TITLE: Toy Soldier
AUTHOR: roseveare
RATING: PG-13
LENGTH: 16,000 words approx
SUMMARY: Roy Mustang and Ed get a lesson in what it means to be a 12 year old in the military after Edward falls into the hands of terrorists. Gen.
NOTES: Mangaverse, set a few months after Ed became a State Alchemist.
WARNINGS: Violence, language, cruelty to animals and small children.
THANKS: To sayhello for beta-reading.
DISCLAIMER: Fullmetal Alchemist belongs to Hiromu Arakawa and various other people not me. Not mine, no profit, yadda yadda yadda.


Toy Soldier

1.

Roy Mustang stood sweating in the middle of the dusty, empty crossroads, debating whether to loosen his collar and whether or not whichever hick local authorities they were here to deal with would even notice that his uniform defied regulation if he did. He cursed the unusually dry, warm winter spell that the east was experiencing. More than that, he cursed the Fullmetal boy and the reason he was standing out here in the middle of nowhere, almost a hundred miles from East City.

Behind him, Havoc shifted his feet and his grip on his rifle, because a Second Lieutenant who'd not brought along enough cigarettes and whose commanding officer refused a detour for the purchase of said cigarettes was a fidgety Second Lieutenant indeed. Breda and Falman were customarily quiet and professional. The rest of his own team were back at HQ, and the party's numbers made up by a dozen soldiers who looked hot and pissed off. The latter would be because some fool, somewhere along the line, had happened to mention to them what this so-important mission actually was.

The question uppermost on everyone's mind surely had to be: What the hell had that horrible little brat done now? Probably, it was second only to: What the hell possessed that crazy colonel to sponsor a kid as a State Alchemist in the first place?

Fullmetal's missions so far, Roy reflected, while often surprisingly adeptly and even ingeniously completed - albeit also with frequent paperwork detailing truly unreasonable amounts of property damage - did occasionally leave him feeling like the guardian of a wayward child, come to pick up and answer for his stray. It certainly was not the first time he'd received a communication to come and retrieve 'his' alchemist. He ground his teeth at the thought. Why did people assume that he was the kid's guardian? Sponsor did not equal babysitter.

Then again, he was here.

He blinked into the distance. He could see the dust trail of what presently revealed itself to be a covered cart, rounding the corner far down the road, between brown hedges. He leaned back against the wooden statue that was the crossroads' landmark - a one and a half times life size idol of some local war hero. It was carved from an ancient, lightning-struck tree, and was now rotting and growing mushrooms, which struck him as uniquely appropriate for anyone considered a hero of the Ishbal campaign. And he reflected, as he watched the approaching cart, that it was strange for them to ask for such a rendezvous, so far out of the way, so anonymous.

It was the first thread of unease to ooze through his annoyance and start to register upon him that this situation was not normal. It wasn't nearly enough to prepare him.

The cart drew to a halt a wary distance off. Roy stared, and some of the soldiers started as a large amount of clattering metal was scattered out across the road. That were followed by a small, panting bundle of human misery which had all too obviously been shoved without particular care for how heavy or undignified its landing.

The twelve year old Fullmetal Alchemist was bundled up in his familiar red coat, which looked very unfamiliarly the worse for wear, tattered and dirty. There was something odd about the shape his limbs drew inside the bundle. A moment later, it registered that the coat wasn't the only red decorating the small form, and as Roy recognised the shapes of the metal debris that had first been tossed out of the cart, he grimly reached into his pocket and started to pull on his gloves.

"No!" Fullmetal shrieked, raw and childlike in his all-too-obvious desperation. "They've got... people in there! Hostages. Don't-"

There was something funny about his voice, too; an odd slur in it. Roy could now see the black muzzles that the shadows of the covered cart had grown. The driver was hooded and anonymous. A likewise anonymous adult male voice said, "Be glad you didn't get the kid back in smaller pieces. I trust he'll tell you what we want from you, Flame Colonel. Don't try following us."

He dared not risk that the boy's assertion about hostages was true, and had no choice but to watch, gloved hand raised uselessly, as the cart swung around, sending armour pieces scattering beneath the swath of its huge wooden wheels, only narrowly missing the boy as it completed a full circle and sped back the way it had come.

Breda was the first man at the boy's side, because despite his brusque attitude, Breda was a sap. Not that he sounded like it when he snapped explosively, "Damn it, kid!" and swatted a hand at Fullmetal's grimy blond head. Though the blow distinctly failed to connect.

"...It... went a bit wrong." Fullmetal avoided any of their eyes and scrabbled around on the ground trying to turn himself. Though it was difficult to distinguish any injuries beneath that coat of his, he did not seem too hurt so much as not especially mobile. Indeed, Roy registered then where the wrongness in his outline came from - he was missing at least half his right arm, and there was something horribly twisted about the angle of his left leg. Even knowing that those limbs were machines, it remained a nauseating realisation. "Al... Al, you can probably talk again now, they've gone. Tell me you're okay!"

"Are you all right, brother?" the familiar voice piped up, more disembodied than usual and sounding thoroughly forlorn. "I'm sorry, I couldn't fight them, I let them-"

"It's not like I did a great job, either. Don't worry about those bastards now, anyway. We'll have you put back together in no time." He'd located Al's head to direct the words to. That had been what all the squirming around was about. Now he tried to shuffle towards it. Havoc picked it up and tried to place it in his hands, only to discover that the boy didn't appear to have a working limb to hold onto his little brother with.

Roy forced himself into action. He was in charge here... Something was required of him. He couldn't, for instance, have Alphonse Elric idly chatting away as disembodied pieces of armour in front of the regular soldiers. "Havoc, Falman - get the armour pieces into the truck and start reassembling them. Breda-" He debated, momentarily, leaving Edward to Breda. But no - that one was his responsibility, alas. He should have brought Riza, instead of leaving her in charge of his office. "Take the men and scout around the area. See if these people have left anything of interest nearby."

With a sigh, he stripped off his gloves again and strode heavily to Fullmetal's side, where he knelt on the ground in Breda's vacated spot; aware of activity carrying on around them, but only peripherally. He frowned down at the boy and tried to quash the faint irritation he felt, since it seemed that this time it was probably unfair. "Can you stand?"

Edward looked down, then uncomfortably back up to almost meet his eyes. "I think that's pretty unlikely... uh, I... I'm sorry, Colonel. There weren't any hostages in the cart. They told me to say that, and they said they'd shoot me in the head if I didn't, and after all I can't get Al his body back if I get shot in the head, so - I lied for them. I'm sorry! I mean, they did have some people. I saw them, but I don't think I was supposed to. And they were back at that place, anyway, not in the cart."

"That's o-" The babbling was almost a whimper, and damn it, he didn't know how to deal with a traumatised child. He was simultaneously rocked back by the waft of odour that came off Fullmetal's breath. What the hell? "Have you been drinking?"

Ed grimaced. "They made me swallow a lot of stuff. I didn't like it. I couldn't concentrate and I don't like not being able to concentrate. Two - no, three times. Last night and yesterday morning, I think, and the first time was the day before. Today it made me throw up and my head hurts, but at least I can think a lot better now."

Roy cursed, then broke off. There were no words. "Edward, I'm going to lift you up. Tell me what hurts and where I need to be careful."

"Arm. Bastards broke m' arm. Both, but at least the metal one doesn't hurt." His mouth curled into a snarl full of little sharp white teeth, which Roy appreciated because it reminded him that this was Edward Elric, whom the loss of two limbs at once had markedly failed to stop.

"Well, we'll get it fixed. Both of them."

"...Winry's gonna kill me... She's gonna fuckin' kill me..." A barely audible mumble.

What? That little blonde girl in Resembool? Roy blinked. "My soldiers don't use that sort of language, Fullmetal," he said sharply. Which was definitely not true, and certainly not when they had had all hell kicked out of them, but he wasn't going to passively listen to those sorts of words from the mouth of a twelve year old, either. "Anything else apart from the arm?"

"Back... um. Argh." The kid made a strangled sound, and shook his head, lank blond hair moving stiffly because it was gummed with who-knew-what and all too evidently hadn't been washed in a while. He gave off the general impression that he'd have made some sort of gesture had he possessed a functioning limb to do it with. "Just go for it, Colonel, and mind the arm."

Resisting the impulse to make comment on being ordered around by a beat-up twelve year old, Roy took him at his word, because if anything, the kid certainly knew about his own pain tolerance. He had never carried a child before, for all that he had carried injured men on the battlefield. It was an odd feeling to fold the smaller body against him. He waited while the stub of metal arm curled about his shoulder, and regretted the whole idea when he tried to stand up and his back screamed as it took the kid's weight. Automail. Right. This was a nice new way to look decidedly unmanly in front of his own men, he reflected, as he staggered with his troublesome burden to the nearest truck. Damn it, he knew he must look ridiculous, because Fullmetal was tiny... and how did he move around all that weight of artificial body parts, anyway?

The kid had given a little gulp initially, but otherwise didn't respond again until he was placed down on the wide seat in the back of the truck, at which point he yowled mutedly and squirmed like an eel until he was lying on his stomach. Back. Okay. His own back twinging sympathetically, Roy seated himself on what remained of the seat and was glad the boy was short. He could hear the muffled voices of Falman and Havoc, and Alphonse Elric's - faintly embarrassed - carrying through from the covered trailer to the rear.

"Let me look at your arm."

