Title: Roughing It (1/7: A Little Blackmail Between Friends)
Author: Jordanna Morgan
Archive Rights: Please request the author's consent.
Rating/Warnings: Mild PG for some fantasy violence.
Characters: Primarily Edward, Alphonse, Mustang, and the Hughes family, as well as some villainous OCs. Havoc gets a cameo, too.
Setting: First anime, but it's mostly cross-compatible. Takes place when Ed is fourteen, Al is thirteen, and Elicia Hughes is two.
Summary: In an effort to learn more about the Elric brothers and Mustang's connection to them, Hughes maneuvers the three into a camping trip with his family - but the fun and games end when they find themselves caught in the fallout of a deadly museum heist.
Disclaimer: If you know them, they belong to Hiromu Arakawa. Only the villains of the piece are mine.
Notes: This story was one of the earliest long-form FMA plot bunnies to occupy my hutch. There really isn't much to say about it by way of author's notes; it's just a straightforward, stand-alone adventure. I did have an unusual amount of fun designing the bad guys, though. *g*
Once again, my thanks go to the wonderful Kristen Sharpe, for her valuable feedback during the writing process.
I: A Little Blackmail Between Friends
The scene at the Central Museum of History was not pretty.
Two steps inside the front entrance, a security guard lay on the tiled floor of the foyer, in the middle of a mess of blood and stray shards from the shattered glass doors. A second guard's body was crumpled ten feet away, and two more had fallen in the rooms beyond. Sheer violence was the only common feature of their deaths.
Standing on the pavement outside the smashed doors, Maes Hughes ran his hand through his hair and tried not to pace, wary of disturbing the crime scene. The coroner was late, and Investigations had already done as much as they could while the bodies were still present.
It didn't help that Maes knew one of the dead night watchmen in passing. Weiss, retired military, a fellow Ishbal veteran. Back then, the affable man with a love of history had longed to be exploring the Ishbalans' art and culture instead of killing them. Little wonder he had died protecting relics that were the heritage of other societies. Maes hoped the job had given him some measure of peace... before it cost him his life.
With a jaded eye, the Major glanced toward the newspapermen milling around in the distance, on the other side of the cordon his men had set up. Sooner or later, he would have to give them a statement. This day was only going to get more wonderful.
Robberies, even those involving murder, were usually the domain of the police. However, the museum was partly funded by the government; and even if it wasn't, Maes knew the scale and savagery of this case would have led the military's Investigations Department to be called in. The slaughter of four guards during a theft of national treasures was going to make it the most sensational crime since the killing spree of Barry the Chopper.
And there was one other aspect of the scene that gave the military a vested interest.
A flash of bright scarlet in the crowd caught Maes' eye, and he turned to see a slight, blond-haired teenager in a red coat ducking under the barrier. Behind the young State Alchemist, one of the Major's bemused underlings hurried to usher an armor-clad giant and a familiar lieutenant into the restricted area, before the reporters could latch onto them.
Maes' eyebrows arched in surprise. He had known Jean Havoc was in Central, because his friend Roy Mustang was visiting from East City on official business, and had brought the Lieutenant along. However, it was news to him that perennial travelers Edward and Alphonse Elric were currently in the city as well.
"Hey-dee-ho, Major," Havoc drawled amiably around his cigarette. "You wanted an alchemist - so the Colonel sent you the Unstoppable Force and the Immovable Object."
At those words, Maes was amused to notice a distinct break in Ed's stride. The boy narrowed his eyes and shot a dirty look over his shoulder, but said nothing as he approached the spot where Maes stood, several feet away from the front entrance and the first body.
With a father's instinct, Maes moved to block the view of the bloody scene through the doorway behind him. He smiled solemnly but warmly, and resisted the impulse to offer his hand. It was his established observation that Ed wasn't big on shaking hands. Maybe it had something to do with having an entire right arm made of nerveless metal.
"Ed." His glance shifted, taking Alphonse's expressionless steel mask into his nod of greeting. "Al. I didn't know you boys were back in town. It's good to see you again. I just wish it was... well, under better circumstances."
