling when a piece of me isn’t where it’s supposed to be—but that doesn’t tell me where it is.” A low, self-conscious note crept into Al’s tone. “It’s hard to explain. Anyway, even if you found it now, you couldn’t just screw it back on or something. It would take alchemy to make it part of me again.”
The thought of what Al was experiencing was a little more than Maes could get his head around… or truthfully wanted to. He frowned and laid his hand on the helmet that still rested on the ground beneath the boy. “What about this?”
“That’s… a little different. I guess because it wasn’t exactly connected to the rest of the suit when Ed first put me in the armor. It’s still a part of me, even though it’s never really attached.” Al squirmed a little. “Uh, sir, since we’re talking about it, would you mind…?”
“Huh?—Oh.” Blushing for no reason he could quite define, Maes gently grasped the helmet and lifted it into place between Al’s shoulders. He was sure he felt it seized by something like a ghostly magnetic pull; then it moved between his fingers, the chin raising slightly, as a familiar soft glow of life stirred behind the eye slits.
“Thank you.” Al turned his head that was now back where it belonged, giving the pit around them a fresh appraisal. Maes wondered how the helmet’s presence may have altered the boy’s perspective—and tried not to feel a guilty relief that his hollowness was concealed again. He had known for some time that there was nothing tangible inside the armor, but actually seeing its emptiness was always a little disconcerting.
“Do you think you could climb out of here?” Al queried after a moment.
The thought of trying to scale one of the walls made Maes’ arm throb, and he winced. “I’m not so sure about that. The sides are pretty steep, and from what I can see, none of the debris is piled close enough to climb up on.” He forced a smile. “Besides, I don’t want to leave you alone like this. Roy—Colonel Mustang—he knows exactly the search area we were headed for. He’ll probably bring a whole platoon right to us the minute we don’t check in on time.”
“But you need a doctor—and Brother will worry if he doesn’t know I’m okay.” Al’s voice somehow managed, at the same time, to contain notes of both childlike pleading and earnest reason. “I’ll be fine waiting here by myself. You should go if you can.”
Maes was left conflicted by the urging. He really did hate the thought of leaving Al trapped and alone. Having lost his gun, he was concerned about running into Scar again if he went off on his own… and he was tired and hurting. It was perfectly true that Roy would move to find them quickly once they missed the two-hour rendezvous. Struggling back to the command post on his injured leg would probably take almost as long as simply waiting for help, so the effort of crawling out of that hole seemed pointless.
On the other hand, Alphonse was only thinking of others’ good. Without pain or physical needs, he could await his own rescue with an almost inhuman level of patience; but he didn’t want Maes to hurt, or Edward to feel anxiety, for any longer than they could avoid. He was upset by their suffering. When Maes considered it, easing the boy’s mind by humoring him would be worth a little more ache and strain.
“…Okay.” Slowly Maes dragged himself to his feet—averting his face to hide his grimace of pain. “I don’t know if I can find a way up, but I’ll look.”
Arduously Maes crossed to the nearest wall. He began to investigate the topography, but the results were as discouraging as he had surmised. None of the debris mounds were high enough or close enough to the walls to be helpful. It was impossible to gain any secure handhold in the loose earth lining the sides of the pit. Nearly all of the collapsed support beams strewn about them were broken, and even those still intact were too short to reach the top of the hole above.
The floor created by the tons of fallen earth was slightly sloped. Maes had circled a bit less than halfway around the perimeter, and reached its lowest point, when he discovered a new complication: a rippling pool of water had collected along the bottom edge of the crater.
Maes got down stiffly on his good knee, and thrust his hand into the cloudy puddle. It was deeper than it looked. As his fingers probed along the bottom, he felt a strong upwelling current. There was nothing less than a gushing spring under the surface, sending water bubbling up from a corner of the wall.
A sudden nip of coldness touched Maes’ trouser leg. He flinched back, withdrawing his hand from the water, and looked down to see that the edge of the puddle was now lapping at his knee.
An icy feeling closed in around his heart. He pushed himself away from the expanding pool, and stumbled back over to Al.
“We’ve got a problem,” he said, in a taut, quiet voice. “There’s water coming up from the bottom of this hole. The cave-in must have broken a pipe that fed the mine’s hydraulic equipment.”
Even through the unchanging, barely-human face of Al’s helmet, Maes knew there was something different in the way the boy looked up at him then.
“Is it coming fast?” he asked, and his tone matched the unseen-but-sensed expression. It was a rasp, high and tremulous, brimming with a deep and sudden fear.
“I haven’t got a good gauge of it yet… but it’s not exactly a kitchen faucet.” Maes looked back toward the lower end of the floor. From where he leaned down beside Al, he could now see the water, trickling over the top of a half-buried beam.
“Major… if that water keeps coming up, and reaches my blood seal before they find us…”
Al didn’t complete the sentence. He didn’t have to, because Maes already knew what would happen. The Elrics had long since trusted him with the secret of that simple, terrible weakness.
If the water washed over the fragile alchemic seal that bound his soul to the armor, Alphonse would almost certainly die.