Instead, Edward clutched it to his side. "It's broken. A lot. I know that. I don't think there's anything anyone can do short of a doctor."

"All right." So far as Roy was concerned, the kid was talking, and moving, and other than his general scratched-up state he didn't appear to be losing blood, and frankly, Fullmetal probably knew more about human anatomy than he did. He was more than happy to leave this task to a doctor. "We'll get you proper medical assistance soon. In the meantime, I'll find you some painkillers."

"That'd be nice," Fullmetal mumbled into the seat.

They would go to the nearest town with a military presence, he decided, once he'd returned from his brief foray for a basic medical kit and a water bottle and seated himself once again next to the boy, trying to politely forget the fact he'd just had to place the tablets into Edward's mouth and tip the water for him to drink. Once there, he could commandeer facilities and medical personnel, as well as people to help tackle this new group of troublemakers Fullmetal had been unlucky enough to discover. He leaned back and sighed, listening to the kid's regular, pain-filled pants of breath.

Didn't you think about this when you decided to sponsor a twelve year old as a State Alchemist? his cynical inner voice accused.

He knew he'd thought about it. State Alchemists got hurt. Sometimes State Alchemists got killed.

Or did you simply not care? the voice added, snidely.

"Report, Fullmetal," he said blandly. "Everything you know about these people. Everything they said to you, word for word or as close as you remember. Everything you can tell me about these 'hostages' they didn't want you to see they were holding."

Edward rasped a non-regulation, but in this instance probably forgivable, "I guess..."


2.

Report of State Alchemist Edward Elric (Major) : codename Fullmetal : 14.12.11

"There were six of them, at least at first, although I saw other faces later, so there were probably at least twice that many in all. We weren't expecting to be attacked - I mean, we were investigating why all the local wells were drying up this year, so I doubt they were anything to do with the mission. I don't know where things... shit. Damn. No, I know where things went wrong: they were big guys who knew how to fight and we were outmatched, especially when they surprised us like that. I remember Al was trying to hold off two of them and I was transmuting blocks from the ground everywhere to try take care of the rest, but we were near a place where they were setting fences along the side of the road, and one of them picked up this huge hammer. That was how they smashed my arms and stopped me transmuting. I guess I'm pretty lucky he hit the metal one first.

"Once they had me down they made Al stop fighting. They wanted him to take the armour off, but of course he couldn't. I really thought they were going to smash us both to bits with the hammer, so I told Al to start dismantling himself and I told the bastards that he was an alchemical construct that I'd created to be my bodyguard, because at least that way he wasn't broken, and even with my arms like this there was more chance I could put him back together, and he'd be able to get us away from them.

"They took us to a place that... it was big. A farm, I think, rather than a big house. It smelled a bit like cows, but not like there were any cows actually there, it wasn't that strong a smell. And it was messy, like dirty messy. I thought I could hear a train a few times, so the railway line must run nearby. I didn't think it was more than an hour from the town, but I was distracted by my arm hurting so I might not have judged that very well.

"At first they wanted information, but I don't know anything about your military stuff anyway, and then the bastards broke all my fingers and I think it pissed them off that they ran out so soon. Hah! They hauled at my arm for a while because they knew they'd already broken that, and then they did some electrical trick to what was left of my automail, which hurt more than anything else had, but the older guy who - I don't think there was anyone in charge, but they seemed to listen to him more when they argued - anyway, he came into the room and said they'd probably come close to stopping my heart and if they kept up with that they'd kill me. They argued about it for ages. The one with the really nasty beard said that plenty of children had died at Ishbal, and if I could cause this much mayhem now, what would it be like when I grew up and they put me on a battlefield? But I think the other guy won anyway, or else they decided I didn't know any military secrets after all, because after that they asked me what I did know and I told them a lot of really complicated alchemical formulas. That didn't make them very happy, either.

"The older guy who'd stopped them told the others that they could use me as an example. They talked about you and used some swear words I never even heard before. They don't like you at all, Colonel. Then they argued what to best do to me to make me an example, and I'm not gonna repeat some of that stuff because then I'd have to think about it again and I'd rather not. But they must have decided to think it over a day or two because they locked me up in a room and left me there.

"I used my automail to kick a hole in the wall and went to find Al, and that was when I saw them with those people. There were two men and a woman. One of the men was a lot younger, but I didn't get a really good look. They were all ragged and tired looking, but I think their clothes had been nice sometime. I thought that they were prisoners, too, because they looked scared, and the other men I'd seen before seemed to be acting pretty aggressive with them. Anyway, the younger one saw me, and the idiot gave me away! He cried out all surprised and they chased after me, which didn't last very long and when they caught me I got kicked and felt something crack in my side which must've been a rib, I suppose. And then... fucking bastards... they hit me some more. And then they put me in a cellar.

"There was a lot of junk lying around down there, and old cans of some really useful substances they were very stupid to leave me in there with. I got my boots off and, uh, used my toes to put some of the stuff together in such a way that made it, well, explode. Except I think I was just mad and tired and hurting and worried about Al, and really not thinking too clearly because of it all by then. When I blew down the door they heard it right away and came running in. Which was when they broke my leg and staked both my automail into the dirt floor so I couldn't move at all and poured that stuff down my throat. Everything's a bit unclear after that, although I'm pretty sure that first I remember yelling a lot, and then I got dizzy and I think I fell asleep.

"I was stuck there for ages and they didn't let me up at all, just made me drink more of that stuff whenever I started to come round, but there was a bit of light from an iron grating and I remember it being night twice, which was cold, and they didn't even feed me either. It felt like very early on in the morning when they got me loose of the cellar floor - which took ages and was pretty funny, or at least it seemed to be at the time, especially since it was their own stupid fault. They seemed to have decided I was already a good enough example because they'd broken so much, and I definitely remember that they said they didn't want me hanging around there for ages, so I guess that means they've had those other people a while. Actually what they said was 'this awful brat', and that's just not fair because how do they expect someone to behave if they kidnap them and break their arms? They tried to make me memorise a bunch of things they wanted said to you at that point, but I wasn't making a lot of sense, which was obviously also their own stupid fault, so they gave up and decided to do it later. They did try to feed me then, but I didn't really want it by that time and I threw up. I didn't feel very well. I still don't. Is that the alcohol? Do people seriously drink it on purpose?

"I knew by that time they were letting me go, but I was scared that they weren't going to take Al back with me because they thought he was just bits of metal, and I didn't dare say anything either because if I protested and gave them any reason to think he was important they might keep him because of that, too. When they put me on the cart Al's box was still there, though, right where they'd left it, and I felt better. They just dumped us both off the cart in pieces, which you saw.

"Anyway, their stupid message, that they said again before they threw us out of the cart was: 'We are the Eastern Peoples' Liberation Army. Our mission is to see an end to a government that sends its people from their farms to battlefields of slaughter, and to see the end of a military whose upper ranks are formed of war criminals. We demand a more equal distribution of the country's wealth among the people and the cessation of military use of alchemists to strongarm its own citizens and serve as weapons of war, returning them to the service of the people where they belong. Blah blah blah blah...' 'Cessation' was my word, not theirs. Theirs didn't make sense. I don't think they're very well educated bastard kidnappers."

Roy grimaced again as he re-read the report in his hand, the typed sheet courtesy of the walking memory that was Warrant Officer Falman, who had been driving them at the time. It was the first occasion he'd ever had a report from one of Fullmetal's missions that was actually legible. Try as he might while they sat in the back of that truck earlier, he had failed to prise any more remembrance from the boy regarding what 'blah blah blah blah' represented, and eventually Fullmetal had ended the debriefing by dozing off. Not long after, they'd reached the small garrison town of Braklup.

Across the surgical room, Edward now perched on a gurney with his lips pressed tight together and his metal parts all missing space and impossible angles, while the doctor - whose name was Rachel; pretty girl - tried to patch the flesh parts of him back together. He should be in tears, Roy thought. Or there should at least have been tears, somewhere along the line. But there hadn't been, even when the doctor had briefly sent Roy away, a while since. He was, as a point of fact, incredibly relieved that Fullmetal wasn't in tears, but that was for his own sake, not Edward's. This silent stoicism wasn't natural in a child of that age.

What's not natural is that he's twelve years old, and he looks ten, and who the hell breaks all of a little boy's fingers?

The tally of injuries was... well, he'd feared worse, but it was still a depressing list that he'd have gone to lengths to avoid. The damage to Edward's arms had clearly been done with the intention of disabling his alchemy, and the left lower arm was indeed broken - splinted now, fairly lightly to allow as much mobility as possible to a patient already an arm down. The fingers were individually splinted, as well. From the elbow upwards, the doctor had declared a probable muscle sprain, stated that there was little she could do for it bar providing painkillers in plentiful supply, and that it would probably hurt more than the broken bones for a couple of weeks.

Edward had been correct in his assessment that a kick had left him with a cracked rib. A bit more prodding had teased the reluctant admission from him that he'd also received what his abductors had considered the sort of 'damned good hiding' owed to boys who didn't behave themselves: namely, multiple red marks across his lower back and buttocks where he'd been hit repeatedly with a heavy belt. Which explained his earlier reluctance to clarify the nature of his injuries.

Roy really wanted to genuinely feel that the excesses his captors had gone to were appalling overkill, but from his own long experience of trying to control the Fullmetal Alchemist, he found instead that he was afflicted by a sort of horrified understanding. It didn't stop him from almost vibrating with rage while he watched the silent boy receive the doctor's administrations.

