6 January, 1915, Longmen Mountains, Aerugo
Colonel Mustang finally cleared the last rise, not perspiring, that was too gentle a word. Not sweating, either, just sheeting body fluid, by that point. It had been raining for four days straight: socks were wearing thin; cases of trench foot spread like cruel jokes; and morale was low. Misery sewed discontent throughout the ranks.
Roy identified the angriest person in A Company, 1st Rangers Battalion, and stopped the conversation. “What’s the hold-up?”
“Hold-up? I’ll tell you -- ” 1st Sergeant Wexeler spun around, snapped a salute but didn’t change his tone. “Colonel, I’ll tell you what’s the hold-up. Nobody told me about this God-damn vertical brick road!”
“It isn’t necessary to shout.”
He started to stalk over, with the sort of knee-jerk rhythm of a man who’s been waiting for an excuse to slug someone all morning. Roy braced himself.
“Why don’t you tell me what’s necessary, sir, to drive six two-ton mules and four gun tracks over a hundred and ninety meters of brick and sinkhole, in the pouring fucking rain?”
“First, calm -- ”
“We’re looking at a forty per cent grade here, Colonel!” He didn't stop shouting. “Our mortar rounds will be rolling all over the countryside!”
“I can see that. But -- ”
“Can you? Can you? Look at it, just look at it!” Wexeler tore off his helmet and used it to gesture violently at the road ahead. It was like looking at a wall with a very slight lean. A vein pulsed on the Sergeant’s forehead. Slowly: “This is what happens when you take logical things like law, and order, an’ try and smear ‘em all over a nasty fantasy land!”
“Where is your commanding officer?”
“Oh, I’ll show you my commanding officer.” It sounded like a threat. “If you think some P-X Ranger, fresh out of basic training and already with ten medals and the fruit salad is gonna solve this -- ”
“Rigel, please.” Mustang crossed his arms. He chewed his nail through his glove. “The fruit salad, really?”
“You must see what they’re letting out of the Academy these days. It’s not like when you and I were young. They hand out medals and high honors to whoever’s daddy made the biggest donation to the new General’s private fur collection. It’s blood and soil, Roy. That’s all it is. The center doesn’t hold.”
Rigel’s helmet was under his arm, the chin-strap done and tightened; soldiers from the old school often wore their straps unclasped or tightened up in the back, because they had a theory back then you’d get decapitated if a mine or something exploded in your face. Roy knew the clasps were designed to release and prevent that, but he still left them undone, too.
Mustang tried not to cringe. Gods, he was old as soot.
“Call your CO,” he said.
Sgt. Wexeler eyed him, tipped his head and roared: “Phipps!”
“I am right here, Sergeant.”
Roy jumped. Wexeler whipped around. “Oh,” he growled. “Lurking, again.”
The 2nd Lieutenant stepped around his subordinate wearing a humorless, deadpan stare. The average age of Amestrian men and women drafted to active warfronts had been steadily falling since Mustang's days in Ishval; it was not a matter of preference but of supply. Phipps was among this new generation of younger officers at just nineteen years old -- it didn't help that he was impersonable, hard to follow, and shorter than both of them by a head.
“I have a solution, if anyone would listen to me.”
“Triangle science is not going to get a two-ton hunk of rolling steel over that rise,” said Wexeler, fully committed to disagree. “I don’t know what they teach at the Academy nowadays, kiddo -- you might outrank me, but I’ve got ten years of combat experience to your zero. You don’t know jack shit about anything -- ”
“I think we had a conversation recently, Sergeant,” said Mustang. “About your tendency toward… verbal misfire.”
“Misfire my ass!” He stood his hands on his hips. “Sorry, sir. Just sometimes, I wish I could, shove him into a locker.”
“Do it,” husked Phipps, quiet and sinister. “I’ve been waiting for an excuse to break your smallest digit.”
“Colonel, please. Do something about this.”
“Yes, of course. I think -- " Roy paused, cleared his throat. He remembered he had one reliable solution for everything. "I'll radio Fullmetal from the rear.”
