Title: Roughing It
Author: Jordanna Morgan (librarie@jordanna.net)
Archive Rights: Please request the author’s consent.
Rating/Warnings: Mild PG for some fantasy violence.
Characters: Primarily Edward, Alphonse, Mustang, and the Hughes family, as well as some villainous OCs. Havoc gets a cameo, too.
Setting: First anime, but it’s mostly cross-compatible. Takes place when Ed is fourteen, Al is thirteen, and Elicia Hughes is two.
Summary: In an effort to learn more about the Elric brothers and Mustang’s connection to them, Hughes maneuvers the three into a camping trip with his family—but the fun and games end when they find themselves caught in the fallout of a deadly museum heist.
Disclaimer: If you know them, they belong to Hiromu Arakawa. Only the villains of the piece are mine.
Notes: This story was one of the earliest long-form FMA plot bunnies to occupy my hutch. There really isn’t much to say about it by way of author’s notes; it’s just a straightforward, stand-alone adventure. I did have an unusual amount of fun designing the bad guys, though. *g*
Once again, my thanks go to the wonderful Kristen Sharpe, for her valuable feedback during the writing process.

 

ROUGHING IT

 

I: A Little Blackmail Between Friends

 

The scene at the Central Museum of History was not pretty.

Two steps inside the front entrance, a security guard lay on the tiled floor of the foyer, in the middle of a mess of blood and stray shards from the shattered glass doors. A second guard’s body was crumpled ten feet away, and two more had fallen in the rooms beyond. Sheer violence was the only common feature of their deaths.

Standing on the pavement outside the smashed doors, Maes Hughes ran his hand through his hair and tried not to pace, wary of disturbing the crime scene. The coroner was late, and Investigations had already done as much as they could while the bodies were still present.

It didn’t help that Maes knew one of the dead night watchmen in passing. Weiss, retired military, a fellow Ishbal veteran. Back then, the affable man with a love of history had longed to be exploring the Ishbalans’ art and culture instead of killing them. Little wonder he had died protecting relics that were the heritage of other societies. Maes hoped the job had given him some measure of peace… before it cost him his life.

With a jaded eye, the Major glanced toward the newspapermen milling around in the distance, on the other side of the cordon his men had set up. Sooner or later, he would have to give them a statement. This day was only going to get more wonderful.

Robberies, even those involving murder, were usually the domain of the police. However, the museum was partly funded by the government; and even if it wasn’t, Maes knew the scale and savagery of this case would have led the military’s Investigations Department to be called in. The slaughter of four guards during a theft of national treasures was going to make it the most sensational crime since the killing spree of Barry the Chopper.

And there was one other aspect of the scene that gave the military a vested interest.

A flash of bright scarlet in the crowd caught Maes’ eye, and he turned to see a slight, blond-haired teenager in a red coat ducking under the barrier. Behind the young State Alchemist, one of the Major’s bemused underlings hurried to usher an armor-clad giant and a familiar lieutenant into the restricted area, before the reporters could latch onto them.

Maes’ eyebrows arched in surprise. He had known Jean Havoc was in Central, because his friend Roy Mustang was visiting from East City on official business, and had brought the Lieutenant along. However, it was news to him that perennial travelers Edward and Alphonse Elric were currently in the city as well.

“Hey-dee-ho, Major,” Havoc drawled amiably around his cigarette. “You wanted an alchemist—so the Colonel sent you the Unstoppable Force and the Immovable Object.”

At those words, Maes was amused to notice a distinct break in Ed’s stride. The boy narrowed his eyes and shot a dirty look over his shoulder, but said nothing as he approached the spot where Maes stood, several feet away from the front entrance and the first body.

With a father’s instinct, Maes moved to block the view of the bloody scene through the doorway behind him. He smiled solemnly but warmly, and resisted the impulse to offer his hand. It was his established observation that Ed wasn’t big on shaking hands. Maybe it had something to do with having an entire right arm made of nerveless metal.

“Ed.” His glance shifted, taking Alphonse’s expressionless steel mask into his nod of greeting. “Al. I didn’t know you boys were back in town. It’s good to see you again. I just wish it was… well, under better circumstances.”

“Good morning, Major,” Al said politely, his improbably small young voice echoing inside the steel shell Maes had never seen him outside of. “We just got into Central late last night.”

“And then Colonel Joker rolls us out of bed four hours later for this,” Ed grumbled, giving a clear indication of why he looked and sounded irritable. With a demeanor that was entirely too businesslike for a fourteen-year-old, he moved to step around Maes. “Havoc briefed us on what happened here. So what do you need an alchemist for?”

Maes hurriedly maneuvered in front of him. “Wait Ed, I’m not sure you want… I mean, the coroner hasn’t gotten here yet. And it’s—”

Edward silenced Maes with a long, canny, golden-eyed look. Then he very calmly and deliberately leaned over, peered around Maes’ shoulder, and sidestepped him to survey the carnage.

“We’ve seen worse,” he muttered grimly.

And from the way he said it, Maes didn’t doubt him one little bit.

“How awful,” Al murmured, coming up behind Ed in a clatter of steel. His voice was soft with horrified sympathy, yet perfectly steady, proving him to be equally unshaken by the gruesome sight.

“…Yeah.” Maes cleared his throat, reminding himself once again that the Elrics were both extraordinary prodigies, and the only practical way to handle them on the job was to treat them like adults. “There are four, all told. Each one taken out with a different weapon, so it’s pretty clear this was done by more than one person. The man near the door was knifed. The one over there… well, his skull is in a few more pieces than it’s supposed to be. Probably some kind of club or crowbar. The last two were shot, and we won’t know for sure until we get the coroner’s report, but the wounds look like different calibers of bullet.”

“What was here that anyone could have thought was worth four people’s lives?” Al asked sadly.

Maes shrugged. “The curator’s still taking an inventory, but they didn’t actually steal much—maybe because most of the stuff in the exhibits would be too easily recognized. We do know they got away with some jewelry and antiquities. Mostly just gold and silver they can melt down, or gemstones they can pry out of the settings and sell to a fence… except they did clear out one case of ancient artifacts. Arrowheads, pottery, that kind of thing. Pretty common stuff. Not worth much at all, black market or otherwise.”

Al’s helmet tilted quizzically. “That’s strange…”

Too strange to be random,” Ed remarked, his eyes hardening. “Why bother with old pieces of stone and clay if they weren’t worth anything? The artifacts had to be the real target for some reason, while they just took the gold for cover, or because they had the chance.”

“Smart kid.” Maes smiled grimly. “Of course you’re right. If these were just smash-and-grab robbers looking for gold, they wouldn’t have gone for those artifacts—and even if they did their homework, they’d know there was almost no monetary value to them. But they’d also know the items in that one case were dug up along our northern border, in territory the Drachmans have been disputing pretty much forever. Apparently they’ve put up a squawk before about archaeological finds from there being part of their cultural heritage, or something.”

“Then you think the robbers were Drachman?” Al asked.

“Eh.” The Major scratched his stubbled chin fretfully. “More likely mercenaries who just figured they could sell the stuff to the Drachmans—or worse, thugs someone from Drachma hired to do it. We’d all better be seriously hoping it’s not the latter. The border’s touchy enough without a provocation like that.”

“So are you gonna get around to telling us what any of this has to do with alchemy?” Ed interjected.

“Right. Sorry.” Maes gestured. “Over here.”

Trying not to look at the dead men in the foyer, Maes led the brothers closer to the smashed glass doors. Until several hours earlier, there had also been outer security doors of solid steel that were closed each night—but these no longer existed in their original form. All that remained of them were broken fragments of a brittle grayish substance. A few recognizable pieces still hung on the hinges, but most of the material that was once metal had crumbled into a decayed-looking heap on the ground.

“You get the idea,” Maes prompted, nodding down at the remains of the security doors. “Whatever this stuff is, it used to be bulletproof. Now it’ll break apart almost at the slightest touch—and here’s the kicker.”

He pointed to a piece of the material that lay near the top of the pile. A portion of what was clearly a transmutation circle was still visible on its surface.

Ed bent down to inspect the array. It took only a single glance to make him catch his breath, and he looked up keenly at Al. “You see that?”

“Yeah…”

Genius,” Ed muttered, but his tone sounded distinctly sarcastic.

“What is it?” Maes looked uncomprehendingly at the chalk marks. “You want to let the non-alchemist normal person in on the secret here?”

“Just this, Major. Your thieves may have been good at killing—but their would-be alchemist is a total amateur.” Ed pointed at the partial circle. “This array is for solid iron, but the doors were a steel alloy. The metal contained other elements their equations didn’t compensate for.”

Maes frowned, trying to follow the logic. “So… you’re saying the transmutation sucked all the iron out of the steel, but the other substances in it were left behind?”

“Well, basically. The reaction with the other elements was a little more complex than that, but you can see the result. The integrity of the metal was completely compromised, and it shattered.” Ed scowled with professional disgust. “A real alchemy student would learn not to make such a stupid mistake in their first week of study. Whoever did this was just dabbling in something they don’t really understand.”

“It still got them inside,” Maes observed pessimistically. Then, after a moment’s further consideration, he shrugged. “At least this means they probably won’t have the skills to use alchemy in a fight when we track them down. That’s good to know.”

“Just be careful, Major. They may not want to risk it—but if they do try to use it, an unskilled alchemist can be even more dangerous than one who really knows what they’re doing.”

“I’ll remember that, alright. And I’ll make sure the warning gets passed along.”

Al spoke up. “If they plan to take those artifacts to the Drachmans, do you think they’ll be going north toward the border?”

“It’s possible. They might figure on escaping into Drachma themselves. Even if they don’t, some kind of middleman would still have to smuggle the artifacts out, and that person may be able to identify the killers.” Maes scowled. “We’ll have to tighten security along the border—without giving the Drachmans any excuse to get in a huff over it. Am I ever glad I’m not in the diplomatic field.”

“I hope you catch the people who did this,” Ed offered sincerely, looking toward the bodies in the foyer. Then he raised clear, attentive eyes to the Major. “Is there anything else we can help with?”

“Just one thing. It looks like they also used alchemy to crack open the cases they stole from, so if you wouldn’t mind checking that out…”

In short order, the Elrics followed Maes inside the museum, where he showed them the exhibit cases that had been pilfered. The thick, shatter-resistant glass across the front of each was warped and split open, and more traces of alchemic circles could be seen. After a brief examination, Ed declared this to be an even simpler transmutation that the thieves had gotten at least closer to correct. He further offered his opinion that the arrays on the glass and the front doors were drawn by the same hand.

After that, Maes spoke to the curator again, to obtain photographs and detailed descriptions of the artifacts he suspected would be smuggled northward. These would be sent to the authorities near the border, to aid in searches at checkpoints.

On his way out, he found the Elric brothers had lingered in one of the main exhibit rooms. Al was studying a set of primitive tools with apparent interest. Ed stared more blankly at a case displaying broken scraps of colorfully-painted pottery; but as Maes drew closer, he realized it was not the clay shards Ed was looking at. The boy’s gaze had settled instead on the reflection in the glass, mirroring a fallen guard who lay slumped in the doorway across the room. It was Weiss.

“Dying for old pieces of stone,” Ed murmured pensively, without looking up at Hughes. “It’s so pointless.”

Maes frowned. “You don’t think history is important?”

“Of course it is. We have to learn from the mistakes of the past.” Ed glanced down at his gloved automail hand then, tightening it into a fist, with some inner significance Maes sensed but couldn’t begin to fathom. Then he dropped his hand and shrugged. “But these broken pots and wood carvings are just… things. Once they’ve been studied and documented, they’re useless just sitting locked up behind glass—and they’re not worth anyone’s life.”

“I knew a guy who might have disagreed with that,” Maes said quietly, looking toward the body of his old comrade-in-arms. “He’d say reading about the past in books is no substitute for seeing and touching pieces of it yourself… and preserving that experience for future generations is important. Maybe even important enough to die for.”

Ed’s shoulders stiffened with what may have been discomfort, but he still looked less than convinced.

This was not the first example Maes had seen of the Elric brothers’ disregard for tangible things. He couldn’t say what belongings they might have squirreled away in the rarely-used dorm room they kept at Central Headquarters, or back home in Resembool, but they had always seemed to be interested only in what was of direct and immediate use to them. Even the mysterious ‘Philosopher’s Stone’, which Maes understood was the motivating goal for all Ed’s work, was presumably more of an alchemic resource to be used than an imperishable object to possess.

It wasn’t natural for such young boys to be so driven. Of course, with their apparently innate brilliance, Maes doubted either of them had ever been quite normal to begin with… but still, there was something depressing about the intensity of the cryptic search that consumed their lives.

He was sure their ultimate purpose was related to the loss of Ed’s arm and leg, and perhaps the reason Al eternally wore that fantastic guise of armor. However, their real story remained a mystery to him. In his genuine fondness for the pair, he did all he could to show them kindness, and he was rewarded with at least some trust when it came to their dangers and needs of the present—but they had never chosen to confide in him about the evident darkness in their past.

Roy undoubtedly knew the truths that were unwritten in the brothers’ records. Edward Elric was his own celebrated find, the young prodigy he had somehow stumbled upon and personally sponsored to become a State Alchemist. He wouldn’t have taken such a gamble unless he knew exactly what baggage Ed brought with him, and further believed he could handle it. For the sake of the boys as well as his friend, Maes wished he could do more to help; but in due respect for the Elrics’ privacy, this was one matter Roy declined to share even with him. Maes could only continue to be a friend to Ed and Al, and hope their trust would grow in time.

As a natural-born investigator, he could try to learn by observation, as well—but this was frustrated by his limited opportunities to spend time with any of them. Since Roy was transferred to East City, his visits to Central for official matters were far too rare, and the hard-traveling young brothers were just as likely to report to Roy out east as they were to come back to Central. It was hard enough to catch up with the Elrics or Roy separately, let alone get a chance to watch the boys and their unlikely patron interact…

But all three of them just happened to be in Central now.

The beginnings of a rather wicked idea began to creep into Maes’ mind, tugging up the corners of his lips. He turned to Ed, who had taken the folder of artifact photos out of his hand, and was indifferently flipping through them.

“Say, Ed. As long as you boys are in the city, how about having dinner with my family tonight?” He clapped a friendly hand on Ed’s shoulder. “It’s been a while since we last saw you—and Elicia’s growing so fast! You don’t want to miss a minute of her, do you?”

Ed squirmed. “Uh…”

“And besides, I know how much you love Gracia’s cooking!”

Maes knew that line would work—and it did. Ed’s eyebrows quirked up at the reminder of past resplendent meals at the Hughes household. He grinned and rubbed his neck, a faint, awkward blush pinkening his cheeks, and for a moment Maes saw the perfectly ordinary boy some part of him still was.

“Well, if you’re sure it wouldn’t be too much trouble—”

“Of course not! My girls will be thrilled! I’ll call to let Gracia know you’re coming. Just show up anytime. If I haven’t gotten off by then, I know Elicia will be a wonderful hostess until I get home!”

The blush darkened with apparent vexation. “Right…”

Within a few minutes after that, the Elrics left the museum. Maes took another walk through the rooms that constituted the crime scene, making sure his investigators had matters well in hand—and then he shut himself up in an unoccupied back office. He sat down on a corner of the desk and picked up the telephone.

“Hi, Honey! How’s Elicia?… Aww! Take a picture for me!… Yeah, it’s pretty rough here, but you know. That’s the job… Anyway, I just wanted to let you know the Elric boys are coming over for dinner. And Roy, too… No, I haven’t talked to him today, but he’ll be there.” Maes grinned. “Make something especially nice, will you, Sweets?… That’s wonderful. Oh—and one other thing. About those weekend plans of ours. I hope you won’t mind if we make one little change…”

He detailed his scheme to his wife, and was not at all surprised when the generous and rather amused Gracia gave her consent. After a few more loving endearments, the conversation ended; then Maes dialed an extension at Central Headquarters. He waited as his call was passed along to a few different desks, until at last the voice he wanted to hear mumbled a brusque hello.

“Hey, Roy!” Maes shrilled, intentionally using his too-cheerful-in-the-morning voice of doom. “I was just thinking… Remember that time at the Academy when you accidentally blew up General Grissom’s staff car, and nobody ever figured out it was your fault?”

Okay, so it was only the fifth time he had used that one. As Maes listened to the colorful expletives that poured across the line in response, he silently promised he would give Roy a break, and never bring up that particular occasion again.

After all, he had plenty more dirt to dig up where that came from.

 

“…We’re gonna do what?”

The Elric brothers’ visit to the Hughes home had started out as such a pleasant afternoon: a few games with little Elicia in the backyard, a brief nap for Ed after the early-morning call to duty, and finally a delicious dinner. While Ed was asleep, Colonel Mustang unexpectedly showed up for the free meal as well, and that put the teenager out a bit—but surprisingly not too much so. After all, Mustang didn’t get back to Central too often these days, and his unlikely friend Hughes probably welcomed the chance to see him. He looked rather moody through the meal, but he was painstakingly civil, even to Ed. The presence of Hughes’ wife and child apparently placed him on his best manners.

And then, in the living room after dinner, Mustang dropped the bombshell.

“You heard me, Ed,” the Colonel reiterated flatly. “Major Hughes has invited us to go camping with his family for the weekend, and we’re going to take him up on his offer.”

“Says who? I don’t want to go camping. I’ve got better things to do than stomp around in the woods for three days—especially with you!”

“Aww, Brother,” Al half-sighed from the floor beside the couch where Ed sat. “It might be fun!”

Ed narrowed his eyes and glared sideways at Al, who at the time was preoccupied in playing with Elicia. She was using the spikes on his armor as her targets in a game of ring-toss, leaving him with several brightly-painted wooden rings dangling from his shoulders and helmet. Of course, this unbearably adorable tableau had caused Hughes to be completely lost to the conversation, enraptured by his toddler’s precious antics.

It was easy for Al to say camping could be fun. A living suit of armor was immune to the discomforts of long hikes, hard ground for a bed, and stomachaches from food poorly cooked over a campfire. Ed’s human flesh was not—and he would have reminded Al of that fact, were they not in the company of people who had no knowledge of his brother’s nature. And besides that…

“We already do more than enough camping, or close to it, while we’re out on the road,” Ed argued. “We’re just back from a rough trip. At least we’ve got real beds waiting for us at the officers’ quarters here in Central, and this weekend I’m planning to use mine for once.”

Mustang shrugged. “Sorry, Ed, but you don’t have a choice. I’m making this an order.” In spite of his previously stony expression, a faint smirk crossed his lips. “I’m officially putting it down as a refresher course in survival training.”

The younger State Alchemist gaped and swallowed hard, making his best effort not to start spluttering indignantly.

“Survival training is not going out in the woods with somebody’s family for a kindergarten sing-along camp,” he fumed, jerking his chin toward Elicia and Gracia. “Survival training is being stranded on a deserted island for a month with one knife and no alchemy when you’re nine years old!”

Gracia’s eyes widened. “Did that really happen to you?”

“It’s a long story.” Ed unconsciously gripped his steel bicep through his sleeve. “If I still had my real arm, I’d show you the scar.”

Metal scraped softly as Al winced. Hughes, Gracia, and even Mustang looked rather startled and pained, and Ed realized he had gone too far. It only sounded childishly petulant and pity-seeking to hide behind past travails, and pity was the last thing he wanted.

He let his left hand relax and slip downward, sullenly folding his arms.

Fine,” he muttered stiffly, giving Mustang a venomous scowl. “Orders are orders… but I don’t like having my time wasted.”

Hughes squirmed a little. It was no fault of his if he had just offered a friendly invitation, only to have Mustang force the issue—but he looked oddly guilty, all the same. A faint gulp twitched in his throat, and he murmured, “It won’t be so bad, Ed. I promise.”

Considering those were exactly the words Winry and Pinako used on him before automail procedures, Ed was anything but reassured.

 

 

II: The Grating Outdoors

 

“This is just another one of your excuses to make my life a little harder, isn’t it?”

It was the third time Edward had voiced some variation of that question in the last hour. Roy Mustang sighed and continued his response of completely ignoring his subordinate, as they made their way along a leaf-littered trail that wound through a national forest thirty miles northeast of Central.

That Friday morning was unseasonably warm and muggy, with bright shafts of sunlight slanting through the canopy of the towering trees. The Hughes family and their mostly less-than-willing tagalongs had set out from the lodge at the edge of the forest an hour earlier. At the unhurried pace they were setting, it would take another two hours of hiking to reach their destination: a secluded camping site near a brook.

Maes and Gracia walked at the head of the party, because they were familiar with the trail. Apparently they had camped here a few times when they were courting, but it was only now they felt Elicia was old enough to share that experience. Their darling daughter, of course, had not even been required to set one dainty foot on the ground yet; if Hughes wasn’t carrying her, she was riding on Al’s shoulders. The armored boy had her at the moment, and she looked around wide-eyed at the damp, green stillness of the woods, asking incessant questions about the birds and squirrels that rustled the branches overhead.

Elicia had long since abandoned her miniature backpack, which bore nothing more burdensome than a doll and some candy. After she tired of the novelty of carrying it like a real grown-up camper, Maes had strapped the small pink-flower-printed bag onto his own pack.

Roy was determined to get hold of Maes’ ubiquitous camera at some point, and secretly capture that image of manly ruggedness for posterity.

As for Ed, he trailed at the rear of the group, giving a perfect impression of a small thundercloud. Roy avoided looking back at him. Not because he was really troubled by the boy’s misdirected grumblings, but because the look permanently fixed on Ed’s face all morning would have made him burst out laughing… even though, truth be told, he felt approximately the same way about this entire trip.

Roy still didn’t know what they were doing out here. He only knew when to let his best friend have his way—and Maes’ glib telephone call to him on the previous morning was one of those times.

One could easily imagine Maes wanting to take the Elrics on an outing that was his perverted idea of fun. He was plainly fond of them, and if he sometimes played down a little too much to those life-hardened young prodigies, his well-meaning ignorance could be forgiven. Yet if all he had in mind was a friendly offer, he wouldn’t have gone through Roy to make it happen, and he would have called off the idea after Ed’s very vocal objection. His odd insistence could only mean he had some ulterior motive for forcing the excursion. Dragging Roy into the mix—and Roy truly had been dragged into it, with a smile and the proverbial prick of a knife—only made the whole proposition even more puzzling.

It was of little use to ponder it at the moment. Eventually, Roy would gather enough clues to figure out his friend’s purpose, or Maes himself would confide his intentions. Nothing remained a mystery between the two of them for very long. And in the meantime, after all Ed’s bragging about his wilderness survival skills, there was at least some value in observing his abilities firsthand.

The Colonel wouldn’t admit it, but there was also considerable entertainment value in the kid’s discomfort—even if he was forced to share it.

A stinging nip made itself felt on the left side of Roy’s neck. He slapped at the latest in a long succession of mosquito assailants, and heard Ed chortle blackly a few steps behind him.

“At least I get to watch you share the misery,” the teenager quipped, unwittingly echoing Roy’s own thoughts about him. “Why don’t you just snap your fingers and incinerate the little buggers?”

The Flame Alchemist sighed. “I don’t happen to have my gloves in reach at the moment. I packed a pair for emergencies, but Hughes doesn’t care for my using them around Elicia—even though it’s perfectly safe.” On those words, he couldn’t help shooting a faint glare in the direction of Maes’ back.

