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Gold From Lead

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There were whispers. There was absolutely no way to stop them.

Twelve? Only twelve?

Definitely a prodigy. I saw the boy's exam with my own eyes…

But, my God, what possessed Mustang to recruit someone so young?

You haven't heard the rumors?

Roy didn't even know those rumors existed until months after Ed's examination. Most likely because no one had known enough during that interval to really spark an interest in the boy. Hardly anyone outside of East City had heard of the Fullmetal Alchemist, the youngest State Alchemist in history and considered a prodigy by men decades his senior. Even Ed's brash actions during his exam were never really spoken of openly, except among the people who were actually there.

They were the first to whisper.

Pretty sure Mustang was out on leave in Resembool following a rumor about alchemists. One year later, Fullmetal drops into our lap saying he was personally invited by the lieutenant colonel…

Awful big coincidence to just 'find' a prodigy in a backwater place like that…

Are you saying he knew the boy was there all along?

There were doubters, of course. Not among the military, but among the citizens themselves. On the radio, in the satire column of the paper, they were everywhere. The ones who blustered and scoffed that the kid was a simple figurehead meant to stoke the swiftly cooling embers of patriotism among the people. Oh sure, the rumors of his alchemic ability probably had some basis in fact, but how could a prepubescent child from the country possibly be so gifted?

All it took was a few short missions—not to mention that whole fiasco in Youswell—and Edward Elric's brilliance spoke for itself. The People's Alchemist, they called him with a fierce sort of pride in their voices. A hero, a champion of the common man. And they didn't even know the half of what the boy was capable of. Ed had gone through hell to be here, clawed his way out of the dark, black pit of his past to shoot for the open sky like a firecracker, all radiance and glory. Roy would have dearly loved to say that had all been his doing, but it was impossible for him to take the credit. The fuel was already there. All he did was provide the sparks.

All that talent! His parents must be so proud! They say alchemy runs in the family…

Orphans, both of them. My friend heard from someone that their mother was struck by the epidemic some years back…

The younger brother doesn't have any relatives to care for him while his brother's working?

And all the while those damn whispers continued to thrive. Ed would rip out his spleen if he knew what all those people were insinuating about the two of them. He would he shocked, possibly even repulsed by the very idea. He would come straight to Roy and demand that his superior do something to stomp them out of existence.

What about their father? Where is he?

You haven't heard the rumors?

But it was a little late now. Those rumors had existed for years among the military circles, sometimes branching out among the civilians who saw Flame and Fullmetal together. Every angle had been analyzed and reanalyzed until it all began to make an absurd sort of sense. Even Roy occasionally found himself contemplating the possibility, searching his memory some thirteen or fourteen years back to see if he could recall a young woman with chestnut hair and hazel eyes, like the pictures he had glimpsed in the Rockbell home…

But, no. Roy had been in military training in East City at the time, and thereafter in Ishval. Hardly more than a boy, immersed in fire and blood and death, he hadn't had much time to spare for gallivanting. There was no reason for these whispers, no reason at all.

Ishval is pretty close to Resembool, isn't it?

Yes, damn it all, Resembool and Ishval were in relatively the same area in the east.

And you know how soldiers are during wartime…

But Roy had been positioned squarely in Ishval's most sacred cities on the border of the desert, hundreds of miles away from those beautiful green fields tucked away in the rolling hills. Certainly in no position for a romp in the hay with any of the women in Resembool. But those whispering fools only saw the dots on the map. They only saw the seven-year timeline of the Ishval war without even considering that Roy, as a State Alchemist, hadn't entered the fray until the very bitter end.

Ed would have been somewhere between five and ten at the time. Roy had never bothered to do the math. And neither had they, apparently.

Is it possible? Could it be?

What other reason would Mustang have for bringing the boy into the military after his mother died? Keeping him at close hand, looking after him, protecting him…

But the brother!

They could be half-brothers. Have you seen the pictures in the paper, how different they look? And you know how these country girls are…

It was impossible. It was ludicrous. Ed didn't even look like him.

And yet the whispers persisted.

Haven't you heard the rumors? They're saying Roy Mustang is…

"My father?"

Roy caught his breath at Ed's faint, incredulous words, but otherwise held himself perfectly in check. He couldn't take the time now to dwell on his good fortune. He ruthlessly wrestled his mind away from any and all stray thoughts that could possibly slip him up. He had to be here, in this moment.

The stone wall against his back was colder than a tomb, sucking heat from his skin even through his uniform, but he didn't dare to pull away from it completely. Beyond this dark corridor, through a doorway straight ahead, lay the main body of the warehouse where Ed's voice had come from. Moonlight spilled across the threshold, washing a section of the floor in soft, lustrous white, but here in the windowless corridor the darkness pressed down on Roy's eyes and played tricks with his senses.

Maybe…maybe he had only imagined hearing Ed's voice…

A bright, bubbling laugh echoed from beyond the door, quickly dispelling that awful notion, and Roy clenched his teeth to keep from sighing in relief. It was a very quiet night. Sounds carried in a building like this. He couldn't let them hear him. If they got away now, there was no guarantee he would get another chance like this.

"What makes you think that bastard would lift a finger to help me?" Ed snickered, his words tainted with bitterness. "He walked out on me ages ago! If you're hoping for a ransom from him, you're out of luck."

