Gen adventure, pre-series. An outsider's point of view on Ed. "There's only one way I can think of, Al, to get inside that place... You'll have to sell me."
RATING: PG-13 with a language warning
LENGTH: 5,000 words approx
SUMMARY: Gen adventure, pre-series. An outsider's point of view on Ed. "/There's only one way I can think of, Al, to get inside that place... You'll have to sell me./"
NOTES: Mangaverse in the sense that the Edward Elric in my head is in monochrome and sporting a far more evil expression, although as far as this story is concerned, I'm not sure it makes a practical difference.
THANKS: To sayhello for beta-reading.
DISCLAIMER: FMA belongs to Hiromu Arakawa and various other people not me. Not mine, no profit, yadda yadda yadda.
"What are we going to do, brother? They won't acknowledge the authority of the State or your silver watch! That place is defended like a fortress! And I don't think they're just going to let us in."
"...Brother? I don't like when you get that look on your face. What are you thinking?"
"We'd waste weeks going back to Central to tell them about this. That's weeks where we could've been getting your real body back. Besides, I don't much like the idea of returning with our tails between our legs because we couldn't complete this lame assignment. There's only one way I can think of, Al, to get inside that place."
"You'll have to sell me."
"Hey, and that means we'll make some extra cash, too. What a great plan!"
She starts thinking of him as That Boy from almost the first instant she sees him, which is in the meal line at the end of the workday. He's huddled in a shapeless brown coat that she thinks he won't hang onto for long before somebody stronger claims it. He's as hunched over as the rest of them, but not in a fashion that suggests the exhaustion of a day's work, just more like someone gave him one hell of a hiding. The way he looks around himself, with a glint in his yellow eyes and his bared teeth appearing almost as sharpened points in the dim light, suggests the hiding was well deserved.
She is sufficiently aware of him after that to notice how he sneaks back into the queue for a second helping, and gets it, too. Her anger sparks. She sticks her foot into his path when she sees him go up a third time, and trips him neatly.
Laughter rings out as his forehead kisses the floor, almost too quick for her to notice that the sound he makes hitting the wooden slats doesn't tally with the impact of flesh. He raises his head in furious, lightning-flash temper, glaring around for the culprit who dared trip him, but her leg is back under the bench and she is safe from his diminutive rage.
What would he do anyway? Half the size of any other person here...
She remembers the sound of him hitting the floor. She frowns and squints down at him, and their eyes meet. She knows there's no trace of guilt in hers. She pulls a noncommittal face, and isn't sure what she sees in his by way of return.
Little, big-eyed boy, all gold and black beneath that voluminous sack of a coat. Bright hair and eyes, and shredded garments held together by a thick layer of dust. But it isn't mine dust. And if it isn't mine dust, then he must have picked it up somewhere else besides here. He is not just new to her, he is new, period. Maybe she shouldn't have tripped him, she thinks with a pang. Going by his size, he can't be much more than eleven, but his childhood is at an end. People sell children to the mines all the time - out of desperation, mostly; a fine price for one child so they can keep the rest from starvation. But something tells her someone sold this one willingly, and probably whistled a happy tune as they walked away counting their money.
"Hey, hag," he says, too loudly, "You don't half do a lot of staring, do you? Keep it up and I'm gonna charge you for it."
She feels her face try to redden and bares her own teeth and scowls instead, as the attention of the crowd leaves him and lands on her. Little beast. Little brat. She knows he did it on purpose. Her ankle feels bruised.
"Oy, Hatha." Brund, one of the mine guards, oozes his nasty presence into the narrow field of their quarrel. He casually kicks the kneeling boy in the kidneys, tumbling him onto his face again with a yell. "You two seem to be getting along so well, why don't you show this demon imp here around its new home?"
