TITLE: Fullmetal's Company
LENGTH: 17,500 words
SUMMARY: Ed should never have flashed the silver pocket watch in a war zone.
WARNINGS: Language & violence.
NOTES: With thanks to gure126 on LJ for beta reading. Written for fmabigbang 2011.
ART: By yuukihikari can be found at yuukihikari(dot)livejournal(dot)com(slash)841097(dot)html and by Dracaena Akira can be found at dracaena-akira(dot)deviantart(dot)com(slash)gallery(slash)#(slash)d3cuv0u
DISCLAIMER: FMA belongs to Hiromu Arakawa and various other people who are not me. Not mine, no profit, yadda, yadda, yadda.
There were altogether too many hills in this part of the South, Ed thought, as they trudged down another slope, picking their way more slowly down the most sheer sections. He walked carefully behind Al. Armour didn't have much traction on the loose, rocky path, and he'd almost been squashed once already. The terrain wasn't giving his automail leg much joy, either. The metal had sensors connecting to his nerves, and he was getting used to them, but it still wasn't as good at feeling its way and managing fine balance as his flesh-and-blood right.
The sun crept high, making him sweat and giving off an uncomfortable glare, made more so because it reflected off Al, occasionally flaring in his eyes. He tried to keep his mouth shut on this particular complaint. It wasn't Al's fault, and it would only upset his brother. Fortunately, there was no shortage of other things to complain about. The ground was poor, and the vegetation that grew in it only the hardiest, most of which seemed to have prickles and spikes, abrasive leaves or sticky pods that stabbed through his clothes then stuck tenaciously when he tried to pull away.
He was beginning to understand why so few people lived in this part of the South. Even without a war raging at the borders.
With a breathless call to Al, he flopped down on a boulder, at a point where the slope was relatively shallow. He dragged his sleeve over his face. "After all this, I hope this place really exists. But I'm beginning to doubt it."
"I know what you mean," Al said. "These hills seem endless. But really, I don't think we've gone far enough yet. I think we'll get there soon. If it is there."
"I should've known it would be this tedious, trying to get to see a bunch of monks. This is one more illustration of how God feels about me," Ed said flippantly, waving a hand.
"Don't be dramatic, brother." Al couldn't frown, but Ed could hear it there in his voice. "If we do find them, I hope you're not going to say things like that. Remember, we want their help."
"I thought religious folks were supposed to help anyhow, out of the pureness of their spirit and the goodness of their hearts," Ed mocked. Al didn't dignify it with further reply, just exuded disapproval.
They'd heard tales of the old monastery in the hills, which housed an ancient library of sacred texts including, it was said, a number of books that touched on ancient alchemy and even the subject of the philosophers' stone. Ed thought it was a pretty long shot they'd have anything useful, suspecting to find only religious mumbo-jumbo, but it was still the best lead they'd had in a while, and he could be cautiously hopeful.
"I hope the monks have food," he sighed. His stomach agreed with him audibly.
"I told you to save something, and not just eat it all..."
"...Nag, nag, nag..." He looked around at the plants, but none of them were remotely edible. The cross thought that Al kept acting more like a mother than a brother contained associations that were far too painful to voice. "...Hey." He paused, listened hard, looked up at Al warily, and whispered, "I hear something."
Something pinged off Al's armoured back and he yelped. A seven foot suit of armour yelping and jumping off the ground in fright was an incongruous sight. Not that Ed cared about that, right now! "Some bastard's shooting at us!"
Al turned and planted his metal body like a shield. Ed ducked down behind his rock. Al... despite his swift actions to protect the one of them who still had vulnerable flesh, Al was muttering a steady, "Can't be shot, doesn't hurt, can't be shot..." He wasn't completely used to the idea of being nigh invulnerable to normal physical attacks. Ed grit his teeth. He waved his automail hand out of hiding furiously and yelled, "Who the hell is it, shooting at a couple of kids? QUIT THAT, ALREADY!"
The new flurry of shots silenced, but Ed thought it was probably more because hitting Al was useless and they didn't have an angle on himself. He hissed at his brother, "Can you see where they're shooting from?"
"I can't see anyone at all." Al turned around a full circuit, scanning their surroundings. He jumped slightly as a bullet penetrated the more vulnerable leather on the side of the armour, leaving a hole, and rattling inside him. "Ugh! So creepy!" It didn't do Al any harm that couldn't be fixed, though the sniper must have thought they'd made a key shot.
"Bastards!" Ed yelled. "Show yourselves!" It did about as much good as he'd expected.
"Brother," Al said urgently, "I think we need to give ourselves up. We're pinned down here! You can't use alchemy against a sniper you can't see. Bullets will hurt you."
"Screw that!" Ed snarled. "We can't know what they'd do if we gave ourselves up. I can't see them, but I can still defend myself!" He clapped his hands and slapped his palms to the ground. A curved wall rose up in front of them. Ed crouched down, leaning his back against the alchemised surface, twitching. People were shooting at him.
Schematics and mechanics ran through his mind, his thoughts seeming slow and sluggish in the fraught circumstances. Winry would kill him if he used her automail as materials to transmute some kind of projectile weapon, but using Al's armour was out of the question and, well, he would use the automail if he had to. The loose, sandy soil here lacked for useful mineral content and was just inviting a rebound. He tried to think of anything else that would work from a distance.
"I'll deal with this," said Al, suddenly, a forced brightness to his voice, and Ed realised too late that he'd also been thinking hard. Al stood up and broke into a heavy, clanking run for the scrubby cover surrounding them, where somewhere the gunman or gunmen lay in wait. Ed wasn't fast enough to do anything about it, automail fingers clutching and missing by miles.
"Damn it, Al!" Of all the times to come to terms with being impervious to bullets... Of course, you could probably still smash the armour apart, with heavy duty or explosive rounds. Ed tried not to think about that as he waited, crouched behind his transmuted mini-fort and feeling useless. If they had explosives, he told himself, they'd have used them already, surely? And he'd definitely hear it. All he could pick out were a few noises that might've been very distant shots, or snapping twigs, or anything, really.
After it had been quiet for too long, he craned carefully up, and moved to look over the wall.
The crunch of a footfall turned him sharply around. He wasn't the only one surprised, though. The large, rather raggedly-dressed man's mouth fell open in surprise. "A kid...?"
He was too close - his mistake. Ed launched himself up off the ground, pushing with the mechanical strength of his left leg, and was inside the range of the rifle before the weapon could be brought to bear. He clapped, and the blade formed from his automail sheared the gun in half.
A shot rang out, though Ed had been sure he'd destroyed too much of the mechanism for the weapon to fire. He hadn't been shot, and diverting attention from the enemy in front of him seemed a good way to get himself killed. In a continuation of his movement, he grabbed the large man's arm, propelling his own smaller form into the air, legs snapping around the man's neck and using the momentum to slam him backwards onto the ground.
There was something eerie about the silence and lack of resistance as the body went down. No grunt, no laboured breathing... no noise at all, not even when Ed flipped and landed on his chest. He rolled aside, confused, and it was then he saw the red stain. It was his opponent who'd been shot.
For a moment, the realisation rendered Edward frozen and speechless. The last and only human being to die in front of him had been his mother, and the painful memories weighted his tongue in his mouth and locked his limbs. This death... was Ed's fault, in a way. Wasn't it? If he hadn't been distracting the man, would he have been killed?
His brain finally kicked into gear again... Shit, that meant someone else was shooting! He scooted backwards frantically, thinking he'd left himself wide open for more than enough time already, thinking he was an idiot... Who'd fix Al, if he got himself killed?
No shot came, and waiting in those desperate seconds for it, his vision narrowed upon the pistol still holstered at the dead man's side. A quick dive forward, and it'd be within reach. That thought was still blazing in his mind when a figure broke cover some fifty yards away and sped, hunched, toward Ed's own position. Ed yelped and raised his hands to transmute - what, he wasn't sure yet - but his eyes registered the Amestris military uniform. As well as the fact this soldier's gun was not pointed his way, and his free hand held forward, open and empty, in a 'hold fire' gesture.
Blinking, Ed watched as the soldier threw his larger body down next to him, using the cover of his transmuted wall. "What-?"
"So they're waylaying kids, now," the man said, grim eyes running over Ed's form in a manner that was assessing, but gave away nothing of any conclusions that were drawn. "That's a new low."
"Who are they?" Ed found his voice. "I didn't think the rebels were this far South!"
"Easterner, huh? No rebels. Aerugeans. A bit of property disagreement with Amestris. You should have heard of it; it's been going on for a while now."
"The Aerugeans are this far into Amestris?" Ed asked, horrified. They weren't anywhere near the border, and he'd not for one moment dreamed they were walking right into the conflict.
The soldier grimaced. "Not usually. It's been a bitch of a week. Maybe news hasn't gotten to you, if you've been travelling and out of touch. We'll have it all back under control soon, kid. They say the Fuhrer himself is coming down with the reinforcements, and no battle he took part in was ever lost." His teeth glinted in a grin of sheer hero-worship. "Until then, we're a bit scattered, trying to pick off the units that broke through the lines. The only godsend is how few people live out here."
"Huh... thatguy. Shit," muttered Ed, scrubbing at his face left-handed in tired dismay.
The soldier laughed. "No kidding, kid. Hey, what's your name?"
"Ed. Look, my brother's out there." He pointed in the direction Al had run off. "He's - he's a big guy in armour, but he's really only a kid, too. I need to-"
"Don't fret." He was cut off genially. "Guy in armour, right? I've people over that way, we'll pick up your brother, too. And it's Corporal Kessel, here, since you asked."
"Uh, thanks," Ed said. "I didn't know we were walking into the middle of a war zone. Guess that's a pretty big screw-up of my planning." He studied Kessel: a big man, but he'd folded up small to sit down, agile despite his size. He had a scruffy half-inch of blond beard that didn't look like it was there by choice, a slightly longer scrub of blond hair and a recent scar above one side of his mouth. Eyes the grey of rainclouds. His uniform was stained, torn and ragged, and the stain on his left arm was definitely blood. Ed could see the proof of how desperate and cut-off the solders here were, though this guy was cool and professional, with his body and voice, at least, not giving the desperation sway.
The wide mouth crooked into a grin. "Finished staring?"
"You remind me of this other guy I know. There's not a chainsmoking beanpole around here somewhere, as well?"