For a moment, something broke inside Maes. His own pain was the farthest thing from his mind as he flung himself toward the pool, splashing into water that was now knee-deep at its deepest. He plunged his arms in up to the shoulders, digging his hands into the silt and gravel at the bottom, trying manically but uselessly to push it over the hidden source of the current and stop up the water’s flow.
Al’s tone was very quiet, but it was somehow incredibly penetrating, even through Maes’ frantic splashes. It froze him in place, recalling him to his wits, and he realized that acting on this initial impulse of panic wouldn’t help. It would probably just make Al more frightened.
“Now you have to find a way out,” Al insisted behind him, his voice faint but steady. “You can’t stop the water, and you can’t dig me out by yourself. You have to go get help. I know you could bring Ed back in plenty of time—and he can get me out of here easy.”
Inhaling a deep breath, Maes straightened. He waded out of the water, moving back into Al’s view, and made some quick mental calculations as he stood dripping.
By his figuring, if Al was correct about how long he had been unconscious, just under an hour had passed since they left the command post. That meant a little more than an hour remained before they would be missed. Add to that another twenty minutes or so, at the least, for rescuers to reach that distant corner of the search grid… He glanced to the far side of the chamber, trying to judge its dimensions. The water was rising at a fairly swift rate, but there was still a lot of space for it to fill before it reached Al near the center of the pit. Furthermore, Al rested another two feet above the level of the floor, his metal body wedged at an angle that left his upper torso pointed slightly upward.
There would be time. There had to be time.
“Alright,” Maes agreed, limping over to pat the exposed portion of the boy’s backplate. It was the only helpless gesture of comfort he could offer. “I’ll keep looking. I’ll find a way. Just hang on.”
He turned to continue scouring the walls and floor, searching with new urgency for a way out of the pit… because now, his escape would not be merely for his own sake.
All in all, it was one of those days when Roy Mustang wanted to take the Fullmetal Alchemist over his knee.
“Well, that was pointless,” Edward griped, stalking ahead of Roy with his mismatched hands buried in his pockets. “I hope you’re better than this when it comes to finding your car keys—or do you just leave that to Hawkeye?”
After nearly two hours of fruitlessly searching for Scar, the Colonel had redeployed the rest of his men to assist in other sections of the search grid. He and Ed then set off alone to keep their rendezvous with Hughes and Al… and since then, Ed hadn’t stopped complaining for a moment. At least it was something that he had kept his trap shut earlier, in the presence of Roy’s subordinates, but by now his muttered venom was making Roy want to torch that braid off the back of his neck.
Even so, Roy tried to cut the kid a little slack. He knew Ed well enough to realize the tension in him now was not just his customary surliness. With a known murderer of alchemists in the area, he was more worried than usual about his brother—and as annoying as it was to hear him get it out of his system by grumbling, at least he hadn’t resorted to more destructive ways to vent. He was not, for example, going around punching holes in walls.
Well, alright, except for that one. But Ed hadn’t thought anyone was watching him, and the wood was so dry-rotted it was ready to fall apart by itself anyway.
“You just can’t stand for me to be right about our being lucky for once,” Roy retorted to Ed’s back. “When we reach the command post, we’ll hear that Scar was captured or killed by other searchers. You’ll see.”
The only response was a dubious grunt.
It took a considerable walk to get back to the command post from which they had started out. As it came into view—a cluster of a dozen police and military vehicles, all ringed loosely around Chief Grogan’s plotting table—Roy could see that a number of men had already returned. There was a sense of urgent activity in the way they moved about. Something had obviously happened. Perhaps Roy’s half-serious prediction had come true, and Scar really was taken down by another search party.
That thought must have occurred to Ed as well. With a slightly surprised but grimly satisfied expression, he quickened his steps and hurried on ahead, to disappear into the milling crowd of men. Roy caught a last glimpse of him looking around anxiously, stopping a policeman to speak to him, evidently in search of Al.
Then Roy saw a soldier being tended to in the back of a truck. The man was clutching his bloody arm, as agony writhed across his face… and a deeply sinking feeling came over the Colonel.
“What happened?” he demanded instantly of Chief Grogan, who leaned against the table with a red face and a volcanic expression.
“Our suspect got away. He broke through the perimeter, out beyond the edge of the mine. Cut through the men like a one-man war—and by the time he took off into the hills, nobody was left standing to go after him. Not all of the search parties are back yet, but so far we know two of my officers and one soldier are dead, and another dozen men have serious injuries.” Grogan scowled at Roy. “I’m holding you responsible, Colonel. All we were told was that we were hunting a wounded man. Not someone who could do this.”
Roy winced internally at the wrath on the police chief’s face, and the genuine pain in his voice. Against that, the words he was obligated to say on the military’s behalf sounded unbearably hollow.
“I’m sorry for the losses to both of our forces, Chief. As far as I knew, every possible step was taken to prepare for Scar’s resistance. As for the military’s communication with your department, I wasn’t involved in that… so I can’t give you an answer.”