21 January, 1915, Mezzo City, Aerugo
The committee, as usual, lasted several hours.
A green sun rose languidly over the cloud forests of Mezzo City. Fog burned in slow-moving streams back to the heavens. He engaged in a staring contest with a gecko on the far wall. A memory from last night tickled his throat.
“Close your eyes,” Keynote Hourt addressed the room. “Now breathe. In, and out.”
“Do not try to control it, just breathe naturally.” She had a wonderful, low and tremulous voice. It walked around the circular chamber alongside her, seeming both one step ahead and two steps behind. “We are beings of air and water, earth -- and fire.”
All of Alphonse’s steel plates lifted with noiseless breath, expanding and contracting again in gentle, shingled unison. Roy was bored and drawing psychoarrays behind his eyelids. He had a sudden vision of holding the delicate jugular vein of the whole city between his fingers.
“Now turn your hands up.” The Keynote commanded. “Place them on your knees. There. The center of your palm is called the heart. Do you feel it beating?”
A curious, phantom weight built up in the empty shells of his upturned hands. He disarmed for the meeting, of course. There was a spare set of gloves in his pocket, but it still kind of felt like he'd left his good hands somewhere.
“Gravity,” said Hourt. “Heaviness in the palms like two spears, pulling you down, down. And yet it is the way of the natural world that we grow upward, like trees. How shall we make sense of this contradiction? I will tell you. To live is to suffer, my sisters. Your hands reflect one another, but like mirror images they are never truly the same.
“Just so,” she continued. “You and I are different. We may never find the common ground necessary to think alike -- not even if we share the same roots. Difference is the foundation of any bodi politik: each hand alone has the strength to open and shut, but only together may they uplift the burdensome human spirit; only together can they hope to hold the living water.”
He heard her presence close-by, and Mustang squinted through one eye; he saw Alphonse seated next to him, and Keynote Hourt standing in the inner ring, carrying a tall, slender-necked flagon. One by one she approached the council members, said a few words, and poured something from the flagon into their cupped hands. Some members were more watertight than others -- the shiny stone floor got a good drink.
She approached the delegates from Amestris. Al raised his palms together, and an unbroken silver stream fell from the flagon into a tiny pool between his gauntlets. A few drops freckled the floor. Hourt laid a bare hand on the younger Elric’s massive shoulder. “You have much potential, little one.”
Mustang put his hands together, hoping this would all be over soon. The keynote turned to him. The Colonel opened his eyes, and looked deep into the flagon’s dark, gaping mouth -- he saw steam rising from it in a billowing veil, and instinctively pulled his hands back as the water fell toward him, hissing and spitting. “It’s hot!”
Hourt eyed him, reproachful. “The living water does not burn.”
A respite was called around noon. Roy retreated to the veranda, and hid his hands in his pockets.
“Just a little longer, Colonel.”
“I don’t think I can do this, Alphonse.”
“It’s just a formality,” he reminded him. “The speakers want to know you’re serious about helping.”
“Liezel should be here, then. I don’t even speak the language, Al.”
“Brigadier-General Luft is helping out at the rural relief settlements today.”
“I could have really used her help here.” Roy muttered, ungrateful.
“The settlements are part orphanage, part rehabilitation center for children affected by the war. Many of them are missing arms and legs -- ”
“And what have we accomplished here, so far?”
“Err,” Al faltered, armor shining warmly in the sunlight. “Speaker Preah predicted the dry season will come early this year. Everyone agreed the squirrelfish served at the last quarter-moon was much more flavorful than today’s, and a request was made to provide barley tea and salted oyster at the next committee luncheon. Umm… Oh, yeah, the speaker from Roofsong district recently had two grandchildren. Yay! Good things come in pairs, so twins are especially good luck. They were named for Aerugo’s famous poets, Ngoi Sao and Mat Troi. The speaker for Gever district made a smug comment about La Biscia and Pesce being Aerugo’s greatest poet-nationalists, and that led to a general literary discussion -- ”
“Al,” Mustang interjected. “The agenda. What about the council agenda?”
