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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.”

Chapter Text


3 February 1915, Nguyet Valley, Aerugo

In the aftermath of the Battle of Nguyet, Major Elric sat on the hood of a posting truck inside the main gates of the combat base, and waited for the spoils of war to reach him. He waited, and he waited, and he waited.

Finally, as the sun was locking up the horizon, he broke. “What the heck. We did the impossible, today. Can someone at least bring me a drink?”

“Head’s up, Boss.”

Ed craned around and accepted a flask of something from Jean Havoc. Eyeballed the contents -- vaguely pink. He shrugged. He’d drink anything Havoc gave him.

“Civil Ops reported in forty-five minutes ago, what’s taking them so long? I’ve been sleeping in holes for five weeks, don’t tell me I’m scavenging for food again tonight!”

Havoc chuckled. “Looks that way. You know they only travel with D-rations and chocolate bars for the village kids, anyway.”

Ed groaned. “I’m starving, man. Candy’s not gonna do it. I’m eating for two, you know.”

“Oh,” the Lieutenant stuttered around a bit of smoke. “Congratulations.”

“Thanks, but that’s not what I mean. It’s just a theory, but I think Al and I got our souls crossed at the Gate, somehow, and I have to eat and sleep enough for his body now, too.”

Havoc nodded. “Sure. Your souls got crossed. That makes perfect sense.”

“You’re adorable, Jean. Think of it like this -- all your body’s internal biochemistry, times two. Like, puberty. Imagine all the random bullshit you put yourself through as a teenager, only, double it.”

He snorted. “That’s not a good idea.”

“I know,” Ed shook off one boot and flexed his metal toes. “I mean, I kind of know. I’m sixteen but I already feel like I’m gonna tear out of my skin and start bringing people down with my teeth and claws, sometimes.”

“Sure. That’s mostly how I feel about my twenties.”

“What are you smoking? Not a cigarette.”

“I ran out of cigarettes three weeks south of Fotset,” he admitted, and held out the stub of the burning thing. Ed eyeballed it, shrugged, and took it. He’d smoke anything Havoc gave him.

“Is Alphonse coming out with the landing party?”

Major Elric exhaled deeply. “You know it. He’s probably what’s holding them up. Out babying the villagers, or something.”

“He’s a good kid.”

“Yeah. I’m actually glad you guys met him like this. Before we have our bodies back, I mean. I know it sounds weird, but, Al takes up a lot of space. It’s easy to write him off as a little kid, but in the armor -- I don’t know. His soul is more itself. Something people don’t always understand about my brother at first glance, Al is nice, but; he’s also big and intimidating and he could fuck you up, using that niceness. You know what I’m saying?”

“Sounds a lot like you, Major.”

Ed leaned back on his elbows. “Maybe. Sometimes I think he’s got both of our souls in there, and I just do the eating.”

“Oop,” Havoc jumped. “Check it out. Captain on deck.”

Ed narrowed his eyes. A cluster of 1st Battalion troops had gathered to meet a truck from the east gate. Mustang dropped out of the bed, deep in conversation with Major General Muntjac. A serious conversation, because the Colonel was making gestures, and he only did that when things got serious. The last thing anyone wanted was the fucking Flame Alchemist waving his hands at you.

Pretty motherfucker, Major Elric thought appraisingly. What’s good.

The Lieutenant made a sound like he swallowed a bug, and too late Ed wondered if maybe he’d given voice to his wicked, tucked-away thoughts.

“So, uh. You and the Colonel finally decide who tops?”

Ed sputtered, hemorrhaged air. “What -- ?” A brief coughing spell. “Havoc, what have we been smoking?”

“Aerugonian lava leaf. Don’t worry," he giggled. "It’s medicinal.”

“I’m going to kill you.” Havoc reached for the stub but Ed held it out of range. “No, I’m still going to finish it. But you’re fucked when I get back around to being angry. What sort of question is that, anyway? Who tops? Isn’t it obvious?”

“It’s a betting pool, actually.”

“Yeah? What are the odds?”

“Seven to two -- you have the edge, Boss.”

Ed dug in his pocket. “I’ve got five hundred and twenty cens.”

“Who are you putting it on?”

“Who am I -- ” Ed leaned and drilled a couple of knuckles into the Lieutenant’s bicep. “You know exactly who I’m putting it on!”

He jumped, snapped to attention and took the money. “Of course, Major!” He smiled crookedly. “I thought you’d be mad at us.”

“Mad, about what? A bunch of grown-ass adults using their free time to bet on an underage service-member having sex with their superior? I've already won this round, Lieutenant.”

Havoc swallowed.

“Anyway, I don’t care,” Ed waved his hand. “I bounced around three separate platoons in Central before winding up here, remember. You guys aren’t the worst. I’ve seen it all.”

“I’m sorry you had to see any of it." Havoc crossed his arms. "Feels like we’ve been fighting these little wars for so long, none of us remember how to take it easy anymore.”

“No shit. When’s the last time you got a little R and R?”

“R and R? I can’t even remember.”

“They brought you over with a platoon from Ishval, right?" said Ed. "Tell me they at least gave you some time off between warfronts.”

“Oh yeah, when was that? Four, five years ago? We got ten days. I don’t remember what I did with it.”

“Hm,” Ed hummed. “I can’t picture any of you outside the service. What does Mustang do with time off?”

“Hike all the way out to Resembool, I guess. Something about an incredibly powerful alchemist in the countryside.”

“That can’t be the only time off he’s ever had.”

“Yep! Well, no, actually. He was due for some leave time last year, but… “ Havoc shifted uncomfortably.

“What is it?”

“He gave it up.” He said. “Only one of us could take off, and my mom died around the same time, so. He let me go instead.”

Ed considered this. It explained a few things about the Colonel, anyway.

“Jean,” he said. “I have a serious question for you. You’ve been serving under him a long time, right, since the civil war?”

“Yep. Roy was a Captain, then.”

Captain Bastard, ha-ha! I bet he was fun.”

Havoc’s smile lilted on one side. “Just a bit more disillusioned than now, maybe.”

Ed decided he liked Lieutenant Havoc. He liked all of Mustang’s men, which was a surprise. You could tell a lot about a person’s character from the way they treat their dogs.

“Anyways, look. You’ve known the Colonel for ages, so I gotta ask -- ”

Havoc leaned in, expression wide open.

“Is he allergic to sunlight?”

A pause, a startled bark of laughter.

“Does he have a skin condition? A hideous deformity? I’m serious, Havoc.”

The Lieutenant receded into giggles.

“I’ve shared a foxhole with the guy, and I’ve never seen him in less than fifty sweaters. Is it some Southern military protocol I don’t know about? 'There shall be no more than six per cent of Mustang's pale beauty on display at any one time' -- why are you laughing? You don’t mock your superiors in the South?”

“We do,” Havoc huffed. “It’s more the way you’re doing it. Ed, are you planning to move on the Colonel?”

“What? No! Are you kidding? We both have way more important things to be giving our attention to, right now.”

“More important than just living?”

“Yes! Look, I’ll call him over here and insult him till he goes away.”

“You don’t have to do that -- ”

“Mustang!”

“Ed, he’s never gonna hear you from here.”

“Just watch, it’s like a sixth sense thing. Mustang! Mustang!”

“It’s not going to work.” Havoc shifted to lean his side against the truck. He peered across the courtyard. “Good god. He’s coming over.”

“What did I tell you? Use this power wisely, Lieutenant.”

“I don’t know, it might be selective. Maybe you two have a bond of some kind.”

“No, shut up. Shut up about bonds.”

“Well, I’ve never shared a foxhole with the Colonel. Not even Riza’s ever had that pleasure.”

“Shut up! There was no pleasure! It was cold, and raining -- I’m made of metal! And he can make fire!”

“Sounds very romantic, Boss.”

He decided he would have to strangle Lieutenant Havoc.

“Isn’t it a little early in the evening for hand-to-hand?" The voice of a newcomer, master of half-smile apathy: "Usually we give Civil Ops a chance to settle in before entertaining them with meaningless Command squabbles.”

“Oh,” Ed slowly extracted his hands from the Lieutenant’s collar. “I thought I felt something evil lurking around.” He settled back on the hood, propped his feet against the grill of the posting truck before anyone could claim his spot or tell him not to; Ed was just getting warmed up. “Let your hair down, Colonel. Civil Ops can kiss my -- hey," he looked at his CO properly. "What is that? What are you doing? What’s in your mouth?”

Mustang lowered his hand. “Candy? It’s the only thing we have.”

“You’re sucking on the military's damn pacification program.” The absurdity broke his stride and Ed almost laughed. “That’s for the kids, boy, what’s wrong with you?”

“If it weren't for the 1st Rangers, the candy would be completely irrelevant." He fought back. You could usually count on the Colonel to fight back. "The military should be more worried about pacifying me. It's been a long day, and I'm hungry.”

“Sugar makes you hungrier, dipshit. And the line for the victory feast starts right here -- it takes more energy to put up a building than it does to burn it to the ground.”

The Colonel shifted his weight. “I take it you were the one who led the reconstruction effort.”

“Mm-hm!" Ed jerked his thumb at the chain-smoking Lieutenant. “Even Havoc stood up some chairs. I had to refret the narthex. Ever pulled iron ore out of wet dirt?”

“No. I don’t even know what a narthex is. Or how one might go about fretting it.”

“Mmhm.” Major Elric hummed again, incriminating. “You couldn’t prestress concrete if I drew out the arrays for you, huh. Of course, I didn’t get to any of that until after we spent three and a half hours scraping deep-fried people goo off the walls. You know what that smells like? I bet you do. Death doesn’t smell any worse than life, actually.” Ed ranged in for the kill. Nothing choked the Colonel like shame. “You have the first couple steps of alchemy down, why don’t you try and build something for a change?”

“Fullmetal,” Mustang caught his diatribe by the wrist, and performed a quick trade; the last half-inch of Havoc’s burning joint, for the shaft of his, fucking, stolen candy -- pressed into Ed’s palm like he’d been asking for it. “You shouldn’t smoke.”

The Fullmetal Alchemist lowered his elbows back to his knees. He couldn’t remember what he’d even been saying, before. Then it came back to him: “Fuck you.”

He imagined Mustang’s heart melting on his tongue. How soft it would have to be before he could grind it to crystals under his teeth. Somewhere between sticking the candy in his mouth and breaking it into pieces, Major Elric caught his CO’s gaze and held it in loop, not an outright stare but pawing at his eyes, sort of, lift and away. Kittenlike. Ed let the game collapse when he got bored with it, and flicked his tongue at the sugar stuck in his molars. He didn’t even like lollipops.

A bug somewhere in the rubble started tick-tick ticking, endlessly. A couple more jumped into the mix and the night deharmonized into chaos. Mustang forced a breath out his nose, and a shifting column of pale blue smoke joined the Lieutenant’s growing cloud layer. There weren’t more than a couple of breaths left on the thing and he dropped it under his heel halfway through the next exhale, like it disappointed him.

“I had to drive back out to the rendezvous to bring in Major General Muntjac.” He sat against the brow of the truck between Ed's feet. Ed thought about moving to make room and didn’t.

“Muntjac talks a whole lot,” Havoc grunted. “But he only seems to show up after the fighting stops.”

“After the food arrives, you mean," said Ed. "When are you going to get rid of him, Mustang? I’ll get rid of him for you, if you want.” He tugged on the back of his flak jacket. Only the Colonel settled in at the after party in a damn stab-proof vest.

“I appreciate the offer. But I haven’t decided how or when to deal with the Major General just yet.”

Ed leaned back on his elbows, watched the evening make its serene glide across the sky. Nguyet was actually the center of four valley corridors leading through the mountains south and southwest of the base -- the air tasted different, out here. It wasn’t the same sticky heat as Fotset. You go from anywhere below sea level to someplace above, and it’s like crawling out from under a blanket.

Somewhere outside the walls, a night-heron challenged a rival with its sharp squawk: What? What? A fluttering of leaves. What?

Major Elric realized he was staring at a wellspring of faded ink on Havoc's shoulder. It looked like a bit of chaos stuck inside a strict silhouette, at once natural and profane. “Jean. What’s that on your shoulder?”

“Hm?” Jean startled. Catch him in a smoking coma and he always startles. “Oh, it’s the insignia of the 1st Rangers.”

“I almost thought it was an array.”

“Nice, huh? We got ‘em done a couple years ago after finally recapturing Fotset.” He tucked a fresh roll of rice paper into the corner of his mouth, tipping again in a lopsided smile. “There wasn’t anything like the Rangers in the Amestrian armed forces before us. Southern Command hadn’t gained ground on Aerugo in years -- it was the Colonel who suggested learning the land and using guerilla tactics instead of the old head-on charge. It worked so well, now everybody wants their own Ranger Battalion.”

Ed frowned while he processed everything. “We? We got them done? Who’s we? You and Riza?”

“Uh, yeah,” Havoc shifted. “And, you know, Breda. The rest of the team, except Fuery. And Falman had, religious reasons -- ”

Mustang!” Major Elric seized the back of his CO’s vest and shook. “Where is it? Show me!”

The Colonel choked audibly. “Not -- happening!”

“What! Come on, what is it, on your ass or something?”

“Maybe it’s -- ” Mustang sputtered, pulled on the front of his collar with both hands. “On my nuts!”

“Oh, sure. That’s fucking hilarious. Would you let the military brand you there? Talk about bending over for the state.” Ed released him. “Whatever. I don’t care anymore. Keep your secrets.”

Brother!

“Civil Ops is here.” Major Elric leapt to his feet. “Al! Alphonse!”

His little brother picked his way over to them, polite and slow, then building up speed. It looked like he was jogging in midair, for a second, through the ground-fog. Spiked, agile, and impervious, two glowing eyes in a body designed for combat -- Al was the last thing you wanted to see materializing out of the mist.

He called again, and Ed vaulted over the Colonel’s shoulder to meet him. They’d seen each other a couple of weeks ago at Mezzo, between Fotset and the Valley, but it still seemed like a long time to be separated.

He greeted his brother with a flying kick to the head. Al ducked, pivoted to avoid a jab in the chest plate, caught his ankle on the second kick and sent him to the ground with his own momentum. Ed swore. “Go easy on me, Al. I’m a hero today!”

“I’m happy to see you, too,” he chuckled. “Brother, did you hear? The Führer negotiated a ceasefire with the Prince of Aerugo. A ceasefire! Isn’t that great? Everyone knows it’s because of Nguyet -- they always said it was too deep in the jungle to be taken.”

“No such thing as too deep. Did you bring my things?”

“Oh, yes! Hang on -- I left them in the truck. Hello, Lieutenant! Hello, Colonel, are you alright?”

“Hm? I’m all right. Thank you, Alphonse.”

“You look out of breath.”

“He’s fine. Al, my things?”

“Yes. I’ll be right back!”

More trucks pulled into the gates, carrying supplies, members of Civil Ops and 1st Cavalry. Muntjac's troops were unloading. Al had arrived in the lead with Brigadier-General Luft.

“My little brother is so perfect. Look at him.” Ed commanded. “He’s got three old cats in his chest plate right now. Thinks I don’t notice.”