"Good morning, Major," Al said politely, his improbably small young voice echoing inside the steel shell Maes had never seen him outside of. "We just got into Central late last night."
"And then Colonel Joker rolls us out of bed four hours later for this," Ed grumbled, giving a clear indication of why he looked and sounded irritable. With a demeanor that was entirely too businesslike for a fourteen-year-old, he moved to step around Maes. "Havoc briefed us on what happened here. So what do you need an alchemist for?"
Maes hurriedly maneuvered in front of him. "Wait Ed, I'm not sure you want... I mean, the coroner hasn't gotten here yet. And it's - "
Edward silenced Maes with a long, canny, golden-eyed look. Then he very calmly and deliberately leaned over, peered around Maes' shoulder, and sidestepped him to survey the carnage.
"We've seen worse," he muttered grimly.
And from the way he said it, Maes didn't doubt him one little bit.
"How awful," Al murmured, coming up behind Ed in a clatter of steel. His voice was soft with horrified sympathy, yet perfectly steady, proving him to be equally unshaken by the gruesome sight.
"...Yeah." Maes cleared his throat, reminding himself once again that the Elrics were both extraordinary prodigies, and the only practical way to handle them on the job was to treat them like adults. "There are four, all told. Each one taken out with a different weapon, so it's pretty clear this was done by more than one person. The man near the door was knifed. The one over there... well, his skull is in a few more pieces than it's supposed to be. Probably some kind of club or crowbar. The last two were shot, and we won't know for sure until we get the coroner's report, but the wounds look like different calibers of bullet."
"What was here that anyone could have thought was worth four people's lives?" Al asked sadly.
Maes shrugged. "The curator's still taking an inventory, but they didn't actually steal much - maybe because most of the stuff in the exhibits would be too easily recognized. We do know they got away with some jewelry and antiquities. Mostly just gold and silver they can melt down, or gemstones they can pry out of the settings and sell to a fence... except they did clear out one case of ancient artifacts. Arrowheads, pottery, that kind of thing. Pretty common stuff. Not worth much at all, black market or otherwise."
Al's helmet tilted quizzically. "That's strange..."
"Too strange to be random," Ed remarked, his eyes hardening. "Why bother with old pieces of stone and clay if they weren't worth anything? The artifacts had to be the real target for some reason, while they just took the gold for cover, or because they had the chance."
"Smart kid." Maes smiled grimly. "Of course you're right. If these were just smash-and-grab robbers looking for gold, they wouldn't have gone for those artifacts - and even if they did their homework, they'd know there was almost no monetary value to them. But they'd also know the items in that one case were dug up along our northern border, in territory the Drachmans have been disputing pretty much forever. Apparently they've put up a squawk before about archaeological finds from there being part of their cultural heritage, or something."
"Then you think the robbers were Drachman?" Al asked.
"Eh." The Major scratched his stubbled chin fretfully. "More likely mercenaries who just figured they could sell the stuff to the Drachmans - or worse, thugs someone from Drachma hired to do it. We'd all better be seriously hoping it's not the latter. The border's touchy enough without a provocation like that."
"So are you gonna get around to telling us what any of this has to do with alchemy?" Ed interjected.
"Right. Sorry." Maes gestured. "Over here."
Trying not to look at the dead men in the foyer, Maes led the brothers closer to the smashed glass doors. Until several hours earlier, there had also been outer security doors of solid steel that were closed each night - but these no longer existed in their original form. All that remained of them were broken fragments of a brittle grayish substance. A few recognizable pieces still hung on the hinges, but most of the material that was once metal had crumbled into a decayed-looking heap on the ground.
"You get the idea," Maes prompted, nodding down at the remains of the security doors. "Whatever this stuff is, it used to be bulletproof. Now it'll break apart almost at the slightest touch - and here's the kicker."
He pointed to a piece of the material that lay near the top of the pile. A portion of what was clearly a transmutation circle was still visible on its surface.