Ed snorted, and it was the closest thing to a genuine laugh Roy had heard from him all morning. “Really? I didn’t think there was anything that could pry those things away from you.” He paused wickedly. “Then again, I didn’t think the uniform came off without a scalpel, either.”

With a slight flicker of indignation, Roy glanced down at the faded blue-gray fatigues he wore. They were a relic of younger years, lower ranks, and the dirty menial jobs that were all part of climbing the military ladder. Not exactly pretty, but suitable for the sweat and grime he had rightly anticipated as a feature of this trip.

“I can assure you that I have a more diverse wardrobe than yours,” he retorted. He glanced back at Ed, who for once had traded his habitual red-and-black ensemble for jeans and a light flannel shirt with the sleeves rolled up. “For that matter, it’s refreshing to see you without that moth-eaten coat.”

“It is not moth-eaten! And you think I was going to wear it in all the mud and brambles out here? I have to do enough work fixing it, every time it gets torn to shreds by crazy alchemist nutjobs or ruthless criminals or rampaging chimeras—or whatever it is that just happens to be in every single town you send us to!”

“I have no idea what you’re insinuating, Edward.”

Several yards farther up the trail, Maes was shaking with silent laughter.

Idiot, Roy thought silently, in a fleeting moment of resentment. This is probably the whole reason he dragged us out here: to get a kick out of watching me spar verbally with Fullmetal.

Yet on the very next thought, Roy’s irritation faded, and he gave a mental shrug. The truth was that he really didn’t have enough opportunities to spend time with Maes anymore. He would have preferred this trip to be a male-bonding retreat for himself and Maes alone, but at least it was something. Gracia was always very understanding, after all. Once they were settled in at their campsite, perhaps she would keep the kids busy for a while, and the two old comrades-in-arms could still enjoy some private guy-time.

He was shaken out of his thoughts when Maes and Gracia abruptly paused on the trail ahead. After a brief whispered exchange, the couple backed up slowly, and Maes turned to grin at Elicia as Al brought her closer.

“Look there,” Maes said softly, pointing to a spot a few yards up the trail.

Following the gesture, Roy saw nothing at first. Then leaves rustled, and a small animal emerged from between the tufts of long grass—looking like nothing so much as a leathery, scale-covered hybrid of an opossum and a rabbit.

“Ah!—What is it, Daddy?” Elicia squeaked, hooking one finger into her mouth in a look of fascinated puzzlement.

“It’s called an armadillo, Sweetie. You don’t find them often in this part of the country. See those hard plates all over his body? They protect him from other animals.” Maes turned his smile from his daughter to the steel-shelled figure whose shoulders she was perched on. “When you think about it, the little guy’s got armor just like you, Al!”

At that remark, Alphonse flinched slightly. His helmet tilted downward in a sort of shy embarrassment, and a faint, nervous chuckle resonated beneath his chestplate. “Yeah… I guess he does.”

Roy glanced over his shoulder at Edward then, and was just in time to see the boy turn his face away quickly, his arms hugged tight against his chest to disguise pain as mere defiance. Complicated emotions of guilt and sadness cast shadows in his amber eyes; and in spite of himself, the Colonel felt a gentle pang of sympathy.

Maes meant well—but he didn’t know.

 

The hike deep into the woods was long but leisurely. Although the humidity was oppressive, the trees at least provided ample shade as the sun rose higher in the sky. Above and around them, birds were chirping and warbling constantly, and Gracia was delighted by the chance to mark an elusive species of sparrow off her birding list. Maes hoped Elicia would get to see a deer on this outing, but except for the armadillo and a lot of fat squirrels, the only mammals they encountered were two small rabbits.

But then, between Elicia’s enthusiastic chatter and the way Roy and Ed were sniping at each other, every animal in the forest was going to hear them coming from a mile away.

A part of Maes still felt guilty for pressuring Roy and the Elrics into making this trip, but for the most part, he was just enjoying it. The interplay between Ed and Roy was both hilarious and intriguing to him. He never ceased to be amazed by the openly contemptuous way Ed spoke to his superior—and perhaps even more by the Colonel’s tolerance of such insubordinate insolence.

Maes suspected that tolerance had to do with more than Ed’s youth, or Roy’s desire to keep the gifted prodigy at least somewhat placated and therefore useful to him. It certainly wasn’t pity either, because Roy would never give pity any more than Ed would take it. And it wasn’t mere fondness… at least, not exactly. It was obvious enough to Maes that on some level, Roy did genuinely like both Elrics; but especially with Ed, underneath all the posturing and meaningless antagonism, he felt there was something else.

Of course, that something was one of the mysteries Maes hoped to solve by watching them here. He had observed nothing yet to give him new enlightenment, but the venture was young. Eventually, this unaccustomed setting might lull Roy and the Elrics into opening up a bit more than usual… or else, it might stress them enough to crack their defenses just a little. Either outcome could achieve the same result for Maes, simply by getting them talking.

Another riddle Maes hoped to unravel was Alphonse. After more than two years of acquaintance, he had yet to see the younger Elric’s true face. By this point, he hardly expected the boy to shed his perpetual armor shell, even on this holiday of sorts—and besides, it was probably an excellent shield against insects and thorns. Even so, watching that steel-clad giant move through the forest was somehow more disconcerting than seeing him on a city street, and it only underscored the enigma of him.

Although Maes had the sensitivity never to question it, he sometimes heard the brothers trying to explain Al’s armor to other people. Their varied excuses were usually odd and awkward, and always rang false to his instincts. Like so many other unnatural aspects of the boys’ lives, he was certain the armor was related to the unknown tragedy that left Ed a double amputee. Had that trauma made Ed so pathologically afraid of seeing Al suffer injury as well that he insisted his brother wear the protection of heavy steel? Surely not. Ed was too practical, and his character was too strong to harbor such paralyzing fears.

The theory Maes came to favor was that the same event might also have disfigured Al terribly, driving him to hide his appearance beneath that all-concealing guise. If that was the case, Maes wanted very much to tell him it was alright, and the Hughes family would always accept him no matter what he looked like. However, still unsure, he didn’t dare approach the subject until Al himself was willing to make the first move.

Perhaps he could coax that first move to happen soon now.

It was just after noon when they reached the brook, a narrow winding stream that splashed pleasantly over a bed of smooth stones. The water was fresh and cool, and deep enough to harbor fish suitable for eating. After a pause to refill their canteens, they continued on along the bank, and it took only a few minutes for Maes to begin recognizing familiar landmarks: a large hollow tree trunk with ancient scars from lightning, a tall pine tree that stood out among the oaks and maples. Their campsite was near.

Finally, rounding a slight bend in the trail, they came upon the clearing Maes knew well and had been searching for. Here the firm high ground was level for a space of some twenty feet, tapering to a gentle slope that led down to the pebble-strewn bank of the brook. Patches of grass and wildflowers grew where sunlight fell through the surrounding trees, casting flourishes of green and yellow and pink amidst the brown leaf litter. Around the edges of the clearing, gnarled and rambling oak branches dipped almost to the ground, creating a sheltering mazework of boughs that invited the weary to sit and the adventurous to climb.

“Here it is!” Maes announced gleefully.

Just to be sure, he crossed the clearing to the base of the largest oak, and cautiously slid his fingers beneath a growth of vines that had crawled up the trunk. He smiled as he felt deeper ridges etched into the bark. Pushing the vines aside, he exposed a heart shape carved into the wood, enclosing crude renderings of the letters G and M.

“This is where I proposed to Gracia,” he reminisced warmly. “It rained on us the whole time—but it was wonderful.”

Roy and Ed both stared at Maes with flat disinterest, and he suppressed an urge to shake his head pityingly. The lack of romance in their souls was their loss.

“It’s a decent place for a camp, anyway,” Ed muttered, looking around with a relentlessly tactical eye. “High ground, fresh water, dry wood for fuel… Probably plenty of food to find nearby, too.”

Maes winced. Apparently Ed was still thinking as if the object of this trip was to make do with nothing. It was sort of sad, really.

“Come on, Ed, we’re not out here to live off the land—just to admire it a little.” The Major grinned encouragingly. “We brought plenty of food, and the weather’s going to be clear, so we shouldn’t even need our tents. All we have to do is sit back and have some fun while we enjoy the beauty of nature.”

“Yeah. You do that.” Ed slipped his pack from his shoulders and dropped it rather ungently on the ground. “I’m just here under orders.”

Ed would obviously need more time to warm up to the situation. Maes sighed and turned away; but his expression lightened immediately as he saw his daughter and her erstwhile bearer. Al had set Elicia down in a grassy spot, and she was watching eagerly as he wove her a pretty crown of wildflowers. His big leatherbound fingers worked with seemingly impossible gentleness and dexterity, lacing together the fragile green stems of the blossoms.

The adorableness made Maes want to utter a little squeal of delight. However, he suppressed the noise so as not to interrupt the pair, and went for his camera instead.

He really hoped he had brought enough film.

Just as Al was settling the crown of flowers on the child’s head, Gracia called out. “Elicia, do you want to play in the water while your daddy’s getting our camp set up?”

Elicia’s head turned so fast that the crown fell askew over one ear, and she jumped up with a happy squeak. “Yeah!”

In short order, Gracia took Elicia behind the bushes to put on her little pink-and-green striped bathing suit. Maes was a bit disappointed at the removal of his girls from his sight, but he heeded the task his wife had set for him, turning to Roy and the Elrics.

“Okay, well… I guess the first thing to do is start a fire.”

Both his gaze and that of the brothers shifted instinctively to Roy. The Colonel froze in the act of unrolling his sleeping bag, and the Elrics may not have seen his tiny flinch in response—but Maes did.

“Ah. Right,” Roy murmured, and began to reach for his pack. “I’ll get my gloves…”

The opportunity was more than Maes could resist.

“Uh-uh, Roy. You know the rules—not around my girls.” He noticed the wickedly amused light in Ed’s eyes, and added with a fiendish grin of his own, “Besides, you told the boys you wanted to use this trip for survival training. What kind of example will you be if you don’t show them how to light a fire on their own?”

Roy paled and glared daggers at Maes, but the Elrics were both watching him intently now: Ed with an unholy glee, and Al with apparent polite interest. Realizing he was put thoroughly on the spot, the Colonel rose with all the eagerness of a condemned man on his way to the gallows, and trudged off among the trees to collect suitable wood for fuel.

After a few minutes, he returned with a bundle of kindling. He dropped the dry twigs and logs on a bare patch of earth at the exact middle of the clearing, and kneeling over them, he began to spend an inordinate amount of time rearranging them in increasingly complex formations.

Cheerfully relentless, Maes bent down beside him, presumably to move a stray piece of wood onto the pile. “You’re stalling, Roy.”

The suggestion Roy muttered faintly between his teeth would not have been suitable for Ed’s ears, much less Elicia’s.

“I don’t think that’s physically possible.” Maes grinned at him encouragingly. “C’mon, Roy, I know you know this. We took survival training together back at the Academy… Or would you rather just admit to the boys that you don’t remember how to start a fire without those sparky-cloth gloves of yours?”

In the act of reaching for a piece of wood, Roy drew his arm back and discreetly elbowed Maes in the chest, pushing him away. Maes chuckled and backed off, to watch with vast entertainment as the scene played out.

Finally, Roy seemed to give up trying to light a fire with nothing but the heat of his wrath. He withdrew two sturdy sticks from the impressively geometric stack in front of him, taking one in each hand. After a long moment of staring at them with an unmistakable What do I do with these? expression, he placed one stick against the other, and began to rub them together vigorously.

…And half an hour later, it was a deeply mortified Roy who sat hunched up against a tree trunk and moodily massaged his aching arms, as his smirking young charge Edward sparked a pile of dry moss and leaves into flame in less than a minute.

Maes couldn’t help feeling a fresh twinge of guilt. This bit of humiliation hit Roy where he lived; but then, he probably deserved it, at least a little. The Elrics had spent the better part of the last two years performing dangerous field work, while, for the most part, the Colonel remained comfortably rooted behind a desk. Letting his outdoor skills lapse, and coming here unprepared for a task he had designated himself, was Roy’s own fault. With Ed’s increasingly obvious experience, they were really on his turf now. Besides, after the delight Roy took in teasing him about his height, the kid was overdue a chance to show him up for a change—harmlessly, and just this once.

After Gracia helped her wriggle into her bathing suit, Elicia came back to observe Roy’s futile efforts for several minutes, but she had long since lost interest and gone off to play in the brook by the time Ed took over. Gracia sat on a flat slab of rock at the water’s edge, attentively watching over her daughter, but she looked back toward the men with a smile as the breeze caught the scent of wood smoke.

“Oh, good. Maes dear, if you’ll watch Elicia, I can see about warming up some of the soup we brought. It’s past lunchtime!”

More than happy to oversee his little mermaid’s noisy splashings, Maes started moving toward the brook, but he paused to glance back at Roy and the Elrics. “Hey, fellas, what do you say we break out the fishing tackle, and see if we can convince some trout to join us for dinner?”

He was almost certain he saw an eye roll as Roy lethargically stood up. Ed hardly looked more enthused, but he shrugged in acquiescence, and Al responded with a cheerful, “Yes sir.”

Within a few minutes, Maes, Roy, and Al were settled beside the brook, casting lines they had fastened to makeshift rods cut from the trees. On the other hand, Ed apparently had a very different interpretation of fishing. Having stripped the branches from the strong sapling he cut down, he declined to attach a hook and line, and proceeded to shave one end of the rod into a viciously sharp spear-point instead.

Typical Ed: opting for the most violent available solution to a problem.

With her crown of flowers still perched on her head, Elicia was wading in the shallows near her father, collecting shiny pebbles from along the bottom. Maes happily held his fishing rod in one hand and snapped pictures of her with the other—but when Ed approached the water’s edge, with spear held high and an aggressive gleam in his eye, the Major instinctively pulled his daughter closer to him.

“Just be careful with that thing, okay Ed?”

Relax, Major. I told you, I’ve been doing this since I was…” Ed paused to jump over to a flat stone that jutted out of the water three feet from the bank. “…just a kid.”

At Maes’ side, Roy muttered “You’re still a kid” under his breath. Ed heard the murmur and glanced up, clearly aware that he had been served with some kind of insult, but its faintness limited his response to the generic glare that covered just about anything Roy might say to him.

Groping for a distracting topic of conversation, Maes turned to Al with an uneasy chuckle. “So, uh… do you ever do your fishing with a spear too?”

The effort to lighten the mood fell flat, as the armored boy fidgeted noisily.

“Ah… I used to,” he said, with a peculiar awkwardness. In a seemingly nervous movement, he scooted back a little more along the fallen log he  was seated on, and Maes suddenly noticed the distance he was keeping between himself and the wet, slippery stones of the bank. Compared to the positions Maes and Roy had taken up, Alphonse was almost two feet farther removed from the water.

Poor kid, he’s really that worried about rust…

Maes was drawn from his thoughts by a sudden movement at the corner of his eye. With an almost unsettling predatory grace, Edward lunged forward and thrust down with the spear clutched in his steel hand. The sharpened tip flicked into the water without splashing a drop, and then Ed brought the spear up quickly, to reveal a fat trout neatly skewered on it.

A smile of grim triumph lighted Ed’s face—but the wind was instantly taken out of his sails when Elicia yelped and half-hid behind Maes’ knee. “Eww, Daddy, that’s gross!”

Ed frowned at her. “This is dinner! And it’s a lot quicker and nicer to the fish than making it fight on a hook.”

I won’t eat that!” Elicia squealed, and Maes was pained to see her eyes starting to well up in alarm. He quickly set aside his rod to lift her into his lap and squeeze her, damp bathing suit and all.

Shh, Baby, it’s okay! You don’t have to eat the slimy old fish if you don’t want to! We brought lots of nice good food just like we eat at home. We’ve got wieners and marshmallows—you like that, don’t you?”

As he spoke, Maes rubbed his cheek lightly against hers, and that did the trick as always. Elicia squirmed and gave a token giggle at the friction of his stubble on her skin. “Tickles, Daddy.”

Maes grinned and pulled away a little, patting her back. “There now. Don’t you worry. This is just nasty boy stuff—but in the kinds of work we do, we need to know it sometimes. The reason Ed and Al and Uncle Roy came with us is to practice, so they can take care of themselves when they’re working away from the city.” Rather reluctantly, he set her down on the bank. “You just go over and help Mommy do her nice girl stuff instead, Sweetie. I’ll be right here if you want me.”

Mollified, Elicia smiled, nodded, and trotted off to her mother by the campfire. Maes sighed, and with an apologetic shrug, he glanced around at his fellow fishermen. It was hard to tell what Al really thought behind his steel mask, but Roy and Ed both appeared to be highly unamused.

Survival training,” Ed muttered acidly, and shot Roy a look with eyes burning hot enough to boil water.

 

 

III: Fireside Reflections

 

The four males of the party spent more than two hours fishing, pausing only for a lunch of canned soup Gracia had warmed and ladled into tin cups. It didn’t surprise Maes at all that in the end, Edward and his makeshift harpoon accounted for just as many fish as the rest of their hook-and-line efforts combined. The boy had exceptional reflexes—and a perfect control of his nerveless steel hand that few fully-fleshed people in the world could hope to match. Even at his disadvantaged size, it was easy to see why he was as splendid in a fight as Maes had witnessed him to be.

Ed’s gloom was not visibly brightened by his bragging rights to half the catch. Once the chore of cleaning and preparing the fish was done, he stalked off into the woods on his own. His only explanation, in response to a query from his brother, was to mutter that he wasn’t in the mood for fish.

Late afternoon slowly rolled over the wilderness, warm and muggy and still. Elicia dropped off into a nap on top of her sleeping bag. Al tended the fire or sat with his big steel carapace propped against a tree trunk, gazing up at the sky between the overhanging boughs—seemingly quite used to periods of empty quiet time. Maes, Gracia, and Roy rested from the morning’s hike, with only sporadic intervals of conversation.

The light of day was just starting to fade when Ed wandered back into camp. His solution to being undesiring of fish then became clear: he was carrying the skinned and dressed carcass of what had probably been a rabbit. After Elicia’s reaction to the fish, Maes was at least grateful for Ed’s foresight in having butchered the animal in the woods, reducing it to several pieces of meat that a child would not recognize as a once cute and fluffy critter.

…Truth be told, even Maes didn’t want to think too much about how Ed had achieved that catch.

Perhaps Ed’s very real survival skills shouldn’t have surprised Maes, but somehow these demonstrations still took him a little off-guard. In his two years of familiarity with the Elrics, he was used to hearing Ed complain about the bad food and hard bunks at the Central barracks, or about the weather when rain or cold made his automail ports ache. To listen to him then, one would think he was being slighted by anything less than the lap of luxury; and yet here he was, easily and immediately turning feral in the forest, as if he spent most of his life living that way.

Al was just as puzzling, all passive acceptance where Ed was all objection. He never complained about cold or rain, or the heat that should have made his armor unbearable—and while he presumably shared Ed’s survival skills, he seemed to be in no such hurry to go native. In fact, apart from his intense concern for Ed’s closeness and well-being, he rarely seemed to express any particular want or need or discomfort at all… and if there was anything about him that really did unnerve Maes, it was that. Not even the protection of steel could make someone that immune and indifferent to the conditions of his surroundings.

Still, whether they responded to it or not, Maes wanted to give the brothers any ordinary comfort he could. Deep down in his paternal instincts, he was sure he felt their painful need for even the most simple of kindnesses, no matter how firmly they refused to admit to needing anyone but each other.

At least to appearances, Roy certainly wasn’t much of a patron for the boys to rely on. As if sending them from one end of the country and one crisis to another wasn’t bad enough, he had the temerity to protest that Maes spoiled them with the breathtaking generosity of good food and a warm bed. It was unconscionable, really. Maybe it was just as well if he never figured out what to do with Lieutenant Hawkeye besides point her at things to shoot, because the man would obviously be a terrible father.

Even so, there was something more to the story. If Maes hadn’t sensed that much, Roy could never have been the man to whom he gave his friendship and his faith.

As darkness deepened over the forest, Edward cut a long skewer of green wood from the brush just beyond the camp. Then he sat down by the fire and made a kebab of his rabbit meat, along with a handful of vegetables he had produced from somewhere: brown mushrooms, and things that looked like onions and small potatoes. As far as Maes knew, these were not foods anyone had brought along on the trip.

Extraordinary. Maes wondered suddenly where he had missed the part of Ed’s file that read Raised by wolves. At this rate, the kid would be wearing a freshly-skinned fur loincloth by morning… and maybe a necklace made from the teeth of things he’d killed.

“What have you got there, Ed?” Maes asked a little warily, adjusting his glasses to study the boy’s hunter-gatherer fare.

Ed fingered the vegetables on his skewer. “Ground nut, wild onions… I don’t know the name of the mushrooms, but I recognize them from Yock Island.” A slight, wincing smile crossed his lips. “We found out the hard way what we could eat there.”

“And you just went out in the woods and found all that?”

“It’s easy enough, when you know what you’re looking for.” In spite of himself, Ed’s smile widened—and it was an expression Maes treasured, because that look of satisfied pride was a purely boyish response to an adult’s admiration. Then he placed his steel hand on a small bundle that sat beside him, and the Major recalled seeing it fastened to his belt when he returned to camp. “I brought back plenty, and some blackberries too. Help yourself.”

Darting a glance at Roy, Maes was equally intrigued by the fleeting look on his friend’s face. Lips curved with subtle pride of a different kind, even as dark eyes glinted with something that might have been the very faintest trace of… envy.

Now and then, Maes had wondered if Roy was a little jealous of Ed, at least in some ways. Between his inexplicable power of alchemy without a circle, and the sheer depth of knowledge and skill absorbed by his natural genius, there was much in him worth coveting—but even if the facts were unclear to Maes, the scars of Ed’s body were enough to tell him the boy had paid dearly for his gifts. The only real question was whether those scars had driven Ed to become such a marvel, or had somehow been a tragic consequence of what he was to begin with.

The awakening of his daughter spared Maes’ mind from wandering any farther down that depressing road. Elicia yawned and stretched on her sleeping bag beside Gracia. As she opened her exquisite green eyes, her little nose twitched at the aroma of roasting meat in the air.

“Hungry, Baby?” Gracia asked. Receiving a smile and nod in reply, she turned to their backpacks and started rummaging for the wieners Maes had promised. It was a special treat, just for this first night; they had to be eaten before they spoiled, after all. Canned food, fresh fish, and other forage finds like Ed’s would be the staples for the remaining two days of the trip.

While Gracia was skewering wieners, Elicia followed her nose to where Ed sat with his kebab… and Maes quietly reached for his camera.

“Whatcha got, Ed?” the toddler asked sweetly, looking at the speared pieces of meat that were sizzling over the fire.

Clearly mindful of Elicia’s earlier reaction to the fish, Ed flushed deep scarlet. “It’s, uh… chicken!” he blurted out quickly, and shot a glare over his shoulder at Roy’s silent look of vindictive amusement.

Elicia’s lips quirked with interest, and Maes wasn’t sure whether to chuckle or wince. Chicken was not an unfamiliar food to his daughter, but she knew it only in the form of the tasty breaded nuggets she enjoyed at home. The fact that those were made from the flesh of real birds was still an innocently abstract concept for her.

“Can I try some?” she asked, fluttering her eyelashes at Edward, and he grimaced uneasily.

“Well… Yeah, sure, if you want…”

Ed carefully pinched off a sliver of the rabbit flesh with his metal fingers, and after blowing on it to cool it, he offered the sample to Elicia. She nibbled on the meat with an adorable frown of intense discrimination, which Maes made certain to capture on film.

