yuuo: (Pandora's Box)
[personal profile] yuuo posting in [community profile] pandorasuniverse
Character/Series: Edward Elric, Cast; AU to the original series
Rating: MA
Notes: Written based on the 'what if' idea that Ed had never been able to bind Al's soul to the armor. Please heed all warnings. All chapters can be found here.
Title: Pandora's Box: Chapter 6: Safe And Sound
Author: [personal profile] yuuo
Word Count: 6403
Summary: More men had come into Acheron Station, awaiting deployment to firebases.

just close your eyes
the sun is going down
you'll be all right
no one can hurt you now
come morning light
you and i'll be safe and sound
-Taylor Swift

More men had come into Acheron Station, awaiting deployment to firebases. There were enough men to almost form a company by themselves, and when I found out they were all going to the same one I was, I worried just how heavy of a loss this firebase had taken. And how many more it would take.

I couldn't afford to be one of those statistics. Al was still counting on me to get out of this frozen hell and get back to looking for him.

"Platoon! Move out!" the soldier at the front shouted, and I could only assume he was a second lieutenant; with everyone decked out in the standard winter layers and parkas and balaclavas, they all rather looked the same.

Except me, because none of these full-grown men could say they were just barely over five feet tall.


The march to Firebase Olivia was long and cold and more than once we stopped to rest, making seats on the snow lining the path. Thankfully, other than someone whining a bit that his legs were tired and one of the privates picking on him for it, the trip was uneventful. No guerrillas tried to attack, and no snow storms decided to bury us.

Firebase Olivia was a standard cold-weather firebase, with shelters dug halfway underground, the top coverings comprised of several thick layers of insulating materials and wooden supports. It must've taken days of living outside in the elements for the men who built it to finish. It crossed my mind to wonder how many of those original soldiers were still there.

I pushed that thought away.

The second lieutenant- as I was still assuming him to be- approached what I now assumed was the company captain of the firebase. Papers and words were exchanged, then the captain approached the platoon.

"All right, men. My name is Captain Kelley. For the next several weeks, I'm going to be your commanding officer. If you have any problems, I don't wanna hear about it. Now, go find places to bunk, get warm, get some food, then check the schedules. Guard duty change out is coming up soon. Dismissed!"

Fastest initiation I had ever seen. That's probably the way it was by necessity at a firebase. Things changed too fast out there.

"I don't remember requesting any rats."

I inwardly sighed. Not this again.

The second lieutenant that had led the platoon to the firebase approached Kelley at that, snapping a salute. "Sir, this is Major Edward Elric, Fullmetal Alchemist. Lieutenant Colonel Archer assigned him along," he explained.

Kelley looked back over at me; what sort of expression he had was impossible to tell under the balaclava and the snow goggles. "Archer's a goddamn idiot. I don't need to be babysitting out here. All right, Major, find a bunk, get warm."

Picking one of the shelters at random, I ducked into it, grateful to be out of the wind. The layers made the cold and wind almost a moot point, but the layers weren't the most comfortable themselves, either.

"Hey, guys, we got ourselves a rat!" one of the men already bunking there said with a laugh.

Now out of the wind, I yanked back the parka hood, took off the snow goggles and the balaclava and glared evilly at the man in question for the remark about my height. I had learned to ignore most remarks, but I outranked this guy.

The laughter stopped and the grins disappeared from the faces of the men in there. "The fuck?" another one said. "When did we start recruiting babies for this shit?"

The first man to speak up, a ginger, sat up from his bunk, looking at Edward. "What's your name, kid?"

Still giving them all a collective dirty look, I signed out my name.

"Field sign off the field? Little weird, ain't it?" a third one piped up.

"I can't speak. Damaged throat," I snapped back. "Got a problem with it?"

The second man held up his hands. "Okay, whoa, whoa, don't get bent outta joint, Eddie. We're sorry for the bit about your size. Just the only grown men that size are snow rats, that's all. Relax, nobody meant anything by it."

The first man smiled. "So Elric is it? Nice to meet you. Name's Patrick. Second Lieutenant Patrick O'Riley. I'm the cap's second. I take care of these bums around here."

The second man to speak up reached over and smacked O'Riley on the arm. "Asshole," he laughed, then glanced over at me. "Come take a seat, Elric. Too damn cold out there to be just standing by the door."