“Oh. Keynote Hourt listed nine items on the agenda -- she called us ‘The Problem of Amestris.’ We're dead last.”
“Which one are they on, now?”
“Sorry, Colonel. No progress on that front at all, I’m afraid.”
Roy sighed noisily. He found himself wishing for Edward’s sardonic company. At least it would make the time pass.
The Aerugonian word for council-member translated to one who speaks. The keynote speaker led the meeting, but in a very suggestive fashion, Roy thought. In the two and a half hours he hadn’t been dipping in and out of sleep, the Colonel witnessed nothing in the Mezzo City Council’s grand, sun-swept chambers that even vaguely resembled leadership or law-making. Mostly it seemed like aimless chatting.
A warm cinnamon breeze tossed leaves between rosy-hued sandstone pillars. Palm trees leaned over the open terrace. He took another deep breath, felt hot, and trapped.
“You didn’t have to wear fatigues.”
“Why? I’m not hiding anything.”
“You look like you’re hiding from something.”
Mustang shook under a false snort. “Like what?”
Alphonse hummed. “I don’t know.”
The sundial tower across town stood level with the treetops. A medley of tunnels bored through the open floors like rings of stacked honeycomb, and at the very top of the tower was a giant androgynous face carved in rain-blacked blue granite -- expression placid, half-lidded like a god, or a daydreamer.
“Who is that supposed to be?”
“No one knows,” answered the steel-plated soul. “The sundial faces were carved during an era with no written records and no survivors. Kind of pleasant, though, isn’t it? Warm. Like someone just about to smile.”
Roy could think of several things more pleasant than a stone face ten times his size leering down at him from dizzying heights, but the dry appraisal caught in his throat; he swore he saw it blink. He rubbed his eyes.
“Oh, and Colonel,” Al’s soft voice. “Old lady Preah thinks you don’t like her, so just smile a lot when she looks at you. She has a lot of sway in the Nhim community here.”
“Uh huh.” Mustang groaned inwardly. More and more he thought he just wasn’t cut out for diplomacy. If the Amestrian military hierarchy was a rope ladder, Aerugonian democracy looked more like a ball pit.
The Roofsong delegate found a palm snake on the terrace, and carried it inside to join the meeting. An immediate poll was taken on what to name the serpent, and a decision had to be made on whether it should be allowed a vote or a snack in upcoming council proceedings. Al caught him dozing uneasily between the third and fourth items on the agenda. Of nine total items, two were passed up to associated offices, three sent back for reformatting, and the rest would have to come back tomorrow. Including, Roy supposed, The Problem of Amestris.
A wizened old woman engaged Alphonse in conversation after the meeting ended. Roy’s smile felt like a graveyard. He glanced once at her wrinkled eyes, Preah took off her mask, and a snake lunged for his face.
Mustang snapped awake. Al laid a steadying hand on his shoulder. “We’re on our way out now,” he supplied. “You have temporary amnesty to travel and trade in the main village. We’ll have to try again tomorrow if you still want to station troops here.”
“We don’t have a choice,” said Roy. “Without Mezzo’s resources, we can’t hold Nguyet against siege.”
“You have to take Nguyet, first. You’re thinking too many steps ahead, Colonel. Brother is the same way.”
“We have to think that way, Alphonse.”
“Okay-y,” he hummed. “But not all the time. Come back to the present. Look around -- have you ever seen architecture so beautiful? Everything grows out of something else. This whole city is amazing. Don’t you want to become good friends with it?”
Colonel Mustang’s heart folded in tenderness for the younger Elric. “Yes,” he said tiredly. “I guess so.”
Mezzo had one unique affliction, in Ed’s opinion.