“Doesn’t taste like chicken,” she pronounced at length, and Ed gulped, looking as if he would have liked to melt into the ground.

Gracia had the kindness to rescue him from that awkward moment, holding out a loaded skewer. “Come on, Elicia! You want to help cook the wieners?”

As Elicia eagerly skittered over to her mother, Ed slumped with an audible sigh of relief—and then scowled at the other men of the expedition. Roy was discreetly hiding his mouth behind his hands, and Maes was fairly sure he even heard quiet giggling from inside Al’s armor.

 

Supper may have meant rabbit for Ed and wieners for Elicia, but for the rest of them, it was the fish they had caught. Fillets of fresh trout were soon grilling over the fire, along with some of the wild vegetables Ed had unearthed. The party settled into their meal in earnest… and not for the first time, Maes noted the sleight of hand Alphonse Elric seemed to perform with his food.

Maes had been mystified by Al’s eating habits from the first time he invited the brothers into his home, on that eventful occasion of Edward’s twelfth birthday. As far as he and Gracia could tell, the younger boy’s helmet always remained firmly in place throughout the meal; yet his plate was invariably empty by the end of it, and somehow, no one ever seemed to witness exactly where the food disappeared to. Either the kid had a secret hatch somewhere on his armor, or Ed must have been an accomplice to this stealth consumption. Or perhaps both.

However Al did it, the trick that had long been a puzzle in the Hughes family’s dining room was even more impenetrable by shifting firelight. Although Maes made a deliberate effort to watch the boy, he still couldn’t figure it out beneath the forest shadows.

…Not that his focus on anyone else could ever be all that sharp when Elicia was around.

A case in point arose halfway through supper. The smoke from the campfire had evidently been some help in repelling mosquitoes, but a few of the pests managed to brave the odor and exact their toll on the group. At length, Elicia sulkily abandoned her second wiener to approach Maes’ knee, scratching her bare arm.

“My ’skeeto bites are itchy,” she asserted plaintively.

She instantly had her father’s full attention, and he scooped her up in his arms, smitten with apology for taking her out into a world that might subject her to the slightest bit of unpleasantness. “Aw, I’m sorry, Sweetie! Where does it itch?”

The child pointed to a spot an inch below her elbow, and Maes kissed it—only to have her wrinkle her nose at him with precocious wisdom. “Daddy, it’s an itchy, not a boo-boo.”

“…Oh.” Deflated, Maes wilted a little. Then he grinned and rubbed his unshaven chin against her arm instead. “How about if Daddy scratches the itchy with his beard?”

He was not too carried away by Elicia’s peals of laughter to notice that Ed stood up then, slinking off into the dark of the woods. The teenager was absent for several minutes, and when he returned, he was carrying a bundle of fleshy weeds with small yellow flowers.

“Elicia?” he called, retaking his seat next to Al. “Come here a minute.”

Reluctantly, the girl extricated herself from her father’s arms and toddled over to Ed. Maes watched with interest as he crushed the plants in his automail hand, forcing out a milky sap with a faintly sweet, herbal fragrance. With his flesh fingers he began to rub it onto Elicia’s exposed skin, and she squirmed and giggled.

“This’ll help,” Ed assured her, with an encouraging smile—one of those rare sunlight smiles that reminded Maes of just how beautiful a boy he could be. “It’s better and safer than any bug spray you can buy in a store. It doesn’t smell bad to us, but mosquitoes think it stinks!”

The toddler laughed at the words and the slippery feel of the insect-repelling sap on her skin. When he had finished applying it, she beamed up at him, and favored him by briefly throwing her arms around his neck for a tight squeeze. Then she happily went back to her place between her parents… and it was Ed’s turn to fidget, the hot blush on his cheeks enhanced by the glow of the firelight.

“How about sharing some of that?” Roy muttered from the other side of the fire, as he swatted a mosquito on his arm.

Recovering his wits, Ed shoved the handful of vegetation behind his back with a triumphant sneer. “What’s the matter, Mr. Survival Training? Can’t find your own?”

Roy sank back a little, visibly simmering, and Maes had to stifle a violent snort of laughter into a cough.

In spite of the predictable hassling between Ed and Roy, Elicia’s affectionate glomp seemed to mark a turning point in Ed’s mood. He softened visibly, looking less like some kind of standoffish wild cat, and all the charming awkwardness of his gentler side slowly crept out of hiding. This was the boy who smiled sweetly beneath melancholy eyes that had seen too much; the boy who wanted to be warm and kind, but seemed just a little unsure of how to open himself to anyone but Al. It was rare and heartbreaking and wonderful, and even if Roy didn’t appreciate what Ed could be when he wasn’t fighting, Maes felt that mere glimpse made the entire trip worthwhile.

When supper was finished, it was time to toast marshmallows. Even Elicia must have sensed Ed’s mellowed and approachable mood by then, because she wandered back to him, carrying her skewer and the bag of puffy white sweets Gracia had given her. Ed watched her with a sort of wary bemusement as she plopped herself down by his left side, like a contented puppy. She stuck her first marshmallow into the fire, a little too low over the flames—and on some childish whim of fondness, she leaned her cheek against Ed’s denim-covered metal knee.

This new level of uninvited familiarity caused Ed to catch his breath a little, his eyes wide and body stiffening. It was a reaction Maes observed with a pang, for he knew just how tender Ed could be with little girls. He could still close his eyes and see the Elrics in the snow with an adoring angel-child, so much like Elicia, who clung and laughed and called them her Big Brothers

But then, Nina Tucker was the very reason little girls made Ed’s heart hesitate most of all.

After two astonished seconds of staring down at Elicia, Ed apparently smelled burning sugar. Looking up in alarm, he quickly seized her skewer to pull the marshmallow out of the fire. A brief, unintentional hilarity ensued as he extinguished the gob of flaming stickiness… but when the crisis had been averted, he simply gave her a wry smile and a shake of his head. She giggled shamelessly, cuddling up to his leg once more, and he showed her how to hold the skewer at just the right angle to make the outside of a marshmallow turn crisp and golden.

Naturally, Maes captured it all on camera—with a few discreet pauses to lean back from the viewfinder and wipe the corners of his eyes.

For a while after that, it was all so nice.

Ed gave Elicia the blackberries he had found, and in turn, she insisted on sharing her marshmallows. Even more surprising, between mouthfuls of the gooey sweets, he was gradually coaxed to tell some of the simpler and funnier stories from his far-flung travels with Al. (During which, only Maes’ constant warning looks restrained Roy from adding his own acerbic commentary.) Ed even relaxed far enough to laugh for real: not his typically dark and sarcastic snickers, but a light, warm laughter of genuine enjoyment. This change clearly made Alphonse much happier as well, and he likewise became less quiet and more playful.

Later, when Ed’s storytelling had wound down, he entertained Elicia with alchemy. From the hard-packed earth of their campsite, he transmuted whimsical clay figurines shaped like animals and people. Elicia was enthralled, playing with the figures, giving them voices, eagerly asking Ed to create this character or that to fit into the stories she made up for them. Al joined her game with the enthusiasm of a boy half his age, although Ed primly resisted any desire to play with the toys himself—at least in front of Roy.

Of all the adorable things Maes had been blessed to see as a parent, this scene had to be very near the top of the list… and fatefully, the scene was still playing out when they learned they were not alone in the woods.

It was Roy who noticed the presence first. Ed had just transmuted a clay elephant for the rajah of a colorful myth Al was relating, and all three members of the Hughes family were absorbed in the tale Al acted out with the figures; but Roy’s attention was less focused. Maes wasn’t sure whether this was due to his deeply-ingrained alertness, or a more impolite boredom. Whatever the case, some faint sound caused him to look to the edge of the trail that stretched beyond the clearing, leading still deeper into the wilderness.

Maes was aware of the reflexive way Roy’s fingers tightened, even absent his gloves. That was definitely well-trained instincts kicking in.

“Hello?” Roy called out clearly, prompting the Elrics and Gracia to halt their amusements and pay attention.

For a second or two, there was only silence in the darkness beyond the firelight. Then the bushes rustled, and a man stepped to the edge of the clearing—almost as if he was a little chagrined at being noticed.

He was a big man to move with such stealth: a tower of muscle in cargo pants and a sleeveless blue shirt, with a blond crew cut and a face that looked like it had been introduced to its share of fists. Maes pegged him immediately as military, or at least ex-military, and he knew Roy would likely be drawing the same conclusion.

“Sorry if I spooked ya.” The man grinned awkwardly, rubbing his thick jaw. “Didn’t know anybody else was around here. Some buddies and me are camped a ways up the trail. I was just headed down to the creek for some water.” To illustrate his point, he lifted the large canteen that was clutched in his meaty hand.

It was rather unexpected to meet anyone else that deep in the woods, but not unreasonable. Although most people on casual holidays rarely strayed from the well-groomed, well-equipped campgrounds near the main tourist lodge, this guy certainly looked like a rugged type who would take on rougher excursions. It also made sense that he and his friends would pick a campsite not far from the Hughes’ favored location, for the same practical reasons of nearness to fresh water and the trail back to civilization.

With an amiable shrug, Maes waved a hand toward the brook. “Help yourself, pal. It’s not our water.”

Murmuring something like half a thank-you, the man strode off toward the edge of the brook. His boots scraped on the stones in the darkness, and he wandered back a minute later with his canteen full and dripping.

“Okay.” His eyes passed slowly over the camp once more, with the appearance of idle interest. “You folks have a good night.”

Then he was gone, his now heavier and more obvious steps fading as he trudged back up the trail toward his own camp. After a moment, Maes and Roy exchanged a long look that silently asked and answered each other’s questions; and by mutual agreement, they both relaxed.

Just another camper.

“So, Al,” Maes prompted with a grin, turning his attention back to the children. “What about that elephant?”

 

Happily full and worn out, Elicia began to nod off before long, and was asleep by ten o’clock. Conversation was stifled then by the necessity of keeping her repose undisturbed. The camp became quiet, and Roy Mustang thoughtfully watched his companions, now stripped of the frivolity that had stood between them and the vast silence of the wilderness.

Edward leaned back against Al’s metal side, exchanging soft words with his brother now and then. He looked pensive, and yet… more content, somehow, than Roy had ever seen him. How strange that Fullmetal, who depended on man-made steel limbs, should in some ways seem more natural and at peace in a forest than in the supposedly civilized world. As for Alphonse, his emotions may have been difficult to read on the surface, but the Colonel had known him long enough to tell he was unusually happy. Without a doubt, that had everything to do with the fact that Ed’s spirits had been lightened for once.

In an odd way, perhaps Maes did know what he was doing, without actually knowing what he was doing. Perhaps all this absurdity was worth it after all, if it gave any sort of roundabout comfort and respite to Al…

To both of the Elrics.

Then Roy’s attention was pleasantly diverted. While Gracia hummed a lullaby and tucked Elicia gently into her sleeping bag, Maes had been digging in his pack—and at last he produced two bottles of beer. As he held them up, he grinned at Roy and jerked his head slightly toward the woods. The invitation was unmistakable, and Roy stood, ignoring Fullmetal’s look of eye-rolling disgust.

Carrying a torch lit from the campfire, Maes guided Roy a short distance away, to a smaller and more overgrown clearing among the trees. After a few minutes of sweeping away leaf litter and piling up wood, he was able to create a small new fire from the dwindling torch flame. Then he sat down heavily with his back against a tree trunk, and offered one of the beer bottles to Roy.

“Thanks,” the Colonel murmured dryly, accepting the obvious peace offering as he sat down opposite Maes. It was a very good brand of beer, at that. Not cold, of course, but anything by way of a drink sounded welcome to Roy just now.

His friend shrugged good-naturedly. “Figured I owed you at least that much for putting up with all this.”

That opening remark was an invitation, too. Maes knew this forced trip seemed like some kind of bad joke to Roy, but in turn, Roy knew there had to be a reason for it—and Maes had planned this quiet little drink, away from his family and the Elrics, to give him the chance to ask.

For a short while Roy said nothing, savoring a few gulps of his beer, while he considered the best approach to his questions.

“Listen, Maes… I know you think alchemists have a way of attracting the bizarre,” he began tentatively at last. He stared at the fire, turning the bottle between his fingers. “I know what it means for you to trust us around Elicia and Gracia, even in a situation as harmless as this. But I have to admit… I don’t know exactly what you pushed us into this for.”

Maes chuckled low, but the twist that made its way across his lips could not quite be called a smile.

“Tell me this. On Ed’s official record, are you aware of who he lists as his only contact in the event of his death? Besides Al, I mean—which is really just a formality, as inseparable as they are.”

Roy blinked at the question that seemed apropos of nothing. As Ed’s commanding officer and his advocate for the State Alchemy exam, it went without saying that he knew every detail of his charge’s record, so he merely raised an eyebrow and waited for the point.

“It’s Rockbell Automail, Resembool.” Maes lowered his chin slightly, giving Roy a hard glance over his glasses. “Not a mother or a father. Not a grandparent or aunt or uncle, or any other relative—but the people who made the prosthetics he has bolted to that half-dismembered body of his.”

“Mrs. Rockbell raised the Elric boys for a while after their mother passed away.” That fact was also a matter of record.

“Yeah. I learned that from running his mandatory background check, but… still.” The shadow of something unpleasant flickered across Maes’ face. He took a long, thoughtful swig of his beer, absently tossed a stick into the fire, and was silent for a moment before he continued.

“Look, I may not know what their deal is, but anybody can see those boys are damaged goods… and, that. It’s…” There was a strange tension in Maes’ voice. He cleared his throat to dispel it, shrugged his shoulders, glanced away. “I like those kids, Roy. I want them to have a chance to know what normal is.”

“And you think that’s doing them a favor?”

The State Alchemist way of life. Conflict, sacrifice, pain; it never stops. Visiting normal every once in a while is just a tease.

Maes winced. His eyes darted back to Roy’s face, but his stubbled jaw stiffened a little.

“So.” Roy spread his hands expansively. “You let your darling family coddle them. Throw ’em birthday parties. Take them on barbaric little field trips like this. Show them bits and pieces of a life they can never get back, even if—” He caught himself abruptly. “Even if they were to achieve the goal they’re searching for, because nothing would ever erase the hell they’ve gone through to get it.”

An unexpectedly harsh breath rasped in and out of his lungs, and he grimaced in a lightless rictus of a smile. “Sounds like fun.”

For a moment, Maes stared. The knuckles wrapped around his beer bottle were white.

“I didn’t think even you could be that cynical.” His voice was hard, but quiet; sadness. Pity. Not anger. “To think there can’t even be any good in somebody just caring.”

In a flash, Roy remembered a thousand conversations: over drinks, over a chessboard, over stacks of paperwork, over fists poised for punches. Dark secrets. Tears. Hysterical laughter, of both the good and the bad kind. Quiet confidences, or merely silent, comforting presence.

And he said not a word to reveal it, but he softened… and Maes knew.

“So why drag me into this trip?” Roy ventured, after a short interval. “You know I would never have come along if you weren’t—”

“A suicidally curious moron who knows ten times more about you than anybody should know about anybody?”

“I was going to say persuasive. But that covers it pretty well, too.”

Maes relaxed, letting his shoulders slump back against the tree trunk behind him. Chuckled, shrugged, pushed his glasses up on his nose in a familiar gesture.

“I’m with Investigations, Roy.”

It was his excuse for so many things, and it never meant quite the same thing twice; but Roy understood it every time.

“I see. Classic interrogation technique: throw your subjects into an uncomfortable situation. Tip them off-balance and see what spills. Nice.”

“Look at it my way. A torn-up kid who’s some kind of freakishly gifted prodigy, his so-called ‘little’ brother who nobody’s ever seen outside of a flippin’ huge pile of armor… and you. Uncle Roy, the pyromaniac babysitter.” Maes smiled crookedly. “Sure, I’ve had wierder puzzles, but not many. And not knowing stuff doesn’t sit well with me. How do I help you when I don’t know the pieces you’re lining up on the board?”

Pieces. Roy wondered if Maes had deliberately stopped just short of saying pawns.

“It isn’t only that,” he said through clenched teeth, feeling a stir of vague anger that was somehow not directed at Maes in the least.

Another keen look over eyeglass rims. “Roy, old buddy, if I didn’t know you well enough to realize that… Well.” Maes’ smile abruptly turned just a little too light, and Roy thought interestedly about knives.

Small, exceedingly sharp ones, hidden beneath shirtsleeves.

“…You’re a good man, Maes.”

“I’m a father.” The grin took on a maniacal edge. “And speaking of, when are you gonna start yourself a family, hmm? I’m telling you, it’d even make a better man out of you.”

Roy sighed windily, and knocked back the rest of his beer at one go.

“Maybe it isn’t fair for you not to know all the facts of the Elrics’ case,” he admitted tiredly. “And maybe those boys do need someone else to trust… but that isn’t my call to make. There are personal matters involved that are their own business. What they decide to share with you is up to them.”

“Which is what brings us, exactly, here.”

The conversation had returned full circle to Roy’s original question, and now he understood the answer. This wasn’t about camping, after all; they were really on Maes’ own personal fishing trip.

“I’m going to bed,” Roy said flatly.

He rose and moved to the edge of the firelight. There he paused for a moment, with his back turned to the fire and his friend.

“Keep up the good work.”

 

 

IV: Den of Thieves

 

Maybe this trip wasn’t going to turn out quite so bad as Edward had expected.

That was the conclusion he was warily starting to come around to, as he lay propped against the familiar hardness of Al’s armor and waited for sleep to take him. When he reviewed the events of the day, he had to admit that it could have been a lot worse. Sure, the hike hadn’t been much fun, Hughes’ sap could get a little old, and Mustang was insufferable as ever—but it was just possible that the better moments had outweighed the irritations.

If nothing else, the chance to rub his superior outdoorsmanship in that desk-jockey Mustang’s face made it all worthwhile. Considering the whole thing was supposedly the Colonel’s idea, Ed hadn’t expected him to seem so utterly unprepared and out of place in this situation, and he was relishing it. Just who was it that needed survival training, after all?

As for the presence of Hughes’ family, Ed had rather mixed feelings. It was weird to be with them in this rugged setting, instead of at their home in Central; but Gracia was kind as always, and Elicia was an irresistibly sweet and precocious ball of fun. Just the way he had always imagined a little sister would…

Ed grimaced and shifted against Al’s side, folding his arms. He didn’t want his mind to go there, but somehow it always did. Subtly, inevitably creeping toward the fact that, every time they saw the Hughes family, Elicia had grown a little bigger and reminded him a little more of—

Nina.

It wasn’t Elicia’s fault. And it wasn’t fair. But it still hurt, deep and raw, when an expression on her face or a note in her voice would bring back all Ed’s bitterness and self-loathing at his failure to save one innocent child.

Hero of the People. Yeah, sure. That was a good one.

Heaving a gusty sigh, he turned onto his side, closed his eyes, and reminded himself again that Elicia wasn’t Nina. Elicia was loved and happy and safe, and she would never, ever be hurt like Nina was.

This time, Ed would never allow it.

Aggressively he shoved aside those thoughts and reached for sleep, trying to absorb something of the somnolent peace of the forest. Beyond the campsite, the steady hum of crickets was punctuated now and then by the distant hoot of an owl. Nearer, there was the soft snap of the fire, an occasional metal-scrape as Al reached over to add more wood to the flames… and Hughes’ enthusiastic snoring.

Ed rolled his eyes behind his eyelids. He wondered how Gracia could stand it every night.

It surprised him a little that Mustang was a much more quiet sleeper—but then, the man was probably well-practiced in pretending to be awake while he snoozed at his desk. From him there was only an intermittent twitch, accompanied a few times by a short, sharp mumble that was never quite a word. Except that once or twice, it had sounded like No, and Ed told himself the Colonel was happily dreaming about all the times he said that word to him.

Because, to be truthful, Ed didn’t want to contemplate what Mustang might really be reliving in his sleep.

Mentally flinching, Ed returned his focus to the natural sounds of the night. A second owl, somewhat closer, had begun to exchange haunting calls with its companion. Down near the brook, a chorus of frogs peeped and gurgled, and in the brush just beyond the edge of darkness…

His eyes flew open, and his left hand gripped Al’s vambrace.

“Did you hear that?” he whispered.

Al’s helmet tilted, and he looked around, nonexistent eyes peering past the firelight. “Hear what?”

“Thought I heard something moving in the woods.” Ed glanced away with a vague feeling of guilt. His own hearing was exceptional, but the dulling and distorting effect of a steel shell meant that Al’s was… not so much. With his lack of physical eyes that could tire, Al was somewhat compensated by a preternaturally keen and constant sense of sight, but that was small comfort to his brother.

Heartbreakingly accustomed to the limits of what senses he had, Al simply offered a slight shrug. “Maybe it was a deer.”

“Yeah… maybe.”

A bit reluctantly, Ed settled back. He closed his eyes, once more giving sleep an invitation, but his awareness remained sharp and on edge for some time afterward. It seemed like forever before he finally began to slip away into a hazy oblivion…

Al suddenly moved behind him, with a high-pitched warning cry.

Brother!”

Ed’s mind and body were instantly wrenched to full alertness, driven by the instincts of a life long filled with danger. In the space of a breath he was on his feet, his lean frame coiled in readiness, as his senses simultaneously processed the cause of the alarm.

There were strangers in the camp… and the firelight gleamed on the steel of brandished weapons.

Reflexively Ed raised his hands for a clap, and the touch of flesh fingers that would transmute a blade from his automail arm—but one of the intruders was on top of him before his hands could meet, dragging him down to pin his wrists to the ground. A field of blue engulfed his vision, and in some part of his mind, he realized it was the brawny blue-shirted chest of the man who had come for water from the brook.

For a few moments, everything else around him was a blur.

Mustang starting awake to find himself already neutralized, his backpack kicked away and the muzzle of a gun aimed at his head. A quicksilver flash of steel from Hughes’ hand; one of the armed men gasped out a cry of pain as the knife found flesh, but another was there to plow a boot into the Major’s chest and hurl him backward, coughing and stunned. A short scream from Gracia, as she pulled Elicia against her and crouched over the crying child. Al standing with hands raised in surrender, helpless—not because of the shotgun pointed at his chestplate, but because of the weapons trained on Ed and Mustang and the Hughes family. Unlike him, they were not invulnerable.

Don’t anybody move, and you won’t get hurt,” growled the man with the shotgun.

The one holding Ed down shifted a little, mercifully removing his knee from the ribs of his captive, and bent his head close to Ed’s ear. “That goes double for you, kid. You even think about putting those hands of yours together, and somebody bleeds.”

In a flash of clarity, Ed remembered making the clay figures for Elicia, and realized this man must have watched him do it. He might have stood in the bushes beyond the firelight for a long time before Mustang noticed him. Long enough, at least, to grasp the correlation between the clap of Ed’s hands and his alchemy.

Having delivered that warning, the man cautiously eased his weight off of Ed and sat back, reaching down into the shadows for something that proved to be a very large sledgehammer. He held it in a light, firm grip of practiced familiarity, with every sign of hair-triggered readiness to let it swing—and Ed did not at all like the way his captor eyed his automail, as if calculating exactly what the hammer could do to it.

Gingerly Ed sat up, paying no heed to the twinging of newly-made bruises on his back and his flesh arm. He passed a quick, anxious gaze over his companions. Elicia was still crying, and although Gracia had the motherly instinct to hold her tight and whisper soothing words, her voice was a trembling whisper of fear. The moment Hughes recovered enough wits to drag himself onto his knees, clutching his chest where he had been kicked, he crawled over to pull his family into a sheltering huddle.