“Yeah?” Jean murmured. “How can you tell?”

“He doesn’t normally walk like an egg.”

Civil Ops had brought MREs, which were a hop-skip above rations, some dry mats and ammunition, and plenty of pacifying candy for the locals. Al brought over a box of MREs in self-heating foil and was easily the biggest damn hero of the night.

Ed sat up on the sloped hood of the posting truck, pulled off his shirt, and selected a flathead screwdriver from the tools he asked his brother to bring over. He would’ve travelled with them from Fotset, but full gear was clumsy enough without ten pounds of automail tools jangling on his back, too.

Havoc leaned over the hood. “What’s goin’ on, Boss?”

“I got shot,” Ed hummed, working his elbow joint a few times. “I know I’ve got a few bullet fragments lodged in here, somewhere. And a loose hydraulic, maybe. One or two springs need resetting. Small stuff.”

“You can feel all that from moving it?”

“Kind of. I never thought about it, but, I guess it is just a different way of feeling.”

“Here, Fullmetal. Don’t you think six is pushing it, though?”

“No,” Ed reached for his MREs. “Bless you, Colonel.” He popped the foils on a couple to get them heating and stacked the rest behind him.

“The Major is eating for two, you know.”

“Havoc,” he chuckled. “I told you that in confidence, man.”

“I’ve heard your theory.” said Mustang, settling against the grill again. “There’s no way of proving it, of course.”

Ed shrugged his flesh shoulder, more focused on the function of his elbow. “Fortunately, my theories don’t hinge on your approval.”

“I’m talking about proof, not approval. If your whole metabolism is tied to Al’s, then think about what that means for your cells, and your lifespan. We don’t know what effect that kind of chemical magnitude would have on the brain!”

“Well, I know how it feels because I’m living it. A-ha!”

Havoc startled, and caught the projectile on its flight path across his nose. He eyeballed it. “That’s not a bullet. It’s shrapnel -- you got nicked by a mortar round, Boss. Thank your lucky stars.”

“Who needs luck when I’ve got two working hands?” Ed leveraged his screwdriver under the next steely divot. “You can have that, if you want -- something to remember Nguyet.”

Havoc eyed the star-fragment, death narrowly avoided, and shrugged it into his pocket. “Thanks, Ed.”

The night was scorched fair and easy on the eyes and if he thought about it, the spoils of war were around him already; after five-weeks in the brush, you almost forgot the sound of a full conversation, or the feeling of light on your face. If he could have anything he wanted all he would really ask for was a hot meal, good company, and someplace safe to sleep. One by one, Ed chipped down his stock of MREs.

“Brother, look. Look at these.”

“I’m looking, Al,” he’d almost finished his repairs, and struggled to recap a tiny hydraulic hose in the half-light. “What am I supposed to be seeing?”

“It’s a picture of a striped rabbit, Brother. You’re not even looking.”

“Doesn’t look anything like a rabbit to me. Where’d you get these photos -- are you sure they’re not fake?”

“They’re not fake, I bought them from one of the twenty-cen children in the village. The striped rabbit is only found in this mountain range, and it’s critically endangered, that’s probably why you haven’t seen it. Look, here’s a laughingthrush. And this one’s a golden monkey.”

“Cute. What do you mean, twenty-cen children? Who are they? What are they handing out pictures for?”

“They’re trying to make money, Brother. Civil Ops calls them ‘twenty-cen’ because they only ever ask for twenty cens. That’s enough to pay their supplier and buy food for the day -- most of them are orphans. But don’t tell Brigadier-General Luft, because she said to ignore them. She says giving them money contributes to the problem, so we’re only supposed to hand out candy.”

“Don’t worry,” said Mustang. “I buy bananas and coconuts from the village kids all the time. If Luft thinks you’re part of some problem she can take it up with me first.”

Al’s eyes glowed. “Thanks, Colonel. That’s so nice. Ed won’t say it but you’re definitely the nicest commanding officer he’s ever had. Brigadier-General Klemin was always dragging us out of the library -- ”

“Don’t give the bastard too much credit, Al.” Major Elric interrupted. The hose slipped off its socket again. He hissed. “The Colonel is just an orphan with a complex for nurturing lost things.”

The light waxed blessedly brighter and Ed devoted a full minute of concentration to reconnecting the mechanical tendon. He finished with a flourish and flexed both arms, victorious -- only the silence had stretched a bit long, and he looked around. Mustang extinguished a tiny bulb of liquid light in his palm and tucked it back in his pocket.

Al was shaking his head at him.

Ed dropped his arms. “Huh?”

“You can be so cruel, Brother.”

“Wait, Al -- ”

“I’m going to help Brigadier-General Luft unload the rest of the trucks. See you later.”

What! The night-heron started up again. What? What? Excitement over the food eased down. Some troops left to post, others to assist Civil Ops in setting up the barracks. Hawkeye had accompanied Luft from the rendezvous point, and left soon after for perimeter checks with Black Hayate.

Havoc smoked himself steadily into the night.

The silence started to wobble, and finally, idly, it broke. “Muntjac hounding you again, Chief?”

Mustang sighed through his nose. “The Major General wants us to go ahead with Operation ‘Rock Pile.’”

“Rock Pile? We don’t have the resources to pull that off and hold Nguyet Valley -- ”

“That’s what I told him, but it’s no use.”

“The ceasefire is meaningless,” Ed murmured. “We were never going to stop fighting.”

The Colonel sighed again. “FOB got hold of some information about the location of Imperator Kim Cuc, and they want us to move on it. I’m taking a team to scout the area at dawn.”

Dawn? Colonel, come on.”

“Yeah, I’m gonna be running late, I think.”

Mustang raised his hands. “It’s garbage, I know. You both have every right to opt out of this one and get some rest. But, it’s the first time in history Amestrian forces have managed to maneuver this far into the mountains, and… I’d like my team with me when we break that frontier.”

Ed groaned. Havoc spat his last roll of lava leaf to the ground still leaking smoke. “Now what choice do we have?”

“You had to go and make it about loyalty.”

“We were having fun until you came over here.”

“Oh? What were you talking about?”

Major Elric could’ve thought of something convincing, but Havoc ruined it with an awkwardly timed cough, and attempted to cover it by stooping to pick up his burning roach.

“Don’t smoke that,” Ed warned.

“I order you to tell me what you were talking about, Lieutenant.”

Havoc stared at the rice paper.

“Don’t.” Ed said again. “You could get gangrene. It’ll be awful.”

“Lieutenant. I mean it.”

“Colonel, sir -- ”

Ed dropped his automail fist in his palm.

Havoc snapped his heels together and saluted. “I’m, stepping out!”

“You’re stepping out.” Roy, apathetic.

“Yes, sir. To get some sleep, for tomorrow.”

“You’re not hungry?”

“Not really, I mean not anymore. I mean. No, sir!”

If the Lieutenant’s stage exit was awkward or hurried, neither of them mentioned it. Ed threw his tools in the bed of the truck, started the engine. He shrugged his shirt on. Made sure Mustang was looking but didn’t make a show of it.

“Are you alright?”

“What? I’m fine.” Ed scoffed, the more he thought about it. “What do you mean? I’m fine.”

Mustang had planted his ass over the driver's side headlamp, cutting the light in half. Every time he shifted the darkness jumped. His face is there, and gone, and there, and gone.

“I don’t know. Al made me feel bad, I guess.” He found himself explaining. “All those people making it on twenty cens a day, and I just threw five hundo on an office bet.”

“Wait, you owe me five-hundred cens!” Mustang lifted his head. “Which office bet?”

Ed found his lost boot. Instead of putting it on, he kicked at the dirt with his metal foot. “A really stupid, unimportant one.”

The Colonel watched him punish the earth for a while. The truck muttered to itself. Then: “Ed, Luft isn’t exactly right, but she’s not wrong, either. Twenty cens aren’t going to undo the impact of military occupation on these people’s economy. Neither is a hundred, or ten thousand. National income disparity will not fall to kindness. Diplomacy is not going to stop this war. People aren’t always open to hearing the naked truth -- and as someone who’s confronted by it, daily, you have to develop ways of dealing with that, even if it’s with a sense of humor that seems cruel, or insensitive at times.”

“Shut up!” Ed kicked, raising a long spray of rock and scree. It caught in the headlights and shimmered. “God. Are you trying to make me feel better about being mean to you? I don’t care about your little feelings, Colonel. And I need your pity like a fucking heart attack!”

The light doubled. He lifted a hand on reflex to shield his eyes.

Mustang caught it by the wrist. “Are you on post tonight?”

“Yes.” Ed settled, and the Colonel let his hand slide away free, easy. “We’re running the trucks in intervals between the gates. Why, you want the guest slot? I’ll split your next watch if you split mine -- unless you were planning to not-sleep somewhere else, that is.”

“It would be an honor, Major. How could I say no to more of your abuse?”

"You can't," Ed laughed, whole-hearted. “Because you know you fucking deserve it. Come on, maybe I’ll ease up. You can drive -- I still have a hard time avoiding moving things.”

Chapter Text


3 February 1915, Nguyet Valley, Aerugo

A stack of heavy thunderheads trundled low over the horizon, leaving long seminal tails in an empty cave-wall sky. Tomorrow morning’s monsoon. The cloud shadows formed ranks and lines -- then broke apart, dipped, spiralled, and coiled snakelike into a decimal point high in the heavens. It blinked wide like an eyeball, staring down at him.

Col. Roy Mustang stuck his foot on the dashboard and pushed. The S-3 behind the wheel kept driving. No matter what he did, he couldn’t put distance on that awful cosmic gaze.

The flies were horrible this evening. Millions of flies.

They were surrounded by trees, ferns, and high grass. Wind pittered through the leaves. Thick vegetation broke softly under the tires of the mule -- a modified armoured car with an open bed for hauling supplies. Instead of supplies, a gunner lounged there, alternately fiddling with the magazine of a tripod-mounted machine gun and stroking his M19. Two units flanked them on both sides, followed by the mumbling of at least three other mules behind. 1st Rangers never travelled like this. Lined up like targets at a firing range. Roy turned his hat around backwards and looked through the future, darkly. The Aerugonian Army were good fighters. They lost the battle for Nguyet, today, but they were by no means dead, dumb, or disbanded. A cool sweat broke over his face. It was the perfect time for a post-op ambush, and his only backup was --

“Something the matter, Colonel? You look peaked. Well. More than usual!” Muntjac snorted.

Mustang glanced at the Major General in the rearview. The MG had chosen to ride in the backseat. It was more comfortable, he said. It was also much less exposed.

“Yes, I remember dropping acid, in my days as an infantryman.” Muntjac folded his hands over his stomach. “Acid and C-rations! Good old C-rats.”

He wasn’t an infantryman, Roy wanted to say. He was Command. He’d worked his ass off for it, damn it. He deserved it. He knew what was going on -- Roy wasn’t an idiot; he was younger than most of the high-hats in Central but he’d been playing the game just as long as them. He knew exactly why they’d transferred him to Fotset. It was to hide him away, to rob him of any chance of ascending the ranks after Ishval. He should be more than a Colonel, by now. He should have Tolson’s job.

“I noticed you have five PRC-25 radios in your platoon, Mustang.” The Major General snorted, jovial. “Most only have two. You have five men willing to carry all that equipment?”

He chewed his thumbnail. Took his glove off and really dug his teeth into it. “Women, actually.”

It was true. All his RTOs were female, and they never complained about the weight of the radio packs. Roy liked his radios; it was one of the things he didn’t let the upper strata shaft him on. 1st Rangers needed five radios.

“Ah! That’s the difference, joining the military nowadays. Back when I was a tanker in the open field wars in Creta, all you could expect during your service was twelve-hours a day trapped inside the confines of a 16-ton steel trap, in 130-degree heat, with three other shirtless men! All you dreamed of then was a sip of cool water, anything that didn’t taste like iodine from the Halozone tabs we used to disinfect it. But I’ve seen your unit, Colonel -- ho-oh! You’re a lucky man. That is one beautiful aide-de-camp.”

“You mean Lieutenant Hawkeye, sir. She is not my personal assistant.” She should have Muntjac’s job, he thought. A captain’s salary, at least.

Lt. Hawkeye rode out with him, but she broke off at the rendezvous with her own unit to form the escort for Brigadier-General Luft’s party. Civil Ops was slower moving than the 37th Battalion, but the company was much better.

“She is something. And the way I hear it, the gal’s shooting is nothing to snort at, either! Let me guess -- married, ten kids?”

“Not exactly, sir.”

They needed to get out of this area. The AA were good fighters. 1st Cavalry was on a supply run just before sundown when they started taking fire outside Nguyet -- got pinned down for hours in the Green Corridor. Four dead. One of them, a popular young NCO in D Company, was technically part of Roy’s platoon. A staff sergeant had carried him on his shoulder back to a truck with all the other KIA. The dead soldier started to regurgitate when he set him down. Bodies did that sometimes. It was the first time in a while Col. Mustang felt something get to him, though. Anyone who’s seen combat knows the fear. Even after you’ve grown numb to it, all it takes is an ambush, or some foul reminder, to make it all come rushing back. Would his life end here, under the jungle’s eye? Would it mean anything at all? Roy put a pen to paper and scratched out his twenties.

“I see your S-3 put in a request for six-hundred yards of detonation cord -- what on earth are you doing with all that coil, Mustang?” He snorted again, at no joke in particular except maybe Roy’s career. “Who is the operations officer for your battalion, anyway?”

“Major Elric.”

“Ha! That’s right. I remember you had a transfer, recently. Elric, is it? I think I know the one, very slight, angel-haired?" He hummed. "How old is Major Elric?”

Mustang didn’t think his CO had ever encountered the Fullmetal Alchemist without his helmet, and certainly not from any close distance. “Sixteen, sir.”

“That’s a high rank for a young soldier! No higher schooling, no military training at the Academy. Does this Major Elric have any qualifications?”

Besides being the most elite alchemist in the state? It was too close to an opinion, and Roy scrapped it. The little bin in the corner of his mind was overflowing with balled up scraps. He wondered if the brass thought he was seeking out young, attractive officers to form a harem of some sort.

He went with a buttoned up form of the truth. “It was the Major’s operations plan that won us Nguyet. Sir.”

“I see. Yes, I remember the strategy meeting beforehand. What did you call it, line bombing?”

“Pattern bombing, sir. Precisely timed explosions to manipulate enemy maneuvers -- with one battalion, we exerted the pressure of ten thousand. That’s why we need those radios, and the det cord, Major General.” He could explain the hours and hours they spent conceptualizing an alchemical ‘fuse’ that travelled via piezoelectric currents through quartz deposits in the Earth’s crust, and Roy’s idea to fabricate spark gaps to minimize environmental damage -- but there wouldn’t be any point. Muntjac wasn’t an alchemist. Anyway Ed said nice one, Mustang and it was literally the biggest he’d ever felt.

“Vickers, here,” Muntjac gestured behind him to the man in the truck bed. “Took a course in Central and got his master gunner certification. I bet it comes with a raise, too! Hah!”