Somebody had done this to one of his people, and by the sounds of things they had done it primarily to make a point to him.

As the delightful Doctor Rachel was helping Edward to pull on the clean t-shirt from the pile of small clothes the garrison commander's wife had provided (the garrison commander's son was nine years old, and there had been strict instructions passed around that nobody mention this fact to Edward), there came a quiet tap upon the doorframe. "Excuse me? I was told someone was needed to look at some automail... oh." The polite-voiced young man in spectacles faltered as he caught sight of his client. "That's... I thought it was a military personnel request." He eyed Roy's uniform and the child on the gurney.

"Just look at... at Edward's arm and leg, please, Mr Danner." Roy supposed it was just as well the engineer was so late, since at least Fullmetal was now partially reclothed and upright and no longer seeming about to die of embarrassment over the stripes etched in his skin. He also consciously avoided complicating the situation further by mention of Edward's title or default military rank, tempted as he was.

"Argh! Get away!" It was nothing short of amazing that Fullmetal could scuttle back from Danner's hands with just one good leg and half an arm to work with. "Winry'll gut me if you touch her automail. She'll kill me!"

"We're a long way from Resembool," Roy said reasonably, "and by the look of things, we'll be staying here a while to deal with these people. Do you want to spend that time mobile, or not?"

Edward made a strangled noise but stopped wriggling in circles around the top of the gurney and let Danner at his leg. "Just - make it a temporary fix. Enough for a few weeks. And quick, 'cause I don't wanna be sitting around, okay - Colonel Bastard's right about that." He looked glum, very much the expression of a condemned man. "But that way I can get Winry to do the proper work later, and I might get out of this in one agh, in no less pieces." He groaned.

A tool kit was briskly opened, and within half an hour the leg joint faced the right way again and creaked appallingly when flexed, but could at least be walked upon. The fact that Ed immediately fell over when he stood up to test it out was not the automail's fault. "Head's... spinnin'..." He spoke like he had a mouth full of wool.

"That's because you're drunk," Roy said.

"Hungover," the doctor corrected. "Sit down." She dragged the boy back onto the gurney. Roy enjoyed a warm glow. He appreciated commanding women.

"Congratulations, by the way," he added to Fullmetal. "I was fourteen, so you've got me beat by two years." He joked about it while feeling annoyingly raw. A man's first experience of alcoholic excess was meant to be a rite of passage shared with equally young and idiotic friends, not someone's idea of restraint. "What about the arm?" he asked Danner.

The mechanic eyed it. "Where's the rest?" He was pointed to a tray on a nearby table containing elbow-joint-down of one small automail arm and a few smaller pieces that hadn't been a part of Al's armour and so presumably fit somewhere. Havoc had also found Fullmetal's silver watch among the debris, but Roy had taken that for temporary safekeeping.

"Pardon me, young man-" Danner uncoupled the upper arm segment from Edward's shoulder with no more warning than that, and left the boy glaring outrage at his back as he headed for the tray. He shook his head at the collection. "You haven't a hope. It's fine work - a real shame somebody wrecked it. The original artist might be able to fix it, given time, but I'm afraid I wouldn't know where to start."

Edward paled more than he had at any other time during the whole proceedings and wailed, "It wasn't my fault! They couldn't figure out how to take it off, and even though it was already broken, I could hardly just have told them that, could I? I didn't know they were gonna smash it right off! She's going to kill me!"

Danner looked at Roy, who shrugged. "I could probably bring a spare..." he hazarded cautiously. "A basic spare, for use on a temporary basis. It would be disproportionately large, of course-"

"-Who are you callin' SMALL-?"

"-and I would have to adjust the mechanism to fit the boy's shoulder port, which would cost, and I'd need it shipped back to me post-haste, which would also be expensive, but at least he'd have a semi-functional limb until his left arm heals."

"Yeah," Edward piped up, surprising them both. "I want that. I'm good for the money. But no wooden prosthetic shit. I have to have something metal with proper current and nerve connections running through it. I don't care if it's too big or if it's heavy." Because he needed a limb like that to enable his alchemy, Roy tagged on mentally.

He narrowed his eyes. This was headed somewhere. He could feel it.

Danner departed, leaving the tray of disassembled limb on a worksurface. Ed looked at it for a long moment as though he was considering asking for the stub to be reattached, since it at least gave him an iota more mobility, but the broken edges were sharp and it was decidedly doubtful the doctor would have any truck with the request, and evidently Fullmetal came to the same conclusion because he shifted his furtive glances to Roy instead, chewing his lower lip as if he wanted very much to say something but didn't quite dare. Eventually Roy gave up and leaned close to faux-whisper, "What?"

"Don't be an ass, Colonel," the boy growled.

"Huh... And there was I thinking that all these sidelong looks meant you had something to say. Nervous twitch?"

Fullmetal scowled, but quickly panicked when Roy made a deliberately slow turn to walk away. "Wait! Colonel Mustang, wait! I just need to - need to ask-" His words were hushed, making it necessary to lean right down again to hear him at all. "Colonel," Edward said, with tangible desperation and a note of plea he'd never heard in that voice before. "You won't... you won't tell anyone that they beat me across their knee like a little kid, will you?" Shame tinged his face red - the damaged pride of a child living an adult role - and Roy actually hurt for him, even while he half wanted to laugh. Though the least of his physical injuries, it was something that his abductors would never have inflicted upon an adult prisoner, and Edward insistently did not think of himself as a child.

He shook his head sombrely and patted a blond crown, which only made the boy squirm. "It goes no further than this room, I promise. I'll talk to the doctor, too."


He ushered Doctor Rachel into a side room under guise of doing precisely that.

"So-" and he noticed, somewhere automatic at the back of his mind, that she smiled very prettily when he spoke to her. "What is the damage, really? I've no doubt there are things he would never willingly share with me. They didn't... interfere with him, or anything like that?"

She shook her head and looked inappropriately amused. "No, but you'd think I had tried to from the way he carried on when I asked him." Well, that did explain it. "Take his left arm out of the equation and the only significant damage was done to his automail. The rest no doubt hurts, but it's superficial. He'll be fine. He's a robust kid, despite the amputations. He's a precocious little shit, but I don't actually have a cure for that. Sorry."

Roy let his face fall in line with her humour, then smiled dryly. "He's probably one of the finest minds in all Amestris, alchemic or otherwise... Awful, isn't it?"

"I confess to having no idea how you reconcile yourself with that knowledge, Mr. Colonel Mustang," she said. "It must eat away at you when you're lying in bed at night."

Really - and he congratulated himself - he wasn't going to get a better opening than that.


3.

Alphonse Elric's report consisted, almost in its entirety, of "I was in a box for two days and I didn't see anything, I'm really sorry." Roy sighed and slumped into his paperwork. How could somebody so small generate so much paperwork? Braklup's garrison had even cleared out an office, just for him, so that he could complete said paperwork. He mulled over his chances of persuading the Fullmetal Alchemist and his brother to concentrate their search and activities to the far north in the future. It was all simply too depressing for words.

While he had tried to offer the support of his companionship to his injured 'soldier' - he was a dutiful commander and the presence of the attractive doctor he had arranged a later date with had nothing at all to do with it - he had presently decided that he must have more practical and useful things to do than listen to said lady's increasingly irate attempts to get Edward to agree to a bath. (Because he frankly stank. And, as anyone would who had spent over a day and a half pinned to the floor periodically having large quantities of alcohol poured into them, not just of the alcohol.) It was not the bath but the assistance required that provided the source of the objection. Roy had made himself swiftly scarce and recommended tracking down Alphonse, if they'd finished patching up the last dents in the younger Elric brother. Fullmetal would never forgive him if his help was forcibly volunteered, in any case.

The telephone rang shrilly, waking him up. He moaned and lifted the receiver to his ear, assuming Doctor Rachel on an internal line and a dose more strife concerning Edward Elric.

It was an internal line, but the tones that greeted him were gruff and male and definitely not music to the ears. "We have a call from a man who identifies himself as a member of the Eastern Peoples' Liberation Army. He says he won't talk to anyone but the Flame Colonel. We're trying to track the call. Shall I transfer it through?"

Roy was instantly awake, alert and annoyed, his earlier fury flooding back. So those people wanted to talk to him now, did they? He realised his fingers were poised to click and, had he been wearing his gloves, he would have been a hair's breadth from destroying his borrowed office. While that was a clear tragedy, he would also never live down the embarrassing loss of control. "I'll speak to them. You get me their location." The phone line clicked.

"So this is the actual Flame Colonel? The real deal?" He thought it was the voice from the cart, sounding both impatient and mocking.

"It's Mustang. Might I ask to what I owe this call?"

"Did your midget alchemist tell you about us, or is he still busy wailing for his mommy?"

The receiver crunched audibly beneath the grip of Roy's hand. "My midget alchemist will recover completely, no thanks to you people. And when I arrest-" incinerate "-you, in amongst a very long list of other offences, I intend to charge you with giving alcohol to a minor and actual bodily harm to the person of a ranking military officer. Doesn't your mission statement have something to say on the issue of torturing children?"

"We made a special case for that one," the voice growled in that very special tone learned swiftly by any adult who experienced prolonged contact with Edward. "But I didn't call to waste more time on your little toy soldier. You know who we are, so I take it that our message was delivered."