"Ignore his lack of manners," the third man said as I hesitantly stepped over to stand with their little group and took a seat on an empty bunk. "I'm Jack. Jack Farrand. I'm a corporal in this group. That dick there is Brian McLaughlin, Private, First Class."

McLaughlin snorted. "Farrand here lets it go to his head that I gotta call him 'sir' when we're on duty."

Farrand smirked at him. "You're just sore, McLaughlin." He turned his attention to me. "What about you, kid?" he asked, digging a cigarette out of his coat pocket and lighting it up. "You're probably a private, ain'tcha? Just outta training, I'd bet."

I shook my head, digging my watch out of my pocket. Farrand choked on his cigarette and the other two stared.

O'Riley blinked a couple times, then laughed. "I'll be damned, guys. The kid here outranks the captain. Good to meet you, Major."

"Shit, if they're deploying state alchemists out here..." McLaughlin glanced at his friends, then back to Edward. "You been to Central recently? Is what they're saying true? This place is the next Ishbal?"

"Fuck, you'd've thought they'd learned," Farrand grumbled, coughing a couple times and eyeing his cigarette as if he were trying to decide if he still wanted to smoke it.

I shrugged. "I've been in Acheron the last few months. Haven't been to Central since I got certified in January."

The lieutenant eyed the answer, then raised an eyebrow. "Acheron? What've you been doing in that hellhole?"

Hellhole. Fitting.

"That's where my commanding officer transferred us."

McLaughlin shook his head. "Your commanding officer's nuts then. There ain't nothing up here but snow and barbarians ready to slit your goddamn throat. No place to be taking some kid, especially not a valuable state alchemist, fer god's sake."

"Damn fool could get you killed up here," O'Riley agreed, then looked at me. "You stick with us, kid. We'll get you through this mess until someone gets their head outta their ass and transfers you back to Central, where you belong."

For the first time since I'd left Central, I couldn't help but smile.

I liked those men. They accepted me easily, and took to watching out for me. I suspect O'Riley talked Kelley into assigning me to those three permanently while I was there.

Nights were colder than days were, that far north of the Drachman border. The world was in perpetual winter in the northern latitudes, requiring several layers of insulating gear instead of standard uniforms. The entire methodology of the military had to adapt to the wintry environment, resulting in firebases that looked composed of igloos in the evergreen forests and uniforms that made everyone look about twice their normal size.

Even then everyone picked on me for my size.

Firebase Olivia benefited that it was one of the quieter firebases that was served by Acheron Station; situated against the foot of a mountain, practically under an enclave, it held poor strategic value to the natives that preferred hitting bases that didn't stand in danger of avalanches and had no cover to hide behind. The amount of action I had seen over my first two weeks there had been minimal and although I'd shot through several bullets already, I couldn't even begin to guess how many- if any -of them had hit more than a tree or a snowbank.

And being in the field had meant I could use field sign and be understood. I didn't have to push my throat to the point of getting sick again.

I was grateful for that.

My bunkmates weren't bad, although they picked on me incessantly for my size- snow rat, they called me, and I made sure they knew with creative signs that I didn't appreciate it much.

"So kid," Farrand said, sitting up in bed and lighting up a late-night cigarette. "You never told us how the hell a kid your age gets a silver watch. What's the story there?"

The hour after getting off duty and before sleep hit was spent listening to the others exchange stories; I had stayed fairly quiet in them, but had joined in from time to time. These were the men that were on duty with me during the day, that watched my back while I watched them. These were the men I had to trust with my life, and none of them had let me down, and I had no intention of letting them down.

I looked over at Farrand, pausing in the notes I was working on. Deployed or not, my whole purpose here hadn't been forgotten and I'd been puzzling over solutions as best I could without the research from Central I needed. I hadn't made much progress, but it'd made me feel better about how much time had passed.

"Yeah, Eddie," O'Riley said, putting away the magazine he'd been looking at. "Come on, story time. We've told you our life stories, your turn."

O'Riley was a farm boy, born and raised in an area to the west of Central, where the land was mostly prairie and plains, and the sod was uncooperative with the farmers settling there. He joined the military because he was a second son, the farm was going to his elder brother, and in the lean winters- which O'Riley claimed were just as rough as the weather up there in Drachma was, but with a biting wind and no mountains to stop it as a rolled in from the north -the family would need money, so military income could supplement.

