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Risk & Reward

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3 February 1915, Nguyet Valley, Aerugo

Radio communications were down.

Heat in the Aerugonian forests had a slick, silken weight to it -- you’re sick with sweat, the first few days, but then you stop sulking and wear it. Like a swimsuit under your fatigues.

The 1st Ranger Battalion was taking heavy mortar fire from a division of enemy soldiers concentrated at the Nguyet combat base, 55 miles south of Fotset. The military geniuses of Southern Amestris had picked a rendezvous point in the middle of a fucking bullet parade.

Ed crashed into the shallows between the herringbone roots of a wild swamp cypress, pursued by the thundering phup! phhup! phhup! of thirty-pound shells hitting the water’s surface, three rounds per minute -- kill zone around each shot: fifty meters. Aerugo's guerilla fighters weren't as advanced technologically as Amestris, but they'd proven perfectly adept at hi-jacking Amestrian supply routes along the Green Corridor and pummeling them with their own weaponry.

Major Elric ripped off his helmet, forced his palms together and raised a white phosphorous mist to the forest’s knees, hoping to Truth and holy Science it would be enough cover to make the crossing. Whatever remained of his squadron was just going to have to converge at the rendezvous with Major General Muntjac and the rest of the 37th Ranger Battalion. Ed never had any interest in leading or being a leader, but after 49 days on the frontlines, sometimes people just chose to follow him.

Phup! Phh-thup! Another slew of exploding rounds from a howitzer-gun, too close for comfort. He listened for the third shot, and erected an earth wall that blasted apart and probably saved his life only moments later. The alchemy broadcast his position loud and clear, though, and within seconds Ed was the approximate center of heavy gunfire from the surrounding wood. Kuh-ting! Ping! Tzzink! If he made it out of this alive, he was sending Winry a scented love letter and the deed to exactly half his dumb ass.

Ed hit the dirt on the Nguyet side of the estuary, belly-down in a puddle of foul-smelling jungle suet. An eerie breath touched the back of his neck; black snow was falling.

Operation “Clear Moon,” part one: secure the Green Corridor from Fotset to Nguyet.

Division commander's orders, straight from the top. He couldn't believe they even made it this far south of the Demilitarized Zone. Alphonse and the rest of Civil Ops were back at the forward base of operations in Mezzo -- probably flipping through dirty magazines and fanning themselves in the air conditioning. Of course Ed would get stuck manning the murder trenches under Colonel Bastard.

A pile of bricks landed on top of him, and all the air rushed out his chest. Ed wheezed like a broken accordion. "The fuck!"

The weight shifted -- not bricks, it was a body.

“Oof...” Okay, at least it wasn’t a dead body. But, he knew that voice. “If you lost another helmet, it’s coming out of your stipend.”

He was officially and literally in a trench under Roy Mustang. Ed tried to remember what exactly he’d done to earn the galactic finger, but he didn’t have to think back very far. Aside from his disastrous past, Major Elric regularly threatened to throttle his superior officer and leave his body in a ditch on the privy-side of the barracks. Even Ed had to admit he was asking for it, sometimes. Any threat issued was as good as a threat realized; equivalent exchange hurt on the back-swing, too.

“Happy birthday, by the way.”

“That better be a filthy endemic snake crawling up my leg, Mustang. Because I’m about to snap it in half.”

“Relax, Fullmetal." The Colonel tsked, but shifted to separate them. "It’s the kind of snake that doesn’t eat meat.” Heat and mud made rubber cement.

Ed threw an unfellowing automail elbow into the weight on his back. “There’s no such thing, you old perv.”

At last he rolled off, a hundred and seventy pounds of damp jungle fatigues and dented Kevlar pylons, all standard issue, helmet and visor streaked in charcoal tears. And somewhere beneath it all, the Flame Alchemist. “You’d be surprised, the kinds of rare species you find out here.”

“Please,” Ed hissed after him. “Educate me on Aerugonian biodiversity when you aren’t torching it.”

“Fine. It’s a date.”

“Huh? What do you -- Mustang! Where are you going?”

“West,” he called. “Two-hundred fifty meters to target. Never hold a static defense!”

Well, obviously. Ed knew that. He scrambled up the dirt slide, and bullets peppered the ass-print he left in the mud. A little voice in the back of his head reminded him they were already on death’s doorstep, and about to charge into its tea-room -- but fuck if Mustang was going to come out of this one the only big damn hero. Ed dropped to his knees and elbows in the undergrowth and crawled after his CO arm-over-arm.

