Ed and Al are sent to a small town for a mission that turns unexpectedly dangerous, as Roy finds out later.
This fic is anime-verse, and set between the flashbacks and the opening of the series proper.
This was done for the FMA Fic Echange on Livejournal, for Yixsh.
The town -- Greenfield -- was barely that. A crossroads in the middle of fields and orchards, with a few faded buildings around it, looking much like the farmhouses they had seen from the road. The spring rains had lasted unusually long this year, turning the road into mud and making the whole place look a bit more dreary. Not to mention making the roads muddy and the drive from the nearest city even more irritating. He had two stops to make before making the long drive back to somewhere with a rail line. The first was quick, and just confirmed what he was dreading to find. The second would take a bit longer.
Roy pulled up to one of the buildings at the crossroads -- little more than a cottage in size. There was a worn sign on the front, half the letters gone, with the painting of a green blob that might have been a willow tree once. An old sign for an apothecary or herbalist, then.
He knocked, and a woman answered the door. "I'm Colonel Roy Mustang," he said, glancing at the woman. She was maybe in her thirties, but the lines on her face, her greying hair and the worn clothing she wore made her look older. She wore an apron over her dress, and Roy thought he saw some kind of dried leaves sticking out the lower pocket.
"You're here for the young- Mister Elric, then, aren't you?" she said. "He's right this way." She turned motioning to follow her back into the shop. "I'm glad you finally arrived. This one's hasn't stopped trying to keep moving since... since he got here."
"That sounds like him." Roy agreed. One less thing to worry about, that.
The back room would have been airy in the sunlight. However, in the rain, the windows looked more like screens keeping things in. They were covered in a thin set of curtains. Aside from two stools in the corners, one doing duty as a stand for the lamp, the only other furniture was a straw tick against one wall. Lying on it, staring at a book -- probably organic chemistry, given the ball-and-stick molecule on the cover -- was Edward Elric. He looked up as Roy and the woman entered. "About time you got here."
"You had to pick the most out of the way place to get laid up, didn't you, Fullmetal?" He looked all right, besides the fact someone -- probably Alphonse, given how stubborn Edward could be towards most other people -- had convinced him to stay in bed. Roy inwardly sighed. He hadn't intended this assignment to be that dangerous or complicated, but Edward seemed to draw trouble to him like rotting meat drew flies.
"You're the one who gave me the assignment, Colonel." Edward grinned, sitting up. "Things slow enough out at Headquarters that you could come pick me up?"
It was a darn shame that things had gotten so bad that he couldn't just wait for Edward to recover and travel back to Headquarters for his report. Edward had had Alphonse send him a brief message back via telephone, but Roy had cut him off almost at the start. Neither boy was that good at code, and he hadn't had someone like Maes or Master Sergeant Fuery to make sure the line was secure. It had been enough to get the names, and for him to come out here before things exploded again. Of course, he wasn't going to tell Edward that. Roy figured that this was more than just a simple mission, but he didn't want to deal with telling him the whole story. Especially given what he feared. So, he did the only thing he could do. "I needed to get out of the office before Lieutenant Hawkeye caught on I was a week behind on paperwork. And I figured taking a drive out into the country to do a small errand would be good for me."
"Who are you calling so small that he'd get lost in strawberry patches?"
"Where's your brother?" Roy asked. As quiet as Alphonse could be sometimes, the room was small enough that a large suit of armor wouldn't be missed. At least it meant Edward was on the mend, or else his brother would not have left his side.
"He's out helping the farmers. We can leave when he gets back." Which should be soon, given the sound of water dripping, footsteps and the slight clanking noise Alphonse made when he wasn't caring much who heard.
"That sounds like him," Roy said. "Good."
Alphonse was accompanied by a couple of the farmers Edward had mentioned earlier. He had obviously been doing something in the fields -- his arms and legs were covered in mud. There was also the smell. "Al, you smell like you stepped in manure," Edward said, shifting over to get up.
"Well, there's a good reason for that, Brother. I was helping the farmers with fertilizer, and I could get the nitrates from the air, but I needed something else to get sulphur and phosphorus from." Alphonse sounded pleased with himself, and Roy remembered that both boys had passed the written exam for State Alchemists. Alphonse might lack his brother's strange ability to work without a circle, but he was still a top-notch alchemist.