She snorts derisively and watches Brund deliberately pin the edge of the boy's coat so he can't rise more than a few inches before falling back again. The kid ruins the game by reaching around with his right hand and tearing the fabric of the coat - too easily for the hand and arm to be normal flesh and bone - and he scoots away, leaving the corner of cloth behind. The child's eyes burn with a malice that says I'll get you later.
Under his breath, she thinks she hears him growl, "This plan sucked."
It's the way the boy looks around at the dormitories provided for the mine labourers, and his left fist convulses while the clink of his right by now fails to provide any new revelation, that surprises her. "You people don't even get homes? That fucking bastard--" He swallows and his grumbling subsides to a less heretical mutter of, "I can't believe I'm sleeping in a cave," along with a generous sprinkling of further words that make her itch to clout the back of his head. That such words should appear on a child's lips! Vile boy. No wonder he'd been sold.
The strangest thing remains the fury in his voice when he said 'you' and not 'we'. As though he wasn't objecting for himself, first and foremost, then. Arrogance, she decides, to separate himself from the rest of them. He thinks he's better than a mere slave. He'll learn yet.
But still, her self-disgust rises, provided with the view through his new eyes for comparison. Has she truly grown so accustomed to it? That would mean that now she accepts this, the unacceptable. Who knew it would take so little time to reduce them all to slaves in truth? It has been no more than a year since Hanvers took control, taking advantage of Hythernea's desert remoteness to enslave all who wouldn't politically support him and make them work in the mines that had once belonged to the people, consolidating ever more his own riches and power. So long, with no sign of the military stepping in to deal with his turn of independent empire-building yet. She was sure, all those months ago, that they would be at war by now, or else razed to the ground; the ancient mining citadel and the town outside its walls a mere memory and a cautionary tale for the greedy.
There was a rumour once, weeks or months ago - but it's hard to keep track of time in the mines - that the state alchemist known as the Fullmetal Alchemist had been sent by Central to investigate Hanvers. But if it was true, then nothing has been heard or seen of their awaited hero since.
She stares down at her own arms and hands: skin and bone, tough muscle underneath, and she thinks that she is withering to nothing in here. There will be nothing left soon but the bone and muscle that do the work and the skin that contains it, and no space in the shell for any more of her. The same for any one of them. Do the higher ups at Central know about Hanvers? Do they care? Should she dare hope for their action, when the likely scenario is that Hanvers has killed a state alchemist and the military will have no mercy for any of them?
She watches the boy claim the corner that gets sodden when it rains up above the ground and she keeps her mouth shut. Her hopes had been that he would pick somewhere further from her own spot, but you also needed to take your entertainment where you could get it.
He turns back to her and twists his sulky face into something she assumes is meant to be more amicable, because it looks like it takes an effort. "You're Hatha, right?"
"I used to be."
"Huh." He kicks the stone of the cavern wall, narrows his eyes, and when he raises his head again those eyes are burning with unexpected fire. He points at his scrawny chest. "I'm Ed. I'm not going to stop being Ed just because I'm in this shit place. Okay?"
She frowns and nods, annoyed at how he turns her own words into an attack. She's also wondering why she had the impression that, for a moment, he was going to tell her a different name.
Never volunteer for anything is what she firmly believes in. But high on the list of things she considers it a special priority to never volunteer for is babysitting. So it's a mystery to her how she ends up watching over the idiot kid, printing her boot-marks onto the seat of his pants until he gleans a general idea of what he might get away with in this place and what will get him casually disembowelled by the guards or the other workers. She certainly doesn't gravitate to helping him because he seeks out her help; half the time he's trying to give her the slip or swearing at her. Occasionally, he mutters something about 'old women' having it in for him and gains himself a thick ear.
In time, she does discover that despite his attitude and apparent idleness, he is neither completely useless nor a stranger to hard work, though his complaints remain unending.