“Good for Vickers.” Roy murmured.

They rolled over a stretch of earth churned and cratered by mortar detonations. Big craters made good foxholes. He thought he wouldn’t mind some time outside his unit, after working perilously close to them for over a month, but that was before he remembered Muntjac’s company was like malaria. After a while you just want to itch your skin off.

Like most of Roy’s life to date, he didn’t love it, he just got through it.

He’d rather be back in his muddy foxhole, on some stormy night when Fullmetal dropped unceremoniously inside --

The S-3 got shot through the neck. One second he’s driving, about to pearl the lid off his canteen in one hand, and then -- just a little pop! Through the windshield. Water gushed over the console. “Get down!” Roy called for the gunner, cracked the passenger door and rolled out, happy to have his boots on the ground, the grass brushing his ears. He realized Vickers was dead. The breath of the forest sharpened. In, and out. Somewhere deep in the wood he heard the tell-tale click and drag of a bolt being pulled back, and dove into the truck bed. He grabbed the dead gunner’s M19, prayed it was well-maintained, and emptied a clip into the brush ahead of their mule. After a minute, the enemy stopped firing back. The M19 jammed. Mustang threw the gun aside and left the path on a thoughtless, determined glide through the tall grass. The glide took him out, and around, and he just kept going, 50 yards into the brush, until he found him. A man in a black shirt and trousers, probably militia, custom scope mounted to a bolt-action rifle.

Roy snapped. The man turned. The Colonel remembered he'd removed his glove, swore, and they scrambled; the sound of a bolt slamming back again, and Mustang knew he didn’t have time for safeties or arrays -- the only other thing he had was his trench knife.

Nothing caught fire and still it was one of the most flamboyant murders of his life. Ed would mock him to death for it, if he knew. You can snap all you want, Mustang, but your looks won’t kill anybody.

He carried the AA soldier back to the mule, put him down in the bed beside Vickers. Then he gathered the S-3 and his empty canteen from the driver’s seat and laid him in the back as well. Today, they were brothers.

Mustang called over an RTO and radioed the 37th Battalion’s flanking units, confirmed they had taken fire. There were nine more WIA, but none dead. He added his own count, and advised them to keep moving. Maybe it was the one sniper, and maybe it wasn’t.

What! The night birds started calling, like they had the scores on the last game: What! What!

At length, Roy took the wheel, and Major General Muntjac uncurled from a ball in the back seat. The MG pulled a white towel from a pocket in his flak jacket and swabbed his face. “My mother sent this to me,” he said slowly. “Back when I was a tank man. She was a saint! It’s been with me for so long now, through so much, I almost started to think -- ” he paused, stuffed the rag back in his vest. Didn’t shake or stutter. “I’m not superstitious, Colonel. But I’d give it up. I’d give the damn thing up, if it would bring any of my men back. Ah! These damn flies!”

You were an idiot if you weren’t afraid.

They made it to the gates of Nguyet without another ambush. The Amestrian presence was stronger, nearer to the walls, but of course danger was never far. In guerilla warfare, all it took was one gun to cause a panic. Especially with that eyeball in the sky, and everywhere, the forest pressing in on you.

It didn’t stop Muntjac from pushing Operation: 'Rock Pile' again. If anything, he seemed to insist on it. The 37th Battalion would hold Nguyet. “And you’ll finally get that promotion you’ve been gunning for!” He snorted.


27 December 1914, Fotset, South Amestris

“Yes, what is it, Lieutenant?”

Havoc paused inside the door to Mustang's office, and barely glanced his way. “Oh, sorry, Chief. Didn’t mean to interrupt. I’m actually here for Major Elric.”

Ed looked up from the couch. “What’s up?”

“This is my office. If you want to take appointments, Fullmetal, rank up!”

He rolled his eyes. “Watch out, Jean. You’re not the only one who got his hand stuck in the cigarette dispenser this morning.”

“Colonel, you smoke?”

“No,” Ed answered. “But that kind of explains his life, anyway. Muntjac struck down his request for a hundred and five howitzers -- fingers caught in the bureaucratic trap. What I can’t figure out is why we need that many howitzers. All you’ll hit out there on recon with a stationary weapon is trees.”

“Not once we take Nguyet Valley,” said Havoc. “Then we’ll have a fort to defend, and a new forward base of ops.”

“What?” Ed shot to a sitting position. He planted his palms on his knees. “What are you planning? I never got any orders. Show me those papers, Havoc.”

“That’s a classified mission, Lieutenant,” said Roy, through gritted teeth. “But thank you for sharing. Please leave.”

“Nobody told me we were trying to take Nguyet.” It hadn’t even been ten days with the Fullmetal Alchemist under his command and already the Colonel could predict his flipbook rages like thunder after lightning. The trick was diffusing it before the bang.

“So now you decide to start treating me like a kid? Saving your ass on patrol every two days isn’t enough, huh? You’ll never take Nguyet without me. Hawkeye doesn’t have enough trigger-fingers to cover you all the way up the Green Corridor! And what am I supposed to do after you get the whole brigade killed on a suicide mission, huh, sit here and take your shitty office job? I’ve got better things to do than wait around to bury everybody!”

“Hang on, Boss. I didn’t know you weren’t on the mission -- ”

“Havoc, leave. Now.”

“Real smart, Mustang,” the door clapped shut on a ribbon of smoke. “Get rid of the witnesses, because I’m about to save the AA the trouble of kicking your face in.”

“Shut up, Ed -- ” He put a bit more pleading inflection on it than usual and it worked because Fullmetal actually looked at him. “You’re on the mission, alright?”

"So," Major Elric’s crossed arms loosened. His deadly foot stopped tapping. “You’re not leaving me behind?”

“I’m appointing you S-3. You’ll be planning the movements for the whole battalion.”

“Then,” his eyes narrowed. “Why didn’t I get any orders?”

Mustang gestured to a crooked folder topping a six-story pile of paperwork on the corner of his desk. It was a total coincidence but, tongue in cheek, he tried: “Can you reach it?”

Ed snagged the dossier in one quick leap, soundless, catlike.

“The short jokes are getting pretty old, you know,” he muttered. “And they’re not the only thing.”

Roy folded his hands. “I’d say that was a low blow, but, coming from you, Edward, they always are.”

His subordinate eyed him over the folder, wavelength set to torture and kill. “These are our orders?” He said, venomous. “We’re all going to die.”

“You didn’t even look at them.”

Ed flipped open the first page, but his eyes never left the Colonel. He flipped it shut. “We’re all going to die.”

He sighed. “I knew you would do this. At least try to work with it -- I know the odds are, unfavorable, but if we succeed -- ”

“You get a promotion. Yeah, I know the deal. But there’s a difference between unfavorable odds, and plain unfeasible; you don’t have a mission, here, dog. It’s a fucking death sentence! Moving up the Green Corridor with one battalion is impossible!”

Make it possible.”

“Mustang!” Ed sighed this time, a huge, teenage outgassing. A star about to go nova. “What aren’t you getting? Half the shit in this folder is notes from our recon. You know the situation. Nguyet is Aerugo’s, bought and paid for, consider it gone. Besides the base itself, we tracked three separate enemy divisions in the area, no terrain breaks for artillery, no open road except the Corridor, and AA troops saturating all the supply routes -- even if we make it that far into the wild, all they have to do is surround us; we’ll run out of food and water after a couple days siege.”

“You’re like the blazing sun on a wretched, hot day, Fullmetal.”

“I’m not joking around!” Clunk! His fist on Roy’s desk. A tiny quake. All his paperwork chattered. Ed was the sort of categorical event you wanted to avoid having in your office at all costs. “First you hide the whole mission from me, now you want to manipulate me into taking the reins? Fuck that! The best alchemist in the world couldn’t transmute this operation into a success!”

Mustang pressed his fingers to his temples, exhaled through his nose.

Fullmetal lowered his voice, but this is not always a good sign. “I can spot you wiling a mile away, Colonel. Why don't you try telling me the whole truth.”

“We’re on the international stage right now, Edward. Everyone’s looking at Nguyet. King Bradley wants a decisive victory for Amestris, and a psychological defeat for Aerugo. If we can take the valley stronghold, he will use Nguyet as a bargaining chip in the annexation talks -- ”

“Aerugo will never cede to Amestris! All he’ll get is a bloodbath!”

“That, too, is strategic. If we all die, we will take our share of the AA with us. The Führer knows we have an advantage in numbers; eventually, Aerugo will simply run out of people who can fight.”

Col. Mustang felt cramped and heavy so he stood, and turned to the window behind his desk. It was shaded this time of day, or the direct sunlight would broil him. So really he was staring at a set of superficial bars, and just imagining what was beyond them.

“A million people have died already." He continued. "One-fifth of Aerugo’s population. What if, instead of failing miserably like everyone thinks will happen -- we succeed, and we end the war? If you were just one, treacherous mile from paradise, wouldn’t you take a chance?”

“Your ideals won’t win this one.”

“They said the same thing about Fotset.”

A little silence unspooled between them, but the Colonel knew Ed would take the mission. His voice crept out of the stillness. “One day, fate is going to swing around. And I’m going to be there on the rebound, to help it kick your ass.”

Roy shrugged. He cracked a half-smile at the wall of his prison. “If you think you can win.”

It was probably the wrong time to get cocky, because the next instant Fullmetal flew across his desk like a fucking panther, slammed both feet into the back of his chair, rode it to the floor, and punched him in the head before Roy could turn to face the threat. He was just grateful he hit him with his left hand -- but the impact forced his back into the window, and before he could catch his breath the automail hand caught him between the legs. The Colonel’s freeze-defense activated. His Y-chromosome took a knee.

“Something my teacher taught me,” Ed hissed in his ear. “The nuts are fair game.

Roy slid down the wall.

“That’s for calling me short.” Major Elric snatched up the dossier on Operation: ‘Clear Moon’ once again. “Don’t ever think of me as one of your chess pieces, Mustang.” The door cracked against its frame, and all his paperwork shivered in applause.

Later, when the blood flow returned to his most valuable extremities, the Colonel peeled himself off the floor. He did two minutes of paperwork, then caught himself standing, again, staring at the blocked window. Wondered why his dream felt like a cage, with only one sure way out.

“I know your new rule about Thursdays -- ” Riza dropped in around lunch. She knew he forgot to eat sometimes. “But this whole pile needs to leave your desk today, Colonel.”

“Lieutenant Hawkeye -- ”

“I can’t sign them for you.”

“What are the odds of winning a sexual harassment suit, filed against my underage subordinate?”

A barely perceptible pause. “Not good, sir.”

Chapter Text


4 February 1915, Nguyet Valley, Aerugo

“They lied to me about the ceasefire, too.”

He figured he might as well be up front about it. It wasn’t the elephant in the room, but it was one of the seventy-nine golden camels, and a full night on post was going to be awkward if Roy didn’t get it out of the way. They were parked in the upper spires of midnight -- back to back, chin over elbow on opposite sides of the truck bed -- and if he listened close, Mustang swore he could hear the planet just tipping into a new day. He kept his voice to a murmur. “Bradley made it seem like he wanted it to be over, on the phone.”

“King Bradley talked to you on the phone?”

“It was more like a conference call, with Southern Command. We mostly just listened. You get good at listening, in Command.”

“I don’t believe anything you say.”

Mustang shrugged his M-16 tighter into the curl of his arm, barrel up. A bit of rain passed overhead and mottled the night into grays.

He heard a small, hurried intake of breath, and then Fullmetal broke the silence. “What is operation ’Rock Pile’, anyway? I don’t remember seeing anything with that codename.”

“It was already ongoing when you joined us last year. The objectives are to eliminate the AA’s presence in Northern Aerugo by targeting their infrastructure, clearing areas suspected of sheltering enemy divisions, and barricading trade routes -- ”

“So, what you’re really saying is, burn the roads, burn the bridges, the fields, burn the villages if they don’t roll over for you. I don’t know if you remember, Colonel, but I’m a genius. And I can learn to speak bullshit, too. ’Rock Pile’ sounds like the exact reversal of the strategy that just won us Nguyet. What happened to building the infrastructure, improving the conditions here, and getting people to like us? That worked! That shit just worked -- what exactly will blowing everything up accomplish?”

A quick victory. A humiliating defeat. Was the Führer interested solely in egregious losses? Roy had only guesses. “I don’t know.”

“You really are a dog of the military,” Ed muttered, something worse than venom in his voice. More like hopelessness. “Nobody mounts the world quite like you, Mustang.”

The Colonel chewed his nail through his glove. A bad habit. He listened to the off-pattern spackle of rain on the tinny truck bed. A wormy afterthought: “Am I really that disappointing?”

“I think the disappointing thing is you aren’t that disappointing.” The sound of movement in the darkness, a shrug. “Just, makes me wish you were better than all them, sometimes.”

“Don’t put me on a pedestal, Fullmetal. I don’t deserve it.”

“I’m not!” A snarl. “But attacking during a ceasefire is fucked up! I know you care, too -- why do you always deny it?”

Mustang didn’t have an answer for that one, either. Only guesses.

A noise of guttural exasperation, followed by the sound of Fullmetal climbing to his feet. “I can’t believe I liked you for a second!” He retreated to the truck’s passenger seat through the rear window, and the glass slid shut behind him with a loud crack!

Eventually even the rain moved on. Mustang sat hunched in the upper spires of midnight, alone.

He snapped awake on the tail-end exit of a sound, half-buried in the mists of a humid twilight. It was somewhere between the hours of 3 and 4, he guessed, rolling to his elbows and knees and staying low in the truck bed. Everything was still, and faintly dripping. A faucet waiting to offload. Roy leaned his M-16 over the siding and peered down the barrel into the jungle. It was like looking very deeply into folds of black velvet.

There it was again! A swishing sound, one light-footed step. The Colonel froze, muzzled everything but his heartbeat. Swsh. Swsh. The cackle of a breaking branch. Darkness dripped over Aerugo, so dense you swam through it.

Mustang forced himself to breathe. In, and out. It was nights on guard duty you felt most like a part of the earth, and a stranger to it. Shwsh! The next step was abrupt, and sounded perilously near, like something jumping at the truck -- he startled, and fired into the black.

Through the ringing in his ears, he vaguely heard his subordinate climb back into the steel bed. “Holy Hell, Mustang! What’re you shooting at?”

Major Elric switched on the light over the scope of his M-16 and panned it around. Shadows beat a swift retreat to the treeline. “What did you -- ? Oh, fuck.”

Roy’s ears popped. Static fuzzed distantly on the truck radio, and one of the guards posted further along the wall asked for a status. Fullmetal swung feet-first back inside the compartment and gave them the all-clear. False alarm, he said.

Finally Mustang switched on the light over his scope and scanned the ground around their post.

“See what you did?” Ed squatted next to him. “Look before you shoot.”

“I thought it was an ambush. You don’t turn lights on in an ambush. We’d both be dead.”

“Well done,” he praised. “You slaughtered another indigenous creature. Please don’t tell Al about this. You couldn’t at least shoot one of those creepy, foot-long stinging centipedes?”