"Doesn't change the smell," Edward made a face, and his brother moved over to help him up. Roy saw him favor one leg -- his left. "You were careful in the rain, Al?"
Alphonse held up an umbrella, wet but cleaner than he was. "Of course, Brother."
"Fullmetal, if you can do something about the smell, we can get going," Roy said. He wanted the both of them out of this town.
"Here, Al." Edward reached over, handing him a rag. "Wipe off."
Thankfully, once they all got back into the truck, the smell had died down to the background scent of rainy, rural Amestris.
"Mind telling me what happened?" Roy asked as he started the truck and pulled out. "As far as I knew, you were fine until I had Alphonse calling to tell me that the case was solved and you needed medical leave."
"He didn't have to tell you that," Edward said. "I'm on the mend. Miss Ewing said that I'd recover fine."
Roy sighed. That wasn't what Alphonse had said on the phone, once he'd managed to get the bare bones -- he still didn't have all the details.
"Besides, you'll just make me write a report anyway," Edward continued.
"Probably, but the brass back at Central will see it before I do," Roy said. "So, I'd like to hear it from you first."
"Fine," Edward slumped a bit, resting his head in his right hand, and gave Roy a sullen look. "Not like there's anything else to do on the way back."
"So, Al and I came to look at this place about a week ago, just like the mission said. By the way, you never answered me about why we were doing this, and not the local police or something?"
"I didn't, did I?" Roy said. He didn't really want to answer that one, to be honest. And it was too soon to use another short joke.
"Yeah, I'd think drug trafficking wouldn't be something they needed a State Alchemist for," Edward said.
"Well, there was the possibility that an alchemist was involved," Roy said.
Edward nodded, but he didn't look satisfied with the explanation. "So, Al and I come out here to the middle of nowhere. And we met Miss Cadwell, who grows herbs and stuff. We figured she'd be the person to talk to..."
Edward fished for a handkerchief in his pocket. Al looked a bit sheepish and held out his hands to show he didn't have one. "I didn't think you were allergic to anything, Brother."
"It's probably just the dust, Al." Ed sneezed. It looked like he didn't have a handkerchief handy, and he was tempted to grab the nearest scrap of cloth and transmute it into something he could wipe his nose with.
"You're feeling all right?"
"Yes, Al. Don't worry so much, okay?" Ed stared at the sign. "What's a herbalist doing out here in a town barely big enough to have its own store?" He looked over the building, a sort of small house with chipped paint, and a faded sign that didn't even have letters on it. The windows weren't even glass, but paper, covered with clapboard shutters. Some of the other ones didn't even have that. This place was poor, drained dry like many of the other towns he had been in as the Fullmetal Alchemist. Or maybe it had always been like that, even before the wars and upheavals that seemed to be wearing on everyone else in the country.
"Well, it's not like there's a doctor anywhere near here," Al said. "Maybe it's just a part time job, so that the farmers don't get sick."
Ed nodded. "Maybe." There had been a few of the older people in Rizenbool who had kept track of folk remedies, things that had mostly been supplanted when the railway came in. He had looked into them a bit, back when their mother was still alive, and he had been asking everyone what else they could do, besides use the special medicine that the doctor had brought in on the train from larger towns. They were pretty much a mix of superstition and knowledge of plants -- some helpful, and some that were probably just placebos. He and Al had carried in some of the plants that he'd been told were most helpful for him to look at, and he was just beginning to realize that medicinal alchemy was a lot more complicated than it looked when Mom had died, and he had given it up.
Ed stepped up onto the front porch, and reached for the door. Before he could get there, the door opened from the inside. An older women stood there, her greying hair pulled back into a bun. Her dress had been blue, once, but repeated washings had turned it into a sort of faded slate-grey. Her apron was clean, if only slightly less faded than her dress. "Can I help you, young man?" she said.
"Is there anywhere in town my brother and I can stay for a couple of days?" Ed motioned back to indicate Al, who waved.
"We don't get many travelers, young man. The best you'll probably manage is asking one of the farmers if you can camp in their cowshed. I suppose Mister Stewart might have a spare room." The woman frowned.
"Who's Mister Stewart?" Ed asked.