Ed bent down to inspect the array. It took only a single glance to make him catch his breath, and he looked up keenly at Al. "You see that?"
"Genius," Ed muttered, but his tone sounded distinctly sarcastic.
"What is it?" Maes looked uncomprehendingly at the chalk marks. "You want to let the non-alchemist normal person in on the secret here?"
"Just this, Major. Your thieves may have been good at killing - but their would-be alchemist is a total amateur." Ed pointed at the partial circle. "This array is for solid iron, but the doors were a steel alloy. The metal contained other elements their equations didn't compensate for."
Maes frowned, trying to follow the logic. "So... you're saying the transmutation sucked all the iron out of the steel, but the other substances in it were left behind?"
"Well, basically. The reaction with the other elements was a little more complex than that, but you can see the result. The integrity of the metal was completely compromised, and it shattered." Ed scowled with professional disgust. "A real alchemy student would learn not to make such a stupid mistake in their first week of study. Whoever did this was just dabbling in something they don't really understand."
"It still got them inside," Maes observed pessimistically. Then, after a moment's further consideration, he shrugged. "At least this means they probably won't have the skills to use alchemy in a fight when we track them down. That's good to know."
"Just be careful, Major. They may not want to risk it - but if they do try to use it, an unskilled alchemist can be even more dangerous than one who really knows what they're doing."
"I'll remember that, alright. And I'll make sure the warning gets passed along."
Al spoke up. "If they plan to take those artifacts to the Drachmans, do you think they'll be going north toward the border?"
"It's possible. They might figure on escaping into Drachma themselves. Even if they don't, some kind of middleman would still have to smuggle the artifacts out, and that person may be able to identify the killers." Maes scowled. "We'll have to tighten security along the border - without giving the Drachmans any excuse to get in a huff over it. Am I ever glad I'm not in the diplomatic field."
"I hope you catch the people who did this," Ed offered sincerely, looking toward the bodies in the foyer. Then he raised clear, attentive eyes to the Major. "Is there anything else we can help with?"
"Just one thing. It looks like they also used alchemy to crack open the cases they stole from, so if you wouldn't mind checking that out..."
In short order, the Elrics followed Maes inside the museum, where he showed them the exhibit cases that had been pilfered. The thick, shatter-resistant glass across the front of each was warped and split open, and more traces of alchemic circles could be seen. After a brief examination, Ed declared this to be an even simpler transmutation that the thieves had gotten at least closer to correct. He further offered his opinion that the arrays on the glass and the front doors were drawn by the same hand.
After that, Maes spoke to the curator again, to obtain photographs and detailed descriptions of the artifacts he suspected would be smuggled northward. These would be sent to the authorities near the border, to aid in searches at checkpoints.
On his way out, he found the Elric brothers had lingered in one of the main exhibit rooms. Al was studying a set of primitive tools with apparent interest. Ed stared more blankly at a case displaying broken scraps of colorfully-painted pottery; but as Maes drew closer, he realized it was not the clay shards Ed was looking at. The boy's gaze had settled instead on the reflection in the glass, mirroring a fallen guard who lay slumped in the doorway across the room. It was Weiss.
"Dying for old pieces of stone," Ed murmured pensively, without looking up at Hughes. "It's so pointless."
Maes frowned. "You don't think history is important?"
"Of course it is. We have to learn from the mistakes of the past." Ed glanced down at his gloved automail hand then, tightening it into a fist, with some inner significance Maes sensed but couldn't begin to fathom. Then he dropped his hand and shrugged. "But these broken pots and wood carvings are just... things. Once they've been studied and documented, they're useless just sitting locked up behind glass - and they're not worth anyone's life."
"I knew a guy who might have disagreed with that," Maes said quietly, looking toward the body of his old comrade-in-arms. "He'd say reading about the past in books is no substitute for seeing and touching pieces of it yourself... and preserving that experience for future generations is important. Maybe even important enough to die for."
Ed's shoulders stiffened with what may have been discomfort, but he still looked less than convinced.