The fellow gave him an odd look, then abruptly his hand slapped down on Ed's shoulder. "Hey, that's the all clear. Look lively." The hand lingered a surprised moment, fingers prodding into the automail joint.
Ed hadn't seen or heard any signal, but Kessel seemed trustworthy, within reason, so he let himself be urged up to his feet and followed in a sort of running crouch across the open ground. Relief flooded through him when they broke through a line of trees and there, in a slight dip in the land beyond, was Al. Three more soldiers in Amestris uniform were with him, but Ed had focus only for his brother. There was blood on Al's hands and his aura of expression was sort of shocked.
The soldiers, when he gave himself a moment to note it, looked sort of shocked too.
"AL! Are you alright?"
"The big guy took out four of them," a female soldier announced, gleefully slapping the back of the armour with a resounding clang.
"T-they were shooting at my brother," Al stuttered. "Not even for any reason!"
"Well, you sure do a good job of protecting your little brother," one of the men cut in, a thin man with a nervous smile and a bandage on his right hand.
"HEY! I'm NOT little! What the hell makes you think you can just-"
Kessel's fist struck the back of Ed's head hard enough to make his eyes water. "Ease up on shouting off our position to the enemy, dumbass," he growled.
"Ed's the older brother," Al squeaked hurriedly (and quietly). "I'm twelve. Brother's thirteen. We're both alchemists. I'm sorry, he always starts yelling about his height." Flustered, he ignored Ed's accusing glower at this treachery.
"Twelve?" The revelation met with the usual blank stares, and Al would've been blushing if he could. "...Well," the soldier said quickly, moving on, "alchemists at thirteen and twelve... Pretty impressive kids..." His voice dried up, and his already nervous face sort of dropped. His stare was fixed on something...
Ed forgot his wrath and followed the gaze down. He twined his fingers around the watch chain affixed to his belt and slowly lifted his hand, drawing the chain out. From beneath narrowed eyelids, he watched the soldier's expression sag further into utter astonishment as the watch peeped into view and then slowly emerged in its entire, the Amestris crest glittering in silver. It was like the man watched him perform a particularly spectacular magic trick.
Okay, so the title of State Alchemist was a stigma, a consequence of his own foolhardy acts, part of the sacrifice he made in the hopes of restoring himself and Al to their bodies, and a ball and chain that tied him to a regime representing everything he despised, but there were times when Ed couldn't get enough of this reaction from strangers.
Al prodded him painfully. "Brother, you're smirking."
"S-s-sir..." the soldier stammered, finally tearing his eyes from Ed's watch to lift them to his face. "S-sir?"
Kessel swore the air an impressive streak of blue. Ed's smugness had become a casualty of confusion by now. He protested, "It's not that big a deal," to the ring of faces whose expressions he couldn't fathom. "I-"
"State Alchemist," Kessel said without any inflection. He shook his head, silencing Ed. The thin soldier twitched nervously. "We'll talk about this later. Right now, we need to get you boys back to base, to Lieutenant Vine." His hand came down on Ed's shoulder, overly rough but probably not intentionally. Then Kessel moved past Ed and spoke with the others in low voices augmented by swift, curt hand signals as the small group began to break apart. The soldiers fanned out across the ground, and Kessel gestured for Ed and Al to keep down and follow him.
Ed was locked into muteness not just by the need to keep their position from the enemy. He had been so stupid. That damned watch! It had been a mistake to let them see it. He'd just announced himself as a State Alchemist in the middle of a war zone. Of course they'd looked at him like that, a so-called 'human weapon' landing unexpectedly in their lap. They could mean to ask anything of him... anything... There were too many things he couldn't possibly do.
He grit his teeth and followed Kessel. Al rattled faintly at his back, having put the facts together, too - probably before Ed himself had done so. Ed fumed. Well, right now they were out of their depth. For the time being they'd just have to let themselves be led by Kessel and hear these people out.
As for what might happen after that, all bets were off.
They had found their monastery.
"No," Ed said numbly, when he saw the wreckage of the interior. Piles of books lay rotting and disintegrating in the stagnant water pools from the leaking roof, tumbled and abandoned on the floor. "No." His protest turned to anger, "What the fuck did you people do?" he demanded, grabbing the front of Kessel's jacket (he couldn't quite reach the collar) with his automail hand. "This is supposed to be some quiet religious place, a bunch of monks and books and some decent fucking food!"
"Ed!" Al was trying to pull him away, but not this time, he thought, seeing white.
Kessel ignored the automail in favour of catching his left arm by the wrist and twisting until Ed was forced to release the metal grip with a yelp. "War happened. We think the monks got out. At least, we didn't find any bodies."
Ed fell back, rubbing at his living arm with the fingers he couldn't feel. He seethed. "This is where we were trying to get to. There was supposed to be stuff here that we could use. Look at this mess! Everything's ruined!"
"It might not be, brother." Al's hand on his shoulder was nervous, almost pleading. "There are books around. Some of them might be salvageable, or at least still readable. We might still find a useful lead here."
Kessel's face settled into a grimace. He looked down at Ed, who promptly stopped rubbing his arm, straightening both arms at his sides and bunching his fists. "Books, huh? I guess it didn't occur to anyone they were valuable. We've been using this place as a base, but the Aerugeans trashed most of it before we ever get here. If the books are what you're interested in, better salvage what you can. I'm pretty sure nobody will mind. The monks might even thank you, if they ever come back."
"Thank you," Al said politely. "We'd like to do that."
"First things first," Ed said. He'd much rather explore the place and search through the books, but the unhappy roiling of his stomach had returned to override thoughts for his own mission. "I need to speak to this lieutenant of yours, remember? He's the one in charge here, you said?" I need to know where I stand.
Kessel sighed. "I'm pretty sure he'll want to speak to you." Something in his manner when he spoke of his commanding officer was odd. Uncertain, even nervous. "Come with me, then."
Ed stopped Al's move to follow with a palm on his breastplate, the clang of metal meeting metal distinct even through the glove. "No, Al. You should stay here. Make a start on the books. I'm the only one who's in the military, after all."
Al was rightly suspicious. This was going to be a conversation he didn't want his younger brother to be in on. Being tied to the state was his bed of nails. If they were going to ask of him what he feared they would... "It's not going to help if you're there," Ed admitted, half under his breath. "Just find us something to make walking into this mess worthwhile, okay?"
Al nodded unhappily, and his big form creaked as he knelt down to delicately pick up a book. It dripped and the spine sagged and bent. Ed winced.
He turned back to Kessel with a curt nod. The soldier raised his eyebrows and led the way. They traipsed through countless more of the monastery's narrow corridors and up an even narrower spiral staircase. About halfway up what was surely one of the three towers he'd observed from outside, Kessel rapped on a wooden door then pushed it open. He waited for Ed to go in before him, then shut it after them with a final sort of click.
"Lieutenant Vine, sir. We - ran into someone, outside," he offered, slowly. There was a wariness in his voice and stance.
Ed couldn't fathom why. He'd figured these folk were scared of their commanding officer: had expected someone even worse than the Bastard: only a thin, almost sickly pale man waited within the small, round tower room. Seated at the one chair near the window, the daylight fell full onto him, and there was nothing about him to inspire any sort of fear. He turned to face them, moving far too slowly for a solider in a battle zone. His eyes were red-rimmed, though his face was a shaven contrast to the rest of the men. He was sweating. At first, Ed thought he was injured, but he couldn't see any obvious signs of injury or bandaging.
"A child," Vine said slowly. The movement of his lips seemed clumsy, the words blurred. The man's voice and hands shook. "Kessel, why-"
"I'm... Edward Elric," Ed said, swallowing hard. He had to stand his ground. He produced the silver watch. "A state alchemist. I'm thirteen," he added for good measure. "I was the youngest..."
"Yes, I've heard of you." Vine sounded dazed, and Ed wondered suddenly, Is he drunk?He fell a step back, startled, as Vine jerked to his feet. The lieutenant scooped the watch up, letting it lie in his palm while Edward's hovering fingers remained wrapped around the end of its chain. "It was... Fullmetal, wasn't it? Is that right... sir?"
"Uh." Ed dropped the chain, leaving his symbol of office at Vine's mercy. "You really don't have to call me that." There was something wrong with Vine, badly wrong, and whatever it was frightened him more than even the thought of being ordered to use his alchemy to kill. He edged a bit further into the room, trying to sidle subtly away from Vine. He looked to Kessel for help, but found no comfort in the soldier's fixed countenance.
Vine corrected, "But as a State Alchemist, you are the equivalent to a Major, and - if I may say so, your arrival is timed to match our need perfectly." Edward really didn't want to touch the sweating palm extended toward him to take back his watch. Not even with his gloves on. Not even with the automail. Maybe if he made a really quick grab...
"I'm thirteen." His voice cracked out more assertively than he'd maybe intended. He could feel his heart pounding as he clutched the silver watch to his chest. "You can't send me into battle." Mustang said so. Then again, what he actually said WAS that they wouldn't SEND me into battle, and nothing about what would happen if I idiotically managed to send myself there. "There's a bunch of other stuff I can do to shore up the defences, though," he added, with forced brightness. "I'm good at stonework. This place - I can fix it, improve fortifications-" I'm not killing people for you.
Vine looked confused. Enough so, Ed almost convinced himself he'd misread the situation and began to feel the first stirrings of relief. He wouldn't be expected to use his alchemy to create a field of slaughter, like the State Alchemists at Ishbal... Then the Lieutenant said, "Of course, the decision of how to proceed would be yours, sir. I'm sure you know the best ways to apply your skills."
Ed's watch hit the floor, falling from his nerveless fingers. Kessel made an inarticulate noise. "Vine!" he barked, respect of rank all forgotten. "Corwin. You can't put this kid in command! You can't be thinking to-"
"Major Elric might outrank any Amestris officer within fifty miles, after last week's losses." Vine blinked in a not-quite-focused way. "So you see, I'm sure that this is the right thing to do." He earnestly patted Kessel's shoulder. "We must respect the chain of command. Central know what they're doing when they assign rank. You need to have more faith."
Kessel stared at the arm and stared at him.
"Bullshit!" Ed yelped, scrabbling on the floor for his watch, hearing the chain links crunch as he grabbed it. "I'm not taking over, you lazy bastard! That's not my job. I'm an alchemist! I make stuff, I fix stuff, I chase about the country after shit missions that I swear that bastard Colonel in Eastern makes up on the spot! I don't lead soldiers!"