"The shopkeeper. His house is down the road a piece." She motioned with her hand.
"Ruth? Who's at the door?" A woman's voice came from inside.
"Travelers. A boy and a man in armor," the old woman, apparently Ruth, said.
"I'm thirteen." Ed said indigently. "And Al's my younger brother." He saw Al nod out of the corner of his eye.
"Really?" Ed heard the sound of a chair scraping across the floor, then footsteps. Another woman stuck her head out the door. She stared at Al and him. Ed stared back. She was younger-looking than Ruth, and probably Xingese from her looks. Her clothing looked a little less shabby than the old woman's, though there were still the marks of mud stains around her trousers. "Tell me, kid, would you happen to be the Fullmetal Alchemist?"
"If you know that much, you'd know not to call me 'kid'." Ed said.
"A State Alchemist, here?" Ruth took a step back. "We're not much of a town at all, why would the military send someone out here?"
"Probably to take what little this place has left," the other woman said.
"I don't want to take anything!" Ed protested. This better not end up like Youswell all over again -- sure, that had worked out for the best, but having to earn the trust of the people and carry out his orders had been more work than he'd expected. He'd hoped that his reputation had carried far enough and strong enough that there wouldn't be as much suspicion towards a dog of the military.
"I think I've heard of the Fullmetal Alchemist," Ruth said thoughtfully. "He's supposed to be different than most of the military -- someone who actually serves the people."
"That's my big brother," Al nodded.
"So, why are you here then, Fullmetal Alchemist?" the other woman asked.
"I'm looking for drug traffickers." Ed said simply.
He watched the two women, looking for a reaction. Ruth frowned, her hands clasped in front of her. The other woman looked even more angry, if such a thing was possible. "What are you implying there, kid? It isn't enough for the military to throw this town away when it stopped being useful, they have to-"
"Dora." Ruth spoke softly, but this alone was enough to stop her companion mid-rant. "Let's let the State Alchemist get along with his business, and we'll do the same."
Dora stood up, straightening her tunic. "Very well. If you need lodgings, try Mister Stewart, as Ruth said."
After the door closed, Al turned to his brother. "Well, that could have gone better."
"He was right, you know," Roy said. "It could have been handled better." He tried not to sigh. Edward and Alphonse had lost any innocence they had once had by now, between their mother's death, the failed transmutation, and the business with Shou Tucker. What had replaced it was not quite innocence, but the iron-bound determination and an almost-unwavering belief in both their ability to recover, and a set of principles Roy found admirable. And, it wasn't like Edward couldn't be clever.
"I thought that they seemed like decent people, so they should know the truth," Edward said. "I don't think they'd believe the normal reason Al and I travel -- the town's too small and poor for anyone to believe that I could find clues about the Stone."
"That honesty is going to get you into trouble someday, Fullmetal." Roy shook his head. The years have made me into a cynic. Never mind that I had to become one to get where I am -- decent men feed their hope or hearts to the military in order to survive. He wondered which would happen to Edward -- could he survive here, and could he keep the hope and compassion that were becoming as much a mark of the Fullmetal Alchemist as the blond hair and short stature? He had coped with Tucker, and coped with Lieutenant Yoki, but Roy suspected Edward still didn't know how deep things went. For that matter, Roy himself wasn't even sure. "What did you think of William Stewart?"
"When I met him?" Edward asked.
"Yes, let's start with that."
Ed chuckled. "I didn't like him much. When I went to his house, you know what I noticed?"
"What?" Roy asked, listening.
"Outside, it actually looked nearly new. Inside, as well. Nothing obvious, but it looked a lot less poor than the rest of the town. But, at first, I just thought he was some shopkeeper trying to gouge out every last cen from the townspeople. You know, the usual. I figured Al and I might as well impose on his hospitality -- he could afford to have a couple more people staying with him. Most of the rest of the town couldn't."
"So then what happened?" Roy asked, trying to keep the conversation going.
"We snuck out to the fields. Al had brought a botany book, so we'd know what to look for. And, well, we found something..."