Roy looked glumly on the little corpse. Gods. “What have I done?” He murmured.

“Hey, it’s okay. It was only a cute, harmless, endangered, bunny rabbit. Didn’t you say you were gonna teach me something about biodiversity? Lesson learned, Colonel.”

“Shut up.”

Fullmetal snorted. “For real though, how long did you sit here sweating that ambush?”

“It could’ve been a bloodthirsty, vampyric jungle rabbit, homing in on our heat signatures.”

Ed laughed, harsh and reckless. Roy breathed in, out, and allowed his shoulders to fall. False alarm, he thought. That’s all. He couldn’t believe he lost his shit over a rabbit. “Muntjac lost his S-3 today,” he said, switching off his scope light. The darkness fell back down. “Just like that. He was drinking water, and it spilled all over the seat.”

The Major ignored him. He was still breathless laughing about the jungle bunny. “Don’t worry, Mustang,” he snickered. “You’re safe with me!”

“Hilarious, Fullmetal. Will you quiet down? Our position is exposed enough now as it is.”

But Ed couldn’t be stopped. “On the bright side, you’re a crack shot in the dark!”

He kissed his neck. It was chaste, one-hundred per cent relief and pure affection and no ulterior desires -- in fact, it wasn’t anything; comrades in arms kissed each other all the time. Things were tense, and you get familiar, on the frontlines. Honestly, it could’ve been any one of his troops. It could’ve been Heymans in the truck with him, or Jean Havoc.

It couldn’t’ve been Havoc. Who was he kidding?

It was Ed. It could only be Ed.

“Mustang.”

Roy jerked away. “Sorry.” He put some quick distance between them, planted his palm on the bag of automail tools and slipped miserably. His elbow cracked down on the steel bed. “Fuck! Ed, I’m sorry, I didn’t think -- ”

“Whoa, it’s fine.” He didn’t sound mad. “It’s alright, really.” He was laughing again. “Colonel Mustang drops a solid firecracker, who knew? You should swear more often.”

“I hated ‘Rock Pile,’” Mustang admitted, and dropped his other elbow. “It didn’t do us any good while we were doing it and it didn’t do us any harm while we weren’t doing it. I started out at the Academy when I was eighteen; it’s been over ten years and I’m still waiting for the power to stop the military from doing idiot things -- ”

“Why don’t you just stop executing their idiot things?”

“I wish it were that simple.” Roy waved his hand, for no one to see. He only had a vague idea where his subordinate was. “All I can do is be the most successful and the least sadistic wherever possible, and hope I make it to the top with my soul intact.”

He paused and they listened while a riptide of warm wind swelled and subsided. There was something comforting about the thick blanket night.

“I can never tell if you’re being honest.”

“Honesty never worked for me.” Mustang declared, and immediately felt like a bastard. He continued, quieter: “But here goes. I didn’t expect anything, handing over ‘Clear Moon’ to you -- the way I saw it, it was an operation doomed to fail, and a 15-year-old boy couldn’t possibly make the plan any worse. But, your revisions made it the most effective, least destructive military maneuver I’ve ever had the privilege of executing. For the first time in my entire career I didn’t feel like a dog, or a pawn, or someone’s fool -- I’m not going to say this again, Fullmetal, so listen to me. That was fucking brilliant. You are fucking brilliant. It was some truly majestic shit, watching everybody come together today.”

“Bastard,” Ed swore, but through a smile, he thought. “You really think that?”

“Yes! Plus, I heard a rumor I’m up for promotion again in Central, so that’s a happy outcome for me.”

“You’re a wicked old man, Mustang.”

“Ed,” Roy hesitated and flung a nervous cough to hide it. He strung words together blindly. “In Mezzo, when we -- ”

“I don’t want to talk about Mezzo.”

“Okay, that’s fine.” In his mind, the Colonel waved his arms, shooing the elephant in the room back into a corner. It wasn’t fine. He thought he might be going crazy. He didn’t even believe himself, anymore.

A clap shocked him out of his misery. A spark of luminous blue energy darted from Major Elric’s left hand to his right. At the height of the flash, his eyes locked onto him, pinpoint pupils suspended in amber graves -- Mustang froze like he’d been spotted scuttling out of the drain.

The alchemy didn’t get a chance to form; after a brief exchange of energetic free radicals, the light dissipated.

He blinked in the fresh-cut darkness, blinded. “What -- ?”

And then Fullmetal’s mouth was warm, and soft, and moving against his.

The Colonel’s first thought is it’s much gentler than he imagined it would be. In fact, he abruptly can't remember any of his reasons for thinking it would be a bad thing. It was like someone had taken their boot, or an enterprising metal toe, to the mental trash bin containing Roy’s lost thoughts and sent it hurtling into space; mind a mess, he didn’t know what was what --

But, the closest thing he’d had to interpersonal contact in a long time was carrying the bodies of dead comrades. If a living thing wanted to share heat right now, he really didn’t care who it was.

The sturdy impact of another body ignited him chest to groin, and Mustang lifted his hands to moderate the pressure. He intended to grip his sides, and absolutely grabbed ass instead -- bit down on a short joke, and caught Fullmetal’s bottom lip in his teeth.

Ed growled. A different kind of growl, more sensual, slightly less vicious. “You don’t have any morals left, do you?”

“Just, the -- unimportant ones.” Mustang tried to inconspicuously get his breath back, blowing air into the tiny bubble of his conscious mind, but it kept shrinking back on him. He had something between his palms that up until two minutes ago he considered completely unattainable.

Even though he rarely abided by it, Ed knew the standard combat uniform of the 1st Rangers forward and back. The clasps on Mustang’s flak jacket clattered to the steel bed, along with shoved-aside fragmentation and smoke grenades, ammunition, his M-16, M-79. He even scrapped the knife holster on his leg. Roy almost complained when a snap came loose and his little tin of antidim compound clattered off into nonexistence -- but he forgot about it when his belt loosened, Fullmetal pulled his shirt from his pants and slid his hands up his sides. Mustang flinched away from the cold one.

“Oops.” Ed freed the automail hand. “Mood-killer, isn’t it?”

He didn’t know how to confess that all of it was sort of hopelessly turning him on, and didn’t have time to try because Fullmetal’s loose hair tickled like knifepoints across his face, he heard an intake of breath, and they found each other again in the dark.

Mustang spread his fingers but didn’t dare move his hands -- he accepted anything he was given, teeth, or tongue. He wished he wasn’t wearing gloves, though. Or laying on composite steel in the middle of guard duty. The Colonel had done worse things on duty. Well, he’d have to think about it, actually --

Fullmetal’s knee hit the bed with a heavy clank! and the flesh part of his thigh arrived snugly between Mustang's legs. Reality shook him like a full-body stroke. He unhanded his subordinate’s very fine, very underage ass, and pushed his shoulders.

“Ed -- ”

He dragged his leg against him. The friction ripped his voice in two, and Roy started from the top. “Ed, Ed!

Shh!”The Fullmetal Alchemist shushed him harshly. Something was wrong; he spoke like he did when he was playing a game with someone, or proving a point. “You want someone to hear you, moaning my name?”

“We can’t do this -- ”

Fuck you, Colonel." He said, building speed. "You don’t get to decide!”

Clearly he’d been sitting on that one since Mezzo. Roy shifted his hips at the same time the Major rocked forward again, and it was almost perfect except for the clothes, and the lighting, the timing, the, everything. “I'm sorry about what happened, it was my fault. But Fullmetal. Think about it -- ”

“No!” It was a whisper-argument. “I’m done thinking! You plan and plan, structure and organize every step of your life -- why don’t you try just letting something happen, for once?”

“Because I don’t want it.”

Seriously?” Ed hissed, but it was underhung with the same note of hopelessness as before. “Open your eyes, Mustang. You’re disappearing behind your own facade.”

Finally, when the Colonel was so hard he was squinting through unshed tears, Fullmetal rolled away. “You finish the watch.” The glass on the rear window slammed shut. Vicious.

Roy pushed himself up slowly, and gathered his gear back together a little bit. Tough to do with a boner. “Fair enough.” He thought, feeling slapped.

In the end he sat against the siding, tucked his M-16 in the curl of his arm, barrel up, and came to terms once again with the company of absolute darkness.


29 December 1914, Fotset, South Amestris

“I hate detail!”

Colonel Mustang did not scurry. But, Fullmetal had a very long stride for a man of below average height, and he moved like a hammerhead. Like everything and everyone was in his way.

“It says down time on my unit’s schedule block, so that gives Tolson the excuse to hit us with detail work. Fotset is secure! Drop the 24-hour patrols! I can think of better uses of my free time than driving up and down suicide street, looking for suspicious women and children -- ”

“I heard you caught an IED.”

“A fertilizer bomb, Mustang. You know how it feels to get slapped with hot shit?”

The Colonel quickened his step around a corner. “Yes.”

Fullmetal carved a left, a right, defeated a small flight of stairs in a single leap, and pulled to a dead stop in the mess hall’s five a.m. speeder line. They had a big sponsor in Central right now, so the cafe was actually serving hot chow. It came on trays, and everything.

“I wish I could transmute a decent coffee from these disgusting powdered eggs.” Major Elric slammed a tray onto the tracks and helped himself to a stack of sliced bread, the last of the hard-boiled eggs, a bowl of steamed cabbage, and the skipjack tuna mush they only got on certain days. He paused in the act of shaking red pepper flakes over everything, and glanced at him. Roy wasn’t hungry. “I’m guessing you talked to Breda. How is he?”

“In his cot. He’ll be on patrol tonight.”

Tch. Medical’s out of beds too, huh? Not even shrapnel through the leg’ll get you a night off around here. He saved our asses, you know. Deckard was sleep-driving, it was Breda who pulled the wheel, before the rest of us even caught the smell or heard the thing detonate. I still don’t know what tipped him off. It’s the first time I’ve ever had to say this to a CO, but, somehow you got a good team.”

Roy never understood how he could make a backhanded compliment so flattering. “Ed, the strategy meeting is in five minutes. Luft is never late.”

“Colonel, I’m going to eat this in less than thirty-six seconds. Don’t feel like you have to watch.”

Mustang poured himself a paper cup of coffee, just for something to do, and slid into the bench across from Major Elric. “Tolson’s backing Muntjac on the howitzers.” He said. “Neither of them will budge. At this point, high Command is expecting us to make a moon-landing with a paper airplane and some loose string -- half my platoon are sleepwalking, the rest are holed up with bullet and shrapnel wounds.”

“Holed up.” Fullmetal snorted. “Good one.”

“Who do they think we’re fighting, out there? A bunch of guerillas in pajamas?”

“No, I mean yes. But, Roy -- can I call ya Roy?” His mouth is full. The Colonel starts to say no. “Roy, forget the howitzers. The AA will hop on that shipment and have their way with it so fast, only the really ugly and defective guns will reach Mezzo -- while you’re at it, make the card out to Imperator Kim Cuc, with love.”

He was probably right. Mustang eyed the manilla file under his subordinate’s elbow. Chewed his thumbnail. “You ready?”

Ed’s gaze snapped to him like he’d been elbowed rudely on the train. “Do you know who you’re talking to?”

How could he forget? “If the Brigadier-General doesn’t go for it, Tolson will back Muntjac’s plan -- ”

What plan? Muntjac had no plan. ‘Burn the jungle’ is not a plan. I’ve never met the guy, but I’m sure he’s the kind of imbecillic ground toad who’s only survival technique is burrowing into the mud and croaking 'Mustang will handle it' until the storm passes.”

The Colonel folded his hands. “Well, yes. Yes he is.”

“You don’t need to remind me how important this is -- it’s my plan! Why don’t you try trusting me, for once.”

Fullmetal’s famous rhetorical questions, delivered like demands. Mustang countered it with one of his own. “I gave you the job, didn’t I?”

“Yeah, thanks.” Ed clicked his chopsticks at him, left-handed. “It’s already like working four jobs not to kill you, now I gotta try not to lay out the rest of Southern Command.”

“Aha!” A new tray slammed next to his. “Just the boys I was looking for!”

Roy slid his elbows off the table and snapped to. “Brigadier-General, sir! Um, we were just on our way to your -- ”

“At ease, Colonel! I am well aware of military tradition, but just Luft, or Liezel, or Brigadier-General will do. No sir, you don’t need a penis to command respect!” She sat down. “Your brother is on his way, Fullmetal. Major General Muntjac caught the poor thing in another of his Lifetime Specials -- I heard ‘when I was a tank man’ and ran for the hills! Metaphorically, of course.”

“Luft,” Ed nodded his greeting. His eyebrows drew together. “What are you eating?”

“Oh, they were out of bread, so, I put some jelly and peanut butter on a plate and mixed them together with a spoon.”

“Quick thinking, Brigadier-General.”

“Thank you, Major Elric. Speaking of thinking fast, let’s talk about your revisions to the MG’s reclamation plan. I understand you want to deploy Civil Operations & Development as far south as Mezzo City -- traditionally, Civil Ops only operates within and around captured urban areas. And, only after the rest of the Amestrian military has turned around and shut their eyes.”

“Right, which is like,” Ed spread his hands. “Forging the perfect sword, and keeping it in its scabbard.”

Luft seemed to think to herself, and nodded for a while. Roy looked at Ed and Ed looked at Roy and Roy shrugged.

Then, she stirred: “Civil Ops isn’t well-versed in CQC or combat-based maneuvers.”

“I’m not talking about physically bleeding the enemy,” said Fullmetal. “I’m talking about doing irreparable damage to their fighting capability. You know as well as I do that without Civil Ops, this war was over before it began.”

She nodded again, contemplative. Mustang felt calm but his pulse was erratic. He was letting a 15-year-old negotiate the largest interservice movement of troops south of Amestris in at least a hundred years, maybe more.

“You really think you can get us to Mezzo?”

“I’ll get you all the way to Nguyet,” he promised. “Just sign over your sappers to Colonel Bastard.” Ed jumped up from his seat and took his empty tray in hand. “If we’re doing this here, I’m getting more food.”

Brigadier-General Luft lifted her spoon to her lips, lowered it, and took a sip from a steaming cup of water. She smiled over the meniscus. “A -- pet name, I assume?”

“Unfortunately.”

“Don’t worry. According to the studies, once they nickname you, it’s much less likely your men will desert you.”

“That’s very comforting, Liezel. But it doesn’t apply to this one. Major Elric and his brother are here on borrowed time. They didn’t come here to win this war for us.”

“But they just might.” Luft winked. Crows’ feet gathered in happy murders around her eyes. “I know what those boys are looking for, Colonel. It’s written all over their bodies. The resurrection stone! I’ve never read anything about it. Aerugonian tradition is primarily oral; the ancients believed in the direction of energies through sound, above all other mediums. Write down something sacred and once upon a time you’d be hanged from the trees by your wrists and ankles -- it’s quite different from Amestris.”

“No kidding.” Mustang listened under the roar of mess hall proceedings. In a way, the mess was the most private place to have a conversation. You couldn’t hear a tank roll through if it wasn’t gunning for you in particular. He wondered if Brigadier-General Luft took the conversation out of her office on purpose.