It was a feat of size. The Aerugonian capital city covered only about 8 square miles of territory. Compare that to Central Amestris: 86 square miles; or the Xing capital Zhongcheng, a city said to span over ten-thousand lǐ. At a certain point, Ed thought, the only thing left that truly awed him about the Universe was size -- an impression left on him from his glimpse of the Truths behind the Door: his entire existence could be a single spear of potential sliding down a blade of grass inside a cosmic garden somewhere, one wayward footprint from obliteration --
Mezzo was small, but it occupied a lot of space. The city grew into its altitude; life thrived underground, and in overhead spheres, networks of one and two and three-rope bridges; traditional mud and timber housing shared foundations with more modern plaster and concrete. Flower and bird patterns, calligraphy from an ancient Nhim past carved into the walls of narrow alleyways. Salamanders crawled over the smiling faces of fog-cloaked towers and countless more crumbling temples. Ed was accustomed to the Amestrian habit of keeping public and private spaces, but in Mezzo, there was no such distinction. It wasn’t a matter of where you lived but how you dwelled.
“Ta Prohm,” Al kept brushing his hands along tilted walls. “These reliefs are from the old city.”
Ed tripped over a blanket in the main village. The woman seated on it snatched at him and five long nails left half-moons in his flesh ankle. He had to buy something for her forgiveness: a tiny brass birdcage, too small for any bird he knew of. Maybe, a baby hummingbird --
“Wasp.” said Alphonse. “They keep wasps, here. Sometimes five or six, in those little cages. You can hire artists to paint them with your family’s seal.”
“Cute.” Ed cast an eye as far as he could into the market square. Aerugonian murder-wasps. Just what they needed. That was why the air seemed to be buzzing, around here. Because hiding in everyone’s pocket was a tiny whispering pistol, a self-guided bullet --
“It’s not a defense system, brother,” Al, exasperated. “They’re symbols of status, and gentility.”
Ed took a rough elbow in the side from a swell of market-going passersby. “Gentility?” He murmured. “Is that what they’re calling it?”
They sat under an awning in the square sparsely populated by weary shoppers and shade-seekers. Al made him try the local favorites -- Ed drew the line at anything green or still moving; they settled on skewers of spiced buffalo, fried scorpions and omelette-wrapped rice. Somewhere a bell rang, and Ed peered over the crowds, alert. A waterlogged bordertown was one thing, but in the capital city of Aerugo, they were sure to have enemies.
“It was harder to get them to allow you in, this time,” Al whispered under the vibrations of the inner market. “Mezzo doesn’t just have a village elder, there’s a whole town council, and more than half of them are Dantel -- ”
“So?” Ed wiggled a finger in his ear. The medley of noise in the air was playing tricks on his perception.
“They knew the 1st Rangers. You guys are the face of the Amestrian invasion, here. The Dantel representatives call you fauves, the wild beasts, and the Nimh reps call you chhke d’anorok -- ”
“Let me guess. Flaming assholes.”
“Close. It means dogs from Hell. They think you’re hellhounds, come to take their country away.”
“Well, we are, and we have.”
Alphonse leaned his elbows over the table. “What’s wrong, brother? You’re so bitter.”
A snort. “Am I?”
“You know, the Colonel seemed kind of off earlier, too. Did something happen between you two?”
“Huh?” Ed barked in surprise. “No! Why would you think that?”
“No reason,” hummed Al, and he couldn’t smile exactly but Ed heard the amusement in his soul and it made the bad temper worse. “You should’ve seen him -- moody and sighing all morning. It was kind of cute.”
“Hey, can it, pressure-pot.” The Major warned, waving an empty skewer. “You’re talking about my Commanding Officer -- ”
“Oh, that’s right, mocking the Colonel is your territory, isn’t it?”
The skewer glanced harmlessly of his chest plate, and Al leaned to pick it off the ground. Ed furthered his argument: “Don't I deserve that much, at least? Besides, he makes it so easy.”
“You should give him a break. The war has been long and hard on him, too.”
“Aw," he retorted. Pity never worked on Ed. "He can write home about it. The bastard’s just in a funk because I took his favorite gloves.”
“You -- what?” Al touched his visor like he needed to raise his eyebrows. “Brother, how could you?”
“It was easy,” He couldn’t help gloating. “I took ‘em off and put them in my pocket!”