Ed sighed, staring at the plant they had uprooted, running his fingers over the leaves. He'd found it concealed in the middle of fields, growing hidden among the wheat and bean plants. /Papaver somniferum/, the opium poppy. He had picked a couple of extra leaves, just to be sure, and had done a quick transmutation to check -- there was definitely opiates in the plant. Not as much as would be in the seed pods, later on, but enough for an alchemist who wouldn't know poppies from poison ivy to figure it out.
Now what should he do? Most of the farmhouses he had seen in the distance were tiny things, and most of the other plants he had seen looked kind of scrawny. if rundown cottages were all these people could do with the extra money from drugs, what would they do if the military tore things up? For that matter, how many people were they going to have to arrest?
Ed shook his head. It was his job to figure out where the stuff was coming from, and stop it. He'd just have to come up with a good solution that benefited the people, as well as the brass back at Central.
But, that could wait until tomorrow. It was already well past dusk, and he was ready to eat dinner and go to sleep. The room looked comfortable enough, if small -- enough room for a double bed and small table. It'd do, for now.
He heard footsteps coming from the hall, and glanced at Al, who was sitting across from him. Without a word, Al picked up the criminal plant, and hid it.
The door opened, and these stood the woman they had met earlier, Dora, holding a tray with two cups and two bowls. "You two missed dinner," she said.
"What are you doing here?" Ed asked.
"I'm staying with Mister Stewart as well," she said, setting the tray down. "He retired early, and we guessed you two would make a mess of the kitchen trying to find dinner when you got in. You better not have any objections to rabbit stew, since I'm going back to work."
"No, ma'am," Al said.
Ed took one bowl. "What are you working on?" he asked.
"Research," she said. "Some of us aren't willing to take the State's blood money for our funding."
"You're an alchemist, too?" Ed asked, taking a bite of the stew. "What kind of research do you do?"
"Yes. My name is Dora Xiao -- no title needed. And I do agricultural research -- trying to build a better wheat plant, and such. Alchemists should serve the people."
"Our teacher thought so as well," Al said, exchanging a look with Ed. Neither wanted to think about their teacher's opinion of what they were doing right now. "So do we," he added.
Dora gave the two of them a cool stare. "Then why join the military? You'd be more useful doing something besides being the State's errand boys and shock troops."
"Our reasons are our own," Ed said.
Dora shrugged. "Fine. Enjoy your dinner." She turned and left the two brothers alone, nearly slamming the door behind her.
Ed took another bite of the stew, and frowned. "Something's not right here," he said. "I thought it was just the company, but..."
"Is the stew bad?" Al stared dubiously at the bowl that had been intended for him.
"Not bad, that's not it." Ed experimentally stuck his finger in the bowl, stirring it around. He set down his spoon, emptied the cup of water he had been given, then put a finger from his right hand as well.
Al leaned forward, looking at what Ed was doing to his dinner. "Winry's going to kill you if you get food in the joints of your automail."
"I'll clean it out later," Ed said. He touched the two fingers together, producing the sparks that marked his circleless alchemy. Something -- a small amount of a colorless liquid -- moved from the stew to the empty cup.
"What is that?" Al asked.
"Whatever it was, it's not supposed to be in rabbit stew. Where did you put that biochemistry book you were reading, Al?"
Al took out the book from their bags, while Ed took out a pencil and pad of paper from his pocket. "Let's see... there was a benzene ring, and an ester group, and a hydroxyl..." Al started flipping through the pages, holding them open just long enough for Ed to confirm or deny the compound. "Who knew carbon atoms could do so many things. There it is!" Ed pointed at the page.
"'Atropine'," Al read. "'Sources: Typically extracted from the deadly nightshade plant, /Atropa belladonna/.' Brother, that's toxic!" He stood up, nearly knocking over the table. "We better get you to a doctor. How do you feel?"
"Fine," Ed said. "Maybe a little nauseous. And there wasn't a doctor in the town -- only the herbalist."
"We'll get you to her then. And quickly."
"You couldn't transmute the poison out of your stomach like you did the stew?" Roy asked. "Or turn it into something harmless?"
Edward shook his head. "Maybe if I had thought about it at the time. Or maybe not -- I'd be trying to do alchemy on something I couldn't see, and I couldn't get any of it that had already been absorbed into my blood. That's too close to human transmutation. But I'd bet you couldn't do it either."