This was not the first example Maes had seen of the Elric brothers' disregard for tangible things. He couldn't say what belongings they might have squirreled away in the rarely-used dorm room they kept at Central Headquarters, or back home in Resembool, but they had always seemed to be interested only in what was of direct and immediate use to them. Even the mysterious 'Philosopher's Stone', which Maes understood was the motivating goal for all Ed's work, was presumably more of an alchemic resource to be used than an imperishable object to possess.
It wasn't natural for such young boys to be so driven. Of course, with their apparently innate brilliance, Maes doubted either of them had ever been quite normal to begin with... but still, there was something depressing about the intensity of the cryptic search that consumed their lives.
He was sure their ultimate purpose was related to the loss of Ed's arm and leg, and perhaps the reason Al eternally wore that fantastic guise of armor. However, their real story remained a mystery to him. In his genuine fondness for the pair, he did all he could to show them kindness, and he was rewarded with at least some trust when it came to their dangers and needs of the present - but they had never chosen to confide in him about the evident darkness in their past.
Roy undoubtedly knew the truths that were unwritten in the brothers' records. Edward Elric was his own celebrated find, the young prodigy he had somehow stumbled upon and personally sponsored to become a State Alchemist. He wouldn't have taken such a gamble unless he knew exactly what baggage Ed brought with him, and further believed he could handle it. For the sake of the boys as well as his friend, Maes wished he could do more to help; but in due respect for the Elrics' privacy, this was one matter Roy declined to share even with him. Maes could only continue to be a friend to Ed and Al, and hope their trust would grow in time.
As a natural-born investigator, he could try to learn by observation, as well - but this was frustrated by his limited opportunities to spend time with any of them. Since Roy was transferred to East City, his visits to Central for official matters were far too rare, and the hard-traveling young brothers were just as likely to report to Roy out east as they were to come back to Central. It was hard enough to catch up with the Elrics or Roy separately, let alone get a chance to watch the boys and their unlikely patron interact...
But all three of them just happened to be in Central now.
The beginnings of a rather wicked idea began to creep into Maes' mind, tugging up the corners of his lips. He turned to Ed, who had taken the folder of artifact photos out of his hand, and was indifferently flipping through them.
"Say, Ed. As long as you boys are in the city, how about having dinner with my family tonight?" He clapped a friendly hand on Ed's shoulder. "It's been a while since we last saw you - and Elicia's growing so fast! You don't want to miss a minute of her, do you?"
Ed squirmed. "Uh..."
"And besides, I know how much you love Gracia's cooking!"
Maes knew that line would work - and it did. Ed's eyebrows quirked up at the reminder of past resplendent meals at the Hughes household. He grinned and rubbed his neck, a faint, awkward blush pinkening his cheeks, and for a moment Maes saw the perfectly ordinary boy some part of him still was.
"Well, if you're sure it wouldn't be too much trouble - "
"Of course not! My girls will be thrilled! I'll call to let Gracia know you're coming. Just show up anytime. If I haven't gotten off by then, I know Elicia will be a wonderful hostess until I get home!"
The blush darkened with apparent vexation. "Right..."
Within a few minutes after that, the Elrics left the museum. Maes took another walk through the rooms that constituted the crime scene, making sure his investigators had matters well in hand - and then he shut himself up in an unoccupied back office. He sat down on a corner of the desk and picked up the telephone.
"Hi, Honey! How's Elicia?... Aww! Take a picture for me!... Yeah, it's pretty rough here, but you know. That's the job... Anyway, I just wanted to let you know the Elric boys are coming over for dinner. And Roy, too... No, I haven't talked to him today, but he'll be there." Maes grinned. "Make something especially nice, will you, Sweets?... That's wonderful. Oh - and one other thing. About those weekend plans of ours. I hope you won't mind if we make one little change..."
He detailed his scheme to his wife, and was not at all surprised when the generous and rather amused Gracia gave her consent. After a few more loving endearments, the conversation ended; then Maes dialed an extension at Central Headquarters. He waited as his call was passed along to a few different desks, until at last the voice he wanted to hear mumbled a brusque hello.
