“Second Lieutenant Havoc,” the Colonel said, not looking up from the report he was reading. “The Elric brothers will be arriving on the 10:40 today. Pick them up and bring them here, please.”
“Uh, sure Colonel,” he said, then paused as the Colonel viciously scratched out most of what was on the page in front of him and started scribbling comments down the side. Havoc was willing to bet they were really nasty comments. “You want them here quick or something?”
“The Elric brothers have been known to avoid the office when they don’t want to discuss something.” He scratched out another line so hard he nearly tore the paper. “I doubt very much that Edward will want to discuss this. And Havoc.”
“Don’t let him run.”
* * *
The Elric brothers, fourteen and thirteen, Edward and Alphonse. Havoc still hadn’t met them, but he’d heard enough about them to write a novel. Which, alright, was possibly because he’d gone around asking everyone for stories about them.
What? Kids in the military! That was noteworthy, right? Only natural to want to know.
From Fuery: “His brother is a suit of armor. A suit of armor! And that’s the thing, that’s exactly the thing, because his brother’s the suit of armor, but you know which one everyone’s afraid of? The Fullmetal Alchemist. Not the armor, the tiny kid. I hear something on the air about him practically every day, it’s insane. It’s like, ‘The Fullmetal Alchemist blew up the train station,’ or ‘The Fullmetal Alchemist set fire to the laboratory,’ or ‘The Fullmetal Alchemist tied all the thieves to the railroad tracks and stood over them laughing until the police made him let them go.’ I’m glad they hardly ever make it back here. Why do you want to meet them, Havoc?”
From Breda: “Don’t mess with the little guy, Havoc. He may not look like much, but he’s a goddamn genius. You don’t want to give him the chance to think circles around you, trust me. Did you hear about what he did to those smugglers in South?”
From Falman: “The Elric brothers, yes. Their capabilities are statistically unusual. I’ll have to look into it further, of course.”
From Hawkeye: “The Elrics are very serious about their goals. Doesn’t that paperwork need to be finished before tomorrow?”
Worryingly, from the Colonel: “Edward Elric may be our most useful pawn.”
And, most worryingly of all, from Hughes: “I hear it’s a bad idea to make enemies of those kids. Right, Roy?”
Havoc had been looking forward to meeting the Elric brothers, but he’d been looking forward to it while thinking he’d have the whole office as a buffer. He hadn’t thought he’d have them all to himself in a car for half an hour in traffic. He wasn’t sure how he felt about that. Overjoyed was not the word.
* * *
“Bastard’s going to be such a bastard about this. We should have stayed in Central, Al. I told you we should just go to Central and—”
“Brother, you know we have to report in sometimes, we haven’t reported in for a year. This way we can visit Mr. Henry and see if he has any more rare books in, and you can stay for your assessment, and we can check in with the Colonel and see if he has any information for us—”
“He’ll give us a mission. I hate it when he does that.”
“Brother, you’re in the military.”
“And all the missions he gives us are pretty helpful. I don’t even know what he thinks he’s getting out of you.”
“Personal amusement, the stupid shit. God, he’s going to be such a bastard about this.”
“You did make a lot of paperwork for him.”
“So? It’s his goddamn job, isn’t it? He’s the one who wanted to be a Colonel, he should know paperwork is just part of the deal. And I didn’t ask for those people to put unstable dynamite in that cave. Who the hell does that, anyway?”
“They weren’t expecting the ground to suddenly open up, brother.”
“Earthquakes happen. It could have opened up even without me, so putting that dynamite there was stupid. Anyway, it’s better this way, cause those guys can’t make weapons in the cave anymore.”
“Because there is no cave. Brother, you reduced most of the town to rubble.”
“I put it back.”
“So much paperwork. The Colonel is going to give you a mission, he’s going to give you a stupid, boring mission because you ruined his life with paperwork, and I’m going to have to go along because my big brother can’t control his temper!”
“He called me short!”
“You are short!”
“I AM NOT SHORT!”
“The Colonel’s going to call you short, and then he’s going to give you a mission!”
“The hell he will! How’s he going to give me a mission after I kill him!?”
Havoc had no words to describe how incredibly awesome this was.
Nobody had prepared him for this. All that talk of geniuses focused on their goal, alchemy prodigies, superhuman superstars, blah blah blah, and no one had pointed out the really funny thing. Which was that they were such kids. Kids who could accidentally end all life on earth, maybe, but still kids.