Kessel scrubbed a hand over his face. "Thank fuck the kid's at least smart enough to recognise this is so much bullshit. Corwi- Lt Vine, sir, what the hell?"
"It's a technicality," Ed said, his anger rising. The guy could just out and ask that of him, and think it okay? "Nobody was ever gonna cash in on the rank. Not before I reached sixteen. No way. Y'know, because of the part where that would be freakin' NUTS?"
"But it's true," Vine said, with helpless bewilderment. "So you must. You must." The way he said it seemed almost like he couldn't contemplate anything else.
"I must not," Ed snarled back. "For one thing, Mustang - that's Colonel Mustang - would kill me, and for once, that bastard would actually be right."
"Far be it for me to tell you how to do your duty, sir," Vine murmured indistinctly, turning aside so that his greasy, overlong hair hid his face. The statement made Ed all the more livid. He couldn't deny a cheap thrill from adults calling him 'sir', but this guy didn't know when to leave it alone. Something about the subdued appearance of the man stopped him from erupting again, though. Instead, he looked nervously at Kessel, letting the silence and his expression ask the question.
Kessel made an effort to rise to the occasion. "Sir, we need to talk about this. I think you're not well." The Lieutenant stared out of the narrow window as though he'd not heard at all. "Take a few minutes," Kessel urged, with a touch of desperation. "Get it together. I'm gonna take the kid outside. Corwin?" The name still elicited no reaction. Kessel's released breath was sharp, and he grabbed Ed's shoulder and shoved him out of the room, slamming the door. They made it up half a flight of stairs and into a box room before the soldier slumped down heavily onto a broken bench and put his head in his hands, knuckles showing white as his fingers twisted into his hair.
Ed un-grit his teeth and rubbed circulation back into his shoulder. After a moment, he ducked down and peered into the shadows of Kessel's bowed face, then poked him in the knee with an automail finger when he didn't react. "Do you guys have any doctors here?"
"No doctors." But at least the man sat up. "He's right. He's right, fuck... He's not fit for command. I knew it. I could see it. I should've done something before now. I should've..."
"Hey!" Ed barely had time to start the protest before Kessel had grabbed his extended hand, shoved the sleeve back to bare the steel wrist, then just as swiftly let him go with a grunt, the question satisfied. Apparently Kessel had gone beyond the mood to engage in niceties. "Fine. So is the leg, bastard, in case you were about to make a grab for that, too." He placed himself out of Kessel's reach just in case.
"'Fullmetal'," Kessel muttered. "So you are no stranger to war. I suppose that's something."
Mustang, and common sense besides (which Mustang seemed to think he didn't have), had advised him not to contradict the general assumption that his limbs had been lost in the East's civil war, but Ed might've done so if he'd not had more important assumptions to check, right then and there. "I'm not doing it, and if you still think I am, you're as crazy as he is."
"He's not-" Kessel stopped, and stared beyond him into nothing. Slowly, softer words dragged from his lips, so quiet Ed could barely hear them. "I know. I've known it for days. I just... I never thought he'd snap. We've been out here together three years. They said that back at the academy, he was some kind of tactical genius. An officer who was going to do great things. Damned if he didn't live up to it, too... he did. Not just a good officer, but a half-decent human being, and there's not too many of those among the ranks. But these past weeks..." His eyes were seeing horrors from those weeks, and only half in the present - if even that much, Ed thought, as the disturbing gaze zeroed in on him. "It was a slaughter, when they broke through. We hadn't been expecting it. Shit, they were smart... We were cut off, scattered... It was three days before Vine had chance to clean the Captain's blood and brains off his uniform. Do you know how many of us there were? How many there are now? ...Why am I telling you all this?"
"You're the one still suggesting I take his place," Ed hissed. "Isn't that a pretty good reason I should hear how your academy-trained Lieutenant Vine couldn't hack it and you want to dump it on a thirteen year old kid?"
"You outrank everyone else here."
Ed snapped, "You didn't hesitate to call him on his crap in there, when he said it! What's changed?"
Kessel's eyes sparked a dark, desperate fire, and he said flatly, "It's Vine or you. There aren't any other officers left."
Ed gulped. He ground his human hand into his forehead, shut his eyes and tried to level panic. He paced back and forth over the same few feet of floor, needing to be moving, at least. What the hell was he supposed to do? He could almost hear Mustang laughing at him. If he did what they wanted, Mustang wouldn't laugh, he'd set him on fire. "Look. Forget this crazy shit for a second, and - and let's try looking at this another way. What if you're getting ahead of yourself? You guys haven't been sleeping, and you've probably been eating like shit, too. Hunger, exhaustion, stress... Maybe all your Lieutenant Vine needs is a rest. Put him to bed. Find something to sedate him if you have to! I can probably alchemise that if you don't have it. Food, too, though I can't promise it won't taste awful. We'll do this, and you guys - you keep going as you have been. When he wakes up, there might not even be a problem anymore. Maybe you won't need to make any important decisions in that time."
Kessel was looking at him with a peculiar expression.
"That's... that makes sense." The big soldier rose to his feet, slow and almost as dazed as Vine had looked, before. Then, his freakin' hand rose in a half-salute that couldn't quite make its mind up whether it really, really wanted to be a salute, but was still fucking there. "Major Elric..."
"Forget 'Major Elric'!" Ed roared, temper finally snapping entirely. "I didn't come up with that plan so you can use it to justify your insanity, you military freak! Get out of here and take care of your Lieutenant!"
Kessel dodged his flailed automail punch with a grimace, but as the soldier ducked out of the room to go and obey his orders, Ed had the distinct feeling the plan still wasn't at all working in the way he'd intended.
"They want me in charge," he growled to Al. Brother had begun delicately examining and cataloguing the books from the monastery, making his base of operations a huge antique desk, which he'd fixed from its splintered state and set upright in one corner of the room. So Ed stomped around gathering up armfuls of the now neatly-stacked books off the floor, bringing them over to the desk in batches. The pages slopped wetly and some of them seemed just a slimy mass, and these were those Al had deemed salvageable? "Can you believe that?"
"Not really," Al said. Then hurriedly added, "Maybe it's better that way. At least the person in charge won't make you kill people for the military... brother?"
Ed hoisted his soggy armful of books up onto the desk - which was absurdly and unusually high, and he thoroughly resented the way its top was level with his eyes - and flailed his arms to articulate his feelings on the matter. Yeah. That should make things perfectly clear.
He pulled himself up onto one of the tall stools and hunched over the desktop, folding his arms around his middle. He looked intently down at the stained wood. "I'm not Mustang," he muttered. "I can't put my alchemy to uses like that." He shuddered at the memory of the man killed while fighting him, dropping dead under his touch.
"I'm glad," Al ventured. "I don't want you to have to do that, either, Ed. So I'm glad they have to listen to what you say."
"They don't," Ed snapped, then groaned in disgust. He would have sunk his head into his hands, but his hands were coated in decaying-book-slime. Maybe he should've just let his gloves get ruined, because now he was going to have to clean out the automail. He leaned forward over the table and, with a quick glance around and a moment's listen in case any of the soldiers should be passing, or lurking, nearby, hissed to Al over the books, "If it comes to that, we'll get the hell out of here. So we need to get as much as we can from these books here now. If we do have to run, there might not be time-
"Right," he said, louder, decisively, scrubbing his hands on his pants and reaching for Al's list, pulling it over to his side of the desk, while Al just looked at him worriedly. "Let's take a look at what we've got here."
They buried themselves in a denial consisting of ancient, soggy texts for a good hour. By the time Kessel banged on the door then walked straight through, they'd found two potentially useful volumes and had turned their energies to working on ideas for a transmutation circle that would dry out the books with the least possible damage to the pages.
The soldier with Kessel was the thin man who'd practically swallowed his tongue after spying Ed's silver watch. It was a minor struggle to remember his name, but eventually Ed dredged up the memory of the others referring to him as Duggan. He was taller but thinner than Kessel, and had more the look of a clerk than a soldier. In fact, there were even faint marks indicating a long-time wearer of spectacles on the sides of his nose. Kessel's jaw was tight and unhappy, lines bunching around the corner of his mouth. Ed eyed them both, hoping they weren't waiting for him to either speak or give them permission to.
"We've got Vine sedated upstairs," Kessel said after a brief silence. "So I guess it's a waiting game, now. I see you got started on your books." He eyed Ed with a mixed expression. Some of the things mixed into it, Ed was pretty sure shouldn't be directed at someone you perceived as a commanding officer. Since he couldn't comment as much without appearing to accept the role, Ed gave him a dirty look right back. "I'm just a soldier," the big man said. "I follow orders. But since there's no-one to give them, I'd suggest it might be a good idea if you go with Daniel and let him show you around. Maybe you can figure out some ways to shore up the defences, as you were talking about. This place is as secure as a garden shed right now."
"Uh." Ed looked at Al, and reluctantly slid off the stool. While it was a good idea, and probably something he should have been doing sooner, he couldn't get away from feeling he was being nudged towards playing Vine's - and now apparently Kessel's - game, and that after this he'd end up being nudged into something more. The silver watch felt heavier than usual by his hip. "Sorry," he said to Al. "I'd better go help."
"I'll handle the books, brother," Al reassured him. "Please go and do what you can." He didn't say it, but the concern still exuded from him in waves. Damn it, Ed thought. He was supposed to be helping Al get his body back, not getting dragged into Amestris' wars. How had he been so stupid as to land them in this situation? This was even worse than going back to Eastern and being doled out another mission from the Bastard! At least the Bastard didn't expect him to commit wholesale slaughter or command grown men!
"Fine," he snapped at Duggan. "Lead the way."
Duggan looked cowed. The guy was in awe of the watch. Why was it, Ed thought crossly, that people didn't take him seriously whenever he wanted to be, but were completely unreasonable about things when he tried to insist that he was just a kid?
He turned back to the door, pointing at Kessel. "You leave my brother out of this while I'm gone! Al's not even a member of the military, just a civilian alchemist. And a minor!" There. He still wasn't easy with leaving the two together, though, and kept looking back at them as he followed Duggan into the hall.