After the work shreds his weird gloves, he can't hide that his right hand is automail and starts to show it off instead. What a horrible travesty, she thinks with a lone shudder among the impressed glances from those who don't know a jot about the procedure involved. Who'd put automail on a kid that size? Idiots, all of them. She understands why his eyes seemed to hold such a familiarity with pain before he'd ever done a day's work. He must've come from money originally, too, for his family to pay for workmanship like that - which figured in that unshakeable arrogance of his. A rich family, she decides, too caught up in appearances to suffer a crippled son until he was of a sensible age to operate.
Life in the mines expands to encompass the bright, loud concentration of temper and energy in a startlingly short time. Before long, nobody blinks anymore at the sight of him sitting untidily cross-legged wherever he happens to land, muttering his vast repertoire of foul words under his breath and scraping mine dust from the workings of his metal limbs with a large wood splinter.
She gets used to seeing him stride in front of her, small legs strutting fast to keep pace with the larger bodies around him. The chemical yellow light from the treated torches down the length of the endless tunnels glints from his automail through the holes in his clothes, alights on his pale hair, reduces his eyes to demonic, plotting little hollows when he turns his head for the shadows to pick out his profile. She gets used to the fact he eats enough for three or four people twice his size, and she recognises, at last, that he only complains about the inconsequential things that truly don't matter, even if he does complain about those endlessly. She tells herself that being bothered enough to notice all of these things does not mean that she likes the appalling child.
Her original instinct that the boy lacks any sense of propriety or preservation is proven when some of the nastier guards find him sitting with his legs swinging out over the edge of the massive northern cliff face with a pile of ore-rich rocks at his side for ammunition, taking pot-shots at the citizens below. When they dump him back in his corner he doesn't cry from the pain of the beating like a normal boy. He just huddles up, grinding his teeth audibly and, in little twitches of malice, kicks at people's ankles as they pass. By the next day he is quiet and strained, glowering and resentful, and the day after that he's back to his more-or-less normal.
Clueless all the way, of course, of how very lucky he had been. They'd shot people, even children, for less. Stupid boy.
But he is valuable to the mines, small but furiously strong - whether despite or because of the automail is one of those things she isn't truly sure about - and capable of navigating the smallest of tunnels. And it dawns on her slowly, as the days pass, that he is valuable to somebody else too. She watches him move around the place, taking care that nobody sees how closely she is watching. She starts to see how much ground he covers in the course of a day where she'd previously thought him a hyperactive annoyance, how many people the frenetic activity causes him to bump into, to make an excuse to talk to. He doesn't stop tossing rocks off of the northern cliff face, either, though he does it with more nervous caution and less casual cockiness than before. She starts to wonder about that, too. She's never seen him actually do it, but it must be possible to attach a note to a rock, to get word outside the impenetrable walls of the mining complex and the citadel that way.
Someone is using the little boy as a runner to pass on their messages, and that means someone is organising something. Maybe there is no hero coming to rescue them, but maybe somebody here has taken it upon himself to lead them in rescuing themselves. Her hope flares, warily. She only has a little of it, and doesn't want to see it prematurely wasted. She thinks whoever is doing the organising has to be out of their mind trusting that kid, anyway. His eyes probably gleam mischief even under their lids when he's sleeping.
One night when he's curled up in his corner of the dorm cavern, that ratty brown coat wrapped tight and several times over around the meagre scrap of him that's flesh and leaving all the cold automail on show, he says cattily, "You sure watch me a lot, grandma."
"I'm not your fucking grandma," she snaps. "Forty-eight! I'm FORTY-EIGHT, which isn't old enough to be your grandma and don't forget it, you scrawny brat."
His grin glints in the dark. "Not scrawny," he mutters, and doesn't contest the rest. Of course, since she didn't say 'little', or 'small', or 'short', or 'shrimpbait'. "Anyway, the way you watch, anyone'd think you like what you see."
"Fsssssssh." She puts maximum disgust into both the noise and the sneer her expression matches to it. "There's not a lot to watch here, you're just - nearby. And there's usually some bad thing you're up to, so I watch for when they catch you at it and I get to see them beat the snot out of you again."