“Hey, driver guy. You work for the Colonel, too, huh? It suck for you like it sucks for me?”
“It doesn’t suck for you, brother. You just whine a lot.”
“Hey, let the driver guy talk, Al!”
Despite the fact that they were funny as hell, he’d have preferred it if they’d never noticed him. Edward Elric had creepy gold eyes, and they were fixed on his in the rear-view mirror. He could have done without that.
“Never had any problems with the Colonel, really,” Havoc said, more or less honestly. “He’s not one of the blood-sucking types.”
“See, Al?” Edward said. “He’s out to get me especially.”
Havoc had never heard a sigh filtered through a suit of armor before. It was…interesting.
“So how long’ve you worked for him, then?” Edward went on, leaning forward, staring intently. Havoc could see how he freaked people out.
“Uh, let’s see. Ten years now, I guess.”
“Daaaaaaamn,” Edward drawled, sprawling back again. “Shoot me when I hit nine, Al. I won’t want to live anymore.”
“You’re so dramatic, brother,” Al said, sighing again.
Brothers were hilarious. They always were, and these two were classic.
“What’s your name, driver guy?”
Hilarious, and yet alarming.
“Oh. Second Lieutenant Jean Havoc.”
“Nice to meetcha, Second Lieutenant,” Edward said with surprising politeness. “I guess you know us already. I guess the bastard Colonel was like, ‘Edward and Alphonse, bring them to me. Bind and gag them if necessary. Mwah ha ha.’”
“Brother, it’s not nice to make fun of the Colonel,” Al scolded.
“Megalomaniac leaves himself open for it,” Edward insisted. “Deserves whatever he gets. So, Second Lieutenant Havoc, where’re you from?”
“Huh? Little town in the East. Doubt you’ve heard of it.” Wished very much that they would forget about him and go back to arguing. “Renberg?”
“Yeah, yeah, sure.”
Wait, what? No one had heard of Renberg. That was one of the constants in Havoc’s life.
“Brother and I grew up in Resembool, Second Lieutenant.”
Ah. No one had heard of it except for the people right next door.
“Oh, really? I didn’t know that.”
“Huh.” Creepy Edward looked strangely pleased. “I just figured Mustang told our life story to everybody. Guess not. Cool. Yeah, we’re from Resembool. Lessee, Renberg…you know the Harts?”
Hang on, were they seriously going to sit here and play small-town bingo? “I know them a little.”
Apparently they were. “No.”
“Aw, too bad. They’re pretty cool. Hmm…oh! The Reeds?”
“Everybody knows the Reeds.”
“You hear about that time at that bar with the chair and the beer and—”
“—the snake. Yes.”
“Heh. You hear about the train station?”
“I was at the station. My eyes are never going to be the same.” Never, never. Gah.
“Ohmygod,” Edward gasped, and then pitched over sideways and started…cackling. Definitely cackling.
“Brother, it’s not nice to laugh.”
“So? It’s not nice to do that to a goat, Al!”
“You got any more stories about ‘em, Second Lieutenant?”
“Don’t tell him any stories, Second Lieutenant! He only collects them, and then he brings them up at the worst times…”
“Hey, I gotta have some stories that aren’t classified, or people will think we’re strange.”
“Because people don’t think we’re at all strange now, brother.”
“They’ll think we’re unfriendly. That’s worse than strange.”
“You blew up a mountain,” Havoc couldn’t help but point out.
“That wasn’t unfriendly,” crazy Edward explained, “because they had it coming.”
Apparently Hughes’s advice about not making enemies of these two had been incredibly wise.
“So what’s your family do in Renberg?” Edward asked. Havoc hadn’t been warned about the insatiable curiosity either. He meant to complain about that to someone. “It’s not like Resembool,” Edward continued. “Pretty far off the railroad, right? So you can’t get much passing-through business.”
“No,” Havoc agreed, overcoming the temptation to refuse to tell Edward anything. It wasn’t like this could be used against him. Right? “There are the local sorts of businesses—groceries and that—but mostly there are farms. We had a farm when I was a kid, but my dad gave it up when I was about sixteen. Sold it to a cousin. Swapped, really. Took the cousin’s general goods store, and that’s what they’re doing now, he and my mom.”