“Doesn’t matter how. If he wants them back, he has to come find me, and I know he’s too chickenshit -- ”
“Okay!" Al brought his fist down on the table, firm. "Something definitely happened between you and the Colonel!”
“No, no, Al. Nothing happened. Nothing I would bother trying to hide, anyway.”
“Come on,” the suit of armor whined, pitiful. “Don’t we… don’t we tell each other everything?”
Ed crossed his arms, looked away, and refused to be moved. Not this time, he thought.
“Did ya kiss him?”
“Did he kiss you?”
The Fullmetal Alchemist flew across the table. He tackled his brother head-on and all their metal limbs collided like a nasty car crash of singing steel. Ed whaled on him, and Alphonse defended himself, first in amusement, then with mounting concern.
“Ed -- ” He tried, blocking artless strikes to his head and chest. “You need -- to calm -- down!”
It wasn’t working. Finally Al rearranged the fight, outmoded his brother with a few sharp hits to important joints, and wrapped the young Major in a headlock.
Ed growled a string of incomprehensible threats, which eventually became words: “If you ever say something that ridiculous again, I’ll -- ” He thrashed in Al’s hold. “I’ll transmute you into twenty cen coins, buy a picture of a rabbit, and use it for target practice!”
“Are you done yet?”
Ed thrashed some more. After a whole minute of inelegant attempts to break free (we will not discuss the biting) he finally went limp, and breathless. Bitterly: “Yes.”
“Does this have anything to do with your inability to synthesize compassion from conflict?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“It’s okay to give yourself a break, too, you know,” said Al, quietly -- his arm like a crowbar across his brother’s throat. “There’s nothing wrong with seeking companionship in hard times. Love is a very human thing -- ”
“What!” Ed kicked and struggled for a while longer.
“It’s okay,” said Al. And he kept repeating it.
“Does it occur to either of you -- ” A newcomer. “What a scene you’re making?”
Ed squinted, face hot from exertion and embarassment. Upon identifying the source of the intrusion he scowled even harder. “Not you.”
He said it with such vehemence his CO actually seemed to falter, and for a fleeting instant, Ed thought he saw hurt in his eyes. “I -- ”
“Sit down, Colonel,” his little brother offered kindly. “Come sit in the shade. We were just having lunch.”
“Oh.” He said faintly, like he’d just been knocked over the head. “Is that what you were doing?”
The Flame Alchemist took one step out of the sun, and Ed narrowed his eyes. “What’s wrong?” Momentarily forgetting his predicament, he tried to stand, and paused to slap at his steel constraints. “Let me go, dammit!”
The Elrics reclaimed their benches on opposite sides of the table. Ed shoved the Colonel to his side. “Sit. Eat,” he commanded. “Ya look like a ghost.”
“You keep saying that.”
But it was true: Roy had the complexion of a man on a sinking ship. He looked blankly at the food in front of him, then glanced over his shoulder into the square.
“Mustang?” The Fullmetal Alchemist, tentative. He glanced at Al and Al shrugged. “What’s a matter?”
“I think I’m being followed.”
Ed narrowed his eyes on the swaying crowds beyond the awning. He knew it -- he’d had a bad feeling about this city from the start. “Who is it? Point ‘em out, I’ll pop their fuckin’ head open -- ”
“Colonel,” Al tried softly, under the Major's wild threats. “Who is it?”
“It’s not a person. More like, a vision.”
Ed frowned. “I don’t get it.”
Roy shook his head. “Neither do I.”
“My brother’s right,” said Alphonse. “You should eat something. You’ve been in the sun all day. Um, Colonel -- where did you go after the committee?”
“The settlements,” he answered. “To brief Brigadier-General Luft.”
Ed forced chopsticks into his hand, and the Colonel half-heartedly rearranged the remains of his lunch.
“Some of the children out there are like you boys." he said. "Well, up to a certain point. No parents, missing limbs, no automail and no alchemy. I think -- we could actually help these people. Amestris could help these people, with a bit of trade, and regulation.”