“Yeah. That’s just what every one of ’em will say, right up the line.” Grogan inhaled for a fresh barrage. “Listen here, Colonel—”
The sudden sharp intrusion of Fullmetal’s voice silenced Grogan. Both men turned to see Edward standing near the table, his golden eyes wide, his face slightly pale and just beginning to tighten with the tension of an ill-controlled fear.
“I can’t find him,” he said breathlessly, his gloved fingers clenching tight. “Al’s not here.”
Roy’s heart skipped a beat, and his gaze snapped back to Grogan.
“Neither is Major Hughes. He was supposed to meet us back here with his team after two hours. The search area he’d chosen was… here.” He placed his finger on the map, and looked hard at the police chief. “Where did Scar break through the cordon?”
Grogan’s ruddy face had turned ashen. He grimaced, his thick brows knitting over dark eyes, and pointed to a location on the map that lay just beyond Hughes’ chosen search field.
Without a word, Ed turned and started running.
The water was rising faster than Maes had expected… or at least, faster than he had hoped.
It crept steadily up the sloping floor. It lapped at the bottom edge of the debris mound in which Alphonse was pinned, and continued crawling up, to encircle the mound completely on its inexorable march toward the far wall of the pit. When Al looked straight down, he could now see the water rippling an arm’s length below his chin. He could measure its progress as it overtopped stones and smaller piles of earth in front of him.
The boy had struggled, for a few moments. When he thought Maes wasn’t looking, he fought with renewed urgency against the weight of the soil and rock on top of him. The effort caused a fresh cascade of dirt to sprinkle down over his helmet, but it did nothing to free him, and finally he gave in to the uselessness of it.
His stillness then frightened Maes even more.
For his part, Maes had circled the bottom of the pit three times, fervently seeking any means of climbing to the surface. He started an attempt to pile soil and debris against one side, but he quickly realized he could never build a heap big enough to reach the top before the water broached Al’s blood seal. He tried digging his hands and feet into the steep walls, to scale them by strength alone, but the dry earth crumbled and gave way in his grasp.
The exertion was doing no favors to his own condition. More than once, he felt the gash in his arm tear a little more—saw the bandage freshly begin to spot through as the bleeding renewed—and his twisted leg was throbbing in agony. He was also drenched from his explorations of the lower side of the pit, where the water was now as high as his chest at its deepest. Long after he waded out, its coldness left him shivering, and even the dry side of the space was veiled in cool shadows that were only growing dimmer as the afternoon sun sank lower. He knew he faced a growing danger of hypothermia.
Even so, he continued to prowl the circumference of the pit. He ran his hands over the walls, searching for a previously unnoticed handhold, or tried laboriously to drag fallen timbers into new configurations. Something in his mind simply shut out the pain and the futility, and forced him to keep trying, even when he knew there was nothing he could humanly do to save Al on his own.
It was the first time Al had spoken up in more than half an hour. Drawn immediately by his soft voice, Maes abandoned his latest search of the walls, and limped back over to crouch beside him.
“You should rest now, sir. You’ve been bleeding again, and you don’t look very good.”
On the surface, there was thoughtful concern in Al’s tone. But underneath… Maes could sense a quiet, dispassionate note of surrender, and it forced a lump to rise in his throat.
“No.” He swallowed hard. “I’m fine. I think I might be close to figuring something out, if I just keep at it.”
Al’s helmet had been tilted up to look at him, in what would be a highly uncomfortable angle for a human neck. However, as Maes spoke, it tipped downward, conveying a sense of somberness. The light of the boy’s gaze was hidden.
“You don’t need to lie to me.”
The words were soft and unaccusing, but they stole the Major’s breath. Al looked up again, his torn shoulder twitching in a minute shrug.
“Even if you got out of this hole yourself, there wouldn’t be time now for you to reach anyone and bring them back. Not with your leg hurt the way it is. If no one is coming for us by this time, you know it’s already too late.”
“But they are coming!” Maes leaned a little closer, resisting the urge to take Al’s metal face in his hands, as he did on rare occasions when he was forced to speak firmly to his daughter. “We’re at least ten minutes overdue now. With Scar around, they won’t waste any time coming out to find us—not that your brother would anyway.” He forced a wan smile. “It’ll only be a little longer. Hang in there.”
“…Yeah.” There was a dullness in Al’s tone that chilled Maes’ heart more deeply than the cold of his sodden clothes. “But that still means we can only wait. So there’s really no reason for you to keep looking for a way out, and hurting your wounds any worse.”
Slowly, reluctantly, Maes was forced to accept that truth. There was nothing more he could physically do to change this situation. All he could hope to accomplish now was to give Al reassurance and comfort.
He eased his body down painfully against the slope of the debris mound, resting his good hand on the sliver of Al’s backplate that had not yet been covered by falling sprinkles of loose earth.
“You’re gonna get out of here, Al,” he said, giving the words the weight of a promise.
Al did not reply for more than a minute. At last he said, in a faint, demure voice: “I want to ask you something, Mr. Hughes.”