With his wife and daughter in danger, Hughes probably couldn’t be relied on to think with a clear head, at least until they got a handle on what was happening. However, Ed was more reassured by the two remaining members of the party. Mustang was still and intent, silently reading the situation, and Al…

Al remained a statue, hands open and unthreatening. Like Ed, he had more than enough experience in circumstances like these, and he knew his warlike appearance drew undue attention and concern from bad guys. His submissive pose was an effort to allay hostility—and curiosity about what was inside his armor. If the secret of his hollowness was exposed, its potential advantages would be lost, to say nothing of the shock to the unknowing Hughes family.

Ed’s next sweeping glance took in Sledgehammer’s four playmates. One of them was just as big, but shaven-headed, swarthy, and a whole lot uglier; in one hand he held an enormous hunting knife, while the other clutched his left thigh where  Hughes’ thrown blade had grazed him. In stark contrast to this behemoth stood a svelte, goggle-eyed little weasel who scarcely had two inches on Ed, and was entirely too fidgety with the pearl-handled revolver he held. The next man, armed with a .45 automatic, cut an athletic blond figure that could have been handsome if not for the burn scars on the left side of his face. Lastly there was the shotgun wielder, gray-haired and hawk-nosed, most likely several years older than any of his fellows.

“We don’t have much worth stealing,” Mustang grated slowly between clenched teeth, his dark eyes full of fire as he too surveyed the band of thugs. “Whatever it is you want, just take it and go.”

“Money’s not what we’re after,” Shotgun replied tersely, taking another step back from Al to better cover the rest of the captives. “All of you, get up. You’re going places.”

Spurred by an eloquent gesture of the shotgun barrels, Hughes squirmed to his feet, still breathless and very pale. Gracia reached up to clutch his hand, but at that moment he was focused on Shotgun as the apparent authority figure.

“Please, just let my wife and kids go.” Hughes’ voice was steady, but the anxiety in his eyes was thinly veiled. “There’s no reason for—”

“Boss’ll be the judge of that. Move!” Shotgun ordered, shooting Gracia a look that prompted her to stumble quickly to her feet. She held Elicia’s head to her chest, shielding the whimpering child’s eyes from the sight of the terror that had descended upon them. Her own face was wet with frightened tears, and she pressed against Hughes as he gathered his girls into as protective an embrace as he could.

There was, at least, one significant piece of information in Shotgun’s remark. Evidently he had someone else to answer to.

And yet, later on, what Ed would remember most were Hughes’ words that made no distinction between his daughter and the Elric brothers. My wife and kids. Just that simply; just as if he really felt that way. It was probably nothing more than high emotion in the face of a crisis… but still.

Shotgun turned his attention to Mustang next, and narrowed his eyes at the Colonel’s clothing. “Military fatigues. The old kind I used to see back in Ishbal… What’s your rank, soldier?”

“I was a sergeant,” Mustang lied tersely. “And I was discharged two years ago.”

“What about that one?” the shifty little man queried, motioning slightly with his revolver. Shotgun’s eyes followed the gesture to Al… and the suit of armor quivered. It was a small but distinctly noisy movement.

“I, uh… Wearing this armor is part of my religion,” Al stammered.

It wasn’t his favorite cover story, but it was probably one of the few that had any chance of getting a pass from these thugs. Sometimes even a hardened criminal could defer to faith. In any case, the excuse itself might have been moot, because the men appeared to be more surprised by the small and tremulous child-voice that spoke from within the steel.

Scarface raised his one existing eyebrow and looked at Shotgun, jerking his head toward Al. “It’s just a kid in there!”

“Or it just sounds like a kid,” the wounded giant with the hunting knife rumbled, and his voice was as ugly as his face. He limped forward, one hand reaching up suspiciously toward Al’s helmet… but he was stopped by gruff words from Shotgun.

“Skip it for now. Cale can sort it out—he told us not to rough these people up any more than we need to. Let’s just get moving.”

Ugly looked far from satisfied, but he dropped his hand; and Ed breathed out a sigh of relief that was deep enough for himself and Al both.

 

What followed was a forced march farther up the trail, in the same direction Sledgehammer had gone after fetching water. Under the threat of the gang’s weapons, the hapless campers were forbidden to speak, and had no choice but to shuffle along silently in single file. Sledgehammer must have told his pals about Ed’s unconventional alchemy, and whether they believed it or not, they took extra precautions with the teenager: his hands were tightly bound to either end of a stout wooden rod cut from a tree. This held them well apart, preventing even the slightest touch of his fingertips.

After some twenty minutes, they reached their destination. Beyond a screen of overhanging branches, the trail abruptly opened onto an acre or so of cleared land that was occupied by three simple wood cabins. Ed vaguely recalled that somewhere in the area, the forest service maintained cabins for use by scout troops, and he surmised these were the ones—commandeered by the thugs while not in legitimate use.

The cabins were a center of activity now, however illicit. A dirt-paved access road led away among the trees, and no less than five automobiles were parked around the edges of the clearing. Electric light glowed from within the middle cabin, but it was diffused by coverings—possibly thick blankets—that had been hung over the windows from the inside. It would be no surprise if these men already had something to hide from the view of any passing hikers.

Ed glanced over his shoulder, but he didn’t dare turn around far enough to look at his companions. Apart from Elicia’s soft whimpering and the sounds of Al’s armor, there was only enforced silence from the others. He knew Al and Mustang would be studying the situation as keenly as he was, in search of weaknesses and tactical options; he could only hope Hughes was doing the same, forcing his military training to overcome his personal feelings. If Hughes couldn’t focus beyond the threat to his family, Ed at least hoped the Major would be able to keep his girls calm and out of harm’s way, to minimize the distraction for the rest of them as they tried to figure a way out of this.

Of course, the question was still what exactly this was… but as they were led across the front porch of the lighted cabin, to be ushered inside one by one, he suspected they were close to the answer.

Stepping into the cabin’s single room, Ed found three new faces there. One was a woman: perhaps in her late thirties, with a sweeping mane of fiery-red hair, and features that might have been attractive if they weren’t just a little too hard around the edges. She stood by the covered front window with her hands pressed together, as if she had been caught pacing restlessly. A frown twisted her mouth as she watched the captives being led in—and at the sight of Elicia and Gracia, an even more troubled look flashed through her brown eyes.

Conscience. Whatever was going on here, the redhead was less than happy about it, and Ed duly noted that fact for future reference.

Secondly, to Ed’s bemusement, a teenager slouched against one of the three bunk beds at the far side of the room. Lanky and brown-haired, he must have been only a few years older than Ed, but his face and eyes held the stony expression of a youth who had become far more hardened. He looked bored, and in his left hand he held a switchblade, absently flicking it open and shut.

Unnerved by the soft clicking sound of the knife, Ed turned to study the last of the new trio—and there was something about him that gave the alchemist pause. He too was surprisingly young, no more than halfway through his twenties, but he had a poise that set him apart. He wore his black hair carelessly in loose shoulder-length locks and long bangs, and the clothes underneath his gray coat belonged to an affectedly artless fashion trend Ed considered ridiculous. And yet…

It was his eyes, Ed thought. Nearly colorless pale blue, they gazed out from beneath his fringe of errant hair with an intent self-assurance that somehow made a chill crawl down Ed’s spine. Regardless of his age, he had the eyes of a man who possessed an exceptional intelligence—and furthermore, who knew it.

He sat with his elbow propped casually on a wooden table, upon which a few dozen objects were arranged. Ed glanced at the collection of drab flotsam, prepared to dismiss it; but then his gaze returned to take in the items more fully. Scattered on the table were chipped pieces of pottery, flint arrowheads and tools, primitive statuettes of carved stone.

Images from less than two days earlier flashed through Ed’s mind. The folder he had taken from Hughes at the museum and leafed through with disinterest. Photographs of objects that had vanished in the bloodstained night, while four men were left no longer alive to reveal any clues to their fate.

The items on the table were the artifacts stolen from the Central Museum.

And that meant—

Edward’s heart skipped a beat. He looked at the armed men herding Al and the others into the room, and realized the truth: these criminals were far more than merely kidnappers and thieves.

They were cold-blooded murderers as well.

While the captives were pushed into a line as if for inspection, Ed shot a glance at the others. If Al had noticed the artifacts, he didn’t recognize them because he hadn’t seen the pictures as Ed had, and Mustang had not been at the museum. But Hughes, who stood with his arms wrapped around his wife and daughter, was looking at the pieces on the table. He was very still and pale, and Ed knew he also understood.

With languid elegance, the young man at the table rose and came a few steps closer to the row of prisoners. He stopped directly in front of Ed, and those disquieting eyes took in the peculiar way his hands were restrained.

“Bosh,” he addressed the man with the sledgehammer, who stood rather menacingly behind Ed. “You say this boy was the one you saw using alchemy without a transmutation circle?”

So, then: it was an alchemist they were after.

“What are you talking about?” Ed blurted hotly, on impulse. “I don’t know anything about alchemy—I’m just a kid!”

The young man bent down, with something that was almost a smile on his lips, and looked Ed in the eye. When he spoke, his voice flowed with a smooth and unsettling calm that matched the ice in his eyes.

“You know, that’s the same thing they were saying about me six years ago… while I was planning the robbery of the Central First Bank.”

Ed heard Hughes catch his breath faintly, and understood. That must have been another case the Major was familiar with, and from the look in his eyes, the story was not a good one.

Reaching beneath his coat, the young man produced a knife—but his purpose proved to be no more aggressive than cutting the ropes that tied Ed’s hands to the rod. A tingling pain crept into Ed’s flesh hand as the circulation was restored. He instinctively moved to massage it with his automail fingers, but a warning grunt from Bosh stopped him from bringing his hands close to each other.

Mustang spoke up gruffly, coming to the defense of Ed’s lie. “He’s telling you the truth. The kid can’t even keep his grades up in school, much less learn alchemy.” He jerked his head at Bosh. “This goon must have been hallucinating—”

A beefy hand shot out and seized Mustang by the sleeve, jerking him backwards out of the row of prisoners. The other hand made a fist that swung up explosively into the Colonel’s stomach, doubling him over in deep gasps of pain.

Elicia started to cry again, and Hughes turned his family away as best he could.

“Nobody calls me a liar,” Bosh growled, and looked up at the icy-eyed young man, whose role as the leader of the gang was now clear. “I know what I saw, Cale.”

“You can’t see something that didn’t happen!” Ed snarled. He knew the pretense was flimsy, but it was all they had right now.

Cale sighed and folded his arms. For a moment, he studied Ed thoughtfully… and when his arms slid apart in one swift movement, the knife had somehow reappeared in his hand.

Ed gasped and vaulted backwards as the blade swept down toward his chest.

Distantly he heard a scream from Gracia, but his senses were far more preoccupied by the fact that Cale was coming at him again. The slashing knife barely missed his cheek as he recoiled. He dodged another strike, raised his automail arm to shield himself, felt steel clash jarringly as the blade met the strong outer plating. Even as Ed backed away, Cale’s knife kept raining heavy blows, more than once coming close to vulnerable connections in the joints of the metal arm. Cale was lithe but tall, enabling him to bear down on Ed too hard for the younger fighter to shift any advantage to himself—and then Ed felt his shoulders hit the wall behind him.

Alright, then.

Gritting his teeth, Ed struck his palms together, and his flesh fingers darted up to the plating of his forearm. Blue light flared as the steel warped and lengthened, its edges honed to a razor’s fineness. He pushed off from the wall and met Cale’s momentum with his own, deflecting the knife with his much larger shielding blade.

The young gang leader suddenly drew back… and Ed froze as well when he heard the sound of a gun being cocked.

It was all too obvious. Cale’s attack was a test, and he had learned exactly what he wanted to know.

Panting slightly, Ed looked over at his own allies. The little man had his revolver shoved under Hughes’ throat, and from the Major’s stance, it seemed as if that weapon was the only thing to have stopped him from coming to Ed’s aid. Mustang had not moved; he was still reeling from Bosh’s punch, and Ed suspected he knew it was futile to try to intervene anyway. Al had taken a step forward, but now his hands were raised, his surrender forced once again by the danger to the others rather than to himself.

Ed didn’t see Gracia and Elicia at first. His anxious glance finally tracked them to a corner of the room, where someone must have pushed them. The red-haired woman had moved closer to them, and while she didn’t exactly look consoling, it seemed she had deliberately positioned herself between them and the roughhousing. Ed marked that in her favor, too.

“Brother! Are you okay?” Al’s voice quivered with concern.

Grimacing at the ugly feeling that he had lost a battle of wits as well as force, Ed slowly dropped his automail arm to his side. “…Yeah.”

Cale slid his knife back under his coat. He was winded too, but he smiled crookedly as he eyed the blade Ed had transmuted.

There we are,” he said lightly, between deep draws of breath. “All that trouble, and so pointless. Not that I blame you for trying to lie to me…” His eyes sharpened with calculating interest. “It is quite the talent you have.”

“What made you so sure?” Ed ground out, and Cale chuckled.

“You see, I trust my friends. If Bosh tells me he saw a boy using alchemy without a circle, I take him at his word. Now the only question is: how much do you value your friends?”

A faintly sick feeling knotted in Ed’s insides as he glanced back at Al, Mustang, and the Hughes family. The implication was clear enough. Cale and his gang intended to have him put his alchemy to their use, whatever that might be—and the lives of his fellow captives were the leverage that would force him to obey.

“Lose the blade,” Cale ordered. “—Very carefully.”

Slowly, with his jaw clenched so tightly it hurt, Ed brought his hands together. He touched his blade and retracted it, returning the steel of his arm to its normal shape.

At the disappearance of the weapon, Cale’s thugs relaxed slightly. The little man took his gun from under  Hughes’ chin, but it remained poised threateningly enough to keep him from moving over to join his family.

“What do you want with me?” Ed snapped.

“Something very simple.” Cale turned and strode back to the table littered with artifacts. “You might have heard about some goings-on at the Central Museum of History recently. That was us.”

A small gasp echoed within Al’s armor, but he had the sense not to say anything. Neither Hughes nor Mustang let any reaction show.

“The whole point of it was to pick up these. Not much to look at, but apparently someone up north is very interested in them.” Cale nudged one of the artifacts, a stone figurine. “Our problem now is taking them across the border. We need a way to hide them from inspections… and that’s where you come in.”

Ed followed the logic, and his eyes widened.

“You want me to transmute them,” he breathed. “What better way to hide something than in plain sight—as something else?”

“Oh, you are good.” Cale raised an eyebrow admiringly. “It’s true. I do want you to disguise the artifacts, by completely changing their shape. As a matter of fact, I’ve tried it myself, but…” He gestured to the floor beneath the table, and for the first time Ed noticed what appeared to be several ordinary pieces of flint and broken pottery. Test samples, he realized; but he could easily see that these transmuted specimens did not turn out well. They were warped and discolored, their composition damaged by unskilled alchemy.

“I only recently began to study alchemy,” Cale sighed. “I’ve had very little time to learn… and frankly, it seems I have no aptitude for it.”

That explained the poorly-done transmutations at the museum—but Ed knew better than to think that failing was any disparagement on Cale’s intelligence or other skills. Alchemy required a special set of instincts. Not everyone had it within them to master it, no matter how brilliant they might be in other ways.

Cale’s brilliance lay not in alchemy, but in strategy; and, Ed suspected, in reading people. The way he dealt with both comrades and prisoners was frighteningly perceptive.

“I don’t suppose I need to ask what happens if I refuse,” Ed muttered in a low voice, glaring up at the young mastermind.

“Let’s not. There’s no need for this to be unpleasant.” Cale shrugged casually. “You only have to do this little bit of work for me. Then, once we’re safely across the border, and you’ve transmuted the artifacts to their original forms again… all of you can go.”

His voice was like poisoned honey, but the lightness in it did not touch his eyes. Ed knew with a chill of certainty that he was lying—and the fact that Cale’s followers did not protest his benevolence only proved it. They were also sure their new hostages would not be allowed to live, any more than those four guards at the museum were. Perhaps they might spare Elicia as too young to be a threat to them, but the rest of the captives’ fates were decided before they had ever been brought here.

A soft hiss of indrawn breath came from Hughes. He knew it as well, and Ed could feel the raw edge of desperation the husband and father was balanced on.

Not yet.

Rash action would do them no good now. They needed time to watch and think, to find just one small chance in this deadly trap.

“Alright,” Ed surrendered bleakly. “But if you want me to put back the artifacts exactly the way they are later on, I’ll have to study them first. If you’ve had any practice with alchemy at all, you at least ought to understand that.”

“Of course.” Cale gestured magnanimously toward the table. “You can have as much time as you need—within reason. In the meantime, we’ll do our best to make you comfortable.”

Ugly spoke up then for the first time since they had entered the cabin, chucking a thumb at Alphonse. “That include making the tin man take off the suit, Boss?”

Every nerve in Ed’s body coiled tight as Cale turned those frightening eyes to Al.

“You said you’re the alchemist’s brother?”

Al’s steel drew itself up a little more rigidly, and there was only the smallest tremor in his voice when he answered. “Yes.”

Hm…” Cale rubbed his chin, studying the apparently metal-clad child as if he was some kind of puzzle.

“He told us the armor’s a religious thing,” Shotgun offered.

“Is that so? Thank you, Ranold.” Cale turned from his older confederate to Al. “In that case you can keep it, at least for now—if only because I don’t want to upset your brother when he has such delicate work to do. But understand, it means we’ll be watching you all the more closely.”

The decree made Ugly look thoroughly disappointed; but Al, with his perpetual grace of manners, somehow managed to relax a little and give a very slight bow. “Th-thank you…”

“And that leaves just one more detail.” Cale stepped back, intently surveying the six captives. “If we leave all of you together, you might start to get ideas. I think it would be safer all around if we separate you—and having your weakest link out of your reach should be the best thing to keep you gentlemen in line.”

He turned to Ugly and the man named Ranold, and made a small gesture toward Gracia and Elicia.

“Grund, Ranold… Please remove the ladies to the cabin next door.”

At that order, Grund made a throaty rumbling noise that expressed satisfaction—and a sickening kind of interest. He turned to Hughes’ family with a monstrous calculation in his eyes.

Still holding the sobbing Elicia in her arms, Gracia let out a scream as Grund seized her by the shoulders and twisted her toward the door… and that was all the provocation Hughes’ fraying composure needed to unravel completely.

No! Gracia! Elicia!” Wild-eyed with anguish, and heedless of the surrounding roomful of hair-triggered weapons, Hughes lunged forward. He barely slipped past Al’s hands as the armored boy reached out to hold him back—and Ed saw the muzzle of the little man’s gun twitch upward again, aiming for Hughes’ heart.

Colonel Mustang took one quick step that brought him between Hughes and the gun. In that swift moment of movement and confusion, before the little man’s brain could tell his nerves to squeeze the trigger, Mustang’s knuckles shot straight up into the underside of Hughes’ jaw.

For an instant as Hughes folded, there was shocked betrayal on his face, but his friend never flinched.

The thump of Hughes’ collapse onto the floorboards seemed to break a momentary spell. As Ed gasped in the breath that had been caught on his lips for those last few seconds, he realized there was no gunshot; and only then did he feel himself trembling in a belated release of fear.

Bemused by the unexpected removal of the threat, the little man lowered his revolver. Bosh and Scarface similarly relaxed their grip on their own weapons. The boy with the switchblade had never moved at all, and sat watching the short-lived drama with aloof interest.

Somewhere in the confusion, Grund had already dragged Gracia out the door. Ed could hear Elicia’s frightened cries for her Daddy receding in the direction of the next cabin. Ranold was gone too, and Ed desperately hoped the older man would keep his beast of a comrade in check.

Unperturbed through it all, Cale regarded Hughes’ unconscious form on the floor, and then turned to Mustang with a harsh smile. “That was prudent of you.”

Edward recognized the barely-perceptible shudder of rage that passed through Mustang’s shoulders. The Colonel bared his teeth and drew a breath, but before he could speak, the redhead stepped quickly to Cale’s side.

“Cale, I don’t like this.” She gripped his arm, searching his eyes. “It was never supposed to be like this. Not with women or children. And you know Grund is—”

“Easy, Mar.” Cale laid his right hand on her shoulder, as his left hand caressed a lock of scarlet hair that fell across her cheek. It was a lover’s touch, a tender gesture that spoke plainly of a far deeper connection between them. “It’s going to be alright. Just leave it all to me… and when we’re in Drachma, everything will be different, the way I said it would. You’ll see.”

The woman appeared to be comforted little by his words. She held his gaze for a long moment with hardness in her eyes, and then she looked to Mustang.

“Tell your friend I… I won’t let anything happen to his wife and daughter,” she said quietly. “I promise.”

Without a glance back at Cale, she turned and hurried from the cabin, and Ed realized he somehow felt just a little reassured—at least for Gracia and Elicia’s immediate future. Something in the woman’s eyes and voice told him she meant what she said, and he had a feeling she was a force to be reckoned with.

This man Cale would never have bothered with her if she wasn’t.

Somewhat jadedly, Cale watched her departure. Then he turned to the teenager, who was still lounging against a bunk and blandly flicking his switchblade. “Go with her, Dex.”

The youth straightened and scowled. “Come on, Cale. Just because Mareen is my cousin, that doesn’t make her my babysitt—”

Now, Dex.”

If Cale’s gentleness toward his woman had created any doubt about his authority, it was erased by those two iron words. Cowed, Dex quickly pushed off from the bunk and went after Mareen.

“That’s better.” Cale glanced at Ed, with a smug little grin the young alchemist wanted to put his metal fist through. “Other people’s relatives can be such trouble… But then, I’m sure you’re well aware of that just now.” His eyes flicked eloquently toward the doorway through which Gracia and Elicia had been taken.

Seething, Ed clenched his hands tight and glared up at Cale’s amused face. “I swear to you, if you hurt them—”

“I’ve already told you, that’s very much up to you.” Cale spread a hand toward the table. “The sooner you get started, the sooner we can part ways.”

Parting ways, Ed thought, was the most elegant phrase he had ever heard used to describe murder.

Drawing in a deep breath to still his futile anger, he glanced at Al and Mustang. Presumably with the approval of Cale’s watchful thugs, the two had moved Hughes’ limp figure to one of the lower bunks. Al was examining the bruise under Hughes’ chin, but Ed caught Mustang’s eye for a brief moment, and the Colonel nodded gravely.

There was no need to say anything. Ed knew there was one imperative on both of their minds: buy time. It was his most critical task now, and his nod in return was a promise to gain every last second he could.

Slowly Ed marched over to the table and sat down. As he did so, he was aware of Cale turning to investigate the campers’ backpacks, which the kidnappers had brought up along with the campers themselves.

“Here, Ferdy,” Cale said mildly, addressing the little man as he bent down beside the packs. “Let’s have a look.”

Ed felt suddenly grateful that he and the others had left their assorted forms of identification, including his and Mustang’s pocketwatches, in the Hughes family’s car back at the lodge. Cale may have had Ed pegged for a young alchemic prodigy, but if they were lucky—and if Mustang gave as good an appearance of total ignorance as he could when he wasn’t trying—perhaps they could still keep the mastermind from realizing he had two more alchemists and a military investigator on his hands.

Except…

“Hey, Boss.” Ferdy straightened from his crouch over Mustang’s backpack, holding up two familiar pieces of white cloth with red stitching. “Is that alchemy?”