I shifted on my bed a bit, tucking away the notebook.

"Oooh, Elric's in the notebook again, forget it, guys," McLaughlin laughed. "What is that, your alchemy notes? Or letters to a girlfriend back home?" He reached over, trying to snatch up the book from me.

McLaughlin was an only child from a family in Dublith, it turned out- he'd nearly had a heart attack when he found out who my teacher had been. "I know her! Scary lady, ain't she?" he'd said when I mentioned I'd trained there in Dublith under Izumi Curtis.

McLaughlin had an interest in animals, but education was hard to come by for a family that worked for a living, so he'd enlisted, hoping to get an education. So far, it'd been a disappointment, he said. The only animals he saw were dead ones.

"Could've stayed home for that," he'd said of it.

I scrambled to keep the notebook out of their reach. "It's alchemy notes, you wouldn't understand," I snapped, tying the book closed and shoving it in my pack protectively.

"Look at who's so smart!" Farrand razzed me.

Jack Farrand had been a Ward of the State, living in Central at an orphanage all his life. "No idea who my parents were," he'd admitted with a nonchalant shrug. "So I joined the military when I got kicked outta the orphanage. Figured, the military was the only Mum and Pop I'd known, abusive bastard it was, why not stick around and be useful? Hadn't learned nothin' that'd do me any good outside of here, that's for sure."

O'Riley sat up, reaching forward. "Let me see, Edward. If we wouldn't understand, what's the harm?"

I frowned, looking at him, clutching my pack protectively. Finally, I sighed, pulling out the book. "It's in code," I warned, handing the book over. "All alchemists do that. Mine's disguised like a travelogue."

O'Riley flipped through a couple pages idly. "A fake travelogue at that," he finally commented. "You aren't anywhere near anywhere sunny and warm. You sure this isn't just your wishful thinking?" he teased, even as I snatched the book back defensively.

"I'm sure," I shot back, putting the book away again. "I don't have access to any of my other notes up here, so I'm having to go by memory."

"You never answered my question, kid," Farrand pointed out. "Instead of worrying about those notes, why don't you join the conversation? It's your turn to tell us your story."

I bit the inside of I lip, hesitating, These were the men I trusted with my life. They'd told me their stories. Equivalent exchange, right? But I didn't want to tell them the full truth.

Finally, I looked away, shrugging. "Not much to tell. I'm only half your age, you know," I pointed out, fiddling with securing my pack to stall.

"You make us sound old," McLaughlin grumped.

I gave him a weak smile. "You are, you old man."

Farrand tossed his pillow at my face. "Nuts to you, kid."

I tossed the pillow back. "But really, there isn't much to tell. Dad's been gone for years, Mom died a couple years ago, I'm on my own."

"Don't they usually hand kids like you off to an orphanage, rather than the State Alchemists?" O'Riley asked.

Farrand snorted. "Shit, if I'd known I could've become a State Alchemist instead, you bet your ass I woulda gone that way."

That got him a tired look from me. "Asshole, that's not how it works and you know it."

"So come on," McLaughlin pushed, "whose dick did you have to suck to get that cushy title?"

I went silent, giving McLaughlin a frigid look to match the slush that my blood had turned into. "I earned the title," I said woodenly, with what little volume I could muster.

Silence answered me for a moment as the three men exchanged uncomfortable looks. "Sorry, kid, it's just an expression," McLaughlin apologized.

Feeling bad, I looked away, then shrugged. "Anyway, it wasn't anything like that. I just... showed them I knew how to transmute without a circle. Not many other people can do that. I joined ..." I trailed off, not really looking at any of them. "I joined because I owe it to my little brother."

"You got a little brother?" Farrand sat up. "What's that like, having a kid brother? I never had one of them."

I looked over at him, unable to help the smile. "It's nice. It's a pain sometimes, but... Al, he's... after Mom died, he was the only reason I was still smiling. He's only a year younger, so I suppose we act more like twins than an older and younger brother."

O'Riley smiled. "Sounds like a good kid. So he's waiting back at home for you? Is that who you keep trying to write letters to?"

I looked away. "No," I answered. "He's gone. But I promised him, so here I am."