"Hey, Roy!" Maes shrilled, intentionally using his too-cheerful-in-the-morning voice of doom. "I was just thinking... Remember that time at the Academy when you accidentally blew up General Grissom's staff car, and nobody ever figured out it was your fault?"
Okay, so it was only the fifth time he had used that one. As Maes listened to the colorful expletives that poured across the line in response, he silently promised he would give Roy a break, and never bring up that particular occasion again.
After all, he had plenty more dirt to dig up where that came from.
"...We're gonna do what?"
The Elric brothers' visit to the Hughes home had started out as such a pleasant afternoon: a few games with little Elicia in the backyard, a brief nap for Ed after the early-morning call to duty, and finally a delicious dinner. While Ed was asleep, Colonel Mustang unexpectedly showed up for the free meal as well, and that put the teenager out a bit - but surprisingly not too much so. After all, Mustang didn't get back to Central too often these days, and his unlikely friend Hughes probably welcomed the chance to see him. He looked rather moody through the meal, but he was painstakingly civil, even to Ed. The presence of Hughes' wife and child apparently placed him on his best manners.
And then, in the living room after dinner, Mustang dropped the bombshell.
"You heard me, Ed," the Colonel reiterated flatly. "Major Hughes has invited us to go camping with his family for the weekend, and we're going to take him up on his offer."
"Says who? I don't want to go camping. I've got better things to do than stomp around in the woods for three days - especially with you!"
"Aww, Brother," Al half-sighed from the floor beside the couch where Ed sat. "It might be fun!"
Ed narrowed his eyes and glared sideways at Al, who at the time was preoccupied in playing with Elicia. She was using the spikes on his armor as her targets in a game of ring-toss, leaving him with several brightly-painted wooden rings dangling from his shoulders and helmet. Of course, this unbearably adorable tableau had caused Hughes to be completely lost to the conversation, enraptured by his toddler's precious antics.
It was easy for Al to say camping could be fun. A living suit of armor was immune to the discomforts of long hikes, hard ground for a bed, and stomachaches from food poorly cooked over a campfire. Ed's human flesh was not - and he would have reminded Al of that fact, were they not in the company of people who had no knowledge of his brother's nature. And besides that...
"We already do more than enough camping, or close to it, while we're out on the road," Ed argued. "We're just back from a rough trip. At least we've got real beds waiting for us at the officers' quarters here in Central, and this weekend I'm planning to use mine for once."
Mustang shrugged. "Sorry, Ed, but you don't have a choice. I'm making this an order." In spite of his previously stony expression, a faint smirk crossed his lips. "I'm officially putting it down as a refresher course in survival training."
The younger State Alchemist gaped and swallowed hard, making his best effort not to start spluttering indignantly.
"Survival training is not going out in the woods with somebody's family for a kindergarten sing-along camp," he fumed, jerking his chin toward Elicia and Gracia. "Survival training is being stranded on a deserted island for a month with one knife and no alchemy when you're nine years old!"
Gracia's eyes widened. "Did that really happen to you?"
"It's a long story." Ed unconsciously gripped his steel bicep through his sleeve. "If I still had my real arm, I'd show you the scar."
Metal scraped softly as Al winced. Hughes, Gracia, and even Mustang looked rather startled and pained, and Ed realized he had gone too far. It only sounded childishly petulant and pity-seeking to hide behind past travails, and pity was the last thing he wanted.
He let his left hand relax and slip downward, sullenly folding his arms.
"Fine," he muttered stiffly, giving Mustang a venomous scowl. "Orders are orders... but I don't like having my time wasted."
Hughes squirmed a little. It was no fault of his if he had just offered a friendly invitation, only to have Mustang force the issue - but he looked oddly guilty, all the same. A faint gulp twitched in his throat, and he murmured, "It won't be so bad, Ed. I promise."
Considering those were exactly the words Winry and Pinako used on him before automail procedures, Ed was anything but reassured.
© 2012 Jordanna Morgan