The tone of the words, and the fact that Al had called him by name instead of by rank, sent up a wave of foreboding in Maes’ heart. He frowned and bent his head closer. “What is it?”
“It’s just… if something does happen to me… will you look after Ed?”
A fierce pang of emotion pulsed in Maes’ chest, and he responded to it with an instinctive resistance that made his voice harder than he meant it to be. “Nothing is going to happen to you!”
“Yeah, but… if it does. Now or… someday.” The coolness began to melt from Al’s voice, replaced with a faint, childlike tremor. Maes knew it was because the boy’s thoughts had turned from himself to his brother, and what Ed would feel if he lost the only family left to him—his very reason for living. “You’ll take care of him, won’t you?”
“…Of course we will.” The lump had returned to Maes’ throat. He shook his head and squeezed the rim of Al’s backplate, although he knew Al couldn’t see the gesture. “Gracia and I, and Roy too… we’ll always look out for Ed. But that job still belongs to you—and you’re going to keep on doing it.”
Al let the insistence pass without comment. His tone grew distant and thoughtful.
“It wouldn’t be easy. Brother is—not so good by himself.” He looked away. “If he didn’t have me anymore, sometimes I think he might even… hurt himself. I know you wouldn’t let him do that. But on the inside, he’d be…”
The thought trailed off, left mercifully incomplete. Al was silent for a moment, and then went on in a slightly different vein.
“If he didn’t have my body to get back, I know he’d stop trying to get his arm and leg back too. I feel kinda bad about that, because I want him to be whole again, but… he’d be safe then. He wouldn’t be searching and fighting anymore.”
Maes seized on the topic as a chance to divert Al’s thoughts from the consequences of his own demise. “What do you think you two would be doing now, if you weren’t on this quest of yours?”
“I never think much about the way things would be, if… if we hadn’t done the transmutation. I guess we’d still just be growing up as normal boys in Resembool—or mostly normal, anyway. Ed’s too smart to be completely normal.” A flicker of amused and gentle warmth came into Al’s voice. Maes was delighted to hear it; but at the same time, he sensed a note of regret. Perhaps the real reason Alphonse did not dwell on what might have been was that it was too painful to think of all he had missed.
“Sometimes I’ve wondered what it would be like if we were still this way, but we didn’t look for a way to fix ourselves,” Al continued pensively. “Ed is so determined to make things right, it’s hard to imagine what else we might have done. All I know is that he wouldn’t have gotten himself hurt so badly, so many times. But if we hadn’t done all these things… there are so many people we never would have helped.”
Maes looked away, because he was afraid the savage heartache he felt would be visible on his face. It was all so wrong. That innocent boy, still thinking only of others after all he had endured himself, should never have seen and known and felt so many terrible things in the first place. He deserved so much more. He deserved all the things that were the right of every child: to grow up, and fall in love, and have a family.
It couldn’t end like this.
“You’re still going to help more people,” Maes said quietly. He pushed himself to his feet in water that was now six inches deep, with a space of some eighteen inches to go before it reached Al’s chest. “And one of these days, you are going to get that body of yours back—because life still owes you too much living to let you die in that tin can.”
Running his hands across the tight-packed side of the earthen heap, he found a loose stone. When he pried it out, only a little soil trickled into the crevice it left. Then he dug his fingers into the edge of that small hole, and began to enlarge it: clawing out handfuls of dirt, working down carefully but quickly toward Al’s buried left shoulder.
If he could only free Al’s intact arm, give the young alchemist a chance to draw a transmutation circle…
“What are you doing?” Al queried anxiously.
“Keep still. I’m gonna try to get your other arm loose—but if either of us makes a wrong move, that chunk of rock up above you could slip. Just hang on, Al.”
The metal boy whimpered faintly, and became motionless… save for a trembling that was perceptible only by the sprinkle of dirt it dislodged.
“It’s all my fault…”
With a sigh, Roy Mustang looked at Edward across the back of the military truck they were riding in. The boy was hunched deep in the depths of his scarlet coat, his arms folded tightly over his chest, his face pale beneath his wind-whipped fringe of bangs. His whispered words were a refrain he had been repeating every few moments since the truck caught up to him. Nearly mindless with panic at the thought that his brother was hurt, he would have run all the way to Hughes’ section of the search grid if Mustang hadn’t hauled him into the vehicle.
“Ed, try to calm down—”
“It’s my fault!” the teenager exploded, glaring at Mustang through amber eyes that glistened just a little too much to be intimidating. “I was the one who suggested Al should go with Hughes. I never should have let him out of my sight!”
“You had no way of knowing if their group would be the one to find Scar—and we still don’t know if that was the case,” Mustang said firmly.
“Why else wouldn’t they have met back up with us?”
Ed’s voice wavered, just a little, as he asked that question. It was not a retort, but a plea. He sincerely and desperately wanted an answer to that question… and Mustang had none to give him.
“I don’t know. But imagining the worst isn’t going to help anyone. We’ll be in the area in just a few more minutes—so hold yourself together until we have a chance to find out what’s really happened.” The Colonel forced his tone to harden. “That’s an order, Fullmetal.”