"God, what happened?" Farrand asked. "He was awful damn young."

Too damn young. I sighed. "An alchemical accident. Lost me my arm and leg and voice, and lost everything of him." Which was true, technically, but they'd think he was dead. I knew better.

"I'm sorry to hear that," O'Riley said, reaching over and putting a hand on my shoulder. I looked at his hand, then at him pointedly, silently demanding to know if he wanted to keep that hand. I liked these guys, I really did, and I trusted them with my life out of necessity, but I'd gotten to the point where I didn't like being touched.

He withdrew his hand, holding it up in apology. "Come on, let's hit the sack," he said. "We got first patrol tomorrow, so it's up bright and early."


There was a mantra guys up at firebases had that I quickly learned about a week later. "It don't mean nothing" was what people told themselves to get through. I'd heard it before, but I hadn't processed what it really meant yet. Nobody I was particularly close to had died, and my supply runs had numbed me out to deaths a bit. They happened. As long as it was some nameless nobody, I could cope.

The four of us were on guard duty; Captain Kelley kept the four of us together, since those three guys were about the only ones that were willing to put up with having a kid along, and the captain wasn't about to have me get killed because of his men on his watch, not when I was a State Alchemist.

"Okay, you four," Kelley said as he approached us. "Lance and Scott were supposed to do a once around on the perimeter and they haven't come back yet. Go find them, and so help me god, if those two assholes are getting high, their balls will be on my wall back in my office."

I fought back a snerk as O'Riley saluted for us. "Yes, sir. Find Lance and Scott and if they're high, their balls are on your wall."

"I oughta fire all of ya," Kelley grumped, although his expression betrayed his amusement.

"Man," Farrand griped, once we were on our way, "someone oughta smack the shit outta Lance and Scott. Those two stoners are a bigger pain in the ass than the Drachmans."

"Bite your tongue, Farrand," McLaughlin snapped. "You'll jinx us."

Farrand looked at him flatly. "Jinx jinx jinx. God, what are we, ten again?"

It was my turn to give him a flat look. Jack looked away. "Okay, point taken."

Snow crunched under our boots heavily as we veered off the perimeter, taking the path Lance and Scott usually took when they wanted to sneak off to get high. Druggies are creatures of habit, and it didn't seem to matter how many times they got caught and reprimanded, they continued to do the same stupid shit all the time.

As we continued along the path though, I started to get unnerved by the distinct lack of any sound. It was unnatural. And I could swear I smelled blood. I'd smelled enough of it to recognize it by then.

"Hey, kid, why don't we hang back?" Farrand said nervously, looking at the others.

I glared at them all. "It's best if we stick together. And don't you start treating me like a kid, I don't get out of here until I finish this training, which means acting like a soldier. So treat me like one." I can't count how many times I had that particular argument with them.

"Okay, Eddie," O'Riley said, "but brace yourself. We could be up against anything and it may not be pretty."

I thought I was braced. I was wrong.

We continued along, and the smell of blood got stronger. After a few more steps, we split up into groups of two like a well-coordinated unit, lining the path as spatters of blood began to show up along the way. I didn't think to look up until I saw a pile of something bright red and lumpy on the ground in front of me. A line of intestines went up from the piles to the two bodies held high overhead, arms splayed, midsections ripped open, held up by barbed wire.

Lance and Scott weren't dead, either.

I ripped down my balaclava and turned, spewing my lunch out onto the forest floor. I looked back when I heard Lance and Scott crying for help. It looked like wolves or some other animals had already been eating at the pile of intestines laying on the ground. I wanted to vomit again, but I held my unstable stomach steady as O'Riley lifted his rifle and put Lance and Scott out of their misery.

I stared at him. I realized on a detached level that there was nothing we could do to help them, but a part of me refused to just accept this and kill our own comrades, even though death was probably mercy to them by then.

"Don't say it, kid," Farrand snapped. "You sound like a demented dog toy when you try to talk. What the hell were you going to do for them? You ain't got the skill to reconstruct what's gone and fix that. You ain't a doctor, you know shit all about medicinal alchemy."

Which was true, but I did know how to build a human body. Logic told me what O'Riley did was the smartest thing to do. The naive part of me thought I could've saved them. That part was rapidly dying.