He saw quickly why they'd wanted to push this exercise. The place was a wreck. The leaking ceilings of the lower floors were caused by a couple of big holes in the roof where someone had used some kind of heavy weaponry. Pretty big guns to pull out against a bunch of monks.
One of the towers was crumbling from being hit at the top, and some leaking pipes and neglect had pretty much done for the cellars, kitchens and laundry rooms on the lower and basement levels. Anything ornamental that looked like it might be worth something had been stripped from the place. Some of the damage to wooden furnishings and fabrics seemed to be for the hell of it. The same impulse, he figured, that had wrecked the books, tipping them from shelves without a thought that the writings within the old pages might be worth infinitely more than a few silver candlestick holders and crosses.
His ire increased as he was shown around the devastation. He fixed what he could, even the stuff that the soldiers didn't give a damn about like old box-chests and curtains. Maybe the monks who'd lived here would come back; they didn't have to come back to that. Even though he didn't believe in their god, and didn't think it'd win him any favours anyhow, he fixed the small chapel, too. Someone was still going to have to go around the whole place with a mop and bucket. Evaporating the puddles would only put the moisture into the air. The kitchens and cellars needed cleaning out to make them sanitary and he couldn't do anything about that, either. Unless he was stuck here long enough that he actually got out the mop and bucket. Maybe Al could come up with something - not only was his brother better at ideas involving precision, he was better at all that domestic shit, too.
"Well, we're all fixed up inside," he told the gaping Duggan. "I'll need to get outside to look at giving this place some decent defences from another attack."
Duggan swallowed a few times and managed to gulp, "Yes... yes, sir." That made Ed want to kick him, and since he wasn't in the best of moods for controlling volatile impulses, his automail foot clunked loudly off the back of the man's knee.
Ten minutes later, they were admiring the fruits of his alchemical labour.
Ed didn't think anyone could deny that the place looked seriously cool with the new gargoyles and the moat. Duggan seemed lost for words, standing there stuttering as Ed tested the controls of the drawbridge he'd knocked together in an inspired moment. The moat was more like a ditch, really, since he didn't have much water to put in it. Maybe he could make channels to drain the flooding and rainwater out through the walls? He'd look into it later. In the meantime, it was deep, and he'd smoothed the sides so anyone who tried to cross it would have their work cut out to climb up. Since he'd narrowed the windows from the outside, good luck them finding somewhere to climb to.
"If they do get in," he said, wringing his hands with glee - okay, so he was getting kind of into this as a project, now he'd started. "Or if they set fire to the place, or bombard it again, or whatever, then I can make tunnels to come out behind the bastards. Then we can show 'em what they get for messing with Edward Elric!"
Duggan was giving him a disturbed look.
"You haven't even seen the best part, yet," Ed crowed, and dragged him back inside to demonstrate how the canons in the gargoyles' mouths worked.
"You've been busy," Kessel remarked sourly, catching up to them while Ed was showing off the gargoyle at the top of the west tower to half a dozen soldiers, and prominently the blonde woman who just couldn't wait to get her hands all over it. She frankly scared him, but it was she who piped up instantly in his defence.
"Thing is, it might all look like some kid's idea of playing soldiers, but it all works," she said excitedly. "We have a decent fucking shot of fighting off an attack now, even if they get reinforcements."
"That so, Mandy?" Kessel's black look was coming down to one of interest. He was leaning over the cannon and the pile of transmuted cannonballs when the commotion elsewhere drew all their attention.
"-That's the sound of that damn drawbridge!" Kessel snapped, as the resonating clang and thud punctuated the shouts from downstairs. Despite being the one who had to rise from his knees, he was the first out of the door. Ed managed to squeeze in after, though it was a narrow thing and he was almost stepped on several times by the soldiers behind as they poured down the narrow stairs. "What the hell's going on?"
"Lt. Vine... he's gone," gasped a hapless soldier with one leg in bloodied bandages, hanging off a door frame. He pointed with his free hand. "I couldn't stop him. He was ranting... crazy stuff. I mean, crazy. Was that the sedative? I tried... Minton and Jeffries went after him. Maybe some of the other guys, but I couldn't see from here."
It was clear there was nothing the injured man could have done. Ed felt sorry for him as they left him behind. It was a pretty lousy experience watching the world go charging past you when you couldn't walk.
"Al!" he yelled, as they passed the room where he'd left Alphonse, but there was no response. When they got outside, Ed could see the evening sunlight glittering off the large armour in the distance far more easily than he could pick out the blue uniforms of the soldiers.
Then, they heard the gunshots.
"AL!" Ed yelped, charging ahead of Kessel towards the distant figures. He got overtaken again quickly, because Kessel's legs were longer, and the woman - Mandy - and Duggan joined him, the former reaching behind herself to grab Ed's shoulder and shove him back, trying to shield his body with hers. The soldiers were drawing guns as they ran.
"Fuck!" Kessel's foot had almost come down on a blue-uniformed body, and the big man skidded, managing to catch himself before he fell. Ed craned around Mandy's waist - his nose-level - and felt a bitter taste rise in the back of his mouth at the sight of the dead man; a bullet had taken a chunk out of his skull. He'd seen worse things, but this man - somebody had done this on purpose. Mandy planted a hand over his face and shoved him back again.
"Damn it, Minton, you idiot!" Kessel said explosively to the dead man, then jerked away with a visible resolve and ran on.
"Kid, go back," Mandy grit. "There's not a thing here that you want to see."
"My little brother's out here!" Ed yelled back, following anyway, ducking another swipe as she half turned around. "And you don't know what I've already seen! And that's 'Mister Kid SIR', to you!"
"Down!" There was a dizzying moment as he ran through a deep thicket and, as the voice whipped out, the whole world was spiralling downwards in a kind of slow motion. Then his face hit the undergrowth and he realised that Kessel, hunched down in the bushes, had grabbed his automail ankle as he ran past. "Damn!" the big man gasped, his voice hoarse and hushed. "Vine thought they'd called for the fucking reinforcements, but-"
Ed lifted his head, mouth half open to swear at the corporal, and froze with his lips still agape. In front of them, it looked like half an army was advancing out of the trees.
Before the army, ran Alphonse. His sprint was a great, clanking cacophony. He had a wounded man over one shoulder and another man in his arms who... well, looked less wounded than frantically shielded. Because shots were rattling off Al's back like raindrops in a downpour as he charged towards them.
Ed grunted sharply, feeling something bruise his forehead, and gawped at the sight of the ball of metal that fell into his open palm when he automatically reached up.
"We're at the limit of effective range," Mandy said, smacking him on the back of the head and, incidentally, shoving his face down again. "Not for long. Come on, you morons, we need to get back in that fucking toy fort now." She glared around them. "Vine's screwed. It's his own fault, and even if he was a decent sort before he was a loon, there's nothing we can do for him now."
If it was harsh, it snapped Kessel back to action. "Back!" he yelled. "Back! Get over the - the bloody moat!"
There were so many Aerugeans rising up into view from the slope now that nobody needed extra encouragement. Ed certainly didn't need the not-so-helpful tugs and shoves on his shoulders. He couldn't help it if everyone else had freakish long legs, or that one of his was metal!
He was outdistancing them anyway, as they were flagging by the time they fell across the drawbridge and through the door. He bounced off the stonework and turned back, to see where Al was.
The running armour was closer than he'd expected, but the Aerugeans were coming on behind, even though Al had widened the gap. Bullets sent chips flying from the stonework and informed him that they were close enough to do damage with their shots, now, but Ed ignored them, shouting and waving Al onwards. His companions didn't try drag him from the door because they were busy doing the same. A bullet bounced off his hand, leaving a scratch in the metal that Winry would probably wrench him for.
They started to lift the drawbridge even as Al was running toward it, obeying his frantic gestures, and he vaulted the widening space onto the wood, tumbling down the other side still clutching his two burdens. Then the gate was up, and they were sealed inside the fortress Ed had made of the monastery. It was a suddenly terrifying thought - had he done everything right? What if he'd made some mistake that would give them a route inside? He might cause them all to die...
"Al!" He pounded his brother's metal shoulder in relief.
"He's hurt!" Al squeaked, oblivious, frantically lowering the man from his shoulder. Ed recognised him as the one called Jeffries, a balding fellow older than most of the other soldiers. The man Al had carried in his arms scrabbled free looking acutely embarrassed, uninjured although Alphonse had certainly saved his life. His fellow, though, was copiously bloody around the midriff.
Ed swallowed uncomfortably as he watched his brother lay Jeffries out on the ground. He reached for the soldier's throat to feel for a pulse, suspicious at the unnatural pallor and stillness he already demonstrated, then let his hand fall back. There was a small, neat hole in Jeffries' balding scalp. It had hardly bled at all.
"No!" Al protested, and covered his face with his gauntlet hands, because the man he'd tried so hard to save was already dead.
Alphonse explained numbly what had happened, and Ed spent most of the tale staring at his hands and thinking that Al shouldn't have had to be involved in any of this at all. Him the one to put his name on the military's rolls, and to him should the horrors of that responsibility rightfully fall. The automail clicked with his fidgeting, but he didn't think he'd drawn the stares of anyone who hadn't already noticed he'd forgotten to replace his gloves.
"We were just trying to get Mister Vine back," Al rounded off. "He didn't look well when he ran away. B-but the Aerugean soldiers took him. He ran straight into their hands! I think he really didn't care if he died, though... but Mister Minton and Mister Jeffries didn't want that, did they?" The gauntlet hands clutched into angry fists and loosened again helplessly. Ed put his real hand over the nearest, even if his brother couldn't feel the gesture of support.
"It's not your fault, Al. You tried to help."
"No, kid." Kessel agreed. "Blame Vine. Blame the war. Blame the crazy shit people do when they've had just too damn much. Don't blame yourself."
"No," Ed growled, showing his teeth liberally. "You're not even in the military, Al! None of this is your responsibility."
"So..." Kessel returned in an edged drawl. "What do you suggest we do now, Major Elric?" He leaned back slightly, unconsciously balancing his weight as though for combat.
"Don't start that again," Ed said warningly.
"Start what? Vine is gone. There's only one ranking officer left here."
"You'd follow this kid's orders, Kessel?" Mandy said, looking amused.
"We followed Ordonsen's," the big corporal retorted. "He can hardly do worse. Probably."
Duggan said, "The only coherent order I ever heard Old Man Ordonsen give was for a stiff brandy."
