A.N. Yet another idea that started out as one thing and turned into something else by the time I finished. I enjoy letting my stories plot their own course instead of trying to force them to a previously thought out ending.
Sherman The Rock
Ed jumped when Al dropped a small rock on the table, causing the wood to tremble so much that his pencil rolled over the edge and fell to the floor. Al took a seat across from him without a word of explanation and Ed was left staring at the rock with a mixture of suspicion and just plain bewilderment.
"Al," Ed said in confusion. "Why did you bring a rock into the library with us?"
Al barely looked up from his book, flicking a wrist in dismissal. "Oh, him? That's Sherman."
Which didn't explain a damn thing. Ed gave the rock in question a dubious look. It wasn't anything special. Just a malformed hunk of gray stone that could easily fit into his palm. A little dirt clung to its fissures and some had fallen onto the wood of the table.
Ed shut his book, prompting Al to look up. "I repeat," he said slowly. "Why did you bring a rock into the library?"
"He's my pet rock," Al said just as slowly, like he was explaining it to a very dense person. "My pet rock Sherman."
A vein ticked in Ed's forehead at the sheer ridiculousness of the statement and he looked back and forth between the rock and his brother, momentarily tongue-tied. The situation was made all the more infuriating by the fact that Al acted like owning a rock for a pet was the most natural thing in the world.
"You can't keep it!" Ed spouted automatically. "I mean--it's a rock, Al. You can't have a rock for a pet."
Again with the tongue-tied thing! Ed hadn't had so much trouble finding his words since the first time someone called him short at the age of eight and he didn't have a comeback ready.
Al folded his hands on the table placidly. "Why can't I have a pet rock, Brother?"
Ed crossed his arms, preparing to go into full-on older brother lecture mode. "First of all, it's not alive--"
"Which is a good thing," Al countered swiftly. "He doesn't require food, water, a stable home or even air. I can take him anywhere without you griping about him draining our supplies."
"You--don't--that's not the point, Alphonse!" Ed insisted. "It's not alive, therefore it's not a pet. Pets are living things that humans care for."
"Says everyone! It's--okay, wait right there!"
Ed hopped off his chair and pattered quickly down an aisle to the dictionaries kept at the front of the library, shaking his head the whole way. Surely Al was more rational than this? He had to realize there was no point to keeping a rock for a pet. And a rock of all things. Even a stuffed animal wouldn't have been too much of a stretch, but this was pushing the limits of stupidity.
He wrestled a huge dictionary off the shelf and jogged back to their table, slamming the book down. He rustled through the pages quickly, fingers tracing down the list of words in the P section until he found what he was looking for.
"See, right here," Ed exclaimed in triumph. "'An animal kept for companionship, interest or amusement'. An animal, Al. Not that hunk of minerals you found on the street!"
Al turned the dictionary around and tapped the page. "You didn't even read the whole definition. Right there it says 'somebody whom others find lovable'."
Ed almost couldn't bring himself to ask the next question. "Al…you're not seriously telling me…"
"I think he's perfectly lovable," Al said with a wise nod and shut the dictionary. "And like I said, he won't be a drain on our supplies. He'll keep me company and you won't have to take care of him or even deal with him at all. I really don't see what the problem is."
"Is this some ploy to guilt me into letting you have a cat?"
"Then you're not trying to make the completely irrational point that if we can take care of a rock, we can certainly take care of a cat?"
"Not at all."
Ed looked back at the rock, which of course had not moved during the entire conversation. "You really just want to keep the rock."
"Yes, Brother," Al said with perfect composure. "I really just want to keep the rock."
And that was that. Ed dropped back into his seat, momentarily defeated, and once again he found his eyes drawn to the little rock that had joined them on their journey. Really, Ed thought, what was he getting all stiff about? If Al wanted to pretend the rock was a pet, then he should just let his brother keep the damn rock and be done with it. It wasn't like Al could get a normal pet anyway so this was the next best thing.
Ed leaned over and stretched a hand out for his fallen pencil, determined to put the rock out of his mind. He pinched the pencil between his fingers and straightened back up.
Only to see the rock sitting on the cover of his book.
Ed yelped and fell right out of his chair. Al leaned over to give him a curious look. "You alright, Brother?"
"Very funny, Al," Ed muttered from his spot on the floor. "Like I'm supposed to believe you didn't move the rock while I wasn't looking?"