The stone wall rasped under his left palm and Roy paused, positive Ed's captors had heard it. But the little habitual noises he could hear them making never fell silent. People always had something they did when they were on edge and not guarding themselves, some kind of tic. Roy rubbed his thumb and middle fingers together when he needed reassurance. Hughes curled and uncurled his fingers as if itching to reach for the hidden knife under his cuff. Ed touched his automail, gripped the shoulder or the wrist with his left hand.

Ed's captors weren't quite that complex. Or quiet. At least one was pacing around slowly, soft footfalls lost in the reaches of the vast warehouse, and another constantly clicked what sounded like a cigarette lighter. It took Roy a moment to place the third noise. It sounded like water dripping, but was actually a finger tapping the barrel of a gun. At least three, not counting the sentry he had incapacitated on the way in. A single man, clearly of Drachman descent, leaning casually against the outer wall of the warehouse had been his only clue that he might find something here, and now Roy was glad he followed his hunches.

One of the captors sniffed mightily. He sounded like he was recovering from a cold. "Don't bother with the act. He made a good show of trying to hide it, but everyone knows you're his kid."

"I…never said I wasn't," Ed faltered. "I'm just saying you won't get anything out of this. I'm not bluffing when I say he won't come for me."

Roy ignored the words and focused on the inflection, trying to gauge if Ed had been hurt. His voice was clear, not tight with pain or slurred from drugs or a head injury, but he had to be restrained somehow. Even if they had a gun to his head, Fullmetal wouldn't have the sense to stay still when he could be taking action.

Another step forward. Roy crouched to his knees so he would stay out of the moonlight and inched forward to peer around the corner.

His eyes were immediately drawn to Ed. Or rather his hair. All that bright gold seemed to have been bleached out under the light of the full moon pouring through a set of windows near the ceiling, leaving it a stark, dazzling white. His complexion looked equally pale, almost skeletal, and the effect was only intensified by his black, black clothes. His red coat had been left behind with Al. Only Ed's eyes glittered with life as they constantly shifted from one captor to another. He sat cross-legged against a stone pillar near the center of the massive room with his left shoulder turned to Roy. His arms were bound behind his back somehow. There was no way they were in that position for comfort.

Roy moved his attention to the three men guarding him. One leaned against the wall beneath the windows with a rifle in his hands, constantly tapping his forefinger against the dark, gleaming metal. Another sat directly opposite Ed against another pillar. He was almost completely invisible in the shadows, only the orange and blue flame from his lighter visible every time he flicked it open. Light, dark. Light, dark.

The pacer was right in front of Ed. He alone wore an Amestrian military uniform rather than the scruffy, ill-fitting garments that the others possessed, though all the rank pins had been discarded now. That went a long way toward explaining how Ed got himself into this. Al had explained that a soldier claiming to have been sent by Roy plucked his brother straight from East City's library without a single fuss nearly three hours ago.

The younger Elric had been highly alarmed when Roy told him he had sent no such man.

Roy had wasted no time rounding up as many soldiers as he could and hashing out a hasty plan of action. The train station was even now being searched discreetly by the local military police, and none of the trains were allowed to leave the city without being stripped top to bottom. Confident that the station was secure, Roy had split the military forces all along the perimeter of the city to lock down the roads leading in and out. Of course it had been highly probable that Ed and the stranger had already left by car or train only minutes after leaving Al's sight. If that had happened, there would have been absolutely no way to track him.

But it had also been possible—just possible—that Ed had been taken outside the city on foot. That was the reasoning that sent Roy, Hughes and assorted subordinates to the outskirts of the city, scouring every abandoned warehouse, residence and factory that could be used as a hideout.

It was just Roy's rotten luck that he had been the one to find Ed when he was miles away from any form of backup.

The pacer stopped and gestured curtly at the rifleman, who stopped his ceaseless tapping just long enough to flick open a tarnished pocketwatch. "Ten past eight, Curtis," he muttered.

"Tch, they're late," Curtis growled. "And they have the easiest part of this whole operation. I hate people who aren't on time! How hard is it to be on time?"

Roy pulled back a little. This must be a rendezvous for someone to pick up Fullmetal and transport him elsewhere. That made sense. Using a car within the city limits ran the risk of someone glimpsing Ed and telling the nearest authority. But now that they were outside the city, they could throw Ed in the trunk of the most normal car they could find, and no one would think twice about stopping them from crossing the nearest border.

Which, Roy thought grimly, just happened to be Drachma. And he did not want to think about what would happen if Amestris found out their beloved hero had been kidnapped by the Drachmans. The civil war with Ishval had been bad enough. Uneasy peace was a far sight better than a senseless brawl that would certainly leave both lands decimated—leftovers to be piecemealed out to the countries that knew better than to get involved.

"Maybe they just don't like you," Ed goaded with a lopsided grin. "The MPs will get here long before they do. You know the penalty for harming a State Alchemist is twenty to fifty years in prison? And I'm a minor, by the way, so I can make it longer if I say you molested me."

The leader swooped low and slapped him hard enough to send him sprawling to the floor. The other two didn't even bat an eyebrow at the sudden, violent outburst directed at a child, and Roy very nearly unleashed a torrent of fire on all three of them for their callousness.

