Fandom: Fullmetal Alchemist
Approximate length: 65,000
Summary: With Ed suffering from what he thinks is the seasonal flu the Elric brothers track a rogue alchemist in a small town outside of East City.
Spoilers: This story takes place about a year before the boys go to Lior. Anything that happened before that is fair game. This was originally intended to belong to the first anime universe, however as it progressed I began to see that I really wanted it to belong to the manga 'verse. If you're willing to ignore references to Youswell (which the boys visited after Lior in the manga) it can pretty much belong to any 'verse.
Disclaimers: I don't own Fullmetal Alchemist. This story was written for entertainment only. I'm not making any money.
Notes: This was written as an excuse for hurt/comfort. Also angst. Don't forget about the angst. Somewhere along the line it developed a plot and several original characters and I… just went with it. I hope that the result is passable and that my original characters don't detract from the plot. A final note: this story starts out funny and becomes angsty. Consider yourself warned.
Also, all mistakes are my own. Please forgive them.
Also, also, if you are a fan of Fullmetal Alchemist and haven't read the manga, you should read it, even if you think you're too old for comics. You're not.
"I swear, Al, he's doing this on purpose just to piss me off!" Ed fumed. Then he muffled a wet cough in his elbow.
From the seat across from him Al stared expressionlessly back. That wasn't unusual. Al was a soul affixed to a suit of armor, and wasn't really capable of forming expressions. His gentle voice and mannerisms however were so expressive in themselves that it hardly mattered that he couldn't make his helmet smile or frown.
Behind them a female passenger hustled her two kids out of their seats and retreated several rows to crowd in with the rest of the passengers whom Ed's colorful rants and continuous coughing had already frightened away. That left Ed and Al half of a train car all to themselves.
They'd been three weeks on the road this time, chasing down what turned out to be a false lead on the philosopher's stone, a false lead placed in front of them by none other than the bastard colonel himself.
"Don't be so negative, brother," Al scolded him gently. "The colonel wouldn't have sent us without a good reason. Think about all of the people we helped."
That was true enough. Ed's "routine inspection" of an often-ignored military base in the south had uncovered a black market run by a corrupt lieutenant colonel and his staff. The lieutenant colonel, interestingly enough, had been Mustang's rival for a number of promotions both past and present. With him in the stockade in Central and a vacant slot in the south, which was likely to be filled by another one of Mustang's counterparts, Ed had managed to remove not one but two colonels who might have stood between Mustang and another stripe on his shoulder.
"The man wouldn't wipe his nose if he wasn't politically motivated," Ed grumbled.
Speaking of wiping noses, Ed sniffled and brought a handkerchief out of his coat pocket to wipe his own nose, which was no doubt as bright a red and his coat. He was bringing back a souvenir from the south: this winter's strain of the spring flu, the creeping crud that had been terrorizing the locals when he and Al passed through town. Ed had no doubt that he'd contracted it from the inn-keeper's three-year-old, an adorable pig-tailed little tyke who enjoyed putting everything in her mouth, including her fingers, then sticking said fingers up Ed's nose.
And laughing about it.
"You should visit a doctor once we get back to East City," Al suggested. "Maybe they can give you something for your cough."
Ed almost dismissed the idea, but then he started having insubordinate thoughts about making Colonel Mustang wait for his report. The colonel always seemed to know his and Al's whereabouts, what they'd been up to, what they planned to do next, what Ed had eaten for breakfast, those kinds of things. Ed would bet half his research budget that Mustang knew which train they'd be arriving on this afternoon and had calculated how long it would take them to get from the station to headquarters depending on whether or not they took a cab and how many pedestrians their driver had to stop for along the way. Any activity with the potential to throw Mustang off their trail and Mustang's plans off track was worth doing, even if it involved smelly medical clinics and doctors with needles.
He told Al as much, and probably said it loudly enough for the Fuhrer himself to hear back in Central.
Ed sneezed again, but this time he didn't bring his sleeve up in time to cover his face.
Ed pulled the sleeve of his coat over his hand and started to wipe Al's breastplate.
"Good thing a suit of armor can't catch cold, right Al?" Ed said, trying his best to sound remorseful.
Al made a tinny, hollow and slightly exasperated sound. Ed recognized the noise. It was the closest sound Al, in his metal body, could make to a sigh.
"Brother, why don't you try to get some sleep? We still have a couple of hours until we get to the city…and I think you could use it."
Ed dropped his hands and gripped the wooden bench on either side of himself, trying to summon up enough irritation at the hard seat to keep himself upright, but either the seat wasn't as hard as he thought or his cold had depleted his normally well-fortified reserves of anger, because he found himself laying down on his side, head pillowed on his left arm.