"His name is Sherman," Al told him firmly. "Sherman."
"Whatever! Just don't do that again!"
Ed seized the table and pulled himself up, leveling an accusing finger at Sherman. "That!"
Al tilted his head and shrugged. "I can't help it that he likes you."
Now Ed knew his brother was up to something. Narrow golden eyes studied the younger boy critically, but Al remained stubbornly mute. Even the rock seemed to be mocking his efforts to uncover the truth behind Al's strange behavior. Which was just ridiculous because rocks didn't mock people. Only people could do that, and therefore Al was the one mocking him. End of story.
"Get your pet off my book," Ed ordered.
Al obediently scooped up the rock and set it off to the side with all the care he would show a tiny kitten. Only when he had done that did Ed resume his seat. But even with the rock out of his way, he couldn't stop his eyes from darting up every so often. He kept expecting Al to move it again and as a consequence couldn't get his mind to focus on what he was reading.
"Brother, quit fidgeting. You're distracting me."
Ed scowled and gathered up his books in his arms, moving to sit at another table with his back to Al and his strange new pet.
Ed was positive he was going crazy.
Either that or Al was going to some very drastic lengths to drive him into said madness. Although his brother had promised he wouldn't have to deal with the rock, Sherman seemed to have other ideas in mind. He showed up everywhere. Next to his plate when he ate, by the sink in the bathroom, on the chair next to him at the library and even the pockets of his coat.
He confronted Al every single time, first with words and later by simply chucking the rock at him hard enough to knock his helmet clean off. But his brother always feigned ignorance, even expressing a little envy that Sherman wanted to spend more time with Ed than with him.
"Then why don't you put him in your own damn pocket?!" Ed roared after putting on his coat only to feel an unsettling weight against his hip for the third time that day.
"I only have one pocket and that has my chalk," Al said in resignation. "Sherman just has to hitch a ride however he can. I guess it's a good thing your coat has such big pockets."
That night, Ed alchemically removed every single pocket in his coat as well as the ones in every pair of pants he owned.
The next morning, the rock was sitting on his suitcase. And Al's only explanation was an offhand comment that Sherman wanted to make sure Ed didn't forget to take him when they left town later that day.
What did Al see in that thing anyway? Ed pondered that question deeply during the train ride that was taking them to their next lead. Al sat across from him with Sherman at his side and Ed had been staring at the rock over the top of his book for the past two hours. It was nothing like the bedraggled strays Al picked up off the streets to feed and play with and in general smother with affection. In fact, aside from washing some dirt off of it, Al had barely touched the rock at all.
No, there was definitely something else behind Al's actions. And it was driving Ed nuts as to what that could be.
Ed snapped his book shut and tossed it aside. "That's enough, Al! I'm not taking this from you anymore!"
"What did I do?" Al asked indignantly.
"You know damn well what," Ed snarled. "That rock has got to go!"
Al's gaze shot to Sherman and in an instant he snatched up the rock protectively. "No way! He hasn't done anything wrong!"
"He's following me!" Ed snapped. "I mean, you're making him follow--I mean--you're just pissing me off, okay?!"
"You said I could keep him!"
"I changed my mind!"
Ed lunged forward and wrestled the rock out of Al's hands. Before his younger brother could react, he pulled open the window and hurled the rock outside. The distant clack of the rock hitting the tracks was nearly drowned out by the train's whistle and Ed rammed the window shut.
"You can't even call that thing a pet, Alphonse!" Ed shouted, rounding on him. "I don't know what point you were trying to make, but--!"
Al smacked him upside the head. "How could you?! What did you have to throw him out the window for? What if he got smashed up under the wheels? You're so cruel, Brother!"
Ed felt his mouth drop open, taken aback by this sudden gush of emotion. "Al…it's not like I threw a cat under the train…"
"You might as well have!" Al wailed and got up to move to the seat across the aisle, wrapping his arms around his knees sulkily. Ed slumped down with his arms crossed and stared at the window where the rock had vanished. Had he gone too far? Losing that rock wasn't such a big deal to him, but it was obvious Al thought differently.
But Al had been the one to start all this, not him! Ed had nothing to be sorry about. Besides, it was probably for the best that he got rid of that thing when he had the chance. Al had clearly developed an unhealthy obsession with Sherman, which could have a negative impact on his impressionable young mind. Ed was only doing what was best for his little brother.