But he couldn't. It was too dangerous. The only visible weapon was that rifle, but those men could have other handguns and ammunition that would blow to pieces from the heat alone and shower Ed with deadly shrapnel. Even just giving them disabling burns wouldn't be good enough because any one of them could still put a bullet in Ed's head before he could make a move to subdue them.

Alone, Roy couldn't do much, but maybe if Ed was free…

He slipped his gloved hand underneath his jacket and curled around it, using his body to muffle the transmutation. A slight glow through his jacket was the only sign of an active array, and even Roy barely heard the crackle of energy. People tended to think of his alchemy as the ultimate weapon that crushed all opposition, but it wasn't that way at all. Like any weapon, flame alchemy could be used in many ways. Even the most powerful rifles could be effectively wielded as a club.

Roy didn't need to snap his fingers and create fire to be effective. He extended his power past the four people in the warehouse to a door on the other side with a tiny broken window near the top, seeing the air and its currents as no one else could.

To me, he coaxed the oxygen. To me…

The air in the warehouse shifted as molecules of oxygen gradually wafted in his direction. With the loss of air pressure inside, the air from outside rushed in through the broken window to take its place. Ed's captors hunched a little with muffled curses when their hair and clothes got whipped around, most likely attributing it to a strong wind blowing in from outside. It was damn cold in the warehouse to begin with, and the wind only served to make it that much more uncomfortable. Even Ed shivered a little as he resumed his original position, rolling his automail shoulder.

The door on the other side of the warehouse rattled in its frame, drawing everyone's eyes and providing the distraction Roy had been hoping for. The man with the rifle approached it with his weapon at the ready while the other two watched. That was all Roy needed to slip into the room unnoticed, edging along the wall away from the windows and toward the side of the warehouse where the darkness lay thick and promising. For those few daring seconds, he was completely exposed and praying hard that none of the captors would turn at the wrong moment.

Ed was the only one not watching the trembling door. He had gone very, very still all of a sudden, staring at the man straight across from him. No, he was looking at the lighter. The flame guttered as it battled for its survival against the wind, pointing in the direction of the culprit with unwavering accuracy. Ed whipped his head around, visibly stunned at the sight of his superior not thirty paces away. Roy signaled him to stay quiet and kept moving.

The rifleman was at the door now, unlatching it, and Roy was still five steps away from the shelter of the nearest pillar. He couldn't go any faster without alerting the other three to his presence. Ed tracked his progress for a few seconds then, when he realized what he was doing, locked eyes with the floor instead. But the open and easy confidence was gone now. All that remained was tension as the fear he had refused to show before came rushing to the surface.

Unfortunately, his change in attitude caught the attention of the man with the lighter. Roy held his breath when the man's head slowly started to turn in his direction...

The rifleman shoved the rattling door open with his shoulder, sweeping his weapon back and forth in search of imagined enemies. Roy took advantage of the noise to cover his footsteps as he raced the last few feet to the pillar. He pressed his back to the stone, making sure not an inch of his body was exposed to the light.

"Why do you guys care about my dad anyway?" Ed said suddenly. Roy could tell he was trying his best to sound curious and nonchalant, but he wasn't succeeding very well. He even forgot to add the mandatory 'bastard' in relation to his father. "What did he do to you?"

Roy peeked out of his hiding place. The rifleman had shut the door and jammed a piece of metal underneath it to keep it from moving before returning to the others. The other one shut his lighter with a decisive snap, turning it over in his fingers thoughtfully. But if he had noticed anything, he didn't say a word about it.

"He's done a lot of things, kid," Curtis sneered. He crouched before Ed so he could look him in the eye, showing a hint of teeth. "Not the least of which was begetting you out of some backcountry whore who liked to show the men in uniform a good time-"

With no warning whatsoever, Ed launched himself off the pillar and knocked their heads together. Roy was sure he would have done a lot worse if his hands hadn't been bound at the wrist so thoroughly that he couldn't even curl his fingers, let alone clap. Ed gathered up his legs underneath him and made to rise, but the rifleman took a few strides forward and jabbed the butt of his gun in his lower back, using all his weight to keep him on his stomach.

"Never say that again!" Ed roared, thrashing in helpless rage. "Don't you ever talk about her like that!"

Roy left the shelter of the pillar for a nearby crate. After a quick, breathless pause, he moved again, charting out a path to Ed using the pillars and discarded crates and trusting the gloom to hide his movement. Once he was in a position where he could protect the kid, he would have more options. And the fun part was that he was on a time limit. Whoever was coming to take over their part in Ed's abduction could turn up at any moment, and then Roy really would be screwed. Both his survival and Ed's depended on him doing something before that happened.

Not one of Ed's captors even glanced in his direction. Their captive was soaking up all their attention with his antics, and Roy had to wonder if Ed was overreacting on purpose to keep their focus on him or if he was just plain livid. Most soldiers tended to take mother insults in stride. It was just an occupational hazard. But for Ed the subject was far too sensitive for him to find the humor in it.

Roy risked another look. Curtis touched a hand to the reddening bump on his forehead, wincing as he straightened up. He regarded the enraged boy at his feet with a cool, disdainful smirk, exactly like Roy sometimes did when Ed was being particularly belligerent. But the words he had said before made that haughty look take on a whole new meaning. Even Ed couldn't miss the inference, and he struggled to raise his head from the dirt, snarling when the rifleman planted a foot between his shoulder blades to keep him down.