"But he could fight like a demon if you pointed him in the direction of the enemy," Mandy said. "Pickled old buzzard. It was sort of inspirational, in his own way. How the hell do we ask the kid to fight the Aerugeans?"
"Not up to us," Kessel said, eying Ed with obvious implication.
"He is the ranking officer," Duggan protested. "And regulations..."
"Fine, then before this goes a step further, you bastards, I want to see these regulations," Ed snapped, punching the table with his automail fist. "Kessel, you just... you deal with the Aerugeans! I damn well order you to do it, if that's what makes you happy! Agh-" A horrible thought crossed his mind, of how things could be taken appallingly literally, and maybe he should be more careful with the military mindset... "I-I mean, make sure they don't get in, that's all! See to the... the defence... and stuff like that," he added quickly, words tumbling over each other. "Not run out there right now and deal with them, 'cause that would be..." Suicide, he put in mentally, but his words had trailed off, by then, subdued into silence by the way soldiers were looking at him as if he were nuts.
Kessel sighed and scuffed a big hand across his hair. While it wasn't quite putting his head in his hands, it gave off the same general impression. "This is going to go so well..."
The Amestris military had a regulation that forbade the keeping of live frogs while on winter marches. It was a fucking miracle, thought Ed - increasingly so, as he read down through the immense, heavy volume of rules that someone, though his guess was Duggan, had managed to produce from their pack - a fucking miracle that they hadn't all been speaking Aerugean, or Drachman, or Xingese, for years.
Acquainting himself with some of its more esoteric rules only added to his opinion that the military was an institution of dangerous boneheads.
He curled up in a less damp corner away from Al and the soldiers, in his own little cloud of focused, determined depression, and scoured the list of alternating tedium - mostly tedium - and inanity, feeling his brain oozing IQ points that he was never going to get back. He tried to ignore the Aerugeans outside, who sounded increasingly restless as the time ticked by, reminding himself of the escape tunnels he'd boasted he could easily put in place. Even if the enemy besieged them with a will, they could get out. Probably. He and Al could get out, and he'd leave a note for Kessel so the soldiers could follow... when they found it, at a convenient time later. When Edward and Alphonse were decently far away from this place.
Military fucking discipline. Man, who needed this many rules to live by? No wonder a bunch of grown men couldn't think for themselves, to the extent they were looking for a kid to tell them what to do! What a great idea, to set up a system that crushed all iota of independent thought! Ed sneered in disgust and kicked his right foot in rhythmic little jerks in malicious time to his reading.
He stayed in his corner for a good few hours, barely noticing the noises, the rumbles, as the building shook with canon fire. The walls, now alchemically reinforced with a good deal of the material he'd taken out of the moat, held, so it wasn't his concern. He was aware, a couple of times, of a bulky shadow that could only be Kessel (because it didn't clank) standing and watching in the doorway for wordless moments, before leaving in silence.
He didn't need any more cues to get the fact that Kessel was waiting for him to step up, and disappointed in the results. Man, that made him so mad... The soldiers respected Kessel like a leader, even if he wasn't one. He was a good soldier, good enough to have been made a corporal, and by all accounts he'd been fighting for years... Why couldn't he do it? Just because he didn't have a proper rank! Stupid military and its stupid rules... He turned another page, read down it, then stopped short. He read it again. And again, more carefully still. He spent another half-hour double-checking himself, and going through unravelling implications, cross-checking against other rules that were referred to. Then, finally, he leaned back and shut the oversized book.
At the movement, the figure in the shadows at the side of the doorway ghosted away. Ed felt his face stretch in a wide grin.
So, he thought, his heart thumping faster with excitement and relief. So. They wanted an officer, did they? An above-board, official, unquestionable and proper officer to give them commands to follow?
"-KESSEL!" He was yelling as he pushed to his feet; as he charged from the room. He took the stairs four at a time, still yelling, following the big corporal's silent departure.
"WHAT?" the man snapped, his teeth crunching together as he spun. Ed wasn't quite prepared enough to catch himself before he stepped into the flat, hard muscle of Kessel's stomach and bounced off.
He grabbed at the front of Kessel's shabby blue coat, partly to stabilise himself and then to practically climb up the man, bunching the thick fabric in his fist. "Congratulations on your promotion! You're a fucking Lieutenant, Second Lieutenant Kessel!" Ed yelled in his face. "You're a Lieutenant because I say so. How great is that?"
"What the-?" Kessel scrabbled distractedly at his uniform but the automail finger joints weren't very co-operative about unlocking unless Edward damned well wanted them to unlock. Other soldiers had been drawn to the shouting and were staring at them.
Ed brandished the regulations book enthusiastically enough that Kessel ducked. "It's called a field promotion," Ed continued to yell - with, he felt, suitably dramatic flourish. "And I'm a Major, so I can give one, Second Lieutenant!"
Kessel stuttered. "I'm not an officer, I'm not even a sergeant. It won't- it'll never wash. Nobody will-"
"Doesn't matter," Ed said with relish, as he finally let the new Lieutenant go, swinging backwards and dropping neatly onto his feet. "I'm the senior officer right here and now, so, until any other officer gets here to contradict it, I can make you a Lieutenant, Second Lieutenant."
"Stop repeating that!"
"I thought people liked promotions?"
"Not when it makes this mess my mess, you little..." Ed ducked an unfriendly clutching hand. He was on too much of a giddy high even to dispute the use of the taboo word.
"-But, Lieutenant, doesn't it solve our problem rather neatly?" To his delight, Al arrived in a doorway, the lights in his eyes blinking curiously. It was neatly in time for Ed to worm behind him to take cover. "Of course, I can assist in an advisory capacity, but I think we can all see that, with another appropriately appointed officer on hand, it would be completely unreasonable for a thirteen year old like me to be giving out battle commands..." And it would have been your mess anyway, without me. Tell me who else here is placed to step up? Who else does everyone listen to?
"Brother, what did you do?" Al asked warily, clearly wondering why it was necessary for him to serve as a shield.
"I solved the problem with applied genius." Ed patted his brother's armoured side. He lifted the regs book. "Now, who wants this back?"
"I do," Kessel growled, lunging to snatch it before Ed could (quite willingly) toss it his way. "Me, a Lieutenant? Damn it, kid, this isn't what I..."
"Why not?" Al interrupted, his voice very earnest in that way that always melted the hearts of Mustang's lackeys, even if they never had anything but insults and rotten pranks for Ed. "Mister Kessel, do you think they won't follow you?"
There was a pause, a silence and stillness of all present, in which finally one soldier moved, came forward, clapped a hand to Al's huge shoulder, and then, more enthused, to Kessel's.
"That's right," Mandy Gunn said. "Do you think we won't follow you, sir?"
"You should think more about people," Al chastised, mumbling, hunched down over a book but with a glint in his eyes that indicated he was glowering up.
"I do think about people." Ed glared back, but only got the top of Al's head - a waste of a particularly good glare, which he could see reflected in the shiny metal. "It's not my fault if Kessel's too chickenshit - hell, I thought that he'd be happy. Plus, he's an adult. Besides, you said yourself that they'd follow him, and you were right, they would. It's obvious they would. He's just being an idiot. And, hey - I thought you wanted me to get us out of this!"
"I know." Al hunched, expressionless face hidden. "It's just... he looked so lost. Like he really didn't know what to do. You didn't look like that when you were asked for orders, brother."
"Thirt - teen," Ed grit, pointing at his own chest and emphasizing the syllables sharply. "I should take on the guilt of getting them all killed? I've already got enough-" He cut himself off. "What we should be doing is preparing to make a run for it. I've solved their problems. Now I can create a tunnel like I said, and get us the hell out of this place. Al, are you listening?"
No answer. Ed leaned over the table and flailed a hand down between Al's face and the book he had. The armour lurched.
"What? I know you can't doze off, even if I am boring you that much."
"Ruby red river of blood," Al said, dazedly.
"It says here," Al clutched the book, "'The quest of alchemists and philosophers finds its goal at the end of the ruby red river of blood'. That's a metaphor, right? It's the stone, isn't it? It must be!"
Ed practically jumped on the book. "Show me! Oh, man, how do you read this, there's more stain than page. What a wreck. Shit!"
"Well, it's something," Al said tritely. "We're still thinking up ways to clean the books. It's the first clue in ages, even if it is a stained book that's half religious dogma written by someone who really didn't like ending sentences."
Ed turned the book around and looked at the cover. He couldn't be sure of the name and title on it. The front was wrecked, and so, he found inside, were the first few pages. He sighed. It did, however, look strikingly akin to other books he'd seen lying around, of similar size, binding and colour. "What if it's part of a set? I guess we'd better check for others. Shit, that means we can't go yet." He pushed it back at Al, then hopped down and started rooting through the piles of books on the floor.
"Brother, don't mess them up!" Al wailed. "Be more patient!"
"Not here," Ed growled, anyway. "But I'd swear that binding's familiar. I'll have to search the whole place again. But maybe I saw them somewhere else..." He racked his brain, trying to think of where that somewhere could have been.
The tall, broad figure stolidly and somberly filling the room's doorway registered gradually on his brain.
"Kessel..." he said slowly, when the soldier didn't speak. Funny, but for some reason he felt unease coil in his stomach, and alarm bells were beginning to ring in his brain. The guy didn't look like he was poising to come after him and slug him... "What? What is it?"
"You'll help?" the big man said hoarsely. "Major... Elric... Fullmetal. You'll help me to fight? State Alchemist..." His fingers clutched the door jamb so whitely Ed thought the rotten wood might crack and break. "You'll help me get my men out of this alive?"
Snap. Ed almost heard the sound in his mind. Like the click of a lock fastening. A trap closing. No- a prison door. He heard an accusation ring inside his head: You made him, it pointed out. Doesn't that make him your responsibility? He grit his teeth and groaned ill-temperedly and thought about his plans to get himself and his brother out of there. He thought about the books in Al's hands, and their quest, and all the things he should be concentrating on, and how this, this escapade was no more than an annoyance, a distraction. He looked again at Kessel's face.
His mind filled with curses.
Just like that, he thought with a sinking feeling, and he was caught.
"What would you have done?" he'd asked Kessel. "If I hadn't come along." He'd waited but he'd seen that the grown man had no answer to that. At least none that he'd be prepared to voice in front of a ranking officer, even one of thirteen years. They'd have had no choice but to run, then face whatever reprisals followed the decision, he thought.