"To be precise, a list of vague, sweeping, and impossible demands was delivered. Does none of your people possess any political acumen, or did you all learn about how the world works from fairy tales? Not even the fuhrer could make any of your requests happen, even if he were so inclined, and I regret to inform you that abusing a State Alchemist is not the way to ask nicely. I am also-" regrettably "-not the fuhrer. He's taller, and he wears an eye patch. Do you have an itinerary that we can actually talk about, or are you limited to the realms of the impossible?"

"Do you regret any one of the things that you did in Ishbal in the name of this corrupt government?" Anger lashed at him from the other end of the line. "'War hero'."

"Every day," Roy said. "My recent resume, however, does not feature 'victimising small boys'. Don't even think of moralising with me. You threw away your moral high ground."

"The brat can be grateful for his youth. We'd have sent an adult soldier back to you without his head. We still might send the Rydells back that way."

Roy stilled. He'd been waiting for something like this. "So you admit that you have them."

"Don't play games. The brat saw. If he told you the rest, your clockwork mouse will have squeaked about that, too."

"You've had them a long time, and you've never made any demands," Roy said carefully. "What is it that you want, from them or us?"

"We want," the voice came again, nastily, "to be taken seriously." The call was abruptly cut off. A split second later, the internal line rang again and a grim voice delivered a resounding negative.

Damn! Roy jumped up and marched from the temporary office, around the corner, and turned off the corridor into the outer office containing, among other things, the typing pool, which he'd already explored earlier. He slammed the door back and loudly demanded, "Who are the Rydells, how long have they been missing, and who can help me organise a task force to track them down before one or all of them shows up dead?"

A dozen manicured hands waved prettily in the air.


Fullmetal wasn't confined to bed when Roy found him again. He wasn't even in the medical section: rather, he and Alphonse had somehow connived their own quarters from the garrison commander. It had been almost eighteen hours since last he'd seen the boy, though, and a whole night had passed in the intervening hours, so perhaps it wasn't unreasonable.

Fullmetal was sitting on the floor, his hair washed and brushed but palely carpeting the back of his neck in a loose cascade. Also decidedly not part of the usual picture was the fact he was dressed in the tiniest uniform Roy had ever seen, or at least in uniform pants and a black t-shirt, with a jacket hanging loosely over the back of a nearby chair. Presumably Alphonse had used alchemy to alter the size, because he was almost certain that even the women's uniforms were not pre-made that small. Edward bared his teeth defensively as he caught Roy's stare and pre-emptively growled, "You think I'm going to walk around wearing the cast-offs of a nine year old, Colonel Bastard?"

Ah. So some idiot had told him, and apparently Roy was personally responsible. This was nothing new, however, so Roy took it manfully in his stride. He never did have the chance to get in his own witty response, though it would have been a cutting gem of a retort that would undoubtedly have left the boy in awe of him for life. Instead, his eyes registered the automail now reattached to Fullmetal's shoulder, and in doing so it became difficult to credit that it had been the uniform which caught his attention first.

It was enormous, ugly, ungainly, and almost farcical. He stared, lost for words, as Edward rotated the arm and performed a series of grasping motions at differing angles, in what was clearly a variant of physiotherapy for automail users and just as clearly a familiar rote for the child, though he did appear to be having difficulty balancing its weight. His upper body lurched forward each time at the extremes of the movements, and he would grimace and correct himself. The sight was extremely unsettling. Roy was accustomed to seeing Fullmetal strut around with his dinky, finely-made Rockbell automail, limbs all in proportion with his dinky body and seeming all equally as much a part of him, metal and flesh alike. And even though Roy had first seen him over a year ago without any limbs in those spaces at all, sometimes it almost seemed he could have been born with the metal attached. The clumsy, oversized arm ripped that perception to shreds.

Roy found his voice, which was hardly enthused. "That's... more useful than nothing." Probably. Barely.

"He's definitely not Winry," Edward said wistfully. "The nerve connections are rubbish, as well - it's like I've got pins and needles all through my automail. But at least it's an arm."

"I can't believe how much that - that - that man is making brother pay him for the use of that - that - that!" Alphonse stuttered, child's voice higher than usual in comical outrage. "Colonel, you can say something, can't you?"

Roy raised one shoulder in half a shrug. "It's Edward's expenses. If he wants to let himself get ripped off-"

"Ripped off? You can talk about ripped off after you've had your ARM ripped off!" Fullmetal yelled at him. "Besides, I've already paid Danner, so the lot of you can just shut up!" He looked abruptly guilty, and it wasn't hard to see why. Inasmuch as it was possible for a suit of armour to huddle, his brother was currently doing so quite adeptly. "Sorry, Al." He scratched at his face with the automail fingers and almost did himself further damage. Roy wondered if all of the bruises visible on his skin, now he'd cleaned up, were courtesy of his captors.

"I did come to talk to you about something," Roy said. He scratched his head trying to remember what it was, then looked down at the fingers he'd used to do it. Ah, yes. He sat down uninvited on the edge of the bed and ignored Edward's glare. "The other prisoners that you saw are a local family called the Rydells. They've been missing for some weeks. The head of the household, Anton Rydell, came back from Ishbal a war hero." He'd leaned on a statue of the man for almost an hour at the remote crossroads. "He's something of a local celebrity. Rich, too- a Major, retired, with a generous pension."

"I'm a Major," Fullmetal said, with typical diplomacy and respect for the privilege of rank and the efforts it took regular people to rise to such a position. But there might have been something else in his voice, not readily identifiable - a hint of challenge, perhaps.

"And we all try our very best to block that damaging thought from our minds," Roy agreed. "In any case, given this group's demonstrated disenchantment with the military and the subject of Ishbal, we can well surmise that Mr. Rydell and his wife and son are not in a very comfortable position just now."

Edward flinched. "What are their names?" he asked hesitantly, as if caring would damage his reputation. "Rydell's wife, and his idiot son, too."

Idi- oh. Yes, that was evidently a grudge that intended to stick around. "Megan and Luke. Luke is sixteen."

"Huh. He looked older." Edward's gaze wandered about the room, sticking on random corners and then on Alphonse for a while before darting back to Roy. "I... I guess you're doing something, right? You and... everyone. The guys from this place. But we're kind of involved now, so you'll not be walking away until this has been sorted out, even though this isn't your direct jurisdiction... I mean, obviously someone should look for them. Help them. Even idiot Luke."

He's fishing, thought Roy. "That's precisely the point that brought me here, Edward." He leaned forward and set his hands on his knees. Roy Mustang, you are an evil, immoral, despicable man. He was fully aware that he was going to give Fullmetal exactly the chance he wanted, and that no truly responsible adult would consider handing him. "We've been unable to adequately narrow down the location of their headquarters from the raw information. I think it would help if you joined the search. You might see something familiar, and-"

Fullmetal shot to his feet as though he was on strings someone up above had just given an enormous yank - quite the feat for a beat-up boy with one monstrosity of a semi-workable arm throwing him off balance. Roy was momentarily stricken with a horrible terror that he was going to be hugged. "No shit, Colonel! Damn, and I thought I was going to have to beg - Al, help me get that jacket on - When do we go, Colonel? - Al, can you braid my hair? - Do I get to command soldiers? - Al, pull my boots on for me, will ya? - Can I have a gun-?"

Roy barely recognised the strangled noise that made it out of his throat as his voice. He slashed the air sharply with his hand to silence the boy, which worked predictably well, so he was forced to wait until the kid wound down (slapping a hand over his mouth seemed unwise given his trigger-happy temporary automail, and besides, if he was bitten he'd need shots). Once hed paused for breath, Roy responded, curtly, "Not yet, we need to organise things first, but soon. And, no. And, hell no." Put a gun in that hand and he'd shoot off his own foot, and that was if the rest of the world was lucky.

"...I was kidding," Fullmetal sulked, scowling at his fingers.

Roy poked one of his own in the kid's face. "You will not be there to fight. Try to keep that in mind, because if there is any action, I fully expect you to be at the back."

"That's ridiculous!" Fullmetal roared, and Roy dragged his finger back because he liked it just fine where it was, next to its three fellows and attached to his hand. "I'm a State Alchemist! I can fight! I can still transmute - watch."

Clad in the miniature military uniform right down to the jacket Alphonse had just tugged over his shoulders, he braced his feet apart, threw his bandaged and oversized automail arms wide, and brought them swinging together with a small yelp. A flash of alchemy and a dwindling whimper, and then he was dropping on a fiercely creaking knee to smack the automail palm against the floor. Floor, walls and ceiling promptly sprouted long spikes all aimed unerringly at Roy and ceasing their advance only inches from him.

"Ah..."

Edward clutched his broken arm to his chest, but looked smug. Roy could scarcely believe that he'd clapped the splinted fingers with those metal ones and still had them. "See?"

"Brother, you can't threaten to skewer a superior officer!" Alphonse scolded, but mostly in tones that suggested he hadn't done his homework or brushed his teeth, rather than was actively flirting with court martial. "Put the walls back! I'm sorry, Colonel. Ed-"

"Yeah, sure," Fullmetal grumbled.

"Wait..." Alphonse looked guiltily but determinedly at Roy, eyes hot points of light in that expressionless metal face. "If brother's going, then of course I have to go too..."

"Of course." He gritted the words through his teeth. "Edward, get rid of the spikes. Now. I mean it. I absolutely need to sneeze."