The man with the lighter spoke for the first time. "Think we oughta stick him in one o' the crates?"

"Nah," Curtis said carelessly. "I kind of like him like that. The little bastard could use a reminder of the kind of filth he sprung from."

"Shut up," Ed hissed, his breath raising little puffs of dust from the floor. "Shut your damn mouth! You don't know anything about her!"

Don't fall for it, kid, Roy thought as he crept from shadow to shadow, silent as the night itself. Can't you see he wants this reaction? He's not allowed to kill you, so he'll hurt you however else he can.

Curtis was pacing again, boots clipping hard against the stone and providing even more cover for Roy's movements. He allowed himself to speed up. He was halfway between the hallway and the pillar Ed had been leaning against, and getting closer every second...

"I know enough," Curtis murmured in response to Ed's earlier statement. "This is what I hate about you Amestrians. It's all about giving second chances to the ones who don't deserve it, and never mind if you were birthed by a whoring mother and a homicidal father who probably taught you everything he knows. In Drachma, blood matters! Roots matter! The Drachman army would never let a brat with such soiled bloodlines infiltrate its ranks."

"Then it's a good thing I'm not in the Drachman army," Ed snorted, for once gaining some kind of control over his temper. "Is that where you guys are from? Why you're doing this? Do you really think the State would get off its ass just to negotiate the return of one kid?"

But they would. Country-bred or not, child or not, the power Ed held over this country was truly frightening. There would be no way for the State to stand idle if Ed became a prisoner of Drachma, not if the Fuhrer hoped to keep control over the population. If Ed died here then his image would be plastered all over the papers, and the people who worshiped him would call for retribution of their own volition, blood for blood.

Roy would never allow that to happen. Not to Ed, and not to his country.

"Even if they don't, your father will," Curtis told him quietly. "What did they call him during Ishval? The Commander of Hellfire, right? Even in Drachma there have been stories about him. And you.You have your own title now, Hero of the People. Do you enjoy the fame your service to that debauched government gives you? You really are no different than he is, even if your people are blind to it…"

Ed twisted his head around to follow his path. "Are you talking about Mustang?" he said in disbelief.

Despite himself, Roy paused and braced himself for outrage, for horror and loathing, for the rant to end all rants. Accusations and curses were certain to fly at the very notion of other people thinking he and Ed were related. And was he wrong for thinking that way? The kid had made it perfectly clear on numerous occasions that he never even wanted them to be associated as friends, or even casual acquaintances.

But in the end...there was only a quiet sort of surprise. Ed wasn't sickened, he wasn't appalled. He didn't even sound mad.

Roy concluded Fullmetal had been shocked into silence and pressed on. Now he was in the shadow of the pillar that Ed had been leaning against, which meant he could no longer see any of the other warehouse occupants. Carefully, Roy eased his gun from its holster with his left hand and pressed his gloved fingers together. At most he might be able to kill one or two of them before they started shooting, and the suddenness of his attack should give him a chance to grab Ed and take cover, and then—

Bright yellow lights panned over the door, harsh and sharp compared to the soft moonlight, and Roy's heart squeezed in his chest when he heard the unmistakable sound of tires crunching gravel. An engine shut off outside.

"About time," Curtis grunted. "Get up now, you little shit! Daniel, go get Cole and tell him it's time to go."

Roy chanced leaning over to see what was going on. Curtis had taken Ed's arm and hauled him to his feet, marching him toward the rifleman who held the door open for them. The third man stuck the lighter in his pocket and picked himself up, taking one last look over his shoulder…

…and he saw Roy.

Now! Move now!

The colonel rounded the pillar, bringing himself completely into the open just as the man cried out a warning. The snapping of his fingers seemed deafening to his ears, even though the acoustics of the warehouse were nowhere near enough to make it so. Ed recognized the sound for what it was and reacted accordingly, jerking his shoulder up to ram his elbow into Curtis' face and diving for cover. The oxygen Roy had previously gathered together came at his command, roaring to life in a fireball that nearly blasted him off his feet. Thankfully, he managed to stay upright and avoid that embarrassment altogether. He hurled the fire in the general direction of Ed's captors, and the expansion of the heat alone sent them flying into the wall with bone-crunching velocity. Well, one of them actually went through the wall, but it was good enough.

"Took you long enough!" Ed shouted from his place crouched beside a pillar. "What the hell were you waiting for?"

"A perfect entrance," Roy quipped dryly. He strode across the charred path the fireball had left in its wake. Ed met him halfway, turning and offering up his bound hands meaningfully.

"Just get this off me," Ed demanded, petulant as always. "I've got some serious ass to kick…"

"No, you don't," Roy said curtly. "Brace yourself."

He snapped his fingers again, and a controlled flash of fire ripped up Ed's automail arm, searing off the rope and half his sleeve with it. Ed spat a curse as he wrenched his hands away and rubbed his newly freed wrist. "Damn it, Mustang, the metal still conducts heat!"

"Let's go!" Roy snapped, seizing Ed's wrist and running for the hallway he had entered the warehouse from. With any luck, they could still lose themselves in the wooded area around this string of warehouses before the people outside had a chance to find out what had happened. The car Roy had come in had been left behind at least two miles down the road, not too far to run as long as they paced themselves...

But Ed, as always, seemed utterly bent on doing to exact opposite of what Roy wanted.