Someone swung a sword at his head and Ed responded with physical agility rather than alchemy - teacher had taught him that if you could do something the mundane way, you should, after all - ducking under the blow, then slamming the sword aside with his metal arm and punching its wielder in the face with the other. The man collapsed like a sack, unconscious.
Around him were the sounds of less fortunate soldiers dying. Nobody else was pulling punches. He wanted to narrow his vision and close his ears, to exclude the horror, but he was supposed to be protecting them, these soldiers in Amestris blue who killed the Aerugeans without mercy.
How the hell did he let himself be placed in a situation like this?
"All right, I've a plan," he'd told Kessel, as if it was simple. "We're going to attack. We know they've got prisoners. We saw them take the Lieutenant guy, too, even if he is... Well, if they've got him, they've probably got others. Officers. Someone else who'll know what to do. So I'll help you fight, just this once, to help us both find a way to solve this."
On the battlefield, it felt like they were all a sea of butchers, the only difference the colour of the uniforms. But the blue uniforms, whom he had to keep reminding himself were his - trying to lodge into his brain the fact that they were his, if only temporarily - were overwhelmingly outnumbered by the rest.
He clapped his hands, dropped to one knee and touched the rocky ground. Filaments of the stone curled up and rooted the nearest four enemy soldiers' feet in place. He started to cry out "No!" as Mandy took advantage of their predicament to slash a man's throat, but the word died on the air. Too late. Ed clapped again, twisting the stone and breaking the ankles of the other three, and hoped that would be enough to take them out of the battle to the satisfaction of his own troops.
He stood up, head reeling horribly, and told himself there was no way, absolutely no way, that he could stop to throw up in the middle of all this.
He'd overheard Mandy and Kessel talking, after the planning and before the battle, as they were waiting for the right moment. She'd said: "Are we really going to do this? Follow a kid to war?"
"That's been the point of all this argument, hasn't it?" Kessel responded. His face had been grey. It had been grey since Ed first dubbed him a Second Lieutenant, though. "We're hopelessly outmatched in numbers. Maybe it's crazy, but the kid's a State Alchemist. Maybe with his help, we can even do it and come back alive. Maybe it's a better option than waiting in here for them to try and burn this place down."
Mandy had been quiet a long moment before she'd said, "But the kid swears he won't kill. Who knows how much use he'll be, when he's out there. Oh, I'll follow him, don't worry," she said, with a bitter laugh at the expression of Kessel's face. "What else can I do? Deserters are shot..."
A fury coiled in Ed's belly just thinking of the remembered words. He'd agreed to do this because this was what they wanted, wasn't it? Someone with a plan - a decision. What the hell more did they want from him?
For exactly that reason, he couldn't turn into a quivering, puking wreck now. The memory of those words kept his shaking legs supporting him, and kept him fighting, even amongst the mass of killers. Their lives were in his hands and they didn't even have faith in him. After they'd all but forced him into this in the first place! Of all the... He fucking hated, hated the military.
He could only be grateful that entirely practical reasons had made it impossible for Al to join the attack with them. After all the bitter arguments, his armour hadn't fit through the tunnels, and Ed couldn't widen them further without risking the integrity of their structure. That presented another problem for their escape route later, but he'd already come up with a solution to that... and later, he'd choose to share it with Al.
They were nearing the area of the Aerugean camp where the prisoners were held. The soldiers who'd been left on guard were looking increasingly nervous as the fight drew closer, no longer knowing where to point their guns. Unrest stirred too among the figures they guarded, in their chains or ropes and bloodied bandages.
A bullet grazed his cheek, making his heart do a horrible little leap inside his chest. Next to him, Mandy fired three times, and he tried to obliterate from his mind the image of the soldier who'd almost killed him collapsing in a red spray. It distracted him in a crucial moment. A new man in Lieutenant's tags had run into the midst of the prisoners' area, and was shouting at the guards. Before Ed's eyes, while others were still arguing, one of them turned and put a bullet in a chained man's head.
"No!" choked Ed, and he raised his voice and one pointing hand to direct his men. Damn it, 'his men'. "Get them! Get them now!" Where was Kessel? This was the time, this was... there wouldn't be another. If they didn't act now, all of this would have been for nothing. No, not for nothing. All they'd have done was to get all those people killed.
Then, as his group was charging, too slowly, far too distant and too slow to stop a slaughter, he saw Kessel's smaller forces ghost swiftly in from the scrubby cover of the trees and undergrowth. The soldiers who'd been shooting the prisoners saw them, becoming abruptly much more concerned about saving their own skin.
More human beings fell, casting bloody trails around them. Ed wanted to shut his eyes, curl into a ball, and block the whole world out, but instead ran to the prisoners and started breaking chains with his alchemy. This was one task at least he was sure of, and could achieve much more quickly than anyone else. Mandy was still beside him, slashing ropes to free the rest.
They had done it, he thought dizzily, relief almost consuming him. Now it was just a matter of making their retreat with the freed soldiers. Back through the trees here, to where Kessel's second tunnel came out. They had - he had done it...
No. He didn't want any part in this victory. They'd done it, and he was-
"Let's go!" he said, not shouting the order but letting it spread by gesture and implication through the blue uniforms. He reached down to help up the last man he'd released from chains. "Here."
There was a wet sound beside him, and something fell heavily, hitting the ground at his feet.
He looked down, and wanted desperately to be wrong about what his eyes told him lay there.
"No..." He clamped the back of his left hand over his mouth, trying to hide his expression, to force back the surge of nausea. Mandy Gunn, the hole in the back of her head uncompromising.
"Boy." The prisoner he'd been helping reached out and sharply turned his face aside. It was a presumption he would have been furious about any other time. "There's nothing to be done for her."
She'd saved his life, and he wanted to reach out, to at least pause, to touch her sleeve and pay some respect - more, to have the decency to make sure her body was taken care of, and not just left there. But... but they had enough living who couldn't walk by themselves, and he realised it was impossible.
"Elric!" Kessel yelled, desperation in the shout.
They needed to get out of here, and they needed his help to do it. Now, now, now. He couldn't hear much beyond the blood rushing inside his ears. He had to be in this.
Numbly, he clapped and knelt. The wall that sprung up around their position, with its razor sharp protruding spikes on the enemy's side, was larger than anything he'd meant to dare try on the poor quality dusty ground. Pain flashed through his body, sharp enough to bring him back to full alertness with the shock of what he'd just done, and almost done.
He'd just very nearly wrapped himself up in a fucking rebound! He coughed harshly and flinched at the sight of flecks of new blood on his hand.
"Boy?" Then the man he'd helped was helping him, though he didn't need it... no, not really. He pulled away and stumbled on his own, not about to be dragged. The wall had provided them all a breathing space, cutting the bulk of the Aerugean forces off from their position, but it wouldn't last long.
"We've got to get back to the tunnel," he said. Kessel was a few feet away; Ed didn't know when he'd got so close or how long he'd been there.
"We're going," the... Second Lieutenant said. His eyes were wide, face stained with blood that wasn't his. "What the hell just happened there?" He asked as they walked, eyes barely straying onto Ed for more than a moment, gun in motion, tracking threats, firing- one, two.
"A light rebound," Ed growled. "A little - and that's really little, or I wouldn't be talking to you - bit of material from me got caught up in the alchemy. Shouldn't have tried anything so big."
"Trying it saved our bacon," Kessel said curtly. "Where's Mandy?"
Ed's world greyed at the edges. He concentrated on breathing and putting one foot in front of the other and didn't answer. He grabbed at the thin trees for balance. How come he'd not noticed they'd walked so far? Had he just lost a bunch of minutes? The tunnel should be around here somewhere, he thought, as his senses reeled again.
Kessel's hand was on his shoulder, and the details in front of his eyes seemed to blur, changing from branches and sky and the forms around him, blue red-splashed uniforms and dirty grey cloth, becoming bare packed earth and stone wall, the alchemy-sculpted interior of his tunnel.
"Elric," Kessel's voice said, far off somewhere. "We need you to close the tunnel behind us. We'll just be fighting again in a moment if you don't. Then they'll follow us back. Elric! Edward!"
He grit his teeth and slammed Kessel's hands away with his automail. "Don't shake me like that! I'm not so small you can just pick me up and shake me around like a cat! Bastard!"
Kessel looked unaccountably relieved.
The tunnel. He cast everything else from his mind, and found it surprisingly easy to do. The world had gone very quiet and numb, a relief after all the shock and noise of the last... well, it couldn't have been much more than an hour, and possibly a lot less. "Get everyone moving and well clear," he said, weighing the calculations to close up as thick a section as possible behind them in one go. He'd have to do the same further down, at least a few more times, to make sure there was no way they could follow.
The people around him faded away to silence. He balanced the equation in his mind, clapped, and transmuted. The tunnel closed obediently, blocking out the faces of the surprised approaching Aerugeans, and the sting in his body was just a reflexive memory. This time, he'd got it right.
He stood up, taking a few tries. The hand of the last man he'd rescued, and hadn't realised had stayed with him, caught him under the arm and kept him standing.
"Are you all right, young man?"
Looking up, Ed finally remembered what it was they came for. It seemed to have retreated to some distant place, that goal, his plan, the original point. For the first time, he really took in the details of the former prisoner. Tall, lean, and white-haired, though his face wasn't that of such an old man. Ed could have believed him the officer they'd hoped to find, from the calm blue steel of his eyes, but it wasn't a uniform he wore. Rather, a shapeless grey robe.
"You're not a soldier," Ed said, fully aware that it sounded indignant and accusing.
"No," said the monk. "But you have my thanks, nonetheless."
In the end, they had saved a bunch of monks, more wounded soldiers than they knew what to do with, and a smattering of peasants from the isolated hamlets that had been overrun in the fighting. What they didn't have, still, was any answer to their problem. All of that, all that death, and they'd solved nothing...
Ed curled up with his head rested on Al's armour leg, pulled a blanket over his head, and shut the lot of them out, but didn't really sleep. There were too many people around; the chaos of dealing with the wounded and finding all those injured bodies a dry spot to lie; the dismay of the monks over what had become of their monastery; even the turn of the pages of the book Al was reading sounded too loud, though, a scrape that went right through his brain.