The thing was... the thing was, you see, that he had known Edward would do it. The thought turned over and over in his mind as the troops were talked through the new plan. Fullmetal would jump at the chance to strike back for his injured pride, and he could, in any case, definitely use an alchemist of Fullmetal's talents if he was to have the best chance possible to save that captive family's lives. The equation rounded off fairly simply; Edward was military, and they were not.

He was hardly using Fullmetal's skills against his will. He could see the boy sitting on the map table with flesh leg and clanking automail alike swinging down, his upper body bunched up in the jacket which, out of necessity to encompass too-large automail and splint, was of a size that swamped his small form. The chain of his State Alchemists' pocket watch was visible against his blue-swathed thigh, and his short braid whipped jauntily when he turned his head. He was as warlike and defiant as a twelve year old could be amid hardened military personnel he almost all technically outranked.

Putting forward a child as a State Alchemist had been an abominable idea, creating at once a travesty of the military system and a tragic joke of the boy with the title of an adult (who remained a genius, and worthy of respect). Fullmetal... Fullmetal, what a name. Yet Roy would do the same over, because it had earned him favour, and so, too, would Edward, because it gave him hope.

Adults were supposed to look out for the interests of children until they were old enough to judge for themselves, he berated himself. He did not act against Edward's wishes, but he knew he didn't act in Edward's interests. Then again, he never had.


4.

Their search started out at the village called Aives, where Fullmetal and his brother had been taken from. The exact spot was easy to find - the road there was a churned up mass of jagged alchemised shapes and rubble. The soldiers watched with a variety of expressions while Edward and Alphonse gamely re-enacted the fight, but Roy found his eyes constantly drawn away from their antics to the dark smudge on the road's surface, scattered across with small metal parts and splinters that glittered in the sunlight. That patch stayed quietly unacknowledged - at least aloud - while Fullmetal clanked hyperactively about.

He was going to have to speak to Doctor Rachel about changing those pain meds. Roy massaged his aching temples and decided he'd have to instruct Alphonse to fix the mess before they moved on. Several villagers had apparently put in complaints already, and a few were hanging around the periphery of the current spectacle, exuding irritation (and not a small amount of confusion, as well).

"That way," said Fullmetal, definitely, finally coming to rest standing on the portion of ground where he'd bled out in both blood and oil, lips compressed to a tiny line in the grip of the memory. He took a couple of steps in the direction he'd pointed, clank-clank, eyes hard and distant, and for a moment at least fifty years too old for him. "They carried me this way to their cart, and it was over there, behind those trees. And that was the way they set off along the road. I'm sure of it." He swallowed, throat jumping. "It's much easier to remember the details, now I'm actually here." Even if his complexion had lost a few shades of its usual colour since he'd returned.

Falman respectfully planted a brief comradely pat on the boy's shoulder, and Roy acknowledged approval of the gesture with a tight nod when the usually stiff and formal officer turned away.

At Edward's suggestion and urging, they had borrowed a similar cart to that possessed by the EPLA from a farmer among the cranky villagers. While they travelled in the cart, it had been decided, the rest of the party would be scouting around in the faster trucks, keeping them within sight, searching out likely buildings that might not be featured on the map. Havoc bounced up onto the front of the rickety vehicle with ominous enthusiasm, and Roy said dourly, "Remember to keep to reasonable speeds and try not to kill the horse."

"I was here," stated Edward, a minute later, colour high again in his face but only because he'd had to be hoisted up into the cart by two burly soldiers. A single long loping stride brought him to a position in the centre of the shallow wooden box. "And, Al, they put you in the front corner, over there."

Alphonse looked blank a moment before registering his brother's purpose, and a bit reluctantly he clanked across to sit down in the indicated spot. Roy suspected that Al was finding this difficult too, but it was rather hard to tell. It was even harder to know how to comfort a seven foot tall suit of armour even if you were intellectually aware that it housed the soul of a child younger than Edward. That was most especially true when that suit of armour was giving nothing away, suggestive of avoiding any attempt at comfort. Maybe the younger brother was feeling guilty because in this situation his lack of nerve endings had undoubtedly protected him.

Of course, the other possibility was that he thought his older brother was an idiot. This all seemed a very... precise circus, and Roy could not even begin to predict how much they might reasonably learn from the exercise. His own ideas had been developed no further than asking Fullmetal to ride around in one of the trucks as they performed a grid search of the area and keep alert for anything that struck him as familiar.

"They all sat along the edges." Fullmetal pointed and chivvied grown men twice his size into position. "And I was down here like this, but even if we are trying to make this an accurate reconstruction, I'm telling you now that anyone who kicks me this time is gonna get fed their teeth." He flexed the automail fist meaningfully, and lay down between the two rows of the sprawled soldiers' feet. He was quiet a long moment, leading Roy to cautiously toe his foot.

"Edward?"

"Shut up, I'm remembering." The tone earned a few glances between Edward and Roy from those personnel present who weren't familiar with the Fullmetal Alchemist of old. "Okay, we can go now."

"Havoc!" Roy yelled, and knocked on the wooden side of the cart.

"You all should probably swear and grumble over your bruises and being beaten up by a little kid now," Fullmetal smirked as they lurched into motion. He'd positioned himself facing back away from their direction of motion, and the way his body was unnecessarily twisted suggested he was physically trying to remember himself back to that time... but probably he just really hadn't been able to resist putting that remark in.

"Little?" Breda picked up, with a broad grin.

Fullmetal's face turned to thunder and he put his head down, face to rattling boards - which had to be uncomfortable - and fiercely concentrating. Impossibly blond locks bounced, obscuring his eyes, and nobody spoke for what seemed a long stretch of time.

"No-" Fullmetal said abruptly, shattering the uneasy silence as the cart slewed to one side when rounding a slight bend. "That's wrong. We didn't turn there like that."

Roy yanked the covering aside, stripping a small section down to its framework, and poked his head out. Havoc was already bringing them to a halt. "Was there anywhere else to go, just now, at the turn?"

The Second Lieutenant shook his head, then frowned. "There was a dirt track some distance back, heading the other way."

Roy's interest perked up. He nodded agreement, and they backtracked. They approached the different turn from a short distance before to give Edward some chance to regain his focus, although he thought they both had doubts about how possible that would be now. Even if this was as far as they got, he had to concede now the merit of Fullmetal's ideas. A dirt track, though, suggested a private building or facility at the end of it. Surely the kid hadn't led them directly to the EPLA's hideout already?

They turned this time much more shallowly to the left, and Fullmetal was nodding slowly as they did. He caught Roy's expression and blinked. "I wouldn't get your hopes up yet, Colonel. We were travelling for a lot longer than this."

He was right. The dirt track turned out to be nothing more than a shortcut across farm land that avoided a large corner of the more well-travelled roads. They rejoined those roads at a sharp turn that Edward said felt right, but he was beginning to look steadily less sure of himself now. Al was notably silent, and Roy wondered just how much physical awareness and sensation he had from the outside world if his vision was obscured. Perhaps it was merely that one's body being transported in pieces made things like directional sense impossible to pin down.

In the distance, he heard a train. Edward's head shot up.

After consulting with Havoc and the maps, it turned out that the road ran almost parallel to the railway track for some miles. Again, while they were definitely in the right area, it was not the clue they required to pinpoint a probable location.

Eventually they reached an intersection of four roads, and though Fullmetal was trying so hard he was sweating, no matter how they approached and then took the turning he could not say for sure which way they had gone four days previously.

"Wait," Alphonse said cautiously, hopefully, in the silent pause when Havoc had pulled up the cart and they were all wondering what their next course of action could be. "I... remember crows. Does anyone else hear crows?"

"No..." The answer was unanimous, but nonetheless Roy climbed out of the cart and stood up atop the driver's seat, casting his eyes around - and there he saw it, down the left hand road; a cluster of trees in the distance, black clumps infesting them like curled up spiders. He triumphantly pointed Havoc that way, and slipped back inside.

The thing about sensory deprivation, or so he'd heard tell, was that it inevitably made the other senses sharper.


There were no more hints or definites, but Fullmetal declared the distance was 'about right'. They also had a straight stretch of road to focus upon, with no major turnings off, and the knowledge that three miles ahead the railway line veered sharply away from the road, taking it out of reasonable hearing range.

They halted the cart and waited for the trucks to rejoin them while pouring over the maps. They could not expect even every large structure in the area to be adequately marked - though at least Edward's information indicated it was large and, at least in theory, therefore less impossible to find - but they could examine all of those that were. Fullmetal hung around looking disheartened and slightly ridiculous in his undersized uniform (It had a little major's insignia - who had done that?), looking as though he thought he ought to have been able to do more. Roy actually, for an instant, wanted to tell the boy that he'd worked wonders enough for one day, but bit his tongue hard. Fullmetal did not need the encouragement, and he knew for a fact that the kid's ego was big enough to take this knock and a lot more besides. But his left arm was curled in against his midriff, which Roy had deduced over the course of the day was the indication that it was hurting. Other times, it had alternatively hung limp at his side. The only instance he'd seen Fullmetal actually use it was in proving that he could still transmute. The automail monster on his right shoulder carried out all the small, necessary gestures and manual tasks, and every man present kept a wary distance from it whenever it did. After half a day spent in its alarming proximity, Roy was beginning to think he might take Alphonse's advice and have words with Danner.