“You smell like a barbecue.”

“Communications are down -- ” Phthup! A howitzer struck nearby. They flattened wordlessly to the ground. In a heartbeat Mustang was up again, crawling forward, breathing hard. “Muntjac’s an hour behind schedule. We move in now, or this operation’s over.”

Part two: retake Nguyet Valley.

Ed caught a vicious snag of thorny kudzu in his right hand and hauled it aside for both of them. “Whoa, hold up!”

He didn’t. “Colonel! Hel-lo? Are you on Tolson’s fucking tincture? That artillery at the front gate will blow us back to base elements!”

“That’s for Hawkeye’s squad to take care of.”

“What if she isn’t in position?”

“Not an option.”

The face of the combat base reared ahead, walled-in concrete veined in green like a temple of doom. When it blocked one-third of the sky, they stopped in stooped crouches under the dripping canopy, a couple of sweaty gargoyles. Guerilla warfare was like throwing dice -- you could study the game and learn how to play, but in the end, the game played you.

Phhh-hup! Impact raised a curtain of dirt over a fresh crater in the earth. The howitzer needed two minutes of sustained rest after its last round. If they ever had a window, it was now.

“Break up this humidity, Fullmetal. I need something to work with.” Mustang tugged the wrists on his gloves, black with white arrays. “Ten per cent should do.”

Ten -- ? Major Elric grit his teeth. “That much diatomic hydrogen gas in the atmosphere would catch fire under direct sunlight, you idiot. I’ll give you four per cent.”

“Seven. That’s an order.”

Four. That’s my resignation in the mess on your desk.”

“Five. Please, Ed.”

“You’re never this nice to me on base,” he growled, but started to push up his sleeves. Modifying the atmosphere took some concentration. “If I do this, just promise to get the morons in the 37th to stop calling us flint and steel.”

“Done.” The Colonel clasped his murdering hand briefly over the back of Ed's neck, then took off through the brush, his last order ringing from the fog: “Don’t die!"

All it took was a spark.

Ed shook his head after his CO. He never considered himself much of a soldier -- the “chain of command” meant a load of sausage links to the Fullmetal Alchemist -- but when you watch a man near single-handedly prompt a retreat of ten-thousand, retake an old temple base in a tempest of living flame, and the fucking sky turns black… You gotta kind of admire him for it, a bit.

As usual, Ed was torn between following Roy Mustang and flinging holy water at him.

In the end he got to his feet and rushed the enemy camp, potential still crackling between his fingers, determined to do both.

Operation “Clear Moon,” part three: destroy enemy forces within the area of operation.

The thunder of enemy artillery eventually died out. Ash fell in quiet clumps over the Aerugonian jungle.

Reporters back in Central would seize on the opportunity to sensationalize a new tale of slaughter. Together with his reputation from the civil war, the Flame Alchemist’s recent activity in the southern border conflicts made him an incendiary -- and profitable -- topic. If they wanted to call it slaughter, Ed didn’t think that was wrong. The Colonel was exactly what the Amestrian military always wanted, and pacifists feared the most: a precision weapon of mass destruction.

19 December 1914, Fotset, South Amestris

“Welcome to Fotset, Major! Huh?” Lieutenant General Tolson seemed like a day-to-day human at first glance, but then, there was Tolson’s moustache. It was barely 0800, Ed had arrived in South Amestris less than six hours ago. He was not prepared to deal with the division commander’s moustache. It had the requisite size and sentience to conduct its own foreign policy. “You made it to the mess hall. That means someone beat me to the tour. Was it Luft? I’ve got to give her something else to do. Funny thing about Brigadier-General Luft -- you give her something to do, and she does it!”

“But in all seriousness, Major -- ”

Shoot me now, Ed thought.

“We know how the lads in Central like to operate, sitting in armchairs, sipping brandy and strategizing over radio shows every evening -- okay? I’ve got a live broadcast, here, it’s called -- we’re at WAR!”

Ed wiggled a finger in his ear. “Yes, sir.”