Whenever he did doze, he heard the wet sound as Mandy Gunn fell, and saw the mess of the back of her head. His imagination taunted him with a dozen things he could have done to prevent it. Damn it, she'd been standing right next to him. And since he'd got back, none of them had said a damn thing about it. Not to accuse him, not to mourn her. She'd been so... so completely there, and now it was like she might've never even existed. Did these guys even care? They were the ones who had been her friends!
He heard someone approach them, once, and heard Al say, without any definite inflection, "Go away."
Kessel's voice said a muted, "Sorry," and the footsteps moved off.
Finally, he couldn't stand it anymore and kicked the blanket aside. It was too damn loud, and all these noisy, annoying people! Plus, what if they somehow got the idea there was something going on with him other than the fact he was simply trying to get some stupid sleep?
"Edward..." Al said cautiously as he stood up.
"Stop it," he snapped, and left his brother blinking in confusion as he stomped off to find a bathroom. He also needed to piss.
There were a couple of kids charging around on the staircase, maybe ten or eleven years old. They must have come back with the freed prisoners, but Ed didn't remember them. They said to him, "Hey!" "Hey", as if inviting him to join them. As if he could. They probably thought, he realised darkly, that he was their age, since he was so sh... Ugh. Then he realised that the difference wasn't so very great between them after all, and swallowed his response. He walked past them without speaking.
Two familiar voices floated out of the room they'd been using as a base of command. One of them was Kessel's, and that turned his thoughts stony - stonier - because he didn't want to think about Kessel right now. The other was the monk, who'd turned out to be the head monk. For all the use that was: he didn't need a commander of monks, did he? He barely even registered their raised tones. He'd almost walked past the room and out of earshot before he caught words that made him freeze in place.
"-don't even know if the kid's really in shock or if he's just sulking because his plan didn't work!" There was the sound of furniture being solidly kicked.
"Those things need not be exclusive," the monk murmured, and added with a good deal less serene patience, "Please don't break anything else."
"You've no idea. I let that bratty kid go out there. He's a State Alchemist, they call them 'human weapons'. Hell, how do I know what he's already done? At least, that was what I thought until I saw him standing there with Mandy's blood all over his face..." Ed leaned against the wall, staring fixedly at the texture of the stonework on the opposite side of the corridor, giving himself something to concentrate on other than the image in his mind's eye.
"Yet you say the child is your superior officer," the man pointed out. "So then what else are you to do?"
"Don't advise me with questions, old man," Kessel said harshly. "It wasn't him who decided. It's not like he walked in here pulling rank. He didn't want anything to do with it. Shit. I thought the kid was an unfeeling little bastard. An alchemist, a major, calls himself a genius and he knows the fucking Fuhrer, would you believe it? All that power, and he wants to sit back and leave the fighting to others. But the kid's just a kid. Some scared damn kid that I forced out into the battle because I couldn't - couldn't step up." He capped the speech with something non-verbal and violent.
Ed kept staring wide-eyed at the wall.
This time, the monk neglected to censure Kessel for whatever damage he'd caused. "So you have come to a decision, Lieutenant," he said simply. Ed could just picture him sagely nodding as he did it, and that made him want to punch him on Kessel's behalf. Considering how much he didn't like Kessel right now, that made very little sense at all.
Neither did how Kessel's words lit a fury in him now even though they only articulated the sentiments he'd been arguing all along. So, Kessel was going to take charge of things here. So, good! He and Al could run! They should run. They should have run from the start.
If he'd won... he'd finally won... Why did it feel so lousy?
Because that fucking smug monk was there judging them both, that was why! he thought angrily. Because that guy thought they were both petty idiots, arguing over the details when the lives of others were at stake. He knew there was a reason he'd never liked the religious sort. He swung away, pushing off from the wall, heading for his original destination. He didn't want to hear any more. He and Al were going, they could go, and that was that. To hell with Kessel... bastard! To hell with the monk, all of the monks! The rest of them, too. No need to leave them out. The wounded, the children... There was no way they were his responsibility.
He saw Mandy die in front of his eyes again and wondered how many more of the soldiers would die, how many of their deaths he could prevent if he stayed. Then again, he wondered how many lives he have to take to do it.
He told his thoughts to shut up and purposely forced his mind to stay blank as he continued on his way. His current mission had only grown more urgent while he waited around listening to all that, anyway. He focused on nothing more significant than trotting faster up the stairs.
The blankness lasted until he walked back down and found the monk waiting for him outside the door. The bastard was right there, exact to the spot where Ed had been standing five minutes ago. "You shouldn't listen in on others. You'll might hear something you don't like."
Ed looked around, but Kessel was nowhere in sight. "What would you know?" he retorted as rudely as he could muster. He wished he hadn't heard, damn it... and he also had a horrible suspicion. "Besides, it was an accident. That's if you didn't even goad that son of a bitch Kessel, when you saw me walk past the door!"
The man smiled. "I'm told I have to thank you and your brother for the repairs to this place."
"What...?" As was almost certainly the intent, the change of subject caught him off guard. "Uh, yeah, we did repair some stuff and clean up, such as we could. All right, fine. Just don't talk to me about that guy-" meaning Kessel "-and we'll get along okay."
"It's just as well you did, with all the guests we now have secure within these walls." A grim contemplation reached his eyes, and there was nothing false about it. "Although, your rescue hasn't taken these people very far."
Ed bunched his hands into fists. "You're going to talk like that now? You heard Kessel, I'm just a kid. It's not my business what happens with soldiers and wars."
"And yet a great number of people now rely on the protection of these walls and their defenders, because of a decision made by you."
And none of them are officers, and most of them can barely fight - or can't fight, or won't at all. How's someone like Kessel going to help those people to get out of this?"Shut up! You're as bad as him, as all of them! I'm thirteen years old!"
"That, while sobering, doesn't alter other facts. You have power others lack, however unlikely, however young. You have the capacity, if not the desire. You claim the role of a man, but deny the responsibilities. And there is something more - if you abandon these people, it will not be easy for you to forget them. Will you admit that their lives are in your hands now, and spare yourself later?"
"My brother's life is in my hands!" Ed swung at the monk, but by a combination of his target's agility and a last minute doubt, smashed his automail fist into the wall instead. "I can't help these people! I don't know how, all I'll do is get them all killed. I don't know how to handle all these lives. Isn't it enough when you're thirteen and just trying to save one?"
His erstwhile target seemed remarkably unperturbed at the near miss. "Sometimes, the decisions made are not so important as someone making a decision at all, and one course is certain. If yourself and the Lieutenant continue at odds, continue only to try to defer action, it will all fall apart. The other options are relatively simple - stay here and fight; stay here and don't fight; surrender; or evacuate and run. In the right hands, any one of them could be the right thing to do. But which is the right course for you?"
"I can't fight," Ed said, bitterly remembering Mandy's words. "She was right. I won't kill for them. And if I won't kill for them, I've no business trying to fight beside them. I-it's just... no matter how much I might want to save them, I can't do that."
The monk only shrugged minimally, a gentle tip of a grey-clad shoulder. "Then the options become even simpler."
"Kessel?" Ed dubiously scowled as he pushed open the door. Then, he started sweating. The atmosphere in the room was thick enough to cut with a knife. "The guy with the dead weasel on his f- the guy with the mustache said you were with Al." He turned slowly to the other notable occupant of the room. The rest could have been mannequins, so far as he was concerned. Apparently so far as they were, too. "Uh, Al?"
"We're leaving, Ed," his brother said, the armour standing with a series of determined chinks and clanks. "I don't care about the books! Forget them. There'll be other books. I'm going to get you out of this place no matter what, and Mister Kessel agrees with me."
"Is... that... so...?" Ed said slowly, keeping having to remember to move his lips, as the muscles in his face seemed to have gone inflexibly stony. He turned slowly to Kessel. The big Lieutenant, still with only the flash of the corporal's insignia showing his competence as a soldier, folded his arms and squared his jaw with a cross look, as if this wasn't how he'd imagined the scene playing out.
"Of course. I decided, as the officer here, that there is no place for children on a battlefield," Kessel said, as if reading it from a script. "That's why I plan to evacuate you and your brother alongside the other non-combatants as soon as possible."
"You do?" Ed's eyes widened. "Uh, I mean, what will you do?"
Al's armour hand came down on Ed's shoulder, gently, but he felt the weight and presence of his brother at his back. He shoved the worried, kindly hand off, folded his own arms, and glared back at Kessel. "I won't allow that at all!"
The Lieutenant's stunned expression lasted about half a second before changing to acute annoyance. "Why, you... why can't you ever-"
Ed cut him off. "Is that any way to speak to your commanding officer, Lieutenant Kessel? Making your own plans and giving orders out like that, without consulting me? Are you forgetting that I'm the Major here?" ...He wasn't sure, wasn't sure that it had come outright. The tumble of words had lacked any of the intended mirth, swallowed up by the sheer tension he felt in this decision. He thought it had come off more like 'maniacal', and certainly that would explain the reactions around him. He'd decided, though, and he was going to do this, damn it.
"Ed..." Al wavered uncertainly, hand still extended, twitching in the air. "Brother, are you... unwell?" The last word clearly failed to live up to its true intent. He loathed the sudden memory of Kessel using words like that to Vine. Damn it!
"Al, I'm fine!" He'd meant this scene for Kessel, but couldn't leave his brother thinking things like that! "We're still going, but it'll be my plan that we follow. I'm going to make sure everyone gets out of here, right down to the last man. That's why it would be impossible for you to stay here, Lieutenant, when you're needed to escort so many civilians safely back to Amestris land."
"Elric," Kessel protested weakly. "This goes completely against... it's not what I was trying to do!"
"Edward Elric doesn't run away from a challenge. I've been wanting to get out of here since I came, so: I've decided that I'm going to take everyone out of here with me. There are too many civilians here now to protect, and a kid like me is far too young to be fighting in wars!"
"That's running away," Kessel pointed out in a murmur.
The guy was a dumbass. Obviously, of course, the matter of their strategic retreat was not what he meant. "Fine, whatever! But I'm the one doing it, so you guys will just have to lump it and do what you're told." He stretched his numb lips in a toothy leer. "I've a plan, and it's a great plan. By this time tomorrow, every man, woman and child..." Irony flared on that last word. "Everyone will be out of this place. I won't accept things any other way."