"Hold it, hold it!" Ed ordered, pulling his wrist free from Roy's grasp. "You're just going to let them go? What's the matter with you?"

"With me?" Roy retorted. "Didn't you hear that car outside? We'll be outnumbered in a matter of seconds if we stay here!"

"What do you mean 'outnumbered'?" Ed exclaimed, infuriated. "I thought you had people waiting for us outside! What kind of an idiot goes on a rescue mission without backup!"

"Don't you dare lecture me on backup, Fullmetal! Maybe if you hadn't gotten kidnapped in the first place—!"

"Maybe if you weren't such an ass—!"

It could have been just debris shifting, but Roy hadn't gotten this far by assuming anything. He seized the front of Ed's shirt and yanked him bodily behind the nearest pillar, shielding him with his own body as bullets blasted chips of stone off the floor where they had been standing. Curtis stood silhouetted in the hole in the wall, pistol in hand.

"Come out where I can see you, Flame Alchemist!" Curtis snarled hatefully. "And bring your bastard son with you!"

Ed started at his words and shot Roy an unreadable look before shoving the colonel away. "I don't need your protection!" he hissed.

"Clearly," Roy said skeptically.

That turned out to be a mistake. Ed bristled, somehow taking that single word as a challenge, and to Roy's utter dismay he threw himself out of hiding. "Just watch me!"

"Ed, get back here!" Roy shouted desperately, not quite daring to come out of hiding himself. He couldn't match Ed's speed and agility and would stand almost no chance. Instead, he leaned out a little and returned fire, which forced Curtis to retreat slightly. Ed was a living shadow, weaving through the pillars and crates to avoid the gunfire. At times the bullets made sparks dance only inches from his feet, but somehow he remained intact all the way to the other end of the warehouse. Curtis raised the gun when Ed appeared right in front of him, but Fullmetal struck faster than a snake and sent the weapon flying.

"Call MY mother a whore, will you? You crossed a line there, you son of a bitch! YOU CROSSED A LINE!"

The two struggling forms retreated into the darkest corners of the warehouse, and Roy forsook his cover to go after them. Out of the corner of his eyes a shadow detached itself from the broken wall. Both he and the rifleman raised their respective weapons at the exact same time, but Roy pulled the trigger first, aiming squarely for the man's chest.

The rifleman flinched when the gunshot resounded through the warehouse. But then he relaxed again when he realized he hadn't been hit. Roy pulled the trigger again, but a quiet click told him he was out of ammunition. The rifleman grinned as he took aim again while Roy's mind was still frantically trying to catch up with what had just happened. He wasn't that bad of a shot! At this distance, he should have been dead on! But the man wasn't a corpse, nor had Roy seen any sign of his bullet hitting the wall behind his target.

So where was the bullet?


A blond creature tackled him just as he heard the sharp bark of the rifle. He and Ed hit the floor hard, and Roy used the momentum to roll them both behind the first crate he saw.

"Are you alright?" Roy barked much more sharply than he'd intended. When there was no immediate answer, he shook Ed's shoulder roughly. "Did you get hit? Yes or no!"

Ed shook his head, lips pressed tightly together. "Don't think so. You?"

Roy didn't answer. If he was hit, it could damn well wait until they got out of here. He pressed his thumb and forefinger together in preparation to crisp the rifleman...but the man was nowhere in sight. All was silent. Roy stood fully and stepped into the open, advancing.

"Mustang, careful!" Ed snapped. "He could be hiding-!"

"He's not," Roy said calmly.

Ed came when he beckoned, following his gaze. The rifleman was sprawled out on his back, hands and face riddled with burns and gunpowder while one blank eye gazed at the ceiling. The other was bleeding profusely thanks to a large bit of metal lodged in the socket. The rifle itself was a mess. The barrel had been split wide open, strips of metal peeling back like a banana rind.

Roy couldn't help it. He laughed. "Shot of a lifetime," he said reverently. "My bullet must have gotten lodged in the barrel of his rifle. It made the whole thing blow up in his face when he fired."

Ed shuffled over to stand by Roy's shoulder, pondering the mangled gun. "Huh. So, I guess I...I didn't need to..."

Reality hit Roy like a sledgehammer, and he rounded on Ed, suddenly livid. "Who the hell told you to take a bullet for me, Major?"

Ed jumped back a little, eyes wide. "W-What? What? I didn't even take a bullet for you!"

"You could have!"

"But I didn't, so why are you yelling at me? You should be thanking me for saving your sorry ass!"

"I'm supposed to thank you for throwing yourself into a gun's path? Gee, Ed, how so very thoughtful of you to get yourself shot because of me!"

"Would you rather I just sat back and watched, you ungrateful son of a—!"

"Do I need to put you two in a corner?"

Ed and Roy both reacted instantly, whirling toward the voice and fully prepared to unleash their individual wrath on whoever was there. But the man they saw was the last one Roy expected. Hughes stepped carefully through the hole in the wall and whistled at the destruction. Two more soldiers entered through the door beside the hole with guns at the ready, and Roy turned around to see Havoc and Hawkeye emerge from the corridor he had entered the warehouse from. The four soldiers went around checking the condition of Ed's captors while Hughes approached the two of them with arms thrown wide open.

"I'm so glad to see you're okay, Ed!" Hughes exclaimed in relief. "We've been looking all over for you! Al was hysterical when we realized what happened."