Silence. A brief, bitter stare, and then Ed slumped back, looking away from Mustang’s face.
“It’s my fault.”
Sometimes Mustang wondered why he tried.
It was moments like these that made him feel he would happily bear Ed’s most scathing insults all day long. That was the Ed he knew how to deal with: the Ed who was sure of himself, of his own ability to resolve any problem, and was simply annoyed with the rest of the world for not behaving according to his plans. Childish, in his own way, but not… childlike.
No, the attitudes and the tantrums caused Mustang no pain. It was seeing Ed like this that caused an unfamiliar hurt somewhere inside him.
That boy who was driven by love and guilt, who shouldered such heavy burdens without complaint, could be the strongest person Mustang had ever known. He was utterly fearless of any danger to his own life; but when his love was twisted into fear for his brother, for the one thing that anchored him, cracks would appear in the grim maturity that had been forced on him at far too early an age. It was a jarring reminder of just how young—how innocent—he really was.
“…It isn’t your fault, Ed. It’s mine.”
Ed looked up warily.
“I never should have allowed you and Al to come with me,” Mustang continued brusquely. “It was already pretty obvious that it’d take half an army to bring Scar down—so there was no excuse for my letting two boys get into the middle of it. I should sooner have put both of you under lock and key than let you tag along.”
For several seconds, Fullmetal said nothing. Once again he turned his face away slightly, but this time his shadowed gold eyes still studied the Colonel from underneath his hair.
“I’d like to have seen you try,” he murmured, after a long moment.
In spite of himself, Mustang smiled.
The water was lapping at the exposed portion of Al’s chestplate.
Time was running out. If the water rose another two inches, it would begin to trickle over the rim of his neck opening, and collect rapidly within the hollowness of his prone torso. After that, it would only be a matter of a few minutes before it broached his blood seal.
Maes’ cautious efforts to free Al’s arm were making some progress, but the pace was torturously slow. After digging eight inches deep into the mound of debris-filled earth, he had fully uncovered Al’s shoulder, and proceeded to work his way down from there: scraping away soil a little at a time, holding his breath every time he pried out a stone. The smallest handful of dirt, if removed in the wrong place, might cause the rock slab above Al to shift and slide downward—pushing him into the water under its weight.
By this point, with Al’s rerebrace half-uncovered, Maes suspected the boy could have pulled his arm free by his own strength; yet because of the danger of that slab, he couldn’t move. He could only wait as Maes wore away the soil gradually, feeling for pressure points, ensuring that enough support remained to hold the slab up.
A few inches above Al’s elbow, Maes found a large chunk of stone. It was wedged firmly against Al’s rerebrace. He let out a thoughtful hiss, gingerly digging deeper into the soil around it with his fingertips, seeking out its buried edges to determine its size.
“What is it?” Al asked faintly.
“There’s a piece of rock jammed against your arm.” Maes probed the upper corner of the stone, and grimaced. “I think it’s taking some of the weight of that slab up there. I can’t pull it out without bringing the whole pile down on you… but maybe, if I can shift it just a little, it’ll help support the slab while I free the rest of your arm.” He bent down a little farther, meeting Al’s gaze. “Do you want to take the risk?”
Al’s helmet tilted downward, staring at the water that was now so close to reaching his metal chin. “We don’t have any choice.”
“Okay, then. Just keep still.” The Major forced a confident smile. “In a few minutes, we’ll have your arm loose, and you can use alchemy to get yourself out of there.”
There was no time for Maes to gather his nerves. He took a deep breath, braced his feet as best he could against the silt on the submerged floor of the pit, and carefully slipped both forearms into the hole alongside Al’s shoulder. His fingers wrapped around the exposed front of the stone, and he pressed on it very gently, trying to push it away from Al’s arm without upsetting the balance of the rock slab above.
The stone shifted a fraction of an inch. Dirt sprinkled down onto Maes’ hands, but the slab held fast. Emboldened, he adjusted his grip on the stone, and began easing it a little more to the side. Only a few inches would be enough to move it out of the way of Al’s arm…
A muffled crunch shuddered through the earthen heap, just above Maes’ head, and the entire debris mound suddenly lurched.
What happened after that took only the blink of an eye.
Instinctively Maes jerked backward as soil and rock bulged toward him, and the hole he had dug around Al’s shoulder collapsed in upon itself. The slab tilted, sagged, and settled deeper, its front edge dropping closer to the water. Its weight bore down more heavily upon everything that was beneath it, further compressing the mound.
Alphonse let out a small, startled cry as his armor was jolted downward by the shifting weight above him—a movement that was more than two inches. His helmet tumbled off, sinking into the water, and there was a sickening slosh as water poured over the rim of his chestplate.
“Al!” Maes shouted, slipping to his knees in the water as he grasped the rim of Al’s neck opening. He bent his head down almost to the water’s surface, to look with horror into the dark recesses within the armor.
He could see the dim glint of a ripple, still a hand’s breadth below the inner surface of Al’s backplate, and the precious blood seal it bore.