Ed couldn't wait to get back to headquarters. He closed his eyes and tried to work out a plan to get a few unsupervised minutes alone in Colonel Bastard's office so that he could lick each and every one of the man's ink pens.
A few seconds later –or, what felt like a few seconds later- Ed was being shaken awake by a large metal hand. "We're here, brother. You have to get up."
Ed's sleep-clouded brain was having trouble assigning meaning to the words, but Ed's body responded instinctively to the urgent tone of his brother's voice.
Ed hauled himself upright and slid gracelessly off the bench seat. The train had stopped. Aside from the two of them, the passenger car was empty.
"You must have been tired. I had a hard time waking you up."
Ed indicated his agreement by yawning hugely.
Ed began searching for his old brown suitcase only to find that Al had already retrieved it from the luggage rack. Ed was too tired to bother changing the status quo so he settled for traipsing after his brother through the empty passenger car and down onto the platform.
"At least it stopped raining," Al said brightly.
Ed looked up. The sky was dark and the clouds were hanging low and ominous with unshed precipitation. More rain on the way. Ed could feel the pressure change in his stumps as an aching fullness where flesh met automail.
The platform was empty as well. He and Al must have been the last ones off the train. It bothered Ed a little, having slept through that much activity. In a way it echoed the most important lesson that Teacher had ingrained in them during their training.
All is one.
One is all.
Ed was one person, a small part of the All, the world. If he died tomorrow, the world would continue on without him.
And Mustang would find some other pawn to help him further his ambitions.
The walk to headquarters wasn't terrible, maybe only a half dozen kilometers or so, and covering the distance on foot usually helped take the edge off of Ed's temper before he trudged into the colonel's office. Today, with the clouds threatening to open up and drown them Ed didn't even pretend to need the exercise.
Ed dozed during the taxi ride as well, forehead pressed against the window. His skin left a foggy halo on the glass when they arrived at their destination.
Ed paid the driver and tipped him well, because he had the cash and he could.
The taxi pulled away from the curb. Ed looked up and saw the red cross on the white field, groaned out loud and wished that he could take his money back. Not all of it, just a little, enough to compensate him for the pain and suffering of a visit to the doctor.
"Come on, brother. You'll get soaked if you stay out here," Al rationalized. It still took a firm hand on his upper arm to guide him into the building.
Silver pocket watch or no Ed had to wait for over an hour in a lobby full of sniveling children and old people before being seen by a doctor with a cleaned and pressed white coat and slightly bloodshot eyes.
Ed was used to his automail arm drawing stares and inspiring curiosity, but the doctor didn't even bat an eye when Ed removed his shirt. Ed guessed that he was enough of a fixture here in East City that the man had already known who he was treating. Or it might have had something to do with the medical history questionnaire that Al had filled out for him in the waiting room ("I know you don't like milk, brother, but I don't think you're allergic.").
The doctor pressed his cold stethoscope against Ed's back and listened to his breathing, then consulted the thermometer that he'd placed under Ed's tongue.
"Seasonal flu," he pronounced on a tired sigh, scrawling something illegible onto a small square pad of paper. "It's going around. Get plenty of rest, drink plenty of fluids and get this filled." The doctor hesitated for an instant, then seemed to decide that Al was the more responsible person in the party, and handed him Ed's prescription. "Stay dry out there, boys."
Ed wanted to be annoyed that Al had again been mistaken for the head of his family but he still had to see Mustang and deliver his report and probably listen to a lecture over whatever indiscretion they'd committed this time in the name of the state. The afternoon stretched ahead of him like a long, steep muddy hill and he didn't have the mental energy to waste being angry with a stranger.
Ed hopped off the exam table. "We'd better get to headquarters."
Al held up Ed's prescription. The little square of paper looked very out of place in his big metal hand. "Not before we get your prescription filled," he said firmly.
Ed huffed out a breath.
Get some rest. Sure. Right.
East headquarters wasn't nearly as labyrinthine as Central headquarters but it still took Ed and Al a good twenty minutes of traipsing up stairs and down drafty corridors to reach Colonel Mustang's office. By the time they got there Ed didn't even have any mud left on his shoes that he could track on the colonel's carpet.
Out of habit, Ed raised his left hand to knock. His right hand tended to leave dents in wood. If he'd been thinking a little clearer he would have happily dented the colonel's door.
Master Sergeant Cain Fuery greeted them with a surprised but pleased, "Edward, Alphonse!"