"Is he here?" Ed said quickly. When Hughes shook his head, his shoulders visibly slumped. "I didn't mean to worry him. Those guys just took me by surprise…"

"Oh damn!" Havoc called from the pitch black corner where Curtis and Ed had fought. "This guy's a wreck!"

Ed fidgeted a little, suddenly looking very uncomfortable. "Oh yeah, about that. You guys might want to get him to a hospital before he, know, bleeds out through his brain..."

"What did you do to him?" Roy demanded.

"Nothing!" Ed cried, holding up his hands in defense. He looked to Hughes for help, but the lieutenant colonel only crossed his arms with a stern look to mirror Roy's. "I-I...okay, I may have gone a little overboard with my automail, and I may have...uh, cracked his skull open. But just a little! Even if he ends up a vegetable, he'll still live, right?"

Ed trailed off, not quite meeting Roy's eyes. The colonel shared a look with Hughes, who just shrugged. The kid never changed. Even when a man like Curtis threw him in the dirt, he would always stay his hand when it came to human life.

Hughes' men did their best to patch Curtis up before everyone filed out through the door. Roy distinctly remembered leaving the Drachman sentry unconscious by the roadside, but now he was bound hand and foot against the wall of the warehouse, squinting in the light of the military car parked a short distance away. Beside him was the lighter clicker, covered in dust from his collision with the wall and watching them all with a very dazed look. He had a concussion for sure.

"We assumed you had a good reason for catapulting him to the moon and acted accordingly," Hughes told him glibly. He motioned to the soldiers to plant Curtis beside the other two captives. The man groaned in agony with every little movement, head lolling on his shoulder. His skull was a gruesome sight, glistening as it was with fresh blood, and Roy noticed Ed shift to hide his bloody automail from the others.

"You came just in time," Roy said to Hughes. "How'd you know to come here?"

"Didn't, exactly," Hughes said casually. "A very sharp bird told me you'd gone off to search this section all by yourself. I came to find you and make sure you take Havoc and Hawkeye as your backup. I guess it's not necessary now, but next time could you try not to be so much like Ed?"

Roy gave Hawkeye a mildly betrayed look, which she returned with a straight mouth and a brisk salute. Ed, for his part, snorted at Hughes' suggestion. "Hey, when I refuse backup, it's just common sense! Nobody can keep up with me, including Colonel Idiot right here."

The two soldiers Hughes had brought with him exchanging knowing looks at Ed's blatant disrespect. Roy let it go for now. Maybe someday he would inform Ed that the way he acted around his colonel only reinforced those rumors flying around—that people could all-too-easily mistake his contempt for teasing, insults for dysfunctional affection. It was ironic, in a way.

"Don't let your guard down just yet," Roy announced, remembering suddenly. "These men were keeping Ed here while they waited to rendezvous with someone else. There could still—"

Screeching tires drowned out his voice. Havoc cursed when an unmarked car across the street sped out from behind some trees and accelerated down the empty road, leaving only smoke in its wake. Roy almost raised his hand to use alchemy, but within seconds the car out of sight and the ones in it beyond their reach.

"Well," Havoc muttered. "Guess that's that..."

"I got the license plate memorized," Hughes said helpfully. "But I don't think it'll do much good. They'll probably be over the border before we even get the chance to go after them."

"It's enough that we have these three," Roy said definitively, nodding at the three mute captives. Curtis seemed to be coming around, glaring up at him sullenly. He spat at the ground, narrowly missing Roy's boot.

"Looks like the boy inherited your brutality, Mustang..."

Ed stiffened, and everyone but Roy held their breath. Hughes and all of Roy's men were aware of the existence of the rumors, but they had likewise declined to mention them to Fullmetal. Now they all looked to the kid, waiting for a reaction. Even Roy expected some kind of eruption now that they were no longer under immediate threat.

Ed marched up to Curtis with slow, deliberate steps. Without a single change in expression he raised one hand and deliberately pointed first at Roy, then himself.

"Black hair and black eyes," Ed said flatly. "And my mother had chestnut hair and hazel eyes. You can't get gold from lead, moron."

And with that he turned on his heel and stepped out of the pool of light. Roy turned back to the others, snapping them out of their own thoughts. "Hughes, you and Havoc take the prisoners back to East City with your car. There's not enough room for all of us, so me, Ed, Hawkeye and your men will go get mine. It's not far, just a few miles down the road."

"Colonel," Havoc said warily. "No offense, but are you sure it's safe for Ed to be walking down a dark road now? That car we saw might come back."

"It's a risk we'll have to take," Roy explained quickly. He could hear Ed stomping through the undergrowth and had a feeling the kid wouldn't bother with such a simple thing as remembering the way back. "But we're far from defenseless. Anyone coming after us would be hard pressed to get past both mine and Ed's alchemy."

"Gotcha," Hughes said with a broad wink. He and Havoc set to work bundling the prisoners in the backseat while Roy went after Ed, conscious of Hawkeye and the other two following him. They caught up to Ed at the edge of the road where the kid had stopped, hands shoved in his pockets and head tilted down.

Roy motioned the others in the right direction and touched Ed's elbow. "This way, Fullmetal."