He'd anticipated more argument, but the big soldier's face was starting to look less combative and more just plain dazed. His mouth twitched in the makings of a half-crazed smile. Kessel clenched his fists reflexively, then unclenched them and stared at his palms. "It's a child's solution," he said. "You can't save everyone, even those whose duty is to stay and fight. That's - that's a duty to fight to protect the people of Amestris, Elric!"
"I'm taking you with me," Ed said fiercely, "to protect this whole bunch of the people of Amestris. Don't worry about those guys-" He stuck an arm out in a random direction, pointing in spirit at least at the Aerugean soldiers surrounding the monastery walls. "They'll be staying right where they are.
"...And if you don't want a child's solution," he added, feeling at touch of venom rise at the challenge, more by habit at the pressures of the last few days than by purposeful intent, "don't ask a child to come up with the solution."
Al kept shooting him funny looks throughout the preparations, while they were working with their alchemy to set up the traps and create the intricate designs of his plans. Al invariably had lots of small ideas to better his, and there were also any number of interruptions as people stopped them to ask Ed for his orders on some thing or another, and it slowed the work down infuriatingly. How did that shit colonel back at Eastern ever get a moment's peace? And, aagh!, if he was feeling sympathy for Mustang, then all of this pressure really was doing terrible things to his sanity.
He thought he'd found out why Al regarded him so strangely when his brother finally got chance to drag him away to a sink and he discovered he'd had blood spatters dried onto the white of his collar and the side of his neck and face. They were probably still Mandy Gunn's blood... He stood very still while Al took a cloth and tried to rub them off.
But then Al said, "I'm really proud of you, brother." He paused, and Ed couldn't think of anything to say because his brain could only produce the one word question of Why?Al added, "I'm proud, but I'm scared. They made you fight, and I couldn't even help. It might not be easy to get out of here, either, so there might be more fighting still."
"Al..." He swallowed, and managed a small smile, even if it felt like the mechanical act of placing muscles here and here. "I didn't kill anyone, Al, I told you. Don't worry. We'll have Kessel, there, and the others. He's a really good soldier. He's just not very good at... No, I guess he's just not a guy who looks at the bigger picture." He didn't even know how Kessel had planned to get all these people out. "Apparently that's what I'm here for. But, Al, we'll be safe again, I promise! I'll make it happen in no time at all!"
"At least this time I'll be able to help," Al said. "But wait... if we're using the tunnels to escape, I still can't fit through. What are we going to do?"
"Um." Ed winced as his brother's metal arms flailed, which made his huge form rather fill the little washroom. Al wasn't going to like this. Hell, he didn't like this. Al might not be used to it, but armour was armour, after all, and... unfortunately they didn't have any other option.
"...In pieces?" The armour's protesting and undignified wail echoed through the halls of the old monastery, prompting a barrage of concerned banging and shouts from the other side of the door a moment later.
"It seems you've taken my advice to heart," the head monk said. Ed wasn't sure why he sounded so dubious when he was only acting on what the old man wanted. All of these people, all of them, what was wrong with them? They asked him to lead them, then complained when he did it his way!
"If you wanted it done differently, you should've taken charge yourself," he retorted. He was annoyed enough to raise his suspicions as though they were fact. "There's no way you were just some regular farmer or blacksmith or something before you were a monk."
The man chuckled, so apparently the accusation had hit the mark. Ed blinked, astonished. "I've taken too many vows of peace in the years since my service to Amestris. It would be impossible for me to consider raising my hand to an enemy now."
"Or even advising on it?" Ed picked up sourly. Yeah, right. That guy had manipulated he and Kessel like puppets, and if he tried to deny it now, well, he'd... He did a fast double-take. That old bastard! "Actually - hey! ...Agh!" His outrage curled in on itself as an inarticulate growl. "No... no, never mind. I might need your help later, so..."
The old monk shook his head. "I've been a part of this place too many years to abandon it. This isn't my war anymore. You don't need a retired colonel to tell you what to do. I can at least cover for you and the others, and maintain the illusion the best that I can."
Ed scowled, and he narrowed his eyes, and looked hard at the floor, so the monk wouldn't see his face, letting his hair fall to shadow his expression. "So... what do you think of the plan, then, ex-colonel? Why don't you tell me now, since it looks like we'll be leaving you when we go?"
He looked unwilling, but nodded slowly, as if he didn't feel he could refuse. "I think it will work, if you are careful. If everything runs to plan. If luck is on your side. That's the way of any strategy."
"Huh. I thought you were going to tell me it was crazy, like Kessel's been doing." He glowered at the monk in suspicion. Was he lying?
The answering smile was wide and almost boyishly gleeful. "It is certainly that. Clockwork soldiers in the windows, traps on the doors, secret passages, automated gunfire... dummies and mechanics. The flight of fancy of a naive child-"
Ed opened his mouth.
"-But in this case, the child is an alchemical genius, who transmutes the impossible from the ingredients of every day. And the enemy will not be expecting it. No, they may continue to besiege your toy fort. Though they know of the tunnels now, and of your capabilities with alchemy, and that will mean you need to be especially careful."
"The Aerugeans don't have alchemists, though," Ed said, "and they can't watch the whole of the surrounding countryside. So I'm going to make a new tunnel, much longer than the last. It'll be difficult to do something so big, but they won't see us."
The older man nodded, but still looked concerned. Maybe he was regretting that he wouldn't be seeing the end of the story. "Take care of the young Lieutenant," he said, when Ed was almost out of the door. "I've already asked him to take care of you. The enemy are desperate, cut-off and poorly led, with little facility to take prisoners and keep them. I have no doubt you saved my life, Edward Elric, from more than just their desperation under attack - and many other lives besides."
Ed felt his face redden. He couldn't accept such a praise, no way! He'd led that raid thinking of nothing more than his own gain; finding a way out of his problems. He hadn't given a thought to the lives of the prisoners at all. Their freedom was only a... a by-product. He'd had such blinkered vision for the last few days... But - but, he told himself, he'd definitely live up to those words yet. When he got all of them out of there safe.
"Take care, old man," he said grimly, and shut the door.
He went as far as the nearest two of Kessel's men - his men - no, whatever. They saluted him, and he nodded stiffly and pointed back the way he'd come. "That old man in the room, there. I want you to make sure he's secured and ready to escape with us. I mean that even if you have to tie him up to do it."
"Sir!" two voices obediently sang.
...That reaction had sure changed, in the last few hours.
"Watch it, though," Ed warned, as they were walking away from him. "He was some badass colonel once, and he's probably going to put up a fight. Even if he'd say that he won't."
What did you think I meant when I said I was going to get everyone out of here, stupid old man?
The kid Fullmetal's carrying is almost as big as he is, was Roy Mustang's first thought on the odd convoy as they drew close enough for faces and features to resolve into view. Hawkeye, at his side, was making impatient noises, but his muscles had temporarily frozen, and therefore he was unable to pass back her field-glasses at this time. The scout they'd picked up was fidgeting, agitated. Apparently he'd been telling the truth.
"It's... Fullmetal," he managed to say. "Friendlies, Lieutenant."
...What the hell did Edward Elric think he was doing? Moreover, what would the Fuhrer, a mile behind them, think of this?
The small figure in black was at the head of the line, a child somewhat younger but not much smaller piggyback on his shoulders. Al was walking behind him, carrying a round woman in tattered civilian clothes. At his side walked a big soldier in what looked like a corporal's uniform with an insignia that someone had tried, badly, to doctor. The rest of the convoy variously seemed a ragtag of battered soldiers, civilians, robed monks, and a number of what looked like improvised hand-drawn carts. The carts carried bodies. Mustang felt the paralysis spread to his facial muscles until he saw one of the bodies move and realised they were transporting a great many injured.
"We... picked up quite a lot of people on the way," the soldier, Duggan, said at his side. "Major Elric was..."
"He's not a Major!" Roy snapped. "He's thirteen years old!" His knuckles whitened on the field-glasses. With an effort, he regained control of his temper and breathing. "Prepare the medics to receive at least two dozen wounded," he said flatly to Hawkeye, and heard her pass on the order to send back a runner to the main force.
Why is Fullmetal on the road back from the Aerugean border war?
He stared through the field-glasses at the battered, bloody and exhausted state of the company and wondered if he really, really wanted to know.
Edward was no less battered than the rest of them, but he looked up, then, and must have noticed the position of the three of them on the approaching hilltop, because his distant face was half overtaken by a fierce, white grin that had a lot in it that didn't belong on the face of a child, but was primarily belligerantly victorious. Roy saw the sun reflect off his teeth and shuddered slightly.
The grin also presumably meant that the boy had only, yet, seen enough detail to recognise the clean blue Amestris military uniforms, and not Roy himself, because he knew well that anything like a grin would be the last expression with which Edward would ever greet him.
Hawkward reached up and snatched back her field glasses, and raised them to her eyes with a briskness that couldn't disguise her concern.
"...Edward was in the South? At a time like this?" Her indrawn gasp was uncomfortable to hear.
"It appears," Mustang mused, trying to fight a heavy feeling in his chest while his empty hand twitched (...dammit, Lieutenant!), "that he can take care of himself." As well as, by the look of things, any stray soldiers and bystanders. "That kid..." His entire body made an involuntary twitch.
"...I don't need to say that wasn't what I was talking about, do I?" Hawkeye said, frowning at him. She sighed and handed the field-glasses back.
Nearing them up the challenging slope of the hillside, Edward's expression had turned volatile. Roy could almost see it with the naked eye. Ah, so Fullmetal had realised just who it was he was walking toward for sure. Seeing that expression, though, a more reassuring amusement warmed his body through. It looked like Edward Elric was much the same as ever. He clasped a hand cheerfully on the Lieutenant's shoulder.
"He's all right, Hawkeye. He's just fine. Let's go down there and meet him! After all, someone should go and take the burden off that pipsqueak's back before he's squashed flat-"
"Sir," Hawkeye said disapprovingly.
Roy was already stepping out onto the track down the hill, smiling and raising his hand in an unmilitary wave, largely because he knew it would piss Fullmetal off. He could allow himself to be a coward in this. After all, a pissed off Fullmetal was extremely familiar territory, and one he knew they could both deal with.
"Hearing the explanation for this one," he called back to Hawkeye confidently, "is going to be interesting."