“That’s not how things work on the frontlines! Bodies are dropping! Bodies are dropping on both sides, and that’s bad news for everybody! Walk with me, Major -- ”

He was steered out of line. Ed pumped his fists. No coffee today, then. That was fine. Al had gently advised him to get along with the commander of Amestris’s Southern forces, and would he kindly not tell him to blow anything out his ass? Whatever. That was fine. It was thanks to Tolson’s signature that his little brother was allowed to live on base, after all. And on top of that, they offered Al a temporary position with Civil Operations and Development under Brigadier-General Luft, who seemed alright. Luft seemed alright. Ed suspected the rumors he heard in Central were true: Southern Command needed people, desperately. They only recently recovered the town of Fotset with the help of a platoon of soldiers borrowed from the Ishvalan warfront, proof how desperate the Führer had become --

The flickering one-tenth of Ed’s brain that was interested in the idiosyncrasies of what he considered wide-scale idiocy was amazed that a small economic principality like Aerugo could even put up a fight against the technologically superior Amestrian military. Back in Central, everyone had heard stories of the recapture of Fotset, and seen photos of the carnage; Ed remembered the bloodbath in the trenches, Aerugonian forces annihilated in a deadly counterinsurgency effort code-named “Organic Fire” -- promptly leaked to the public via radio channels. He remembered the numbers. Burned them into his brain, in fact. A small state could never survive such losses.

“I read your file, Major. Very impressive!” Tolson’s moustache twitches and takes flight over a grin of patchwork golden teeth. He slapped Ed over his automail shoulder, withdrew quickly, and shook out the hand, still grinning. “You sure know how to piss off a commanding officer! I would’ve made copies of Brigadier-General Klemin’s performance review to keep on file, but I’m a religious man! Fwuh! You should’ve seen it before we burned the thing -- I haven’t seen spite like that since the war began! Very impressive. You’re a cursed man, Fullmetal!”

“Thank you, sir.”

“You’re going to fit in, here. Southern Command doesn’t have time for the paper bureaucracy -- bodies are dropping! We don’t have the luxury of hate or ineptitude! There are those who would judge you for your looks, or your age, but I’m not the kind of man to ignore the facts! We need your skills, Major! I’m assigning you to forward assault, 1st Ranger Battalion. From this moment forward, you’ll report to Mustang. But do us all a favor and listen to Hawkeye.”

Ed clasped his hands behind his neck. “Am I going to get a fake name, too?”

“Huh? Ah! Speak of the devil,” Tolson growled. “The morning patrol is back from recon. Colonel!”

A listless stream of soldiers was indeed trickling down the hall, followed by a wave of damp heat from the outdoors. They all wore full combat gear, the kind of jungle fatigues that’re almost black. Everyone looked pretty much identical -- and clinging to them, Ed noticed a gray cloud, sinking the soldiers from boots to brass in a faint mist. What was it? He wondered. Dirt? Dust? A demonic entity?

“Sir.” A disembodied voice. One soldier separated from the mass, followed by the shadow of a second, slighter, strapped with the threat of a long sniper rifle. Both stood at attention while the rest of the troops continued to disperse, some into the mess, and others, Ed guessed, back to the barracks.

“Your helmet, Colonel -- ” barked Tolson. “Meet your new dog.”

The non-sniper rifle bearing peon removed his helmet and the air went abruptly gray with dislodged particulate matter. Ed recognized the scorched smell of it now, streaking their fatigues and even their faces -- it was ash.

They call this recon? He thought, almost forgetting he was under strict orders not to start shit.

Tolson never stopped shouting. “1st Ranger Battalion is responsible for the successful application of Führer King Bradley’s quick reaction strategy; it requires immense agility of thought, planning, operation and organization! Out there, your life will depend on this man’s deliberate, bold, and violent execution.” He paused, and grinned again. “You have a reputation, Major Elric. So does the Colonel. He was our resident young prodigy until you came along! I think the two of you will work well together.”

The LTG clapped them each on the nearest shoulder, earning a resounding clang! from Major Elric and another puff of soot from the Colonel’s fatigues. He marched off double-time into the throng -- Ed recognized the carry of someone who’s just shifted an enormous burden onto somebody else.

He rolled his shoulders, feeling Al’s warning lifted. No more yessir nosirs. “What’s it like, reporting to a gigantic tool?”

“You’ll have to let me know.”

Ed peered past the seared exterior and tried to judge Mustang by his narrow, dark eyes. The Colonel accepted his challenge and a heroic staring contest began. There was almost something, familiar...

“I know you,” he thought.

“I’m glad to see you took my advice, Edward.” He remembered, now. Black hair, black eyes. That, burnt-umber voice.

“Oh, blow me. I don’t need anyone’s fucking advice.”