Yeah, you keep telling yourself that, Ed thought uncomfortably. Meanwhile Al refused to say another word to him for the rest of the day, keeping up his accusing silence all the way to the next town where they stopped for the night.
Ed blinked up at the ceiling of the inn, watching sunlight play across the cracked wooden beams, and threw an arm over his eyes with a weak groan. He had promised himself that he would wake up early so they could catch an early train, but it seemed Al had let him sleep in. He had hoped they could reach their destination by that night, but the next train wouldn't come until later that afternoon. They would be lucky to get there by tomorrow morning.
Ed heaved a long sigh and his breath caught when he felt a tiny weight shifting on his ribs. It took him a moment to gather up the courage to raise his head up and look down at himself.
And he came face to face with Sherman, perched innocently on his chest.
By the time Al came in, Ed had scrambled across the room and pressed himself to the opposite wall, gaping at the rock on his bed in abject horror. Al squealed in delight at the sight of the gray lump among the blankets.
"He found us! Brother, he found us! Isn't that amazing? It must have taken him all night to catch up! Brother…?"
Ed yanked the door shut behind him, pulling on his coat over his sleeping clothes with little jerky motions. Now it was official. Either he was insane or there was something infinitely strange about that rock. Or maybe Al was an even more dedicated to this prank than Ed gave him credit for. But even Alphonse wasn't crazy enough to go search the train tracks for one single rock out of the hundreds that must surely be there. Such a feat would have taken him all night and Ed couldn't work out how he could have accomplished that in the scant hours available to him.
There was always the possibility it was a different rock, but Ed didn't buy that explanation. He had gotten very well acquainted with Sherman in the past eight days and every little detail had been familiar. The little fissure trailing over the top, the flecks of white scattered over the surface like freckles, the two lopsided dents that could have passed for a pair of deep-set eyes…
Ed shuddered as he stepped out of the inn and went stomping down the street. He would not let a stupid little rock get the better of him! If he was to get to the bottom of this, he had to find out what had prompted Al to begin this charade. Al had already admitted that he wasn't trying to convince Ed to let him get a real pet. And even if he had been, this certainly wasn't the way to go about it. After all this, Ed wasn't planning on letting Al have any kind of pet. Nope, not ever.
Ed pressed his hands to his temples and shut his eyes, not even caring that he couldn't see where he was walking. If he could just brainstorm for a little while, maybe he could get inside Al's head and figure it all out…
His automail foot collided with a trashcan and Ed went down in a painful heap on the ground. He brushed some leftover food off his arm, cursing his own stupidity. Al and Sherman would probably have a good laugh if they could see him now. It was a damn conspiracy, that was what it was!
Ed started to stand up and paused, spotting a pair of beady black eyes looking up at him from inside a shoe box. He picked up the owner of those eyes carefully and a very wicked notion popped up in his head. Tucking his new, filth-ridden find under his arm, Ed straightened up and took off running down the street.
He didn't return to Al until much later in the day. Al had already gotten their tickets and was waiting for him in the station, just as Ed knew he would be. It was all too perfect. Ed came striding up casual as can be and Al jumped up from the bench the moment he saw him.
"Ed, where were you?" Al demanded anxiously. "You shouldn't just take off like that without telling me where you're going. You didn't even put your shoes on! I mean what kind of person does…that…"
Ed grinned widely when Al failed to finish his lecture. Most likely due to the fluffy thing sitting on his shoulder. He plucked one of the tickets out of Al's hand, picked up their suitcase and led the way to the train. Al didn't say a word until they had both found their seats and Ed had set his companion on the seat beside him.
"Brother," Al said slowly. "What is that?"
Ed patted the teddy bear on the head. "This is Eugene. My new pet."
Al looked up at him briefly before returning his attention Eugene. The bear had been rather ragged when Ed found it, but a quick transmutation had been enough to repair the major rips and clean the dirt out of its curly brown fur. There wasn't much he could do about the missing stuffing, causing its stomach to sag inward and its limbs to flop around, but all in all Ed was pleased with the result.
"That's your pet," Al said flatly. "That."
"Yeah," Ed said in a clipped tone. "Got a problem with that?"
"You hate teddy bears."