"Besides, the bodies were probably booby trapped," McLaughlin explained, much quieter than Farrand had been. "That's what they do, they string you up and booby trap you so they can get any fellows who come along with an idea to help you. Just remember, kid. It don't mean nothing. It's just something that happens. You let it go and move on, no matter who it is that's strung up there."

O'Riley looked at me. "They're right. I'd expect you to do the same for me if it was me up there. Now come on, we'd better go report to the cap what happened. And get out of here before we run into some of these barbarians."

I looked one last time at the mutilated bodies as that little lesson sank in. Sometimes, bad shit happened and it didn't mean anything.

That lesson would follow me the rest of my life.


"Hey, Elric, heads up!"

The warning came too late for me to even turn around before I got hit squarely on the back of the head with something hard and cold. I jerked forward, then turned to glare at O'Riley. The second lieutenant was already packing a second snowball, the face mask of his balaclava pulled down to reveal a shit-eating grin.

I yanked my own face mask down, pushing up my goggles and giving O'Riley a glare to induce instant death. Lucky for him, it didn't work.

"Well? You gonna stand there glaring until another one pelts ya, or are ya gonna fight back?" O'Riley taunted, making a show of packing his second snowball.

Like hell I was going to let a grown adult beat me at a snowball fight. It looked like reinforcements were arriving in the form of Farrand and McLaughlin, although who they were going to be reinforcements for stood to be seen.

Forming my own snowball as quickly as I could, I flung it at O'Riley, hitting him on the shoulder. O'Riley looked at his shoulder, then back up at me. "Is that the best you've got, Eddie? Come on now, you can do-" He was cut off by another snowball to the face, this one thrown by Farrand. I started to laugh, only to get pelted by another snowball.

"Don't be laughing too hard," McLaughlin told me. "Snowball fights are only fun when it's a free-for-all."

Forgetting (and not particularly caring) that I was supposed to be on guard duty, I dropped my weapon and clapped my hands, transmuting the snow into a wall of wet powder that showered down on the three men.

"No fair cheating, Elric!"

"All's fair in snowball fights!" I replied, already scooping up snow to make more ammunition. The old-fashioned way this time, of course.

Part of me was genuinely surprised that Captain Kelley didn't come put a stop to the games, particularly when one of us was on guard duty- two of us, actually, I was pretty sure that Farrand was on duty too -but the captain didn't seem to mind. In fact, he and several others joined in, taking a moment away from the stress and the harsh reality of our situation to just be for a moment.

Just past the laughter of the men, I could make out a distinctive whistling noise and I froze, just as several others did as well.

"Incoming!" someone yelled, and men scattered like a strong wind had struck them and blown them about in all directions. O'Riley took off towards me while Farrand and McLaughlin joined the others in the scattering.

"Come on, Elric, move it! Get your weapon, let's go!"

All of my training seemed to be failing me as I ducked, scrambling around in the disturbed snow for my rifle. Training said it never left your grip. Training said you slept with it. Training said it became an extension of your arm. Training wasn't anything like the real thing, and the real thing was something I hadn't seen enough of to drive that training into my brain enough to overrule the part of me that was still too goddamn young to be out there.

Something hit my body with the force of what felt like a freight train and I went down just as something exploded, covered by the weight of another body. Panic tried to kick in and I shoved against the body without seeing it, trying to push myself up out of the snow enough to breathe, enough to see what was going on, but all I could see was the snow in front of my face.

The body on me was warm, but it wasn't moving, offering no resistance as I shoved at it and clawed my way free. O'Riley didn't react, didn't move when I pulled myself out from under the older man. He didn't move even as the entire base was alive with activity, returning fire on the artillery, trying to track down the unseen enemy that attacked.

"Lieutenant?" My voice tore painfully at my throat as I crept closer, shaking O'Riley's shoulder roughly. "Lieutenant? Get up, we're still under attack."

That was when I noticed the chunk of tree branch, about two centimeters thick, lodged in the center of O'Riley's back. "Lieutenant?" Tree shrapnel from the blast. They'd warned me it was shrapnel you had to watch out for. It could get you from yards away from the center of the blast. If you were hit dead on by the blast, you were lucky. You would die instantly. Shrapnel could either kill you instantly or fuck with you, leaving you in pain for hours.

O'Riley wasn't moving.