"Okay..." Pulling himself together - entirely without exterior ego-stroking, Roy forced his obviously demented and too-soft heart to note - Fullmetal snapped back to business. He chewed on his automail knuckles, always wince inducing but now newly and particularly horrible since not even he knew where they'd been. Then he snatched a pen out of Havoc's hand, who yelped and quailed, staring at his undamaged fingers like he'd been granted a genuine miracle. "Okay, so with the rate at which sound carries, and if we assume a train so loud..." Mumbling, Fullmetal drew a shaky oblong over the railway line and adjoining land. "There's no crossing anywhere around here, so we can rule out that side. This gives us five possible buildings marked, and whatever else isn't marked. We can't investigate invisible farmhouses - though maybe the others will have something to report - so, taking what we know about these five..."

He stared very intently at the map. At one point, someone waved a hand in front of his face and he failed to react, but Roy wrote the soldier up anyway because insubordination remained insubordination even when the de-facto officer in question was twelve and only came up to the insubordinate's ribcage.

Fullmetal drew crosses through two locations. "Too small," he said negligently, and in the circumstances nobody dared make the obvious joke. He poised the pen over another. "Al, do you remember a river?"

"I didn't hear a river, brother." Doubt coloured his voice about whether he could accurately make the judgement.

Edward drew another cross anyway. "It didn't feel like there was a river so close by. The air didn't smell damp, or - of any of the things rivers smell of." He stared down at the two remaining choices with the sort of trepidation to be expected from the awareness they could well be two wrong choices. "Does anyone know anything about these places?" he asked around, a bit helplessly. It was worth a try - though the soldiers were unlikely to be local boys, and even Braklup was a long way off.

The shamefaced big soldier Roy had written up embarrassedly cleared his throat. "Dated a girl once who said she came originally from a place out here her grandfather ran. I think it was Cauley Farm."

"You dated an actual girl, Bridge?" The Braklup soldiers snickered.

Fullmetal's lips pressed together, and there was a trace of a little smile. "So this farm is probably really a farm." He crossed it off. "I didn't have any sense that we were held at a working farm."

His metal finger jabbed down upon the last option. Right through the paper, though everyone pretended not to notice. "We try this one first," he announced decisively, somehow delivering the words past the leering grin that had overtaken most of his face.


5.

The teams with the trucks hadn't found any better leads, and since time was of the essence, Edward's plan of 'that one first' stuck.

Roy put a call through back to Braklup's command from a roadside telephone in a village, reporting in their location and intent. According to local records, the farm was derelict, giving a little more credence to Fullmetal's slipshod narrowing down of their target. Braklup's small garrison did not have a lot more spare personnel on hand to send, but any additional back-up could reduce casualties, and Roy didn't like having only the vaguest of estimates regarding the number of enemy they were likely to face. He was also going to have to leave a handful of men in the village, from where he'd commandeered horses and civilian clothing for the soldiers he'd sent to scout out the target farm. The villagers now unfortunately had far too definite an idea that something was going on, and he could not risk that anyone in league with or sympathetic to the terrorist group might deliver a warning to them.

He returned to the trucks, where the soldiers were arming themselves from the small arsenal in the back of the trailer. Fullmetal sprawled across one bonnet, though Roy wasn't sure if he was actually asleep. His bandaged arm lay over his thin chest and the automail stuck out next to his form as though in unconscious protest that it was nothing to do with him, really. His brother sat tucked down against the front of the vehicle, the top of the armour helmet inches from the tips of metal fingers. Well, neither of them had need of any other weapon than their alchemy, so it was not as though there was aught else they should be doing. And it had been a long day, about to get longer still.

The scouts he'd sent out would use the last of the daylight to gain an accurate picture of the farm buildings' layout. By the time they returned, it was likely to be dusk, and Roy intended to make their attack then, with no further delay.

He ordered the soldiers back on board the trucks and rolled Fullmetal off the bonnet. The boy yawned and rubbed glazed eyes (carefully) on his sleeve. Al shot an apologetic look at anyone willing to receive it, tugged Fullmetal's bunched-up jacket down to cover his stomach, and steered the older brother up into the broad front passenger seat. Roy climbed up into the driver's seat. Like the Elrics, he had no need to arm himself with any more than his alchemy, or in a pinch he had the standard pistol already at his waist, and the rest of the men would finish readying themselves on the journey.

As it happened, they had to wait upon arrival at the agreed meeting spot anyway. The cart and its placid horse were still where they had left them in the thicket of trees, invisible from the road and less than a half mile from the farm, and so too was the equally placid chain-smoking Second Lieutenant Havoc, who leaned against its side and offered a twitch of his hand that was half wave and half salute as they drew to a halt. But only one of the scouts had returned, although a second came back within minutes of their arrival, and both were able to report that the farmhouse looked promising. Roy was beginning to worry about the third scout when the man stumped back into their midst on foot, bruised and bloodied and with half a bush caught in his hair and clothes. He offered a stiff salute and an embarrassed mumble of a report that his horse had shied at a hedgehog, thrown him, and run off.

Roy was too busy being seized in the grip of an idea to put down the ensuing burst of hilarity that welled among the men.

So before they left to get into position, he unhooked the enormous cart horse, and explained to everyone the nature of the new distraction that would signal it was time to begin the attack.

He patted the horse's neck distractedly a couple of times before he took the bridle, and offered the big fellow a guilty, "Sorry."


The singed horse thundered into the farm yard like a shrieking demon, the image further enhanced by its coat still visibly smoking. The burnt smell was strong as it reared and whipped its mane about, and it became even more distressed to be hemmed in by walls on all sides after its mad dash from the terrors at its back. Shouts emerged from the farm buildings, and in short order they were followed by a dozen or so men.

"Shit!" A brave soul tried to catch the bridle and was solidly kicked for his troubles. One down, Roy reflected, and not a soldier had fired a shot. How did you reward a horse? Certainly some kind of reparation was owed. He grinned behind him to his group, and gave the signal to proceed.

It was a dangerous business using fire alchemy in enclosed spaces with flammable structures and (equally flammable) allies close by, but he separated out two men who seemed safe targets and a click of his fingers sent them, howling, to their knees, their nerves so busy screaming in outrage for the superficial damage to the skin that it was doubtful they'd pose any more threat for the duration of the fight. The horse, seeing fire again at close proximity, only went wilder.

"Fullmetal-!" He missed catching the trailing billow of the too-big jacket as the boy ran past him, not even slowing as he planted an automail foot into the face of one of the men already flamed. One personal score settled, Roy assumed. Their joint victim keeled over in Fullmetal's wake and the limp body smacked loudly to the ground. Edward, he realised, the country boy, had taken the long way around to avoid the maddened horse, and now he clapped his hands and slapped the automail palm against the side of the main farm building. It sprouted stone hands that encased the nearest terrorist tightly and narrowly missed two others whose reflexes were better. Fullmetal sagged against the wall, body curled up around his left arm, before he pulled himself back together and raised his head again defiantly to the battle in progress.

Fortunately, his brother had been there to put armour between him and the two rifles fired his way in the meantime. A ricochet saw one of the gunmen fall, clutching his thigh.

Roy let out a breath he hadn't realised he'd been holding, and tried to regain his focus. Some, but not all, of the men who'd burst from the building had done so unarmed. With right hand poised to click and pistol in his left - although after the previous demonstration, the gun elicited minimal fear by comparison - he stretched a long smirk at the two terrorists before him, and they quickly raised their empty hands. Havoc cuffed them and shoved them over for Edward to transmute into the wall.

Alphonse Elric was holding a man up by the foot, providing an occasional shake while he yelled and bashed furiously at the armour's bodywork with a spent rifle. The eleven year old inside seemed uncertain about his next course of action. Havoc took charge of that, too.

Around them, six men and two children had taken out almost a dozen, and their only visible casualty had been shot through the shoulder and was standing upright without aid. The ploy with the horse had worked remarkably well, although now it was his people forced to avoid the plunging creature, and Roy wasn't quite sure how they were going to deal with that, but had other things to concentrate on first in any case. He could hear the noises inside the farmhouse where Breda's second team had attacked from the back. Somewhere, there were hostages to locate.

He instructed Havoc to lead the search of the outbuildings and oversee guarding the prisoners in the yard, did some quick calculations of the best use of his remaining resources, and cursed inwardly. Doubly. "Edward, you know at least some of the layout of this place, I need you inside with me. Falman-" He needed, damn it, an experienced soldier at his back "-you, too. Alphonse, I need you to stay with Havoc." An alchemist was by far the best option to control the prisoners. Handcuffs could be released, he was leaving a handful of men to contain twice their number, and potentially they'd also be fighting off any strays from the outbuildings to boot. "It's important. I don't want things getting out of hand on this side and leaving us with enemies instead of allies in control at our backs." He outstared Alphonse's somehow stricken gaze: You think I won't also protect him?

After a moment that was fortunately not too long, the child in the armour nodded morosely and turned back to join Havoc.

"I'll be fine, Al!" Edward yelled, twisting from Falman's grip on his collar. "See, Al, they need you! You help the Lieutenant, and I'll help the Colonel." It sounded like an addendum to an earlier discussion between the two.

"Fullmetal!" Roy barked sharply. "You - will stay close, stay back-" behave, damn it! Or I'll put you over my knee "-and if you're going to wear that uniform, you can start obeying my orders for once in your-" He consciously edited the word 'short' "-brief, miserable life. Are we clear?"