His accusation, she knows now, isn't as out-there ridiculous as she'd have thought if he'd said it even a week ago. Somewhere along the line, she noticed he has too-big hands and too-big feet, all out of proportion with his undersized frame. That and the cynicism in his yellow eyes have led to convincing her he isn't as young as her first impressions told. He's just short. Small and short and mouthy, but probably old enough to be almost a man, at least in some folks' considerations. Pissed as hell that everyone keeps treating him like a kid, which is why she keeps it up, although she's also noticed he doesn't make a stand to correct anyone. Perhaps he has more sense than she gave him credit for, to suck up that pride. Even here, there must be advantages in people writing your crap down to 'too young to know better'.
"Yeah?" He returns her sneer with one of his own, and points the metal arm at a fat, snoring bulk. "Watch old Guntto instead, hag." He startsto pull the coat over his head.
"Who made your automail?"
"A girl I know. Why do you care?" He completes the motion so that she's talking to mucky cloth.
"I cared for plenty of soldiers following those procedures, after the Ishbal war, when I was a nurse. That's no standard design I recognise."
"I guess these things have moved on in all those years," the coat growls.
Hmph. "Where'd you leave your real arm and leg? Pretty stupid things to lose, brat."
"Train crash," he lies. She knows its a lie because the way he flips the words at her isn't how people talk about the occasion that lost them their limbs.
Annoyed, she pelts him with more questions, just as rude as she can make them, but he pretends to be asleep and doesn't even react when she calls him a stunted midget, at which point she loses hope of him rising to any bait she can throw and beds down herself.
Over the next few days she sees the activity intensify in closed-off corners, and she's aware of the whispers. The face of that little blond boy becomes strained and drawn. She wonders if they had to threaten him, to make him put himself in danger. She wonders if he'll crack and betray them all.
Instead he says to her, another night, from his corner, "You'll help, won't you, Hatha? When it all goes down?"
At least she sees he gives her the credit of not being half blind and half deaf. Gives a lot of credit, actually, laughably so-- "You really think there's so much one broken down old woman can do?"
The familiar challenging sneer. "Thought you weren't old."
"I'm not, short straw."
Her automatic snap is followed by his similarly automatic explosion, then by the shoe Guntto throws at their heads, and presently by the boy turning his back on her to sulk.
Her thoughts play out on the blank screen of his narrow back. What, indeed, could you imagine asking a broken down old woman to contribute? Perhaps the same as a kid who doesn't even touch five foot, who's missing half the limbs he was born with.
She got one answer, anyway. He's not being forced into this, and he won't sell them out cheaply. No amount of menaces could compell or extract the determination she caught behind his funny yellow eyes.
When it does go down, it isn't anything like the swiftly stamped-out skirmish she'd feared would be inevitable. A half dozen of the strongest miners have already taken down the guards of their work unit - all around her, chaos reigning, and more dead people than she's seen since Ishbal - by the time she hears that the citizens outside the citadel have attacked the gate and are forcing their way through. With this news, the boy's grin expands a size larger than his face and he crows, "He did it!"
He, thinks Hatha. He...
The boy bids them follow him to hidden stashes of tools to break their chains and weapons to fight, and she has no clue how those things possibly could have come to be there. The mining tools are numbered and logged. None of the guards have been turned to their cause, and there is simply no way that such items could have been smuggled in and hidden without someone's co-operation, especially bulky weapons like those ugly spears.
"I didn't bring them here," he responds, aggravated, when she presses, and they all have too much demand on their concentration for her to press any further. They have armed themselves barely in time for the battle that has caught up to them.
She has never witnessed anything more unexpected than the way he fights; eyes lighting up with vengeful, gleeful fury as he launches himself at a familiar figure in the melee. "Who's so small he should be STEPPED ON?!!!"