Fuery paused, taking in Edward's appearance with his narrow eyes, "Whatsamatter, Ed. You sick?"
Ed waved his hand dismissively. "Nah, just a cold." He could feel Al's disapproving stare boring holes into the top of his head.
"Oh, lucky for you that you weren't around last week. The whole office was down with the flu."
"Even the colonel?" Ed asked with growing disappointment.
"Yup. All of us. Sick as dogs. There's a nasty bug going around. I bet you're glad you missed it."
"Well, come on in. The colonel was expecting you a few hours ago."
"Yeah, got sidetracked. Sorry." Wait. Why the hell was he apologizing? Hadn't it been his intention to keep the colonel waiting? Oh, but then his fake excuse had turned into a legitimate one. Right. And he couldn't even give Colonel Bastard the flu because he'd already had it. This day was just one heaping helping of disappointment after another.
Colonel Roy Mustang was parked at his desk behind a stack of paperwork that looked more intimidating than the written part of the state alchemy exam.
"Fullmetal," the colonel greeted him flatly, "nice of you to squeeze us into your schedule today. I know that you're short on time."
It took all of his self control not to rise to the bait. That would mean he'd have to tell Mustang that he'd caught a cold and Al had dragged him to a doctor. Ed was not about to admit weakness in front of the colonel. Instead he flopped disobediently onto Mustang's sofa.
"That was a bad lead you gave us, Colonel."
"Oh, was it? Seems you too had a relatively productive trip." Mustang picked up a small stack of paper and began leafing through it, "You disrupted a smuggling operation, uncovered a military-run black market, which, by the way, resulted in the arrest and prosecution of twelve commissioned officers including South city's base commander and more than twice that number of NCOs. Seems they had dirt on their hands from all kinds of illegal activities including…"
Mustang paused as he turned the page, probably for dramatic effect, Ed thought bitterly. Ed wouldn't be shocked if the documents in the colonel's hands were all blank.
"…counterfeiting gold and other precious metals and stones."
"Yeah," Ed ground out, fists tightening on his knees, "stones."
"All in all a successful mission I'd say. Well done."
But Ed was still seething, "You knew the stone was a counterfeit didn't you, sir?"
Mustang's expression didn't change, but the teasing note dropped out of his voice and he became serious. "I suspected that was the case. I couldn't be sure until I sent someone out there now, could I?"
Ed was incensed over being used, but that was what he'd signed up for. He was the military's lap dog. He was using them, their money and resources for his own purposes: to get his and Al's bodies back to normal. For the time being he would have to let them use him as well. Besides, he couldn't fault the colonel's logic. If there had even been the slightest chance that the lead had been a good one, Ed would have traveled there on his own regardless of what the military wanted him to do. After all was said and done he'd still be in the same position he was now: sitting on Colonel Mustang's couch with a cold, fighting the urge to wipe his runny nose on his sleeve.
The last few weeks on the road caught up with Ed all at once, and he suddenly felt very tired.
"Am I dismissed now, Colonel?"
"Not quite yet."
Mustang began to shuffle through the papers on his desk, finally turning up a file.
"Excuse me, Colonel," Al interrupted. The hollow sound of his voice was unexpected. Al usually kept quiet when Ed reported to the colonel. More often than not he didn't stick around at all, preferring to use the time that Ed was occupied to continue their research. Ed wasn't even sure why he had chosen to stay today, then a thought occurred to him and he almost groaned out loud.
"What is it, Alphonse?"
Ed aimed a frosty glare over his shoulder, which Al stubbornly ignored, "Brother isn't well. You should let him go to the dormitories and get some rest before you send him on another assignment."
Ed felt his eyebrow twitch in irritation.
Mustang leaned over his desk to peer more closely at Ed. Ed shrank under his scrutiny. "Hmm, now that you mention it Al, he does look a little flushed. Has he seen a doctor?"
Teeth clenched, head practically steaming, Ed shoved his hand into his coat pocket and pulled out his prescription, which they'd filled before reporting to headquarters. He held the crumpled white paper baggie containing his medicine at arm's length toward Mustang for a moment as proof before jamming it back into his pocket.
"I see," Mustang sighed, disappointed. "Well, it was only a little assignment, but if you're not feeling up to it I can easily give it to someone else."
Ed jumped up and snatched the file out of Mustang's hand almost before the man had a chance to finish his sentence.
Ed intentionally kept his eyes fixed on the report so that he wouldn't have to see at the smug look on the colonel's face or the disapproving look in his brother's eyes.
"I feel this case suits your talents particularly well, Fullmetal. It doesn't require resolution so much as clarification, if you get my meaning."