“So be very careful with what I’m about to tell you,” she continued. “Aerugo has two dominant ethnicities; the population is divided between the House of Dantel, and the House of Nhim. Prince Claudio Rico belongs to Dantel. His imperator Kim Cuc is Nhim. You are familiar, of course, with the father of modern alchemy, Nicolas Flamel? He’s credited with developing the first synthetic philosopher’s stone -- but all his research was destroyed in the early 15th century. Today, there are imitators, fake stones and elixirs, and the like, but nothing compares to the knowledge that was lost.”

The Colonel nodded. You go back far enough, and history starts to tread the line of being fairy tale.

“You have to imagine Flamel learned it all from somewhere?” Roy frowned. Luft quickened her pace. “He was born in Mezzo City, ten years after the House of Dantel seized control of Aerugo in a series of violent provincial coups; back then, it was a Nhim town called Ta Prohm -- it became the scene of a massacre. There’s no record of what happened, but I’ve heard the stories traded around Fotset; they say Dantel’s army swept Ta Prohm in one night, burned homes, destroyed famously intricate temples, killing everybody. The next night, the residents of Ta Prohm returned, and so they killed them again, piled the bodies into pits and burned them, even posted guards over the grave sites. But each night, the Nhim people returned, and fought for their land. Again, and again, and again.”

“What, you think the town was resurrected? En masse?”

Liezel Luft lifted her hands palms-out in surrender. “I know. It’s ancient history. Relations between the Aerugonian houses are much better now. But I still wonder, Colonel, what really happened in Mezzo. Just because they didn’t write anything down doesn’t mean nothing remains!”

“What do you mean?”

Echo chambers, Roy. Just picture it: vast temple libraries hidden underground, designed to store centuries of knowledge inside lossless reflections of sound!”

“You lost me.”

“As I should, the architecture itself is a branch of forgotten alchemy! Even Amestrian alchemy begins with a clap -- have you ever thought how important it is, that sound?"

Alphonse Elric arrived on Roy’s side, couldn’t fit both knees under the table but straddled it with a sound like wind through a pot rack. “Morning, Colonel.” He sounded tired.

Mustang lifted his cup.

“Chin up, Al.” said Luft. “At least he didn’t follow you down to the mess. I’ve had to close doors on the MG. They've yet to invent a reliable repellant for the impotent, self-congratulatory male.”

“Is my brother here?”

“Grazing for his second breakfast.” said Roy.

“I’m glad you joined our top secret strategy meeting, Alphonse,” said Luft, briskly. “Because you’ll be leading the landing team with me on several of these urban probes.”

Al shrugged his shoulders high. “You want -- me? In the landing party? What about my armor?”

“You can wear your nice armor, for the children.”

“Are you sure this is a good idea?”

“It’s an injunction tacked onto my mission briefing, actually.” Luft flipped to the back of her packet and read aloud: “‘Put my brother in the landing party or I will throw your ass out,’” she put the emphasis on ass. “It’s signed Major Elric. At least, I think I’m interpreting that symbol correctly.”

“Yes, that’s his, automail thumbprint.” The Colonel rolled his eyes. “I told him to stop doing that.” It was common protocol for Command to mark their signatures with thumbprints for important documents or more serious internal communication -- Fullmetal’s was unique, at least. Chicken-scratch E.E., and the red imprint of a triangle and part of a ball joint.

“He’s got gumption. Is that the word? Yes. I like that in an officer.”

“Want to trade?” He muttered.

The Brigadier-General laughed. “I think I’m starting to understand what your soldiers see in you, Colonel. You’re an excellent judge of character. Ritual liars often surround themselves with honest people.”

“You’re a delight, as usual, Liezel.”

“It’s so lovely to chat, Roy. We don’t do it enough. Not since I beat you in chess, that time -- ”

“You didn’t beat me, I ceded. There’s a difference.”

Ed returned, scowling. “The line for these tiny potatoes started in Central! Oh, hey, Al. And they ran out of coffee! It’s not even six!”

“They’re probably brewing more, Brother.”

Mustang nudged his cup across the table. He’d barely touched it. “Sugar, no milk.”

Fullmetal accepted the offering, kicked him under the table by way of thanks. The Colonel returned a rude fake smile, and Ed grinned at him.

Roy left the verbalization of operation ‘Clear Moon’ to its mastermind. Luft was an alchemic ethnographer; she had a personal interest in reaching Mezzo -- all Ed had to do was convince her it was strategically possible.

“I won’t expose my men to any disproportionate danger. The Führer will have to find his fodder from another division. Civil Ops are people, not things!”

“They won’t be fodder, I promise,” Fullmetal was deep in his element. He clapped his hands and ripped the hydrogen and oxygen from his chopstick to make a carbon writing utensil on the fly. He barely paused: “It comes down to how you maneuver. Traditional, regimental style movement is this -- ” he drew a set of smokey parallel lines, all in a sandwich. “That’s how you get surrounded and blown away. 1st Rangers travel in a modified pincer arrangement, one team on point and the rest stacked so that no one is flanked and no one is out of visual range of the soldier in front or behind.”

“What you’re describing is a giant zig-zag.”

“We call it the stinger -- it’s the best way to move through the jungle and react quickly to threats. And to enemy recon, our forces will look a lot bigger than they really are.”

“It will also make us vulnerable.” Luft pointed out. “You rangers have done a wonderful job mapping the terrain, Major, but isn’t it true the Aerugonian troops have the home-field advantage?”

“I thought about that, too. We can’t learn the territory like the AA in a few months of recon. But we have the maps, now, so I thought, what the heck, let’s change the field. Terraform it.”

Terraform the Aerugonian jungle?”

“Yup!” Fullmetal flipped through his sheaf of papers, pulled out a map of the quadrant between Fotset and the floating city Garuda, and brought his charcoal down on it. He scribbled a word at the top: canals. “The ground feels solid to us because humans are small and insignificant. But Earth’s crust is really more like a liquid. With the right force, I can make waves.”

Ed carved away at the topographical map. Roy tried not to wince on behalf of the paper. He wasn’t trying to hurt it -- accidental aggression was just a vehicle for passion. It sounded gay, but, Mustang didn’t ever plan on stating it aloud: Fullmetal was one of the most passionate people he’d ever met.

“We’re going to build canals at strategic points to block enemy movement through the green aisles. The Earth always wants to wrinkle; it’s just a matter of applying pressure to the hottest points. Pressure and temperature are cousins -- all I have to do is generate force in the right direction to make enough heat to pop the seal. We can make valleys, ravines, even floodplains if we have to. Change the battlefield in our favor, and force the AA to change their movements. It’ll be a shock on the environment in a few places, but nothing we do can’t be reversed.”

“How do you plan to block the enemy without hindering the movement of your own forces?”

“Sappers,” said Ed. He drew several dashes over his fabricated fault lines. “We need a team of your engineers to come in and build bridges at these strategic points, the locations of which only we will know. I can help out but I don’t have the time or the juice to build all of them.”

“Sounds dangerous.”

“Every engineering unit will have a combat escort, a PRC-25 radio and an RTO from the 1st Rangers.”

The Brigadier-General flipped again through her files. “I see you plan to win over the civilians in townships along the Green Corridor -- improve living conditions, medical care, provide security and labor where necessary... It’s not a traditional approach to warfare.”

“If the AA don’t have the support of the population, it’ll be impossible for them to operate around urban areas. Between that, disrupting their supplies, and fucking with their familiar territory, we might just have a shot at winning this thing.”

“Language,” Mustang chided.

The Brigadier-General laughed. “Kind of exciting, isn’t it? Here, can I borrow that?” She relieved the Fullmetal Alchemist of his pencil, and carved her looping signature into the last page of the debriefing, with a flourish. “Take that straight to the division commander, Major Elric. I’ll give you everything we can spare, for better or worse. Gods, but it will be nice to be out in the field again!”

Chapter Text


10 January, 1915, Longmen Mountains, Aerugo

The 1st Rangers abandoned their ponchos after the first week.

It was already the longest they ever spent in the wilds without returning to base. They grew accustomed to it, though. Move in a way the land didn’t like, and it would chew you up and spit you out. Simple.

Progress in the main company seemed slow, clearing, transforming, and bridge-laying as they went. The rest of Roy’s battalion organized into small fire teams and branched out like spider legs to disperse and eliminate threats in their area of operation (AO). They did anywhere from two to 9 raids a day. And sleep -- maybe.

Operation: “Clear Moon” was underway. Whenever the 1st Rangers moved, Mustang took notes. After ten years of service, he was good at taking note of things.

The ponchos were designed to keep you dry but he was soaked in sweat and drenched from the neck south after the early morning monsoons, anyway -- double the mud and muck after the first river crossing. All the extra gear did was help the enemy identify a noisy idiot in the underbrush, sweating three times as hard under a poreless poncho and the jungle’s relentless green heat.

He still preferred heat over bugs.

Some of the follow-up platoon, part and parcel of Major General Muntjac’s 37th Rangers, accused them of going native.

But it was easier, once you accepted it. You got used to being drenched all the time. Some of his soldiers started wearing strips of towels around their foreheads to keep the sweat from their eyes, which looked stupid but helped a lot. Mustang let the regulations loosen, and the rangers embraced it. After losing the ponchos, they could move like a part of the country; tune into it, sort of. Just the texture of the outside world on your skin could tell you lots of things: the direction of the wind, the dew point, the temperature variances between shade and direct sunlight; he could feel the vibration of cicada song in the air some days, and the quake and stir of nearby waterways. One time, he felt the vile aura of the Wait-A-Minute vine, a second before it caught him.

Wait-A-Minutes hated everything that walked or crawled. The vines fell in long flowing spirals from the upper canopies, snatching passing creatures from the forest floor and squeezing them in coils of thorns like barbed wire... Roy saw a second lieutenant in D Company get snagged from his truck and fly six meters that way. They had to cut him down. Besides the body-wide contact dermatitis, the poor guy lost a brand new compass.

More and more, you learn nature is booby trapped, too. Besides the buster vines looking to beat you and mug you, there was sun-sickness, and triangle-headed snakes, giant stinging centipedes, mosquitos that probably carried off small mammals to feast on, and spiders the size of your head. Boring-looking old trees whose delicious fruit was deadly poison and whose sap sizzled and burned like napalm --

Sometimes, it seemed like everything was out to get him.

They dug in at night to avoid the nastier wildlife. Roy would pick the camp; then, they guessed which direction an attack might come from and dug three and a half foot holes for themselves and a comrade, shored up with dirt on the action side like two-man trenches. One soldier slept while the other watched -- in this way, fifty per cent of the company was always awake and alert to danger. Not that it always worked out that way, though -- everyone was tired. Sometimes they dug in for five minutes in between combat, sometimes five hours, but rarely more. Even then, foxholes were only the thin veneer of safety. There could be an unexploded artillery round laying in the dirt where they camped. Or a nerve agent in the air that went undetected, and his whole battalion would simply never wake up in the morning. A sniper could be watching them, right now, and someone was going to be bits of bursting blood and bone before Mustang even heard the shot --

It was enough to keep him awake at night. Sometimes.

“You’re hiding your neck.” Hawkeye launched an assault with her usual deadly, and untimely, precision. As an afterthought: “Sir.”

“You caught me, Lieutenant.” A wet fern licked his cheek. “I had a midnight tryst with a curvy mosquito, and I think she wants more.”

“Very funny, sir." He didn't have to turn around to know Riza was not amused. "You always cover your neck. But today you’re hiding it.”

Mustang wished for another six hours of not talking. She could go back to drilling holes in the back of his head with her eyes. That was great.

His silence made it worse. Lt. Hawkeye only spoke when something had to be said.

“You can’t protect them forever, you know.”

“Who?” Play dumb, Mustang. He ordered.

“The Elrics.”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“You made Fullmetal march in the rear the past two days,” said Hawkeye. “I know what you’re doing, but he’s going to see combat in the Corridor. A lot of it. Shielding him now won’t help -- it will only make reality more of a shock.”

“I’m not shielding him.”

“Sir, you could have died in Garuda -- ”

“I did what any trained soldier would do, under the circumstances. It had nothing to do with who was present at the time, only that someone was. And I’m not dead, thank you, the congratulations and well-wishings aren’t necessary.”

“You shouldn’t have been out there in the first place.”

“I can move wherever I want within our AO, Lieutenant.”

“You dropped your security escort!”

Mustang scoffed. “If you could even call them that.”

“That’s something Fullmetal would say.”

The Colonel finally glanced back, but he didn’t change stride. Lowly: “What is that supposed to mean?”

“Sorry, sir. It’s just, you haven’t been making the most level-headed decisions lately, especially when it comes to those boys.” She said, a few sure-footed steps behind him. “Colonel, what are they doing out here? Lieutenant General Tolson assigned Fullmetal to forward assault, but you let him lead a team. You’ve entrusted him with a two-week branch operation driving Civil Ops through the mountains, and we’re all worried. I understand his capabilities, but they’re still only children! Roy,” she picked up speed before the kill: “You’re risking your reputation, and all of our lives on Nguyet Valley. It’s not like you.”

Even stripped down to the barebone essentials, Colonel Mustang was still carrying north of one hundred pounds of gear, including weapons and ammunition, kevlar helmet, load bearing equipment, and then on top of that, the weight of one of his closest friends’ disapproval. This war was going to turn him into a broken old man.

“Maybe I actually think his plan will work.” He said. “And just think about who you’re calling a child, for one second -- ”

“I saw you,” she blurted, suddenly. Roy shrunk under the renewed assault. “Together, I mean. In your foxhole. It was an accident, I heard something, and thought you were having another nightmare… ”

A trapdoor fell open in the Colonel’s stomach and gravity sucked his brain down, down. He felt his skeleton continue to ricket forward on autopilot, step after step. Mostly all the military did was carry stuff from one place to another. Soldiers were just more load bearing equipment.

Hawkeye tread carefully. Her voice fell. “I thought you didn’t like it, sharing. Your nightmares -- ”

Maybe she didn’t see anything.

“If anyone knows nightmares, it’s Fullmetal,” said Mustang. What was so wrong about sharing the burden, once in a while, he wanted to say.

“You like him. No, more than that. You respect him.”

“Don’t you?”

“Of course.” Hawkeye paused. Roy distantly hoped for an ambush.

“You didn’t send Ed to the rear to protect him,” she decided. “You’re avoiding him. Did... something happen?”

“Nothing!”

“Sir.” As if he needed Hawkeye’s men are so fragile attitude right now. He hated when she turned him inside out.

“Did something happen in Garuda?” She pressed. “Was it before or after you tried to get yourself killed?”

Roy was silent. Their conversation blistered in the verdant heat. Let it burn, he thought. Completely.

“Before.” He admitted. “Fullmetal wanted to explore.” He put all his distaste for the word into its inflection.

“So you abandoned your paperwork, I take it. Then what?”

“I don’t know. We went around the city.”

“You hate things that float.”

“It’s not a big deal.”

“Then tell me what happened.”

“I, um -- ”

“Yes?”

“I had a tickle in my throat, Riza. Please.”

“Just tell me what you did, Roy.”