Roy nodded. He probably couldn't. Edward was a prodigy at alchemy and knew it -- Roy didn't even know the limits of Edward's circleless alchemy, besides the ones dictated by the laws of equivalent exchange and of nature. "What about the stew? How did you know it was poisoned?"
Edward shrugged. "I don't know -- I just had a bad feeling. I thought it was just because the alchemist was making me angry, but she left and I still felt funny. Not the symptoms of the poison, but like someone was holding a knife to the back of my head."
Another thing to add to his mental notes on Fullmetal's abilities. Most alchemists had trouble with complex organic mixtures, like foods. To be able to pick out the one compound that didn't belong, without even realizing why it needed to be picked out, was a remarkable feat. And, Edward didn't even seem to realize it. /I shudder to think what he considers hard/. Roy, once again, was glad he'd identified Edward before someone else -- even ignoring the fact the boy attracted trouble like magnets attracted iron, people would be drawn to him. Probably not the best of people. /And what does that say about you, Colonel/?
"Then what happened? Who poisoned you?" Roy asked.
"You're going to have to ask Al to take over the story," Edward said. "I spent most of the next couple of days being sick."
"Alphonse?" Roy spared a glance at Edward's brother.
"Well, I managed to rush Brother to Miss Ewing, the herbalist," Alphonse said. "Thank goodness she knew what to do."
"What the heck was this stuff?" Ed made a face as he finished swallowing the medicine Ruth Ewing had measured out for him. "It tastes terrible." He took a long gulp from the cup of water she handed him.
"It's an emetic -- we need to get the rest of what you ate out of your stomach before your body absorbs it. Stand over the basin, please -- I don't want you getting sick on my floor." Ruth appeared to be measuring out something else from the brown glass vials and cloth bags at the table. "Alphonse, was it?"
"Yes ma'am?" Al stood at attention, watching his brother carefully.
"Hold your brother's hair out of his face. This might get messy. How long ago did this happen?"
"A little more than an hour ago, ma'am." Al hated to see his brother like this. The worst part was knowing that he could do nothing. He didn't know enough about medicine, alchemy or plants to help the herbalist prepare what he hoped was an antidote. He put a hand on Ed's shoulder, and got a glance in return. Was it his imagination, or the low light, or did his brother's pupils look larger than normal?
"Some of it has probably already left the stomach, then. About how much did he swallow?"
"It was in the stew I ate, ma'am, like I told you," Ed said. "I don't know how much was mixed in -- I ate about a quarter bowl before I figured out it was poisoned."
"Were they wild rabbits, or domestic? I've heard of rabbits eating nightshade, and passing the poison on to people," Ruth said.
"I don't know. Dora didn't say," Ed said. "How long do I have to wait before this stuff takes effect? Until then, you can talk to me as well as Al. I'm not a-" He was interrupted by a spasm.
"I'd say about now," Ruth said. "Once you stop vomiting, I'll have the antidote prepared."
Al held his brother, while Ed proceeded to throw up most of his dinner. As the dry heaves started to taper off, Al rubbed his brother's back, like their mother had done when they were young and had stomach flu. "Easy, Brother." He tried to be comforting, and not sound afraid. Just try to act like it is just a stomach flu. Don't think about it. But, he couldn't stop worrying -- what if his brother died, leaving him all alone?
"Here." Ruth held out another glass of water. "Rinse your mouth out with this." Ed took it, holding it with both hands.
"What about the antidote?" Al asked.
"Here it is," Ruth took the glass from Ed, then held out a mug, which Ed took. "Swallow this, young man, then lie down. It's the best I could do -- it's not a perfect antidote, but it'll counteract some of the symptoms long enough for the poison to work its way out of your system."
"You can't cure him?" Al asked, helping his brother over to the mattress in the room.
"I'm not that good," Ruth said sadly. "I'll need to watch him for the next couple of days, make sure the symptoms don't get too bad -- either of the nightshade or the antidote."
"I'll help," Al said. "I can at least keep an eye on him. I don't need much sleep," or any at all, technically, "and I don't mind."
"Al..." Ed was gripping onto his brother so hard, Al thought he might leave dents in the armor. He eased Ed down, onto the bed. "Al, you need to find out who did this. Don't let them get away. They're dangerous."