By the time Ed finished scanning the first few pages of the report he'd almost forgotten that he wasn't alone in the room. "So someone is impersonating a state alchemist…" he mused.
"And not doing a very good job of it," Mustang added. "No credentials, no falsified orders. The name that he's using, Leon Mueller, doesn't belong to any state alchemist on the books, past or present, and he doesn't match the description of any alchemist I've ever met or heard of. The only reason I got wind of him at all was because I received an angry phone call from a Mrs. Bosch in Rhuel."
Ed located the name on the report. "Wilhelmina Bosch…she wanted you to send someone to fix her back porch." Ed said, puzzled.
Mustang explained, "Apparently the state alchemist that I sent to Rhuel after the earthquake didn't do a very good job of repairing it and the porch collapsed on top of her prize-winning hydrangeas…except that I never sent an alchemist to Rhuel and there was no earthquake reported anywhere else in the region. In fact, the only people who claimed to have experienced the earthquake, according to Rhuel's law-enforcement, all live within roughly five-block radius of Wilhelmina Bosch. I dug a little further and found that a young man calling himself a state alchemist has been making the rounds in Rhuel, helping people repair all kinds of damage done by the 'earthquake', usually with similarly disastrous results."
"Sounds like he's his own worst enemy. So what did you tell Mrs. Bosch?"
"I apologized for the damage and told her that I would send someone to fix her porch right away."
Ed didn't like the meaningful look that the colonel was giving him.
"So I'm a handy man now?" Ed asked.
"Mrs. Bosch's porch would be a good place to start. Try to be inconspicuous. I've notified the local law enforcement to expect you, but so far I haven't told anyone that this 'Leon Mueller' isn't a state alchemist. Your job is to investigate only and report back to me. Don't act without orders. I want to know what kind of game this man is playing."
"Sniff around like a good dog, huh? I can do that," Ed said with equal parts determination and bitterness.
Mustang seemed satisfied. "Good. Rhuel is only about an hour west of here by train. The last one leaves at six-thirty."
Ed nodded, still perusing the report. "Interesting. It says here that he has a silver pocket watch," Ed said in surprise.
"It could be a counterfeit. Or he might have stolen it from someone, though no state alchemist has reported having their pocket watch stolen, not in the last decade."
"Like I said, interesting."
Ed looked up to find Mustang frowning at him, and for the life of him Ed couldn't figure out what he'd done to piss the colonel off already.
"Now that I think about it, this mission can keep for one more day. Why don't you stay in the dorms tonight?"
"Give me a little credit, Ed. I can see you're not functioning at one hundred percent and contrary to what you might think I do care about the well being of my subordinates. Wait a day and see how you're feeling. If you're not up to it, I can find someone else to take care of this mission, and I'm not just saying that because of the way your brother is glaring at me, or because Lieutenant Hawkeye will shoot me if you keel over in the street while you're on assignment."
Ed threw a quick glance over his shoulder. As stated, Al's expressionless helmet did somehow seem to be glaring at the colonel.
Riza Hawkeye was sitting at her desk with a pen in her hand and an open file in front of her. "Only in the leg, sir," she verified without emotion.
Ed couldn't think of anything to say but he couldn't get his mouth to close either.
Mustang continued, "Besides, I'm not trying to wage germ warfare on everyone between East City and Rhuel, assuming that there's anyone left within a hundred kilometer radius who hasn't already had the flu this year."
"Hey, how did you-?"
"Get some rest, Fullmetal. Call my office in the morning and we'll talk."
Ed stalked out of the colonel's office, seething and muttering to himself. Al followed placidly behind him and Ed could practically hear Mustang's smug satisfaction echoing in his brother's metallic footfalls. A chorus of: "feel better soon" and "get some rest, chief!" from Mustang's staff followed him out into the rain.
"Stupid Mustang. Thinks he knows everything. I'm going to wipe that smug look off his stupid face."
East City's clock tower stood just outside the gates of the military compound. Ed glanced up and read the time: five forty-five.
He paused in his tracks.
"What is it?" Al asked.
Ed didn't answer.
Al persisted, "Brother, we need to get you out of this rain."
Ed stayed rooted to the spot, scowling as he pictured Colonel Mustang's smirking face.
Five forty-five, huh? That gave him forty-five minutes to make the train. That was more than enough time if he ran.
No sooner was Ed's mind made up than he was off at a dead sprint towards the train station, Al trailing behind him, shouting, "Brother, wait!"
But Ed didn't need alchemy to turn anger into energy. That fact and nothing else kept him well beyond Al's reach the entire way to the train station.
To be continued...