Mustang blinked.

“Ha! I win!”

“Well done,” the Colonel recovered, unmoved. “I was about to say how much you’ve grown, but,” he looked pointedly down. “I think you’ve demonstrated that would be false on all accounts.”

“Why, you -- ” Ed lunged. “Who’re you calling small?” The sniper pivoted around and trapped him in a headlock before he could so much as flick the bastard’s lapel. “I’m still growing! What’s your excuse!”

Mustang stepped forward while they were eye-level, and initiated a new staring contest. “I don’t know why you’re here, or why Tolson wants you with me, but I promise you -- this is not a happy place. As long as you’re under my command, you either listen to what I have to say, take my advice, or die out in the brush.”

Ed fought a good fight but a mutinous little wind brushed his eyeball and it stung with soot -- he blinked. The Colonel stepped back, far too superior for boasting but not above a victorious smirk. He nodded at his subordinate.

“Thank you, Lieutenant.”

Ed’s feet hit the floor. “What’s a Ranger Battalion do, anyway? Reconnaissance by fire?"

“You could call it that.”

“Nuh-uh, I don’t think so. You know what, you can tell Lieutenant General Jackass, I had my eyes open on the way to the border -- Fotset the town? Looks like Fotset the meteor strike, and I know it’s your handiwork, Flame Alchemist. I didn’t sign up for this.”

He hadn’t even connected the man from Central’s headlines with the state alchemist who advised Ed to take the watch, so long ago. Did Pinako know who Mustang really was? Maybe she guessed, and kept it to herself.

“We’re in the same boat, then, because I didn’t sign off on a transfer.” He actually sounded angry.

The sniper removed her helmet. Pale blonde hair fell in loosened loops to her collar. “Yes, sir, you did.”

“I didn’t sign off on this transfer.”

“Yes you did.”

“He’s still a kid!”

“Hey!” Ed barked. “I’m sixteen in less than two months!”

“With all due respect, sir,” she interrupted. “So were you. And you’ve been on the phone with Colonel Hughes about assigning another state alchemist to Aerugo for quite some time. He agreed to transfer Fullmetal from Central, remember? The paperwork hit your desk last Thursday.”

“That explains it. Nothing should be allowed to leave my office on a Thursday.”

“Noted, sir.”

“I’m supposed to report to you? You don’t even have your shit together.”

“If you’re unhappy with your assignment, Major, I’m sure we can find another place for you here. I hear the division commander is looking for a personal assistant.”

“You wouldn’t dare -- ”

A shout came from the crowded corridor, and a soldier from a different battalion fought their way toward the three of them.

Mustang!” With no further preamble she slapped him across the face, nearly breaking the damn sound barrier, and stalked away before anyone could react.

The Colonel lifted a gloved hand to his cheek. Cleared his throat. Then, dryly: “Excellent assist, Lieutenant Hawkeye.”

“I thought you deserved that one, sir.”

He grimaced. “Fair enough.”

Ed crossed his bare arms, tapped his heavy foot. The incessant heat and travel had left his sense of humor desiccated. “If there’s ever a point when you decide to stop going on with your life, please let me know.”

“Oh. I almost forgot you were here. Fullmetal, was it? The Führer has a sense of humor, at least.”

“The brass has been talking down to me all morning, Mustang,” he rolled his automail wrist. “So skip the part where you pretend you haven’t been keeping tabs on me since Resembool.”

“Aha,” the Colonel finally slipped: a short, nervous laugh. “Couldn’t avoid it if I tried. You’re all the newspapers have been shining about, anyway. The people’s alchemist. Here’s some more free advice. The only thing more sensational than a hero, is the hero who falls from grace. Watch your step, Edward -- they’ll be waiting for you to slip.”

“No you watch your step, old man.” Ed advanced quickly. “What goes around, comes back around, I learned that when I was eleven years old. What do you think I’ve been doing the past five years -- playing jumping jacks? I don’t need the hero of Ishval to tell me war is dark and scary. I learned that the hard way.” He dropped his voice. “And if you try and lecture me ever again, I’ll transmute your gloves into paper cranes and shove your alchemy back into the earth.”

The Colonel forced a deep sigh out his nose. Lieutenant Hawkeye coughed lightly.

Finally: “Welcome to the 1st Rangers, Major Elric. It's a pleasure to see you again.”

Ed leered. “Take a cold shower, Mustang. I’m not here to pleasure you.”