“Why do you always assume I did something?”

“Because you’re acting like you did!”

He started to feel chased and unconsciously picked up the pace. More wet, affectionate ferns. Water dripped down his collar. He shrugged his shoulders. “It was nothing. A compulsion. I was tired and of unsound mind -- I tucked a bit of hair behind his ear. That’s all.”

Hawkeye cut a sharp inhale. Mustang looked back, and wished he hadn’t. She eyed him like he’d confessed to doing it raw in the mangroves. “Colonel, you know better than that.”

“I’m putting distance on it.”

“Let me see your neck.”

“No!”

His lieutenant had words for him, but that was when an RTO from the nearest company ran up, breathing heavy. She saluted. “Colonel! Lt. Havoc radioed in, there’s been an ambush in the rear, they’re taking fire from the river’s side -- ”

“What!” He barked. “Call him back!”

“Sir, I tried! The signal’s dead -- ”

“Keep trying!”

Hawkeye caught him by the elbow. “Don’t.” She said. “Don’t go rushing back there -- you know how rank and line works; let the 37th handle it, they’re the closest.”

She was right, obviously.

Shortly the sound reached them. The distant crack of artillery fire, spackle of automatic discharge. The Colonel gauged the size of the round from the artillery’s enormous echo. Tank -- they must have brought a tank. He waited three counts for the next round, but the sound of the explosion came sooner. Tanks. More than one. 1st Rangers was technically classified as only a light combat outfit -- they didn’t travel with the big guns and heavy artillery, in the interest of stealth. Roy was the big gun. Ed was the heavy artillery.

“Riza, hold the line!” She court-martialed him with her eyes. “Sergeant, with me!” Colonel Mustang took off at a dead sprint, the radio-telephone operator close behind.

He wouldn’t let any of his men die, not if he could help it.

“Report.” He drilled the RTO for details all the way to the rear.

“Lt. Havoc said they were pinned down five kilometers south of the last canal, taking heavy fire from the east and northwest -- ”

How was that possible? He wondered. His own unit had swept that area, and Muntjac’s men would have double-swept it on the way up.

“Heavy casualties,” the report took a grim turn. “A mine blew under one of their vehicles. Havoc said, ‘Sandwiched, there was no way out of it.’ I didn’t catch anything else, sir.”

He told everyone they passed to hold the line. Surprise ambush, don’t break the line. Roy Mustang, hypocrite of the century.

He could smell the smoke and diesel fumes, now, and taste the ashen tang of gunpowder -- leftover tension in the air that always followed a firefight, like the ground had just been shaken out, hard.

“Havoc,” he identified his lieutenant near the coordinates of their last communication. “Report!”

“Colonel?” He turned, brief surprise, followed by grim-faced sobriety: “Well, it isn’t good. They had us almost surrounded, gunning at least two tanks. The whole unit got caught in the crosshairs -- IED flipped our mules. Major Elric couldn’t block everything, so he just got as many of us out of there as he could, before… ”

“Lieutenant?” Mustang prompted. “How many are left from your unit?”

Havoc glanced to his left and right. A handful of soldiers hovered around him -- caked in dirt and streaked in sweat-lines. “There were 20 of us,” he said.

Mustang counted five remaining. “Where’s Fullmetal?”

Jean licked his lips. His fingers twitched to his mouth as if to pull on a cigarette, but for once, he wasn’t smoking. “Under the mule.”

The Colonel swallowed. “Where?” He crouched. “Show me.”

Havoc shifted aside, jerked his head. “They’re about to take our position, we can’t get closer.”

“How many?”

“Fifty. Maybe a hundred. Militia, not the Imperator’s troops; this was definitely not her type of work.”

“What do you mean?”

Havoc shrugged. “There just doesn’t seem to be any point. Why put the squeeze on us right here? There’s no valuable terrain, no supply point nearby. Our unit’s not carrying anything but C-rats and our personal weapons. Kim Cuc doesn’t do bloodsport -- she attacks targets. I guess that’s why we weren’t expecting anything.”

Roy peered through the tiny break in vegetation and deep into a grassy knoll framed in lazy updrafts of smoke. “You must always expect something, Lieutenant.”

“Yes, sir.”

“How did you escape?”

“Underground.” He answered. “The Major made tunnels, but with bullets hitting the dirt too, it worked more like a landslide. Quick reaction on his part, though -- the rest of us were on our bellies, waiting for the walls to close in.”

Havoc smiled, but it was weak and downtrodden. He cared about Ed. They all did. The best remedy for emotions in combat was fresh orders; all Mustang could do was keep their minds on work. What was the situation now, and what was to be done next. Roy lived his whole life like a combat situation.

“Everyone, stay calm.” He addressed the survivors. A single icy raindrop pecked the back of his neck. “I want you to fix bayonets.”

“Fix bayonets?!” Havoc juggled the cigarette he’d just rustled out of his flak vest, and lost it. “What are you thinking? We’re going to charge them?”

“Yes.”

“All five of us!”

“Yes. A monsoon is coming. The 37th will be here any minute to cover us, but we can’t lose this quadrant in the meantime. You all remember your training. Charge, drop, and fire.”

“And what if the 37th don’t come?”

“Charge, drop, and fire.”

“Charge, drop and fire,” muttered Havoc, shaking his head, but he unpacked a long square-tipped blade and started twisting it over the barrel of his rifle. “Fix bayonets. No one’s done a bayonet charge since the sixth century, Colonel. This is -- ”

“Jean.” said Roy. “Which mule is it?”

“That one,” he nodded. “The closer one.”

“It’s half entrenched.”

“Yep,” he hummed, doubtful. “Filled with lead, too -- it went down in a bad way. You sure about this, Chief?”

He meant, was the territory or the charge even worth it, if Fullmetal was already dead.

The Colonel raised his voice. “We have 600 feet of open ground to cover, and then it’s going to be close quarters combat. The rain will slow down the tanks. Attack before they overtake us, break up their lines -- they can’t fire artillery into their own people.”

Neither can I, he thought, eyes on the distant mule. With potential wounded in the open, he couldn’t risk lighting everything up, or worse, triggering another improvised explosive device.

At a signal from Mustang, the 1st Rangers dispersed, integrated into the wet foliage like so much smoke and shadow, and the first charge began. Five bayonets against at least fifty -- it was either that or wait to be overtaken and mowed down. Close quarters combat (CQC) was a form of warfare that took careful training, firm and fast execution. But under the right circumstances, a bayonet could turn the tides in battle. Especially when loading a magazine took longer than hopping a riverbank.

He didn’t think. There was no inner monologue; Roy was on a glide. First charge, he took his second kill. The blade went in, he was alive. It went out, he was dead. Simple. Some of the militia members were young. Just wisps of facial hair, like teenagers. Artillery rounds launched bodies and parts of bodies so high they got stuck in trees.

His ragtag group of survivors cleared 600 feet of open ground by the third charge. Their opponents didn’t seem to know what to do; they fired automatic rounds at the six rangers ducking in and around their ranks, and Mustang saw many enemy soldiers wounded by friendly fire -- their front line started to splinter and collapse.

The open rifts left behind after Fullmetal’s alchemy made good cover. Mustang flattened under an earth rise as a flock of bullets flew overhead. Dirt showered him in big, heavy clumps -- camouflage on the go. His leg was numb. He thought maybe he took a graze. The mule was dead ahead. Roy eyed the deep cavern gap under its tires, not sure what he would find there.

All these years of pain and darkness and a part of him still hoped for the best, right up until the moment reality crushed him back down.

Mustang skidded under the truck on his knees. His brain was only getting one channel, like senseless, encoded military speak: Shit, shit, shit, shit --

“Fullmetal. Report.” he clawed at the dirt around his body. “Wake up and report to me, damn it -- ”

Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit, shit. SHIT.

The underside of the armored vehicle had been carved almost in halves up the middle, folded out and twisted by the impact of the explosion. It had clearly rolled more than once, maybe even been tossed, before settling in the upchucked soil like roadkill. And underneath its ruined, faintly smoking chassis, Roy found the young State Alchemist he’d requested from Central almost three weeks ago, impaled on a broken axle-rod two inches in diameter. It grew out the left side of his chest like a misplaced mechanical limb --

He looked small. Roy, like many of the 1st Rangers, was accustomed to thinking of the Elrics as larger than life. Fullmetal was short but a minute in the same room with him and you knew you were the small one. He had presence.

Beneath the mule, Ed looked small as the day he found him in Resembool -- barely eleven years old, mutilated, an unspeakable stain on his soul.

Mustang smoothed some hair past his subordinate’s ear, smeared bright red with blood. He didn’t give a damn about such an inconsequential gesture, now. Why did it seem like people only focused on the unimportant things?

“Colonel...” A quiet wheeze in the dim light, but loud as gunfire.

“Ed?” The Colonel wormed closer. How was he even alive?

“The tanks,” Major Elric rasped. “They’re ours.”

“What, you mean they were hijacked? Stay awake, Fullmetal. Tell me about those tanks. How many are there? Who’s gunning them?”

Ed opened his mouth but the sound withered in the doorway. Blood ran down his chin.

Mustang swallowed. “Easy, it’s just a -- a punctured lung. Don’t you think you’re being a bit overdramatic?”

He touched the shaft of the axle-rod. Almost instantly a sheet of blood spilled from the Major’s mouth. “Pull it out,” he gurgled.

“No, that’s. That’s a very bad idea.” He decided. “All the first aid rules say that’s a bad idea -- ”

“Bastard. No time to, pussy around. Pull it out.”

“What are you going to do?”

Fullmetal lifted his hands, inch by trembling inch. “I’m gonna, seal it.”

“You can do that?”

“I have a theory.”

Roy couldn’t believe what he was seeing. Ed was not only miraculously conscious; he was going to perform some sort of experimental alchemy on himself, apparently, with a gigantic hole through his chest. Sure. If he didn’t bleed out or pass out or just die first -- what was it he’d said? Sardonically. Less than two-thirds human.

Of course. He’d done this all before. He’d transmuted a human soul and a suit of armor while he bled out on the floor of his childhood home. Only an idiot would think of him as a child, after that.

If the remaining one-third of Fullmetal wasn’t human, it was certainly god material.

The Colonel took off his gloves. He curled both hands around the axle, and glued one foot into the earth at his side to act as a lever. The Major issued a stiff nod, hands poised to clap. Roy looked at Ed and Ed looked at him. He was either going to kill him or help save him, and there was no time to tally the odds.


7 January, 1915, Garuda, Aerugo

“Drop the pen, Colonel. Stand up, we’re getting out of here.”

Ed almost missed the old headquarters in Fotset. Without the characteristic crack of the door against the drywall in his office, he couldn’t watch Mustang flinch behind his desk. But it didn’t matter. The Fullmetal Alchemist could slam a tent flap.

“It’s hot as shit in here.” Ed scrubbed the sweat from his brow. “Up, Mustang. Chop-chop,” he urged, before his superior could finish processing even the first command -- he’d probably been sitting there holding a pen and making absolutely no progress on his after-action reports for hours since the 1st Rangers made landfall in Garuda. Mustang was the easiest to find during downtime because he was the only dork doing paperwork instead of catching up on sleep, or writing home to loved ones, or day-drinking and winking at foreign girls. Whatever the rest of the company got up to.

“Landfall” in the very broadest sense of the word; the rangers had moved from wetlands to more wetlands: Garuda was a fishing village, and it floated on stilts. The rice paddies in the surrounding hillsides bore the nearest likeness to land, which was where the dedicated and upstanding forces of South Amestris had decided to put up the command tent, the medical tent for the wounded, and the mess for serving food. Every battalion was trained to put up and break down their equipment in minutes. Ed thought it was fucking bonkers to go through all that protocol when they were living in the jungle, anyway.

“Do you ever get tired of looking like a jackass in a gold chain, or does the military just brainwash you into liking it?”

He hid it well, but Ed saw the Flame Alchemist’s pride shrink. “Strangle me, please.”

Major Elric stood his hands on his hips and laughed. Roy only got the raspy edge when he was tired and sleep-deprived. You never saw one person doing so many things, all the time. Ed wanted to take him down. He didn’t fully understand it yet but he wanted the Colonel under his hands, sometimes. Both hands. The weapon parts and the human part of him.

“Ya haven’t slept.” Ed compiled a list. “You’re pretending to do paperwork, literally, ankle-deep in slime, and the incompetent door-stops from the 37th only staked three corners of your tent. At this point, you’re making it too easy for me.”

Mustang tried to flip the page he was working on, but the sheets were actually sticking together in the humidity, and it started an avalanche. His apathy took a cold turn: “Do you ever get tired of being the smartest person in the room?”

Ed grinned, clasped his hands behind his neck, and dropped them again. He hadn’t taken out his braid in a while -- it was loose, and needed combing. Personal things don’t matter so much on the frontlines, but the Amestrian jingle-berry military enforced strict grooming standards on all their prize-winning poodles.

“Smart has nothing to do with it.” He said. “Let’s face it. Without Al, I’m just a jerk.”

“I think you have many…” Bastard made a vague gesture. “Qualities.”

“I have a jerk streak a mile wide,” said Ed. “But thanks, I guess, for pretending not to notice. Come on,” he added. “Stop hiding from the sun. The air is stale in here and it reeks of frog crap.”

“Is that what that smell is?”

“You haven’t explored at all, have you? There’s a whole floating kingdom out here.”

“We’re not supposed to be exploring. We’re clearing the area with very gentle urban probes. Our objective is only to actualize the tactical advantages of friendliness, intergroup trade and cooperation -- ”

“We’re exploring, holy shit! Sounds like you need one of Jean’s special cigarettes -- you’ve been huffing the protocol too long. Air will help. Come on. We’ll buy some oranges and pick off the moldy bits.”

The Colonel looked frigid but he was moving, standing, shrugging on his first-in pack. “Fullmetal. Is this a date?”

Ed shrugged. “As long as you’re paying.”

He frowned harder. “You’re not being nice. This is a robbery.”

“Not if you’re willing. You know it’s ninety-three degrees out, right? Lose the full-combat getup.”

“One of us has to follow field safety regulations.”

“I could off-balance you in two seconds. What’s safe about that?”

He connected the middle finger and thumb of his right hand. “Go ahead and try it.”

His CO always had a little fire left. Ed held eye contact for a second, and dropped it on the way out the tent. “One day we’ll fight for real, Mustang.” He promised. “I’m looking forward to it.”

“Why aren’t we going to the shipping dock?”

“Because Sgt. Deckard and 2nd Lt. Iran are shuttling right now, and they stick to you all day like leeches.” Ed picked his way across the rangers’ hacksawed path, over a terrace and into the long grass beyond.

“This is outside our AO.”

“Relax, Colonel. I’ve been this way.”

“The militia pretend to be farmers sometimes!” He hissed. “Any one of these straw hats could be waiting to -- ”

Ed spoke with a woman at the field’s edge. She waved them into her boat, and started it up.

“Crocodile hour’s coming around, so, she says we have to move fast to get into the village.”

“Oh. Oh good. Thanks for running that by me, before I got into this tiny sinking canoe and put my life in the hands of a dirty bicycle engine.”