Cale’s eyebrows shot up, and he reached out for the gloves.

“They’re definitely transmutation circles. More advanced than anything I’ve learned, but…” He brushed his thumb over the stitched figure of a salamander on one glove. “I know this symbol relates to fire.”

“Ignition-cloth gloves,” Scarface murmured from his position at one side of the room, grimly stroking the barrel of his pistol.

“Then you know something about them, Tegan?”

“Enough to know they’re just about the worst things any sick mind ever invented. I seen ’em used in Ishbal—real close up. Still see ’em in my nightmares.” Tegan grunted, touching the scars on the side of his face. “Some of those State Alchemists… weren’t exactly too particular about who got in their way.”

Caressed by the ghost of an unease he knew and hated, Ed shot a glance at Mustang. The face of the celebrated war hero had become a mask, but for just a moment, there was something lurking in his eyes that Ed didn’t like at all.

“The gloves are mine,” Ed snarled quickly, and when Cale looked at him with renewed interest, he chucked a contemptuous steel thumb toward Mustang. “If he hadn’t taken them away from me, your creeps would’ve been toast the moment they walked into our camp.”

To his credit, Mustang understood Ed’s attempt to cover for him, and played along without so much as a blink. “As I recall, you started a forest fire last time.”

“It was your fault!” Cranky petulance was a tone that came to Ed all too easily when he was around Mustang—but if a display of childishness would do anything at this point to help downplay the intellect Cale had sensed in him, he was willing to go with it.

Whatever else it may have suggested to Cale, the exchange caused him to laugh lightly. “How interesting…” He stood up and moved closer to the table, clutching the gloves tightly in his fist, and his expression grew more intent. “You really are a boy genius. I’m told fire alchemy is one of the most difficult kinds to learn.”

Ed glowered. It was an expression that had not a little to do with memories of Mustang rubbing his nose in that fact, on the typically disastrous occasions when he had tried to pick up the skill himself.

“For everyone’s good, I’ll just keep these close.” The gloves disappeared beneath Cale’s coat. “There’s no fire involved in what I’ve asked you to do. Considering your other talents, I don’t know whether you really need the arrays for it or not, but just in case…” He glanced at his three remaining comrades in the room. “Under no circumstances is a fire to be lit in the fireplace. And Ferdy—hand over your matches, please.”

Ferdy’s shoulders slumped. “Aw, Boss…”

“I don’t want you getting careless. If you have to smoke, you can check in with me first.”

With a deep sigh, Ferdy produced a matchbook and tossed it to his leader. Cale pocketed it, and then turned to glance around at his prisoners, an insolent satisfaction written on his face.

“And that covers all of the bases, I think. Now pardon me for not staying to keep you company, but I have preparations to make for the journey north.” The next words he directed at Ed specifically. “If you need something, just ask one of the boys. I’ll leave you to your work—and for the sake of your brother and your friends, I know you’ll do well.”

Cale sauntered out of the cabin then, leaving three highly alert and well-armed thugs on guard… and however unnerving the leader’s presence was, Ed had a bad feeling that the captives were anything but safer in his absence.

 

 

V: Cabin Fever

 

It was after midnight when Cale left the cabin; but under the circumstances, sleep was entirely out of the question, and it quickly became clear that the thugs on watch would allow little conversation between their prisoners. Edward was only able to ask if Hughes was alright, and receive an affirmative answer from Mustang, before Tegan ordered him to shut up and get to work.

Ed’s first stalling tactic was to immediately ask for paper and pencil, in order to make notes about the artifacts he was expected to transmute. As no paper was on hand, it was necessary for Ferdy to go and check with Cale at the next cabin. For a few minutes, only Bosh and Tegan were left to guard three alchemists and one unconscious investigator—but the pair were much too watchful to be taken by surprise at that time. The wait was passed in tense silence, and soon Ferdy returned, to slap a notebook down on the table in front of Ed.

Although the notebook was unmarked, several pages had visibly been torn out. On a hunch, while pretending to sketch one of the artifacts, Ed lightly rubbed the pencil over the topmost remaining page. The impressions that emerged made his heart skip a beat: a neatly drawn diagram of the Central Museum of History, with meticulous notes about the placement of guards and security measures. This was Cale’s own notebook, used to plot his deadly crimes.

Viciously Ed tore out the page and crumpled it, and gathered his nerves for a long moment before turning to the artifacts.

His assertion that he needed to study them was more than a ruse. He would stretch out that process for as long as he could—but if that wasn’t enough time to find a chance of escape, he might be forced to play along still further, to actually begin transmuting the items as Cale wished. If it came to that, he wanted to be sure he could restore them properly later on. For that reason, when he began to examine the artifacts and make careful notations about every detail of them, he genuinely applied himself to the task.

Al and Mustang, meanwhile, were left with nothing to do. After settling Hughes on the bunk, they were made to sit in silence on the floor with their backs against the wall; but Ed knew they were watching their keepers every bit as carefully as the keepers watched them. If one of the men Cale left on guard made a single mistake, things could happen in a split second. Mindful of that fact, Ed remained intensely aware of the room around him as he worked.

Eventually, with a faint moan, Hughes began to awaken. He stirred restlessly on the bunk, his hand moving up to the bruise on his chin where Mustang had clipped him. Then he shot upright all at once, with a panicked urgency that caused Tegan and Ferdy’s guns to swivel toward him.

Elicia!”

Watching his friend anxiously, Mustang moved to stand up—only to hesitate and glance at the guards. When there was no obvious objection, he completed the motion of rising, and edged over to kneel beside Hughes. By this time, the Major appeared to have remembered the situation and reined in his anxiety. He sat on the edge of the bunk, thin-lipped and breathing heavily, his hands fisted tightly into the sheets that covered the flimsy mattress.

“Are you alright?” Mustang asked quietly.

Without meeting the Colonel’s gaze, Hughes closed his eyes. “What do you think?”

“I’m sorry, Maes—but you know I had to. You won’t help them by getting yourself killed.”

“I know that…” A slightly shaking hand rose to Hughes’ brow, and his head sank down a little. “I know. I just…”

“Okay, that’s enough,” Tegan interrupted brusquely, and rose to step forward, gesturing at Mustang with his gun. “Get back over there. All of you, just sit quiet.”

Reluctantly, Mustang withdrew to his former position against the wall. Hughes remained seated on the edge of the bunk, his head resting in his hands, and Edward felt sympathy and worry mixed with anger. He knew what he would have felt in Hughes’ place, if Al had been the one who was taken away instead. It was only his good fortune that Cale had a vested interest in keeping him pacified, by leaving his brother safely in his presence.

Heaving a sigh, Ed returned his attention to his sketch of a clay jug with a garish face sculpted on it. His efforts were hardly artistic, but they were a record of cracks and chips in the clay that would be adequate for his future reference. Accustomed as he was to using alchemy to repair objects, the idea of having to recreate the artifacts’ time-scarred flaws instead was rather strange. He could only hope they would be able to keep things from ever reaching that point.

With the vital need to stall for time, he worked at a snail’s pace: obsessing minutely over each detail he committed to the paper, often erasing and redrawing them even when they were right. Between the few dozen separate artifacts there were to work on, he could easily have extended this task for days—but he knew there would be a limit to Cale’s patience at some point. Even with such a rudimentary knowledge of alchemy as Cale possessed, he would soon begin to recognize the difference between genuine study and mere delaying tactics. More than that, he would expect it from Ed. He was far too intelligent not to.

Shortly after Hughes awakened, there was a stomp of footsteps on the porch outside, and Grund skulked into the cabin. His limp was now less pronounced, and a fresh bandage was visible through the red-stained rent in the leg of his pants. Nevertheless, the ugly giant looked to be in a foul mood as he dropped himself in a chair, fondling his knife and glaring murderously at the captives.

Ferdy sniggered obscenely. “What’s the matter? Upset because the Boss wouldn’t let you get fresh with the new girlfriend?”

A small choked noise came from Hughes. Ed glanced across the room to see him braced on the bunk with every muscle rigid, plainly struggling with the urge to throw himself at Grund and tear him to pieces.

Mustang leaned forward with a warning look. Hughes did not acknowledge it, but Ed knew he felt the silent message, because he took a deep breath and slowly opened his fists.

 

Time dragged onward in the tense and mostly quiet room, as Ed continued to work slowly and observe.

It would have been encouraging if the keepers showed any sign of boredom and complacency: if one or two of them started a game of cards or dice, if they began to make small talk between themselves, or even if they moved about restlessly. However, it was clear to Ed by now that the followers Cale chose for himself were not average two-bit gunsels. They were experienced in violence, whether through criminal or apparently military backgrounds. For the most part, they had already proven to be intelligent and disciplined—and all too focused on the task of watching every move their captives made.

As Cale had indicated, the gang made Alphonse a particular subject of their scrutiny, and Ed didn’t like that one bit. Al sat hunched against the wall with his gauntlets folded over his knees, making only an occasional small movement as he pretended to stretch a cramped muscle; but his innocuous behavior didn’t spare him from receiving grim, suspicious looks. Although Cale had given the armor a pass for now, his underlings were not satisfied, and Ed was worried that they might eventually take their curiosity into their own hands.

Granted, it had occurred to him that the shock of being confronted by Al’s hollowness might throw the guards off for a moment, and create a chance for action… but that idea was one he wanted to reserve as a last resort. Hughes was still innocently unaware of Al’s true nature, and for the Major’s peace of mind, Ed wanted very much to keep it that way.

He wasn’t sure how much time had passed when the door scraped open again, and Mareen stepped into the cabin. She carried a coffeepot and several cups on a makeshift tray, and the thugs made noises of approval as she went about serving them. From the practiced, methodical way she handled the task, Ed suspected she had experience as a waitress. Perhaps that was how she had first met Cale.

In any case, Mareen’s presence failed to provide enough distraction for any strategic move. Dismayed, Ed reluctantly turned his attention back to the notes he was writing, but he looked up when a shadow fell across the table a moment later. The woman was standing in front of him.

“I guess you probably didn’t get much sleep before…” She trailed off uncomfortably, glancing over her shoulder toward the thugs. Then she set a cup on the table and poised the coffeepot over it, somewhat questioningly. “I thought this might help you work.”

Edward usually preferred tea, but coffee was tolerable—especially given the truth of Mareen’s words. He had essentially not slept at all before the kidnapping, and even though his mind and body were wired with fear and anger now, he knew fatigue would start to overtake him sooner or later. Raising an eyebrow, he murmured an assenting “Thanks,” and Mareen poured the hot liquid with a pale attempt at a smile.

After she had served him, Ed watched her move on to the other hostages. Mustang accepted a cup from her in silence, but as she filled it, his dark eyes intently searched her hard, troubled face.

“Why are you here?” he asked quietly, and Mareen froze, hesitating for a long moment before she spoke three faint words in reply.

“…I love him.”

Mareen moved away quickly then, before Mustang could say anything more to her, and Ed frowned. Him, of course, would mean Cale. The fact of their closeness had already been obvious from the way he treated her—but even with the mastermind’s talent for pushing the right buttons in people, Ed wondered how Mareen could stand by and watch her lover do all the wrong he had done. There must have been terrible things in her own past to have hardened her that much, to let her choose Cale over conscience.

Al declined the coffee with his eternal politeness, and Mareen went on to Hughes. He merely gave her a dark look as she poured a cup for him; but after setting the uninvited brew on the floor at his feet, she straightened to look up at him with softer eyes than before.

“I asked Cale… He let your wife write a note for you,” she said, and slipped her fingers into the breast pocket of her shirt, withdrawing a folded piece of paper. “I thought it might—”

Her words were cut off abruptly when Bosh stepped up behind her and seized her wrist. She made a small sound of pain as he twisted her hand back and plucked away the paper. He unfolded it with a dubious glower, ignoring the choice words she muttered at him, and read through the brief note before returning it with sudden and complete disinterest.

It intrigued Ed greatly that Bosh would treat his leader’s girl with such suspicion.

Reclaiming the note, Mareen gave the man with the sledgehammer a good hard glare. Then she turned back to Hughes, and gingerly held out the now-unfolded paper to him. “Here.”

Hughes’ hand didn’t tremble when he reached out and took the note, but Ed could see the edge of the paper quivering as he read it. His eyes passed over the hastily written words several times, and his breathing grew heavier with suppressed emotion.

“How is it?” Mustang asked him carefully.

The Major took a deep, shuddering breath. “…They’re alright.”

His voice was tense and pained, but he said it with certainty, and Ed figured he would know. If Gracia had been forced to write a lie about the well-being of herself and Elicia, Hughes surely could have read the truth between the lines of his wife’s words and handwriting.

At least that small glimmer of reassurance was something.

 

Having delivered the coffee and the note, Mareen left the cabin promptly, and Ed didn’t regret that. He suspected it was of far greater benefit to have her next door, keeping an eye on the treatment of Hughes’ family. The woman remained a puzzle to him, but at least for the moment, he still felt she was one of the most likely advantages the prisoners had.

For some time after that, the status quo of the tense situation remained unchanged: Ed worked, his fellow captives waited, and their keepers watched. The night crept slowly onward.

Since early the morning before, Ed had gotten no more sleep than his few moments’ drowsing off back at the camp, and his anxious fury was no longer enough to keep him from feeling his physical tiredness. However, when he did try to lay his head down on his arms and close his eyes, only a few minutes passed before Bosh rudely jerked him back to awareness with a snarled order to work.

“I’ve been awake almost twenty-four hours now,” Ed muttered through his teeth, refusing to straighten from the weary slouch he had slipped into in his chair. “You want me to start making mistakes in my calculations ’cause I can’t see straight?”

The remark was more bluff than sincerity. Ed was tired, but when he needed to, he could keep himself going for far longer. Part of the reason he really wanted a rest period was that it would be one more ploy to help stretch the captives’ time.

Bosh fingered the handle of his sledgehammer. “Take it up with Cale next time he checks in. Meantime, he didn’t say a thing about letting you take a break—so you’re not getting one. Not ’til he gives it the okay.”

Resigned, Ed sat up and continued his largely-feigned study of the artifacts.

It didn’t surprise the young alchemist that Hughes showed not the least sign of sleepiness, and merely sat with a dark, restless look on his face, fidgeting now and then. The man’s fear for his family would surely be enough to keep him awake for days, if it came to that. Mustang leaned his head back against the wall, eyes closed, but Ed was sure he wasn’t sleeping either. Although Al had grown more still than ever, his pretending to doze hardly made a difference in his case; unable to get a read on him through his armor, the guards never relaxed their scrutiny of him. The thugs themselves were still fresh and alert, and it was clear they were thoroughly used to nocturnal activity. Ed could only assume that some of the others—at least those not watching Hughes’ family—were now asleep in the next cabin, resting up for the day shift.

A few more hours must have passed before the morbid monotony was broken by Cale’s return. As he sauntered through the door, Ed caught a glimpse of the first gray morning light in the sky outside.

“And how is our wonder child progressing?” Cale inquired, with an obnoxious brightness that could only be deliberate.

Ed glared back at him. “Not as well as I would be if I had some rest. I tried telling your goombahs you wouldn’t be happy if I messed anything up.”

“Is that so?” Cale turned reproachfully to the thugs on duty, lowering one eyebrow. “You disappoint me, gentlemen. I did tell you to give the boy whatever he needed, didn’t I? And that includes enough sleep to keep his mind sharp. The work he’s doing for us is too delicate for error.” He turned back to Ed with a calm shrug. “You can take the next four hours to rest. After that, I’ll have food brought to you.”

“Don’t expect a thank-you,” Ed muttered.

“I don’t. I’m a practical man—and I appreciate your position.”

This man made Ed’s insides crawl. So genteel, so nearly generous… yet he knew beyond all doubt that Cale intended to see him dead, as soon as his usefulness was ended. Even more monstrous, Cale was fully aware that he knew, but expected him to fight for every last moment of life anyway. The mastermind would have wanted it no other way, because matching wits with human prey would mean more to someone like him than any profit his crimes could ever earn.

Edward could see it all too clearly. He also knew what it was to have a mind worth proving against anyone’s—and he hated the part of him that understood that pride, just as surely as he had when Shou Tucker called him on it once before.

Cale turned to leave then, but Bosh rose and moved toward him.

“Boss… What about that kid in the armor?”

The thug’s voice was low, but just clear enough for Ed to hear, and the words made him stiffen and catch his breath. He was sure the question of Al was going to be revisited at some point, but he had hoped it would take a little longer.

“What about him?” Cale asked mildly, if a little impatiently, in the same low tone.

Bosh hesitated, uneasily shifting his weight, and at last came out with what was on his mind. “Look, I agree with Grund. I don’t know what the idea is in letting the kid stay inside that thing, but it’s no good not to know what we’re dealing with in there. We oughta open him up.”

It made Ed very nervous to watch Cale contemplate that proposal for a long moment.

“I don’t believe there’s a need yet,” Cale finally stated, and gave Bosh a look that wryly took in the other man’s tall powerhouse of a physique. “However frightening that whimsy of his may look to a pair of big strong men like you and Grund, it’s obvious that he’s only a child. He’s been the least threatening of the group—and even if he’s been allowed to keep his own protection, he knows his brother and his friends will be the ones hurt if he acts up.”

“But—”

“Besides, what matters to one brother is sure to matter to the other.” Cale’s expression grew firmer. “Our little alchemist is cooperating for now, and I see no reason to spoil that yet. In fact, letting his brother keep the armor might be one more useful incentive later on, if he starts to get stubborn.” He glanced darkly toward Mustang and Hughes. “And if I were you, Bosh… instead of worrying about a child in a metal suit, I’d be much more concerned about what’s going on in the minds of two grown men who know how this is going to end.”

An icy shudder slipped down Ed’s spine. He squeezed his eyes shut, and did not open them again until he heard the sound of the door closing behind Cale.

In the leader’s wake, Bosh was left glaring disgustedly at Al, and that didn’t make Ed feel any better.

Ed couldn’t help wondering if, even subconsciously, Cale tolerated Al’s armor without question because it lent a wild card to his game: one small unknown factor that might or might not turn out to make things more interesting. Because so far, for Cale, it had all been too easy to give him the amusement of a real challenge.

Having been given permission to rest, Ed abandoned the work table, and went to stretch himself out on one of the lower bunks. He wasn’t sure he would even be able to sleep under the circumstances, but at least he could draw out another four hours of time—and perhaps the hostages’ pretending to sleep would cause the thugs to relax their guard a little.

Eventually he did manage to slip off into a tense and fitful twilight, disrupted often by heavy footsteps and other noises from the thugs. There was nothing very refreshing about it, but that wasn’t the most important thing right now. Each time he was roused to awareness, he lay still and took stock of the guards’ positions from beneath his lowered eyelids; yet still those professional criminals went on watching their prisoners too closely. Any move against them would still have had no chance.

Sometime in what must have been mid-morning—it was light outside, but with the windows covered, the sun’s position was difficult to judge—Ed was awakened by the sound of the door opening. Savory aromas reached his nose, and he opened his eyes slightly to see Mareen entering, with her self-proclaimed cousin Dex moodily trailing after her. They were both laden with trays of food: sausages, biscuits, more coffee.

“Feeding time at the zoo,” Dex grumbled, ignoring Mareen’s chiding look.

Although Ed went on feigning sleep, Ferdy ambled over to the bunk and shook his metal shoulder—none too gently, causing a small twinge of pain where the automail port joined with his flesh. “Come on, get up, kid. Your four hours are up anyway.”

With an ungrateful look, Ed pushed himself upright and sat on the edge of the bunk. He watched as Mareen and her visibly reluctant assistant first served the guards, and then came to feed the prisoners. This time, plates were provided to them as well as cups, but no utensils that might be used as potential tools or weapons. Ed was forced to admit to a grudging respect for the gang’s seemingly flawless caution.

“Get any sleep?” Mareen asked with a rather uneasy kindness, as she poured a cup of coffee for the young alchemist.

He shrugged and murmured, “A little. What time is it?—Not that it matters.”

“It’s… just after ten.” The woman’s eyes darkened, and she moved away from him quickly to serve his fellow captives, as if she was disquieted all over again by his last four words.

She knew where this was going, and it gave Ed a bit of hope to see it continuing to weigh on her.

Halfheartedly, he began to pick at his breakfast. The sausages and biscuits were plain, but solid and fortifying food. He doubted the prisoners would have been allowed to eat as heartily as the guards did, if Mareen had not been the one in charge of their feeding.

After a few moments, a shadow encroached, and Ed glanced up to find Dex looking down on him. His switchblade was not in sight then, but his hand rested tellingly near his back pocket. Ed considered ignoring him, but when the older teen rather pointedly continued to stare, he gave up the idea and raised his head with a scowl.

“What do you want?”

The juvenile delinquent gave a one-shouldered, flat-eyed shrug. “I was just wondering how smart you really are.”

It hardly sounded like a compliment, but Ed thought there truly was some kind of genuine curiosity behind the words. He straightened a little, his ill-tempered expression becoming more level.

“Smart enough to know you’re on the wrong road,” he muttered, in a voice low enough to avoid attracting attention from the guards. “If you keep hanging out with Cale’s crowd, you’re only going to wind up in prison—or dead.”

“I don’t think so. Not as long as Cale is calling the shots… because he doesn’t make mistakes.” Dex folded his arms. “But no matter what might happen someday, at least I’m surviving now. At least these guys let me stand for myself the only way I know how, and that’s a whole lot better than where I came from. You don’t know.” He studied Ed with eyes full of withering contempt. “But then, the smart ones like you never know. It all comes easy to you.”

Slowly, Edward lifted his automail hand between them, curling the lifeless metal fingers into a fist.

“You think so?”

Dex stared at the prosthetic with a visible flinch. His mouth opened in a gape of speechless uncertainty; but after a moment, his defensiveness slipped firmly back into place. His jaw snapped shut as his eyes hardened once more, and he turned to walk away.

“There’s more than one way of being smart,” Ed remarked quietly to Dex’s retreating back. “Sometimes all it takes… is a choice.”

The angry teenager paused in his steps for only a second. Then he went on, and the cabin door banged shut behind him as he left.

Ed couldn’t begin to guess whether this odd and unexpected encounter had gained any traction. Heaving a sigh, he turned his head to survey the other activity in the room—and he discovered Mareen had been watching the exchange. She stood a few steps away, her tray now empty, and she stared at him with glossy eyes and a strangely desperate expression on her face.

And Ed pitied her, because at that moment, she looked even more trapped than he felt.

Then she swallowed hard and blinked away the mistiness, and her shoulders hitched slightly as she forced a wan, apologetic smile. “I’m sorry. It’s just been hard for Dex ever since his mother d—”

Mareen.”

It was Ferdy’s voice that spoke her name in a cold, hard tone of warning, and even though she must have had at least an inch on the little man, his goggle-eyed glare was enough to make her shrink back a little. She cleared her throat, tucked her tray beneath her arm, and quickly made her escape to the door.

When she was gone, Ed thought about Dex, and Mareen’s unfinished explanation that he could all too easily complete; and he glanced at Al, and even at Colonel Mustang, with a painful throb of gratitude squeezing his chest.

There but for the grace…

 

 

VI: Hidden Truth

 

Maes Hughes would rather have faced physical torture than the agony he was experiencing now.