Ed grunted, shrugging his hand off half-heartedly as he fell into step at his shoulder. Hawkeye lead the way with the other two soldiers walking behind them at a discreet distance, following the narrow road as it wound its way through the trees. Within minutes, the warehouse that had been Ed's prison was out of sight. Hawkeye and one of the other soldiers had flashlights with them, but even without them the moon would have been enough. Its glow was so strong out here that it rendered the road pearly blue and shaded the trees in layers of gray and white.

"Why did he think that?" Ed asked abruptly, his voice pitched low so only Roy could hear him. "Why'd that guy think we were…?"

"There are a lot of people who think that," Roy murmured. "More than you know."


Roy didn't answer right away. This was the third time he had expected Ed to fly off the handle about the rumors. And yet the antagonism he had anticipated each and every time was, once again, absent. He studied Ed's guarded profile curiously. Had he read the kid wrong? If he didn't feel angry over this, then...what did he feel?

"People like to talk," Roy said cautiously, trying to get a feel for where the kid was at. "They like to know things about other people. Especially people like us, who are so well-known to them that they assume they are entitled to every minor detail of our lives. And when those details are absent..."

"They make up their own," Ed concluded. "Happens to me and Al all the time. But I still don't get it. How many people are thinking like this? When did it start?"

"When you first joined up," Roy explained, continuing to look straight ahead even when he sensed Ed staring at him in astonishment. "The military has a set way of doing things, which makes it hard to accept things out of the norm. And you were as abnormal as they came."

"I'm not abnormally small!" Ed barked loudly, seeming to forget the soldiers around them for a moment. Hawkeye glanced back at them with a raised eyebrow, but made no comment.

"I'm saying that you were strange to them, Ed," Roy told him. "Your genius in alchemy, your age...they just couldn't take you at face value. There had to be something more. And of course the higher-ups felt the need to invent other reasons I might have had for recruiting you, aside from the obvious benefits to my own career. A man trying to do right by his illegitimate child just happened to be the most acceptable rumor that wouldn't completely discredit us both."

Ed dropped his gaze, kicking at some stray clumps of grass with his mouth set in a grim line. Nothing more was said for so long that Roy concluded the conversation had been dropped and respected the silence. The car wasn't too much further now. Just another minute or so and they would be on their way to East City where Roy could finally get some sleep after all the stress this day had brought him.

"Does it bother you?"

The question was barely audible above the crunch of gravel and leaves under their feet. When it finally registered Roy stared at the blond head not two inches from his chin at a loss. That was the last thing he had expected to hear. And for the first time in a long time, Roy contemplated the answer to that question. Did it bother him to be associated with Ed in that way?

He supposed it had annoyed him to some extent when the rumors first cropped up years ago. He had been approaching thirty then, certainly of an age when most men began thinking of families and fatherhood, and the mere thought had a way of making gray hairs sprout overnight as he lamented the loss of his youth. But that hadn't been what made him stare down those whispering gossips with icy looks and emotionless, logical denials. If he was to make it to the top then Roy could not afford any sort of black mark on his record.

Time and familiarity had dulled much of that resentment. In the end, it was just a baseless rumor. There were hundreds of them flying around, and there would probably be more in the future. Roy had long ago reached the conclusion that he had done far worse things in his life than siring a bastard child and hiding him away in the country. Besides, he thought with some satisfaction, any and all attempts to slur his name had been shredded once it became clear that Ed had a place in the military. And that Colonel Roy Mustang would stop at nothing to protect him.

Roy attention slid sideways to Fullmetal again. Ed wouldn't even look at him. He kept his eyes fixed on the road at his feet, pretending he couldn't care less about the colonel's answer even though the question alone gave his feelings away. Funny. He spent so much of his time assuming Ed didn't give a damn about him that, when moments like this cropped up, Roy was inevitably thrown for a loop each and every time.

"No," Roy answered finally, not missing the slight lift to Ed's eyebrows. "I'm not jumping for joy at the idea, but it doesn't bother me either. I could say I'm indifferent."

Indifferent, my ass, Hughes whispered in his mind with a wink and a smile.

Ed made a dispassionate noise in his throat that wasn't quite acceptance, but not quite rejection either. Usually, Fullmetal was an open book to anyone who cared to look, but now Roy could not for the life of him figure out what the kid was thinking. It didn't help at all that he was getting the strangest urge to put an arm around the kid's shoulders, maybe ruffle his hair a little...

"So what about you?" Roy asked abruptly, hoping to coax out that familiar spark with a little teasing.

Ed blinked, coming out of his own thoughts. "What?"

Roy shrugged. "Afraid I'll tarnish your reputation?"

He had tried to sound apathetic and mocking, but instead the words came out self-deprecating. Even worse Roy had nearly let a note of wistfulness slip in as well. He felt like he had just dived off a cliff and only now realized how far away the ground was.

No matter what he says, I don't care...I can't care, I won't care...

"I," Ed stammered, taken aback and apparently giving it serious thought. The group rounded a bend and found the car, and Hawkeye took the keys from Roy to start the ignition. The other two soldiers had the tact to remain out of hearing range, but Roy still caught them glancing back at the two of them as he waited for Ed's response.

"You know my parents never married?" Ed said eventually, looking off into the trees behind the car. "Nobody ever made a big deal out of it in Resembool. Probably because they knew her, knew our situation. It was only once Al and I started traveling around that I learned how...unusual it was for a woman to have two kids and no wedding band. If I'd known back then what the word 'bastard' actually implied, I doubt I would have used it quite so readily."