"I'll be /fine/, Al. I promise."
Al looked at his brother, then Ruth. "I'll watch over your brother," she said. "He'll have another hour or two at least before he'll really start to show signs of the poisoning."
"I'll be back in an hour, then." He hated to leave Ed, but the poisoner was still loose, and he might try to finish the job.
"Al..." Ed paused. "Try the alchemist first. She was the one who gave us dinner."
"Dora?" Ruth said. "Dora's no poisoner. She's a pacifist. Even refused to join the military for the Ishabl War. Lost her job as a result, and ended up out here."
"It had to be her," Al said. "She was the only one who could have touched the food. Well, her or Mister Stewart."
Whatever Ruth was about to say was interrupted by the sound of footsteps. "Ruth, were you in my box of dried plants? It's a mess and... oh, no!" Dora Xiao entered the room, staring at Ed. A piece of paper fluttered from her hand.
"You..." Al took a step towards her.
"I..." Dora seemed at a loss of words. "Fullmetal Alchemist, you're a major in the military, right? I wish to make a confession, in hopes of a plea bargain."
Ed pulled himself up to a half-seated position. "Go on. Al, take notes."
Al quickly took out Ed's logbook, and a pencil, and started writing as Dora began to speak.
"I'm told that this town grew opium back during the Ishbal War, for the military hospitals to make morphine. After the war, however, fewer people were getting injured, so they pulled out -- ordered all the plants torn up. Do you know what happens to the soil after you cultivate opium?" Ed and Al shook their heads.
"Well," Dora continued, "it's a very demanding plant. The soil could barely support anything afterward, and the farmers couldn't let it lie fallow or fertilize it properly to live. Then, William Stewart moved in. Offered a devil's bargain -- loans for fertilizer and seeds if they went back to growing opium. Enough to live on, but not enough to tell him to go hang after a year. He brought me out here as well -- told me I'd be working on new techniques for marginal farmland. Turns out, he wanted me to process the drugs he grew, so he could smuggle them out of town easier." Dora shook her head. "He's the only other person with a key to my lab. He had to be the one who broke into my sample case and poisoned your brother. I'm prepared to go to jail for creating drugs, if it'll get that murdering bastard a date with a fire squad."
Ed nodded, closing his eyes. He was starting to look a bit flushed, and Ruth gave him a warning look -- 'don't even try to get up'. "Al, you'll need to take care of Mister Stewart. Make sure he doesn't get away."
"Are you going to kill him?" Dora asked, frowning.
"My brother's not a killer," Ed said. "Just... make sure he gets the justice he deserves. For me, and for the farmers."
Roy blinked. "That was unexpected," he said. "What made her think to trust you?" he asked.
Edward shrugged. "Attempted murder of a military officer would probably get her executed. She must have figured turning herself in as a drug trafficker and getting stuck in prison for a while would be better than execution."
"Then what happened?" Roy asked.
"Ruth offered to have a farm family watch Dora until someone came by to pick her up," Edward said. "We tied up her hands, so she couldn't draw a circle. As for Mister Stewart, Al got clever on him."
"I transmuted his house shut while he was asleep," Al explained "He had enough food to last until the military got there, when I unlocked it."
"So, that's what happened. Al agreed to help the farmers out with fertilizer so they can make a better start this year," Ed said.
Roy nodded. "Good work. And it was a shame that Stewart and Xiao hid those plants in the local farmers' fields."
Ed blinked, comprehension slowly dawning on his face. "Yeah. What do you think will happen to those two?"
"Prison. Stewart might come to trial for attempted murder. You might have to give testimony, but your report might do," Roy said.
"A shame about Dora," Al said. "She didn't much like Brother, at first, but I think she was as much a victim as the farmers. Mister Stewart was the real bad guy here."
Smart kids, Roy thought. /Maybe I should have told him what else I found out/. But, even then, he didn't know how Edward would take it, especially after Nina. When he had visited Miss Xiao's lab, before picking up the boys, it had been stripped bare. A short call to Maes in the capital had confirmed it -- somewhere heading towards Central, the records of William James Stewart and Dora Xiao had vanished.
He was going to have to tell Edward eventually. But not this mission. Let the boys have their victory -- it was pyrrhic enough for now.