Ed cringed. "Only the generic ones they make in big city stores," he insisted hastily. "But Eugene isn't--"
"I can't believe you named him Eugene," Al snickered. "How uncool can you get, Brother?"
"And you're one to talk?" Ed shot back. "You and Sherman?"
"Hey! Sherman is a good name!"
"Who names a rock anyway?" Ed said scathingly as he leaned over to retrieve his boots from the suitcase. "There are probably trillions of rocks in the world that are all exactly the same, clunky and useless. Now Eugene here--!"
He jammed his right foot into the boot and cursed when he stubbed his toe on something hard. Ed dug Sherman out of his boot and tossed the rock on the seat next to Al.
"Careful, Brother," Al said shrewdly. "You'll make Sherman jealous."
"Good," Ed sniffed. "Maybe it'll finally take the hint and leave me alone."
Al didn't have anything to say to that and Ed declared round number one to be his and Eugene's. Very soon he would move on to stage two--operation freak Alphonse out. After all the stress Al had put him through with Sherman as his accomplice, this was only Equivalent Exchange.
But how to go about it? Al had set the standard with all of his sneak attacks, which meant Ed had to go one better if he was going to get a rise out of his little brother. But Al was far more observant than him and more likely to be on the lookout for such ambushes. On top of that, he didn't sleep. It would be very tricky to accomplish, but Ed was sure he could do it.
"You know sitting next to that bear makes you look about five years old, right?" Al said offhandedly.
Ed barely restrained the urge to kick him and leaned his head against the windowpane, planning to doze off for the rest of the trip. He wouldn't be able to pull anything on the train anyway, not with Al sitting right across from him. He would wait until they stopped for the night before formulating a plan. Ed sincerely hoped it wouldn't take too long because he felt very foolish sitting next to an inanimate 'pet' he had picked up off the street. He had hoped doing this would help him understand what Al was getting at, but he seemed to be missing some very important point…
Ed blinked, realizing the scenery outside had altered drastically. What had been grass fields were now dark mountains and he realized with a start that the train was gone and so was Al. Instead he was sitting on some kind of exotic throne that was carried by a whole host of servants. Ed beamed. What an awesome dream! He leaned over to see who was carrying him, praying it would be Mustang.
But it wasn't Mustang. He was being held up by teddy bears. Thousands of teddy bears bore him onward with their little nubby hands, all chanting in a language Ed didn't understand. He tried to get up, but he was shackled to the throne.
A second throne loomed ahead, one far bigger than his own. Ed had to squint to see the little rock perched on it. Sherman quivered and suddenly sprouted a dark gaping mouth, calling a command in that strange rock language. Ed looked up when he heard a rumbling above his head and cried out when millions of rocks rained down from the sky, burying him alive.
"Rocks! Rocks everywhere, get 'em off, get 'em off!"
Ed stopped screaming abruptly when he realized he was back on the train and no longer being crushed by tons of rocks. He spun around to look out the window, relieved to see only green fields instead of those sinister mountains. Just a dream. A disturbing and nigh on impossible dream. He really needed to remember not to scheme before sleeping.
"Brother?" Al asked timidly. "Are you alright?"
Gradually his heart slowed down and Ed nodded, tugging his coat tighter around his shoulders. He was just beginning to doze off again when he noticed something that made him bolt back upright with his heart in his throat.
"Al, where's the rock?!"
To his aggravation, Al shrugged. "Not sure. I expect he'll turn up sometime."
"Don't give me that! You know where it is, don't you?! I'm getting sick of this! And—wait…"
Eugene had vanished as well. Ed scanned their surroundings, but the bear hadn't fallen to the floor or been moved to the luggage racks above them. He rounded on Al distrustfully. "What did you do to Eugene?" he asked quietly.
"Nothing," Al said blandly. "Maybe he ran away?"
"Alphonse Elric, what have you done with my bear?"
After a moment, Al pointed across the aisle at a little girl who had fallen asleep against her snoring father. Eugene was tucked underneath her elbow and the girl was drooling into his ear in sleepy contentment. Ed muttered a few choice curses and stood up, but Al gripped his arm. "Brother, what are you doing?"
"What does it look like?" Ed said impatiently. "I'm getting him back."
"You can't take a teddy bear from a little girl!" Al said, scandalized. "That's just evil!"