It was maddening, sickening, unbearable: to know his precious wife and daughter were being held next door, subjected to unknown terrors and torments of their own, while he was able to do absolutely nothing to help or even comfort them. Everything in him wanted to break and run for the door, run to them, but he knew Roy was right. Any such attempt would only be rewarded with a bullet or a blade, and even if he was only wounded, he would be useless when a real chance to save his family came. As excruciating as it was, there was no choice but to be patient, and trust Roy and the Elric boys to help him end this nightmare.

For the most part, the day passed in an awful, unsettling silence. The guards were just too good at their jobs to distract each other with any idle talk, and they tolerated only brief exchanges between the captives—more or less limited to asking after each other’s welfare now and then. The words were pointless, but simply hearing the voice of an ally helped ease the tension just a little, reminding each other that they were not alone.

Edward, for his part, was certainly doing a fine job in his performance of elaborate dawdling. He spent the long hours studiously bent over the notebook that was provided to him, making endless notes, adjusting and erasing and redrawing his sketches of the artifacts, so that the pile of objects he had finished examining hardly grew at all.

Then again, what he was doing was not entirely the sanctioned work, either. At one point, when Maes cautiously stood and took a few paces to work off his unbearable anxiety, he moved close enough to see that Ed had flipped to the back of the notebook… and he discovered the boy was creating some extremely rude doodlings of their captors there.

Grund and Bosh appeared to be Ed’s favorite targets for caricature. As the two largest and most threatening men in the bunch, perhaps that was no surprise. On the other hand, Maes noticed that Ed had not drawn Mareen, or Dex… or Cale. There was something about the mastermind that seemed to—not frighten Ed, exactly, but unnerve him, in a strange, silent way Maes had never seen in him before.

If there was any set schedule of watches for the guards, it was not apparent, because different members of the gang moved in and out all day. Maes could guess they found the wait intensely boring, and sometimes wandered from one cabin to the other just for a change. It was the only display of restlessness they had shown—apart, of course, from their unfriendly curiosity about Alphonse. In any case, there were never any fewer than three of them in the room, and at all times they were armed and ready for misbehavior from their prisoners.

Mareen brought sandwiches in the afternoon, and later, when the light beyond the covered windows was fading, she returned with cups of hot soup. However, there were no more notes from Gracia, and Maes grew too sick with worry to eat. Mareen promised him his family was still safe, but her word on it was small comfort.

Only after supper did Cale return, for the first time since the early morning. Smug and confident and mincing as ever, he spoke with the current guards and looked appraisingly over his hostages; but when he approached Ed’s work table, a small frown bent his lips downward.

“I’m quite sure you can work faster than this.” Cale spread his hands over the artifacts Ed had already studied and set aside, which constituted hardly a tenth of the entire collection. “My patience is considerable—but I don’t advise you to test it.”

Ed clenched his fists on the table and glared up at Cale.

“You’re the one who failed at alchemy, so don’t tell me how to do my job! Unless you don’t want this done right—because let me tell you what happens if I get something wrong. Whoever it is you’re taking these to must have done their homework, and if they see just one little crack that isn’t where it’s supposed to be, they’ll accuse you of trying to sell them imitations. Best case: your deal falls through, and you don’t get paid. Worst case: they kill you for trying to cheat them. Either way, these artifacts get thrown away as junk, when they really are the real thing… and I’m not going to let that happen.”

The intent sincerity in Ed’s voice surprised Maes. He truly meant what he said about making sure the artifacts were preserved.

Cale’s expression was hard and cold as he stared at Ed for a long moment. Then he turned on his heel, merely saying over his shoulder: “I want to see more progress, boy.”

Before Cale had quite reached the door, he was intercepted by Bosh, who was then on guard along with Ferdy and Ranold. Maes couldn’t make out their words, but judging by their glances and gestures, Bosh was yet again urging the removal of Al’s armor—and Cale denied the motion. The encounter left the big thug seething, and when his leader was gone, he returned to his chair and glowered at Al with his beefy arms folded over his chest.

Maes felt sure this disagreement about the younger Elric’s armor could not possibly end well.

After a short time, he rose very slowly and stretched, taking care to keep his hands in plain sight. The guards watched him hawkishly, but they did not object to his taking a few steps, rubbing his arms and thighs as if to work cramps out of his muscles.

“Bosh is gonna be trouble,” he murmured to Ed in a low voice, when he paused by the table as if to watch the alchemist at work.

“I know.”

Ed’s voice was taut with the strain of worry, and Maes’ heart gave a thump. Unlike his own family, Al may have been left in their presence, but that didn’t make the older brother’s fear for the younger any less gut-wrenching.

For a moment, the Major let his eyes wander over the objects on the table that had been the cause of so much trouble. Outside of their museum cases, they looked like nothing at all: mere bits of stone and clay and copper, just as Ed had considered them to be from the start. In some ways, maybe the boy was right. Maybe mere things weren’t worth all of this, no matter how old or historically significant they were.

“I thought you said old relics from the past weren’t important,” Maes remarked, in quiet curiosity.

“I did. But it’s just…” Ed gritted his teeth and shook his head slightly, looking up at Maes with troubled amber eyes. “Those four guards at the museum. They died trying to protect these things. It was important to them. Maybe I don’t completely understand why… but I don’t have to. I just have to do the best I can to make sure they didn’t die for nothing.”

In spite of himself, Maes smiled faintly. He drew a breath to respond, but before he could speak, Ranold’s voice cut harshly between them.

“Okay, enough of that. You get back where you were. Keep working, kid.”

Before Maes moved off, he dared to reach out and briefly squeeze Ed’s shoulder, and it gladdened him to see a feeble smile in return.

They were going to get through this. Somehow, they were still going to find a way.

 

For a little while, Maes lay on one of the bunks, trying halfheartedly to rest. However anxious and heartsick he was, he knew he would need his strength and wits to be fresh when the time to act finally came—but all he could see when he closed his eyes was Gracia and Elicia, and the leer on Grund’s face as that hulking human beast dragged them away. It took an effort to shut out the thoughts of the things Grund wanted to do, and surely would do if the captives made no escape.

For all Maes knew, Grund might have already tried.

His stomach knotted up, and he let out a stifled groan between his teeth, rolling onto his side. He wanted nothing more than to turn his back to the room, to forget what was around him even for a few minutes; but he faced the room instead, keeping his eyes on every movement of its occupants. He had to watch, to be ready…

At some point Maes must have dozed off, because he flinched back to alertness with a sudden sense of unease. There was a new tension in the air that he could almost physically feel. Glancing around to take stock of the guards’ positions, he saw Ranold still sitting with his shotgun—but the older man’s eyes kept flicking back to Bosh and Ferdy. The two stood at the far side of the room, engaged in a low-voiced discussion. Bosh was looking increasingly agitated, while Ferdy made ineffectual calming gestures.

The brewing discord was not lost on the other captives. Ed had paused in his work, watching the pair alertly, and Roy sat up straighter against the wall as he too observed. Al was still curled in a metal-clad ball with his arms wrapped around his knees, but the chin of his helmet was lifted attentively.

Bosh abruptly cut the conversation short by turning to push past Ferdy, his voice rising to an audible pitch. “Just shut it! You know I’m right. And no matter what Cale says—I ain’t waiting around to see it proved the hard way.”

He began to advance across the room, and his gaze was focused on Al.

In that moment, Maes could sense Ed’s tension like the hum of electricity from a live wire. The older Elric had turned rigid, both hands braced on the tabletop, his arched back raising him an inch out of his chair. His eyes were golden flames, watching Bosh the way a tiger would regard an errant handler it was five cold seconds from mauling.

Maes’ breath caught, and his own body tensed in readiness. He realized that if Bosh took one more step forward, Ed was going to make the moment arrive all by himself—whether anyone else was prepared for it or not.

Ranold jerked up from his chair, clutching his shotgun in his left hand, as he reached up to plant his halting right hand against Bosh’s chest. “What do you think you’re—?”

Back off.” Bosh knocked Ranold’s hand away, almost without breaking stride. “I don’t trust what I can’t see.”

“Don’t be an idiot,” Ferdy snarled behind him. Cale said…!”

“Sure, Cale’s been right about a lotta things—but not this time. I’m not sittin’ back to wait for no surprises from this freak.” Bosh leaned over the now-cringing Alphonse, hefting his sledgehammer to slap the heavy head of it against his palm. “You take off that helmet right now, or—”

Leave him alone!”

Those words came out of Edward in a blood-curdling shriek—and things got very confusing after that.

Ed launched himself like a bullet, up and over the table, on a direct course for Bosh. The boy had eyes for nothing but his brother’s would-be assailant. In that single-minded fury, he was even oblivious to Ferdy raising his revolver.

Instinctively Maes pushed off from the bunk and threw himself at Ferdy on a low trajectory, catching him around the waist. As they tumbled to the floor together, he heard the click of the revolver jamming on what would have been a wild shot—a shot that could have brought the rest of the gang running from next door.

The little man had exactly the glass jaw Maes expected. One punch put him out neatly, and Maes whipped around in search of the other two thugs. Roy was grappling with the now-unarmed Ranold, as Al lurched forward to aid his brother in wrestling the sledgehammer from Bosh.

Ed might have had two steel limbs and a fit of berzerker strength in his favor, but he was overwhelmed by Bosh’s sheer size. The powerful thug managed to shake him off and shove him backward. His balance lost, the boy heeled over and hit the floor halfway behind the table, and Bosh turned to the armored giant coming at him.

Shifting one foot back a step to brace his own huge frame, Bosh let the hammer swing with all of his massive strength. There was a dull echoing clang… and Maes watched as Al’s body toppled one way, while his head went the other.

In the heartbeat’s space of silence that followed, the father and soldier felt something go snap inside his head.

He was just a kid!”

An instant later, Bosh was somehow spread-eagled on the floor, at the mercy of a man seized by a temporary madness. He probably never knew what hit him.

Maes didn’t know where the sledgehammer went. He didn’t even remember it existed. For a few moments, all he knew was the crunch of bone under his fists, as he pummeled the killer’s already-scarred face into a pulp. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he was vaguely conscious of Roy shouting at him, but he couldn’t bring himself to care.

He only froze in mid-swing when he heard the cry of a second voice: small, quavering, with an unmistakable tinge of metal.

“Major, don’t kill him!”

Sudden cold lightning arced up Maes’ spine into his brain, burning off the red fog that seemed to have filled his vision. He jerked convulsively upright and opened his hands, not daring to breathe.

Al’s voice. Impossible, after that decapitating blow of the hammer, but he was sure it was true… and not coming from the direction the boy’s head had gone.

Very, very slowly, Maes turned to survey the rest of the room.

Roy was standing over Ranold’s unconscious form, with the shotgun dangling loosely in his grip. His poise was straight and steady, but there was a darkness in his face that Maes had never seen before—and Maes thought he had known every kind of darkness Roy had in him.

As for Edward, he’d managed to end up on top of the table: crouching, breathing hard, with tremors running through his body that Maes could see even at a distance. And his expression…

Maes had seen Ed in more than one fight before. Youth and small size notwithstanding, he was entirely aware that Ed could be dangerous, even a little terrifying… but never had Maes seen him so resemble a cornered wild animal. Even now that all three guards had been felled, the kid still looked as if he was staring down every demon ever to come out of hell.

With a painful gulp, Maes forced his gaze to continue toward the place where Ed’s brother had fallen.

Al’s head lay on the floorboards, an abandoned afterthought. Or somehow—yes, surely—could it be nothing more than his helmet, if by some miracle the boy had ducked down inside his enormous armor shell? The sledgehammer’s very real impact was attested to by a huge dent in the right side of the metal face, yet there was not even a trickle of blood from within it… Maes’ hope surged, and his eyes traveled farther.

A short distance away from the helmet, there knelt the rest of the suit of armor Maes had always known as Alphonse’s outward guise. With its gauntlets braced on the floor, it slowly moved, the headless torso leaning forward just a little. Just enough.

Just enough for Maes to clearly see the dark gaping nothing that was inside it.

“I’m sorry you got so upset, Major,” the boy’s voice whispered from the depths of the empty metal. “But you see now… he couldn’t hurt me.”

Alphonse…

Al wasn’t inside the armor.

He was the armor.

It was purely human nature that a part of Maes’ brain simply short-circuited, refusing to believe what his eyes and ears were witness to—even as some horrible part of him sat back and laughed hysterically that so many things all made sense now. In reality, he only took a step backward, staring wide-eyed and slack-jawed at the hollow talking steel.

“Wh—what…?”

Maes.” That was Roy’s voice, hard and low, as his friend stepped forward and put a firm hand on his shoulder. “Listen to me, Maes, and try to think about this very carefully. Do you understand what the principle of Equivalent Exchange means in alchemy?”

Perhaps it was the jolt of the seeming non sequitur, or just his ingrained obedience to his comrade’s voice in the most terrible of circumstances, but Maes at least managed to follow the question without drawing a complete blank. He blinked and swallowed, not looking away from the suit of armor that was Al.

“It means… you can’t create something without giving up the right raw materials. But—but what does that have to do with—?”

Then Maes cut himself off suddenly, as he really did think about the words he had just said… and the most terrible feeling he had ever known came over him. He stared with new eyes at Al’s hulking metal form, and then at the prosthetic limbs of the trembling shadow-eyed boy who still crouched on the table; and for the first time, he understood the Elric brothers’ true common trait.

It was not the trappings of steel they both carried after all, but the thing that steel replaced: the living human flesh they both were missing.

Raw materials…

With that crowning shock, Maes’ knees turned to water, and his legs folded up beneath him. He tried to take another step back, but he failed to reach the bunk behind him, and his backside landed gracelessly on the floor with a thump.

“Oh… oh, no…”

A second heavy thump startled Maes, as Ed leaped from the table to the floor. A few stiff strides took him across the room to where Al’s stray helmet-head lay. He picked it up, and stood with his back turned to them all, facing the blankness of the covered front window. Maes could see his entire small body quivering with unthinkable emotions.

“It was supposed to be so simple,” he said at last, his voice distant and toneless. “We thought we had everything we needed, down to the last ounce. We thought all the elements of human life were cheap… but how do you measure the price of a soul?”

Maes knew then, beyond any doubt; and he was certain he knew the answer to the question he tried to ask next.

“What… who were you trying to…?”

He broke off when Ed’s shoulders hitched in a flinch of obvious pain. The elder brother said nothing, and when the answer finally came, it was delivered by Al’s soft ringing voice.

“It was our mother.”

Those four words only confirmed what Maes already suspected, but they still twisted a cold knife deep into his heart. There was nothing about fatherhood that had ever prepared him for this, ever made him conceive of the possibility of this. That children who had lost a parent could love so much, need so badly, that they would even…

What would Elicia do?

The very thought forced a sob to catch in Maes’ throat. He bowed his head and put his face in his hands, hiding warm salt tears that suddenly brimmed behind his eyeglasses and spilled over onto his cheeks.

For a long moment, there was silence. Then hesitant footsteps approached, and he knew by their lightness and mismatched cadence that it was Ed.

“Major…”

There was a faint tremor in his voice then, a soft childlike uncertainty, and Maes couldn’t help himself. From his sitting position on the floor, he reached out with impulsive suddenness and threw his arms around Ed’s waist: clinging to him tightly, burying his face against the ribs of the tragic young genius who had defied man and nature in search of a mother’s lost love.

Maes felt the whipcord tension in that small body, and he wondered if the boy objected to the uninvited contact… but then Ed’s taut muscles relaxed just a little, and his hands slowly came to rest on Maes’ shoulders. Although the steel right hand was heavier than the left, its unfeeling grip was more gentle, instinctively taking care to do no hurt to the fragile flesh under his fingers.

“I’m sorry, Major,” Ed whispered at length, with a faint roughness in his voice. “You were better off not knowing.”

“Don’t say that.” Maes’ voice was muffled against Ed’s shirt. Without loosening his embrace, he tilted his head upward, until his gaze caught and held the too-dark eyes that hovered on the brink of looking away from him in shame. “I was the one who had Roy bring you boys out here. I did it because I wanted to understand you better. I just wanted to know how I could do more to help you… and maybe now, I can.”

The complicated light and shadow in Ed’s eyes shifted, taking on a sudden dusky glossiness. His fingers gripped a little harder, his lips twisted into something too painful to be called a smile… but it was beautiful, all the same.

Metal scraped abruptly as Al rose up, and Maes reluctantly let go of Ed, to wipe his eyes under his glasses and watch the armor-child coming toward them. The elder brother must have passed his helmet back to him at some point, because it was clutched in his big leather hands, but he had not yet returned it to where it belonged. He drew near, only to halt at arm’s length with a palpable uncertainty, as if he thought Maes might react to him with fear.

“…Are you alright now, sir?”

Never could Maes have imagined what a fantastic paradox Al truly was. Devoid of living flesh, but still possessing such a powerful heart; hollow, and yet so very far from empty.

Before the Major could even begin to frame an answer, Ed frowned at the deep, vicious dent in the side of the helmet. “Al. Here…”

He clapped, and bent over the helmet in Al’s hands with a breathtaking tenderness. Maes watched as the steel reshaped itself under the young alchemist’s fingers, smoothing out until there was no sign that the damage had ever occurred. It was a little startling to see that Ed could even manipulate the metal his brother inhabited.

“How did you…?” Maes fumbled weakly, with a small, helpless gesture that took in the entirety of Al’s impossible being.

A flicker of the earlier darkness crept back into Ed’s eyes, and he looked away; but after a moment of what Maes could only interpret as intense consideration, Al knelt down. One gauntlet pointed into the shadowed void within the armor, and for the first time Maes noticed something that looked like a roughly scrawled transmutation circle on the inner surface.

Maes had seen more than enough blood in his life to know it when he saw it—and while his knowledge of alchemy consisted of nothing but a few basic concepts Roy used to ramble about over beers, even he had an eerie feeling that this array was different.

“My life is in that blood seal.” Al’s voice was soft and chillingly steady, emanating from some mysterious source inside the metal shell. “The transmutation that was supposed to bring Mom back… it took away Ed’s leg, and my whole body. Then Ed used a second transmutation to attach my soul to this armor. He gave up his arm to do it.”

Al recited this tale of horror with a quiet numbness, and Maes could understand. Many soldiers he knew shut off a part of themselves the same way when they talked about Ishbal, if they ever talked about it at all.

Roy was not exaggerating in the least when he said these boys had been through hell.

Swallowing hard, Maes reached up. After a slight hesitation—only because he wasn’t sure whether his touch would be welcome—he laid his hand on Al’s rerebrace. Perhaps it was merely a trick of his imagination, now that he knew the truth, but he was convinced he felt more than the hard chill of lifeless steel: something like a distant warmth, the ghostly tingle of a living presence.

Ed had turned back, watching Maes’ silent gesture of compassion and acceptance, and his eyes were glistening again.

“Al and I couldn’t save our family… but we are going to save yours.” The boy’s gaze caught fire with new determination. “I promise, Major.”

A sudden shudder chased itself down Maes’ spine at the reminder of the present danger. They had captured this cabin, but Gracia and Elicia were still in the hands of the enemy—and Cale or one of his gang might wander in at any moment. Somehow, they had to form a plan and act on it before their freedom was discovered.

Pulling his shaken nerves together, Maes squeezed Ed’s shoulder once in gratitude, and then glanced over at Roy. He must have been the only one of them with a clear head for the past few minutes. Quietly, unobtrusively, it seemed he had been tending to the things that needed to be done: collecting the guards’ weapons, ensuring they were still unconscious. Maes was not at all surprised by that.

“Is Bosh…?” Maes began uncomfortably, glancing toward Bosh’s sprawled form on the floor.

Roy smiled without humor. “After the going-over you gave him, he’s not going to look any prettier—but he’ll live.”

That assurance was a relief to Maes. As a military investigator, he was at heart a man of the law. Even if Bosh had played an active part in the murders of the guards at the museum, he didn’t care to see any criminal meet his ultimate punishment without due process. This was not for the sake of the evildoer—but because swifter justice only came at great cost to those who delivered it, even in self-defense. He knew that cost from personal experience, in the sleepless nights spent replaying life-and-death moments in his mind, wondering if there was anything he could have done differently.

“So what do we do now?” Al queried, as he settled his helmet back into place—with a primness Maes could have found almost funny, were the truth that underlay it not so painful. “How do we rescue Mrs. Hughes and Elicia?”

“We obviously can’t call for backup,” Roy muttered. “There’s no telephone or radio within miles. The creeps in the other cabin would hear it if we tried to steal one of their cars, and there wouldn’t be time to reach the lodge anyway. We’re going to have to do this on our own.”

Ed folded his mismatched arms and spoke in a growl of grim confidence. “No problem. All we have to do is bust in there, use alchemy to throw a wall around Gracia and Elicia, and start cracking heads.”

“It’s not that simple, Ed.” Roy had moved to the side window that faced the next cabin. Slowly and with great caution, he drew back the edge of the blanket scarcely an inch, and peered out into the darkness. “If we want to be sure of keeping Hughes’ family safe, we’ll have to shield them before the kidnappers realize what’s happening—and you can’t do that if you don’t know exactly where they are. The windows next door are covered, just like the ones in here. Even if we were standing right outside, we wouldn’t be able to see in.”

The younger State Alchemist scowled, his shoulders slumping a little; but after a second or two, he twitched as if he had been pinched. When he looked up at Roy again, there was a new gleam in his eyes. “Wait a sec. Does that cabin have a chimney too?”

Quirking one eyebrow, Roy peered around the edge of the blanket-curtain again. “Looks like it.” He turned back to Ed, and his expression grew a little more dubious. “What do you suggest—have us lower you down by a rope?”

Who’re you callin’ so puny he can crawl through a keyhole?

Maes winced, Al sighed, and Roy planted his fists on his hips with a roll of his eyes—but the outburst was momentary, as always. A few deep breaths helped Ed recover his composure, and he squared his shoulders, glaring back at Roy more evenly.

Look, I’ve got an idea. It’s worked before in situations like this. But I’m gonna need a couple things.”

“Such as?” Maes asked.

“Some mirrors… and ideally, some rubber. Plenty of it.”

The shopping list was odd and cryptic, but Maes’ mind nonetheless seized on the problem. He rubbed thoughtfully at his chin-stubble. “Well, there’s the tires and the rear-view mirrors on those cars outside. With any luck, I could sneak out there and strip what you need without being spotted.”

“Sounds like a plan… Come on, Al. While we’re waiting, we’d better tie up these idiots on the floor.” Ed turned to one of the bunks, and started tearing off the sheets to create bindings for their captors-turned-captives.

“…Don’t mind me,” Roy murmured a bit incredulously, looking back and forth between Ed and Maes. “I’m only the ranking officer here.”

Not quite able to stifle a soft chuckle, Maes put a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “I think I know what he has in mind, Roy. Anyway, I trust him. Let’s give him a chance.”

The Colonel stared at Maes for a moment, with a look of lingering uncertainty and concern. Then his expression slowly softened, and he gave a short nod.

“Alright. I’ll go with you to get the rubber and the mirrors. But we’ll need some tools.”

He moved to the pile of weapons he had confiscated from their erstwhile captors. Apart from the sledgehammer, shotgun, and pearl-handled revolver that were their signature weapons, it appeared the trio had been carrying a tidy little collection of other pistols and knives. He selected a folding pocketknife for himself, and handed another to Maes. Almost an afterthought, he picked up Ferdy’s revolver as well—but they both knew that if they were discovered, the sound of a shot would be a game-ender for their plans.

“We’ll be back in a few minutes,” Roy said to the Elric brothers. “If any of Cale’s people try to come in here, don’t get heroic. Save yourselves.”