“Huh. But you grew up with farming. So what’d you grow on your farm?”
“Grapes, and it was goddamn thankless.” He swallowed the rest of the rant and prayed, prayed they wouldn’t ask. They were kids, they wouldn’t care. Kids never wanted to hear adult life stories, right? They weren’t going to be like Breda, who set him off on this subject deliberately for the hilarity in it. They were kids. Right?
“Thankless, huh?” And Ed leaned forward again, this time looking positively feral. “I don’t know that much about farming. How was it thankless?”
No. Such. Luck.
“Grapes are delicate,” he said. He could feel his blood pressure going up already. What he needed to do was learn to refuse to talk about this, but for some reason, he never could stop himself. “Idiotically delicate. Too cold, too warm, too dry, too wet, too many bugs, what the fuck ever, and your entire crop is ruined for the season, or—if you’re really lucky—you can make sad wine that won’t sell, because who buys wine from Renberg? No one. Renberg is not a wine name. We don’t even make cheap wine, because we don’t have a real system set up for wine-making. We have to fish out the old presses; we’re a tiny step away from making the women hike up their skirts and stomp the grapes with their feet. And the late frosts. You’re from Resembool, you know the late frosts.”
“Just about every year,” Edward said helpfully. “Always kills the apricots.”
“And the grapes,” Havoc raged. “I don’t know which stupid ancestor decided on goddamn grapes in goddamn Renberg. And, let me tell you, we Havocs may not be known for our intelligence, but we are famed for our pig-headedness.
“Some stupid relative decided that the solution to the frost problem was—wait for it—cover crops. No. I don’t know why. Cover crops maybe help with the bugs or weeds or whatever, but they sure as shit don’t prevent a frost.
“And then—we could have done, oh, blackeyed Susans or something as a cover crop, but no, they picked switchgrass. I don’t know if you’ve seen the stuff. It’s some ugly goddamn grass.
“None of it matters anyway; the grapes still freeze pretty much every year, right? Making just barely enough money to get by, some years, not even that. Can’t hire anyone, debt stacks up. So then what do they do? Then—”
“Second Lieutenant,” Alphonse put in tentatively. “You’re hyperventilating.”
“Voodoo bullshit,” Havoc barreled on. Couldn’t stop himself. Really couldn’t. “Astrology. Planting under the right goddamn phase of the moon.”
“It’s all over now,” Edward put in, reaching up to pat him on the shoulder.
That was true. It was. All over now.
He never had to see a fucking grapevine again.
“I like the military just fine,” he said eventually, once his breathing was back under control.
“Yeah. I guess I can see that,” Edward said, sounding a breath away from cracking up. “Sounds like Mustang is actually a pretty big improvement over Mother Nature.”
Fucking Mother Nature, Havoc thought. What wouldn’t be an improvement?
Then his brain caught up with the rest of Edward’s statement.
“I’m serious, you two could have done a lot worse than Colonel Mustang,” he insisted quietly. They were nearly on base now, so it was time to impart wisdom, if he was going to. Seemed like he owed them that, after they’d gotten the grape rant. “There are some real mercenary assholes in the military. You dodged a bullet.”
Silence in the back. Up to this second, Havoc wouldn’t have thought they knew how to do silence.
“Yeah, I do know that,” Ed said quietly. “We travel a lot, right. I know how shitty some of these officer types can be. I know how it could have been.”
“The Colonel was the one who talked us into the military, though, brother,” Al pointed out. “I don’t think you’d have joined if it hadn’t been for him.”
Silence. Havoc checked the mirror to see Al staring at Edward, who was tapping absently on the window with an automail finger.
“Who knows what stupid things I’d have done if he hadn’t come by,” he said finally.
“Brother,” Al whispered.
“We lucked out with the Colonel,” Ed announced, whacking the shoulder of Al’s armor with a reassuring clang. He smiled for a second, then he realized what he’d just said. His eyes flew wide. “Second Lieutenant, don’t you dare tell him I said that!”
Havoc grinned, pulled into the base parking lot. “You got it, Boss.”
* * *
“What was it like, driving them?” Fuery asked nervously.
Havoc tapped a cigarette out of the box, considered the question.
“Sort of like driving around a force of nature,” he said. “Tornado, maybe.”
Fuery looked horrified.