In general, or on me? Roy wondered dubiously.

"I guess," Ed started, then sighed and shook his head. "It doesn't really matter. People would still talk even if they knew all about Hohenheim. But he can't really be counted as a father anyway, not after he walked out on me and Al. Hell, you've done more for us than he ever..."

Ed cut himself off, running a hand through his hair. "What I'm saying is...being your son is only slightly more bearable than being his. That answer your question?"

That...was far more than Roy had any right to hope for. And there was no hiding the pleased smile that leapt to his lips as something warm and tender bloomed in his chest. Ed instantly took it the wrong way and rounded on him with flushed cheeks and heated words.

"Don't get so smug about it!" Ed ordered, poking him in the chest. "You're still a bastard, and you always will be!"

"Of course," Roy said easily. "I hardly expect you to make the transition from 'bastard' to 'dad' in a single night."

Ed practically growled at him and stalked away, clambering into the backseat of the car next to one of Hughes' soldiers. The second soldier took one look at Fullmetal's face and wisely opted for the front passenger seat instead, leaving Roy to take the only remaining one beside the kid. Ed turned pointedly away from him after he shut the door, not even voicing his discomfort at being squished into the middle seat. Hawkeye steered the car onto the road and then they were on their way. Roy slumped against the door a little, his only concession to weariness, and smirked when he heard a soft snore next to his left ear. Fullmetal must have been far more tired than he thought to fall asleep before they were even back in the city.

Roy started a little when his shoulder buckled under a heavy weight and barely stifled a groan. No doubt this was the work of Ed's devious subconscious seeking revenge for the teasing. He rolled his shoulder a little, hoping to shrug him off without waking him, but Ed's weight only settled more heavily against his arm. Roy studied the kid's peaceful face in exasperation and carefully eased himself away, hunching as close to the door as possible. Ed shifted with him, sliding down in his seat until his cheek was pressed to Roy's side in a position that made the colonel's neck twinge just to look at it.

He looked up sharply when he felt eyes on him, and the soldier on Fullmetal's other side hastily went back to staring out the window. Part of Roy wanted to snap at the man to discard whatever preconceived notions he had in his head because Ed could have just as easily fallen asleep against his shoulder instead. It didn't mean anything that Roy was the one getting drooled on. It didn't.

The colonel pondered his options. Even if he was cruel enough to leave Ed in that awkward arrangement, he didn't particularly enjoy the feel of cold automail digging into his hip. Roy considered pushing him back upright, but the ride wasn't exactly smooth, and Ed would undoubtedly just fall down again. He could always just wake him up, but...

Roy took one last look at the sleeping child against him and heaved a purely internal sigh of defeat. Slowly, he eased one arm under Ed's shoulders and the other under his head, shifting until Fullmetal was sprawled halfway in his lap. His legs panged a little from the heaviness of the automail, and his arm was sure to go numb the longer it stayed trapped under Ed's head. But hell, who was he kidding? He liked being the kid's pillow. There was something so simple about offering comfort to another person in this way, giving them a safe place to rest and unburden themselves.

And there was so little that Ed allowed Roy to do for him anymore. If this was all Roy could have, he would take it.

The city limits came in sight on the horizon. It wouldn't be long now. Roy gradually relinquished hold on any form of solid thought and simply allowed this moment to wash over him. His free hand had found a place resting on Ed's side against his ribs, tracking the steady rise and fall of his chest. His forearm was right under Ed's nose and the sensitive skin was constantly being tickled by the kid's bangs. Without thinking Roy swept the curtain of hair back so it wouldn't bother him, struck by how much brighter it looked now under the lights of the streetlamps cruising by at regular intervals.

You can't get gold from lead...

Had there been a note of disappointment in Ed's voice when he said that? Regret? If there had been, it could easily be explained away by Ed's simple wish to not resemble the father who abandoned him. It must be so hard, Roy thought. Looking in the mirror every day and seeing more and more of the one person who had betrayed you so completely.

If Ed had looked more like him instead of Hohenheim...

Roy shook those thoughts off. That was neither here nor there. Ed was not his son, and no rumor in the world could ever change that. In fact, it was a very good thing they looked so different. No need to add fuel to an already out of control bonfire. What had happened tonight would provide enough of that by itself. People would hear the story from friends in the military, and friends of friends in the military, and in far greater detail than those friends could possibly have been privy to. The higher-ups would scrutinize every nuance of his behavior toward Fullmetal for the next few weeks until even a simple touch on the shoulder could be interpreted as a hug. There would be speculation and conjecture and a great deal of finger-pointing to avoid. And Roy didn't doubt that Ed wouldend up resorting to violence again to defend his mother's honor against the cruel words spoken behind closed doors.

Even now, he could hear the whispers...

So you're saying Mustang busted in, by himself, and torched the guys who took the kid? Not very subtle, is he?

Sleeping in his lap? Really? We are talking about Flame and Fullmetal, right? What I would have given to see that...

Never pegged Mustang for the paternal type. Just shows you how far a man will go...

Fullmetal stirred a little, and Roy let his hand rest on the crown of his head, combing his bangs back with his fingertips. Ed fell still once more, accepting his caress with barely a sigh.

And for the first time the whispers didn't sound quite so menacing.