Fat chance,” Ed snarled over his shoulder in blunt insubordination, as he knelt beside the unconscious Ferdy with an alchemized rope.

Maes could have sworn Roy smiled at that.

After a quick glimpse outside to ensure that their way was clear, it was simple enough to sprint from the porch to the nearest of the gang’s cars, ducking down on the far side of it. There was a mere sliver of moon in the sky, and the only other illumination was the stifled yellow glow from the windows of the two occupied cabins. No one was stirring outside Cale’s remaining stronghold. Maes thought he could faintly hear voices through the wooden walls, but he wasn’t sure.

“Try checking the trunks for the spare tires first,” Roy whispered, and moved forward to begin the task of removing the rear-view mirror from its mounting.

Maes obeyed. Finding the trunk to be locked, he passed on it and crept to the trunk of the next car—but it was locked as well. With a mutter of impatience, he unfolded a tool from his pocketknife and set to work on picking the lock. He knew he shouldn’t have been surprised. Given the rest of their intricate precautions, it stood to reason that Cale’s gang would be security-conscious about their vehicles too.

In spite of the one mistake Bosh had made in provoking Ed, the enemy was still a frighteningly lethal and well-prepared lot. Maes tried not to think of that just yet: of the danger Gracia and Elicia were still in, or the risks to them in any attempted rescue. Instead, he thought back on the things that had just happened… and the terrible truths he had learned.

“Roy?” he murmured quietly in the darkness, after a short while.

Hmm.” Roy was a few feet away, with his knife between his teeth, as his slim fingers worked at removing a loosened screw from the housing of a rear-view mirror.

“…I just wanted to say I get it now. Why you picked up the Elrics, I mean. I think I understand what you were trying to do.”

For a long moment, silence was the answer. Then Roy reached up to take the knife out of his mouth, and drew in a deep, slow breath.

“I wonder if you do.” He looked away from his friend’s eyes. “I was there that night, Maes. In Resembool—the night they did it.”

Somehow, Maes kept himself from dropping his pocketknife as he started and looked sharply at the other man. “What?”

“It was only a coincidence. I was looking for their father, but what I found instead…” Roy finally looked back at Maes in the scant moonlight, with a smile as black as anything his friend had ever seen from him. “It’s a convenient story, isn’t it? The ambitious young officer, using a pet prodigy’s talents to glorify himself. But the truth is… if I had only been there a few minutes sooner…”

Then Maes truly understood, and he lowered his gaze, swearing softly.

Roy said nothing further. He continued with the task of removing the mirror, and after a moment, Maes halfheartedly resumed his battle with the lock. They worked in silence for a few minutes before Maes spoke again.

“I want you to promise me something, Roy.”

The Colonel looked up at him, with an expression of foreboding that was not at all unwarranted.

“If anything ever happens to me. If I…” Maes grimaced, fingers clenching white-knuckled on the grip of the knife. “Promise me you won’t—do anything. The way they did. And that you won’t let anyone else.”

“Maes—”

Promise me, Roy.”

The unrelenting hardness in Maes’ voice brooked no argument, and as always, Roy knew when his best friend would not be denied. He sighed and turned away, staring off into the darkness of the woods beyond the clearing.

“I promise,” he whispered. Very faintly, and just a little haltingly.

Then he swallowed, and his shoulders twitched in a small shrug, as if to physically shrug off the weight of the words. When he continued, the lightness in his tone was only slightly forced. “After all, it’s not like I’ll ever have to worry about keeping that promise. You’re too annoying to die.”

Maes’ answering smile at Roy’s back was grim but sincere. “Believe it. I plan to be showing you pictures of my great-great-grandchildren when we’re in the old soldiers’ home together.”

The affectionate threat won him the response he wanted: a beleaguered huff, a sidelong glance that was softer than it tried to be. Roy shook his head slightly, and continued his attack on the mirror with renewed vigor.

“Shut up and work, Maes. We don’t have all night.”

 

 

VII: It’s All Done With Mirrors

 

With the danger of discovery looming over Maes and Roy, every moment they spent outside felt like a moment too long. Once Maes had collected two spare tires from the cars, and Roy had pried the reflecting glass out of three rear-view mirrors, they both decided they had pushed their luck far enough for the moment. They took the materials and crept back up to the cabin, where Roy tapped a soft signal knock on the door before they let themselves in.

Edward and Alphonse had evidently been busy in the interim. Ranold, Ferdy, and the hideously swollen-faced Bosh were still unconscious—or perhaps again rather than still, because Ranold had a bruise over his eye that Maes didn’t remember seeing earlier. In addition, the three men were quite thoroughly trussed up in multiple tight loops of rope and elaborate knots. Maes hoped the boys hadn’t cut off any of the prisoners’ circulation… but he could only bring himself to care about that thought for a brief moment.

“Any problems while we were gone?” Roy asked Ed.

The boy’s smirk practically confirmed that he had gotten to vent some frustration on Ranold’s cranium. “Nothing we couldn’t handle,” he said with a faint trace of smugness, and promptly moved in on the mirrors and spare tires the men had brought in. “Yeah, this oughta do it…”

With that, Ed dropped down cross-legged in front of his raw materials—and to all appearances, he tuned out everything else around him as he set to work. Maes watched with interest, and over the next few minutes, his vague idea about the purpose of the project was confirmed. Ed first divided the mirrors into several smaller pieces, which seemed to be of very particular sizes and shapes; then he transmuted the tire rubber into a long, flexible tube, a few inches in diameter, and affixed the carefully-angled mirrors at specific points inside it.

“A periscope,” Roy mused in fascination, as Ed peered through one end of the rubber tube and made an adjustment.

“Right. If we drop the end of this down the chimney next door, we should be able to see where Gracia and Elicia are. Then we can separate them from Cale’s goons.” Ed smiled crookedly, with a tinge of reminiscence. “Back in Resembool, I used to make things like this all the time to peek in on Mrs. Hoff.”

Roy gaped at that remark—and if it wasn’t Maes’ imagination, his cheeks even flushed a little. “Why, Ed. I didn’t know you had it in you.”

“Umm… I think you’ve got the wrong idea.” Al fidgeted noisily. “Old Mrs. Hoff was the math teacher three grades ahead of us.”

If it was possible, Roy’s jaw sagged even farther at that.

Maes choked back a laugh. “What did you expect, Roy? This is Ed we’re talking about.”

“I’m sure you’re all hilarious, but I’m trying to work here,” Ed muttered, completely deadpan, with one eye pressed to the end of his periscope. “Maybe one of you can do something useful, too—like hit Ferdy over the head before he gets that knot untied.”

“What… Oh!”

By the time Ferdy was rather ungently prompted to resume his nap, and tied with a few more coils of rope for good measure, Ed seemed to have decided the periscope was finished. He stood up, clutching the end of it in his automail hand. “I’m ready when the rest of you are.”

Roy frowned thoughtfully at the refractor-equipped rubber tube that snaked over the floor. “Assuming this thing works, are you sure you can isolate Hughes’ family fast enough to keep them out of harm’s way?”

“It will work—and of course I’m fast enough. As long as nobody’s standing right next to them, I can drop a wall in front of them before Cale and his lackeys have a clue what’s going on.” Ed glowered at Mustang. “What about you? Any practice with a gun since your Academy days, or are you really useless without your precious gloves?”

The Colonel bristled. “You’re not the only alchemist who can improvise, Edward. All I need is a spark and the right array.”

“And you’re going to make a spark how, exactly? Cale took all the matches.”

For answer, Roy strode over to the table where Ed had spent long hours studying the artifacts. Bending, he picked up one of the warped pieces of flint Cale had experimented with, which still lay in a small pile on the floor.

“Alphonse?”

Ever attentive, the armored boy stepped forward with the beginnings of a polite query—only to be rudely interrupted by a sharp clang, as Roy struck the edge of the flint against his chestplate. A distinct spark was produced by the friction, and Roy smiled complacently.

Ed, on the other hand, choked on a snarl of indignant rage.

What’re you doing? That’s my brother!”

Al merely let out a good-natured chuckle. “It’s okay, Ed. I’m glad if I can help him.” He traced a leather finger curiously over the spot Roy had struck. “Besides, it’s not like he’s going to hurt me by doing that.”

Ed was mollified little by Al’s easygoing words. He glared back at Roy with a huff, and finally stomped away to make another examination of his periscope, muttering half to himself. “Yeah, but I’m the one who has to fix the dings in your armor…”

“I promise I’ll be gentle with him, Fullmetal,” Roy said, with a mocking sweetness. Then he turned to eye his best friend, somewhat doubtfully. “Are you alright, Maes?”

“Uh…” With some effort, Maes blinked himself out of a dazed blankness. “Sorry. It’s just… now that I know the truth, it’s a little weird to hear the three of you go on about—things like this—as if it was normal.”

“It is normal for us, Major. At least for now.” Ed looked back at Maes steadily, and his left hand made a discreet movement to clasp his automail arm. “Someday, we are going to get our bodies back the way they were… but until then, we have to work with what we’ve got.”

The quiet, matter-of-fact determination in Ed’s voice left Maes wanting to say something heartfelt: that the Elrics were the bravest, strongest boys he would ever know, or that few adults he knew—if any at all—could have endured such burdens with the grace the brothers did. But he suspected his sentiment would not have been welcome under the circumstances, so he remained silent.

After that, their remaining preparations did not take long.

Roy scavenged a fountain pen from among their former captors’ personal articles, and used its ink to draw his fire array on the back of his left hand. This would allow him to manipulate the sparks he could strike off of Al’s armor. Compared to his usual technique that relied on ignition-cloth gloves, it was slow and clumsy, but still a valuable weapon to have. In addition, Ferdy’s revolver was still tucked into his belt.

Maes revisited the arsenal collected from the three captured thugs, to arm himself with a forty-five automatic and a knife that was well-balanced for throwing. As the only non-alchemist on this rescue mission, he needed weapons he could rely on.

The Elrics declined to partake of the guns and knives, and Maes was not surprised. He knew their fighting styles well—perhaps more clearly than ever now. Alchemy and his own automail were all Edward needed to create spectacular destruction, and while Al’s gentle nature tended to make people forget what he was capable of… well, on the rare occasions when he wanted to be, he was a weapon unto himself.

Just once they had a scare, at the sound of a voice shouting outside. For a moment, the two soldiers and the two young brothers were frozen where they stood, fearful that their freedom had been discovered—but the tone of the shouts was not that of a warning. Maes’ wary glimpse out the window spied Tegan next to one of the cars, rummaging in the back seat and yelling questions to someone on the porch of the enemy cabin. When he found what he was looking for, both figures retreated inside once more. It was a false alarm… but it spurred Maes and Roy and the Elrics to work even more quickly.

In an abundance of caution, Roy and Maes examined the captive thugs one more time. All three of them were still unconscious, and it seemed there would be no possible way for them to escape their bonds now; but just in case, Roy asked Ed to transmute Ranold’s shotgun and the few other unclaimed weapons into useless, misshapen lumps of metal. Cale’s lesson in preparedness for almost any eventuality was well learned. If the prisoners did manage to slip the ropes and come to their leader’s aid, they would at least join the party unarmed.

At last, when all was in readiness and Ed was gathering up his neatly-coiled periscope, Roy stepped in front of the door and looked back at his three companions.

“Alright,” he said grimly. “We all know what the plan is, so there’s no need to go over it again. Just be careful. And Al—stay close to me.”

“Yes sir,” Al assented with a nod, and Maes briefly let himself marvel. It must have been an extraordinary thing for the boy, knowing the enemy could do almost nothing to harm him—yet there was no doubt he still felt a different kind of fear, for his brother and Elicia and the rest of his vulnerable flesh companions. Even so, beneath its metallic echo, his childlike voice was as grave and steady as that of any young soldier Maes had ever heard.

Roy returned the nod. Then he glanced at Maes, with the hard, joyless smile his best friend had seen many times before, in moments that had witnessed the best and the worst in them both.

“We’re going to get them back, Maes.”

“I know.”

That quiet assurance was the end of discussion. Roy turned to the door, cracking it open to scan swiftly for any dangers that might lie between themselves and the next cabin. Then he slipped out into the night, and the others followed.

 

As far as Edward was concerned, this was going to be easy.

Leave it to city-dwelling desk-sitters like Mustang and Hughes to make a job more complicated than it was. Ed and Al had been doing real work in the rough-and-tumble of Amestris’ far reaches for two years now; they had faced worse than this. He had no doubt they could have rescued Hughes’ family all by themselves, and probably in their sleep. (If Al did sleep, of course. Which he didn’t.)

Not that Ed expected the enemy to go down without a fight. Cale’s thugs might not be much of a problem if they could be caught off-guard, but if the mastermind was crazy enough to try his unskilled alchemy in the close quarters of the cabin… then things could get ugly.

In the darkness outside, the four would-be rescuers hurried to cross the distance between the cabin they had left and the one where Hughes’ family was held. They melted into the shadows of the structure, creeping around to the back. The night was even blacker there, and nothing lay beyond that side of the cabin but deep woods.

Ed looped his coiled periscope over his shoulder, freeing his hands for a soft clap. At his touch, the outer surface of the cabin’s wooden wall sprouted ladder rungs, and he motioned Mustang and Hughes toward it with an absurdly magnanimous after-you gesture.

Mustang—the jealous jerk—shot Ed a gratuitous dirty look before the two men climbed up. Unaffected, Ed rather smugly went up after them, and Al followed as stealthily as the friction of his armor would allow. His three years of practice at maneuvering his steel bulk served him well: when he needed to be, he was much quieter than one might expect.

Keeping low to the gently sloped surface of the roof, Ed crawled over to the hewn-stone chimney. He was relieved to see no smoke drifting up from beneath the metal cover that shielded it from rain. Carefully he stood up, examined the screws by which the cover was attached, and then turned to Hughes and Mustang as they edged closer.

“Can you get this thing off quietly?” he whispered. “If I use alchemy on it, the flash might carry down to the fireplace.”

Hughes immediately withdrew his pocketknife, unfolded a tool, and started in on the screws. Mustang followed suit. They had to work against the metal’s rust-coated age, but after a few minutes, the screws surrendered to their efforts and loosened.

Unlike the two men, a glance was the only cue Al needed from his older brother. He moved forward to lift the disconnected cover from the top of the chimney, and Ed leaned over the chest-high stone rim, looking down into the fireplace below. There wasn’t much to see, only an uneven shaft of light that fell across a few pieces of unlit kindling.

“Here goes,” Ed muttered, and began to uncoil the periscope, dropping its business end down the chimney.

To his mind, this would be the most challenging part of the entire job: lowering the end of the periscope far enough to see into the room below, without letting anyone there catch a glimpse of it. He watched its progress as it descended, and when he had fed nearly its full length down the chimney, he pressed one eye to its upper end to gauge its final position with greater care.

Only darkness, at first. He leaned forward, letting the periscope sink just a few inches lower… and was gratified when light from the room below suddenly struck his eye. It had been necessary to do a lot of guesswork in calculating the height of the chimney and the angles of the mirrors’ refraction, so he was pleased to see that his math was nearly perfect.

As his vision adjusted to the light, the interior of the cabin came dimly into focus. His roughshod creation hardly gave him a pristine view, but it was good enough.

The first thing he made out was the torso of a man, standing alarmingly near the fireplace—but turned away from it, fortunately. From the size of him, it could only be Grund. The behemoth blocked part of the view, but when Ed turned his periscope a few degrees to the left, he saw Dex sprawling listlessly on a bunk. Another turn of the device located Tegan on a chair near the door, with his gun in his lap.

A moving figure came into view, and Ed’s hackles rose when he recognized Cale. As the mastermind crossed the room, he turned the periscope in the other direction to follow his movements—only to be thwarted again by Grund’s bulk.

“Do you see…?” Hughes whispered anxiously, but he cut the question short when Ed made a silencing gesture, straining to listen.

It was Cale’s voice that drifted up faintly from below. “You should stop playing with the girl, Mar. You’re going to get too attached to her.”

Mingled gladness and dread welled up in Ed’s heart. At least now he knew what part of the room Hughes’ family was in, but the ominous tone of Cale’s voice made him wonder if the man had ever intended to let Elicia live at all.

When Mareen responded, he voice was a little unsteady, and Ed could barely hear it. “Cale, can’t we just—?”

“The boys will be wanting some coffee.” Cale’s interruption was coldly peremptory. “I’ll go next door with you when it’s ready. I’d like to see if our little alchemist took my advice to heart when I told him to pick up the pace.”

Ed bristled reflexively at the term little alchemist, his shoulders stiffening as he choked back a snarl—and it was that outrage that made him a second too slow to react when Mareen loomed into view, on a direct course for the fireplace.

She suddenly froze in her steps, and Ed’s heart sprang into his throat. He yanked up the periscope instantly, but in the split second before he did, he could have sworn the woman was looking straight at it.

“Mar?” said Cale down below, in a tone of inconsequential curiosity.

Silence, for a moment. And then, rather brusquely: “Nothing.”

Perhaps she hadn’t seen the black rubber device against the dark recesses of the fireplace. But if she was going to light a fire… Ed ground his teeth together, realizing he might have done all the spying he would have a chance to. Smoke from a fire would blind the periscope, and the heat might even begin to melt it. Perhaps they would have no choice, after all, but to simply burst in and hope they were fast enough to get Hughes’ family out of harm’s way.

He took his eye away from the now-futile periscope. Mustang leaned close with a questioning gesture, and Ed waved a hand at him to wait, still listening intently as he looked down the chimney.

Some shuffling noises ensued below, and a shadow moved against the visible wedge of light, proving that someone was very near the hearth. Then came the dull, muted thump of some object falling over, and Mareen let out a small hiss of vexation.

“I spilled water on the matches.” A nervous hesitation. “Grund… would you get me the other box? It’s over there.”

“You got ’em wet. Get it yourself.”

Grund.” Cale’s voice was sharp and stern, like a parent addressing a rebellious child. “That’s no way to address a lady. Do as she asks.”

The sound that responded was an animal growl, but it was followed by heavy footsteps as Grund obeyed.

And then…

Now,” Mareen said, in an outwardly casual tone, but with a strangely deliberate clearness that gripped Ed’s instincts.

He wasn’t entirely sure what he was doing, but some urgent impulse compelled him to drop the periscope the rest of the way again, to steal one more swift glance. He saw Grund skulking across the cabin to retrieve the matches—which meant the giant’s bulk no longer obscured his view of the rest of the room. At last he was able to see Gracia huddled fearfully in the corner, with Elicia on her lap.

This time, as Ed jerked the periscope back up the chimney, he was sure Mareen was watching it… and he was as grateful for her presence as he had ever been through the entire ordeal.

Now,” he snarled, repeating her signal, and Al and Mustang and Hughes braced themselves as his sharp clap jarred the night air.

Ed slammed his hands down on the surface of the roof, and it melted beneath his fingers in a blaze of light. Transmuted wood ripped away with a groan from the nails that held it place, flowing almost like water: the raw substance of it dissolving and re-gelling into one semi-solid mass that surged downward, to meet and meld with the floorboards ten feet below.

By the time Gracia’s startled shriek made its way from her brain to her lips, the sound was muffled behind the thick shielding wall that morphed into existence in front of her, sealing off her corner from the rest of the room.

As for Cale, he was left staring at a crudely rendered face that stuck its tongue out at him from the wall—and for just one moment, as Ed looked down through the newly made hole in the roof, he savored the mastermind’s expression of utter disbelief.

His companions did not pause for artistic appreciation of his handiwork. Before the glow of the alchemy had died away, Mustang and Hughes leaped down through the hole to engage the enemy. Al followed quickly, in a loud crash of metal, and Ed plunged after him with a savage grace: he stepped off the edge of the chasm with a clap, touching his automail arm to transmute a blade as he hit the floor in a crouch.

Somewhere to his left, he heard a clunk of flint against Al’s armor, and a gout of flame burst in midair in the middle of the room. The terrified cry in response sounded like Tegan, the Ishbal veteran who knew such fire all too well. For a second Ed saw the orange light of flames reflecting on his brother’s steel, as Al advanced alongside Mustang.

Then someone pushed Ed roughly aside. He stumbled, righted himself, and turned to see Hughes in exactly the spot where he had just been standing—trying to wrestle away the enormous knife Grund had meant to plunge into the teenager’s back.

Ed rushed forward, to return the favor and aid Hughes, but a slim figure with a much smaller and quicker blade interjected itself in front of him. He lifted his own razor-edged automail weapon just in time to deflect the switchblade, and fell back a step as Dex sprang at him again.

Vaguely he heard Mareen shouting her cousin’s name, away by the far wall, but Dex didn’t seem to hear her. His eyes were wide and panicked, as he saw the plans of the leader he had put his faith in falling apart around him. He struck against Ed’s blade with heavy, frantic blows that his little knife would not hold up to for much longer.

“Dex… enough!” Ed shoved hard against the boy who, although older and taller than him, was not nearly as well conditioned. The push sent Dex stumbling back a few paces; but rather than press his advantage, Ed only braced himself where he stood, seeking Dex’s gaze. “It’s not too late to make a different choice!”

On the brink of another lunge, Dex faltered and froze. He stared at Ed like a cornered animal, terrified and unsure… but when Mareen cried out his name again, his hands drew back, fingers slowly opening to let the knife clatter to the floor.

Lowering his own blade, Ed watched as Mareen edged into his view along the wall, just beyond the fringes of the fire and combat that filled the room. She seized Dex by the hand and pulled him against her, and the boy did not resist.

With a grim smile and a nod of gratitude to Mareen, Ed turned to find some new part of the fray to dive into.

He flinched as a shot rang out, coupled with the not-unfamiliar ting of a bullet deflecting off of Al’s armor. Through a haze of smoke and heat-distortion, he saw his brother and Mustang trying to corner and disarm the wild-eyed Tegan. Nearer, Hughes and Grund circled each other with their knives like back-alley street fighters, each seeking an opening to strike.

Then, through the chaos of warring bodies and white-hot firebursts, Ed caught a glimpse of Cale. He was crouching at the far side of the room. His back was half-turned, shoulders moving jerkily, as if in the act of hurriedly doing something with his hands.

Ed growled between his teeth and sprang toward the mastermind—and almost too late, he saw the transmutation circle under Cale’s fingers.

Alchemic light flared. The floorboards erupted into a massive, inelegant spear of wood, and Ed spun sideways as the projection shot up toward his chest. He hissed in pain when its sharp point grazed his left shoulder, tearing through his shirtsleeve, leaving a long shallow gouge in the flesh underneath.

The sudden dodge had turned him around. By the time he recovered his bearings, it was Cale who was on the attack.

Even if the amateur alchemist would have dared any more transmutations, there was no time to draw the arrays—but he had already proven his ability to fight by other means. In his left hand was something black and heavy, like a crowbar or a fireplace poker. Ed parried the violent blow of the weapon, and felt the dent it bestowed on his automail arm. He shoved back against it, only to be forced to twist away from the knife that appeared in Cale’s right hand, flashing toward his ribs.

Edward wrenched himself backward, but the retreat was barely enough to let him brace for a second onslaught. Cale struck with a ferocity that gave him no chance to use his own alchemy. He sidestepped, blocked another swing that left a new mark on his automail, gritted his teeth and coiled his muscles to push back against the force bearing down on him…

Then a fresh burst of Mustang’s fireworks blossomed across the room, more powerful than any he had previously unleashed.