“I-I’m okay.” Al’s trembling voice was almost inaudible. “It didn’t touch my blood seal yet…”
What followed the yet went unspoken. The boy didn’t need Maes to tell him how close the water was, how little time he had. It would take only a few minutes for the water to rise and fill his armor completely, washing against the seal; and with the slab settled even more firmly on top of him, there was no longer any chance that Maes could free his hand for alchemy.
“I’m sorry, Al,” Maes breathed, as hot dampness stung his eyes. He leaned his head against the edge of Al’s backplate, helplessly caressing the steel.
“It’s not your fault, sir,” Al whispered.
Blinking through the tears, Maes looked at the earth that was packed around Al’s armor, already hardening slowly into mud as water seeped up into it. There was nothing in the world he could do about it now. In a few more minutes—unless a miracle literally came from above—he was going to watch Al die.
“…I want to ask you one more thing, Mr. Hughes.”
Maes swallowed hard, drawing back slightly. Without the helmet, Al didn’t even have a semblance of a face to look into, but Maes stared into the shadowed hollowness between his shoulders and hoped he was meeting Al’s gaze.
The boy hesitated. The water lapped a quarter-inch higher before he spoke.
“When the water reaches my blood seal. If it… if it hurts…”
Al’s voice trembled for only a moment. Then he purposefully hardened it, and spoke with a perfect, chilling steadiness.
“I want you to break the seal—so it will be quick.”
A violent spasm of nausea clutched at Maes’ stomach, and for a brief moment, he felt as if he would vomit.
This last request was beyond anything he could have anticipated. Al was asking for nothing less than a mercy killing, to hasten the inevitable. For a man who cherished children as deeply as Maes did, nothing could possibly be more unthinkable than to deliberately end a child’s life with his own hands…
Except, perhaps, for the thought of watching that child suffer pain that could be spared.
“Please.” The frightened quiver came back into Al’s voice. “It’ll be okay if I die. I’ll be with Mom, and I know you’ll take care of Ed. But I… I’m scared of how it will feel, if the water takes time to wash the seal away. I know how awful it is to ask you, but just… please don’t let it hurt.”
There was nothing Maes could say to that. Committing such a deed was against everything in a loving father’s being… but he realized it was the one thing left that he could do for Al, if in dying the boy should feel pain one last time.
“I promise,” he replied softly, resting his forehead against the exposed portion of Al’s cold armor. It was the closest thing he could offer to an embrace; and in response to that feeble gesture of comfort, he felt the barely-perceptible tremors in the steel grow still.
“Thank you, sir.”
There was silence between them for a long moment. The rising water was cold, but Maes remained kneeling in it, submerged to his chest as he hugged close against Al. He was shivering badly, both from anguished emotions and from the hypothermia he knew was setting in. Very soon, if no help came, he would be in no small danger himself—but that was the last thing he was thinking of now.
“Tell Ed… I’m sorry,” Al whispered at length.
Maes didn’t respond to that, didn’t bother to repeat that Al had nothing to apologize for. He had no words left. He could only accept whatever Al wished to spill from his intangible heart, in what now seemed sure to be his final moments of life.
Opening his closed eyes, Maes turned his head and gauged the water’s rise against the edge of Al’s neck opening. Then he leaned down a bit more, dipping his left shoulder beneath the water, to look inside the armor again. The gap between the rippling surface and the inner curve of Al’s backplate had shrunk to scarcely an inch.
Would there truly be pain, when the water lapped at the seal and began to dissolve it? Drawn with blood and imbued with Al’s soul, it was the one part of his physical shell that was once organically alive. He had always seemed to be aware of the slightest accidental touch against it. Did it possess a sensitivity that the rest of his inert steel did not?
More than that—it was Ed’s blood. Would he feel it when that fragile link was broken?
If he did… Maes could only pray that when it happened, Roy would be there, and be able to handle Ed.
Time was running out. Moving slowly and with great care so as not to cause ripples, Maes reached his uninjured left arm into the armor, all the way to his shoulder. However it was that Al’s sense of sight worked, he imagined he was probably obstructing the boy’s view of the pit around them, but it couldn’t be helped now. If the water did cause Al pain, Maes wanted to be ready to act, to reach up to the seal and end it as quickly as he could.
“It’s gonna be okay,” he whispered, stroking the edge of Al’s neck opening with his right hand. The words were a lie, but he needed to say them anyway—as much for himself as for Alphonse. “It’s gonna be okay…”
His left hand reached up inside Al’s armor until he touched the inner surface of the backplate, just below the fast-rising waterline. He knew the blood seal was a mere few inches to the right of his fingers. Locating it blindly might be a clumsy effort, but there was no way he could reach far enough inside without blocking out the faint light that still filtered down into the pit.
Ruthless yet perversely gentle, the water lapped higher, until only the smallest sliver of open air remained beneath the seal. The armor trembled, just once, against Maes’ touch… but Alphonse made no sound.
Maes’ hand moved numbly. His wet fingertips slid across dry metal, creeping an inch closer to the anchoring point of Al’s soul.