"You're right. Maybe I should make Sherman do it. He's evil incarnate."
Ed pulled away and stole to the little girl's side as quietly as possible. She seemed to be in a very deep sleep, but you could never tell with kids. He took Eugene by one of the floppy arms and started to ease the bear out of her grip. But the more he tugged at the bear, the tighter her grip became until she was practically strangling the stuffed animal.
"Just leave her alone!" Al hissed. "Ed!"
Ed motioned at Al to be quiet. He took the girl's wrist and lifted her arm, slipping Eugene out of her grasp. The girl whimpered and opened her eyes, reaching for Eugene with a sad cry. When Ed refused to give it back, she screeched loud enough to make him clamp his hands over his ears.
"Ed, give her the bear!"
"But it's my bear!" Ed said defensively. "And she should know better than to take things from…from other…people…"
The dad was awake now. His eyes flashed murderously when they locked onto the bear in Ed's hands and the man slowly rose to his full height. Ed gulped. The top of his head barely reached this man's belly button. Granted he had beaten the crap out of other thugs just as big, but Ed had seen firsthand how Hughes transformed when his daughter was threatened. The result was rather frightening.
"Uh," Ed stammered. "A little help, Al…?"
But to his horror, Al had already fled to the other end of the train. "You're on your own, Brother!"
The whole world was against him. That was the only explanation. Not only had Ed lost Eugene to that little girl, but he had gotten a black eye in the process. Not that he minded losing the bear. Eugene had proven his uselessness and Ed was determined to never think about the bear again. On top of that, he and Al had been kicked off the train only one town away from their destination.
And Ed decided abruptly that he had had enough of trains. Despite Al's protests and despite the fact that the sun had set long ago, he threw their suitcase over his shoulder and set off down the dusty road parallel to the train tracks with his brother right behind him.
Hours passed as they walked on and on in the night. The moon had risen high into the sky by the time Al forced him to stop and Ed couldn't bring himself to argue. He could barely keep his eyes open and his steps were getting more and more unsteady by the minute. The two of them barely spoke as they set up camp and got a fire going, both determined to put the whole day behind them and focus on what was ahead.
Ed munched on some transmuted bread sullenly while Al fed the hungry flames, going over Mustang's briefing in his mind. The colonel had said there was an alchemist in the next town that specialized in alchemic amplifiers and this was the prime opportunity to question an expert on the Philosopher's Stone. But the man had gone missing nearly a month ago and some kind of gang was supposedly responsible. The first step would be to question the locals about it, though that was assuming they would tell the truth at all.
"Get some sleep, Brother," Al said softly. "We still have a long way to walk tomorrow."
Ed examined the rocky ground reluctantly. "I don't think I could get comfortable here. It's too lumpy. I can't even transmute myself a bed because we need the wood for the fire."
Al looked around for a moment and then left the ring of firelight. A few minutes later Ed saw the light from a transmutation and went to investigate. He found Al standing beside a pair of stumpy trees not far from the fire, a hammock strung up between them. Ed grinned and sank onto the soft cloth gratefully. "Al, you're an awesome brother. Have I told you that?"
"I could stand to hear it more," Al said in good humor, returning to the fire. Ed made himself comfortable on the hammock and drifted off much more quickly than he expected. Sleeping on a hammock under the stars on a calm night turned out to be a very soothing, almost rejuvenating experience. He didn't even mind when he woke briefly a few hours before dawn and felt a familiar hard lump digging into his hip.
Wouldn't it be funny, Ed thought with a smile, if right in the middle of this silly quarrel about fake pets they ended up finding the clue they had been seeking for so long? Usually Ed spent hours and hours before every lead going over dozens of scenarios in his head. What would happen if it all went right? What would happen if it all went wrong? But ever since Al dumped Sherman on the table next to him, Ed hadn't had much time to dwell on any of it.
Funny how things like that happened…
As it turned out, the gang they were seeking was responsible for the alchemist's disappearance. Just not in the way they expected.
Ed was startled from sleep not long after dawn when a bunch of hot coals were kicked from the fire into his hammock. The rope holding it to the trees burned through quickly and he dropped to the ground in a heap, twisting right and left as he tried to get the hammock off his head. He could hear Al calling his name and fighting what sounded like a bunch of people. But in the next moment someone slung him over their shoulder and took off running.