Afterward, Ed would be forever convinced that Mustang’s clumsy improvised fire alchemy got away from him that time, causing a much bigger and less fully-controlled fireball than he intended—although the Colonel would certainly never admit to such a thing. Whatever the reason may have been, the heat was so intense that it brought a momentary distraction to Ed and Cale’s battle. It forced them both to recoil instinctively… and it was Ed who recovered his senses first.

A clap resounded. Ed smacked the wall, and a large wooden fist burst out of it, connecting with the side of Cale’s head as solidly as a club.

The mastermind crumpled to the floor without uttering a sound.

Turning breathlessly to look for his comrades, Ed realized the light and heat of flames had died away. Mustang and Al must have overcome Tegan with that last conflagration. Then a clatter of steel drew his gaze to his brother, as Al’s attentions shifted to the last remaining theater of their minor war: Hughes and Grund. Both appeared to have lost their knives, and had resorted to wrestling hand-to-hand.

However valiant a fight the Major had been putting up, he was visibly losing ground against Grund’s tremendous physical power. The raging giant almost had him backed against the wall…

At least, until the younger Elric reached them in two strides, and physically picked Grund up by the neck.

I don’t like you,” Al informed him succinctly, and put him out with one short punch before carelessly dropping him.

For a moment that felt much longer than it really was, complete silence gripped the room. Edward stood braced alertly, not quite sure he could believe the fight was over; but at last it began to sink in that his allies were the only ones left standing. Mareen was crouching in the far corner, still holding onto Dex, while Cale and Grund and Tegan all lay unmoving on the floor.

“…Are we done?” Ed murmured skeptically.

Slowly, a crooked smile worked its way across Mustang’s lips. “I think we are.” He wiped his sweat-beaded brow with the back of his hand—apparently forgetting the array he had drawn there, and leaving a smudge of ink on his right temple as a result. Ed was far too amused to point out that fact to his fastidious superior.

Then Mustang’s gaze shifted to Hughes, who Ed suddenly realized was clutching his bleeding right forearm. “Maes—”

“I’m fine. It’s not nearly as bad as it looks.” Hughes rather absently allowed Mustang to examine the injury. “What did you do to Tegan?”

“He’s only a little singed. It was all we could do to take him down without hurting him worse. I think he went off on a posttraumatic flashback.” Mustang had turned to seize a sheet from one of the bunks and tear off a makeshift bandage, but he paused to smile up faintly at Al. “I owe you one, kid. You’re the reason he didn’t put a bullet in me.”

The armored boy fidgeted and ducked his helmet, in a gesture of shy pleasure that was unmistakable to Ed. “No problem, sir.”

“What about them?” Hughes asked quietly, nodding toward Mareen and Dex. They had not moved from their sheltered position in the corner, and both seemed resigned to submit to the victors of the battle. The teenager was glowering resentfully, but Mareen simply hugged him a little tighter, and dropped her gaze.

When Mustang frowned at them, Ed drew a breath to launch a protest in their favor—but the Colonel quickly silenced him with a meaningful look. “We’ll work something out.”

Satisfied for the moment, Ed gave Mustang a curt nod. Then he turned to Hughes, who was studying Mustang’s wrappings on his arm, and smiled wryly. “Should I let Gracia and Elicia out now?”

An eager grin broke out on Hughes’ face. “Yes!”

In response, Ed retracted his blade and stepped over to the wall he had transmuted around Hughes’ family. He felt a twinge of belated remorse then, thinking of how terrifying it must have been for them: to be suddenly closed up in a small, dark space, hearing the sounds of battle that had raged outside their bubble of safety. However, he knew the scare was not in vain. The wall had kept them safe, and also spared them from witnessing the ugliness of the fight.

He clapped his hands and touched the thick wood surface, opening a simple doorway—but he took care to leave the mocking face on the wall intact, at least for the present. Police and military investigators would doubtless be crawling all over the scene shortly, and he rather liked the idea of letting the authorities see his signature on this victory.

Hughes didn’t wait for his family to emerge. The moment the doorway was big enough to squeeze through, he rushed into the darkness on the other side. Soft cries of joy and relief issued forth as he was reunited with his wife and daughter.

A deep feeling of satisfaction washed over the remaining tension in Ed. He smiled at Al, stepping forward to give his brother’s chestplate a noisy, steel-knuckled congratulatory bump. Then he raised his eyes to Mustang, unable to suppress a smirk. The Colonel had his hand on the revolver in his belt, keeping one eye on Mareen and Dex, but his subordinate’s smug expression was not lost upon him.

“Not bad, Fullmetal.” Mustang smiled grimly, looking from Ed to Cale’s sprawled figure and back again—but the smile faded as he took note of the red-stained tear in Ed’s left sleeve. “You alright?”

“Yeah.” Ed glanced at the dully throbbing gash he had all but forgotten, clasping automail fingers over it. He nodded toward the wooden spear that projected out of the floor. “Just a scratch from Cale’s last gasp of alchemy.”

From the corner, with Dex still clutched tightly to her, Mareen was staring emptily at Cale; the man she loved, and yet had helped them defeat. At last she spoke up, without taking her eyes away from him.

“What’s going to happen to Cale?”

Mustang paused in collecting the stray weapons that littered the room, and scowled down at the unconscious criminal.

“He’ll face the same consequences as the rest of them: a trial for murder, kidnapping, and grand larceny.” The Colonel softened his expression, just a little, as he met Mareen’s eyes. “We know you and Dex didn’t take part in the killings, and your helping us will be in your favor. But for Cale and the others… there’s really only one outcome to expect.”

The thought of that outcome was enough to sober Ed, in spite of himself. Amestrian justice was swift and unflinching. With the heavy weight of the evidence against them, Cale and his gang would receive prompt guilty verdicts, followed by execution at the end of a hangman’s noose or a firing squad’s rifles.

The mastermind’s lover also understood. Tears filled her eyes, and she hung her head.

Oblivious to that somber note, Hughes exuberantly emerged, with Elicia in his arms and Gracia clinging to him. He was nattering happily at his daughter, who seemed remarkably composed for her ordeal—but her eyes grew big as she saw the unconscious kidnappers on the floor.

Daddy! Are the bad men hurt?”

“Aw, of course they’re not, Sweetie. We just made them take a little nap.” Hughes hugged her tighter and stroked her cheek—deftly turning her head away from the aftermath of the battle, and toward Mustang and the brothers instead. “See? Uncle Roy and the boys are fine too.”

Instantly cheered, Elicia made a happy cooing noise and stretched out her arms to the Elrics. Ed blushed and rubbed his neck, but Al chuckled, patting the child’s head.

As Elicia entertained herself by playing with Al’s big leather fingers, Mustang stepped closer, scrutinizing Gracia. There was great strain in her face, and she was almost certainly going to have a good cry at the earliest opportunity, but she appeared to have no obvious injuries.

“Okay?” the Colonel asked her, curtly encapsulating several questions that were too terrible to put into words… and Gracia sighed and nodded slowly, running an unsteady hand through her hair.

Faint relief passed over Mustang’s face. He nodded, and turned to Hughes.

“Better get them out of here, Maes. Use one of those cars outside to take them back to the lodge—and then you can send help. The boys and I can hold down the fort until backup gets here.”

Conflict briefly played across Hughes’ expression. He looked at Mustang, at the Elrics, and then at his family, clearly torn between taking his girls away himself and staying to help his comrades; but at last the former duty won out, and he nodded.

“Alright—but I’m coming back here with that backup myself, as soon as I can. Sit tight.”

Hughes quickly ushered Gracia and Elicia out of the cabin. Mustang followed them to the door and watched their departure, revolver in hand—just in case one of the thugs imprisoned in the other cabin had gotten loose. Ed listened as a car engine started outside, and the vehicle’s noise receded along the access road that led back to civilization.

“They’re off.” Mustang turned from the door, slipping the revolver back into his belt. “Al, take care of Ed’s arm. Then you can both help me get our charming hosts tied up.”

Ed waved a dismissive steel hand, glancing at his flesh wound. “I’m fine. It’s not even bleeding anymore. The dings are worse than that…” He glared at the dents on his automail arm, clapped, and alchemically smoothed out the metal. Then he stepped forward to join Mustang in the task of binding their prisoners.

“Still sorry you got dragged along on this trip?” Mustang asked wryly. “If we hadn’t been around, the gang could have gotten away with the artifacts—and who knows what might have happened to Hughes and his family when they crossed paths.”

The teenager grunted. “If we hadn’t been around, Bosh wouldn’t have seen me using alchemy, and these bozos wouldn’t have had a reason to kidnap them. None of this would have happened in the first place. And Hughes…” He grimaced and looked away. “He shouldn’t have to know what he knows now, Mustang.”

“I’m not so sure about that.” There was a peculiarly soft note in the Colonel’s voice. “He’s the right man to trust, Ed.”

“…I know.”

Mustang did not reply, and Ed sighed, unwillingly remembering the tightness of Hughes’ arms around him a short while earlier; and before that, in the forest, the way he had so impulsively referred to the Elrics as his kids.

He didn’t have to care. Maybe he was even a fool to care. Yet he did care, so genuinely and unselfishly that Ed didn’t quite understand it.

If Ed and Al could have had a father like Hughes…

With a will, Ed shook off that thought. He took a deep breath, clearing his mind, and reached out for a sheet from one of the bunks to alchemize some binding ropes.

Brother—!”

Al’s sharp cry spurred Ed to pivot on his heel and face the room, instinctively lifting his hands for a clap.

Unobserved by the brothers or Mustang, Cale had suddenly pushed himself to his feet. His hand was rising swiftly from the vicinity of his right ankle, with something dark and deadly in his grip. It was a small pistol, drawn from his boot—and as he took aim at Ed, whose mind and skills had achieved the unthinkable feat of besting him, there was a blaze of vengeful fury in his eyes.

Many things happened then, all at the same moment.

Colonel Mustang reached for his gun, and Al surged forward to shield his brother.

Mareen launched herself from the floor. Crying out Cale’s name, she seized her lover’s left arm to push him back.

A shot ripped the air as Cale’s finger tightened on the trigger—but the force of Mareen’s simultaneous collision with him caused the bullet to go wide of its mark. The small-caliber projectile thudded harmlessly into the cabin’s rear wall, several feet behind and to the left of Ed.

At the same time, Cale was unbalanced by Mareen’s push. He stumbled backward, clawing the air in a futile attempt to steady himself… and by a horrific twist of chance, the spear he had transmuted out of the floorboards was waiting to meet him.

Mareen let out an agonized scream, and somehow Ed found he was watching her face instead of Cale when it happened.

He would never be sure if that was better or worse.

For a few seconds, there was utter stillness. Then a soft clatter of something heavy striking the floor; Cale’s pistol, as it fell from numb fingers. Ed didn’t turn his head at the sound. He only watched Mareen as she staggered forward, hands outstretched in a horrified plea.

Cale…”

Edward looked then. At Cale on the floor, his hands clutching the broken-off length of bloodied spear that protruded through his chest. At his expression of shock and betrayal, when he stared up at Mareen for one last long moment. At his eyes, as the brilliant, corrupt soul behind them faded out.

…It was all such a waste.

Shaking her head slowly from side to side, Mareen fell to her knees beside Cale. Her face was white, her eyes large and tear-filled and staring in blank, naked horror; but she didn’t make a sound. She only reached out, not quite touching his bloody hands that had fallen limp on his chest, as her lips passed silently over his name.

Strangely, that was the moment when Ed fully realized he was alright. He could have been a breath away from oblivion… but he wasn’t shot.

That sudden awareness was like a punch to the gut. He sagged gracelessly to his own knees, shaking from a black, giddy gladness that made him sick in the face of the grief he was watching with such detachment. Al knelt at his side in concern, reaching out to search him for injury, but Ed only shook his head dumbly and pushed his brother’s hands away.

When Mareen began to sob at last, even that sound was quiet.

Mustang hesitated for a long moment, shifted his weight, and finally stepped toward Mareen—but Dex beat him to her side. The teenager bent down next to his cousin, and as he put one arm around her, he seemed nothing at all like the frightened, angry boy he had been just a little while earlier.

“You know it’s better this way, Mar. He couldn’t stand for them to take him. They can’t touch him now… It’s over.”

Very slowly, Mareen drew back from Cale’s body. Clutching Dex’s hands that rested on her shoulders, she stumbled to her feet, and tore her gaze away from the dead mastermind. Her brimming eyes searched the faces of Mustang and Ed and Al.

“He… he never killed anyone himself,” she breathed through her tears. There was a halting, unsteady urgency in her tone, as if she needed to make that fact clear to them. “Even after all he’d done, I… I couldn’t let him…”

A moment’s silence held. Then Mustang stepped forward, looking gravely into Mareen’s stricken face.

“You were never here,” he declared, in a low, firm voice. He tilted his head toward the door. “Go. Forget what’s happened, and find something better for yourselves.”

Dex started and gaped. “What—?”

“I don’t give second chances lightly.” Mustang seized the boy’s shoulder in a solid grip, fixing an equally hard gaze on him. “So I expect you to make the most of it. Take your cousin and get out of here, and straighten up your lives… and don’t ever cross the path of a State Alchemist again.”

Mareen stared uncomprehendingly at the Colonel, but Dex’s instincts for self-preservation did not fail him. He pulled hard at her arm. “Come on, Mar.”

It took a moment, but Mareen finally did move. With one last broken glance at Cale’s body, she turned, letting Dex hurry her out into the night. Presently a car engine roared outside—and then they were gone.

When silence prevailed once more, Mustang faced the Elric brothers. Neither Ed nor Al had moved or made a sound, as they each took in what had happened.

“They made a run for it while we were trying to get the gun away from Cale,” Mustang stated flatly. “I was the one who pushed Cale onto that spear. Understood?”

On top of the overwhelming emotions of the last few minutes, Ed felt something else. A bemused sort of wonder, perhaps, and deep down… could it even have been a strange flicker of respect for the Flame Alchemist?

“Yes sir,” Al replied quietly, and moved to resume the task of tying up Grund and Tegan, almost as if no disruption had ever occurred. His steel features were as unrevealing as ever, but Ed knew his little brother was as shaken as he was. It was only that Al had learned, out of necessity, to deal with things so much more calmly; and at the moment, Ed envied him for that.

“What are you going to tell Hughes?” Ed asked. Having tried and failed to muster any kind of tone in his voice, he heard it as if it was someone else’s: faint, slightly rough, but surprisingly not unsteady.

In the last two years, maybe he had learned something about being a soldier, after all.

Mustang answered with a somber shake of his head, his expression just a little less than a sad smile. “I won’t need to tell him anything.”

Edward didn’t doubt that in the least.

Mentally and then physically, Ed pulled himself up off the floor, and moved to help Al and Mustang bind their surviving prisoners. He avoided looking at Cale’s lifeless body—but his glance passed over the crude, vindictive face that leered out from the wall he had made. With a sudden snort of disgust, he clapped and touched the wall, and the face melted back into the wood.

He no longer took pride in claiming any part of what had happened here.

 

 

Epilogue

 

“Ranold has made a full confession to the museum heist and kidnapping us. He claims he didn’t kill any of the guards himself, and the evidence seems to bear that out, so he could make a deal to testify against the others in exchange for a life sentence. I’d say he’s the only one with any chance of saving his neck, though. The lab is working on matching up the guards’ wounds with the rest of the gang’s weapons, but we already know they practically put their signatures on each murder.”

It was late afternoon on the day that followed the kidnappers’ defeat. The Hughes family, Mustang, and the Elric brothers were back in Central, after an exhausting night and morning of being examined by medics and giving statements about their ordeal. Having to repeat the whole story several times over felt more like a punishment than a comfort, and it gave Hughes a new sympathy for the victims of crime he had questioned in his career.

When the authorities finally let them go, Maes had taken his wife and daughter home, and stayed there for much of the day to hold them close: letting Gracia cry on his shoulder, doing his best to answer Elicia’s endless innocent questions. However, he was incorrigibly an investigator, and he wanted to know what was being learned from and about the men whose crimes had become so very personal. Although he was barred from further work on the case due to his obvious personal bias, his subordinates and colleagues were more than willing to update him when he showed up at Central Command.

He wasn’t surprised to find Roy there as well. After all, the Colonel was still only visiting from East City, and had noplace else to be at the time. Now Maes was lounging on a backwards chair in Roy’s temporary office, relaying the latest reports to his friend.

“What about the other antiquities that were stolen?” Roy asked.

“A few pieces of jewelry were found at the cabin. Maybe Cale was saving them as gifts for Mareen. Ranold gave up the names of the fences the rest were sold to, and they’re being traced now. We may not recover everything intact, but we have a good shot at getting most of it, anyway.” Maes shrugged ruefully. “I’d like to think the men who died protecting those small pieces of history would be satisfied.”

“All the same… I wonder if that was really worth the ordeal your family has been through.”

“You’re starting to sound like Ed.” A thin smile crossed Maes’ lips. “Elicia isn’t old enough to really understand what happened. It gave her a scare, but once we were safe at home, she perked right up. After a while, I don’t think she’s going to remember much of it. And Gracia… She’s strong, Roy. Looking back on it, she told me she’s glad we were there—at the right place and time to save the artifacts and take Cale’s gang off the street, so they’ll never hurt anyone else.”

The Colonel narrowed his dark eyes slightly, studying his friend. “And you?”

Maes chuckled, but the sound was entirely without humor. “I’ll admit it. If they offered me a chance to pull the trigger when Grund is executed, I’d have to think about it a few minutes… but in the end, I would say no. You know that.”

“Yes.” Roy’s expression lightened a little. “I do.”

With the conclusion of that exchange, Maes almost tangibly felt a page had been turned, and he was not ungrateful for it. He shrugged and stretched, shifting his legs in readiness to stand up, but not rising just yet.

“So where are Ed and Al? Gracia never got a chance to thank them, so she was hoping I could bring them home for dinner.”

“As far as I know, they’re resting in their dorm in the barracks.” Roy frowned. “I’m not sure Ed is in much of a mood for company, but I’m sure he’d appreciate your stopping by to see about them.”

Those were the words Roy said; but underneath them, very clearly, Maes heard a different message.

Take those boys home and let your family work their magic on them, Maes. It’s exactly what they need right now.

Smiling crookedly, Maes nodded and pushed himself to his feet. “Will do, Roy. Get some rest yourself, will you?” He paused, and a glint of his familiar mischief flickered behind his glasses. “By the way, Gracia and I were talking earlier. We decided to plan another trip soon, just to make up for the way this one turned out. She really wants to visit Aquroya before it completely sinks, and I’ll have some extra leave due next month, so we thought you and the boys…”

Maes.” Roy dropped his head into his hand. “…You are not taking me to a city surrounded by water—and especially not with the Elrics.”

Chuckling, Maes waved a hand, and left the office.

A few minutes later, he was standing outside the Elrics’ little-used quarters. He knocked on the door, and heard the distinctive sounds of metal on the other side. After a moment, Edward poked his head out, with Alphonse looming behind his shoulder.

Ed looked more weary than a boy his age ever should have. He was dressed in his familiar black clothes now, but without his coat and jacket, exposing faded bruises and a small bandage on his arm.

“Hey,” Maes said gently, by way of greeting. “How’s the wing?”

Rather indifferently, Ed glanced at the gauze and tape on his bicep. “Don’t even feel it. Yours?”

“Oh, not bad. Just smarts a little.” Maes placed his left hand over his own injured right forearm. Then he raised his eyes to Al’s metal face, with a pained smile. “I guess getting hurt is one thing you don’t miss.”

Al ducked his helmet, somewhat pensively. “It would be worth it to have everything else back.” Then, before the abruptly guilt-twinged Maes could apologize, he asked quickly: “Are Mrs. Hughes and Elicia doing okay?”

“Thanks to you two, they are.” Maes smiled gratefully at both boys. “I can’t tell you how much it means to me.”

The older brother nodded. “I’m glad to hear that, Major. And I’m glad you came by for another reason, too. Wait a sec.”

Ed slipped past Al, disappearing into their small room. When he returned and stepped out into the corridor, he was carrying a small notebook that Maes instantly recognized.

“I’m not sure why I didn’t turn this over at the cabin. I never drew Mareen or Dex, so it’s not like it would show they were there, but it just… didn’t feel right.” Ed stared down at the notebook for a moment, frowning. Then he held it out to Maes. “You can decide what to do with it. Go ahead and give it to Investigations, if you think it would help. I don’t want it.”

With an oddly reverent feeling, Maes accepted the book. He skimmed through its pages, smiling sadly at Ed’s meticulous notes on the stolen artifacts, and his amusingly impolite caricatures of Cale’s thugs.

“I don’t think this would have any effect on the case, one way or the other. We’ve got a confession from Ranold, and a mountain of physical evidence. That’ll be more than enough for the trial.” Maes tucked the notebook under his arm. “Is it okay with you if I keep it?”

“You can do what you want with it.” Ed sighed and folded his arms, a shadow crossing his expression. “I guess this means Al and I are gonna be stuck here in Central until we’re called to testify… and then it’ll be like Barry the Chopper’s trial all over again. Having to sit there in court and face Cale’s gang, as we retell the whole story of what they did—knowing our words will probably help send them to their deaths. I know they brought it on themselves with what they did to the museum guards, and they would have done the same to us, but…”

He grimaced suddenly, raising his eyes to the investigator’s. “How do you do it, Hughes? How do you keep on fighting battles where winning feels like this?”

Maes was taken aback by the unexpected pain and searching in Ed’s voice. For a moment, the brash young State Alchemist had become very much the boy he still was. Still more innocent than he wanted to admit; still missing some important answers that only time could teach him.

“There are no easy answers to that, Ed. All I can give you is the one that gets me through.” Maes put his hand over his heart, and the pictures of Elicia and Gracia that perennially nested close to it, in his breast pocket. “I keep fighting because I remember who I’m fighting for.”

Watching Ed’s expression then was like seeing the break of dawn. The boy’s eyes softened, and as he looked up at his beloved brother, a thin smile crept across his lips.

“There was something else I wanted to say.” Maes’ glance shifted gravely between the pair. “I just wanted you to know… you don’t have to worry. About the truth, I mean.” His eyes settled on Al. “Nobody’s ever going to learn it from me.”

The younger Elric’s voice was quiet beneath its echo of steel. “We know that, sir.”

“We always have.” Ed shook his head somberly. “It was never about trusting you, Major. It’s only… this is our burden. Not yours.”

A deep ache squeezed Maes’ heart. He felt a warmth rising behind his eyes, and blinked it away quickly, squaring his shoulders as he drew in a deep breath.

“Listen, fellas. If you’re going to be in Central for the trial, why don’t you stay with us for a while? It’d be a lot better than just waiting around here in the barracks. Gracia and Elicia would both love to have you… and so would I.”

He expected to be turned down, met with the old brusque distance the boys and especially Ed had reserved in the past; but it never came. Ed’s own eyes took on a faint shine. He exchanged a quick, affirming glance with his brother, and Maes had a curious feeling that somewhere within the armor, Al was trying to smile.

“Well…” Ed shoved his hands into his pockets and looked up at Maes, his cheeks slightly flushed in an expression that showed many things: awkward earnestness, hesitation, a trace of hope. “How do you think Gracia would handle the truth about Al?”

The soft, unexpected question spread a deep warm feeling through Maes, melting the lump that was caught in his throat. He gave the brothers a broad smile, interjecting himself between them to drape one arm over Ed’s shoulders, and the other around Al’s waist.

“She’ll take it just fine. After all—she is the most wonderful woman in the world.”


© 2012 Jordanna Morgan