"Lieutenant! Get up, damnit!" My throat hated me for speaking, hated the use, hated the volume I tried to force out of it.

Around me the battle died, as it always did. Drachman techniques involved a fast hit and just as quick of a retreat, before they could be found and retaliated against.

I waved my arms frantically, trying to get the attention of somebody, anybody to call a medic over for the lieutenant; I couldn't shout for help myself. Farrand looked like he was responding, but it felt too slow to me, too sluggish. O'Riley wasn't moving, goddamnit, someone had to be quicker.

I lifted my hands to clap them together, when the image of that thing in the lab the night we tried to resurrect Mom came back to me. That's all I'd do to him, he was dead, human transmutation was impossible, and I had Al to worry about. I couldn't get Al back if I was busy sacrificing body parts for some dumb nobody up in the snow.

I lowered my arms just as Farrand got to me. "Forget it, kid, he's dead," he said after a brief inspection. "Just you remember, it don't mean nothing. You gotta keep functioning for the rest of us."

I had to keep functioning to get Al back. Nothing at that point was more important than my own survival, so that I could save Al.

"I know," I said, getting up and shouldering my rifle.

Captain Kelley still had me working with McLaughlin and Farrand almost exclusively, but the group seemed different without O'Riley around. More professional. I don't know if it was O'Riley's loss, or the change in me that did it, but the older two men stopped trying to kid with me as much.

I spent another week out there with them before I got my chance to escape that place. I was still scheduled for another three weeks there, then back to Acheron for more of whatever Archer felt like doing to me, but opportunity knocked, and I saw no need to not answer the door.

Farrrand I were on a night perimeter sweep. Night time patrols were some of the most perilous. The trees of the forest cast dark enough shadows during the day; during the night, the forest would turn almost pitch black. Farrand and I kept as silent as possible through the snow, trying not to jump at every shadow that so much as twitched in the evening wind.

"Mother Nature ain't the most cooperative bitch, is she?" Farrand whispered, gripping his weapon tightly.

I glanced at him. "You expected her to be?"

Farrand just shook his head at that, starting to step forward, then froze, crouching down. I crouched down as well, peering through the darkness, trying to see what had caught Farrand's attention. Farrand looked at me. "Sounds like more than the usual guerilla group coming our way. We weren't expecting any brass, were we?"

I choked on the snicker that wanted out at that as I shook my head. "You see what it is?"

Farrand indicated that no, he didn't, then crept forward a bit more. I heard him swear quietly, then started high-tailing it back towards me. "Drachman regulars," he signed. "Those ain't guerrilla's, those are military proper."

The Drachman military had been focusing on the border closer to North City, ignoring little podunk areas like where Firebase Olivia was. It didn't mean anything good if they were all the way over here. Among other things, it meant our little quiet firebase was about to stop being quiet.

We took off at a run, hurrying back to the firebase to report the oncoming attack to Captain Kelley. The artillery beat us back, and the base was already a flurry of activity as men rushed to return fire. I waved my gun above my head, trying to signal not to shoot, friendly fire. By some miracle, I managed to get back behind my own lines without getting my stupid ass shot as artillery pummeled the lines of the firebase.

Back in the command building, Kelley was yelling into the radio, angrily demanding arty to return fire and as usual, getting told we were less of a priority.

"Captain, they're at L-C-4-2-5-niner!" I reported, "We got army regulars in this group, this ain't guerrillas."

Kelley stared at me a second, then turned back to the radio, reporting the new coordinates and the newest development.

"See if you can capture one alive," came the reply. But no promise of artillery back up. Kelley slammed down the mic. "Kid, get out there and see if that alchemy of yours can't replace arty, it doesn't look like we're getting help on this one."

I ran back outside, forgetting to salute, shouldering the strap of my rifle to free my hands. Alchemical energy ripped up along the ground, sending snow flying and lumbering away from the base like a sleepy tidal wave, crashing nearly a metric ton of snow down on the attacking artillery. Soldiers continued firing, but the gunfire was hesitant and badly aimed as shouts from beyond the lines were heard, warnings shouted in Drachman that meant nothing to me.

There was an explosion as clogged up artillery blew, scattering shrapnel and snow across the countryside.

The night went silent again.