Edward jumped so smartly he all but saluted, but luckily didn't because the last thing they needed was for the boy to render himself unconscious with his replacement automail. "Right. Yes." He appeared to struggle a bit. "...Sir."

Roy knew that his eyes bugged... and he didn't have time for this now. He re-checked his gun (didn't want to have to risk burning this rickety pile of timbers down unless it was absolutely necessary, after all) and kicked his way through the front door.

Falman's firearm reflexes beat his own, taking down the first of the men who lurked in the hallway immediately beyond. There was a metallic clunk and a whimper as Edward performed a transmutation, and Roy shot the weapon from a second man's grasp even as a stone hand burst across from a wall to crush a third against the opposite side of the hallway. It was easily deducible from Fullmetal's narrow-eyed glare and the audible crunching that that had also been a personal score. Apparently there were a lot of them. He made a mental note to keep Edward far away from the prisoners.

Fullmetal used alchemy upon the walls again to restrain the injured two, and only pointed wordlessly when Roy asked where he'd seen the Rydells being taken before. His breathing was ragged with pain.

The sitting room at the end of the corridor was empty. It had been a long shot.

"Maybe they keep them mostly upstairs," Edward said. "Because that was the only time I saw them, and I never got up there."

"Damn it, they could be killing them as we speak!" Roy blazed. "Stairs?"

"This way-"

He listened to Falman's solid footsteps and Edward's uneven ones, the boy's breaths still edged with little high pants of pain as the stairs jarred his injured arm. He should not be there - the purpose he'd been brought for was defeated now - but there was no time to be lost dragging him back outside, nor going through the inevitable explosions that such an order would invite.

When they burst off the stairwell into the upstairs corridor, it was to find it already filled with a single enormous, bearded man. He looked like he'd glued the head of a broom to his face, bringing Edward's colourful monikers into glorious life. He was in the process of turning to face the intruders, and as his face stretched into a snarl at the sight of them, it was just possible to see beyond his broad shoulder - to the man he called out to, disappearing through into another room. "You get them, I'll deal with this."

Edward's face had twisted into a miniature reflection of the terrorist's snarl. "Fucking bastard!" the kid shrieked, voice shrill with anger as he clapped his hands.

The massive canon in the bearded man's grasp became visible as he completed his turn and it came to bear. Roy choked - explosive rounds, in this space? - and shoved Fullmetal down before him as he dived; Falman dived the other way, back down the stairs, which was on an instant's-too-late reflection a far better idea.

Fullmetal swore again as he was landed on, which considering the boy was half machine parts was no picnic for the person landing on him, either. Roy reflected he really was going to have to have words about the sort of language his people were using in front of the boy - if they both survived the next ten seconds - if he could even assume that the child hadn't been this foul-mouthed before. "Get off me, Colonel Stupid-" He rolled aside desperately, giving the boy space, and heard the clap and accompanying squawk of pain.

Transmuted walls hemmed them in, but a moment of ear-splitting sound later were rubble collapsing in over their heads. Roy pushed upwards, fragments as large as a foot across sliding from his shoulders, coughing with the dust and smoke in the air. He could just see enough to determine that the large man was flat on the floor, slightly twitching. Foolish enough to fire such a weapon in here in the first place, but Edward's alchemy had reduced the available space for the explosion still further, and the idiot hadn't had a hope.

He reeled as Edward lurched against the side of his knee and started inching to his feet using Roy as a ladder. He could feel the fingers of the monstermail poking holes in the cloth of his uniform, and once - he grunted - in his thigh. Hot breath against his elbow as Fullmetal attained a sort of upright stance, curled up over his damaged arm. "Is he dead?" the boy growled. His eyes burned under the filthy curtain of hair.

"I don't think so." He had to confess he had no idea what the subsequently silent boy felt about that, nor was this the moment to ask. "Falman!" The explosion had ripped apart the top of the stairwell. Even if Falman had come through it without injury, he would not be able to get back up to them quickly. Grimly, Roy turned his eyes the other way. That was where the man he remembered Edward's report identifying as potentially some sort of leader-by-consensus had gone.

Fullmetal let go his pincer grip and was limping forward under his own steam after a few steps. His toy uniform was coated in dust, but Roy conceded that he had to look much the same. From the manner Fullmetal held his injured arm so fiercely against him now, he was not sure it was going to be possible for the boy to transmute, a factor that would render him all but helpless if true. Roy had lost his own gun, so it was with fingers poised to click that he charged through the target door, aware of Edward hanging off the doorframe behind him.

"Don't move." There was that voice from the telephone again, and the gun was to the head of a man who didn't look especially reminiscent of the statue he'd leaned against. They'd clearly idealised a lot. "Take the gloves off, Flame, slowly."

Roy obeyed the first, but not the second. "You'll kill him anyway. And I'll fry you the instant you try."

"Is that what you'll tell your superiors when you take back a dead hero? Don't forget, you have witnesses." A jerk of the head encompassed the ragged woman and youth huddled in the corner of the bare room, hands cuffed. The boy was looking a bit nervously just past Roy, which provided some clue about the expression on Fullmetal's face and who was the target of it.

"You're not getting out of here," Roy said reasonably. "We have your people contained. Isn't publicity what you wanted? Might as well give up now and say your piece at your trial. It might even make the newspapers in Central." Somewhere at the back. For a day or two. "Maybe the fuhrer will even read it with his morning coffee." It might give him a brief chuckle.

"I plan on going out bigger than that. I fancy the shooting of a war hero and his family and two famous military alchemists will make headlines everywhere."

Roy steeled himself to make a move, but the gun clicked against Rydell's head, and he couldn't do it. While they stalled for time, there was still a chance of... something.

Behind him, there was a thud/clank as Fullmetal slid down the doorframe as though his small body had decided enough was enough and simply given out at last. Roy eyed the boy over his shoulder. His head hung, hair obscuring his face, and he seemed conscious, merely exhausted. He'd have to be exhausted to allow weakness to show in front of these people, here, now...

Roy frowned, and turned back to the grey-haired terrorist, making sure to cover the bulk of the boy with his body, as though accidentally, when he did.

"Take the gloves off slowly," he was ordered again, and this time began to do so, just as slowly as he might. "I see you brought your puppy with you. Doesn't look like it's much use, after the disciplining we gave it."

Fullmetal didn't react in the slightest, and Roy was delighted. A glove dropped to the floor; he delayed starting on the right glove. "He led us straight to you," he stated, hearing the anger in his own voice. And he knew he should be diverting attention away from Edward, but for this man to just dismiss...

"The other glove. Stop screwing about." The mechanisms of the gun crunched again under his grip, and for one breathless moment they all expected it to go off. Megan Rydell gasped, and her son Luke cried out and broke from her arms.

He fell before he could even rise to his feet, something seriously wrong with one of his legs, but for a moment the gun's target was transferred to where he'd have been had he made it to standing - for a moment, the gun was pointed at nothing.

A clap and a hiss of pain at his back, and the circle of floor immediately beneath the gunman's feet ceased to exist. Roy, already moving, snapped his fingers only a split second behind, concentrating elements in the air to create fuels that could burn just as hot and fiercely as possible. The gun was engulfed in a fireball that fixed it into a shapeless lump of metal on the outside even before the heat could penetrate to the ammunition. The shrieking man fell through the floor with his hand a blackened lump, and Roy took away the oxygen around what remained of the gun, dissipating the flame before it could land.

The crash from the floor below was very satisfying indeed.

Edward had already pulled himself upright again, and somewhat surprisingly he limped to the sobbing woman and stunned youth in the corner - leaving Roy, by silent consensus, to attend to Rydell. He was aware of another painful transmutation where Fullmetal broke the handcuffs, and of the child offering out his metal arm to help the woman to her feet (though it was the closed fist he offered for her to grasp, and not an open palm to take her hand).

"Mrs. Rydell... It's okay now. You and your family are safe." Roy actually heard him swallow. "This is Colonel Mustang... I'm Major Elric. Please come with us."


6.

"The boy," Rydell said from the front of the truck, exhaustion lining his voice, and he rubbed a hand over his eyes that he didn't remove again. "The boy is the Fullmetal Alchemist, the twelve year old that passed the State Alchemist exam, the one everyone was talking about a few months back?"

"Yes," Roy agreed, handing him a flask of brandy, and when he didn't take it, leaving it on the ledge in front of his seat. They were currently waiting for support to arrive from Braklup with additional vehicles for prisoner transport, and medical aid for the wounded.

"They had him, didn't they - like us."

"Yes." But not like them, Roy added mentally.

Despite his worst fears, none of the Rydells had suffered the sort of calculated damage that Edward had at their captors' hands. The youth had a broken ankle where he'd been kicked trying to protect his father, and they were all battered and bruised, but the damage was comparatively minor. It was... initially baffling, but he had overheard the prisoners muttering amongst themselves at the sight of Fullmetal strutting among the soldiers, head held high and a variety of glares to hand for any man among the terrorists who looked his way... and he'd seen him for a moment in overlapping, contradictory impressions; seen the child through their eyes, and thought he had a glimmer of understanding.