The piercing cry caused Maes to jerk his hand back from the steel as if it had been electrified. He looked up to see a frantic blur of crimson and black above him, hurtling down from the edge of the pit.
A sharp clap resounded in the air; and then the blur was Edward, crouching on top of the debris pile, his fingers clenched into the loose earth. Arcs of blue-white light rained down from the young alchemist’s hands, sending transmutation energy surging through the mound and into the floor of the pit below… and this time, Maes felt the ground beneath him heave upward.
In the swift confusion that followed, Maes grasped only fragments of what was happening. Himself, Alphonse, Edward, and the entire debris mound rocketing skyward, perched atop a huge shaft of morphing earth. Mud and rock shifting and falling away around Al, permitting water to pour out through the newly-uncovered gaps in the joints of his armor. An abrupt halt to the sick-making motion, as the animated earthen arm thudded down onto level ground beyond the pit—still cradling its passengers in the palm of a rudimentary hand.
Somehow, Maes fell backward; but he wasn’t sure if that was due to a loss of balance in the violent stop, or to the sudden, stunned collapse of all his strength, both emotionally and physically.
Another second… another inch…
For a long moment, he wasn’t sure if his heart was going to start beating again.
In any case, he hadn’t far to go anymore. He found himself sprawled on his back between the fingers of the now inert hand-shape, staring at what was left of the debris mound. The rock slab had disappeared at some point, jolted loose to crash back down into the pit during the course of that wild ride. Only a thin crust of earth still lay over Al’s back.
Edward leaped down from the top of the crumbling heap in which his brother was mired. He fell to his knees, gloved hands clutching anxiously at Al’s steel that was now much more exposed. His too-young voice was choked with fear as he uttered an urgent query Maes couldn’t quite decipher.
Maes wanted desperately to hear the answer… if there was an answer… but his shocked and exhausted body would wait no longer.
He thought he heard Roy Mustang’s voice as he sank into blackness.
The unmistakable antiseptic smell was the first thing to tell Maes he was waking up in a hospital room. Before any other thoughts came, he let out a groan of protest on principle, and tried to move; but a strong hand caught his left wrist.
“Easy, Maes. You’ll pull the I.V. out.”
Roy’s voice. Maes blinked his eyes open. He was still missing his glasses, but he could make out his friend leaning over him, studying his face with what looked to be thoughtful satisfaction. At the very least, there seemed to be the faintest trace of a smile on Roy’s lips.
“Al?” Maes whispered hoarsely, his throat still dry and scratched from the dirt he had swallowed during the ordeal.
To his joy, what preceded the answer was definitely a smile.
“He’s alright. Just a little shaken up.” Roy gave Maes a light pat on the shoulder. “You’re going to be fine too. Gracia is on her way here to take you back home. You should be fit to be released by the time she arrives.”
Now that he knew Al was safe, Maes took the time to glance himself over briefly. The long, deep laceration on his right arm was bandaged, and he could easily presume his right leg had been wrapped as well, although it was obscured from view under the blankets. A drip of clear liquid was being fed intravenously into his uninjured arm. Most likely warm fluid to treat his hypothermia—and perhaps some pain medication as well, because he now felt only a faint dull ache from his wounds.
“Tell me you got Scar,” he muttered, thinking of Dyson and Voss.
Roy abruptly sobered, looking away.
“…I’m afraid I can’t, Maes.” He clenched his fists on the edge of the hospital bed. “Scar escaped again. All we have to show for this fiasco is five deaths—including the two men who were with you and Al. We recovered their bodies half an hour ago.”
Although Maes had already known their fate, the words refreshed his anger. He closed his eyes and swore quietly.
“It could have been worse,” Roy said. His voice was solemn, but underneath, Maes sensed a note of strain that was not quite like anything he had heard from his friend before. “I saw the mark of the waterline inside Al’s armor. If Ed and I had reached you only a minute later… Al might very well have died.”
Maes’ heart squeezed painfully in his chest. He found it suddenly impossible to meet Roy’s gaze—or to say what had really almost happened.
If you and Ed had been only a minute later, Al would have died… because I would have taken his life myself.
He was spared from having to find the words for that confession. A soft tap sounded against the closed door of the hospital room. When Roy called out for the visitor to enter, the door swung open—and beyond it stood Alphonse Elric.
Alphonse, fully intact and brightly polished, his armor apparently as good as new.
“Excuse me,” he whispered, addressing Roy, as he took a step into the room. “I just wanted to see how the Major was doing.”
Roy smiled. “You can see for yourself.” He gestured toward the bed—apparently prompting Al to realize that Maes was awake. Then, a bit too casually, he moved past Al and headed for the doorway. “I have some work to do. I’ll see you before you leave, Maes.”
The door shut behind the Colonel, and Maes was left alone with Al—struggling to face the boy through his guilt.
“How are you feeling?” Al asked in a soft voice, approaching the bed with slow movements to minimize his metallic clatter.
“Oh… not bad.” Maes tried to meet the glow of Al’s gaze. He did not quite succeed, and his eyes only passed over the gleaming smoothness of the armor instead. “What about you? …You look good,” he finished lamely.