Since Ed was never one for being carried around like luggage, he slapped his hands together and transmuted the guy's pants into a length of rope. The man went down with his legs hopelessly tangled and Ed finally got the hammock off. It was too foggy this early in the morning to see very far and the thick gray mist seemed to trap him in a sphere of isolation. Two more attackers approached him and Ed recognized the insignia on their shoulders from the pictures Mustang had shown him.
"Well, well, well!" Ed exclaimed. "To think you idiots would come to us first and save me the trouble of looking for you."
He transmuted a staff out of the ground, prompting the gang members to jump back. "Jeez, this kid is freaky!" one hissed.
The second man scoffed at his partner. "Not as freaky as our boss. Look kid, just be a good little hostage and don't pick a fight with us."
"I'm not going to be your 'little' anything," Ed ground out. "And who's this boss guy you're talking about? He and I need to have a little chat."
"That would be me."
Ed kept his weapon at the ready as a third figure emerged from the fog and he cursed when the man's face came into view. Where the photo from Mustang's reports had showed a middle-aged scholarly man, this guy's face was marred by recent scars and twisted into a savage grin.
"You're Dane Buhren," Ed muttered. "So the alchemist we're looking for just happens to be the bloodthirsty gang leader. I don't suppose you'd be nice enough to fork over your research on alchemic amplifiers?"
Buhren's grin widened and Ed's eyes were drawn down to his hands, which were adorned with a pair of gloves with iron-studded knuckles. Those would leave quite a mark if the guy got in a decent punch and the transmutation circles stitched to the back could only serve to amplify the blows. Ed hoped Al would hurry up and deal with whoever he was fighting so he could come give his older brother a hand.
"Why should I hand over my research to a State Alchemist?" Buhren asked candidly. "The State never gave me a damn thing, not even an official rank for my research. Said it wasn't relevant enough! Lucky for me, I found some people who actually appreciate good alchemy."
Ed eyed the other two men, taking in their ragged clothes and lack of intelligence. "Yeah," he said dryly. "Lucky you."
Buhren didn't give him a chance to brace himself before he charged. Ed barely ducked a punch aimed at his face, feeling the crackle of alchemy as it passed. He made to sweep Buhren's legs out from under him with his staff, but the guy was wearing some kind of shin guard that snapped the wood in half. Ed abandoned the broken staff as the other two men closed in. But they didn't attack, probably following some unspoken rule not to interfere with their leader's battles.
Ed elbowed Buhren in the stomach and ducked around him to land a kick in the kidneys. Buhren dropped to his knees and Ed seized his hair, swiftly introducing the man's face to the ground. "About that research, old man…"
Buhren spat out a mouthful of dirt. "Gone!" he snarled. "I destroyed it. Like I'd let the State's brat get his hands on it!"
"Oh, that's just too bad!" Ed chirped. "Now I gotta beat the crap out of you in addition to arresting you. You know I'm really not a morning person?"
The other two men rushed in and Ed momentarily abandoned the leader to knock them both out cold. Automail was rather handy when it came to that. But that moment of distraction cost him dearly. Buhren recovered quickly and punched him right in the chest, the transmutation circles on his gloves sparking to life. A blow that should have only bruised a couple ribs ended up breaking what felt like half of them and Ed landed in a broken heap twenty yards away. He tried to breathe and ended up coughing up blood all over the grass. Buhren approached him with such a snide look that Ed wished he'd hacked blood on the guy's leather jacket instead. It looked expensive.
"What do you think of my alchemy?" Buhren inquired smugly. "Too much for you?"
"I've seen better," Ed gasped. "I know a major with more talent in his little finger than you--gah!"
Note to self. Petulance encouraged kicking. Ed nursed his shattered ribs as stars danced before his eyes, only able to take the shallowest of breaths. Buhren moved further away and retrieved the broken staff, examining the jagged end.
"I was planning to send the State a message by holding someone important as a ransom," Buhren murmured, flipping the staff around so the sharp end was pointed toward Ed's unprotected back. "But I think the body of a child will be much more effective."
"You'll murder a State Alchemist in cold blood?" Ed said softly, wishing Al would hurry up. He tried to move, but that only sent spikes of agony through his chest and he slumped back down weakly.
And only then did he remember that he wasn't alone.