Edward was... not quite real, to these people. He was something alien and uncategorizable, a boy carrying the job and title of a man, carrying it convincingly. Even sometimes to Roy, Fullmetal just didn't seem possible. To the terrorists, it must be as though they subconsciously didn't quite believe he was human. As though he were some made thing the military had put together in a lab, or experimental breeding program (he would have nightmares forever now that such a concept had touched his thoughts; there'd be armies of Edward Elrics marching through his dreams, chanting 'Colonel Bastard'' in perfect time). A small and volatile living weapon, he resisted them, and they hit him, and he swore at them and resisted them more, and with each step solidified the impression in their minds.

They didn't know that that warlike temperament was nothing to do with anything the military had instilled in him, that it was just Edward. They didn't know him. Of course, the notion they hadn't quite viewed him as a child would indicate that beating him like one had probably been another calculated torture after all, but he wasn't sure whether it would help or not to tell Edward that.

By contrast, Rydell was just tired and grey and faded; a shadow of a legend thrown into even deeper shadow by the gaudy spark of the boy who burned brighter, and certainly more violently, than his stories. Was that why they had barely touched Rydell? Mere disappointment? They were amateurs, hardly a man of them with previous note on record of involvement in any subversive groups. Had it taken a military figure that lived up to his name to give them something to fight?

Into his long silence, Rydell finally said, "Tough little thing."

"Don't call him little," Roy responded by rote. He hoped Fullmetal hadn't heard. There had been enough destruction here for one day. He was increasingly aware that he was, at some point, going to have to retrieve Edward from the company of Megan Rydell, who seemed to think he was adorable and was overcome with the novelty of having such a valiant young knight in shining, well, automail take the role of her rescuer. For goodness sake, he prayed silently to any deity that might listen, don't let the woman tell him to his face how he's a 'dear sweet little boy'. They'd spent half one morning with cutting tools to release a female private who'd been alchemised to the ceiling of the mess for just that offence. Thankfully his brother's reflexes had improved a lot since then.

"He has a lot of automail for such a young child," Rydell observed unhappily.

"Civil war. Before his state appointment." Roy kept his voice bland.

"...Hence the name, I suppose," Rydell murmured, not really listening.

"The fuhrer's sense of humour." And he wanted to say, He's also still just a regular boy. I've see him going ten rounds of name-calling with his brother, and blowing a week's expenses for sweets from the market vendors at East City, and speeding down the parade ground on a tray stolen from the mess when it snowed a month back. We didn't put him in that uniform. I don't even know where he got it from. It isn't the way you think it is.

Rydell's shoulders slumped further. "What are we coming to, that children are fighting in our battles?"

Roy Mustang said nothing at all.


It was with a very firm hand indeed that he dragged Fullmetal away from the Rydells and back to Alphonse's care. He doubted Mrs. Rydell's regard of Edward as a delightful, uniform-clad angel would survive an automail fist to her already battered son's face. From the escalating dirty looks and the growled-under-breath "Why'dyouhaftabesostupidandgivemeaway?" it couldn't have been long coming, even though he'd heard the older boy try to apologise three times already. Roy had swiftly excused himself from Rydell's awkward company to deal with more urgent matters.

Fullmetal initially looked ready to kick and bite, but the reminder of "Your brother could probably use some concrete reassurance that you are, in fact, still more or less intact" quelled all resistance. His excuse had unintentionally also proved accurate, because Alphonse jumped up with a clash and almost set off again the nearly-calmed horse he was holding when he spied them approaching. (How could a suit of animate armour be so good with animals anyway?) A private with the misfortune to be standing nearby apprehensively took the horse from him on Roy's wordless order.

It wasn't, however, 'Brother, are you all right?' but "Brother, did you bring half the building down?" that Alphonse asked first with an edge of weary expectation.

Fullmetal was still flying so high that he shrugged the implication off with a mere shake of the head. "She called me a brave soldier," he announced loudly, making sure everyone nearby heard it. Roy, while grateful she apparently hadn't used the word 'little' or any synonym thereof, wished he'd added an addendum to his prayers that he'd really prefer if people would have the plain sense not to praise the kid. Ever.

"Who, brother?" The caution in Alphonse's query indicated he too knew all too well the folly of that dark path.

"Mrs. Rydell. I could even forgive her for having such a stupid son - he must get that from his father."

Roy hoped their local celebrity hadn't overheard. "Please keep it down, Fullmetal." Another truck was pulling up with medical insignia on it, and he eyed Doctor Rachel as she disembarked alongside three other white-clad personnel. He eyed the calculating look that had surfaced on Fullmetal's face, the one that said, 'I have the power to drop you in the shit and I'm thinking that I might use it.' He coughed, and announced as though making a new discovery, "Why, Edward, you're hurt! I can see it from the way you're clutching that arm. I simply can't have a young subordinate in such pain on my watch - perhaps we should sedate you? For your own good."

He let the gleam in his eye deliver the ultimatum.

Fullmetal backed down and the wind seemed to well and truly leave his sails. He flopped, planting his rump gracelessly onto the ground where he'd previously stood. "Aaaaah, shit." A sigh huffed from his lips, the puff of vapour visible briefly in the air. He rolled his head back, eyes closed, and that new something in the set of his face that Roy had noticed, and had thought might have changed for good, finally began to relax and fade. The yellow eyes blinked open, briefly, meeting Roy's as though he'd been conscious all along of the gaze on him. "Today went pretty good, Colonel, huh?"

"You know it did. We got the hostages out and we didn't lose anyone. That's what matters."

"So everyone walks away."

"The best kind of fight."

"Even the bastard who-"

"No," Roy said again very firmly. "I am not letting you near the prisoners. They'll live to regret their actions in jail."

"I'm hardly going to kill th-"

"No."

"Well," Edward grumbled, "Unfortunately I'm going to be walking away right back to Resembool to get these fixed." He slammed his automail fist against the side of his automail knee. Even though he'd had his closest experience yet to full-on battle that day, whatever he was thinking of clearly eclipsed the horror, causing him to turn pale and shudder.

They absently watched the world carry on around them, and after a few minutes Fullmetal began to poke unconsciously at the braiding on his small uniform with his clumsy metal fingers. Predictably, the automail caught in the threads, and when he yanked it away, they tore, defacing the rank insignia.

Roy sighed.

Fullmetal glowered, but said to Al, "I guess I'm done with this thing now, anyway." There was an oddness to his voice - mixed with a hint of shame or embarrassment, edged with self-mockery as though commenting on some personal folly. He grimaced at his two arms, then back at his brother. "Could you do the honours?"

"All right." By contrast, Alphonse seemed relieved, and he sketched a quick transmutation circle in the dust. The leather fingers touched to its edge, and with a flash of alchemy Fullmetal was Fullmetal again, the tiny toy Major transformed back to black with splashes of white trim and a coat redder than blood.

Edward smiled and laughed and shook his head, making the stubby braid bounce on his neck. "Boy, that collar's stiff!" He wriggled about, and it seemed clear the freedom he was luxuriating in was not simply physical.

Roy stared until incredulity gave way to anger. "If one of you could have done that at any time," he said, the edge hard in his voice, "Why were you wearing the uniform?"

Dear God, what point had the boy being trying to make? Taking the buried concept of the twelve year old Major they all knew existed in the background of his title and making it flesh... Fullmetal hated the military, in his abstract, intellectual way, and hated the fact he wore their leash. Yet that had been deliberate, not an accident forced by convenience. What had Roy missed?

Edward - and it was Edward now, definitely the boy, not the state alchemist and not the de-facto officer - must have seen at least the gist of those thoughts moving behind his eyes, because the planes of his face dragged grimly down, and he glanced away. "I - it was stupid, I suppose. It's only clothes, it's not like it means anything. But..." His mouth twisted, lip curling, sharp teeth grinding, and the uncertainty of how to phrase his feelings clear. "When they hurt me, they treated me like a soldier, y'see? And then those other things they did, the jokes, the way they still went soft on me - all things considered - and belting me like a kid. I just hated the hypocrisy of it. All right, I am a kid. But I'm a state alchemist and that idiot rank, too, that's the whole damn reason I ended up where I did, those bastards! And I won't have them make a joke of it on the one hand while they're taking me apart for being one of you on the other!" He scowled defiantly up at Roy. "Go on, you laugh too. Get it out of your system."

"Edward..." Roy quenched a sigh. He might have known, really, that the only thing that could push the contradictory boy towards embracing his military ties was to ridicule them. "I'm not going to laugh. But please promise me you won't put on that uniform again until you're at least five feet tall..." Wait, that could be never, and the damn brat would remember, and he'd gleefully display the promise as a sealed-in-blood excuse to the higher-ups years from now when they wanted him on a battlefield or at a Formal. "...Or sixteen years old. Whichever comes first."

Edward stared blankly a moment, not quite sure what to make of the request-

-At least until the nature and implication of the proviso registered and he surged to his feet with his face stretched and automail outstretched in fury. "HEY!"

Fortunately Alphonse, reliable as ever, was on hand to seize his brother by the waist and hold him off the floor until Roy could absent himself from the immediate area.

The roar followed him, words snapping at his heels like enraged hounds: "COME BACK HERE AND SAY IT TO MY FACE WITHOUT THE SMIRKY SMUG BASTARD DOUBLE TALK AND PRETENDING TO BE NICE, YOU SHIT COLONEL! I MEAN THAT, MUSTANG! DAMN IT...!"

As the continuing tirade faded behind him he felt a weight lift from his own shoulders, a strain assuaged by the reassurance that absolutely nothing had changed.

Fullmetal had survived; Edward was intact in spirit if not body; and for himself...

He was, if not vindicated, at least not completely damned.

END