Al proudly flexed his reattached right arm. “I’m just fine. Ed fixed my armor right up. It was easy for him—once he drained the water out of that hole, and found my missing pieces.” His voice took on an almost humorous note. “Cleaning all the dirt out of me was the hardest part.”
“…Good. I’m… I’m glad.”
For Maes if not for Al, the extended silence that followed was unbearably awkward. At last the Major sighed and squirmed under the blankets, pushing himself up against the pillows. Predictably, Al hurried to help him sit up—which only made him feel more guilty.
“Al.” He gripped the boy’s vambrace, disengaging leather fingers before they could attempt to fluff the pillow for him. “Listen. I—”
“Please, sir.” The voice that came from within Al’s cold steel was as gentle and warm as sunlight after rain. “You don’t need to say anything. I don’t want you to ever feel bad about—what could have happened.”
In the face of such complete forgiveness, Maes’ courage faltered completely. He looked away, closing his eyes. “I nearly killed you.”
“It was only because I asked you to. You promised, and you were ready to keep that promise—even though it would have hurt you so much to do it. I know that.” Al moved his arm under Maes’ hand, his gauntlet lightly gripping the Major’s wrist in turn. “It means a lot to me, sir. I won’t forget it.”
A lump tightened in Maes’ throat. He swallowed hard, and looked up at Al with a feeble smile… but before he could find the words to say, there was another knock at the door.
Although Maes’ voice was rough and weak from something more than his physical condition, he took the initiative this time. “Come in.”
The door opened… and at the threshold stood Edward Elric, his expression stiff and unreadable.
“Oh. Brother,” Al chirped, sounding just a little chagrined. “I know you didn’t want me to be gone long—but you can stop worrying about me now, you know. Or did you come to see how Mr. Hughes is doing?”
“…Yeah.” Ed approached slowly. When he came near, he rested his left hand on Al’s vambrace. It was a simple touch; yet it expressed volumes of unspoken emotion. “I mean—I wanted to talk to the Major. Al, would you… wait for me outside a few minutes?”
Al’s helmet tilted in sudden pensiveness. Then he nodded, and with a quiet reply of “Okay,” he retreated from the room.
Edward watched Al’s departure in silence. When the door had closed behind the younger Elric, only then did the elder turn to face Maes. His arms were wrapped around himself, his lips tight and pale, as he gazed at the Major from underneath his bangs… and Maes was suddenly filled with the sickening certainty that Ed knew what had happened in the pit.
…And this is where he tears my guts out through my throat for what I almost did to his brother.
“Major.” Ed’s voice was taut, but there was an almost imperceptible tremor in it. His words were short and somewhat halting. “Al told me. What happened. What he asked.”
It was impossible for Maes to give any answer for his guilt. Not with those intent, burning golden eyes fixed on him that way. He could only stare back, stricken with condemnation, feeling sick to his stomach.
Ed stepped closer. His chin tipped downward, and he stared at the floor, his eyes hidden behind his hair.
“I just wanted to say… thank you.”
Maes’ breath caught. He stared at Ed’s downcast face, convinced he was having some kind of auditory hallucination.
“He was scared it would hurt.” Edward still did not look up; but if his expression matched the suddenly, painfully young-sounding quiver in his voice, Maes was not sorry it was hidden, for he was sure it would be more than his fatherly heart could bear. “If I couldn’t have reached him in time… I’m glad you were with him. Glad you were willing to… to do that for him. That you wouldn’t—wouldn’t have let him hurt…”
What remained of the teenager’s willfully hardened poise crumbled altogether then. He raised his gloved hands to cover his face, and his shoulders trembled with silent tears.
The Major’s heart twisted. Barely mindful of the I.V. tube attached to his forearm, he stretched out his left hand, cupping it around Ed’s metal shoulder to pull him closer to the bed.
Unresisting, Ed crumpled brokenly onto the bedside chair. He leaned against the edge of the thin hospital mattress and buried his face in his arms, as his own pent-up emotions quietly released themselves in salty moisture.
Some of it Maes could guess. The lingering residue of Ed’s fear from not knowing what had happened to Al, and horror from the thoughts of what he now knew almost had. Guilt from sending him off with Maes’ team alone, not being there to protect him…
And in the midst of all that, instead of anger, somehow there was gratitude for the fact that Maes could have contemplated the unthinkable.
Maes wiped the dampness from his own eyes. His hand settled between Ed’s shoulders, gently rubbing his back. They sat that way for a long time, as Maes searched for the words to express what he wanted to say.
Come home with Gracia and I. Let us take care of you and Al.
There was no response. Ed’s breaths had grown deeper and softer. Maes brushed back the fringe of blond hair from his face, and saw that he had lapsed into a gentle, exhausted sleep.
A sad smile passed over Maes’ lips. Letting his hand continue to rest on Ed’s back, he closed his eyes, and wished the boy’s dreams, at least, would be happy ones.
When Alphonse peeked into the room a short time later, the only sound to be heard was quiet snoring.
© 2013 Jordanna Morgan