Brund probably doesn't have time to regret he ever picked on the kid before an eye-watering flurry of punches and mid-air kicks reduces him to a groaning heap on the tunnel floor. The other guards nearby stare, stunned and frozen in place, their expressions a matching parade of shock and alarm. Hatha imagines her face doesn't look too different. She has the impression the boy didn't hold back with the automail limbs, either.
"Hey--" The largest of the guards returns to life and makes a grab for the boy still incautiously standing and grinning with hands on hips and one boot rested on Brund's unconscious back. The kid ducks but gets snagged by his silly trailing braid. Big doesn't always mean slow and dumb, despite Brund's religious adherence to cliche in that department. Using the braid to propel the howling boy towards the nearest wall, the guard is taken by surprise to be holding onto, not a whimpering semi-conscious child who's just been smashed face-first against stone, but--
She's not even entirely sure what happens. Somehow and with impossible grace, the boy spins around without ever being brought up short by his captured braid, grasping the arm that holds him, by turn, in an automail grip. His automail foot must have hit the wall, because she hears loud and clear the chime of metal on stone and the grind of gears as he flips his body up and over. His right foot he plants firmly into the guard's face, and the much larger man topples like a felled tree. The boy falls with him and lands tidily in a squat atop his chest. His grin now is positively demonic.
"How the hell...?" But apart from the one who stuttered the words, the guards are done hesitating in the face of the size and youth of the threat. It's guns they level now. Hatha snaps out of her own stupor and dives for cover. The boy is surely dead. She ought to be keeping her head down and out of danger, but she can't help staring on in horror.
Defenseless in front of the enemy, Ed claps his hands together and slaps his palms on the ground. A flash of light dazzles the guards, but that's not his aim -- Hatha gapes as a new wall emerges from the cave floor to catch the flurry of bullets. Ricochets and fragments of stone spray out, and strangled curses and cries fill the air; they crescendo and then choke off as a sea of stony fists rises from the cave floor, curling around Hanvers' men or knocking them flat.
Alchemy, she realises wonderingly. That damn kid knows alchemy. That explains where the weapons had come from, at any rate. And she thinks she can't be the only one who has an inkling of what has really been going on here now.
Even so, she stalks him from the shadows until she spies a good moment to drag him back into comparative safety with her, gaping at the transformed automail he lowers from her face. "We need to find someplace to hide until this is over," she tells him, and she's been a slave for a year, but she's never had anyone look at her with the disgust levelled in his responding sneer.
"Stupid midget!" she snaps at his back. The fight has moved on, and she awkwardly runs after him, while he in turn follows the sound of battle still viciously in progress. "Brainless dwarf! Flea-sized imbecile! Children and old women don't fight! You want to die, little boy?"
"Don't... say... little," he growls predictably, but he doesn'tpause or look back. "Everyone fights, if they're going to chase the things they want. You can sit and rot, old woman."
She steals two of the guards' guns and as many bullets as she can pocket, and she shadows him, grit-toothed, angry and unsure, through the violence and death. She never planned to kill a man before her own life was over, let alone two... and a third that might not survive his wound. Her hands ache holding the guns, though that's from recoil. They should be hiding, not fighting, and she would be hiding but she cannot so long as the boy refuses. No matter how well he fights or what alchemic abilities he possesses, she has seen curled up behind his eyes his horror at the carnage around them, and it is unconscionable for a child to be caught in the middle of this. Even more so if he has nobody to watch his ridiculously tiny back.
Her heart clenches itself into a fist as they turn a corner and, at the sight of them, a massively built man in full armour curtails a fight by smashing his opponent to the ground with a casual swipe of a huge fist and then charges towards them with an inarticulate noise of choked greeting.
The boy looks a little poleaxed and she luckily doesn't have time to level either of the guns she stole before the armoured giant scoops him up into a ferocious hug.