“Oops. I forgot you don’t have time to learn a language.”

“It’s not one of my priorities, no.”

“Looks like it is, now.”

Mustang huddled at the bow, looking miserable. It was making Ed smile. There were children in Garuda who grew up their whole lives over water; they learned to swim before they walked, how to spot crocodiles, how to fish and navigate the village’s interlocking channels before ever starting something like school.

Water highways were the only way into town. They passed other boats with improvised motors, some hauling cargo, some passengers. The “road” was wide enough for three standard medium-size canoes to pass safely, shoulder to shoulder. Sometimes the water level rose with the swell of the land through layers of low clouds -- and sometimes it fell, leaving them trailing in the depths of brown-water gullies, looking up at the silver stream sky.

The Colonel wouldn’t stop eyeing every boat that passed, even the ones carrying village babies and little dogs, like terrorists were about to spring out of them. Ed aimed a kick at his superior’s boot. Mustang kept his arms crossed but kicked back, wearing the purest what the fuck expression you have ever seen on a commanding officer. Everybody had a line on how much they could take; the Colonel drew it at water-worlds and surprise dates, he guessed.

“Don’t worry, Mustang,” he said, biting back a grin. “You’re safe with me.”

“You should have left me in that crooked tent, Fullmetal. If you wanted to watch me suffer.”

Ed couldn’t help it. He didn’t find Mustang very funny but somehow the dude made him laugh.

He made him pay the driver, and she motored away. The docks in Garuda were thick cornered wood and steel buoys, as were most of the stilted houses and lodges. Long pontoon bridges and rope railings connected the larger markets, but some places in town you had to swim to, or hop a passing canoe, and then climb ladders and cargo nets to higher levels.

“What now?”

“Look at this old temple! Isn’t it cool?”

Colonel Mustang eyed the temple ruins Ed and Al spent the better part of the morning exploring. Nobody remembered its name; the temple was so ancient the jungle had simply digested it -- sinewy masses of green thicket vines and the muscular gray roots of nearby mangrove trees had broken through the stone foundations, block by massive block -- huge archways and long lurching corridors twisted and overrun by time. Courtyards became mindful ponds as the water level rose around the wreckage, blanketed in moss and lily flowers wherever the sun broke through. Walls carved with images of old gods weakened and sunk back to earth. Colorful spiders wove intricate new window panes. A little girl laid out her lunch on the eaves of a fallen stone threshold. Ed had never seen nature and Man clasp each other so tightly.

“Something like this would be difficult to burn.”

Mustang!”

“What? It’s because the trees,” he said, innocent. “Most people think they go right up, but really trees are just densely packed, reinforced tubes of water.”

Ed decided to steer the Colonel away from historical monuments.

The markets picked up during and after mealtimes, which made them marginally safer places to wander. Ed liked the sound market best. You could hear it for miles across the water. They had a particular craft, in Garuda, of making music-making things. Not just instruments, although there were plenty of those, but objects whose purpose was not to make sound -- rather, sound was the mechanism by which they achieved some other purpose. It was the same basic principle behind the rainstick: tip the stick, the beads inside fall to the other side, and rain will follow.

“Rainsticks don’t really make it rain.”

“Maybe you’ve never seen a real one.”

“Edward, please.” Roy scoffed. “Don’t talk down to me. I’m way up here.”

“I’m serious. What if it’s like the stone, and you only see cheap reproductions? Rainstick’s easy enough to theorize, anyway. Little bit of weather alchemy. I could whip that right up.”

“I’m sure you could. But meteorological alchemy is strictly regulated in Amestris, and for good reason.”

“Yes, good old Amestris. ‘No hail on Sundays!’ Why don’t you go ahead and strip the fun out of everything? I’ll stand here and watch.”

The Colonel stopped near a stall selling untranslatable whirligigs; they were designed to spin in the wind and create strange and beautiful shapes and sounds. One of them made your crops grow. Another improved the odds of copious grandchildren. Others brought fortune, luck, or love.

“Did you actually find one?”

“What?”

“A reproduction. Of the stone.”

“Yes. Look, over there!” Fruit stalls were always drifting on the main channels. Ed skipped over a pontoon bridge and made a quick leap for the floating dock. The stall-owner greeted him, and he selected a couple of the nicer oranges from a shallow hanging basket. He’d tried Aerugo’s bitter star-fruit at Alphonse’s request and didn’t like it.

“Are you serious? You found one?” Mustang, out of breath.

“Wow, you’re pretty nimble under all that shit. Will you buy these?”

“Will you answer my questions?”

“Yeah, fine. I’m just surprised you don’t already know, with your spies everywhere.”

“I can’t do this job and know everything.”

Ed thought that made sense. Maybe if Mustang had been transferred East after Ishval, he could afford to sit back and play political games. One thing Major Elric learned after his first fifty hours with the 1st Rangers is you don’t sleep and you really don’t relax. Combat made a lot of busywork for your body and your mind, between holding ground and trying to gain ground while not getting shot and also leading a battalion. Oh, and conceptualizing a brand new type of warfare while you’re at it --

Ed got tired of it all, too.

He led them on a winding walk out of the market district, into the cat-tail side of town. It was quiet, there. No commercial stuff, just an ice vendor, and a guy selling dried mealworms for snacks and bait. The air hummed. Fish flipped out of the water for passing moths and damsel-flies.

“Ed, I can’t. I can’t do this.”

Major Elric stopped halfway over a bridge of floating barrels, confused. An odd sort of dread yawned wide like a hole in his chest. “What -- oh.”

He backtracked to the Colonel. “Here, take this.” He handed over his orange, and took the unpeeled one. “You need to stop biting your fucking nails. It took three and a half million years of successful cell reproduction to make you this way -- don’t screw it up.”

“Look who’s talking.”

Ed turned on his heel, and splashed over the barrels a second time. The whole bridge swayed and he could feel his superior hesitate on the other side. “I might be less than two-thirds human, Mustang. But at least I know when I’m being a jerk.”

“Sorry,” he apologized, not even remotely convincing. “I’m tired. Why are you making me walk all this way?”

“I like this spot.”

Ed laid out on the floating dock beyond the bridge, dipped the soles of his boots in the gently riffing water and peeled another orange for himself. Beyond his bobbing square of sun-warmed planks, the village stopped. Nothing existed for miles in three directions -- just water, water, more water, and a distant green line.

“It’s crocodile hour,” Mustang reminded him, sitting down like the last time he sat down was fifty years ago.

“Crocodiles don’t swim this close, there’s nothing to eat,” Ed kicked his feet. “Anyway, the odds are fifty-fifty it picks the wrong leg and breaks all its teeth.”

He snorted. “You’ve got such a soothing nature, Fullmetal. Like a poem, or a song.”

Ed shaded his eyes to peer at the Colonel and found him almost smiling -- not so much in the mouth but in both his eyes and it was new and wonderful and alarming. He fought it for a moment, then just told himself it was sunburn because ‘blushing’ and ‘the Colonel’ didn’t fit in the same frame of reality. “Does anyone like waking up to that sarcasm?”

“Is that a serious question? Because,” Mustang brushed some white orange hairs off his leg. It was a ‘do stuff constantly with my hands’ compulsion, Ed theorized, that made him fiddle and bite and brush at things. “You’re the one who’s been dropping into my foxhole, the last three days.”

“You’re dreaming!” He snapped. Major Elric tucked his hands under his head, and squinted up at the clouds. “It was twice, at most. I hate digging, and Havoc snores.”

“Sure.” Mustang nodded along. It was bullshit, but he was going to let him have it, and that was fine. Ed thought some things shouldn’t be talked about in the open. Or at all.

“You find anything around here?” The Colonel changed the topic, too casual. He was straightening out the petals on his orange peel, now. The gloves were off, which was interesting. He had funny-boned fingers, gone pink at the knuckles. “About the stone, I mean.”

Ed finished his orange. He frisbee’d his peel into the water, and something nibbled it from below. “Maybe.”

Roy shrugged like it never mattered. “I only want to help.”

“I know, but -- ”

“I get it. You don’t trust the military’s dogs.”

“It’s not that. Hughes wanted to help, too. And he’s really good at it, finding out about shit he shouldn’t -- but, I couldn’t let him. Even when it might’ve helped us get around bureaucratic barriers in Central and find some answers, I didn’t want to risk something swinging back at him, the way fate’s swung back at us, so many times. And he’s always going on about his beautiful wife and his perfect daughter and his lord and fucking savior best friend… ” Ed heaved a sigh. Roy murmured ”Me?”

“I don’t want anyone to get hurt because of me,” he continued, lowly. “Not again.”

Mustang leaned back on his hands. “I theorized a human transmutation in my twenties, you know.”

Really?”

“Yes. It was bad. At the time, I thought alchemy could only be used for evil, and I fed that belief, daily. I channeled all my energy into research, and the works of Evola, Ur, and Flamel -- I started to believe the process of distilling life into its purest form, the red stone, could only involve countless souls of innocent victims... Maes stepped in before I went anywhere with it, and I put it all aside. It was only a theory, from a mind at war.”

“Al and I found the product of what you’re talking about.” Ed propped himself on his elbows. “Some funky alchemic catalyst in Xenotime led us to Nash Tringham, and then to a man going by the name of Mauro. He had a stone with him he was using to heal people -- a synthetic one, could’ve been exactly what we needed -- but I’ve seen enough now to know it was made from suffering, like you said. I couldn’t take it from him. I helped him run.”

“You did what a lot of men couldn’t.”

“You knew him.” Ed guessed. “In Ishval, I mean. He said he was there.”

“Dr. Marcoh is officially a deserter from the civil war in Ishval.” Mustang explained. “He left the Amestrian State Military during the atrocities that took place there, and the rest of us were too young and dumb to follow him. Marcoh gave me some advice back then that I never forgot -- when I couldn’t run, I couldn’t fight anymore, and I couldn’t even do the decent thing and pull the trigger on myself -- ”

“Mustang,” Ed punched him in the shoulder, hard, and said the only thing that came to mind, a resounding refusal: ”No.”

“I didn’t,” he continued, roughly. “It was Marcoh who told me to keep going, even if it was just to remember what happened there.”

They didn’t bring up the stone again. Ed was starting to understand that talk of it only turned up memories of pain. The less his friends knew about his search, the better off they would be. He would find the truth even if it took him ten years, or his whole life.

Mustang kicked one of his dangling feet. “What are you doing?”

“Dreaming.”

“Your eyes are open.”

Ed sat up. His bangs fell in his face and he blew them out of the way, but it didn’t help. “I guess I better bring you back.”

He felt a tickle over his temple and turned to his CO in time to see his hand dart away. Had the Colonel just -- ? No, that was fucking stupid, wasn’t it. He wasn’t flushed, either; an hour of sunlight was probably all the poor bastard could take.

“What is your preoccupation with black?” Ed grumbled, climbing to his feet. “Makes you look like a ghost.”

“One of the mean ones, I hope.”

Garuda melted in the early sunset. Foot-traffic wittered off in the pre-evening gloom, and the return trip across the floating village was swift. Everything seemed muffled, somehow. The waterways darkened and curled away.

They weren’t even fifteen yards from the shipping lanes when they heard it. The tiny knk! of a spring-loaded explosive being triggered. The worst part was, Ed was pretty sure it was his metal foot that tripped the damn wire. It wasn’t there before, he thought, it must’ve been rigged sometime during the day --

Major Elric only had seconds to decide how to react. Colonel Mustang did what he thought only idiots did in the final instant of a bomb threat, and Ed lunged to stop him, every single fiber in his being attuned to one wrenching mantra: NO. It wasn’t going to end this way, not if he could help it.

He didn’t catch him in time. All he managed to do was boff at his side, and send his CO off balance a little -- Mustang hit the booby trap on his back, and the grenade went pop! Like if you dropped a cement block two stories. The dock they were standing on gave one violent buck that rippled over the whole village, not nearly as bad as it could have been -- which was why the Amestrian military trained its dumbasses to muffle live explosives with their bodies. That, fucking, inconsiderate --

Roy sputtered and coughed.

Bastard!” Ed spat.

“I think my nose is bleeding. Yes, yes it is.”

“You absorbed a grenade and all you have is a nosebleed?” Ed picked his way over the planks and squatted next to him. “Holy shit, look at your pack. That stupid gear saved your life.”

“I need a fire team to sweep this area again, I think.”

“You need your fucking head checked,” said Major Elric, laughing lightly. “Let’s get out of here, Mustang. Can you stand? Come on, then. Chop-chop.”


20 January, 1915, Mezzo City, Aerugo

Colonel Mustang snapped out of a visceral nightmare. His heart was hammering, his neck was wet. His leg had gone numb and he could still smell the blood --

But he was back in his foxhole. Like a shallow grave. Dark, cold, and dripping.

Wait a minute --

“Fullmetal, you’re back.”

Whenever he fantasized about waking up next to a pretty blond, she didn’t generally fall into the incriminating categories of half metal, underage, male, and drooling on his neck.

“Mhm.” The teen alchemist barely shifted. He was caged under his arm, the Colonel didn’t remember how. Wait, yes he did. Sometime in the night, a rude intrusion: Lift. Ed sounded like he wanted to hit him. Lift your bastard arm! Mustang obeyed orders even in his sleep.

“You’re ahead of schedule.” The expedition driving Civil Ops through the mountains was supposed to take two weeks, after leaving Garuda; he’d worried himself into holes and slept alone for only ten days.

“I guess.”

“Everything... go as planned?”

“Yes, it was fine. Everyone’s here.” A quiet, bitter follow-up: “I got them all out, this time.”

“Good work.” The Colonel felt a surge of warmth and directionless gratitude. He scrubbed his hand over his subordinate’s back. “And you’re alive.”

“You, too,” murmured the Fullmetal Alchemist, and he growled into his skin something that sounded like “Missed you,” shy and mean. Mustang’s pride rolled over and begged for more. He dragged the pads of his fingers between his shoulder blades.

“I need your report in the morning.”

“Five more minutes.”

“How’d you know which foxhole was mine?”

Breath of a laugh. Then, wryly: “You were saying my name.”

“Oh.”

“It didn’t sound like a good dream.”

“No. It was that ambush, outside Garuda.”

“Oh, yeah.” He sighed through his nose. “Ouch.”

“You still haven’t told me how you did that.”

“It was just a theory.”

Fullmetal could fill the First Branch with his theories.

“Five bayonets against a hundred -- nobody even got seriously hurt! They’re calling you Colonel Crazy-Horse.” Ed chuckled. “Will you always come for me like that?”

“Yes.” He lied. They all knew you couldn’t stop everything all the time -- but his troops needed something to believe in, and it might as well be him. That was the whole point.

“Guns blazing?”

“No question.”

Ed laughed again. “I won’t hold you to that.” And he bit his neck.

The Colonel let him, only out of surprise -- this didn’t normally happen when he was wide awake. And his hand was already on his back so he was basically encouraging it. Damn. Tried to withdraw and pressed him closer instead. Mustang sighed heavily. It must be opposite day. Or else he woke up from a dream in a dream. Was that possible?