Slowly, Al’s expression took a turn for the brighter. After a moment, he was practically shining.
“Mustang,” Ed chuckled. “You’re supposed to be the evil bastard of this company.”
He didn’t smile. “Aren’t I?” He looked to Al. “Aren’t we the dogs from Hell who caused this misery in the first place?”
“But Colonel, you must know," said Al. "The blame doesn’t lie solely on you, it’s not so simple as that.”
“I used to think it wasn’t.”
This time it was Al who looked to his older brother for insight into the Colonel’s mindstate, and the Major shrugged heroically. He didn’t know what sort of bug had worked its way up Mustang’s ass, and he knew even less how to deal with it. In fact, the longer he went acting all limp and mopey, the more it was pissing him off.
The tinny rattle of his brother’s shuffling broke a long silence. He dismounted the bench and stretched to his full height. “I’m going to go see if Brigadier-General Luft needs any help out there. Brother? Maybe you can take the Colonel back to camp, to get some rest.”
Ed waved a hand. “Sure, Al. I’ll see you later.” He drew up one leg and leaned his chin over his knee. The Colonel was silent, and eventually Ed yielded to a busy sigh, and reached out to scrub his hand over his back -- the way Mustang sometimes did, late at night in a muddy hole somewhere, when he lost control of his body movements -- the way Ed's own mother might have, forever ago. It was difficult to comfort the people you look up to. “Couple of prize fuck-ups, aren’t we?” He muttered.
Roy slumped a little. His gaze flicked raggedly over the crowds, and back to the table again. He picked the last of the green onions off the omelette, then addressed it: “Sometimes I think this operation is better off a failure. It would be better if I never left this jungle. Some soldiers have burned homes, fields, cattle, people... I’ve wiped whole towns of the map, and generated thousands of refugees, with these hands alone. Should anyone like that be allowed to live?”
“It’s not really my call, but if I think if you keep ruminating on it you’re definitely going bald.”
Mustang froze, and he shrugged Ed’s hand away, but at least he looked at him -- if only to glare. “You have a bruising sense of compassion, Fullmetal.”
Major Elric rolled his eyes. “You’re not the first person to accuse me of that today. Look, Mustang. I know I’m not very good at this. But I think the fact that you’re asking those questions means there’s still some decency left in you. A really, really small amount, maybe. And that’s worth something to me.”
Before the moment could stretch too long, Ed punched his superior in the arm, hard. “Now try optimism, for once. I’m tired of the pity parade -- keep up this force-march through shame and regret, and I’ll have to say more nice things about you.”
“Well, we can’t have that,” Mustang hummed. He rubbed his arm, then nodded toward Ed’s last skewer of scorpions. “What do those taste like?”
“Honestly? Potato chips.”
The incongruity must have caught him by surprise because the Colonel snorted. It wasn’t laughter but it was something like it and Ed counted it as a victory. But, he was still an evil bastard.
Ed turned his back to the table. “Want me to take you back?”
“No. Lieutenant Hawkeye will just put me to work.”
“At least you get a bed at the hostel in town, this time. I got stuck in the tents with the 36th on guard duty. I guess I don’t rank high enough for a break from the rain.”
“Think of it more like a hostage situation. I’m not dangerous if I’m under lock and key.”
Ed thought about it. “Well,” he decided. “At least you get the bed.”
“It is nice, if I ever get around to using it.”
“So, you don’t want to go back,” said the Major, leading. “Then, want to explore some more?”
“Not this again.”
“It’ll be fine, I promise.”
“Courage without humility is a dangerous game, Fullmetal.”
Ed grinned. He jumped to his feet -- hanging out meant ample opportunity for mockery. “Come on, old man. Dodge duty with me.”
“I really wish you hadn’t put it like that.” But he was getting to his feet, pulling on his sleeves, and scanning again the crowds overhead.
“Am I ever gonna see you outside these fatigues?”
“It depends what you mean by that, exactly.” Roy’s step faltered, very slightly. “Please stop hitting me.”