"I don't see the big deal," Buhren replied in an icy tone. He raised the spear high. "Between you and me, this world could do with less of your kind."
Ed's fingers closed around Sherman. The moment Buhren's arm moved, he rolled aside and the staff pierced the ground harmlessly. Ed followed through with the motion and hurled the rock at Buhren, letting the momentum give the projectile that much more speed. The rock clocked Buhren right in the temple and he dropped like a sack of potatoes.
"Funny," Ed said hoarsely, letting himself sprawl out on his back to catch his breath. "I was thinking the same thing."
Surprisingly it didn't take all that long to get to the next town, even with a line of gang members bound and gagged in a neat little row behind them. Ed would have preferred to walk on his own, but any exertion on his part caused him to breathe faster, which in turn caused him unbearable pain. He ended up riding on Al's shoulders for most of the trip, calling out insults to the surly gangsters behind them. It was a relief to finally hand them off to the military police in town.
Unfortunately Buhren hadn't been lying about destroying all his research and Ed wasn't exactly in a position to beat his knowledge out of him. By the time the town doctor was through with him, his chest was wrapped up in so many bandages that he was left waddling around like a penguin. At least their room at the inn was free, courtesy of the mayor who was extremely grateful to see Buhren's gang gone from the streets.
"Could have at least given us a decent room," Ed sniffed from the bed. He crossed his arms over his aching chest, watching Al put away their few possessions in the tiny wardrobe. "That hammock you made was miles better than this sorry excuse for a mattress. I swear there are rats in this thing!"
"You're imagining things," Al chided. "I think it's a nice change having people actually grateful to us. Just try not to destroy too much while you're recovering and maybe we'll get you some free meals too."
"Yeah, right," Ed muttered. He hesitated and steeled himself for the next sentence. "Hey, Al? Um…look, I…kind of lost your rock."
Al looked up. "Hm?"
"Your rock," Ed mumbled. "Sherman, or whatever. I was in a pinch and I used it to take down Buhren, but I forgot to pick it up afterward. So…yeah. I lost your rock and I'm sorry."
He braced himself for the inevitable meltdown, staring fixedly at the blankets.
"It's okay," Al said indifferently. "I'm just glad you're alright. Do you need anything else? The innkeeper said she had some stew heating up if you're hungry."
Ed's head snapped up and he gaped at Al in disbelief. "Al…didn't you hear what I said?"
"Yes," Al replied flippantly. "Otherwise I would have asked you to repeat it."
"And I know you don't want to hear it, but I think we should stay here for a few weeks while you heal up. Ribs take a long time to heal and you'll just hurt yourself if you try to move around--"
Ed pushed himself fully upright. "Wait just a damn minute! Last time I lost that rock, you threw a fit! Why are you acting like it's no big deal all of a sudden?! I could have smashed it to pieces for all you know and you just don't care anymore and I just freaking apologized and everything and--and--and what the hell, Alphonse?!"
A long silence followed that tirade and Ed felt most of his energy drain from him like someone had pulled a plug. He sank onto his pillows, catching his breath and wishing he hadn't yelled so much when his chest was in such bad shape.
"Brother," Al said slowly, "shouldn't you be able to tell by now when I'm just messing with you?"
Ed's mouth dropped open and it took far longer than it should have for that statement to fully sink in. He flushed deeply while dozens of curses whirled in his head. Al snickered at his indignity.
"I can't believe you thought I wanted a rock for a pet. A rock!"
"Yeah, well," Ed said grudgingly. "You were pretty damn convincing…"
"And then you thought it was following you!" Al exclaimed in glee, collapsing into gales of laughter. "You actually thought--and then when I transmuted another Sherman after you threw the first one out the window--!"
"You transmuted that one?!" Ed yelped in shock. "You little sneak, I knew you were up to something!"
"I just wish I'd gotten a picture of you with that teddy bear!"
"You're lucky my ribs are broken, otherwise I'd do to you what I did to Sherman! Multiple times!"
In a grassy field somewhere in the middle of nowhere, an incongruous little rock sat nestled by the remains of a fire long burnt out. Little footsteps came running up and a child squatted in the grass, scooping up the smooth gray stone.
"Jamel! Don't play near the train tracks!"
The boy grinned and ran off, waving the rock high above his head. "Big brother, look what I found!"
And so Sherman found another master.