"Al, put me down! I can't breathe! And, damn it, we're a bit busy at the moment -- or hadn't you noticed that?"
"We're winning," the armour insists... corrects. And isn't that excitable voice a little high? "I mean, we've won. We're just mopping up the last of Hanvers' people now -- they've got him under house arrest at his big rock-carved palace place."
"Damn!" The kid looks sincerely put-out. "I was hoping I'd get to punch in that bastard's face myself after all this trouble he's put us to." It's the automail fist he looks down at.
"The plan worked perfectly," the large man reassures him. "But are you all right? You're so dirty! All your clothes are torn, and that awful coat! I have your own... but you look so thin! Did they hurt you?" His tone suggests ominous things might happen to the 'they' concerned.
The armoured man's voice sounds far too young and she's not convinced it can all be put down to a trick of metallic echo. But then... he is supposed to be quite young, or so she had heard. The youngest ever, they say, when he sat the exam. She can see the signs that alchemy has been used to fight here, too, in the distortion of the cave walls and floor around them, and she knows, of course, who this has to be. Huh... at least he is a strapping youth.
The boy notably shrugs off his concerns. Hatha is less willing to overlook them.
"You! Mr Alchemist!" She stomps across to him, carried by a wave of unanticipated fury. "I've a bone to pick with you! What the hell did you think you were doing, sending your apprentice into this place alone? He could have been killed! Using a child for work like that--!"
The armoured man is waving his arms in frantic negating gestures. "He's not my apprentice!" She stops mid-stride. While the voice definitely arises from the armour, it sounds far too high and childlike to belong to the large man or even the large youth who must be inside. "He's my brother!"
She tries again, no less angry. "Then you shouldn't allow your little brother--"
A hacking cough from behind her swings her around with an instinctive sense of threat, then-- "I'm. Not. LITTLE!" The boy, she'd swear, jumps about a foot straight up off the ground and hangs in the air for at least the full span of a second while he yells into her face. The echo of his shout rings around the caverns. "I'm the older brother, damn it! AL is the younger brother! More than a whole year younger! How many times?!"
Hatha stares blankly at the armour. All of this is too much for her to process. "Then you're... supposed to be... thirteen years old...?" As she watches the armour frantically nod, another connection 'pings' into place inside her brain. If she'd originally thought that the man in the armour was... /him/... then did that mean that by implication...?
She stares again down at the boy. "No."
His face creases sourly. "Takes you long enough to catch on, stupid old woman."
"That's the Fullmetal Alchemist?" And for some reason, she's still addressing the giant, armoured, younger child, who says "Uh-huh" in his small voice and again nods along with the assertion in a child's desperate enthusiasm to convince.
The boy - Ed. Edward Elric, the Fullmetal Alchemist's name is Edward Elric, public knowledge - glowers at her and she glares back down at him. A child. The child she's eaten and slept beside these last few weeks, shown the ropes in Hanvers' mines, and slapped on multiple occasions for being mouthy or stupid. She cannot see him as her equal, and she refuses to see him as her better.
"The Fullmetal Alchemist?" she repeats, louder, angrily. She feels like they've all been cheated, the hero that rumour promised them only lies, their cause transmuted into a joke. "You are what the military sent when they heard of our plight? We needed an army and they sent a child? We were dying daily under Hanvers' rule and they sent us you?"
"Fuck you!" The boy barks injured pride and raw defiance up into her face, small figure stretched as straight and tall as it will, expelling volume and fury enough to more than match her own, all but bowling her backwards with the force of his shout. "You're all free, aren't you?"
Before she has time to check her words, to regret or recant, he is walking away from her through the quiet tunnels where the people of Hythernea are beginning to process their - his - win, stamping in a jangle of automail like he's been sent to his room. A child that endured beatings and deprivation and ridicule because the government told him to come free them, and he did.
The last thing she sees of him, then or ever, is his small, rigid back.