The surprise faded. Fullmetal touched the underside of his jaw, cool steel knuckles stacked against his skin like the barrels of a gun, and Mustang tipped his head back, waiting for him to pull the trigger. But all he did was sit up and look at him. Gold and silver caught the pale dawn like kindling and it was too hard to look back. Ed made words like “beautiful” strike you as inadequate, inflexible untruths -- even with the sleeves hacked off his uniform, after two weeks of half-sleeping, in the bottom of a muddy hole. Yes, especially like that.

Major Elric narrowed his eyes. It was only then the Colonel more than glanced at him and noticed his subordinate was breathing fast, his pupils were big. He dipped his head again. Mustang tried to concentrate on his own breathing and not the warm touch on his throat or the nasty click of Fullmetal’s teeth as he continued to work -- had he done this before, he wondered, with someone else, or was he just a genius, and learned everything by doing?

The latter, he hoped, and curled his arm over his shoulders. A couple of qualities he shared with the rest of Amestrian military command: Roy was both jealous and proud. He didn’t just think Amestris should change, he thought he should be the one to change it. He enjoyed playing their political games, but especially winning them. He liked being the sole proprietor of flame alchemy; he liked owning the 1st Rangers, their accomplishments, and by extension Southern Command. Just recently the small god he found in Resembool had come into his possession, and he liked that, too. He’d rather it stayed that way.

While Mustang weighed the political advantages and disadvantages of taboo relationships with his subordinates, Fullmetal slid close. His knee slipped over his leg. Roy’s official strategy was to do nothing at all.

“So you’re just gonna sit there like a dead lizard.” Ed rolled his eyes like he expected it.

Then Fullmetal did an odd thing. He shoved his arm away, snatched at the wrist of his glove and tugged it off, then caught his free hand and did the same. No one ever disarmed him like that. Without his gloves the Colonel was just a jerk in a sandbox.

“That’s not fair.”

“Hm,” Ed smiled, sharkish. “I’m not gonna kiss you, Mustang. That’s not happening.”

“I didn’t ask you to!”

“You want me to. It’s all over your face.”

Mustang was sweating. His palms felt hypersensitive. The only reason to take off your gloves was to touch something, and his brain was urging him to do it, just to make everything else make sense.

No, I don’t,” he retorted. “It sounds like it would hurt.”

Fullmetal believed him, dropped his eyes and looked away. The kid already worried if he did more damage than good, he didn’t need more convincing. Roy felt rancid. He liked Ed’s style, actually, even when it stung a little more than necessary. Hughes told him about the town of Liore, and he agreed with the strong-arm method: the truth hurts. The truth ought to hurt, sometimes. He thought Liore was ripe for an uprising long before Fullmetal came along and kicked everything into gear.

“You use your teeth too much,” he suggested. His hands crawled forward on their own, and folded over the Major’s sides. He spread his fingers, the thin cotton of a military undershirt between him and off-limits territory. Small thrill. Ed had a way of always tricking him out of his AO.

“Show me,” he said, hoarse, biting at his lower lip. One canine snagged harder than the rest.

The Colonel had every right to refuse. In fact, it was his responsibility to. Better a jerk than an old pervert. But he was proud, and selfish, and he took orders in his sleep.

He slid one hand around his neck. The hair at his nape was blood-warm, tangled and damp. Fullmetal tipped his jaw like they were about to fight. Roy would show him how it was done, he thought. Without leaving traces.

It was a nice idea but he forgot it soon after Ed’s first intake of breath, and the hushed snort of surprise that followed it. Mustang identified a sensitive area under his ear, allowed him to feel his teeth but didn’t bite. He decided to leave a hickey there, along with every other little feeling he couldn’t express. But it wasn’t the tucked-away pocket of emotions he thought it was -- longing hit him like a tidal wave, and he took his time being close. Maybe the five minutes before dawn was all they were going to get.

Fullmetal had the most perfect neck.

Roy did actually nip at him, a bit -- left-behind notes in the margin of his throat. He thumbed the inside of his hip and Ed turned into the pressure with an airtight gasp. Around then, Mustang’s inner monologue gave up the ghost. He shuffled his hand under his subordinate’s loose shirt and slid it up the center ridge of his back like he’d been looking for something this whole time, and finally got a chance to reach for it.

Fullmetal plucked at the front of his flak jacket and hauled himself close, knocked his forehead against Roy’s temple and tipped his head again, brows knit, looking frustrated.

“You want me to kiss you.” Mustang concluded. “It’s all over your face.”

“It is not,” he growled. “Just do it.”

“And let you win?”

“It’s not a game! Why d’you have to be so competitive!”

“Because I like to see you crash and burn trying to beat me.”

“Mustang,” his nostrils flared. “Don’t start something if you can’t finish it.”

“You started it.”

You started it!”

“What did I do?”

“You’re always,” Ed fisted his hands in the shoulder straps of his vest and Mustang’s back hit the dirt wall. “Walking around!”

“I’ll stop that immediately.” He drawled. But the realities were weighing back in on him; he spied his M-16 leaning up against the wall of his pit, like a third perspective waiting for action. Mustang dropped his hands. “Fullmetal, you know I can’t -- ”

“Damn it,” the young alchemist swore through gritted teeth. “Damn it! Damn you!”

He was very hard to ignore. Roy opened his mouth and shut it.

“Tell me you don’t want to,” he hissed. “Go on, lie to me.”

Fullmetal rocked against him. Mustang stuttered -- he could feel that he was hard and that already meant it had gone too far. “It’s not about what I want.”

He rolled his hips again. When Ed didn’t say anything it usually meant he was waiting for you to connect your own dots. Roy caught his chin in hand. Fullmetal leered at him. His eyes weren’t open books they were locked, heavyweight encyclopedias and they could inform you as soon as knock you the fuck out. What difference would it make, he thought, one kiss?

Colonel!

Roy jolted. Clarity cut through the confusion of closeness; his inside voice took an edge like Hawkeye’s: You know better than that.

She was right.

In a move that was completely necessary but regretfully harsh, Mustang turned the tables; he shut his ears and stuffed his subordinate back-first into the dirt, snatched his M-16 and climbed the hell out, leaving the Fullmetal Alchemist in his foxhole with two eyes full of blazing fury, a hard-on, and -- he realized, five steps later -- Roy's gloves.

Damn it!

Chapter Text


5 January, 1915, Longmen Mountains, Aerugo

Ed looked down the foxhole, then dropped into it.

”What are you doing?!”

You never knew exactly where someone would be sitting at the bottom, and he came very close to squashing the Colonel’s kneecap, and his jewels, in one go.

“We finished the last perimeter checks,” Ed held in a sneeze. “And it started raining. I need somewhere to sleep. Scoot over!”

“Dig your own hole, I don’t share!”

“Are you tripping? I’m not digging a hole right now, it’s almost midnight -- I can barely move my arm and leg! Just move over, foxholes are for two.”

Mine isn’t! You’re an alchemist, make a hole!”

“And you’re the one who said ’No alchemy after sunset, Fullmetal, it’s too flashy, someone might get scared and wet themselves -- ’”

“That’s not what I said! I don’t sound like that!”

Ed sat on him till he moved. It wasn’t bullying; he never crossed a line he wouldn’t with Alphonse.

He missed Al. They’d only been gone a few days in the brush and he missed his little brother painfully. The Colonel was a poor substitute, but at least he played along; he riled a lot easier than Al, and he didn’t know half the tricks. Ed could tell Mustang was an only child because he acted like no one had ever sat on him before, or shared his bed, or dunked his hand in a toilet. Growing up alone sounded boring.

His damp layers shifted and reconnected with his skin, and Major Elric caught a seizure-like shiver. He passed it on to the Colonel.

“You’re cold, too!” He sniffed. “How is the Flame Alchemist cold?”

“The same reason you aren’t bulletproof.”

“Some parts of me are!”

“Well, some parts of me are warm.”

“That is the fattest, most unbelievable lie you have ever told -- ”

“Will you shut up, already?” He was already mad. “Stop kicking me.”

Ed wound his flesh arm around his chest for the pitiful insulation it offered. He was amazed that somewhere so muggy and hot during the day could get so icy cold at night. But that was the mountains, for you. He tried to hold in another round of shivers. “Can’t you make a little fire?”

“It doesn’t work like that, I’m not a gas lamp.”

“But you could do it if you tried.”

“I’m not interested in trying. I want you to go away. I don’t share. Go drop in on someone else.”

The Fullmetal Alchemist stretched his shoulders. He examined the walls. Mustang dug a good hole. “Nah.”

“That’s an order!”

“What’re you gonna do if I say no? Fight me?” He challenged. “Get up and dig a new trench?”

“Maybe I will!”

“Do it, I don’t care. I’ll keep your ass-print warm.”

Mustang actually bared his teeth. He was pissed. “Stop. Kicking. Me.”

“What do you do down here that’s so private? Pray? Write letters?”

The Colonel held his silence. He even shut his eyes, like Ed would go away.

“If anything’s gonna give up our position, it won’t be my flashy alchemy. It’ll be you on a bad bend of night terrors.”

Mustang opened his eyes.

Ed was curious. “Do you even remember anything from them, or is it more like a big raw feeling in your brain?”

“Both,” he grimaced. “Sometimes.”

Ed lowered his voice but it was hardly necessary with the rain falling. “Um, Colonel. I think they might be, you know. Getting worse.”

Mustang lifted one gloved hand over his eyes. “I know. I’m working on it.”

“I’m gonna keep watch, okay?” He ventured. “So… get some sleep. Tonight you don’t have to worry about anything.”

“It won’t matter,” Roy muttered, grim. “You should go. I’ll only keep you awake, too.”

“Don’t be like that. You watch the backs of the whole battalion all day. Why don’t you let someone watch yours, for once.”

The Colonel looked everywhere, then down. He pulled on the wrists of his gloves. “You always do that.”

“What?”

He picked at one of the snaps on his flak jacket, removed a container of antidim compound, spun it around in his hand, and put it back. “You phrase things like questions,” he said. “But they don’t sound like questions. Even if I answer, it just makes me feel stupid for playing.”

“Speaking of playing stupid,” said Ed. “What’s with Muntjac’s follow-up goons? The 37th are all over the place as soon as we set up camp, it’s like they’re trying to spy on us. And they barely even do any work!”

Mustang flicked his hand like he was brushing something off his leg. “It’s harmless -- ignore them. They’re supposed to be feeding information on our movements back to Command, but it’s a two-way street.”

“You’re using the spies to spy back on Central.”

“Master Sergeant Fuery is tracking their radio frequencies. It’s quite convenient, actually; when people don’t trust you, they inadvertently leave avenues for betrayal.” Mustang looked cocky for a second but then his expression turned bitter: “If one of those bald-spots so much as calls me ‘upstart’ again, I’ll hear about it.”

Ed rolled his eyes. “Adults are so cute. Why don’t you just abolish the military?”

“Because,” Roy blinked. “Then people would attack us.”

“What if they abolished their militaries, too.”

He frowned. “You’re doing it again.”

“Worldwide. No more state-funded killing complexes,” Ed continued. “No more arms races, or deterrent policies, or so-called ‘defense’ budgets. No more soldiers. Suddenly there’d be a shitload of money and resources laying around, and smart people with the time on their hands to think about making the world more peaceful and connected instead of angry and wartorn.”

“Fullmetal…” He pulled on his gloves again. “It’s not that simple.”

“I know it’s not. It’s the principle of the thing, Mustang. That’s my point.”

“I have to think about it.”

Ed kicked rifts in the dirt with his heels. “How old are you, anyway? I’ve been asking around and I’m getting everything from twenty to fifty.”

Fifty?” The Colonel went rigid. Like someone had skipped up and cut his throat. “Do I look fifty?”

“I don’t know. Don’t hyperventilate. I think people are confused because you don’t look like anything, really.”

“But fifty?”

“I said don’t hyperventilate.” Ed turned his shoulder into the dirt wall. He kicked him a little. “Think about it this way -- when you really are fifty, people still won’t be sure.”

He said nothing.

Mustang.” He was starting to feel bad for the guy. “I wouldn’t’ve said anything if I knew you were gonna take it this hard.”

“Come on,” he added. “People can die if they’re nine, nineteen, or ninety-one. So why care about some random number over your head, in the meantime?”

Roy still said nothing, but he shrugged his shoulders. Some gravel came loose and tumbled down his chest. Then, finally: “How old do you think I am?”

“I don’t know. Hughes is thirty. You were in the Academy together so you must be at least twenty-seven, or -- ”

“I’m twenty-nine,” he said bleakly. “In a couple of years, I’ll have a big brass gut, and a bald spot to match.”

Ed laughed. It started out as hushed giggles but grew and grew until his face was warm and his shoulders were shaking with it. Mustang frowned at him the whole time. Adults were so cute.

“You won’t,” he finally managed to gasp. “Come on, lookit you -- you’re probably all cut-up under those layers.”

“I’m not.” He said glumly. “I’m soft. I know I’m going soft. That’s probably why Maes keeps telling me to find a wife. Who is he kidding? I’m not even settle-down material, anymore. I’m more likely to get shot than married.”

Ed wheezed. He was silent-laughing so hard his joints were going weak. “Mustang, you idiot.” He sighed again, and wiped a tear from his eye. “You’re gonna be a bony old man, if you don’t start eating your C-rats.”

“I hate C-rats. I’ve been eating them for ten years. I can’t stand it, anymore.”

Ed leaned into his CO’s shoulder and wiped his nose on his fatigues. He curled his metal hand against his elbow. “I’m sorry.” He didn’t know what he was apologizing for, but it seemed like something Mustang might need to hear.

“You should go. People like me should be alone.”

“Kiss my ass, Colonel. I’m already comfortable.”

“What do you feel with that?” Apparently he was curious, too.

“Huh?” Ed’s eyes were slipping shut. The difference in heat with just one extra body was enough to lull him to sleep. He shuffled to wedge himself in more comfortably, then turned over his hand and stretched his fingers. “Um, it’s hard to explain. Not anything like touch, but, I feel resistance, I guess. It took some getting used to, but now, I can feel if something is resisting me, in every single joint.”

Mustang reached out. It was a hand, but not a hand, Ed told himself, and didn’t feel any kind of way when he touched his fingers, traced his palm, put pressure inside the pad of his thumb. He curled his hand around the underside of his wrist and Ed flexed his knuckles. Not even Al asked him certain things about his automail. They didn’t touch like this. But they weren’t really touching, were they? It didn't count if one of them can't feel.

“Do you... like it? Resistance?”

“No.” He let his breath out in a rush, not sure why he was holding it. “I mean, I don’t know. It’s just physics. It’s not anything, really.”

The Colonel let his hand slide away. Slowly: “Then why are you always kicking me?”

Ed grinned. “Okay, fine. It helps get the feeling back in my leg -- recalibrate, sort of. I like when you resist me.”

He kicked at him. And, after a moment, Mustang kicked back.

Chapter Text


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.”

Roy breathed.

“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.”


Later...

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 . 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!”

“But how?”

“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?”

What!”

“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.”