Kelley rounded up a squad to go investigate, to see if there were any left alive that could be taken prisoner and taken back to Acheron for questioning. I began scanning the camp for Farrand, uncertain when we'd gotten separated.

I stumbled across McLaughlin, already being treated by a medic. His right leg was torn up badly from about the thigh down, bone and muscle tissue glistening red under the piss-poor lighting of the camp. I crouched by him, grabbing the other man's hand with my own automail hand. "Squeeze my hand," I said quietly. "You can make it."

It didn't mean anything to me, as McLaughlin yelled in pain as the medic worked to stop the bleeding enough to get him to the infirmary. It didn't mean anything as joints in my hand creaked ominously under McLaughlin's grip.

McLaughlin's breath hissed through his teeth. "Where's that jackass, Farrand?" he asked, trying to pull himself away from the pain. Such a common technique. I wondered if it really worked.

"Don't know," I answered. "Lost track of him coming back."

McLaughlin nodded. "You tell that jackass he needs to give a quicker warning next time, when you find him." I don't know why he said that. We both knew Farrand was likely dead. He probably got hit by either arty from the Drachmans, or friendly fire from one of our guys. God only knew how I'd gotten through the lines.

I stayed with McLaughlin as the medic cleaned him up and took him to the infirmary shelter. I stayed out of the way, but I stayed there while the medic worked, finally declaring that McLaughlin was going to lose that leg, and he'd be getting a discharge. I saw my chance immediately. If he was getting discharged, he was going through Central, which meant he could look up Hughes for me.

"Ya hear that, Elric?" McLaughlin said, looking over at me. "I'm going home."

I smiled, and stepped forward, taking a seat next to him, my rifle propped against my leg. That thing never left my person anymore. "Lucky bastard."

"Yeah, that's what they tell me. The old lady's gonna pitch a fit at me."

"Just make sure you don't stop and try to tattle on me to my teacher," I warned him, "or your old lady's fit is gonna seem like a walk in the fuckin' park."

That got a laugh for him. "Don't worry, I won't go anywhere near that scary lady. Not with anything that might piss her off. I won't be able to even properly defend myself now."

I snorted. "Even if you had automail you wouldn't stand a chance."

"Yeah, exactly," McLaughlin said, "so like hell I'm gonna go finding her to rat you out."

I rested my hands on the butt of my weapon. "You thinking of getting automail?" I asked.

McLaughlin shrugged. "Hadn't thought much about it. I suppose I oughta, if I wanna be useful around the house to my folks still. I don't wanna be a burden on them."

I nodded thoughtfully, then unzipped my parka and coat liner, digging around inside the pocket on the coveralls and pulling out the picture Hughes gave me what felt like an eternity ago. "See that guy there?" I said, handing it over. "When you get to Central, look him up in the Investigations Department. Major Maes Hughes. Tell him I sent you, and he's to help you get out to Rizenbul to see an old broad named Pinako Rockbell."

The name 'Hughes' didn't get a reaction out of McLaughlin but Rockbell did. "Pinako Rockbell? Rockbell Automail? No way I can afford that, Elric, she's the best there is," he protested, trying to hand the picture back.

I shook my head, pushing McLaughlin's hand away. "You tell them I sent you. They'll give you a discount. If that's not enough, tell them I said to put it on my tab. I'll pay them when I get back. I'm a State Alchemist, I make enough, and yes, I'll rub your face in it if that's what it takes to make you go to them."

McLaughlin looked reluctant, but tucked the picture in his own pocket. "All right, Elric, I'll do it, but only because I think you'll come kick my crippled ass if I don't. But don't think I'll be taking any charity from you." He stuck his finger out. "I'll take a discount, but I won't take charity."

I eyed the finger pointed at me, then gave McLaughlin a look that threatened to bite that finger off if he didn't get it out of my face. McLaughlin laughed and switched the finger out for the middle one. "That better, you dick?"

I grinned. "If you can't afford it with the discount, take the money. You can pay me back over time if you really have to, you prideful bastard."

If McLaughlin knew what doing this might do for me, he wouldn't be protesting about charity. As soon as Hughes knew where I was, he could work to get me home, and I might get out of going back to Acheron. I would do almost anything to get out of going back to that hellhole.
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Pandora's Universe: Fullmetal Alchemist AU

May 2017

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